Complexity and a bargain for JJ Abrams

The season finale of Fringe this week did well, with 11.2 million viewers and a 4.5 share.  This show by Abrams grapples with the complexity issue we addressed last time. 

Says Abrams,

“I just got tired of hearing people say to me, over and over, ‘Yeah, I was watching it, but I missed one, I got really confused, and I stopped watching it.'" (in Itzkoff)

As Itzkoff of the Times says,

[Fringe] is also Mr. Abrams’s attempt to rectify the narrative (and viewer attention span) problems he faced on previous shows and to synthesize the many lessons he has learned from them into a series that is both complex and accessible, and that is capable of arriving at a determined conclusion over an undecided number of episodes.

To be sure, Fringe is delicious in the way X-Files used to be, and I use the same ritual for both, curling up with the cats on the couch, bravely prepared to being scared witless.  Eventually of course X-Files became arcane.  It was harder and harder to follow the plot "line" and I felt torn between bothering to put in the time and the belief that really it just didn't matter.  Talk about suspending the suspension of disbelief!

The early days of Fringe has the same quality of a single show, with its own self contained universe, a wonderful little world, 60 minutes all to yourself.  And then increasingly an over arching narrative began to creep in and I thought, "oh know, it can't be long before we get a visit from the 'cigarette smoking man'."

Here's the bargain I have for Abrams.  As an active viewer, I am prepared to follow you anywhere you want to go in the course of 60 minutes.  In exchange for which I beg of you this: don't ask me to follow these complexities from show to show.  Don't give us an over-arching narrative.  You can stage any complexity you want as long as it does not live on to torment us.  If it was good enough for the Outer Limits, its good enough for us.

I would be pleased to hear of a television project that managed to introduce an embracing narrative without losing control of the narrative.  But my guess is all meta-narrative eventually turns into kudzu (the import from Japan that has overwhelmed great portions of the American southeast).  You let that meta-narrative in anywhere, and brother, it's going to end up taking over everything. 


Hibberd, James.  2009.  Finale ratings: 'Fringe' and 'Biggest Loser.'  The Live Feed.  May 13, 2009.  here.

Itzkoff, Dave. 2008. “Complexity Without Commitment.” The New York Times, August 24 here. (Accessed May 12, 2009).

Wikipedia on kudzu here.

6 thoughts on “Complexity and a bargain for JJ Abrams

  1. Scott Ellington

    On the strength of the pilot episode, I believe I’ve struck a sweeter deal. At the cost of 60 bucks, I look forward to 950 uninterupted minutes of Fringe. I also admire the first Serling compromise (between craft and commerce) that resulted in The Twilight Zone at the disspirited end of a profoundly frustrating career in writing extremely successful teleplays that were picked apart and tampered with by network (See BS) and sponsors. The second Serling compromise, Night Gallery; speaks (very unkindly) for itself. And The Outer Limits’, “We will control all that you see and hear” wasn’t a meta-metaphor. That’s exactly why I paid for what I’m downloading. “They get paid, we get paid” seems like a reasonable stance that bears very little resemblance to the current MBA.

  2. Evil Rocks

    a) Scott: I am flabbergasted that anyone has sixty dollars to drop on entertainment, much less the temerity to brag about it in a public forum. Figuring out how to see Star Trek was a wee challenge for me this month, and two homies opted out because they could not afford it.

    b) As regards the topic of the post: there’s a serious disconnect between you and us, sir. We grew up on the sixty minute episode: our brains have fully incorporated every reasonable plot twist that you can cram into the forty minutes of actual content. Movies (which cost ten dollars until they are uploaded by someone in production) are barely better than long television shows these days in terms of story to time.

    Take a look at the games industry: their massive struggle these days is not with coding or making fun and playable games but coming up with the story lines that distinguish between franchises of otherwise identical shmups. For further examples in the same vein, look at the buck-wild success of the MMORPG genre – the only genre where players author their own narrative and the game companies supply only the framework for interpersonal interaction (see EVE for a particularly great implementation of this mechanic: they let players do what the hell ever players feel like, so long as players obey game meta-rules).

    We hunger for story. Big, bad, epic Lord of the Rings-style story (a blockbuster trilogy of epic plot scale). Many of us download whole seasons at once or watch episode by episode online. When you boil the ads out, the forty minute segments begin to build to a narrative harmony (albeit one that echoes over hour-long periods, rather than bars or stanzas). We ache to sink our minds into something that challenges us, that directly questions the behaviour of our leaders (see BSG and the prisoner treatment theme). We love stories like the Wire or Heroes, where characters move into intimacy with viewers, and we understand their struggles at a soul level.

    So, Mr. McCraken, I have a proposal for *you*. Keep your entertainment. Enjoy those spare fifteen minutes of mind control and consumerist boosterism. We’ll take Lost, the Wire, all however many seasons of Heroes there are now. We’ll take Frisky Dingo, which season-by-season doesn’t take more than three hours but will tax the greatest stitcher-of-narratives you know. We demand *challenge* from our entertainment, not pills of complacency.

  3. John McCreery

    Like, Wow! Isn’t this the kind of generation gap one might have expected after reading Henry Jenkin’s _Convergence Cultures_? All that stuff about open-ended stories, cross-media hooks, etc. Imagine growing up on that instead of the Romantic notion of the self, nation, work of art, or TV program as a whole to be understood within its own boundaries.

  4. Scott Ellington

    “The particular argument I worry about is the one that says that contemporary culture is becoming more complicated, more rich and more nuanced.”

    I’d like to suggest that culture is a (virtual) organism that thrives in a state of homeodynamic equilibrium; such that the backstory and thematic engines of Gilligan’s Island fit neatly into its title song yet build a foundation for LOST. The narrative simplicity of commercial, appointment, broadcast television provided everyone involved in those productions with certain significant advantages.
    Fringe is a strikingly engaging attempt to find that elusive, roundly/widely satisfying and effective balance between LOST and Gilligan. Like Dollhouse, Fringe is about something fascinating; the systemic and systematic devaluation of being human, redemption from technological dementia, generational alienation, the relationship between means and ends…and both first seasons were also remarkably entertaining.

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