Narratively Complex Television Series and the Logics of Conspiracy – On the Politics of Long-Form Serial Storytelling and the Interpretive Labours of Active Audiences

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Narratively Complex Television Series and the Logics of Conspiracy – On the Politics of Long-Form Serial Storytelling and the Interpretive Labours of Active Audiences
    Felix Brinker, MA Office Address: Phone: + 49 (0) 511 / 762 47 43   Lecturer Leibniz Universität Hannover Fax: + 49 (0) 511 / 762 32 29   Leibniz Universität Hannover Königsworther Platz 1, Room 626 Email: American Studies / English Department 30167 Hannover, Germany   Felix Brinker, MA  ●  1 Narratively Complex Television Series and the Logics of Conspiracy – On thePolitics of Long-Form Serial Storytelling and the Interpretive Labors of ActiveAudiences Operating within a television landscape that is characterized by the increasing competitionbetween different media formats, American prime-time dramas of the last 15 years have reliedstrongly on complex strategies of serialized story-telling in order to ensure viewers' sustained andongoing investment in their narratives. Assessing this shift away from earlier norms of episodicclosure, media scholar Jason Mittell has labeled the last two decades of American television an era of “narrative complexity” (cf. 29). Narratively complex shows, he argues, capitalize on thepossibilities of the serial format and emphasize continuous, serial narration over episodically contained plots; over time, these shows therefore tend to amass complicated webs of backstoriesand character relationships and thus ask their audiences to engage in, as he puts it, “an active andattentive process of comprehension” (Mittell, 32). Today, I would like to focus on a particularsubset of narratively complex shows, namely those that present their over-arching story-lines as aninvestigation into a central mystery, and that develop this motif as a framing narrative over thecourse of several seasons, if not the entirety of their runs. Shows like Lost, 24, Rubicon,Homeland, or Fringe  all similarly rely on series-spanning story-lines about far-flung intrigues andenticing mysteries. By doing so, these shows adapt the formula that turned earlier series like The  X-Files  or Twin Peaks  into fan-favorites: As Jeffrey Sconce puts it, the ongoing story-lines of theseshows “cultivate a central narrative enigma” (107) – like the alien invasion slash governmentcover-up on The X-Files  or   the murder of Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks  , the mysterious events of  Lost  ’s island , or the uncertain loyalties and motivations Homeland  ’s prisoner-of-war-cum-terrorist Brody    – and use it as a central narrative hook to transform casual viewers into committedloyals. Due to their focus on long-running storylines, these shows exhibit a tendency to becomemore and more complex over time; despite (or maybe because of) this increasing complexity,many of the shows that follow this model of storytelling have become critical and commercialsuccesses.Unsurprisingly, then, a considerable number of recent programs have sought to replicatethe storytelling strategies of hit shows like Lost  – and mystery-centric series can by now beconsidered a mainstay of American television. In this paper, I would like to take a closer look atthe narrative strategies shared by these programs and outline the specific audience practices suchshows invite. I argue that the narrative logics of these series are best understood if weconceptualize them as conspiracy narratives – that is, as series that tell stories that center on theirprotagonists attempts to expose and put a stop to the nefarious workings of mysterious, hiddenpowers. By adhering to the logics of the conspiracy narrative, these shows aim to provoke a particular way of watching television, an active and attentive audience behavior that entails thereadiness to engage in speculations about the unfolding narrative, and to pay close, almostobsessive attention to details. These shows can thus be understood as sharing a specific“narrational mode,” as David Bordwell puts it, with “a historically distinct, [shared] set of normsof narrational construction and comprehension” and can be considered a distinct subset of narratively complex programs(Bordwell 150, cf. Mittell, “Narrative Complexity” 29).   Felix Brinker, MA  ●  2 Felix Brinker, MA Office Address: Phone: + 49 (0) 511 / 762 47 43   Lecturer Leibniz Universität Hannover Fax: + 49 (0) 511 / 762 32 29   Leibniz Universität Hannover Königsworther Platz 1, Room 626 Email: American Studies / English Department 30167 Hannover, Germany   Shows that adhere to such a ‘conspiratorial mode of storytelling’, as I call it, are crimefictions of a grand (or, at times, even cosmic) scope: in them, the story-world has been throwninto chaos and turmoil by the actions of a vast conspiracy, and the story unfolds as theprotagonists seek to reconstitute order and attempt to thwart the evil plans of the conspirators.The overarching story-arcs of these shows proceed from the investigation of an initial, isolatedevent – a puzzling murder or an unexplained plane crash, for example – and promise toeventually offer resolutions for this mystery. Over the course of the series, however, this promiseis invariably left unfulfilled, as the protagonists’ further adventures soon reveal that the initialevent is only one in a larger chain of mysterious occurrences that are all orchestrated by powerfulhidden forces. As the protagonists of these series with each episode venture further into the heartof the mystery, final resolutions or explanations never materialize, as the greater scheme ormaster-plan turns out to be too vast and to intricate to be fully explored. The ongoing storylinesof these shows thus adhere to what scholars of conspiracy like Michael Barkun or Mark Fensterhave described as the organizational logic of the conspiracy narrative: as these series progress, theirprotagonists gain insight into the hidden plans of their scheming opponents, but, by doing so, thenumber of unexplained mysteries and unanswered plot questions perpetually multiplies as moreand more sinister plots come to light (cf. Barkun 101ff.). Shows like these thus exhibit the samenarrative dynamic that Fenster has described for the ongoing storyline of Chris Carter’s The X- Files:  the series-spanning story-arcs of    such programs move “ineluctably toward[s] closure whilecontinually forestalling it” (150).These shows’ tendency to continuously evoke a central mystery while perpetually refusing to unveil the truth behind it is therefore the result of their reliance on a potentially open-ended,infinitely expandable narrative structure that lends itself ideally to the needs of serial formats likethat of the contemporary prime-time television drama. In general, the protagonists of conspiracy narratives in any medium invariably encounter not an isolated mysterious event, but a whole series  of puzzling phenomena that are all somehow connected. Conspiracy fictions thereforealways cover more than the events of a singular plot; instead they present themselves as collectionsof several smaller narratives that are loosely connected and that can hardly be contained withinstandalone formats like the novel or the movie (cf. Cole 37, Fenster 140). Conspiracy-themedfilms like Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View  or Oliver Stone’s  JFK  therefore usually offer only limited closure and conclude with ‘open’ endings that leave the guilty unpunished. The formatof the narratively complex television series, however, allows the narrative logic of conspiracy tounleash its serial potential, as it privileges open-ended narrative trajectories – simply becausetelevision shows become profitable the longer their remain on air. Shows that make use of such a conspiratorial narrative construction, however, also inherit another, more problematic aspect of conspiracy fictions, namely their tendency to“careen towards incoherence” (Fenster 122). As theconspiratorial storyline unfolds over several seasons, the number of mysteries multiplies and the web of interconnected subplots becomes more and more complex – up to a point were it becomesdifficult if not impossible to consistently resolve all the open questions. Once the end of a seriesapproaches, conspiratorial television shows thus face the challenge to offer a convincing conclusion and to “resolve the excesses of [its] narrative elements,” (as Fenster has put it with    Felix Brinker, MA Office Address: Phone: + 49 (0) 511 / 762 47 43   Lecturer Leibniz Universität Hannover Fax: + 49 (0) 511 / 762 32 29   Leibniz Universität Hannover Königsworther Platz 1, Room 626 Email: American Studies / English Department 30167 Hannover, Germany   Felix Brinker, MA  ●  3reference to conspiracy narratives in general). Especially for long-running series, this poses a considerable problem – and this circumstance might explain the mixed reactions of viewers to thefinal episodes of conspiratorial shows like Lost  and Battlestar Galactica  , for example, which werecriticized for precisely such a lack of closure (cf. Anders, cf. Newitz). This phenomenon, however,is less a result of ‘poor’ plotting on the parts of television writers and also not due to a lack of advanced planning or foresight – it rather points us to the basic principles of serial storytelling ingeneral, which, as an unashamedly commercial format, has always been more interested insecuring long-term revenue streams than in a classical norms of textual unity, plausibility andcoherence (and this, of course, goes back to serial figures like Sherlock Holmes, who had to returnfrom the dead after Conan Doyle had run out of money). As long as conspiratorial television series are in full swing, however, their refusal to offerdefinitive and final explanations usually turns out to be to their advantage, as such an opennessfosters audience speculation. Since these texts never really reveal what’s behind the conspirators’schemes, they encourage their audiences to connect the dots, and to come up with explanationsfor the mysteries that the serial narrative leaves unexplained. These tendencies make the structureof conspiracy narrative ideally suited for the goals of contemporary television authors, as they align well with broader trends within what Henry Jenkins has dubbed convergence culture. Arguing that pop-cultural texts of the convergence era seek to establish long-term relationships with their audiences, Jenkins has noted that contemporary programming aims to capture viewers'attention beyond the narrow-time frame of the television hour. Contemporary television authors,he argues, seek to attract viewers that“give themselves fully over to [their favorite programs];[who] tape them and may watch them more than one time; [and who] spend [a considerableamount] of their social time talking about them“ ( Convergence Culture  74).By inviting theiraudiences to get to the bottom of their narrative enigmas, conspiratorial television showsencourage precisely such a behavior – and user activity in online forums dedicated to thediscussion of shows like Lost, 24, Fringe  , or Homeland  attests to the validity of this claim.These developments are far from being new; even in the early 1990s, fans of  Twin Peaks   and The X-Files  took their speculations about these programs to Usenet discussion boards andmailing lists (cf. Jenkins “Do You Enjoy;” as well as Clerc). With the increasing availability of digital video formats, time-shifting devices, and widespread Internet access, however, suchaudience practices have arguably become more mainstream, and by now play an important partin the considerations of television producers and authors. More recent shows therefore take greatcare to keep fan speculations going; Lost  and Fringe  , for example, notoriously disperse plot-relevant clues and hints about their mysteries throughout their narratives (as well as acrossassociated official paratexts like video games, alternate-reality games, or websites that accompany the series). A prominent example of this practice is Lost  ’s infamous “Blast Door Map” thatappeared in “Lockdown,” the 17 th episode of the show’s second season. This episode features a brief scene in which John Locke gets pinned down by a closing blast door after things go wrong in the mysterious ‘hatch.’ While waiting for help, the hatch’s lights suddenly go out and black light lamps flicker on instead – the scene then briefly offers the viewers a glimpse of a mysteriousmap painted on the door with fluorescent colors. In the episode itself this map is visible for barely 6 seconds, but on Lostpedia  , fans soon engaged in detailed analyses of what they saw as an   Felix Brinker, MA  ●  4 Felix Brinker, MA Office Address: Phone: + 49 (0) 511 / 762 47 43   Lecturer Leibniz Universität Hannover Fax: + 49 (0) 511 / 762 32 29   Leibniz Universität Hannover Königsworther Platz 1, Room 626 Email: American Studies / English Department 30167 Hannover, Germany   intriguing clue to the show’s mysteries. Based on enlarged screen captures from the episode, userssoon deciphered the barely legible notes written on the map and parsed out references to earlierevents. As it turned out, viewers who paid no attention to this scene did not miss anything important, as the map did not achieve greater relevance for the show’s ongoing narrative –nonetheless, the blast door map presented itself as a riddle to be solved, and the activity of  Lostpedia  users was not deterred by the fact that this event did not have a deeper meaning afterall.Other shows follow similar strategies to encourage fan speculations: each episode of  Fringe  , for example, features barely noticeable clues about the events of future episodes in thebackground of the mise-en-scène. Virtually every episode of this series features subtle links tofuture adventures of the protagonists, usually directly referring to events that will play out in thecoming week: the logo of a plot-relevant bio-tech company emblazoned on a coffee cup and visible for little more than the blink of an eye, for example, or graffiti in the background of streetscenes that allude to the plot of the following episode. Fringe, however, does not limit itsdissemination of clues to its diegesis: every episode features several symbol bearing title cards thatappear before commercial breaks. These symbols, as enterprising viewers have since discovered,correspond to letters of the alphabet and, once deciphered, spell out a word that resonates withthe theme of each week’s episode. Obviously, not all of the shows that subscribe to the logics of the conspiracy narrative rely on similarly baroque strategies to encourage audience speculation(although Christian Junklewitz has shown yesterday that his happens on Doctor Who  as well) –in fact, more down-to-earth series like Homeland  or Rubicon rather rely on more conventionalmeans to further their mysteries and include relevant bits and pieces of information in snippets of dialogue or have their characters act out suspicious behavior. What these shows nonetheless shareis the awareness that the evocation of a narrative enigma is a key element in the attempt to‘activate’ audiences and foster their commitment to the series.Perhaps the most baffling aspect of such committed audience practices is the amount of  work and time that dedicated viewers invest to unearth and analyze the hidden clues presented by conspiratorial television series. As my examples from Fringe  and Lost  suggest, spotting the cluesand hints hidden within these television texts requires a meticulous, almost obsessive attention todetail and the readiness to engage in time-consuming and laborious close readings of scenes andeven individual frames. In his book on Convergence Culture  , Henry Jenkins has famously arguedthat such online fan practices should be considered as examples of a 'collective intelligence' at work, i.e. as fundamentally democratic, communal problem-solving processes that might “bepreparing the way for a more meaningful public culture” (Convergence Culture 228, cf. also 206-239). Participating in such collective processes of interpretation and communication – themselvesmade possible through the participatory character of social media – could ultimately, Jenkinsargues, “create new kinds of political power” and also foster democratic decision-making processes offline. While Jenkins might have a point when it comes to the collaborative practicesin online forums, I think such a view of the political significance of these phenomena is all toooptimistic and essentially unfounded. As Steven Shaviro notes in his Post-Cinematic Affect  ,“aesthetics does not translate easily or obviously into politics“ (138) – and neither do specific    Felix Brinker, MA Office Address: Phone: + 49 (0) 511 / 762 47 43   Lecturer Leibniz Universität Hannover Fax: + 49 (0) 511 / 762 32 29   Leibniz Universität Hannover Königsworther Platz 1, Room 626 Email: American Studies / English Department 30167 Hannover, Germany   Felix Brinker, MA  ●  5 ways of engaging with a text somehow directly translate into political engagement. While thethematic preoccupations of conspiratorial television series with issues of power and corruptionmight invite politicizing readings, the claim that political engagement emerges directly fromonline fan practices can hardly be backed by empirical evidence. The existence of time-consuming and work-intensive audience activities, I argue, rather points us to the character and socialfunction of recreational leisure activities under the regime of contemporary capitalism in general.In an essay titled “Free Time”, Theodor W. Adorno argued that recreational activities, like theconsumption of mass or pop-cultural texts, serve the important function of re-constituting theindividual’s capacity to work and to take part in social life in general. “Free time,” he points out,is “shackled to its opposite”; recreational activities should therefore not be conceptualized asradically opposed to and separate from work but as an area of social life whose function is alwaysdefined in relation to the sphere of labor (187, cf. 187-190). Leisure activities like watching a movie or reading a novel promise a temporary escape from the toils and troubles of the daily routine, he argues, but at the same time, the character of these practices are determined anddelimited by their potential to contribute to the reproduction of the individual’s labor-power (or“Arbeitskraft”). Viewed from this perspective, the time-consuming and cognitively challenging audience practices inspired by narratively complex television series take on a political significancethat is quite different from the one attested by Jenkins. In this context, American Studies scholarFrank Kelleter has recently pointed to theoverlap between the cognitive demands of contemporary popular culture and the professional skills required in the working environments of our present: By inviting active and sustained interpretive practices, Kelleter argues, contemporary television seriescall up precisely those skills which characterize the neoliberal labor routines in the ageof digitalization: network-thinking, situational feedback, dispersed processing of information, multitasking and, last but not least, the readiness to no longer differentiatebetween work and leisure. (Kelleter,“Serien als Stresstest” – my translation) The interpretive practices of committed television viewers thus point us to the fact thatengaging with contemporary popular culture has become more and more like work – a particularkind of work, to be exact, namely one that consists chiefly of the production, handling, andinterpretation of information (and Jason Mittell’s claim that active viewers might now approachshows as ‘amateur narratologists’ also seems to point us to this). Maurizio Lazzarato has labeledthis kind of work “immaterial labor” and argued that it has replaced manual and industrial laboras the predominant form of work in post-industrial societies. Increasingly geared towardproducing the “informational and cultural content” of commodities rather than the materialproduction of things, immaterial labor blurs the boundaries between labor and leisure andcoincides with the emergence of increasingly automated, computerized, and networked working environments (Lazzarato 1996, 132, cf. 136-137). Active viewers who engage in the detailedanalysis and online discussion of their favorite shows perform precisely such a labor, whichproductively contributes to the popularity and the accessibility of television texts – but they do sounpaid, without any financial compensation for their work.Instead of too rashly celebrating such practices as fundamentally democratic or evenpolitically subversive, as cultural studies scholars at times tend to do, I argue, we should consider
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