The book proposal was posted in March , with individual chapters released in serialized installments starting in Spring and ending in Summer The project is currently under review contract with forthcoming from now published by NYU Press , who has allowed me to post the pieces here for pre-publication and open-review. The draft manuscript with comments will continue to live online here, even after the book has been published in Spring Note that many changes have been made to the book as a whole as chapters have been posted, including eliminating one chapter and renaming another, and resequencing the chapters; for the sake of maintaining an archive of the process, chapters will not change in this version, so internal references and the abstracts in the Introduction will not reflect the final product. Additionally, supplemental videos are available via Scalar.
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This excerpt from the book discusses the role of endings in serial television, with an analysis of the much-discussed but still controversial finale of "The Sopranos. Every television series begins, but not all of them end—or at least not all series conclude.
Endings are not quite a parallel part of the narrative frame to beginnings, a distinction that carries over linguistically. We can learn much about how complex serials work by considering how they strive toward their final episodes and what happens when they manage to reach them…. Every series that is no longer in production has a final episode, but actual finales are quite rare for American television series, with a range of other, much more common techniques of ending.
This unresolved enigma became a cautionary example for both network executives and fans about the dangers of complex serialization, as the fear of a premature stoppage might create reluctance among viewers in sampling a new serial, worried that it might be canceled without closure or even sufficient narrative development.
The next category in this spectrum of closure is the wrap-up , a series ending that is neither fully arbitrary nor completely planned. Typically, wrap-ups come at the end of a season, when producers have come to a natural stopping point but without planned series finality. Cable programs with shorter seasons often treat every season finale as a potential series wrap-up, as single-season programs such as Terriers and Rubicon both ended with a degree of closure but not outright finality.
For the single-season series Last Resort , the producers were told that it would be canceled with enough lead time to make a final episode with a good deal of narrative finality, while Pushing Daisies was merely able to tack on a concluding epilogue to the season-ending episode upon notice of cancellation. Conclusions offer a sense of finality and resolution, following the centuries-old assumption that well-crafted stories need to end; however, such resolutions are comparatively rare for American television; the industry equates success with an infinite middle and relegates endings to failures.
There are a few variations on these possibilities. One is a cessation , which is a stoppage or wrap-up without a definite finality that it will be the end of the series. Less common is the series that wraps up at the end of the season but is left ambiguously uncertain about future return; the most high-profile example of such a cessation is Deadwood , which was denied its planned final fourth season, morphing into unmade-for-TV movies that were long discussed as if they might someday be produced.
A cessation is lodged at the crosshairs intersecting creativity and commerce, as storytelling progress is held in check by the bottom line of profitability, leaving the narrative world in a state of perpetual limbo and awaiting a possible return. The inverse of a cessation is a resurrection , when an already concluded series returns, either on television or in another medium. Finally, we have the finale , which is a conclusion with a going-away party.
Finales are defined more by their surrounding discourse and hype than any inherent properties of the narrative itself, as they feature conclusions that are widely anticipated and framed as endings to a beloved or at least high-rated series. Finales are not thrust on creators but emerge out of the planning process of crafting an ongoing serial, and thus the resulting discourses center around authorial presence and the challenges of successfully ending a series.
Such conclusions are often presented embedded within a set of paratexts, with high-profile press features and interviews, televised specials offering retrospectives, and the promise of eventual DVD extras that will add even more weight to the final episode.
Such discursive prominence of finales raises the narrative stakes of anticipation and expectation for viewers, and thus finales frequently produce disappointment and backlash when they inevitably fail to please everyone. As with most aspects of American television, public awareness of industry practices of ratings, scheduling, and seasonal renewal or cancellation has grown more prominent in the Internet era, as fans can track the potential futures of their favorite programs as well as consume hype around a planned finale.
Three high-profile finales and their corresponding final seasons provide key insights into some of the strategies of conclusion that complex television uses to come to an end and the ways that viewers engage with such endings: The Wire , Lost , and The Sopranos.
For both Lost and The Wire , the atypical storylines and structures of their final seasons are best appreciated as reflections in their own narrative mirrors.
But why do serials seem to embrace the meta so often in their final seasons? In part, creators seem to become hostages to their own storyworlds, so embedded in the process of storytelling that they feel the need to use fiction as an outlet to explore their own processes of letting go of their narratives, as well as to offer closing arguments for the relevance and missions of their programs.
Hype and reception discourses help shape expectations for both viewers and creators, and thus the pressure to stick the landing seems to matter more for an ongoing serial.
The metafictional finale is a key example of how producers come to terms with the ends of their storyworlds as shaped by years of cultural circulation and conversation that are unique to the serial form.
This edit is a narrative special effect played in reverse, an antispectacle offering a moment of spectacular storytelling. If traditional special effects push screen and sound systems to their limits, this cut to black suggested technological failure, inviting many viewers to surmise that their cable had gotten disconnected or their televisions had died at the least opportune moment.
As a whole, The Sopranos is less immersed in the culture of forensic fandom and online television debate than many other programs discussed in this book. In large part, this stems from its casual attitude toward serial plotting; as discussed in chapter 1, the series embraces more episodic plots than most prime time serials and often allows itself to pursue digressions and fantasy sequences in lieu of narrative enigmas, mysteries, or even plot-driven curiosity questions.
More than most complex television series, The Sopranos invites interpretation for theme or symbolism but not the mysteries, structural games, or serial builds toward narrative climaxes that typify many comparable dramas with more robust online fan bases. Thus it is quite surprising that the last scene in the entire series prompted such an outpouring of forensic fandom trying to discern what it meant in terms of both basic narrative comprehension and thematic significance.
Since serial storytelling thrives on the gaps between episodes to encourage conversation and interpretation, the lack of a next chapter after such an unusual moment encouraged viewers to fill the lack of forthcoming storytelling and authorial explanation with their own speculations and analyses.
Even though the final season of The Sopranos did not embrace metastorytelling as much as Lost and The Wire did, this final moment encouraged viewers to reassess how the narrative had led to this point and what it might mean at the level of both story and discourse. Viewers developed a range of explanations to make sense of this unconventional ending.
The most immediate reaction seems to have been an assumption of technical failure, such as broken televisions or disconnected cable; while obviously incorrect, this is also a justified reaction, as such an extreme violation of media norms leads people to assume that it was some sort of error, not a choice to intentionally break the rules. Notably, creator David Chase wanted to end the episode with 30 seconds of blackness , eliminating all credits until the final HBO bumper, but both HBO and the Directors Guild vetoed the idea of forgoing closing credits.
Instead, the 10 seconds of black served as enough of a gap to create technological panic among viewers but without eliminating all vestiges of a normal episode ending.
This absence is so provocatively asserted that it needs to be understood and analyzed as a shot itself, a presence of nothingness rather than a default null state lacking content and form. So what does the nothingness mean? It felt more violent, more disturbing, more unfair than even the most savage murders Chase has depicted over the course of six seasons, because the victim was us.
He ended the series by whacking the viewer. However, the final moments of any finale are clearly atypical, as a conclusion always begs further reflection, contemplation, and, in the case of such ambiguity, analytical interpretation. For advocates of ambiguity, such as VanDerWerff and Seitz, the moral ethos of The Sopranos points away from the rendering of a final death.
Why would he then reverse course in the final moments of the final episode and kill Tony? And if what we were looking at was indeed a killing of that specific character, why was it presented in an arty, confusing way?
We arrive at the realization of his death at an analytic distance so that we are not emotionally tied up in the storyworld: we are not present in the diner with the family and thus do not experience their moment of loss. We have already had a moment of mourning, but the grief is over the loss of the series , not the character.
Our emotions are focused at the level of the inferred author Chase and his storytelling, not Tony and his story. Some viewers embraced that openness and refusal to conclude, while others sought a sense of narrative clarity amid the ambiguity. Either way, the finale highlights the degree to which endings matter in serial television, serving as the lasting image or lack thereof that will be remembered and discussed long after the rest of the series fades from memory.
He writes the blog Just TV. The Editors April 20, Copyright by Jason Mittell. Excerpted with permission of New York University Press.
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If you are a seller for this product, would you like to suggest updates through seller support? Have one to sell? Sell yours here. Currently unavailable. We don't know when or if this item will be back in stock. Review Mittell cleverly explores Complex TV on its own terms, favouring a formal analysis investigating the poetics of television series over discussing their cultural impact or interpretation of content.
Over the past two decades, new technologies, changing viewer practices, and the proliferation of genres and channels has transformed American television. One of the most notable impacts of these shifts is the emergence of highly complex and elaborate forms of serial narrative, resulting in a robust period of formal experimentation and risky programming rarely seen in a medium that is typically viewed as formulaic and convention bound. Complex TV offers a sustained analysis of the poetics of television narrative, focusing on how storytelling has changed in recent years and how viewers make sense of these innovations. Through close analyses of key programs, including The Wire, Lost, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Veronica Mars, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Mad Men the book traces the emergence of this narrative mode, focusing on issues such as viewer comprehension, transmedia storytelling, serial authorship, character change, and cultural evaluation. Developing a television-specific set of narrative theories, Complex TV argues that television is the most vital and important storytelling medium of our time. Jason Mittell. Serial Melodrama.
New York University Press. This contrasts with his earlier textbooks, Genre and Television and Television and American Culture , which cover broader subjects in less depth. As he notes, daytime soaps relied on a great deal of narrative redundancy and, from my viewing, leaned heavily on dialogue, close-ups, and studio shooting to crank out five episodes a week. By contrast, the programs Mittell examines in this book showcase none of those formal characteristics. Jumping off from the work of Linda Williams and Robyn Warhol, however, Mittell insists that we recognize the underlying emotional pull of prime-time shows. Project MUSE promotes the creation and dissemination of essential humanities and social science resources through collaboration with libraries, publishers, and scholars worldwide.