Borat In (Next To!) The Balkans

by: Daniel Marcus / Goucher College

Borat success

Borat success

The Borat film has become a fixture at the multiplex in Ljubljana's biggest mall since its opening coincided with the American release. (Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, the richest and northernmost of the former republics of Yugoslavia. Turn east from Venice, cross the Adriatic, and you end up in Slovenia. It is a member of both NATO and the European Union.) Sascha Baron Cohen has made a successful promotional trip in character to the neighboring Croatian capital of Zagreb and was featured prominently on one of the Croatian national news programs. The former Yugoslavia has caught Borat fever.

Given that Borat plays off ricocheting notions of national and cultural identity among Americans and non-Americans, watching the Borat phenomenon from another country provides the opportunity to explore one region's take on Americans and transnational interactions. For those in the former Yugoslavia, Borat offers a rich field of representations to express and explore their self-definitions as emerging participants in Western culture and social practices, and to establish their difference from (read: superiority over) other societies that have not merged to the same extent with Western economies, political associations, and popular culture. At the screening I attended, the mostly young audience started laughing from the first shots of Borat's hometown. Their laughter indicated that in their minds, their own circumstances were comfortably distant from the dilapidated rustic scene. Most Slovenians grew up in small to medium-sized towns, and the architecture of the “Kazakhstani” town bore some basic similarity to Slovenian housing, given that the depicted village is actually in Romania (though Slovenian villages are much more prosperous). To the Slovenian audience, however, the backwardness of the village circumstances were cues for derisive laughter. When I asked college-age fans if the audience was aware that the village was actually European, they replied that it didn't matter – that to Slovenians, both Kazakhstan and Romania were “the East,” meaning backward, unsophisticated societies, where seeing cows in the living room should be no surprise. (Of course, Kazakhstanis have registered objections to such notions of their own increasingly wealthy country.)

Borat

Borat

Indeed, to some Slovenians, the joke would work if the rustic scenes were said to be even in neighboring Croatia, because to them, the rest of the former Yugoslavia qualifies as the East. This feeling seems to be stronger among younger people who never experienced feelings of solidarity with fellow Yugoslav citizens in the pre-1990 era, and who take their attitudes from the more prominent European countries. In European thinking, the Balkans are often associated with ethno-religious feuding and hatred, unreconstructed male chauvinism, unpredictable and overemotional behavior, lack of cultural sophistication, and economic deprivation. Enjoying the film's snipes at rustic rubes is a self-affirmation by Slovenians that THEY couldn't possibly be the ones being laughed at; they can assume the superior position of the Western (and, in the symbolic schema of the region, therefore non-Balkan) viewer that the film constructs at its beginning. Judging from the warm welcome Borat received in Croatia, the Croatians also use the film to affirm their position as Western, no matter what the Slovenians may think; as one of the Slovenians I talked to put it, each country in the region likes to think that the Balkans start just beyond its own southern or eastern border.

This affirmation of distance from the backwardness the film depicts is telling, given that the figure of Borat actually bears strong visual similarity to previous generations of Balkan men. Early versions of Borat in Baron Cohen's act hailed from Albania and Moldova. The anti-Gypsy attitudes of the character also coincide with Balkan social reality. Assuredly, to most Americans, Borat might as well be from the former Yugoslavia – the jokes would work the same to American audiences. In Borat, however, the distance of the character's sophistication from the self-conception of the audience here means that the possibility that Baron Cohen is using Kazakhstan as a stand-in for their own homeland is not even considered.

Of course, Kazakhstanis are not the only nationality that Baron Cohen victimizes in Borat. He skewers American attitudes with even greater discursive power, given that the portraits of foolish Americans are presented as something approaching real-life encounters. For Slovenians, this provides a double movement of superiority and derision; they can feel superior to the clueless Kazakhstanis, and to the equally clueless Americans. The stupidity of Americans presents itself in two distinct though related forms. First are the racist and homophobic comments that Borat elicits, which some Slovenian fans identified as the strongest parts of the film. While some audience members professed awareness that the ugliest comments were cherry-picked for comedic or political purposes, the responses fit too well with Slovenian (or, at least, young, urban, Slovenian) conceptions of American attitudes to be discounted significantly. As one student put it, the infamous South Carolina frat boys corresponded to his image of typical American collegians – “fat, ignorant, and racist.”

Secondly, the idea that the Americans were taken in by Baron Cohen, that they would actually find Borat to be believable in his ludicrous opinions and apparent ignorance of Western social practices, was proof of Americans' own ludicrous understanding of the rest of the world. While Slovenians might enjoy exaggerated scenes of Eastern squalor, they would also believe that anyone who was educated enough to have a job as a reporter, who dressed in a Western suit and was generally competent in English, would necessarily be familiar with ubiquitous media images of American society and culture and would act in accordance with Western norms. Because some Americans took Borat's ridiculousness seriously, Borat confirms suspicions that Americans are profoundly heedless of the realities of global culture. Indeed, when “Borat” was interviewed on Croatian national news, the reporter played along as if Borat were a genuine reporter, while simultaneously winking at her audience that she was doing so only to further Baron Cohen's entertainment and promotional agendas. In so doing, she established her superior knowingness to those American newspeople and interview subjects who were taken in by Borat's persona.

Sascha Baron Cohen

Sascha Baron Cohen, “Borat”

In the Croatian interview, Borat steered clear of the anti-Semitic attitudes that feature heavily in the film, but he indulged in a couple of Gypsy jokes, to the enjoyment of his television host. Baron Cohen straddles that tenuous line between exposing racism and sexism through humor and using racist and sexist attitudes to make his jokes work. Slovenian fans stated that they felt confident that Slovenian audiences would laugh at the anti-Semitism displayed in the film, rather than with it, because anti-Semitism is not particularly active in the national culture (and perhaps because some may know Baron Cohen is Jewish). They also asserted that they laughed at the anti-Gypsy attitudes, but could not be so confident that other audience members were laughing at those remarks rather than with them. The Roma community in Slovenia constitutes the most put-upon, least assimilated, and poorest minority in the country, and a recent outbreak of anti-Roma protests and violence, resulting in the displacement of one community from its homes, has sparked the biggest political controversy since a conservative administration took office two years ago. Anti-Roma attitudes pervade the region, and in the Croatian broadcast at least one of the Baron Cohen's jokes registered as more anti-Gypsy than anti-prejudice. American audiences may be able to enjoy Borat's anti-Gypsy comments as so distant from American realities as to be harmless or quaint, as well as ugly, but no such distance is possible here. Of course, that can also mean that some of the comments can be more effective in Slovenia in exposing the logic of anti-Roma prejudice. It also creates an even greater impression of American racism, because Americans' muted reaction to the character's anti-Gypsy rants are taken here as powerful evidence of anti-minority feelings, rather than as befuddlement or polite neglect of irrelevant foreign nastiness.

Slate's Dana Stevens wrote that, ultimately, the only group who should really be insulted by Borat is fat people, and the wrestling match did get the biggest immediate reaction from the multiplex crowd of any scene in the film. In the Slovenian context, however, the true target of the film's ire is the American people in the Age of Bush, while the film is also useful in furthering Slovenian feelings of belonging to the advanced civilization of Western and Central Europe (a civilization that has produced, in Baron Cohen's act, the British dimwit Ali G and Austrian fashion slave Bruno). Do American Blue State viewers (a recently expanded category!) exhibit the same attitude toward the Southerners and Westerners in the film as Slovenians do to representations of Kazakhstan? Is enjoyment of those scenes inextricably connected to the felt distance from the behavior displayed? Indeed, is the assertion of distance the most meaningful pleasure we can produce from such scenes? Baron Cohen lets Southeastern Europe off the hook by using Kazakhstan as Borat's homeland; in Slovenian eyes, no Americans are afforded the same kind of comfort, for we are all generally implicated. And it will take more than one election to change that.

Image Credits:
1. Borat success
2. Borat
3. Sascha Baron Cohen, “Borat”

Please feel free to comment.




Stripping (Part 2)

DeVito

DeVito

In my last column, I began to discuss the practice of stripping — placing reruns of a series in the same daily slot five times a week on a local station or cable channel. I argued that series that offer dollops of quotidian delights do particularly well when stripped, as their subtle qualities become more visible with the increased exposure of daily presentation. I would like to continue by discussing another source of heightened appreciation of stripped series, our changing views of characters and actors in reruns, before comparing stripping to DVD bingeing, and wrapping up with a programming note.

Watching a weekly show on a daily basis changes our exposure to actors and the characters they play. Secondary characters sometimes rise to the fore once syndication begins, as watching material that is already familiar affords us the chance to focus on less central elements of the show. Characters who may appear briefly on a weekly basis become more familiar when watched daily, and their cumulative impact intensifies once freed from the seven-day break between performances. Even important secondary characters can gain more attention in stripped series, as patterns of narrative become more obvious. A classic example comes from Taxi, the late ’70s-early ’80s sitcom that became a syndication favorite. When introduced in its first run, cast members Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, and Andy Kaufman attracted press attention, and their characters were certainly important to the show. In syndication, however, fan attention turned more toward Christopher Lloyd as Reverend Jim and Danny DeVito as Louie. Reverend Jim rarely had a large role in the narrative, but regularly offered one or two observations or scenes per episode that got big laughs. Daily viewing reduced the isolated quality of his non sequitur-based humor, and the details of his bizarre personality could be gathered by viewers trying to understand his hippie-burn-out-street-preacher persona. His cumulative impact was much greater in syndication than in the original run.

Watching the show on a daily (or nightly) basis also made clear the importance of Danny DeVito’s character to the series. Louie the dispatcher was often the main catalyst of story lines, despite the fact that he was usually stuck in a cage to the side of the main action. Louie also got some of the best dialogue in his role as the main comic foil on the show. The Taxi writers clearly fell in love with the characters of Reverend Jim and Louie, whose comic styles were more extreme than the rather mild tone that was sustained by most of the other regulars. (Carol Kane’s Simka, another outlandish personality, also benefited, but she was not featured as regularly). The writers may also have fallen in love with Lloyd and DeVito’s comic talents. It is no coincidence that these two actors have had the strongest film careers among the cast since the series ended. Did the two’s heightened visibility in syndication lead to better roles in later productions? Or did their success in film make them seem more important in the Taxi reruns? Probably both, but their impact in reruns preceded their leaps to major film success in the mid-1980s.

Views of primary characters can also change through stripping. In the last column, I mentioned the popularity of James Garner in The Rockford Files and Jerry Orbach in Law and Order as the product of daily exposure. Even a performer as attention-getting as Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer could be seen in new ways once the series went into syndication. Personally, I became much more impressed with Gellar’s performance once stripping brought into relief her range in moving between comedy, romance, and action (once she learned how to stake with conviction). The series was already known for its mixture of modes, but the daily juxtaposition of episodes that required Gellar to constantly switch performative gears made her ability to do so seem more central to the success of the show.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Stripping became more prevalent with the proliferation of cable channels, but that may soon change. Syndicators once thought successful stripping required five or six seasons of an original run, but the great maw of the multichannel universe will now settle for fewer episodes, allowing more series to be stripped. The advent of DVD versions of television series, however, poses new questions for syndicators and programmers. Will the DVD market drive down demand for stripped series? Will the appeal of a ritualistic daily visitation of a series withstand the easy availability of the same material on demand? Will we see an era of DIY stripping, when viewers can schedule their own viewing preferences? Or do DVD box set owners skip DIY stripping and go straight to video bingeing, watching as many episodes as personal schedules will allow (and then some), in the shortest amount of time? Perhaps some genres, such as sitcoms, are amenable to DIY stripping, while others, such as thrillers with strong narrative arcs, lead to bingeing. Friends of mine who recently disappeared for nights and weekends at a time to obsessively watch 24 attest to the power of suspense, even when the show is “bad, but compelling,” as those in its clutches agreed. If once seen as a symbol of plenty compared to the weekly presentation schedule of an original run, the measured charms of stripping’s daily discipline may appear inadequate to a society bent toward bingeing. Does binge viewing offer different dynamics to the appreciation of small touches, secondary characters, and narrative patterns? Binge viewers of the FLOW community, what say ye?

Finally, I would like to end my cycle of articles this year by noting another sort of prevalence on cable television of late. I am referring to the David Mamet film Spartan, which plays repeatedly on HBO virtually every month, and pops up on TNT and other channels from time to time. Some Mamet-scripted films have been common cable fare before — Glengarry Glen Ross was often screened throughout the ’90s, and Ronin, which he co-wrote under a pseudonym, can still be seen regularly. The prevalence of Spartan, however, is astonishing, given its lack of success in its theatrical run in 2004. A cloak and dagger story of the search for the kidnapped daughter of a President, the film is replete with themes of the management of the news, White House sexual peccadilloes, duplicitous Presidential aides, the use of torture and other extralegal methods during a security emergency, Arab treatment of women, shadowy involvement by Israelis, and the protection of the powerful at the expense of working-class, African-American, and Latina populations. Has it become a cult favorite? Is this merely a case of the studio — Warner Bros. — milking its property by using its affiliated television channels? Or, given that the film is the clearest echo in contemporary American film of the hyperparanoiac thrillers of the Watergate era (The Parallax View, The Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation), is somebody (other than Mamet, who most assuredly is) trying to tell us something?

Image Credits:

1. DeVito

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Please feel free to comment.




Stripping (Part 1)

1968 Newspaper Article

1968 Newspaper Article

With Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television, FLOW contributor Derek Kompare introduced to critical discussion the previously submerged two-thirds of television programming, the repeat. Kompare looks at programming strategies and cultural meanings involved in the practice of re-showing old series. In furtherance of this subject, this column is the first of a two-part discussion of one fundamental aspect of repeat programming — the stripped series. Stripping a series means running a different episode every weekday, Monday through Friday, at the same time. Originally used in daytime slots, particularly in late afternoons to attract school-kids, stripping has spread to many other segments of the television schedule, from noontime to prime time and late night, as cable channels seek to profit from the popularity of old Big Three series. Are there special attractions for viewers related to stripping? How does watching a series on a daily basis change the viewing experience? Today I’ll discuss why some shows seem particularly well-suited to being stripped.

For many years, the industry maxim was that half-hour sitcoms were much more likely to be successes when stripped than hour-long dramas. Some noteworthy hour-long action series, however, seem to have attained new heights of popularity once shown on a daily basis. The Rockford Files in the 1980s and Law and Order in the 1990s were embraced more widely once in syndication than at the beginning of their original runs. The Rockford Files, after years of respectable but not great ratings, began generating buzz and critical acclaim at the tail end of its original run in the late 1970s, but secured its historical status with its emergence as a superstar of syndication, once it was placed on Monday through Friday rotation on local channels in late afternoons. Again, Law and Order was an unspectacular performer for NBC in its first seasons in prime time, but took off once it became ensconced in the A&E daily schedule. In each case, the series’ strengths came to the fore through daily viewing moreso than in weekly doses. Each was low-key in exhibiting its distinctiveness and benefited from the greater cumulative impact that daily exhibition provides.

The Rockford Files could be mistaken at first, and second, glance for just another generic Universal travelogue of the LA highway system, with the “zero degree style” that John Thornton Caldwell identified in Televisuality as dominant in 1970s action shows. With the opportunity for increased immersion into the text brought about by daily viewing, however, audiences could more easily pick up on the show’s qualities, from the above-average attention paid to the texture of the daily life of hero Jim Rockford, to the easy charms and interplay of series regulars James Garner and Noah Beery. The series boasted the most distinguished and influential writing staff of 1970s actioners, first headed by Roy Huggins (from The Fugitive and the great lost series Toma), then by Steven J. Cannell (Wiseguy and half the forgettable action shows of the 1980s), and included the future writers of Magnum PI, Remington Steele, and several other hits of the 1980s. Most notably, the staff included David Chase, who continues to cast Rockford players in Sopranos roles. The writers spiced the generic suspense plots with knowing cultural references and small character epiphanies, creating the template for so many of the detective shows that followed, but they did so with a light hand. The subtlety of the show’s strengths, and generally ungenerous amounts of attention-getting textual devices, made it easy to underappreciate the series when watched occasionally, or even weekly; the daily format brought these elements forward, without requiring a major increase in viewer attention to any particular episode. The series’ provision of quotidian detail and small grace notes of distinctiveness seemed just right for daily consumption, making The Rockford Files a great fit for the ritualistic and parasocial aspects of watching stripped franchises.

Law and Order has benefited from the same features of daily viewing practices. The series’ terse dialogue and understated but acute presentation of Big Apple social dynamics fit the aesthetic of good things doled out in small pieces within the texture of daily life. The current purveyor of Law and Order repeats, TNT, has made a fetish of the bite-sized pleasures of the show, highlighting isolated moments of each episode as “The Wisecrack,” etc. Obituaries of Jerry Orbach this year often made mention of audiences’ delight at his character’s offhanded one-line responses to the latest murder, a small feature that capped each episode’s introduction. The series’ notoriously fleeting glimpses into the regulars’ private lives rewards repeated viewing within the sped-up realm of stripped exhibition, and personal developments take on greater weight (and prompt greater viewer loyalty) than when viewer patience and memory have to be extended to the longer chronologies of weekly exhibition. Even the famously episodic Law and Order can gain some of the benefits of seriality when stripped, since the writers do include smatterings of narrative and character arcs.

Law and Order

Law and Order

The syndication of the show followed the consolidation of the series’ most popular cast (Orbach, Noth, Hennessy) and allowed viewers who had missed earlier seasons to catch up once word of mouth began lauding the show, as happened with The Rockford Files.

The increased practice of running syndicated repeats before the end of a series’ original run, initiated to offset the huge debts incurred by production companies when they actually create a long-running series, can heighten the status of the currently produced episodes as well.

When Law and Order went to A&E, its importance on the televisual schedule was amplified, and the series was given greater weight as a significant show — if a show is good enough for old episodes to be shown along side of ongoing productions, it might be worth checking out, or of following more regularly. The simultaneity of exhibition also makes available the pleasures of comparing new episodes to old ones, of catching the introduction of previously established characters if missed initially, and of noting other past turning points in the production of the series. Stripping creates a history of a series less explicitly than does a DVD production replete with commentaries and extra features, but with greater suspense and, paradoxically, sometimes with a greater sense of fan involvement. It is up to us to construct a history out of the seemingly ahistorical practice of just watching plain, unaccessorized, individualized episodes. Law and Order‘s combination of rigid narrative formulae, quick wit, distinctive social commentary and memorable but limited performances seems well-suited to the ritual of daily viewing, when small gems discovered amid the detritus of daily existence attain their greatest luster and importance.

Part Two of this inquiry should arrive in February — wouldn’t it be better to be able to read it in the next issue? Or you could just wait until both pieces are archived, and then read them back-to-back — DIY stripping. Sometimes, the normal flow, and FLOW, is just too slow.

Image Credits:

1. 1968 Newspaper Article

2. Law and Order

Please feel free to comment.




Krebs, Recycled

Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

When Bob Denver died recently, I was reminded of talks I gave a few years ago, in which I discussed the Fonz as the dominant representation of a Fifties youth subcultural figure on American television. Inevitably, during the discussion or afterward, an audience member — always a male Baby Boomer — would ask, “But what about Maynard G. Krebs?” That is when I discovered that I was not alone in claiming Maynard as an early cultural hero, as thinking he was the coolest character on American television until, I don’t know, Emma Peel came over from Britain.

Denver may be more famous generally for being Gilligan, but he first came to notice as the best friend of the title character in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, whose first run aired from 1959-63, and continued in repeats for a few years more (and which later popped up during the Fifties revival in the 1970s, and on the retro cable channels of recent years). Maynard was a teenage Beatnik, full of unconventional ideas and language. Although still in high school, he wore a goatee, played bongo drums, and recited poetry. He would name-check poets and jazz musicians, and scat while walking down the block. In the middle of the numbing middle-class milieu of the show, with the other characters wearing pressed slacks and dresses (and a young Warren Beatty even better dressed for one season), Maynard wore jeans, sneakers and an old sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off and holes in its front. Maynard hated work, had no material ambitions, and was decidedly anti-authoritarian, with a particular phobia for the police. While not as threatening to the Fifties social order as the violent juvenile delinquent or the sexualized bad girl — who rarely appeared on American screens after the demise of the live drama anthology shows, and never as continuing characters — Maynard decidedly went against the flow of adult preferences for youth values and behavior.

As the greatest source of social disruption on the show, Maynard was often the catalyst for episode plots, with the other characters allied with or opposed to his unconventional behavior. His stance was essentially juvenile to the point of childishness, and he excelled at poking holes in accepted norms with the untrammeled reasoning of a small child, appealing to a purer moral sense in his associates than they usually showed in the routine of high school life. Maynard supplied the show’s fantasy principle, evoking a world of simple but fulfilled desires, and no responsibility beyond altruism. Maynard’s opposites were a succession of rich snobs, as well as Zelda, the no-nonsense girl who adored Dobie while embodying the reality principle. Dobie was positioned between Zelda’s good sense and Maynard’s idealism, continually trying to reconcile the two, as he acted the roles of dutiful son and regular guy while resenting their constraints. (Thalia, played by Tuesday Weld, was the unavailable dreamgirl Dobie wanted instead of the plain Zelda, embodying a different sort of fantasy principle.)

Tuesday Weld as Thalia

Tuesday Weld as Thalia

Of course, real followers of the Beats hated Maynard. Fans of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Monk were not likely to be prime television watchers, and reacted with the derision typical of subculture reaction to broadcast characterizations of distinctively non-conformist types during the 1950s and 1960s. To Beats, Maynard was a silly, superficial, stereotyping insult to their challenge to orthodoxy and search for meaningful experience. It was indicative of television’s blandness at the time that Maynard, essentially innocuous, could stand out as a noteworthy challenge to the status quo. But to young viewers in the suburbs with only a dim understanding of Beat culture, gleaned completely by mainstream coverage of the movement, Maynard became an accessible symbol of rebellion. While the detectives of 77 Sunset Strip also flirted with jazz and hip lingo (which did not keep them from maintaining the social order), Maynard’s placement in school life and his child-like view of the world provided a much closer proximity to young viewers’ experiences. We could admire the detectives, but we could see ourselves as Maynard.

Beat influence on youth culture waned by the mid-60s, but lived on indirectly through its legacy to hippiedom. As the hippie culture faded in the 1970s, so did the notion of Beat fans as prototypical youth rebels of the late 1950s. Maynard was replaced by the Fonz, as the greaser became the dominant image of Fifties youth. The greaser’s association with rock and roll, car culture, and macho assertiveness eclipsed the Beatnik’s fandom for jazz, poetry, and Eastern mysticism. Young rebels periodically have rediscovered Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, but the main Beat connection to youth culture that has survived the Sixties has been drug use. As alcohol (the greaser high) re-entered youth culture, marijuana, one of Beat’s drugs of choice, maintained significant popularity. It was nice to see that Bob Denver retained some of Maynard within him, getting busted for pot in his 60s. And it was nice to learn that Maynard had not been forgotten, but lived in the memories of Boomer boys everywhere.

Image Credits:

1. Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

2. Tuesday Weld as Thalia

Please feel free to comment.




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


Please feel free to comment.




Live Richly, and Prosper

by: Daniel Marcus / Goucher College

Citibank, one of the largest financial institutions in the country, started its “Live Richly” advertising campaign in 2001, to sell its banking services. The campaign, which has included both television and print ads, reached its peak in 2003 and 2004, and now has been largely replaced, though examples of it still pop up now and then. The heart of the campaign is to urge potential customers to not work too hard, to not consider money to be all that important, to find meaning and fun from activities that emanate from their own creativity, individuality, and relationships with loved ones, rather than through the enticements of consumer culture. A bank is telling us that money can’t buy happiness. Wha?

Citibank Ads

Citibank campaign

Of course, capitalist consumer culture has often provided critiques of one aspect or another of itself, usually with the purpose of showing that the solution to the problem it has created is found within its own sphere. Can’t believe you ate the whole thing? Alka-Seltzer will ease your indigestion. Your insurance company is rude and unresponsive? Another one will perform better. Rarely, however, does a mainstay of the system point to a solution or alternative outside the realm of what can be purchased, let alone try to redefine what your goals in life should be, to urge you to forego the rewards of getting and spending.

The campaign did not start out with such a counterintuitive message. In 2001, Citibank’s “Live Richly” ads showed turning points in family life, such as childbirth and children moving toward college, to remind viewers that they should take care of their money; indeed, financial wealth was portrayed as a necessary and crucial component in the successful raising of a family. Only if you were rich (or at least affluent in an upper-middle-class sense), could you live richly.

Soon, however, the ads dropped this definition of the campaign tag line. Citibank, through its ad agency Fallon Worldwide, presented a series of vignettes that pushed themselves through the media clutter by dint of their distinctive look, tone, and message. An older woman sings to her small dog, which howls in return – that’s the whole ad. Another older woman in a colorful dress dances by herself to a jaunty saxophone line backed with a Latin rhythm. Two older women play the acoustic guitar and sing. An older man cuts paper into a pretty design in close-up. Two little kids play in a yard, shown on what looks like 1960s home-movie film stock. In slow motion, a man only partially seen looks upward to a plane in the sky, while alternative-rock guitar plays on the soundtrack. It is a toy plane, and perhaps he controls it, or perhaps not. The locations are simple, either in undefined outside space, in which the most definable element is often a bright blue sky, or within the subjects’ homes. Most of the people are presented in straightforward medium shots (especially those who perform in some way) or odd, partial close-ups. The look is uncluttered, the pace slow or off-kilter. There are never more than two people in a scene; when there are two, they are seemingly related by blood or marriage. Most of the individuals are either small children or babies, or of advanced middle-age or elderly. Most of the guys in between (they are always guys), 30 or 40 years old, accompany children in parental roles.

Citibank Advertisement

Citibank advertisement

These scenes are accompanied by words on the screen offering advice and wisdom. “There’s more to life than money.” “The golden years have little to do with money.” “The things you remember most … aren’t things.” “The best moments in life are completely untaxable.” They always end with “Live Richly.” Many of the themes address the need of parents to spend time with their children, rather than working to afford those medical, child-raising, and educational expenses that the campaign initially identified as reasons to do business with Citibank. As a father holds a small baby in the palm of one hand, he is serenaded by acoustic-tinged alt-rock – homey yet contemporary – while he and we are told “If you want to indulge your child, spend spend spend … time.” The two small children in the old home movie are playing dress-up in the backyard, decked out in their own improvised superhero garb and posing appropriately, as we learn that “No kid ever grew up wanting to be Moneyman.” We are urged to rediscover our youthful dreams, and connect with both the child within us and those of the following generation, who look to us for love and attention, not monetary wealth.

Fallon explains the strategy behind the campaign in the oh-so-contemporary terms of brand identity:

“Most consumers’ relationship with their bank/financial institution is strictly transactional and fairly impersonal….Because of this, banks were quickly becoming a commodity vs. brands that inspire loyalty. Citi risked falling into the same den of nameless/faceless banks unless they could connect with their consumers and make themselves a brand that is sought out by their target….Fallon and Citi created a campaign to show that money is a means to have a life[,] not the end game….Thus, by encouraging people to live their priorities and demonstrating their belief that money is a supporting player vs. the central role, they tap into a set of shared values with their customers and prospects.”(1)

In the wake of financial scandals involving some of the largest corporations in the country, and many of the biggest players on Wall Street, Citibank attempts to connect with audiences by demonstrating that it, at least, is one company that doesn’t think money is all-important. In this telling, the bank eschews the intensely bottom-line mentality that led to the ruination of employee pensions and small-investor nest eggs. In the wake of the scandals, it urges a moral revaluation that will set American priorities right, which may be especially comforting to those who lost big in the bubble bursts of 2000 and 2001. It’s nice to know that money isn’t everything when you have just lost most of your paper assets. In addition, Citibank can follow this line of thinking because it is selling retail banking services, rather than the investment advice and brokerage services that many banks moved into in the 1990s. Investors may not be ready to hear so cavalier attitude toward wealth creation from the ones they are paying for investment advice, as opposed to the company that provides mortgage loans and processes their checks.

The happiness and personal priorities that Citibank promotes have distinct , if quirky, shapes. The figures in the ads may share their moments of spontaneity, love and joy with one other person, but no more than that. Individuality and dancing to one’s own drummer are celebrated; any sense of collectivity is absent. Activity is located in domestic, natural space (the yard) or unboundaried public space that is oddly emptied out. These uncanny moments are isolated dreams. They try to connect with the utopian fantasies of the public, as Fredric Jameson has identified as at the heart of capitalist appeals, and are often charming. They celebrate people, but we are directed to limit our appreciation to solitary pursuits.(2)

The campaign has been largely superceded by a new set of Citibank ads revolving around identity theft – the ones in which the voice of an identity thief emerges out of the body of the victim, listing everything that has been charged to an unprotected credit card. The positive idealism of the post-scandal campaign has yielded to a fear-based strategy in which hell is other people. Illegitimate greed can ruin your life, unless you seek out the protection that Citibank provides. It seems that not only social isolation, but social anonymity, is required to just get through the day. The bank, which is one of the largest purveyors of credit cards in the country, has taken steps recently to protect itself too, by lobbying for the new bankruptcy law that makes it tougher for debtors to walk away from credit card debt and restart with a clean slate, even in the case of medical emergency or – get this – identity theft. Now Citibank is out to get us if we face too many of those exigencies of life shown in the early days of the Live Richly campaign, when it advised careful planning. All the more reason to cherish singing dogs, hip-shaking grannies, and the other free-of-charge moments in life.(3)

Notes
(1) Taken from AdForum, where many of the ads can be seen (for a charge), listed under Citibank.
(2) Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1 (1979), 130-148; reprinted in Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks, eds. The Jameson Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
(3) Completed while listening, by chance or unconscious design, to Jonathan Richman’s “New Teller.”

Links
Citi of Fear – What are Citigroup’s Ads Really Saying?
Salon.com – Wake Up and Smell the Subterfuge

Image Credits:
1. Citibank campaign
2. Citibank advertisement

Please feel free to comment.