I was recently invited by The Conversation to write something for their site exploring some of the arguments of my new book for a general audience. I like reading The Conversation to see academics writing in a journalistic voice (something that some are better at than others) and support their embrace of CreativeCommons licensing and open republishing. So in that vein, here’s the piece below the fold – the arguments will be familiar to regular readers of Just TV, but hopefully worth sharing regardless.

Continue reading ‘Why has TV storytelling become so complex?: A journalistic take’

I’m holding in my hand a copy of my new book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling.

Complex TV selfie

Every book is its own unique journey. This one feels like the longest (which it was) and most significant, at least intellectually if not professionally. I presented the earliest version of the ideas that would eventually form the spine of the book over ten years ago, at a colloquium at Middlebury College, where my friend and colleague Michael Newbury made the hugely influential suggestion that I check out Neil Harris’s concept of the operational aesthetic as a parallel to what I was describing about television storytelling. I published the first essay that would chart the book’s vector in 2006, as “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” which definitely came out at the right time and place to generate a lot of enthusiasm and momentum for this project.

Even though over the past 10 years I wrote a different book and edited another, Complex TV has been the project that has occupied most of my thinking, that fueled my work during my wonderful year in Germany, and that framed my identity as a scholar. The overthinking pessimist in me thinks about the hole that its completion creates, the absence of scholarly identity and drive that has yet to be filled. But the rest of me shouts that side down, as I’m eager to celebrate the book’s launch at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference this week in Montreal and enjoy the sense of completion.

I want to briefly focus on the book’s paratexts, as I am as proud of how the book has been published as I am of the content. As many of you know, I wrote the book in public, posting each chapter to MediaCommons and soliciting open peer review throughout 2012-13. I’m happy to say that the MediaCommons draft of the book will remain online for the foreseeable future, serving both as an open access version of the book’s ideas and evidence of the writing process. Hopefully this will help demonstrate that making a book’s content available online for free helps rather than hurts a book’s sales. (Feel free to add to that evidence via NYU Press, Amazon, or your favorite bookseller!)

MediaCommons hosted the pre-print paratext, but I have created another site for the book, collecting supplementary videos of scenes that I reference and discuss in the book. The videos are hosted on Critical Commons, which is an essential site for sharing fair use video content. But the supplementary site is published in Scalar, an incredibly rich tool developed at USC for multimedia interactive publishing. I’m really happy with how the site turned out, combining quotes from the book and videos via a number of interfaces. I particularly like this gallery view, representing the book in thumbnail form.

Complex TV video gallery

So now my work is done. I leave it to the readers to explore the book and its paratexts, and please let me know what you think!

I have two new book chapters out that I want to share. The first is an essay called “Lengthy Interactions with Hideous Men: Walter White and the Serial Poetics of Television Antiheroes,” published in a brand new anthology, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives, edited by Roberta Pearson and Anthony Smith. The chapter, which is largely about Breaking Bad and antiheroes, is adapted from the Character chapter in Complex TV, so I won’t reproduce the content here.

The second is unrelated to television narrative altogether (or at least was, before I got hold of the topic and started off with a diversion into television studies). A couple of years ago, Mark J.P. Wolf invited me to contribute to a book he was editing about LEGO. I declined to write a chapter, as I was knee-deep in finishing Complex TV and couldn’t commit to an original research essay on a new topic, but I was interested in the topic and offered to write an afterword for the book.

It evolved into something a bit more pointed than a typical afterword, and I want to share it here now that the excellent book has been published as LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon and hopefully inspire people to read the whole book. I post it on the day that a crime against LEGO, against art, and against humanity itself was perpetrated: The LEGO Movie was snubbed in the Oscar nominations. It’s small solace, but I offer this essay in appreciation of how The LEGO Movie inspired my own thinking about how we can both build things up and tear them down productively.
Continue reading ‘D.I.Y. Disciplinarity — (Dis)Assembling LEGO Studies For The Academy’

This is not an organized or ranked list. This is a collection of the cultural things (mostly TV, but not exclusively) that I most loved in 2014, presented in alphabetical order. There are many things not on this list – they are absent because either I did not love them or I did not consume them. (If it is a movie, it’s probably the latter, as I saw almost no new films this year.)

The Americans – one of those odd series that I always fall way behind on, but always love when I watch it. I still have a few episodes left to finish the second season, which is completely inexplicable.

Andre Braugher’s performance on Brooklyn 99 – I enjoy the series well enough, but Braugher cements his status as one of television’s all-time most indelible performers with his supporting role. Has any sitcom ever been so defined by a purely deadpan character before? He never says a joke, but is always the funniest person on-screen. If I could find a video of his monologue from “The Mole” online, I’d provide it as Exhibit A for how to create humor without being funny.

Bob’s Burgers – I find myself taking it for granted by now, but Bob’s might be the greatest animated series since The Simpsons, and still completely unpredictable in its fifth season.

The Colbert Report – he went out in style, embracing both the egomania of the title character and the sense of gonzo absurdism that has always made the show more than just a satire of punditry.

Fargo – there was no reason to expect this would be anything but a failure. Instead, it took full advantage of its form, providing intertextual pleasures with the film, while functioning on its own as a delightfully dark morality play.

Girls – I still love it, and when it’s on target (like the beach house episode), nothing is quite like it.

The Good Wife – consistently the best show on television. Doing everything that makes both network and cable drama great, and getting better every season.

Hannibal – the first season was a dark romp; the second was pure madness. The finale was probably the most sustained example of avant garde filmmaking I’ve ever seen on television.

Her – released late last year, but I only saw it this summer, and I loved it too much to have it go unmentioned. Spike Jonze has directed four features, all perfect in their own ways.

Jane the Virgin – I love whimsy so much, and Jane nails its tone perfectly.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – taking the Daily Show model forward by embracing the long-form investigative comedy structure that the weekly non-commercial format allows.

The Leftovers – a searing season of television that was imperfect, but so powerful. Carrie Coon’s performance was probably the best I’ve seen this year, with this moment from the finale burned into my retinas for months:

The LEGO Movie – while I saw very few films this year, I’m pretty sure this would be one of the best I saw regardless. The first 3/4 are a pitch-perfect blend of action, comedy, and satire, while the final act makes it into a heartfelt postmodern masterpiece.

The LEGO Movie Videogame – my son and I play LEGO videogames together regularly, and this is my favorite. Besides nailing the tone of the film (and adding many more jokes), it’s the best implementation of the game series’s mechanics and gameplay yet.

Olive Kitteredge – one of the great untapped potentials of American television is creating miniseries adaptations of interesting novels, unfettered by the time constraints of film. A few years ago, Todd Haynes set the bar with his brilliant Mildred Pierce miniseries, and this year HBO succeeds again with Lisa Cholodenko’s wrenching miniseries. Amazing performances and sense of place.

Review – prior to this, I knew little of Andy Daly, but soon discovered his brilliance in a masterful comic performance. The scene in outer space was the most I laughed all year.

Serial / This American LifeI’ve been writing about Serial for Antenna, where I chart out many of the issues I have with it, especially its uneven use of its serial form. Nevertheless, it is great audio storytelling that has rightly garnered attention. But I hope it will inspire people to listen more to This American Life (from which it spun off), which still does thoughtful nonfiction audio better than anyone – probably my favorite podcast moment of the year was this story about a man leaving a Utah cult with his kids, featuring heartbreaking music from Stephen Merritt.

Solforge – despite having taught a videogame course this spring, I played very few traditional console or PC games this year, and nothing notable (except LEGO Movie Videogame). But I played a lot of mobile games, and by far my favorite is this collectable card game that takes full advantage of its native digital format—think Magic the Gathering but not constrained by the material limits of cards. I’ve tried the far-more-popular Hearthstone, but Solforge has more imaginative gameplay and interesting mechanics. Like all CCGs, it takes awhile to get into it, but if you sign-up via this link, I’d be happy to send you some cards to help build decks.

Transparent – in a year with many great new series, I think this was my favorite. Despite having no characters who are conventionally likeable, it exudes warmth and affection.

Sharon Van Etten, “Are We There” – “Tramp” was my favorite album of 2012, so I was skeptical that this year’s follow-up could match those heights. “Are We There” might even be better, working as one of those albums that I simply cannot stop listening to.

Veep – I’m uncertain with the direction the plot took this season, but no series is more consistent in generating laughs.

The Wire scholarship – Although it is widely regarded by academics as peerless television, scholarship about The Wire has been pretty erratic. 2014 saw the publication of two excellent and accessible (and short!) about the series, both of which I had the honor of reviewing pre-publication: Frank Kelleter’s Serial Agencies: The Wire and its Readers is a compelling take on the cultural circulation of the series, while Linda Williams’s On The Wire is an impressive analysis of the series in the framework of melodrama. Both are highly recommended for Wire fans & scholars alike.

You’re the Worst – again, no expectations helped make this comedy into a surprising little gem, with far more of a soul than its misanthropic premise might suggest.

One final trend to mention is that this seems to have been the year when television direction began to eclipse (or at least match) its writing. There have always been series whose style and tone help distinguish them, but so many of my favorite series this year (Fargo, Transparent, Hannibal, Girls, The Leftovers, Olive Kitteredge) were notable for their innovative and striking visual and sonic sensibilities. Even series that I didn’t love this year, like True Detective, Louie, Game of Thrones, Gracepoint, and The Missing (and some I haven’t watched yet, like The Knick and The Honorable Woman), stood out more for their excellent direction more than writing (at least this year). It will be interesting to see how this plays out going forward, as TV’s production model still privileges writers over directors, but perhaps this is shifting, as per The Knick.

Finally, one of the worst elements of 2014 was how bad I’ve been in terms of blogging. I really hope to post more frequently in 2015 – see you then!

[I know this has been a dormant site for months, and I have a draft post called “Too Busy to Blog” explaining why & what I’ve been up to, but I’ve not had time to finish it! But I just had some thoughts that are TLFT (too long for Twitter) that I wanted to throw out there. So here you go…]

I have been following the so-called #GamerGate story fairly closely (for strong overviews/analyses of what this story is all about, read this or this or this). In large part, my interest stems from having taught my first videogames course last semester, where we watched the Feminist Frequency “Tropes vs. Women” videos and read about the first wave of backlash against creator/critic Anita Sarkeesian, as well as exploring games & writings by women critics & independent developers. In that class, the reluctant and defensive reactions from some of my male students, and the resulting frustrations of some of my female students, was a pedagogical minefield that I tried to navigate effectively, but never felt like I fully engaged the issues sufficiently. Although my students never ventured into hate speech and misogyny, some of the less hateful GamerGate discourse feels like it comes from a similar place, with a palpable anxiety and discomfort in reaction to a feminist critique of games and presence of women within game culture – that type of anxiety rarely gets expressed when I explore similar issues about television and film.

What I find inexplicable about such anxiety, which has triggered verbal violence, digital vandalism, and serious threats of physical harm, is why challenging gender representations and calling to broaden the types of games that get made & praised should matter so much to consumers of the current mainstream. Obviously, outright misogyny should be condemned rather than explained, but I do think there is something to be gained by trying to understand the more mild and less overtly hateful GamerGate expressions—not to justify the movement in any way, but to try to figure out how we might engage in conversation and education. Sarkeesian’s excellent videos are quite measured in their approach to games as a medium, and clearly aim to educate over censoring. And yet so many people react as if they are being personally attacked, or if somehow Sarkeesian or other feminist critics are legitimately threatening to take away their toys. While there’s nothing rational about misogyny, I don’t think the defensiveness I saw in my students came from that hateful place, nor do I think all people supporting the idea of GamerGate are motivated by misogyny (although those who are attacking Sarkeesian, Quinn, Wu and other women in gaming clearly are). Why would people get so worked up about such critiques to warrant such activism, spending a massive amount of time and energy to campaign for something as ultimately pointless as “improved ethics in game journalism” (especially since there are so many more pressing ethical issues in gaming)? Why does it matter to them so much?

Here’s my current working theory: these gamers are blinded by taste privilege.

What do I mean by “taste privilege,” a phrase I’ve not seen referenced elsewhere (but please let me know if you’ve seen similar usage, as this is a concept I’d like to explore more in my research)? There are many different ways to define and conceptualize privilege, but one that makes sense for me (as a person of privilege) is that privilege is the freedom to not notice difference. In most contexts, I’m perfectly able to imagine that my experiences are shared, commonplace norms, rather than defined by my identity in ways that other people would experience differently. There is rarely a consequence for me to assume that other people see the world as I do, sharing the same access, rights, and freedoms. Basically, privilege is the freedom to ignore your own privilege.

It seems pretty obvious how such privilege operates over axes of difference like gender, race, sexuality, and class – the U.S. works with an assumed norm of straight, white, men with economic means. As someone who fits that bill, it’s easy to ignore the way that other people are disenfranchised by our system, while those outside that norm notice those barriers and structural obstacles all the time. So if you have privilege, the default is to be simply unaware of it – that’s not an act of malice, but one of ignorance. It takes lots of ongoing work and education to recognize your own privilege, and even more work to see the world outside your own experience.

So what does this have to do with taste? If you’re part of the dominant norm and your cultural tastes are either mainstream or affirmed by a sizable & valued group, you have taste privilege – you are free to ignore that other people experience that culture differently. Popular culture is structured by taste privilege, where the privileged audience is targeted and others are taken for granted, or given marginalized options. For instance, children’s media has long been guided by the assumption that girls will watch boy-centered texts, but boys will not watch girl-centered ones; thus girl viewers must learn to find places for themselves in boy-centric media, while boys with taste privilege never need to learn that skill. Similarly, television has frequently offered highly successful programs or channels targeting African-American or Spanish-speaking viewers—taste privilege is the ability to claim to be well-versed in mainstream television without acknowledging or even being aware of the huge popularity of Tyler Perry’s programs or Univision. While writing this post, I found another great example of taste privilege in reactionary action: although he doesn’t use the phrase, this piece by Arthur Chu hits at similar concepts quite well, focused on the parallel between GamerGate and the anti-disco movement of the late-1970s.

Because both privilege and intense commitment to your taste breed righteousness, the commonplace reaction when people who disagree with your privileged taste is dismissal, writing them off with “they just don’t get it.” But what happens when that disagreement expands into outright critique, and other forms of culture feel like they are getting more attention and validation than your own? Dismissal can morph into defensiveness, communal reinforcement of your shared tastes, and lashing out in anger toward those who seem to be “threatening” your privilege to be unaware of difference. If such anger clusters into a community, it will attract the truly hateful violent voices like those who have committed acts of terrorism and abuse in the name of GamerGate.

There is no rational reason that gamers would see positive reviews of experimental games like Depression Quest or Sarkeesian’s critiques of gender representations in gaming as a legitimate threats to the dominance of mainstream male-centered games within the marketplace—any more than gay marriages “threaten” straight marriages or women getting equal pay to men “threatens” male employment. Certainly my first reaction to reading GamerGate griping was “why on earth does this matter to you so much?” But we need to remember that all of these cultural shifts or policies make privilege visible to the privileged: when your unspoken norm is spoken, it loses its assumed, invisible status, and this feels like a threat. That revelation of privilege can hurt, as people with such privilege have not had a lifetime of experience processing the role of difference and inequality, so it can feel like a sudden shock to the system and disruption of your assumptions. You put that sense of shock, threat and hurt into a community defined by a love for a medium foregrounding violent simulations, anonymous smack talk, and demeaning representations of people outside the dominant norm, you get GamerGate.

Here’s the good news: education and experience help. I’ve seen this with my students, my friends, myself. We should remember that acting on privilege is not an neither an act of malice, nor an excuse for acting with malice. Engaging the conversation with people who are willing and able to listen is the best hope we have for freezing out those who are not, as evidenced with some examples linked from this piece. That’s why I think Sarkeesian is a hero: in the face of hatred, violence, and threats of physical harm, she continues to educate and engage the conversation.

In that spirit, I welcome productive, civil conversation below.

At the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in Seattle, I am part of a workshop on “Making Digital Scholarship Count,” where we are discussing how to frame digital projects for hiring, tenure, and promotion. One of the points that I am making is that external reviewers in the tenure process are important figures in framing a candidate’s digital work as part of a scholar’s portfolio. But until you are asked to do these reviews, you never see examples of the form, and once you do write them, they disappear into a locked black box of internal use only.

So I have decided to share some of this hidden genre of writing, offering some quotations from external letters that I have written about tenure and promotion candidates’ digital work. I have obscured the identity of the scholars, and I believe that in each case the promotion case was successful. I hope these examples provide models and frames of reference for other reviewers, for junior scholars putting together dossiers to frame their own work, and for T&P committees to see the type of benefits for doing digital work within media studies (or other fields). I’ve sequenced the excerpts in order of prominence of the digital within the portfolios, from lesser to greater.

This excerpt is about an assistant professor who was a blogger:

I do also want to mention X’s work on his blog, XXX. The rise of blogging within media studies, especially among untenured faculty talking about their research, pedagogy, and critical response to contemporary culture, has been a key development over the past few years, and X has been an active participant in that community. While he is not the most frequent poster, his comments are invariably thoughtful and detailed, and I believe his blog has helped him establish a solid reputation within media studies as an emerging scholar. While self-published commentary is not “tenurable” work per se, I do believe it is part a broader part of a scholar’s commitment to disseminating knowledge and promoting critical engagement with culture, and as such should be commended and encouraged.

This next candidate was an even more active blogger whose online writings helped establish her academic identity and reputation:

In addition to her more traditional scholarship, I believe it is important to consider X’s online writing in assessing her place in the field. Her blog is written in a casual and humorous tone, and certainly makes no claims to be formally academic. However, the quality of her insights into film and other aspects of popular culture shine through the humorous tone. In fact, reading her blog before seeing any of X’s scholarship made me want to seek out her formal publications and read what she contributed to sites like Flow, as I was impressed with the depth of thinking and quality of insight within blog posts. Additionally, I firmly believe that within the contemporary media environment, the best way for a scholar to boost their reputation is to maintain a vibrant online presence, putting their work and ideas out there for people to discover and engage with. X does this in a way that allows her to explore various writing voices and get feedback for ideas in progress, as well as developing scholarly networks across subfields and different regions. I have no doubt that without her active online writing, X would have a less significant reputation and it would take longer for readers to discover the value of her formal scholarly publications.

This next excerpt comes from a candidate who ran a significant scholarly website—I was specifically asked only to review her online materials (not her formal published scholarship), which I took as a good sign that the committee was trying to evaluate her work on its own terms, not treating the digital work as just a “side bonus project”:

In looking at X’s work on XXX, it is tempting to try to compare the website to a more traditional form of scholarly communication. I could certainly highlight how it resembles a well-regarded journal (with an excellent editorial board and regular publication of scholarship that has been edited and reviewed), or a scholarly conference (with ongoing conversations in response to authors presenting academic material). However, I think XXX is best understood as a scholarly community, hosting multiple platforms of publication and conversation, and fostering a growing population of contributors and readers around shared interests and expertise. The efforts to develop and maintain such a community, while ensuring high-quality content and active participation, are enormously difficult, and thus she must be commended for the consistent quality of the site’s content and active level of participation of its readers and authors. It is a unique resource within the broader field of media studies, and one that I would like to see other subfields emulate… Within media studies, scholarly communication is increasingly conducted digitally and XXX is a model for how to create a high-quality, rigorous, and academically validated venue for online scholarly discourse.

I would like to single out one of X’s posts as indicative of the strengths of both her scholarship and the site that she edits.  The essay itself is an engagingly written, effectively illustrated piece that opens up numerous questions through a close analysis of [topic]—it is not a full-fledged research article, but a 2,000 word piece of critical writing that is poised to engage a broad array of readers better than a longer research article. The 17 comments on the essay highlight the nature of open peer review better than nearly any example of online scholarship I have seen—commenters range from highly supportive to skeptical to hostile, with some referencing other source material and others engaging in constructive debate. Given that [the topic] frequently raises the hackles of readers resistant to cultural criticism, and [the subject] often prompts defensive posturing from fans, I was not surprised that the discussion got heated; however the heat became productive via constructive dialogue, with X contributing clarifications of her argument and other scholars joining to support her claims. In short, this type of dialogue and debate is what scholarly review should look like when conducted in public, providing a range of perspectives for readers to use in making sense of academic discourse and argumentation.

Finally, this candidate’s dossier was fully immersed in digital projects, both born-digital scholarly pieces and creative digital work:

X has demonstrated a commitment to publishing his work in open venues, whether via open access journals, books with free online versions, or via his blog as public scholarship; I share his belief in such open access publishing, as it reinforces how faculty should make our work serve more than insider academic conversations or acquiring another line on a personal C.V., but actually be read and disseminated across a wider range of readerships. As a member of [his program], such a commitment to open access is particularly important to spread and share the work that comes out of the collaborations between your faculty and students…

His creative works… all use digital techniques to explore new forms of creative expression and critical commentary. Such experimental work is difficult to situate in a tenure dossier, as it lacks peer review and often is not even framed as a scholarly act. But X’s online presence… models an attitude that embraces experimentation and boundary crossing that can produce scholarly insights and critical reflection…. While such experiments might not merit tenure on their own right, I think it is important to include such experimental work as part of X’s scholarly profile and recognize such creative explorations as a vital part of the professional output of a scholar of digital media.

For me, the takeaways of these excerpts is that framing matters, and the job of the external reviewer is to give departments and committees references and analogues that are more familiar, while highlighting what makes digital scholarship unique and important. I always try to imagine what skepticism or confusion might arise, and preemptively explain those elements away without becoming defensive or hostile to skeptics.

I hope these excerpts are useful to people in various capacities – and I encourage discussion in the comments about issues they raise, further questions, or other examples that might help illuminate this highly secretive and anxiety-saturated process.

Like many HBO viewers, I was excited for last night’s finale of True Detective. I found much of the season compelling and captivating television, creating a stylized sense of place, a foreboding mystery, innovative narrative techniques, and two engaging characters played by masterful screen actors. I am enthusiastic about the hybrid form of the serial anthology, with short seasons each telling a stand-alone story under a shared creative banner. However, nine hours before the finale aired, I tweeted the following:

Trying to think of a season finale with as much weight as #TrueDetective has. The resolution could make season anything from OK to perfect.
3/9/14 12:02 PM

I did not mean to suggest that a bad finale would make the series bad, as nothing can retroactively invalidate the enjoyment found in watching previous episodes. However, a finale can invalidate certain open-ended issues about which a serial demands we withhold judgment until they are resolved—thus for Battlestar Galactica, a problematic finale takes little away from the entire series for me, but it does make the final season’s plotlines and Starbuck’s character arc seem weaker and more disappointing. In large part because it was designed as a single authored miniseries, True Detective had an unusually large number of these open-ended issues waiting to be resolved or confirmed in the finale. And I found pretty much every choice that the finale made disappointing enough to undo most of the good will I had granted it for the previous seven episodes—and infuriating enough to fuel an insomniac twitter rant last night. Spoilery fleshing out of that rant beneath the fold.

Continue reading ‘True Disappointment’

Recently, I looked over the preliminary program for the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in March, so I could book travel arrangements for Seattle. Normally this would create excitement—I’ve been to most SCMS conferences since 1996, and it’s usually a great event to see old friends, meet new people, and hopefully hear some interesting research. But looking over this program caused flashbacks to last year’s conference, which was probably my least favorite ever. I left Chicago last March thinking that the status quo of SCMS conferences needed some major changes, and this year’s program seems to be more of the same, making me wonder if the current model is stuck in stone, or able to be improved with a few reforms (that I brainstorm below). Note that my perspective might be an outlier, as the survey following the last conference seems to suggest more broad satisfaction than I felt, so take my critiques as no more than one person’s opinion, but perhaps others can weigh in via the comments.

I have a personal policy of not griping about something within an organization that I wouldn’t be willing to help try to fix. So I’m not trying to suggest that other people should do their jobs better. Rather, I think we need to have a deeper discussion as an organization as to what the conference is for, who it’s meant to serve, and how to best accomplish those goals in an era where anyone can post a lecture, a paper, or a discussion online (while travel costs rise and funding dries up). I also know that I write from a position of extreme privilege: I am an SCMS “insider” who feels pretty confident that my proposals will be accepted, and I have ample funding and the familial support to be able to travel without scrambling for childcare or going into debt to attend. The hardships that the current conference model creates impact me far less than most members, so hopefully it’s clear that I’m not proposing changes primarily out of self-interest, but rather sustaining broad interest in the organization.

For me, the goal of a conference is to host engaging conversations about research, teaching, and related academic issues. Last year’s Chicago conference seemed broken to me because it generally failed to generate such conversations (at least in my presence). Many of its flaws stood out in contrast to the MLA Convention I attended (for the first time) two months previously. Even though MLA has a reputation for being a massively overwhelming experience, it actually struck me as more efficient, more streamlined, and more engaging than SCMS (with the caveat that I was not involved in any job searches, so I didn’t have to endure that anxiety). Much of that efficiency stems from MLA being a larger and richer organization (thank you, style guides!), so they can afford to invest more in conference planning and can use their muscle to negotiate better hotel & facility deals. A big problem with the Chicago SCMS was the inadequate facilities at The Drake Hotel, as most of the rooms I saw sessions in were completely inappropriate to the size of the audience or poorly laid out for a panel. Maybe addressing those issues are insurmountable due to our size and resources, but there are other changes that seem more feasible, as I detail below.

Continue reading ‘A Few Thoughts on Improving the SCMS Conference’

I saw Gravity this weekend, and like many viewers and critics, I loved it. And as a sign of that enjoyment, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. As I always do when I encounter a piece of culture that I love, I’ve been reading about it, looking for critics who can explore some of the ideas I’ve been obsessing about. The review that best captures my feeling about it is Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece, highlighting the juxtaposition of grandiose visual splendor and simple narrative intimacy. Even more thought provoking is Christopher Dole’s impressive analysis of Gravity‘s narrative structure, thematic focus, use of stars, and visual style—if you’re going to read one piece on the film, that’s the one I’d recommend.

But none of the criticism I’ve read direclty tackled the topic I was most interested in: the film’s use of narrative scope and limits to deliver a new take on its genre and augment its emotional impact. Probably the closest I found was Film Crit Hulk’s take on the film’s simplicity, but that doesn’t draw the connections I want to explore. So I’ll take a moment to violate this blog’s title and offer a little bit of film criticism—spoilers after the fold.

Continue reading ‘Gravity and the Power of Narrative Limits’

HtWTVI am quite excited to announce the publication of my latest book, How to Watch Television. Of course, in this instance, “my” should really be “our,” as the book was edited by me and my friend Ethan Thompson, and features 40 essays by an all-star line-up of media scholars young and old, familiar faces and new names. I’ve been itching to share my own chapter, about Phineas & Ferb, so you’ll find that essay previewed below the fold. But first, here’s some background on what we were trying to accomplish with the book, and why you might want to read it.

The idea (and title) was Ethan’s, and he approached me as a potential contributor to a volume that would be designed for the undergraduate classroom, with short essays each focused on a specific television program to model a critical approach within television studies. Too often, students lack models for how to write smart, accessible, engaging works of academic television criticism—most journalistic examples lack historical context and scholarly argumentation, and most academic examples are too long, too dense, and more often focused on larger theoretical arguments than close analysis of television texts and contexts. I was so taken with the idea, and excited about how it might dovetail effectively with my introductory textbook Television and American Culture, that I signed on as co-editor. Ethan & I spent months in 2011 soliciting essays that span a wide range of genres, historical eras, authorial perspectives, and authors in different stages in their careers. We ended up with a remarkable table of contents featuring 40 (!) original essays by great writers on an array of topics, arranged by broad categories of television analysis. The line-up really needs to be seen to be believed:

I. TV Form: Aesthetics and Style

1. Homicide: Realism – Bambi L. Haggins

2. House: Narrative Complexity – Amanda D. Lotz

3. Life on Mars: Transnational Adaptation – Christine Becker

4. Mad Men: Visual Style – Jeremy G. Butler

5. Nip/Tuck: Popular Music – Ben Aslinger

6. Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television – Jason Mittell

7. The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling – Sean O’Sullivan

8. Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!: Metacomedy – Jeffrey Sconce

II. TV Representations: Social Identity and Cultural Politics

9. 24: Challenging Stereotypes – Evelyn Alsultany

10. The Amazing Race: Global Othering – Jonathan Gray

11. The Cosby Show: Representing Race – Christine Acham

12. The Dick Van Dyke Show: Queer Meanings – Quinn Miller

13. Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences – Hector Amaya

14. Glee/House Hunters International: Gay Narratives – Ron Becker

15. Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism – Elana Levine

16. Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing – Susan J. Douglas

III. TV Politics: Democracy, Nation, and the Public Interest

17. 30 Days: Social Engagement – Geoffrey Baym and Colby Gottert

18. America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor – Laurie Ouellette

19. Family Guy: Undermining Satire – Nick Marx

20. Fox & Friends: Political Talk – Jeffrey P. Jones

21. M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy – Noel Murray

22. Parks and Recreation: The Cultural Forum – Heather Hendershot

23. Star Trek: Serialized Ideology – Roberta Pearson

24. The Wonder Years: Televised Nostalgia – Daniel Marcus

IV. TV Industry: Industrial Practices and Structures

25. Entertainment Tonight: Tabloid News – Anne Helen Petersen

26. I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer – Miranda J. Banks

27. Modern Family: Product Placement – Kevin Sandler

28. Monday Night Football: Brand Identity – Victoria E. Johnson

29. NYPD Blue: Content Regulation – Jennifer Holt

30. Onion News Network: Flow – Ethan Thompson

31. The Prisoner: Cult TV Remakes – Matt Hills

32. The Twilight Zone: Landmark Television – Derek Kompare

V. TV Practices: Medium, Technology, and Everyday Life

33. Auto-Tune the News: Remix Video – David Gurney

34. Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content – Suzanne Scott

35. Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste – Michael Z. Newman

36. Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technologies – Louisa Stein

37. It’s Fun to Eat: Forgotten Television – Dana Polan

38. One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling – Abigail De Kosnik

39. Samurai Champloo: Transnational Viewing – Jiwon Ahn

40. The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics – Henry Jenkins

It’s a remarkable line-up, and everyone managed to produce essays that run counter to many trends of academic writing: tightly focused, clearly written for general readers, jargon-free, not too long, and submitted on time! After a editorial and publication process, we’re thrilled to announce that New York University Press is now shipping the book at an incredibly reasonable price of $29 (for a well-designed 400 page book of original content!). You can order it at the NYU Press website, along with previewing the introduction or requesting a review copy for faculty thinking about adopting it in a class. You can also order it on Amazon, where the already low price is even more discounted or the Kindle version is even cheaper (note that Amazon says it will be released on Monday, but I think they might already be shipping it). Or please request it at an independent bookstore near you, if you’ve got one.

Even though it was designed for classroom use and I’m quite excited to teach it in the spring, we’re happy that the essays do not read as academic homework—our secondary goal was to create public-facing intellectual criticism, demonstrating what some of our smartest colleagues and friends have to teach anyone about television. If you’re a television scholar, this is the book you show your mother to explain what it is that you do! And if you’re not a television scholar, I hope this book gives you a sense of what the field has to share with a general readership.

For a taste of that type of criticism, a few of us contributors who are regular bloggers will be sharing our chapters online. Mine is below, offering an account of one of my favorite children’s programs, Phineas & Ferb; see also Henry Jenkins writing on The Walking Dead, Anne Petersen’s piece on Entertainment Tonight, and Jonathan Gray’s piece about The Amazing Race. If you like my essay, remember that the book has 39 more chapters of similar work. (And if you don’t like it, I guarantee you that many of the other 39 are better…) I hope you read the book and enjoy!

Continue reading ‘How to Watch Television: Phineas and Ferb’

I’m sure most readers of this blog know full well that Breaking Bad returns for its final run of episodes this Sunday. My excitement and anticipation for the new season can hardly be contained – although technically the final eight episodes are the continuation of the fifth season (for contractual/economic reasons), given that it’s been almost a full year since the last new episode aired, this definitely feels like & is being hyped as the final season. One benefit of this short final set of episodes is that the finale feels closer on the horizon, not drawn out over many months as is typical for highly hyped final seasons, meaning that the advance excitement generated for the new episodes can hopefully sustain over the next eight weeks, even if it does mean that it will be over sooner.

I don’t have that much to say about the coming season beyond some other excellent preview posts I’ve read, from critics Donna Bowman, Zach Handlen, Andy Greenwald, and Todd VanDerWerff. I will be writing weekly breakdowns for Antenna, much like I did for the final season of Lost, so check in on Mondays for the next eight weeks. This preview post offers some predictions and anticipations for what is to come, although I’m happy to be taken for whatever ride the series offers, as narrative surprise is one of Breaking Bad‘s most powerful weapons.

Having just rewatched seasons 4 and 5a, I’m struck by how steady Walt’s arc toward kingpin status has been, slowly building up power, allies (and disposing of potential enemies), and most of all, hubris. In the last episode, “Gliding Over All,” Walt finally secured his hold on his empire – and the series fast-forwarded through his reign at the top over the course of a single, glorious montage sequence. The final act of the episode showed Walt walking away, growing tired of the crown and deciding that the giant stack of money was enough. (Although we have no proof that his line to Skyler, “I’m out,” was the truth, it felt like it was motivated by his own exhaustion and lack of enjoyment of being the king.) And I think this decision to retire might be Walt’s final, and most fatal, act of hubris yet.

As Walt repeatedly told Skyler, walking away was never an option, as too much money was at stake, the demand for Heisenberg Blue too great, for him just to be allowed to leave the game. When he was working for Gus, this was a direct threat, as his boss would likely kill him (or his family) if he didn’t cook compliantly. But now that Walt’s the boss, he feels like he controls his own fate – which, given the moral logic of Breaking Bad, is never possible. Walt’s fate was sealed back in the pilot when he started down this path, and every choice he made drove him deeper into the drug world. He is too bound by his previous actions to just walk away.

The obvious connection binding him to Heisenberg is Hank’s revelation at the end of the last episode, but I expect that numerous other ties to the drug game will come back to haunt him as well. He’s making so much money for Lydia that she and her Madrigal allies are unlikely to let the supply just dry up. His deal to provide product for the Phoenix dealers is presumably still in place, so they have reason to push him back to the lab. Todd may be a loyal assistant, but his uncle’s crew seems like they would be willing to use their muscle to keep the money flowing. In this most dangerous form of capitalism, high demand trumps a temperamental supplier, so Walt’s decision is due for some market corrections.

During my rewatch, I thought of one more loose end that has never been tied up. The Mexican cartel would not kill Gus because of important connections in his Chilean past. Breaking Bad‘s storytelling logic never leaves threads dangling like this, so I’m expecting that delayed Chilean retribution might be coming across the border toward the man who did finally kill the chicken man—which could also facilitate a great curtain call for Giancarlo Esposito to return in a flashback. All of these loose ends coming back to tie Walt’s hands and potentially cause his downfall fits with a key theme of the show: you are never able to escape your actions and their consequences. Just like Stringer Bell failed to put his violent past behind him on The Wire, Walt’s belief that you can rise high enough in the game to be able to escape it will be his downfall—or like the parable he told Jesse, if you fly too close to the sun, you’re going to get burned.

So that’s my big expectation for the final episodes: that Walt will be brought down less by Hank (although that chase will be fun to watch), and more by the lingering consequences of his evil actions, perhaps via a coalition of Mexican, Chilean, German & Southwestern criminals who exiled him to New Hampshire and inspired him to defend his turf with Chekhov’s machine gun. But what do I really want from the conclusion?

I go back and forth about whether I want Walt to die, or to be forced to live with the moral reckoning of the pain he’s caused his family and community. My investments are less in what happens to Walt, and more focused on those whom he victimized and compromised, especially Jesse, Skyler and Hank. I yearn for an episode that functions as a de facto sequel of “The Fly,” where Walt is trapped in a room with those three, forced to own up to his actions—after feeble attempts to rationalize it all away—while Jesse, Skyler and Hank all work through his sins enough to let go of their anger and just regard him with shameful pity. They all deserve more than resorting to violence, and the greatest punishment Walt could receive is the disdain and disgust of those whose opinions matters most to him, and to have his legacy be one of shame and dishonor. Of course, such an episode might not be as dramatically compelling as I imagine it, but Walt deserves to be confronted in a forum where his lies and rationalizations have lost their potency.

I agree with arguments made by the critics I link to above, that Breaking Bad‘s ending feels both more predestined and less essential than other contemporary series, as the gears of moral judgment have been grinding away for years. But more so, I have unyielding faith in Vince Gilligan and his team to pull it off—as I discuss in my chapter of Complex TV on Authorship, we regard the creators of favorite fictional universes as deities that inspire reverence, faith, and occasionally renunciation. Breaking Bad is not a religious series, but it is one possessed of a deeply moral order and sense that it is being controlled by knowing, powerful forces willing to crash two planes together to judge a man in a rain of holy fire. So while I care deeply what happens in the next eight episodes, I am not obsessed with a series of unanswered questions as with Lost, or yearning to check-in with departed characters as with The Wire. Instead, I am fully content in letting Gilligan et. al. deliver what they will, passing dramatic judgment on Walt, his colleagues, and their storyworld, and providing the ending that both the characters and their fans have earned. Bring it on.

I am filled with joy, relief, and many other emotions in posting the link to the final chapter of Complex TV. Not accidentally, the chapter is called Ends, and it focuses on conclusions, as well as serving as one for the book. Here’s the abstract:

American commercial television differs from much of the world in how it privileges a narrative model where a successful series never ends, with final episodes regarded as signs of commercial failure and/or creative exhaustion, and often shows end by abrupt cancellation more than planned conclusion. In the last decade, more series have planned their conclusions, creating a set of precedents for serial endings that variously embrace ambiguity, circularity, reflexivity, and finality. This chapter looks at the concluding seasons and episodes of Lost, The Wire, and The Sopranos as exemplars of both narrative strategies and the divergent viewer and critic reactions triggered by various finales. It also concludes the book by discussing notions of “ends” in terms of the goals of serial criticism using case studies from Homeland and Breaking Bad, infusing some questions of politics back into the book’s poetic approach. Finally, it reflects on the book’s own seriality in its online pre-publication.

This chapter draws upon a few previously published posts, including an SCMS presentation on finales, my Göttingen talk on the Ends of Serial Criticism, and various blog entries on the series that I’m discussing.

Now that the entire book is available to be read freely online, you have absolutely no excuse for not reading & commenting on the MediaCommons site. Although I hope to submit the full manuscript (revised based on many comments that some of you have already left) soon, there is still time for more revision before the book gets finalized by the press. So feedback in all forms is welcome!

Thanks for reading…

As I mentioned in my previous post, my first stop on my return trip to Germany was to give the keynote address at the Popular Seriality Conference in my old hometown of Göttingen. I plan on incorporating this talk into my final chapter of Complex TV, but want to share it here first for any feedback or suggestions. (It was written for oral presentation, so obviously the many references to the talk itself and venue will be excised as revised for the book.) As always, comments are appreciated!

Continue reading ‘The Ends of Serial Criticism’

The semester is done, and it’s a time of news & transitions. As this blog serves as a kind of public professional archive, I should mention that a couple of weeks ago, I officially was promoted to full professor, making my new title Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies. At Middlebury, the gap between Associate & Full is less significant than many other institutions, so it doesn’t quite feel momentous (and certainly far less pivotal than my promotion from Assistant to Associate) – but still it’s a very nice thing.

Even more tangibly, the final push is underway for the publication of How to Watch Television, the book Ethan Thompson & I co-edited, as we sent off the revised proofs & index yesterday. You can view the fabulous table of contents, pre-order the book on Amazon, and if you’re an instructor thinking about assigning it, preview the whole book online. More to come as the September publication date approaches.

One year ago, my family and I were wrapping up our final month of our year in Germany. Now we are preparing for a trip back starting Monday, combining business & pleasure to return to Germany and Holland for most of June. I will be giving four presentations this month, so if you happen to be in the region, perhaps I’ll see you there. First, I’m keynoting the Popular Seriality conference in my old Göttingen haunts on Thursday 6 June – the title of the lecture is “The Ends of Serial Criticism” and it will be wandering around the conclusion of Complex TV, which should be posted within the next month.

We then head to Berlin, where I’ll be giving a lecture on 12 June at 4pm, about transmedia storytelling & television paratexts at the JFK Institute (alas I don’t have a room number and cannot find an online reference to the talk). Then I’ll be attending the Society for the Cognitive Study of the Moving Image in Berlin, where I’ll be talking about narrative comprehension & serial television on Friday 14 June. Finally, after a brief beach vacation on the North Sea, we’ll go to Amsterdam, where I’ll be giving a talk about the core arguments in Complex TV on Friday 21 June.

And then the transition that feels most liberating: when I return to Middlebury in July, I’ll no longer be department chair. While I’m happy with what our department accomplished in the four years I was chair, I’m also ready to not be “nibbled to death by ducks.” I look forward to discovering what I’ll find to feel the free time after two books and department chairdom are taken off my schedule.


For those readers who have been following my book-in-progress Complex TV, you may have noticed a lengthy hiatus since I last posted a chapter. Not coincidentally, the last chapter I posted was in August 2012, shortly before returning to the classroom after my sabbatical. Since then, my writing process has stalled considerably, in large part due to the demands of teaching, serving as department chair, being back in the U.S. as a homeowner, etc. – not to mention my work on another book, How to Watch Television, which is due to be published in late-August (more on that soon!). But my writing problems were not just about time and focus, as I had two chapters left to write that were causing some issues.

One of those chapters is on Endings, and I wanted to leave that for last for both poetic and strategic reasons. The other one, which I’ve been struggling with for months, was the Genre chapter. In part this was due to my ambivalence of returning to the scene of my first book, Genre & Television, as I feel I’ve said most of what I need to say about television genre. But more than other chapters, I’ve had a difficult time structuring my arguments that I did want to make, so I’ve done a lot of starting and stopping in drafting this chapter. I also decided to cut the History chapter during this starting & stopping, incorporating some of that material in this chapter and recognizing that a history of television storytelling was far beyond the scope of a feasible chapter.

Although this delay was frustrating to me (and my publisher), it turns out to have been worthwhile. Since the time when I’d hoped to be done with the chapter, I’ve read a few new pieces of scholarship (both published and forthcoming) that allowed me to rethink much of what I wanted to say, especially Linda Williams’s work on The Wire and melodrama. Inspired by that work, I’ve changed both the name and focus of the chapter to be specifically about Serial Melodrama rather than Genre more broadly. I feel the resulting shift has led to a more coherent and appropriate addition to the book, and I must thank my colleague & friend Louisa Stein for her frank feedback on an earlier draft – but you can read it and be the judge!

Here’s the (revised) abstract that will be in the book’s introduction:

One of the central narrative drives found within complex television is serial melodrama. This chapter explores the role of melodrama within contemporary serial narratives, starting with the soap opera’s debatable connection this mode of storytelling. By separating out the narrative norms of soap operas from the emotional appeals of melodrama, I argue that soap’s storytelling form is less vital to primetime serials than the discursive history that has linked seriality to the soap genre for decades. Instead, I consider how the emotional responses triggered by serial melodrama help forge the mixed-gender appeal of narratively complex series, with programs like Lost, Veronica Mars, Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife, and The Wire playing with such conventions to complicate well-established assumptions about genre categories and their gendered appeals.

Some of these bits are recycled & adapted from blog posts, including two pieces on soap operas, and my discussion of Skyler White. And I have made the decision to leave the previous versions of chapters up on MediaCommons Press, even though they are now out-of-date (in referencing this as the Genre chapter rather than Serial Melodrama), figuring that an archive of the highly-contingent writing process might be of interest to some readers.

As always, feel free to leave comments on this chapter, or any of the others that you may not have gotten a chance to read yet. I hope the hiatus to the next chapter will be much shorter, and I’ll be poised to submit a revised manuscript to NYU Press later this summer!

Thanks in advance for comments!


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