Jason Mittell
Complex Television and Serial Narrative Comprehension


Viewers engage with a television series through a wide range of practices, but at the most basic level, nearly all engagement starts with the core act of comprehension, making sense of what is happening within a program. This might seem obvious, and certainly much of television storytelling aims to make this comprehension process easy, invisible, and automatic. However, one of the central shifts stemming from the rise of narrative complexity is television’s growing tolerance for viewers to be confused, encouraging them to pay attention and put the pieces together themselves to comprehend the narrative. While television rarely features an avant-garde level of abstraction or ambiguity, contemporary programming has embraced a degree of planned confusion. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner credits The Sopranos for demonstrating that a serial can leave plot points, characters, and relationships unstated, suggesting that “Now it’s the viewers’ problem if they don’t know what’s going on. And all of a sudden, a world has opened up to us as writers.” This paper explores how viewers make sense of serial television within this new storytelling model, and how we need to adapt our approach to narrative comprehension for the complications of serial form.
My approach to comprehension is based on the cognitive poetic model developed primarily through David Bordwell’s work on film narration. The core assumption of this approach is that viewers actively construct storyworlds in their minds, and that the best way to understand the comprehension process is through the tools of cognitive psychology. The application of cognitive science to television studies is still quite rare outside of the paradigm of media effects research, so this paper is but a brief foray into what will hopefully evolve into a subfield exploring how cognitive poetics might help us understand the cultural facets of television more fully. If this cognitive approach to comprehension seeks to understand the viewer’s practices in making sense of television, we need to rethink what we mean by “viewer” here. Bordwell’s model posits a viewer as a hypothetical, generalized receiver of a film that processes its formal systems and cues in the act of creating a narrative within their mind. When he charts out this viewer’s activity, Bordwell strives to understand the underlying universals that any competent viewer would likely carry out, rather than considering the contextually shaped variances that real viewers bring to their experiences. Contexts can matter greatly for the process of narrative comprehension, but it is fair to assume that most viewers watch a typical self-contained, non-serial feature film within some narrow conventional parameters, including focused attention and seamless chronology in one sitting (whether in a cinema or on a television). While certainly there are many different ways one can watch a film, even more so today than in the 1980s when Bordwell developed his theories, this approach tries to outline an assumed norm for how films are viewed, and arguably one that most filmmakers have in mind in crafting the work, thus making it a useful project to establish an underlying baseline of viewing cognition.
But serial television lacks such an assumed norm for viewing, especially in today’s media environment. Industry lore has long asserted that even hardcore fans only watch one-third of new episodes, suggesting that creators would be writing for viewers with no assumed continuity or consistency. But certainly many viewers do watch all episodes, so television must be comprehensible for both consistent and intermittent viewers. Additionally, the rise of DVDs, DVRs, streaming, and (both licit and illicit) downloading has shifted the schedule-dominated model of broadcasting to an alternate consumption pattern where viewers binge on series, catch-up from earlier seasons after starting midway through, and frequently rewatch episodes; such varying screen time patterns may or may not include breaks for advertising or between episodes—as I have argued elsewhere, seriality is constituted by the gaps between installments, and such gaps can be experienced or overridden in various ways. As the internet has emerged as an active place for discourse about television, paratextual frames have become more important, meaning that a viewer might be frequenting discussion sites, fan wikis, Twitter conversations, or searching for spoilers in moments before, during, and after viewing. All of these practices greatly change the experiences of narrative comprehension, so which of these models of television viewing should we assume to be the norm? I contend there is no single norm of viewing, so instead of ignoring these varieties of viewer practice, I try to incorporate the role of such contexts in the viewing process, exploring a contextual cognitive poetics that looks both to how texts cue our understanding and how viewing practices help shape serial television comprehension.
A cognitive poetics of serial television might try to grapple with a wide array of issues. I concentrate on issues of viewer knowledge of information in the process of narrative comprehension through discussions of a range of programs, including Breaking Bad, Lost, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Dexter—stories are systems of information management, with revelations, enigmas, and ambiguities mobilized for emotional impact. Focusing on how serial television handles narrative information and manages viewer knowledge will help us better understand some of the chief appeals of complex television, and some of the varieties in viewing (and non-viewing) practices that complicate models of “standardized” cognitive comprehension. By highlighting the role of viewing contexts and practices in narrative comprehension, I hope to suggest a productive cross-pollination between cognitive poetics and cultural studies of reception and circulation, highlighting how we might bridge these typically distinct subfields of film and media studies.



David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985)

David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)

David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008)

David Herman, Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences (Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 2003)

Patrick Colm Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists (Routledge, 2003)

Peter Stockwell, Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2002)



Jason Mittell, Middlebury College, Vermont, USA

Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College. He is the author of Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (Routledge, 2004), and Television and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 2009). This piece is part of his newest book project, Complex Television: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, to be published by New York University Press and available in-process for open peer review via MediaCommons Press. He is also co-editor of How to Watch TV (forthcoming from NYU Press).