Spinning off, crossing over
Jane Feuer / University of Pittsburgh

grey\'s/private practice

Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice

I would like to explore the applicability of the concept of diegesis to television drama through some speculations about the recent Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice crossover on ABC in February, 2009.

A difficult to pronounce word, Greek to some, the term diegesis became standardized in film studies through its usage in the Bordwell and Thompson Film Art textbook. Non-diegetic sound is sound whose source is outside the realm of the narrative. Diegesis , then, refers to whatever is inside the world of the narrative. I can recall a much earlier usage of the term by Peter Wollen. Writing about Godard, Wollen wanted to capture that which was expressly NOT classical Hollywood narrative and he used the term “multiple diegesis” to refer to the breaks from narrative realism in a film like Weekend. I borrowed Wollen’s term to describe dream sequences in musicals and also on TV. The word here evokes a particular strain of modernism, an attempt to dis-unify the smooth realism of the text. (This also at a time when references to Brecht and distanciation were everywhere).

I always thought we could learn a lot about television by thinking it through in terms of diegesis. The whole concept of flow– which is so definitional of TV that this journal takes it name from it– was used by Raymond Williams to capture a sense of the lack of the diegetic in television’s sequencing. And yet we’ve always gone on the assumption that there is a strong diegetic unity to a particular television series, as in the term “Buffyverse.” So we have come to regard television as a world in which the diegesis is porous but present. Intertextuality is the norm. And therefore the word “crossover” is somewhat redundant. Crossing over is a norm of American television, where an entire genre—the talk show—exists for the promotion of other forms of entertainment.

oprah interviews dempsey and pompeo

Another variation on the crossover: Grey’s stars on Oprah

Spinning off is the process by which a popular show gives birth to a newbie which may or may not resemble the parent. In the case of Private Practice, there is a strong family resemblance in content but not in tone. Both shows have the same author—Shonda Rhimes—yet the melodramatic excess that created pathos in the original show turns toward the ludicrous in the spinoff. As in all melodrama, the premise is likely to be ridiculous, in this case the idea that “conflict of interest” has no meaning. This is where the concept of diegesis comes in. Grey’s Anatomy—at least for its numerous fans—is able to counter its astonishing lack of realism through the strength of its fictional enclosure. The incestuous and multiple liasons among cast members can be sustained only through a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to take the ridiculously jumbled liaisons at a metaphoric level. This requires an attitude common to the acceptance of much television (melodrama), an “I know it’s silly but I’m moved nevertheless.” As a Grey’s fan, I often find myself drawn into the diegesis to the point where I become engulfed in its reality. I was even willing—with a healthy dose of irony—to accept the Denny’s- return –as- a -ghost storyline—for the reason that I liked the intensity that is provided for the two lovers to be together again. (How more or less ‘realist’ shows get us to accept the supernatural is another interesting topic.) Blogged opinions about Denny were mixed, but those who were willing to go with it seemed to agree with me that extra-diegetic reasons figured in their acceptance i.e. an opportunity to see Katherine Heigl display her movie-star luminosity.

Yet the bloggers also agree that Private Practice is not worthy of the talents of the Grey’s star whose move to LA spun it off. What succeeds as melodrama in the parent show comes across as a kind of bad taste in the mouth in the spinoff. The characters are equally intertwined but just not likeable. Bloggers frequently express the wish that Private Practice would collapse and allow Kate Walsh to return to the parent show. So the crossover was supposed to grant this wish, and in the process serve as a ratings stunt, which apparently it succeeded in doing.

crossover time

Fansite’s celebratory announcement of crossover

I would like to focus on the central episode of the crossover—the Feb. 12. 2009 episode of Grey’s Anatomy—as the most compelling instance of the diegetic clash occurring as Practice invades the parent show. For me the most fascinating element—other than the worm and cyst brain surgery—was the attempt to create a backstory involving the med school classmate-chums that span both shows: Addison, Derek, Naomi, Sam and Addison’s brother Archer, thus creating multiple groups of med school classmates ranging from the original cast of Grey’s to the current group of interns featured in a scavenger hunt on the crossover, not to mention the backstory involving the senior Dr. Grey and the Chief in earlier years. This makes the world of the hospital into a rich, multi-generational, deeply and incestuously interwoven diegesis that transcends any particular part of the whole. The hospital as diegesis functions similarly in many of the outstanding medical dramas of the past, from St. Elsewhere to ER. Television’s technique of continually adding backstory serves well in this type of inter-diegetic creation. In this episode there is a faux nostalgia about a past that is created almost entirely for the purpose of the crossover. The fact that Naomi is currently seeing Archer on Private Practice and that her ex-husband Sam shows up on the episode gives a modicum of believability to the idea that the whole group once attended Derek and Addison’s wedding for which Derek wrote an anatomically versed song. Indeed the central scene of the crossover episode occurs when the group adjourns to a bar after the surgery and nostalgically mines said tune. The diegesis thus created pulls the audience into a reunion of a past we’ve never witnessed but one that crosses over both shows, thus spanning the individual narrative world of each.

I am not going to say whether the crossover was aesthetically successful or not. I just wanted to explore the complexity that a diegesis can achieve through perfectly normal TV narrative technique. It does not require anything special to achieve thickness and richness within the world of TV series narrative.

Image Credits:
1. Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice
2. Another variation on the crossover: Grey’s stars on Oprah
3. Fansite’s celebratory announcement of crossover

Please feel free to comment.

Strategies of Innovation in ‘High-End’ TV Drama: The Contribution of Cable 
 Trisha Dunleavy / Victoria University of Wellington 

Mad Men

The cast of AMC’s Mad Men

Reviewing American TV drama output for 2008, Heather Havrilesky ((Havrilesky, Heather (2008) “The Year the Small-Screen Fell Flat”, Salon, 13 January. http://www.salon.com/ent/tv/feature/2008/12/28/year_in_TV )) pronounced it “one of the worst years of TV in the last decade” and lamented the apparent return of the risk-adverse commissioning practices of the past, as a result of which, in her opinion, “all of the momentum and promise of the past few years” has receded into “a haze of crappy, unoriginal new programming.” ((Havrilesky, Heather (2008) “The Year the Small-Screen Fell Flat”, Salon, January 13. http://www.salon.com/ent/tv/feature/2008/12/28/year_in_TV)) Notwithstanding Havrilesky’s prognosis and convincing list of “lackluster” examples, my own view is that any apparent trough for American drama in 2008 is but a blip on an otherwise eventful creative landscape.

Aside from the repercussions of 2008’s writer’s strike, there has been much to celebrate in American drama output of this decade. Indeed, Havrilesky’s ‘golden age’ assessment of successive pre-2008 shows acknowledges an unusual degree of innovation. Focussing on the creative peaks rather than the unavoidable troughs, this column contends that post-2000 innovation in American TV drama has been most striking at the ‘high-end’ of the hour-long series and serial area, this encouraged by the conspicuous success of indicative cable-commissioned examples. Although hour-long drama involves a range of programme types and budgets, the ‘high-end’ descriptor I invoke here refers to drama’s crème de la crème, whose episodes can cost upwards of US$3 million each. This drama is conceptually adventurous and narratively complex, is often created by writers or hyphenates with ‘auteur’ credentials, and uses 35mm film (or its digital equivalent) to achieve a cinematic quality.

Before 2000, mitigated by the market share implications of this drama’s exorbitant cost, the commissioning of ‘high-end’ American series and serials was generally monopolised by broadcast networks with the requisite market share and revenues. But all too routinely, this broadcast drama was creatively constrained by the “safety first” conservatism ((Gitlin Gitlin, Todd (1994) Inside Prime Time, Revised Edition, London: Routledge.)) of complacent institutions too terrified to accept the commercial risk of genuine creative experimentation. Broadcast drama has been further limited by daunting expectations of immediate success and then, if delivers the requisite ratings, by sometimes over-blown attempts to prolong its life and profitability (known in the trade as ‘jumping the shark’), one objective of which is to amass enough episodes to maximise syndication and other ‘back-end’ revenues. With such considerations bearing down particularly heavily on broadcast commissions, network timidity continues to set the creative limits on much of TV drama output.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks is often heralded as a classic example of “quality TV”

Writers and producers were undoubtedly grateful for significant progressive change in American hour-long drama during the ‘quality TV’ turn of the 1980s and 1990s, which yielded what Robert Thompson ((Thompson, Robert J. (1996) From Hill Street Blues to ER: Television’s Second Golden Age, New York: Syracuse University Press.)) argued was a second ‘golden age.’ ‘Quality TV’ flourished following the success of breakthrough shows like Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87) which demonstrated an under-exploited link between conceptually inventive, aesthetically edgy drama and the delivery of the affluent audience segments for which advertisers were prepared to pay several times the ‘general audience’ rate ((Feuer Feuer, Jane (1984) “MTM Enterprises: An Overview”, in Feuer, J., Kerr P., and Vahimagi, T. (eds.) MTM ‘Quality Television’, London: British Film Institute, pp. 1–31.)). With Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-91) among its other ‘classic’ examples, the creative legacy of ‘quality TV’ was to extend and rework conventions in drama concept design and narrative style, to mainstream intertextual and self-reflexive referencing, and encourage production values in a cinematic direction. In these ways, the ‘quality’ turn in American drama answered the challenges of intensifying competition, market fragmentation, and the loss of broadcast audience share to cable. Although ‘premium cable’ networks HBO and Showtime began commissioning original drama as early as 1983 (Edgerton, 2008:6), increased creative experimentation in renewable hour-long drama formats seemed to follow their late-1990s entry into the hitherto broadcast-dominated competition in this costly area of drama. With HBO’s The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Deadwood finding critical acclaim and luring very large audiences, it was the unexpected success of these and the cable-commissioned dramas that followed – to which the broadcast networks were obliged to respond in their own commissions – that catalysed the broader, more sustained innovation in ‘high-end’ hour-long drama that is now eliciting perceptions of a further round of ‘golden age’ achievements in the current decade.

Innovation in contemporary ‘high-end’ series and serials – which has also been evident in such broadcast examples as CSI, 24, Desperate Housewives, Lost, House, and Boston Legal – has centred on the use of five strategies which, although not new to ‘high-end’ TV drama, have been more consistently deployed in American examples since 2000 ((Dunleavy Creeber, Glen (2004) Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, London: British Film Institute.)). These are:

  • Inventive ‘generic mixing’ in concept design;
  • The profiling of ‘authorial’ input;
  • Increasing ‘narrative complexity’; ((The concepts of ‘generic mixing’ and ‘narrative complexity’ were first explored by Jason Mittell (2004: 153-7) and (2006: 29-31).))
  • The use of serial narration to foster a ‘must-see’ allure; ((The idea and objectives of ‘must-see’ allure in drama were first examined by Mark Jancovich and James Lyons (2003:2-3).)) and
  • The pursuit of a visual quality that has further reduced aesthetic distinctions between television and cinema.

Helping to disperse these strategies across leading American drama series and serials post-2000 has been an increased willingness by its network and studio investors to accommodate the creative demands of what they regard as ‘star’ producers ((Pearson, Roberta (2005) “The Writer/Producer in American Television”, Chapter One, in Hammond, M. and Mazdon, L. (eds.) The Contemporary Television Series, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, pp.11–26. )) and to support production budgets of around US$3 million per episode ((Higgins Higgins, John, M. (2006) “American TV Rebounds Worldwide”, Broadcasting and Cable, 18 September, pp.18–19.)) in the hope of amortising the extra cost in later sales.


The first season cast of ABC’s Lost

As the most successful drama ever produced for cable TV and the most innovative American drama serial in a creatively eventful decade, HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-06) successfully pioneered the above set of strategies to yield a sense of innovation at its peak. Offering a concept with no TV drama precedent, The Sopranos proposal was rejected first by Fox and then by CBS and ABC, before being finally being accepted by HBO ((Creeber Creeber, Glen (2004) Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, London: British Film Institute.)). The sense of novelty that lured viewers to this serial, is grounded in an inventive generic mix whose components include “the gangster movie, soap opera, and psychological drama” ((Nelson, Robin (2007) State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” Drama, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.)). While authorship claims in long-form drama are often exaggerated, The Sopranos exemplifies the progressive potentials of drama that is able to develop under authorial control. Its ‘author’ was David Chase, the award-winning writer, producer, and director who, having conceived The Sopranos, remained head writer and the “driving creative force” (McDonald, 2007) through its six seasons.

The Sopranos was shot on single-camera film and fully exploited the cinematic regard for visual style – most evident in its feature-like cinematography, subdued and textured lighting and richly detailed sets. Important to the point of difference that this visual quality helped it achieve, was HBO’s decision to invest US $2-4 million per episode, more money than other networks were spending on drama at this time ((Edgerton Edgerton, Gary, R. (2008) “Introduction: A Brief History of HBO” in Edgerton, G. and Jones, J. P. (eds.) The Essential HBO Reader, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, pp.1–20.)). The Sopranos demonstrates the full range of textual strategies implied by ‘narrative complexity’ ((Mittell, Jason (2006) “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television”, The Velvet Light Trap, Number 58, Fall, pp. 29–40.)), these including the use of multiple perspectives, dream sequences for psychological revelation, temporal manipulation, and self-reflexive referencing, among other forms of intertextual play. Finally important to the ‘Not TV’ distinction of The Sopranos, is that it was a ‘premium cable’ commission. Its compelling serial narrative was designed to entice viewers to remain with HBO rather than submit to ‘churn’. Accordingly, The Sopranos cultivates ‘must-see’ allure, demanding unfaltering loyalty from its followers. Facilitating the more risqué or violent representations that also characterised The Sopranos, its cable domicile freed the emerging drama not only from anxieties about FCC content rules, but also from the other constraints on a TV drama’s design, content, and style that can be attributed to the context of an advertising-funded broadcast network ((Rogers, Mark, C., Epstein, Michael and Reeves, Jimmie L. (2002) “The Sopranos as HBO Brand Equity: the Art of Commerce in the Age of Digital Reproduction”, Chapter Six in Lavery, D. (ed.) This Thing of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos, New York and London: Columbia University Press and Wallflower Press, pp. 42–57. )).

The Sopranos

David Chase’s narratively complex Sopranos

The Sopranos achieved sufficient popularity and profile to draw ‘network-sized’ audiences to HBO and, having done this, raised the stakes on innovation for other networks, placing particular pressure on the broadcast sector. The conceptual originality and aesthetic edginess of ‘high-end’ series and serials appearing after The Sopranos – as exemplified by 24 and House (Fox), Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and Carnivale (HBO), Lost, Desperate Housewives, Boston Legal, and Pushing Daisies (ABC), Dead Like Me, Weeds, The L Word, and Dexter (Showtime), and Mad Men (AMC) – underlines that the creative strategies it so successfully pioneered have since been applied across a broader range of drama-commissioning networks. Deployed to articulate distinctiveness in an evermore crowded, competitive TV landscape and lure hard-to-get, yet lucrative audience segments, innovative ‘must-see’ drama has become a necessity for established as well as for newer networks. Adding to the pressure on leading network providers, is that this kind of ‘high-end’ American TV drama – as the award-winning Mad Men demonstrates – is now being commissioned by ‘basic cable’ networks.

Please feel free to comment.

Editorial: Mommy, Where do Presidents Come From?

Commander in Chief

Commander in Chief

ABC promised that this fall, a woman would be President — if, that is, we would be so kind as to tune in on Tuesday nights. Commander in Chief has been alternately praised for and accused of being a dry-run for Clinton: Part Deux, but the series pointedly takes several stabs at Hillary with as much force as its self-congratulatory feminist framework can sustain. Sure, C in C‘s concept allows for the pleasurable mobilization of a lot of “what ifs?” (What if an Independent were to take office? What if the First Lady were a he? What if the President’s children happen to be unusually good looking?), but few of these map convincingly onto Hillary ’08.

All of which is not to say that Commander in Chief suffers from any lack of self-awareness or self-importance; the first few episodes should dare not operate heavy machinery under such heady intoxication of “making History” — the first Independent President! the first female President! maybe the first black Vice President! (whoa, too much history, back up!). But the show isn’t as interesting for the questions it answers as the questions it poses — intentionally or not. Scrape off the generous slathering of Velveeta and Commander in Chief reveals itself to be less about who we want the president to be than what we want them to be.

In The Paradoxes of the American Presidency, Thomas Cronin and Michael Genovese identify numerous competing and conflicting demands and expectations that are placed on the office of the president. The book questions what kind of Commander-in-Chief Americans want: “strong and innovative leader or someone who primarily listens to the will of the people? A programmatic party leader or a pragmatic bipartisan coalition-builder? A president who exercises power forcefully or someone who establishes consensus before doing anything?” Not surprisingly, the answer is, rather problematically, C) All of the above.

The navigation of such binary demands structures both Commander in Chief and The West Wing, that other “I wish this was my President” show, but the relative nuance of the latter often obscures these tensions at work. For TWW‘s President Bartlett, this conflict is embodied and resolved in a continuous internal moral struggle. Where Bartlett simply is his Presidency, C in C‘s Mackenzie Allen must craft one from scratch, and the show doesn’t hide (or is less capable of hiding) the scaffolding of this construction from us.

Allen’s bumpy presidential journey finds no mirrored internal existence, but rather is externally grafted directly onto her navigation of the travails of motherhood. It is in the show’s collision of west wing and east wing that the two jobs are brought into mutual relief; the conflicting demands on the presidency are positioned as comparable to those on mothers. Both require the unending oscillation between soothing and stern, lenient and restrictive, active and reactive, and most importantly, the instinctive knowledge of when to be which. While surveying hurricane damage in Florida, President Allen is interrupted with news of a major national threat while reading a book to a group of children; she ends story time immediately, her transition decisive and innate (hmmm, and the non-partisan gloves come off…NOW).

In a veiled summation of Commander in Chief‘s “Rules for Parenting/Presidenting,” a Secret Service agent is reprimanded for allowing the Allen’s eldest daughter to sneak off with a boy: “Do you have kids? They’re always asking for things you can’t give them. Not because you can’t or you don’t want to, but because you know better!” According to C in C‘s internal logic, the president, like your mother, should be that person who just knows better — when the country should be allowed stay up past its bedtime, and when we should be sent to our room without dessert.

Comments welcome!

Image Credits:

1. Commander in Chief