Benny Hill and Reviving British Comedy

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Benny Hill

Benny Hill Show

Two weekends ago, BBC America aired a weekend-long Benny Hill Show marathon. The first few bars of the theme song, a farty sax novelty vaguely reminiscent of Spanish Flea, are enough to send Brits (and Americans) of a certain age into regressive infantile states. Grown men and women entered a thumbsucking trance as they gazed agog at the titillating but wholesome family television of the Olden Days.

What did hour upon hour of Benny Hill look like today? The racist excesses of the 1970s had to be removed, with characters like Chow Mein (a caricature more horrifying than its closest intertext: Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) airbrushed from history. But there was plenty of memorable, if repetitive, material left over. Musical numbers were preserved along with the skits, and viewers could enjoy once more the sight and sound of the Ladybirds crooning middle-of-the-road favorites in their jewel-toned caftans. And of course there is the sex. Buxom lassies dressed in hotpants and cowboy hats assaulted Hill’s lecherous old sidekick with their handbags. These same lassies joined up with other lovely young women for the iconic chase sequence that ends the show. Their prey is Benny Hill himself, who grins and winks as he scuttles down the High Street at accelerated frames per second.

Nostalgia aside, the current Benny Hill craze on BBC America can only mean one thing. Aunty is conducting market research to see if there is a U.S. audience for the in-production BBC biopic about Hill’s life and career. Written by Rumpole author John Mortimer, the film will focus on the doughy comedian’s problems with women. It will probably be unkind. In an interview with, Mortimer characterized Hill as a miser who “died alone in this awful little flat and nobody realised he was dead until they smelt him.” These spiteful words reference Hill’s status as both a problem and a tragedy in popular narratives of British TV history. Although Hill was hardly the only comedian to objectify women or get laughs out of racial stereotypes in the 1960s, he is commonly characterized by certain types of aggrieved British folk as a man who was hounded out of television for being politically incorrect. In focusing on Hill’s inner demons, Mortimer’s script will likely try to address this issue by connecting the sexist treatment of women on the program to its star’s sexual hang ups. Troubling images will appear as the product of one man’s twisted psyche, rather than the systematic workings of a culture.

I do not mean to deny the deep human emotion that suffuses the best work of Benny Hill. The first time I ever cried at a song was when Hill’s number one recording Ernie aired on Top of the Pops in 1971. The song narrated the death of a West of England milkman in a duel with a baker over a woman; unfortunately, its status as parody was unrecognizable to a four year old, and indeed hearing it today brings a lump to my throat. But the significance of Benny Hill’s current TV revival goes further than one child’s personal developmental milestones. Rather, it is the “why Benny Hill, why now?” question that occupies me here. What do we make of this resurrection?

Coverage of the biopic on hints at one kind of answer. The site reports that Mortimer’s drama is airing as part of a series of film biographies of famous British comedians. This revivalist impulse will not only introduce the art and talent of a number of bygone comics to new audiences, it will also capitalize on the fact that, as happens every few years, British comedy is undergoing a perceived renaissance. Following on the success of The Office, the recurring character sketch program Little Britain has enjoyed phenomenal ratings and critical acclaim. The show aired with little fanfare on BBC America last year, but it appears on the schedule again this June and may attract more attention this time. (You can watch clips of it here.) Essentially, Little Britain parodies the representational conventions of BBC documentary programming and other quasi-governmental celebrations of the diversity of the British citizenry. Its depictions of average British folk are sharp-edged reuptakes of postwar myths of national character, rendered with an archness reminiscent of Paul Theroux’s scathing tone in The Kingdom By the Sea, his portrait of Thatcher-era Britain.

I mention Little Britain because rumor has it that Matt Lucas, one of the show’s creators, has signed on to play Benny Hill in the BBC biopic. It will surely be a pedagogical moment. Lucas will teach current U.K. viewers of Little Britain about the nation’s comedic past and how to think about it. In the U.S., his performance may convince viewers of BBC America that Little Britain is worth watching. More broadly, this juxtaposition of britcom generations will be instructive in its invitation to reflect on what has changed in British comedy over the years, and why.

In comparing Little Britain and The Benny Hill Show, It might be tempting to see the former’s satirical take on the didactic moralism of “a portrait of a nation” genres in British TV as an indication of greater sophistication. But when you watch a complete episode of Benny Hill from ages past it is surprising how much contemporary satire it contained. It may be that the lewd jokes are more enduring, but the programs that aired in the 1970s were chock full of parodies of news programs and other British-specific phenomena. What’s more — contrary to mainstream narratives of television’s increasing liberalization and/or censorship — comparing the two shows yields no evidence that British TV has become more “politically correct,” whatever that means, since Hill’s heyday. The ladies in negligees may be gone, but like most British comedy, Little Britain still trades on class antagonisms, in this case via the currently in vogue stereotype of class hatred, the so-called “chav.”

In fact, although it has been lauded for its innovative approach to comedy, there are plenty of continuities between the humor of Little Britain and the humor of the supposedly unenlightened past. When Lucas and co-creator David Walliams are asked about Little Britain‘s comic antecedents, they tend to refer to Monty Python and other staples of British collegiate humor. But the Lou and Andy sketch, one of the funniest recurring bits in Little Britain, is far more reminiscent of The Benny Hill Show at his best, both in its premise and its use of pantomime staging. Lampooning the cultural myth of the saintly invalid, the sketch depicts a wheelchair-bound man’s manipulative and deceitful activities behind the back of his naïve, long-suffering caregiver. And like Hill, the show recycles plenty of stock variety elements. There are men dressing up as women. There are mincing gays to laugh with or at. There are fast-talking displays of verbal skill and impersonation. There are sight gags and conventional types — the policeman, the burglar, the schoolteacher, the politician. And the same gags are recycled every week, much like Benny Hill.

So what do we learn from comparing Little Britain and The Benny Hill Show? I am still thinking about this, but preliminarily it seems that the comparison might annotate changes in strategies for rendering the absurdities of nationalism in satire, and translating these strategies across the Atlantic. One of the many bromides uttered by people in England when they talk about their comedy traditions is the idea that Americans “don’t get” English humor. American producers tend to agree, thinking that topical British humor is too subtle to travel across the Atlantic. Hence the remake phenomenon, documented in Albert Moran’s book Copycat TV, in which American producers translate programs like Steptoe and Son into American cultural idioms (Sanford and Son). But this strategy seems to work best with recognizable genres, like the sitcom. Satirical “copycats” have not been so successful. NBC’s recent attempt to make a version of The Office is only the latest in a series of disastrous remakes that stretches back at least as far as Max Headroom.

Not surprisingly, the parts of The Benny Hill Show that seem to have successfully translated are the broad humorous bits involving girls in negligees and men who are alternately lecherous or sex-panicked, not the spoofs of contemporaneous British TV shows and political events. Little Britain‘s satire, relying heavily on former Doctor Who Tom Baker’s delightfully pompous voiceover, suggests a different approach. Although it plays off culturally specific stereotypes, in the end the thing it is parodying — earnest depictions of citizenship and civic diversity — are recognizable as laughable moments of top-down national representation regardless of national context. There are of course elements particular to the U.K., like the rural Welsh accent of recurring character Daffyd — a portly homo-clubber who claims in the face of obvious counterevidence that he is “the only gay in the village.” But such humor ultimately rests on the incongruity of undermined assumptions about rural/urban differences, easily readable by an audience of American sophisticates.

My point is not to affirm cloying banalities about how “humor is universal” — difficult to do given Little Britain‘s clear identification with ways of mocking highly specific to British middle classes. It is rather to note with interest that the recycling of Benny Hill in the biopic relocates Hill in history, placing him in a lineage of knowing, ironic comedy stance that does not currently acknowledge him. Whether he will remain there is another matter.

Image Credits:
1. Benny Hill Show

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The Republic of Tyra

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Tyra Banks

Tyra Banks, America’s Next Top Model

There has been a lot of talk recently, in these “pages” and elsewhere, about reality television as a technology of rule. Once you start thinking about things this way — and it is hard not to after reading Laurie Ouellette’s persuasive essay on Judge Judy — reality TV seems to illustrate with seductive ease the form of power Michel Foucault dubbed governmentality. One can argue that these television programs, teaching the “conduct of conduct,” are media versions of community policing. They demonstrate forms of individual self-management through lessons derived from the behaviors of others, behaviors displayed for our horrified pleasure and then corrected by the expertise of a variety of non-state disciplinary figures: juries of experts, psychologists and childcare specialists, professionals of all stripes. These authorities work in consort with devilishly clever social structures that not only create seriality and suspense but also embody ideas about justice and personal responsibility. These structures enable the various forms of elimination and transformation, some of them very humiliating, on which these shows rest. I can’t imagine suffering through those ambushed makeovers that send people whose style seems perfectly acceptable into sobbing shame spirals, or the endlessly escalating screaming matches America’s Top Model stages between very hungry women.

But is the pedagogical voice of reality TV actually persuasive or effective as a program of rule? Despite the applicability of the governmentality paradigm to reality TV, I am not convinced that these programs do literally train citizens to think or act a certain way. Indeed, to see media images as direct instantiations of the art of government is to reduce Foucault’s theory of governmentality to an Orwellian theory of social reproduction. I don’t think that those scholars who have identified the undeniable parallels between neoliberal principles of governance and the lessons in personal responsibility taught by reality TV are making any claims about the effectiveness of these lessons, nor indeed are they assigning causal agency to media images in the manufacture of a neoliberal consensus. But I do wonder where the argument is going to go once we’ve fully enumerated the multifarious ways that reality programs embody particular political rationalities. As Pat O’Malley, Lorna Weir, and Clifford Shearing have noted, there’s a danger that the focus on political rationalities in their ideal form, rather than in their “messy implementation,” will lead work on governmentality to “lose its dynamism and degenerate into ritualized and repetitive accounts of ‘governing’ in increasingly diverse contexts.”

The question for those of us who are interested in thinking about historical and institutional discourses on governing by television is how best to avoid ritualized and repetitive analyses. No one wants to see the highly relevant critique of neoliberalism transformed into one more example of an argument that writes itself. I am hopeful that this can be avoided because it seems to me that there are a lot of nuances and differences that remain to be addressed as we think about reality TV’s relationship to programs of rule. These shows may indeed play a pedagogical role in our lives, but I don’t think they necessarily teach by example. As Heather Hendershot pointed out a few weeks ago, seeing women with monster melon boobs on TV doesn’t promote negative body images — indeed, extreme make-over programs are likely to reinforce female viewers’ feeling that their current rack sizes are really quite sufficient.

On a different scale, the need for nuance is important because the kinds of governance we see being acted out in these shows are sometimes difficult to reconcile with any conception of the modern era’s liberal art of government, understood as motivated by the problem of how to maximize of the freedoms available to citizens, the latter conceived as fully autonomous, sovereign individuals. The trials that people endure in reality TV, dependent on mental and physical ordeals, scapegoating, and bodily mutilation sometimes seem pre-modern in their punitive bodily intensity, reminding us of the gruesome description of torture at the beginning of Discipline and Punish. Indeed, journalists frequently compare these programs to the Roman Coliseum. This commonplace suggests that reality television take us into a realm that is very other to advanced liberalism as a political rationality. In fact, where it takes us is the horrific realm in which this rationality is actually implemented. As evidence mounts of the illiberal techniques of rule, from torture to the denial of civil rights, on which neoliberal governmentality rests it strikes me that what extreme makeover shows demonstrate is not the neoliberal ideal but rather its deep contradictions.

Image Credits:
1. Tyra Banks, America’s Next Top Model

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An Open Letter to the Food Network

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Dear Food Network,

I like cooking and I like eating, so I often use you as my default channel when there is nothing else on. But increasingly I find myself frustrated with the fare you churn out. First of all, I know it’s unrealistic to expect a commercial cable channel to be uncommercial, but do you have to have so many commercial breaks — seemingly more than any other channel? I find this especially annoying given that many of your shows are themselves advertisements. I’m thinking not only of shows like Unwrapped, which are basically industrial films showcasing candy bar factories, but also shows like Top Five Marketing Moments, which tell the story of advertising campaigns of yore. (I was narcissistic enough to agree to be a commentator on that one, but it’s turned into a nightmare. I never considered the fact that you repeat programs even more frequently than Bravo, so at odd hours of the night I flip to you for solace and distraction only to confront Anna McCarthy’s double chin and weird nasal accent.)

Let me also complain for a moment about your hosts. I’ll go through them in the order in which I revile them:

1. Bobby Flay. An earlier column disparaged him enough, so I’ll just say here that his recipes are really terrible. They’re ostentatiously restaurantish, not things you’d ever enjoy making or eating at home.

2. Like Bobby Flay, Emeril emits a fraternity brother vibe that I find very tiresome (no offense to my Greek brethren.) But what really annoys me about Emeril is the way he tries so hard, especially when he tries to be down with the Black guys in his band. The recipes are actually okay — overseasoned, but the techniques basically work.

3. Rachael Ray. The chirpiness drives me crazy. And while I appreciate the 30-minute meal concept, I think her approach is all wrong. Why try to make a quick, ersatz version of bouillabaisse? What’s the point? It won’t taste as good as the real thing. Why not show people how to make a good salad dressing, or a Spanish omelette? Things with only 4 or 5 ingredients? I make tons of meals in less than 30 minutes, but they’re not fussy stuff. And they make use of things I have lying around, not ingredients that require a special trip to the store. Plus, I have a feeling that most people make pasta for dinner when they want to cook and eat quickly. Why not show us variations on different quick sauces for pasta?

4. Alton Brown. I used to love him. There’s something very appealing about all the science, and even though some might find the Ernie Kovacs-esque style of Good Eats cheesy, I think it’s well done and inventive. But last month I caught a show in which he claimed that a tarragon sauce made with fat free yoghurt and a ton of dried tarragon added at the last minute is just as good as a traditional tarragon sauce (which would, I presume involve a roux, infused milk or cream, and a lot more calories). Basically, I think you are on the right track with Alton Brown because he focuses on technique and principles, but this low fat direction is really wrong. More about this later.

5. Sara Moulton. She’s a good cook, but she’s so sweet and earnest. It only affirms my sense of the gender divide among your stars. The guys get to be wisecracking impresarios, but the gals (not only Rachael and Sara but also Giada of Everyday Italian, who surely never eats) are all uniformly nice. Perky and fun. And always nurturing. What’s more, they perform a maddening girly affect around rich or fattening food. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s sort of a variation on the familiar “ooh this is so forbidden” script.

I won’t go on with the list, although there’s surely more to say about Mario Batali, or the Food 911 guy, or Roker on the Road. Just let me finish, dear Food Network, by talking about what seems to be the deepest “issue” you raise for me. I just get depressed at having to confront the sad, obsessive, and ultimately contradictory American relationship to eating whenever I flip to your shows. There just isn’t room here for me to rant about American fat obsessions. I have friends, both men and women, who are utterly consumed by fat calories and carbs, and for whom exercise exists only in relation to food. They think about eating and staying thin more than they think about anything else. What’s going on?

The recent widely publicized revisions of the FDA’s dietary guidelines emphasize the fact that people are eating too many processed foods and not enough basic healthy fruits and vegetables. In light of such recent attempts at culinary governance there’s something really perverse about the way you spend hours promoting processed sugar products like candy and pie. I don’t mean to sound moralistic — I actually think it’s great that you celebrate sugar and fat and all those things. But I can’t stand the way you air three hours of Unwrapped in a row then turn around and have Alton Brown teach people how to make disgusting low fat versions of recipes that deserve to be made properly — calories and all. There’s no middle ground between excess and self-denial in your shows, and that’s very sad for those of us who love to cook and to eat.

The fact of the matter is, as Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times Magazine last year, Americans are fat compared to Europeans because their portion sizes are far too big, and they eat way too much processed food. Fatkins notwithstanding, Americans remain scandalized by how fatty the European diet is, and they can’t understand why Europeans are so thin. (Yes, I know class is a factor in the U.S., but it doesn’t explain everything given that Europeans of all classes are thinner than Americans). What you convey to me about American relationships to food, Food Network, is that there’s little respect for basic ingredients. You don’t encourage people to stop and admire a lovely fresh Savoy cabbage in the produce aisle. You don’t encourage them to cook with interesting but widely available staples like lentils. Is it just that there’s no brand-name tie-in?

My dream show would not be the spectator sport of watching some arrogant guy make a blood orange reduction. It would be a show that focuses on fresh ingredients and how to prepare them — sort of like Alton Brown’s Good Eats, but without the gadgetry and the “healthy” substitutions. That would be really something. Perhaps what I have in mind is the Nigella Lawson model, without the poshness and pretension. A cookbook of the air. Yes, it’s very middlebrow, but that’s where I come from. You can’t change your nature.

In closing, I offer a recipe of my own as a model for the kind of stuff you could do. It’s barely a recipe at all, really. It uses as few ingredients as possible and it combines them in a common-sense way, making a perfectly fine dinner when you have it with a nice bit of cheese, a baguette, and a glass of wine. This is the kind of thing I’d like to see more of when I turn to you during commercial breaks in The O.C.

Fennel Salad (serves 2)

1 Fennel bulb
Extra virgin olive oil (optional)
Lemon juice
Sea salt (ideally Maldon Salt from the U.K. See self-identification as middlebrow, above)
Freshly ground black pepper


1. Remove the stalks and fronds from the fennel and slice crosswise in thin slices. (You can use a mandoline to do this if you want to be very tidy. When cut with the finest blade the result is something like fennel slaw, which is not bad at all. In fact makes it a good side-dish for something like Pork Tenderloin roasted with fennel seeds.)

2. In a large bowl toss fennel slices with the juice of half a lemon, a big pinch of sea salt and enough twists of the pepper grinder to make your carpal tunnel syndrome flare up. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and toss again. (Sometimes I omit the oil, for example, when serving the salad as a side dish with fish, and end up wondering if it’s better that way. Try it and see what you think.)

3. Serve on a nice serving plate. Or not. If you want to make it beforehand this will keep an hour or so in the fridge.

Thanks for listening,


Food TV
Bobby Flay
The Anti-Bobby Flay Webring
Alton Brown
Sara Moulton
International Cooking Links

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Laguna Beach

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

“Oh my God, didn’t Morgan get pretty?” This was a friend’s response when I asked if he’d seen Laguna Beach, a new MTV reality show billed as “the real Orange County.” He wasn’t actually commenting on a character’s looks. Rather, like everyone with whom I’ve discussed the show, he was parodying its signature mode of dialogue: utterly banal phrases, voiced with blithe serenity, in exaggerated teenage upspeak.

I first became interested in Laguna Beach because my students were talking about it. Like them, I was amazed at the hyperbole of its Southern California teen stereotyping. But after watching a few episodes, my interest shifted. I started to ponder the place of the show — and the place of reality television more generally — within conventional typologies of television melodrama. I became convinced that Laguna Beach has something to teach us about the latter realm. Laguna Beach is only the latest example of reality TV’s resourcefulness in developing new techniques and formats for “unscripted, directorless” television. Yet it seems that regardless of its direction, reality TV remains firmly within the realm of melodrama, dependent for its appeal on the ability of characters to externalize emotions and internal conflicts through speech, expressions, and gestures. I am hardly the first person to consider the relationship between reality TV and the melodramatic imagination. What I hope to contribute, through an admittedly excessive discussion of formal strategies in Laguna Beach, is a sense of how the terms of what Ien Ang calls melodrama’s “emotional realism” are shifting. The lesson of Laguna Beach, I think, has to do with its creative mustering of techniques from the formal inventory of documentary history, techniques it recycles as tools to propagate popular melodramatic conventions.

The subject matter of Laguna Beach — the everyday lives, loves, and rivalries of rich white teenagers — makes it difficult at first to notice the show’s unique formal presentation. According to its producers the show attempts a cinematic style. What does the term cinematic mean in this instance? It seems to involve several stylistic choices, a number of them derived from the conventions of fictional drama on television. The show is not shot on film, but its widescreen aspect ratio suggests an anti-video sensibility. Unlike other reality shows it uses elaborate lighting setups. Blonde hair and tanned skin emit an especially painterly glow in Laguna Beach, distinguishing its interior scenes from the high key studio look of shows like The Real World. In further contrast, many scenarios are clearly staged for the camera. We see teenage boys squirm and mumble as they endeavor to carry on a group conversation on a set topic: will they stay in touch after graduation? And we witness both ends of telephone conversations, a strategy that signals the show’s commitment to narrative form and continuity over the pretense of spontaneous action. These staged moments position the teenage cast as improvising actors rather than sociological subjects. Together with the show’s lush cinematography, they forge a connection between Laguna Beach‘s “real Orange County” and the dramatic show it aims to supplement: Fox’s lavishly shot teen soap hit The O.C.

But there is more to the show’s stylistic project than visual references to celluloid TV drama. The meaning of cinematic in Laguna Beach clearly exceeds conventional usages. At once highly particularizing and endlessly flexible, the term embodies the semiotic promiscuity that, as John Caldwell notes, suffuses almost all of the TV industry’s aesthetic categories. For Laguna Beach‘s producers, cinematic means more than simply the high production values of TV drama. Paradoxically, it also seems to refer to their interest in the rigorous codes of objectivity, as opposed to emotional manipulation, that define documentary form. In this respect, the term seems to carries on its overburdened chassis connotations of seriousness and higher purpose. These connotations are reflected in some strikingly unconventional aesthetic choices. Most reality shows rely extensively on hand held camera. Laguna Beach, in contrast, features an unusual amount of footage shot with a tripod. What’s more, the camera tends to maintain a discreet distance from the interactions it observes, capturing moments in long shot, with one long take. The result is a sense of Wisemanesque detachment, underscored by naturalistic “unsweetened” sound, that seems to invite viewerly comment on the teenage dramas that play out onscreen in such prosaic arenas as the family meal, the bitchy conversation, getting ready for prom, and aimlessly driving from one place to another.

This dependence on the long take and the long shot is more than a nod to documentary tradition. It enacts the promise of unmasking suggested in the “real Orange County” tagline, a promise embodied most concretely in the show’s editing. Take the beginning of the prom episode, where a noticeably unconventional audio transition brings us from the credits to the action. The visual track shows aerial views of palm trees on the coast, followed by an eye-level shot of the cloistered arches of an upscale strip mall where Lauren and Lo shop for dresses. It would be typical in TV editing to de-emphasize this transition from the credits through an audio crossfade in which ambient sound at the mall gradually replaces the theme music. But instead we get an abrupt sound edit, synched to an image cut, in which the white noise of traffic suddenly splices in at the same volume as the Spelling-style theme music that came before. It’s not so different from the sound editing techniques that defined another So-Cal melodrama: Todd Haynes’ Safe.

Indeed, this kind of intrusive editing is the principal technique through which Laguna Beach marks its difference from other reality programs. Time and again the rhythms of Cinema Verité govern the choice of when to cut. In the graduation episode, Kristin tells her friends that she and Stephen will stop seeing each other when they go to college. Although she insists that she’s happy with that decision, a delayed edit allows the camera to linger, exposing this sentiment as rationalization. Similarly, the producers choose to retain elements of the action that The Real World‘s production bible would prohibit, most notably moments when cast members look at the camera. Often, these moments lead us to question the sincerity of the emotions playing out onscreen, as in the scene where Lo’s seemingly loving attempts to comfort her mother, distraught at the prospect of her daughter’s graduation, are undercut by the sly glances she cannot resist stealing at the camera. In such moments, the show reminds me more than anything else of An American Family. Regularly refusing the release of the edit, and focusing on the gestures through which people bottle their emotions (The tight-lipped, pleasureless manner with which Pat Loud sips her drink and Lauren’s brittle, affected laugh, finely calibrated to torture Kristin) forge connections between Laguna Beach and the august history of television documentary.

How, then, does Laguna Beach contribute to the shape of television melodrama? The answer has to do with its instinctual combination of teen emotional preoccupations with Verité style. For Peter Brooks and subsequent critics, melodrama hinges on characters’ ability to articulate their interior states through speech and, at least in the classic formulation, music. The figures of melodrama are immediately self-knowing, fully capable of expressing their feelings to others. When they repress or distort these feelings they communicate that fact too, through gestures and facial expressions. Emoting without mediation, they hold nothing back in their efforts to act out personal history and form ethical insights on the deeds and behaviors of others.

This sounds a lot like what goes on in the tortured and hungry world of The O.C. The difficulty of achieving such emotional facility without a script may explain why reality shows in the past have relied upon interviews or devices like the video confessional as a tool for emotional reflection. In the The Real World, cast members use the confessional to articulate with adolescent confidence their total and complete understanding of themselves and those around them, but especially themselves. Characters in traditional melodrama don’t need the prompt of a video camera to spur their confession — everything they say is confession.

Laguna Beach‘s promise of emotional realism hinges on its ability to achieve melodramatic expression without the confessional, and indeed on its refusal of the artifice of confessional speech in both teen drama and its reality TV predecessors. This refusal is embodied in the graduation day episode, where we encounter the show’s own version of a stock teen melodrama character: the budding filmmaker who confronts people with a camcorder and gets them to say what they’re feeling. Like Brian Austin Green in the first season of Beverly Hills 90210, videographer Claire (clearly a plant) follows the protagonists around asking them how they feel about graduating, what they think the future holds for their generation, and so forth. But direct address to the camera visibly fails as a melodramatic technique in Laguna Beach. Stephen, Lauren, Lo, and the others comply with the request, but what they say bears little resemblance to video confessionals we’ve seen before. Instead of emotional display, their responses range from noncommittal evasions to meaningless platitudes.

Eschewing such conventions, Laguna Beach turns to a tradition that established itself as the opposite of melodrama’s cheesy formulae: the rigorous observational modes of independent documentary film. Is this still melodrama? Yes, in that it results in candid and acutely drawn portraits of emotional conflict. In calling their approach cinematic, the producers imply a desire to connect their work to both the emotional depth of classical Hollywood melodrama and the sociological depth of observational cinema. The show’s thesis might ultimately be phrased this way: true melodramatic engagement emerges not from the speeches that characters make but rather from the degree to which we are allowed to analyze these speeches, reading emotional realism in gestures and acknowledging the fraught subtexts of everyday speech. If this is the direction reality TV is headed, I am happy to leave the flaccid theatrics of The Real World behind.

Laguna Beach Info
MTV Laguna Beach site
I Love Reality

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Diary of a Political Tourist

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Diary of a Political Tourist

Diary of a Political Tourist

Must political documentaries always return always return us to shopworn clichés about the artifice and pageantry of American electoral politics? Isn’t there anything else to say? Can media scholars and critics contribute anything original to the discussion at this point?

These questions crossed my mind watching a review copy of Alexandra Pelosi’s interminable Diary of a Political Tourist, a documentary about the democratic primary races. Scheduled to air on HBO next week, Diary is a follow up to the 2000 video diary Journeys With George in which Pelosi — daughter of Nancy — joined the media correspondents assigned to George W. Bush’s campaign. There were some good moments in Journeys with George. Pelosi’s first person camera captured how the dreary monotony of bad catering, sleepless nights, cramped flights, and monotonous hotel rooms tests the stamina of candidates and correspondents. Her bratty girl bravado was aggravating, but it made it impossible to ignore the masculinist chemistry of campaign culture. Most crucially, she made us confront some worrisome truths about the charisma of the Republican nominee. Affecting an airhead persona only a political insider could pull off, Pelosi exposed the bullying bonhomie with which the Republican nominee alternately charmed and disciplined his captive press.

This year’s Diary of a Political Tourist, like most tourism, is an experience in which we mostly get the feeling we’ve seen it all before. Lack of access to the candidates leads Pelosi to scramble for an angle, especially once Kerry’s nomination has been secured. She resorts to tricks from the Michael Moore repertoire, renting the scoreboard at a baseball game to ask Kerry to give her an interview, interviewing a piñata about how media “is” undermining democracy when Kerry is nowhere to be found. But these extended shenanigans quickly become dull. As if aware of this, Diary looks at other moments, specifically to the political filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s, for visual inspiration. We see cheerleaders in starred and striped leotards prance about like extras in an Altman film. Politicians and their families pose for photos, their grins horrifyingly fixed. Make up artists prettify the blushing candidates. Shriners glide across the screen in their miniature red cars. And in perhaps the most interesting aesthetic reworkings of the documentary past, we see both Bush and Kerry at different times take the camera from Pelosi’s hands and point it back at her — a gesture towards reflexivity that would not be out of place in the era of Medium Cool, not least because of the paternalism of the gesture.

It’s not surprising, given these cinematic intertexts, that the documentary settles into a default form of media critique when it has nothing else to say. It is supposed to show, as Pelosi puts it, the nature of “the dance between the candidate, the staff and the press.” But mostly we get recycled ideas about democracy as spectacle. They issue not only from Pelosi but also from participants like CNN correspondent Candy Crowley, who seems both ashamed and exhilarated at television journalism’s role in shaping the fate of Howard Dean after the Iowa Caucus. Voters also contribute analyses of the mediation process. A young Dean supporter with slacker hair and oversized aviator sunglasses makes the canny observation that the primary process is “like a reality TV show because it’s staged, it’s not like a spur of the moment type thing.” And Bush himself, acknowledging the performative nature of his job, jokingly asks Pelosi “Where’s my Emmy?” (When Pelosi later greets democratic supporter and West Wing star Martin Sheen with the quip “hey, Mr. TV president!” he is not amused, questioning whether such glibness is appropriate.)

In the end the girly glibness is what I found myself focusing on as I tried to answer the questions that ran through my head as I watched the tape. It would have been easy to replicate Sheen’s finger wagging automatically, but why single Pelosi out when shallow one-liners are the essence of so much political speech these days? As I considered Pelosi’s authorial persona in this tape and the one before it, I was struck by the uniqueness of her approach as a political correspondent. What other female reporters get to operate through a kind of kittenish, childish provocation? The effect of this style on her interlocutors is noticeable. Not surprisingly, they tend not to take her seriously when she asks direct questions about the campaign or about her level of access. Instead they respond with tepid wisecracks. When she asks Kerry who his running mate will be he replies instantly “you,” as if being quick and condescending in the comeback is more important than being funny. Other kinds of questions, however, get us to a different and possibly more interesting place. In these moments of female tongue poking, Pelosi tries to crack the armor of a group of men who are all under incredible pressure to look good, wear make up, and perform perfectly at all times. When she asks whether a gathering of senior citizens is “a Gephardt-pallooza” (a quip to which the befuddled and clueless candidate can offer no response whatsoever), and when she compares the primary voters to fickle brides who choose “tall, handsome, electable warriors” Pelosi is not particularly funny. But she is certainly bringing some sass into the proceedings.

Pelosi’s provocations made me think about the potential of bratty girl culture as a medium for political critique, and more generally, about girls as political subjects. There’s been a lot of interest in girl culture in television studies over the past few years. Some might say it’s nothing more than a Buffy Bump. But what if we take Pelosi’s documentary as an example of what happens when Clarissa actually does try and explain it all? And explain it in the world of politics, where young women are largely invisible? Perhaps she does what teenage girls often do — talk about boys and adults and make fun of them. I found this quite entertaining when I watched Journeys with George four years ago. Pelosi drew George W. Bush out, showed him playing to the audience of correspondents with a tight-lipped, self satisfied smile and a script full of catchphrases, his performance reminiscent of the Food Network’s Emeril Lagasse (although when he was sulking, W’s style seemed closer to the morose sadism of Bobby Flay). In Diary of A Political Tourist, even though it was a mostly tedious video to watch, Pelosi continued to show us how weird-acting women make white men in power uncomfortable, and makes us notice how those men (and women) respond. When Pelosi asks Hermes-clad Teresa Heinz Kerry whether she thinks her husband is a movie star, Kerry’s visible recoil, spitting out the word no! is a moment of sharp conflict far less decided than the rote media critiques that occupy us elsewhere in the film.

Unfortunately, as if to anchor and contain the meanings of her potentially disruptive presence, Diary has Pelosi narrating the events of the 2003 primaries with canned voice-over wisecracks. These wacky bits, noticeably louder in the mix on the review copy I received, seemed like anxious last-minute additions. Their effect is to bring Pelosi herself closer to the domesticating discursive sphere of Food Network programming. “We’re here in Las Vegas, where everyone loves a winner. And a wedding,” she announces, right before voters consummate their support for Kerry. Like Rachael Ray introducing us to the culinary delights of Paris, this and other vocal intrusions (“let’s see what it takes to kick the leader of the free world out of office”) are a non-threatening, wholly recognizable form of zany fun. Perhaps this is what Karl Rove has in mind when, at the end of the tape, he tells Pelosi that she has “ennobled our political process through her revealing and candid look.” I can’t answer that, but watching him try to formulate that sentence definitely made me want to giggle.

Links of Interest:

1. HBO’s homepage for Diary of a Political Tourist

2. IMDB site for Journeys with George

3. IMDb site for Alexandra Pelosi

Image Credits:

Diary of a Political Tourist

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