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Spoilers are Good for TV

3 Dec

We have mentioned at various points throughout the course the relevance of certain shows being “spoilable.” A common characteristic of modern TV shows, especially serialized dramas, is how rapidly spoilers for new episodes proliferate in internet communities. This is by no means a unique quality of TV – every story can be spoiled (spoiling the ending of “Citizen Kane” has actually become a trope… on TV) – but in light of our last set of readings on how TV as a medium seems to have recently grown infinitely elastic, the idea of spoilers and what role they play in the culture of viewership calls for another look.

No matter how TV becomes distributed in the future, it will never cease to be a spontaneous medium. After our viewing of 24, in fact, some of the class noted that we were comfortable enough being dropped in the middle of a late season of a show we may never have seen. This is, for those who have TV sets in their homes and enjoy any  level of “channel surfing,” a very common viewing experience that is arguably even more prevalent than the intensely serial or “binge” watching we have also discussed. Moreover, binges often begin because seeing one out-of-place episode inspires us to watch the series in order. This Summer, my friends were all but handcuffing me to a chair until I watched the first season of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, but I did not pull up the episodes online and watch all twelve (in two days) until I happened to catch what must have been the eighth or ninth episode of the season airing on Nick. Only once I had a taste of what the show was like as it was ramping up to its season climax did I finally have the impetus to engage with it – plus, that episode contained, as I would later find out, arguably the biggest plot twist of the season. Korra had effectively spoiled me into viewership.

At risk of paying lip service to any disdainful baby boomers out there: our generation is spoiled. Spend a few hours on any combination of internet social networks and news sources and you stand a very good chance of coming out of it knowing a few explicit plot details of a TV show you have never watched. New methods of distribution may have left behind the communal aspect of TV as we knew it – the whole family gathering around the set while millions of other families all over the country do the same – but TV is as communal an experience as ever. The only difference is that, in the post-Buffy era, a large part of the communal experience is found on the internet (Netflix and Hulu know where their constituents are and made the wise choice of meeting them there), but online dialogics (forums, facebook) are only one dimension of this communal experience. Watching a show does not stop when the episode is over, as there is an abundance of information (imdb), audio commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, and fan tributes or parodies to keep up with. And I can say from experience that engaging with all of these more or less apocryphal media while trying to stay ‘spoiler-free’ is nigh impossible. My own paranoia about staying spoiler-free has sometimes even led me to see spoilers where there are none, either because the moment in question is not all that relevant to the progression of the plot or because it simply does not happen in the show.

As culture converges and the Information Super Highway bulges at the seams with all sorts of data about the show one is currently catching up on, one’s only option is to keep watching. TiVo and all other kinds of digital recording may have unmoored TV from its comfortably routine schedule, but timeliness of viewership is not gone – it is a burden that has now been transferred to the individual viewer herself. Every day that passes is one more chance for the ending of the season to be spoiled, thus I binge if I am behind. This is something that was not possible in the earliest era of TV, when one imagines that “Last time on…” was as much a needed resource for viewers as an assurance to the network that each episode succeeds as a stand-alone (ironically now, even the recap could be considered a spoiler if one missed the prior episode), and marginally more possible after the introduction of the VCR. The dissolution of mass-viewing events, when millions of families tune in at the exact same time, and its effects on TV culture may thus be somewhat overstated by Lotz, Spigel, and Dawson, as anyone who did not watch the new episode premiere on prime time will watch it at their earliest convenience at pain of spoilers. With perhaps a day or two of variable error, the nation still watches TV communally.

Spoilers pull us into a show, by leaking twists and reveals that we are enticed to mentally reverse-engineer, and they turn us into self-policing communal watchers who stay up to date with the show despite TV’s waning dependence on time and schedule. Especially given the excess of “bonus material,” canon or fan-generated, it is hard to say that one can ever truly be “caught up” with a show. In the Post-Network Era, viewing is still communal and dictated by time, but that time stretches indefinitely into the future rather than designating one specific block of time, as it once did. Those who wish TV to be unfettered from its highly commercial identity might find this change, not good, but bad for TV. You may be right: all I necessarily mean by “Spoilers are Good for TV” is that the TV industry has made the most of digital culture’s idiosyncrasies, having stumbled upon a self-sustaining system of viewership that compels customers to consume media very quickly and frequently. In that sense it is good for the industry rather than the viewer. I would relegate the viewer’s alleged gain in control over TV in our current era as existing only within the sphere of production, i.e. those who create fan-based content with what is now readily available (usually technically copyrighted) media. However, there is also some experiment to be performed involving how the spoiler works within TV as an art form. Part of the idea of avoiding the spoiler is to commune over the show by having a uniform experience of it, unmarred by foreknowledge of certain events that may vary from person to person. To see the show unspoiled is, in a sense, to see the show in the way it was meant to be seen. Could we thus imagine a serialized drama, or even a comedy, that is designed with spoilers in mind? Spoilers can sometimes be put out of mind, but what if this show were designed to leak specific spoilers, either through marketing or through audience reaction, and be an entirely different experience for the viewer depending which reality-altering plot twists she got wind of prior to watching? Or is the communal aspect of viewership, in whatever form it takes, too valuable for any TV studio to tamper with in that way?

Editing and Youtube Culture at Play in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

26 Nov

If someone asked me to describe The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I am confident my answer would begin simply enough and quickly degenerate into an impossible to follow verbal diagram of diegeses: It is simultaneously a vlog, a fictional vlog, and a vlog about the making of a vlog. As I watched through the 60+ installments (plus the videos made by other characters, which although posted on different channels, maintain a linear relationship to the story and constitute a branching narrative tree like something out of Borges) I found myself failing to keep track of what kind of world the show was presenting itself as existing in. I was noticing this particularly on the level of editing. Editing as an idea comes up often in the show, both in conversation and in demonstration. We are made highly aware that Charlotte has manipulated the footage after it was taken, sometimes at Lizzie’s expense. On the other hand, the way that storytelling unfolds on the show is reliant upon a kind of non-editing: plenty of events, sometimes just tangential (such as Lydia’s appearances) but sometimes key (conversations with characters who unknowingly intrude during filming) survive the editing room floor despite their obviously unintended capture and sometimes quite sensitive nature.

Perhaps the most world-bending aspect of the show is that the editor herself is a main character. Charlotte’s presence thwarts any attempt we might make to “forget” about editing, to suspend disbelief by focusing on storyline over aesthetics. The fact that the show is a vlog permeates the boundary between form and content here. Watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is like watching a chicken hatch from the egg that you just saw it lay.

If anyone has an interpretation of this choice and what motivates it, please leave a comment – the question boggles my mind, but is also incredibly open. I do, however, see one of many answers lying within a set of preexisting traditions and conventions specific to Youtube. From my experience working on a Youtube series, Lizzie Bennet‘s obsession with editing is actually somewhat unsurprising.

Since purchasing Youtube, Google has slowly been converting it into another Hulu – a watchable database of copyrighted media designed to bring in profit. But this identity runs in absolute opposition to Youtube’s original mission to be a totally free and user-oriented space for individuals and small groups of amateurs to share and proliferate whatever they want. Despite the difficulty that amateur video makers face in Youtube’s new age given the strictness of copyright rules, Youtube’s original identity is certainly alive and well, and “Youtube culture” as such is an important part of Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Editing has always been a premier skill set in the Youtube world. Unlike writing or acting, which can be (though often poorly) done by an amateur, editing demands a specialized technological background for even the most basic tasks. If TV is a writer’s medium, then Youtube is certainly an editor’s medium – over the past four years, audio/visual quality and editing has become, more than any other part of production, a consistent and defining factor of success on Youtube.

I can only attribute Lizzie Bennet‘s thematization of editing as part of its natural desire to participate in Youtube as an institution. Though Mr. Collins is portrayed as being full of hot air, much of what he says about video making is true of Youtube: channels that do not produce “content, content, content” at a both rapid and regular pace (which LizzieBennet does – a new episode was uploaded about twelve hours ago for those who thought you were caught up). The frequent jump cuts in Lizzie’s monologue have been a global convention in the vlog format since sxephil and RayWilliamJohnson started using them in 2008. It is nevertheless an odd application of the cut, which was innovated for fast-paced comedy routines rather than fictional narrative, but the show seems to be inviting that kind of tension all around. The cut also traditionally serves to cull only the best material from a session of improvisation, but Lizzie Bennet is scripted (like Charlotte, the script makes frequent on-screen appearances), once more demonstrating how the cut here is not a necessary element, but is instead style at play – somewhere between an homage and a parody.

There is still endless room for interpretation, but what we can say at this point is that The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is as much about making a vlog as it is about Youtube itself (and hence also about editing). The  show’s ability to play with and innovate common Youtube practices speaks to how fast and how tight Youtube has grown as an artistic community in less than a decade. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries only confirms that Youtube videos are neither TV nor film, but an entirely new category of their own that already has a history, a future, and a living environment with its own demands and idiosyncrasies.


Checkmate: “The Game” and Infinite Deferral

17 Nov

One of the final moments in season 1, episode 12 of The Wire brings us outside Orlando’s, where hordes of heavily armed police are waiting outside for orders to bust in and arrest Avon. McNulty and Daniels, being the only detectives there, note how excessive this treatment is and walk right in themselves. What follows is the definition of anti-climax: The two find Avon and Stringer in a room and silently case the joint as Avon turns his back to them, voluntarily offering himself up for arrest. No fight, no chase, no sense of finality conveyed by a clever line or a solemn ‘Miranda-ing.’ The only line that comes close is “Catch you later,” a double-entendre from McNulty to Stringer. But this is, of course, completely unsatisfying, nothing but a promise to continue playing the game.

This scene is both impressive and disappointing. It felt to me much like the last few turns of a chess game – after the intense, drawn-out conflict, the king is ultimately not taken. His capture is simulated any number of times when he is put in check, which makes the satisfaction of the finishing blow unattainable. Not only is saying “checkmate” mandatory, but it is also mandatory to alert the opponent if a move they make would even allow you to put them in checkmate. The capture of the king is always done virtually before it is done actually, draining the meaning from his actual capture. As a result, most chess players do not even go through that final motion.

Our discussion of “the game” as both a metaphor and a reality in The Wire might gain from this comparison to chess. The armed police outside of Orlando’s are definitely at play, playing a childish make-believe game of Cops ‘n Robbers. McNulty and Daniels treat Avon and Stringer more like rivals than hated nemeses, and there is something cordial about the way Avon admits his, albeit momentary, defeat. By the end of the season, it is also possible to notice some bleeding through between the police’s vocabulary and the gang’s vocabulary, demonstrating just how close these two groups were as they attempted each attempted to outplay the other.

“The game” generally presents itself in the show as a powerful force, a form that dictates the practices that make Baltimore tick, but as the season draws to a close, we start to see “the game” take on its pejorative meaning, as in “not real” or “a distraction from serious things.” The game of cat and mouse that the detail plays with Avon is, despite its immense complexity, ultimately a distraction from the justice that McNulty strives to serve. In the final episode of the season, we have Daniels telling Carver that he can either teach his cadets that the police department is “about the work” or “about some other game,” setting up a distinction between the idea of the game and the good that law enforcement is capable of doing.

Yet the disappointing part of Avon’s arrest is that is entirely protocol, procedures playing themselves out. Since the consensus both in our class and in our readings for these past weeks has been that The Wire is not a “police procedural” in the classic sense, it is tempting to call it instead a “Playthrough” or “Gameplay Drama.” Normal police shows are about solving cases and catching criminals, whereas The Wire seems to be more focused on the games that get played instead of solving cases and catching criminals. Much like the final turn of chess, the protocol replaces the act. Understanding “the game” as distraction has even greater consequences for the kids in the projects, who drop out of school to essentially participate in a huge game, an obstacle to their entry into the real world. Omar is the only one who seems to actually enjoy the game – for him, work and play are the same. Unfettered by institutions and their protocols, he has the rare ability to actually play the game in two senses. He is a metagamer, creatively coming up with moves that adhere to protocol without following it. On that note, and considering how much “the game” seems to be about struggling with personal versus institutional identity, I find this piece of internet novelty key to understanding The Wire:


Not the Face (!)

17 Oct

Not the Face (!)

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.

The Television Set is a Character

11 Oct

As we spoke on Tuesday about the impact of the television set’s physical presence in a space, notably as a rock of the American household around which everything becomes oriented, I had a hard time not thinking about Beavis and Butthead. With very few exceptions, every episode of Beavis and Butthead features the classic scene: the two of them sitting on a couch in  front of the TV. The room seems to have nothing in it at all except the couch and the TV, and to the best of my knowledge, it has never been revealed just whose house it is to begin with. We’re dealing with a highly abstract space designed to emphasize the extent to which (M)TV is all these wayward souls have in the world and as a world.

Most episodes actually begin with a shot of their TV set featuring a parody of a popular show or TV personality, and these programs sometimes set off the action of the episode. More interesting, though, is the even more common shot of Beavis and Butthead watching it. The joke is that they are watching what’s on the other side of the screen, i.e. us, and in turn, we are also Beavis and Butthead. We’re becoming “Vidiots,” mindless couch potatoes, because we’re watching mindless couch potatoes, who are watching mindless couch potatoes, etc and infinitum… (I think David Foster Wallace might have something to say about this). I don’t think the joke stops there, though.

Consider the idea that that classic shot is not just playing with the perspective of the TV viewer, but also of the TV itself. This is a shot taken from the TV set’s point of view. While Beavis and Butthead watch Al Roker, music videos, and what have you, all the TV sees is the two boys sitting, completely still, every day. In order to tell this Wallacean story of televison’s ironic and ironical hegemony, we are introduced to the TV set as a character, a sort of impartial narrator without whose point of view we would not be able to bear witness to the gross decline of American youth culture.

Though “What’s in the Box” does not treat the television as a character, giving it instead an advocate in the Repairman, it does introduce a trope that, in its uses in comedy shows, creates a cognitive mystique around the TV set. There is a Beavis and Butthead episode in which Beavis falls under the impression that he may be pregnant. While trying to take his mind off this (god forbid he is effeminized – he might have to sit up straight while watching TV, says Spigel), he turns on the TV to find a show about pregnancy. He changes the channel to see a scene of childbirth. It seems that every channel is airing a program dealing with the exact topic he is trying to escape from. The “Omniscient Television,” which we saw in our eerie Twilight Zone episode, is a tried and true comedy gag. Some of you might remember an episode of Spongebob Squarepants in which Squidward, resisting the urge to play make-believe with Spongebob inside of an ostensibly somehow enchanted cardboard box, turns on the TV (also a box, interestingly) only to see programs about boxes (including boxing: two boxes fighting one another).

The Omniscient Television is, to borrow some terminology from Wallace, a sort of dream machine (I guess an inside out dream machine would be a Dreamatorium). It shows these characters exactly what they do not want to see, teasing them as another character might. Sure we spend a lot of time watching television, but the television is also a character, and it spends every bit of that time watching us. It has watched so much of us that it knows us better than we do, and that omniscience enables it to be the deliverer of a sardonic joke at the expense of one of its fellow characters.

This is very much akin to one of the paranoias we read about in Sconce’s chapter: is the TV screen one-way, or does whatever is on the other side look back at us? Whatever answer one gives to that, it seems like we are fairly accustomed to the idea that our TVs are not just set pieces in a political theater, semiotic centers of gravity around which social interactions in the home revolve, but also weirdly cognizant beings in their own right that enjoy a certain conversational dynamic with us.