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Nasreen Badrodien


Alta du Plooy

26 August 2015

Narrative Complexity: Greys Anatomy

In this essay I will illustrate to what extent Shonda Rhimes show Greys Anatomy (ABC 2005 - ) is an
example of narrative complexity as I focus on the first three episodes of season one in my analysis. I
will unpack Jason Mittels account of narrative complexity by explaining series and serial television
and how these modes of storytelling merge in Greys Anatomy to convey a complex narrative.
Narrative Complexity: Serial and episodic narrative modes
At its most basic level, narrative complexity is a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of
serial narration not necessarily a complete merger of episodic and serial forms but a shifting
balance. Rejecting the need for a plot closure within every episode that typifies conventional episodic
form, narrative complexity foregrounds ongoing stories across a range of genres (Mittel 2006:32).
Narrative complexity works against conventional narrational practices and moves serial form outside
of the regular assumptions tied to soap operas many complex programs tell stories serially while
rejecting or downplaying the melodramatic style where pity is developed as good and evil is present
with clear motifs, and primarily focus on relationships over plots of soap operas, which also distances
contemporary programs from the cultural connotations of the denigrated soap genre (Mittel, 2006:32).
Narratively complex texts generally foreground plot developments far more centrally than soap operas
allowing relationships and character drama to emerge from plot development in an emphasis reversed
from soap operas (2006:32). Greys Anatomy imports serial storytelling into the generic episodic forms
of medical dramas. The show delays narrative closure, features episodic plotlines with serial forms
alongside multiepisode arcs and ongoing relationship dramas (2006:32). Relationship stories carry on
over episodes as in soap operas but the medical cases are usually resolved within an episode or two.
Thus unlike soap operas, individual episodes have a distinctive identity with themes, monologues,
episode titles as more than just one step in a long narrative journey (Mittel, 2006).
Greys Anatomy employs long-form arc storytelling as in Twin Peaks which expands the role of the
story arcs across episodes and seasons. It interplays between and balances the demands and
pleasures of episodic and serial storytelling as it oscillates between long term arc storytelling of
relationship dramas and stand-alone episodes of medical cases which work together to function
cohesively (Mittel, 2006:33). Any given episode focuses on the long-term relationships and medical
goals, an ongoing highly complicated relationship between family and private that endlessly delays
resolution and closure and medical stories of the week (2006:33). Plotlines run over a whole season
and closure is certain in the season finale. Within a given season nearly every episode advances the
seasons arc while still offering episodic coherence and miniresolutions as characters reveal key
secrets and deepen relationships or end them to move the season-long plot forward (2006:33). It
interweaves melodramatic relationship dramas and character development with story arcs, forwarding
plot momentum to generate responses to characters and allows relationships to help drive plots
forward. Arcs and ongoing plots demand a little explicit knowledge from episode to episode as some
actions and events do not carry on across episodes but at the same time a viewer can watch an
isolated episode and still be able to follow the multiple storylines and grasp the character traits.
As Jason Mittel mentions in the abovementioned quote, complex narrative is a redefined episodic
mode of storytelling with influences from the serial form which complements each other in such a
cohesive and consistent manner that when these modes are used together, they produce engaging
complex narratives that enable a certain cognitive exercise (Mittel, 2006).

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The serial mode of storytelling allows story arcs to be continuous from week to week, or day to day.
These texts are never watched with the awareness that they could end as it has no season breaks or
season finales but rather continues over months or even years such as Coronation Street that aired in
the 1960s and has never ended to date (Smit, 2015). Each episode does not conclude with closure
but rather lacks resolution as it is purposefully postponed. This keeps the viewer coming back each
episode to discover the possibilities of what might happen, if it ever does. This type of television
narrative appeals to the viewers sense of time in the real world as the airing coincides with the pace
of peoples daily lives with episodes airing everyday during their free time in the morning or after work
(Smit, 2015). These techniques play with the viewers sense of time and future. The serial usually
ends with a cliffhanger, leaving the audience hanging after each episode in anticipation of the next
with questions keeping them coming back. There are also multiple cliffhangers within the episode,
usually just before an ad break to make sure the viewer keeps watching. Serial narratives use
interweaving storylines to link characters as in The Bold and the Beautiful where there are
interpersonal relationships between all the characters which either cause or solve conflict. Three
different story arcs within an episode may intersect and these storylines often carry on the entire
duration of the serial intertwined. The serial makes use of gossip in each episode to comment on the
actions of characters that may not be mentioned otherwise. It brings together different plotlines as
characters talk about other characters story arcs and furthers the plot of the episode or season
through characters knowledge of certain actions and others ignorance of it (Smit, 2015).
Contrary to this form of serial narration is the episodic mode of television narrative. While most serial
episodes are 20- 30 minutes long, the length of the series is usually 45 minutes. It has a fixed amount
of episodes in a given season with production breaks and season finales. Narratives continue from
week to week but within an episode there are different themes and independent story arcs that are
resolved at the end of each episode. The drama series follows a four- act structure instead of three by
reaching equilibrium and returning to an imbalance with twists and turns. Each beat is usually 15
minutes to accommodate ad breaks preceded by a cliff hanger but also to compel our attention. It
balances and amalgamates character developments from the previous episode with episode specific
developments that dont get mentioned again but remain in the memory of the audience and are cued
with specific words or repetition (Smit, 2015).
Greys Anatomy
An example of narrative complexity would be the ABC series, Greys Anatomy (2005 - ). Here, a
relationship between serial and episodic storytelling modes are evident in creating a complex
narrative. The series follows Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), the narrator in the text, who is the
daughter of a prodigy surgeon and a brilliant first-year surgical intern at the Seattle Grace Hospital.
Together with her colleagues, a family is formed, friendships are created and tested and love
ultimately conquers all. Torn between a medical drama and a romance, this series shows how
Meredith navigates her way through the daily speed bumps and social conflicts of life inside and
outside the hospital. The title of the text is reflected through every season of Greys Anatomy as the
series is primarily about Meredith (Greys) anatomy of life. The students introduced in the pilot are
present throughout the series and their characters develop over time as they struggle and manage to
be doctors and stay human - a common theme in every episode.
Season 1, Episode 1 A Hard Days Night
In this episode Meredith wakes up naked and we meet Derek (Patrick Dempsey), the naked man on
her floor. Meredith attends her first day as an intern at Seattle Grace and immediate friendships are
formed. Characters images are born in this episode as we are introduced to Merediths resident they
refer to as the Nazi (Chandra Wilson). Izzie (Katherine Heigl) is the model and George (T. R. Knight)
ends up with the 007 title license to kill. In this episode we learn the characters strengths and
weaknesses Like Cristina Yangs (Sandra Oh) inability to communicate with people without seeming
cold. Meredith and her new found friends, Cristina, Izzie and George are assigned to the Nazi.
Meredith learns on her first day that the man she slept with the night before is her bosss boss. At the
end of the episode we are introduced to Merediths mother and her condition which is kept secret. The
interns work their first 48 hour shift and deal with the joy of saving lives and the devastation of losing
lives. This episode follows a chronological time frame as the episode begins with hour 1 on the
screen followed by hour 24 further on until the interns leave the hospital and go home.

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Analysis of episodes as complex narratives

In this analysis I will primarily focus on episode 1. Greys Anatomy has a 45 minute format, with 22-24
episodes in a particular season. Like the serial, it has multiple storylines which continue and escalates
from week to week. This includes Meredith and Dereks oscillating chase, Cristinas pursuit to scrub in
on a surgery, Dr. Burkes (Isaiah Washington) attempts at earning the position of Chief over Derek
Shephard and the competition between interns for the most interesting cases. Each episode has
episodic storylines that are resolved at the end of each episode such as the new medical cases which
bring novelty and interest to the story outside of the ongoing story arcs. The episodes dont end with
straightforward cliff hangers, but rather the audience are left asking questions such as will Derek and
Meredith end up together? and Will George make it as a doctor? which creates the sense of a
Each episode has a standalone theme such as A Hard Days Night, The First Cut is the deepest
and Winning a Battle, Losing the War. Merediths voice-over narrations at the beginning and end of
each episode introduce and conclude a unifying theme. The return to the theme at the end of each
episode brings a degree of thematic closure where there isnt any specific episodic closure (Smit,
2015). The theme also resonates through the lyrics of the songs played and most importantly the
episode specific plot, storylines, actions and word repetitions of the characters.
This complex narrative makes use of repetition and memory despite some audiences regarding it as a
bad thing. It is used is a meaningful and poetic way as meaning emerges not from a conclusive
ending but through a poetic play of resonance. The repetition of words, actions or phrases cues the
memory within an episode and from episode to episode or over a season. Repetition layers memories
over each other and these memories are also recalled through repetition as it ties stories and
emotions together. An example would be Merediths narrations at the beginning and end of each
episode, a specific word being emphasized through repetition connecting different storylines as well
as the previously on beat at the beginning of each episode. From episode 2 onwards, there is a
previously on... at the beginning of each episode which refreshes the memory of what happened in
the last episode using juxtaposition of the most important moments. This serial form of narrativization
contextualizes the information and clarifies its relevance to the present episode (Newman, 2006:19).
In A Hard Days Night the interns have to face their first 48 hour call. Nothing is going right for
George on his first day and they all have uninteresting tasks assigned to them. The interns assigned
to the Nazi have their break spot in the basement where they complain to each other about their
day. Everyone is tired and Cristinas irritability is shown when she snaps and calls George 007 and
blames it on her lack of sleep. Meredith and Cristina have a fall out after working together on an
assignment because Meredith promised her the reward surgery as she didnt want to be near Derek.
When Derek chooses Meredith to scrub in instead of Cristina, she feels betrayed because Meredith
didnt decline the offer. Meredith panics when her seizure-patient becomes a code blue and throws up
outside. She and George sit outside the hospital and talk about their parents views on them being
doctors. At the end of the episode, Meredith and Derek are in the operating room together looking at a
brain. Merediths voice over which sometimes serves as a diary with expository narration reflects on
everything that has happened in that episode and the song played compliments this voice over. The
last voice over before the end of the episode engages the audience as she talks in first person as if
she is addressing the audience (you). In this episode there are several storylines, each containing a
characters difficulty on their first day which tie in to the shows overall character arcs. There are three
main storylines I will mention. A) Meredith and Dereks courting and their ignorance to their chemistry
because of work rules, B) Cristinas pessimism and unfavorable work drive and C), Georges
development as a doctor. In addition, there are also three medical interest stories.
At the end of the pilot, there is episodic closure although there are still cliffhanger elements which
draw the viewer back. The medical cases of the last 48 hours have been attended to and solved.
Meredith found the answer to her patients mystery seizures with the help of Cristina and they resolve
their dispute about the reward surgery. Georges patient dies and all interns have survived their first
day. This complex narrative makes use of two kinds of closure. The first is the resolution of narrative
cause-effect chains, and the second is the unification of themes and motifs into an orderly, integrated
whole (Newman, 2006:20). The former is an example of episodic closure and the latter of serial
Grays Anatomy uses plot twists to collide character arcs and narrative storylines. This narrative
spectacle creates unforeseen sharp twists that cause the entire scenario to reboot changing the

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professional and interpersonal dynamics of nearly every character. This shift eradicates repetitiveness
and the pleasure lies in the way that the producers are able to reconfigure the scenario in a way that
is diegetically consistent, narratively engaging and emotionally honest to the characters and
relationships (Mittel, 2006:34). In the beginning of the pilot, first time viewers will assume Derek is a
one night stand until Meredith sees Derek at work and they have an awkward meeting. Throughout
the episode mention has been made of Merediths mother. She is described as an impeccable
surgeon who has contributed so much to medicine and therefore nobody would expect to meet her at
the end of the episode in a care facility suffering from Alzheimers. Another serial influence is the role
of gossip in Greys Anatomy which also connects different plotlines within the narrative. Meredith tells
Cristina that she slept with Derek. When they argue, Cristina tells Izzie and later confronts Meredith
out of anger in front of their colleagues. Cristina also addresses Alex (Justin Chambers) as oh youre
the guy that called Meredith a nurse and he responds with you must be the pushy, overbearing kissass in the second episode. These dialogues show that they have been talking amongst themselves
about each other and provide the audience while character profiles. It also cues the audience to
remember what happened in the previous episode.
Characterization is very important in a complex narrative. Over a period of time the audience
becomes attached to the Greys Anatomy characters as they develop and grow more complex.
Character development is observed much closer and their complexity reaches maximum heights
unlike in a serial narrative where most characters remain static from the beginning and never change.
Although the characters are always evolving, characterization remains strong and distinctive for onetime viewers.
Meredith is a round character that is beautiful, lovable, a good friend, a brilliant intern (who cant help
meddling and solving everyone elses cases) but is also able to stand up for herself. Cristina is a
stereotypical character that is immediately recognized as career driven, confident and socially
awkward, if not abrupt. George is a developing character. In the first three episodes he maintains the
name license to kill but soon impresses when he is stuck with Alex in an elevator later on in the
season and they have to perform an emergency surgery by themselves. This scene acts as a
meetlocker as two characters are forced to be together in a scene and narrative and character arcs
are once again intertwined. Alex is a developing character that changes permanently as he is selfcentered and narcissistic in the first three episodes, but by season 11 becomes a real person and a
true friend. From this we can identify the characters that have external struggles such as George who
is struggling to be a doctor in practice. Meredith faces internal struggles keeping her mothers
condition a secret, fighting her desires for Derek and staying human while being a surgeon. Cristina
faces moral struggles in all three episodes when she reveals Merediths secret about Derek, when
she snaps at George because she is tired, when she becomes angry at Meredith because she didnt
get the surgery and in the manner she addresses the wife of her dead patient whose organs she
wants to harvest. But for a long-term viewer, these characters facilitate a different response as the
audience gets to know the characters over many story arcs and the response to them is colored by a
rich knowledge (Smit, 2015)
Ongoing stories about compelling characters facing difficult obstacles allow the audience to create a
sincere emotional connection with them. It appeals to viewers by satisfying their desires for
knowledge about these characters and for forging an emotional connection with them (Newman,
2006:17). Because of characterization, audiences watch television not because of action but rather
because there are interesting and complex characters (Smit, 2015). One of serial narrations greatest
pleasures comes from the tension-resolution pattern of anticipating how a character will respond to a
narrative detail they already know and witnessing the moment of revelation (Newman, 2006:19).
Once again the viewer cares more about the character than the event.

In conclusion, Greys Anatomy demonstrates a rich complex narrative structure with a redefined
episodic mode of storytelling taking influence from serial narrative structures. It contains serial

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qualities such as ongoing story arcs, a sense of time and future for the audience, interweaving
storylines between characters and constructs gossip that provides insight and enables the plot. This
adds a dynamic mode of storytelling to the series as seen in the thematic parallels evident in the
themes that characterizes all individual story arcs in an episode. Characterization a serial
component is very important in this text as it adds to the complexity of the text. The focus shifts from
events to character and back to events as they both complement each other. The series exoskeleton
structure, time frame, chronology of the text and is typical episodic modes of storytelling demonstrated
in the text. Together, serial and episodic boundaries are reconceptualized producing quality
television, a heightened degree of self-consciousness in storytelling mechanisms and a demand for
intense viewer engagement (Mittel 2006:39). Complex narrative is most valued for its
unconventionality as it works against the episodic and serial classical structure (2006:30).


Reference List:

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Greys Anatomy, 2005, television recording, American Broadcasting Channel, USA.

Mittel, J., 2006, Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. In The Velvet Light Trap.
Vol.58 (1), p.29-40.
Newman, Z. M., 2006, From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetic of Television Narrative. In The Velvet
Light Trap. Vol.58, p.16-25
Smit, A., 2015. Complex Narrative, Lectures notes distributed in the unit, Television Studies,
University of Cape Town, Cape Town on 27 July 2015.

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