Having never watched “My So-Called Life” I was not sure what to expect. With Jason Mittell’s “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” fresh in my mind, five minutes was all the time it took me to discount the show completely. The dialogue is plagued by the “likes” and “whatevers” of teen speak and to major conflict within the 48 minute show concerns a school dance. As the story progressed however, I began to notice several ways in which the show is more complex than I first thought. First of all, it employs both serial and episodic techniques. A particular story line, the problem of the school dance, is introduced and resolved, contained within the episode as with the episodic format. But the intense feelings of the characters depend on the bond created between character and audience in serialized watching. As a result, someone who does not watch the show regularly (like myself) can only realize some of the pleasure of the show, while regular watchers are rewarded for their dedication with shifts in relationships and unresolved inter-character tension (think the last scene where Angela asks Brian to dance and he says no). Additionally, “My So-Called Life” demonstrates its complexity in the number of relationships it focuses on. In one 48 minute period the audience must digest information about Brian and Delia, Brian and Angela, Angela and Jordan, Patti and Graham, Graham and Brian, Rayanne and Ricky, Ricky and the new boy, Angela, Ricky and Brian and so on and so forth. And there is variety in these relationships, including young love, nonreciprocating love, friendship, more than friendship, marriage, as well as a homosexual dynamic which adds depth to the content as a whole.
The existence of a narrator is also an interesting choice, because it waivers between that of the conventional and that of the non conventional complex narrative that Mittell addresses. The narration is reflective, and let’s the audience further into the mind of the main character which adds to psychological complexity. Having Brian’s inner monologue as a tool for analysis is both helpful and interesting.
However Mittell argues that a truly complex narrative utilizes narrative spectacle, the boldest moments of which are when “unforeseen sharp twists cause the entire scenario to reboot, changing the professional and interpersonal dynamics of nearly every character” (Mittell 36). One can argue either for or against this in “The Life of Brian.” Is the moment when all of the characters’ expectations are disappointed considered a moment of narrative spectacle? What about Angela’s final let down which leads her to apologize to Brian? The moment is cathartic when it is contained within the episode, but on a larger scale it seems less significant and therefore I would argue that this is where the show breaks with the rules of narrative complexity.
Additionally, Mittell writes that “narrative complexity foregrounds ongoing stories across a range of genres,” something “My So-Called Life” failed to do. The show remained situated in teen-drama for it’s entirety and thus did not span genres as a narrative complex show ought to. As a result, I would argue that the episode “Life of Brian” of “My So-Called Life” is a great example of how a show can be conventional but still dabble in narrative complexity in an attempt to keep the audience interested.