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Real-time Reactions

2 Dec

In the introduction of The Television Will be Revolutionized, Lotz discusses the implications of various viewing devices, technology, and the internet on television viewing practices. There is not one single habitual television viewing behavior, and we no longer watch one of three networks as a mass audience. Old viewing habits have changed, and new ones have appeared in what Lotz calls the multi-channel era and post-network era. We have discussed some of these, like bingeing on a show, or the fact the phrase “watching TV” is ambiguous (Watching on the computer or tablet? Watching a DVD?). We have also touched on fan interaction with shows through the internet, and the ability to go back and rewatch episodes with DVDs, DVR, or streaming video. Now, live events like the presidential election is one of a few instances when a large portion of the country watches TV communally, in a manner somewhat similar to the broadcast network era. Although we are all experiencing the event together, everyone may be experiencing it through a different channel or looking up other information on the internet, combining these new technologies and viewing behaviors.

However, there is also something to be said about the way this has changed how we react to television. While watching something broadcast live on television, people can go online to react in real time. From my experience with recent events, particularly the presidential debates, it’s important not only to watch the debate live but also to follow what people are saying about it on the internet, whether you’re looking at Politico fact-checking, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. If you don’t follow along with both the actual broadcast and the internet reaction in real time, or shortly after, you’ll miss out on a great part of the experience, be it national opinion or just a fan community. I know that immediately after my roommates and I watched the season finale of Legend of Korra in the spring, we went straight to the show’s Reddit page to see everyone’s comments and jokes about the episode.

It is great to be a part of a community reacting to a show or event in the moment, but there are a few problems with this. One of them is the issue of spoilers. In our discussions this week about whether “TV” is going through a transformation, someone in my group brought up Arrested Development’s 4th season, which is being released all at once on Netflix. You won’t really be able to pace yourself in watching, say one episode per day, because you’ll need to avoid the rest of the internet to avoid spoilers. Although time-shifted viewing and streaming videos give us the ability to watch on our own schedule, the possibility of immediate responses on the internet makes watching later a perilous choice.

Additionally, when this happens, people are commenting on television in the moment, instead of waiting until the next morning to talk about it with their coworkers. There is no time to really think about the episode and process what has happened, and what you want to say about it. I don’t know that there is much additional thought required to comment on whether your favorite contestant on American Idol went home. However, many of the series we have discussed in class, as well as other narratively complex shows, require viewers to think about the episode to have meaningful, intelligent comments. Does when you expect to react (in the moment, or sometime later) affect how you’ll watch the show? Are you thinking about connections to other episodes or themes, or scrambling to be the first to make a “binders full of women” Tumblr? In the post-network era, the “mass audience” has divided into two overlapping groups: a simultaneous-viewing audience and a community of viewers. It’s interesting to think about the disparity between live events and shows that lend themselves to immediate reaction online, compared to more drawn out discussions that occur with shows like The Wire and The Sopranos

Media Spectacle

25 Nov

In 24, terrorist attacks are grand-scale events that only occur on the privileged few days that make up the series. Although it obviously takes time to set up these attacks and all of the circumstances that allow so many crises to coincide on a single day, the show provides no context and no important developments other than the decisions made in the moment. Terrorism is portrayed as a rare, isolated event. Homeland, however, is structured differently. Terrorism is more insidious, and a constant threat. The action takes place slowly, over a longer period of information gathering.

This is emphasized not only by the timescale of each series, but also by the relationship to the news media within the shows. In season 5, episodes 3 and 4 of 24, there is a big media presence, but it is all about the spectacle. It’s about the liveness, contrasting the hostage situation with the treaty signing. Both of these are huge media events, and the coverage provides information to both sides (terrorists watching the press releases and signing, President watching the terrorist’s video in the airport). As Kirsten discussed, the characters have no power over the media, and seem to not be able to control the situation until the last moment. Shocked by the present situation, everyone is unprepared and Jack just barely manages to save the day.

But in the pilot of Homeland, terrorism is an ever-present concern, as is the media portrayal. In the plane, the characters are worried about Brody’s appearance before cameras, and the coverage of ceremonies in the days following his return. At the end of the episode, Carrie theorizes that Brody is trying to communicate with someone through hand gestures while he’s on TV, when he knows someone will be watching. Carrie’s realization can only take place because of the news cameras that followed Brody in his first few days home. This speaks to the constant media coverage of the war on terror, and the consciousness of a terrorist threat. Carrie is always suspicious and waiting for an attack:

CARRIE: I missed something once before. I won’t, I can’t let that happen again.

SAUL: It was ten years ago. Everyone missed something that day.

CARRIE: Everyone’s not me.

For Carrie, at least, the threat is always real, and she is always prepared for an attack. In 24, it seems that Jack comes in (or is accidentally present) to save the day, and does it because he is superhuman and the only one who can do it. It feels more realistic in Homeland that Carrie, who is constantly on guard, would be able to make a difference in the event of an attack. In the pilot, she doesn’t swoop in to save anyone from Brody, she sets herself up to gather evidence, so she knows what she’s up against. She won’t be paralyzed by shock and turn to a Jack Bauer to save the day.

Even in The Wire, which parallels the war on drugs and the war on terror, treating the drug problem like a rare event controlled by the media does not really improve the situation. After Kima is shot, the higher-ups at the Baltimore Police Department want to make a show of putting “drugs on the table” and raiding Barksdale’s main stash, asserting their power through the media coverage this will attract. However, this plan throws off Daniels’ investigation, and weakens his case against Barksdale. The spectacle for the media disregards what might have been a more effective plan in the long run.

Family in The Wire

18 Nov

The first season of The Wire deals with the drug organization headed by Avon Barksdale, and the Baltimore Police Department. Throughout the season, it seemed to me that the idea of family was more prominent for characters on the drug side of the show. Or, at least, they were less expected, since I am used to other crime shows giving bits and pieces of the lives of cops.

For the police in The Wire, we see McNulty’s antagonistic relationship with his ex-wife and his questionable use of his kids to follow a suspect. We also see Bunk cheating on his wife. One of the only supportive relationships seems to be Daniels and his wife, who appears to be sympathetic when he talks about difficulties at work. However, none of these relationships has much of an impact on the police work, except as a short distraction. When McNulty tries to involve his kids in tracking Stringer, his wife tries to limit his visitation rights, further enforcing a separation between family and work.

For those characters involved in the drug side of the show, family is much more integral. Avon trusts D’Angelo to make the trip up to New York, and goes to his sister when trying to decide if he should move his office to the funeral parlor. The importance of family is particularly apparent in the scene where D’Angelo’s mother visits him in prison. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rn9gFurVmlo)

Their conversation focuses on the fact that their family would be nothing without “the game.” D’Angelo feels abandoned by his uncle Avon, and wants to start a new life, away from the drug business. However, Brianna emphasizes the fact that without the game, they “probably wouldn’t even be a family.” She also talks about their family’s involvement in the game as if they are an empire or dynasty, and that D’Angelo would be next in line to take power if Avon took this charge. She keeps referencing the importance of D’Angelo’s son, even though he seems to have very little involvement in the boy’s life. Brianna thinks it would be impossible for D’Angelo to start a new life without any family to support him: “You ain’t got family in this world, what the hell you got?”

I thought it was interesting that there was a bigger separation between family and work for the police. It’s possibly that personal relationships between the cops takes the place of a traditional family in this sphere, but these are not portrayed as being essential to success. Politics and favors seem more significant than anything else. Why is family so much more important for the drug organization, and so insignificant for the police?

Inside/Outside

4 Nov

Something that I thought The Corner miniseries did well was the lack of reference to a world or viewpoint outside of the corner and West Baltimore. The series is about describing the corner and its ability to keep drawing people back in, as we saw happen to many of the characters, including DeAndre, Gary, and Fran. It attempts to give the audience an inside view, rather than an outsider’s view.

Watching The Corner, the audience hopes that the characters will turn their lives around and get out of this situation. However, as we noted in class, there is a sense of confined space; there is nowhere for them to go. Sections of the book that recount events and characters’ thoughts are in line with this. DeAndre, on his way to Boys Village, can barely imagine what it is like this far away from his home, so he assumes he must be going to “Klan country” (Simon & Burns 120). 

We see the characters’ hope for the future and aspiration to get out of the cycle and life of the corner, but we never get a glimpse of the outside world in the miniseries. There are flashbacks from when the neighborhood was like a different place, as in Gary’s colorful childhood scenes. However, there are no real shots of the world outside. The only instance of this is a scene in episode 3 where Miss Ella is walking a group of young kids through the neighborhood, and asks the dealers to stop advertising and selling while they pass by. Ella crosses the street with a line of children holding hands. So that she and all of the kids are in the shot as they cross the street, we actually get to see straight down the street. As far as I noticed, this was the only shot where you could literally see past the corner and potentially out of the neighborhood. But after a point, not too far away, the view is blocked by fog or haze. Even when you try to look past the corner, there’s nothing there.

The authors of the book, David Simon and Edward Burns, say that their goal is to make people understand the corner and people’s lives within that world, seemingly abandoned by the rest of society (60). Portions of the book are told from an outsider’s perspective, sometimes describing the history of the corner in relation to wider historical events, but often exhorting the reader to understand that there is more to these people’s lives than others might think. These asides serve to pull the reader out of the story and remind them of its base in reality; they keep reminding you that you are an outsider and don’t understand this world. 

I think that the miniseries is more effective in keeping the audience involved in the story. Although the interviews at the beginning and end of each episode break the flow, they are still focused inside the world of the corner. After the first interview with Gary, where other residents of the neighborhood are visibly wary of the camera, the rest of the interviewees seem relatively comfortable talking to the director. These interactions don’t feel like an outsider’s perspective of the whole situation, but instead give you a deeper understanding of one character’s narrow perspective. Unlike the author’s voice in the book, the interviews do not provide a view of the broader context of the corner. The miniseries feels like you’re getting a better understanding of people’s lives and the struggles they face. This allows viewers to get invested in the characters without being constantly reminded that they themselves are outsiders.

#sixseasonsandamovie

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.