In “From Beats to Arcs,” Newman’s mention of the “reaction shot” comes and goes as quickly as the reaction shot itself. The reaction shot, usually a close up on a character’s face is “a classic soap-opera device that intensifies our interest in character psychology” (20). Let’s see if we can tease out Newman’s meaning a little more.
Faces actors make on television are vastly exaggerated and over-the-top. Sometimes this is obvious, but I would like to argue that ninety-nine percent of the time the absurdity of these faces zooms right by us. This absurdity is buried deep down in the show’s own system of representation if not in TV’s own universal semiology. Its effect is latent rather than obvious. We notice when faces on TV are less accentuated, but we don’t notice when they are.
Recently, when I asked a friend to justify her claim that “Arrested Development” is the best TV show of all time, she listed one reason as lying in Michael Bluth’s (Jason Bateman’s) facial responses to his family’s worrisome and often painfully ironic lack of self-awareness. These shots are thrown in constantly throughout the series, inhabiting the mere breathing room between a joke and a cut to the next scene.
In that sense, Michael Bluth’s odd faces, which really only become recognizable after a fair deal of watching, are a functional and necessary element of storytelling. They are, perhaps, “Arrested Development”‘s version of a “laugh track,” better suited to maintaining the show’s intense tongue-in-cheek than an actual recording of canned laughter. “Arrested Development” deals in some of the driest, subtlest, most self-referential forms of humor ever seen on TV, so it should be no surprise that it employs a queue mechanism, a built in prompt for the audience to look for the joke in what they just saw or heard.
Face acting on TV is not a new trend (a close-up of Alice Kramden’s ‘I’m exasperated’ face on “The Honeymooner’s is one of the most intense things I’ve ever seen), and its long history probably has to do with how obviously jarring it is to experience a person’s face on TV. When we speak with others in our lives, sometimes we look at their face and sometimes we do not. We never, on the other hand, stare transfixed at another person’s face in the way we stare transfixed to a TV screen. The kind of looking is different, a more intense, deliberate, and prying kind of sight than we normally use when gazing on such a sacred part of another person’s body. It’s quite a crisis: what happens when we so heavily mediate the face, which is largely held to be the most im-mediate way to understand someone’s emotions? TV storytelling cleverly employs the face to give us instructions – LAUGH, CRY, etc. – because looking so directly at the human face is shocking to the point of inducing self-awareness. To oversimplify: comfortable self awareness corresponds to comedy, uncomfortable self-awareness corresponds to drama.
A newer function of the reaction-shot-as-silent-laugh-track results from our having grown accustomed to it in extremer and extremer forms. The face on TV is still a queue, a command, but often now the command is not only LAUGH, but IDENTIFY. Michael Bluth is not only the protagonist of his show, but also without contest the only character the average person could ever fathom identifying with. That’s why it’s his face that clues us in whenever Tobias commits unintentional homosexual innuendo. The intensity of face acting serves to orient the viewer in the distant (“entfernt,” we might say – “distanced” in German – when we consider that the German word for television literally includes the word “far” or “distant”) narrative, to suggest an internal point of view for the viewer to see from. We literally “face” the TV, which, being a mirror, presents us with a face parallel to ours. Immersive and enthralling TV shows rely on this deep identification with one or more characters, this conflation of their face with ours.
We have perhaps arrived at a more specific sense of what Newman refers to with “our interest in character psychology” that face acting brings about. “Breaking Bad”‘s Bryan Cranston is also a champion of this kind of face acting that, despite its haunting ambiguity, provides untold amounts of reference points for the regular viewer and the new viewer alike. This is the force behind the final moments of the season 2 episode “Days Out,” in which Walt furiously punches his own reflection in a reflective paper towel dispenser until both the metal and his reflection in it are unrecognizably dented out of shape. However mysterious and hard to read we find Walt’s facial expression, we still take our queue to identify with it. Walt’s dissatisfaction with his own identity and emotions, which he also deals with through constantly changing details of his face such as facial hair, is meted out in a violent warping of his image: to the viewer, an uncomfortably literal punch in the face.