One of the most circulated and discussed articles in online academic circles last week was Bruce Henderson’s Chronicle piece arguing for the importance of acknowledging reading as a key part of our scholarly labor. I really liked this article, less for his coining of the awkward neologism “consumatory scholarship” to describe the practice of academic reading, but more for his reminder that discussions of professional activity and labor needs to highlight that reading new (or new to you) scholarship is a vital aspect of academia. Sometimes such reading gets folded into measures of more typical measured productivity—reading can end up as citations in your own writing, hopefully augmenting and refining your ideas. Or new reading can be featured on a course syllabus, strengthening your teaching and perhaps leading to avenues for a new class. Or in a few instances, reading can be an officially endorsed end itself, as with faculty reading groups sponsored by administrations or programs to encourage collaboration or new avenues of interdisciplinary development.
But what of “useless reading,” by which I mean reading with no immediate purpose except to expand our intellectual horizons? Such work might eventually end up inflecting our own writing and teaching, but is not motivated immediately by that end. Without such useless—or better, unmotivated—reading, scholarly discovery would be meager, as it is usually through horizon-expanding exposure to something new and unexpected that we develop truly forward-looking ideas and perspectives. Additionally, without unmotivated reading to discover new ideas and fields, all of the books and articles that we are professionally encouraged/required to write would sit unread except by the few insular experts who are already invested in what we are saying (and probably already know what we think, reading only to root out their own citations to prove that they too are being read, or at least cited), rather than encouraging an expansion of knowledge and understanding that I think most academics hope to accomplish through our writing on our best days.
As Henderson and many commenters on his article attest, such unmotivated reading is rarely rewarded by academic administrations, and in the temporal juggle to prioritize how to spend our time, such work nearly always falls below the immediate demands to teach, attend meetings, grade, prepare classes, answer emails, attend conferences, do your own research, write your own essays and books, and review manuscripts for presses (your order of prioritization may vary!). This last item comes closest to unmotivated reading, as we read work that is motivated not by personal use value (for teaching or research), but because an editor asks us to. And this type of reading is on my mind a lot lately as I’m asking the entire internet to review my own manuscript (Complex TV – check it out!), and not surprisingly, most people aren’t taking the time to do so! (Of course, many people are, and I offer my sincere gratitude for those who have, or plan to do so.)
Last week I posted a survey about this open review process, and while there’s still time to fill it out, one partial result stands out: in the question about why people may not have read more of the manuscript, the option of “I have not had time to dedicate to reading” has received 100% agreement! A clarifying comment from one respondent expands this rationale:
With so many texts clamoring for my attention, I must be highly selective with my reading time. Consequently, I mostly read material that relates directly to a current project, whether that be a book, a journal article, a reading list for a course, etc…. Since we are all pressed to maximize the efficacy of our research time, how do we justify peer reviewing an in-progress manuscript? Where does that fit on the annual report many of us are required to submit to our academic deans? Reviewing a proposed manuscript for an academic press is considered academic service (labor), which my university rewards. How do I get my dean to recognize the legitimacy of academic labor on MediaCommons?
I have many thoughts in relation to this comment still to come, as I think it strikes at the heart of the conundrum that shapes the limits of experimentation in scholarly publishing: to get new things to count and matter, we have to invest ourselves into things that don’t count and don’t matter, at least under current systems of evaluation and labor legitimacy. But one key innovation of the open peer review process that we’re doing at MediaCommons is that it is open—if you read my book or other work, you can make your engagement public by leaving a trace of your labor through the breadcrumbs of comments. You can send your dean a link to your comments done for a publisher in the open, rather than just the line on your C.V. saying that you read an anonymous manuscript anonymously. You can converse with other reviewers in the comments, building scholarly networks and associations that might lead to something more traditionally “valued.” While such public reading will certainly be seen as unusual at first, if more of us embrace it in various forms, hopefully institutions will start to recognize what is lost when we’re not reading, or only reading behind closed doors.
Last week, my friend Kathleen Fitzpatrick came to Göttingen to give a typically great lecture on her work on open peer review and academic publishing. In the discussion, we turned to this topic of academic labor and the challenges of getting people to spend time reading new work, especially in an untested open review format. One of the members of the audience was a colleague of mine here at Lichtenberg-Kolleg in Göttingen—Wouter Hanegraaff, a Dutch scholar of religion and “Western esotericism”—who productively engaged in the conversation. He wrote to me this weekend announcing that in reaction to this conversation, he started a new blog called Creative Reading. Wouter’s epigraph is particularly fitting:
“As academics we are expected to write and publish, but we are not supposed to waste our time reading”. This remark by a colleague – as absurd as it is true – inspired me to start this blog. Yes: as an academic in the field of the Humanities I spend much of my time reading, and on this blog you can see how that works. If scholarly writing has any value at all, then the reading that precedes it deserves respect as an integral part of the creative process that leads to knowledge and understanding.
While the type of things Wouter reads about and researches are far from my field, I’m excited to read about his reading, learning from both what he is learning and how he is learning. I hope such endeavors can help fuel a trend of using the new tools of digital writing to make our old practices of reading more visible and valued. In that spirit, I have added a new category to this blog, Reading. I’ll use it to post my thoughts about what I have read, and hopefully encourage myself to prioritize unmotivated reading by shining a light on it.
Appropriately, my first bit of semi-motivated reading to highlight is the just-published draft of “Open Review: A Study of Contexts and Practices,” drafted by Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Avi Santo as part of a study group on open review that has been meeting for the past year. If you’re at all interested in academic publishing and/or digital scholarship, it offers the best overview of the practices, possibilities, and pitfalls of new models of open peer review as I’m practicing with Complex TV. I spent my morning reading it and offering feedback, and it was time well spent. Please read it (publicly) and join me in the comment threads!
Filed under: Academia, Complex TV, Media Studies, MediaCommons, Not Quite TV, Open Access, Publishing, Reading | 2 Comments
Tags: peer review
As regular readers know, I’ve been serializing my new book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, in a pre-publication draft at MediaCommons. One of the goals of publishing the manuscript online like this is to challenge some of the norms of academic publishing and peer review, as advocated & modelled by Kathleen Fitzpatrick in her similarly pre-published book Planned Obsolescence.
Kathleen discusses in the revised publication of her book (both print and eBook) that comments dwindled moving deeper into the book, leading her to ask if such long-form publication would be best served through serial release. Thus my choice to serialize my book was partly an experiment in response to her work, as well as the nice form/content synergy by writing serially about serial storytelling. But thus far, the same pattern has manifested itself: the earlier chapters have gotten many more comments than later ones, and overall the amount of conversation is lower than I would have expected (although quality of comments has been great!).
Given that I’m working with MediaCommons to test drive possible models, we figured a bit of “market research” would be useful at this midway point in the book’s release. So below is a short anonymous survey to try to understand how people are reading and engaging with the book. I would appreciate everyone who has read or thought about reading any of Complex TV to answer these questions to help us get a better sense of who is out there, and how we can better engage readers. Feel free to fill it out below (remembering to hit the Submit button at the bottom of the post), or go directly to the survey’s own page. Thanks in advance – and if the results are interesting & useful, I’ll follow up with some aggregated info & responses!
Filed under: Academia, Books, Complex TV, Media Studies, MediaCommons, Open Access, Publishing | 2 Comments
Tags: complex television, MediaCommons, survey
A couple of quick updates. First, my article that I published previously to the blog, “Playing for Plot in the Lost and Portal Franchises” has been published in a revised version in the journal Eludamus: Journal for Computer Game Culture.
Second, I’ve been playing with the metrics I discussed in my post earlier this week about “scenic rhythms,” and added a number of other episodes to my list. After much tinkering with various spreadsheets and finally finding success with Open Office, I figured out how to put those data into a chart to visualize the different patterns. Again, the two variables are Scenes per Hour and Foci (essentially meaning how many storylines are threaded throughout the episode). Here’s the chart:
My choice of programs was very much based on whatever was handy for me to tabulate. I added a few single camera sitcoms to see how they compare—not surprisingly, the shorter 20-25 minute length and quick comic pacing leads to high SpH. Cougar Town was highest, with a scene per minute, a number boosted by the comic device of the smash cut to another time and/or place for a joke. I also think it’s interesting what a gap there is in number of foci between The Wire / Game of Thrones at 12, and everything else that falls in the 3-7 range. That might be selection bias, so I need to think of other programs that are likely to have more than 7 foci (beyond Treme) – maybe Deadwood?
Do people have ideas for other programs or episodes to include here? I don’t know if I’m ready to launch a full-fledged database of SpH yet like Cinemetrics, but a bit of crowd-sourced brainstorming could be helpful, as I’m thinking of writing an essay on this topic. Some thoughts I have are: to look at some pilot episodes to see how their rhythms might differ from typical episodes; to look at more network dramas, including serialized shows (Revenge and Good Wife are soon to come) and procedurals; to consider multicamera sitcoms in the mix; and maybe spanning back into other eras. There are also some data variables that I need to think about, including defining foci a bit more clearly and also being able to account for the variability of the counts – in some instances, a “focal thread” might only consist of one scene (a serialized “runner”) while another might take up more than half the episode, and likewise a single scene of 10 minutes might skew an episode’s measurement quite a bit – thus Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have similar SpH, but Breaking Bad features a wider range of scene lengths, while GoT is much more consistently paced throughout.
It feels like this is potentially an interesting tool to provide a clear basis for comparison across genres and production modes, but like any measure it is only useful for particular questions and parameters. So any feedback is much appreciated!
Filed under: Media Studies, Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 11 Comments
Tags: cougar town, quantitative analysis, Scenes per Hour
Television studies, as forged by the influence of cultural studies, has been loath to include critical evaluation in its toolbox, as television’s own spot on the receiving end of numerous aesthetic condemnations has pushed evaluative criticism off the field’s agenda. In this chapter, I explore a model of contextualized evaluation that does not recreate universal aesthetic values, but rather looks at how a series can define its own terms and parameters of evaluation, and how television scholars might productively engage with questions of value. Using the examples of The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, all of which have been hailed by critics as among the greatest television series in the medium’s history, I discuss how we can enter into medium-specific debates over value without recreating a canon or exclusionary critical practice, considering how complexity can function as an aesthetic asset in multiple ways.
This chapter draws from, adapts, and repurposes a number of pieces that I’ve published here, including my somewhat infamous Mad Men essay, my presentation from Hannover on this topic, and my discussion of Legitimating Television. But it’s all reframed and presented in what I hope is the clearest and most convincing articulation of a line of argument that’s not always gone over that well. I guess I keep trying…
I look forward to discussing these ideas in the margins of the MediaCommons site for this and the other chapters that await your feedback!
Filed under: Academia, Complex TV, Media Studies, Narrative, Taste, Television, TV Shows | Leave a Comment
Tags: breaking bad, Mad Men, The Wire
I finished watching the second season of Game of Thrones last night, which I enjoyed, but liked less than the first season (no spoilers forthcoming if you’re not caught up yet). I think a large part of that distinction came from how I watched them – like many, I came to season one late, bingeing on the entire 10-episode run in about a week. I had been spoiled on the season’s main death, but still very much enjoyed the narrative momentum and world-building. The second season had a lot of really great bits – like everyone, everything with Arya or Tyrion sparkles, and the “Blackwater” episode was an impressive set piece. But I had trouble tapping into the season’s rhythms and momentum watching in weekly installments.
One of my favorite critics, Todd VanDerWerff, wrote an interesting piece about the program’s narrative structure over at The A.V. Club, comparing it both to daytime soap operas and The Wire in terms of how it ranges from place to place, scene to scene over the course of an episode (see also a good post from a couple years ago about the issue of primetime versus daytime episodic structure from Jaime Weinman). I think that the structure of episodes is a huge and understudied factor in establishing a program’s rhythm and tone, and it’s something I’ve been able to touch on only briefly in my new book, Complex TV – mostly in the first main chapter, in comparing The Sopranos and The Wire‘s approaches to serial form. But I think Game of Thrones is an interesting contrast to such examples that points to the importance of scenic rhythms, which in turn helps explain how watching in weekly installments can differ from watching in a compressed binge.
Rhythm is a hard thing to analyze and measure, but one idea I’ve been toying with involves a little quantification: Scenes per Hour (SpH). Essentially, count the number of distinct scenes (which I’d roughly define as a continuous presentation of action in a single time and space), and then prorate them to arrive at how many scenes there would be in exactly 60 minutes of storytelling (not counting credits & recaps) – and I’ll count a montage sequence as a single scene, even though it contains numerous places and times. We can also compare the number of scenes to the number of discrete storylines or character combinations, or what I’ll call “foci,” highlighting the differences between following a small number of people/places over time versus cutting widely to cover a larger story scope. I’ve been logging a few examples of programs for awhile that will provide comparison for Game of Thrones:
Breaking Bad, “Grilled” – 15 SpH, 3 foci
This episode, where Tuco kidnaps Walt and Jesse, is one of the more claustrophobic episodes of the show, with only a bit more range than “The Fly” or “Four Days Out.” When we think of intense, slowburn storytelling, this is what we mean: long scenes, limited intercutting between stories (that disappears altogether in the final 1/3), tight narrative focus.
Mad Men, “The Suitcase” – 27 SpH, 3 foci
More like Breaking Bad in its tight focus – and really the final 2/3 only has one main focus in an atypical pattern – but shorter scenes to chop up an all-nighter into 45 minutes of screen time.
Lost, “Walkabout” – 48 SpH, 5 foci
A classic episode that doesn’t feel rushed or action-packed, but there’s a lot of interplay here between multiple story beats, presented in very short scenes (just over a minute on average). The way the scenes add up, with some action and twisty storytelling propulses the storytelling.
The Wire, “Refugees” – 41 SpH, 10+ foci
A season four episode chosen essentially at random, with many short scenes, spread out over very many plotlines – it’s hard to figure out precisely where a focus begins or ends on The Wire, as they interweave and overlap a lot. This is quite typical of The Wire, which juggles many plots by dropping into moments throughout an episode and cutting back and forth quickly. This leads to constant forward momentum (even when not much happens in a scene), and helps keep all of the stories fresh in mind.
Days of Our Lives, episode from 21 January, 2011 (chosen at random because it was online) – 55 SpH, 5 foci
A great comparison to The Wire, as the scenes are even shorter (34 in 37 minutes!), but spread out only among 5 storylines. The pattern is typical of most soaps, rotating through 4-6 storylines per episodes, with 5-6 scenes per story spread out over the running time. Not much action happens in each scene, with internal redundancy and the paradigmatic pleasures of hearing characters talk about each other and react to narrative information. (See this post for more of my thoughts on soaps’ questionable influence on primetime serials.)
Game of Thrones, “Valar Morghulis” – 16 SpH, 12 foci.
I am stunned by these numbers, which demonstrate how radically different Game of Thrones‘s rhythms are from the comparison point of soap operas or other primetime serials like The Wire. The long scene lengths and number of scenes rival the slowburn of Breaking Bad, but they are spread out over a Wire-like number of storylines, characters, and locations. Only three storylines get more than one scene in this finale (Tyrion, Robb, Danys), with most characters getting between 3 to 5 minutes to provide a last taste of narrative before going into hiatus for a long interseason gap.
This comparison points to why I find Game of Thrones to have problems of narrative momentum that are partly compensated by binge-watching. With only one or two scenes per most episodes, storylines have rarely feel propulsive, suspenseful, or otherwise engaging. They fall out of our active memory from week-to-week, and when we do hook onto a character or plot, they disappear for too long to be satisfying. When we binge, this is overcome as we treat multiple episodes more like the intercutting between stories more typical to television.
Game of Thrones‘s rhythms are far different from other serial television programs, whether daytime or primetime, and I think that’s in keeping with its source material of novels, where long scenes and sequences, intercut and distributed among chapters, work better due to the ability to read in more self-controlling timing. I wonder whether the novels of Game of Thrones (which I haven’t read) would be enjoyable if you had to wait a week between chunks of 50 pages? My guess is probably not, which speaks to the show’s problematic scenic rhythms that are poorly suited for weekly television. And thus I’ll be waiting even longer to binge on subsequent seasons.
[Update: I posted a follow-up piece thinking more about SpH as data, including charting a number of other programs as well. If you’re quantitatively open-minded, check it out!]
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 10 Comments
Tags: breaking bad, Days of Our Lives, Game of Thrones, Lost, Mad Men, quantitative analysis, Scenes per Hour, soap opera, The Wire
One of the reasons I most enjoy studying the fan culture side of media studies is that fans can come up with some fascinating stuff, a boggling array of creativity discovered through the contraints provided by the source texts. I document some of the most interesting examples I’ve found in my chapter on “Orienting Paratexts,” ranging from The Tommy Westphall Universe Theory to The Wire‘s D&D alignment chart. I’m always on the lookout for the type of creativity that only exists in intertextual relationship with another pre-existing text, like the legendary play (and underrated film) Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead or brilliant television series Slings & Arrows, both of which write in the margins of Shakespeare to redefine our notions of “originality.”
Yesterday, a friend tweeted a link to a fascinating example of such an original intertext: And The Man Next To You. While the source material is not quite Shakespeare, the project has a similar investment in intertextual playfulness – as the site’s subtitle aptly explains, “The Tragic Backstory of Everyone Killed in Under Siege.” The Tumblr-hosted site is a serialized slow-motion walkthrough of the fairly forgettable Steven Seagal movie, freeze-framing each death and offering a brief account of each victim’s pitiable fate, as with this entry from 70 minutes into the film:
His parents worshipped at the church of ‘no’. He heard the word so often he mistook it for his name. Banned TV and confiscated music and friends he wasn’t allowed to see were supposed proof of their love for him, and the weight of their disappointment kept him pinned down in his bedroom until he was sixteen. Then he stole everything in the house that’d fit through the door and never looked back. His first ‘yes’ was to a tattoo, small at first, but he soon gave more and more of himself over to it. Back, ribs, shoulders, and heart. Now he just regrets not dying in a knife fight with his shirt hanging off him in ribbons. He wishes everyone could see what he’s become.
The concept seems like a clever idea on its own, kind of a McSweeney’s style high-concept experiment that you could imagine spending ten minutes reading. But it goes on and on as a piece of experimental fiction, accumulating bodies for months. It just struck me as both oddly fabulous and fabulously odd, achieving weight as it piles up. So I wanted to know who was behind it – and was happily surprised to discover that the author was actually my friend who tweeted it: Martyn Pedler, an Australian writer, screenwriter, and media scholar whom I know from conferences & the internets. I couldn’t resist digging into the site, and Martyn agreed to engage in a brief conversation to try to figure out what exactly this site is all about. I hope you enjoy reading both Martyn’s accounts of these tragic deaths, and what made Martyn discover more about the victims.
Filed under: Fandom, Film, New Media, Not Quite TV | 1 Comment
Tags: fan fiction, Under Siege
It’s time for another chapter of Complex TV to go live on MediaCommons Press—this time, the topic is Transmedia Storytelling. It builds on work I have done in recent years about how television narratives expand into other media, especially around Lost and its ARGs, but very few of the chapter’s ideas have been published elsewhere. As always, the chapters are designed to stand on their own, so don’t feel you need to have read any of the other ones to dive in here. Here’s the abstract:
As television series have become more complex in their narrative strategies, television itself has expanded its scope across a number of screens and platforms, complicating notions of medium-specificity at the very same time that television seems to have a clearer sense of distinct narrative form. This chapter explores how television narratives are expanded and complicated through transmedia extensions, including video games, novelizations, websites, online video, and alternate reality games. With specific analyses of transmedia strategies for Lost and Breaking Bad, I consider how television’s transmedia storytelling is grappling with issues of canonicity and audience segmentation, how transmedia reframes viewer expectations for the core television serial, and what transmedia possibilities might look like going forward.
I’ve been a bit disappointed that very few people have offered feedback in the comments at the MediaCommons Press site. I know that a number of American academic readers have been waiting until the spring semester finishes, and I’ve heard from a few other people that they’re reading but not commenting. If you have any thoughts about ways to improve participation, please let me know.
And for bonus content, check out the video for one of the Breaking Bad transmedia extensions I discuss, Team S.C.I.E.N.C.E.!
Filed under: Complex TV, Fandom, MediaCommons, Narrative, New Media, Television, TV Industry, TV Shows, Videogames, Viewers | 1 Comment
Tags: breaking bad, Lost, transmedia
I’m pleased to post the next chapter of Complex TV, focused on the topic of Orienting Paratexts. Here’s the abstract:
Along with shifts in the television industry and technologies, viewer practices have adapted to the digital era with new developments in how people consume narrative television. This chapter explores the range of paratexts that have emerged to help viewers make sense of complex television’s temporality, characters, plot, and spatial orientation, spanning a wide range of programs from St. Elsewhere to Game of Thrones. Through a detailed account of the fan wiki Lostpedia, I explore the complexity of how people watch television, and foreground notions of forensic fandom and drillability as modes of television spectatorship.
Of all the chapters in the book, this is the one which is most comprised of previously published or posted material (I promise the next will be unreleased material!). The first section was built on a talk I gave in the fall and posted here. Then I adapt & compress my essay on Lostpedia published in Transformative Works & Cultures. Finally, I poached from my piece on drillability that I wrote for Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford & Josh Green’s book on spreadable media (which won’t end up in the book directly, as it transformed during publication). I post these sources here not to suggest that this new chapter is redundant and derivative (that’s for you to judge), but to highlight how writing this book is very much a recursive process, weaving the old with the new and aiming to create something that feels unified and complete on its own. Did I succeed? Let me know in the comments!
As always, please offer feedback of any kind in the margins of the text, whether nitpicky copy edits, suggestive extensions or provocative condemnations – I welcome it all for this chapter, as well as the previously posted ones. Thanks in advance for reading & commenting.
Filed under: Books, Complex TV, Fandom, MediaCommons, Narrative, New Media, Television, TV Shows, Viewers | 1 Comment
Tags: complex television, Lost, lostpedia, paratext
I’d decided not to write about the pilot of Girls, the new HBO show that has either been hailed as the channel’s great comedy hope, or a crime against humanity (or maybe some middleground somewhere too). But after reading a lot of the criticism and commentary, and getting into at least four lengthy conversations on Twitter about it, I figured I’d assemble some thoughts to join in the fray beyond 140 characters.
I don’t have much to say about the show itself. I thought it was a very good pilot, establishing a distinctive tone, a couple of compelling characters, and making me laugh a fair amount. It wasn’t perfect–and if you’re comparing such things, I thought that Awake was still the strongest pilot of the year–as it did leave a little too much ambiguity as to how much we’re supposed to be laughing at versus laughing with the characters, and a few of the conversations felt a little stagey. But I liked it enough to keep watching, which is the primary job of a pilot.
But I did want to talk more about was the swirling commentary around the show (see Christine Becker’s roundup), where the critics who love it (based on the first three episodes that HBO sent in advance) might have set the expectation bar a little high–in large part, that’s probably because the next two episodes are reportedly stronger. Additionally, the marketing (which I’ve been ignorant of in Germany) seems to frame it as more of a “statement show” than it is–Hannah’s line about being “the voice of my generation” seems to have been decontextualized in the ads, stripped of the vital framing situation where she’s bullshitting her parents for money & high on opium. I also think the title is so broad as if to suggest that it’s universal, which it is decidedly not. So the show’s paratextual frame probably did Girls little favors in managing expectations, especially based on a single 30 minute episode.
However, the backlash seems equally unfair, if not more so. This backlash ranges from the outright misogynistic (mocking the weight & appearance of characters) to closeted sexism (calling Hannah whiny & bitchy for being unhappy, when comedy is full of unhappy leading men) on one side, with another strain critiquing the show’s focus on privileged, straight white characters living in an unrealistic, non-diverse vision of New York (which could describe many other big city sitcoms as well). To all of those criticizing the show on such grounds, I’d urge a little patience–after all, we’ve only seen 30 minutes of the series. This is particularly troubling when commenters & critics raise other programs in comparison, as I’ve seen people hold it up negatively (as well as positively) to a range of shows, including Louie, Seinfeld, Entourage (yeah, really), and Sex & the City.** But all of those programs have had years under their belts–and none of them started particularly strong themselves. Comparing a pilot to a long-running series is hazardous terrain, as you need to imagine that you only know its first installment, while still framed by how it develops into a long-running and/or acclaimed series. And, of course, this all echoes my last post about the dangers of trying to assess a program mid-season.
So how can we judge pilots? I’ve written at length about this–in fact, go to my book Complex TV and read a full chapter all about the poetics of pilots! In that chapter, I suggest that the two goals of a pilot are to educate viewers on what the show is, and inspire us to keep watching. It seems fair to give up on a show if the pilot fails at these two tasks: if you’re left uncertain how to make sense of the tone or storyworld, or if that which you do understand turns you off. If you find the characters on Girls annoying, find the humor unfunny, or find the milieu off-putting, then I’d guess you should stop watching, as that’s unlikely to change. (Of course if the grounds for being put off is thinking that the characters are fat and bitchy, then it’s not the show’s fault that you’re a judgmental prick.) But judging the politics of the show, its inclusion or exclusion of certain types of people or storylines, or its treatment of particular topics seems incredibly limiting based only one episode. Not to say that the first impression might not be correct, but it’s based on a small sample size, and I’d be loathe to condemn a show (especially publicly) without giving it a chance to fully express and develop its voice.
In any case, I’m sure that the hyperbolic praise, backlash, counter-backlash, and now meta-discussion will all fade. At the end of the season, we’ll have a show that’s distinctive and unlike most of the things it’s been compared to, and perhaps will be immensely pleasurable or painful for many. But it seems far too soon to invest much time in trying to figure out what Girls will be before it has a chance to get there.
** Note that Girls raises the Sex in the City comparison directly in the pilot, and I take that meta-moment as an explicit articulation of the show’s attempt to both update and undercut HBO’s previous take on four sexually active women in the city. The comparison that springs to mind is Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville as a response to The Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main St., but perhaps that’s only because both Phair and Girls‘s creator/star Lena Dunham both struck it big in high-profile cult realms after graduating Oberlin,*** succeeding in realms typically reserved for men using a forthright sexuality and highly literate tone. But it’s too soon to judge–I’ll reassess at the end of the season.
*** Yes, I stuck this in here mostly as a shout-out to Oberlin pride.
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 6 Comments
Last week, the TV-themed corners of the Internets were all atwitter around a pair of interviews David Simon gave, first to The New York Times, then to Alan Sepinwall at HitFix. I won’t try to summarize them fully, but I did want to weigh in on one of Simon’s core arguments about the place of episodic criticism. (Note: as I was writing this, Noel Murray posted his own take about this and related issues at The A.V. Club – like nearly everything Noel writes, I recommend it, and in this case, agree with pretty much all of it, so please read it!)
Part of Simon’s gripe is his annoyance over Grantland’s “Best Wire Character” bracket, especially in the site’s silly write-ups, if not the fan voting itself—even though I did vote (Bubbles 4EVA!), I agree about the way that type of fandom missed the point of the series. More interesting is his critique that weekly reviews of long-form serialized television often misconstrue a series, lacking the perspective of how any episode or plotline fits into the whole. I fully agree with his points on this for many series (including Simon’s own), where the long arcs often include moments in earlier episodes that might be less than satisfying or clear without the context of the whole. This is not to say there is no use for episodic reviews, which function (as Noel expresses eloquently) more as sites of conversation than definitive assessment. And as a media scholar, I find those in-the-moment evaluations and conversations essential windows into reception practices—what I wouldn’t have given to be able to look at such evidence from earlier programs in television history that I’ve written about, like Soap or Dragnet! But the rush to judgment, and the associated critical consensus that can develop around a show from week to week can be more damaging than illuminating to understanding the larger picture in the moment.
Case in point: Justified. Yesterday saw the conclusion of the third season, ending in a fantastic episode that brought together many of the season’s diverse plot threads and wove them into an emotionally powerful tapestry about fathers and sons, family, and going home. Before the finale, the online critical consensus was that season 3 was a let down from season 2’s superb tale of the Bennett crime family, with too many competing criminals and lack of thematic consistency. While I actually liked the season overall more than many critics, as I always found the performances compelling and the moment-to-moment dialogue and tone so pleasurable, there was a real sense of concern in the critical sphere of “what happened to Justified?” and could it regain its footing next year. But in the wake in the seemingly universal praise of the finale, perhaps those critics and commenters should revise their assessments of the show’s strengths. At least I would hope that they would notice how the themes and threads were subtly there throughout, even if they were not always apparent in the moment – I certainly have thought back on previous episodes and reconsidered how Arlo’s ramblings, Quarles’s backstory, and Winona’s pregnancy all relate in ways that I’d never picked up on.
My own experience doing weekly reviews is modest, as I blogged the final season of Lost for Antenna. In that process, I kept wanting to put a pin in certain moments and plotlines, withholding judgment until the final revelations help explain what we were watching and why. Certainly many people felt let down by Lost‘s finale, and I would argue in large part it was due to so much weight being put upon that reveal of the sideways universe’s true meaning, and the concept couldn’t quite support that much pressure. While I loved the opportunity to pontificate & converse about the show each week, I also saw how that evaluative context changed my reactions and expectations in ways that I might wish it had not.
There is no “pure” way to watch a program, but that doesn’t mean that all contexts and practices have equal impact – writing and reading episodic reviews, and engaging in such sites of conversation, changes our expectations and experiences in palpable ways. Some shows benefit from that – from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like Mad Men does, and I’d say that many comedies do as well – but others can get mired down in parsing out details or filling in gaps that we might need to reevaluate down the road. But two things that online culture is particularly poor at is withholding judgment and reevaluating experiences, as people tend to double down on their own perspectives more often than not. There is no simple answer here, as the benefits of weekly reviewing & conversations are compelling enough to keep going, and I’ll still read & write them. But I’d hope we could all dial down the absolutism, and try to step back and imagine larger contexts, and be open to them when they reveal themselves, rather than needing to revise our earlier scorn (or praise) in light of how things end up.
UPDATE: Check out Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent response to a number of pieces, including my own. And if you want some excellent Wire criticism that definitely looks at the series as a whole, watch Erlend Javik’s great video essay:
Filed under: Narrative, New Media, Television, TV Shows, Viewers | 6 Comments
Tags: criticism, justified, Lost, The Wire
I have decided to use my blog here in tandem with the site for Complex TV to offer context & references for each chapter as I release them this spring/summer. I hope this is useful in both promoting readership, and making it transparent how this book is coming together out of earlier pieces and new analyses. So today I have posted my first chapter in the topical section of the book, aptly entitled “Beginnings.” These chapters can be read in any order, but you should read the “Introduction” & core “Complexity in Context” chapter before the individual topical sections to establish the main approach and vocabulary I’ll be using throughout. Here’s the abstract of “Beginnings”:
Although long-form television serials are notably marked by their potentially eternal narrative middles, they all must start somewhere; this chapter explores how serials are launched with television pilots, considering the core functions of pilots as setting up the direction of a serial’s narrative thrust, teaching viewers how to watch the ongoing narrative, and inspiring them to commit to ongoing serialized consumption. The chapter uses a detailed case study of the Veronica Mars pilot to demonstrate how serials establish intrinsic norms for ongoing narratives, with references to strategies found in pilots of Twin Peaks, Arrested Development, Alias, Awake, How I Met Your Mother, Pushing Daisies, and Terriers.
This chapter reworks an older piece of mine about the Veronica Mars pilot, that had been drafted for an anthology but I pulled from print in order to maintain its open access here (as I described previously). I have also incorporated my previously-posted thoughts on Awake‘s pilot, while updating both of these pieces to account for some new ideas and vocabulary for describing pilots and their strategies. Since I talk at length about the Veronica Mars pilot’s opening scene, here it is for your viewing pleasure:
As always, I invite feedback on the MediaCommons Press site – and even though I’m serializing the release of chapters, I’m still carrying on conversations in the margins of every chapter, so feel free to catch up whenever you can!
Filed under: Books, Complex TV, Media Studies, MediaCommons, Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 1 Comment
Tags: alias, Arrested Development, awake, how i met your mother, pushing daisies, terriers, Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars
I am pleased to announce the launch of my book Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. As I’ve written previously, I am a firm believer in open-access publishing and experimenting with new forms of peer review and digital publishing. And even though I’m still in Germany, I’m participating via Skype in a workshop on online publishing at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in Boston this weekend. Thus in conjunction with my SCMS presentation, I offer a draft of my book manuscript for open peer-to-peer review online via the CommentPress system as hosted on MediaCommons Press – please visit the site to read it and provide feedback, and share the link broadly. Here is the brief abstract of the book, with the full book proposal available on the site:
Over the past two decades, American television has undergone major transformations in terms of technology, industrial structure, viewer practices, and the rise of new genres like reality programming. One of the most notable impacts of these shifts is the emergence of highly complex and elaborate forms of serial narrative, resulting in a robust period of formal experimentation and risky programming rarely seen in a medium that is typically viewed as formulaic and convention bound. Complex Television offers a sustained analysis of the poetics of television narrative in order to understand how the medium’s storytelling operates and how it fits into broader cultural contexts. Through close analyses of key programs, including The Wire, Lost, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Arrested Development, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, The West Wing, and How I Met Your Mother, I trace the emergence of this narrative mode, focusing on issues like viewer comprehension, transmedia storytelling, serial structures, fan engagement, and authorship. By applying theories of narratology and poetics developed in literary and film studies to the more culturally devalued medium of television, I hope to argue for a vision of television as the most vital and important storytelling medium of our time.
I will be posting it serially, with chapters going live every week or two for the next few months, with the book’s introduction and first chapter available now. This serialized format is in (large) part because I am still writing the book, but also because I want to give time for people to read each chapter and participate in the conversation, as well as the nice form/content resonance for a book about serial narrative. Much of the book’s content has been previewed here on this blog and in other publications, but hopefully the new versions are improved and more integrated into a long-form argument. As discussed in the introduction, the book’s chapters are not designed to be read cumulatively, so could certainly jump around with ease. You can follow updates for the book via Twitter, Facebook, or an email list for announcements. I hope to see you in the margins of the book!
Filed under: Academia, Complex TV, Media Studies, MediaCommons, Narrative, Publishing, Television | 1 Comment
One of the main jobs of any television pilot is to teach us how to watch the series yet to come. In large part, that means establishing the key elements of the narrative: the setting, the characters, the genre, the relationships. In complex narratives, that also means setting up the storytelling hook, especially where there’s a supernatural element, an overriding mystery, or otherwise a “high concept” gimmick to make the show stand out as distinct. And the pilot should set the tone, both for style and emotion—and if it’s a good show, stylistic & emotional tone should work in tandem, as with the colorful whimsy of Pushing Daisies or the sweeping importance of The West Wing. It quite rare of a pilot to do all of this, as most debut episodes give us placeholders for future development of characters, setting, or relationships, as there’s only so much story to tell within 45 minutes.
I just watched a pilot that seems to do it all: NBC’s new show Awake, Kyle Killen’s second attempt to do a network show about a man leading a double life (after 2010’s Lone Star became the season’s best-reviewed and least-watched show). You can watch it online if you’re in the U.S., and I highly recommend it—Awake is one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen, ranking alongside other favorites like Alias, Veronica Mars, Lost, and Pushing Daisies. If you’ve watched it, read on for some thoughts about how I think it might overcome some pitfalls of complex television—and if you haven’t watched it, seriously, follow that link!
The premise of Awake is seriously high concept: police detective Michael Britten gets into a deadly car accident with his family, and when he sleeps, he switches between a reality where his wife was killed but his teenage son survived, and one where his son died but his wife didn’t. The premise is easy to describe, but hard to convey what it means as a series—and the most common refrain from critics about the show is that it seems like it would be a great movie, but how will it work as an ongoing serial? I think the answer is there in pilot, less in terms of the concept and more about the tone, characters, and approach to storytelling.
As always with a pilot, the opening sequence is the key to set the parameters for what is to come. The show opens with the car crash, presented with painful violent energy culminating in three shots: unconscious wife Hannah, unconscious son Rex, husband Michael waking up. This last shot pulls back and rotates in corkscrew fashion to show the inverted wreck of the car, visualizing Michael’s world turned upside down (a visual effect that doesn’t come across as a bad pun unless you write about it). Over this shot, we hear the voice soon to be revealed as Michael’s therapist Dr. Lee say, “So tell me how this works.” Michael’s voice replies, “I don’t know. I close my eyes, I open them. Same as you.” We then cut to a shot of Hannah and Michael grieving at a funeral, clearly suggesting that Rex has died. Lee’s voice then says, “let’s just start at the beginning,” to which Michael says, “No.” We cut to Michael sitting in his therapy session to continue his line, “let’s start it right now.”
This starting 50 seconds is not particularly rich in narrative details—we learn that there was a car accident, and presumably Rex was killed in the accident—but it does give us some key clues on how to watch the show. First, the camerawork and editing is established as unconventionally stylized and free-roaming across time frames without explicit motivation, inviting us to pay attention to overt visual style in a way that few network programs do. The dialog sets up two poles for how to approach the story that will prove to be crucial—Lee takes an analytic tactic, as befits his profession, trying to understand how things work and grapple with origins. Michael wants to live in the now, downplaying that anything unusual is happening to him. These poles of engagement help structure the show’s narrative, as his dual (and dueling) therapists want to make rational sense of what’s happening to Michael as he flips between reality and a presumed dream, while Michael just wants to enjoy his split lives where he effectively can live without loss. As he says at the end of the pilot, “when it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress.”
These dual approaches mirror how we might engage with the unusual scenario as well—we can try to make rational sense of it to solve a mystery (“so tell me how this works”), or we can enjoy the now by accepting the premise as it is, not as a problem to be solved. As I’ve written about at length, much of complex television fosters a mode of forensic fandom where viewers are encouraged to solve such high-concept puzzles, to ask “why?” and presume there’s an answer to be found by drilling down and analyzing, much like with therapy (or academic analysis). But I read Awake’s pilot as an invitation to side with Michael, not only as our story’s protagonist, but as a role model for accepting what we’ve been given without wanting to know the reasons why—as viewers, Michael asks that we don’t focus on cracking the mystery of what is “really” going on here, or deduce which reality is real. [Spoiler: neither. It’s a TV show.]
The rest of the pilot focuses our attention on what matters most: Michael works on rebuilding his relationships with son and wife in the wake of the massive losses that each suffered, but he did not (at least fully). Michael learns how to make his condition an asset for doing his job, as experiences in each world seem to inform the cases he solves in the other. Michael develops coping strategies to orient himself across realities with colored bracelets as visual reminders, a technique mirrored in the dual color schemes and film tints that the show uses impressively to demarcate (and subtly blend) the two realms.
In many ways, the pilot might be seen as situating Awake within a specific subgenre: the supernatural detective drama. Although very different in tone and style, there’s a parallel here with the show Medium, which focused on Allison DuBois, a psychic who worked with the police to solve crimes. (And though I never watched it, Ghost Whisperer might be another apt parallel as well.) On Medium, there was never any issue as to whether Allison really was a psychic or how her powers worked—we simply accepted the fantastic premise that she communicated with the dead and enjoyed watching how it offered a twist on procedural cop plots and impacted her personal life (and as an aside, Medium’s portrait of a marriage and parenthood is one of the most compelling I’ve ever seen on TV). So might we read Michael similarly as a character with a special, somewhat inexplicable gift that both enriches and complicates his life? What if the overarching narrative of the show isn’t trying to “start at the beginning” to understand what is happening, but to “start it right now” to understand how his condition matters to him and others in his life?
I desperately hope that Awake will not fall into the trap that plagued other high concept series in recent years, like Flash Forward, The Event, and Day Break, where concerns about a compelling central mystery overrode all other storytelling imperatives. The quality of Awake’s writing, performances, visual style, and emotional realism give me faith, as it’s already produced a more compelling 45 minutes than any of those shows could cobble together out of their singular seasons. But I fear that the pull of forensic fandom might make it seem like the goal of the show is to provide answers to the mysterious concept, rather than exploring its consequences in the lives of characters whom I already care about. Of course a pilot is always a promissory note for what is (hopefully) to come, more than a blueprint to be followed, and much can change as a series develops. But after watching this excellent pilot, I hope that the series respects Michael Britten’s wishes by accepting him for who he is, not trying to solve his problem, and letting us immerse ourselves in both of his lives.
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 9 Comments
Tags: awake, medium, nbc, pilot