UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Breaking narrative : narrative complexity in contemporary television Kroener, Oliver


Emerging from the “quality TV” shows of the early 1980s, contemporary American television shows such as The Sopranos (HBO, 1999 - 2007), Lost (ABC, 2004 - 2010), Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011 - ) and Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008 - 2013) have been frequently praised by critics and scholars for their narrative complexity. However, often neither critics nor scholars define what narrative complexity specifically constitutes. That is to say, what are intricate plotlines? What distinguishes complex characters from “simple” ones? And in what ways do complex television narratives differ from complex feature films? This study takes a cognition-based approach to the topic and discusses the AMC series Breaking Bad as one of the prime examples of narrative complexity in contemporary television. The series revolves around Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a fifty year old high-school chemistry teacher, who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and decides to team up with a former student of his to produce methamphetamine in order to secure a financial future for his family before he dies. Breaking Bad frequently uses “puzzling” narrative devices such as flashbacks, flashforwards, time-jumps or cold opens and aligns its viewers with a main protagonist whose actions are often morally objectionable. During the course of this study, which is primarily based on the works of theorists such as David Bordwell, Edward Branigan, Thomas Elsaesser , Murray Smith and Jason Mittell, I discuss how narration in visual media storytelling operates, what narrative complexity in the television medium constitutes, and how watching “Complex TV” has changed how viewers process television narratives on a cognitive level. In particular, I explore the ways in which contemporary television narratives have adopted trademarks of what Elsaesser has termed “mind-game” films and how engaging with complex characters over the course of several seasons of a series can influence our understanding of the narrative as a whole. However, the study of “Complex TV” has only begun and this work is primarily supposed to generate more discussion about a narrative trend that has left its mark on the current “Golden Age of Television.”

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International