The Commitments

by: Daniel Marcus / Goucher College

Ticking Clock

Ticking Clock

After skipping seasons three and four, I have returned to watching Six Feet Under this summer. It would be easy, then, to stick with the HBO schedule on Sunday night and keep up with The Comeback as well (with an e-mail break during Entourage) but after watching three or four episodes, I’ve dropped the new Lisa Kudrow/Michael Patrick King series from my list of viewing appointments. I haven’t found it particularly engaging, and while in abstract the critique of gender and age attitudes in Hollywood is important and could be treated in interesting ways, I didn’t connect with the problems of poor Valerie Cherish, with her LA mansion, deadly combination of egocentricity and insecurity, and extremely modest modicum of talent. I respect Kudrow for creating a character who isn’t cookie-cutter likable or very sympathetic, for keeping her indie cred by not going for a Friends feeling in her new vehicle. I feel a bit ashamed for wanting a lead character who is easier to take, who is more fun to spend time with on Sunday night. Some Brechtian am I.

Then again, I don’t find the characters in Six Feet Under very likable, either, but I didn’t give up after three episodes, and now I’m back to watching it. I never liked it all that much the first year, but was willing to give the producers some slack, some time to improve things, because there were some interesting glimmers. Clearly, a show about funerals was trying to do something different than most entertainment TV. The theme music was great. I trusted HBO when it came to hour-long series. And because it was an ensemble drama, I didn’t have to pin my viewing pleasure to one main character or performer. Nate and Claire and Rico all had their entertaining moments and ingratiating tics, even if there were plenty of annoying moments too, from them and everybody else.

And there was the stunning performance by Rachel Griffiths, whose Brenda was fascinating because of, not despite, her disturbing behavior. Some shows just do messed-up characters better than others – Brenda had a depth that Valerie Cherish lacks, and more noble ambitions. Some actors are better than others, too. And we weren’t with Brenda for every scene – there was a let-up from her own combination of insecurity and defensiveness (along with more positive attributes). Finally, because I had dated a Brenda, I thought by watching the show, I might gain more insight, or work out some issues, regarding my own past. (Valerie Cherish just isn’t my type, so I got none of that from watching her.) Still, by the end of the second season, I gave up on Six Feet Under – the show hadn’t really improved, and I was tired of not liking these people (and Brenda just freaked me out too much by that point, not to mention her brother.) There were too many people to dislike in real life for me to enjoy dealing with fictional ones in my television viewing – especially when some of the latter reminded me too much of the former.

One reason I’m watching again is because of the continuing praise the series has gotten over the years – some critics have written that the second season was the low point of the run, and that there was plenty of good stuff in subsequent years. Another big reason is because the producers announced that this will be the series’ final season. This leads me to another point, which hopefully makes this column more than a catalogue of Characters I Like and Don’t Like. Every cultural production asks its audience to commit to it to some degree, a commitment of both time and affective energy. Television series, like long novels, ask for a greater commitment of time than a feature film or short poem.

Some series, however, don’t ask for much in the way of affective energy – series meant for distracted viewing, or lazy viewing (not exactly identical). Busy Person TV or Couch Potato TV. Then there are series that ask for greater attention, but on an episode-by-episode basis, when each episode functions as a fairly discrete unit. Shows organized this way, the dominant prime-time structure into the 1980s, reward attention for the length of the episode, but offer only somewhat greater returns over the long run.

Now we have a slew of hour-long dramas, and the occasional half-hour comedy as well, which are structured to various degrees by continuous story arcs and referencing of the past. With the increased emphasis on seriality in contemporary prime-time television, of course, viewers receive more rewards for committing to an entire season or run of a series, both in terms of character and theme development and narrative resolution of overarching plots. With these rewards come responsibilities – a viewer who doesn’t commit to following a series continuously and for the duration misses out on important memes and necessary facts, and risks confusion, lack of closure, and misapprehension of the complex interrelationships that are central to the pleasure of watching serials. Because prime-time serials work with much less airtime than their daytime counterparts, their internal redundancy is limited. The pleasures of viewing are markedly circumscribed unless the viewer commits, both in terms of time and affective attention. TV drama has given us a lot more in the last ten years, but it also asks for more in return.

By committing to a series, a viewer understands that a show’s characters will be weekly visitors on the domestic screen. Is this why unlikable characters particularly grate in current series? There is no break from them (especially in a show with an annoying lead). We are condemned to seeing them regularly if we want to gather the rewards of seriality, and really taking them into account in the process of deep viewing. When a series announces its imminent closure of the narrative, however, the demands lessen. When I heard Six Feet Under would close after this season, I calculated that I could stand exposure to the Fisher family et al. for 12 more weeks. In return, I could see how things turned out (as much as the producers were willing to provide closure, which it appears they are, regarding some characters at least) and indulge in the other pleasures the show provides. Six Feet Under was no longer asking for indefinite, potentially infinite commitment from me. My viewing is certainly affected by my lack of knowledge about seasons three and four (though I know the general outlines of what happened then), but I figured my immersion in a full season’s worth of episodes would help me catch up somewhat. And if I liked season five, I knew I could backtrack to earlier seasons eventually.

This knowledge of the limited commitment I had to make has allowed me to not be as perturbed by some aspects of the show I still find annoying. I’m a more indulgent viewer. Even after the Birthday Party from Hell episode, one of the darkest I’ve ever seen on episodic television, I was willing to stay with the show, with the hope that the series had not just gone completely over the top for good (as it has not). Now I can see the episode as pretty brilliant. If The Comeback were that smart and strong, perhaps I’d watch it even without liking Valerie. But I’d also be more willing to watch The Comeback if it were a six-episode mini-series, or a two-hour telefilm, rather than a regular series. Then I could glean positive aspects of the production (her stylist is pretty funny) while tolerating Valerie more easily. But the fictional producers on The Comeback are right – Valerie Cherish does not warrant being the lead in a continuing series.

Of course, factors other than character likeability operate in viewers’ decisions to commit or not. When I’ll Fly Away, the civil rights drama starring Sam Waterston, Regina Taylor, and Kathryn Harrold, premiered on network television in the early 1990s, it seemed just like the kind of show I would follow. I had read and watched a lot of material about the civil rights era, and was interested in how the Sixties were thought about and represented in the 90s (to the extent that I later wrote a book about it). The cast was strong (Taylor was particularly great). But I couldn’t bring myself to watch the show regularly, while I did watch a few “lesser” shows. Why? I was just starting graduate school, and when I came home to plop down on the living room couch, I’d done enough thinking for the day. I’ll Fly Away demanded a smarter, more intellectually engaged, and more nuanced viewing than I was willing to commit to on a regular basis. If it had been a mini-series, however, I probably would have summoned up the energy to follow it, and I certainly watched some smart movies for two-hour stretches on video that year. Then again, I’ll Fly Away also lacked the visceral intensity that might have inspired me to connect to it in a way that could have summoned up extra reserves of viewing energy.

The increased seriality of contemporary series can operate as a trap, but one that inspires a backlash. Even after early misgivings, I continued to watch the first season of 24, both because it did some things well, and because I had become caught up with its heightened narrative form. Before the first season was two-thirds through, I had lost faith in the producers, yet continued to watch until the bitter (read: stupid) end of the season, just to see how it all turned out. Feeling burned, I resolved to not watch season two, because I feared I would get caught up in the narrative momentum once more. Despite its occasional good reviews since, 24 is a show I’ve never watched again. It demands commitment, and rebuffs those who may want to just sample it – appearing either as inaccessible, or too seductive.

The issue of trust comes to the fore in serial shows – will producers maintain initial quality, or even improve an imperfect series? Will they take advantage of the form to provide the narrative momentum, detailed world, and complex relationships that seriality can provide? Will they have narrative, emotional, and thematic payoffs that justify elaborately constructed set-ups (the X-Files question, currently being played out by Lost)? After a viewer commits to umpteen hours and deep involvement with the world of a series, will an unsatisfactory denouement diminish the entire series in retrospect, more than does aesthetic decline in a non-serial program? With commitment comes the prospect of betrayal, on a scale not felt in traditionally episodic television. When Buffy went off the tower at the end of the fifth season, anxiety flowed throughout Slayer fan communities, but Paul Ramaeker soothed one set of e-mailers with the dictum: “Trust Joss.” He was right; alas, we could not trust Marti quite so much.

I’m not feeling burned by Six Feet Under. And it’s not that I’m never willing to see Lisa Kudrow be unlikable – I paid real money to see Happy Endings, the Don Roos film out now that features her in a not particularly endearing role (so too in his previous The Opposite of Sex, and she played a really annoying character in the great Clockwatchers). Kudos to Kudrow for nervy choices. But don’t come over to my house on Sunday nights. That’s too much of a commitment.

Links
Six Feet Under Episode Guide
Keeping up with Reality TV
TV Central

Image Credits:
1. Ticking Clock


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7 comments

  • Commitment and Quality

    I’m struck by the way that your ideas about viewer commitment might relate to popular definitions of “quality” TV. The new “quality” serials (especially those that appear on HBO or other pay-TV channels) demand diligence, but they provide their targeted “quality” audience (read: the 18-34s who are tuning out network TV) with many opportunities to keep up with their narratives. Hence HBO stripes new episodes of ‘Six Feet Under’ and ‘The Sopranos’ and quickly releases seasons on DVD. A precursor to the commitment you describe is an audience that invests their emotional, temporal, and financial resources in following a favorite TV serial. Commitment, it seems, demands viewers who subscribe to pay-TV, buy DVDs, or have DVRs or other time-shifters. These demands highlight the distinction advertisers draw between those viewers who can “afford” to commit and those who are either unwilling or unable to invest themselves fully in “quality” drama.

  • Poor Marti, taking stick for the weaknesses of the last 2 seasons of Buffy yet again…

    No disrespect to Dan, because I know he isn’t one of Those Types, but paranthetically this does raise an issue to do with how authorship works in terms of trust: what does the auteur’s gender have to do with it?

    I stand by “Trust Joss”, but he is clearly partly to blame for the flaws of the last season of Buffy (the lack of satisfaction many experienced from season 6 has always seemed to me to have to do with the thematics of that season, its concern with post-grad confusion- thus, it was inevitably diffuse by comparison with earlier seasons). I am also reminded here of the absurd rumour of some years’ back that “Amy Sherman-Palladino” was actually a pseudonym used by Aaron Sorkin.

    As for income/quality argument made by the previous commentator, I think its an interesting observation, but I have to disagree. I live in a country where DVRs are brand new to the market, Pay TV doesn’t really exist (at least in the form of an HBO), and box sets of TV seasons run for $150+. And yet, there’s no lack of people I know ‘committing’ to Deadwood, Lost, et. al. Indeed, this reinforces Dan’s notion of commitment- that emotional connection demonstrates its power partly through its overriding of convenience.

  • The meaning of committment

    Dan’s commentary raises an interesting idea for me. Might the relatively short seasons of the “not TV” TV shows (Six Feet Under, etc.) be part of their appeal for upscale viewers? Let me explain. Perhaps upscale viewers, viewers who might not typically think of themselves as TV watchers, associate long-term, committed viewing of a series with those audiences who have “nothing better to do.” Daytime soaps fans are of course the ultimate example of this. For many Americans at least, committing to an hour-long program five days a week is an indication of the limitations of one’s life. Soap fandom is thus negatively conceived as a feminized, low class activity, one undertaken mainly by people without more “substantial” matters with which to spend their time. Although many of the premium cable and even broadcast network shows that are considered “quality” borrow heavily from the soaps’ serialized storytelling, they also require a lot less committment–in terms of time, in terms of backstory comprehension, in terms of social stigmatization, than do daytime soaps. Perhaps these differences in level of committment–and the cultural valuations that accompany them–help explain some of the appeal of premium cable series to upscale viewers.

  • Committment and time

    I think Elana’s nailed something here about the links between social legitimacy, genre, and timing. Think of miniseries, or British series of limited duration, on one end of the spectrum, with soaps on the other. The more you need to watch, the less a genre is culturally validated. (Although one exception that comes to mind is my own personal committment at the moment: baseball fandom at 3 hours a day!) It also seems that ongoing series demanding a great committment get more stigmatized as they go on – think of X-Files or Star Trek, whose legitimacy was inversely proportional to how much of your life it occupied.

    Yet in other media, longer tends to mean better – novels, films, theater, and academic theory all seem to value how much time it takes to consume & decode. Part of this is the aesthetic bias of unity & endings, but I do think that the more you watch, the less cultural value you accrue.

  • Re: Commitment and Quality

    Mr. Dawson alludes to some interesting thoughts about the motives that premium channels may have in endorsing serials as “quality.” Taking the conspiracy theorist view, clearly, these companies have something to gain by increasing the angst of missing an episode. As Mr. Dawson mentions, it allows them to discriminate between the viewer who is willing and able to devote the energy to following a show faithfully and that viewer who is either unwilling or unable to devote the energy. But what about that person who is unable to devote that energy? The person who requires “Busy Person TV”? Do we as a society really want that person pigeon-holed into a Six Feet Under or a 24 (or possibly the biggest source of drama on TV, Fox News) in order to find engaging material? After working a 9 to 5, do we want to fall deeper down the rabbit hole of “rational ignorance” as we are forced to become more and more embroiled in a fictitious reality? No, I don’t think so. If the number one status of CSI is any indication, America may not necessarily think so either. The media industry should be working on programming that integrates that busy person back into the world fabric rather than further isolates by forcing them to immerse themselves in a world that, as Mr. Marcus suggests, may leave us disappointed in the end.

  • Commitment

    In some ways I agree with Elana: It has something to with upscale viewers. But I wonder if this has to do with television that is open about its fictive status. I know so many of my students enjoy shows whose cultural status is decidedly “lower” than SFU or the Sopranos such as Survivor or The Real World gain similar pleasures through their commitment to character and plot. In this sense, when someone talks about being committed to SFU (it is aligned with more bourgeois terms of devotion, responsibility and knowledge.

    On the other hand, I am decidedly “addicted” and will happily watch episodes repeatedly. I have every available DVD and haven’t exhausted their textual pleasures, something that I find surprising given how much I disliked American Beauty. Still, the term addiction and my penchant for repeated viewing brings up Barthes remarks about how people who read repeatedly are, surprise surprise, feminized and infantlized again. In this context, were I to use the term “commitment” it would be a rhetorical move that justified my own abnormal behavior.

    Yet, like that other private pleasures that everyone partakes in but will not admit to, one wonders how abnormal this behavior is. Every American supermarket is littered with “backstory aids” such as the many TV, Soap Opera, Country Music and Entertainment guides that allow us to become more devoted, more commited to our popular pleasures. This need to further imbricate ourselves into the narrative depths of our favorite stars, plotlines, etc. has been well documented, but I think Dan is onto something about TV’s “need for commitment.” It’s an interesting piece of cultural rhetoric that justifies what was seen as “once deviant behavior” by upper middle class viewers. All I know is that, as I tell my students, “I need my stories.”

  • Margi MacMurdo- Reading

    committment to “Six Feet Under” and other series

    The fact that Daniel Marcus has “Too many people to dislike in real life” is telling- I’m thinking he should turn off the tube and do a little “self liking, I’m ok,I’m OK, therapy” to start.Having said that, I think that the people who relate, become committed to or addicted to certain shows & characters obviously derive some satisfaction- perhaps work out unresolved issues in their own lives through the characters and sub characters in the shows they feel compelled to watch. Daniel feels that there are enough dislikeable people in real life, his problem of disliking people will not be resolved by collecting and viewing more make-believe people as well- here’s a bloke who simply is not a “people person”, I reckon.I became enthralled with Six Feet Under- maybe it was even the first episode- it was early on anyway, when big brother Nate began mocking little brother Dave by taunting him with the smarmy, robotic “HAL” voice from “2001, A Space Odyssey” in addressing him- Because Dave is a “Dave.”Nate would say, “Good Morning Dave. Nice suit Dave. Where are you going today, Dave?”- all so completely and hilariously reminiscent of REAL life siblings(of which I have four)- who relentlessly tease each other- in some obscure yet familiar way.My two sons, aged 13 & 16 who watched that episode (we sit and watch entire seasons on rainy days or if someone is home sick from school, or in my case University)laughed their heads off- it was so typical of brothers, they thought!I fell in love with the lighting on Six Feet Under- I couldn’t get enough of that weird, California-ish looking light, and the way it was filmed, as if from a slight, arms length distance. And the MUSIC! Brilliant.The final season, where they switched fiming styles & lighting was a bit jarring, but then the season itself was truly jarring.As far as annoying characters, who didn’t want to slap Lisa, (Lilli Taylor, brilliant because really, you did want to deck her and get her the hell out of Nate & Brenda’s sick, twisted, but meant-to-be relationship), but Lisa was everyone’s nagging concscience- the “good angel” you wanted to thwack like a mosquito, but had to listen to. Her desperation and insecurity so rich and real.She was addicting as well- like picking at a sore- it hurts, but you can’t stop sort of thing.I think the character’s weaknesses and flaws, their lack of triumph over nature and a lot of other things in their lives is what made them so identifiable, and therefore, easy to commit to.When Nate & Brenda broke up the first time, both of them were such complete immature assholes, both of them said such stupid, mean, insensitive childish things to each other- it was like, “Bravo! for the realistically lame exit speeches!” that occur in real life, instead of some pat, well thought out bon mot tossed casually over the shoulder of the exiting wounded.Clair, in her adolescent fragility and tough exterior, and Ruth, the martyr, who actually does do some good every once in awhile- Rico, who screwed up & paid the price- really, nothing but nothing came easily to these people, right down to the very last episode.Best show ever made I say, and I shall always stick by my commitment to it!

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