Complex TV

p. 50-51: THE WEST WING

The “Noël” episode of West Wing exemplifies the complex use of such storytelling strategies: the episode is framed by Josh Lyman’s therapy session to process his posttraumatic stress reactions to being shot, which allows for the conventions of repeated flashbacks via Josh’s narration. However, the flashbacks are rampant and not clearly signaled as chronological, with sound bridges between the present-tense therapy and past- tense events adding to a sense of disorientation that the episode uses to increase tension and anxiety. Additionally, we see frequent dramatizations of Josh cutting his hand on a glass, an accident he claims to have happened but his therapist correctly suspects is a lie masking a more self-destructive act; these lying flashbacks are not differentiated from other past events until the end of the episode, leaving the audience to decode the contradictions and confusing chronology. The episode climaxes with a five-minute sequence interweaving disjointed sound and image from five different time frames (including one that never actually happened), rhythmically edited to convey a robust emotional arc—a presentational mode more common to European art cinema than American television but ultimately in service of a coherent ongoing narrative. This sequence is set to a White House performance of Yo-Yo Ma playing a Bach cello suite, a musical choice that highlights complex television’s baroque style, with themes and variation, elaborate ornamentations, multiple threads weaving together in counterpoint, and an invitation to examine and appreciate formal systems and innovation rather than classical norms. While much of the episode’s pleasure is serial, as the more we know Josh, the more we can emotionally engage with his breakdown, the episode stands alone as a dramatically compelling character portrait (which won actor Bradley Whitford an Emmy), but only if we accept its distinct storytelling conventions, a competency that regular viewers learn over time. Complex television programs invite temporary disorientation and confusion, allowing viewers to build up their comprehension skills through long-term viewing and active engagement.

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