Let Me Tell You—

by: Craig Jacobsen / Mesa Community College

Broadcast network television in the U.S. seems to have a growing fixation on storytelling. I’m not saying that they’re fixated on telling stories. That would only be natural, as that’s a big part of what they do. What’s new, or at least notable by degree, is the attention being given to the portrayal of storytelling within broadcast network programming.

Joey Ice-Cream from The Black Donnellys

Joey Ice-Cream from The Black Donnellys

The first two episodes of NBC’s new family/crime drama The Black Donnellys have both been framed narrations, stories told (in the first episode to police and in the second to his lawyer) by a character named Joey Ice-Cream, a minor figure in his own stories about the four Donnelly brothers. The show’s departure from such shows’ default objective point of view raises interesting complications. Early in the pilot episode Joey begins his narration three different times, restarting after his interrogators challenge his accuracy. Each time he starts, viewers see a different version of the story’s beginning. Right from the start we’re clued in that what we’re seeing on screen in the framed narrative isn’t necessarily what “really” happened, but is instead a performance of sorts, a dramatization of what Joey is telling the cops. This isn’t a flashback. We aren’t privileged to see earlier events as they unfold before us. We’re seeing and hearing only what a decidedly unreliable narrator wants us to. It’s a bit of narrative playfulness, of attention to the act of storytelling and its inherent limitations and biases, that demonstrates a level of respect for its audience that broadcast television networks in this country often seem to lack.

Meanwhile, How I Met Your Mother, a series that I cited in an earlier Flow article as an example of narrative complexity in a banal program, has become more experimental. The show itself is presented from the frame of a future narrator, and is thus one big analepsis, but within that device episodes rely heavily on flashbacks to show us previous action. In the episode “Ted Mosby, Architect,” the show becomes even more playful. Following an argument, Robin goes looking for her boyfriend Ted. As she follows him from bar to party to nightclub to another woman’s apartment, various narrators tell Robin of Ted’s behavior, and we see it on screen in flashback. At episode’s end we’ve learned that another character has been using Ted’s name, and so everything that we’ve “seen” becomes instead something we’re “told,” or, more properly, what appears on the screen is the way Robin is imagining the stories being told to her.

Ted Mosby

How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted Mosby

It’s a clever device that is surprising because we expect flashbacks to be “true,” and the show itself has relied heavily on “true” flashbacks throughout its two seasons. Undercutting its own (and the dominant) use of flashbacks provides the episode with its comedic (Barney’s pretending to be Ted) rather than dramatic (Ted’s cheating on Robin) resolution. Despite my earlier near-dismissal of How I Met Your Mother, it deserves more critical attention than it’s getting, perhaps because it disguises itself so well.

And try as I might, I can never quite get away from Lost. Just when I think we’ve settled into a pattern of flashbacks that raise more questions than they answer, finally a twist in the analepsis: time travel. Whether Desmond actually did or did not travel back in time to before he was stranded on the island, the possibility that he did throws a new twist into Lost‘s predictable format. It potentially rearranges the relationship between the show’s narrative present and narrative past. How the writers choose to exploit the possibilities may determine their ability to reinvigorate the stagnating series.


Lost‘s Desmond

These shows (one in its first season, one in its second, and one in its third) complicate viewing in interesting ways. Viewers are forced to accept that what we are seeing on screen may not be simply “what happened before,” but “what this character says happened before” or “what this character thinks happened before.” Such strategies introduce an element of contingency that undermines viewers’ confidence in the narrative, forcing the adoption of tentative interpretations that might require revision in the light of future information. Judging by the comments on NBC’s official website for The Black Donnellys, some viewers find this confusing. No surprise there. Until recently, broadcast network television had done little to “train” viewers in how to watch this kind of show. And perhaps the demise of narratively complex programs like The Nine or Day Break demonstrates that viewership for such shows remains limited, thought it’s hard to pin a show’s failure on its structure. Networks’ willingness to continue with sophisticated programming indicates some faith that narrative complexity isn’t an insurmountable barrier.

Indeed, narrative complexity may be precisely what broadcast network television most needs. The questions generated by such complexity (Did Desmond really time travel? Was Joey Ice-Cream really there?) fuel internet discussion boards, and they provide incentive to catch reruns or download episodes. They invite attention.

While I’d like to see narratively sophisticated series prosper, I’m not concerned about the survival of any particular program. Indeed I’m curious to see what will happen to complex narrative strategies in the light of the cancellation of shows that employ them. Just as I was interested to see ABC take a chance on The Nine after the failure of Fox’s Reunion, and I was happy to see NBC gamble on The Black Donnellys after the failure of The Nine, I anxiously await the next slate of new shows. It might help us to see whether the last couple of years have been a failed experiment or the start of genuine maturation for broadcast television narrative.

Image Credits:
1. Joey Ice-Cream from The Black Donnellys
2. How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted Mosby
3. Lost‘s Desmond

Please feel free to comment.


  • Narrative styles and fans…

    I am a big fan of narrative play in general, and find this trend of TV storytelling interesting (whether unreliable narrator or reliable) especially when it’s introduced into a series that is typically not structured that way. However, it doesn’t always seem to work with audiences, and I’m thinking of viewers that watch because they want to see a familiar formula followed–subversion of narrative formula seems to polarize viewers as evidenced by reviews of CSI’s “Toe Tags” from season 7. I enjoyed the fact that it played with narrative POV, but a substantial amount of viewers disagreed (based on a strictly informal review of blogs and tv.com that I came across while I was looking to identify the shows structuring musical track). Furthermore, those that disagreed with me did so strongly, tended to rate the episode very poorly, and mentioned almost exclusively that their rating was because they hated the narrative style of the show. It surprised me, actually, because I had enjoyed it so, but reminded me that viewers watch such shows with different pleasure principles in mind, and that I cannot and should not presume that what I think is good or great TV will be universally accepted as such.

  • Experiments in storytelling?

    Interesting observations on some pretty high-profile examples and developments. I’m currently tackling some of this territory on my blog, DKMM.

    In a nutshell, I think the key problem these series face is not as much resistance from fans (though that is certainly important) as structural limitations of prime-time television drama. Viewers are being asked to do a whole lot of remembering and keeping track, and when it occurs over the course of episodes, seasons, and years, this becomes a pretty heavy burden.Contrast this with alternative narrative modes in film, where, no matter how complex a film might be, it’s all wrapped up in one 90 to 180-minute package, rather than dozens of 45-minute ones.

    So, while I’m also intrigued by these shows, I don’t think we’ll ever see more than a few of them succeed.

  • Victor Kulkosky

    It seems to me that CSI has been training us to be skeptical of the narrative in front of us. In many episodes, the characters construct several versions of the crime under investigation. Given the information at hand and the certainty that the investigators’ training and scientific instruments provide, each scenario, depicted with the same techniques, appears utterly convincing, until new evidence turns up to explode the theory of the moment. Most of the time, however, the “right” or “true” version comes out at the end of the episode.

    “Medium” also plays often sophisticated games with the narrative. Since neither Allison, or the viewer, who sees what Allison sees, knows whether the vision we’re seeing is in the past, the present or the future, our expectations of a straight beginning-to-end story line get frustrated.

    In what I think was the most recent episode (see how the show distorts time and memory?) the teenage Allison sees her future adult self, and the adult Allison sees her past teenage self. Which raises the question: What is “past” and “future” if both versions of Allison can influence the other? Characters, such as Allison’s children, disappear and reappear. The fluidity of time in this episode is especially sophisticated and disturbing, in more than one sense of “disturbing.” For that matter, since we the viewers experience what Allison experiences, we may find ourselves being sexually abused, for instance, or at other times committing truly horrifying crimes. We cannot passively sit back and watch, which makes “Medium” more unsettling than some action flick or B horror movie with a much higher body count.

  • Complexity & Audiences

    I think Derek is entirely correct in his estimation that only a few complex programs are likely to survive, although we could say this about TV shows in general. What would be interesting to learn is whether complex programs, regardless of genre, tend to draw similar audiences.

    If they do, then this lends even more credence to Derek’s assessment because this audience can be expected to view only so many programs that require longer memories. Some programs may fall by the wayside quickly; this has always been the industry’s fear with serials. If a serial is successful early, then this often leads to long-term success. However, if the serial starts slowly bringing new viewers into the fold becomes a more difficult task. Of course, there are examples that debunk this statement (see Hill Street Blues), but these seem to be exceptions to the rules.

    We should also recognize that CSI is a different breed than The Black Donnellys because it’s predominantly a series not a serial. At times, CSI does possess some level of seriality, but frankly CSI’s inability to carry out serialized plot chains successfully has always been one of my primary complaints with the show (think back to Grissom’s loss of hearing story arc that just sort of petered out or the Paul Millander serial killer plot chains from the first season). CSI’s writers do make valiant attempts to serialize the program, but IMHO these attempts illustrate the limitations of the show’s writers.

    In other words, I think we should distinguish between complex series and complex serials. A narratively complex series would seem to have a far better chance of succeeding than a similarly complex serial because it’s easier to bring new viewers into the fold of a series. In short, the degree of seriality matters in this discussion.

  • CSI’s seriality…

    Great points about how many serials an audience can take, and how much is demanded from the get-go. I suspect the main reasons Kidnapped and The Nine didn’t fare well were because their complex seriality was too oversold in the summer hype.Kidnapped, for example, had this crazy, cryptic, multi-page fold-out ad in EW during its premiere week. Intriguing? Possibly. Already a lot of work? Probably.

    As for CSI, one interesting factor to note is how the series was almost very conventionally serialized. The first three episodes present a tight primary arc (the Holly Gribbs murder), and frontload a lot of backstory typical to serial dramas at that time (2000). By a few episodes in, these all-too-typical facets (e.g., Brass was only a stereotypical pissed-off police captain in the pilot) were quickly tamped down in favor of self-contained episodes and a mere seasoning of seriality.

    Hence, what could have been very much a standard serial became instead a (relatively) complex series.

  • CSI’s Seriality…

    I agree that CSI’s structure noticeably changed after the first three eps (although they do periodically return to this form, even in the most recent season). Of course, it’s not unusual for a “series” pilot to extend across multiple eps or even open with a long form two-hour pilot. I also wonder what role off-camera issues played in this structure.

    In Bill Carter’s book Desperate Networks, he follows the role of Les Moonves in the formation of this series. Moonves is a very hands-on network chief. Carter says that Moonves did not care for the actress who portrayed Gribbs and wanted her replaced (enter Sara Sidel).

    This maneuver led to a few uncommon occurrences within the show. First, Gribbs draws her gun and is killed. Killing a main character in the first few eps of a new program is somewhat unusual, but a CSI drawing a gun is to. In any event, I think we could also logically make the leap that the narrative structure was directly altered by a casting decision. In short, did the series begin in a more serialized fashion because that was the writer’s plan or did it begin this way because it was required by Moonves?

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