Recent Comments

Daniel Stein

Thanks for this sensitive post! If I get your argumentation right, you are implying that the metaserial intelligence of current American TV series (especially so-called "quality television") is accompanied by a kind of "social stupidity" (for the lack of a better word) because special episodes are now more concerned with themselves than with wider social issues? Or is it that just the function of the special episode has merely changed and that social issues are addressed more extensively in "regular" episodes?

A woman is arrested by police during Occupy Wall Street
Janine Fleri

I was disappointed that the call to occupiers to dress in suits (or at least khakis and button-down shirts) was largely ignored. I think it would have been a very clever way to visually signal the effort for unity between protestors and workers, to show "this is not US vs. THEM. We are in this together." While I appreciate the spirit of non-conformity, I think many protestors do themselves a disservice by dressing in ways that have come to be expected (grungy, punky) which is not an effective approach to breaking stereotype and gaining solidarity with people outside of the protest scene.

 

Frank Kelleter

Point taken. The interesting question, in any case, is what is done specifically by specific shows & that’s why I like your BB reading  & above discussion about objects so much. The David Simon quote about TREME is great (something to wrap our heads around: this from the same man who said he doesn’t invite internet feedback for THE WIRE at all because viewers simply don’t know what’s best for the show). Even in its curious one-way-logic, however, the quote kind of underlines what I was driving at: A show like THE WIRE precludes late entry into its storyworld only if we restrict the boundaries of the series to the narrative text itself, as shown on TV and professionally produced. But what if we see audience activities & feedback-induced formal shifts as an integral part (an almost inevitable part actually, via its seriality) of the narrative work being done? Then it’s not difficult at all to come late to the show because all you have to do is some reading on the internet. In fact, perhaps this is what makes such shows possible (financially feasible) at all. By contrast, late entry is actually much more damaging to film comprehension than to series, exactly because series can (and do) continue to narrate even when their professional medium is turned off— and not just as after-the-fact marketing or criticism, as with cinema and novels. Could it be said they’re deploying different actors in pauses and actually their own viewers for the sake of narrative reproduction?      

Jason Mittell

Frank,

Definitely the activation of viewer/reader memory can blur the episodic/serial distinction enough that fans can serialize anything themelves! I think the question is not more or less seriality, but rather the possibility of comprehension without knowing what came before. A show like The Wire makes it nearly impossible to have a sense of what’s going on if you start mid-season, while Breaking Bad offers a tiny bit of episodic unity for comprehension, while Sopranos gives much more of it. Just like coldness is actually the absence of heat, we can look at seriality as the absence of the awkwardly named stand-alone-ness.

As for the outsourcing of labor, this is definitely on the rise and even acknowledged by some producers. One of my favorite of many David Simon quotes comes from an Emily Nussbaum interview:

Fuck the exposition… Just be. The exposition can come later.” [Simon] describes a theory of television narrative. “If I can make you curious enough, there’s this thing called Google. If you’re curious about the New Orleans Indians, or ‘second-line’ musicians—you can look it up.” The Internet, he suggests, can provide its own creative freedom, releasing writers from having to overexplain, allowing history to light the characters from within. 

Frank Kelleter

A general observation first:I think it’s no coincidence that all posts so far for this theme week have been concerned in some way with the question of character. I think this attests to the special role&function of this category in popular seriality. Of course, all narratives rely on characterization&character constellation, but there seems to be something specific, something form-defining, in the way series (both episodic&ongoing) are doing this. Jason points to the size of these narratives in this regard: their ability to create narrative memory on a scale much larger than film. A second important feature is that serial forms are told in intervals: there are (often rhythmic) interruptions and pauses that allow other actors than the designated producers to "accrue" narrative knowledge in a more or less formal manner.

Which brings me to my two comments/questions. My cue is Jason’s sentence, "viewer memory can run counter to this": (1) Collective   

Jason Mittell

Great points about both objects & mechanics, which I think are crucial to BB. The former is partly due to its meticulous production design, and general small scale of cast & setting, where props serve as vital totems in the character lives, triggering memories for both them & us. When I think of iconic images from the show, they’re frequently of objects: the pink bear’s eye, the box cutter, the drawn picture of Heisenberg, etc. And arguably this is further enabled by proliferating HD images that allow viewers to actually see such details.

As for the operational aesthetic, BB is obsessed with how things work, ranging from the chemistry at its center, to the specific ways that Walt & Jesse escape their various predictaments. So I think the micro-example of the coffee machine is a good one paralleling the narrative mechanics often at the show’s core.

Frank Kelleter

[oups, something went wrong there … here’s the rest of my text again]: 

Which brings me to my two comments/questions: My cue is Jason’s sentence, "viewer memory can run counter to this": (1) Collective memory-creation while the narrative is still unfolding or temporarily suspended is not only a possibility of popular seriality but one of its distinguishing marks. For me, this complicates the attractively clear-cut distinction in Anglo-American TV studies between series/serial (ongoing/episodic) in fundamental ways, beginning with the strong possibility of viewers (and be they producers acting as viewers/fans of their own products) beginning to read flat figures as deep characters, and this affecting the narrative. (so @Ruth: yes, I do think the backstory in MM is a conceit; but I also think that for the most part it doesn’t function as one (as if this was a medial self-critique) but that the series very successfully counts on viewers to let it do its work of ongoing characterization).

(2) Extending these thoughts: I would argue that viewer&fan activities are not so much after-the-fact-appropriations than integral (necessary) parts of serial narration itself. In the large division of labor that is serial narration, viewers&fans perform genuine narrative work (made possible by the distinct temporality&rhythm of serial storytelling). This is such a reliable feature of popular seriality and it has become so pronounced in recent decades that I wonder if series are not now actively&regularly outsourcing large parts of their work of coherence-building, retcon, memory-creation etc. to these unpaid laborers of popular culture.

Well, this moves away from Jason’s insightful analysis but I wonder if it can be tied in with it (and what this would mean for the question of serial "agencies" or for a "narratology" of serial forms)?

Shane Denson

Just a brief footnote on "objects": I wonder if an object like the coffeemaker, an elaborate apparatus to be marveled at, is not a concrete point of convergence where the original sense of the "operational aesthetic" (as Neil Harris uses it to describe PT Barnum’s exhibition practices, related to 19th century technology and science exhibitions, as well as the spectacle of the magic show and, as Tom Gunning argues, to early cinema) comes together with your narratively focused usage of the term, Jason, to describe the observation of "narrative special effects." In other words, it seems that the sight of this impressive machine is both impressive in its own right, as something to be looked at and marveled at (how does it work? i.e. a sort of Rube Goldberg aesthetics), and simultaneously as an articulator of serial memory on the narrative level. I find this simultaneity—and particularly the embodiment of both functions or levels in a concrete object—fascinating, and i think this is one of the things that fascinates me most about Breaking Bad in general.

Felix Brinker

Great post & discussion so far! I wanted to add one thing about the function of the coffee maker in the clip you chose, and the way that it references Walt’s and Gale’s backstory: Not only seems it to be central for inferring Walter’s thoughts here, but I think that things/objects are repeatedly used in such a way throughout the series. I think in the 4th episode of the first season there’s a similar scene: I think Walt and Skyler discuss something at home and the camera briefly frames a small label on visible on Walt Jr.’s bed, which turns out to be the logo of the furniture store where Krazy 8, the meth dealer Walt has killed the episode before, worked when he was younger. There are probably more examples, sometimes barely noticable, other times fairly obvious (like Don Eladio’s Gold Chain that Gus gives to Tio Salamanca; or the Lily of the Valley in the season 4 finale); and I think they function as cues for the audience to make the appropriate connections to the backstory. It seems to me that Breaking Bad relies on such moments much more strongly than other recent shows; and without the coffeemaker the scene above probably wouldn’t have worked so well (and it’s an particularly impressive example, since the coffeemaker was introduced way back in season 3!). 

 

 

Ruth Mayer

Fascinating material, thank you! I watched the clip before I read your post - and, uh, am not familiar with Breaking Bad. While this is an inexcusable deficit, it might not be all bad for our purposes here. There was no serial memory to guide me through the scene. And still I got most of what you were writing about. It might be a banal observation: but didn’t already film noir – besides using voice over and flashbacks – draw heavily on music and soundscapes (and lighting)  to create a sense of a character’s emotional state? And the music is laid on quite thickly here, isn’t it? In contrast, MM uses a very sparse musical score – and it introduces an emotional backstory through the explicit discussion of feelings and deviations from a social code. Then again, the backstory there is a mere conceit, right, Frank?