I WANT MY GEEK TV!

The Cast of Global Frequency

The Cast of Global Frequency

Many of us who study fan cultures have marveled at how quickly fan communities mobilize around new television series. Fan websites such as Ain’t It Cool News get early information about new series, especially those which are prone to develop cult followings. Many fans start registering domain names and forming web circles based on the first news of a fan-friendly series. And producers are becoming more adept at tapping into fan networks from the get-go. By the time the first episode airs, fans start generating fan fiction and commentary if they like what they see. We will see this scenario play out several times as the new shows hit the airwaves in the coming weeks.

Pushing this trend to its logical extreme, an active, committed fandom has now emerged around an unaired pilot. The series in question is Global Frequency. From a fan’s perspective, Global Frequency was too good to be true. Based on a successful comic book series by the wicked and wonderful Warren Ellis, adapted for television by a creative team which at various points in the process included Mark Burnett (Survivor), Bed Edlund (Angel, The Tick), Nelson McCormick (Alias), and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), the science fiction/action/adventure series dealt with a secret transnational organization of ordinary people who agree to pool their resources and respond as needed to a series of crises caused by the collapse of the nation states and the emergence of global capitalism. The original comic series had tapped growing interests in adhocracies, flash mobs, and collective intelligence among the most wired segments of the television viewing public.

The show created industry buzz when the pilot was being developed; the WB Network grabbed the rights to what many thought was a really hot property, considered it for Fall 2004, before announcing it would hit the air in Spring 2005. The network was ready to make an initial 13 episode commitment when there was a shift in the network management and as so often happens, the new execs were reluctant to risk their careers on properties generated by their predecessors. Global Frequency got dumped.

Then, somehow, an unauthorized copy of series pilot began circulating on Bittorrent, where it became the focus of a grassroots effort to get the series back into production. John Rogers, the show’s head writer and producer, said that the massive response to the never-aired series was giving the producers leverage to push for the pilot’s distribution on DVD and potentially to sell the series to another network. Rogers wrote about his encounters with the Global Frequency fans in his blog, “It changes the way I’ll do my next project…. I would put my pilot out on the internet in a heartbeat. Want five more? Come buy the boxed set.”

Already we can see a bunch of ways that the new media landscape is altering how traditional broadcasting operates. For starters, we can see the walls breaking down between program producers and consumers, as they make common cause against the networks. After all, the only way that pilot could have made it onto Bittorrent was that someone involved in the production leaked it and Rogers certainly was encouraging fans to rally behind his pet project.

Second, we can see large scale fan communities operating as collective bargaining units trying to make the networks more responsive to their demands. To be sure, there’s a long history of letter-writing campaigns going back at least to the original effort to save Star Trek, and most of them have failed. Yet, as the internet has enabled more rapid and widespread mobilization, fans are starting to win more and more battles. Consider, for example, the ways that the so-called “Brown-Coats,” fans of Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly, rallied behind the franchise, resulting in a new feature film extension, Serenity, which is due to hit the multiplexes later this month. Or take the case of The Family Guy, a series put back in production because of unexpectedly high DVD sales.

All of this leads to Rogers’s fantasy of media producers selling cult tv
shows directly to their niche publics, leaving the networks out of the
picture altogether. From a producer’s perspective, such a scheme would
be attractive since television series are made at a loss for the first
several seasons until the production company accumulates enough
episodes to sell a syndication package. DVD lowers that risk by
allowing producers to sell the series one season at a time and even to
package and sell unaired episodes (as occurred with Firefly). Selling directly to the consumer would allow producers to recoup their costs even earlier in the production cycle. If you sell access to each episode at roughly $2 a pop and assume that the average television episode costs 1 million to produce and half a million to distribute (a ballpark figure), then you could recoup your costs and make a profit with a few million viewers, far short of the Nielsen numbers you would need to stay on network television. Of course, such numbers would not allow you the revenue of a hit network show, but they might be much closer to a sure thing — especially in the case of a series like Global Frequency which had “cult” written all over it. After all, most network shows get canceled before the end of their first season and thus never make money for their producers.

People in the entertainment industry are talking a lot these days about what Wired reporter Chris Anderson calls “The Long Tail.” Anderson argues that as distribution costs lower, as companies can keep more and more backlist titles in circulation, and as niche communities can use the web to mobilize around titles which satisfy their particular interests, then the greatest profit will be made by those companies which generate the most diverse content and keep it available at the most reasonable prices. If Anderson is right, then niche-content stands a much better chance of turning a profit than ever before. If you were offered a package of episodes of a televison series with an interesting concept by a reliable group of creators, would you take a chance on including it on your next Netflix order? I know I would.

Imagine a subscription based model where viewers commit to pay a monthly fee to watch a season of episodes delivered into their homes via broadband. A pilot could be produced to test the waters and if the response looks positive, they could sell subscription which company had gotten enough subscribers to defer the initial production costs. Early subscribers would get a package price, others would pay more on a pay per view would cover the next phase of production. Others could buy access to individual episodes once the basis. Distribution could be on a dvd mailed directly to your home or via streaming media.

Keep in mind that when you use the web as your distribution channel, your market goes global. How many Americans would have paid to see the latest episodes of the new Doctor Who series, for example? And how many fans in Asia or Australia might pay to see episodes of American series as they aired rather than waiting for them in syndication?? Anime fans world wide already go through contorted means to get access to the latest Japanese series.

The first signs of such a system emerging will come when networks offer reruns on demand, a plan which would be relatively low cost and high yield in today’s media markets. Indeed, BBC Director General Mark Thompson announced a few weeks ago that starting next year, all BBC-aired programs (150 hours worth) will be available for download off the web for up to a week after their broadcast date. What they are calling MyBBCPlayer, is part of a larger vision for the future of British television announced by Ashley Highfield, Director of BBC New Media & Technology, in October 2003: “Future TV may be unrecognizable from today, defined not just by linear TV channels, packaged and scheduled by television executives, but instead will resemble more of a kaleidoscope, thousands of streams of content, some indistinguishable as actual channels. These streams will mix together broadcasters’ content and programs, and our viewer’s contributions. At the simplest level — audiences will want to organize and re-organize content the way they want it. They’ll add comments to our programs, vote on them, and generally mess about with them. But at another level, audiences will want to create these streams of video themselves from scratch, with or without our help.”

BBC Director Mark Thompson

BBC Director Mark Thompson

The BBC as a state-sponsored broadcaster is obviously in a good position to take some risks here. Yet, one can imagine similar services supporting distribution of media content from many other parts of the world or from independent and alternative media producers. Web-based services like Netflix are already broadening the circulation of foreign films, independent movies, and documentaries. As this system takes shape, one can imagine original content start to emerge until in the end, the primary reason that a producer would need a network would be to initially publicize the pilot. And here’s where fans might enter the picture.

In such a world, the fans will play an important role as niche marketers, helping to spread word about compelling new content, indexing and meta-tagging key moments in the series so that new viewers can get up to speed to central plot developments. The BBC has already announced a contest to encourage consumers and interest groups to develop their own alternative program guides using BBC programme meta-data. As they move more content on line, one can imagine bloggers making links directly to relevant segments in BBC programs. People are already experimenting with using closed captions as a means to index television content and Yahoo has recently opened a lab focused on making streaming media more searchable. All of that will make it easier for fan communities to share the love.

In fact, if such programs were successful, producers could begin offering funds back to active fans if they direct sufficient traffic to their sites, much the way Amazon’s Associates program rewards webmasters who promote specific books through their sites and link to the online retailer. There would be even greater incentives for producers to actively court key opinion leaders within the fan community since they could make or break a new series.

Ok, I can hear some of the other columnists reminding us of the blue sky promises of diversity and plentitude which surrounded other technological innovations. Technological innovations may hold potentials for change but social, cultural, economic, and legal factors also help determine what kinds of media change actually occur.

It’s time to wake back up and see what has happened to Global Frequency. Was the WB delighted to discover that they still had the right of first refusal on a series which was already generating a cult following before it even reached the air? Were they willing to take some baby steps towards the viewer-supported model I have outlined above?

Of course not! They did the same saber-rattling they have been doing ever since they woke up one morning and found Napster on their kids’s computers. As one network executive told Hotwired, “Whether the pilot was picked up or not, it is still the property of Warner Bros. Entertainment and we take the protection of all of our intellectual property seriously…. While Warner Bros. Entertainment values feedback from consumers, copyright infringement is not a productive way to try to influence a corporate decision.” A few weeks later, Warren Ellis announced via his blog, “It’s my current understanding that the bittorrenting of Global Frequency has rendered it as dead as dead can get as a TV series. It seems that people in high places did not take kindly to the leak.” For the moment, the WB is more interested in policing its intellectual property than finding out what people want to watch.

Oh well — It was a nice dream while it lasted.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Global Frequency

2. BBC Director Mark Thompson

Please feel free to comment.




To Have and Have not (You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone)

Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me
George: Well, I want my life back!
Betty: It’s not like you were doing anything with it.

Mondays, 7.30pm: everyone in Australia knows that’s the time for Desperate Housewives. At my house we’ve been trying to give ourselves to this hot new series, and it certainly does have bright sets, a polished ensemble cast who show the right balance of allure and repellence, the promise of secrets to be revealed, cruelties lurking beneath. And a dead leading character.

But it’s slow, and that polished look sometimes just says “look at the money on the screen,” which flatters the production system, not the viewer. In fact Desperate Housewives feels more like another episode in the long slow death-wish of American TV.

So while my partner is out of the room, and the three girls are watching it on the other telly upstairs, I find my attention drifting and hit the “booper” (the remote). In Australia Desperate Housewives is on free-to-air Channel Seven, currently resurgent in its ratings battle with arch rival Nine, not least because of this very show, together with some other high-profile buys from the US like Lost and 24.

Unlike the majority of Australians we subscribe to Foxtel (cable TV). The channel that sits between Seven and Nine is Fox8. Fox8 has its moments — early America’s Next Top Model being one of them. So it didn’t take much commitment to “boop” from Seven to Eight, but that’s as far as I got.

What is this? That delicious TV rarity, something that you can’t “place” in a millisecond. Coming to it cold, Dead Like Me did not make a bit of sense, to such an extent that we decided — partner was back now and not missing the Desperates — that it must be Canadian. So we watched it, just long enough we thought to figure it out before going back to our Housewives duty. But we never made it back.

This dead chick rocked; their dead housewife reeked.

Our family (two parents, three teenage girls) generally doesn’t eat or watch TV together. But Dead Like Me achieved that minor miracle. Week by week, the girls drifted in while it was on, and we ended up in a row like the Simpsons on the big yellow sofa, sometimes — it being what passes for winter in Australia — all snuggled under the one doona (quilt). We began to look forward to Mondays. So now, here’s another rarity; family communion, celebrated at the altar of “George” (Georgia Lass, played by Ellen Muth) — a teenager who’s dead, killed unglamorously by a toilet seat crashing to earth from Russian space-junk Mir. How useless was that, seems to be the story of her life, now that it’s over.

We all agree that Ellen Muth is “drop dead gorgeous.” But it isn’t just that. Her expressive face catches perfectly the bemusement and frustration of her character’s situation. Then there’s the deadpan humour, the fact that she says “fuck” a lot, and the inexplicable scenario and plotlines. We like her blue coat too.

It took a while to learn the internal logic of the series — how being dead worked, especially as the five main characters (all dead) interact at will with the living, even to the extent of Our Heroine losing her virginity to one of them. We had to understand George’s two workplaces: the diner where she picks up her post-it assignments from taciturn boss-reaper Rube (Mandy Patinkin), and the Happy Times temp agency, presided over by Dolores Herbig (Christine Willes), who suffers from terminal perkiness.

There’s an excellent ensemble cast of really strange characters, each of whom requires attention before you “get” them. At first all this seems united by little more than Ellen Muth’s really terrific voice — her character is narrator as well; somewhere between dead Desperate Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), and Clarissa Darling (Melissa Joan Hart), who once “explained it all.” The timbre is a gravelly contralto, somewhere between teenage “fuck-you” and Lauren Bacall’s line from To Have and Have Not: “You know how to whistle, don’t you?”

The Cast of Dead Like Me

The Cast of Dead Like Me

Over the weeks Dead Like Me slowly resolved into sense, revealing itself not to be Canadian at all, even though it was shot in British Columbia. Part of the attraction is that it is not like American TV as we’ve come to expect/dread it, even though it’s playing around with a very familiar genre (teen-angst sitcom) in a very familiar bit of the zeitgeist — have you noticed how many dead people there are on TV these days?

Its textual pleasures are to do with freshness and unexpectedness within a format that audiences want to see disrupted a little; “jaded” humour (as my daughter puts it); script-led drama; taking the piss out of sacred cows (death, mothers, spirituality). It has insights into both family and work situations (sitcoms usually choose between these). Georgia’s mother is far from being a sympathetic character (teen sitcoms usually delete/idealise these). Creator Bryan Fuller knows his craft but is also audacious.

There’s quite a bit to say about it, but it is well covered in the review, fan and feedback sites, so why not browse them directly:

Dead Like Me Online
Ellen Muth site
Showtime

Anyway we like it and we’re currently watching it through to the end of the second series, which has been playing on Foxtel in Australia (and also on Sky in the UK) over the past few months. For us it’s new.

But in fact, Dead Like Me is already dead. It was made in 2003 and 2004; two series on Showtime and then cancelled. In the American market, almost the most interesting thing about it was that it was not on HBO, nor was it Six Feet Under.

Which raises another issue; the question of life after death not for characters but for TV shows, for TV itself. Once upon a time you watched broadcast shows when they were on in your country and then they died. But that’s no longer the case. There are ways to keep in touch with them, dead or alive.

First, we had to go through our “toilet seat moment” — the one where we discovered that this show we’d just fallen for was already dead in the USA. The experience of watching it changed right away — knowing that there was a finite number of episodes meant that the characters could only develop so far. Now there was no chance that Dead Like Me would be recognized for what it is and enjoy a shift to free-to-air prominence, ratings glory and umpteen seasons. It would never become Desperate.

On the other hand, it did enjoy plenty of post-broadcast action. The web yielded many interesting sites on which one can follow its afterlife, as well as those of its creators, cast, consumers and competition. We soon learnt that creator Bryan Fuller went on to do Wonderfalls. That was cancelled after only four episodes, despite 13 having been made. It went on to posthumous glory on DVD and global pay-TV channels.

Links:
Bryan Fuller Bio
Bryan Fuller interview
Save Wonderfalls

Not surprisingly, both seasons of Dead Like Me have also been released on DVD. Lots of folk think as highly of it as we do. You can read their comments on many sites, from Amazon to IMDb, and you can even sign a petition to MGM (who own it) to get it back. Last time I checked there were 47863 signatures.

Links:
Amazon
Petition
SirLinksalot: Dead Like Me

Following this show has been like modeling what it means to “watch TV” these days. It is not an of-the-moment experience in real time, not live, not even broadcast. You have to “sit up” not “sit back” — enjoyment becomes less snuggling under the doona, more like working on the computer. It just goes to show how far TV has evolved from the broadcast era.

But some things have not changed, among them American corporations. We tried to order the DVDs, feeling mildly pleased that they cost only US$75 (down from $99) for both seasons. But we found they’re encoded for DVD Region 1, and we live in Region 4 so there’s no point ordering them. Then we tried to get them locally, but the suppliers don’t yet stock this DVD. Just to rub it in, when we went to the Showtime website to find out more stuff about the show, we were greeted with this message: “Sorry. We at Showtime Online express our apologies; however, these pages are intended for access only from within the United States. You have requested data that the server has decided not to provide to you. Your request was understood and denied.” No wonder all the posts on the US websites are so rude about Showtime.

So — perforce — just until the final season ends, we can still enjoy sitting back and watching the show like a real TV family watching a real Brady sitcom. It won’t last. The DVDs will arrive, something else will come on Fox8, and everyone will drift away. It’ll be the end of TV as we knew it. You don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone.

Image Credits:

1. Dead Like Me

2. The Cast of Dead Like Me

Please feel free to comment.




Pass the Remote: Catch and Release

by: Chris Terry and Cory Maclauchlin

Fishing
Catch and Release

Welcome to Flow’s latest experiment in academic discourse, Pass the Remote. Over the course of each bi-weekly issue of Flow, three or more scholars will exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. Check back to see the discussion’s progress, and feel free to comment below. If you are interested in contributing to Pass the Remote contact Christopher Lucas at clucas@mail.utexas.edu.

Dear Cate and Cory,

Away from my graduate studies and my radio career, I still manage to cobble together a bit of a personal life and one of my favorite “free time” activities is to go fishing. Living in Wisconsin, fishing season is only a few months long, so I pass the winter months by watching lots of fishing shows on the cable networks.

I find these shows fascinating despite their poor production value, obvious staging and cheesy dialogue. I’m a self-confessed news junkie, but throw in some edited hot fishing action by a guy who is as, if not more, overweight than me, and each episode is like a half-hour of pure mindless ecstasy. I often wish I could be that guy on the screen, living his full-size pickup truck dreams.

I’ve never quite been able to figure out why I am drawn to such low-brow entertainment. After all the characters in these shows are little more than caricatures. However, after some late night, third-shift thinking, I have come to the conclusion that fishing shows are just like pornography.

Think about it. Both porn and fishing shows portray something I’d rather be doing myself, done to a remarkable standard, by professionals in a staged setting. Both feature a “you are there” approach to the camera work that gets a viewer close enough to the action to appreciate what’s happening. And just for good measure, they both add in some barely audible grunts and a touch of bad theme music. In the end, you just have a matching pair of male-dominated fantasies. If you wanted to get down to the base level, one could even throw in a joke or two about “rods” or “mounting trophies.”

Therefore I’m compelled to pose the question, are fishing shows really just a form of clean pornography? Do these shows, by appealing to a masculine fantasy, serve as some sort of proxy testosterone? Are these shows appealing because they are simply about subjects/hobbies that men enjoy? Or is there something else about this programming that draws me in week after week?

Chris Terry
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee


Dear Chris and Cory,

Wow, I did not see that topic coming…
Well, I don’t watch porn and I don’t watch fishing shows. So, where does that leave me to respond to your argument?

Part of me shrugs my shoulders and says, “Okay, I guess.” And it ends there.

Part of me wants to look past my immediate reader response shrug and put on my theoretical Lacanian lens and ask, “What is the objet petit a that we ­ meaning you ­ search for, desire in these shows?” But I think that is pretty obvious ­ we desire what we can’t ever have

Part of me wants to say, “Well, if you are going to compare those two, then you need to continue on and make that same observation of any sort of visual entertainment.” As a reader already astutely commented in her post, we watch, not just makeover shows, cooking shows, and painting shows, but The OC and everything else.

I am here in NYC for a few days and in my social rounds yesterday, I asked a variety of gentlemen what they thought about your post, Chris, and asked (pleaded) for suggestions for possible responses. I got no suggestions and two responses. One: “You’re not going to find many guys in Manhattan who watch fishing shows.” The other, from a gentleman who resides in Vermont: “A friend who is a professional fly fisherman just gave me a fly fishing tape to watch. He called it ‘salmon porn.'” So, at least I had some verification of your argument there.

Now, I guess I will ask you, Cory: what about the people who don’t watch any of these shows? Are they living a fuller, richer life than the rest of us? Are they out there doing it, painting it, fishing it, sexing it while we are inside, sitting on our sofas, dreaming about it? ­ Chris watching yet another hour of Bass Fishing with Phil, me watching back-to-back episodes of Ambush Makeover?

Warmly,
Cate


Dear Chris and Cate,

I am convinced that most people, especially those who spend their days cultivating their minds, have their moments of decompression, when the intellect takes a break. I know English professors who confess (only after a few drinks) to having a substantial collection of Harlequin novels; a fellow student recently admitted to me he was addicted to Dr. Phil; and my brother, while getting his PhD, regularly retreated to Fear Factor. For me, I need my regular dose of XMC, on SpikeTV, especially during exams. For those of you who don’t know XMC, it is an old Japanese game show where contestants undergo physical challenges that usually result in painful falls. The American version has comical English overdubs, reminiscent of Mystery Science Theatre 2000.

Much like Chris with his fishing shows, I usually watch it alone with much enjoyment. When my fiancée joins me she shakes her head in confusion as I laugh so hard I cry. I suppose I could use the same Freudian steps to analyze my attraction to the show. Perhaps it provides me with a masochistic outlet. But then what? What do we do with sexual undertones or overtones that we identify in media, other than calling them sexual? Does it enrich the experience? Does it detract from the experience? Does it ever lead us to meaning?

In answer to your question Cate, I’m not sure how to identify full or rich lives. We who watch television shows certainly want to indulge in a fantasy. And I suppose I would qualify fantasy as a factor in a full or rich life. From fishing to exercising, activities look better on television. But this holds true in other forms of entertainment: books, theatre, film, even our own imaginations.

I suppose the danger in every fantasy is actually construing it as a reality: the Don Quixote complex. If one accepts the experience of watching as doing then deficiencies take hold. Chris, if you completely stopped fishing so you could stay inside to watch your fishing shows that would indeed be sad. But whether you find it erotically titillating or blissfully mindless it seems it serves the same function. I pose a broader question in terms of television and fantasy: does the array of media output lead Americans to the Don Quixote condition? As a culture inundated with information and images, are the lines between fantasy and reality becoming blurred in the minds of Americans?

Best,
Cory


Dear Cory and Cate,

I apologize for my tardy response. Cory’s response has taken this discussion to a new level from its tongue in cheek approach.

In media, I believe the concept of reality itself is suspect. I have never quite understood this term “reality television.” If a bunch of backbiting, oversexed teenagers engaging in fiery challenges of physical skill is reality, I must have missed the train at some point.

Perhaps my questions about reality television are quite similar to my original comparison. The programming, be it fishing, pornography, or scantily dressed 20 somethings eating road kill, offers an escape that allows us to live beyond our abilities. At its most basic level, isn’t this what fantasy is?

As a long time radio producer, I find reality comes in two forms. The first is the public face; the one seen heard or read by the public. In my specific case, this involves a conservative talk radio station whose hosts represent the archetype of kool-aid drinking true believers. The other side of reality is the one I see that happens behind the microphone, the one where the loudmouth afternoon drivetime host is geeky, quiet and introverted.

But, I digress from the issue Cory passed to me. Has the line between reality and fantasy become blurred? I would argue, at least in the case of the media, there is no line to blur. Everything is a fantasy. Programs which are presented as reality are scripted and edited; even shows like Cops are cut to fit a mold. I myself haven’t abandoned reality for fantasy; I still go fishing as much as I can. But if Cory is right, and the line is blurring, two questions come to mind. Is the blurring of the fantasy and reality a bad thing? And if so, what do we need to do about it?

Chris Terry


Dear Chris and Cory,

What can we do about it? Well, for one thing, I think we can do what we are doing here – talk, critique, question. And while we, ensconced in our graduate programs, can easily and willingly realize the blurring of the lines in visual entertainment between reality, staged reality, and fantasy, I think of my high school students that cannot and will not. Again, what can we do? Specifically, what can I do? As I move from my graduate programs at the university and into the high school classroom, I can introduce to this next generation of scholars to theory and to concepts of critical studies. I can show my students that popular culture is worthy of analysis and deconstruction. I can, in fact, introduce them to forums like this one as a model and mimic its format in class discussion and writings.

In Clueless in Academe (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2003), Gerald Graff notes that college and high school students (and perhaps some readers of this particular post) will voice reluctance when asked to critique popular culture: “Hey, it’s just a movie.” (Or, more to the point, “Hey, it’s just a fishing show.”) Graff elaborates: “The view that popular culture products either have no meaning or none that is worth discussing is pervasive among academics as well as journalists, who periodically issue derisive editorials whenever an academic is caught attributing gender attitudes, say, to a performance of […] Madonna or an episode of […] Friends. To be sure, the elaborate allegories academic critics claim to find in popular or high culture do sometimes stretch the reasonable limits of credibility.

Nevertheless, analysts of popular culture seem to me right that such works influence our beliefs and behavior all the more powerfully because they come embedded in seemingly innocuous entertainment that is not thought worthy of close scrutiny” (51).

Again, I think we continue to do what we are doing here; we take another look at that “seemingly innocuous entertainment” and we discuss, analyze, and write angry letters to John Stossel. (Yes, I’ve done that. You haven’t?)

Yours truly,

Cate


I agree with you Cate.

As a society I think we have an obligation to discuss, question, and critique the facets of our culture, be it opera or fishing shows. But while I agree that popular culture is a valuable topic to discuss, I hesitate to give it too much credence. How much cultural value do we place on the latest television shows? Coming from a literary perspective I despair at the corporate shadow that looms over most of the creative work that most Americans consume. They tend to impose a formula of sound bytes or plot twists regurgitated until the consumer gets bored. Does every episode of the OC have to include a posh soiree where someone publicly humiliates themselves? You bet it does!

I question at what point does media output become a part of our cultural fabric? Because the Fox Network executive decides to air a show does it become a cultural artifact? Or does the moment that we start discussing it make it a cultural artifact?

On this last posting I should not pose so many questions, but I can’t say I’m ready to offer answers either. Hopefully, as you point out Cate, discussion will make us more active as discriminating consumers. I think once we start questioning cultural value we start identifying the things we actually do value. Whether it is Porno fishing or Pavarotti, a questioning of “why do we like it” seems a beneficial exercise for the entire culture. But I say this hoping that we might not dwell too long on analyzing the sexual undertones or overtones of the hundreds of 30-minute cable shows currently airing. If anything, I think this questioning should be an exercise for tackling the more prevalent cultural artifacts, those that will last. However, maybe “Sport Fishing on the Fly” will prove one of our lasting cultural gems.

Cory Maclauchlin


The Remote Passed:
April 1-15, 2005 Carnivale
April 15-29, 2005 Adult Swim

Image Credits:
1. Catch and Release

Please feel free to comment.




Set Your Cathode Rays to Stun(ning)

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

I’m coming out … and I’m doing it on FLOW. I suppose that, in some ways, I’ve always known that I was a bit “different.” But the real signs started to emerge in high school, where I was frequently teased by other students. It was my taste in media, fashion, academic interests, and career aspirations that gave me away. Despite years of attempting to “project” otherwise, the truth is I am a bona fide flaming … nerd. What can I say, I loooove the sci fi, think space suits are sexy, enjoy reading about physics, astronomy, and mathematics, and desperately wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. Not long after I “graduated” with my wings from Space Camp in 1984, I quickly earned the nickname, Astro-Ott. Although I hated it at the time, in retrospect, I think it’s kind of a clever pun. So, today, I proudly announce and embrace my nerd-dom. In that spirit, this column is about what I like to call, “The best damn three hours of television in the known galaxy.” That’s right, the Sci Fi Channel’s Friday night lineup of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica.

Stargate Atlantis

Science fiction (not unlike myself in high school) frequently takes a beating from “popular” critics. When Stargate Atlantis premiered last season, New York Times critic Virginia Heffernan described the pilot episode as “tedious” and “dull,” adding that it is destined to become “nothing more than a relic of our own unenlightened time” (p. E22). Ouch! That hurts more than a Wraith bite or a Goa’uld Zatn’kitel Energy Pistol blast. Ok, I’ll admit that some of the criticisms of science fiction are well-grounded: the “science” is often not very scientific, the plotlines are as improbable as they are formulaic, the dialogue is filled with ridiculous techno-babble (though I am still determined to build a phase-converter), and the acting is frequently wooden. Heck, William Shatner owes much of his status as a cult-celebrity to his “unique” acting style. “So … perhaps it is …time … for us sci fi nerds to … activate … our own … self-destruct … buttons.” Not!!! No, instead, I’m going to try to make a few converts … and without the aid of my brainwashing device, the neural neutralizer. My love of science fiction is pretty simple: I believe that it stages contemporary social and political concerns in a manner that allows for critical self-reflection better than any other television genre.

Despite its spectacular spaceships, exotic aliens, and dazzling special effects, science fiction is about the present, and in particular, the social and political concerns of the present. Take Stargate SG-1, for example, a series that will soon surpass The X-Files as the longest running sci fi series in television history. The “Welcome” on the official SG-1 website reads, “Step through the Stargate with General Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and his SG-1 team of soldier-explorers as they travel instantaneously to other planets–meeting aliens, forging diplomatic ties, establishing trade … and best of all, kicking intergalactic-terrorist butt!” (See Stargate on SciFi). Sound like the foreign policy of any nation you know? The U.S. deploys its soldier-explorers (read: just soldiers) around the galaxy (read: globe), meeting aliens (read: anyone who is not an “American”), and kicking terrorist butt (read: sanctioning and sometimes bombing those who reject American ideology). By “staging” contemporary foreign policy in a fictional intergalactic setting, Stargate SG-1 allows us to reflect on the ways we name and respond to “cultural difference.” It raises questions about when and if we should become involved in the affairs of other worlds (read: nations). You may not agree with the policies of Stargate Command every week, but you can’t help but reflecting on U.S. policy as you watch.

Battlestar Galactica

Still not compelled to release your inner nerd? Let’s reflect for a moment on the Sci Fi Channel’s latest venture, Battlestar Galactica. This program is not so much a staging of current U.S. foreign policy as it is a staging of current U.S. fears about global politics. On the surface, the series appears simply to be a re-hashing of the short-lived 1978-79 series by the same name. Although both versions story a clash between humans and robotic Cylons, their narratives differ markedly. In the original series, the Cylons were obviously mechanical; they symbolized the fear of losing our humanity to technology (at a time of rapid technological innovation no less). In the new series, by contrast, the Cylons “look” human — a fact that viewers are reminded of at the outset of every episode. Describing the premise of the new series, Ned Martel writes, “The Cylon attack is sudden, in violation of a shaky truce, and perpetuated by sleeper agents. The eerie onset of cataclysm on the various planets … deliberately evoke[s] Sept. 11 horrors” (p. E10). In the new series, the whole of humanity is threatened by a few Cylon sleeper agents (read: terrorists and insurgents) who “look” human (read: but aren’t “really” human). Battlestar Galactica, then, is a symbolic “working out” of social fears, namely the fear that a network of not-really-human agents could suddenly and without warning destroy us and our world. But as Commander Adama (played brilliantly by Edward James Olmos) intones in the premiere episode, “We still visit all of our sins upon our children”–a statement that Martel interprets as a warning to viewers about the dangers of “colonialism or any paternalistic form of arming future enemies” (p. E10). Now that’s a message worth reflecting on–one that resonates, I hope, as something “more than a relic of our own unenlightened time.”

So, yes, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica do rehearse the tired conventions of science fiction. But chief among those generic conventions is the staging of contemporary social and political concerns. Star Trek storied the Cold War, The Matrix storied anxiety over simulation and network culture, and the Sci Fi Channel’s Friday night lineup stories contemporary global politics. So, I watch. Not because of some childhood dream of blasting into outerspace, but because I want to better understand how our culture expresses its concerns, fears, and feelings about the world and “our” place in it. And it is why I urge you to watch as well. As Captain Kirk might say, “Set … your cathode rays… to stun(ning).”

References
Heffernan, V. (2004, July 16). “Atlantis mystery is solved; Now, about the wormhole.” The New York Times (Late Edition – Final), p. E22.
Martel, N. (2003, December 08). “The Cylons are back and humanity is in deep trouble.” The New York Times (Late Edition – Final), p. E10.

Image Credits:

1. Stargate Atlantis

2. Battlestar Galactica

Links of Interest:
Alien Nation
Star Trek
Time Tunnel
Guide for Babylon 5
Famous actors in Sci Fi Hall of Fame
Stargate
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Please feel free to comment.




An Open Letter to the Food Network

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Dear Food Network,

I like cooking and I like eating, so I often use you as my default channel when there is nothing else on. But increasingly I find myself frustrated with the fare you churn out. First of all, I know it’s unrealistic to expect a commercial cable channel to be uncommercial, but do you have to have so many commercial breaks — seemingly more than any other channel? I find this especially annoying given that many of your shows are themselves advertisements. I’m thinking not only of shows like Unwrapped, which are basically industrial films showcasing candy bar factories, but also shows like Top Five Marketing Moments, which tell the story of advertising campaigns of yore. (I was narcissistic enough to agree to be a commentator on that one, but it’s turned into a nightmare. I never considered the fact that you repeat programs even more frequently than Bravo, so at odd hours of the night I flip to you for solace and distraction only to confront Anna McCarthy’s double chin and weird nasal accent.)

Let me also complain for a moment about your hosts. I’ll go through them in the order in which I revile them:

1. Bobby Flay. An earlier column disparaged him enough, so I’ll just say here that his recipes are really terrible. They’re ostentatiously restaurantish, not things you’d ever enjoy making or eating at home.

2. Like Bobby Flay, Emeril emits a fraternity brother vibe that I find very tiresome (no offense to my Greek brethren.) But what really annoys me about Emeril is the way he tries so hard, especially when he tries to be down with the Black guys in his band. The recipes are actually okay — overseasoned, but the techniques basically work.

3. Rachael Ray. The chirpiness drives me crazy. And while I appreciate the 30-minute meal concept, I think her approach is all wrong. Why try to make a quick, ersatz version of bouillabaisse? What’s the point? It won’t taste as good as the real thing. Why not show people how to make a good salad dressing, or a Spanish omelette? Things with only 4 or 5 ingredients? I make tons of meals in less than 30 minutes, but they’re not fussy stuff. And they make use of things I have lying around, not ingredients that require a special trip to the store. Plus, I have a feeling that most people make pasta for dinner when they want to cook and eat quickly. Why not show us variations on different quick sauces for pasta?

4. Alton Brown. I used to love him. There’s something very appealing about all the science, and even though some might find the Ernie Kovacs-esque style of Good Eats cheesy, I think it’s well done and inventive. But last month I caught a show in which he claimed that a tarragon sauce made with fat free yoghurt and a ton of dried tarragon added at the last minute is just as good as a traditional tarragon sauce (which would, I presume involve a roux, infused milk or cream, and a lot more calories). Basically, I think you are on the right track with Alton Brown because he focuses on technique and principles, but this low fat direction is really wrong. More about this later.

5. Sara Moulton. She’s a good cook, but she’s so sweet and earnest. It only affirms my sense of the gender divide among your stars. The guys get to be wisecracking impresarios, but the gals (not only Rachael and Sara but also Giada of Everyday Italian, who surely never eats) are all uniformly nice. Perky and fun. And always nurturing. What’s more, they perform a maddening girly affect around rich or fattening food. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s sort of a variation on the familiar “ooh this is so forbidden” script.

I won’t go on with the list, although there’s surely more to say about Mario Batali, or the Food 911 guy, or Roker on the Road. Just let me finish, dear Food Network, by talking about what seems to be the deepest “issue” you raise for me. I just get depressed at having to confront the sad, obsessive, and ultimately contradictory American relationship to eating whenever I flip to your shows. There just isn’t room here for me to rant about American fat obsessions. I have friends, both men and women, who are utterly consumed by fat calories and carbs, and for whom exercise exists only in relation to food. They think about eating and staying thin more than they think about anything else. What’s going on?

The recent widely publicized revisions of the FDA’s dietary guidelines emphasize the fact that people are eating too many processed foods and not enough basic healthy fruits and vegetables. In light of such recent attempts at culinary governance there’s something really perverse about the way you spend hours promoting processed sugar products like candy and pie. I don’t mean to sound moralistic — I actually think it’s great that you celebrate sugar and fat and all those things. But I can’t stand the way you air three hours of Unwrapped in a row then turn around and have Alton Brown teach people how to make disgusting low fat versions of recipes that deserve to be made properly — calories and all. There’s no middle ground between excess and self-denial in your shows, and that’s very sad for those of us who love to cook and to eat.

The fact of the matter is, as Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times Magazine last year, Americans are fat compared to Europeans because their portion sizes are far too big, and they eat way too much processed food. Fatkins notwithstanding, Americans remain scandalized by how fatty the European diet is, and they can’t understand why Europeans are so thin. (Yes, I know class is a factor in the U.S., but it doesn’t explain everything given that Europeans of all classes are thinner than Americans). What you convey to me about American relationships to food, Food Network, is that there’s little respect for basic ingredients. You don’t encourage people to stop and admire a lovely fresh Savoy cabbage in the produce aisle. You don’t encourage them to cook with interesting but widely available staples like lentils. Is it just that there’s no brand-name tie-in?

My dream show would not be the spectator sport of watching some arrogant guy make a blood orange reduction. It would be a show that focuses on fresh ingredients and how to prepare them — sort of like Alton Brown’s Good Eats, but without the gadgetry and the “healthy” substitutions. That would be really something. Perhaps what I have in mind is the Nigella Lawson model, without the poshness and pretension. A cookbook of the air. Yes, it’s very middlebrow, but that’s where I come from. You can’t change your nature.

In closing, I offer a recipe of my own as a model for the kind of stuff you could do. It’s barely a recipe at all, really. It uses as few ingredients as possible and it combines them in a common-sense way, making a perfectly fine dinner when you have it with a nice bit of cheese, a baguette, and a glass of wine. This is the kind of thing I’d like to see more of when I turn to you during commercial breaks in The O.C.

Fennel Salad (serves 2)

Ingredients:
1 Fennel bulb
Extra virgin olive oil (optional)
Lemon juice
Sea salt (ideally Maldon Salt from the U.K. See self-identification as middlebrow, above)
Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

1. Remove the stalks and fronds from the fennel and slice crosswise in thin slices. (You can use a mandoline to do this if you want to be very tidy. When cut with the finest blade the result is something like fennel slaw, which is not bad at all. In fact makes it a good side-dish for something like Pork Tenderloin roasted with fennel seeds.)

2. In a large bowl toss fennel slices with the juice of half a lemon, a big pinch of sea salt and enough twists of the pepper grinder to make your carpal tunnel syndrome flare up. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and toss again. (Sometimes I omit the oil, for example, when serving the salad as a side dish with fish, and end up wondering if it’s better that way. Try it and see what you think.)

3. Serve on a nice serving plate. Or not. If you want to make it beforehand this will keep an hour or so in the fridge.

Thanks for listening,

Anna

Links
Food TV
Bobby Flay
The Anti-Bobby Flay Webring
Alton Brown
Sara Moulton
FDA
International Cooking Links

Please feel free to comment.




Interview: Jason Reich, writer on The Daily Show

by: Chris Lucas / FLOW Staff

The Daily Show

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Why do you think The Daily Show has achieved such widespread success? And more importantly, how do you think it is that a comedic commentary on the news could persuade so many to believe that what is said is the truth?

I think The Daily Show owes its success to that fact that we fill a rather unique niche in the media and comedy landscape. Nobody else out there is doing exactly what we do. While other comedy shows might touch on current events or poke fun at the news media, I can’t think of another show that combines parody and analysis in quite the same way. Of course, it’s taken the show a long time to find this exact voice, and I think the way the show’s popularity has exploded in the past couple of years is a testament to the fact that, particularly during that time, we’ve really been doing something all our own. As for “persuasion,” we’re not trying to persuade anybody to think anything. We’re merely offering our own commentary on the news. Read the papers and decide for yourself what the truth is. At the end of the day, we’re just telling jokes.

Can you describe the process of putting together a show? How many writers are there? How much creative freedom do writers have and how much is directed by the show’s producers? What role does the on-screen talent (Stewart, et al) play in the writing of the show? Are certain topics taboo and, if so, why?

Our day begins at 9:30 am when our team of ten writers meets with our head writer and several researchers. We skim the papers, review the footage we’ve received, and decide which stories are dominating the news ? those become our “Headlines.” The meeting is also a chance for any writers to pitch ideas for correspondent standups or other segments (“This Week In God,” etc.). The day’s assignments are divided up among the writing staff, and we all go back to our offices and write, usually alone or in pairs, for most of the morning. Mid-afternoon, the material we’ve written goes to head writer DJ Javerbaum, executive producer Ben Karlin, and of course, Jon Stewart. Together they select the best material for the show and edit any correspondent pieces that have been submitted. The rest of the day is devoted to re-writing or working ahead for shows later in the week. At 5:15 we rehearse, and then the audience comes in and we tape the show.

The correspondents, when they’re in the office and not on a field shoot, do contribute a lot to the writing. We’ll frequently sit down and work with them on pieces. And we get a lot of freedom in terms of the ideas and jokes we can submit. We are certainly encouraged to be creative and experiment ? better to pitch a crazy idea that doesn’t work than keep a great idea to yourself. We’re not too concerned about taboos, either. We try to avoid death and tragedy, but beyond that, if it’s happening, it’s pretty much fair game.

Do TDS producers/writers/talent organize or write material based on a presumed target audience? Are guest bookings similarly scheduled with a demographic appeal in mind? Guests seem to vary from celebs hocking their latest product to Senators and ex-presidents discussing the political climate, how is this disparity managed?

We’re writing and producing a show for a relatively young audience, so that does play a role in how we approach the material, but we’ve got an extremely smart viewership, too, so we never feel we have to dumb anything down. I think that’s also why we can get a tremendous variety of guests. Jon and our guest producer Hilary Kun are well aware of what’s happening in the worlds of both politics and entertainment, so when booking interviews they try to cover a wide range of interests. I don’t see it so much as a “disparity” as merely an attempt to keep the show fresh, interesting and topical.

Regarding you and/or the rest of the staff: what writing jobs have you had before TDS? Does the staff mostly come from late-night comedy? What is the average age of the writing team? How long have most of you been with the show?

Our writing staff, which ranges in age from mid-20s to 40-ish, comes from a fairly wide range of backgrounds. We have several people with experience in comedy, be it television writing or standup. Quite a few of our writers have journalism backgrounds, and others have done time in fields like advertising or graphic design, but have always had a talent and ambition for writing TV comedy. All of the ten writers currently on staff have been with the show for at least a year; most have two to five years experience with the show, and one has been around since the very first Daily Show ever aired. I, personally, did a lot of writing with comedy groups both in college and after graduating in New York, and I got television experience as a production assistant for an NBC sitcom and then as the writers’ assistant on The Daily Show, but getting staffed on the show was the first paying writing gig of my career.

What do you think about a large portion of today’s opinion being based off satire rather than traditional means of journalism? Is this a concern or inspiration when you write?

I think satire is a much more effective way to make a point than than just hitting your audience over the head with heavy-handed opinion. First of all, it’s more artful. Instead of coming out directly and saying, “such-and-such is a problem,” we have more leeway in finding creative ways to get our point across. I think even if a joke has serious undertones to it, comedy is a lot less preachy and lot more accessible than finger pointing and lecturing. And of course, we’re also giving our viewers something to laugh at. Our show certainly has a point of view, but you can also watch it without having to worry about what its “message” is. Hopefully, The Daily Show works on both levels for our audience.

Do you think there could ever be a political satire program with a conservative bend? Or are conservatives??just not funny?

Sure, I think conservative political satire can exist. I think that part of the reason what we do is so frequently perceived as “liberal” is because we’re talking about the news, and these days, the people making the news are, by and large, conservatives. When one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, they’re going to be the target of the lion’s share of our punchlines, but that doesn’t mean the left isn’t deserving of scorn, either. Conservatives are definitely funny. Have you read anything by Ann Coulter lately? Hysterical. Seriously, she’s hysterical.

I remember a joke on the show after the Emmy about the writers’ “diversity” (while showing a picture of a staff of white male writers). How much is this still (or was it ever really) the case? How does this relate to issues of target audience? Does the demographic makeup of the writing crew matter as far as writing for a specific audience?

We get asked questions like this a lot, and I firmly believe that the demographic makeup of our writing staff plays little to no part in issues of target audience. Yes, there may be a bunch of white men on our writing staff, but it doesn’t follow at all to say that that’s also the target audience we’re going for. Similar to the way we don’t book guests targeted for a specific audience segment, I don’t think there’s a specific “target demographic” in our mind when we’re writing the show’s material. We’re just trying to put together the funniest, most interesting, most insightful show possible, hopefully one that appeals to a wide range of people.

I’m an avid watcher of The Daily Show and enjoy almost everything Jon Stewart and his minions do. It does seem that the writers rely on gay jokes for many of your pieces. Why is that?

I wouldn’t necessarily say we “rely on” gay jokes for a lot of pieces, but I do think that jokes about sexuality or other “dangerous” topics are a good way to ease the tension when talking about already delicate topics. While we do like our material to have something to say, we’re not above mixing things up a little bit by approaching something from a sillier angle. We can only do so many weighty jokes about how bad things are in Iraq until we feel the need to toss in a poop joke and lighten things up a bit.

In an NPR interview on Sunday, Art Spiegelman claimed that comic writers and satirists (including himself and The Daily Show) are only permitted to speak because they are “castrated,” like medieval fools. How far is the TDS enabled or diminished by disclaimers like, “We only do fake news”?

I don’t think we’re hindered by that at all. After all, we’re not the news. I think it’s great that people see us as a valuable source of commentary, but watching The Daily Show should be a supplement to whatever other news sources you use, not a substitute. We’ve never claimed to be anything other than a comedy show, and I think if we were to claim some sort of legitimacy as a “real news” outlet, it would diminish what we’re able to get away with ? we wouldn’t be able to comment on the news media, which we do almost as often as we comment on current events. I’m glad that people respond to us, and I’m glad that Jon is taken seriously when he does speak on topics that are important to him, but we’d never claim to be more than “the fake news.” We just don’t want that kind of actual responsibility.

Are conservative media groups trying to get TDS off the air? Do you receive hate mail? Intimidating letters? Threats to boycott sponsors? In other words, how do conservative media groups respond to The Daily Show and how seriously are they taken?

As far as I know, there are no crusades being mounted to get us off the air. I think even staunch conservatives see the folly in trying to portray a basic cable comedy show as some sort of enemy of the people. We’re the little guy. Sure, every so often we’ll get a letter from someone who was upset by something we said, but no more often than any other comedy program or TV show gets those same kind of letters. We’ve had plenty of conservative guests on, and I think for the most part, they understand what we’re doing and they appreciate the humor. We’re really not out to make anybody mad. We just want to keep quietly doing our thing, albeit on the higher end of your cable dial.

Links
Bear Left Link Library
The Daily Show Site
Warner Books
Footnotes for The Daily Show
Salon.com Feature: The Daily Show
PopMatters Review: The Daily Show
The Daily Show Forum
The Online Gadfly
Ann Coulter’s Website

Image Credits:

The Daily Show


Please feel free to comment.




To Pee or Not to Pee: On the Politics of Cultural Appropriation

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

I live in a borderland, in a space of crossings, in an in-between. I live in Fort Collins. Sure, with relative ease you can locate and thus seemingly isolate it on a map. But a map lacks perspective, movement, and contour. It does not adequately capture how Fort Collins is pulled, even torn, between the mythical vision of cowboy country to the North and the magical wonders of Californication to the South. Fort Collins, you see, lies nearly equal distance from Cheyenne, Wyoming and Boulder, Colorado. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that while driving down the street one is as likely to see a bumper sticker for Pat Buchanan as for Ralph Nader. I grew up on the East Coast, so when I moved to Fort Collins seven years ago, I was immediately struck by the sheer volume of “automobile art” — alright, cheap car decals. But I guess when you live in a borderland, you feel an irrepressible urge to be immediately clear about who you are, where you stand, and what you like to pee on. With just one well-placed sticker, a driver can unequivocally communicate, “Howdy, I’m an American. I love my Ford F-150. And if given the chance, I — like this little cartoon boy — would relieve myself all over your foreign import.” Or if one prefers, a decal that informs fellow drivers, “Dude, I believe we ought to legalize marijuana. And later today, I — like this little cartoon boy — plan to … what was I talking about?”

Although I appreciate the courtesy of my fellow drivers letting me know what pisses them off and whom they’d like to piss on, I can’t help but notice that they have adopted the same cultural icon to convey, at times, very divergent targets of distaste. That icon is, of course, Calvin from the Bill Watterson cartoon strip, Calvin and Hobbes. In graduate school, I quite enjoyed reading this strip; it was clear that Watterson had a familiarity with contemporary literary and social theory. And though I do not recall Calvin ever peeing on anything then, it seems to me that today he enjoys peeing on everything (see Examples). In fact, as near as I can tell, Calvin suffers from a serious bladder control problem and urinates utterly indiscriminately. He’s as likely to pee on a Ford as a Chevy, on John Kerry as George Bush, on Bin Laden as an ex-wife. When the wind’s blowing in the wrong direction, I’ve even seen Calvin pee on himself. Aside from the obvious fact that peeing indiscriminately de-politicizes one’s urine by transforming it from a sharp, stinging stream of social critique into a widely dispersed, gentle mist of cultural populism, I’m struck by the range of “calls” (nature and otherwise) to which Calvin has responded. One is just as likely to see Calvin praying, kneeling before a cross, or carrying a bible as Calvin urinating, though “spiritual” Calvin is apparently more comfortable on high-priced, gas-guzzling SUVs than on pick-up trucks. Now, I’ll admit I don’t know what Calvin’s praying for. Maybe he’s thankin’ God for this sweet ride or maybe he’s praying for a new bladder? But I do know that mass marketing has long since destroyed whatever counter-cultural meaning Calvin may once have held. Indeed, you can customize Calvin so that he pees on the thing you personally despise (see Link).

Calvin is, of course, not the only icon or even cartoon for that matter to be appropriated for counter-cultural use only to later be co-opted and mass marketed as a symbol of resistance and even a symbol of propriety and spirituality. I see several parallels, for instance, with Bart Simpson. When The Simpsons began its regular prime-time run in January of 1990, Bart was quickly appropriated as an icon of rebellion (Conrad, 2001, p. 75). A modified “Black Bart” became a popular image in African-American culture (Parisi, 1993, p. 125) and a plaster Bart wearing a poncho appeared as part of a resistive, performance art piece title, “The Temple of Confessions” (Gomez-Pena & Sifuentes, 1996, p. 19). Bootlegged T-shirts of Bart saying, “Underachiever and Proud of It” and “Don’t Have a Cow, Man” began appearing on street corners and in high schools everywhere. The response to this cultural appropriation was swift and harsh. It included both the prosecution of independent vendors for copyright violation and the banning of Bart Simpson T-shirts in many high schools across the country. In retrospect, it appears that the problem was not with the message of rebellion, but with who was profiting off of that message. Today, Bart Simpson T-shirts are widely available in stores such as Hot Topic, whose entire premise from store design to store employees is to sell consumers an image of resistance and counter-culture. But Bart Simpson T-shirts with the slogan, Eat My Shorts), just ring hollow now. In the early 1990s, that message truly meant something, namely, “I reject your authority, and, as such, I invite you to consume my underwear.” But today wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt no longer marks one as “anti-authoritarian,” it simply marks one as a “consumer.” Perhaps the best evidence of this is the stunning array of Simpsons related merchandise now available.

Having watched over the years as Calvin, Bart, Beavis and Butt-head, and the characters on South Park have gone from “subversive images” to mainstream commodities, I can’t help but wonder if cultural appropriation remains a viable tactic of cultural resistance in a postmodern consumer culture. It sure seems like the moment that an icon becomes a recognizable symbol of resistance that it is immediately co-opted and sold to the very individuals who subverted it in the first place. I have a large collection of Simpsons’ toys from the early ‘90s in my office at school. Seven years ago, I could tell that this made some of my colleagues uneasy, even uncomfortable. But today, none of them seem to care. They find my toys amusing, and that, well … really pisses me off.

References

Conrad, M. “Thus spake Bart: On Nietzsche and the virtues of being bad.” In W. Irwin, M. Conrad, and A. Skoble (Eds.), The Simpsons and philosophy: The d’oh! of Homer. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001. 59-77.

Gomez-Pena, G, & R. Sifuentes. Temple of confessions: Mexican beasts and living Santos. New York: powerHouse, 1996.

Parisi, P. “‘Black Bart’ Simpson: Appropriation and revitalization in commodity culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, 27 (1993): 125-42.

Links
“Pop Culture Appropriates Warning”
Intellectual Property laws and Negativland
The Che store
Boing Boing: The Folkloric History of those “Calvin Peeing” Car Stickers

Please feel free to comment.