Narratively Complex Television Series and the Lure of Conspiracy – On the Politics of Long-Form Serial Storytelling and the Paranoid Eye of Active Audiences
The threat of conspiracy looms large in a striking number of recent American television series. From the efforts of 24’s and Homeland’s protagonists to stop terrorists, to the nefarious government conspiracies on Last Resort, Rubicon, and Prison Break, and the shadowy cabals plotting on Lost, Fringe, and Battlestar Galactica: television narratives about secret plots against the reigning order of things appear to be well suited to capture the imagination of contemporary audiences in the US and elsewhere. While the engagement with this theme lends itself to politicized readings, the motif of conspiracy is also part and parcel of a robust narrative structure that enables the unfolding of complex storylines. In this respect, ‘conspiracy’ denotes not just a thematic preoccupation but also an organizational logic that allows these shows to tell long-running stories about investigations, cover-ups, and mysteries whose resolutions are perpetually deferred. As detective stories of a grand scope, these shows keep viewers hooked by juggling the appeals of suspense and mystery, by countering each revelation with a plot twist tailored to sustain audience interest.
My paper will sketch the basic parameters of this mode of storytelling and discuss the audience practices it inspires. I argue that, in order to perform within the competitive media environment of the convergence age, said shows rely on the structure of conspiracy to encourage audiences to carefully comb through their narrative material in search of hidden clues about the plots’ mysteries. By doing so, they ask viewers to rely on an interpretive logic that parallels the paranoid hermeneutics of conspiracy theorists: analysis and interpretation of transmedial story-worlds can thus become a pleasurable, associative, and open-ended activity that allows the viewer to assert her authority over the (shifting) overall meanings of (the) (hi)story. The political significance of these shows therefore lies less in their overt content, but rather manifests itself on the level of storytelling strategies and the audience practices enabled by the latter.