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Nasreen Badrodien


Alta du Plooy

26 August 2015

Narrative Complexity: Grey’s Anatomy

In this essay I will illustrate to what extent Shonda Rhimes’ show Grey’s 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 Mittel’s account of narrative complexity by explaining series and serial television
and how these modes of storytelling merge in Grey’s 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). Grey’s 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).
Grey’s 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
season’s 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).

pg. 1

Grey’s Anatomy An example of narrative complexity would be the ABC series. 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 . Together with her colleagues. who is the daughter of a prodigy surgeon and a brilliant first-year surgical intern at the Seattle Grace Hospital. leaving the audience hanging after each episode in anticipation of the next with questions keeping them coming back. The interns work their first 48 hour shift and deal with the joy of saving lives and the devastation of losing lives. Characters ‘images’ are born in this episode as we are introduced to Meredith’s resident they refer to as the ‘Nazi’ (Chandra Wilson). It balances and amalgamates character developments from the previous episode with episode specific developments that don’t get mentioned again but remain in the memory of the audience and are cued with specific words or repetition (Smit. pg. 2015). It has a fixed amount of episodes in a given season with production breaks and season finales.The serial mode of storytelling allows story arcs to be continuous from week to week. This type of television narrative appeals to the viewer’s sense of time in the real world as the airing coincides with the pace of people’s daily lives with episodes airing everyday during their free time in the morning or after work (Smit. friendships are created and tested and love ultimately conquers all. Meredith and her new found friends. Each “beat” is usually 15 minutes to accommodate ad breaks preceded by a cliff hanger but also to compel our attention.). At the end of the episode we are introduced to Meredith’s mother and her condition which is kept secret. 2015). this series shows how Meredith navigates her way through the daily speed bumps and social conflicts of life inside and outside the hospital.30 minutes long. There are also multiple cliffhangers within the episode. Knight) ends up with the ‘007’ title – license to kill. In this episode we learn the characters strengths and weaknesses – Like Cristina Yang’s (Sandra Oh) inability to communicate with people without seeming ‘cold’. This keeps the viewer coming back each episode to discover the possibilities of what might happen. Contrary to this form of serial narration is the episodic mode of television narrative. if it ever does. 2015). 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. Torn between a medical drama and a romance. While most serial episodes are 20.act structure instead of three by reaching equilibrium and returning to an imbalance with twists and turns. The serial usually ends with a cliffhanger. the naked man on her floor. a relationship between serial and episodic storytelling modes are evident in creating a complex narrative. Here. Meredith learns on her first day that the man she slept with the night before is her boss’s boss. or day to day. These techniques play with the viewer’s sense of time and future. the narrator in the text. the length of the series is usually 45 minutes. Meredith attends her first day as an intern at Seattle Grace and immediate friendships are formed. 2015). 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 1960’s and has never ended to date (Smit. 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. 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. 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. Season 1. Izzie (Katherine Heigl) is ‘the model’ and George (T. Cristina. usually just before an ad break to make sure the viewer keeps watching. The series follows Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo). The title of the text is reflected through every season of Grey’s Anatomy as the series is primarily about Meredith (Grey’s) anatomy of life. Episode 1 – A Hard Day’s Night In this episode Meredith wakes up naked and we meet Derek (Patrick Dempsey). The serial makes use of gossip in each episode to comment on the actions of characters that may not be mentioned otherwise. R. Izzie and George are assigned to the ‘Nazi’. Grey’s Anatomy (2005 .a common theme in every episode. Three different story arcs within an episode may intersect and these storylines often carry on the entire duration of the serial intertwined. a family is formed. Each episode does not conclude with closure but rather lacks resolution as it is purposefully postponed. The drama series follows a four. 2 .

a specific word being emphasized through repetition connecting different storylines as well as the “previously on” beat at the beginning of each episode. Meredith and Derek are in the operating room together looking at a brain. This serial form of narrativization contextualizes the information and clarifies its relevance to the present episode (Newman. 2015). She and George sit outside the hospital and talk about their parents views on them being doctors. Repetition layers memories over each other and these memories are also recalled through repetition as it ties stories and emotions together. There are three main storylines I will mention. An example would be Meredith’s narrations at the beginning and end of each episode. Meredith and Cristina have a fall out after working together on an assignment because Meredith promised her the reward surgery as she didn’t want to be near Derek. there are also three medical interest stories. This complex narrative makes use of repetition and memory despite some audiences regarding it as a bad thing. A) Meredith and Derek’s courting and their ignorance to their chemistry because of work rules. integrated whole (Newman. George’s patient dies and all interns have survived their first day. Burke’s (Isaiah Washington) attempts at earning the position of Chief over Derek Shephard and the competition between interns for the most interesting cases. Grey’s Anatomy has a 45 minute format. Meredith’s 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. and the second is the unification of themes and motifs into an orderly. Meredith found the answer to her patient’s mystery seizures with the help of Cristina and they resolve their dispute about the reward surgery. 2006:20). The medical cases of the last 48 hours have been attended to and solved. 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”). there is episodic closure although there are still ‘cliffhanger’ elements which draw the viewer back. 2006:19). “The First Cut is the deepest” and “Winning a Battle. George’s development as a doctor. storylines. The first is the resolution of narrative cause-effect chains. In this episode there are several storylines. Dr.Analysis of episodes as complex narratives In this analysis I will primarily focus on episode 1. with 22-24 episodes in a particular season. Each episode has a standalone theme such as “A Hard Day’s Night”. 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. Meredith’s voice-over narrations at the beginning and end of each episode introduce and conclude a unifying theme. Meredith panics when her seizure-patient becomes a code blue and throws up outside. When Derek chooses Meredith to scrub in instead of Cristina. Nothing is going right for George on his first day and they all have uninteresting tasks assigned to them. actions or phrases cues the memory within an episode and from episode to episode or over a season. In “A Hard Day’s Night” the interns have to face their first 48 hour call. At the end of the episode. Cristina’s pursuit to scrub in on a surgery. In addition. B) Cristina’s pessimism and unfavorable work drive and C). actions and word repetitions of the characters. From episode 2 onwards. Everyone is tired and Cristina’s irritability is shown when she snaps and calls George “007” and blames it on her lack of sleep. The theme also resonates through the lyrics of the songs played and most importantly the episode specific plot. The interns assigned to the ‘Nazi’ have their break “spot” in the basement where they complain to each other about their day.. The repetition of words. Like the serial. The return to the theme at the end of each episode brings a degree of thematic closure where there isn’t any specific episodic closure (Smit. The former is an example of episodic closure and the latter of serial closure. The episodes don’t end with straightforward cliff hangers.. “This narrative spectacle creates unforeseen sharp twists that cause the entire scenario to reboot changing the pg. This includes Meredith and Derek’s oscillating chase. 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 future. it has multiple storylines which continue and escalates from week to week. 3 . At the end of the pilot. Gray’s Anatomy uses plot twists to collide character arcs and narrative storylines. there is a “previously on. each containing a character’s difficulty on their first day which tie in to the show’s overall character arcs.” at the beginning of each episode which refreshes the memory of what happened in the last episode using juxtaposition of the most important moments. It is used is a meaningful and poetic way as meaning emerges not from a conclusive ending but through a poetic play of resonance. This complex narrative makes use of two kinds of closure. she feels betrayed because Meredith didn’t decline the offer. Losing the War”.

Meredith tells Cristina that she slept with Derek. confident and socially awkward. fighting her desires for Derek and staying human while being a surgeon. audiences watch television not because of action but rather because there are interesting and complex characters (Smit. a brilliant intern (who can’t help meddling and solving everyone else’s cases) but is also able to stand up for herself. 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. 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. characterization remains strong and distinctive for onetime viewers. From this we can identify the characters that have external struggles such as George who is struggling to be a doctor in practice. narratively engaging and emotionally honest to the characters and relationships” (Mittel. 2006:17). 4 . Although the characters are always evolving. Alex is a developing character that changes permanently as he is selfcentered and narcissistic in the first three episodes. In conclusion. but by season 11 becomes a “real person” and a true friend. Because of characterization. Characterization is very important in a complex narrative. “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. Cristina also addresses Alex (Justin Chambers) as “oh you’re the guy that called Meredith a nurse” and he responds with “you must be the pushy. Once again the viewer cares more about the character than the event. 2015). Cristina faces moral struggles in all three episodes when she reveals Meredith’s secret about Derek. a good friend. Grey’s Anatomy demonstrates a rich complex narrative structure with a redefined episodic mode of storytelling taking influence from serial narrative structures. It contains serial pg. lovable. It appeals to viewers by satisfying their desires for knowledge about these characters and for forging an emotional connection with them (Newman. first time viewers will assume Derek is a one night stand until Meredith sees Derek at work and they have an awkward meeting. 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. Cristina tells Izzie and later confronts Meredith out of anger in front of their colleagues. When they argue. if not abrupt. when she snaps at George because she is tired. when she becomes angry at Meredith because she didn’t get the surgery and in the manner she addresses the wife of her dead patient whose organs she wants to harvest. 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 Alzheimer’s. Another serial influence is the role of gossip in Grey’s Anatomy which also connects different plotlines within the narrative. These dialogues show that they have been talking amongst themselves about each other and provide the audience while character profiles. 2006:34). Over a period of time the audience becomes attached to the Grey’s Anatomy characters as they develop and grow more complex. In the beginning of the pilot. Meredith is a round character that is beautiful. But for a long-term viewer. 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.professional and interpersonal dynamics of nearly every character. overbearing kissass” in the second episode. It also cues the audience to remember what happened in the previous episode. 2015) Ongoing stories about compelling characters facing difficult obstacles allow the audience to create a sincere emotional connection with them. George is a developing character. 2006:19). 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. Meredith faces internal struggles keeping her mother’s condition a secret. Cristina is a stereotypical character that is immediately recognized as career driven. Throughout the episode mention has been made of Meredith’s mother.

qualities such as ongoing story arcs. [3196] Reference List: pg. 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). 5 . 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. The series’ exoskeleton structure. The focus shifts from events to character and back to events as they both complement each other. serial and episodic boundaries are reconceptualized producing ‘quality’ television. Together. chronology of the text and is typical episodic modes of storytelling demonstrated in the text. time frame. Characterization – a serial component is very important in this text as it adds to the complexity of the text. a sense of time and future for the audience.

29-40.Grey’s Anatomy. In The Velvet Light Trap.. 2015. Vol. 2006. J. p. From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetic of Television Narrative. 2006. 2005. M. Mittel. Z. Lectures notes distributed in the unit.. Television Studies.58 (1).. USA. 6 . p. A. Complex Narrative. In The Velvet Light Trap. Vol. American Broadcasting Channel. Newman. television recording.58. University of Cape Town. Cape Town on 27 July 2015.16-25 Smit. pg. Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.