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Musical Episodes and Televisual Realism

4 Dec

Katie’s presentation got me thinking about what makes musical episodes of television series successful. After all, they’re really off-format and, as Katie pointed out, they often give off the appearance that the show is running out of creative steam. What, then, would make a musical episode of a series either appealing to an audience or appealing in a critical sense? From my powerful and scientifically accurate method of looking at which musical episodes I like best (and which ones are held in highest critical acclaim), I think the single most important factor I can point to is whether or not the musical aspects of the episode are justified within the framework of the show.

For example, the two most successful musical episodes I can think of (Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling” and Scrubs’ “My Musical”) both explain why the characters are singing. In “Once More With Feeling,” a demon forces all of the residents of Sunnydale to sing their feelings, which explains not only the musical aspects of the episode but the emotional monologues that dominate it (something else Katie pointed out in her presentation). In “My Musical,” a patient at Sacred Heart is suffering from a delusion that everyone around her is singing, forcing the series to play with perspective (something it had done in the past) but maintaining narrative cohesion.

That seems to feed into a narrowing definition of what constitutes realism in narrative television. Why does “Once More With Feeling” seem more realistic than something like the Ally McBeal musical episode, even though there are demons and magical creatures in the Buffy episode and the Ally McBeal episode could plausible happen in the real world? It seems like “realism” in narrative television is based on the rules of a world the series establishes. If the rules of Buffy allow for the existence of demons, then the presence of demons does not surprise or irritate the viewer. Where the rules of, say, High School Musical allow for lots of characters breaking out into song in a facsimile of the “real world,” Ally McBeal does not make room for such occurrences in its world.

“Realism” explains our reactions to different sorts of episodes, I think. Why do viewers give so much more leeway to ludicrous situations in 24 than similar occurrences and plot contrivances in Homeland? Coming to Homeland with the expectation that the series takes place in our world, or one much closer to it, prevents a suspension of disbelief on the level of Buffy or even something like 24.

Television as a Distributional Medium

30 Nov

In our discussion in class, Keegan, Brandon, and I approached the question of what television is a slightly different fashion. Though most potential definitions are based in either narrative (episodes, time lengths, etc.), commercial (produced by networks), or structural (the actual television set) distinctions, it’s possible to think of television as a medium that is primarily concerned with distribution. Consider that none of the narrative conventions we perceive in television as far as episodic structure, time constraints, or seriality are actually inherent to the medium – most of them are arbitrary manifestations of commercial concerns. That’s not something you really see in most media. There are some commercial influences on what makes up, say, a novel (printing, serial publication), but those are ultimately secondary to what a novel actually is and how it conveys information and narrative – in this case, a prose story of a certain length.

Television seems, from a pure content perspective, to be roughly identical to film – both are comprehensive, visual forms of storytelling. But in addition to what are ultimately arbitrary continuing narrative constraints, television’s uniqueness seems derived from the way it brings that content to the viewer. Films are produced and meant to be seen in theaters, in a single setting. People still go to the movies. Television, on the other hand, has always been primarily concerned with getting you entertainment right in your home, and making the process of that entertainment as comfortable as possible. That’s a unifying factor in the periods Lotz identifies as the distinct eras in the history of television: as it becomes easier to broadcast directly into the homes (and pockets) of viewers, television changes accordingly (literally from broadcast networks to the Internet).

So though it obviously wouldn’t be a be-all end-all definition of television, you could take as a starting definition “visual entertainment meant to be transmitted directly into the home,” with all other narrative conventions defining subgenres of television. That would, at the least, allow for some interesting conversation if direct transmission (and likely some other notion of comfort) became primary in the close readings of television shows we’ve done over the course of class. What does the fact that The Sopranos or Six Feet Under are meant to be viewed in-house (possibly on a family set) say about the show’s focus on different sorts of American families? Does the likelihood that viewers are either watching Homeland from the privacy of their own home or on a laptop containing a hybrid of their work and personal lives change or enhance the show’s thematic focus on privacy and public/private spaces in the post-9/11 (Internet) age?

Humor, Dealing, and Rewatchability

15 Nov

My question for Jose focused on the ways the show shades in the characters of those involved in the Barksdale organization over the course of the first season. This was one of the big differences between The Wire and other police procedurals at the time (and largely now) – the criminal element was rarely viewed with such soft eyes, or so sympathetically. Indeed, two of the most sympathetic characters throughout the first season (Wallace and D’Angelo) are reluctant drug dealers questioning what they want to do with their lives and whether they can break free of the game. However, the show also managed to shade in many of the other criminal characters who were happy with their lot in life.

This primarily happened, as best I can tell, through scenes using the violation of audience expectations for the criminal characters for humor. There are two particularly good examples of this phenomenon. First, the scene when D’Angelo assumes Wee-Bey, the Barksdales’ toughest soldier, is going to murder him. D’Angelo is instead instructed in how to take care of Wee-Bey’s precious collection of exotic fish, a hobby that the audience is meant to fins funny (after all, when was the last time you saw a drug dealer and murderer who was this enthusiastic about a fish named Jezebel who “think she cute”).

Second, look at the scene in “Lessons” when McNulty discovers Stringer in his macroeconomics class at the community college. This scene indicates something about Stringer’s character we otherwise wouldn’t have known (that he is interested in running legitimate businesses) by placing us in McNulty’s shoes. McNulty is just as surprised and intrigued as we are to see Stringer calmly answering questions in the class. Then, when Stringer uses the language of his class (elasticity) on his employees at the copy shop who are trying to bring some “corner bullshit” to his real business, the audience gets laughs out of the juxtaposition.

Those scenes are both quite effective, but I wonder whether they’ll lose their power over time. Part of the reason (I at least) find them so good at what they’re trying to do is the low expectations we have for drug dealing characters on television, since most procedurals are from the standpoint of law enforcement. But if The Wire‘s tendency to treat these characters well and render them sympathetic becomes the norm, will these scenes be as funny, or will they just be perceived as doing what will then be necessary, minimal character work?

The Binge Debate and Televisual Maturity

6 Nov

Brundson claims that bingeing means “bad television watching” in contrast to simply watching bad television. Though it’s certainly possible to dispute the normative judgment Brundson is making (that bingeing is not the correct way of watching television), the fact that it can be made at all says a lot about the current status of television as a medium and the way it is broadly perceived. Where once debates centered squarely on the question of whether or not television was worth watching at all or was worthy of some sort of artistic merit, the question now is how to watch television. The shift in where these arguments occur speaks volumes about how broad television can be (from broadcast networks to the Internet) and the enormous variety of ways it can be experienced. That’s pretty damn cool.

The increasing debate in non-academic TV criticism over binge watching illuminates some really interesting things about our collective relationship to television. In his defense of binge watching, Time media critic James Poniewozik writes, “The surest sign that a medium is changing is that people start to romanticize the very features of it that used to be condemned.” He criticizes fixation on the episode and time break as necessary narrative building blocks for television, since those features were only present because of early commercial concerns and argues that there are benefits to binge watching – total immersion in a world increases the ability of the viewer to see subtle thematic connections and get a better sense for a season of television’s overarching plan.

I’m torn on this question. If the episode starts to lose importance as a discreet unit (something we’re starting to see with Netflix show dumps ala Arrested Development), when does television cease being television and become another medium entirely?

Powerhouse Roundtable – The Development of Opinion News

16 Oct

Raymond William’s discussion of televised news in Television identifies many of the qualities that can be variously emphasized for different approaches to the news, and manages to accidentally predict the rise of American cable news. Williams notes the major difference between American and British TV news – British news uses more of the visual aspects of television to tell a story and present information in a relatively unbiased fashion (during actual broadcasts) while American news takes advantage of the personal qualities of the medium to have the broadcaster function as a personality delivering the news directly into the homes of American families, with a slightly higher degree of editorializing (what Williams calls “visual radio”). The cultural reasons for the shifts in focus are unclear, but Williams suggests (with good reason) it may be at least in part attributable to the BBC’s status as a government-subsidized news organization in contrast to the corporate, independent structure of American networks.

That independence explains why Williams discusses the American government’s distrust of the media, which is deeper and more hostile than in Britain. Though the British media uses the form of television to present the news in as unbiased a fashion as possible, the explicit separation of the administration from the Fourth Estate in American politics makes the press far more dangerous (particularly after Watergate, which was ongoing at the time of the publication of Television). The concentration of the press’ power into conferences also heightens the personality-based nature of the American media, where direct questions posed by specific reporters are answered by a President who is continually elevated as a personality to a degree that never seems to befall British politicians.

The personalization of American news presages the development of the cable news era, which Williams seems to almost predict in his discussion of “public debate” programs. Williams limits the scope of discussion programs in America at the time (1973) to public broadcasting, which would best make his comparison with British television work. But he ignores the main alternative to British public affairs shows like Open Door – the Sunday morning interview shows. Meet The Press and Face The Nation were already airing, and ABC’s This Week was only a few years away. This Week‘s roundtable structure explicitly encouraged analysis from its beginning in 1981, effectively blending the interview structure of the press conference (and the more personal quality of straight news) with “informed opinion” from the often partisan questioners like ABC’s George Will. There’s an element of “discussion,” which Williams hates for its emphasis on personality rather than substance, but the line between the two, particularly when panels are composed largely of journalists, blurs easily.

Williams labels “simulating a representation by their own criteria” the worst possible quality in such programs. He finds that the “best” opinion shows assume as an audience people who are not already represented. But cable news is now almost explicitly targeted to the same audience it is representing. People who watch Fox News are people who are represented on Fox, and likewise for MSNBC. The blending of straight news and editorializing from anchors Williams notes has found its peak in “news programs” that are more or less venues for the anchor’s own opinion, turning the notion of “informed opinion” on its head. I don’t know how to go about comparing current versions of “discussion” programs, but it seems like Williams’ initial split between the visual and objective reporting of the news and anchor-based news with more opinion content has been blurred as the news business has progressed toward more options with more of a profit motive.