by: Mimi White / Northwestern University


Helsinki, Finland

From last September until June, I lived in Helsinki. While there, I imagined one of the things that would most engage me once I was back would be American television in all its cable excess and glory. But this hypothesis, when put to the test, proved to be mistaken. I am watching television, of course. But I haven’t rushed to immerse myself in American flow and all the new series that I missed. I haven’t even spent much time in front of the television (except for one weekend when I was home alone, and spent two evenings watching “chick flicks” on cable). Instead, I find myself reengaging slowly, and thinking about differences and similarities between television as an everyday practice in the U.S. and in Finland, what I am glad to have come home to and what I am sorry to have left behind. What follows are some comments on reentry.

Weather. It’s hard to beat the weather coverage in the U.S. There are three stations on my U.S. cable service devoted to weather, including two that specifically focus on local conditions. While I often bemoan the limited global weather coverage on The Weather Channel (yes they offer it, but only sporadically), especially in distinction to the international weather forecasts on European news cable services, weather reporting is available on a continuous basis, and I never have to wait more than a few minutes to access current, local forecasts. One of my routine habits, and one I evidently missed, is watching the weather while getting ready to leave the house. It affords a sense of confidence — however misplaced — that I am appropriately garbed for current conditions. In Finland, morning news and talk shows include weather reports, but these are very brief. Blink and you miss it. By contrast, in Chicago, weather reports on local news gleefully display and analyze elaborate maps, and discuss weather systems forming off the Pacific coast, in northern Canada, or in the Caribbean threatening to affect the Midwestern climate in the course of the coming week. Yet I probably end up with clothing too heavy or too light for climatic conditions as often in Chicago as I did in Helsinki. In other words, the symbolic value of all this U.S. television weather coverage probably outweighs its actual use value.

Reruns and Strip Culture. Finnish television hardly ever shows reruns. When a series is on the air for the first time — Finnish, British, Swedish, American, whatever — t is shown in order, one new episode at a time, until it is over. If the program reappears, it is for a new season. Programs are rarely rerun; you can almost count the exceptions to this on one hand. This seems awfully rarefied in contrast to American programming, on and off networks. In the U.S. it seems that as many or more hours of programming are devoted to reruns as to new programming. In the U.S., depending on where you live, you can see The Simpsons several times a day. In Finland, you can see The Simpsons all of three times a week. Even within the course of a single season for any given show, American television networks routinely include rerun episodes which might come from earlier in the current season or from the previous year, stretching the airing of 20-plus new episodes over an eight or nine month period. In Finland, you can be sure to see a new episode (or to miss a new episode) each week for the four to five months it takes the air one season’s worth of episodes.

Digital Television Interaction. A number of channels in Finland offer programming that exploits the interactive capacities of mobile telephones. There are real-time chat forums on television from viewers who text-message from their mobile phones. Some of these are all text, though at least one has a digital animated character who converses with the lone live host, and may “speak” the lines provided by viewer text messages. There are also interactive games that you play with your mobile phone and watch on television. Some of these are just game boards but others include one human player–a goalie blocking hockey pucks from scoring, or a bikini-clad woman returning volleyballs across a net. If the puck or ball gets past them, the player scores a point. The field of play is a blue screen virtual arena; the person is real. This is more than a cheap way of programming: it is downright profitable, since viewers pay to play. The interactive games generally cost one Euro per minute. One wonders about the phone bills of players who manage to rack up triple digit scores in one session. When I spoke to a high school class in Helsinki, a number of students asked if we had these sorts of games/TV programs in the U.S., and expressed profound concern about how these programs took advantage of younger children. As much as anything, I was struck by the way in which their comments demonstrate the pervasiveness of moralizing discourses about television and new media’s capacities for exploiting innocent “others.” Teenagers — one of the commonly identified demographic targets of old and new media’s bad effects — ably expressed their alarm about media exploitation on behalf of even more innocent others (as if the median age of those participating in this sort of interactive gaming was 8).

Sit-coms do cross borders. In a recent issue of Flow, John Hartley noted that “US sitcom is a TV staple across the planet, like it or lump it.” This is absolutely true, even though it flies in the face of another truism about the mobility of certain cultural forms that gets expressed in different ways, but basically holds that comedy and humor are culturally specific and do not translate or travel well. (This idea is adroitly explored in another recent Flow column by Anna McCarthy, in relation to whether and how British humor plays in America.) This second platitude is probably more widely held, and has often been used to explain the popularity of American police/action/melodrama programs in global television markets in contrast to comedies, especially in the 1970s and 1980s: Kojak, Dallas, Dynasty, Baywatch, etc. No sitcoms. They don’t translate. Remember when the immense popularity of Married with Children in Germany was routinely cited as the exception that proved the rule? Ultimately, these perspectives coexist despite their incommensurability. They both speak to questions about cultural and political economy in a global context. If American sitcoms are a staple across the planet, it can variously be claimed that they are “popular” with global audiences or that American media companies are shoving these down people’s throats by supplying them at such low cost. Then again, maybe comedy (or some comedies) could always travel, depending on how you — or others — wanted to read it. Perhaps it is the case that global tastes are changing. But the popularity of many American sitcoms in Finland certainly suggests that Hartley’s “like it or lump it” perspective is a more useful starting point for considering how comedy does travel. Among other programs, The Simpsons has been widely known in Finland for over a decade — even though with its dense intertextual nexus of references to all manner of American culture (including American media), one might expect it to translate worst of all. And when I arrived in Helsinki in fall 2004, Friends and Sex and the City were two of the most popular American programs on Finnish television. These three sitcoms are also among the programs that do get rerun on Finnish TV.

Finns like American television, but they like Finnish television even more. While U.S. programs (as well as British, Swedish, and German ones) are regularly shown on Finnish television, Finnish programs are even more popular. Finnish versions of programs from elsewhere are generally more popular than the imported versions. This is especially notable in relation to recent reality programming. Idols Finland rated higher than American Idol. The Finnish version of The Apprentice (Diili) draws more viewers than the American version, even though both are shown. The same is true with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Sillä Silmällä). I conducted an informal and highly unscientific poll of viewing habits by having students in my American Television Culture class identify their favorite shows on television. While U.S. programs appeared on many of these lists (including shows I have already mentioned), a range of Finnish series also routinely appeared.

Sooner or later, it seems, every Finn shows up on Finnish television. Finland has two non-commercial stations run by the state broadcasting company (YLE) and two national commercial stations. These stations provide many opportunities for ordinary people to appear on television, including in public affairs discussions with studio audiences, “person-in-the-street” interviews, documentaries, and feature stories on morning talk shows. Based on my prior experience of Finnish television, I had hypothesized even before my most recent stay that every Finn is likely to be on television at some point in their life. I mentioned my hypothesis to someone I met last October, and he was all ready to disagree with me until he remembered that a few years earlier he had appeared on television in some street interview, and even got a phone call from his grandmother who had seen him on TV. After due consideration, he was inclined to support my hypothesis. So I probably should not have been surprised when I started seeing people I knew on Finnish television. (I’m not even counting university colleagues who were interviewed on the news on issues related to their fields of expertise. This happened all fall, since the faculty in North American Studies at the University of Helsinki was considered an important source for insight into the American presidential campaign.) First of all, since I don’t know the language, I didn’t watch that much Finnish programming, even though I did watch some. And I didn’t meet that many people outside of work. But I was curious about the Finnish version of Sillä Silmällä (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). After catching a few minutes of the first few episodes, I finally sat down to watch an entire episode, and was quite surprised when I coincidentally recognized the “hetero” make-over target, a musician I had met on several occasions. I have never seen anyone I know on any American reality program, and I never expect to. Several weeks later, channel surfing, I saw someone else I knew in a documentary program on three choral groups in Helsinki. She was the conductor of one of the groups and, as it happens, also in the same band as the Mr. Hetero I knew from the Finnish Queer Eye. I am wondering if there is some logarithm to calculate this: you meet one band in Finland with five members, watch Finnish television for X number of hours over Y number of months, and you will be likely to see someone you know on Z occasions.

Image Credits:
1. Helsinki, Finland

Sillä Silmällä

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Faith-Based Plot Initiatives

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

Joan of Arcadia
Joan of Arcadia

What is the story with Joan of Arcadia? I don’t mean this literally, since the basic story (or perhaps more accurately, the “high concept”) is pretty clear: teen girl talks to God. I have been watching the show, off and on, and trying to make sense of it. Brief disclaimer: I watched the show occasionally during its first season on U.S. television and am also watching it now in Finland, where they are airing the first season. So I am not “up to date” with the current season. I have perused episode summaries on line, and it seems that my concerns are still relevant, but I cannot be certain about this.

My confusion starts with the high concept at the heart of the show: I really don’t know how to take the God(s) that speak(s) to Joan. Is it an actual divine being, a figment of Joan’s imagination, or something else? In Touched by an Angel at least the angels were really supposed to be angels…really. The God(s) in Joan is not so clear. At some level, it seems to function as a faith-based initiative for generating plots, kind of like an inverse deus ex machina, where God shows up at the start, to get things going, instead of appearing in the nick of time to resolve dilemmas. Can’t figure out how to get Joan into awkward situations, interacting with different high school factions and misfits each week? Gee, let’s have God tell her to join the band (even though she doesn’t play an instrument) or the debate club or the cheerleading team.

But then I wonder about what sort of “God” would put a stumbling, angst-ridden teenager into such difficult situations week after week. I realize there is an ostensible moral, more or less, to be drawn from each situation: Joan doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as she is trying; she makes good or bad decisions and learns something new as a result; she learns about taking responsibility for her actions and exercising free will; etc. But having God in the picture seems to belie these very lessons. After all–and being quite literal here–by following God’s instructions, Joan is precisely not exercising free will, not taking responsibility, not figuring out things for herself. Instead she is obeying the direct orders of someone(s) she takes for an almighty power, even when doing so often places her in yet another impossible position, or embroils her in some new harebrained scheme. (At times–for example when Joan has promised to cook dinner at home, help a friend mount an art exhibit, and fetch her brother’s science notebook from another friend all at the same time–I imagine a sit-com version of the show, revising it, and Joan herself, along the lines of I Love Lucy instead of the angst-ridden domestic drama it is.)

Joan’s God (Gods?) seems to derive from some sort of multicultural Judeo-Christian tradition, broadly speaking, embodied in humans of varying races, genders, and ages. (There aren’t any flora, fauna, or inanimate objects that speak as God. The short-lived Wonderfalls did endow inanimate objects in a Niagara Falls gift shop with the power of directive advice.) This is also God without a specific religion, just a range of muddled, generic ideas about doing deeds, exercising free will, and so on. God(s) starts verging upon New Age spiritualism, as some kind of diffuse power, existing in everyone, or some sort of higher ethical consciousness.

Of course, God could be a metaphor, or an objective correlative, possibly for the interior state of an insecure teenager fitfully progressing toward womanhood (ick!), or something like that. Or Joan could be mentally ill, and hallucinating the Gods who speak to her. But in the larger context of the program, these explanations don’t quite fit. The first of these moots the whole point of bringing in God, specifically, in the first place (as opposed to something along the lines of the inanimate objects of Wonderfalls). As for mental illness, the program suggests that high school is generally an age of affective and cognitive extremes, if not full mental imbalance; everyone is a little crazy. But only Joan actually talks to God(s).

Joan of Arcadia
The cast of Joan of Arcadia

I could continue with my questions and confusions about the show, and how come different ideas about what God is doing there (besides bossing Joan around) all seem inchoate or nonsensical. But there are reasons for my impulse to try to figure out what is going on. “God” clearly means many different and particular things to many people. Depending, God does or does not exist; God exists in manifold versions; God is (or is not) already a metaphor. The show implicates different versions of God at different times; it is almost impossible to “invent” God without invoking, referencing, or including/excluding at least some of the versions that already exist.

More specifically, here is a show that makes God a manifest part of its content at a time when the American President has publicly called for more faith-based initiatives and even established an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House, (although there is no specific mention of television drama in its purview). In this context, the program might be expressing, or at least trying to tap into, this conservative socio-political discourse. In addition to having embodied God(s) as a recurring character, Joan’s nuclear family includes prominent representatives of repressive and ideological state apparatuses with her father on the police force (originally brought to town as chief of police) and her mother a high school teacher.

Yet even though this is not inaccurate, it still seems too pat. For example, the program’s general tenor of angst and disorder extends beyond the high school characters, into the socio-political world of Arcadia with the rampant political and police corruption that the father exposes, losing his job as police chief in the process. In some ways, at least, the program seems to question the quiescent conservatism that it also advances (in part by having God direct Joan’s fate). And when it comes to religion, the program undercuts its God as avatar of mainstream religion just as readily as it encourages the idea that religion, or at least some sort of faith in a higher being, is a meaningful force in the life of its eponymous heroine.

Maybe the show’s idea of God is just so half-baked that it isn’t even worth thinking about this much. (The inverse of this is something along the lines of “God is whatever you think it means,” yielding a quiescent liberal complement to its quiescent conservatism.) Maybe putting God quite literally in the picture is a means of giving the impression that there really is something substantive to think about. You start to wonder if it isn’t just a cheap gimmick. Perhaps it really is a faith-based initiative after all, or maybe even a perverse joke on the very idea of faith-based initiatives.

Image Credits:
1. Joan of Arcadia
2. The cast of Joan of Arcadia

Links – Joan of Arcadia
Joan of Arcadia Fansite
Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

Please feel free to comment.

P.S. An Idol’s Pace

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

This column is something of a postscript to the last one I wrote, concerning the differential paces of television. My comments then were triggered in part by the way American television series circulate (at least officially) beyond the borders of the U.S., often with a lag of at least six months, or even one or two whole seasons behind their initial U.S. airing. Sometimes, the DVD versions may be available before the programs appear on television. In this context, I at least implied that this was the case with all American television series.

Meanwhile, American Idol is currently showing on Finnish television. This is hardly surprising since so many American television programs, including American reality programs, are available on Finnish TV: America’s Next Top Model, Playing It Straight, The Apprentice (U.S.), Survivor (U.S.), and The Amazing Race have all been shown here. Even Cheaters is shown on Finnish TV. What is distinctive in the case of American Idol is that the version currently showing in Finland is the same one currently showing in the U.S., with only a one to two week lag.

Given the prevalent distribution pattern for U.S. television in Finland, the airing of American Idol 4 struck me as somewhat surprising. At first I thought it might be related to the Internet and the ease with which one can learn about who has been cut from competition by recourse to websites, official and otherwise; ready access to this information might undercut viewership. I quickly came to my senses and realized that the same sort of information would be available for any competitive reality program, even for any television show that had episode summaries posted on some website, which means that this would be the case for virtually any American television show. But only American Idol is showing the current season. The other U.S. reality programs on Finnish broadcast or cable stations (indeed all the other U.S. series that show here) are older programs.

Finland, along with some 20-plus other countries, has also had its own version of the show, Idols Finland, which started in the fall of 2003 and concluded in January 2004. The final results episode was the third highest rated television program in Finland in 2004, with some 1.6 million viewers (in a country with a population of about 5 million people). The highest rated television program of 2004 was the same one that typically draws the largest audience every year: the live broadcast of the Finnish President’s reception on Finnish Independence Day. Given the interest elicited by the Finnish national Idols, it isn’t automatically clear that the American variant would necessarily draw the same kind of audience or interest.

It seems that the differential pace of distribution for American Idol has less to do with television per se, or with television-internet relations, than with the pace of the music industry. American Idol can best maximize global sales for the release of the already scheduled, anticipated music CDs following the televised competition if the global audience can follow the show more or less at its American television pace. It isn’t of much use to the music label if audiences outside the U.S. only decide they are interested in the music a year after its initial release, when the CDs may already be in the cut-outs bin. In Finland, at least, this reduces the programming time lag to a matter of mere weeks rather than the typical months or years. This raises a host of issues not only about the ways television intersects with other media industries, but also about television’s narrative and dramatic structures, and how they coincide (or not) with other media.

American Idol logo

Unlike dramatic series, most reality series are planned with a finite number of episodes. In this they function like mini-series or limited run programs, although successful programs can generate multiple seasons based on duplicating the basic structure of the initial limited-run design with a new array of participants. The dramatic arc is defined from the outset, based on the number of episodes, programming plan, and structure of elimination. Viewers obviously care about the outcome of these programs — in large numbers for successful shows. For American Idol the extent of this interest is registered, among other places, in the weekly voting. The competitive structure, culminating in a final outcome, clearly provides one structure of ongoing engagement and pleasure. But the ending shares these functions of engagement and pleasure with the ongoing vicissitudes of the program; as such, the process is as important as the outcome. (If the conclusion was the primary or overriding source of interest and pleasure, DVD sales of competitive reality series would be beside the point.)

As a mode of production, programming format, and even as a “genre” (using the word in a loose sense), reality programs offer an elegant balance between series and seriality, and capitalize on attracting and sustaining audiences across similarity and difference. In terms of narrative and dramatic structures, this includes a fine calibration that embraces process and outcome, peripatetic events and conclusions, the unknown and certitude, continuity and closure. Reality programs fit into television flow in these terms. While this is the case for all television series, a successful reality format — a sequence of self-contained series — makes the structure even more explicit and scaleable. But these narrative and dramatic strategies, and the resultant modes of engagement they foster, don’t necessarily directly carry over into the economies of other media. And in the case of American Idol, designed around the coalescing of television and the music industry (and digital telecommunications), it apparently results in a shift in the pacing of distribution.

Mimi White, “Going Through the Paces”
American Idol
International Idols
Idols Finland on MTV3
Idols History
World Idol

Image Credits:

American Idol

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Going Through the Paces

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

I have been thinking about the pace of television, and wondering if I even know what the pace of television is. This is largely inspired by a phrase used to describe one of the aims of Flow, to offer “television criticism at the pace of television.” I consider this from my current position in Helsinki, Finland. I am just a visitor here, although for an extended stay; it is not my permanent location.

I am not thinking about certain stereotypical distinctions that are frequently made between American commercial-entertainment television and state television systems based in the public-service tradition. It is commonplace, and perhaps progressively obsolete or at least banal, to notice the “fast pace” of American television relative to the others, with its cultivation of sound bite culture, its crass consumerism, and its jarring collisions of programs, ads, promotions, etc. Indeed, in his seminal 1970s study, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Raymond Williams introduced the term “flow,” allegedly in response to his first encounter with American commercial programming and its shocking, disorienting impact in these terms.

Rather, I am thinking about the pace at which American programs officially appear on television outside the U.S. relative to when they first appear in the U.S. In Finland, and many countries around the globe, one can see plenty of American television programs (as well as programs from other countries) on broadcast and cable stations. But the programming from America is out of phase with its initial appearance in the U.S. So the pace is not just the same.

For example, what I can’t see right now, at least through normal channels — that is, by turning on my television at a fixed time each week: current episodes of the programs that I have routinely watched “at home” in the U.S., and any program that started on American television in the fall of 2004. No Desperate Housewives, Lost, Father of the Pride, Nanny 911, life as we know it, LAX, or big fat obnoxious bosses, to name only a few. Even generating this list gives me pause, since some of these are hits while others are apt to languish, and may already be cancelled. It isn’t necessarily the list that would be formulated by someone producing television criticism at the pace of television, at least in terms of having a sense of the pulse of the current U.S. television season.

At the same time, I can’t watch Finnish television at its own pace, since I don’t know the language. More accurately, I can (and sometimes do) watch Finnish programs, but I don’t know what is going on. Luckily for me, English language programs are subtitled here rather than dubbed. What I can see: last year’s episodes of many American series, including Friends, The Guardian, C.S.I., Law and Order, The West Wing, Everwood, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City (which aired its final episode just before Thanksgiving), among many others. I can watch two-year old episodes of Judging Amy; Las Vegas and The O.C. have recently premiered with what are, in the U.S., last year’s episodes. This is just a sampling of what is available.

When it comes to television, I am especially partial to dramatic fiction programs. So not watching these shows is not a good alternative, but neither is watching documentaries on Discovery. Yet there are constraints on my viewing. Despite the considerable range of English-language television programming on Finnish broadcast and cable stations, the choice for Anglophone viewers is still different from the range of choice in the U.S. Sometimes I end up watching the same shows I regularly watch in the U.S., even though for me they are reruns. I also end up watching American shows I haven’t ever seen before.

During my first extended stay in Finland, ten years ago, I started watching Beverly Hills 90210. After a few weeks, I realized that it was also airing on the Swedish television station included on my cable system. Based on the plot situations, it was obvious that the Swedish station was showing more recent episodes than the ones in Finland. Then I discovered that the Estonian television station (also on the cable system) had started airing the series, which I happened upon during what was clearly a very early episode. For about six weeks, I watched Beverly Hills 90210 three times a week, each episode from a different season. Two of these aired almost back to back on Sunday in the late afternoon. What was the pace of this television?

Whatever the pace was, it was based on my access to a fixed repertoire of channels available at the time on Helsinki cable. It was all “old” relative to what was then showing in the U.S. Each version was also “new” in the immediate national context where it was broadcast, but not necessarily once it crossed borders, which was institutionally enabled by cable television. For me — the American in Helsinki — it was all “new.” For Finnish viewers, the Estonian version might have been “old;” but if they followed the program on the Swedish station, even the Finnish episodes might be “old.”

My awareness of this particular pace, of these paces, was a result of my “estranged” relation to the available media. Otherwise, I would not have been watching BH90210 to begin with, let alone three times a week. But I am not convinced that the nature of pace that it highlights — as a relative, variable, redundant, and multiple phenomenon — is necessarily distinctive to my position as a visitor in Finland. Rather, I have started to realize that the same pace(s) is equally available through, even inscribed within, U.S. television.

There are so many ways to see and to re-see television. Multiply-paced television is available through a variety of circumstances: while channel surfing; when a program is in reruns on cable; when a friend buys the DVD. People regularly tape or TIVO programs for viewing at some indefinite later time, whether or not they actually watch. (I have the sense that a lot of TIVO ends up with only the machine “watching” the show.) There are all kinds of shows with multiple seasons available for viewing on television at the same time, both while they are still in first run and long after. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, may be cancelled, but it is still on television, both in the U.S. and in many other countries, including Finland. It is also widely available on DVD.

These are all just normal ways of watching television, old and new, for the first or third time, from last week or from the 1980s, at home or away, in habitual viewing conditions or in unfamiliar situations. So the different paces I encounter here in Helsinki turn out to be a particular variant or manifestation of the multiple paces that constitute the pace of television in general.

Even though I mainly watch and write about American television, ultimately I am not willing to let current U.S. television — especially prime time series, and especially the newest shows to appear — set the pace of television. Certainly, the first run of American prime time series is one locus or measure of pace, in particular because so much of it does travel, sooner or later. It can be valuable to recognize, and talk about, the variations and innovations that are especially salient when new shows are on the air for the first time. But this is hardly the only locus or measure of the paces of television, particularly considering that some “new” shows will, inevitably, continue to reappear: they will persist as part of current, ongoing television programming, or may be available on DVD, even at the same time that they are cancelled. The pace of television includes programs that aren’t showing for the first time or only in one place, as well as programs that do not originate in the U.S. and may not ever show there.

While viewers and critics need to be aware of the institutional logics of the medium — including the institutional importance of viewers who are willing and able to keep pace with the pace of prime time television, watching the new shows when they first air, and being particularly interested in what is “new” — I am reluctant to let this logic finally determine or constrain how I watch, and especially the ways I think about, the medium. Understanding institutional values should not be the same as conceding to them.

At the same time, I must admit that when it comes to my personal viewing, I hope the shows I have routinely watched aren’t all cancelled before I get back to the U.S. In the meantime, here in Helsinki, I have started watching Nip/Tuck — last year’s episodes, of course — for the first time, on Tuesday nights, at the exact time when I have normally watched Judging Amy in the U.S. It isn’t just the same.

Finnish media
Finnish media landscape
Beverly Hills 90210 fansite
Nip/Tuck official site
Judging Amy official site

Please feel free to comment.

Small Pleasures

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

Can you love and hate a television show at one and the same time? I am not talking about general indifference — you watch the show when you can, perhaps if nothing else you like is on, but you don’t miss it when you can’t. What I am thinking about is when you really like a show, and make an effort to watch it regularly. But at the same time (or perhaps some of the time) you actively dislike the very same show. So you watch sometimes but find yourself, as often as not, changing channels, or even turning off the television. But when you don’t watch, you wonder what you are missing.I was made acutely aware of this sort of conflicted viewing when Sex and the City ended its original episodes life on HBO, and started showing in reruns on TBS. When Sex and the City was in its first-run on HBO (1998-2004), I was an indifferent viewer. If I happened to come upon it while flipping through the channels, and had nothing else in particular to do, I might watch it, but often would not. Or I would watch for maybe 7 minutes. The show always seemed mildly appealing, but slightly dull. At the time, I did not think about it in terms of more extreme responses. I didn’t watch enough, or with enough interest, to have a more extreme response.

Cast of Sex and the City Cast of Sex and the City

When HBO ran the final set of new episodes in January-February 2004, I decided to take the program more seriously. Did I fall for the hype? Was I finally willing to engage with a “positive” variant of television’s ubiquitous postfeminism? Does it even matter? I ended up seeing some pretty good shows, and was particularly struck by “The Ick Factor” (11 January 2004), an episode that combines and carefully balances issues about bodies, relationships, grand romantic gestures, and traditional rituals. If certain plot developments gave me pause (I am still unsure whether diagnosing the exuberantly sexual Samantha with breast cancer wasn’t in some perverse, covert way using a women’s health issue to “punish” her), the episode managed to walk the tightrope between being icky and being about things that are icky, between cynicism and romanticism, tragedy and comedy, and women’s romantic relationships and their friendships. I thought it was perhaps the best half-hour television episode I had ever seen. I wondered if this is what I had been missing all these years.

I turned to the best “informants” I could find to figure out if I had really missed the boat here: the students in my graduate seminar. When I gushed about the episode (and I am afraid I did gush), the students who had seen it agreed that it had been an exceptional episode. Many of them assured me that I didn’t need to rush out and buy the series on DVD, because I was as likely as not to be disappointed, if this particular episode was my standard of judgment; others said that the show was uneven, but that I probably would really enjoy other seasons and other episodes. And thanks to the afterlife of first-run television, TBS began rerunning the series shortly thereafter (even if it was “cleaned up” for basic cable audiences — less nude bodies and crude language).

I watched the first two episodes. While I had some qualms about episode one, a scene partway through the second, “Models and Mortals,” moved me to turn off the television. Based on one of Miranda’s dating experiences, Carrie decides to write a column about “modelizers,” men who only date models. At dinner with her friends, the women start discussing modelizers, but end up focusing their attention on models. They say the sorts of things you might expect, parroting most of the well-worn stereotypes about women in this profession combined with pat feminist critiques of the fashion-beauty world. Models are stupid and lazy; they practice starvation in the best restaurants; they are giraffes with big breasts. Models embody the impossible standards of beauty to which the culture holds women, including the women having this conversation. While Carrie makes an effort to speak on behalf of her friends (they are smart, beautiful “flesh and blood” women who should not be intimidated by this beauty fantasy), they all, save Samantha, identify a body part they particularly hate, especially when compared to models: thighs, chin, nose.

There are (at least) two things in this scene that I found distinctly irksome. First, the women soon turn their venom on other women — models — rather than maintaining the initial focus of the conversation on men who date models. What starts as a problematic sort of man is quickly recast as a problematic sort of woman. Second, the women holding this conversation are themselves only one small step removed from models. They may not be quite as tall or thin as the “impossible standards of beauty” that models represent, but they are hardly distant from these idealized, “impossible” standards, and fully participate in and contribute to the same beauty-fashion-body culture as the women they are disparaging. This is true of both the characters and the actresses who portray them.

This scene is written to encourage a viewer to recognize them as “ordinary” women, even though part of their appeal, and part of the larger appeal of the show, is based on their appearance. Indeed, high end, trend-setting clothing and accessories (the very things that models model) are an integral part of the show. The characters shop for and wear expensive clothing and shoes; publicity emphasizes how the characters are dressed, and how they never wear the same outfit twice; and articles in magazines and newspapers promote the latest fashion trends being set by the characters on Sex and the City. This is after all the show that made “Manolo Blahnik” designer shoes a familiar household name. Do Carrie and her friends really not know that Manolo Blahniks are part and parcel of the culture of “impossible standards of beauty” they attribute to models? In terms of bodies, faces, and costume, these women are obviously not ordinary. In fact, they are rather like…models. And while I don’t want to disparage them for this, as they disparage models, I also don’t want to pretend otherwise. Having them vilify models in the language of popular feminist critique of the beauty-industrial complex doesn’t help. Instead, having these women-characters-actresses express these views seems like a blatant contradiction, an insult to my intelligence (even though I also recognize the same clever writing that I enjoy in other episodes). So the first time I saw this scene, I turned off the television, not in indifference, but with full-blown distaste.

This kind of response, oscillations of variable intensities (love/hate or like/dislike), seems especially acute in television. The medium is, after all, so extremely multiple: multiple programs, channels, episodes, writers, producers, directors, etc. are all part and parcel of “a” television show. While we use the singular to designate a television program, it really is not just one thing, but a series — quite literally, of course. Seinfeld, Cagney and Lacy, Two and A Half Men, Two Guys and a Girl, Party of Five, Eight is Enough: you can keep adding to the numbers in the title, but each of these is still a singular program. The multiplication intensifies as opportunities for access proliferate, through reruns, syndication, home recording technologies, and in many cases, the possibility for purchase on tape or DVD.

Television, even one show on television, provides multiple viewing experiences — multiple episodes and multiple ways of seeing them. This, among other factors, opens television to much more complicated, and even contradictory, ways of watching and responding to its texts. We often simply assume that people do or don’t like a show (or a program format, or a genre), and do or don’t watch it. But since a show is many things at once, it isn’t necessarily quite so straightforward. And perhaps my response to Sex and the City is only a slightly more acute version of ordinary viewing. A number of people state that this is how they watch Judging Amy; they only care about the scenes with Tyne Daly, and are otherwise at best indifferent to the rest of the show (or even pretty much dislike it). When it comes to routine viewing (situated somewhere in between not watching, channel surfing, and fandom) perhaps the best we hope for is an exceptionally good episode every now and then; a few characters who engage or divert us; or a few good scenes in an episode that is otherwise boring, clumsy, or even offensive. But given these “small pleasures,” it is worth thinking about how we (and others) make decisions about our regular, but ordinary, viewing choices.

I expect that if I watched all of Sex and the City, I would probably continue to have similar experiences. I would really like some episodes or scenes, and really not like others. And I did end up buying two seasons of the show on DVD, including the set with “Models and Mortals.” So I guess I will get a chance to find out.

Sex and the City
Turner Broadcasting
Sex and the City fan site
New York Times Sex and the City article

Image Credits:

Cast of Sex and the City

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