Contemporary American Prime-Time Television Serials and the Logics of Conspiracy

Curator's Note

Ever since the phenomenal success of The X-Files (1993-2002), drama serials about the investigative exploits of cunning protagonists that seek to expose the nefarious schemes of hidden (and sometimes supernatural) powers have been a  mainstay of American prime-time television. Prime-time dramas that engage with the motif of conspiracy seem to be well suited to capture the attention of audiences in the US and elsewhere: As crime fictions of a grand (or even cosmic) scope, these series tell stories about secret plots against the reigning order of things, about far-flung intrigues that have thrown the (story-)world into disorder and turmoil – and about heroic figures seeking to put an end to such conspiratorial activity. Shows like Homeland (2011-present), Fringe (2008-2013), Torchwood: Miracle Day (2011), Lost (2004-2010), or Rubicon (2010) all similarly rely on this basic conflict between good investigators and evil, near-omnipotent/omnipresent conspirators and use it as a framing narrative to develop central, series-spanning story-lines.

Like other conspiracy narratives, these programs frame their entire diegeses as criminal cases that need to be solved – and they accordingly invite their audiences to side with the protagonists as these piece together evidence in order to uncover the truth behind terrorist attacks, government cover-ups, and/or paranormal phenomena. Such shows aim to ensure their viewers’ long-term engagement by foregrounding the element of mystery: Like a good detective novel, they encourage their audiences get to the bottom of the puzzling events at the heart of the unfolding story, to solve the case before the protagonists do. This endeavor, however, usually turns out to be a fool’s errand, as the narrative trajectory of these shows unfolds according to the logics of conspiracy. The plotlines of these shows “are structured in the manner of nested Russian dolls” (as Michael Barkun has put it with reference to conspiracy theories in general) – in them, every set of defeated conspirators is bound to be followed by another one cut from the same cloth, and every revealed truth must be countered by yet another surprising plot twist tailored to keep the lure of mystery intact. By perpetually withholding the definitive resolution of their central conflicts and mysteries, these shows ask their audiences to engage in ongoing, open-ended speculations and theorizing about the ‘truth’ behind the events unfolding on-screen – and they thus offer their viewers a ‘safe’, seemingly apolitical opportunity to engage with the narrative and interpretive logics of conspiracy theory.


Shane Denson's picture

Conspiracy & the politics of the seemingly apolitical

Great post, Felix, and a really fine choice of video clips to illustrate what you’re getting at! Together, your text + video offers a compelling picture of “logics of conspiracy” as more than just themes: as not only structuring the diegesis and its narrative unfolding, but also as central mechanisms for binding viewers and sustaining interest. You note at the end that such logics offer viewers “seemingly apolitical opportunities” to engage with conspiracy theories. Am I right to read this as a suggestion that it only seems that way, and that there is in fact nothing apolitical about it after all? If so, would you care to elaborate a bit on the (conspiratorially hidden?) politics of the engagement?

Again, great post, and a great theme week so far!

Felix Brinker's picture

Politics of Conspiracy / Politics of Popular Seriality

Hey Shane, thanks for stopping by and thanks for commenting! And thanks for giving me the opportunity to elaborate a bit on the ‘seemingly apolitical nature’ of the active audience practices these shows encourage: Committed viewers and fans of such ‘conspiratorial’ television shows are not only invited to come up with their own theories and speculations about the narrative enigmas of these programs (what’s behind the mysteries of Lost’s Island, what are the loyalties and motivations of Homeland’s Brody, what’s behind Fringe’s ‘pattern’ of paranormal events, etc; i.e. to solve narrative puzzles that invite ‘conspiratorial’ explanations), the user activity on online forums dedicated to the discussion of these series (like Lostpedia or Fringepedia) also exhibits a striking similarity to the interpretive practices of conspiracy theorists (as they are on display, for example, on websites like The latter frequently engage in close readings of popular media texts (Hollywood movies, TV series, music videos) and read them as evidence for the activities of imagined conspiracies — as examples for the illuminati control of Hollywood, mind control via the mass media, etc — and document their findings with freeze frames taken from films and the detailed analysis of key scenes — i.e. they make use of interpretive practices eerily similar to those of Lost fans debating the relevance of key scenes on Lostpedia. The obvious difference, of course, is that proper conspiracy theorists imagine themselves to be on the trail of actual conspiracies that are really out there in the world — whereas the dedicated viewers of these programs try to make sense out of narrative material that is clearly marked as fictional. Trying to make sense out of the conspiracy plots on shows like these can therefore pass as an apolitical recreational activity — even though viewers might rely on interpretive logics that aren’t that different from the ones employed by proper conspiracy theorists.

Of course, dedicating one’s free time to the detailed discussion and analysis of television shows online isn’t at all apolitical — committed and active fans who participate in online forums like Lostpedia freely give their time and labor to create semi-official paratexts that contribute to the accessibility and popularity of commercially produced popular texts. Contemporary serial formats like these shows find different ways to encourage such an active (or ‘participatory’) audience behavior because it’s profitable — and the emphasis on the motifs of mystery and conspiracy if one way of doing this.

Bettina Soller's picture

'conspiratorial' television and soap opera

Hey Felix, I was just wondering if you have thought about analogies between these kinds of audience activities that are spurred by ‘conspiratorial’ television and other formats, as for example soap operas. It seems to me that while the information politics of these formats are very different, the activities of gathering clues and speculating about further developments and resolutions by the audience are quite similar.

Felix Brinker's picture

Suspense & The Soap Opera

Hey Bettina, thanks for bringing this up — I haven’t really done any work on soap opera or similar forms, so anything I can say about this must remain speculative, but I would think that the activities of soap opera audiences are (typically) guided by a somewhat different interest. I would agree that speculating about further developments is an important appeal of soap operas as well — and of serial storytelling in general, no matter what genre, format, or medium. But the interest of audiences of conspiracy fictions — and other kinds of crime fiction — is not only to find out ‘what will happen next,’ i.e. to guess what dramatic developments will unfold in the next chapter, episode, or season (this, btw., is what Todorov calls the appeal of ‘supsense’ that is obviously important for conspiracy fictions as well). The ‘mysteries’ that the ongoing plots of these programs circle around usually aren’t revealed or cleared up at all (at least not conclusively or exhaustingly), since they are not something that is really ‘inside’ or part of the ongoing (and serially unfolding) narration. Rather, the mystery is usually something — an event, or a series of events — that has occurred before the narration has set in, something that is in the past of the ongoing narrative and that needs to be unearthed and found out — like the crime in classical detective fiction that preceedes the onset of narration. I would say that conspiracy narratives are a subset of crime fiction (as, for example, Todorov has described the genre in his “Typology of Detective Fiction”), that derive their main appeals from both the suspense about what will happen next, and the speculation about what happened before. Unlike other crime fictions, however, conspiracy narratives never really offer a convincing solution for their mysterious events and the motivations, goals, and details of conspiratorial activity are never quite cleared up — and precisely this open-endedness inspires ongoing theorization and speculation. The mystery in the conspiracy narrative is a bit like the MacGuffin in a Hitchcock movie: it doesn’t really matter what it is exactly, but it keeps the story going. Obviously, though, there isn’t any real clear-cut boundary between what happens on soap-operas and the kinds of television series I am talking about here. In fact, I think many soap operas make use of conspiratorial narrative structures as well — especially when the plots become more outlandish and feature supernatural events, alien abductions, murder mysteries, etc. Does that make sense?

Ilka Brasch's picture

Management of Information

Thanks for sharing your insight, Felix - great essay, great choice of clips. Something I was thinking about when I watched the video is the management of information. The old guy in the grey shirt (please excuse my inability to identify what show it was from) speaks about the endless availability of information and the impossibility to filter it for meaningful info (the lady at the algerian market, youth in a liverpool basement….). I have been thinking about this in the context of crime shows and I think that it could be a recurring theme especially for 21st century narratives. It’s not about gathering hidden or secret information, but about managing the immense amounts of info that are avaliable and organizing them into a meaningful structure… do you think that could make sense for conspiratorial tv series?

Btw: I like how you talk about serials instead of series. makes sense.

Felix Brinker's picture

Information Management

Ilka, thanks for commenting! That makes perfect sense, and I think your comment goes right to the center of what’s at stake in both conspiratorial thought and the trajectories of narratively complex television series, since both forms have to engage with the problem of managing an increasingly vast and complex amount of narrative material (the endless flow of media content available to us in the case of conspiracy theorists; and the increasingly complicated and convoluted backstories of complex television series that need to be dealt with if the show wants to remain accessible). The figure of the conspiracy — i.e. the idea that a complex network of conspirators secretly pulls the strings behind events like 9/11 and steers history in general according to its needs — can give coherence and meaning to both. The complexities of our social reality can be nicely explained away if the answer is “XX must be behind this”; similarly, even the outlandish plot twists on shows like Lost can be legitimized by reference to an existing ‘masterplan’ (be it of diegetic conspirators or TV authors — a plan whose details nonetheless must always remain obscure). The narrative logics of conspiracy (theory) can thus be understood as a strategy of information management — as a way to connect otherwise disparate events and things within a broader (if bizzare and implausible) explanatory frame.

By the way, here’s where my clips to the left come from (in order of appearance): the Torchwood: Miracle Day episode “The Middle Men,” the Lost episode “Lockdown”, and (the last two) the Rubicon episode “Connect The Dots”.

Meagan Winkelman's picture

Entertainment, Conspiracy, Seduction

Hello Felix and thank you for a very interesting post!

I really like that you address the sort of seduction that “truth-seeking” narratives achieve— as you put it “the lure of mystery.” It made me think about other entertainment that seduces viewers with the tenuousness of “truth,” like movies that are “based on a true story,” and especially legends. Introducing the element of truth into what functions as a fiction puts the viewer/reader/listener in an interesting intellectual position, which may lead to an evaluation of one’s own worldview through the lens of a narrative “fiction.”

I’m glad you mentioned vigilant citizen- I read that website pretty frequently and it makes me think more about the connections between conspiracy and entertainment. VC obviously disapproves of the music and media industries he examines, but his analyses of music videos, etc. end up making them all the more entertaining by ascribing to them mystery, power, and real-world implications. I think readers of “serious” conspiracy blogs like VC may be entertained and seduced in the same way that Fringe or X-Files viewers are by those programs. It seems like a kind of a sadomasochistic seduction to follow conspiracy theories, to look on as the horrible truth reveals itself, making you aware of your utter powerlessness.

Felix Brinker's picture

Truth, Truthiness & Serial Conspiracy Theory

Hi Meagan, thanks for bringing these things up! I agree, and I really like the way you put it — that the element of truth might prompt the audience to (re)evaluate their worldviews through the lens of fiction. Though most of the shows I mention feature somewhat crazy or bizarre conspiracies, I think especially conspiracy fictions that present themselves as more grounded, more ‘realistic’ takes on the subject (like Rubicon, Homeland, or Oliver Stone’s JFK) clearly toy with this notion of truth, or, rather (to lift this term from today’s post by Perin), with ‘truthiness:’ These texts do not really pretend that their stories are literally true, but they feel true enough to let us reconsider, and to ask ourselves if we think that similar plots might really be at work in the real world. And this might be a genuine appeal of conspiracy narratives in general, since they’re always (in one way or another) about power and politics — they present us with an image of how the latter work, and they ask us to come up with our own.

I feel the same way about vigilant citizen and similar sites — and I think that quite a number of users who visit the site do indeed read it for entertainment purposes, and the sadomasochistic appeal you describe seems to be a part of this. What I think is especially interesting about this (and similar) site(s) is that it also adopts a serial format that engages its readers in a manner not totally different from that of a television series — especially in his movie reviews there’s the constant repetition and (increasingly creative) variation of the common themes of mind control, illuminati plots, and whatnot, serialized and published over longer periods of time (with breaks inbetween installments). He also seems to take great care in writing up his articles, trying to please his target audience — I think that there’s a certain dynamic on these sites that stems from the serial format of the blog, and that informs the way these posts turn out just as much as the conspiratorial logics the authors and readers subscribe to. And I think that’s part of its appeal: as a reader of these sites, you can always drop by and check if there’s a new blog post and a new update on all things illuminati - much like the weekly fix of suspense and mystery that shows like Homeland, etc. offer.

Evan Johnson's picture

Narrative on vs. off TV

Felix, I have a question about conspiracy and narrative. I study conspiracy more on the public address side of the field than on the cultural criticism side - so I probably am getting myself into uncharted waters. In the 1990s some scholars argued about what the evaluative criteria should be in critiquing conspiracy arguments. Some thought formal logic standards, others thought narrative criticism. Eventually both were problematized: “Obviously, [conspiracy theories are] unable to stand up to the rigorous formal standards of logic and argument. On the other hand, it is too easily able to pass muster according to criteria of narrative evaluation” - probability and fidelity (Zarefsky and Pfau, NCA Paper 2000). Eventually Pfau put forward a new method of criticism in his book “The Political Style of Conspiracy” (2005).

So I guess I’m wondering what is the differences between the narratives of a conspiracy theorists, compared to the narratives of these conspiracy shows? If the theories outside of TV stand up under narrative criticism, why don’t the TV shows? Maybe the shows have less impetus to satisfy the standards of probability and fidelity than do actual theories that circulate in conspiratorial circles. Hmmm….

Felix Brinker's picture

Conspiracy as Serial Narrative

Hi Evan, thanks for commenting! I must admit that I am not familiar with Pfau’s work on conspiracy theories (it sounds like something I should check out, though), so perhaps I am unable to present a satisfying answer to your question. I’ll try anyway :)

I think the most striking difference between the narratives of conspiracy theorists and the ongoing storylines of these shows is the the following: the latter result from the attempts to answer the demands of a commercial serial format (i.e. the contemporary TV serial) that needs to establish a particular relationship to the audience in order to sustain itself, while proper conspiracy theories face different demands. Serial formats need to capture the attention and engagement of the audience (ultimatively measured in audience ratings in the case of tv series/serials) and sustain this attention over longer periods of time — and, in this respect, adherence classical or realist norms of textual unity, coherence, and emotional and logical plausibility is ultimately less important than the goal of getting the audience engaged in the serially unfolding narrative. I would argue that the logics of conspiracy narrative constitute a model which lends itself nicely to answer these demands, at least if we conceive of the conspiracy narrative as a collection of smaller crime plots that are held together, or are connected, by the figure of an overarching (if nebulous) conspiracy that stands behind them (I think Bettina’s post above points out how other narrative logics, like the ones of soap operas, following similar goals). Putatively non-fictional conspiracy narratives / conspiratorial political rhetorics work in a quite different manner and context and follow different goals (i.e. they do not necessarily adhere to commercial logics), but the boundaries between these and popular serial conspiracy narratives are probably permeable (especially since economic considerations probably play a role in the production of conspiracy theorists that publish books, films, or blog posts in a serial manner).

I am not sure if this answers your question, though. Perhaps you could elaborate a bit on the issue of evaluative criteria for discussing conspiracy theories?


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