Archive | October, 2012

Adaptation and The Corner

31 Oct

Does The Corner work, viewing it purely as an adaptation? There are many theories on adaptation, with countless definitions. One theory (from Linda Hutcheon, a literary theorist) looks at adaptation as a product and process—specifically, the final product and two processes: the process of creation and the process of reception. Both processes involve repetition and recreation–the adaptation doesn’t work unless the original work can still resonate through the new work, but it has to be creatively changed enough to stand alone as its own work. I find this idea very interesting when thinking about The Corner because not only is the miniseries adapted from the book, the book is adapted from real life stories. This is where things get complicated–with this specific definition of adaptation, the idea of re-imagining and re-creating is very important…but since the story is based on true life events…they can’t be that re-imagined or re-created because doing so involves changing the truth and under those circumstances the authors should no longer be able to claim that these are true-life stories. So where can the line be drawn between staying true enough to the stories to still claim they are true and re-imagining them enough so that the authors are not merely translating from one medium to another, but rather are creating something new and an entity all on its own? 

Obviously Simon and Burns took some creative liberties with the text as the adapters–creating vivid images of people and surroundings—and probably formatted the book in a way that all the stories they gathered followed some sort of cohesive story arc, highlighting different individuals at different times. When a dramatic work is that creative and stylistically written, it’s hard to accept that it’s all true. Then there is the next layer of adaptation of these personal stories–the adaptation to the screen. When it comes to adapting a story to film or television, identifying the person who holds the responsibility as the adapter becomes confusing. It initially is the screenwriter, but then the director gets his/her hands on the screenplay and essentially adapts that screenplay to a visual entity–or it could be the editor, because he or she puts the shots together. With all of these hands molding the one piece of work, it can be transformed from the original idea to the point of unrecognizability. However, with The Corner, the authors (Simon and Burns) worked with the screenwriter (David Mills) and the director (Charles Dutton) to create the screenplay, so there was probably a continuous dialogue as to what should be cut from the text and what pieced together would create the most cohesive story that could be told by a miniseries. At times, it felt like the book was written expressly to be adapted to a screenplay–written in present tense with very specific detailed descriptions of characters, which probably helped the process. Nevertheless, this team had to fit 535 pages worth of text into a six-part miniseries so liberties had to be taken. 

One thing I noticed is that the timeline was toyed with–with each episode putting the focus on a specific person, elements had to have been taken from the various chapters and put into one episode. Doing so then necessitated going back a little in time to start the next episode and focus on a different person. For example, in the text, DeAndre goes to the Boys Village in the “winter” section, the first section, but in the series he’s not there until the third episode. Also, the miniseries definitely made it so some characters were generally likeable. In order for a television series to work and maintain viewers, there have to be some sympathetic characters with whom they can identify. In a book though, there’s the liberty of lengthy exposition in providing some insight to a character’s flaws–so even if they come across as awful at one point, they can be redeemed later. In the text, DeAndre acts pretty awful toward Tyreeka a while after she’s had the baby, but in the series, we don’t see that—the offensive behavior is thrown in during the voiceover of the epilogue. His bad elements are downplayed, so the audience will sympathize with him more. 

So to get back to my original question—does The Corner work considering only the adaptation dimension of the story? I think the original stories have been so transformed that you definitely can’t say the series works as an adaptation of real life, but, as an adaptation of an incredibly stylized, descriptive book, I think it does work (pretty well).


The Wire: the Musical

29 Oct

The Wire: the Musical

I just stumbled upon this and thought to share it with you guys.

The Value of Exclusivity

28 Oct

HBO is known for it’s dedication to original television programs, theatrically released movies, and it’s un-severable tie to cable pay television. If you want to watch an HBO show within a year of it’s release, you have one (legal) option. You have to first be a paying cable customer and then subscribe to HBO for an additional $20/month. There is no way to stream the shows without an HBO/cable subscription and you cannot purchase digital or DVD copies of their shows until a year after they aired. As the Internet has become an integral part of the television market through streaming shows, access to additional content, and discussion boards, HBO’s exclusive marketing strategy has been under a lot of scrutiny recently.

Yet because of the nature of HBO, its marketing has to be unlike any other television channel or show. For example, because of the similarities between HBO marketing and live theater marketing, HBO recently hired a new marketing director with experience in the theater industry. Rather than selling an individual show, HBO sells an exclusive community. As former HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht put it, “The product that we sell is HBO the network. You can’t buy a piece of it. You have to buy it all.”

Although HBO has a streaming counterpart, HBO Go, you have to be a full subscriber to the cable channel to get access. Because of the inconvenience and price of an HBO subscription, many people have turned to downloading episodes illegally in an attempt to weasel their way into the HBO community. The second season of Game of Thrones is on its way to being crowned the most pirated series of 2012 with about 3.9 million torrents per episode. It is not surprising to hear that there was roughly the same number of people tuning in to watch the show on HBO each week (only 4.2 million per episode). Although it may seem like a poor marketing choice to ignore the increase in popularity of the Internet as a mode of watching television, HBO may be making a smart choice. As Christopher Anderson discusses in his essay “Producing an Aristocracy of Culture in American Television,” HBO can be considered the closest that television comes to being considered art. And “the ability to think of one television series as a work of art exists alongside a belief that others are nothing more than noisy diversions.” By tying itself to cable television, HBO is ensuring that its shows are being compared to network channels that are flooded with reality shows, soap operas, and other series that lack in narrative quality. Yet, if it were to offer an option for streaming in the absence of cable television, HBO would be opening to the door for comparison to other streaming machines such as Netflix and Hulu where movies and TV series from a variety of production companies are available. So rather than being compared to the programming of network television channels, it would be compared to an aggregate of Hollywood and worldwide production companies, a much more daunting feat.

Rather than trying to sell individual series, HBO is trying to maintain an entire ecosystem that exists in the world of television rather than the Internet. While they may gain a small number of viewers through Internet subscriptions, the network would lose a lot of its control over the way in which their shows are viewed and the exclusivity of the product. As HBO co-president Eric Kessler said in an interview, “Our content is exclusive. It’s the only place you can get it. And we believe there is a value in exclusivity.”


27 Oct

Mittell’s article “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” discusses the emergence of complicated storylines in TV shows from the past 20 years or so. While many shows make use of repetition and other devices to allow newer viewers to get into the show, other series assume a certain level of prior knowledge.

A very interesting narrative structure was used in the third season of Community. Similar to the Rashoman effect (repeating a story from different perspectives) that Mittell mentions (37), the episode “Remedial Chaos Theory” presents several possible timelines for the show to take, based on which character leaves the room at a certain moment. The “darkest timeline” features one of the characters dying, another losing an arm, one relapsing into alcoholism, etc. Though this is not the timeline that continues in the next episode, the darkest timeline does still exist. The real timeline is referred to as the “prime timeline,” possibly alluding to the fact that it is more appropriate for a primetime NBC show, where all of the characters have a nice happy resolution at the end of the episode.

However, one character named Abed seems to be vaguely aware of the darkest timeline. Later in the season, Evil Abed, from the darkest timeline, crosses over and attempts to make the prime timeline the darkest. This brings up the issue of which timeline is real, and whether the darkest timeline is all in Abed’s head. This is plausible since Abed has trouble understanding social situations and often uses TV and movies to help him. He constantly references TV series and films, and sometimes constructs events in his life to mimic their plots.

This episode uses a strange narrative device, especially since this plot arc brings Community into something like science fiction, which it does not generally explore. Weird episodes like this might not appeal to a wide audience, contributing to the show’s low ratings. Caldwell, in his discussion of televisuality, talks about “loss leaders,” which he describes as having “high prestige-claims but predictably low [ratings] numbers” (20). He writes about this in relation to style more than narrative complexity, but these often go hand in hand. Something like this occurs in shows like Arrested Development, which has many complex and overlapping narratives, as well as a distinctive style. During its run, it had very few viewers despite critical acclaim, though it has since gained many fans. But is that what is happening with Community?

Along with its weird plotlines and characters, Community requires a vast knowledge of TV and movies to be fully appreciated. While it is not as extremely self-referential as Arrested Development, it does assume a high level of outside knowledge. It is not too high-concept or narratively complex for viewers to understand or enjoy any given episode. When the show does use strange narrative structures, it is often an explicit reference to other TV series or movies (e.g. claymation Christmas episode), but the episode is funny even if you don’t get that one reference. Maybe it is Community’s constant engagement with itself as a TV show and the things it references that turns people off. Or it may have to do with Community’s weird brand of humor. Maybe it is something else.

When Caldwell mentions loss leaders and their tendency to be cancelled, he raises the following question: “Which type of series should be deemed more symptomatic of a period, the few with high ratings and prestige, or the greater number with high prestige-claims but predictably low numbers?” (20). With DVDs and Netflix, people may not feel as compelled to watch a highly praised series while it is on TV, since they can just watch it at some point in the future. Even better, they can wait until the show ends and then watch it all in 3 days, ensuring that they will catch every self-reference and follow all of the complex narratives throughout the series. Unfortunately, this viewing behavior can come at the expense of the series’ cancellation.

Tim and Eric: Awesomely Videographic Show, Great Job!

27 Oct


In his discussion of the televisual aesthetic in “Excessive Style,” Caldwell presents a stylistic spectrum that ranges from “cinematic” to “videographic” (12). The cinematic mode exploits the visual grammar, spectacle, and production values of film, ideally aiming for a softening of mediation and accentuating of immersion — the rich diegetic worlds of the artful HBO dramas that Anderson highlights are prime examples of this televisual mode. The videographic guise, however, is “marked by acute hyperactivity and an obsession with effects” (12-13), and ultimately heightens mediation through its aesthetic strategies of digital manipulation and imaging (i.e. the bizarre cyberpunk world of Max Headroom, and the hyper-awareness of the televisual apparatus in CNN news broadcasts). Both modes enable different kinds of televisual exhibitionism or stylistic embellishment, but I’m particularly interested in how the videographic mode can be exploited in jarring and self-reflexive ways.

Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim comedy block might just be the quintessential series that operates within this particular televisual aesthetic. Described by its creators as “the nightmare version of television,” Awesome Show is essentially a sketch comedy series that adopts its flow and aesthetic from the lo-fi world of public-access television, employing disorienting formal and narrative devices like glitch, faux-commercials, and telethon musical acts to create an atmosphere of surreal, uncanny, avant-garde, and self-aware camp. Each sketch is diegetically framed within the context of a fictional public-access channel called Channel 5 (although one can easily get lost or entranced in the hyperactive, non-sequitur progression and lose sight of this meta-framework), with fake commercial interruptions that use green screen and special effects to videographically mimic infomercials and commercials and promote useless products made by the Cinco Corporation (i.e. It’s Not Jackie Chan!: The Board Game, the Cinco MIDI Organizer, Sleepwatching Chair, etc.). Another recurring sketch where the videographic style lampoons or mimics a quotidian aspect of public-access TV is Uncle Muscle’s Hour, which features poor, decayed VHS-like picture quality suggestive of generation loss to evoke an uncanny surrealness and add to the discomfort of watching a sweating, crying, and salivating nervous wreck perform a telethon-style musical act — I’m still not quite sure if it’s funny, but it’s definitely visually arresting.

Honestly, there are so many more examples of Awesome Show‘s videographic eccentricity that I could link you all to. For whatever reason, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are “abso lutely” fascinated by the unpolished, unattractive aesthetic of bad public-access television, and hopefully I’ve started to illustrate how the series self-reflexively and comically exploits the hypermediated, stylistic excess of the videographic mode proposed by Caldwell to hold a (cracked, foggy, smudged) mirror to this lowly, oft ignored or merely glanced at televisual form.

The Myth of Liveness in College Football

26 Oct


John Caldwell’s chapter “Excessive Style” from his book, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television challenges the theoretical obsession with the “liveness” of television. He states that, “Television’s “most distinctive function [is] the live transmission of events … The now of the television event is equal to the now of the actual event.” (29). This type of one-to-one relationship makes sense intuitively, in  that what is happening on the television screen during a live event does get transmitted to the viewer with little to no delay; however, this idea becomes complicated when considering the level of regulation imposed on events while they are taking place. Caldwell presents a compelling example of this when he states, “Even the domestic broadcasting of live and unscripted media events—like ABC’s Monday Night Football, or major league baseball—are comprehensively planned, scripted, and rehearsed; are in fact highly regulated and rigidly controlled performances, fabricated to fit a restricted block of viewing time.” (31). Staying with Monday Night Football, I take his example to be referring to features like the announcing, commercial breaks, choreography, and essentially every aspect of the event that is not the act of playing football. However, even the flow, or the liveness, of any televised game is compromised by scheduled “media timeouts,” which frequently leave players and coaches milling about for several minutes throughout games. Anyone who has been to a televised football game should be familiar with these periods of dead time in which the game is stopped to allow for commercial breaks for the home audience.

But what happens when “media timeouts” begin to not only affect the perception of liveness for a television audience, and actually come into direct conflict with the progress of a game? This was the case for the University of Notre Dame football in 2010 when coach Brian Kelly took over – installing a no huddle, up tempo offense. This means that there is significantly less time between plays during an offensive drive. Designed to disadvantage a defense, such a strategy also directly clashes with the advertising interests of major networks by eliminating pauses that are traditionally taken advantage of by networks for advertising. Media timeouts suddenly became less available during long offensive drives. Notre Dame has an extremely lucrative, independent televising contract with NBC (They are unaffiliated with any major college football conference – allowing them to orchestrate such a deal independently.). Coach Kelly’s offensive scheme creates economic concerns in the restriction of advertising opportunities for a network paying top dollar to broadcast Notre Dame football (along with the accompanying advertisements) in prime time. The following came from coach Kelly regarding the conversations taking place between Notre Dame and NBC:

“The model out there has been ABC/ESPN for college football just because of the sheer volume of games they carry. There’s a model out there. All we’ve tried to do is address the model that we think would work well with us and there’s got to be a meeting somewhere halfway. I’m very confident we’re going to be able to do the things we want to do in terms of pushing the tempo without having to go to a commercial break.

That conversation’s taken place. Getting into the specifics, I’m not willing to do that, but I can tell you that that conversations between Jack (Swarbrick) and myself from Notre Dame along with the production people at NBC have taken place and I think we’re going to be able to meet somewhere in the middle.” 


I would like to suggest that, in this case, the myth of “liveness” that Caldwell addresses is even more extreme than he lets on – compromising not only live transmission, but also the very nature of football. Television essentially reshapes broadcasted events like football. Does this mean football is incompatible with broadcast? Certainly not, just look at the outrageous statistics for viewership. However, it does intensify the already unstable claim for liveliness addressed by Caldwell in the broadcast of events like college football.

It’s Not TV, It’s HBO

25 Oct

ImageIn his essay on the Aristocracy of Culture, Christopher Anderson talks about this idea of escalating television to the level that it is not just something to consume and forget about, but as art: not only art, but art worth consideration. He points to the emergence of HBO and its critically lauded dramas as a turning point in the idea of television as art. This is important to distinguish from say an art form. Television is not an art, but it is art itself like a painting or a sculpture. When speaking of this standard that HBO created, Anderson says, “against the profane flow of everyday television, in which the run of the mill runs with metronomic precision of commercial necessity, HBO stands alone” (p.3 of PDF). While this is certainly  true, I think there is another reputation that HBO has that is worth considering. There is a 50-50 chance that when asked to describe what is a common characteristic of HBO shows, the common man (who does not discuss television in the way we are doing for this class) would either mention (A) high caliber dramas or (B) plenty of nudity.

The first example that comes to mind is True Blood. That show is not on the same level as The Sopranos when it comes to storytelling. I don’t mean this as an insult to the show; in fact, I enjoy watching it. It is more of a light, fluffy supernatural drama rather than the intense psychological drama that the Sopranos or Homeland is. The show demonstrates rather remarkably the tendency towards cable channel shows to veer into the smut territory. I have not done any official research, but my rather reliable memory is telling me that there is at least one graphic sex scene per episode of True Blood. And with the territory of it being a supernatural show, the increased strength/durability/whatever-you-wish of the characters has led to very disturbing sex practices that would be humanly impossible. There are less restrictions on what cannot be shown or said on channels like HBO. This can mean something like profanity or it can mean strange townwide orgy scenes like True Blood had in its third season. I think this happens in shows that are more narratively complex. I think it is a symptom of shows being on HBO and people loving to titter at how ridiculous it is or write it off as classy because “it’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Or in this case, it’s not porn, it’s HBO. Girls, for all the interesting things that it is saying about being young, living in the city or being a girl, has had many sex scenes that were extremely uncomfortable and way too detailed. I think an argument can be made for how Lena Dunham and Co. can make a totally reasonable argument as to how they are using that capability to further their storytelling, but that doesn’t mean I don’t squirm every time it gets too uncomfortable.

It is not just the sex though. The pure violence shown is on a whole different level. For this, I thought of Sons of Anarchy which shows on FX, but that channel is one that is following the trend that HBO started along with others like Showtime and AMC. Sons of Anarchy has its share of sex scenes, but as a motorcycle gang is the heart of the show, it is incredibly violent. In a recent episode, a character was forced to watch as his daughter was burned alive as retribution for an accidental murder he committed. Not only did he see this, but the viewer did also.

These scenes are incredibly powerful, not only in terms of storyline. These scenes have a greater capability to get an emotional reaction out of the viewer. This is both a defining trait and a potential pitfall for these kinds of programs. They are able to better tell certain stories because of this, but when is too far? I would just like to point out that sometimes there is great power in denial and having to be clever about certain themes. Here I call to the front Ren & Stimpy which was enjoyed by children for whatever reason that children enjoy cartoons and enjoyed by adults for being bawdy and inappropriate while still getting things approved for children’s television. Once it moved to Spike TV and was able to be completely vulgar and dirty, the audience lost their love of it.