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Complex narratives: 6 series that revolutionized television in the digital age

Complex narratives: 6 series that revolutionized television in the digital age

The digital age has changed television dramatically within the past two decades.  With the advent of cable channels, home video media, dish on demand and the internet, the average TV viewer has a variety of venues to access television programs. With all these ways to access television shows, the viewing audience has become more aware of repetitive story lines, inconsistency in character development and continuity errors.  In short, these advances in technology have made for a more sophisticated casual television viewer, therefore allowing for the progression of serialized storytelling.

Today’s television writers have a landscape to develop complex narratives beyond the limitations of the episodic format, and now that audiences have better accessibility to these shows, there is a higher demand for serialized storytelling where there wasn’t one before.

Although there have been many television shows that have contributed to the overall progression of the modern serialized television series, I would like to highlight six that I believe have best utilized the advances of technology and how their impact has permeated serialized television.


1. 24 (2001) 

The show: 

Developed as a political thriller about an anti-terrorism organization, the series aired each entire season in real time, playing out a full day within 24 episodes. The series found success due to several factors, chief among them its groundbreaking format, which had never been attempted before to this degree. Another is the star power of Kiefer Sutherland. Although mostly notable for his film career, this show would mark his transition into television and this had huge appeal to mass audiences, not to mention the immediate impact of recent true events that made terrorism very much in the forefront of viewers’ consciousness.

Show’s innovation:

The creators of 24 made a show that at its core was the classic episodic serial premise newly reformatted for the modern audience. Jack Bauer is a typically heroic figure (much in the vein of those early serials, such as The Lone Ranger or Gunsmoke) who would be able to ride into any scenario and save the day, albeit on an hour-to-hour basis.

The employment of the real time format was essential in making serialized television break new ground. By making the entire season play out in real time, it opened up new possibilities of how to tell a story over a season. Another element that the 24 writer’s applied well was the consistent use of cliffhangers at the end of each episode throughout the season, making the serialization seem more momentous. The momentum created by this consistent pull to the next episode is what creates the need to marathon the series.

Viewer interaction:

In 2001, many savvy television viewers were watching TV on their DVRs, allowing audiences to watch and re-watch shows on their own time. A series like 24 had enormous buzz from critics and fans alike, which surely spurred on much water cooler talk. Fans would have viewing parties with friends, trying to get them to catch up with the show. The binge factor was only heightened after the release of the show’s DVD box set, a growing market during the time, which allowed those who did not have DVRs the opportunity to catch up along before the premiere of the new season.

24 was almost made for binge watching and created a culture around season-long marathon sessions. Other shows that benefited from binge watching at this time, although to a lesser extent, were series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias.

The enduring impact: 

24′s brand of serialization has had a lingering effect on television, one echoed in series like True Blood and Breaking Bad, which also used cliffhanger endings (to varying degrees) into their episodic storytelling. Its real time format inspired creative show formatting possibilities adopted by shows like In Treatment, which took the real time premise and altered the format of its season in a truly fascinating way, airing four episodes a week each centering on a different character, as though they were a different patient sessions. This allowed for interesting re-watch potential, as viewers could binge watch a single patient’s sessions alone and it would be a different experience than watching the series sequentially. They were also some interestingly formatted, but short-lived shows developed post-24 that attempted to imitate its creative formatting of time, such as Watching Ellie, Reunion, and Boomtown. These may not have found larger success, but they nevertheless represent interesting footnotes in television,

The binge watching culture that 24 helped develop has changed in recent years with the availability of streaming video sites, particularly Netflix, which has taken their awareness of the binge viewer and exploited it by instigating their own original programming full season release distribution plan. This release model is still very new and has viewers scrambling to figure out how to self program their viewings, as well as how to talk about these new shows in a spoiler-sensitive culture, both online and off.


2. Lost (2004)

The show: 

Conceived as a long form narrative of the film Castaway and later pitched as a scripted version of Survivor, the series that would become Lost was a phenomenon that no one could have predicted. An ensemble of castaways finds themselves lost on an island that has mystical properties and mysteries that would pit good against evil and science vs. faith; although it may not sound like a premise that would draw in a large audience, it somehow did.

The intrigue of the series may have stemmed from the mysteries of the island, but the pivotal draw was the character drama that allowed viewers normally deterred by fantasy elements an entry into the series. As time went on and the plot became more and more tangled in its mythology, new fans found it necessary to watch from the beginning if they wanted to enter into the conversation.

Show’s innovation:

The writers of Lost innovated serialized television by introducing a unique way to explore the ongoing mythology of the series within the drama of each episode, with no purely standalone episodes. Prior to this, series’ mythologies were developed sporadically throughout a season in “mythology” episodes, while most installments catered to casual viewers with “standalone” episodes. This format was popularized by shows like The X-Files and it became a staple of serialized storytelling thereafter.

Lost brought the two episode types together, incorporating standalone flashbacks into their serialized main narratives. The main, mythology-driven story on the island drew the audience into the next episode, while flashbacks anchored most episodes, giving a sense of closure and offering the flashback-revealing character as a possible entry point for new viewers. In later seasons, the writers adapted these flashbacks in different forms, with varying results.

Viewer interaction:

Not only did Lost reinvent the serialized narrative, but it also amplified the cult of television, with written-in clues about future episodes and teases about answers to the mysteries of the island. This show brought water cooler conversations to a new level, prompting fan theories and endless re-watching sessions with increased scrutiny, a step beyond the binge-watching of 24. Viewers of Lost would use their DVRs to peel back the layers of meaning behind dialogue, interactions, and continuity in order to solve the mysteries, sometimes reading more into a moment than even the writers of the show had intended.

Although cult fandom of this nature had a precursor in shows like Twin Peaks, Lost appealed to a widespread audience with its accessible characters and early survival stories. It made cult television fans out of casual viewers.  The Lost conversation exploded onto fan chat forums, podcasts, and blogs after every episode. Viewers couldn’t wait for DVD season sets to dig into commentary tracks and behind the scenes interviews. Even an interactive alternate reality game was developed for fans to extend their “Lost experience.” Further expansion with the narrative spread even onto new media formats with webisode miniseries that premiered on video cell phones as that technology was developing. Lost even went so far as to exploit older mediums, releasing books written in the voice of fictional characters on the show. Even these were innovative, being released as eBooks.

For the most part, this is a show that truly benefited from the week to week model of release, because unlike the adrenaline-fueled 24, Lost was layered with philosophy and meaning in symbols and language, and the time between episodes allowed fans to dissect and interpret each entry as they wouldn’t any other TV series’.

The enduring impact:

Lost was so popular that networks wasted little time in trying to recapture its alchemy, using the same ensemble cast model with a science fiction premise and mimicking the series’ tone of a grounded semi-reality. They were unsuccessful. Instead, the show’s lasting effect on serialized television writing can be found on shows like Once Upon a Time and Orange is the New Black, which both use frequent flashbacks to strong effect.

The mark that Lost has left on the TV culture is still significant. Fans now look for deeper meanings and layered clues in their television as a matter of course. The potential in complex mythologies has also been mined by shows like Smallville and Arrow,  which takes advantage of a sourced mythology by playing up “Easter eggs” from the original source material, details only fans would be aware of and which may serve as a tease of where the show may be going.


3. Arrested Development (2003) 

The show:

Arrested Development is a very uniquely written comedy about a wealthy family that satirizes reality television and the celebrity lifestyle. Unlike any show of its time, the series’ creators were very aware of technology and wrote to the DVR-viewing audiences, making it a comedy series that rewards re-watching and freeze framing. It draws humor out of reoccurring gags and jokes layered in the background, taking an approach more commonly seen in animated series like Futurama.

The show’s creators seemed to be of the same school of thought as the writers of Lost, with its contextually changing dialogue and freeze frame “Easter eggs” in each episode. Instead of applying the complex writing to a mystery, they applied it to comedy, which may have been why it was not as successful: television fans were unused to analyzing comedy as deeply they would a mystery series. When the show first premiered, it was not the massive hit with audiences that both 24 and Lost were, but it did find cult success through reruns, DVD box sets, and–where it gained the most momentum–Netflix instant video.

Show’s innovation: 

Arrested Development‘s exceptional writing is what made it into a cult success. The writers were very ambitious and savvy to the audience interaction, writing to the DVR and DVD set almost to a fault. It was ahead of its time, seeming to be made not for network television or even cable television, but actually for the internet and streaming television. The series just premiered in a time where for many, the technology was not yet in place to make the show easily accessible, leading to its comparatively short initial run. Even now viewers are still transitioning in how to watch this type of comedy, just as much as writers are trying to write this type of comedy towards a mass audience.

Viewer interaction:

Although the show was breaking new ground with its writing, Arrested Development was unable to cultivate a broader viewership as audiences found the series to be too dense to watch as part of their week to week viewing. The show barely scraped by for three seasons on network television and was always under threat of cancellation. If the show had been originally released today under the Netflix distribution plan, it would’ve most likely found greater success than it did on network television.

In 2013, the show was revived by Netflix for a fourth season, which was received with mixed criticism. Some of these issues perhaps stemmed from how the writers attempted to adapt their approach to take advantage of the distribution plan that Netflix has established, releasing an entire season at once instead adding new episodes week to week. The writers ambitiously tried to write the season through an experimental multiple points of view narrative, with each episode centering on one character and telling their side of the season’s events. Although the idea was innovative, the results were varied and to some viewers, the season was not what they had expected or wanted from the series’ continuation.

The enduring impact:

There are very few series that have attempted the kind of complex comedy that Arrested Development has, but with this new ground broken, the landscape is now prime for it. Netflix’s instant watch platform allows comedies to be more complex and that is very promising. Season four of Arrested Development was a very interesting and risky attempt by the writers and although the reviews were divided, as time passes and more comedy series tinker with the format of the multiple POV season, better applications of it will come, as well as a greater appreciation of what this series introduced.


4. American Horror Story (2011)

The show:

When American Horror Story premiered, it was simply thought of as a new horror-based series about a haunted house. As the first season concluded, it became clear that the second season would not continue the story of the Murder House, but instead begin fresh with an entirely new premise, changing the face of what an anthology series could be. The show itself is essentially a cultivation of horror tropes designed to instill nostalgic shocks from iconic horror films under the guise of a new story. It’s a greatest hits compilation by a cover band, but for horror movies, similar to Family Guy‘s approach in their cut-away comedy.

Show’s innovation:

Anthology series are meant to be short, episodic, and disparate. The point of an anthology series is to present a variety of stories under the umbrella of a genre, or at least that’s how it used to be.  What American Horror Story has done, by expanding the anthology narrative into the length of a season, is branded an anthology title to the TV miniseries model. Writers under this new model can conceive of a self contained season without needing to consider whether the series has legs to run past its premise.

Although AHS isn’t attempting to create complex narratives, as it focuses mainly on the visceral and superficial, there is the potential for more intricate storytelling.  The first season incorporated a mix of standalone story along with the season’s mythology- the overarching mythology of the Murder House developed in tandem with patient sessions that served as standalone narratives.  The second season explored parallel narratives of a present day story and a story set in the past, while the third season was pretty straight forward. The variety presented in these three seasons exemplifies the potential of the self-contained season format.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that this would be the next step in the evolution of the anthology series on television. Early anthology series like The Twilight Zone began with 25 minute installments which were later expanded to 50 minutes in its fourth season, a format length which anthology series The Outer Limits adopted. The 80’s revival of The Twilight Zone served a mix of 50 minute episodes and back to back 25 minute episodes. When anthology series hit cable television, the length extended as far as 60 minutes with shows like Tales from the Crypt and Masters of Horror.

Viewer interaction

The TV anthology series has had low to moderate success in the digital age. The Twilight Zone had a second revival in 2002 which only lasted one season, which is probably indicative of the growing demand for more serialized programming. The anthology series did not return to any notable success until The Masters of Horror aired on television in 2005, which later spawned a watered down edition on NBC called Fear Itself in 2007, which was promptly cancelled.

The success of The Walking Dead brought new life to the horror television series in 2010, which may have given way for American Horror Story to come into production. Being on cable television allowed the series to be edgier than what network television offered, helping it appeal to hardcore horror fans. Almost like a Trojan horse, AHS presented itself as an ongoing horror series as if it there was a stigma connected to anthology programming.

AHS drew in audiences with its use of horror and pop culture iconography and stylish visuals and dialogue. Although that would’ve been enough to make it a success, the decision to make it a series of self-contained seasons is what makes it standout as a show that has innovated the anthology series; by managing to serialize the format to comply to digital age audiences’ demand for longer form narratives.

The enduring impact: 

Since AHS has opened the door for the self-contained season, there have been adopters of the model in recent years such as True Detective and Fargo, both of which have taken their own spin on it to serve their respective stories. The options for this anthology concept down the line are really exciting, as it seems that both Fargo and True Detective are expanding their already established universes in their coming seasons, unlike American Horror Story, which distinctly establishes separate worlds each season.


5. Review (2014)

The show:

Based on an Australian television series called Review with Myles Barlow, this American adaptation centers on a critic who reviews aspects of life on his television show, instead of art, films, or literature. The series, presented in the guise of a reality show, follows fictional host Forrest MacNeil as he reviews life experiences and where the show becomes interesting is when it explores how his work starts affecting his personal life.

Show’s innovation:

This series’ most innovative aspect is its handling of its show within a show narrative throughout the season. Each episode is structured in three review segments, but its overarching mythology plays out throughout, although each segment is able to exist apart from the episode and still function as an episodic narrative. It’s like watching three episodes of the series as one episode.

Another innovative aspect of this series is how it manages to use its “show within the show” concept in a way that is more fictional than reality, surely taking inspiration from Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Ali G show but with a clearer separation between our reality and the fictional reality of the show within a show.

Viewer interaction:

In the past decade, the interaction between audiences and their television has been stepping closer and closer to the internet, with television viewers’ attention spans feared to be growing shorter and shorter. In recent years even network television shows have begun producing shorter seasons of television, with Hannibal and Sleepy Hollow airing 13-18 episode seasons instead of the average 24 episode seasons. Serialized television will benefit from what Review is doing with its narrative structure, especially comedy series. These short and accessible 8-10 minute segments engage the audience, hooking them quickly and as they continue to watch, they start to invest in the overall narrative playing out through the season. This is the type of show that benefits from binge watching- the more sequentially it’s watched, the more interesting it is.

The enduring impact:

As internet streaming video becomes the norm, network and cable television will need to figure out how to acquire ratings as fewer people watch shows live on air. Review, with its microcosm of segments within an episode structure, may inspire many series from different genres to adopt a similar structure, as the internet and its shorter-form storytelling becomes more a part of the average viewers’ watching pattern.

LOUIE: Louis C.K. stars in LOUIE on FX.

6.  Louie (2010)

The show:

Based on the life and comedy of Louis C.K., this series delves into the slice of life moments that make Louis C.K.’s comedy unique and formats it for television. Louie stars and is written and directed by Louis C.K., in what may be the most authentic and personal adaptation of standup comedy ever presented on a television series.

Show’s innovation:

Shows that fictionalize the lives of comedians date back as early as I Love Lucy, and over time they have become more and more original and innovative in their own way. Seinfeld based a show on “nothing” everyday life and made it relevant, Roseanne was one of the earliest (and only) honest representations of the American middle class family, and It’s Gary Shandling’s Show brought self-awareness to the TV sitcom. Each of these series had to deal with compromises from network executives, producers, and other creative forces; never has a single creative source been behind a television series in the way Louis C.K. has crafted Louie.

The auteur theory may have been applied to television before with show runners in place of directors, but never has it been as applicable as it is to this series. Louis C.K. writes and directs each episode of the series and with each episode, there is a different sense of C.K.’s personal and unique creative impulses. The series is episodic and each installment may or may not be connected to previous episodes, but it is understood that they all exist in the same thematic universe. Essentially what Louis C.K. has done with Louie is create a television series in the auteur sensibility.

Viewer interaction:

In the history of television, shows have always needed to contend with the concern of episodic length. The length of an episode has been designed for network television to allow for commercials, making the average half hour show about 22 minutes in length while hourly shows are 42 minutes in length. If a show wants to extend their story, their only option would be to make a two-part episode. In the age of premium cable television, episodic lengths are allowed to increase to fill almost the entire 30 minute or hour length. Although episodic length has been challenged before in network television, mostly on NBC with their super-sized episodes sporadically presented throughout the late ’90s on hit shows like Friends, very few shows experiment with episode length.

Episodic length in the digital age really has no limitations other than the audience’s attention span. What appears to be the key to presenting a longer episode is to break the episode into increments of the familiar half hour or hour format. House of Cards season one is essentially a season long episode broken into 13 hour long chapters. Arrested Development season four broken its season into character POV episodes, some which were longer in length than others, but which were also broken into parts.  But Louie in its recent season has played with the episodic length in a way that is truly interesting and also could only be done in the week to week format.

Louie season four began with three regular half hour formatted length episodes followed by an episode that is essentially a 90 minute formatted episode broken into parts 1-6.  The experience of watching it in this way, with two episodes per week, is undoubtedly different than it would be as a full binge episode or feature film. Then Louie premiered part one of “Pamela”, following that with a delay of parts two and three with an unrelated two-part episode “Into the Woods”. This presentation was clearly intentional by Louis C.K., forcing the audience to ruminate on the events of “Pamela (Part One)” for a longer period of time. This viewing experience is unlikely to be recreated in subsequent viewings of “Pamela”.

The enduring impact:

In the future, hopefully more writers and TV series will explore the possibilities of flexible episodic length and the creative ways of audience interaction it can allow. Now that Louis C.K. has shown that a more personal television series is possible, hopefully more writers and producers will allow for unique television series. A show like Louie can be surreal, thematically tied, and personal and now that Louie has opened the door, more series can and in all likelihood, will develop in a similar way now.

These are six TV series that I believe best exemplify the digital age of serialized television writing. Do you agree or disagree with these examples? Or can you think of some examples that I may have missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments.

Jean Pierre Diez