Youth, representation, and the contemporary history of Canadian TV

15/Love

15/Love

Many scholars, fans (especially adult fans), and producers whose work/object of admiration might fall under that vast parachute called “youth” or “teen” TV will attest that, despite the cultish quality of so many such products, their regard within both broader segments of the cultural industries and audience cohorts is often marginal, verging on the disdainful. Much teen TV inhabits a potentially lucrative yet paradoxical space that is often seen as unavoidably mainstream and yet attracts a vast number of avid viewers of the type associated with decidedly non-mainstream media texts. Youth products tend to win few awards even when they are highly innovative and intensely adored. They are largely ignored in the press as well, unless they feature taboo storylines or debauched, barely-dressed celebs. The most visible examples of American teen TV are often considered guilty pleasures of some kind or other—because they are “bad” network products (Gossip Girl, The O.C., The Hills) or the hybrid offspring of “bad” cult genres (science fiction, gothic horror, animation).

Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl

Anglo-Canadian TV does offer a few examples of both of these particular forms of teen TV spectacle, into whose looming and almost all-purpose maw we could put everything from Buffy to the aforementioned O.C. We do, and have long, however, produced a good deal of youth and teen TV—more than our share perhaps—of a different variety, owing at least in part to a slightly different heritage/parentage[1]. Here I refer to the debt the public-TV, documentarian tradition Canadian English-language television owes the National Film Board of Canada and to the public funding structures to which all our national TV producers are beholden. Thus a great deal of teen TV produced in Canada “looks” and “sounds” more like My So-Called Life or Saved by the Bell than Buffy or The O.C.[2] The fact of this (over)production, as well as the types of products being produced (and for whom) tells us something about one of the roles Canada plays in the global TV market; further, in examining the televisual youth culture produced in Canada, we can learn about the spaces in which technological innovation and the production of national cultures and voices intersect, and how this renders these cultures and voices visible or relegates them to the still relatively invisible margins in very particular ways.

I see a pattern emerging between the marginalization of teen TV as a multi-generic text type (for lack of a better term, calling it a genre seems awfully reductive) and the marginalization of Canadian TV more generally. In talking to producers there is a sense that teen TV is often overlooked by the industries, but it is precisely this marginalization that has allowed Canadian producers to carve out this niche for themselves while the more traditional strong-armed players (in this case Hollywood/the U.S.) produce more conventionally recognized adult fare[3]. Canada thus plays its particular part in the TV market, producing a variety of products for youth.

The Canadian youth market, of course, isn’t monolithic. There are shows that are co-pros or that can, do, and have traveled out of Canada with relative invisibility. You might say they are able to pass as American and in so doing circulate with impunity through American markets and through global markets in which Americanness is privileged. I am thinking here, for example, of a lot of shows that are produced for YTV and its subsidiary channels (15/Love, Danger Bay). Other shows work through more traditional—that is largely public and national—funding structures. They adhere more visibly to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) mandates about the representation of social difference and the uniqueness of Canadian identity. Some have gained great popularity (and sometimes also notoriety) in other markets; one group through the production of community-centred historical narratives of white–Anglo youth (Road to Avonlea, Emily of New Moon), another through the narration of youth-centred stories of urban multicultural life (Degrassi, Northwood, Edgemont). While these narratives have tended to be marked—literally or figuratively—as Canadian products detailing Canadian stories, they have garnered wide acclaim for their importance in producing social difference while maintaining the capacity to circulate widely. At least one other category also exists. These are still more marginal, sometimes locally-produced, televisual products. They sometimes have production values that are equal to those of the other shows discussed, but they have little chance of circulating beyond limited regional or national spaces (Renegadepress.com, Moccasin Flats, Drop the Beat).

Road to Avonlea

Road to Avonlea

Technological innovation, especially the development and widespread use of digital technologies, has leveled the international playing field in TV production somewhat. For a long time a major criticism of Canadian TV was that it was immediately identifiable by its “cheap” look as not being American. The professionalization of actors, especially with the prolific growth of the youth culture market, also changed the “look” of Canadian television. Today, viewers are less likely to notice the Canadian mark on internationally-circulated televisual products because of their production values or unfashionable, chubby, acne-riddled actors. But what, if anything, does this do to the potential for a distinct voice to emerge from Canada’s TV industries that deals with the youth market?

Moccasin Flats

Moccasin Flats

The idea of a national voice is of course problematic itself, suggesting the potential for some sort of unified culture. There idea of a national voice has, in Canada, largely meant a voice which is not American or Americanized, that is, produced to be legible as American rather than Canadian (again, to “pass”). It is interesting that Canada has established itself as a global purveyor of so many goods on the youth TV market. But the way that these products circulate, and their ability to circulate in particular ways that articulate something that might be recognizable as distinctly Canadian voices, is marked by their ability to pass (relatively) unfettered by this distinctiveness[4].

Notes:
[1] As Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond noted in 1996, “By 1996, Canada was holding the position of the second-largest creator and exporter of children’s television in the world” (116). What they consider children’s television is a bit up for debate, as they include in their list of “hits” shows from Mr. Dressup to Degrassi. However, this resonates with the fact that youth TV has not historically had its own department in production houses, and has often fallen within the production parameters of children’s or family TV.
[2]As Serra Tinic has eloquently addressed, Canada is a tremendous zone for the production of cult American TV, especially science fictions series like The X-Files and Battlestar Gallactica. Canada had produced some noted teen science fiction as well, such as the series MythBusters and Deepwater Black. However, most of these were co-productions with few links to Canada as a unique narrative site.
[3]This is resonate of how netlets have operated as somewhat marginal spaces within the broader US TV grid.
[4]At least within the TV market. How these products circulate within broader online matrices is a more complicated issue.

Images:

1. 15/Love

2. Gossip Girl

3. Road to Avonlea

4. Moccasin Flats

Please feel free to comment.




Durham County: “HBO can eat its heart out”

by: Michele Byers / Saint Mary’s University

Durham County

Durham County

Durham County (DC) is a new offering from the Canadian specialty cable channels Movie Central and The Movie Network.[1] It’s a six-episode series about a cop and a serial killer in the suburbs of Montreal. The series is brought to the screen by the dynamic team of Janice Lundman and Adrienne Mitchell (Talk 16, Talk 19, Straight Up!, Drop the Beat, Bliss), and Laurie Finstad Karzhnik (Cold Squad, Bliss).

DC is a hybrid creature, evidencing what Serra Tinic suggests is an increasing imperative of countries like Canada to create exportable drama (of interest especially to US audiences but stripped of all national and cultural markers)[2] and at the same time exhibiting the Canadian obsession with “Weird Sex and Snowshoes,” “resist[ing] closure, revel[ing] in ambiguity and tend[ing] to defy every rule in the genre handbook.”[3] Shows like DC are meant to compete with shows coming out of the US specialty cable market—The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood—grabbing both audience approval and critical acclaim, as evidenced by the quote I used as the title of this essay.[4] Bart Beaty and Rebecca Sullivan note that many people have seen CanCon laws— which prohibit the licensing of US stations for Canadian broadcast—as protecting the industry from “television viewers [who] would leap at the opportunity to subscribe,”[5] leaving no space for the production of “uniquely” Canadian texts like DC.

DC is an exciting prospect for Canadian television; it employs many of the devices that mark other (US) series as both “quality” and “cult” TV[6]: the “quality” series’ links to “pedigree,” struggle, ensemble, memory, generic hybridity, writely-ness, self-consciousness, controversy, and realism,[7] and the “cult” series’ ability to “support an inexhaustible range of narrative possibilities, inviting, supporting, and rewarding close textual analysis, interpretation, and inventive reformulation.”[8] Despite the mere six hours that make up DC, this text is so rich it’s hard to know how to begin, so I’ll limit myself to a discussion of opening sequences and general structures. By way of comparison, I’ll look at how DC compares to another popular serial killer series: Showtime’s Dexter (Dex, 2006).

Ray Prager and Mike Sweeney

Ray Prager and Mike Sweeney

DC is about a police officer (Mike Sweeney) who relocates to the Montreal suburbs of his adolescence after the death of his partner and his wife’s remission from cancer. In the ‘burbs he finds himself on the trail of a serial killer (or two), who he believes to be his childhood nemesis and new next door neighbor, Ray Prager. At the same time, Sweeney, it is suggested, is not the good guy he seems to be. This is both like and unlike what we see on Dex. From the very first moments of Dex, Dexter himself tells us about his lack of affect, different-ness, murderous urges. And yet, Dexter Morgan is a moral character who only kills “bad” people as he works to find his place in the world and to make that world “better.” Under his sociopathic exterior is someone with deep feelings, repressed by trauma. On DC we have no real moral guideposts for the characters; it is hard to get into their heads. Ray Prager is a killer, maybe… but maybe Sweeney’s a killer… maybe they both are; their careful surfaces under which violence boils are much less convincingly constructed than that of Dexter Morgan.

The way the two series open tells us a lot about their construction more generally. DC opens with a series of shots which can be read as tableaux. Filmed in black and white with red accents, they say little about the characters or the story about to unfold:

1. Tree branches
2. Manga mask
3. Smoke; a distant city
4. Bald head
5. Wicker basket leaking blood
6. Bald head again
7. Blond curl being nailed to a tree
8. Man in police interrogation room
9. Maquette of a crime scene
10. Aerial view of a suburb with electrical towers
11. Roses floating in water
12. Man dancing with a corpse
13. Man running blind in the dark towards light/camera
14. Man sitting upright in bed
15. Man walking by electrical towers, in sharp cut aways, towards the camera

These images offer a static series of tableaux that may or may not be the story of DC; in fact, they replicate the ambiguity and lack of closure found in the text.

Durham County Poster

Durham County Poster(see note[9])

The opening sequence on Dex is about movement, and has a dance-like quality:

1. Mosquito on male arm
2. Thumb on neck
3. Thumb on razor shaving the neck
4. Drops of blood in sink
5. Tissue soaking up blood
6. Piece of ham being cut
7. Ham thrown into hot pan
8. Ham being eaten
9. Egg cracked into pan
10. Egg eaten with hot sauce
11. Coffee beans in grinder
12. Plunger into Bodum coffee press
13. Serrated knife cutting blood orange
14. Orange in handpress
15. White string around fingers
16. Teeth being flossed
17. Cords around hands
18. Shoes being tied
19. Face through white scrim
20. T-shirt pulled over a head
21. Key in door

These are ironic images, each one a double-entendre of banal morning ablutions and murder. They are a key to the series and its central character in a much more specific way than what we see in the opening sequence of DC. The DC tableaux seem to ask us to piece together a story that is never fully forthcoming even after we have seen all 6 episodes. The Dex intro, by contrast, makes a great deal of sense once we have watched just the start of one episode.

In fact, in the first episode of Dex this sequence doesn’t appear at all. At the opening of the first episode, we hear Dexter in voice-over telling us about himself in an ironic way–his killings beside, for example, his love of Cuban food–as he moves through the city of Miami. We see flashbacks to his childhood and adopted father. We see Dexter find his first “victim”—a child murderer—and kill him. Throughout, Dexter provides exposition wherein his moral position is established. We then see him on his boat, on his way to dump garbage bags full of body parts; as he smiles and talks about how good he is at faking human emotion, his “goodness” is already sutured to the viewers.

The Cast of Dexter

The Cast of Dexter

DC starts with the tableaux described above. The scenes that follow show us, through trees, a man picnicking with two young women in schoolgirl uniforms. It isn’t clear if they are schoolgirls or prostitutes, but the man’s sexual intentions are clear enough. We see an eye, watching, through the trees. We turn back to the people at the picnic, who are shot just as torsos. Then back to the eye. We then cut away to a family in a car, driving out of a city. Then we cut back to the woods. The women are bound and dead or dying, one mouths “help me” to the eye in the woods. The killer is shirtless and it is his body rather than those of the clothed girls that is eroticized for the viewer and the eye in the woods. We cut back to the family, fields of electrical towers and then, in juxtaposition, the big houses of a suburban enclave. In these scenes, the morality of the characters and their position within the world remain deeply ambiguous.

In fact, good and evil are not terms that easily apply to anything on DC. This sense of ambiguity travels into the sexual realm too, with DC seemingly willing to go into particularly “ugly” territory—although it, like most serial killer narratives, is fascinated with the murder of women—leaving open questions of the homoerotic, necrophiliac, and so on. On Dex, by contrast, these routes are closed down through tropes of fraternity and the desire for heterosexual monogamy. Further, where the shocking aspects of violence and blood (or lack of it) are crucial to the visual display of Dex they play only a small role in DC. While Dex is concerned with goodness in the heart of multicultural urban spaces—which are so often presented as dangerous—DC presents us with the dangers at the heart of unerringly white suburbia. The visual quality of the series tells us something too: Miami is filmed in sun, bright colors and loud noises. The suburbs are quiet, muted (filmed through a grey lens), and framed by the ominous, ubiquitous presence of those rows and rows of electrical towers. The city seems to have been produced through history, whereas the suburb is shown to be entirely artificial and unrooted from both history and landscape. Neither are particularly original narrative tropes, but suggest a line of inquiry into the texts and the spaces of their production.

DC may be a hard text to love for many viewers. It offers a constant confounding of visual, textual, and moral expectations. Dex seems to have found itself a well-deserved following of viewers (me included), will the same be true of DC? I can only hope so.

Notes:
[1] [Source for title quote:] “Hugh Dillon Hopes for A Hit with Durham County.” Chart Attack. May 7, 2007. www.chartattack.com
[2] Tinic, Serra. On Location: Canada’s Television Industry in a Global Market. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.
[3] Monk, Katherine. Weird Sex and Snowshoes and Other Canadian Film Phenomena. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2001: 5.
[4] Also see Kelly, Brendan. “Canada turns to Cable for Original TV.” Variety. August 17, 2007. www.variety.com
[5] Beaty, Bart and Rebecca Sullivan. Canadian Television Today. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006: 45.
[6] See for example, Jancovich, Mark and David Lyons, eds. Quality Popular Television. London: Bfi Publications, 2003; Gwellian-Jones, Gwen and Roberta Pearson, eds. Cult Television. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
[7] Wilcox, Rhonda and David Lavery. “Introduction.” In Fighting the Forces, edited by R. Wilcox and D. Lavery. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002: xxi–xxiv.
[8] Gwellian-Jones and Pearson. “Introduction,” xii.
[9] The centrality of the woman’s body on this poster and the text, “When Rivalry Turns To Murder,” which appears directly below, function to replicate a textual language that viewers will recognize as crime TV. This, however, misrepresents the show as I read it.

Images:

1. Durham County

2. Ray Prager and Mike Sweeney

3. Durham County Poster

4. Cast of Dexter

Please feel free to comment.




The Empty Archive: Canadian Television and the Erasure of History

by: Michele Byers / St. Mary’s University

British Film Institute National Archive

British Film Institute National Archive

Canadian television texts, for a variety of reasons, appear to be enjoying a surge of development and visibility. There has been a recent surge as well in scholarship in the field of Canadian television studies. As someone who studies such texts, there is one major stumbling block to this work, and I am certainly not the first to make note of it… there is no archive of Canadian television. Sure, there are spotty repositories here and there, but no systematic cataloguing of series, or spaces in which such archival materials could be made available to the public, scholarly or otherwise.

The particularly astounding thing about this resides in the nature of Canadian television, or more specifically, the system of laws (CanCon), acts (CBA), commissions (CRTC), and funding structures (CTF) that exist for the purpose of its creation; much of this funding is consolidated through the public purse.[i] This is necessary because, as, for example, Peter Grant and Chris Wood have chronicled, our small population makes it impossible for Canadian television broadcasters to make money off their own productions, even if they are relatively cheap to produce compared to the average American production cost. Left to their own devices, it is argued, Canadian broadcasters would likely stock their networks with (primarily) American fare, which they can buy for a fraction of the cost of paying for local produce (so to speak). Even successful Canadian shows like Degrassi, the lynchpin example in Grant and Wood’s book, probably wouldn’t get made without the rules that explicitly state that Canadian broadcasters have to set aside a certain portion of their roster for Canadian content,[ii] as well as the financial means to help independent producers get their products to those broadcasters.[iii]

Well, all those things are in place, for now anyway. Canadian shows get made (who sees them is a different question, perhaps one to be taken up in another column). These are my tax dollars at work, and on some days this makes me happy. Except that nowhere in all of the complex and highly bureaucratic orchestrations to get these domestic televisual productions to broadcast is there a mechanism to ensure that they will be kept around in case anyone might want to watch them in the future, whether out of a scholarly desire to understand something about television or Canadian culture, or simply a keen interest in Canadian esoterica.[iv] That such an archival structure is not built into the granting of funds to producers says a great deal about how television, especially that which is produced nationally, is seen in Canada, and the resistance to accepting television texts as cultural products whose value is on par with that of literature, for example, for which a national archive exists.[v]

UCLA Film & TV Archive

UCLA Film & TV Archive

Mary Jane Miller, a preeminent scholar of Canadian television and a great mentor of mine, has been writing and talking about these issues for almost two decades. In a paper entitled “Archives from the Point of View of the Scholarly User: or if I died and went to a Platonic archetype of a sound and moving images archive this is what I’d find,” delivered at the National Archives in Ottawa in 1990, Miller describes a dream in which a national archive, complete with helpful archivist, exists for the scholarly seeker, who is seen as at least partly the raison d’etre for the archive’s creation (rather than as a pest) and is thus welcomed. She goes on for several pages, and at the end of each paragraph the reader can only sigh in the recognition of how far we are from such a dream, perhaps moving farther, rather than closer, every day. As Miller notes in a later document (2001), major TV collections exist in several places in the US and in Britain, but in Canada the attitude has been one of neglect and inertia, which suggests a lack of foresight into the meaning television holds as a marker of cultural histories. This is especially true in the case of, for example, marginal programming that may appear only on local broadcast channels, with little hope of wider distribution.

Those of us who work in this field all have anecdotes that reveal our personal trials and tribulations. Last summer, a colleague told me about a trip to the Canadian west coast in which they found themselves holding a door open with one foot, trying to reach some half submerged film reels of an early Canadian TV show that had been left to decompose. For myself, I have been trying to track down several Canadian teen series for some time. Of one, a series called Time of Your Life that aired on CFCF-12 in the late 1980s, I have found virtually nothing. I finally tracked down another series, Northwood, produced for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in the early 1990s. All the episodes existed only on ¾” tape and there was no funding to transfer it. I eventually paid over $2 500 for that transfer, out a research grant, with the understanding that I would get VHS copies of every episode (digital transfer would have been far more costly). Thus the government, which paid handsomely for the original production of the series, but which appeared to have no money allocated specifically for its preservation or archiving, ended up, through circuitous routes, putting its money to that very use.

Today you can buy and rent copies of some Canadian TV series: Degrassi, Da Vinci’s Inquest, Trailer Park Boys, Corner Gas, Kids in the Hall, Due South, SCTV, The Red Green Show, Traders, The Newsroom, This is Wonderland, Royal Canadian Air Farce, Road to Avonlea, Cold Squad, and Slings & Arrows, for example. Those few, past and present, deemed marketable, may end up on the shelves of a local HMV or wind up on Amazon.com. But many won’t, and some of those will be regrettably lost to future scholars trying to reconstruct a narrative about Canadian television and the world it set out to create at a particular moment in history. But even if everything ended up for sale, does that mean that it still isn’t important for television, like other cultural texts, to be archived and preserved, systematically, in recognition of its importance as part of a shared cultural heritage to be made available for the future?

Trailer Park Boys: Season Six DVD

Trailer Park Boys: Season Six DVD

Further Reading

Peter S. Grant and Chris Wood. Blockbusters and Trade Wars: Popular Culture in a Globalized World. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004.

Mary Ide and Leah Weisse. “Developing Preservation Appraisal Criterion for a Public Broadcasting Station.” The Moving Image 3(1). 2003: 146-157.

Mary Jane Miller. “Research Access to Canadian Television Materials on Video.” n.d.

———. “In the United States and Canada…” 2001.

———. “Archives from the Point of View of the Scholarly User: or if I died and went to a Platonic archetype of a sound and moving images archive this is what I’d find.” In Documents that Move And Speak: Audiovisual Archives in the New Information Age. Munchen, London, New York, Paris: K.G. Saur, 1992: 253–57.

Cathy Smith. “Building an Internet Archive System for the British Broadcasting Corporation.” Library Trends 54(1). 2005: 16–32.


 

[i] CanCon: Canadian Content; CBA: Canadian Broadcasting Act; CRTC: Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission; CTF: Canadian Television Fund.

 

[ii] The point Grant and Wood are trying to make is that Degrassi might get made, but made within the context of American TV production (a Canadian system without the laws and funding schemes) it wouldn’t look like the Degrassi we know today.

 

[iii] Grant and Wood identify six main strategies through which Canadian television gets produced: a public-service broadcaster, content quotas, expenditure requirements, domestic ownership rules, competition values, and subsidies (407).

 

[iv] The networks may have their own archives (although access to them is tricky) but often only archive the shows they produce, not the ones they air, even if they have contributed to these productions financially. Because part of the funding structure is intended to support independent producers, Canadian TV shows may be produced by tiny production houses, who disappear, leaving the only copies of original series in antiquated formats moldering in the back of suburban basements.

 

[v] This is not to suggest that there aren’t technological and financial concerns and differences in archiving books and TV series.

Image Credits:

1. British Film Institute National Archive

2. UCLA Film & TV Archive

3. Trailer Park Boys: Season Six DVD

Please feel free to comment.




I Lost my Wife to Facebook, and Other Myths that Might be True

by: Michele Byers / Saint Mary’s University

Collective Facebook

Collective Facebook

I first heard about Facebook a few months ago. My cousin, an undergraduate student, was having dinner at my house and mocking my husband mercilessly about his MySpace page. MySpace, she intoned, was over; Facebook was “it.” As a scholar of media, she found me guilty of not keeping up with the times. The Internet isn’t really one of my main research areas, I reasoned; I barely have time to keep up with my email. But I was intrigued. The only way to get into the Facebook system is to sign up and in so doing get a page of one’s own. I did so. A bare bones page… but four hours later I was still “on” Facebook, complaining to my husband about how few old friends I could find.

Facebook is a social networking site or social utility. It has one of those dizzying pedigrees we associate with the Internet age. In 2004, its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, began with the idea of developing an online version of the paper facebook produced for incoming students at Harvard, where he was a student. In less than a year he had dropped out of school and moved to California. Within the next six months, Facebook was made available to students at most universities in the US, soon high school students were invited to join, and networks were expanded to include Britain, Canada, and Australia. Less than two years after it began, Facebook opened its doors to the general public and was estimated to have 12 million users. Today it is said to have as many as 20 million users as rumours circulate that a buyout for as much as 2 billion dollars is in the works.

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook is a strange place. You can provide an almost unlimited amount of personal information on your page. You can post pictures. You can engage in an ongoing commentary about your life, minute by minute. The system also creates a running mini-feed that lets you know every minute change any one of your “friends” effects on their pages. You can invite people you know and strangers to be your friends, to come to social events, or to join Facebook groups that you start or are merely a member of. A lot of people use Facebook like email. It’s a place to chat and to keep people informed about your life. But for some people — and this is how I, and I suspect many people my age (the over 35s, who are even older than 25–34 year old “oldies” discussed in one recent Globe & Mail article), get hooked on Facebook — it’s a place to find old friends that we weren’t likely to track down anywhere else. And this is where, I suspect, we differ from younger cohorts of Facebookers who probably aren’t as nostalgic as we are… yet.

Nostalgia is a definite key for many of the Facebookers I know — and I can’t quite believe how words like Facebooker and Facebooking flow out of me after just a few short weeks of interface. While quite a few of my “friends” are people I work with, live near, or am related to, the ones I really seek out and the ones I, in a sense, have thus far derived the greatest satisfaction from being connected to, are the old friends I lost touch with along the way. Frederic Jameson says that “an addiction to the photographic image is itself a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism” (18), one that “cannibalizes” the past into a cacophony of “overstimulating ensembles” (19). This is an apt description of Facebook for many users (and perhaps of many users as well).

An April 23 editorial in the Toronto Star makes the libidinal quality of the Facebook experience explicit by suggesting that social networking sites are now rivaling Internet pornography for sheer number of users. Jen Gerson writes, “though the website du jour may change, the desire to be connected all the time isn’t going to go away among the youth cohort.” I agree, although I think the focus on youth misses the fact that people in their 30s, 40s, 50s (and so on) are increasingly using social networking sites to stay connected with their pasts as well as their presents. Here’s one example: I recently invited one of my best friends from high school, a busy working mom with four kids, to join Facebook. She so rarely responds to her email, I thought she’d just delete it. But, just a week later she sent me a message (on Facebook) saying she just couldn’t keep herself from trolling the system looking for old friends.

Linda Hutcheon makes the important point that a predilection for seeing postmodern culture and its artifacts as inherently nostalgic is something to be cautious of. She’s right of course. Nostalgia often implies the longing for a mythic past, whose doors, always barred to us, make what is behind them infinitely desirable and whose completedness masquerades as simplicity, as authenticity, as a time that was really “real.” We can go home, but we can’t go home. In her recent book, Giving An Account of Oneself, Judith Butler argues that one of the problems of doing so — of giving an account of oneself — is that there is always an originary part that we cannot know. A piece that is beyond language and memory but that is nonetheless foundational to who we are. We are, on some level, aware of this, and search for ways of contacting or connecting with this originary part for which we have no vocabulary of enunciation. This may be part of Facebook’s appeal. Many people are casting around in its multitudes looking for connections to a past they feel cut off from; from parts of themselves they think might be lost; for threads of a narrative that will allow them to give a fuller and more complete account of themselves.

And yet, is there an ironic aspect of Facebook? Is this type of postmodern cultural production/immersion (as we are both in it and, in a sense, co-producers of it) simply a reification of a mythic past, a giving in to longing for something unrecoverable, or do we engage with Facebook via an “ironic distance,” or both (Hutcheon)? Hutcheon argues that irony and nostalgia are both responses to things, rather than things in and of themselves. Facebook can be read as a space where irony and nostalgia co-exist, especially for those who use it to seek out the past. The pages and groups people create are genuine but evidence a type of ironic distancing that comes from a recognition that the people reading are, in some sense, at a temporal distance. These groups play a bit like the newest ad in the Diet Pepsi “Forever Young” campaign. Called “Make-Out,” the ad features a couple in their thirties who wish they could make-out like they did when they were teens… flash to them making out in the grocery store and at parent-teacher interviews to the 1983 Bonnie Tyler power-ballad “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Happily, they return to their present, but with the recognition that Diet Pepsi keeps them young, connected to their youth… like Facebook.

Facebook T-shirt

Facebook T-shirt

Ironic, nostalgic, Facebook does have a high school quality. One friend told me she had resisted joining because of an experience on an earlier social utility: she kept looking for ex-boyfriends and their new girlfriends, comparing the “coolness” of their sites and hers, comparing the numbers of friends each had. It was, she finally explained, like being back in high school. Alyssa Schwartz, in the Globe & Mail, discovered similar invocations of a “high school mentality,” finding Facebook guilty of “bring[ing] back behavior that went out with plaid shirts, Tuff boots and Nirvana.” Note how Schwartz’s invocation of high school, here coded through fashion and music, marks the ironic nostalgia of Facebook participation, but also locates “old” Facebookers as people who were teens in the 1990s, not the 1980s (shoulder pads, doc martens, and Madonna), 1970s (hot pants, platform shoes, and Led Zepplin), or 1960s (mini skirts, saddle shoes, and The Beatles).

There is clearly much to be studied in the worlds of Facebook. The desire to network the past in the present, the availability and massive usage of this technology, certainly warrants closer examination.

Works Cited
Jen Gerson. “Social Networking rivals porn on Web.” The Toronto Star. April 23, 2007.
Linda Hutcheon. “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern.”
Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP: 1991.
Alyssa Schwartz. “Grownups get their Facebook fix.” Globe & Mail. March 31, 2007.

Image Credits:
1. Collective Facebook
2. Mark Zuckerberg
3. Facebook T-shirt

Please feel free to comment.




Little Mosque on the Prairie: The Life and Times of the CBC

by: Michele Byers / Saint Mary’s University

Scene from Little Mosque

Scene from Little Mosque

In November, I attended a small conference for emerging scholars working in the area of Canadian media policy hosted by the Beaverbrook Fund for Media@McGill at McGill University in Montreal. Among the presenters there was at least one former employee of the CBC–the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation–the nation's public broadcaster. Canada has quite a different history of television broadcasting than does the United States. The public broadcaster was long preeminent, and its mandate has been to show the nation to itself (and to prevent the further encroachment of American Imperialism via television–yes we were worrying about that even when television was young) and in so doing to “better” the nation. With a vast landscape, and relatively sparse populations who are often regionally or extra-nationally-identified, this was (and remains) no easy feat.

The question on the table for a number of presenters was: should we be funding the CBC when it clearly isn't doing its job? This was coupled with another question: should Canadian broadcasters continue to be forced to air a certain percentage of Canadian programming (via CANCON laws), as it's far cheaper to buy American programming than to produce Canadian programming. The argument has been made that without the government “safety net,” Canadian television might disappear altogether (Grant and Wood). These questions are related to issues somewhat larger in scope: the mandate of the CBC to show us the nation as a whole, that is, all regions and the diversity of cultural populations within them, and the CRTC–Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission–regulations within the Broadcasting Act that lay out in several places the rules about representing the diversity of the nation, even as the Act strives at the same time to lay out a nationalist project. This is, specifically, a mandate of both the Corporation and other, including private, broadcasters.

As Serra Tinic points out, cutbacks at the CBC have long meant that the Corporation has become centralized (that means Toronto-ized) and the regions have all but lost their local offices and often their access to programming on the public broadcaster. Conference participants pointed out that some of the recent attempts by the CBC to garner high ratings (not part of its mandate) have been embarrassing disasters. The most public of these was the CBC's attempt to make up for passing on the wildly successful Canadian Idol (which, to some degree, meets the broadcaster's regional and national mandates) with another reality TV series called The One. The decision to air an American reality series (even one hosted by CBC regular George Stroumboulopoulos) during a timeslot that, in some regions, belonged to a national news program (The National with Peter Mansbridge) did not inspire confidence in many viewers. The fact that the show failed miserably in both Canada and the US sealed the deal. People were thinking: “this is what we are paying to maintain a national broadcaster for? I don't think so…”

So we might look at Little Mosque on the Prairie as the CBC's attempt to redeem itself and to get back a bit of the national audience (as well as to garner some international cache, which it has). The sitcom takes as its premise the arrival of a handsome young Imam from Toronto (a former corporate lawyer) to a tiny Muslim community in a small prairie town. The show is, in a sense, as much a gentle critique of urban cosmopolitanism by the inhabitants of the “hinterlands” as it is of the Islamophobia of the other residents of the small Saskatchewan town (Bodroughkozy).1 The new Imam's frustration about not being able to find a cappuccino is played for the same laughs as is the frustration he feels at being misunderstood by the non-Muslim townspeople, many of who assume he is a terrorist. The series is the creation of Zarqa Nawaz, a Muslim woman who has lived in the prairie city of Regina for the last decade. Nawaz's company, FUNdamentalist films is, she jokes, about “putting the fun back into fundamentalism.” The series title is, of course, a play on the immensely popular book and television series Little House on the Prairie, a narrative about colonial expansion and the hardship and joys of the American settler life. Why this was chosen as the title, in that the book is, in a sense, quintessentially American, is not clear. But it may be that “mosque” is disruptive of the myth of white settlement that is part of the historical narrative of both nations.

Little House title screen

Little House title screen

Before it even aired, Little Mosque delivered a lot of attention to the CBC. Some lauded the broadcaster for bravely addressing an issue, and with humour, that most people wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole (the more hidden suggestion that they were brave because of the danger they might face from “extremists” and the Islamophobism of that suggestion has not been much discussed). Others felt that this wasn't the proper venue, or tone, for addressing these issues. Either way, few people could remember the last time the CBC had made such a big splash in the international news (including the New York Times, CNN, and the BBC); Little Mosque has elicited interest from a number of television networks internationally, as well as American cable stations. At home the series found over 2 million viewers for its first episode, something that hasn't happened for the CBC in years (and which is considered an excellent percentage of the national viewing audience for any network).

The press coverage that appeared after the series' first episode aired likely reflects a broader split in opinion about the series: Margaret Wende who thought the show was “way too cute” and John Doyle who thought it was “gloriously Canadian” (both in the January 9th print issue of the Globe & Mail). For Wende, Little Mosque takes the easy road, tackling difficult and controversial issues with a feather duster: young, hip Imams, no in-group conflict, gentle racism, and so on. For Doyle, the series' “mere existence is a grand-slam assertion that Canadian TV is different and that the best of Canadian TV amounts to a rejection of the hegemony of U.S. network TV” (R1). Muslim viewers whose views have been reported in the press have been similarly split between those who feel the series will help demystify Muslims to non-Muslim Canadian viewers, and those who are concerned that the series' vision of Muslim life will paint a reductionist picture for non-Muslim viewers; some have even gone so far as to call the series racist and bigoted.2

Having watched the first few episodes of Little Mosque, I find my own feelings fall somewhere between these positions; that is, in an ambiguous space I might call proud disappointment. Part of me has found the show disappointing in its simplicity; a simplicity that is often part of sitcom culture, but that is bypassed by many sitcoms. Everything on Little Mosque is as flat as the prairie landscape it's set in; its controversy is polite, its jokes are familiar, its characters relatively one-dimensional. At times I agree with the more strident critics who see the series as representing a narrow vision of Muslim identity and a vision of non-Muslim (rural) Canadians as ignorant bigots. But another part of me is pleased to see a series about Muslim life that breaks with the tradition of representing Muslims as secondary characters introduced to teach others about the perils of racism, or as terrorists (Shaun Majumder, for example, a star of the Canadian political satire This Hour Has 22 Minutes recently got his big US break, playing a terrorist on 24), or even as necessarily urban. The only other show that I can think of that has Muslims (plural) at its centre, is Showtime's incredibly problematic Sleeper Cell (airing on The Movie Network in Canada). I am proud that Little Mosque is being made in Canada; that it can be made in Canada; that there is room to fund such a vision which, while far from perfect, may help us laugh and learn at least a little.

That said, Little Mosque is just finding itself; if the series is popular perhaps it will spread its wings, take a few more risks. And maybe it will help demonstrate to the nation that the national public broadcaster has a continued role to play after all.

Little Mosques creator, Zarqa Nawaz

Little Mosque‘s creator, Zarqa Nawaz

Notes
1 On the other hand, this might also be read as a critique of rural populations; the implication is that in more sophisticated urban spaces people would not be so racist.
2 Note that there is a very long history of debates about “good” and “bad” representations of various groups in television and that many scholars have pointed out that these terms don't help us much because they elide broader questions like, good or bad for whom, in what context, according to whom, and so on. While it is clearly necessary to mark and interrogate these tensions, recognizing their pervasiveness is also important (most recently, for example, in the criticism of The L Word for its narrow representation of lesbian characters).

Suggested Reading

Aniko Bodroghkozy, “As Canadian as Possible…: Anglo-Canadian Popular Culture and the American Other,” in Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, edited by Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003).

Peter S. Grant and Chris Wood, Blockbusters and Trade Wars: Popular Culture in a Globalized World (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004).

David Hogarth, Documentary Television in Canada: From National Public Service to Global Marketplace (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002).

Mary Jane Miller. Rewind and Search: Conversations with the Makers and Decision-Makers of CBC Television Drama. (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996)

Paul Rutherford. When Television Was Young: Prime Time Canada, 1952-1967. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000)

Serra Tinic. On Location: Canada's Television Industry in a Global Market. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).

Image Credits:
1. Scene from Little Mosque
2. Little House title screen
3. Little Mosque‘s creator, Zarqa Nawaz

Please feel free to comment.




Post CSI-TV: The Ecstasies of Dexter

by: Michele Byers / Saint Mary’s University

Dexter

Dexter

One of the latest offerings from SHOWTIME (other recent fare has included Weeds, Sleeper Cell, The L Word, Dead Like Me, and Brotherhood) is Dexter, starring Michael C. Hall of Six Feet Under fame. Dexter draws on the critical acclaim of Hall's David Fisher, the uptight queer undertaker, in its construction of Dexter Morgan, the sociopathic forensic expert who moonlights as a serial killer. The characters are very different, but Hall brings a certain subtlety to them both, a sense of being and acting in the world while at the same time standing outside it and looking in. Both series offer up critical insights about the neo-liberal governance of persons and spaces in post-9/11 America (despite the fact that season one of Six Feet Under aired in June 2001) where uncontrollable violence and accidental death are mundane parts of everyday life.

In a totally different way, Dexter is thematically linked to a dynasty of stellar Neilson ratings epitomized in the network (CBS) CSI series. Like CSI, Dexter is fascinated with blood and bodies, with truth and justice, with power. But unlike CSI, Dexter isn't earnest. That is, the crucible at the centre of CSI as an ideological system is an often humourless belief in science as a route to a truth that will set us free; hence the ubiquitous mantra to follow the evidence, that the evidence doesn't lie, and so on. Dexter, by contrast, problematizes the binary structures of good and evil and truth and lies that we are pushed to accept by CSI. And it does this, at least in part, by refusing to look at these things earnestly.

There are a myriad ways to juxtapose CSI and Dexter (perhaps most notably in the way the latter's use of voice-over narration by the central character allows us into a space of personal and critical self-reflection that is absent in the former) that are impossible to touch upon in 1000 words. But at the centre of the lack of earnestness identified above is the character of Dexter himself, who basically is Dexter. As a child, he was adopted into a “normal” Miami family. His father, a police officer, quickly noted Dexter's affectlessness and propensity for violence and schooled him in the art of pretense, which would allow him to blend in with the “normals.” At the same time, Father taught Dex to channel his violent tendencies in the right direction, that is, towards those violent individuals who prey on the weak and slip through the cracks in the criminal justice system. Because being a blood-spatter expert on the Miami police force is his day job, Dexter can use the system and its regimes of truth and knowledge to find and torture criminals who he believes have escaped formal justice; he then chops them up and drops them into the ocean, retaining as a prize only a drop of their blood which he keeps between two glass slides in a box hidden in his air conditioner.

CSI evidence

CSI evidence

The key variables here aren't new: vigilante justice, a broken system, and an anti-hero (hello Buffy!). What is perhaps different is a production context in which CSI (and its brethren: Cold Case, Criminal Minds, Law & Order: SVU) dominates the broadcast television landscape. In the first week of November, Nielson put both CSI and CSI: NY in the top ten Broadcast TV program (CSI: Miami was number 11). To date, the series occupy the third, sixth and eighth spots in rank of top network series for the 2006-2007 season. The earnest adherence of a doctrine of scientific truth that will land us on an unambiguous terra firma is a key to CSI's success. While its characters may be replete with quirks and foibles, questions of good and evil, right and wrong, guilt and innocence tend to be treated in the same way as the evidence that's always there and waiting to move quickly and efficiently through the system. This earnestness may be related to the traditional network (as opposed to netlet or cable) space in which CSI is produced, and to the way networks have traditionally catered (that is, earnestly) to broad audiences rather than avid fans.

Which is not to say that Dexter does away with these discourses or that it offers us a vision of a new system in a new world order. But by taking us into the spaces that we already know from CSI (not only Miami, but also forensic/evidentiary spaces that include the insides of bodies), while at the same time refusing to treat them earnestly, Dexter points us towards a critique of the system that is almost entirely obscured in CSI.

The ironic attitude Dexter holds vis-a-vis these questions is nowhere as clearly articulated than in the series' opening sequence. With a lighthearted soundtrack (that always causes me to think of the ear-cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs), we witness Dexter going about his morning rituals. They are mundane in the extreme, but shot in such a way (abstract, vaguely cubist, and often in severe close-up) that they appear to represent grotesque, almost pornographic violence. A piece of ham might be a human tongue sliced and thrown into a hot frying pan; a drop of hot sauce might be blood; a cotton tee-shirt pulled over the head suggests strangulation… and throughout, the lighthearted music. The effect is to draw our attention to the way we read violence (even if it isn't really there) and in so doing to force us into a distanced position from which we can critically attend to the violence. To return to Reservoir Dogs for a moment: why were people so shocked by the scene mentioned previously? Not because they were being exposed to an unheard of level of violence, but because the violence was so proximate that it forced them back into a position from which they really had consider it.

Dexter has the potential to do this as well. By casting earnestness aside and opening the door to irony, the series highlights its own implication (and hence ours, its viewers) in the production and maintenance of particular neo-liberal power structures. It creates a not entirely comfortable (but not entirely unpleasant either) space for us to step back into, from whose vantage point we might consider what justice and truth are, why the spectacles of violence and death are pleasurable, how the system works, and the place each of us is reserved within it.

Suggested Reading:

Akass, K. and Janet McCabe, eds. Reading Six Feet Under. I.B. Tauris. 2005.
Gwenllian-Jones S. and R. E. Pearson, eds. Cult Television. Minnesota. 2004.
Spigel, L. and Jan Olsson, eds. Television After TV. Duke. 2004.
Iancovich, M. and J. Lyons, eds. Quality Popular Television. BFI. 2003.

Image Credits:
1. Dexter
2. CSI evidence

Please feel free to comment.