We’ve Gotta Have Faith: TV Lawyers, Prophets & Visions

Steve Classen / Cal State, Los Angeles

Eli Stone and George Michael

Eli Stone and George Michael

The recent Thursday ABC primetime lineup might be dubbed “paranormal night.” If, like me, you’ve become captivated by Lost, you’ve very likely experienced not only the supernatural marvels of “The Island,” but also of Eli Stone—a quirky big city attorney who bears an uncanny resemblance to the prophets of the Old Testament, in name and narrative contexts.

The lawyer-based dramedy Eli Stone made its heavily promoted debut in January 2008, immediately following Lost. The executive producers of the lawyer program brought with them broad experience with other fictional television lawyers, including, in the case of writer/producer Marc Guggenheim, work on David E. Kelly’s The Practice.

The stylistic and narrative similarities between some of Kelly’s lawyer shows and Eli Stone are readily apparent. Viewers have come to expect almost as convention nattily dressed city attorneys with quick wits, troubled personal lives, a wide array of vices, personal flaws and funny eccentricities, extraordinary abilities to deliver dramatic closing arguments in court—and, in the case of Ally McBeal and Stone, attractive professionals who regularly experience bizarre visions unseen and unappreciated by most around them.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bs7w2kyvjg[/youtube]

Stone is a character self-described at the outset of the series as “having it all—Armani, accessories and ambition.” He is an amoral, successful corporate attorney willing to do what it takes to win for his clients and firm, and is engaged to the gorgeous lawyer-daughter of one of the firm’s managing partners. His personal and career paths seem neatly set. In short, he is a character ripe for conversion.

While making love to his fiancé, Stone experiences his first revelation and begins down the road of change. In this first episode, he cuts short coitus with the women he loves to follow the music that no one else can hear, and begins his spiritual journey with pop idol George Michael, who sings “I Gotta Have Faith.” In each subsequent episode, Eli experiences visions that are jarring, unexpected, and most often, publicly embarrassing, as he reacts physically around others to what only he can see.

Whereas Ally McBeal’s visions of dancing babies and the like seemed like a peek into Ally’s interior life and psyche, and early episodes of Stone suggested that Eli’s visions might be caused by a brain aneurysm, as the Stone series progresses it has become increasingly clear that Eli’s visions come from somewhere external to himself. He does not seek or want visions, and in the series’ first episodes pronounces himself an atheist who has no need or desire for God or things spiritual.

Prophets are often reluctant, and struggle with the “gifts” and responsibilities given, or imposed upon, them (e.g., see Moses and Jonah). Show co-creators Guggenheim and Berlani have remarked that they examined how almost all prophets have “a very similar evolution, wrestling with things like doubt, disbelief, acceptance, regret, etc. We plotted out the first season with this evolution in mind…. These are the ordinary ups and downs of a prophet.” ((Q & A with show co-creators and executive producers Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim published on ABC TV website. April 3, 2008. http://abc.go.com/primetime/elistone.))

Boston Legal

Boston Legal

Alongside shows like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal—programs routinely mocking contemporary legal practices as farce and façade—a program defining its central player as a modern day prophet seems almost like a wistful throwback to attorneys akin to Perry Mason or Lawrence Preston of The Defenders. But the popular defense attorneys of the mid-century consistently emphasized the “rational statesman” approach to resolving legal dilemmas, rather than the inspiration of the mystical or spiritual. ((I elaborate on some of these arguments in my article, Lawyers Not in Love: The Defenders and Sixties TV, Television and New Media, 8(2), 144-68.))

So why introduce the spiritual lawyer-prophet now? Of course, first and foremost because the program producers and distributors believe the character will have significant audience appeal. While discussing their inspiration and creative catalysts for Eli Stone, Guggenheim and Berlani point out that “spirituality really seems to be in the zeitgeist these days,” particularly given the popularity of books like The Secret, and the prominence of Oprah-endorsed new age religious gurus. At least here in L.A., one need not look far to find these emerging cultural leaders, beliefs and faith practices.

Oprah

Oprah

But cultural analysts should also recognize these attorney-centered shows serve as popular mediators of larger social anxieties regarding justice, and more precisely, the enduring opposition between law and justice. The relationship of law to justice—the antagonism of law’s formalism to just desires for human compassion and mercy—persists as a problem central to legal liberalism and everyday legal practice in the United States (and elsewhere). Legal scholar Mark Tushnet writes that this tension is “a persistent trope in the discourse on law,” and observes that the regulation “by rules not men” celebrated within legal liberalism has a “rigidity [which] must be tempered from the outside, by mercy and a case-specific particularism associated with justice.” ((Tushnet, M. 1996. Class Actions: One View of Gender and Law in Popular Culture.
In Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, ed. John Denvir, 244-60. University of Illinois.))

So while contemporary television lawyers may often be quirky and cynical, they are also most often respectful of legal proceduralism and institutions, while powerfully hailed by the demands of justice. This frequently requires that they be representatives of justice rather than law, marked by a moral character, activism and wisdom pertaining to the public sphere that requires exceptional, heroic actors who take action “outside” of law. Who better to name the injustices born of existing legal institutions and practices, and take up formally marginalized demands for social justice than the prophet?

Eli Stone

Eli Stone

With Eli Stone, the prophet becomes yet another lawyer character type who is sensitive to current cultural sensibilities—in this case, renewed interest in human spirituality and the paranormal—alongside the gentlemen statesmen type of an earlier television decade. These lawyers are advocates who take up the cause of justice for the legally marginalized, willing to fight even against their own attorney friends and employers along the way. In such lawyer types we see the reflected hope that agents of mercy and true vision will temper the liberal embrace of a society governed “by rules not men.” Living in times when the irresolvable tensions and incoherencies of contemporary law are readily apparent (and dramatically in evidence in the case of the Bush administration), we are reassured that such tensions might be successfully mediated, if only the right lawyer-prophets might be found. You just gotta have faith.

Image Credits:
1. Eli Stone and George Michael
2. Boston Legal
3. Oprah
4. Eli Stone

Image Credits:




Watchin’ the Noggin: For-Profit/Non-Profit Co-ventures and Children’s Television

I heartily support the fight for further federal funding of PBS. Still, some arguments for supporting public broadcasting have grown rather tatty. Among these is the contention that PBS provides programming for young children that is exceptional in terms of its content, context and quality—that cannot be found elsewhere in the otherwise commercially adulterated television landscape.

Noggin logo

Noggin Logo

Since our television household has found the Noggin channel, this argument no longer holds. It must be admitted that we discovered Noggin in part because we are comfortably middle-class, with the means to afford direct broadcast satellite (DBS) programming. For many who cannot afford DBS or cable, PBS children’s programming remains a truly exceptional, quality bit of broadcast programming. But for the vast majority of U.S. households who subscribe to cable or satellite, there is a growing array of innovative children’s fare that throws into question traditionalist assumptions regarding PBS as the sole preserve for quality, noncommercial children’s programming.

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=KJlFFQpnb5g[/youtube]

As a direct confrontation to PBS claims to exclusivity in quality non-commercial programming for preschoolers, MTV Networks—as part of Nickelodeon—and the non-profit Sesame Workshop (a 50% shareholder) launched the Noggin channel in 1999. In contrast to PBS Kids Television, which is increasingly marked by 15 and 30 second corporate underwriting spots—that bear a marked resemblance to more conventional ads—Noggin has been completely free of such underwriting spots, and virtually free of sponsor logos, announcements and advertisements. In fact, Noggin is the only “commercial-free” U.S. television channel programmed for preschoolers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and airs some of the most critically acclaimed and popular television programming for young children, including “Dora The Explorer,” “Wonder Pets,” “LazyTown,” and “Jack’s Big Music Show.” Noggin’s corporate parent, Nickelodeon Television, currently distributes virtually all of the top ten rated programs for kids ages 2-5. And while Noggin’s reach is currently a smaller share of cable and DBS households compared to the Disney Channel and ABC Family, the decade-long dominance of Nickelodeon in children’s cable and the innovation and rapid growth of Noggin, which claims “it’s like Preschool on TV,” make it a channel worth watching.

lazy-town-group.jpg

LazyTown Cast

The past decade has seen the volume of preschool children’s cable programming explode—to literally hundreds of hours of creative programming offered weekly across a variety of outlets. Beautifully crafted, educationally vetted, multi-cultural and arts-centered programming from around the globe (e.g. Canada, Iceland, France and the UK) is increasingly in evidence. Why? In part, because the potentials for branding and tapping into a younger and younger consumer population have enticed producers and networks to pay more attention to children. As one independent production company president puts it, “It’s now ‘all kids all the time.’”

Operating as an “entry point” for toddlers and preschoolers to the Nickelodeon brand, Noggin has emphasized the channel’s commercial-free environment while rolling out a multiplatform content distribution strategy. This includes the multi-purposing and cross-promotion of Noggin programming and characters across the Nickelodeon network, preschool video on demand, DVD distributions, and sophisticated interactive websites, as well as original television series, such as “Jack’s Big Music Show”—a program that one excited Nickelodeon executive praised as “something we’ve wanted to make for years . . .it’s like TRL for preschoolers.”

jack_s-big-music-show.jpg

Jack’s Big Music Show

The history of Noggin, and much of preschool television today, reveals that for-profit/non-profit production co-ventures have become a dominant force in the design and structure of young children’s TV. As mentioned earlier, Noggin began as a co-venture of the for-profit MTV Networks and the non-profit Sesame Workshop (In 2002, Sesame Workshop sold its interest in Noggin to Nickelodeon.). A primary Noggin rival, PBS Kids Sprout, begun in 2005 and airing limited advertisements, is a joint venture of Comcast, PBS, and programmers HIT Entertainment and Sesame Workshop. Likewise, many of the most popular children’s shows are produced by for-profit/non-profit collaborations, such as “Dragon Tales”, produced by Sesame Workshop and Columbia Tri-Star Television, “Reading Rainbow,” produced by public television’s WNED and Lancit Media, and “Between the Lions,” produced by station WGBH and the Serius Corporation. And of course, the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting), charged by Congressional mandate with furthering noncommercial and cultural programming, regularly funds such non-profit/for-profit ventures.

between-the-lions.jpg

Between the Lions

In this environment, where global co-ventures enable the production of quality children’s television, and where such non-profit/for-profit models are the norm, it is understandable that the Noggin channel argued before the FCC (in 1998) that regulators should formally recognize the preschool channel as a “noncommercial educational programmer” deserving reserved DBS channel capacities. In their legal brief, Noggin pointed to the “irreconcilable anomalies” created by FCC decision-making defining what is “commercial” and “noncommercial” as well as “for-profit” and “non-profit.” Although Noggin eventually decided to withdraw the petition, their appeal again focused attention on the ways in which such definitions are constantly in flux.

Certainly, the FCC definition of the “non-profit” entity has been selective, dynamic and contradictory. And children’s television, its structure and markets did not simply appear or self-form, but were, and are, constituted and restricted by complex and contradictory regulatory discourses (including those of the FCC) freighted with huge political and economic stakes.

As Tom Streeter has reminded Flow readers (Volume 2, Issue 8), the institutional and cultural arrangements specified in the term “commercial” are not self-evident, but should invite our scrutiny, particularly in a critique of the ways that television’s advertising structure provides an unsatisfying address of a full range of human and citizen desires. Insightful respondents to Streeter’s query, “What is Commercialism?” observed that progressives must consider “the intellectual and political costs of positioning the commercial in opposition to the public”, and that “idealist efforts to separate public service from commercialism inevitably fail,” or at least have within the U.S. context.

On the other hand, preschool children’s television—too seldom studied by television scholars from the humanities —offers hybrid production/distribution models which cast the commercial/noncommercial binary into relief, has reinvigorated independent production (in admittedly limited ways), and proffers some progressive television fare. After watching Noggin and PBS Kids Sprout for a significant length of time, I’m simultaneously troubled by the sophisticated efforts to position the very young as standardized consumers and excited to see how non-profit entrepreneurism joined to for-profit enterprises has re-energized and improved the preschool children’s television landscape.

sesame-street-online.jpg

Sesame Street On-Line

Might such hybrid models find further purchase and progressive potentials in media sectors outside the sphere of preschool television? Perhaps in web environments? This is a discussion that I’m hopeful Flow can facilitate. At first glance, this seems less than likely in television, but prominent non-profit leaders, including Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, have expressed enthusiasm for extending for-profit/non-profit collaborative approaches to other TV programming blocks created primarily for tweens and older children.

Alongside the important progressive calls for new public commons, non-profit entrepreneurism and industry restructuring made so eloquently in Flow, the robust and creative hybrid business models prominent in preschool television should prompt our reconsideration of the economic and structural concepts assumed in understandings of U.S. “commercial” television. Practically, they provide a glimpse at how alternative production and distribution collaborations might address, however inconsistently, a greater range of human needs and desires.

Image Credits:

1. Noggin Logo
2. Noggin YouTube Video
3. LazyTown Cast
4. Jack’s Big Music Show
5. Between the Lions
6. Sesame Street On-Line

Notes

1. Angela Paradise. “No Longer “Just a Word” From Your Sponsor: The Increasing Presence (and Power) of Corporate Sponsorship on PBS Kids Television.” Kaleidoscope, 3 (Fall 2004): 22-42. In recent months Noggin has expanded its programming window (from 12 hours) to become a fully 24-hour channel. It has also begun to air infrequent sponsor “billboards” a few times daily, as well as a limited number of promotionals for “family friendly” shows carried on other Nickelodeon channels.

2. R. Thomas Umstead. “How Nick Expects to Maintain Edge in Preschool TV.” Multichannel News, 11 July 2005, 1.

3. Gloria Goodale. “Kids’ TV Builds a Better Foundation,” Christian Science Monitor
16 January 2004.

4. This is not to ignore the excellent Nickelodeon Nation (edited by Heather Hendershot), or important scholarship by Norma Pecora, Ellen Seiter, Sarah Banet-Weiser, and others. Still, much of existing humanities research focuses on television and popular culture connected with older children rather than preschoolers.

Please feel free to comment.




SURF TV

I watch TV, and sometimes quickly push the buttons on my remote, but don’t really surf. Mostly I wade—recognizing my limitations and lack of necessary zeal. Years ago, when a faculty colleague made a good-natured jibe about me as a coastal town “surfer boy,” I took no offense or effort to correct him. But the fact is, despite my great love of water, sand, and all things beachy, I have never, in the local parlance, actually “picked up the stick.” I’m convinced that the sport of surfing ocean waves, as opposed to surfing television channels, is an activity for only the athletic, practiced and very dedicated. As Los Angeles Times columnist Dan Neil writes, “ It takes years before anyone appears less than ridiculous. If you don’t believe me, seek out the pictures of hyper-jock Matthew McConaughey floundering in the shore break at Malibu.”

Ocean Surfing

Ocean Surfing

The sport of ocean surfing, with its innate difficulty, intimations of mystical spirituality and evocation of nature’s power and dynamism, offers compelling narratives and has held substantial appeal within popular storytelling. For example, this past summer Surf’s Up offered moviegoers—including my entranced daughter and I—an animated tale of “Cody,” the adolescent surfing penguin finding the pure joys of oneness with the ocean and the surfing community. And in the adult premium cable category, the short-lived magical realist series John From Cincinnati placed an abusive, broken family within surfing culture in the often-malevolent Mexico—US borderlands. In such narratives, surfing is defined as a quest for freedom from all that corrupts terra firma—factionalism, commerce, violence, and other varieties of social dysfunction.

Surf’s Up

Surf’s Up

While surfers and critics have worried out loud about how such commercial vehicles might diminish or pollute the sublimity of an activity that is “the most fragile, the most vulnerable to ruination by mass consumerism,” watching John From Cincinnati and the salt-washed surfers in action at local beaches has prompted me to again think about how prominently the themes of freedom and transcendence have run through the metaphors for, and texts of, popular television.

John From Cincinnati

John From Cincinnati

In John From Cincinnati (JFC), generations of the Yost family work out their personal and familial demons, a seeming grab bag of all manners of abuse, against the backdrop of a surfing community and its interactions with crooks and charlatans. The opaque, elliptical dialogue of the series, combined with its eccentric characters and repeated invocations of higher power, prompted significant reviewer criticism, including Variety television critic Brian Lowry’s comment that John From Cincinnati “might be the strangest show ever produced for American television—an HBO drama that makes Twin Peaks look like Mayberry RFD.”

It was a strange show, and that’s certainly not all bad. But what caught my attention was the way the series—and particularly the title character and cipher John Monad (he of the interesting last name)—define digital video technologies as the means of human redemption. The messiah/apostle/alien John speaks cryptically yet consistently throughout the episodes about the importance of the “zeros and ones” and the small video camera of Cass, a young women who works for a surf promoter and seems always “on scene” to record the goings-on. And visually, viewers very frequently review filmed scenes through the medium of Cass’s video camera. Cass’s camera more than once seems to have magical abilities to give other characters access to images that seem impossible. Referring often to his unseen “Father,” John states that his Father “freelances in Cass’s camera,” and that “the zeros and ones make the Word in Cass’s camera.” And in the series finale John underlines the point that his “Father’s words”–a frequently banal and disjointed collection of utterances mediated by John throughout the series—will be “heard” and understood more clearly through Cass’s camera than in the present moment. John is unusually clear in the final episode in stating that without the camera that digitally encodes their lives, nothing much else will matter. Transcendent beings have chosen digital visual technologies as the means for human redemption.

Cass on John From Cincinnati

Cass on John From Cincinnati

Such myths, connecting human redemption and transcendence to electronic media transmission are, as Jeffrey Sconce has skillfully demonstrated in Haunted Media, well-documented historical and evolving cultural phenomena. Sometimes employed playfully as a self-reflexive commentary on the relationship between the auteur/god and audiences (as is likely the case in JFC), and other times less mischievously, such story-telling offers opportunities for students of popular culture to eschew technological essentialisms (common for example in the scholarly address of “new media”) in favor of investigations of the historical contexts, dynamics and concerns which produce popular understandings, practices and metaphors—such as the “channel surfing” television spectator. As Sconce argues, the fantastic, paranormal media tales all around us are important “not as a timeless expression of some undying electronic superstition, but as a permeable language in which to express a culture’s changing and social relationship to a historical sequence of technologies.”

Which brings me back to where I began—to television and surfing. I know that the phrase “channel surfing” dates to the mid-1980s, and refers to the practice of quickly scanning media content. But why does the metaphor enjoy such cultural purchase? Why is it that we “surf” television channels and the Internet? Why do we not channel/site skim, skip, zip, walk or hop (I know some of us zap.)? Or, as I suggested of myself earlier, speak of ourselves as viewers that “channel wade” in the televisual flow? Perhaps wading lacks the connotations of speed that seem so essential in description of postmodernity? Sconce seems to get at part of the answer in his criticism of the determinist scaffolding that supports ideas regarding television technology, television spectatorship and the medium’s “fragmented, channel-surfing schizos.” Certainly modern metaphors of television spectatorship have been powerfully informed by, and thus contrasted with, precedent visual technologies—primarily film. But metaphors of surfing also bring connotations of athleticism, spirituality, and adeptness in maneuvering through, and becoming a part of, an incessant “flow.” Such are well chronicled in surf novels, films and magazines.

In West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief, Steven Kotler, a young man who writes that before surfing he “never, not once, achieved a mystical anything,” finds a regenerative sense of spirituality in the sport, and describes some qualities of surfing and their culminating manifestation when he goes into big waves off New Zealand:I paddled fast to my left, angling toward the next wave, stroked and stood and felt the board accelerate and pumped once and into my bottom turn, and then the world vanished. There was no self, no other. For an instant, I don’t know where I ended and the wave began. This was an instant beyond the redemption I had hoped to find. Surfing is a game of such instants. The Japanese use the word aware to mean “transitory beauty,” describing things that are staggeringly impactful and simultaneously vanishing. There are dozens of surf terms that all fail at capturing this moment. Of course, words and metaphors always fail at capturing such instants, whether transcendent, mystical or mundane. But they productively offer a glimpse into the myths of the moment. What are we saying about ourselves and the time in which we live when we talk of “channel surfing” or “surfing the net”? I’m still not sure. But I do know that the more we think, write and teach about popular genres such as magical realism, and seriously engage the challenge of offering better understandings of the myths and social meaningfulness of transcendence, spirituality and religion, the better students we are of contemporary TV.

Notes

1. Dan Neil (2007). “Surf and Turf.” West Magazine, July 29, 62.

2. Ibid.

3. Brian Lowry (2007). “Review: John From Cincinnati.” Variety, June 6. Accessed 10/21/07.

4. Jeffrey Sconce (2000). Haunted Media: Electronic Presence From Telegraphy to Television. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 10.

5. Ibid., 185-86.

6. Steven Kotler (2006). West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief. New York: Bloomsbury, 139.

Image Credits:
1. Ocean Surfing
2. Surf’s Up
3. John From Cincinnati
4. Cass on John From Cincinnati

Please feel free to comment.