CFP: Television Narrative (12/8/06; 3/2/07-3/4/07)

full name / name of organization: 
Harry Brown
contact email: 


The Long Story: The Art of Long-Arc Dramatic-Narrative Series in Contemporary US Television

A conference to be held at DePauw University, Greencastle, IN, March 2-4, 2007.

In the past thirty years, television has replaced the movies and radio as the prime source of long narratives in American culture, just as those had replaced novels before them. From one perspective, tv has simply become the latest vehicle of the serial fiction that has acted as a social glue for modernizing, bourgeois societies since the 18th century. Beginning roughly in the 1980s, dramatic series began to appear on American screens, involving multi-layered, deliberately developed narratives of novelistic complexity. These television novels created a space for dramatic and linguistic art consonant with the inherent flow of the television medium.

Some of these series were inspired by outside influences: the gritty realism of Prime Suspect and the elegant unfolding of Brideshead Revisited imported from British television, or the documentary techniques that shaped Homicide: Life on the Streets. But many seemed to emerge directly from the medium's genre-universe * and like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Thirtysomething seemed to create their devoted publics on the spot. With the inception of HBO's policy of producing intensely crafted series * The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and the like * the quality and complexity of television narrative seems to have risen to an unprecedented level.

With this conference, we wish to take close looks at this development * its sources (artistically ambitious television narrative did not begin in 1987), its conditions of possibility (production constraints, network/artist/audience relationships, socio-economic changes), its cognitive qualities and effects, and the ways in which, and the reasons why, long-arc narratives that are both aesthetically and cognitively challenging have attained mass popularity. Although much work has been done on cultural and social-political dimensions of these programs, relatively little attention has been paid to their aesthetics, or the role of their aesthetics in their social power.

Some themes we are interested in:
 How different series have constructed their complex narratives; how they have distinctively organized their main arcs and their subarcs.
How long-arc dramas use artful, cognitively complex language.

The need for, and art of, constantly transforming characters and situations to keep interest going, and the possibilities for deepening the story this gives.

The significance of death in contemporary popular series * a motif that sometimes evokes a sense that Life on Earth is a stratum of being in which souls are in transit to other zones, but think they are in a solid world.

The use of complex cinematic techniques and apparatus in the new tv serials.
Why is it that, and what is the effect when, involving and seemingly "authentic" dramas "jump the shark," when the show begins to include storylines/actors/techniques that break the seductive charm that the show once had.

The effect of central TV writer-director auteurs on the medium (Whedon, Milch, Simon, Kelley, Roddenbery, Straczynski, Bochco, et al.)

How the medium has permitted surrealistic or surrealist-influenced storytelling.

What are the effects, and what is the meaning, of the cancellation of series with devoted audiences, in the midst of emotionally involving stories.

What are the effects of and preconditions for certain commercial series playing out to a "natural end," evading both cancellation and adulteration (e.g., Buffy, Thirtysomething, NYPD Blue, Babylon 5).

Does tv tell good stories any differently in a "post-9/11 world"?

The relationship between soap-operas/telenovelas (which were inherently long-arc narratives, but strictly constrained to formulas) and non-formulaic long dramatic narratives.
How and why did certain narratives inspire surrogate subcultures of millions of devoted viewers?

In what ways have certain series acted as surrogate national-cultural narratives?

Does Stephen Johnson's claim that television narratives have become increasingly complex cognitively explain anything about the dramatic and narrative quality of tv shows?

To what degree does the attraction of these narratives hinge on the theme of recurrent local apocalypses?

Political-cultural counter-narratives on mainstream tv.

The significance of cross-cultural fan bases for the serial narratives.

How fan culture has influenced * either directly or through distant attraction * the writing of narratives.

The internet universe of stories written around series.
Abstracts for 20 minute papers should be sent to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Dept. of English, DePauw University, Greencastle, IN 46135, e-mail at All proposals should be received by December 8, 2006.

Please direct all questions to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay at or to Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Dept. of Communications and Theatre, DePauw University, Greencastle, IN, 46135, e-mail:

Harry J. Brown
Assistant Professor of English
313 Asbury Hall
DePauw University
Greencastle, IN 46135
(765) 658-4682

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Received on Wed Aug 23 2006 - 17:13:08 EDT