On The Set With Degrassi: The Next Generation ~ There’s Something to Be Said for Passion

The Cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation

The Cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the spirit of FLOW doing things differently, the following is an informal, “academic-tourist-friendly” account of my trip to Toronto this past November, during which I visited the set of the hit Canadian-produced teen show Degrassi: The Next Generation while doing research for current projects involving this show. In the spirit of past calls on FLOW for us academics to take a stand on TV that we think matters — here you go!)

It started with cats in 1979. Honestly. One of the first new things I learned about the teen series Degrassi: The Next Generation (DTNG) when I visited Toronto to do research on this show was that its roots can be traced to a children’s book about cats making a movie (written by Kay Chorao). Executive Producer Linda Schuyler (at the time a public school teacher in Toronto) used the book as a tool for encouraging young children to make their own media, turning it into a short film for TV (Ida Makes a Movie — kids instead of cats). The movie became a series, became a series, became a series…The Kids of Degrassi Street became Degrassi Junior High became Degrassi High became DTNG.

I grew up in the 1980s in the good ole’ U.S. of A., and I heard about Degrassi Junior High, which aired on PBS here. But it wasn’t until this franchise was in its roughly 23rd year that I became invested in what was by then a bona fide global teen TV phenomenon. For me, the hook was two-fold: 1) I work in the area of TV and reception, and DTNG is a stunning example of how TV and the Internet have met to reconfigure for its viewers the very idea of what it means to watch television; 2) having grown up (and older) with first a scarcity of inventive teen shows (e.g., My So-Called Life) and then a network devoted to them (WB), I am always on the look-out for programs featuring teens that actually seem to be trying to do something for their viewers. One night at 2 AM, I was up working and came across a program on the digital cable network The N (affiliated with Nickelodeon) in which a group of teen boys were having a sleepover — and one of them was freaking out because another was gay and sleeping next to him. “Huh!” I thought. “How often do I actually see homophobia among teen boys dealt with on a realistic level?”

So, I kept watching (especially after I figured out that the show airs at a more reasonable prime-time hour) and marveling: date rape, cutting, relationship violence, school shootings, parents with cancer, abortions…all with minimal preaching and maximum information. The kids were played by kids, the issues weren’t resolved in a half hour (nor did they involve special characters coming in for one episode to “be the issue” and then disappear)… How in god’s name had this show ever made it onto my TV set?

So off I went to Toronto, doing what a good TV scholar does: meeting the people who make this show run and asking them questions about how DTNG works. I’ll leave it to the reader to find the show on their own (it’s also on DVD for those who don’t have digital or satellite) and assess the content and style of the show. Here I would like to emphasize a few things I learned while on set, because this series demonstrates some interesting talking points about the way we think about teens and television in this country. Further, as an educator in the area of TV studies committed to diversity and to the notion of “quality” being a viable TV commodity, I want to get the word out about this show. My trip could fill a book (and will at least fill a chapter in one), but I focus below on two elements that caught me off-guard in the most pleasing of ways: this program is respected nationally both for its entertaining popularity and its educational scope, and the people who make this show come to life believe that television (even when it’s for profit) should have a purpose (other than profit). This show is fueled by passion — the passion of teachers, artists, and viewers — and in a TV culture dominated by hundreds of options, finding a series that runs on people’s desire to make TV matter…well, there’s something to be said for that.

The first sign that I wasn’t in L.A. was that our cab driver didn’t know where the studio lot was for the show — and that the studio lot was for all of two series produced by Epitome Pictures (the other is Instant Star). My husband/research assistant and I walked in and hit the ground running: on two separate days, we met everyone from the DP to the cast members to the set designers and I was astounded at how many people were willing to sit down and talk with us about their jobs while the shooting of the series’ 100th (yes — 100th) episode was going on around us. Stephanie Cohen, Director of Marketing and Communications for Epitome Pictures, set the tone: I was a teacher and at Degrassi education is sacred. Stephanie gave us an all-access pass. We sat with DP Gavin Smith and director Phil Earnshaw, chatting with them between takes about the challenges of working on a shoe-string budget with teen actors being asked to deliver nuanced performances about prayer groups in schools or abusive parents (I’m flubbing here — I’m not permitted to reveal spoilers about what’s actually in that 100th episode!). We chatted with actor Adamo Ruggiero (who plays the openly gay Marco) about consumer-oriented media and product placement — because that was the topic of the article he was studying for a class (in-between takes that involved corporate sponsors for the series, ironically). Supervising producer Stephanie Williams gave us time before an Instant Star table-read to talk about the importance of casting DTNG in as diverse a way as possible — from having a range of female actresses with different body types to a range of different ethnicities present so as to reflect the demographic realities of Toronto for teens today. Writers Brendon Yorke and James Hurst spoke about the importance of writing so as to make a point: not “let’s do this because it’s a hot button issue,” but rather, writing to demonstrate that “if you understand your neighbor,” you’ll see that there is always some other side to a story — some angle you might not have considered. This, dare I inject some academia, is the cultural forum I constantly seek in TV…some sense that TV can and should provoke discussion and debate. (And, if I may offer a personal note, when better to promote argument then in the teen years, when ideological perspectives are most firmly being set?)

Which brings me to another observation about my research trip. On one of the days we visited, members of the Degrassi team (from all its 25 years) were invited to a National Children, Youth, and Media Conference and Stephanie Cohen allowed us to tag along. This conference addressed an array of issues about media and children in Canada (and beyond); Degrassi was featured because it had been awarded the first annual Shaw Rocket Fund prize. This monetary grant is awarded to a Canadian series aimed at children, youth, and/or family that achieves excellence. For this first award, teen students throughout Canada who attended public and private schools participating in a program called “Learning Through the Arts” (developed by the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada — an entirely different article in the making), were trained in media literacy: from learning about pure aesthetics in production values, acting, and writing to the basics of semiotics (yes, semiotics for teens). The students, after their education, then chose from a variety of shows and overwhelmingly elected DTNG as the winner for its artistic and cultural value. Kate Eccles, one of the teachers in the Learning Through the Arts program, spoke with me recently about the importance of media literacy in today’s global TV environment. In a world where students are taught to achieve the almighty test score for continued federal/national funding, the concept of learning itself often falls by the wayside. Teens live in an environment where media is king — but success in school is focused on your ability to “pass the test.” Media literacy — which today, let’s face it, is cultural and societal and political literacy — cannot truly be tested (however important that literacy may be to becoming an informed and productive citizen), but it certainly can be taught.

Media Literacy

Media Literacy

The fact the DTNG passes the muster for popularity, profit, and media literacy speaks to its importance as a cultural text. Perhaps it’s the holiday season passing through me, but I can’t help but wonder: where is “our” U.S. Degrassi? Should a show that speaks to teens as if they are actual humans capable of thought and emotional knowing be restricted to those whose families can afford a 100$ plus cable bill? In the Northern climes, this show is a hit on adult TV. Among my Chicago students (a major TV market), this show scores well with “non-traditional” viewers hungry for realism and depth and diversity. This semester I showed an episode about VD to my students and their jaws dropped — and then we talked and I am still getting emails about the “oomph!” of that episode for them. I don’t often soap-box about TV (as much as I adore it). But it seems to me that a show that offers substance, entertainment, and passion (not to mention that speaks its passion through its artists when it has no financial need to) should make us wonder about what U.S. TV offers to its teens and how we assess the idea of “teen TV.” My Chrismakuhkwanza gift? If you have pre-teens or teens, if you like teen TV yourself, if you teach about youth and media or teach those who are entering into TV…get people to watch this series. At the very least, you’ll find yourself watching an invigorating program that entertains, educates, and provokes inspiration and thought.

(Special thanks to the cast, crew, and producers of DTNG for their interviews — especially Stephanie Cohen and Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn.)

Sources and Links
1. Ellis, Kathryn. Degrassi Generations: The Official 411. Madison Press Books: Toronto, 2005.
2. Byers, Michele (ed). Growing Up Degrassi: Television, Identity, and Youth Cultures. Sumach Press: Toronto, 2005.

Learning Through The Arts
Shaw Rocket Fund
The N: Degrassi

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation

2. Media Literacy

Please feel free to comment.

TV Revisiting TV: Why TV Does the “Remake” Better than Movies Do

Bewitched Remake

Bewitched Remake

This summer I had the great misfortune of paying money to see the remake of Bewitched on the big screen. Normally I don’t take to filmic versions of TV shows, or even continuations of TV shows in my local theater (a la The X-Files, Serenity). My primary reason has been that since Hollywood remakes of films rarely work, why should I trust the industry to remake a TV series? Still, I had hopes for Bewitched (Will Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Nora Ephron — and a robust original source). I was sorely disappointed (an assessment clearly shared by Amy Sherman-Palladino of The Gilmore Girls, who has been skewering Ephron’s film this season every chance she gets).

“Remakes” are nothing new in the world of TV, either — but the “re-making” we see tends to be of a different sort than what occurs in film. Occasionally we do indeed get the literal remake (Night Stalker), but more often we get one of three versions of the remake: 1) the quasi-rip-off (Invasion=Lost, kind-of-sort-of with aliens; Commander In Chief=West Wing, kind-of-sort-of with a woman), 2) the second cousin (all versions of CSI, Law & Order), and 3) the re-visitation (The X-Files as a spin on and re-examination of the original Night Stalker — which raises the interesting conundrum of whether the current Night Stalker is a remake of the original, or a re-visitation of The X-Files‘ re-visitation).

I lay out these trains of thought because I would like to examine how it is that TV is able to do just about any kind of the three remakes above more successfully than Hollywood films do TV remakes (in general — did like The Brady Bunch movie and the first Charlie’s Angels, and all things Muppet-related tend to rock) — and why does Hollywood even try? To begin with, let us put aside the “crasser” reason of Hollywood going after old TV shows for reasons of profit, since television certainly engages in this logic as well. Good reasons still exist for remaking a TV series (or an old film, for that matter): the original sucked but the premise showed promise; the original left something significant unsaid; or the driving force behind the original premise remains or has returned. These reasons often converge historically, making room for the successful and purposeful remake. Thus, I politely disagree with one of Owen Gleiberman’s explanations for why the movie Bewitched failed: “When you strip it [a TV show story] away from its era…what you’re left with is the premise without purpose” (“The Big Screen Gets Small,” Entertainment Weekly. #844/845, October 14, 2005. 27-29). While Bewitched the TV show certainly was a distinctively 1960s show, the central force driving its premise remains with us today: women still live with a cultural pressure that encourages them to “hide their true powers” — especially when attempting to become romantically involved with a man. While this pressure is nowhere near what it was in the 1960s, nor is it of the same kind, it is a pressure many women can relate to that might have been successfully translated into the movie remake.

Or perhaps the problem is that many in Hollywood still don’t “get” TV…More precisely, perhaps it is that films, with their roughly two hour limitation, cannot recapture what it is that any TV show does best: capitalize on the advantages of the series aesthetic. Gleiberman offers this explanation when he points out that viewers don’t seem to be clamoring for big screen versions of those shows that have been most firmly wed to the series aesthetic of slowly building character and story (he mentions shows such as Mary Tyler Moore — and ironically Dallas, which is being talked about as a movie now). These aesthetic elements exist at the very core of TV as a primarily series-driven medium, and they allow for the time and room necessary for a successful remake of an earlier show. It appears that, still today for some, TV is the “bastard child” of film — seen as simply “smaller” and therefore less sophisticated in what it might achieve. Certainly a film can do it better! This, as Gleiberman astutely observes, misses the point of TV for many viewers: “Our whole relationship to a dramatically rich and vivid television series, the way that we live with the characters for 5 to 10 years, their quirks and wrinkles deepening week to week, isn’t really translatable to a movie” (29).

While I could speak for ages about how often cultural critics miss this key element of TV (we all, I am sure, have heard the two famous lines “well, I haven’t seen it, but…” and “all I needed to see was one episode to know that…”), I would like to instead look briefly at two current TV shows’ version of the remake, inviting discussion about whether or not you agree that these are successful — and perhaps if there are other remakes out there we have not caught onto just yet. I will start with Bewitched. Yes, that’s correct — Bewitched. Beginning last season with the episode “Anything You Can Do,” in which Lynette (played by Felicity Huffman) attempts to help her husband with his ad campaign, I do believe we have been watching Desperate Housewives revisit Bewitched — at least with this one character (and with the nosy neighbor). Lynette gave up her powers (at the ad agency) for the sake of home and husband, but clearly she is itching to wiggle her nose and get back to work (paid work, that is). And indeed, this season to-date has focused on what happens when she returns to the work force and her husband Darren (sorry, Tom — equally bland) has to keep an eye on the kids. Such plotlines could not have been fully broached in the 1960s — we could only occasionally see Samantha try her hand at an advertising gig in lieu of her husband — and it appears that viewers today find the questions such a trajectory raises compelling. The slow unraveling of plot and characterization at work in a series such as Desperate Housewives has the potential to add nuance and detail to the issues of being a talented woman who is married with children in a way that two hours of campy film cannot.

The second remake I see at work is nicely doubled. While Malcolm in the Middle is still on the air, there is a slight remake/quasi-rip-off going on with Everybody Hates Chris. Compare the two pilots if you don’t buy this, but even thematically the core is similar: one child of three enters a new school situation because of a mother’s desire for his education to improve; he becomes friends with an outcast and he is an outcast himself. The more intriguing remake at work in this show, however, is the manner in which it is a re-visitation of The Cosby Show. Now, The Cosby Show hardly sucked the first time, but the other two reasons for a remake I listed earlier are at work in Everybody Hates Chris. One of the central forces driving The Cosby Show was the general issue of the status of race relations in the U.S. during the 1980s, which included White people’s perceptions of Black people. However, The Cosby Show also left many things unsaid about being Black in the U.S. (and especially specifically in the New York City area) in the 1980s. This is not to say that The Cosby Show failed or that it “should have” said everything. TV has generally been good (sometimes to a fault) at giving viewers as much as they can handle. I am simply observing that Everybody Hates Chris — set in the New York City neighborhood of Bed-Stuyvesant during the 1980s — is revisiting the socio-cultural landscape of The Cosby Show, saying some of what was left unsaid. In this story we see the glaring discrepancies in school funding that existed across racially segregated school districts (an issue that resonates as well today); we see some of the realities of racial tensions in the New York City area that caused havoc for people living in that region (and eventually beyond) in that decade; in short, we see much of the racism and correlated class issues that existed right outside the Huxtables’ brownstone. It’s a story worth revisiting, in my opinion — and worth revisiting in a series specifically.

(l) The Cosby Show and (r) Everybody Hates Chris

(l) The Cosby Show and (r) Everybody Hates Chris

Critics of TV are often quick to complain that “all” TV does is recycle what it has already accomplished. And I am the first to whine and moan when a new show does so unsuccessfully (or a film for that matter). But it is worth considering the possibility that some ideas and situations need to be revisited in order for TV to continue to operate as a cultural forum. We humans often prefer that stories which make us uncomfortable remain untold; we often need time to have passed in order to examine our shared situations (witness M*A*S*H). The successful remake can help us in this regard — and can keep us from ignoring when difficult socio-cultural currents have re-emerged. The series aesthetic is especially well-suited to such “examinations through entertainment.” While film can do much in this regard as well (watch Stand By Me followed by Boys in the Hood), some things just might be better left to TV.

Bewitched review
Everybody Hates Chris
Museum.tv Entries on Bewitched and The Cosby Show

Image Credits:

1. Bewitched Remake

2. (l) The Cosby Show and (r) Everybody Hates Chris

Please feel free to comment.

Teen Choice Awards: Better Than The Emmys?

Teen Choice Awards 2005

Teen Choice Awards 2005

I admit it: I am a TV Award Show junkie. I throw parties, accompanied by my annual rant on the horrible results — quickly followed (after a bit of champagne) with a follow-up rant on what was not nominated that should have been. One show that I haven’t paid as much attention to has been The Teen Choice Awards, and this summer I found myself wondering why this has been the case. I love teen television, whatever that may be, and I am routinely disappointed at how many “legitimate” award shows leave out some of the best programming we have in the U.S.

This year, I paid attention — and I suggest that as TV scholars we all start paying attention (to these awards, and more broadly, to the shows that fall into the ever-expanding category of “Teen TV”). The Teen Choice Awards are similar in nature to shows often dismissed (People’s Choice, MTV): nominations emerge and “real people” vote online for their favorites. This summer, as I tracked the nominations and then the winners, I found myself thinking: “Hey! I’m more pleased with these than the Emmys!” And I really am in no way exaggerating. In particular, these awards surpass the Emmys in four key ways that we should heed: 1) forward-thinking in terms of technology, 2) range, 3) diversity, and 4) quality.

This year, The Teen Choice Awards added a new category: The V-Cast Award. While admittedly mired in commercialism (the award emerged from Verizon Wireless), this category recognizes that TV is expanding beyond the set to include short video content available by cell phone. Short-form content for the small(er) screen is a rapidly developing area of television that is quickly becoming as integral to viewing for many teens as going online to read and talk about their favorite shows. (Note: many of the series nominated for regular categories have avid online fan bases.) The fact that the show recognizes this significant trend suggests that the Teen Choice Awards are seeing (and pursuing) a future element of “TV” that others are not — something to consider, at the very least, in terms of how we ourselves teach and write about TV.

I was also impressed by the range of the shows that were nominated. Compared to the Emmys, there was, quite simply, a lot more going on; these awards gave me a much better sense of not only what teens might be watching, but of what TV is offering to viewers in general. If one looks at the Emmy nominations, one could surmise that only a few shows (and networks) capture viewers’ hearts, minds, and spirit as they watch: we see the same series appearing on a regular basis, with some programs receiving multiple nominations in the same category. The Teen Choice Awards spread the wealth a bit (at least with their nominations). There are shows you might expect (One Tree Hill, That 70s Show) but quite a few that you might not — such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, Alias, and House. I could see Nickelodeon, WB, UPN — in addition to the “usual suspects.” At the very least, this range is worth paying attention to if only to open our minds to preconceptions we may have about what constitutes “Teen TV”; it is also worth heeding because the range of nominations to a degree is honest about what people watch and enjoy and find worthwhile. I often feel that other award shows, in their rush to define excellence and quality, forget about the social, cultural, and psychological value of entertainment.

In line with range of programming, there also exists a much greater sense of cultural diversity in the nominations I saw for The Teen Choice Awards. The viewers who voted clearly represent a much more accurate sense of the diversity that exists in this country; and one can only hope TV executives are paying attention and taking notes — because in a very short amount of time, these viewers will be in that magic demographic of 18-49. I have often suspected that one reason reality TV does so well with younger viewers is the diversity of casting that exists in this genre — stereotyped though it may be. In the nominations for comedy and drama this year, I saw the names of shows and actors that many outside the world of Teen TV might not recognize — several of whom I think should have been included in the Emmy nominations (such as Donald Faison of Scrubs, Jorge Garcia of Lost, and winner of Female Breakout Performance — Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria). Especially pleasing was the inclusion of winner DeGrassi: The Next Generation (Summer Series), a show from Canada featuring one of the most racially and ethnically diverse casts available on TV — and that also happens to address teen concerns in a socially realistic way (i.e., it doesn’t shy away from what occurs in the world of teens, and manages to do so without talking down to its viewers). Would that our “legitimate” awards had such diversity.

The final variation I note — that of quality — is sure to raise some debate, but so be it. To be sure, many of the nominations offered for the Emmys are deserving of it — but, as Jason Mittell as argued for so eloquently in his past columns for FLOW, there is something to be said for making distinctions (especially since awards are supposed to be about exactly that). A few overlaps exist between the Teen Choice nominations and the Emmys (Zach Braff of Scrubs, Jennifer Garner of Alias, Sean Hayes of Will & Grace for actors; Scrubs, Desperate Housewives, Lost, Family Guy, and The Simpsons for series). More noticeable, in my opinion, is that several series and actors emerged in the Teen Choice lists that truly should have been there in the Emmy list. I had to turn to the Teen Choice Awards to see Gilmore Girls and its cast finally given their due (winner of Best Comedy, Actress for comedy [Alexis Bledel], and “Parental Unit” [Lorelai Gilmore, a single mother of a college-aged daughter])… Here I saw House, Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, What I Like About You, and Everwood. These series might not be top Emmy picks for me (although I am still steaming mad that Gilmore Girls has been ignored, after a stunning season), but could certainly replace some of what got nominated this year. (I’ll leave that for another column, post Emmy wins.)

I will still watch the Emmys on September 19th (take note — that’s a Monday, so that it can avoid being beat in the ratings by Desperate Housewives), and I will still offer my rants to those who are unfortunate enough to accept the invitation to my party. This year, however, the rants will be informed by The Teen Choice Awards. I am a faculty member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, but I don’t have voting power. I can only hope hypothetically that if teachers in the field of television were permitted voting, we might see some of what emerged when teens did the voting this past summer: forward-thinking, range, diversity, and quality.

Image Credits:
1. Teen Choice Awards 2005

2005 Teen Choice Award Winners
Gilmore Girls Official Site
Degrassi: The Next Generation Official Site
Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

Please feel free to comment.

What Do We Want from TV Studies?

by: Sharon Ross / Columbia College Chicago



The last time I wrote for FLOW, I discussed “Meaningful Mysteries,” examining the pleasures of TV shows focused on serial questions. As I’ve been tracking this journal and thinking about what to discuss next, I’ve noticed that every issue seems to circle back to a central tension: pleasure “vs.” work, programming/viewing “vs.” the industry/policy/technology. Because FLOW aims for dialogue, I am offering my “polite rant” on this tension in the hopes of prompting debate and concrete suggestions.

In my own work, I am a member of the cultural studies “camp.” I focus on audience reception and issues of gender and sexuality in TV–not because I think that’s the end-all be-all of media studies, but because a) it’s where my academic strengths lie and b) I like it. I mention this because of some recent articles that have raised issues central to cultural studies approaches to TV, specifically Aniko Bodroghgkozy’s piece on media reform, John Hartley’s on disgust in teaching TV, and Megan Mullen’s on gated communities. These three articles have provoked excellent discussions on the “point” of studying and teaching TV in today’s political economy, each posing questions about what scholars and teachers should be doing with their work and in their classrooms. What I have found interesting is that few have addressed the elephant in the (chat)room: How do we bring together the TV studies areas of viewing pleasure/the text and political criticism of industry/policy/technology?

As Toby Miller pointed out in a response to Aniko’s piece, scholars exist who work to integrate these areas of study. And call me hopelessly optimistic, but I think many of the grad students coming into the field now are very much concerned with such an integrated approach. However (here’s my polite rant), must we expect every single scholar to do this in their work every single time they write and research? While I myself espouse the integrated approach to studying TV, I must admit that (especially for grad students and junior faculty), “pulling it all together” requires time and money that most of us cannot spare. So on a practical level (and assuming that “we” all agree that studying fans’ attempts to revive Joan of Arcadia online, or the specter of God in the same show, or how the corporate structure of CBS may have contributed to said show being cancelled, or how digital conversion might make a revived Joan of Arcadia $50 more expensive yearly for 21 million TV set owners, are all equally valuable scholarly endeavors) …On a practical level, how do we as scholars, teachers, and activists manage to address the many facets of TV today? What do we want from TV Studies?

3 Suggestions – Mix Business with Pleasure to Promote Literacy

So here I take off from where many FLOW articles tend to end (including my own). Today I refuse to stop at the question mark and instead offer three suggestions for how we might address these tensions within media studies. You might disagree–but at least you won’t be able to say I didn’t make an effort!

1) View your work as “our” work. As a grad student, I remember the panic of finding out that someone else in the field a year or two ahead of me seemed to be engaging in the exact same work that my dissertation was focusing on – only to find (usually at a conference) that they were moving in quite a different direction. Then I would heave a sigh of relief and all too often move on. As scholars, we need to see our work as shared, and battle the urge to see others as either competitors or as “separate entities.” You might not be able to “write/research it all,” but you can remind yourself and others that our work is complementary even when we disagree with each other. All right, you say…So what? We need to start seeking each other out, mixing business with pleasure to promote media literacy among each other. (How can we teach literacy to our students otherwise? – see #2) At the next conference you go to, make a point of attending at least one panel that makes you roll your eyes or yawn in boredom when you see it listed in the schedule. Take notes. Talk with the folks presenting on that thing which for you is “business,” but for them is their “pleasure.” You’ll be surprised at the ways in which your respective pleasures can come together. (Opposites attract, don’t you know.) Let’s think like anthologists and seek out those whose work might be in a different subset of TV studies to work with us as conference presenters, article writers, and even book writers. Senior scholars, push for conferences (MIT’s Media in Transition conference is a good model) that defy categorization and promote discussion and debate. Media literacy is about expanding your horizons.

2) Know your academic environment. As Aniko pointed out in her article, and as I have heard too many colleagues lament, many of us work in departments and colleges full of interesting, vibrant scholars with whom we never truly converse. Taking the conference model above to its next logical site, we need to be exploring our academic departments and colleges more thoroughly. Senior faculty especially should push the limits (it’s safer for them to rock the boat): cross-list classes, blend syllabi, bring in the guest lecturers. Even within my own department, which is quite focused in its approach to TV, we have trouble keeping up with what we all really “do” and how our courses truly interact with each other. In teaching media literacy to our students, we need to commit to giving them the Big Picture as a faculty unit, rather than as discrete entities. Also: Listen to your students! If we want change (be it better TV, improved policies, or even “just” better work from them) we have to inspire it – and inspiration is firmly rooted in talking with students. Guess what? They watch a lot of The Daily Show and Family Guy and Grey’s Anatomy … we should be, too, to find that common ground upon which to build myriad discussions.

3) Read a book, and then follow your bliss. It’s summer – go for it! In my grad days at UT, we had an infamous class referred to gravely as “395.” In one semester, we read works by people half of us hated, and then it swapped for the second semester. We bitched, and whined – and we learned. As Mary Poppins would say, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down (one semester of meds, one of candy). So this summer, read a book from a class you wouldn’t take in this field (or read that one you faked reading in grad class). Then, follow your bliss (i.e., your own research) in your newly informed mindset.

May you all have a great summer. I eagerly await Harry Potter and The Historian and the new season of DeGrassi and its attendant online discussions. Now, can someone recommend to me a book I should read about media policy?

Bodroghkozy, Aniko. “Media Studies for the Hell of It?: Second Thoughts on McChesney and Fiske.” FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Vol 2, issue 5 (May 27, 2005).

Hartley, John. “Disappointment and Disgust, or Teaching?” FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Vol 2, issue 2 (April 15, 2005).

Mullen, Megan. “Television’s Gated Communities.” FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Vol 2, issue 3 (April 29, 2005).

Joan of Arcadia.
The Daily Show.
Grey’s Anatomy.

Image Credits:
1. Discussion

Please feel free to comment.

Meaningful Mysteries – Psychoanalytic Pleasures in Today’s TV

by: Sharon Ross / Columbia College Chicago



The structure of this journal (multiple topics visible at a glance, with ever-more links) looks like how I imagine my brain to be inside. As a TV scholar and teacher, my brain is pretty much all about “bouncing around.” I think FLOW’s structure also parallels the TV experience for many today: TIVO links and recommendations, opportunities to catch missed episodes, the “bouncing” TV seasons. This is definitely the place to be discussing TV! That said, what to write about? My strategy was to revisit past columns and see what triggered my interest. That was a miserable failure — too much to choose from, and a likelihood that some other more organized columnist would beat me to the punch. So I’m going with a topic that my husband (and many of my students) swears is uniquely my own and begging for explanation: the inside of my brain. Right now, the neurons babbling the most loudly are chatting about “Meaningful Mysteries” — shows I am obsessed with because they offer up overarching mysteries that extend beyond the “mystery solved!” formula of today’s procedural-dominated landscape.

The shows I have in mind are: Nip/Tuck (which I watched backwards and I think may have enjoyed more for that), Desperate Housewives, Lost, Medium (technically a procedural but see below), Veronica Mars, and Wonderfalls (cancelled but living with unaired episodes on DVD.) Clearly I can’t break down each of these shows (which, by the way, you should all be watching, either because you love TV and/or because you teach it), so I’m “forced” to forge a connection. Go ahead and laugh, but I think psychoanalysis is the route to take (again, my husband and students are likely to concur, albeit in a different sense.)

All of these programs are rooted in an overarching mystery to varying degrees. Nip/Tuck has left us hanging with a serial rapist about to attack; Desperate Housewives is prompting speculation about why Mary Alice committed suicide (among other mysteries); Lost has a “simple” mystery (where/why the hell are they?); Medium has weekly criminal mysteries matched with a larger mystery of how the psychic DuBois family handles the uninvited visions they receive; Veronica Mars has a periodically missing mother and a dead best friend; and Wonderfalls features inanimate objects come to life who guide the cynical Jaye to perform unwilling acts of kindness. There’s a way to fit even Nip/Tuck in here if I wanted to go the Freudian “what do women want?” route. But I’ll take things in a different direction psychoanalytically.



Epistemophilia and the Uncanny

Humans like to figure things out, from why bad films win Oscars to why that girl from the 6th grade teased you so mercilessly. We like puzzling over such psychological and emotional issues — both on a personal and (Jungian) collective or social level. Storytelling has been a strategy across cultures for us to work through our fears and desires, and TV is just one of the more recent manifestations. Epistemophilia explains the pleasure in this process — and this is where TV in general and the “Meaningful Mystery” shows in particular take flight. The pleasure, from a psychoanalytic perspective, comes in the process of trying to figure things out. In other words, we enjoy the “chase” more than the “catch.”

Don’t ask me to fit in Law & Order or CSI here — that’s a different psychoanalytic ball game. Look instead to the shows I listed: their mysteries extend beyond solving a crime to pondering “larger” mysteries, very Freudian in nature. Why do people abandon us? Why do dead people return to bother us — literally and figuratively? Why do we end up with the people we do in our lives? Is there such a thing as karma? The uncanny, a la Freud, occurs when something threatening emerges that is oddly familiar to us at the same time; we are compelled to return to that mystery (why is it familiar? why is it threatening?) over and over until we master the situation (i.e., remove the threat.) TV watching is all about returning (week after week, season after season), and these shows add a more overt thematic layer of “returning,” as seen in the questions I rattled off above. What pulls me in further is that they turn Freud’s uncanny upside down: the overarching mysteries provided and the epistemophilia provoked situate the uncanny as something with potential rather than as a threat-infused monster to conquer. (This is perhaps best exemplified by Locke early on in Lost, who “looked into the eye of the island” and “saw something beautiful.”) Further, the use of literal mysteries provides viewers with the epistemophilac (probably not a real word) pleasure of prediction (what comes next?), while the overarching span of the mysteries prompts the twin pleasure of speculation (why will that come next? what is the meaning of the mystery itself?). Throw in the Internet, and you’ve got an ever-expanding web of topics that become inextricable from each other as viewers discuss their show’s mysteries — a never-ending source of epistemophiliac pleasure.

Lacan might chime in here and explain that we constantly seek a return to jouissance — that state of blissful oneness we apparently had pre-birth. There’s something there I think; but again, for me it is about being in the midst of the mystery-solving itself. I don’t want to achieve jouissance — that would mean the game is over. This is perhaps why I get bored with procedurals (and why others prefer them.) It may also explain the increasing soap operatic aesthetics of TV — something Horace Newcomb saw coming long before the rest of us.

I leave you all with a jumping off point for discussion in the spirit of solving mysteries and in the spirit of this journal: Is there a reason that there has been a “mini-explosion” of such shows recently in TV? And how do the pleasures of being immersed in a mystery interact with the pleasures/displeasures of the content of these shows (see Allison McCracken’s recent discussion of Lost and religion)? I write again in June, so be interactive and use the FLOW response links to choose a topic you’re interested in and calm my bouncing neurons: 1) season finales, 2) “mid”-season hits and misses, 3) fiction Peabody winners, 4) what got cancelled that shouldn’t have, 5) Everybody Loves Raymond‘s version of feminism, or 6) Degrassi on “the N.”


Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud. Trans. Alix Strachey. Ed. Phillip Rieff. New York: Collier, 1963. 19-60. (orig. pub. 1919).

McCracken, Allison. “Lost.” FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture. 1. 4 (19 Nov. 2004).

Newcomb, Horace. TV: The Most Popular Art. Garden City, NJ: Anchor Press, 1974.

Web Links
Desperate Housewives
Veronica Mars

Image Credits:
1. Nip/Tuck
2. Medium

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