Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (New York: New York University Press, 2015), x + 390 pp., £27 (paperback). ISBN: 978-0-8147-6960-7.
Reviewed by Margrethe Bruun Vaage
Gaps “define the serial experience,” writes Jason Mittell, pointing to how serial storytelling is defined by “story installments parceled out over time with gaps between entries” (27). This book is an ambitious project taking this observation seriously. Drawing on a wide range of examples, from The Sopranos (David Chase, 1999–2007), Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan, 2008–2013), and The Wire (David Simon, 2002–2008) to Arrested Development (Mitchell Hurwitz, 2003–2006, 2013–present) and Lost (Jeffrey Lieber, J. J. Abrams, and Damon Lindelof, 2004–2010), Mittell explores what he sees as a new mode of television storytelling that has emerged over the past two decades, a mode he labels “narrative complexity.” He argues, “Television’s narrative complexity is predicated on specific facets of storytelling that seem uniquely suited to the television series structure” (18). He maps an impressive array of television storytelling, covering television series’ beginnings and endings, the role played by character engagement and narrative comprehension, how television series are evaluated as aesthetic objects, and the extent to which questions of authorship are relevant for appreciation of contemporary television series, to mention but some of the topics in the ten chapters. This book is rich and is bound to set the stage for discussions of television storytelling generally and a specific trend in contemporary American television specifically for years to come. Everyone interested in television storytelling must read this book, will enjoy doing so, and will learn a lot.
Complex TV carves out a new niche in television studies. Mittell follows in David Bordwell’s footsteps but adapts his historical film poetics to television storytelling. His aim is to “think about contemporary television storytelling on its own terms, rather than in the language of literature or film” (16). Focusing specifically on how “texts” make meaning—how does the text work?—entails a shift in television studies. Mittell uses a model of cultural circulation, where practices of the television industry, audiences, critics, and creators all shape storytelling practices. Mittell holds that in order to explain how contemporary American television series tell stories, and why this particular mode of storytelling has emerged, one must investigate not just the text in its own right but also the context, for example, the constraints of and changes in the television industry, the emergence of digital media, and, last but not least, the reception practices of the audience. “Especially (though not exclusively) in the digital era, a television program is suffused within and constituted by an intertextual web that pushes textual boundaries outward, blurring the experiential borders between watching a program and engaging in its paratexts,” he writes (7). When investigating television storytelling, it is thus of the utmost importance to include what the audience does in those gaps, and the audience’s “paratextual engagement” plays a central role in Mittell’s theory. In between episodes, one may engage in online discussion of the TV series and other forms of engagement that complicate the text as linear storytelling, he argues. Mittell therefore complements the poetic approach with a strong focus on reception practices in what he labels a “contextual, cognitive poetics” (166).
Because this review cannot go into a detailed discussion of the many claims made in individual chapters, I will primarily concentrate on the main argument about narrative complexity. Mittell successfully surveys a wide range of storytelling techniques in contemporary prime-time American TV series and convincingly demonstrates how transformations in the TV industry and technology impacted the medium’s creative strategies. However, although there clearly have been some major changes in television poetics over the latter couple of decades, the very notion narrative complexity remains somewhat elusive to me. There are two main tensions to be found. One is that partly Mittell’s project is to develop a poetics of serial storytelling in television in general, and partly it is a narrower exploration of what he sees as a particular mode of television storytelling—namely, narrative complexity. Some of his claims are valid across all kinds of serial storytelling, some are specific to television serial storytelling, and some perhaps only apply to the more narrowly defined narrative complexity or subtypes thereof.
Second, there is a tension in the reception-oriented approach he takes. He argues that the practice of actual viewers must be taken into account, but his discussion is informed mostly by fan discussion online. The problem is that this kind of fan is probably not a typical viewer. This is a point that Mittell acknowledges, but he nevertheless assumes that this tendency is “indicative of broader tendencies” and thus that the fan who engages online is an “influential minority viewership” (8). Mittell loses sight of the caveat he offers, and claims that narrative complexity makes “active audience behaviour even more of a mainstream practice” (36). Indeed, Mittell claims “forensic fandom” is one of narratively complex TV’s three defining features (52–53). According to Mittell, complex TV tends to make its viewers amateur narratologists carefully scrutinizing and analyzing the formal aspects of TV series as they watch. In Mittell’s account, this is one of the core pleasures offered by narrative complexity, and what sets it apart from television serial storytelling in general. This aspect of narrative complexity makes the book a study of convergence culture, such as it is found on the extensive online site Lostpedia, which engaged three million registered users in a detailed and intricate exploration of the many mysteries of Lost. Chapter 8 and chapter 9 in particular are devoted to this, and this part of the book is also one of its most intriguing. Personally, I have never posted a single comment about a TV series online. I might be old-fashioned. That is perhaps also why I learn the most from these parts. I am amazed by these fans’ devotion to their favorite series. However, Mittell claims that these TV series demand forensic fandom, and I find this claim problematic. For example, as part of his discussion of a TV series such as 24 (Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, 2001–2010, 2014), he writes that you “cannot simply watch these programs as an unmediated window to a realistic story-world into which you might escape; rather, complex television demands that you pay attention to the window frames” (52–53). I cannot see why a viewer cannot engage and enjoy this suspenseful series without paying particular attention to, least of all not analyzing in great detail, its formal features. Forensic fandom is an activity typical of a particular group of viewers and as such can hardly define narrative complexity as a narrative mode in American contemporary TV. Indeed, in his discussion of authorship, Mittell points out that “Dickens’s 19th-century readers, fans of comic strips and books, and soap opera viewers all fill such serial gaps by corresponding with authors, participating in speculative conversations about authorial intent, and creating paratexts designed to celebrate or critique their inferred authorial agents” (110). This sounds like a type of forensic fandom to me, engaging with the story at a formal level in the gaps between installments, in relation to a wide range of media. But is this not then characteristic of a particular type of viewer’s engagement with serial storytelling in general and as such not restricted to, nor a defining feature of, complex TV specifically?
Forensic fandom is tied to a feature of narratively complex series that Mittell discusses as “operational aesthetic” (42). This is the second defining feature of narrative complexity. Operational aesthetic is a self-conscious mode of storytelling, and this reflexivity makes the viewer pay attention to the story’s formal features. As we watch, so-called narrative special effects will make us ask how the creators pulled off this marvelous and complex piece of storytelling. Mittell claims that this is not the self-reflexive awareness of a Tex Avery cartoon, nor the alienating effects of Brechtian theater, but is rather akin to the way a Hitchcock film such as Rear Window (1954) self-reflexively investigates watching (46). The problem is that all the series he discusses are hardly characterized by such reflexivity. For example, it is difficult to see The Wire as offering the attractions of an operational aesthetic.
It remains ambiguous whether these two features (operational aesthetic and forensic fandom) mark a particular new mode in television storytelling, as arguably one must not engage in forensic fandom to engage with these series, and operational aesthetic is not found in all of the series Mittell discusses. The third defining feature that Mittell proposes is narrative complexity as “redefin[ing] episodic forms under influence of serial narration” (18). This feature is an accepted account of the development of American prime-time serial storytelling. However, again, such a merge between episodic and serial storytelling is hardly an accurate description of all the series Mittell discusses as narratively complex. For example, Game of Thrones (David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, 2011–present) is not characterized by such a merge but is fully serialized.
So, what Mittell discusses as narrative complexity changes somewhat depending on the series on which he focuses and on the theoretical issue at hand. When discussing the merge between episodic and serial storytelling, The X-Files (Chris Carter, 1993–2002, 2016) plays an important role; when emphasizing forensic fandom, Lost is explored first and foremost. Mittell does offer some subtypes of narrative complexity, such as centrifugal versus centripetal complexity, which make good sense. Nevertheless, I wonder if narrative complexity really does point to one new narrative mode but rather is a cluster of characteristics found in contemporary American television, giving us several different subtypes, some of which are shared with other serials within and outside of the TV medium. This ambiguity could have been prevented by taking more careful steps concerning what is claimed about serial narration in any medium or form, about serial narration in TV series specifically, TV series with operational aesthetic, and finally about fans’ engagement with TV series (forensic fandom).
As mentioned previously, Mittell’s book is perhaps at its best when he is exploring industry and fan practices in chapters 3, 8, and 9, as his accounts of both are very knowledgeable and interesting. Mittell is also a brilliant taxonomist, carefully mapping various types of beginnings (chapter 2) and endings (chapter 10) in contemporary American prime-time series. Furthermore, Mittell always informs his discussion by insightful and careful analysis of various TV series. One example of an interesting analysis is found in the chapter on endings, where Mittell analyzes the fifth and final season of The Wire as a case of self-reflexive storytelling, which he might want to argue runs counter my skepticism about operational aesthetic in this particular series. Presenting this as a critical discussion of the extension and definition of narrative complexity as a category would have enabled Mittell to fully cash in on this in theoretical terms. From a theorist’s point of view, many other great insights in this book could have been presented as a critique or addition to existing theories if the theoretical framework had been made more prominent. For example, in chapter 5 on comprehension Mittell discusses spoilers and develops an idea that could be presented as a solution to the paradox of suspense (why do we feel suspense even when we know how a story will end?). In operational aesthetic, instead of feeling suspense for what will happen next, one feels suspense for the question of how these events will be presented. Indeed, I have learned from Mittell that there are “spoiler fans” who prefer knowing what will happen in an episode/season before watching, as this enables them to pay greater attention to, and appreciate, the storytelling. What a wonderful thing.
The bottom line is that this book is quite an enterprise, and despite some conceptual or argumentative ambiguities, it impressively maps storytelling strategies in contemporary American television series. Mittell opens up a wide range of discourses that will inspire further research in fertile ways, and introduces a number of distinctions and notions that will be helpful for everyone wanting to explore television storytelling. It establishes a highly needed niche in television studies in its methodological approach, and this is a real accomplishment. It will be widely read and discussed, and deservedly so.
Alexa Weik von Mossner, ed. Moving Environments: Affect, Emotion, Ecology, and Film (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014), vii + 287 pp., £42.99 (paperback). ISB: 978-1-7711-2002-9.
Reviewed by Gabriella Blasi
Moving Environments: Affect, Emotion, Ecology, and Film is a welcome addition to the emergent field of ecocritical film studies. Like its literary predecessor, ecocritical film studies investigates the complexities of nature-culture relations through their representations in cultural artifacts, the different ways humans relate to nonhuman animals and the environment, and the philosophical grounds of such complex relations. Ecocriticism is markedly interdisciplinary and requires open-mindedness in bringing together philosophy, natural sciences, and social sciences in tackling the complex issues related to human-nature relations. The general aim of ecocriticism is, however, very practical: generating changes in the dysfunctional way humans presently relate to nature’s resources.
The collection of essays edited by Alexa Weik von Mossner testifies to the richness and diversity of methodological approaches that mark film and new media studies in the ecocritical humanities and is certainly to be praised for both its interdisciplinarity and clearly defined focus on the ecocritical dimensions of “moving images.” Weik von Mossner brings together some of the leading figures in the field with questions about the relationship between affect, emotion, ecology, and film. The resulting collection comprises a diverse array of theoretical approaches to explore ecologically inflected affects and emotions through films, with analysis of a mix of genres, from nature documentaries to blockbusters movies, animation, and film and video art. The somewhat elusive relation between affect and ecological action, together with the very broad array of films and genres discussed, could be seen as weaknesses of the book. As Weik von Mossner clarifies in her introduction, however, the aim of the volume is “to showcase a variety of different approaches to the topic, and to demonstrate that affect and emotion do play an important role in our enjoyment of and engagement in not only ecocinema in the more narrow sense, but also in films that, for various reasons, lend themselves to ecocritical readings” (14; emphasis in original). Weik von Mossner makes clear that the work in the collection is “initiatory” and hopes that the essays collected “will help instigate continued research within the bourgeoning field of ecocinema studies” (14).
Moving Environments opens with a section on “General and Theoretical Considerations” with essays from David Ingram, Alexa Weik von Mossner, and Nicole Seymour. The second part focuses on “Anthropomorphism and the Non-human in Documentary Film” with essays from Bart H. Welling, Belinda Smaill, and Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann. The third part looks at “The Effects and Affects of Animation” and comprises essays from David Whitley, Adrian Ivakhiv, and Pat Brereton. The fourth and last part deals with “The Affect of Place and Time” through the work of Janet Walker, Salma Monani, and Sean Cubitt.
David Ingram’s “Emotion and Affect in Eco-films: Phenomenological Approaches” embraces the interdisciplinary approach of ecocriticism and claims that eco-films work through a combination of cognition, emotion, and affect. In combining the film phenomenology of Laura Marks and the cognitive model of Greg Smith, among others, Ingram follows the distinction between “affect” as automatic, visceral response to film, and “emotion,” which “includes a cognitive element in addition to this bodily feeling” (23). Theoretically, Ingram explores the thought-provoking hypothesis that “the reality of consciousness is independent of the subject’s consciousness” (28; emphasis in original) and through the analysis of contrasting films such as Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983) and This Filthy Earth (Andrew Kötting, 2001), he concludes that a combination of phenomenological and cognitive approaches avoids the dangers of being “overly prescriptive and reductive” or “narrowly ideological” (36) in the analysis of ecological and environmental themes through films.
Alexa Weik von Mossner’s essay “Emotions of Consequences? Viewing Eco-documentaries from a Cognitive Perspective” explores the hypothesis that eco-documentaries and fiction films dealing with issues of climate change elicit similar responses in viewers. In contrast to Dirk Eitzen’s differentiation between fiction and nonfiction films, Weik von Mossner claims that works such as An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006) and The Age of Stupid (Franny Armstrong, 2009) complicate clear-cut distinctions and call for further empirical studies in the ways these films “are tapping into their viewers’ emotions” (56). The chapter analyzes in detail the rhetorical strategies used in An Inconvenient Truth and the emotional appeal of both factual and fictional elements in The Age of Stupid. Weik von Mossner’s analysis rests on the acceptance of the persuasive and rhetorical power of emotional appeals in eco-documentaries because “research in cognitive psychology and decision-making suggests that these filmmakers do well to engage the emotions of the viewers if they want to change their rational thinking about the ecological issues they present and encourage them to become active” (45). In this, the potential and applicability of the methodological tool of cognitive film theory to eco-critical film studies, so central in Weik von Mossner’s essay and introductory remarks, invites further work in this direction.
Nicole Seymour’s “Irony and Contemporary Ecocinema: Theorizing a New Affective Paradigm” explores irony as a self-reflexive form of “ecological consciousness” (73) able to deal with the inherent contradictions and incongruities of nature and technology, activism, and entertainment, which characterize the complexities of ecocinema discourses. The essay privileges a postmodern framework of analysis in which irony, intertextuality and awareness of the linguistic and indexical nature of any environmental or corporate truth is taken into account. A self-reflexive and ironic style characterize Seymour’s writing, and the essay explores the various types of irony used in documentaries such as Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004) An Inconvenient Truth, and Everything’s Cool (Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold, 2007) pointing at their producers/directors’ classist, elitist implications. One example of effective eco-cinematic irony, for Seymour, is Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006), raised at cult status in online communities and able to generate self-reflection as ecological consciousness.
Bart H. Welling’s “On the ‘Inexplicable Magic of Cinema’: Critical Anthropomorphism, Emotion, and the Wildness of Wildlife Films” explores the affective potential of wildlife films such as Winged Migration (Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, and Michel Debats, 2001) and Being Caribou (Leanne Allison and Diana Wilson, 2004). Welling claims that anthropomorphism is embedded in human-nature interactions through films and that most of the emotions and affects viewers and filmmakers experience in wildlife films are based on “complex cultural activations and modifications of certain basic, universal ‘innate dispositions’ that have fostered human survival and structured our perception of the world for hundreds of thousands of years” (82). Despite the essay’s attempted reduction of what Werner Herzog poetically calls cinema’s “magic” to “precise neurological, technological, and co-evolutionary processes” (95), Welling’s chapter suggests that the interdisciplinary approach to ecocritical film studies can be instrumental in explaining what he terms the “rupture in the field of representation” (85) of wildlife films.
Belinda Smaill’s “Emotion, Argumentation, and Documentary Traditions” is a sophisticated analysis of the complex political and social narratives of eco-documentaries Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper, 2004) and The Cove (Louie Psihoyos, 2009). Pointing at the importance of including the relatively new genre of eco-documentaries within the broader tradition of documentary practice and critique, Smaill investigates these eco-documentaries as facilitating a complex “desire for knowledge and mastery of the world” (112). In her analysis, Smaill applies Paula Rabinowitz’s notion of the “sentimental contract,” according to which reportage documentaries invite action through a dichotomous class structure where “reporter and reader must choose sides” (104). While the rhetorical strategies used in The Cove are an obvious example of binarization, Smaill makes the convincing case that Darwin’s Nightmare encourages a pleasurable experience of mastery in its viewers.
Contrary to Smaill’s chapter, Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann’s “Documenting Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics at Sea” avoids engagements with contextual and critical frameworks in which processes of viewers’ emotional identification with eco-documentaries are encouraged. The chapter focuses on The Cove, Darwin’s Nightmare, and The End of the Line (Rupert Murray, 2009) and examines responses to these documentaries in the form of changes in fishing and consumption practices. Murray and Heumann maintain that documentaries such as The End of the Line and Darwin’s Nightmare foster a rather utopic “organismic school of ecology” that “views the natural world as a set of communities where living creatures cooperate in interconnected relationships” (123). However, contrary to The Cove, both Darwin’s Nightmare and The End of the Line, for Murray and Heumann, ultimately fail at persuading their viewers for lack of strategic use of emotional appeal. The authors conclude that The Cove successfully slows the slaughter of dolphins because it draws on “the emotional appeal of animal rights arguments in strong advocacy for the dolphins of Taiji” (121).
David Whitley’s “Animation, Realism, and the Genre of Nature” raises questions about the role of the environment in the settings of March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005) and Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006) and argues that, despite the realism of the first and the simulation of the second, both films connect to their audiences by communicating a poetic of place rather than faithful, precise reproduction of detail.
Adrian Ivakhiv’s essay, “What Can a Film Do? Assessing Avatar’s Global Affects,” applies the process-relational account of cinema developed in his book Ecologies of the Moving Image (2013) to a case study of the reception of James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar (2009). An application of the model would explain the diverse and contradictory reception of the film. Ivakhiv’s chapter concludes that Avatar is “an internal critique of Western technological society, or rather, of some of its aspects, presented by and within one of the most powerful vehicles of that same society” (174), namely cinema. The chapter distinguishes itself by even-handedly tackling both critical and popular receptions of the film.
Pat Brereton’s “Animated Ecocinema and Affect” locates Pixar’s Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009) within a longer tradition of Disney’s animation and reads the film as pushing “the erstwhile sentimentalism of the Disney project into more reflexive and smart trajectories of smart eco-narrative that effectively uses emotional affect” (189). Brereton’s chapter maintains that Pixar “strives to embrace more innovative aesthetics and themes that speak to new generational audiences, while at the same time overlying a finely tuned, commercially driven agenda” (185).
Janet Walker’s essay, “Moving Home,” on post–Hurricane Katrina documentaries originally combines affect theory emerging from sociology and geography with research on the phenomenology of place to analyze “the production of place” in these films. While the chapter distinguishes itself for its precise contextual and practical implications, it also presents a refined and nuanced use of theoretical and critical tools able to deal with the complexities of the geopolitics of affect and “the affective co-constitution of body and place” (204). Walker’s essay is exemplary in its use of a diverse range of theoretical and documentary sources to tackle a precise ecological problem with larger implications and reflections in ecocritical discourse.
Salma Monani’s chapter, “Evoking Sympathy and Empathy: The Ecological Indian and Indigenous Eco-activism,” combines Murray Smith’s theory of character engagement and critical race theory to analyze how some of the 2011 Native American Film and Video Festival (NAFVF) films “work to orient indigenous agency and activism” (228). In this context, Monani’s chapter focuses on the figure of the “ecological Indian” as “well-recognized image with strong emotional resonance” (228) with the aim of highlighting “the relationship between sympathy, empathy, and the politics of race” (229). The chapter focuses on James Cameron’s A Message from Pandora (2010) and Carlos Bolados’s River of Renewal (2009), highlighting how the two documentaries elicit sympathy and empathy from viewers.
Finally, Sean Cubitt’s “Affect and Environment in Two Artists’ Films and a Video” is another example of the possibilities offered by ecocritical film criticism. The chapter focuses on the work of film and video artists Stan Brakhage, Chris Welsby, and Robert Cahen. Through a detailed analysis of the material properties of both analogue and digital images, Cubitt argues that media technologies play an important role in liberating the affective dimensions of moving images from old formulae of classical storytelling. In focusing on the affectivity of time of film and video art, Cubitt opens up new avenues in eco-critical analysis of moving images not limited to narrative teleology.
In conclusion, this overview of the volume’s content should indicate both the possibilities and potential limits of ecocritical film studies. While it is incumbent on the humanities to give greater consideration to empirical research in cognitive and natural sciences, it is also important to maintain a close engagement with critical, theoretical, and philosophical traditions that will continue to question and challenge discursive practices such as films, documentaries, blockbusters, and animation as powerful tools in cultural formations. Notwithstanding this necessity, as Ingram’s opening chapter on cognitive and phenomenological approaches to emotion and affect in eco-films attests, what is required of ecocritical film scholars in the humanities is the overcoming of categorical divisions between mind and body, between empirical and rational approaches to films and moving images. Moving images and associated soundscapes can be seen as heightened sensory experiences of the world, complex and highly artificial productions of experiences, or imitations and constructions of the way humans relate to phenomena, real or invented. This is a complication, rather than a simplification, of things in the academic field of ecocritical film studies—a challenge for present and future film scholars and students of all traditions, a challenge that Alexa Weik von Mossner’s edited collection certainly articulates and takes up admirably.