Given the early stage of development of the TV series phenomenon, not very many researchers have taken the time to review and analyze their cultural and social impact on the modern world. Moreover, even fewer have taken the time to analyze in depth TV series and employ certain specific methodologies in order to decrypt their manner of being built around a narrative.
If we were to escape the clichés of “modern cultural phenomena are not educative”, the first author to stand out would be Steven Johnson. In his book, “Everything bad is good for you: how today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter ”, he tries to show how, in using a “different barometer”, we can actually realize that modern entertainment methods can become educative. He employs the concept of “sleeper curve” to extract the unconscious, “collateral” effects brought by these new attractions, whether he thinks about games or movies, and assumes that people are still rational creatures, who are able to extract the best out of “trends” in order to enrich their horizons. As a preliminary conclusion, but in the same time a manner to introduce his book, Johnson states that “Today’s popular culture may not be showing us the righteous path. But it is making us smarter”.
Put in relation to our studies about TV series, we could believe as well that this new form of entertainment puts people’s minds at work when it comes to building a scenario in their heads, keeping them captivated to a plot or addicted to a character, but most series nowadays are quite realistic and sometimes even help us realize the true dimensions of life. Just think, how many times have you told yourself, in watching the journey of one character, “this would be impossible in real life!”?
Putting aside the more psychological and social approach that Johnson has, we will look into the work of Jason Mittel for an innovative initiative of analyzing and understanding narrative complexity in TV series. In his first methodological approach to TV storytelling , Mittel makes an important conceptual distinction between narrative complexity (as a distinct narration mode, as suggested by David Borwell’s analysis or film narrative) and storytelling, as “television’s narrative complexity is predicted on specific facets of storytelling that seem uniquely suited to the series structure that sets television apart from film and distinguish it from conventional modes of episodic and serial forms”. He makes a point for complexity and convention in film and television and defines the conceptual framework of all the parameters driving his analysis. Although he does not introduce a specific methodology to tackle the analysis of a TV series, he does raise important questions and definitions in order to clarify the study field.
In a later book , Mittel not only addresses the difference between “narrative” and “storytelling”, but also creates the framework for the introduction of key concepts in the analytical viewing of contemporary TV series. His approach is not “cinematic” (i.e. the art of filming and the processes used to this purpose), but rather “literary”, addressing the storyline in the same manner as he would do with a book or a series of books. He is thus introducing the concept of “poetics”, one that we would not normally associate with something as common as a TV series, and makes distinction between “historical poetics” (contextual analysis in view of a time’s trends, filming and artistic methods, audience targets etc), “cognitive poetics” (addressing the knowledge of the viewer and actively involving him in the plot), that, combined with “reader-oriented poetics” leads to a complex cognitive process such as the one described by Johnson. Mittel actually recreates Johnson’s gaming example into the world of TV series and acknowledges the psychological complexity of the creation and maintenance of such a modern entertainment method.
The purpose of using the concepts close to literary analysis is not only to compare TV series with a higher state of art, but also to show that, at a different level, some elements of the artistic process can be found and sometimes even perceived by the viewers as such. Nonetheless, TV entertainment remains a highly doubtable type of culture, since its target audience, as well as “raw materials” are highly subjected to trends (Mittel especially concentrates on the rise of police TV series starting the 1990s).
Although there are still materials on this matter that have yet to be taken into consideration for the purpose of this project, we believe there is a potential for study in this field and are looking forward to the practical application of the concepts introduced.