TV used to be film’s dweeby cousin. Then that cousin grew up to be pretty awesome, and we can all agree that TV series have evolved tremendously as it draws the attention of large obsessed audiences, big industry names and huge budgets to rival that of the film industry.
Not every series is a hit, but it appears that some of the best ones around have the most unconventional narrative styles. Below is a short list of my top 3 narrative styles in modern television programming and the shows that use them so effectively.
Hannibal as a Catalyst
When everyone heard that Hannibal was going to be made into a series, many people were sceptical after the weak Hannibal films that followed The Silence of the Lambs, a classic film full of suspense and horror, for which Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar for best actor in a leading role.
The series however is set in a time when Hannibal is still practicing psychology. According to Mads Mikkelsen, this has given him more range to create his own version of Hannibal as the circumstances vary. However what the show runners and Mikkelsen- being the talented actor that he is- have managed to capture brilliantly, is how Hannibal- the very same Hannibal, would act in a different context.
The series stays true to the films in that Hannibal may be at the centre of all the murder and treachery going on- whether directly or through his manic influence on others- but he is not always present, not always directly involved. This ubiquity of the man is what makes him so terrifying. A world with too much focus on Hannibal himself would see the novelty of the horror he brings when he comes from the shadows, fall to the winds.
The Game of Thrones fundamentalism
We are so used to the good guys triumphing at the end of the day that when Eddard Stark lost his head at the end of the first season, we all lost ours too! But that was not the end of it. Game of Thrones, the HBO adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, a high-fantasy novel series by George R.R. Martin has been a great success over the last 2 years.
But why? Why do we love that the main characters are dying (need I remind you all of The Red Wedding portrayed in episode 9 of season 3?) or staying alive and getting the short stick on every draw?
In my opinion Game of Thrones captivates audiences because it is a paradox: It is a high-fantasy series with armies, dragons, warlocks and wargs that is probably more realistic than most of the drama-in-a-real-world series that we watch. Most films and programming are geared towards advocating escapism where the audience can run away from their assumedly crappy lives momentarily and live voyeuristically through the good guy who always wins at the end of the day.
But what audiences actually want is someone to relate to. We don’t need someone to tell us that life is great and we will always win- we know that’s bullshit. Whether the final book (yet to be released) will end on a good note or not is irrelevant. Game of Thrones gives us real, relatable, volatile characters that are more complex than good or bad. And that’s why we keep coming back for more.
Spartacus and the legend of leverage
When I first started watching Spartacus I must admit it was for the fighting scenes. Many warriors (in their minds) myself included, had been searching for a film or series that would satisfy the thirst for blood caused by the epic Zack Snyder film, 300 released 4 years earlier.
When Spartacus hit the small screen for the first time in 2010, I cheered for every fight, and was drawn to the nobility of his cause. This coupled with an appreciation for well-choreographed scenes of passion, and a great love of the ancient Roman era, made me an insta-fan.
But it was one other aspect that really kept me on to the series, even with the passing of the original Spartacus lead, Andy Whitfield.
It was the way in which the show runners used leverage to navigate the journey in the story.
All those who watch Spartacus know that although the story focuses on his own rise and fight for continued freedom, many other characters in the show – including villains- have aspirations of their own.
This brought me to realise how well producers of the show take each individual character on a wave of a journey, oscillating between great victories and near-fatal blows. Just when you think someone is on the rise, they trip and fall or worse, they die. It must be emphasised that this is done with the main and peripheral characters, as well as the good and the bad.
This technique is most often used for antagonists in most stories; however in Spartacus the way in which a chain of command is used as an obstacle to the villains (most frequently in the form of politics) shows us the dimensions of the society, and provides a really interesting take on the notion of freedom from various angles.
What are some of your favourite narrative styles in television? Feel free to share them in the comments below.
About the Author: Stephen is a series fanatic who knows that you win or you die, and even though he will kill them all, he will first feed your fear (See what I did there?).