Reading Contemporary TV Series

Aesthetics, Themes, and Reception

by Miłosz Wojtyna (Author) Barbara Miceli (Author) Roksana Zgierska (Author)
©2022 Monographs 212 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 20


The rapid development of the TV series in the twenty-first century has resulted in an emergence of new aesthetic, cultural, and social trends. The development has influenced both the mainstream of popular culture and reception practices of audiences across nations and platforms. This book observes how the means employed in key contemporary TV series texts and a specific thematic variety have promoted new reception styles and redefined conventional interpretive practices. The authors analyze a variety of series released since 2000 to discuss historical (dis)continuities of genres and conventions, and observe how interpretive competences promoted by the rhetoric of contemporary TV series result from, and are polemical with, the conventions of visual and verbal cultures of preceding decades.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • About the author
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Section 1: Aesthetics | Miłosz Wojtyna
  • Chapter 1 Narrative Conventions and Experimentation
  • Chapter 2 Visual Complexity and the Spectacle
  • Chapter 3 Segmented Experience, Uniform Experience
  • Section 2: Themes | Barbara Miceli
  • Chapter 4 The Heroine with a Thousand Faces: New Action Heroines, New Womanhood?
  • Chapter 5 Colour-lines: Representation of Race and Ethnicity
  • Chapter 6 Dystopian Futures and (Not Too) Fictional Presents: Living the Covid-19 Pandemic Through the American Series
  • Section 3: Reception | Roksana Zgierska
  • Chapter 7 Reader/Viewer and the Text
  • Chapter 8 Watching is the New Reading: Defining Reader’s Competences
  • Chapter 9 Multimodality of Experience – Reader/Viewer and the Experimental Text
  • Works Cited
  • Index of names
  • Index of TV Series
  • Series index

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The TV series is a prominent cultural form that over the last eighty years has developed a complex aesthetics, a rich spectrum of thematic preoccupations, and an increasingly large body of devoted audiences. A macro-cultural shift, the rapid development of the TV series in the twenty-first century has resulted in an emergence of new aesthetic, cultural, and social trends, such as, among other things, the growing importance of seriality and audience engagement, genre blending, new individual models of cultural consumption, new modes of dissemination (streaming and on-demand platforms), technologically mediated audience experience, algorithmic selection of recommended content, or complex fandom communities and practices. All of these changes are not only a result of numerous accompanying shifts in global digital culture, but also a product of a long-term development and maturation of a cultural form that, once deemed “mere entertainment,” has recently began to play an unprecedented role in the Western cultural canon. The development has not only influenced the mainstream of popular culture (with its stylistic conventions, thematic preoccupations, genre distinctions, broadcasting strategies, and marketability activities) but also influenced reception practices of large audiences across nations and platforms. This book observes how aesthetic (narrative, visual, compositional) means employed in key contemporary TV series texts, together with a specific thematic variety, have promoted new kinds of compositional complexity, new thematic preoccupations, as well as new reception styles that seek to redefine conventional interpretive practices associated with television narratives. In what follows, we analyse a variety of TV series released since 2000 (including both popular and experimental texts), discuss historical continuities and discontinuities of genres and conventions, and observe how interpretive competences promoted by the complex rhetoric of contemporary TV series result from, and are polemical with, the conventions of visual and verbal cultures of preceding decades. Reading TV series today, understanding its formal characteristics, narrative rhetoric, thematic nuances, and audience practices, is thus treated here as a way of interpreting the verbal-visual divide in contemporary mediatized culture, and discussing some analogies and differences in the ways we read, watch and use serialized narratives in a variety of media and forms.

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Reading, Watching, Consuming

When we write of “reading” TV series as opposed to merely “consuming” them, we want to highlight both the differences in structure, rhetoric and thematic preoccupations of contemporary, twenty-first century series as opposed to the majority of twentieth-century texts and the efforts and competences required from the audience in the process of watching, understanding and following TV series in these two critically different periods. When we write of “reading” TV series as opposed to “watching” them, in turn, we stress the cognitive effort required today of television audiences to decode the unobvious networks of meanings contained in the artistically organized, sophisticated, compositionally complex texts. We are, at the same time, offering a contribution to a growing body of academic studies that have attempted to study selected TV series with as much attention to detail in compositional complexity and thematic profundity as would be applied in the study of more traditionally respected forms of cultural production (literature, film, theatre, fine arts, etc.). Thus, we claim that the TV series might be considered as a legitimate artistic form which has contributed to global culture not only by adding to it simplistic forms of entertainment but also by offering a large body of ambitious, and often experimental, texts. Acknowledging the fact that contemporary television narratives have not only forsaken their own medium-specific origin (as “television” content is frequently not related to traditional television institutions anymore) but also dissociated from the relatively humble aesthetic origins of the serialized televisual form, we maintain that the significant increase in complexity and aesthetic and thematic ambitions encourages audiences to consider their experience with the TV series as important and rewarding as their experience would be with the novel (or the short story, the sonnet, or perhaps a piece of drama). In our “reading” of contemporary TV series, therefore, the juxtaposition with literary texts serves to highlight an interpretive legacy the audiences and critics of the TV series might draw from their experience with literature in particular and with the literariness of Western culture in general. This approach is partly reflected in our methodological choices, which quite directly point to theories well anchored in the study of literary narratives: narratology and reader response theories. These methodological choices inform our readings in different ways in different chapters of the book, depending on which of the three areas they are concerned with.

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Aesthetics, Themes, and Reception

The book is divided into three sections: the first one is devoted to aesthetics, the second one to thematic preoccupations, and the third to reception practices. In the first section, Miłosz Wojtyna claims that aesthetic means employed by contemporary TV series are not only a means of composing attractive, valuable artefacts that audiences enjoy, but also of constructing spectacle-based mechanisms of control that exploit audience curiosity, time, engagement, emotional responses, and cognitive effort as part of contemporary “attention economy.” He argues, therefore, that the fantastic power of the TV series (and of any compelling narrative in general) – the power to suspend some of our real-life activities for the sake of what the narratives offer in exchange – is an aesthetic phenomenon characteristic of the operations of the cultural industry. The control effect results from the technological affordances of what Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Apple and other streaming platforms have built as the primary providers of video content, as much as from the very impact the composition of the video material has on us when we watch a given TV series (and perhaps long after). Part of larger trends in contemporary culture and economy (such as cognitive labour, 24/7 consumption, attention economy, algorithmic selection and adjustment of content, as well as increasing focus of consumers on simulations and virtuality), the control effect relies on the use of specific aesthetic strategies and techniques aimed at managing audience attention and engagement.

By analysing compositional, formal, structural and rhetorical features of selected contemporary TV series that most effectively encourage viewers to watch further and to never stop, the first three chapters thus observe the affinities between the rhetoric of form and cognitive processes in texts that offer complex, aesthetically rewarding experience based on the decoding and appreciation of 1) narrative structures, 2) visual spectacle and 3) seriality strategies. Narrative mechanisms of control that Wojtyna describes in chapter one engage the audience in decoding complex, difficult, resistant texts that involve radical narrative experimentation (concerning such issues as temporality arrangements, focalization, narratorial unreliability, and metalepsis). By undermining conventional ways of storytelling, the texts described here offer interpretively challenging narratives that contemporary audiences will willingly exchange increasingly large portions of their leisure time for. With a variety of visual techniques aimed at guiding, encouraging, soliciting, and managing audience attention for extended periods of time rather just brief moments of intentional focus, today, TV series are watched in ways that delegitimize inattention, promote multimodal reception, and encourage elaborative decoding not only of events structures and of ←9 | 10→verbal narration, but also of visual signals. Chapter two observes how the use of unobvious visual techniques – e.g., systematic camera movement, representational incongruity, as well as retro aesthetics, and visual excess – results in the construction of engaging spectacles – of complex visual structures that accompany narrative composition of individual texts in surprising the audience, guiding its cognitive processes and managing attention against the dictates of fossilized televisual conventions. Seriality – and the logic of segmentation that contemporary series employ in rationing portions of narrative material – is the object of interest of chapter three, where two models of organizing the episode-to-episode and season-to-season divide are discussed in connection to the interpretive effort and cognitive closure the narratives encourage. These three areas – narration, visuality, and seriality – together with complex, unobvious thematic preoccupations and the development of audience competences and new reception models, have rendered the contemporary TV series not merely an ambitious form of culture, but also a form that engages to enslave, addict, and control.

In the second section of the book, Barbara Miceli deals with three thematic areas that constitute the core of the representational debate on contemporary TV series. In chapter four, she discusses the role of women – more specifically, of action heroines – in TV series of the last twenty years. This period has been, apparently, a time of empowerment, of more screening time for women, and a fertile ground for creating a new generation of action heroines that are well-rounded and complex characters. The analysis of some of the most popular action heroines proves how – despite significant improvements with respect to the past – falling prey of gendered expectations is something that cannot be avoided even in such an encouraging climate. The long-awaited gender equality on screen is a pipe dream if heroines possessing physical or intellectual prowess are still victims of the traditional view of women as the most natural mothers and caregivers, a predicament that forces them to choose between family (often seen as a biological necessity) and career. With some exceptions though: those heroines who “have it all” and look – even in the eyes of female audiences – not credible and unrealistic. Chapter five addresses the issues of race and ethnicity and the misrepresentation or underrepresentation of them. The majority of TV series in the past seemed to depict a world where racial minorities were either excluded or stereotyped, producing works with no racial diversity and tinged with a white aesthetic that gave the illusion of a colour-blind world. Contemporary TV series (especially the American ones) are oftentimes very diverse in terms of racial representation, and display an encouraging awareness of the realities of American society. Adopting what is quite often an intersectional view, these series struggle ←10 | 11→to give audiences an accurate portrayal of race relations in the United States and within specific microcosms (family, prison, workplaces, etc.), but they stumble into an exasperated didacticism and politically correct spirit that might easily obliterate these series’ function as entertaining products. Chapter six deals with the current Covid-19 emergency and its representation in the most recent TV series. Such an extraordinary and life-changing event has not been ignored by producers and authors, who have decided to adopt several strategies to make it part of their series. Anthological series flourished in the years 2020–21, showing the directors’ very personal take on the issue, but other pre-existing series incorporated the subject matter within their plots, inevitably blurring the lines between fact and fiction in a very confusing way. The choice of fictionalizing the present implies a set of consequences that include, among other matters, the ignoring of precise historical rules, confusing the audience with the creation of a fictional post-pandemic world – an impossible and unrealistic triumph narrative – and depicting the current reality as a dystopia that, being as real as it is, makes it almost impossible to conceive it as such. The result, thus, is a disturbing effect that might affect, once again, the entertaining power of these products.

The third section of this book is devoted to reception and audience practices. In that section, Roksana Zgierska furthers the claim that it is necessary to acknowledge that contemporary TV series, figuratively referred here as “audio-visual novels,” are as complex in their poetic signification as literary works can be. Thus, it seems justifiable to expand the application of literary studies to the analysis of these texts and to recognize them as relevant subjects of research. Zgierska suggests, therefore, that complexity of the multi-layered narratives presented in contemporary TV series, their developing aesthetics and thematic variety seem to draw heavily from literature. Textual organization of the two forms – the traditional (verbal) and the new (audio-visual) novel – therefore appears to rely on similar patterns. That being the case, it might be safe to assume that the cognitive processes associated with textual interpretation of literature will be, to certain extent, mirrored by the ones observed in the reception of contemporary TV series. Proposing the argument that the entire act of watching is remarkably close to the act of reading, Zgierska believes it is well founded to emphasize the similarities between the terms “audience/viewer” and “a reader,” or even go as far as to replace the first with the latter. The main purpose of the third section is thus the presentation, discussion, and analysis of the role of reader/viewer and their competences that have developed in response to contemporary TV series as well as to compare them to the reception and interpretation practices required by traditional narrative forms.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (May)
experimentation conventions narrative race Covid-19 culture industries
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 212 pp., 27 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Miłosz Wojtyna (Author) Barbara Miceli (Author) Roksana Zgierska (Author)

Miłosz Wojtyna – Assistant Professor at the University of Gdańsk, Poland. He specializes in narratology and communication theory. His current research is concerned with virtual reality and the simulacra of Internet culture. Barbara Miceli – Assistant Professor at the University of Gdańsk. She specializes in the relationship between fact and fiction in contemporary American novel and TV. Roksana Zgierska – Assistant Professor at the University of Gdańsk. She specializes in contemporary narrative theory with the emphasis on the role of the reader, intertextuality and transmedia.


Title: Reading Contemporary TV Series
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214 pages