Day time TV was often complicated. Soaps shamelessly so. And occasionally, soaps migrated to night time, there to wow us with narrative improbabilities (e.g., Bobby Ewing redux) and to prove that continuity was probably more trouble than it was worth, and, actually, a good way of spoiling the fun (to say nothing of the franchise).
Prime time TV is, as we say, episodic. Each show was supposed to be free standing and one-off. No prior knowledge was presumed. If we had seen the show before, great. If not, never mind. Narrative constructions like Rockford Files or Two and a Half Men are so structurally simple and referentially redundant, that prior introductions were quite unnecessary. (In any case, a car chase is, forgive me, not so hard to follow.)
Prime time TV was not about continuities. It was about episodes. The world that just kept starting over. Time didn’t happen. Events didn’t accumulate. There were no critical paths, no path dependencies, no differences that ever made a difference over the long term. Typically, people didn’t age. They didn’t change. They didn’t grow. Outside the narrow narrative particulars, prime time dramas were timeless and placeless. It was as if all the characters had a really terrible case of amnesia.
Clearly, this is changing. Shows like 24 are really unthinkable without a knowledge of the larger, overarching narrative. Lost the same. I am noticing that while House can be watched without a knowledge of narrative continuity, it makes a vast difference when this is in place. Even with the cheat sheets from Entertainment Weekly (to say nothing of the love notes), Lost remains daunting.
So what is going on here? Henry Jenkins tells us that all consumers of contemporary culture are becoming more sophisticated. This opens up the possibility of narrative complexity…or at least it helps discourage the "keep it simple, stupid" that was once the watch word of Burbank and Hollywood.
But even as viewers have become more sophisticated, they have entered an era of time poverty, attention deficit, and information overload. For my own sake, the idea of sitting down to work out the complexities of 24 make my eyes roll back in my head. Or to adapt the language of Robert Hutchins, a formative president of the University of Chicago, "whenever I feel the temptation to watch Alias, I lie down until it passes."
So there are powerful forces working against the trend towards complexity. That it persists and appears actually now to flourish suggests that the "forces for" must be very strong indeed.
So what are they? Beyond the new media literacy, what drives the trend to offer TV narrative that replaces the old strategy (broad access to shallow narrative) with a much more demanding one (narrower access to deeper narrative)?
For those who care about the study of contemporary culture, this is a nice little challenge, a rich little anomaly. Individually, and more probably collectively, we can figure this out. I would do it myself, but what do you take me for, an anthropologist?