Archive by Author

It’s the EOTWAWKI, But I Feel Fine

6 Dec

Though the quarter has focused mostly on scripted drama of the recent past, I was still driven to focus my final paper on a topic near and dear to my heart: reality television. The classic arguments about reality TV are well-known by now. How real are they? How much is staged? Are the producers guiding the whole thing? These common concerns are problematized by the recent proliferation of “lifestyle reality”, TV shows that capitalize on that universal truth that fact is stranger than fiction. These shows explore the lives of people who are somehow different than “us”, living in some fringe culture or alternate world that the American viewing public will find fascinating. For some reason, we are driven to understand why some people make their living purchasing abandoned storage lockers, or why some mothers take their toddlers to beauty pageants, or how housewives in Atlanta spend their leisure time. These are loosely themed by Wikipedia as “Documentary Style” reality programs. But a strange divergence has recently developed within this category. Reality programs have told us how things have been (1900 HouseColonial House) and how things are (the aforementioned), but what about shows that ask the viewer to imagine how things might be in the future?

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic reality TV differ from the reality TV we have come to know in that they examine the subjects’ preparations for or reactions to a hypothetical post-catastrophe world. Doomsday Preppers (National Geographic) and Doomsday Bunkers (Discovery) each examine the “prepper” subculture, which consists of members who are convinced that the end of the world will come in their lifetime, and thus devote time and resources to prepare for their own survival in the event of a disaster that will end the World As We Know It. The Colony is framed as an experiment, and places ten “survivors” within an artificially constructed environment that mimics a post-apocalyptic world and subjects them to the hypothetical challenges that would face survivors in the event of a global societal collapse.

It is interesting to consider the consequences of reality television that confronts a reality that is only hypothetical. Doomsday Preppers adopts the mindset of each prepper profiled in order to discuss the specifics of their preparations, only to dismiss the likelihood of each doomsday scenario handily at the end of each segment. They weigh their subjects’ theories equally, from a nuclear holocaust or global pandemic to an electro-magnetic pulse or Chinese financial takeover. The producers end the first season by saying over voiceover that the events imagined on the show are all highly unlikely. The Colony is presented in an aggressively hypothetical tone, voiceovers by experts always beginning with, “In the event of a catastrophic event…” or something similar. It is marketed as an “experiment” about “what would happen if…”. Each season takes place after a hypothetical global viral outbreak, though only the second season forces the survivors to act out that specific events (through quarantines and constant fear of ‘infection’). This is one of the more “likely” doomsday events, but The Colony stresses that basic disaster preparation is necessary in case of natural disaster, social unrest (like the footage of the LA riots they often use as stock footage), or other difficult, but not world-ending, scenarios. Both of the programs act as a sort of hyperbole. The producers do not want you to believe that the world is going to end, but they hope that maybe you can glean the tiny bit of preparedness knowledge you might need in the unlikely event of an emergency. An episode of Doomsday Preppers (which I haven’t been able to find online yet) follows three prepper families as they flee Hurricane Sandy. It’s unlikely that they found themselves in need of their 3-year food stores or assault rifles, but their “bug-out bags” with a few days worth of food and water probably made things a little easier when they had to leave in a hurry.

Each of the shows has an overlying style that attempts to make the hypothetical world more real to the viewer. Though the producers have a knowledge that the events they portray as real risks are actually very unlikely to occur, they use common traits of post-apocalyptic scripted fiction to connect with our cultural imagination of a post-apocalyptic world.

  • Explicitly proclaimed ‘experts’
  • Hypothetical speech and all-encompassing language (EOTWAWKI)
  • Images and film of various past disasters
  • Non-diagetic militaristic/scientific screen overlay
  • Post-apocalyptic style (font, color schemes) in common with P-A scripted dramas

These specific stylistic issues will be addressed more fully in my final paper.

I hope that you all use some of your winter break leisure time to enjoy some of these apocalyptic reality programs, particularly considering that when the day dawns on December 21st, 2012, we could all be little piles of dust. Of course, that’s highly unlikely. But you might as well be prepared for the worst, eh?

For those interested, my in-class presentation can be found here. Episodes of The Colony are available on Netflix, and Doomsday Preppers is widely available through certain means. The first season of The Colony is better, and every episode of Doomsday Preppers is top notch.

Interview with a Caption Manager

27 Nov

The style of the Lizzie Bennet diaries implies DIY production; if we believe the show, Lizzie and Charlotte are sitting in front of a webcam and editing the segments themselves. In reality, LBD is created by a large team of writers, actors, and producers. They have a “transmedia producer” AND a “transmedia editor”. But to interview one of these career-web-series-producers would be against the spirit of the series. The Bennet sisters’ lives have a constant theme of grad school, unpaid internships, and making your own way. That’s why I interviewed my friend Taylor, the caption manager for  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Taylor is the character that Lizzie Bennet plays. She’s a contributing editor for an online magazine, an avid vlogger, and a jack-of-all-social-media-trades providing various services for four different web series. Taylor’s immersion in the world of web series’ gives her a unique perspective on the consequences of the medium. Without further ado…the interview!

1. How would you describe the relationship between LBD and its source literature? Do the creators put a lot of stress on staying faithful to the book? Have they all read it like a thousand times? 

The writers have all read the book a handful of times, and when episode assignments are handed out to the writers, they are accompanied by corresponding chapter numbers, so the entire process of creating – from conceptualizing to producing – is heavily informed by the text. That being said, the source material is treated as more of a guide than a Bible. The goal is to tell the same story, even if the modernizations stray far from the source. For example, Kitty Bennet is a literal kitten, and Mary Bennet is both the forgotten cousin and she has a boyfriend. Major aspects of certain characters have changed, but the story is still the same.

2. How do the “self-referential” elements of vlogging and of Lizzie’s academic study of social media interact with the very analog source material? Are these elements just a consequence of the form, or were they incorporated because they align in some way with the pre-existing story? 

I can’t say whether or not Hank Green and Bernie Su went into this project prepared to deal with all of the implications of the self-referential aspects of Lizzie’s vlog, but the writers have certainly capitalized on it. At this point in the story, awareness of Lizzie’s vlogs has become a kind of key to the Bennet family. (For example, Caroline’s awareness of the videos made it all the more scandalous when she hid Jane’s true feelings for her brother from him, etc.) Though many of these elements are consequential, as the initial goal was to give Lizzie a plausible reason to share her life with the internet, the creators were well aware of the tension between public and private that would inevitably come into play down the road.

3. What was the genesis of the LBD project? Why P&P? Why YouTube/web series? Why vlog format? 

Actually, Hank Green got the idea because his wife is a massive fan of Jane Austen, and Pride & Prejudice in particular has been adapted in so many ways (I’m thinking of Lost in Austen) that the bizarre new adaptation seemed viable. As far as understanding why it’s a vlog? Green makes his living as an internet personality, so it’s a forum that he was familiar enough with to comfortably conceive of the adaptation. He pitched the idea to head-writer Bernie Su, who developed the actual content.

4. Do the creators have long-term goals for the series? Did they explore any other potential formats, or did they enter into the project intending to create a web-series in vlog format? 

The only long-term goals for the series are to finish it. The show is a little more than halfway through the text now, and it will continue on the same schedule until the story is over. The creators absolutely went into this project with the intention of releasing a web series on YouTube in vlog format, although both Bernie and Hank have publicly mentioned that a DVD release is possible in the future. Bernie said on his blog: ” When people think of DVD’s they generally think of behind the scenes, commentaries, and other bonus content. And yes we are thinking of those things as well. But what’s most important to me for an LBD DVD set is that it has the ability to let the viewer experience everything (or almost everything we’ve done). The tweets, fashion blogs, tumblers, all of that. The LBD is so much more than a video diary, it’s a whole experience and any DVD set should reflect that.”

5. The Q&A shows confuse me, because I had assumed that most people are already familiar with the plot. But, is LBD the first introduction some people have to the P&P story? Is it most people? 

The Q&A shows are not designed to introduce new viewers to the plot or to break the fourth wall as it were to discuss P&P as it relates to the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. The point of the Q&A videos is to both add credibility to Lizzie’s role as vlogger (answering fan questions is kind of a vlogging pasttime) and to add content to the channel. Some of the questions are fairly innocuous (pirates vs. ninjas), but occasionally Lizzie will have a sort of moment of truth.

6. Was LBD one of the first successful web series’, or was it responding to a preexisting canon of web programming? What is its current place within the web series landscape?

Though LBD is unique in format, its success definitely is not. The web is gaining momentum as a credible platform for producing and distributing independent serialized content. Shows like ‘The Guild’ have earned both tremendous success with fans as well as official distribution deals through sources like Netflix. Other web shows, like Squaresville, have earned significant critical acclaim through the IAWTV (International Academy of Web Television) Awards.

7. How would the viewing experience of LBD change if it were on TV? 

LBD would lose more than it would gain by switching to television. That is because the show is surrounded by a rich, interactive transmedia universe. While some mainstream shows certainly have started using social media as a platform for expanding their fictional universes by creating twitter accounts for characters, etc., the LBD actually relies on the transmedia universe to drive the story forward and develop characters. For a while, characters like Caroline, Bing, and Darcy only existed on Twitter. Georgiana Darcy still exists exclusively on Twitter. Jane has a Pinterest and a Lookbook for her fashion. Lydia and Lizzie have Tumblrs. George Wickham has an OKCupid profile.

And while all of these things could theoretically exist if the show were on TV, the vlog format is still specific to YouTube culture, and it allows the interactions between the characters and the fans to be seamlessly incorporated into the story. It is plausible that a vlogger like Lizzie would gain an eager fanbase (especially when you look at personalities like JennaMarbles and DailyGrace). The show lends credibility to the transmedia universe, which in turn adds depth to the story. It’s the ideal format.

8. Other thoughts?

The most important thing to takeaway from all of this is that the medium is absolutely essential to the story.

Incredible Inevitable Television

20 Nov

Though 24 follows an advanced counter-terrorism intelligence unit with access to advanced technology, it seems like Jack Bauer and his crew watch a lot of TV.

In Episode 3, the terrorists make themselves known through a localized broadcast system. They arrange themselves around a kneeling hostage in front of a camcorder, wearing the ski-masks and military gear we’ve all come to know. The broadcast is picked up simultaneously by the Department of Defense and the major public broadcast networks, and when given the choice between two sources, the advanced CTU and the President’s handlers both make the choice to flip the nearest television to the news. The President watches in horror as the terrorists make the demand that he halt the signing of his counter-terrorism treaty with Russia, begging his aide that they make the networks stop.

“We have to get this lunatic off the air!”
“Sir, we can contact the networks, but they’re under no legal obligation to comply.”

He then backs away hopelessly, seeming to accept that the fate of the nation is not in his hands, but in the media’s. Let’s think about that for a second. He is the president, and he is getting his information through TV. He is not in the Situation Room, or in a smoke-filled conference room working to resolve the issue facing his country. He flips on the TV. Real world precedents for the media coverage of pressing issues of national security definitely exist: but when the Unabomber demanded that his manifesto be published in major newspapers, the papers waited for the government’s position. It was determined that the publication could lead to the bomber’s capture and save lives. This logic seems not to reach the relevant parties in 24. Minimizing media presence of hostile terrorists could have diffused the situation, but the President and his aides cede control to the news media.

In the next episode, the same logic surfaces. The treaty-signing ceremony begins, and the aide refuses to accept that he could even stall the ceremony. He could not fathom the idea of adding a few paragraphs to the President’s speech.

“No, the entire world is watching this on live television; the presidents of the United States and Russia are onstage now. This process has been set in motion, no one can stall it.”

The ceremony is even allowed to run ahead of schedule, as the CTU scrambles to launch a rescue operation before the moment of the treaty signing. This seems to be an instance where the show’s obsession with the “nick-of-time” rescue causes the show to depart from reality. Governmental control takes a back seat to the supremacy of the media. It is unstoppable, and cannot be told what to do, even by the Counter Terrorist Unit and the President of the United States.

The End

1 Nov


“That isn’t the end of the story. You don’t know that the story ends that way.”
DeAndre McCullough, to David Simon
Quoted in DeAndre’s obituary

“Everything has a second act and a third act. And everybody gets to write their endings.”
David Simon, to reporters
Quoted in Fran’s wedding announcement. David Simon was the best man. 

    The meaning of a TV series is that it ends. Shows are aired and replaced and recycled and cancelled every day. Even if a show has a life as a syndicated rerun, the finale remains the finale. The story’s plot exists within a bounded world. When it’s over, it’s over. That is the trouble with adapting the truth of ongoing lives for the small screen. The viewer is aware that this is simply a dramatization of a single year, but we have also been conditioned for our entire lives to expect the format of a television show with a beginning, a middle, and an end. DeAndre is arrested, and that’s it. The Corner got him. It’s over. What we misunderstand is that “it” is just a TV show, “it” is not The Corner’s, or DeAndre’s life. 

    The show’s creators attempt to combat our instincts by including interviews, in the same style as the dramatized interviews, with the “real” versions of the series’ characters. Just after a montage telling the fates of DeAndre’s friends and family, the director talks to “Real Blue”, “Real Fran”, “Real DeAndre” and “Real Reeka”. These are the real people on whom the characters were based. Even the director seems to be shocked by this. “The Real Blue!” he repeats, awestruck. He interviews them about their impressions of the series; Fran hopes that it will help people realize the humanity of drug addicts, they all hope that people will see that they were just doing their best. But even this interview ends, and the credits run. There are times when curiosity leads us to explore what happened to the people who are the basis of TV shows and movies, but our engagement and understanding largely ends as the last credits scroll.

    The strangeness of continuing to live your life after the dramatization of your life is ended appears repeatedly in follow-ups of the characters. The two cases I included at the beginning of the post are the most poignant. In one, DeAndre expresses his frustration with the audience’s impulse to close the curtain on his life, insisting that it’s not over, and that he still has a chance to escape. He would struggle with addiction throughout his life, but as the characters did in ‘The Corner’, I’m sure he always had hope that one day he’d get out of it. David Simon has a more optimistic bend when he speaks at Fran’s wedding, building on that “end of the story” metaphor, and saying that everybody gets to write their own ending, and every life has a second and third act. Whether or not the first act determines the outcome of the whole play, and whether having your first act close its curtains on national television changes the stakes, is something to consider. 

DeAndre’s obituary

David Simon statement after DeAndre’s death

Fran’s wedding announcement


The Drama-Documentary

15 Oct


In his discussion of forms unique to television, Raymond Williams notes the medium’s unique capacity to “enter a situation and show what is actually happening in it.” Editiorial choices by “directors, cameramen, and reporters” blur the boundary between factual report…and dramatic presentation.” This mingling of reality and fiction is both problematic and promising. Television can enter “areas of the immediate and contemporary public…and private action more fully and more powerfully than any other technology.”

Raymond Williams, in 1974, has predicted reality TV.

He briefly describes a certain serial, An American Family (1973) that is now regarded as the first true “reality TV” show. He describes how Californian families watched in amazement at the familiar made strange, and how this great “dramatic experiment” took advantage of the television camera’s role as a neutral observer. Without too much editing or scripting, producers could create a compelling and “true” portrait of the American family.

Reality TV has exploded within the last couple of decades, exploding in 2000 with Survivor and Big Brother. These were less “drama-documentary” and more “dramatic experiment”, though in each case, the “neutral” camera provided a unique perspective on the private moments of the participants. Raymond Williams’ “drama-documentary” has evolved into the modern “docudrama”. Many of the reality programs we’re familiar with fall within this category; they are often documentary style shows that capture often dramatic moments in the lives of ordinary–but more often, extraordinary–people. We are introduced to drastically different ways of living in shows like Sister Wives, 19 Kids and Counting, and Jon & Kate Plus 8. We escape our 9-5 jobs by following people on Deadliest Catch and Miami Ink. We downright gawk at the Real Housewives and Jersey Shore. TV seems to capture daily life in a way radio and cinema never could.

I’m not sure whether Williams would be delighted or appalled with how the drama-documentary has turned out. On one hand, I’m sure he would be amazed by the diversity of perspectives available to the average viewer at the click of their remote. Hundreds of reality shows (dozens on TLC alone…) mean that when we are bored of our own lives, we can live vicariously through another–whether they are trudging through a swamp, getting a fashion makeover in New York City, or participating in a toddler beauty pageant. On the other hand, I am sure that many shows have long since passed the line into “entertainment” rather than enlightenment. But even the fluffiest of reality TV still allows the viewer a look into another’s life–however strange, disturbing, or inconsequential it may be.