Previously On: Prime Time Serials and the Poetics of Memory

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Slides from presentation at Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image - alas video clips not included

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Previously On: Prime Time Serials and the Poetics of Memory

  1. 1. Previously On: Prime Time Serials & the Poetics of Memory Jason Mittell, Middlebury College justtv.wordpress.com
  2. 2. Key Question: How and why has American television storytelling transformed over past 20 years? Historical Poetics
  3. 3. Previously on... (see Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap #58, Fall 2006, 29-40)
  4. 4. Formal Properties of Complex Television Narratives • Interplay between episodic & serial norms: arcs, episodic unity, storyworld consistency • Experimental storytelling: mixed temporality & perspectives, fantasy blurs, explicit narration, reboots • Self-conscious & explicit storytelling mechanics: intrinsic norms for programs, “operational aesthetic”
  5. 5. Formal Properties of Complex Television Narratives Not an entirely new mode of storytelling... but much more prevalent and widespread over past decade
  6. 6. Examples of Narrative Complexity ★24 ★Joan of Arcadia ★30 Rock ★Lost ★Alias ★Malcolm in the Middle ★Angel ★My Name is Earl ★Arrested Development ★The Office ★Battlestar Galactica ★Prison Break ★The Bernie Mac Show ★Pushing Daisies ★Boomtown ★Rescue Me ★Buffy the Vampire Slayer ★Reunion ★Curb Your Enthusiasm ★Roswell ★Damages ★Scrubs ★Deadwood ★Seinfeld ★Desperate Housewives ★The Shield ★Dexter ★Six Feet Under ★Farscape ★Smallville ★Firefly ★The Sopranos ★Heroes ★Ugly Betty ★How I Met Your Mother ★Veronica Mars ★Huff ★The West Wing ★Jack & Bobby ★The Wire
  7. 7. Television’s Obstacles to Narrative Comprehension Industry’s Conventional Wisdom • Viewers do not watch regularly • Cannot assume continuity within audience • Must be able to jump in midstream • Syndication requires mixability
  8. 8. Television’s Obstacles to Narrative Comprehension Viewers’ Conventional Wisdom • Viewers do not watch regularly • Want to be able to jump in midstream • No way to catch up with serial plot • Syndication might rerun in random order
  9. 9. Television’s Obstacles to Narrative Comprehension Formal Elements • Long-term narratives with structured delivery • Erratic gaps between episodes, reruns • Consumed as being produced - adjustments due to cast, unforeseen events, feedback • Success = infinite run
  10. 10. New Possibilities in Past Decade • Cable allows for more frequent repeats, sequenced reruns • DVDs & downloads enable easy catching up • Fan websites enable collaborative archiving • Lower ratings allow cult to be mainstream • Creative risks have proven successful - imitative logic has encouraged innovation
  11. 11. Challenges for Serialized Memory • Address both regular and erratic viewers • Balance short-term memory (episodic) and long-term memory (serial) • Trigger memories without spoiling suspense and surprise
  12. 12. Strategies for Recall: Retelling • Soap operas offer pleasures of redundancy
  13. 13. All My Children (6/5/08)
  14. 14. Strategies for Recall: Retelling • Soap operas offer pleasures of redundancy • Prime-time serials highlight past events through dialogue to create comprehension...
  15. 15. Lost, “Cabin Fever”
  16. 16. Strategies for Recall: Retelling • Soap operas offer pleasures of redundancy • Prime-time serials highlight past events through dialogue to create comprehension... • ... and surprise - strategic forgetting and remembering as narrative technique
  17. 17. Lost, “Something Nice Back Home”
  18. 18. Strategies for Recall: Retelling • Soap operas offer pleasures of redundancy • Prime-time serials highlight past events through dialogue to create comprehension... • ... and surprise - strategic forgetting and remembering as narrative technique • Designed confusion
  19. 19. The Wire, “Misgivings”
  20. 20. Strategies for Recall: Narration • First person voice-over
  21. 21. Veronica Mars, “Silence of the Lamb”
  22. 22. Strategies for Recall: Narration • First person voice-over • First person flashback
  23. 23. Battlestar Galactica, “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner”
  24. 24. Strategies for Recall: Narration • First person voice-over • First person flashback • Third person omniscient narration - with images or flashbacks
  25. 25. Arrested Development, “The One Where They Build a House”
  26. 26. Strategies for Recall: Extra-Diegetic Recaps • “Previously On”
  27. 27. Battlestar Galactica, “Escape Velocity”
  28. 28. Strategies for Recall: Extra-Diegetic Recaps • “Previously On” • Video recaps (both official and fan-created)
  29. 29. “7 Minute Sopranos”
  30. 30. Strategies for Recall: Extra-Diegetic Recaps • “Previously On” • Credit sequences - remind premise, highlight images & setting • Video recaps (both official and fan-created) • Websites (both official and fan-created); texts on HBO DVDs
  31. 31. Playing with Memory: Formal Patterns • Intrinsic norms for episodes, arcs, series - narrative structures, storytelling rules, focalization patterns • More possibilities for long-term formal play than short-form media, especially concerning norms, patterns, and expectations
  32. 32. Six Feet Under - Deaths of the Week
  33. 33. So What? • Cognitive: complex narratives demand active and engaged viewers; research possibilities of how viewers build complex storyworlds; productive mental work of long-term narrative • Poetics: possibilities of television storytelling untapped by other media • Thematic: memory, time and comprehension have increasingly become subject of television stories • Next time...
  34. 34. The West Wing, “Noël”

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