Television studies, as forged by the influence of cultural studies, has been loath to include critical evaluation in its toolbox, as television’s own spot on the receiving end of numerous aesthetic condemnations has pushed evaluative criticism off the field’s agenda. In this chapter, I explore a model of contextualized evaluation that does not recreate universal aesthetic values, but rather looks at how a series can define its own terms and parameters of evaluation, and how television scholars might productively engage with questions of value. Using the examples of The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, all of which have been hailed by critics as among the greatest television series in the medium’s history, I discuss how we can enter into medium-specific debates over value without recreating a canon or exclusionary critical practice, considering how complexity can function as an aesthetic asset in multiple ways.
This chapter draws from, adapts, and repurposes a number of pieces that I’ve published here, including my somewhat infamous Mad Men essay, my presentation from Hannover on this topic, and my discussion of Legitimating Television. But it’s all reframed and presented in what I hope is the clearest and most convincing articulation of a line of argument that’s not always gone over that well. I guess I keep trying…
I look forward to discussing these ideas in the margins of the MediaCommons site for this and the other chapters that await your feedback!
Filed under: Academia, Complex TV, Media Studies, Narrative, Taste, Television, TV Shows | Leave a Comment
Tags: breaking bad, Mad Men, The Wire
I finished watching the second season of Game of Thrones last night, which I enjoyed, but liked less than the first season (no spoilers forthcoming if you’re not caught up yet). I think a large part of that distinction came from how I watched them – like many, I came to season one late, bingeing on the entire 10-episode run in about a week. I had been spoiled on the season’s main death, but still very much enjoyed the narrative momentum and world-building. The second season had a lot of really great bits – like everyone, everything with Arya or Tyrion sparkles, and the “Blackwater” episode was an impressive set piece. But I had trouble tapping into the season’s rhythms and momentum watching in weekly installments.
One of my favorite critics, Todd VanDerWerff, wrote an interesting piece about the program’s narrative structure over at The A.V. Club, comparing it both to daytime soap operas and The Wire in terms of how it ranges from place to place, scene to scene over the course of an episode (see also a good post from a couple years ago about the issue of primetime versus daytime episodic structure from Jaime Weinman). I think that the structure of episodes is a huge and understudied factor in establishing a program’s rhythm and tone, and it’s something I’ve been able to touch on only briefly in my new book, Complex TV – mostly in the first main chapter, in comparing The Sopranos and The Wire‘s approaches to serial form. But I think Game of Thrones is an interesting contrast to such examples that points to the importance of scenic rhythms, which in turn helps explain how watching in weekly installments can differ from watching in a compressed binge.
Rhythm is a hard thing to analyze and measure, but one idea I’ve been toying with involves a little quantification: Scenes per Hour (SpH). Essentially, count the number of distinct scenes (which I’d roughly define as a continuous presentation of action in a single time and space), and then prorate them to arrive at how many scenes there would be in exactly 60 minutes of storytelling (not counting credits & recaps) – and I’ll count a montage sequence as a single scene, even though it contains numerous places and times. We can also compare the number of scenes to the number of discrete storylines or character combinations, or what I’ll call “foci,” highlighting the differences between following a small number of people/places over time versus cutting widely to cover a larger story scope. I’ve been logging a few examples of programs for awhile that will provide comparison for Game of Thrones:
Breaking Bad, “Grilled” – 15 SpH, 3 foci
This episode, where Tuco kidnaps Walt and Jesse, is one of the more claustrophobic episodes of the show, with only a bit more range than “The Fly” or “Four Days Out.” When we think of intense, slowburn storytelling, this is what we mean: long scenes, limited intercutting between stories (that disappears altogether in the final 1/3), tight narrative focus.
Mad Men, “The Suitcase” – 27 SpH, 3 foci
More like Breaking Bad in its tight focus – and really the final 2/3 only has one main focus in an atypical pattern – but shorter scenes to chop up an all-nighter into 45 minutes of screen time.
Lost, “Walkabout” – 48 SpH, 5 foci
A classic episode that doesn’t feel rushed or action-packed, but there’s a lot of interplay here between multiple story beats, presented in very short scenes (just over a minute on average). The way the scenes add up, with some action and twisty storytelling propulses the storytelling.
The Wire, “Refugees” – 41 SpH, 10+ foci
A season four episode chosen essentially at random, with many short scenes, spread out over very many plotlines – it’s hard to figure out precisely where a focus begins or ends on The Wire, as they interweave and overlap a lot. This is quite typical of The Wire, which juggles many plots by dropping into moments throughout an episode and cutting back and forth quickly. This leads to constant forward momentum (even when not much happens in a scene), and helps keep all of the stories fresh in mind.
Days of Our Lives, episode from 21 January, 2011 (chosen at random because it was online) – 55 SpH, 5 foci
A great comparison to The Wire, as the scenes are even shorter (34 in 37 minutes!), but spread out only among 5 storylines. The pattern is typical of most soaps, rotating through 4-6 storylines per episodes, with 5-6 scenes per story spread out over the running time. Not much action happens in each scene, with internal redundancy and the paradigmatic pleasures of hearing characters talk about each other and react to narrative information. (See this post for more of my thoughts on soaps’ questionable influence on primetime serials.)
Game of Thrones, “Valar Morghulis” – 16 SpH, 12 foci.
I am stunned by these numbers, which demonstrate how radically different Game of Thrones‘s rhythms are from the comparison point of soap operas or other primetime serials like The Wire. The long scene lengths and number of scenes rival the slowburn of Breaking Bad, but they are spread out over a Wire-like number of storylines, characters, and locations. Only three storylines get more than one scene in this finale (Tyrion, Robb, Danys), with most characters getting between 3 to 5 minutes to provide a last taste of narrative before going into hiatus for a long interseason gap.
This comparison points to why I find Game of Thrones to have problems of narrative momentum that are partly compensated by binge-watching. With only one or two scenes per most episodes, storylines have rarely feel propulsive, suspenseful, or otherwise engaging. They fall out of our active memory from week-to-week, and when we do hook onto a character or plot, they disappear for too long to be satisfying. When we binge, this is overcome as we treat multiple episodes more like the intercutting between stories more typical to television.
Game of Thrones‘s rhythms are far different from other serial television programs, whether daytime or primetime, and I think that’s in keeping with its source material of novels, where long scenes and sequences, intercut and distributed among chapters, work better due to the ability to read in more self-controlling timing. I wonder whether the novels of Game of Thrones (which I haven’t read) would be enjoyable if you had to wait a week between chunks of 50 pages? My guess is probably not, which speaks to the show’s problematic scenic rhythms that are poorly suited for weekly television. And thus I’ll be waiting even longer to binge on subsequent seasons.
[Update: I posted a follow-up piece thinking more about SpH as data, including charting a number of other programs as well. If you're quantitatively open-minded, check it out!]
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 10 Comments
Tags: breaking bad, Days of Our Lives, Game of Thrones, Lost, Mad Men, quantitative analysis, Scenes per Hour, soap opera, The Wire
One of the reasons I most enjoy studying the fan culture side of media studies is that fans can come up with some fascinating stuff, a boggling array of creativity discovered through the contraints provided by the source texts. I document some of the most interesting examples I’ve found in my chapter on “Orienting Paratexts,” ranging from The Tommy Westphall Universe Theory to The Wire‘s D&D alignment chart. I’m always on the lookout for the type of creativity that only exists in intertextual relationship with another pre-existing text, like the legendary play (and underrated film) Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead or brilliant television series Slings & Arrows, both of which write in the margins of Shakespeare to redefine our notions of “originality.”
Yesterday, a friend tweeted a link to a fascinating example of such an original intertext: And The Man Next To You. While the source material is not quite Shakespeare, the project has a similar investment in intertextual playfulness – as the site’s subtitle aptly explains, “The Tragic Backstory of Everyone Killed in Under Siege.” The Tumblr-hosted site is a serialized slow-motion walkthrough of the fairly forgettable Steven Seagal movie, freeze-framing each death and offering a brief account of each victim’s pitiable fate, as with this entry from 70 minutes into the film:
His parents worshipped at the church of ‘no’. He heard the word so often he mistook it for his name. Banned TV and confiscated music and friends he wasn’t allowed to see were supposed proof of their love for him, and the weight of their disappointment kept him pinned down in his bedroom until he was sixteen. Then he stole everything in the house that’d fit through the door and never looked back. His first ‘yes’ was to a tattoo, small at first, but he soon gave more and more of himself over to it. Back, ribs, shoulders, and heart. Now he just regrets not dying in a knife fight with his shirt hanging off him in ribbons. He wishes everyone could see what he’s become.
The concept seems like a clever idea on its own, kind of a McSweeney’s style high-concept experiment that you could imagine spending ten minutes reading. But it goes on and on as a piece of experimental fiction, accumulating bodies for months. It just struck me as both oddly fabulous and fabulously odd, achieving weight as it piles up. So I wanted to know who was behind it – and was happily surprised to discover that the author was actually my friend who tweeted it: Martyn Pedler, an Australian writer, screenwriter, and media scholar whom I know from conferences & the internets. I couldn’t resist digging into the site, and Martyn agreed to engage in a brief conversation to try to figure out what exactly this site is all about. I hope you enjoy reading both Martyn’s accounts of these tragic deaths, and what made Martyn discover more about the victims.
Filed under: Fandom, Film, New Media, Not Quite TV | 1 Comment
Tags: fan fiction, Under Siege
It’s time for another chapter of Complex TV to go live on MediaCommons Press—this time, the topic is Transmedia Storytelling. It builds on work I have done in recent years about how television narratives expand into other media, especially around Lost and its ARGs, but very few of the chapter’s ideas have been published elsewhere. As always, the chapters are designed to stand on their own, so don’t feel you need to have read any of the other ones to dive in here. Here’s the abstract:
As television series have become more complex in their narrative strategies, television itself has expanded its scope across a number of screens and platforms, complicating notions of medium-specificity at the very same time that television seems to have a clearer sense of distinct narrative form. This chapter explores how television narratives are expanded and complicated through transmedia extensions, including video games, novelizations, websites, online video, and alternate reality games. With specific analyses of transmedia strategies for Lost and Breaking Bad, I consider how television’s transmedia storytelling is grappling with issues of canonicity and audience segmentation, how transmedia reframes viewer expectations for the core television serial, and what transmedia possibilities might look like going forward.
I’ve been a bit disappointed that very few people have offered feedback in the comments at the MediaCommons Press site. I know that a number of American academic readers have been waiting until the spring semester finishes, and I’ve heard from a few other people that they’re reading but not commenting. If you have any thoughts about ways to improve participation, please let me know.
And for bonus content, check out the video for one of the Breaking Bad transmedia extensions I discuss, Team S.C.I.E.N.C.E.!
Filed under: Complex TV, Fandom, MediaCommons, Narrative, New Media, Television, TV Industry, TV Shows, Videogames, Viewers | 1 Comment
Tags: breaking bad, Lost, transmedia
I’m pleased to post the next chapter of Complex TV, focused on the topic of Orienting Paratexts. Here’s the abstract:
Along with shifts in the television industry and technologies, viewer practices have adapted to the digital era with new developments in how people consume narrative television. This chapter explores the range of paratexts that have emerged to help viewers make sense of complex television’s temporality, characters, plot, and spatial orientation, spanning a wide range of programs from St. Elsewhere to Game of Thrones. Through a detailed account of the fan wiki Lostpedia, I explore the complexity of how people watch television, and foreground notions of forensic fandom and drillability as modes of television spectatorship.
Of all the chapters in the book, this is the one which is most comprised of previously published or posted material (I promise the next will be unreleased material!). The first section was built on a talk I gave in the fall and posted here. Then I adapt & compress my essay on Lostpedia published in Transformative Works & Cultures. Finally, I poached from my piece on drillability that I wrote for Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford & Josh Green’s book on spreadable media (which won’t end up in the book directly, as it transformed during publication). I post these sources here not to suggest that this new chapter is redundant and derivative (that’s for you to judge), but to highlight how writing this book is very much a recursive process, weaving the old with the new and aiming to create something that feels unified and complete on its own. Did I succeed? Let me know in the comments!
As always, please offer feedback of any kind in the margins of the text, whether nitpicky copy edits, suggestive extensions or provocative condemnations – I welcome it all for this chapter, as well as the previously posted ones. Thanks in advance for reading & commenting.
Filed under: Books, Complex TV, Fandom, MediaCommons, Narrative, New Media, Television, TV Shows, Viewers | 1 Comment
Tags: complex television, Lost, lostpedia, paratext
I’d decided not to write about the pilot of Girls, the new HBO show that has either been hailed as the channel’s great comedy hope, or a crime against humanity (or maybe some middleground somewhere too). But after reading a lot of the criticism and commentary, and getting into at least four lengthy conversations on Twitter about it, I figured I’d assemble some thoughts to join in the fray beyond 140 characters.
I don’t have much to say about the show itself. I thought it was a very good pilot, establishing a distinctive tone, a couple of compelling characters, and making me laugh a fair amount. It wasn’t perfect–and if you’re comparing such things, I thought that Awake was still the strongest pilot of the year–as it did leave a little too much ambiguity as to how much we’re supposed to be laughing at versus laughing with the characters, and a few of the conversations felt a little stagey. But I liked it enough to keep watching, which is the primary job of a pilot.
But I did want to talk more about was the swirling commentary around the show (see Christine Becker’s roundup), where the critics who love it (based on the first three episodes that HBO sent in advance) might have set the expectation bar a little high–in large part, that’s probably because the next two episodes are reportedly stronger. Additionally, the marketing (which I’ve been ignorant of in Germany) seems to frame it as more of a “statement show” than it is–Hannah’s line about being “the voice of my generation” seems to have been decontextualized in the ads, stripped of the vital framing situation where she’s bullshitting her parents for money & high on opium. I also think the title is so broad as if to suggest that it’s universal, which it is decidedly not. So the show’s paratextual frame probably did Girls little favors in managing expectations, especially based on a single 30 minute episode.
However, the backlash seems equally unfair, if not more so. This backlash ranges from the outright misogynistic (mocking the weight & appearance of characters) to closeted sexism (calling Hannah whiny & bitchy for being unhappy, when comedy is full of unhappy leading men) on one side, with another strain critiquing the show’s focus on privileged, straight white characters living in an unrealistic, non-diverse vision of New York (which could describe many other big city sitcoms as well). To all of those criticizing the show on such grounds, I’d urge a little patience–after all, we’ve only seen 30 minutes of the series. This is particularly troubling when commenters & critics raise other programs in comparison, as I’ve seen people hold it up negatively (as well as positively) to a range of shows, including Louie, Seinfeld, Entourage (yeah, really), and Sex & the City.** But all of those programs have had years under their belts–and none of them started particularly strong themselves. Comparing a pilot to a long-running series is hazardous terrain, as you need to imagine that you only know its first installment, while still framed by how it develops into a long-running and/or acclaimed series. And, of course, this all echoes my last post about the dangers of trying to assess a program mid-season.
So how can we judge pilots? I’ve written at length about this–in fact, go to my book Complex TV and read a full chapter all about the poetics of pilots! In that chapter, I suggest that the two goals of a pilot are to educate viewers on what the show is, and inspire us to keep watching. It seems fair to give up on a show if the pilot fails at these two tasks: if you’re left uncertain how to make sense of the tone or storyworld, or if that which you do understand turns you off. If you find the characters on Girls annoying, find the humor unfunny, or find the milieu off-putting, then I’d guess you should stop watching, as that’s unlikely to change. (Of course if the grounds for being put off is thinking that the characters are fat and bitchy, then it’s not the show’s fault that you’re a judgmental prick.) But judging the politics of the show, its inclusion or exclusion of certain types of people or storylines, or its treatment of particular topics seems incredibly limiting based only one episode. Not to say that the first impression might not be correct, but it’s based on a small sample size, and I’d be loathe to condemn a show (especially publicly) without giving it a chance to fully express and develop its voice.
In any case, I’m sure that the hyperbolic praise, backlash, counter-backlash, and now meta-discussion will all fade. At the end of the season, we’ll have a show that’s distinctive and unlike most of the things it’s been compared to, and perhaps will be immensely pleasurable or painful for many. But it seems far too soon to invest much time in trying to figure out what Girls will be before it has a chance to get there.
** Note that Girls raises the Sex in the City comparison directly in the pilot, and I take that meta-moment as an explicit articulation of the show’s attempt to both update and undercut HBO’s previous take on four sexually active women in the city. The comparison that springs to mind is Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville as a response to The Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main St., but perhaps that’s only because both Phair and Girls‘s creator/star Lena Dunham both struck it big in high-profile cult realms after graduating Oberlin,*** succeeding in realms typically reserved for men using a forthright sexuality and highly literate tone. But it’s too soon to judge–I’ll reassess at the end of the season.
*** Yes, I stuck this in here mostly as a shout-out to Oberlin pride.
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 6 Comments
Last week, the TV-themed corners of the Internets were all atwitter around a pair of interviews David Simon gave, first to The New York Times, then to Alan Sepinwall at HitFix. I won’t try to summarize them fully, but I did want to weigh in on one of Simon’s core arguments about the place of episodic criticism. (Note: as I was writing this, Noel Murray posted his own take about this and related issues at The A.V. Club – like nearly everything Noel writes, I recommend it, and in this case, agree with pretty much all of it, so please read it!)
Part of Simon’s gripe is his annoyance over Grantland’s “Best Wire Character” bracket, especially in the site’s silly write-ups, if not the fan voting itself—even though I did vote (Bubbles 4EVA!), I agree about the way that type of fandom missed the point of the series. More interesting is his critique that weekly reviews of long-form serialized television often misconstrue a series, lacking the perspective of how any episode or plotline fits into the whole. I fully agree with his points on this for many series (including Simon’s own), where the long arcs often include moments in earlier episodes that might be less than satisfying or clear without the context of the whole. This is not to say there is no use for episodic reviews, which function (as Noel expresses eloquently) more as sites of conversation than definitive assessment. And as a media scholar, I find those in-the-moment evaluations and conversations essential windows into reception practices—what I wouldn’t have given to be able to look at such evidence from earlier programs in television history that I’ve written about, like Soap or Dragnet! But the rush to judgment, and the associated critical consensus that can develop around a show from week to week can be more damaging than illuminating to understanding the larger picture in the moment.
Case in point: Justified. Yesterday saw the conclusion of the third season, ending in a fantastic episode that brought together many of the season’s diverse plot threads and wove them into an emotionally powerful tapestry about fathers and sons, family, and going home. Before the finale, the online critical consensus was that season 3 was a let down from season 2’s superb tale of the Bennett crime family, with too many competing criminals and lack of thematic consistency. While I actually liked the season overall more than many critics, as I always found the performances compelling and the moment-to-moment dialogue and tone so pleasurable, there was a real sense of concern in the critical sphere of “what happened to Justified?” and could it regain its footing next year. But in the wake in the seemingly universal praise of the finale, perhaps those critics and commenters should revise their assessments of the show’s strengths. At least I would hope that they would notice how the themes and threads were subtly there throughout, even if they were not always apparent in the moment – I certainly have thought back on previous episodes and reconsidered how Arlo’s ramblings, Quarles’s backstory, and Winona’s pregnancy all relate in ways that I’d never picked up on.
My own experience doing weekly reviews is modest, as I blogged the final season of Lost for Antenna. In that process, I kept wanting to put a pin in certain moments and plotlines, withholding judgment until the final revelations help explain what we were watching and why. Certainly many people felt let down by Lost‘s finale, and I would argue in large part it was due to so much weight being put upon that reveal of the sideways universe’s true meaning, and the concept couldn’t quite support that much pressure. While I loved the opportunity to pontificate & converse about the show each week, I also saw how that evaluative context changed my reactions and expectations in ways that I might wish it had not.
There is no “pure” way to watch a program, but that doesn’t mean that all contexts and practices have equal impact – writing and reading episodic reviews, and engaging in such sites of conversation, changes our expectations and experiences in palpable ways. Some shows benefit from that – from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like Mad Men does, and I’d say that many comedies do as well – but others can get mired down in parsing out details or filling in gaps that we might need to reevaluate down the road. But two things that online culture is particularly poor at is withholding judgment and reevaluating experiences, as people tend to double down on their own perspectives more often than not. There is no simple answer here, as the benefits of weekly reviewing & conversations are compelling enough to keep going, and I’ll still read & write them. But I’d hope we could all dial down the absolutism, and try to step back and imagine larger contexts, and be open to them when they reveal themselves, rather than needing to revise our earlier scorn (or praise) in light of how things end up.
UPDATE: Check out Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent response to a number of pieces, including my own. And if you want some excellent Wire criticism that definitely looks at the series as a whole, watch Erlend Javik’s great video essay:
Filed under: Narrative, New Media, Television, TV Shows, Viewers | 6 Comments
Tags: criticism, justified, Lost, The Wire
I have decided to use my blog here in tandem with the site for Complex TV to offer context & references for each chapter as I release them this spring/summer. I hope this is useful in both promoting readership, and making it transparent how this book is coming together out of earlier pieces and new analyses. So today I have posted my first chapter in the topical section of the book, aptly entitled “Beginnings.” These chapters can be read in any order, but you should read the “Introduction” & core “Complexity in Context” chapter before the individual topical sections to establish the main approach and vocabulary I’ll be using throughout. Here’s the abstract of “Beginnings”:
Although long-form television serials are notably marked by their potentially eternal narrative middles, they all must start somewhere; this chapter explores how serials are launched with television pilots, considering the core functions of pilots as setting up the direction of a serial’s narrative thrust, teaching viewers how to watch the ongoing narrative, and inspiring them to commit to ongoing serialized consumption. The chapter uses a detailed case study of the Veronica Mars pilot to demonstrate how serials establish intrinsic norms for ongoing narratives, with references to strategies found in pilots of Twin Peaks, Arrested Development, Alias, Awake, How I Met Your Mother, Pushing Daisies, and Terriers.
This chapter reworks an older piece of mine about the Veronica Mars pilot, that had been drafted for an anthology but I pulled from print in order to maintain its open access here (as I described previously). I have also incorporated my previously-posted thoughts on Awake‘s pilot, while updating both of these pieces to account for some new ideas and vocabulary for describing pilots and their strategies. Since I talk at length about the Veronica Mars pilot’s opening scene, here it is for your viewing pleasure:
As always, I invite feedback on the MediaCommons Press site – and even though I’m serializing the release of chapters, I’m still carrying on conversations in the margins of every chapter, so feel free to catch up whenever you can!
Filed under: Books, Complex TV, Media Studies, MediaCommons, Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 1 Comment
Tags: alias, Arrested Development, awake, how i met your mother, pushing daisies, terriers, Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars
I am pleased to announce the launch of my book Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. As I’ve written previously, I am a firm believer in open-access publishing and experimenting with new forms of peer review and digital publishing. And even though I’m still in Germany, I’m participating via Skype in a workshop on online publishing at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in Boston this weekend. Thus in conjunction with my SCMS presentation, I offer a draft of my book manuscript for open peer-to-peer review online via the CommentPress system as hosted on MediaCommons Press – please visit the site to read it and provide feedback, and share the link broadly. Here is the brief abstract of the book, with the full book proposal available on the site:
Over the past two decades, American television has undergone major transformations in terms of technology, industrial structure, viewer practices, and the rise of new genres like reality programming. One of the most notable impacts of these shifts is the emergence of highly complex and elaborate forms of serial narrative, resulting in a robust period of formal experimentation and risky programming rarely seen in a medium that is typically viewed as formulaic and convention bound. Complex Television offers a sustained analysis of the poetics of television narrative in order to understand how the medium’s storytelling operates and how it fits into broader cultural contexts. Through close analyses of key programs, including The Wire, Lost, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Arrested Development, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, The West Wing, and How I Met Your Mother, I trace the emergence of this narrative mode, focusing on issues like viewer comprehension, transmedia storytelling, serial structures, fan engagement, and authorship. By applying theories of narratology and poetics developed in literary and film studies to the more culturally devalued medium of television, I hope to argue for a vision of television as the most vital and important storytelling medium of our time.
I will be posting it serially, with chapters going live every week or two for the next few months, with the book’s introduction and first chapter available now. This serialized format is in (large) part because I am still writing the book, but also because I want to give time for people to read each chapter and participate in the conversation, as well as the nice form/content resonance for a book about serial narrative. Much of the book’s content has been previewed here on this blog and in other publications, but hopefully the new versions are improved and more integrated into a long-form argument. As discussed in the introduction, the book’s chapters are not designed to be read cumulatively, so could certainly jump around with ease. You can follow updates for the book via Twitter, Facebook, or an email list for announcements. I hope to see you in the margins of the book!
Filed under: Academia, Complex TV, Media Studies, MediaCommons, Narrative, Publishing, Television | 1 Comment
One of the main jobs of any television pilot is to teach us how to watch the series yet to come. In large part, that means establishing the key elements of the narrative: the setting, the characters, the genre, the relationships. In complex narratives, that also means setting up the storytelling hook, especially where there’s a supernatural element, an overriding mystery, or otherwise a “high concept” gimmick to make the show stand out as distinct. And the pilot should set the tone, both for style and emotion—and if it’s a good show, stylistic & emotional tone should work in tandem, as with the colorful whimsy of Pushing Daisies or the sweeping importance of The West Wing. It quite rare of a pilot to do all of this, as most debut episodes give us placeholders for future development of characters, setting, or relationships, as there’s only so much story to tell within 45 minutes.
I just watched a pilot that seems to do it all: NBC’s new show Awake, Kyle Killen’s second attempt to do a network show about a man leading a double life (after 2010’s Lone Star became the season’s best-reviewed and least-watched show). You can watch it online if you’re in the U.S., and I highly recommend it—Awake is one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen, ranking alongside other favorites like Alias, Veronica Mars, Lost, and Pushing Daisies. If you’ve watched it, read on for some thoughts about how I think it might overcome some pitfalls of complex television—and if you haven’t watched it, seriously, follow that link!
The premise of Awake is seriously high concept: police detective Michael Britten gets into a deadly car accident with his family, and when he sleeps, he switches between a reality where his wife was killed but his teenage son survived, and one where his son died but his wife didn’t. The premise is easy to describe, but hard to convey what it means as a series—and the most common refrain from critics about the show is that it seems like it would be a great movie, but how will it work as an ongoing serial? I think the answer is there in pilot, less in terms of the concept and more about the tone, characters, and approach to storytelling.
As always with a pilot, the opening sequence is the key to set the parameters for what is to come. The show opens with the car crash, presented with painful violent energy culminating in three shots: unconscious wife Hannah, unconscious son Rex, husband Michael waking up. This last shot pulls back and rotates in corkscrew fashion to show the inverted wreck of the car, visualizing Michael’s world turned upside down (a visual effect that doesn’t come across as a bad pun unless you write about it). Over this shot, we hear the voice soon to be revealed as Michael’s therapist Dr. Lee say, “So tell me how this works.” Michael’s voice replies, “I don’t know. I close my eyes, I open them. Same as you.” We then cut to a shot of Hannah and Michael grieving at a funeral, clearly suggesting that Rex has died. Lee’s voice then says, “let’s just start at the beginning,” to which Michael says, “No.” We cut to Michael sitting in his therapy session to continue his line, “let’s start it right now.”
This starting 50 seconds is not particularly rich in narrative details—we learn that there was a car accident, and presumably Rex was killed in the accident—but it does give us some key clues on how to watch the show. First, the camerawork and editing is established as unconventionally stylized and free-roaming across time frames without explicit motivation, inviting us to pay attention to overt visual style in a way that few network programs do. The dialog sets up two poles for how to approach the story that will prove to be crucial—Lee takes an analytic tactic, as befits his profession, trying to understand how things work and grapple with origins. Michael wants to live in the now, downplaying that anything unusual is happening to him. These poles of engagement help structure the show’s narrative, as his dual (and dueling) therapists want to make rational sense of what’s happening to Michael as he flips between reality and a presumed dream, while Michael just wants to enjoy his split lives where he effectively can live without loss. As he says at the end of the pilot, “when it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress.”
These dual approaches mirror how we might engage with the unusual scenario as well—we can try to make rational sense of it to solve a mystery (“so tell me how this works”), or we can enjoy the now by accepting the premise as it is, not as a problem to be solved. As I’ve written about at length, much of complex television fosters a mode of forensic fandom where viewers are encouraged to solve such high-concept puzzles, to ask “why?” and presume there’s an answer to be found by drilling down and analyzing, much like with therapy (or academic analysis). But I read Awake’s pilot as an invitation to side with Michael, not only as our story’s protagonist, but as a role model for accepting what we’ve been given without wanting to know the reasons why—as viewers, Michael asks that we don’t focus on cracking the mystery of what is “really” going on here, or deduce which reality is real. [Spoiler: neither. It’s a TV show.]
The rest of the pilot focuses our attention on what matters most: Michael works on rebuilding his relationships with son and wife in the wake of the massive losses that each suffered, but he did not (at least fully). Michael learns how to make his condition an asset for doing his job, as experiences in each world seem to inform the cases he solves in the other. Michael develops coping strategies to orient himself across realities with colored bracelets as visual reminders, a technique mirrored in the dual color schemes and film tints that the show uses impressively to demarcate (and subtly blend) the two realms.
In many ways, the pilot might be seen as situating Awake within a specific subgenre: the supernatural detective drama. Although very different in tone and style, there’s a parallel here with the show Medium, which focused on Allison DuBois, a psychic who worked with the police to solve crimes. (And though I never watched it, Ghost Whisperer might be another apt parallel as well.) On Medium, there was never any issue as to whether Allison really was a psychic or how her powers worked—we simply accepted the fantastic premise that she communicated with the dead and enjoyed watching how it offered a twist on procedural cop plots and impacted her personal life (and as an aside, Medium’s portrait of a marriage and parenthood is one of the most compelling I’ve ever seen on TV). So might we read Michael similarly as a character with a special, somewhat inexplicable gift that both enriches and complicates his life? What if the overarching narrative of the show isn’t trying to “start at the beginning” to understand what is happening, but to “start it right now” to understand how his condition matters to him and others in his life?
I desperately hope that Awake will not fall into the trap that plagued other high concept series in recent years, like Flash Forward, The Event, and Day Break, where concerns about a compelling central mystery overrode all other storytelling imperatives. The quality of Awake’s writing, performances, visual style, and emotional realism give me faith, as it’s already produced a more compelling 45 minutes than any of those shows could cobble together out of their singular seasons. But I fear that the pull of forensic fandom might make it seem like the goal of the show is to provide answers to the mysterious concept, rather than exploring its consequences in the lives of characters whom I already care about. Of course a pilot is always a promissory note for what is (hopefully) to come, more than a blueprint to be followed, and much can change as a series develops. But after watching this excellent pilot, I hope that the series respects Michael Britten’s wishes by accepting him for who he is, not trying to solve his problem, and letting us immerse ourselves in both of his lives.
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 9 Comments
Tags: awake, medium, nbc, pilot
Over the past day, the internet – well, at least the corner of the internet that chatters and Twitters about television – blew up around Ryan McGee’s essay on The A.V. Club, provocatively titled “Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?: HBO and the decline of the episode.” It’s a must-read for people who are interested in television’s narrative structure, raising many crucial points and ideas, but coming to precisely the wrong conclusions. Given that I’m knee-deep in writing about television’s narrative structure, I felt compelled to reply.
McGee’s main argument is that The Sopranos and the HBO model of serialized drama has undermined the individual episode as a stand-alone unit that “contributes to the whole, but works on top of that as a singular, stand-alone hour of televised entertainment as well.” Instead he says that a novelistic approach to television emphasizes season and series arcs over individual episodes, treating them as “installments” without its own payoffs and pleasures, rather than episodes. (I’m not sure why he doesn’t extend the novel metaphor to call them “chapters” instead of “installments,” which I think is actually more apt.) As he writes, “An episode functions unto itself as a piece of entertainment, one that has an ebb and flow that can be enjoyed on its own terms. An installment serves the über-story of that season without regard for accomplishing anything substantial during its running time.”
I think his analysis of many specific shows is spot-on, especially in his praise of how Justified and Breaking Bad achieve this balance. I quibble with his nomination of The Sopranos as the cause of this phenomenon – within the main HBO canon, Sopranos is actually the least novelistic show, as individual episodes were (as David Chase has said a number of times) structured more like short stories in a thematic collection rather than chapters in a single novel. I’ve read a great (forthcoming) essay by Sean O’Sullivan that explores this point, highlighting how two of the show’s most acclaimed episodes, “College” and “Pine Barrens,” are highly stand-alone entries, and as a whole, the show is far less serialized than most other acclaimed 21st century dramas.
The Wire is a much better culprit in McGee’s scenario, as its episodes offer almost no self-contained plotlines – it’s nearly impossible for new viewers to watch a random episode of the show out-of-context and make sense of it, aside from season premieres. (I’ve written at length about why the novelistic metaphor fails for The Wire elsewhere, but focusing on different issues.) But does that mean that each episode doesn’t “accomplish anything substantial” or lacks its own internal structure and logic? Hell no. The Wire‘s approach to episodes is less about plot structure, and more about thematic and tonal parallels – episodes early in a season are less unified by any one plotline providing narrative satisfaction, but the pleasures of how they bounce off one another and raise thematic issues about the show’s portrait of urban America. They are undoubtedly installments or chapters in a greater whole, but also highly satisfying and effective hours of television.
But my main gripe with McGee’s argument is that he falls into a common trap for critics trying to chronicle a problematic trend: find a few examples that seem to fit his claims, then extrapolate on why those failures point to a larger problem. Yet there are many other counter-examples that run against that trend by successfully balancing the episodic/serial elements – The Good Wife, Doctor Who, Homeland, and Revenge all come to mind as currently airing shows, with older examples like Lost, Terriers, Battlestar Galactica, Pushing Daisies, and all the Joss Whedon shows.
The shows he picks out as demonstrating this problem all can be explained as suffering from different problems: Flash Forward failed in part because it had too much plotting (which I’d argue was not trying to mimic The Sopranos but Lost, which itself always aimed for that arc/episodic balance), but also because the plot was ludicrous and counter to effective dramatic suspense. Plus it changed showrunners three times in a single-season, and had an awful lead actor in Joseph Fiennes. He mentions The Killing, but I’d say it doesn’t fit the case at all – the show’s dramatic momentum stalls precisely because it tries to create more self-contained dramatic arcs that end up functioning as red herrings. The Walking Dead, which I’ve only watched the first season of, seems not particularly interested in long-arcs – zombies! run away! – but fails to find any investment in the characters’ survival aside from the visceral fear of evisceration. (He leads the essay with Luck, which I haven’t seen yet so I cannot comment.)
The achilles heel of all three of these shows is not the failure to create effective episodes, it’s the failure to create effective characters – we’ll happily spend time watching McNulty put together an Ikea bunkbed, or Walter White cleaning the superlab, not because we care about what is happening, but about who is doing the mundane action. Many great shows offer a central pleasure of hanging out with people who are enjoyable to spend time with, whether it’s the struggling musicians in Treme or wacky judges in The Good Wife. It is true that many of these shows’ opening episodes play better in retrospect rather than in the moment, as the characters need time to grow on us and allow us to discover their complexities and relationships.
Clearly the shows McGee laments didn’t create such people and environments (at least yet), but I don’t think that’s due to an over-reliance on arcing plots over episodic structure, nor are The Sopranos or The Wire to blame. We always need to remember that most new television shows fail, either commercially or creatively (or both) – whether it’s a complex long-arc drama or a light family sitcom, television programs always fall apart more frequently than they succeed. Such failures cannot be summed up in a trend that blames successful innovators for imitations that fall short. Failure is because of the most insightful and truthful sentence in McGee’s piece: “Creating a layered, lengthy narrative is really fucking hard.” Indeed.
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 19 Comments
Tags: breaking bad, flash forward, The Killing, The Sopranos, The Wire, Walking Dead
Recently there has been a debate raging within the film world around The Artist‘s appropriation of Bernard Hermann’s score to Vertigo (which itself appropriates Wagner), and Kim Novak’s poorly-worded attack on this act of cultural borrowing. The best response is to borrow more, as exemplified by Kevin Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz’s video remix contest at Press Play – the goal is to explore how Hermann’s highly emotional score changes the meanings of other film sequences through an act of remix.
I’ve enjoyed browsing the results, which range from examples that reinforce a film’s inherent melodrama, as in the climax of Toy Story 3, to unusual juxtapositions that add emotional heft where it never existed, perfectly exemplified by Jeanne Dielman peeling potatoes, to goofy tonal redefinitions like the credit sequence to The Jetsons. One of my favorites is this brief scene from Mean Girls, where the music both undercuts and reinforces the scene’s actions. As of this writing, there are 65 entries, with the contest closing on Friday – so if you’re inspired, get remixing!
I was convinced by Catherine Grant, who runs the essential Film Studies for Free site, to join the fray. Catherine posted about the pedagogical & scholarly uses of such mashup projects to really understand a film sequence, and contributed her own entry to the project. In browsing the entries to come up with my own submission, I noticed that nobody had contributed a scene from a television show – while the rules specify “a film,” I assume they’ll be open to a television program (which was, of course, shot on film).
I chose The Wire, not only because I know it well and love it so, but also because the series followed strict rules about its use of music: with only three brief exceptions, non-diegetic music never appears in the show until the final montage of each season. There is no score, as scenes are produced to feel as authentic and naturalistic as possible, with dialogue and performances serving providing most of the emotional triggers. So adding a highly emotional (some might even call it manipulative) piece of music to a scene is a drastic transformation. And to serve as this experiment’s subject, I chose one of the show’s most emotionally affecting scenes to get Vertigo-ed:
If you want to contrast, here’s the original unscored version:
What do we learn from this experiment? For me, the score certainly reinforces the emotional breakthrough Bubbles delivers in this scene, but it feels cheaper. One of the pleasures of The Wire is its comfort with silence – many of the show’s most memorable moments contain few sounds – and the lack of music allows the vernacular poetry of The Wire‘s language to shine through more fully. This sequence is in many ways the emotional climax of the entire 60 hour series, as we have followed Bubbles through many ups and downs – just as he has earned his sobriety chip, we have earned the emotional release of his testimonial. The score sweetens this to the point of overdose, making the emotions feel less earned.
Of course, I’ve seen this scene many times, so any changes are bound to feel artificial to me. I’m curious what people less immersed in The Wire might think of these dual versions – what do you think?
Filed under: Copyright, Fair Use, Film, New Media, Television, TV Shows | 4 Comments
Tags: mashup, remix, sound, The Wire, Vertigo
One of my academic hobby horses is Open Access, the movement to make scholarship freely available online. I’ve tried to model what embracing open access looks like through my own choices of where to publish, my practice of posting essays here pre-publication (and pulling the print publication when necessary), and my work with MediaCommons. I often read & recommend work about open access, such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s recent MLA talk that proposes a new way of thinking about scholarly work as “giving it away.” But while there are many fellow travelers who also believe in open access and try to practice what we preach, there is little coordination for how to articulate those beliefs and practices. In short, how do we make an group of individual’s actions feel like group action?
So in the spirit of open access, I want to float an idea – one that is certainly underdeveloped and needs a lot more input, but hopefully a community of fellow travelers can make something meaningful out of it. I think we need a set of standards for open access self-declaration – if you believe in open access, you need an effective way to publicly label your own practices in to state your individual standards and connect them to group norms. And these standards need to have cute little pictures.
This idea is inspired by CreativeCommons, which said instead of copyrighting a work with “All Rights Reserved,” you can use this set of standards to offer “Some Rights Reserved.” The power behind this model was, besides the legally binding fine print, the ease of selecting options – do I want to allow commercial derivatives or not? Share-alike? – and thus establishing a simple-to-understand set of parameters that creators might choose from, and translating it into iconic pictures & codes that gain widespread acceptance and understanding.
What might a similar set of open access practices look like? First, remember that these are standards of self-declaration, meaning that you are publicly saying what you will and will not do, not tied to individual works like with CC. Right now, the only comparable declarations I know about are individual blogs stating personal pledges (like danah boyd’s or others linked here) or blanket statements inviting signatories (like Research Without Walls). The problem with the former is that it’s too atomized & individual – how do I connect what danah does with what I do to call it a “movement”? The problem with the latter is that it’s too sweeping and inflexible, not applicable across disciplines, employment situation, and the like – I would never sign it as written, as it effectively closes off reviews of most book manuscripts and conferences, which are central to my field.
So we need someway to publicly declare our limits and practices that is more than individualized, but flexible enough to embrace multiple options. What I imagine is a website that allows you to create a profile, and then gives you a number of statements that you can opt-in to via checkbox. Then it creates a personal “Open Access ID Card” (with cute icons) that you can post to your personal website, faculty profile, Facebook, email signature or whatever, stating your practices publicly – and provide a quick URL to send to editors requesting you to review something that violates your declarations. The website would be searchable, so you can see other people’s declarations, and search for people who all selected a given practice (which could be useful for junior scholars to justify their choices with senior company). The type of declarations I imagine that would be options are:
- I will only publish in journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals.
- I will only peer-review journal articles for journals listed in the DOAJ.
- I will only serve on editorial boards for journals listed in the DOAJ.
- I will only sign publishing contracts that include the SPARC Author Addendum.
- I will only contribute book chapters to publishers that allow me to pre-publish a version of my manuscript to my personal website or institutional repository.
So that’s the idea. I know there are probably many reasons why it would be hard to come up with uniform options that are sufficiently flexible to span disciplines & appointments, specific enough to be coherent, and simple enough to be manageable. And I know that I have neither the time nor expertise to actually implement such a system. And maybe there’s something out there already that accomplishes these goals (if so, please link!). But I think it’s a useful idea to discuss and leverage our open platforms to devise some solutions for uniting our individual practices. So please discuss in comments, reblog, and run with it (after all, this post is CC licensed to be copied with attribution!). Just let me know where I can sign up.
Filed under: Academia, New Media, Not Quite TV, Open Access, Publishing | 6 Comments