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Contemporary American Prime-Time Television Serials and the Logics of Conspiracy

by Ethan Tussey

by Felix Brinker for IN MEDIA RES

Ever since the phenomenal success of The X-Files (1993-2002), drama serials about the investigative exploits of cunning protagonists that seek to expose the nefarious schemes of hidden (and sometimes supernatural) powers have been a  mainstay of American prime-time television. Prime-time dramas that engage with the motif of conspiracy seem to be well suited to capture the attention of audiences in the US and elsewhere: As crime fictions of a grand (or even cosmic) scope, these series tell stories about secret plots against the reigning order of things, about far-flung intrigues that have thrown the (story-)world into disorder and turmoil – and about heroic figures seeking to put an end to such conspiratorial activity. Shows like Homeland (2011-present), Fringe (2008-2013), Torchwood: Miracle Day (2011), Lost (2004-2010), or Rubicon (2010) all similarly rely on this basic conflict between good investigators and evil, near-omnipotent/omnipresent conspirators and use it as a framing narrative to develop central, series-spanning story-lines.

Like other conspiracy narratives, these programs frame their entire diegeses as criminal cases that need to be solved – and they accordingly invite their audiences to side with the protagonists as these piece together evidence in order to uncover the truth behind terrorist attacks, government cover-ups, and/or paranormal phenomena. Such shows aim to ensure their viewers' long-term engagement by foregrounding the element of mystery: Like a good detective novel, they encourage their audiences get to the bottom of the puzzling events at the heart of the unfolding story, to solve the case before the protagonists do. This endeavor, however, usually turns out to be a fool's errand, as the narrative trajectory of these shows unfolds according to the logics of conspiracy. The plotlines of these shows “are structured in the manner of nested Russian dolls” (as Michael Barkun has put it with reference to conspiracy theories in general) – in them, every set of defeated conspirators is bound to be followed by another one cut from the same cloth, and every revealed truth must be countered by yet another surprising plot twist tailored to keep the lure of mystery intact. By perpetually withholding the definitive resolution of their central conflicts and mysteries, these shows ask their audiences to engage in ongoing, open-ended speculations and theorizing about the 'truth' behind the events unfolding on-screen – and they thus offer their viewers a 'safe', seemingly apolitical opportunity to engage with the narrative and interpretive logics of conspiracy theory.

Contemporary American Prime-Time Television Serials and the Logics of Conspiracy

Montage of clips from Homeland (2011-present), Fringe (2008-2013), Torchwood: Miracle Day (2011), Lost (2004-2010), and Rubicon (2010)

from Homeland, Fringe, Torchwood: Miracle Day, Lost, Rubicon (2008)
Creator: Gideon Raff,J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Russell T Davies, Jeffrey Lieber, Jason Horwitch
Distributor: Vimeo
Posted by Ethan Tussey