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!

Wednesday was one of the more interesting days on Twitter I’ve ever seen, from the snarking about the new Pope (same as the old Pope), to the anger over Google mothballing Reader, to the more local disappointment of Wes Welker signing with the Broncos. But nothing generated more interest, excitement, and conversation amongst the TVitterati in my feed than the Kickstarter for the Veronica Mars movie, which you’ve probably heard raised its goal of $2 million in 12 hours, and now stands at $3.3 million and more than 50,ooo backers (and counting). The tweeting turned into blogging, with pieces that celebrated the phenomenon and its success – my favorites being James Poniewozik’s early piece  and Willa Paskin’s defense against the backlashanalyzed the finances of 50k reward packages, and critiqued Kickstarting a global media conglomerate. (And as always, News for TV Majors has curated a great selection of links.)

At first, I thought I didn’t have much more to say beyond what I said in my initial tweets: “I don’t see the downside of using Kickstarter for major studio projects. It helps support Kickstarter, which should help indies as well. As for fans as funders, we’re basically just pre-buying merchandise, DVDs, or experiences. How is that unethical?” I still hold to that basic sentiment, which resonates with this great interview with VM creator Rob Thomas:

The nice thing is that we never wanted to be perceived as a charity. We always imagined that we’re putting up a Kickstarter page, and we’re selling real product at real prices to fans. It’s not like a pledge drive where you pledge 100 dollars and get a 4 dollar tote bag, where it’s done out of the goodness of your heart, and for charity. We wanted to created packages where people look at what they’re getting and think, ‘Wow, I got a script and a digital download and a t-shirt for $35. I would pay that!’ So all those people worrying that we’re asking for this money to make our movie, we’re selling you a product. Think of us as a store, not a charity.

Now I do understand that it gets slippery to use the same site as a “store” for a mass market project like Veronica Mars and a “charity” (or at least non-equity support) for fringe or special-interest projects that would struggle to raise 1/1000 of Thomas’s campaign, and there is a danger of co-opting the site for major projects. But I think there’s greater upside in thinking that many of those 50,000 supporters are new to Kickstarter, and might discover other, more indy projects on the site that interest them as well. Certainly my own experiences with Kickstarter include both established filmmakers (backing Hal Hartley’s newest project Meanwhile) and up-and-comers (like a documentary on the Wisconsin Uprising or my former student’s first feature Manchild), and I feel happy to have both types of project co-existing via the platform.

What inspired me to write this post was remembering the first thing I ever wrote about Veronica Mars – not my analysis of its perfect pilot, but a piece for Flow in 2005 called “Exchanges of Value.” That article was about my experience of watching the first season via BitTorrent, and how such illicit consumption arguably added more value to the franchise than the more conventional way I watched the next two seasons (recorded on my TiVo, skipping ads, and not counting in any metric of viewership). The Flow piece is a snapshot of its time when the industry was just experimenting with monetizing digital downloads (I note at the end that Apple just released a video iPod!), but it also calls attention to an unusual fact: despite being a big fan of the show and calling it one of the last decade’s best series, I have never spent any of my own money on Veronica Mars. I have generated income for the series indirectly: ordering the DVDs for our college library, and regularly teaching the pilot, which inspires many students to keep viewing the series on Netflix or other sources.

So the $50 I spent on Wednesday to get a copy of the film’s script, a digital download in release week, a DVD, and a T-shirt (what a bargain!) was the first time I actually spent money on one of my favorite media texts. So while on the one hand I was pre-buying access to the film, I was also finally paying for the many hours of pleasure that Veronica Mars has given me. This type of serial investment is hard to quantify, as I could have certainly continued to not pay for my enjoyment of the series (and clearly my investment was not what triggered the film’s greenlight), but I felt moved to buy a stake in its continuation in large part because I felt I owed the series something for that past pleasure.

And I am also buying a stake in another form of serial pleasure: “a ticket to the ride” that is Kickstarter, in the words of Ian Bogost:

We’re paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, not the experience of a realized product. For the pleasure of desiring it. For the experience of watching it succeed beyond expectations or to fail dramatically. Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment. It’s QVC for the Net set. And just like QVC, the products are usually less appealing than the excitement of learning about them for the first time and getting in early on the sale.

For $50, I’m not only getting all that merchandise, I’m also getting regular emails from Rob Thomas updating me on the project, and a badge of honor for being a member of a growing tribe of supporters. I may have no equity stake in the project, but I do have an emotional one (which is arguably worth more than what my meager funds could purchase in profit sharing). So while I’m giving my money to Warner Bros., I do the same every time I pay my cable bill or buy a ticket to one of their films. But this time I’m getting something more palpable: I’m entering into a commercially-facilitated, serialized one-way relationship with a mass media text and its production crew – which is a pretty good definition of fandom in general.

I’m spending the next few days in Chicago at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference, the annual gathering of scholars that I rarely miss (save for last year’s European stay). Below the fold is the paper I’m presenting Thursday on a panel about the state of television studies as a field – it’s a different type of presentation for me (more graphs!), but hopefully it’s useful.

First though, I want to link to a piece I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education about open access, MOOCs, and the like that is probably more broadly of interest. Read on if you’re interested in the inside-baseball arguments of television studies, or want to see a humanist playing around with numbers.

Continue reading ‘Mapping a Pluralistic Field: What Does Television Studies Really Look Like?’

I have a video to share with you:

[vimeo 58659769]

If you haven’t seen it, take the eight minutes to watch & enjoy. But there’s a good chance you’ve seen it, as it’s been viewed over 72,000 times (and counting) in the three days it’s been online. It’s been written about on BuzzfeedJezebelCBS NewsCBCYahoo!, Mashable, and many other blogs & Tumblrs, not to mention hundreds of Facebook shares. In short, it has become spreadable, the term that Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford & Joshua Green offer as an alternative, more active concept than “viral.”

My perspective on this video is unique, as it was made by my student Bianca Giaever as her final project at Middlebury before graduating last week, and I was the project’s adviser. Middlebury has a Winter Term every January where students enroll in a single intensive course or do an independent project, and Bianca approached me to make a video over the month. I’ve known Bianca for a few years, teaching her in class and helping to guide her independent-designed major in Narrative Studies, The bulk of her creative background was in audio production for radio, and oral storytelling in creating a Middlebury branch of The Moth live storytelling performances. In the fall semester, she made “Holy Cow Lisa,” an excellent project in her Video Production course that took an audio interview and “visualized” it through creative & playful video footage. She wanted to see if she could make another project in that vein as a kind-of “proof of concept” that illustrated audio stories could work as a format – the result was “The Scared Is Scared.” Consider the concept proven!

One of the very best parts of my job is helping facilitate my students’ creativity. Although I’m scholar by training and practice, Middlebury’s Film & Media Culture is a hybrid department mixing critical studies and hands-on creative work. I occasionally teach courses that are creative in focus, often mix creative projects into critical studies courses, and regularly advise students’ creative projects in video production, screenwriting, or other media. I love to listen to a student’s ideas, give them some feedback to push them forward or offer a critical perspective, and then get out of the way to let them create something.

In the case of “The Scared is Scared,” I feel particularly invested in the project because I saw it develop from nothing to a spreadable hit over the course of a single month. A project adviser’s role can be quite variable, but if things are working well, an adviser’s contributions are necessary but insufficient aspects of the final product – in this case, it was definitely true, as I introduced Bianca to Asa, the video’s storyteller and my son’s friend. Without that necessary introduction (as well as giving Bianca the water wings that Toby Mouse wears), the video would not be what it was – but obviously the journey from that introduction to the final work was all due to Bianca, Asa, and their many collaborators. Throughout the month, my role was primarily to assure Bianca that there was potential in her ideas and that the audio and video she was putting together was excellent – in fact, she quoted me saying “This might work” as the blurb for the video’s poster around campus!

So I’ve watched the video spread (up to 78,000 views in the time it took me to write this post!) and receive glowing acclaim with the pride of a coach & teacher (and a little bit of the ownership you feel at the wedding of two people you introduced!). I also watch it spread from the meta-perspective of a scholar of digital media, which raises numerous questions. What does it mean to traditional educational hierarchies to have a student’s work seen & enjoyed by thousands of people? Does spreadability matter when assessing and grading students’ work? Should we encourage students to seek spreadability as a goal, or just facilitate it as a potential byproduct of creative success? How do such accomplishments impact the reputation of the department and potentially benefit other students’ opportunities? And most immediately, how will this success help Bianca make a living after Middlebury? (Please contact her if you have any answers to the last one.) I have no answers to these questions yet, but they point to some of the new dimensions of teaching film and video that I would not have anticipated mattering when I arrived at Middlebury ten years ago.

But in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy watching the video and its rippling wake, and relish in my own favorite moment: the way Asa says the word “merengues.”


In my 18 years in academia, I’ve never been to the MLA convention – until now. For those who don’t know, the Modern Language Association is the largest humanities organization, and their annual convention is an iconic event, known as a massive academic job meat market and an object of mockery in the press for dense theoretical jargon. For me, it’s never been a place I’ve felt a desire to attend, as the study of television is far from a concern for most literary and language scholars, but I’ve been drawn here this year because of the rise of Digital Humanities within the MLA and my recent connection with a number of DH-minded folks from Twitter (plus it’s in Boston, so an easy drive down).

So I’m presenting a paper here (on the conference’s only panel dealing with television) that I’m sharing for feedback – I hope to expand and publish the essay, so please offer thoughts on where I might extend the ideas. [Update: the revised essay has been published in Cinephile, available for your perusal.] The title explains the topic – the argument unfolds beneath the fold.

“Haunted by Seriality: The Formal Uncanny of Mulholland Drive.”

Continue reading ‘Haunted by Seriality: The Formal Uncanny of Mulholland Drive’

Like most people I know, I’m sad, angry, and numb in reaction to the massacre of children and their teachers on Friday. While I feel helpless to affect change in a meaningful way, I do what I can via the small contributions to organizations like the Sandy Hook School Support Fund and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and writing letters to my Federal and State representatives arguing for increased gun control and funding for mental health initiatives. I keep reading as much as I can bear about the events and analyses of what might be done, sharing particularly good pieces (such as this post from my friend Michael Kackman about gun culture and the gun lobby).

I have no personal expertise in understanding gun violence, trauma, or mental illness, but I do hopefully have something to offer as the blame game shifts around to question the media’s role in our overly violent country. Personally, I have little tolerance for the way our television news media covers such tragedies, as they fill the 24-hour cycle with unfounded speculation, ill-informed opinions, and most of all undiluted emotional manipulation. But my own distaste is not the same as claiming that a key cause of such inexplicable violence is to be found in the media’s coverage of shootings (as was inexplicably misattributed to Morgan Freeman in a widely-circulated Facebook post), or in media violence more broadly. I do believe that as media citizens, we should ask ourselves what type of violence we want to see on our screens, and that families should make informed, conscious choices for their children. But blaming the media for violence like the Newtown massacre is simply wrong.

There may be some correlation between violent behavior and particular media consumption practices, and in some instances, violent media might be a contributing factor to inspire particular violent actions, but such linkages are so much lower than other factors (like poverty, drug/alcohol use, patterns of physical & emotional abuse, and access to weapons) that suggestions to curb violence by changing media are simply an impractical, ineffectual distraction. If violent media were such a major cause of violent behavior, then Japan, whose media are as violent as or more than ours, would likely match or exceed America’s violent crime rates, rather than trailing the U.S. by a huge gap in nearly every category. If violent media were the triggers that caused such violent outbursts, then millions of viewers & gamers would be committing daily acts of murder. This holds true for all media, including videogames that take the brunt of the blame today.

I have not done primary scholarship on the topic of media violence, but as part of my textbook, Television & American Culture, I reviewed the literature and tried to offer a measured account of how scholars tackle these issues. I’ve decided to share that portion of the book here to hopefully offer a bit of clarity to such conversations that often embrace broad generalizations and sweeping claims. In the name of instructors using the book being able to emphasize their own perspectives, I probably cut the media effects tradition a little more slack than it deserves – for a much more pointed takedown, see David Gauntlett’s work. If you’ve studied media studies, there’s probably little new here (and it was written four years ago, so there might be some updated scholarship that I haven’t taken account of), but if you see someone spouting off on how the media is to blame – especially if they are quoting Morgan Freeman – send them here for a little lesson in Media Studies 101.


Continue reading ‘Media violence and debating effects & influences’

My favorite show currently airing is Homeland, which I have found far less problematic in its second season than many critics seem to. [Note: I’ll be vague & unspoilerly for the first part of this post, clearly marking when I dive into specific plot points at length beneath the fold.] Part of my reaction is because I’ve watched it at the same time as rewatching season 1 as part of the screening for my Television & American Culture course (and as an aside, it’s worked wonderfully for teaching!). Watching the two seasons in parallel creates all sorts of resonances & layers, making it feel more coherent and consistent than many seem to find it, especially concerning the relationship between Carrie & Brody, which I’ll unpack below the spoiler fold.

Last night’s episode seems to be particularly divisive, as some major things happened that set-off many folks’ plausibility meters. I agree with Todd VanDerWerff’s take wholeheartedly that “plausibility” is a red herring for much of serial TV, and if you’ve seen “Broken Hearts,” you should read it now, as it’s a great review/essay. If not, Todd’s essential spoiler-redacted argument is this:

Watching TV for plot is a fool’s game, and it’s just going to end with you being disappointed. But watching TV for long-term character arcs can be very rewarding, particularly if you’re in the hands of writers who keep an eye on the characters in a way that keeps them more or less consistent. It’s all but impossible to blow through plot at the level Homeland does without running out of room…, but it is possible to keep the big character moments coming, and the show has done an excellent job of that this season.

What’s more, I find character stuff more emotionally satisfying, generally. What I admire most about this season of Homeland is the way that it dropped a bombshell… then played out fairly logically how all of the other characters in the show’s orbit would react to that happening…. I’ve more or less bought everything that’s happened since on that level of the characters behaving rationally. That seems to be the modus operandi of this season: Something big and occasionally ridiculous happens, and then the show goes out of its way to examine just how the characters would react to said ridiculous happening. I suspect if you’re someone who watches for plot, primarily, you get stuck on the big thing happening…. But for character watchers, the real meat comes after the inciting incident.

I’m not trying to say watching TV for plot is wrong. It certainly isn’t, and there are certainly shows that have been able to deftly weave rocket-paced plots that nonetheless provide room for character introspection in the moment. But at the same time, every story contains its plausibility concerns, and if you poke at them hard enough (or come at them from the right point-of-view), you’ll find them. (See Film Crit Hulk on this issue.) I certainly find watching TV more rewarding when watched from a character or thematic or emotional or structural basis, but I’m not here to tell you how to watch TV and, instead, to defend mostly enjoying this episode when I see the haters are already out in force for it. But the way I’ve always seen TV is heavily influenced by something our own Scott Tobias said in the wake of XXX on Friday Night Lights: Serialized storytelling is often about throwing ridiculous plot points at already established characters and seeing how they react to them. More and more, I’m convinced the “problem” with this season of Homeland many of you are having has less to do with the ridiculousness of the plot points and more to do with how the show didn’t exactly scale its way up to them but, instead, just jumped right to them.

Truth. (Although, ridiculousness has always been in Homeland‘s DNA, as aptly summed up by James Poniewozik on Twitter: “Man, this show about the brainwashed POW coming  home to become a terrorist congressman is suddenly getting totally implausible.”)

So in this light, Homeland‘s chief narrative enigma isn’t about terrorist plots, CIA moles, or political maneuvers. It’s about how do Carrie and Brody really feel about each other. The series’s writers have often said that Homeland‘s magic ingredient is the chemistry between Claire Danes & Damien Lewis, and how it infuses all of the espionage plots with emotional stakes. That emotional depth is what elevates Homeland over 24, and why plot plausibility doesn’t really matter – but emotional character plausibility does.

Which raises the question: were the events of “Broken Hearts” plausible to the characters and storyworld as the program has established them? My answers – and many plot spoilers – beneath the fold.

Continue reading ‘Homeland, Emotional Plausibility, and the Tethered Triangle’

Lately I’ve become more and more intrigued by Digital Humanities as a subfield/movement/trend/etc. within academia, in large part because the people who are actively driving much of DH are super engaging & welcoming via social networks like Twitter and various blogs. As I am committed to open access publishing, public-facing scholarship, and innovative modes of academic engagement, Digital Humanists feel like fellow travelers. But as someone who has been actively engaged with the study & use of digital media for over a decade, I’ve frequently wondered about the intersection between Digital Humanities, which tends to cluster in the fields of History and English, and Media Studies, where digital tools & objects of study have been commonplace but understood quite differently. This is actually the topic of a workshop that Miriam Posner & I put together for the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in March (the call for the workshop is here on Miriam’s blog, and the lineup of participants looks great), so I’ll leave these larger issues for then.

But for now, I’ve often wondered what some of the tools of Digital Humanities might look like applied to media objects rather than the literary texts or historical artifacts that they’ve tended to focus on. One such tool is the word cloud, measuring concordances within a text to seek patterns of frequently used words. Films and television programs feature words as well, and thus we might imagine looking at dialogue as a dataset to be analyzed and reconfigured using a tool like Wordle. Of course, the methods of scanning and digitizing books don’t work for moving images, but the other day it occurred to me that most DVDs already include digitized text of the dialogue, in the form of the subtitles and captions.

So I was happy to realize that there is already a tool available for extracting captions and turning them into a text file: ccextractor. Alas, this open-source application works best on Windows & I’m a diehard Mac user, so I had my colleague Ethan Murphy install it on a departmental PC and figure out how best to get it working. (The Mac version is command line, so you need to know what you’re doing more than I do to use it effectively.) The results are pretty impressive; this page details the process of decrypting a DVD (technically illegal, although I think this is clearly fair use & wouldn’t be an enforceable violation, as it fits with the spirit of the DMCA exemptions that have been established for educational use) and outputting the captions into a text file. This process took around 10 minutes for one DVD.

I test drove this process using the first episode of The Wire. Here’s what the famous first scene looks like extracted:

( police sirens wailing )
( police radio chattering )
( McNulty )
( man )
( man )
( dog barking )
( man chattering )

And here’s what the whole episode looks like when turned into a Wordle, graphically representing the program’s unique brand of profanity:

Wordle of dialogue for THE WIRE, "The Target"

Wordle of dialogue for THE WIRE, “The Target”

Now, there are some key tweaks that need to be made to accurately tabulate words within the dialogue. The captions include some sonic cues in parentheses — “( police sirens wailing )” — that shouldn’t be incorporated into the dialogue, and Wordle treats the all caps of the dialogue differently from these lowercase cues, thus both “MAN” and “man” appear separately. Additionally, the character names in parenthesis indicate when a character is speaking off-screen, so these are misleading cues as well. ccextractor can be set to change cases and maybe to filter out cues depending on how a given DVD encodes them, so there’s need for a bit of customization. And it’s essential to remember that this is a transcript, not a screenplay—not only are character names not indicated, but the screenplay form includes a performance and visual blueprint and sense of rhythm that this raw transcript neglects. (You can compare this scene with an early version of the pilot screenplay downloadable here.)

In surveying work in Digital Humanities, it may seem that the point of the field is developing and playing with such tools, but as with any method or model, the techniques only work when paired with a research question that is an appropriate match for the approach. So for what questions is such “caption mining” useful to answer? I had some ideas, but also asked people on Twitter and Facebook for their thoughts as well. Concordances and other quantitative measures can be useful to get a sense of the dialogue quirks and tendencies that comprise a given film or TV program’s verbal style. Such analyses are most productive comparatively, whether looking across a given writer’s work, comparing examples within a genre or across eras, or charting differences throughout the ongoing run of a series. Daniel Chamberlain, another scholar at the nexus of DH & Media Studies, offered the following suggestions: “There are probably some low-level arguments to be made by comparing this with literacy metrics (some shows use big words, some are aimed at less educated audiences), or using simple tools like voyant (Amy Sherman-Palladino packs more words into an episode than anyone else). You might be able to frame questions about the long run of a series (do the scripts “repeat” or get “stale” or do they continue to develop). You might be able to generate evidence making claims about what happens as showrunners or writers come and go. You could even look to make Zeitgeist arguments by comparing batches of shows from different years or eras. These are mostly about gathering familiar (if more robust) forms of textual evidence.” (And Miriam mentioned that the Zeitgeist question evokes Ben Schmidt’s work with TV anachronisms.)

This approach can also target specific key words—for instance, on Twitter a colleague mentioned she’d be interested in looking at how often the world “torture” is used within various series she is analyzing to supplement her study of narrative representations of torture. If we had a particularly large corpus of series, we could chart the shifting use of profanity or other culturally-charged terms surrounding identity or politics. Probably for such a project to work, we’d need to develop a huge database of transcripts along the lines of the massive literary databases of scanned books like Google’s ngrams, an endeavor complicated by copyright issues (as I assume HBO would balk at an open database of the entire Wire dialogue!) and high labor costs—if we could overcome the copyright issues, perhaps we could agree on standard forms and upload self-extracted transcripts to a site like how Cinemetrics crowdsources editing data for films and television?

Another potential use for these transcripts is as a guide for navigating a video, especially for the vast body of a serial. When working on a program, I’ve often struggled to remember precisely where a scene might fall in a series—video is impractical to search, but having a full transcript would make that process much simpler for teaching and analysis (at least if the scene’s memorable feature is tied to dialogue, not visuals). ccextractor allows for the transcript to include timecode, making this navigation process quite easy—especially if you’re working on a video essay or remix (which I see as fertile ground to connect DH and Media Studies), where a transcript can facilitate creating a useful editing log.

There are lots of possibilities for making discoveries about the language of a film or television text, but this tool raises one large caution flag: we cannot mistakenly reduce a moving image work to its dialogue. There is a long tradition of scholars trained to study language & literature treating film texts just as they consider printed work, focusing on narrative structures, verbal style, metaphors, etc., but paying scant attention to visual style, music, performance, temporal systems, or other formal elements that make film essentially than literature. But with that caution in mind, we shouldn’t ignore a moving image text’s dialogue and verbal systems, and I hope that ccextractor offers a useful tool to provide some new access to these elements.

So I end this brainstorming post with a question: what would you use this tool to discover about a film or television program?

For anyone keeping track, this blog’s hiatus is a sad signal that it’s been a busy couple of months for me re-entering to real life in Vermont, what with teaching, chairing my department, taking care of lots of personal projects, and obsessing over the election. (And thankfully, Super Storm Sandy had little personal impact on us here, and my family & friends seem to be in fine shape.)

I wanted to break blog silence by posting my position paper that I’ll be presenting on Friday at the Flow Conference in Austin. For those who don’t know the unique format of Flow, it’s structured as much more conversational than presentational, with topical roundtables focused on a specific topic and set of questions, and 5-8 participants each contributing to the discussion. We each write short position papers and post them online at the conference website ahead of time, and then engage in vibrant conversation at the conference. The roundtable I’m contributing to is about Teaching TV, and my co-panelists are raising a number of great points around incorporating TV into courses across the humanities, collaborating with industry people in courses, teaching with empathy, and selecting productive screenings. My contribution focuses on the use of textbooks, written from the perspective of a textbook author. It’s posted below – if you’re coming to Flow, I hope to engage the conversation in person, but if not, leave thoughts and comments here and I’ll try to weave them into the discussion Friday morning!

Please Criticize My Textbook

I never set out to write a textbook, as I have generally found the format to be less of a pedagogical aid than an impediment—textbooks typically aim to (over)simplify, focusing on consensus rather than debate, and stripping out the elements of academic inquiry that scholars find most exciting in the name of presenting information in an accessible and easy-to-digest form. That is not how I view teaching, a practice that I believe should strive to excite students through complexities and nuance, debate and dialogue, and working toward discoveries rather than repeating established knowledge. For my annual introductory course, Television & American Culture, I had given up on finding a textbook that would teach up to students rather than teach down to them, that would span across television’s industrial, cultural, and social practices, and that would actually present ideas and arguments rather than just facts and definitions. It was only through a conversation with an editor that I realized that there was a niche to be filled and that other faculty might have use for a book that treats both the topic of television and the genre of textbook differently. I wrote the book with the goal of modeling my pedagogical style, both in approaching television as a multifaceted cultural form, and including academic argument and debate within the often sterile realm of the introductory textbook.

Now that Television & American Culture is written, published, and circulating in some classrooms, I want to reflect a bit on how I see such a book functioning within the television studies course. For me, a successful use of the book can inspire students to push back against its claims and examples, asking “why doesn’t it doesn’t it discuss X?” or “how can Mittell claim Y?” Often, faculty will need to model such pushback, as students are conditioned to treat a textbook as a repository of knowledge to be mined rather than a set of claims to be debated, so I hope that faculty treat the book as a launching pad for conversation, critique, and inquiry, rather than something to be digested and absorbed—which is one reason I have resisted offering exam questions or lecture outlines as supplemental material. When I find syllabi teaching the book, I am gratified when I see the chapters reordered or recontextualized, or paired with another reading that I know will dispute claims I make in the book. One of my most gratifying pedagogical experiences came two years ago, when a student in my course approached me after reading the “Representing Identity” chapter, and asked why I didn’t include a section discussing disability on television. After some initial hemming and hawing about the topic being underrepresented in television studies, and acknowledging that no book could do it all, I finally frankly said it was an issue that I just hadn’t thought much about. I’ve now added it to my to-do list for a revision, and included a reading about Glee’s representations of disability in my syllabus. My student demonstrated that she was getting the deeper lesson I hoped to teach about questioning representations and omissions in a television program by applying that level of inquiry to the textbook—and the textbook’s author—itself.

For those who do use my book, I hope you treat it as a resource to teach both from and against, rather than just something to teach to—by modeling the critical use of a textbook (even if you agree with it), we can help instill an attitude of critical engagement with all sorts of texts and practices as a core tenet of media studies. I hope such an attitude can extend to any assigned textbook, using an inquisitive pedagogical style to model critical engagement toward authoritative sources of knowledge. In the discussion at Flow, I hope we can discuss the various contexts and constraints that might facilitate or limit such critical pedagogy, such as differences in student bodies, teaching loads, departmental curricula, methodological adherences, or
pedagogical freedom—as well as modeling some criticism of teaching with textbooks.

%d bloggers like this: