If you watch the season finale of The Walking Dead this Sunday, the story will likely evoke events from previous episodes, while making references to an array of minor and major characters. Such storytelling devices belie the show’s simplistic scenario of zombie survival, but are consistent with a major trend in television narrative.
Prime time television’s storytelling palette is broader than ever before, and today, a serialized show like The Walking Dead is more the norm than the exception. We can see the heavy use of serialization in other dramas (The Good Wife and Fargo) and comedies (Girls and New Girl). And some series have used self-conscious narrative devices like dual time frames (True Detective), voice-over narration (Jane the Virgin) and direct address of the viewer (House of Cards). Meanwhile, shows like Louie blur the line between fantasy and reality.
Many have praised contemporary television using cross-media accolades like “novelistic” or “cinematic.” But I believe we should recognize the medium’s aesthetic accomplishments on its own terms. For this reason, the name I’ve given to this shift in television storytelling is “complex TV.”
There are a wealth of facets to explore about such developments (enough to fill a book), but there’s one core question that seems to go unasked: “why has American television suddenly embraced complex storytelling in recent years?”
To answer, we need to consider major shifts in the television industry, new forms of television technology, and the growth of active, engaged viewing communities.
A business model transformed
We can quibble about the precise chronology, but programs that were exceptionally innovative in their storytelling in the 1990s (Seinfeld, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) appear more in line with narrative norms of the 2000s. And many of their innovations – season-long narrative arcs or single episodes that feature markedly unusual storytelling devices – seem almost formulaic today.
What changed to allow this rapid shift to happen?
As with all facets of American television, the economic goals of the industry is a primary motivation for all programming decisions.
For most of their existence, television networks sought to reach the broadest possible audiences. Typically, this meant pursuing a strategy of mass appeal featuring what some derisively call “least objectionable programming.” To appeal to as many viewers as possible, these shows avoided controversial content or confusing structures.
But with the advent of cable television channels in the 1980s and 1990s, audiences became more diffuse. Suddenly, it was more feasible to craft a successful program by appealing to a smaller, more demographically uniform subset of viewers – a trend that accelerated into the 2000s.
In one telling example, FOX’s 1996 series Profit, which possessed many of contemporary television’s narrative complexities, was quickly canceled after four episodes for weak ratings (roughly 5.3 million households). These numbers placed it 83rd among 87 prime time series.
Yet today, such ratings would likely rank the show in the top 20 most-watched broadcast programs in a given week.
This era of complex television has benefited not only from more niche audiences, but also from the emergence of channels beyond the traditional broadcast networks. Certainly HBO’s growth into an original programming powerhouse is a crucial catalyst, with landmarks such as The Sopranos and The Wire.
But other cable channels have followed suit, crafting original programming that wouldn’t fly on the traditional “Big Four” networks of ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX.
A well-made, narratively-complex series can be used to rebrand a channel as a more prestigious, desirable destination. The Shield and It’s Only Sunny in Philadelphia transformed FX into a channel known for nuanced drama and comedy. Mad Men and Breaking Bad similarly bolstered AMC’s reputation.
The success of these networks has led upstart viewing services like Netflix and Amazon to champion complex, original content of their own – while charging a subscription fee.
The effect of this shift has been to make complex television a desirable business strategy. It’s no longer the risky proposition it was for most of the 20th century.
Miss something? Hit rewind
Technological changes have also played an important role.
Many new series reduce the internal storytelling redundancy typical of traditional television programs (where dialogue was regularly employed to remind viewers what had previously occurred).
Instead, these series subtly refer to previous episodes, insert more characters without worrying about confusing viewers, and present long-simmering mysteries and enigmas that span multiple seasons. Think of examples such as Lost, Arrested Development and Game of Thrones. Such series embrace complexity to an extent that they almost require multiple viewings simply to be understood.
In the 20th century, rewatching a program meant either relying on almost random reruns or being savvy enough to tape the show on your VCR. But viewing technologies such as DVR, on-demand services like HBO GO, and DVD box sets have given producers more leeway to fashion programs that benefit from sequential viewing and planned rewatching.
Like 19th century serial literature, 21st century serial television releases its episodes in separate installments. Then, at the end of a season or series, it “binds” them together into larger units via physical boxed sets, or makes them viewable in their entirety through virtual, on-demand streaming. Both encourage binge watching.
Giving viewers the technology to easily watch and rewatch a series at their own pace has freed television storytellers to craft complex narratives that are not dependent on being understood by erratic or distracted viewers. Today’s television assumes that viewers can pay close attention because the technology allows them to easily do so.
Shifts in both technology and industry practices point toward the third major factor leading to the rise in complex television: the growth of online communities of fans.
Today there are a number of robust platforms for television viewers to congregate and discuss their favorite series. This could mean partaking in vibrant discussions on general forums on Reddit or contributing to dedicated, program-specific wikis.
As shows craft ongoing mysteries, convoluted chronologies or elaborate webs of references, viewers embrace practices that I’ve termed “forensic fandom.” Working as a virtual team, dedicated fans embrace the complexities of the narrative – where not all answers are explicit – and seek to decode a program’s mysteries, analyze its story arc and make predictions.
The presence of such discussion and documentation allows producers to stretch their storytelling complexity even further. They can assume that confused viewers can always reference the web to bolster their understanding.
Other factors certainly matter. For example, the creative contributions of innovative writer-producers like Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams and David Simon have harnessed their unique visions to craft wildly popular shows. But without the contextual shifts that I’ve described, such innovations would have likely been relegated to the trash bin, joining older series like Profit, Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life in the “brilliant but canceled” category.
Furthermore, the success of complex television has led to shifts in how the medium conceptualizes characters, embraces melodrama, re-frames authorship and engages with other media. But those are all broader topics for another chapter – or, as television frequently promises, to be continued.
The star-studded world premiere of Game of Thrones’s fifth season has taken place – in the UK, at the Tower of London. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting venue for a show based on George R R Martin’s notoriously brutal novels.
Like the fictional Red Keep built by Aegon the Conqueror at Kings Landing after his War of Conquest, William the Conqueror founded London’s iconic fortress to subdue the locals after the Norman Conquest and reinforce his dominance as the new monarch. And 900 years on, the Tower has become synonymous with political intrigue, imprisonment, torture and death – a reputation that stems largely from the late 15th and 16th centuries, when several kings, queens and martyrs were imprisoned, murdered or executed within and around its walls.
During the Wars of the Roses, the medieval conflict that inspired Game of Thrones, King Henry VI was confined in the Tower twice by his dynastic rival, Edward IV. Not unlike Aerys II, the “mad” Targaryen king, who incites Robert Baratheon’s rebellion in the back story to the series, Henry VI’s ineffectual leadership and madness triggered the historic civil war.
A prisoner for more than five years, Henry was murdered at the Tower following the death of his only son and heir at the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471). His execution, like the slaughter of mad king Aerys and his immediate heirs, was followed by a period of relative peace. But when Edward IV died in 1483, political wrangling resumed and the Tower once again provided the backdrop for the next stage of the conflict: the controversial disappearance of Edward’s sons, the “Princes in the Tower”.
Sons and queens
The slaughter or disappearance of young heirs and bastards is also a disturbing and recurring motif in Game of Thrones, resonating with the medieval and Tudor obsession with bloodlines and succession.
Jamie Lannister throws young Bran Stark from a tower at Winterfell to prevent his incestuous affair with Cersei and their illegitimate children being discovered. Theon Greyjoy fakes the murder of Bran and Rickon Stark to secure Winterfell by butchering two proxies. Joffrey orders the Gold Cloaks to massacre Robert Baratheon’s bastards. Rickard Karstark kills Tywin Lannister’s nephews. Craster sacrifices his newborn sons to the White Walkers. All are innocent children, and all fall victim to the morally ambiguous “game” being played by the leading Houses of Westeros.
The prime responsibility of the noblewomen, such as Cersei Lannister, Margery Tyrell and Sansa Stark, is to provide the next generation of kings. They are therefore also at the heart of the political machinations. And here, too, the series draws inspiration from the real medieval and Tudor women associated with the Tower.
In his pursuit of a male heir, Henry VIII famously had his politically sharp consort, Anne Boleyn, imprisoned and executed at the Tower on charges of treason, adultery and incest (the same crimes embraced by Cersei Lannister). This example will be particularly fresh for those who watched the BBC’s Wolf Hall.
Queen of the Roses
Henry VI’s widow, Margaret of Anjou, was likewise incarcerated in the Tower after a decade-long struggle to secure the crown for her son, Prince Edward. A formidable and proud French woman, who married for political purposes, Margaret was unafraid of engaging with the factionalism of her husband’s all-male council. She fought fiercely, if not always astutely, when her son’s birthright came under attack, and made strategic alliances wherever she could – most notably by marrying Prince Edward to the daughter of her former enemy, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, better known as the “Kingmaker”.
Captured after leading the Lancastrian army against Edward IV at the aforementioned Battle of Tewkesbury, where her son was killed, Margaret avoided her husband’s grim fate and was eventually ransomed, returning to France to live out her days in relative obscurity.
If aspects of Margaret’s story sound familiar it’s because she is one of several resilient historical women who inspired the characterisation of Cersei Lannister. While Cersei’s future is uncertain, we’ve seen her fight to influence and fortify Joffrey’s sovereignty and this season promises to follow her struggle with Margery Tyrell for control of King Tommen, her second son.
Ravens and crows
It’s impossible to avoid a final comparison between the Night’s Watch, or “Crows”, who swear to be “the shield that guards the realms of men” at the Wall, and that other species of the crow genus – the raven – which said to protect the kingdom by its presence at the Tower. According to tradition, if the ravens ever leave, the Tower and the realm will fall.
By the same token, one can’t help wondering what will happen to the Seven Kingdoms if the crows defending the northern frontier are slain, or forced to flee, by the White Walkers. In future seasons, Bran and the mysterious three-eyed raven doubtless have an equally important role to play in the defence of the kingdom.
But for the time being, the imminent series of Games of Thrones will continue to delight and terrify its audience with the same bouts of intrigue, scandal and brutality that have contributed to the Tower’s notorious reputation and popularity.
If winter is coming, then so is more bloodshed, for, as Tower prisoner and martyr Sir Thomas More once said in his account of Richard III’s acquisition of the crown, “king’s games” are “for the more part played upon scaffolds”.
The zombie invasion is here. Our bookshops, cinemas and TVs are dripping with the pustulating debris of their relentless shuffle to cultural domination.
A search for “zombie fiction” on Amazon currently provides you with more than 25,000 options. Barely a week goes by without another onslaught from the living dead on our screens. We’ve just seen the return of one of the most successful of these, The Walking Dead, starring Andrew Lincoln as small-town sheriff, Rick Grimes. The show follows the adventures of Rick and fellow survivors as they kill lots of zombies and increasingly, other survivors, as they desperately seek safety.
Since at least the late 19th century each generation has created fictional enemies that reflect a broader unease with cultural or scientific developments. The “Yellow Peril” villains such as Fu Manchu were a response to the massive increase in Chinese migration to the US and Europe from the 1870s, for example.
As the industrial revolution steamed ahead, speculative fiction of authors such as H G Wells began to consider where scientific innovation would take mankind. This trend reached its height in the Cold War during the 1950s and 1960s. Radiation-mutated monsters and invasions from space seen through the paranoid lens of communism all postulated the imminent demise of mankind.
By the 1970s, in films such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, the enemy evolved into government institutions and powerful corporations. This reflected public disenchantment following years of increasing social conflict, Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.
In the 1980s and 1990s it was the threat of AIDS that was embodied in the monsters of the era, such as “bunny boiling” stalker Alex in Fatal Attraction. Alex’s obsessive pursuit of the man with whom she shared a one night stand, Susanne Leonard argues, represented “the new cultural alignment between risk and sexual contact”, a theme continued with Anne Rices’s vampire Lestat in her series The Vampire Chronicles.
Risk and anxiety
Zombies, the flesh eating undead, have been mentioned in stories for more than 4,000 years. But the genre really developed with the work of H G Wells, Poe and particularly H P Lovecraft in the early 20th century. Yet these ponderous adversaries, descendants of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, have little in common with the vast hordes that threaten mankind’s existence in the modern versions.
M Keith Booker argued that in the 1950s, “the golden age of nuclear fear”, radiation and its fictional consequences were the flip side to a growing faith that science would solve the world’s problems. In many respects we are now living with the collapse of this faith. Today we live in societies dominated by an overarching anxiety reflecting the risk associated with each unpredictable scientific development.
Now we know that we are part of the problem, not necessarily the solution.
The “breakthroughs” that were welcomed in the last century now represent some of our most pressing concerns. People have lost faith in assumptions of social and scientific “progress”.
Central to this is globalisation. While generating enormous benefits, globalisation is also tearing communities apart. The political landscape is rapidly changing as established political institutions seem unable to meet the challenges presented by the social and economic dislocation.
However, although destructive, globalisation is also forging new links between people, through what Anthony Giddens calls the “emptying of time and space”. Modern digital media has built new transnational alliances, and, particularly in the West, confronted people with stark moral questions about the consequences of their own lifestyles.
As the faith in inexorable scientific “progress” recedes, politics is transformed. The groups emerging from outside the political mainstream engage in much older battles of faith and identity. Whether right-wing nationalists or Islamic fundamentalists, they seek to build “imagined communities” through race, religion or culture and “fear” is their currency.
Modern zombies are the product of this globalised, risk conscious world. No longer the work of a single “mad” scientist re-animating the dead, they now appear as the result of secret government programmes creating untreatable viruses. The zombies indiscriminately overwhelm states irrespective of wealth, technology and military strength, turning all order to chaos.
Meanwhile, the zombies themselves are evolving into much more tenacious adversaries. In Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later it takes only 20 days for society to be devastated. Charlie Higson’s Enemy series of novels have the zombies getting leadership and using tools. In the film of Max Brooks’ novel, World War Z, the seemingly superhuman athleticism of the zombies reflects the devastating springboard that vast urban populations would provide for such a disease. The film, starring Brad Pitt, had a reported budget of US$190m, demonstrating what a big business zombies have become.
Why zombies, why now?
This is a relentless enemy, seeking to cause death and destruction with little or no regard to their own safety. They may be your neighbour, a friend or teacher – but now they want you dead. Sound familiar?
Today, at home and abroad the primary weapon is terror, aimed at local populations but also, thanks to globalisation, world audiences. The terrorists ramp up the atrocities to provoke violent overreactions or attacks on civil liberties. These acts slowly turn the people against the established authority.
In these conflicts, the strategic target is no longer the opposing army but the hearts and minds of the people, both at home and abroad. It is in this context that the popularity of the zombie genre has grown. A cursory look through zombie entertainment reveals that the vast majority of it has been produced in the last ten years.
Like those of previous generations, our fictional nemesis reflects deep-seated concerns. The shock of the Paris Charlie Hebdo attack, the Copenhagen shootings and the Sydney siege are still fresh in our memory.
As the survivors in the Walking Dead have found, such relentless enemies may force even the most upright citizen to confront their moral codes. Rick’s struggle to hold onto his old values is one of the most fascinating aspects of the programme. In the battle for TV ratings, survival, no matter what it takes, may be enough, but, in the real world, holding on to our moral compass may be the greatest weapon we possess.
Fans will be thrilled after knowing that Fox announced the renewals of new shows Empire, Gotham and Brooklyn Nine-Nine this year!
DC comic Batman origin series Gotham will be back for a second season. Empire the show that dances around music, family, and power will come back for a second season as well. The successful sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine is also coming back with the third season, which Dana Walden, the CEO of Fox, called “true bright spots of comedy this year.”
Dax Shepard’s account of a C-section is everything you would expect and more. During an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Thursday, Jan. 15, the funnyman retold his wife Kristen Bell’s “intense” 33-hour long labor with their second daughter, Delta, which ended up in a C-section.
“It was not [easier the second time around], it was more difficult,” Shepard, 40, admitted to DeGeneres of the arrival of his now 3-week-old daughter. “Kristen, god bless her, was in labor for 33 hours. It was intense.” (Read More)
Great news for the fans of Game of Thrones, Veep and Silicon Valley. They are coming back to HBO on April 12! HBO announced Thursday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
The fifth season of Game of Thrones is set to air at 9 p.m., followed by the second season of Silicon Valley at 10 p.m. and the fourth season of Veep at 10:30. All three shows will span 10 episodes. (Read More)
Sure, YouTube is filled with videos of singers of all ages belting out Frozen’s signature tune, “Let It Go.” But none of those folks happen to be related (well… onscreen at least) to the first and best Elsa, Idina Menzel. Glee star Lea Michele, on the other hand, can boast about being the fictional ice queen’s fictional daughter, since her alter ego, Rachel Berry, long ago learned that Menzel’s Shelby Corcoran is the biological mother that gifted her to her two gay fathers. (Read More)
Out model and DJ Ruby Rose will join the halls of Litchfield this summer on the upcoming third season of Orange Is the New Black.
Netflix confirmed to BuzzFeed that the 28-year-old Australian will portray Stella Carlin, “an inmate at Litchfield Federal Correctional Institution whose sarcastic sense of humor and captivating looks quickly draw the attention of some of Litchfield’s inmates.” (Read More)
In nearly every industry, there’s that one person who comes along and turns the whole thing onto its head. When it comes to sportscasting, Stuart Scott was that man. But on Sunday morning, at 49 years old, he lost his battle to cancer, ESPN reported. Scott leaves behind a legacy. He became an anchor on ESPN’s… Continue reading →
Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, 29, who married husband Ryan Sweeting, 27, on New Year’s Eve last year, who is currently pulling in $1 million per episode on The Big Bang Theory, recognizes the strides women have made toward equality.
But that doesn’t mean she considers herself a feminist.
“It’s not really something I think about,” she told Redbook magazine for its February issue, on newsstands Jan. 6. “Things are different now, and I know a lot of the work that paved the way for women happened before I was around … I was never that feminist girl demanding equality, but maybe that’s because I’ve never really faced inequality,” she said. (Read More)