The Crying Game: Why Television Brings Us to Tears

by: David Lavery / Brunel University

August 21, 2005: the airing of the last episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under‘s five season run. At its end Claire, the youngest of the Fisher children, prepares to leave for New York, where a job in photography awaits. After tearful goodbyes on the porch of the Fisher and Diaz Funeral Home (even her dead brother Nate is there to bid her adieu), she drives away in her Toyota Prius and, with Sia’s “Breathe Me” playing on the mix CD boyfriend (and future husband) Ted has given her for the trip, heads east. As she drives, sobbing at times uncontrollably, we witness scenes from the future lives of each of SFU‘s principle characters and then, in turn, their deaths: Ruth passes away in bed with her surviving family at her side, Keith is killed in a robbery, David (at a picnic) and Federico (on a cruise ship) succumb to apparent heart attacks, Brenda dies as her brother Billy drones on. Though it is by no means clear whether all these culminations are to be taken as the driver’s own mindscreen imaginings or part of the official narrative itself, Claire herself is not spared: she dies in her bed, at the age of 102, in a room filled with her award-winning photographs. We linger for a moment on her cataract-scarred eyes and then, in a stunning match cut, return to her still fresh, beautiful, young eyes as they gaze out on the road ahead.

Screencap of Claire

Screencap of Claire

And I, sitting in my living room in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, have erupted into irrepressible crying. Though possibly my most intense mediated weeping, it was certainly not my first. The ending of To Kill a Mockingbird (“He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning”) has made me blubber since I was a teenage boy. At the age of forty, the ending of a matinee of Field of Dreams (“Hey Dad, do you want to have a catch?”) left me sitting alone in the theatre trying to gather myself before I took my salty eyes out into the afternoon sun.

Now that television is my scholar-fan obsession, the living room is my vale of tears. Northern Exposure, The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars–these and other shows have often unmanned me. But no single television show has opened the tear ducts quite like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy being given the “Class Protector” award in “The Prom”; Anya’s poignant speech in “The Body”1; Buffy’s death (her second) in “The Gift”; the final conversation in “Chosen,” the series finale (“Yeah Buffy, what are we gonna to do now?”)–these and a score of other moments jerked my tears. The tears I shed were part of my bonding with the show–at least as important as the countless laughs it inspired.

Buffy and Class Protector Award

Buffy and Class Protector Award

Certain I was not alone in the regularity of my crying before the box, I sought the opinions of a number of colleagues, all television scholars, as I prepared to write this column, and though I make no claim to a systematic sampling, I found the responses of great interest. Here are some discoveries of note:

• A wide variety of television shows, from Champion the Wonder Horse to Neighbours, Roseanne, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives,2 and Grey’s Anatomy, have opened the flood gates.

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives

• Several noted that endings–of episodes, seasons, series–often prove to be more tear-jerky.3

• One correspondent (Burkhead) observed that “The common cause of my tears is that in each case I was responding to a presentation of my ideals made manifest – love vanquishing evil, the good politician coming out on top, America putting aside its prejudices for the greater good. I suspect my tears were equally a result of joy and the sadness of knowing that I have to rely upon television to create goodness.”

• Others found a distinct difference between film and TV (and literary) tears. One (Byers) gave television pre-eminence:

I have cried over films, but the experience isn’t the same (even films I’ve watched over and over again, even ones I own and watch at home). I have cried over the beauty of films and over the narratives, but I think I cry with the characters on TV. The narratives may be sad or painful but I cry often from the connection I have to the ongoing story (I don’t think I’ve ever cried – except on occasion for tears of joy – at the end of a film), to the characters and so on … books have made me cry too, certainly. Sometimes when they were so good and came to an end before I was ready to be done with them. And there have been characters in books that I have loved deeply and cried with… so maybe, for me, TV is more like literature in that way. But with TV it’s more dramatic. It brings together so many things, the story, the visuals and the music and so on…

While another (Robson) ranked literature first in the crying game:

By far, for me, the most tear inducing is literature–I can say that across the board, romance or not, that literature has usually prompted the tear-swells. My favorite novel–Love in the Time of Cholera, makes me cry every time I read it–sometimes, I start crying before the parts that make me cry in the novel, in anticipation of that moment. And I’ve found that when re-watching Grey’s [Anatomy], the same thing happens–I’ll start crying before the moment, and when the moment comes, I’m downright sobbing–so Grey’s has been the most like literature for me. I guess that it’s because it takes you somewhere that you don’t quite expect. That these characters–usually the ones you hardly know–feel real and true to you, and it’s like you’re living through them (not unlike how I feel when reading a great piece of fiction).

• One commentator (Wilcox) remembers a strong childhood aversion to tear-jerking on the sofa: “My mom and sister enjoyed a good cry, but I hated feeling manipulated (I still do).” As an adult, nonetheless, television has brought her to tears (Buffy evoked again), especially depictions of sacrifice.

• Another (Turnbull) notes that her preference is to “cry alone.”

Crying is, of course, an age-old mystery. In a profound and poignant book from the middle of the last century, German phenomenological anthropologist Helmuth Plessner, writing a year after we had been to the moon, wondered how it could be that despite such an achievement we still have no valid, philosophically sophisticated theory of why we laugh and cry. How can it be, Plessner ponders, that we have barely begun to plumb the mystery of these dual, inextricably human manifestations? For the Greeks, the mystery was linked somehow to enantiodromia, the tendency of all things to turn into their opposite. Good and evil, light and dark, hot and cold, laughing and crying–all are united behind the scenes, each needing the other, in a “marriage of heaven and hell,” in order to achieve full existence. In our happiest/darkest moments we have all glimpsed enantiodromia in action, as crying becomes laughter and laughs tears–one form of hysteria morphing into another. What was dramatic theory, Aristotle to the 18th Century, thinking by insisting that each keep to its quarters? Shakespeare, and Buffy, knew better.

Helmuth Plessner

Helmuth Plessner

It would be arrogant, of course, for me to even suggest that this column might offer some unified field theory of crying. My ambition today is much more modest: to open and inspire discussion about the tears we shed before the tube. There are so many questions we need to ask.4 Do the Aristotelian rules of catharsis stll apply? How does gender affect crying at television? (Yes, all my correspondents are female.) Nationality? Are long-running series more likely to produce tears? We need to wipe away our tears and begin the work.

My thanks to Kim Akass (London-based independent scholar and editor), Michele Byers (Saint Mary’s University, Canada), Cynthia Burkhead (University of North Alabama, USA), Rhonda Wilcox (Gordon College, USA), Janet McCabe (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK), Hillary Robson (Middle Tennessee State University, USA), and Sue Turnbull (LaTrobe University, Australia) for sharing their thoughts on television and tears.

1 “I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.”
2 Interestingly, two of my respondents, Akass and McCabe respectively, close friends and writing partners, did and didn’t cry at the same Desperate Housewives episode. For McCabe, the explanation lay in household “flow”: her viewing of the pivotal Desperate scene, which she found moving and sad, came after dealing with a teething baby and cleaning up the dinner dishes. She “wasn’t in the TV zone” and had not achieved the “intense engagement” necessary to be moved by television.
3 For more on endings, see Lavery, “Apocalyptic Apocalypses.”
4 As in so many other ways, television is film’s poor stepchild when it comes to understanding the respective media’s generation of tears. Neale, Harper and Porter, and Turnbull, for example, have all offered excellent studies of movie crying.

Works Cited

Harper, Sue and Vincent Porter. “Moved to Tears: Weeping in the Cinema in Post-War Britain.” Screen 37.2 (Summer 1996): 152-73.

Lavery, David. “Apocalyptic Apocalypses: The Narrative Eschatology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, Number 9 (2003).

Neale, Steve. “Melodrama and Tears.” Screen 27 (November-December 1986): 6-22.

Plessner, Helmuth. Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior. Trans. James Spencer Churchill and Marjorie Grene. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1970.

Turnbull, Sue. “Beyond Words: The Return of the King and the Pleasures of the Text” (forthcoming in The Cultural Reception of The Lord of the Rings. Ed. Martin Barker [New York: Peter Lang, 2007]).

Image Credits:
1. Screencap of Claire
2. Buffy and Class Protector Award
3. Desperate Housewives
4. Helmuth Plessner

Please feel free to comment.

24: Jumping the Shark Every Minute

The following is a somewhat revised version of the afterword to Reading 24: TV Against the Clock, edited by Steven Peacock (forthcoming from I. B. Tauris).1

Rolling Stone Kiefer

Kiefer Sutherland on the cover of Rolling Stone

“When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity. Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.”
— Umberto Eco, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage”

This month, most network television shows, new and returning, will begin their seasons. The most timely of all series, however, Fox’s 24, won’t be back until January. For the third year in a row, 24 will not return until the new year, giving Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran and the other makers of the hit terrordrama’s sixth season time to have enough episodes in the can for unbroken weekly airing, January to May, of an entire day in the life of Jack Bauer.

Day 5 (Season Five) of 24 was better than ever. Commencing fourteen months after Day 4 (Season 4), 5 was a killer: Jack Bauer, as we knew though the world did not, was still alive, but former President Palmer was assassinated and Michele Dessler, Tony Almeda, Lynn McGill, Edgar Stiles, and score of nameless bit players would die. Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce had emerged as perhaps the most interesting minor character in televison. Chloe scowled better than ever. POTUS Logan proved to be a more detestable wuss than on Day Four, morphing into a creepy hybrid of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. FLOTUS Martha was irresistibly unhinged and wonderfully capable of testing her husband’s spineless mettle.

No doubt about it, 24 has become a cultural phenomenon. A big screen version is in the works for 2008. Kiefer Sutherland has re-upped for three more seasons and made the cover of the Rolling Stone. During last spring’s debate (inspired by the harsh criticism of several retired generals) over the status of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a commentator was heard insisting that Rummy couldn’t care less — not being a deeply conflicted “Jack Bauer” type. (Had he ever watched the show? Jack Bauer conflicted? The CTU agent capable, in a LA minute, of decapitating a man, torturing his own ex, shooting an innocent wife in the leg–conflicted?). And in June the right’s Heritage Foundation staged a discussion of the series featuring members of the cast and real Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff (Fessler).

I have watched every hour of 24, heard every nervous tick, from the beginning, and almost from the outset I have told anyone who cared to listen that I would probably never write about the series. A scholar-fan of such television programs as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Lost, my strong preference has been for Quality television offering richly imaginative, genre-bending, abundantly intertextual teleuniverses with fascinating, inimitable characters and inspired writing. It’s not that I didn’t like 24 — indeed I loved it and still do, but as a guilty pleasure. As a lapsed English professor now immersed in television studies, I was especially enthralled by the capable-of-any-savagery Jack Bauer, who, I was shocked to learn in the Season One tie-in book, earned a B.A. in English at UCLA. But 24 itself, despite its English major hero, didn’t seem to call for a close reading.

In basic agreement with an observation in Steven Peacock’s collection on the series that 24 “both seems like quality television and the farthest thing from it,” I have felt no need to engage the series in any other way than as a fan. And yet other essays in Reading 24 offer remarkably ingenious and cogent discussions of such topics as 24‘s innovative use of split-screen in the context of the history of Western art; its political themes in light of its sponsors and the popularity of the SUV; women’s narrative authority in a very male story; the post Abu Ghraib ethics of its reliance on torture; and Chloe’s Asperger’s Syndrome.

Though I have watched 24 ardently, my suspension of disbelief for a series “often fantastic and excessive in spite of its appeals to realism” (as an essay in Reading 24 puts it) has not always been willing. My attachment has not prevented me from (like most viewers) staring in disbelief at the off-the-scale implausible perils of Kim Bauer, incredulously questioning the time it takes in the 24verse to cross Los Angeles by car or return to the city from the Mojave, wondering how CTU could be so ludicrously incompetent, puzzling how Mike Novick could serve so many roles in so many administrations, wincing at Terri Bauer’s soap-operaish amnesia (and pregnancy), Chase Edmunds’ secret love child, or Jack’s miraculous return from the dead and astonishing on-the-run recovery from an addiction to smack, mystified at the tendency of each day’s breakneck events to peak, like clockwork, at the top of the hour, and achieve climax at the end of 24.2

In a famous passage in The Poetics Aristotle had observed (with Greek tragedy and not television narrative in mind) that “With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” “[P]lot,” the Greek philosopher was convinced, “must not be composed of irrational parts. Everything irrational should, if possible, be excluded; or, at all events, it should lie outside the action of the play. . . . But once the irrational has been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to it, we must accept it in spite of the absurdity.” Does 24 pass Aristotle’s test?

In the age of the Internet we have a new name for the failure to do so. Thanks to Jon Hein’s popular website (and later book) Jump the Shark, it has now become common, after a telling moment on Happy Days when the Fonzie actually did leap over said marine predator, to speak of the moment when a good television show goes bad — when we realize our “favorite show has lost its magic, has begun the long, painful slide to the TV graveyard. . . .” 24 has, of course, inspired its own entries on the website, but revealingly the majority of visitors have insisted the series has yet to take the leap.

Jump the Shark logo

Jump the Shark logo

It is hard to believe that those who find 24 still shark-free are watching the same series I am. 24, a show that experiments radically with the nature and form of televisuality, has likewise taken shark-jumping to a new level. By jumping the shark incessantly, like clockwork, 24 has transformed the vault into a leap of narrative faith in which the viewer, as breathless and unremitting as the story itself, plunges on, untroubled by doubt or disbelief, misgivings or qualms. Umberto Eco was thinking of one of the great, transcendent films when he observed that “[t]wo clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.” The equally transcendent 24 is such a reunion.


1 Published with permission.

2 For an especially perceptive reading of each and every episode of 24, taking special note of improbabilities and inconsistencies, see M. Giant’s always snarky Television Without Pity recaps.


’24’ and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction, or Does it Matter?” The Heritage Foundation. Press Room. 23 June 2006.

Aristotle. “Poetics.” Trans. S. H. Butcher. Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: HBJ, 1971. 47-66.

Cerasini, Marc. 24: The House Special Subcommittee’s Findings at CTU. New York: Harper, 2003.

Eco, Umberto. “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.” Travels in Hyper Reality. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt, 1986. 197-211.

Fessler, Pam. “Chertoff Brings Reality Check to 24 Crew.” NPR. Weekend Edition. 24 June 2006.

Hein, Jon. Jump the Shark. New York: Plume, 2002.

Peacock, Steven, ed. Reading 24: TV Against the Clock. Forthcoming from I. B. Tauris, 2006.

Image credits:

1. 2006 Rolling Stone cover

2. Jump the Shark

Please feel free to comment.

(TV)antipathy: A Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Television Hating, Part Two

The Age of Missing Information book cover

The Age of Missing Information

The Age of Missing Information. Bill McKibben's book (1992) was pretty much the last of my major anti-television influences. Two years before its publication I had fallen in love with a television show for the first time. As in all first loves, I would never forget Twin Peaks, and though its cancellation broke my heart, I was ready, willing, and critically enabled to love again and would, several times. Still, I found the arguments of McKibben compelling. Writing after the Golden Age of (TV)antipathy, the author of The End of Nature sought to change television hating's dominant controlling metaphor from drug addiction (Mittell) to environmentalism. The media ecology of The Age of Missing Information, you will recall, is the record of–or, more precisely a meditation on–an experiment, an extended comparison and contrast essay on two days, on two realms of experience, two sources of information: 1) two thousand hours of videotaped television, all recorded on a single day (May 3, 1990) on the 93 channels of Fairfax, Virginia's cable television and 2) a summer day spent entirely in nature. A chapter of description and commentary, call and response, to an hour of television is followed by reflections on his time in the “real world.”

For the most part his insights about TV itself–that television alters our perception of the natural world; that it functions as an “emotional thermostat”; that it is “less an art form than the outlet for a utility”; that its content is almost immaterial (television, he notes, “can find subjects of interest to all only by erasing content”); that television reduces all that came before its existence to “prehistory” (the medium's four decades, McKibben writes, now “seem utterly normative to us, the only conceivable pattern for human life”); that television preempts our suspicion of it by ceaselessly belittling itself, adopting a “deride and conquer” strategy–these are not really new. Mander, Todd Gitlin, Miller–all have written urgently and incisively on such themes, and McKibben duly credits their influence.

He casts his nets wide. (A good one third of The Age of Missing Information could be characterized as digression, asides, usually interesting in their own right, not so much about television as suggested by its Rorschach patterns.) He explains why it is more important to understand the Brady Bunch than Twin Peaks. He analyzes television's role in the “globalization of markets.” He exposes the false appeal of animals on TV (“nature documentaries are as absurdly action-packed as the soap operas, where a life's worth of divorce, adultery, and sudden death are crammed into a week's worth of watching”). He contrasts God in nature vs. God on TV. He speculates on why it is that the memories of Baby Boomers are “spookily familiar.” He shows why an ad for “Glassmates” reveals how paltry are “the kind of dragons we have left to slay” in an age of consumption. He wonders about TV's motives in “actively . . . savaging . . . an old order it once helped set in stone.” He traces the evolution of teenage telephone secrecy from Leave it to Beaver to One Day at a Time. He investigates the “breakup of [the] Donna Reed order,” explains TV's complete inability to bring war into our living rooms, considers the techno-effects of virtual reality and HDTV, ponders what would happen if God delivered the Ten Commandments on the Today show, recounts how Finland terminated a McDonald's ad because “it falsely leads people to believe that a Big Mac can replace friends and ease loneliness,” and identifies television's role in making weather less real.

TV's inauthentic celebration of choice draws McKibben's special attention: “As much as [television] loves choice . . . it doesn't actually believe in choosing. It urges us to choose everything–this and this and this as well.” He unearths television's secret link to contemporary disembodiment:

If it is doing its job “correctly,” you lose consciousness of your body, at least until a sort of achy torpor begins to assert itself, and maybe after some hours a dull headache, and of course the insatiable hunger that you never really notice but that somehow demands a constant stream of chips and soda. If you off your nose to spite your face, or for any other reason, it wouldn't impair your ability to watch television.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

A baby boomer like myself, McKibben grew up with television and immerses himself willingly in it, not with metaphysical intent, but just to watch what he calls “TV TV.” Continuing his metaphor, he compares his experiment to “spending the holidays with your parents once you've grown up–in three days you comprehend more on a conscious level about your mother than you did in twenty years of living with her.” And what he discovers is that the parent he had once loved is in fact dysfunctional.

What is new here is the context in which such ideas are presented. When Susan Sontag issued her call for a new “ecology of images” almost three decades ago (in On Photography), she had in mind the application of the principles of a then emergent science to the proliferation of media messages in order to safeguard our consciousness against their possible polluting effects. The Age of Missing Information answers her call, partly through its own metaphors (consider, for example, McKibben's observation that “The most fanatic environmentalist doesn't recycle with half the relish of television producers”), but most of all in its project to study television as a phenomenon in and of the natural world. The book's original dust jacket shows a “peaceable kingdom” scene with lion and lamb lying down together–before a television set.

“Remote Control: Mythic Reflections.” The following year I would still find an indictment of television like the following passage from a Barthesian meditation on channel surfing entitled “Remote Control: Mythic Reflections” compelling and persuasive:

Apocalyptic-minded culture critics are fond of suggesting that, as the century nears its end, we are “rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic.” However accurate, the metaphor is now a cliché. Let me offer an alternative. We are, to be more precise, chained in a state-of-the-art version of Plato's cave of illusion, remotes in hand, grazing shadows. As we come to live this life of allegory, as the myth becomes complete, it seems less and less likely that a philosophically-minded couch potato–or even a semiotically inclined one, enraptured by TV's new, open textuality–will bother to get up to bring news from outside; less and less likely that the shadows will be cross-checked against reality. As I write, new remote powers are on the horizon for average consumer. Soon we will be able, using our RCDs, to select camera angles on certain programs, track into the frame in search of other things to see, interact with the diegesis from the comfort of the sofa. And in the near future, we will be offered even greater control. With the likely late 20th or early 21st century dissemination of Virtual Reality–described by William Gibson, the creator of cyberpunk science fiction, as potentially “lethal, like free-basing American TV” (Austin, 1992), the remoteness offered in the late 1980s and early 90s will come to seem amateurish.

I found that passage credible because I wrote it, and, almost a decade later, it still strikes me as phenomenologically, ecologically relevant. As a critic of television, however, I was no longer sleeping the sleep of the just. My relationship with the medium had officially become love-hate.

David Bianculli

David Bianculli

“We become what we hate,” the Irish poet and mystic Æ once wrote, and though he was thinking of The Troubles and the historical relations of England and the Emerald Isle and not of (TV)antipathy, the observation seems telling, at least on a personal level. Over the last two decades my own Golden Age of (TV)antipathy distaste for the medium has morphed into an obsession with it. The literary scholar who had once concurred with Jerry Mander's call for television's eradication now takes sides with television critic David Bianculli's observation in Teleliteracy that the anti-television stance I have catalogued here is exactly what we might expect from “someone who writes about TV a lot more than he watches it–or, at least, of someone who watches all the wrong things.” Careful to insist that he is not himself “soft on television,” Bianculli's book seeks to expose the origin and nature of television prejudice, a form of bigotry still acceptable in even the best intellectual circles. “Where else,” he asks, “but in the land of TV criticism are prejudice and ignorance considered assets?” “Almost alone among the major critical disciplines,” he complains, “television criticism fosters–and often encourages–an overt antagonism toward the medium being analyzed. A film critic displaying constant contempt for that medium would soon be replaced; a TV critic with the same attitude would likely be promoted.” Asking for a “change of venue” for television's trial, he then sets out to provide it. His seminal book, with its large historical canvas, is the new court he seeks. “Only idiots,” Bianculli concludes, “continue to think of [television] as an idiot box.” Film rose to prominence and attained serious consideration as an art form, Bianculli suggests, because TV “absorbed most of the cultural flak.” The era of TV the flak catcher is, Teleliteracy argues convincingly, may and should be over.


Austin, J. “Imagine: Computer-created Virtual Reality Lets Voyagers Enter, Explore Other Worlds.” Memphis Commercial Appeal 20 April 1992: C-1.

Bianculli, David. Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. The Television Series. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1985. rpt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

Lavery, David. “Remote Control: Mythic Reflections.” The Remote Control Device in the New Age of Television. Ed. James R. Walker and Rob Bellamy. New York: Praeger, 1993. 223-34.

McKibben, Bill. The Age of Missing Information. New York: Random House, 1992.

—. The End of Nature. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.

Mittell, Jason. “The Cultural Power of an Anti-Television Metaphor: Questioning the 'Plug-In Drug' and a TV-Free America.” Television & New Media 1 (May 2000): 215-38.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.

Image Credits:

1. The Age of Missing Information

2. Bill McKibben

3. David Bianculli

Please feel free to comment.

(TV)antipathy: A Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Television Hating, Part One

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta, now in theaters, tells the story of a not-too-far-distant future totalitarian England and a revolutionary in a Guy Fawkes mask who fights to overthrow it. No one familiar with literary and cinematic dystopias will find it surprising that one of V’s chief targets in a year-long-strategy to bring down the British government is an attack on the headquarters of the BBC. In V’s nightmare world television, as in Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and a score of other stories about future hells is an essential instrument in oppressing the masses, bullying and hypnotizing, harrying and manipulating, surveiled by and surveiling an audience of dupes. That one of the small screen’s harshest detractors, NYU’s (TV)antipathist Mark Crispin Miller, would conclude, in the final chapter of his Boxed In: The Culture of Television, that the horrendous world Orwell prophesied for the 20th Century’s next-to-last-decade had been clandestinely realized, and its cruel tyrant conjured, in our living rooms: “Big Brother is You, Watching,” Miller was convinced (309-31).

Television has always had its detractors, television executive Newton Minnow’s characterization of it as a “vast wasteland” (1961), for example, or American comic Fred Allen’s quip that television is called a medium because it is “rarely well done” (quoted by Bianculli, 59). Such sniping is not my concern here. In the present column and in a future issue of Flow (Volume 4, Issue 7, June 16th) I want to revisit a more philosophical form of “(TV)antipathy” to which I once subscribed myself.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. My one-time monolithic hatred of television began in the late 1970s when I discovered former advertising exec Jerry Mander’s 1978 rant against TV’s inherent evil almost immediately after its publication. Television cannot be reformed, the book argues, any more than guns can, and unlike weapons technology, it is the technology itself that kills. Though divided (I am tempted to say “gerrymandered” but will not) into four parts, Mander’s title is a bit misleading; still his overall thesis is clear enough. Television severely mediates experience, walling in human awareness, expropriating knowledge, and setting us “adrift in mental space.” It colonizes the mind, dims it, turns us “into our images,” immerses us forever in “artificial unusualness.” In a later book, 1991’s In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations, Mander would offer the following “Martian anthropologist” take on television man, which stands as a précis of his allegations:

“We are scanning the Americans now. Night after night they sit still in dark rooms, not talking to each other, barely moving except to eat. Many of them sit in separate rooms, but even those sitting in groups rarely speak to one another. They are staring at a light! The light flickers on and off many times per second. . . . The humans’ eyes are not moving, and since we know that there is an association between eye-movement and thought, we have measured their brain waves. Their brains are in ‘alpha,’ a noncognitive, passive-receptive mode. The humans are receivers” (77).

My 1970s abhorrence for and complete distrust of television, a stance that would lead me to go without a television set for almost ten years, a deportment for which Mander was my frequently-quoted and often distributed bible, had more than a little to do with drug use. Unless you had been there, it is difficult to describe what an alien, alienating, Orwellian “influencing machine” (as Mander liked to call it) television — or at least 70s’ television — seemed under the sway of LSD. On acid, the movies seemed liberating and mind-blowing, but television? On my many 1970s’ trips I solemnly vowed never to succumb to Big Brother’s medium, never to fall under its insidious sway. I have strayed.

No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. During the 1980s, my reading continued to feed my distaste and distrust of television. In Joshua Meyrowitz’ No Sense of Place (1985), for example, I learned that electronic media in general and television in particular subtly alter — through a transformation of our customary “situational geography” — our sense of proper behavior in given social settings, bringing Goffman’s “backstage” behavior into the foreground, for example. If today, we often witness behavior once considered inappropriate for “mixed company,” if we no longer “know our place” or understand the appropriate agenda of a given situation, it is, Meyrowitz shows, because media like television tear down the barriers that once segregated situations. “It is extremely rare,” Meyrowitz writes, “for there to be a sudden widespread change in walls, doors, the layout of a city, or in other architectural and geographical structures.” Such change, however, is the norm in the world of mass media, engineered not by architects or city planners but “by the flick of a microphone switch, the turning on of a television set, or the answering of a telephone” (39-40). The specialness of time and place can be destroyed. “If we celebrate our child’s wedding in an isolated situation where it is the sole ‘experience’ of the day,” Meyrowitz writes, “then our joy may be unbounded” (311). The intervention of electronic media, especially television, changes all that:

“More than any other electronic medium, television tends to involve us in issues we once thought were ‘not our business,’ to thrust us within a few inches of the faces of murderers and Presidents, and to make physical barriers and passageways relatively meaningless in terms of patterns of access to social information” (308).

By the time I read Meyrowitz, of course, I had already allowed the intruder back into my home — how could I deprive my young daughter of the essential enculturation it alone could provide? — but I put No Sense of Place right beside Mander on the bookshelf and in my mind.

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow. Indeed, I remained on the lookout for more fuel to feed my (TV)antipathy. Though largely still-born and ignored, Brian Fawcett’s Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow (1986) practically jumped off the shelf into my greedy hands. In a book with a most unusual format — it consists of a series of essays and fictions, with titles like “Universal Chicken” and “The Fat Family Goes to the World’s Far,” on a wide variety of phenomena from crowd control to baseball, train wrecks, and the novelist Malcolm Lowry and a running subtext concerning Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge’s reign of terror, McLuhan’s fellow countryman Fawcett fulminates against memory and imagination’s extermination in the modern world. Cambodia was really a running commentary on the progress of what Heidegger calls “the oblivion of being,” our modern alienation from the authentic sources of reality. Although prominently displayed in his subtitle, Fawcett has relatively little to say specifically about television, but his thesis was clear enough: we are in danger of losing “our right to remember our pasts and envision new futures,” and we can watch this cultural genocide telecast live on the tube. “Cambodia,” Fawcett insists, “is as near as your television set.”

Boxed In: The Culture of Television. The same year (1988) I became a professor of media studies at the University of Memphis, my fellow English Ph.D. Mark Crispin Miller published Boxed In: The Culture of Television, which presented eloquent and subtle new denunciations of television. Offering, a few years after 1984 had come and gone, a Copernican revolution of the Orwellian dystopian primal scene, Miller would insist that “Big Brother is You Watching.”

“In America, there is no need for an objective apparatus of surveillance (which is not to say that none exists), because, guided by TV, we watch ourselves as if already televised, checking ourselves both inwardly and outwardly for any sign of untidiness or gloom, moment by moment as guarded and self-conscious as Winston Smith under the scrutiny of the Thought Police. ‘The smallest look could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself — anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide.’ Although this description refers to the objective peril of life in Oceania, it also captures the anxiety of life under the scrutiny of television” (328).

“It is possible,” Miller writes, “that no contrast, however, violent, could jolt TV’s overseasoned audience, for whom discontinuity, disjointedness are themselves the norm; a spectacle that no stark images could shatter, because it comes already shattered. TV ceaselessly disrupts itself, not only through the sheer multiplicity of its offerings in the age of satellite and cable, but as a strategy to keep the viewer semi-hypnotized. Through its monotonous aesthetic of incessant change, TV may make actual change unrecognizable, offering, in every quiet living room, a cool parody of the Heraclitean fire” (13-14).

We may never be able to step into the flow of TV’s river twice, Miller would have us believe, but we will drown in its inauthenticity.

[To be continued in the 6/16/2006 issue of Flow, Volume 4, Issue 7.]

Works Cited

Bianculli, David. Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. The Television Series. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000.

Fawcett, Brian. Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow. New York: Collier, 1986.

Mander, Jerry. In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations. San Diego: Sierra Club, 1991.

—. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. NY: Morrow, 1978.

Meyrowitz, Jerome. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. NY: Oxford UP, 1985.

Miller, Mark Crispin. Boxed In: The Culture of Television. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988.

Image Credits:

1. V for Vendetta

2. Brian Fawcett

Please feel free to comment.

The Allusions of Television

My colleagues (I teach in an English Department), convinced television is a sinister force destined to destroy literacy and dumb down culture and appalled at my traitorous introduction of its study into hallowed halls that once echoed with the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Conrad, and Faulkner, were not amused when I suggested we tout our rich-in-popular culture course offerings in new promos, updating the old curricular formula, inviting study of “Beowulf to Buffy (and Virginia Woolf, Too).” Not convinced by recent arguments to the contrary like Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, television’s antagonists, in their ignorance, would have us believe the “vast wasteland” offers nothing (with the exception of an occasional Masterpiece Theatre) to the literary minded.

Though I am under no illusion they will listen, allow me to survey contemporary television in search of but one manifestation of the literariness the rabid book-loving-TV-haters imagine absent from the medium: the allusion. Allusions, of course, are direct or indirect references in a work of art, usually “without explicit identification, to a person, place or event” or to another work (Abrams 8). Wherever they appear, allusions are, of course, part of that vast and intricate system of intertextuality carefully examined in Jonathan Gray’s recent book. Allusions are not, of course, limited to the literary, even though they carry with them, because of their bookish past, a kind of literary cache.

It would, of course, be easy to find in the wasteland allusions to other inhabitants of the wasteland. When Ed Hurley and Agent Cooper visit One-Eyed Jacks in Twin Peaks using the aliases of Barney and Fred, the teleliterate (Bianculli) picking up on a reference to The Flintstones is much easier than understanding the series’ vatic mysteries. When, on Lost, a British businessman buys the Slough branch of the Wernham Hogg paper company, we may not immediately recognize the momentary diegetic intersection with the BBC’s The Office, but the allusionary crossing is there to follow nonetheless. I want to examine here not television’s incestuous televisual allusions but its literary ones. For with surprising regularity, the wasteland invokes not just Eliot’s “Wasteland” (Wilcox) but the whole world of literature to which it remains a seldom respected heir.

First, consider series like Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998), Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1992), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997-2001; UPN, 2001-2003)–all series famous for being rife with popular culture references. “It’s so sad. All of your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny Cartoons,” Elaine laments to Jerry in the Season Four Seinfeld episode “The Opera,” but the series itself exhibits more than a cartoony awareness of the literary, giving us references to Death of a Salesman (Jerry repeatedly refers to George as “Biff”), The Great Gatsby, Moby-Dick, Salman Rushdie, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, and Tolstoy and War and Peace.

Twin Peaks hardly limited itself to movie, television, and music references, though full of them. Remember that discussion of the Heisenberg indeterminancy principle at the Double R Diner? By the series’ premature end, the attentive Peaker had no doubt noticed that Edmond Spenser’s Fairie Queene (Windom Earle and Leo Johnson’s “verdant bower”), the Arthurian legends (Glastonbury Grove, King Arthur’s burial site, is home to the Black Lodge as well), and Knut Hamsun (the Nobel-Prize winning Norwegian novelist and fascist, much admired by Ben Horne), have all set up housekeeping in Twin Peaks.

In seven seasons under the creative control of fanboy/comic book geek/pop culture genius Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was crammed with references to television, comics, film, music, and literature. The poetry of Robert Frost, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson; a plethora of books and writers–Alice in Wonderland, The Call of the Wild, Brave New World, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, William Burroughs, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Of Human Bondage, Heart of Darkness, C. S. Forester, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Vanity Fair, The Open Road, Where the Wild Things Are, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ann Rice; and a variety of plays–Oedipus Rex (hilariously performed in a talent show in Season One), The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Waiting for Godot, Death of a Salesman (a dream version with a cowboy and a vampire), all these and more put in cameo appearances in Sunnydale. In Buffy’s most extraordinary allusional moment, in the astonishing “Restless,” an episode made of four dream sequences, Willow inscribes Sappho’s lesbian poem “Mighty Aphrodite” on her lover Tara’s naked back.

Not surprisingly, the Buffy spinoff Angel makes abundant use of literary allusions as well. I will limit myself here to only one. In a Season One episode the series’ titular hero, an over-two-centuries-old vampire, is forced to briefly masquerade as a docent in an art museum. Luckily he has personal knowledge of the painting before which he stands

The cast of Angel

The Cast of Angel

[Angel speaking] “And this brings us to Manet’s incomparable La Musique Aux Tuileries, first exhibited in 1863. On the left one spies the painter himself. In the middle distance is the French poet and critic Baudelaire, a friend of the artist. Now, Baudelaire…interesting fellow. In his poem ‘Le Vampyre’ he wrote: ‘Thou who abruptly as a knife didst come into my heart.’ He, ah, strongly believed that evil forces surrounded mankind. And some even speculated that the poem was about a real vampire. (He laughs). Oh and, ah, Baudelaire’s actually a little taller and a lot drunker than he’s depicted here.”

Perhaps the first mention on television of the French symbolist poet and drug enthusiast, but then again Angel may well have been the first television character who knew Baudelaire personally.

Flann O\'Brien Novel

Third Policeman

Literary allusions crashed on mystery island along with the survivors of Oceanic 815 in ABC’s huge international hit Lost. Not only are well known philosophers–England’s John Locke and France’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau–evoked by character names, several books become images in the frame, including Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Richard Adams’ Watership Down, and still others–Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon,and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe–are clearly brought to mind.

Since, until recently, television routinely kept its episode titles to itself, it has been easy to miss the many literary references to be found there, then and now. Consider, for example, the final episode of the short-lived but watershed ABC series My So Called Life (1994) entitled “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”–a somewhat obscure allusion to a book of the same name by the American poet and writer Delmore Schwartz; or the Steinbeck-evoking pun in the title of an upcoming Veronica Mars episode “The Rapes of Graff” (compare to The Simpsons‘ “The Crepes of Wrath”); or The Gilmore Girls‘ “Say Goodbye to Daisy Miller,” with its reference to the Henry James novella (one of a score of literary show titles in the series); or “The Betrayal,” Seinfeld‘s famous “backward” episode, which takes its title from Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter’s similarly-themed (though opposite in tone) play of the same name.

Taking great pride, and capitalizing on a great branding opportunity, in being “not TV,” HBO programs are just as rich in literary allusions as in nudity and vulgarity. Not surprisingly, Deadwood, created by former Yale University English professor David Milch and written in a language indebted to both Shakespeare and the Victorian novel, offers many a literary reference (did Alma Garrett just compare Miss Isringhausen to Cotton Mather?).

But it is on HBO’s flagship series The Sopranos, where the literary allusions by far outnumber the whacks, the wiretaps, and the lapdances, that the not-TV allusions find their true home. (The following catalog is limited to Seasons Four and Five only.) Mr. Wexler explains to Carmela that A. J. has turned in a “surprisingly cogent” draft on George Orwell’s fable Animal Farm. With Rosie Aprile’s depression in mind, Janice laments “Ah, Bartleby. Ah, humanity,” quoting the final lines of Melville’s novella. Another Melville novella puts in an appearance when A. J. has to write a paper on “Billy Budd,” an assignment which leads to a later discussion (evoking the iconoclastic critic Leslie Fiedler) about its possible gay subtext. (His next reading assignment is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.) Meadow tells her mother she read “half the canon” while lying by the pool. Tony B. confesses to Christopher that “some very sorry people” once called him Ichabod Crane (the main character in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). New York underboss Johnny Sack cites Shakespeare’s Macbeth–“creeps in this petty pace”–in complaining about his long wait for the overboss to die. In after-extra-marital sex pillow talk, Mr. Wexler tells Carmela Soprano about Heloise and Abelard, after she finds their letters as reading material in the English teacher’s bathroom. One of Tony’s captains speaks enviously of the earning potential of the Harry Potter books. Ready to embark on a trip to Europe, Meadow recommends her parents read Henry James in order to learn more about “the restorative nature of travel.” A. J. buys a paper on Lord of the Flies on the Internet. Carmela reads Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Melfi quotes Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” to an uncomprehending Tony. A fifth season episode takes its title from Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education.

From Northern Exposure

From Northern Exposure

And of course we cannot neglect CBS’ Northern Exposure (1900-1995), which might well have been the most literary program in the history of medium (Lavery, “Deconstruction at Bat”). On Northern Exposure, Franz Kafka once paid a visit to Cicely, Alaska, an elderly store owner reads Dante, an entire episode replicates Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the overflowing-with-literary allusions local DJ reads Walt Whitman and War and Peace on the morning show and infuses his banter with references to Kierkegaard, Kant, Nietzsche, de Tocqueville, and Jung (to name only a few) like they’re old friends. The episode “The Graduate,” in which Chris must defend his M.A. thesis, a deconstructionist reading of “Casey at the Bat,” even gives us a spirited debate over post-structuralist literary theory.

Allusions, the great literary scholar M. H. Abrams observes, “imply a fund of knowledge that is shared by an author and an audience. Most literary allusions are intended to be recognized by the generally educated readers of the author’s time,” though some have always been “aimed at a special coterie” and, in modernist literature, may be so specialized that only scholarly annotators will be able to decipher them (8-9). TV’s allusions likewise imply a mutual “fund of knowledge.” When they are merely to the rest of the vast cosmos of television, as they often are, they presume nothing more than the commonality of many hours before the small screen. But television’s proliferating literary references stand as a testimony to the medium’s increasing sophistication as its begins to partake in “the conversation of mankind” (Rorty), to the wider, deeper repertoire of its writers, and to new, much more flattering, assumptions about the intellectual qualities of the Quality TV audience. If some of the allusions of television are now so arcane only English professors can elucidate them, well do we not need new challenges, new work to do?

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 5th ed. NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.

Bianculli, David. Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. The Television Series. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000.

Gray, Jonathan. Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Interextuality. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead, 2005.

Lavery, David. “Appendix B: Intertextual Moments and Allusions in Seasons Four and Five.” Reading The Sopranos: Hit TV from HBO. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006. 217-32.

—. “Appendix C: Intertextual Moments and Allusions in The Sopranos.” This Thing of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos. Ed. David Lavery. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. 235-53.

—. “Deconstruction at Bat: Baseball vs. Critical Theory in Northern Exposure’s ‘The Graduate.'” Forthcoming in Critical Studies in Television, Vol. 1, No. 2.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Wilcox, Rhonda V. “T. S. Eliot Comes to Television: ‘Restless.'” Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. London: I. B. Tauris, 2005. 162-73.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Angel

2. Third Policeman

3. From Northern Exposure

Please feel free to comment.

Irony Irony: The Mission (Accomplished) of The Daily Show

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

“For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon–laughter…. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
— Mark Twain, The Chronicle of Young Satan, Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts

Over forty years ago American novelist Philip Roth observed (in “Writing American Fiction” [1960]) that “American reality” “stupefies, …sickens, …infuriates, …and finally…is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” Even the “daily newspapers,” he writes, “fill us with wonder and awe (is it possible, is it happening?), also with sickness and despair.”

Now, in the 21st Century, postmodern American unreality has inspired the proliferation of “fake news,” parody journalism. In venues like the online journal The Onion, the website The Borowitz Report, the NPR news quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and especially Comedy Central’s Emmy and Peabody award-winning The Daily Show, anything-but-meager imagination battles an increasingly stupefying, sickening, and infuriating political and cultural scene, and fake news, exhibiting perhaps more “truthiness” (as they call it on The Colbert Report) than that offered by legitimate journalism, has become an important component in our cultural discourse, an antidote, however temporary, to sickness and despair. As America’s greatest humorist once reminded us, laughter is our secret weapon. It’s a quote that often comes to mind when I watch my ultra-Republican, immune-to-irony next door neighbor stare in puzzlement at my “Republicans for Voldemort” bumper sticker.

On October 17th, 2005, the night Comedy Central would debut its “grippy” Daily Show spin-off The Colbert Report (pronounced “The Col-bear Ra-poor“), Jon Stewart’s guest on the mother ship was Fox’s bullying blowhard Bill O’Reilly, an especially appropriate booking since the network’s new “all spin zone” (Havrilesky) was intended to be a parody of celebrity pundit shows like The O’Reilly Factor. In their colloquy, which included O’Reilly’s perhaps clueless protest against that program “with some French guy making fun of me,” Stewart’s guest would call him a “pinhead” and accuse him of a lack of seriousness — of laughing, “playing it for giggles,” at everything. Laughing heartily, Stewart would accept the charge that he (and The Daily Show) do “add insult to injury.” “But,” he would add, a finger pointing at O’Reilly, “you add injury.”

Reviewing The Daily Show in PopMatters early in the Jon Stewart era (1999- ), Dan French would, like O’Reilly, find it pointless, frivolous: “masturbatory, nearly apolitical, only barely satirical, and without larger purpose.” Since I was not watching back then, I cannot judge the accuracy of his harsh indictment — similar charges, after all, have been leveled against satirists throughout history, including Jonathan Swift — but I will suggest that The Daily Show in the Bush Era has become an absolutely essential source of sanity, a comic healing of our injuries.

The Daily Show is never better than when engaged in decidedly postmodern metacommentary on its own method. After playing a clip of the ever-scowling Condoleezza Rice (seeking to rationalize the faulty intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq), insisting that “When you’re dealing with secret regimes that want to deceive you’re never going to be able to be positive,” Stewart would observe:

“‘Secret regimes that want to deceive’ — if she’s not going to see the irony in that statement, I’m sorry. I’m not going to point it out to her. That’s not my job here. Oh, but there’s irony in that statement, and not the fly in your Chardonnay kind. The real kind. Not the rain on your wedding day kind. This is irony irony.”

Irony is, of course, the very essence of Stewart’s job. The Daily Show is all about “irony irony.” When Colbert (on the night in question “Senior Nuclear & Biochemical Weapons Analyst”), examining the “nonsmoking gun” of the Kay Report (on Iraq’s WMD), wonders “What kind of madman refuses to produce evidence that he doesn’t have what he said he didn’t? Saddam had to be taken out or who knows what else he might not have done. It’s imaginable” — that’s irony irony at work. In Colbert’s patalogic we discern a kind of discourse capable of challenging the proliferating absurdity of world events in a way the paradox-free language of network and 24-hour cable news cannot possibly match.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

In November of 2003, President Bush would make a surprise visit to the troops in Iraq. The major television newscasts covered his dramatic arrival with exactly the credulity Bush’s handlers had no doubt envisioned, playing up W’s generosity in giving up his own Thanksgiving, stressing the soldiers’ happiness in breaking bread with their commander-in-chief. The Daily Show, of course, would cover it a bit differently. Colbert, that night Senior White House Correspondent, pretending to have accompanied Bush on his trip, would report that “this [the secrecy of Bush’s trip] just proves that we journalists shouldn’t even try, and we don’t.” Still, he would go on to report, the success of the mission did suggest some important, if ironic, lessons for the White House:

“When it comes to planning, do some. This Thanksgiving trip has shown the President that a lot of the best preparation is done in advance. Unfortunately with regard to our occupation of Iraq we did all of our preparation afterward, and now it’s a seething cauldron of death and rage….”

A second ironic insight was likewise apparent, this time concerning exit strategy: “Have one. What we saw last Thursday was a President with a clear idea of when and how to leave Iraq, specifically at noon and full of giblets.”

When “Media Analyst” Rob Corddry, investigating negative coverage of the Iraq war, insisted that “Facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda,” that, too, is irony irony at work, deconstructing White House spin. When Corddry, this time “Senior Foreign Affairs Analyst,” heeded the President’s insistence that the incidents at Abu Ghraib did not represent “the America I know,” suddenly realizing “We invaded Iraq with the wrong America” and insisting that “Just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn’t mean it’s something we would do”–his irony irony, delivered by one of a host of Daily Show correspondents seemingly oblivious to their own non-sequiturs, succeeded once again in identifying the Catch-22 mess we find ourselves in.

When, in March 2004, it was discovered that the White House had been coercing local television affiliates to run its planted, self-produced, pro-Bush policy pieces as if they were real journalism, “Senior Media Ethicist” Corddry would be appalled, not by the egregious duplicity of such postmodern manipulation but because he is jealous of the high caliber (better production values, better guests) of the “infoganda” in question. “They are kicking our ass,” Corddry lamented to Stewart in a moment of irony irony irony. “As a fake, we are a sham.”

In October 2005, in the wake of the unplanned revelation of the fakery behind a scripted conversation between Bush and American soldiers in Iraq, Corddry would treat the story of the Bush White House as if it actually were an episodic television series. As an avid, “living and dying with the show” fanboy, a “Whitey” (so to speak), he would take the airing of the rehearsal as a “gesture to the fans” (like a behind-the-scenes video on a DVD), denounce ABC’s Commander in Chief as a “total rip-off” of his own favorite show, wonder if that preposterous social security “B story” (in which the President weekly “stumbled onto a community of androids”) might be an indication that The Bush Years: The Series could be about to “jump the shark,” and question what happened to the never-wrapped-up Bin Laden story line (“that’s just bad writing”). And what, Corddry wanted to know, were the writers thinking when they turned that Dick Cheney character from “plausibly evil to cartooney evil.” That’s irony irony irony irony.

Sham or not, The Daily Show remains deeply committed to its mission. Covering in 2004 a make-believe, and hence meaningless, peace agreement in the Middle East signed by prominent out-of-power figures on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli clash, in the hope of showing the way to a cessation of hostilities, Stewart made a solemn, this time sincere, promise: “And I vow, that as long as there are imaginary treaties signed by pretend delegates to create hypothetical peace this fake news show will be there to cover it.”

French, Dan. “And Your Point Is…?” PopMatters.

Havrilesky, Heather. “The All Spin Zone.”

Roth, Philip. “Writing American Fiction.” Reading Myself and Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Stewart, Jon, Ben Karlin, and David Javerbaum. America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. New York: Warner Books, 2004.

Twain, Mark. “The Chronicle of Young Satan.” Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts. Ed. William M. Gibson. Berkeley: U California P, 1969.

Related Websites
Daily Show Website
The Colbert Report Website
Colbert Nation Website
The Borowitz Report
Jump the Shark Website
The Onion
Wait…Wait! Don’t Tell Me Website

Image Credits:

1. Mark Twain

2. Stephen Colbert

Please feel free to comment.

Get Lost in a Good Story: Serial Creativity on a Desert Island

“The intent seems to have been to alleviate one of the oldest problems of the continuous-serial form, that of stimulating and maintaining interest in plot points in an acceptable manner — what I will hereafter refer to as the ‘surprise/acceptability problem.'”

— Marc Dolan, “The Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity: What Happened to/on Twin Peaks

Creator JJ Abrams

Creator JJ Abrams

In a column in Entertainment Weekly entitled “Lost’s Soul, Stephen King offers some fascinating speculations on what lies ahead for a series he has touted as the best on the small screen. “There’s never been anything like it on TV for capturing the imagination,” he insists, “except The Twilight Zone and The X-Files.” And yet he fears Lost might succumb to the same serial narrative fate as the latter, a great series that ended badly because it violated the Nietzschean dictum to “die at the right time,” remaining faithful instead to what King deems “the Prime Network Directive: Thou Shalt Not Kill the Cash Cow.” “I could have throttled the executives at Fox for doing that, and Chris Carter for letting it happen,” King rants, and he has no desire to experience deja vu all over again.

As ABC’s Lost continues to be a mainstream top ten show and an international cult phenomenon, engendering enthusiastic fan behavior, the extraordinary tests faced by the Lost castaways may pale by comparison to those J. J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and company have and will face. Not since Lynch and Frost’s Twin Peaks, another rule-breaking, genre-defying ABC series that started strong but flamed out in its second season, and Carter’s X-Files, a Lost ancestor text with a perplexing mythology that perpetually promised but seldom delivered solutions to the myriad puzzles it raised, alienating its fans in the end, has an episodic television series been required to navigate a more dangerous narratological Scylla and Charybdis.

How can Lost sustain its suspense while retaining the good faith of and credibility with a deeply inquisitive viewership, determined to puzzle out its mysteries? Can it become a “long haul show” (Sarah Vowell’s term) while maintaining immediate water cooler buzz? How can Lost‘s creative team out-imagine its obsessed, ingenious fan base? (“People who post online — they’re infinitely smarter than anyone working on the show,” J. J. Abrams effused on The Jimmy Kimmel Show.) The conundrums, and pitfalls, of “serial creativity,” as Marc Dolan has cogently articulated them, “are enough to intimidate any narrative genius.” Must Lost, of necessity, eventually disappoint? A “serial killer,” if you will, is loose in the medium of television. Will it claim Lost as its latest victim?

When given the opportunity to colonize the dream space of a South Pacific island, Abrams and fellow prime mover Lindelof both felt the need for it to be something more than Gilligan’s Island, Cast Away, Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, Survivor, Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland, The Stand, A Wrinkle in Time — all identifiable Lost ancestor texts. To a question about why his new creation needed a monster and all the other mysteries of the island — why it couldn’t just be a drama about survival — Abrams replied:

“It wouldn’t work for me. Personally, [the monster is] what interests me. Someone else I’m sure could do the show with that absent from it entirely, but it wasn’t the version I was interested in. . . . Increasingly it became clear that it was about adding an element that was, for me, hvper-real. . . . It’s just my tendency. Whether it’s smart or successful storytelling or not, it’s just what interests me” (qtd. in Gross, 36).

Lost, of course, is not just a series about a monster, and its ongoing enigmas are not just island-specific. It’s an anthology series, as well, with the complex, fecund, multi-genre pre-crash backstories of fourteen characters (fifteen, if we count Vincent the Dog) to tell.

Despite such narrative potential, Lost‘s ongoing development has nevertheless faced challenges from both above and below, from network doubts as well as fan demands. Both before and during Lost‘s first season, ABC made its concerns about the show’s course well known. A Daily Variety story reported in July 2004 that the network had expressed alarm over the series’ fear factor, evidently worried too much of the scary might drive away viewers, especially in Lost‘s early evening time slot. In mid-season, Joss Whedon-alum David Fury, who had been a major contributor as both writer and director for both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, reported in an interview in Dreamwatch that network interference had intensified.

Damon Lindelof

Damon Lindelof

“We didn’t run into [it],” Fury would admit, “until roughly around episodes nine [“Solitary” — written by Fury] and 10 [“Raised by Another”]. We were starting to make some choices that definitely terrified the network. There was a feeling on our part, particularly Damon’s, that we need to goose things and take it a bit further. So in terms of “network interference,” there were a lot of meetings at that time about the direction of the show” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41). Why would a network that once had the audacity to air Twin Peaks, one of the most bizarre series ever to air on the small screen, be apprehensive about the plans of Lost‘s creative team? Had not the greatest puzzle TV had proffered since the question of “Who shot J. R.?” in 1980 — “Who killed Laura Palmer?” — been satisfactorily answered right there on ABC? Laura, it was quite clear, had been killed by her father while under the control of BOB, a psychopathic supernatural parasite emanating from the ghostly Black Lodge which manifested periodically in Glastonbury Grove outside the town of Twin Peaks! As Twin Peaks finally began to disclose its “answers” in its second season, such as the identity of BOB, the ratings had, of course, plummeted.

But that was so last century. Surely ABC couldn’t be worried that its new Goose That Laid the Golden Nielsens would be destroyed by the “goosing” Abrams, et al., were contemplating. Weren’t the fans anxious to be goosed? Fury, who has since left the show, admitted to “a frustration . . . as a viewer, in that I’d like some clearer answers [to Lost‘s mysteries], but those answers were resting in the area of sci-fi and that’s where we had to draw the line” (qtd. in DiLullo).

Using a metaphor drawn from one of Lost‘s genetic ancestors, Fury even managed to find a way to make this triangulation sound like a good thing: “We are respecting the network’s desire to not make the show too “out there” too fast. . . . We were trying to approach the show from the Scully perspective and always try to have a reasonable explanation for everything, despite anything that seems out of the ordinary. That was our self-imposed mandate because the networks are scared of genre television” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41; my emphasis).

Hyper-conscious of the classic “surprise/acceptability problem” Marc Dolan identifies (see the epigraph above), Fury knew very well that such a situation, as King, too, has reminded, has inherent risks: “there is the challenge of how long an audience will be invested in the show and in these characters without getting enough concrete answers.” If, Fury thought, “we answer some of these questions, and if we do it in the most reality based way, I think people will feel cheated.” On the other hand, supplying answers to Lost‘s enigmas “in the most interesting sci fi way” could well result in “alienat[ing]” — a telling word choice — “the core audience of the series” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41-42). Did I mention that Fury is no longer with the show?

Now, at the beginning of its second season, with Lost the most-imitated show on television and all the networks, judging by this fall’s offerings, no longer concerned that SF/fantastic story lines might drive viewers away, the series remains firmly perched on the horns of its indigenous creative dilemma, though we have at least now gone down the hatch. Lindelof and Cuse’s three-part finale last spring gave with one hand and took away with the other. We were left wanting to know more about the crash itself, but only saw the survivors boarding the plane and learned nothing new about the flight itself or the crash. We longed for insight into the mysterious numbers, and though the proliferating 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 had repeated cameos, they remained inscrutable. We saw (and heard) more of The Monster than ever before, and yet it still dwells in the mystery. We met The Others (we think) but still have no idea who/what they are and why they were wearing winter clothes. The hatch was opened, but we still had no idea until this week where or to what it lead. And, by all indications, the fan-base was not entirely pleased by the lack of answers. Entertainment Weekly reports that throughout the summer of 2005 the cast had to endure “the brunt of fan angst” (Armstrong 2005). David Fury had insisted last season, after all his laments about network interference, that Lost “is and always will be an unfolding mystery” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41). Did I mention he’s no longer with the show?

From the outset, Abrams and company have insisted the story they want to tell is complex enough to take years to tell (Nelson, 12). ABC Entertainment President McPherson confirmed that “We have a good sense of where a lot of the bigger arcs and mysteries are going well beyond this year” (Hibberd). We could be Lost for a very long time, but if we remain at the same time completely “lost,” then the series will have failed to triumph against the intimidating challenges of serial creativity on a desert island.


Armstrong, Jennifer. “Love, Labor, Lost.” Entertainment Weekly 9 Sept. 2005: 28-32, 41.

Dilmore, Kevin. “Of Spies and Survivors.” Amazing Stories 608 (2005): 20-24. (Interview with J. J. Abrams)

DiLullo, Tara. “Deepening the Lost Mystery.” Dreamwatch 5 (2005): 40-43. (Interview with David Fury)

Dolan, Marc. “The Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity: What Happened to/on Twin Peaks.” In Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, edited by David Lavery. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1995. 30-50.

Gross, Edward. “Man on a Mission.” Cinefantastique 36.1 (2005): 34-36. (Interview with J. J. Abrams)

Hibberd, James. “‘Lost’ Finds Top Spot.” Television Week 3 Jan. 2005: 19.

King, Stephen. “Lost’s Soul.” Entertainment Weekly 9 Sept. 2005: 150.

Nelson, Resa. “Television: Lost Breaks Out as the Cult Hit with Mass Appeal.” Realms of Fantasy Apr. 2005: 8, 10-12.

Vowell, Sarah. “Please Sir May I Have a Mother?” 2 Feb 2000.

Image Credits:
1. Creator JJ Abrams

2. Damon Lindelof

Lost‘s Official ABC Television Site
Lost‘s Internet Movie Database Page
Lost‘s TV Fansite
Oceanic Air Website
Lost‘s Media Fansite
The Fuselage

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