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
Being in Germany since August, I feel quite detached from American television, even though that’s what I’m here to write and talk about. I’ve found ways to access the shows that I’m missing, but without the ease of my TiVo and the television schedule matching my timezone, I’m definitely watching less, and therefore more selectively. So as I approach my annual list of top programs, I feel like I’m mirroring critical consensus in large part because I’m only seeking out newer shows that critics I trust recommend, rather than sampling widely and carving my own path. But nonetheless, I certainly have opinions on much of what I’ve seen, and like to take advantage of my annual best-of to write a bit on what I’ve seen this year.
As always, I wait until the actual end of the year instead of how other sites run their lists in early December, as I’ve been catching up on a few things this month. Also, I don’t rank numerically or limit myself to any arbitrary number like 10 – I do have a Top Tier of the four shows that I do think are above the rest, but everything else is in alphabetical order. These are the best shows that I watched from this year, and there are probably some great ones I haven’t seen (Boardwalk Empire is one I know I need to watch, along with Downton Abbey, Misfits and the most recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm - and perhaps the insanity of American Horror Story). So please weigh in about what else I’ve overlooked & should seek out in 2012.
Filed under: Taste, Television, TV Shows | 5 Comments
Tags: archer, Best of, bob's burgers, breaking bad, community, cougar town, doctor who, enlightened, friday night lights, Game of Thrones, happy endings, justified, louie, men of a certain age, parks & recreation, revenge, south park, the good wife, treme
This is a busy week for the Popular Seriality group I’m working with here in Göttingen. First, we took over In Media Res for a series of posts about seriality – my own contribution was on Wednesday, focused on Breaking Bad and how it constructs character interiority through serial memory. Head over and join the conversation!
Today starts a mini-conference in Hannover, a city just north of Göttingen, about Cultural Distinctions Remediated. I’m giving the opening keynote today at 6pm, and wanted to share it here (below). It’s an extension of things I’ve written before about evaluation, quality TV, and cultural hierarchies, with a case study examining Breaking Bad and The Wire. It will be adapted for an anthology about television aesthetics, and incorporated into my current book project, so feedback would be quite helpful as I develop it further!
Filed under: Academia, Media Studies, Narrative, Taste, Television, TV Shows | 5 Comments
Tags: aesthetics, breaking bad, evaluation, quality television, The Wire
One of the great gifts of sabbatical is having the time to read books that are not immediately required for teaching or manuscript reviews. I’ve taken advantage of that by reading some fiction (and would highly recommend D.B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy if you’re into classic videogames and/or metafiction), as well as some scholarship. In the latter category, I want to both recommend and respond to Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine’s new book Legitimating Television: Media Convergence & Cultural Status. I agree with 90% of what they argue, and around half of their points were so good that I wish I had written them myself. I have no doubt that it will become a must-read book for contemporary television scholarship, and I hope their ideas and analyses are taken up and engaged with broadly. In short, if you’re reading my blog, you should read this book.
However… it’s the 10% where we disagree that I’ll focus on here. A few contextualizations are important first. The authors are good friends of mine from graduate school, and we remain in-touch online and always enjoy catching up at conferences. Thus knowing them and our relationship, I take the fact that they directly engage with and argue against some of my work in the book as a sign of respect (and hope they view this response in the same spirit, as I’ve invited them to continue the dialog here). Second, I will try to separate out my issues with the way they discuss my work and my take on their broader arguments. I’m sure an ungenerous reader could look at my response and write it off as sour grapes, but again, I highly recommend most of the book. Finally, this response will be part of a larger argument I’ll be making in a presentation next month at a the conference Cultural Distinctions Remediated at University of Hannover, so I will point toward larger arguments still to come, and welcome feedback to help me craft that talk.
Newman & Levine’s book is primarily a discursive analysis of how, over the last 20 years or so, American television has been culturally legitimated above its traditional “lowbrow” status, and a consideration of the cultural impacts of such discourses of legitimation. They do excellent historical work charting transformations in technology, critical discourses, programming strategies, and notions of authorship, mapping a compelling terrain of how we think about television today. I think their portrait of such discourses is quite strong, comprising the bulk of the book that I fully endorse, and they make a strong argument that we need to make such discursive formations visible in order to be aware of and counter underlying assumptions and implications that often remain hidden. My main quibble lies in what we’re supposed to do with this discursive history.
The book links the discourses of legitimation to structures of gender and class, highlighting how television has traditionally been feminized and stigmatized as lowbrow, arguing that recent legitimation practices work to masculinize and “class up” television. While I think this is correct, I do not see it as a self-evident problem to be avoided at all costs like Newman & Levine seem to, as suggested by the book’s final words: “We love television. But legitimizing that love at such a cost? Paying for the legitimation of the medium through a perpetuation of hierarchies of taste and cultural value and inequalities of class and gender? No” (171). Implied in this conclusion and their analysis throughout is a choice: we (as scholars, critics and viewers) can either embrace legitimation and its concomitant reinforcement of cultural hierarchies, or we can reject it, with the latter framed as the more politically progressive choice.
But that’s a false dichotomy. Rejecting legitimation discourse does not seem to me like a progressive move, as it simply reinforces other cultural hierarchies that still persist—their knock on legitimation seems to be in large part that it fails to counter, and subtly reinforces, pre-existing hierarchies of gender and class. But to me, rejecting legitimation doesn’t seem to challenge those assumptions as much as just leaving them in place; I’m in no way convinced that pre-legitimation was “better” than post-legitimation, so it ends up being a choice between two problems. The book spends its energy convincingly pointing out many of the embedded cultural assumptions present in legitimation discourse, but does not truly offer another option for how to engage with these issues except to point out their constructedness. Instead, we’re left with a can’t win scenario of either embracing a discourse they show to be built on regressive assumptions, or rely on previous cultural norms also built on regressive assumptions.
I think this gap is due a mistaken framing about how discursive formations work: they are not balloons that pop when they are shown to be social constructions, but rather are the only way we make sense of the world. Throughout the book, Newman & Levine examine sites of legitimation discourse and conclude their analyses by highlighting how gender and class hierarchies are embedded in these cultural formations, using this insight as a pin to pop the discursive balloon. But just because a discourse is not “truth” does not mean that it is not “true,” or at least has useful explanatory power—yes, the celebration of single-camera sitcoms marginalizes the tradition of multi-camera comedy via an implicit class distinction, but we can’t simply invalidate such shows or critical appreciations of them because of such discursive framing. For me, there is no place outside of discourse, so analyzing and acknowledging the constructedness of a discourse does not mean we must reject it. Instead, we need to come up with reflexive critical methods that acknowledge such constructions and avoid totalizing claims, while still making arguments within the discursive frames we have to work with.
What I wanted from the book that I did not get was a third way to discuss television’s cultural legitimation, moving beyond either accepting legitimation discourses of quality television and progress, or rejecting them as illegitimate or ungrounded. (In my talk at Hannover, I hope to offer such a third approach, specifically concerning cultural evaluation.) In the book’s final pages, they gesture toward some scholarship that they think does this, but do not detail how such approaches truly differ from the examples they hold up as problematic—I know most of the work they reference, and don’t really see how such works “examine convergence-era television without echoing broader discourses of legitimation” while other work they critique falls prey to such pitfalls (170). I would have appreciated a conclusion that models the type of analysis they are calling for, rather than ending by rejecting a body of scholarship that they see as lacking; arguably the bulk of the book offers such a model, but since it is framed as a meta-analysis it seems to be an unlikely prototype for future work.
This leads to how my own work is addressed in the book, mostly through the book’s final chapter on “Television Scholarship And/As Legitimation.” Again, I take it as a sign of respect that they take time to engage with my ideas and writing (and note that many of their references to my work are supportive and laudatory), and am happy to continue the conversation. However, I was disappointed in some of the choices they made in what they quoted and how they framed some of my points – I don’t want to be defensive in nit-picking their use of my work, but I want to contextualize and counter some of their characterizations, as well as redirecting the discussion toward other works that they do not engage with directly.
I was happy that Newman & Levine discussed my writing about the relationships between primetime and daytime serials, as Levine is an expert on soap operas (and one of my valued informers I’ve consulted with when writing about the genre). While they critiqued the way I distinguish between primetime and daytime serials, suggesting that I am devaluing soaps by “den[ying] an abiding influence or affinity between them” (166), they themselves outline a number of ways that primetime serials differ from soap opera form and content, such as privileging endings or disavowing relationship melodrama. Elsewhere, I have written at length about the gaps between these two formats, based on hopefully analytic claims about formal strategies and generic norms, but rather than arguing with these claims of influence or similarity, Newman & Levine conflate my analytic argument with an evaluative one. Likewise, in a footnote they dismiss my claim that I have not seen any evidence suggesting that primetime producers are directly influenced by soap operas, but they do not offer any evidence to the contrary documenting such influence. I would love to discuss the claims we both make about issues of influence and formal distinctions between daytime and primetime, but was disappointed with the limited way they treated this topic in their final chapter – I’m not insisting that I’m correct in my analysis, but I’d like to engage the questions we both raise in more depth.
In discussing my work on narrative complexity, they write: “[Mittell] states that he is not making an ‘explicitly evaluative’ claim about the worth of narrative complexity over ‘conventional programming.’ Still, one suspects that Mittell wants to assert that ‘the pleasures potentially offered by complex narratives are richer and more multifaceted than conventional programming’ but refrains from doing so overtly in this context” (163). Here’s the full quote they draw from, in my essay on narrative complexity:
Arguably, the pleasures potentially offered by complex narratives are richer and more multifaceted than conventional programming, but value judgments should be tied to individual programs rather than claiming the superiority of an entire narrational mode or genre. Thus while we should not shy away from evaluative dimensions in narrative transformations, the goal of my analysis is not to argue that contemporary television is somehow better than it was in the 1970s but rather to explore how and why narrative strategies have changed and to consider the broader cultural implications of this shift. (30)
I see a crucial distinction here – I am suggesting that we avoid evaluations at the level of genre or mode, yet they suggest that I am arguing for such evaluations under the dubious implicative phrasing of “one suspects.”
In the next paragraph, they quote two more sources to indicate how I’m complicit with legitimation discourses: a parenthetical aside in a piece I wrote for Flow where I admit to teaching television “that I think is great” in part to cultivate and broaden students’ tastes, and a promotional video I did for Middlebury College’s Meet the Faculty series, in which I do use “Golden Age” rhetoric explicitly. I think the latter quote is a bit unfair, as such videos are clearly different from the formal scholarship I have published on the topic, or even the more casual realm of blog posts—in such a short soundbite-y video, I couldn’t really go into the way I view cultural evaluation as discursively constructed and contingent, and the video producer explicitly asked me to respond to the Golden Age question (and I have never published anything where I call contemporary television a “Golden Age”). Thus even though they used words I spoke or wrote, I feel like my work was framed highly selectively to cast me in a role that feels more simplistic than deserved.
Regardless of what quotations they use to paint me as an unselfconscious legitimator, my real disappointment was what they didn’t engage with from my work. Beyond the issues of soap opera form I referenced above, I had hoped they would tackle some of my arguments in defense of evaluative scholarship, which (I assume) would feed into their analysis of legitimation discourses. For instance, in “Lost in a Great Story” (an article in their bibliography, but not specifically discussed in the book), I wrote:
I don’t yearn for a day in which television studies publishes a definitive canonical list delineating the best of television once and for all, but I relish the opportunity to openly debate the value of programs without suggesting that all evaluations are equally justifiable as idiosyncratic personal taste or simple ideological manifestations. Just because aesthetics can be done in a way that disenfranchises some positions does not require the evacuation of evaluative claims altogether in the name of an egalitarian (and I believe ultimately dishonest) poetics of inclusion…. In offering my own evaluative criticism here, I am not trying to convince anyone that Lost is the essence of television, or the pinnacle of the medium’s artistic possibilities. But it is a great show, and I wish to explore why. I hope to model a mode of evaluative criticism that avoids the universalistic and canonistic tendencies that other fields have been fighting over for decades. I imagine an explicit awareness of the practices of evaluation in all spheres of television creation and consumption, including a discussion and defense of our own taste practices. Such a mode of evaluation would not seek to make taste judgments the final words of a debate, but openings of a discussion. What makes shows like Buffy and Lost so appealing to scholars? How do criteria of cultural politics and poetics intersect or conflict? How might we account for our own shifts in taste as tied to changing cultural contexts, textual exposures, formal education, and transformed aesthetics? What might a non-foundational aesthetics of television look like, and how might we use such contingent evaluations in our teaching and scholarship? Just because we want to avoid the flaws of traditional aesthetic criticism doesn’t mean we cannot imagine a more sophisticated, historically-aware—and yes, better—way to place evaluation on the agenda of television studies and proudly acknowledge and examine our own tastes. (129-131)
I’m pretty sure Newman & Levine would disagree with these ideas, but I hope it would be a better argument than quoting from a promotional video to reductively characterize my position—perhaps we can have such a discussion here.
So in the end, I found the book disappointing, not paying off the excellent work of the first seven chapters by resorting to some underwhelming & poorly (or at least only partially) substantiated claims about my and other scholar’s positions. More importantly, their conclusion doesn’t show us how to move forward with these topics, except to always be aware of potential implications of legitimating discourses and reject their totalizing tendencies (which I would claim I and others are already doing). It’s one of my pet peeves that scholars should offer more positive models rather than negative critiques of each others’ work, and thus I felt like the final chapter undermined some of the positive work of most of the book. As mentioned before, I hope to continue this conversation, both in my future work charting out a more productive approach to evaluative scholarship, and in the comment thread here where hopefully the book’s authors and readers can discuss these issues in depth.
Filed under: Academia, Books, Media Studies, Taste, Television, TV History | 10 Comments
Last week, I traveled to Bochum, an industrial city in northwest Germany, to serve as a keynote speaker at the conference (Dis)Orientations: (dis)orienting media & narrative mazes. I enjoyed my time in Bochum and at the conference, connecting with some interesting European media scholars and exploring another German city and university.
My talk, “Serial Orientations: Mapping the Narrative Worlds of Contemporary Complex Television,” is from my book-in-progress, part of a chapter focused on paratexts used to help facilitate viewer understanding of serial television. Below is the text of my talk, which included a lot of visuals. Given that WordPress’s image embedding is high-maintenance, I’ve uploaded the slides to SlideShare, and if you’d like to follow along, you can read through the talk with the visuals in another window.
As always, feedback is welcome!
Filed under: Fandom, Narrative, New Media, Television, TV Shows, Viewers | 3 Comments
I’m writing from FROG 2011, the Vienna conference on videogames. This conference is unlike any other I’ve been to in a range of ways: it’s my first game studies conference, which means the range of presenters and disciplinary backgrounds is broader and more eclectic than at the typical television or media studies conference. It’s sponsored by the Austrian government agency B.U.P.P., which specifically focuses on “positive assessment” of videogames (and the head of the agency opened the conference with an anti-media effects joke) – such an agency is pretty much inconceivable in the American context. And it’s held in the Vienna Town Hall, which is a majestic gothic building, unlike the typical corporate hotel or university building where most conferences are held. (And simultaneous to the conference, the town hall is also hosting Game City, a videogame trade show open to the public, so it turns the building into a giant video playground!)
My presentation, which is posted below, is a pivot from my current research, my book Complex TV, into a project that I’m looking toward down the road about the role of play and ludic engagement with television. The paper will be included in a special issue of Eludamos deriving from the conference [updated - now published!], and I have room to add to the essay – any comments or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
Continue reading ‘Playing for Plot in the Lost and Portal Franchises’
Filed under: Narrative, New Media, Technology, TV Shows, Videogames | 7 Comments
Tags: Lost, portal, transmedia
For the media academics reading my blog, I want to briefly point to a position that my department is searching for this Fall:
Assistant Professor of Media Production, Middlebury College
The Film and Media Culture Department invites applications for a tenure track position in Media Production beginning September 2012. Appointment at the Assistant Professor level; completed M.F.A. or Ph.D. at time of appointment required. The successful candidate will primarily teach introductory and advanced courses in video and digital media production, spanning the range of narrative, documentary, and experimental work, as well as specialized production courses in topics such as animation, documentary, or digital media. Candidates should be versed and invested in the field of film and media studies as well as hands-on production, and thus would be able to teach additional critical studies courses per their interest and expertise. It is expected that this candidate will be an active media creator and producer, and ongoing creative output will be considered his/her primary professional development focus. The successful candidate should be comfortable teaching in a humanities-centered program anchored in film and media studies as part of an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum dedicated to bridging the gap between theory and practice. Details of the department’s mission, production facilities, and curriculum can be found on its homepage.
Applicants should provide evidence of creative potential and teaching excellence. All application materials must be received by November 15, 2011. Middlebury College uses Interfolio to collect all faculty job applications electronically. Email and paper applications will not be accepted. Through Interfolio, submit the following: a letter of application, addressed to search committee chair Christian Keathley, that outlines teaching and creative experiences and interests; a curriculum vitae; a sample of scholarly writing (max. 25 pages); sample(s) of production work (max. 15 mins.); three letters of recommendation, at least two of which should speak to the candidate’s teaching ability. Interfolio enables uploading of video to its own portfolio system, or embedding of links to existing website that presents your work (e.g., vimeo, youtube). Middlebury College is an Equal Opportunity Employer, committed to hiring a diverse faculty to complement the increasing diversity of the student body.
Please spread the word to any media producers/scholars who might be a good match for the position.
Just to be clear: I’m no longer the chair of my department, and I’ll be participating in a detached role in this search from my current perch in Germany. So I won’t be doing online Q&As and outreach as I did during our last search, but if you’re interested in the job, reviewing the posts and comments from the search I ran two years ago could be useful, as would be reviewing my various Middlebury-centered posts about how things work at my home institution & department.
Good luck on the job market!
Filed under: Academia, Middlebury, Teaching | Leave a Comment
Tags: job search
An old college friend posted the following on Facebook yesterday: “So I keep watching the show Louie, which I find to be the most depressingly realistic TV I’ve ever seen. I think it’s a really good show, but it’s about as far from comedy as one can get. Why is it called a comedy? The topics are exceedingly heavy, and handled with a minimum of drama – they are too realistic.” My brief reply to her was that the show could be as funny as anything on TV (citing the episode “Come On, God” about masturbation as an example), but that really it’s a show that transcends genre. Thinking more about it, and watching the truly amazing season finale “New Jersey/Airport,” I’m changing my tune.
There’s a history to me discussing television genre categories with college friends – I open my book Genre and Television with an anecdote about debating whether Northern Exposure was a comedy or a drama. And some of the points I brought up there apply to Louie - just as Northern Exposure fit the industrial criteria of a drama for its era (ensemble cast, hour-long format, serialized storylines, single-camera production without a laugh-track), Louie‘s basic attributes point to it clearly being a contemporary television comedy. It’s a half-hour show, produced much like many “quality” comedies today (single-camera without a laugh track), focuses on a titular stand-up comic in a long-standing television comedy tradition – and it’s often the funniest show on TV, with a distinctive comedic sensibility growing out of the commonplace gutter of jokes about farts and blowjobs.
Of course it’s much more than that – take the finale’s opening stand-up bit about the pleasures of sleep as a father. It starts with the familiar topic of parents griping about their kids waking them up early, and then gets more twisted as he vamps on the exquisite pleasures of “deep African sleep” with sleep as a “goddess whore sucking me off” with “a gold helmet and forty tongues… speaking in a dead language” (and it’s worth saying that the words alone cannot convey how hysterical this sequence is – Louis C.K.’s physicality and performance is essential to his comedy). This is the odd juxtaposition of conventional parenting and ribald blowjob forms of humor, filtered through a singularly warped creative vision. It’s clearly comedy, but its unconventional approach and rawness makes it push at the genre’s boundaries.
Note: I wanted to post this clip, but YouTube doesn’t care about fair use. So instead, watch a scene Louis C.K. posted himself from the first season that similarly plays with offensive humor, conventions and serious issues:
I’ve read critics comparing Louie to short films, collections of short stories, or art cinema, and while I think those are all apt, I’ve come to think that the cross-media comparison that best fits what Louis C.K. is doing on his show is making jazz albums for television. The show uses jazz music as its score, which invites this connection, but I think it’s more than the sonic tone – jazz is lodged in the show’s approach and genre. I’ve not seen anyone else make this comparison except this nice account of C.K.’s standup by jazz musician George Colligan:
Watching Louis C.K. is like watching an older jazz musician play; he’s totally comfortable on stage, he’s has total control over his material, and the audience is left in awe of his mastery. His material is highly observational, and it covers things we can all relate to, but he can examine the simplest ideas with such angry, twisted detail, that you are left breathless at the virtuosity of his explanations. C.K. draws much of his humor from his complete honesty, his shamelessness, his willingness to leave no stone unturned in his self-deprecation and criticism of society.
I’m not jazz expert or even much of a fan, but what I take away from reading about jazz is that much of the genre’s pleasure is found in taking the conventional and making it new, in the virtuosity of the performance, in exploring innovation within limits, and in the sense of passion coming through the expression. Louie is far from improvised – the visuals and performances are tightly controlled and calibrated (although perhaps some of the dialog scenes are more improvised, especially when Louie chats with other comics). But I think jazz is unfortunately equated with improvisation too often – much of what happens in jazz music is about control, precision, and working within established limits and patterns. Continue reading ‘Louie as Jazz for TV (with fart jokes)’
Filed under: Genre, Taste, Television, TV Shows | 9 Comments
Tags: jazz, louie