TV Education: The West Wing

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In his article “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” Jason Mittell explores what it means for a narrative to be complex. Soap operas, for instance, require dedicated viewing to navigate their webs of romantic entanglements, but Mittell argues that this does not constitute narrative complexity.

What truly makes a narrative complex is when the show chooses to “embrace narrative strategies to rebel against episodic conventionality” (33), as demonstrated in The West Wing episode “The Stackhouse Filibuster.”

The episode is narrated by several of the main characters, who are all writing emails to their parents while they wait for the senate to vote on a bill they want passed. The form of narration starts out with C.J., who is supposed to be going to visit her father for his seventieth birthday, but it soon extends to two other main characters. This narration technique occurs only in this episode, a phenomenon that Mittell calls “the unusual narrator” (36). He also says that the unusual narrator encourages a formally aware viewer, and awareness is something crucial to a viewer understanding this episode.

The episode contains flashbacks to earlier in the week—the vice president speaking against oil tycoons, Josh working on the bill, an intern (Fi from So Weird! Anyone?) criticizing Sam. All of this happens out of sequence—in fact, we hear that the intern called out Sam before we actually see the event. None of these events are explains with onscreen graphics like “Two Days Ago” or “Tuesday”; there is no fuzzy cinematography to let you know that you’re in the past. It is up to the viewer to piece together what is happening and when it is happening.

Thus the pleasure from this episode comes from a viewer’s ability to keep up with the characters and not have things spelled out for them. The episode breaks the norms of structure and sequencing that we have all learned from watching too much bad TV. It instead creates its own pattern that we must figure out to make sense of the narrative, and this keeps things interesting or complex.

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