Hidden Agendas, Endless Investigations, and the Dynamics of Complexity: The Conspiratorial Mode of Storytelling in Contemporary American Television Series

Abstract: In this paper, I explore a particular kind of narrative construction pervasive in contemporary American television series. Popular shows such as Lost, Battlestar Galactica, 24, Alias, or Fringe all similarly construct long-running narratives around their protagonists’ attempts to solve central underlying mysteries. By doing so, these series amass ever more complex backstories and perpetually complicate their individual webs of intersecting subplots and long-term story arcs. Drawing on narratology, concepts developed in television studies, and Mark Fenster’s work on Conspiracy Theories, I argue that the series’ success is indebted to a particular way of telling their stories—which I call the ‘conspiratorial mode’—that makes them ideally suited to operate within the competitive environment of post-network television. This article sketches the narrative structure of these conspiratorial shows, situates them in the context of contemporary television, and considers their curious dynamics of narrative progression and deferral. Finally, its goals are to suggest reasons for the recent resurgence of conspiracy narratives in television beyond and apart from a paranoia that is supposedly widespread in contemporary American culture.

T errorist attacks, mysterious men in black appearing at the sites of unexplained phenomena, alien invaders posing as humans in order to prepare large-scale invasions, inexplicable events that turn out to be connected to age-old conspiracies, and federal agents uncovering plots directed against the very core of American civilization—the amount of network and cable television shows preoccupied with the theme of conspiracy produced in post-9/11 America is striking. Be it the perpetual patriotic prowess of Jack Bauer’s attempts to foil terrorist plots on Fox’s 24 (2001-2010); the post-apocalyptic scenario of CBS’s Jericho (2006-2008), in which a conspiracy succeeds in nuking twenty-three of the largest cities in the United States to dust; the robotic terrorists whose sleeper cells work toward the destruction of all humanity on Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi/SyFy, 2003-2009); or the nefarious actions of Fringe’s (Fox, premiered in 2008) mad scientists, who overturn the laws of physics on a weekly basis: On television, the American order of things seems to be under a continual threat.

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