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Operational aesthetics in Survivor

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Thursday, Jan 29, 2009

In the comments to my post about complex TV, McChris pointed me to this essay by Jason Mittel, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” Mittel provides an interesting survey of narrative in TV over the past few decades, even if his account tends toward the telelogical—despite an evenhanded tone, the emphasis seems to be on how TV is necessarily becoming more complex and viewers more sophisticated. I’m not convinced that TV is necessarily evolving toward the good or has any role in improving audiences. TV has done a good job of improving its own reputation, however, as Mittel points out. But the fact that audiences are now expected to be engaged with the form as well as the content of shows, as Mittel amply demonstrates, is simply a change, a way for shows to introduce novelty—not a move to a higher level of aesthetic appreciation. Viewers may need to invest more time in shows and engage with them in a more interactive way, but these developments are not necessarily positive (or negative). That one can spend an entire Saturday watching episode after episode of Mad Men testifies to how compellingly crafted the show is, but it also might leave one empty and exhausted, frustrated with oneself over all the other activities you neglected. (I use “one” as though I’m not talking about myself.)


Toward the end of the essay, Mittel focuses on shows that call attention to their own production:


The viewers of such complex comedies as Seinfeld and Arrested Development not only focus on the diegetic world offered by the sitcoms but also revel in the creative mechanics involved in the producers’ abilities to pull off such complex plot structures, a mode of viewing Sconce labels as “metareflexive” but that warrants more detailed consideration. This set of pleasures suggests an influential concept offered by Neil Harris in his account of P. T. Barnum: Harris suggests that Barnum’s mechanical stunts and hoaxes invited spectators to embrace an “operational aesthetic” in which the pleasure was less about “what will happen?” and more concerning “how did he do that?”20 In watching Seinfeld we expect that each character’s petty goals will be thwarted in a farcical unraveling, but we watch to see how the writers will pull off the narrative mechanics required to bring together the four plotlines into a calibrated comedic Rube Goldberg narrative machine.


He adds that such shows “convert many viewers to amateur narratologists, noting usage and violations of conventions, chronicling chronologies, and highlighting both inconsistencies and continuities across episodes.” It seems that Mittel has in mind scripted shows exclusively, but I feel the spur to amateur narratology most of all when I watch the reality game show Survivor, the script for which must be found after the fact in the editing room. Examining scenes in terms of how contestants are shaped into characters and given story arcs and conflicts can often be as suspenseful as the action depicted in the show, since careful attention to the narrative structuring can clue attentive viewers in on who will ultimately win. In a sense, that is where the action is in each episode, in the editors’ choices. And rather than merely marvel at how they are woven together, as one would with a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, viewers instead have the opportunity to try to calculate out the ultimate purpose of those choices and deduce the denouement that would make them necessary. Referencing scripted shows, Mittel coins the term “narrative special effects”: “moments push the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration and asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off.” All of Survivor is one long narrative special effect, except writers aren’t involved.


Since the contestants can’t be judged for their performances, and there are no writers, viewers have only the editors to second-guess. Editors become the auteurs, just as DJs have become in the pop-music world. Like the Bush administration, the show’s editors make “reality,” very usefully directing our attention to the means by which this is accomplished. The ability to see how “truth” is being manipulated in its presentation on TV has never been more important. So perhaps all the complexity on TV serves a laudable political function after all.

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