Crossing the Sonic Color Line: TV Voiceover Narration in Never Have I Ever
Crystal Camargo / Northwestern University

Tennis legend John McEnroe and Mindy Kaling for her Netflix comedy 'Never Have I Ever'
Tennis legend John McEnroe narrates Mindy Kaling’s Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever (2020-).

Prior to the premiere of Mindy Kaling’s Netflix show Never Have I Ever (2020), a comedy inspired by Kaling’s own teenage years as a first-generation Indian American girl, The Hollywood Reporter announced that 1980’s tennis legend John McEnroe would narrate the series.[ (( Porter, Rick. “Mindy Kaling’s Netflix Comedy Gets Title, Snags John McEnroe.” Hollywood Reporter, September 11, 2019. ))] McEnroe discussed his role on the show during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, sharing that Kaling’s parents were “big tennis fans, they used to watch me play way back when.”[ (( John McEnroe interview for Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC, 2014 -). Season 6, Episode 144. Aired on September 10, 2019. ))] Additionally, Kaling told USA Today that “one thing that’s common for a lot of Indian parents is a love of tennis. It’s like an English Anglophile kind of thing.”[ (( Ryan, Patrick. “Never Have I Ever’: How Mindy Kaling snagged John McEnroe to narrate (and cameo!). April 28, 2020. ))] McEnroe’s participation in the show is a sweet nod to Kaling’s and other Indian parents who love tennis; it also adds a sentimental touch to the series, as McEnroe is the idol of the main character’s late father.

Yet while watching the first episode, I grew uncomfortable listening to an older white man narrate the life of the overachieving and thirsty Devi (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and her racially diverse best friends and love interests, and discuss the issues addressed on the show, such as South Asian identity, teen sexuality, and Hinduism. As I continued to watch, I thought about Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s concept of the sonic color line, the historical process through which sound has been racialized.[ (( Stoever, Jennifer Lynn. The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening. Vol. 17. NYU Press, 2016. ))] Stoever highlights how ideologies of race help the listener make sense of who we are listening to. For example, listeners make racialized assumptions about the identity of the speaker based on accents, dialect, speech, and extraverbal utterances. Like many others, I have been listening to white male voices all my life, and thus I was able to quickly pick up the sonic racial and gender markers of whiteness from the narrator. My aural and visual signifiers of race were utterly confused as I listened to McEnroe’s white voice but visually saw Devi and her parents’ brown faces and bodies.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ramona Young, and Lee Rodriguez as Devi, Eleanor, and Fabiola in 'Never Have I Ever'
Devi (left) and her racially diverse best friends Eleanor (middle) and Fabiola (right).

Numerous scholars have investigated how white men and women have crossed the sonic color line by mimicking and performing racialized sound, dialect, and accents, amongst other sonic markers. For example, Michele Hilmes discusses how white radio actors Freeman Fisher Gosden and Charles Correll performed a sonic blackness for neo-minstrel characters in the series Amos ‘n’ Andy (1928-1960).[ (( Hilmes, Michele. “Invisible Men: Amos ‘n’ Andy and the Roots of Broadcast Discourse.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 10, no. 4 (1993): 301-321. ))] Priscilla Peña Ovalle similarly uncovers that Betty Wand, a white woman, dubbed Rita Moreno’s vocals for “A Boy Like That” in the film adaptation of West Side Story (Wise and Robbins, 1961) because the production believed that Moreno did not have the sonic “Latina” ferocity that the scene demanded.[ (( Ovalle, Priscilla Peña. Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom. Rutgers University Press, 2011. ))] Lastly, Shilpa S. Davé reveals how Apu Nahasapeempetilon, a recurring Indian character in The Simpsons (1989—), is voiced by Hank Azaria, a white man performing an accented brown voice.[ (( Davé, Shilpa S. Indian accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. University of Illinois Press, 2013. ))] These examples point to the instability between pairing the “look” and “sound” of race in popular culture, as one might be watching a person of color on screen while hearing a white voice.

Furthermore, as argued by Stoever, sonic technologies—such as radio, dubbing, and voiceovers—allow for the possibility of crossing the sonic color line in popular culture. Historically speaking, white voices have always had the ability to cross the sonic color line, often stereotyping, reducing, and appropriating marginalized communities. This pattern reveals how sonic technologies are part of a larger legacy of U.S. media’s long allegiance to upholding white supremacist ideology. In the case of Never Have I Ever, the white voiceover narrator also acts as a sonic technological and narrative technique that interjects whiteness itself into an otherwise racially diverse story. The older white male narrator guides, frames, comments, and inserts himself into the multiracial and diverse story world, which affects representation and diversity on the small screen as McEnroe regularly chimes in with commentary on Devi’s inner thoughts, poor decisions, and her relationships with her friends and family.

Example of John McEnroe’s narration in Never Have I Ever.

The discourses of Brownness and whiteness in Never Have I Ever are mutually entwined categories. Devi’s Indianness, specifically her Hindu teen girl identity, is co-constructed alongside McEnroe’s white, male, and sports narrator identity within the first two minutes of the series. Shortly after praying to a shrine of Hindu gods, Devi Vishwakumar is introduced by the narrator as a “15-year-old Indian American girl from Sherman Oaks, California,” on her first day of sophomore year. The narrator immediately transitions, introducing himself as, “And I am legendary tennis player John McEnroe,” where the music changes to an upbeat soundtrack. We hear crowds excitedly cheering for him and see historical footage of him, highlighting McEnroe’s famous tennis career. Then, underscoring the strangeness of this voiceover choice, McEnroe confesses, “You may be asking yourself, why is sports icon John McEnroe narrating this tale?” The scene quickly cuts back to images of Devi getting ready for school, in which he responds, “It will make sense later, I promise,” as he transitions back to Devi’s story.

While McEnroe quickly redirects the story back to the protagonist, and this brief aside is played for laughs, simultaneously the series via the narrator establishes a form of sonic whiteness. In his collection, The Persistence of Whiteness, Daniel Bernardi writes, “whiteness is addressed explicitly as a racial code and indirectly as an implicit discourse that fractures the representation and stories of other colors.”[ (( Bernardi, Daniel, Ed. The Persistence of Whiteness: Race and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Routledge, 200. ))] By introducing and identifying McEnroe, the series implicitly fractures Devi’s story in Never Have I Ever. The audience has to pay attention to a 15-year-old Indian American girl’s daily trials and tribulations while also trying to figure out why a white male sports icon narrates the series.

What unites McEnroe and Devi is their short temperament. In a flashback scene, Devi’s father, Mohan, compares McEnroe’s performance at a tennis match to Devi’s personality: “Look at him giving it back to that umpire. He’s a firecracker… just like you.” A second later, McEnroe narrates, “I told you it would make sense.” As an omniscient narrator, McEnroe makes constant jokes and comments about his and Devi’s short fuse. For example, when Devi shouts at her friend Fabiola, McEnroe adds, “we hotheads fly off the handle.” These caustic and comic asides diminish cultural differences between the narrator and the main protagonist, specifically the racial, gendered, and spatial politics of having and displaying a quick temperament.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Richa Moorjani, and Poorna Jagannathan as Devi, Kamala, and Nalini in Episode 4 of 'Never Have I Ever'
Never Have I Ever Episode 4, titled “…felt super Indian.” Devi (left) and Kamala (middle).

Never Have I Ever is culturally specific, representing an Indian Hindu family at the center of the show; however, the series utilizes the narrator’s sonic whiteness to universalize Indian Hindu cultures and traditions for white audiences. When Devi’s cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) reluctantly agrees to an arranged marriage in the series, McEnroe narrates, “Kamala had a sinking feeling. She didn’t want to get married, but she put on a happy face like I did at the trophy ceremony when I lost the French Open to Ivan Lendl in 1984.” Recalling this moment, McEnroe told Vanity Fair that the narration used the worst tennis memory of his life to describe Kamala’s apparent lack of agency and discontent in her arranged marriage.[ (( Liebman, Lisa. “Why Mindy Kaling Tapped John McEnroe to Be Her New Show’s Secret Weapon” Variety Fair, April 27, 2020. ))] Furthermore, while celebrating Ganesh Puja, Devi struggles between feeling too Indian and not Indian enough, as seen in a conversation with her friend, Harish. Not seeing eye to eye with their Indian identity, Devi ends the conversation and awkwardly says, “I love being Indian” as she walks away. McEnroe immediately narrates, “Real convincing, Devi. I look more comfortable being Indian.”

McEnroe’s narration sonically opens up a racial space of projection and identification in these examples, constructing different viewpoints of Indian Hindi traditions and identity through his whiteness. While white audiences might not fully grasp Kamala’s feelings towards an arranged marriage or Devi’s struggle with her Indian identity, McEnroe’s comparisons and absurd commentary provides a white translation of these culturally specific struggles. The series achieves a form of universality through McEnroe’s whiteness and sports identity, a sport with a long history of white elitism.

Mindy Kaling and John McEnroe on the set of 'Never Have I Ever'
Mindy Kaling (middle) on the set of Never Have I Ever with John McEnroe (right).

In this series, as with many other series I examine in my scholarship, whiteness exceeds the visuality of race on television, creating what Richard Dyer recognizes as an “invisible” form of whiteness that is perceived to be “ordinary, neutral, and even universal.”[ (( Dyer, Richard. White. Routledge, 1997. ))] The widespread popular culture coverage of Never Have I Ever has either appraised the series for normalizing diversity, as most characters are people of color, or occasionally criticized the problematic portrayal of Indian cultural tropes, such as arranged marriages. Overall, most of the series documentation omits the narrator from conversations around racial representation or diversity. This is an example of how sonic whiteness via voice narration is uncritically assumed to be “ordinary,” even though it has an active role in the show’s racialized representation.

By looking beyond the visuality of race and pairing it with the sonic alongside TV techniques, we can understand how producers insert whiteness into the technical, aesthetic, and narrative chains of TV production, fracturing the representations of other races on screen. Next time you watch a series such as Never Have I Ever with a diverse racial cast and culturally specific storylines, I encourage you to pay special attention to audiovisual elements such as a narration, subtitles, or laugh tracks. Ask if these TV styles or aesthetics are reproducing a form of invisible whiteness—one you might hear but not see.

Image Credits:

  1. Tennis legend John McEnroe narrates Mindy Kaling’s Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever (2020-).
  2. Devi (left) and her racially diverse best friends Eleanor (middle) and Fabiola (right).
  3. Example of John McEnroe’s narration in Never Have I Ever.
  4. Never Have I Ever Episode 4, titled “…felt super Indian;” Devi (left) and Kamala (middle).
  5. Mindy Kaling (middle) on the set of Never Have I Ever with John McEnroe (right).


Policing Pop Culture: “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” and Representing Southern Law Enforcement
Phoebe Bronstein/University of California, San Diego

screenshot from Danny Meets Andy

A still from the Make Room for Daddy episode “Danny Meets Andy Griffith.”

In February of 1960, The Andy Griffith Show premiered on CBS as a backdoor pilot to Make Room for Daddy (ABC, 1953–57; CBS, 1957–65): “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” (Feb 5 1960). [ ((The earlier ABC incarnation of Make Room for Daddy was called The Danny Thomas Show.)) ] While there is much to say about the unlikely success of Andy Griffith–which premiered at the height of the Civil Rights Movement–this column will focus on the construction of the Southern police in the pilot. “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” provides particular insight, given its timing and topic, into how a popular culture text reflected and obscured anxieties about the police, institutionalized racism, and the South. The end of this column then briefly considers “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” within the context of contemporary pop culture police representations.

Andy Griffith was not CBS’s first attempt at setting a primetime show in the South. Earlier efforts included the pre-emptively canceled Confederate-drama The Gray Ghost (1954) and the season-long Reconstruction-era western Yancy Derringer (1958-1959). But it was the network’s first successful attempt to feature the South in primetime. The region had, before Andy Griffith, posed concerns for networks and advertisers, worried about offending and alienating white Southern audiences with racially progressive television, or even with programs that appeared to critique the racism vividly on display in Civil Rights news broadcasts. [ ((For more on the ways in which Andy Griffith and earlier southern representations negotiated these concerns, see Eric Barnouw’s Tube of Plenty, Stephen Classen’s Watching Jim Crow, and Allison Graham’s Framing the South. )) ]

Central to communicating the terror and violence of the white South were a series of Southern sheriffs featured on nightly news broadcasts [ (( Graham, Allison and Sharon Monteith, “Southern Media Cultures,” in Media, ed. Allison Graham and Sharon Monteith, vol. 18 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011, p.17. )) ] . These men were versions of the same model–sweaty, overweight, angry, and ill-spoken types with deep Southern drawls. Their image came to stand for all that was wrong, terrifying, and violent about the region. As Allison Graham and Sharon Monteith note, by 1963, “nationally and internationally circulated images of [Birmingham, Alabama] city police commissioner Bull Connor worked as cultural shorthand, communicating within seconds the reasons for black protests and the kind of violent resistance that would meet them” [ (( Ibid., pp. 21-22. )) ] . These images, which allowed a national audience to see “glimpses of the brutality black citizens had lived with for over a century,” suggested that racism had a particular look and feel and was the fault of a few individual bad men, rather than a systemic problem. [ (( Ibid. )) ]

It is within this violent context that Andy Griffith premiered. The tensions and discomforts of representing the South construct Andy and the sitcom’s whitewashed world from the outset. “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” featured Danny (Danny Thomas) and his family traveling through the rural South by car. [ (( It’s worth noting here that Danny Thomas was Lebanese, which complicates his position in the South in interesting and important ways. )) ] The episode begins as Danny pulls into town behind Sheriff Andy’s police car after Andy has pulled him over for running a stop sign. Danny is frantic and fast-talking with a thick New York accent. Andy moves and speaks more slowly. He takes Danny’s insults as they come, from calling Andy “hayseed” to mocking Andy’s Southern drawl and asserting that the stop sign is a tourist trap meant to trick poor visiting “city slickers” like himself. He even calls Andy the “Jesse James of the police.” Danny insists on pleading his case in front of the justice of the peace (who, of course, happens to be Andy), sure that his Northern rationality will win out. After all, Danny exclaims, “who’s heard of a stop sign with no road.”

Even as Danny insults Andy and the town of Mayberry, Andy remains calm and level-headed. He responds to Danny’s quick-talking outrage with logic and reason. Facing the camera and Danny’s children–and by proxy, the viewers–he explains that, indeed, the town did vote to put in a road six years ago but they’ve only raised enough money for a stop sign. Andy’s calm and fair demeanor renders Danny’s complaints, insults, and his assertion that he’s been duped ridiculous. Against Danny’s Northern brashness and the slew of Southern stereotypes he unleashes–which includes a claim that Andy probably doesn’t even know about television–Andy is calm, kind, and patient, not to mention, handsome. In fact, Andy is as far from a lawless Jesse James as one could possibly imagine.

Like earlier renditions of the police on television–for instance, Joe Friday of Dragnet–Andy’s appearance and mannerisms signal his moral fortitude and trustworthiness. Andy’s patience is epic, and even comic when juxtaposed against Danny’s small-mindedness about him and the South. Through their exchanges, Andy comes across as rational and fair-minded, while Danny appears childlike and petulant. Like Joe Friday and the police of 1950s procedurals, who as Jason Mittell asserts were “part of [the] social order…not to be questioned—at least not on mainstream television,” Andy’s presence as sheriff, justice of the peace, and jailer, carries the same authority [ (( Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Television. New York: Routledge, 2004, p.41. )) ] . Thus, when Andy charges Danny with $100 and ten days in jail for running a stop sign, we mostly feel empathy for Andy, who has to tolerate Danny’s rudeness, even as we know this punishment is perhaps excessive (and won’t be enforced).

Furthermore, Danny’s subsequent stint in jail is comfort-laden: home-cooked meals from Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and a cell door that doesn’t lock. The jail, the pilot suggests, can’t possibly be so bad, when citizens of Mayberry even voluntarily commit themselves to prison. As Danny stands and protests Andy’s position as the all-around law in these parts, a drunk older man stumbles in from the background and ambles up to Andy’s desk, declaring himself “under arrest.” The camera follows him as he locks himself into a cell, the next shot revealing a close-up of Danny and Margaret’s (Jean Hagen) confused expressions.

Reaction to man jailing himself

Danny and Margaret react to the man jailing himself.

At the height of Civil Rights violence and its attendant news coverage, Andy Griffith suggested an entirely different and virtually opposite vision of the white South, where even jails were friendly, despite nightly news reports providing clear evidence to the contrary. If, as Stuart Hall attests, “representation is a practice, a kind of ‘work,’ which uses material objects and effects,” where “the meaning depends, not on the material quality of a thing, but on its symbolic function,” then re-making the white Southern sheriff in the midst of civil rights news coverage on an entirely white sitcom worked to smooth over and re-imagine the symbolic function of Southern law enforcement, and by extension, the region [ (( Hall, Stuart. “The Work of Representation,” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997, pp.25-26. )) ] . Where the Southern sheriff by 1960 signaled all that was horrific and violent about the South, the pilot of Andy Griffith upends this image to envision both the Southern sheriff and Southern law enforcement more broadly as kind, compassionate, and above all fair. After all, Andy doesn’t even carry a gun and instead carries out Mayberry’s justice system with a gentle paternal touch.

Andy brings food to Danny

Andy brings Danny food in jail.

The set of complex and conflicting representational maneuvers enacted in “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” to re-make the South as safe provides a sustained example of how ideas about the police were tethered to ideas about America. This narrative smoothed over and obscured the cracks in the legal and political system which the Civil Rights Movement made glaringly visible. Notions of the police as the moral center still persist in contemporary pop culture and in many primetime police procedurals, from Law & Order to Major Crimes, Bones, Elementary, and the recently canceled Castle, to name just a few. More often than not, even when a corrupt cop plot arises, the episode resolves with the bad officer being jailed, killed, or at least dismissed. This plot device suggests that it is not the police system that is corrupt, but rather that bad policing is caused by bad individuals.

We must pay attention to contesting narratives, more often than not caught on tape, about systemic police violence–from the death of Sandra Bland in police custody to the murders of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, and too many more. Looking back at “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” we can see how the episode mocked racism and the attendant violence supported, enacted, and often condoned by Southern law enforcement. This vision was extremely effective in making the South safe for primetime viewers: Andy Griffith became one of the most successful television shows to ever air. The pilot, then, reminds us that police representations in popular culture still serve a dangerous ideological purpose that must be questioned, historicized, and, ultimately, re-imagined.

Image Credits:
All images are author’s screen grabs from Make Room For Daddy episode “Danny Meets Andy.”

Please feel free to comment.

Losing Cosby
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

Cosby faces allegations

Bill Cosby, the Fallen Comedy Icon

This began as an article on the fall of a Black comedy icon. After watching the Dateline interview with 27 of the 55 women who have accused Bill Cosby of being a sexual predator, on the same day that the 78-year-old comedian was forced to answer questions about an alleged 2008 attack at the Playboy Mansion, I had to question why I feel so personally angered and injured by this history of despicable actions.

As a Black Post-Boomer, Pre-Xer, eight-track tapes of Bill Cosby’s comedy provided my nap soundtracks. I grew up on The Electric Company and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and, later, on The Cosby Show. As a working class kid, I was weaned on the uplift-tinged stories of “you can’t be as good, you have to be better to get half as far.” In other words, although my folks were not in the same socio-economic zip code as the Huxtables, they were in the same ideological region.

As a middle-aged media scholar, I see 20th-century televisual iterations of Cosby as the poster boys of (Black) American exemplarism—whether as the integrationist Super Negro spy, Alexander Scott in I-Spy, or the patriarch of the Super African American Huxtable clan in The Cosby Show. The new millennial Cosby has positioned himself as the self-appointed cultural and moral arbiter for Black America and, most recently, has been called a serial predator.

In truth, losing Cosby—the desire for and belief in the illusive and impossible zeitgeist of his comic and socio-political discourse—started happening a long time ago. In Cosby’s infamous “Pound Cake” speech at the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in 2004, his words seemed rooted in a deep personal disappointment about how younger generations and the Black underclass had let him down. Indeed, Cosby’s turn towards activism and his “call-out” dates across the country in the late 2000s centered on the need to produce a brand of Blackness informed by self determination-fueled, socially and politically conservative tenets, which required that the less than talented 90% pay heed when he calls them out for behaviors that keep them “aspirationally challenged.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates stated in his 2008 article in The Atlantic,

As Cosby sees it, the antidote to racism is not rallies, protests, or pleas, but strong families and communities. Instead of focusing on some abstract notion of equality, he argues, blacks need to cleanse their culture, embrace personal responsibility, and reclaim the traditions that fortified them in the past. [ (( Ta-Nahesi Coates, ‘This Is How We Lost to the White Man’ The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism. The Atlantic, May 2008 accessed 9/1/15))]

While Cosby was not alone in this ideological directive, decades of his not “acting right” and not being the exemplar that he purported himself to be, undermined what Michael Eric Dyson referred to as his “Afristocrat in Winter” [ (( This is the title of the first chapter in Michael Eric Dyson’s 2006 book, Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?. Afristocracy speaks to what Dyson, and other cultural critics see as the classism and elitism in the Black Middle and Upper Middle Class.))] pronouncements as well as his legacy. It is both fitting—and profoundly disturbing—that the catalyst for his downfall came from another Black comic. When the video of Hannibal Buress’ 2014 Philadelphia show went viral, everything changed.

[Cosby] gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up, black people … I can talk down to you because I was on TV in the 80s.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches … When you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ That shit has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’

Needless to say, Buress’ rant did not cause over thirty-five women to tell their stories about Cosby’s predatory ways in New York Magazine [ (( Ella Ceron and Lainna Fader, “35 Women and the empty chair.” New York Magazine, July 28, 2015 Accessed July 30, 2015.))] nor did it necessarily raise questions about why, when some of these women came forward a decade before, it was their motivations and not Cosby’s actions that were called into question. As the title of Barbara Bowman’s Washington Post article stated bluntly, “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story? Only when a male comedian called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold.” [ (( Barbara Bowman, Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story? Only when a male comedian called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold.” The Washington Post Nov. 13, 2015 accessed 2/13/15))] Well… denial is a powerful thing—particularly when it threatens mythologies with which we have become comfortable. Who wanted to believe that “America’s Dad,” a Black comedy icon, was a sexual predator?

Cosby and Larry King

Cosby’s Previous Jokes Carry New Meanings

Yet, cracks in the idealized veneer of Cosby could be seen in years past. On a 1969 comedy album, Cosby has a long bit regaling the merits of the mythological aphrodisiac, Spanish Fly. While one might excuse this as a sign of more regressive times, Cosby reiterated this bit with some nostalgia on his 1991 appearance on Larry King Live: “Spanish Fly was the thing that all boys from age 11 on up to death…will still be searching for Spanish Fly.” The romanticizing exchange went on with Cosby stating, “…you put it in a drink,” and King replying, “That’s right. Drop it in her Coca-Cola – It don’t matter.” Then a chuckling Cosby responds “It doesn’t make any difference. And the girl would drink it,” and an equally delighted King finishes with “And she’s yours.” [ (( “Creepy Bill Cosby interview resurfaces, describes dropping ‘Spanish Fly’ in women’s drinks” The Griot, accessed 3/15/15))] In hindsight, the casualness and flippancy of Cosby’s words seems downright chilling. The image of the women on Dateline comes to mind: hands raised when asked if Cosby had drugged them. Cosby’s directives, offered from upon high, and his “public moralist” position empowered Judge Eduardo Robreno to release the 2004 deposition transcripts detailing how the comic utilized Quaaludes.

Cosby's accusers

Cosby’s Accusers Speak up on Dateline

The rapidity of Cosby’s downward spiral has shaken folks throughout the Black community, although, the impact may have some generational buffering. Black millennials, who saw The Cosby Show on Nick at Nite, have no real experience with him other than as a sitcom star or a pitchman. They may know about his accolades but they came of age with Black America’s scolding senior not the universalist funny man. When my student, Raymond Reid, a Black male born after The Cosby Show’s heyday, ranted unendingly about how much he hated Cosby’s pomposity, it made me wonder whether Cosby’s object lessons for Black success rang as hollow for Buress as they did for my student.

Cosby has lost his perch on the hierarchy of respectability and, along with the revoked honorary doctorates and severed ties with universities, the NBC series, and the Netflix special, he may be losing more—if the October 9 deposition reveals as much as the last did. Yet, what still remains both angering and painful for folks in the Black community is that Cosby was “our” icon and now he has become “our” shame. Brittney Cooper gave voice to what I feel:

The thing that I am most angry about besides Cosby’s violent, predatory acts toward his female victims is the collective sense of shame and disappointment that rests on the sagging shoulders of black folks in this moment. … Cosby now legitimates every awful thing that white people have been conditioned to think is true about Black men. If the innocuous, lovable, jello-pudding-pop man can’t be trusted, then no Black man can. [ (( Brittney Cooper, “Black America’s Bill Cosby Nightmare,” Salon July 9, 2015, accessed 8/10/15))]

In the end, this is about more than the fall of an icon—at least for us it is.

A controversial cover

A Shattered Image

Image Credits:
1. Bill Cosby, the Fallen Comedy Icon (author’s screen grab)
2. Cosby’s Previous Jokes Carry New Meanings (author’s screen grab)
3. Cosby’s Accusers Speak up on Dateline (author’s screen grab)
4. A Shattered Image

Please feel free to comment.

Content That Travels: International Content and Original Programming on U.S. Streaming Sites
Karen Petruska / University of California, Santa Barbara

The French series Les Revenants and its American adaptation.
“There’s a more level playing field in content creation and greater professionalism in the execution of small-screen content everywhere around the globe.” —The Hollywood Reporter

For a recent review of The Returned, an American adaptation of the French series, Les Revenants, Hollywood Reporter critic Tim Goodman issued a harsh critique of the A&E adaptation: “This ill-advised remake of the original French series is an embarrassment. Go watch the original.” With the French version of The Returned having completed a run on the Sundance Channel and now streaming with subtitles on Netflix, it has never been easier for U.S. audiences to legally access international programs in their original formats through legal means. As a result, when adaptations prove to be inferior copies of the non-U.S. version—see also Gracepoint for another recent example—a network’s failure to air an international series in its original form can seem short sighted. Why remake a series that has already proven itself, as evident in praise from the U.S. press?

The U.S. television industry has always borrowed from and adapted popular international programming, from program remakes like the 1970s All in the Family to a wide range of reality format series throughout the past fifteen years. Direct importation of these series for linear TV has been less common, however. A format or adaptation provides a number of benefits for the producer and distributor. Adapting a series allows a network to make the program its own, to cast actors familiar to local audiences, and to otherwise frame the story through local contexts. Moreover, by creating an original series, producers and distributors of the new version may be able to complete the hat trick of then licensing their remake abroad, perhaps even in markets that have already been exposed to the foreign original. From Downton Abbey on PBS to Top of the Lake on Sundance Channel, programs that enjoyed American financing as part of an international co-production arrangement are gaining an unprecedented access to American audiences.

Notwithstanding this trend towards adaptation, web-based streaming sites have opened a new marketplace for original international content. For sites like Netflix and Hulu, international content provides a ready supply of programming at good rates. These programs also generate unique promotional opportunities for streaming distributors trying to attract viewers and to build a nationally or globally-recognized brand. My current project takes a closer look at the distribution of international content within the U.S., focusing upon shows that are promoted as “original” series despite having premiered abroad. Among the shows that fall into this category, for example, are Netflix’s Lilyhammer (2012-) and The Fall (2013-) and Hulu’s Misfits (2009-) and Prisoners of War (2009-).

A number of scholars have called for more work about global distribution patterns and the reception of international content within the U.S., and this post engages that area of study by exploring the implications of an increasing emphasis upon the branding of international content as original series for U.S. streaming sites. My attention to “original” series belies that distributors have always branded series produced by others as their own. For instance, The Big Bang Theory is a CBS show even though it is produced by Warner Bros. But in most instances, the program in question has enjoyed its world premiere on the network that claims it—the distributor has given the producers a means to reach an audience, and in exchange, they claim a sort of ownership stake in that series. But when Hulu promotes an international series as an original, that program has generally enjoyed a successful run in at least one other nation prior to its premiere online in the U.S. online. “Original,” therefore, seems a misnomer.

Hulu has been particularly aggressive in licensing foreign programs, as syndicated, exclusive, and original series. Syndicated content may be found across a variety of platforms, from broadcast repeats to cable on demand, in addition to the streaming access provided by Hulu. Exclusive programs, on the other hand, appear only on Hulu, making this content key to Hulu’s subscriber appeal. With original series, Hulu makes an extra claim—an original series is not only exclusively aired by Hulu, it also carries the imprimatur of the site. When a network promotes a program as an “original series,” it implies not only some sort of fiduciary investment but also a role in making the series come to life. For a show like Top of the Lake, Sundance invested as one many producers before distributing the show through its cable channel in the U.S. For a show like Misfits, Hulu operated only as a distributor.

A streaming video distributor based in the U.S. and owned by several media conglomerates, Hulu has always been sort of the also-ran of the major streaming sites, despite its pedigree. For a site that does not operate outside the U.S., international content has played an important role for Hulu in building its program library and subscriber base. Streaming content, as Hulu’s former content chief Andy Forsell has explained, can break down barriers to foreign content circulation within the U.S.—from the pressure of ratings to time zone challenges. Perhaps even more significantly, one other key barrier broken by streaming is the frictionless experience of viewing on demand. For an audience unfamiliar with international programming fare, streaming provides a relatively smooth mechanism to try a show and see if you like it. Not only is there no “per view” fee to account for when viewing content on Hulu, but it is also incredibly easy to select additional content to view as a binge or instead. Hulu has also tended to be accessed on smaller mobile screens, research paper, particularly for the free users lacking access to the over-the-top interface, and subtitles may be easier to consume on these smaller screens. For a variety of reasons, then, streaming sites like Hulu may provide a uniquely well suited environment for the sampling and consumption of international programming among U.S. audiences.

Prisoners of War
Prisoners of War
One of Hulu’s first “original” series was Prisoners of War, which served as the inspiration for Showtime’s Homeland. Hulu did not produce Prisoners of War, and it does not enjoy licensing rights to the series, which are held by production company, Keshet. Nevertheless, it markets Prisoners of War as an original program. While Homeland focuses on the suspense of Carrie’s investigations, Prisoners of War concentrates upon the soldiers and their families struggles with reintegration. Just as Homeland became a bit of a sensation here in the U.S., Prisoners of War, or Hatufim, was hugely popular in its native Israel. Prisoners of War aired in Israel in 2009, earning mega ratings and Israel’s top award for television. A second season aired three years later. Hulu picked up the first season in 2012, airing it weekly. Season two streamed on Hulu on demand in its entirety in 2013, and though a third season has been promised by Raff, it has yet to air in Israel or elsewhere.

Hulu’s menu for Prisoners of War.
When selecting Prisoners of War within the Hulu program menu, a prospective viewer does not see any indicator that this is a foreign series (see image above). In fact, the program description does not mention Israel at all. Instead, the blurb strives for a more universal appeal, referring to the soldiers returning “home” rather than to a specific location. The program does stream with subtitles, but a viewer will have to begin the screening to discover that indicator of foreignness. Through Hulu’s interface, Prisoners of War becomes a timeless story about the struggles of soldiers returning home. Missing from the plot summary and metadata are specific details at service of Israel’s political life, its battles within the middle east, and the complex religious themes of the series. On Hulu, this is a program with no past, appearing in the U.S. seemingly fresh and new, even though this means the critical acclaim it earned abroad plays no role encouraging sampling of the series. Instead, its status as a Hulu original, offering something distinctive and exclusive for viewers, stands as a key allure of the program.

Interestingly, the program’s creator, Gideon Raff, believes the show is best understood through its Israeli context. As Raff has noted, Prisoners of War speaks to Israeli viewers in a different way than Homeland addresses American ones—asking Israelis to work through ugly parts of day-to-day life after heroes come home. Raff wanted to start a national conversation within Israel, amplified in season two when a third prisoner of war turns up alive but is revealed to have converted to Islam. These sorts of local appeals, Raff worried, may be lost due to the success of Prisoners of War abroad: “It’s dangerous, just in the sense that I think part of the success of the Israeli formats is because they’re very local and true to Israel. Prisoners of War, even though it found a big audience, is really a very local show about a very local experience. The danger is that Israeli creators of will now try to fit what the American audience would love.” Prisoners of War is a featured program on Hulu, but even its creator is unsure if this global exposure ultimately benefits the series or the audience it purports to address.

Americans are enjoying increased access to international programs in their original format and languages, but these shows nevertheless undergo a process of translation that distances the Americans from the series original meanings and contexts. Digital distribution technologies may have made it easier for international content to reach American audiences in its original form, but this does not necessarily mean that these original series are un-adapted, rendered less foreign, or absent a process of translation. The programs may travel but they are doing so without a passport.

Image Credits:

1. The French series Les Revenants and its American adaptation.
2. Lilyhammer
3. Prisoners of War
4. Hulu’s menu for Prisoners of War.

Please feel free to comment.

Neighed to Order: The Case of BoJack Horseman
Matt Sienkiewicz / Boston College

misc. bojack characters

Various BoJack Horseman Characters

There is nothing new about genre mixing within the television industry. As Todd Gitlin (1984) notes, TV is an inherently “recombinant” medium, all too happy to graft together the limbs of old successes in the hope that this season’s Frankenstein’s Monster will jolt to life and keep eyes on the screen for a year or two. McAllister (1992) takes this argument further, arguing that television’s long seasons and commercial imperatives make pure genre productions virtually impossible and hybridity the natural state of the art. From this perspective, Cop Rock is less the unholy spawn of creative mad science and more something that had to be tried eventually.

And yet, despite television’s long tradition of putting odd things together and seeing what sticks, there remains something unique about the amalgam that is Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. BoJack is not merely a genre-bender in the tradition of The Flintstones, Twin Peaks, or Doogie Howser, M.D. It is instead something much more intriguing: a shameless cultural omnivore. It absorbs and recreates elements from across the television landscape, incorporating themes, plotlines, jokes and characters from shows as disparate as Family Guy and Breaking Bad.

This approach, we argue, not only makes for an interesting entertainment product, but is also indicative of something new about the contemporary TV moment. In the age of big data, “television” outlets such as Netflix have embraced the possibility that even the most counterintuitive combinations–say a talking animal animated sitcom that will by the end of season one include a very serious story of cancer, death, shame and forgiveness–might succeed, provided there are some statistics speaking in its favor.

For all of its creativity, the conceit of BoJack is lifted, rather shamelessly, from the Seth MacFarlane playbook. Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show and Ted have a number of overlaps, but perhaps the most striking is the use of a character that looks like an animal, talks like a person and yet occasionally lapses back into animal form. Family Guy’s Brian the dog, for example, is a sophisticated liberal blowhard with distinctly human flaws. Unless, of course, the mailman walks by, in which case he turns into an irrational barking mess. BoJack’s world is populated by dozens of such characters–horses, cats, dogs, whales, seals and so on–with intermittent non-humanity a consistent source of the humor.

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MacFarlane’s Talking Animals

BoJack, however, draws (steals?) from more than just its animated brethren. The opening sequence of the show, for example, features a boozed up BoJack, dressed in a suit. Jazzy music provides the soundtrack. Half way through, BoJack free falls from the top of a building, plummeting to what would seem to be certain death. This is noteworthy on its own, insofar as its deathly seriousness stands in sharp contrast to the openings of other adult animated sitcoms like The Simpsons, South Park, and Bob’s Burgers. More importantly, however, the sounds and images are so evocative of Mad Men’s famous opening that it is tempting to read BoJack’s credit sequence as an homage or an all too serious parody. Furthermore, the similarities have prompted a comically parallel set of online fan engagements in which fans of both shows argue that the main characters–Don Draper and BoJack–will commit suicide in their respective finales.

aaron paul on breaking bad

Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad

The show’s casting is similarly unashamed to pull from a variety of successful programs, many of which have a prominent home on Netflix. Will Arnett plays BoJack, rather obviously channeling his oblivious, self-important entertainer character of Gob Bluth from Arrested Development. Alison Brie’s character offers more than a handful of similarities to her role of Annie on Community. Most striking, however, is Aaron Paul’s Todd, who appears to be lifted directly out of Breaking Bad. Todd is an irresponsible understudy being held back by a domineering, unstable, irresponsible and yet somehow charming father figure. He has a run-in with a Mexican drug cartel. He wears a wool hat despite living in a warm, southwestern climate. He never seems to have time for a shave. He is, in other words, an only slightly exaggerated version of Jesse Pinkman.

todd on bojack

Aaron Paul’s BoJack Horseman character, Todd

The Breaking Bad elements of the show go beyond even this rather obvious importation. For one, there is BoJack’s very serious, multi-episode engagement with Herb Kazazz, an old friend now stricken with cancer. As the backstory plays out, we learn that BoJack, in a moment of selfish weakness, sold Herb out for money and fame many years ago. Not only does this plotline seem to violate standard principles of TV comedy by moving into a rather dark, seemingly unironic space, it also overlaps remarkably well with Walter White’s relationship to Elliot Schwartz throughout Breaking Bad. More generally, BoJack draws upon the narrative strategies of prestige, complex TV, offering overlapping and interweaving storylines no doubt meant to increase the program’s “bingeability.”

In pointing out these similarities we, by no means, intend to suggest that show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his writers were making creative decisions based directly on the algorithmic demands of Netflix data. This is almost certainly not the case, even if Netflix openly admits to providing a number of suggestions for the program. However, we do contend that there is something more than a coincidence at play here. All of the shows listed above, with the exception of Community, are found in Netflix’s U.S. streaming catalogue in their complete runs. Although it is impossible at this point to get a hold of actual Netflix rating numbers, it is not hard to guess that 12 seasons of Family Guy and 6 each of Mad Men and Breaking Bad represent expensive properties. The fact that Netflix keeps them on board thus suggests a steady procession of viewers. With Arnett’s Arrested Development, they went as far as to produce an entirely new season at considerable cost. Furthermore, Netflix certainly knows the extent to which these viewers overlap.

Our suggestion, therefore, is that at the moment of the show’s pitch and throughout the development process, Netflix may well have had reason to believe that BoJack’s strange menagerie could actually work. Armed with data about the viewing habits of its clients, the company was able to free itself from the restraints of long standing industry lore and even the limitations of blunt instruments such as genre conventions and traditional demographics. In a previous era, BoJack may well have been seen as a program full of contradictory niches, hailing small audience groups with one aspect while repelling those same groups with the next. The data, however, may well have shown that this would not be the case, suggesting that audiences for the shows BoJack draws from have more in common than is immediately apparent.

Certainly, there is the potential for the abuse of such information. If BoJack works too well, we could see a parade of increasingly ham-fisted attempts to combine popular programs in cheap, search engine-friendly ways. Though this may be unfortunate, it would also not be terribly new, of course, as copy catting has long been one of the industry’s most unappealing but profitable vices.

In the meantime, we can enjoy the freedom that BoJack displays in its mixing of genres and crossing of references. It is a strange, wondrous beast of a show, recalling Raoul Duke’s description of Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “too weird to live, too rare to die.” In a previous era, it likely would not have lived at all. Today, it exists and even thrives, perhaps less to the surprise of its benefactors than we might think.

Image Credits:

1. Various BoJack Horseman Characters
2. MacFarlane’s Talking Animals
3. Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad
4. Aaron Paul’s BoJack Horseman character, Todd

Please feel free to comment.

Party Like It’s 1999: Another Wave of Network Nostalgia
Derek Johnson / University of Wisconsin-Madison

i love the 90s
I Love the 90s…and so does the post-network television industry.
In just the last couple weeks, several new television productions have been announced that suggest the network plundering of the 1990s is now fully underway as a concrete production cycle. Fox has announced that it will produce a 6-episode limited series of new X-Files episodes with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny returning to their original roles. In a move I suspect far fewer saw coming, NBC has resurrected the football-themed sitcom Coach, apparently unable to imagine keeping Craig T. Nelson off its schedule after the recent cancellation of Parenthood. The Disney Channel had already drawn from ABC’s old TGIF programming block to bring back Boy Meets World as Girl Meets World in 2014, and now Netflix wants to do the same in reviving Full House as Fuller House. With this reinvestment in 1990s television properties come accompanying reports about the difficulties of executing that strategy; David Lynch has apparently parted ways with Showtime despite their once shared desire to update Twin Peaks for the 21st Century, and the overall future of the project remains in doubt. Nevertheless, even struggles to mine the 1990s for renewable resources call our attention to the lengths to which programmers are going to extract new value from the television of that era. Despite all the changes wrought by the post-network era, networks, cable channels, and over-the-top digital services alike can all comprehend the future as yet another extension of old broadcast programming.

Craig T. Nelson returns as Coach Hayden Fox on Coach
We’ve had recent waves of 1970s and 1980s revivals as well, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising to reach this point with the 1990s. But I’ve been trying to reflect on what the programming of the 1990s specifically might have to offer contemporary television from network to Netflix, and whether this nostalgic storytelling is a new moment in television franchising or just more of the same.

In my all-time favorite Flow column, Bob Rehak examined the 2003-2009 Battlestar Galactica series as an exemplar of the “reboot” strategy whereby the television industry continually renews and reinvents its proven properties to pitch them at new audiences in different cultural moments. Rehak understood the “reimagining” of Battlestar for the 21st century less as the force of cultural zeitgeist, however, and more as part of the “rhythms of franchise.” Regardless of cultural change, remakes and relaunches are part of the industrial process of maintaining and managing the serial production of television franchises over time. “Such is the nature of the successful media franchise,” Rehak wrote, “doomed to plow forward under the ever-increasing inertia of its own fecund replication.” I’ve sometimes taken issue with the bleakness this implies; rather than “doom,” another way to think about this is how franchising may be just as reliant on innovation and dynamism (even if only in small doses) than formula and creative stasis. Regardless, from his vantage point in 2007, Rehak helps us to see how the serial processes and temporalities of television franchising in the first decade of the century pushed toward continual narrative reinvention.

I wonder if this cycle of 1990s nostalgia represents a move away from the logic of the rebooted reinvention. Yes, the industry is going back to the well in a familiar way, but instead of reboots we are seeing revivals. We aren’t seeing young, fresh reinterpretations of Mulder and Scully or even Uncle Joey; instead, we’re going back to continue what was started and (it now seems) left unfinished in the 1990s with the original interpretations of the characters. I’m not suggesting this move is unprecedented or even particularly new. Beyond the occasional reunion show in the past, we’ve seen television writers pick up the storylines of long lost characters on dramas like the recent 90210 and Melrose Place on The CW, as well as the Dallas revival on TNT. Yet in these cases, the returns of Jennie Garth, Laura Leighton, and Larry Hagman as their original characters (Kelly Taylor, Syndey Andrews, and JR Ewing, respectively) each seemed to be as much as part of a process of torch passing to a new generation of characters who share narrative focus or even come to be the new focus. While these current slate of 1990s revivals remain in pre-production, and I’m sure new elements and characters will be announced in the future, the initial hype surrounding them has very little to say on what new might be brought to the table. The only things disclosed about either X-Files or Coach focus on the casting of familiar returning leads—and likely very little other casting has yet been done to disclose. These programs are being ordered straight to series without pilots on the basis of the old that’s being revived, not the new of reinvention.

Melrose Place
Dr. Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro) and Sydney Andrews (Laure Leighton) stand in the background to support a new cast of Melrose Place tenants in the 2009 series.
If this programming trend does constitute a move away from the reimagining and the reboot, I continue to wonder what factors might be driving such a shift. My critical eye might be compromised here, as I’m personally fascinated by these revivals. I’m thrilled to see the media industries invest more in television revivals on television; as a fan, I would have much rather seen properties like Firefly and Veronica Mars revived as ongoing series (even limited like The X-Files) than one-off films. I am also compelled by the chance to revisit a handful of television worlds that I watched when coming of age as both a viewer and budding television scholar in the 1990s. In my daily, stripped viewing of it, Coach is literally the lens through which I came to think about and appreciate syndication and repetition; along with the Star Trek spin-offs of the 1990s, The X-Files introduced me to fandom (though I never cared for Full House). So as much as I should be suspicious of both my complicity in the ideology of nostalgia and the industry’s ability to pull these off in a satisfying way, I am a little gleeful nonetheless. But if only because I’ve considered the possibility of other parts of this 1990s television heritage being revived—it won’t be a true return to the 1990s, in my opinion, until there’s another Star Trek in production—I keep wondering what industrial purposes the revival of such series serves.

Star Trek
Michael Dorn can’t get studio support for his “Captain Worf” Star Trek pitch.
Has the availability and repeatability of programming on Netflix and Amazon Prime reshaped the temporalities of viewing in such a way that older interpretations of television narratives have become (perceived as) more marketable than rebooted reinventions? As the temporalities of access to older programs change because of these new viewing platforms, has it become difficult for the industry to imagine separating viewers from their interests in these original incarnations? Is there an economic imperative to produce new, narratively compatible content that can be packaged along with existing programming libraries on these subscription services for dissertation help (or in other venues of repetition like TV Land?). In restarting production of Star Trek as Star Trek: The Next Generation after a 20-year hiatus, for example, Paramount Television reasoned that even if the new series was a failure, it could simply be added to the syndication package of the original, thereby increasing the value of that package. Forbes has suggested a similar dynamic may be in play on Netflix.

The NetfliX-Files
At the same time, might there be anything about the nature of 1990s television narrative and its embrace of “cumulative,” hybrid episodic-serial structure that makes a greater demand for revival and in-continuity follow-up? Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and yes, even Coach played with ongoing storylines that helped usher in new kinds of narrative norms in US television by the end of the 1990s. And each of them also experimented with “soft” reboots in their final seasons: Twin Peaks tried to move on from the mystery of Laura Palmer’s killer, X-Files introduced new lead agents, and Coach moved Hayden Fox from Minnesota college football to a pro team in Orlando. Maybe the push toward reinvention already contained within these cumulative forms—and the failure of those original reinventions to stave off cancellation—has led to more of a back-to-basics embrace of familiarity over reimagining.

As noted above, the Star Trek spin-offs remain a particularly interesting point of comparison, both in representing an earlier moment of in-continuity revival, and in being persistently absent from the current nostalgia party. The obstacles standing in between Star Trek and a television revival are too numerous to name here, but its worth noting that over the years Next Generation stars like Jonathan Frakes and Michael Dorn have expressed interests in returning their characters to television production. While such revivals will probably remain pipedreams for them, they have somehow materialized for many of the other television series over here of that same era. Who would have guessed that in 2015 Coach would become a more easily exploited franchise than Star Trek—and how does it underscore the real industrial and cultural shifts that must have occurred since the 1990s for this to happen?

Image Credits:

1. I Love the 90s…and so does the post-network television industry.
2. Craig T. Nelson returns as Coach Hayden Fox on Coach.
3. Dr. Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro) and Sydney Andrews (Laure Leighton) stand in the background to support a new cast of Melrose Place tenants in the 2009 series.
4. Michael Dorn can’t get studio support for his “Captain Worf” Star Trek pitch.
5. The NetfliX-Files

Please feel free to comment.

Teaching Friday Night Lights
R. Colin Tait / Texas Christian University

Academic Coach Taylor

Clear Eyes…

Friday Night Lights is often regarded as the best show that no one watched. This is really helpful for the class because not everyone has seen the show before. Furthermore, I believe FNL is important to study because it takes such important social and political issues and makes them easier to understand and talk about in class.

–Lena Blietz, Investigating Friday Night Lights student

For the past semester, I have been teaching a new course devoted exclusively to Friday Night Lights. I am certainly not the first to devote an entire course to a single series. Jason Mittell and Linda Williams have taught The Wire, Anne Helen Petersen taught Mad Men, Andy Scahill has taught Breaking Bad and Alisa Perren regularly uses Orphan Black as a text in her Television Analysis Course. The experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one, bringing with it a new set of pedagogical tools and informing my instruction in the long term. Since TV is an evolving medium, and an individual series undergoes a great deal of revision within its run this depth model provides a comprehensive view of how a series works. Friday Night Lights proved an exemplary case study to discuss issues of adaptation, production cultures, TV authorship, genre, “Quality TV,” race, representation and social class. Perhaps the best thing of teaching the course was the community that was formed in the classroom by concentrating on a single text. In an increasingly fragmented TV environment, it was amazing to foster a community surrounding Friday Night Lights, especially as all of my students were on the same episode at the same time, then came together in the classroom. As one of my students, Suzi Melano put it, the course “created a family feel to the classroom when we are all openly discussing the show, book and series.”

One of the obvious advantages to teaching a course on a single TV series is the fact that the practice of watching a series together allows for the class to plumb the depths of the particular medium and to analyze the specifics of a particular show. One of my students, Rachel Burgess, stated “Although the class is focused around Friday Night Lights the book, the movie, and the television show it is about so much more than just analyzing these texts” Instead, the class was able to touch on a little bit of everything from social class, racism, movie narratives, television production, acting, and television narratives.” Being precise about Friday Night Lights’ production history opened up broader discussion of how TV functions more generally. For me, teaching Friday Night Lights at a football-mad college in Texas afforded me a warm audience predisposed to ask some of the big-picture issues that the series raises. Along the way, my students raised and discussed big questions regarding race, social class, marriage, fatherhood, and the role of sport in American culture.

FNL Book

Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and A Dream Book

My students were assigned the task of reading H.G. Bissinger’s study of the real-life Permian Panthers from Odessa, Texas, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream. Taking place in 1989 as the high school football team chased down the Texas State Championship title, the book’s subtitle reveals the careful relationship between the football team, the town and its dreams. To me, the novel also contains one of the most sophisticated and detailed accounts of race relations within American society. Paired with a reading I assigned, Billy Hawkins’ The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions, resulted in one of the most meaningful discussions of race in America that I have ever had in my classroom. By focusing through the single lens of football, Bissinger is able to delve deeply into the politics of the everyday, skating between subjects and providing his readers with a comprehensive account of what football stands for, and how the fortunes of a post-oil-boom town in East Texas has a great deal to say about sport in American Society and why so many people invest so much into its pursuit.

Next, we compared the novel to its film adaptation, which writer/director Peter Berg faithfully interpreted and translated to the screen. In Berg’s hands, the transition is a very literal one, with the real-life figures within the story – quarterback Mike Winchell, fullback Boobie Miles and safety Brian Chavez – standing in for a wealth of issues facing the post-oil-boom town in the late 1980s and which all resonate with today’s students. Within the film, we could also view the series’ DNA, which was also adapted by Berg as writer-director and shares its focus on social issues and cinema verité inspired sequences. is a pretty faithful adaptation to the novel. Viewing the movie also allowed the students to see how work is translated between mediums. For instance, while the film is faithful to the book to the point of using the names of real people, the TV show changes these identities in addition to the name of the town.

Finally, the class viewed the entirety of the series on their own time, while certain episodes were highlighted throughout the term. While a labor-intensive task to be certain, my goal was for the course to resemble the current practices of binge-watching. Since audiences are increasingly viewing series in depth this suggests to me that students are watching series in the same way. Comparing the different mediums afforded yet another lens to examine the series, which yielded productive results. As one of my students, Rachel Land, stated, “I think comparing the book to the movie and television show is a brilliant way to get multiple perspectives of the story.” Whether the move was brilliant or not is debatable, but moving through the mediums was a bet that paid off, as did bringing in special guests throughout the term.

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Louanne Stephens, FNL‘s Grandma Saracen, holds court

Throughout the term, we were lucky enough to bring in special guests from the series to describe their roles working on Friday Night Lights and add context to the production. Rick Sherrod, author of Texas High School Football Dynasties, series casting director Beth Sepko, Director of Photography Todd McMullen, series regulars Louanne Stephens and Brad Leland were invited to speak to the students about the series, providing them with in-depth knowledge related to the show. Focusing on different aspects also revealed just how intricate and collaborative the medium can be, especially on Friday Night Lights. For instance, casting director Sepko revealed how much input she had in finding and choosing particular actors. As a regular part of the production process, she was sometimes able to go above the heads of particular directors — revealing an under-analyzed aspect of production culture and speaking to the power of below-the-line figures within a production. Series DOP McMullen revealed in his talk that the series also employed an extremely unique shooting style, where three cameras were employed from various angles in order to cover the action. The camera crew, nicknamed “ninjas” by the actors were encouraged just as often to capture the poetry of the scenes rather than the standard two-shot. The show’s visual style also contributed to Friday Night Lights’ “indie” feel, where the cinematography reflects a cinema verité style in addition to a surprising intimacy.


These production decisions also engendered the series’ unique acting style, where actors didn’t have to hit their marks, nor were there rehearsals beforehand — a standard in TV shows. Louanne Stephens, who played Grandma Saracen in the show, spoke to this remarkable practice, as she outlined the show’s loose structure and the actors’ ability to improvise. All of this was in service of the show’s mandate to capture realism and to focus on the verisimilitude of the small-town setting. Stephens spoke of the acting process in the show, where the lack of rehearsal encouraged spontaneity, where the three-camera setup allowed for actors to be present within the scene without having to concentrate on hitting marks. Finally, Stephens compared this kind of acting to that of a regular series – such as Longmire which she currently acts in – where the process is much more technical and restrictive.

The class will also culminate in the coming weeks when producer-writer David Hudgins, director-producer Michael Waxman and actors Derek Phillips and Liz Mikel will come to discuss the series in a roundtable and screening on April 21st, 2015. Ultimately, my students will be able to engage with as many aspects of the production as possible, by being exposed to multiple lenses in production and listening to the various elements within the division of labor. For my students, this turned out to be one of the most valuable aspects of the class. As my student Simeon Jones noted “I think there is great value in studying a single series if the series is long enough,” we “have learned a lot about behind the scenes on the show FNL and having actors and writers come to our class and talk about the show is really neat as well.”


The experience of teaching one of my favorite television series has changed the way that I approach teaching the medium and my teaching more generally. Like all good classroom experiences, I learned far more than I taught not only from the people who came to talk to us, but from my students themselves. By equipping them with the tools to analyze the series through various lenses, I believe that they were able to come to substantial conclusions regarding series television and the special status that Friday Night Lights has among fans and critics. Of course, the class is less about me and more about the students’ experience. This term, I think that my FNL student Austin Frank said it best when he stated:

This course is something truly unique that not a lot of students get to experience or appreciate. This topic dives into so many issues that are real and still prevalent in high school athletics and also athletics in general at all levels. It has been eye opening to look into issues of race and exploitation of athletes. There is value in this class because it is not just a class about the show, movie, and book. People need to be exposed to what is really happening and the problems that are still present in America.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.

Image Credits:

1. Academic Coach Taylor
2. Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and A Dream
3. Louanne Stephens – Author Photo

Please feel free to comment.

Reflections on the New Diversity in Television
Mary Beltrán / University of Texas at Austin

Empire cast

Empire cast members Bryshere Gray, Jussie Smollett, Trai Byers, Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard at FOX’s 2015 Winter Television Critics Association press tour

It’s an exciting time for those of us interested in greater racial diversity in television—not just in the form of background characters that add local color to the stories of the usual white leads, but in series with lead characters of color and narratives about non-white families, work spaces, and cultural communities—with the recent, rising success of such series as Empire (Fox, 2015- ), Fresh off the Boat (ABC, 2015- ), black-ish (ABC, 2014- ), Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2014- ), and How to Get Away With Murder (ABC, 2014-). As Empire has in the last few months become the most viewed broadcast drama in five years and seen its audience expand substantially each week, journalistic coverage is rife with stories proclaiming “diversity the new watchword in television,” as the Los Angeles Times declared earlier this month. (( Meredith Blake, “With ‘Empire’ diversity becomes the watchword in television.” Los Angeles Times (Feb. 2, 2015). ))

This is no small development for U.S. network television, which just a few years ago was rejecting series pitches and pilots that did not center on a mostly white or on decidedly multi-ethnic casts. When I interviewed a diversity executive at one of the major networks around the time of their spring 2011 upfronts, a PR event at which networks showcase their new series and potential series to major advertisers, I was told that “ethnic” sitcoms were definitely out; advertisers at the time didn’t want to take a chance on them. When I interviewed then-Director of Diversity for the Writer’s Guild, Kimberly Myers, a few months later, I heard a similarly pessimistic report, that writers of color were struggling vainly to pitch new series or just to get hired on current show’s writing teams. No more than a handful of writers of color were show runners for prime-time series at the time. These writers were Shonda Rhimes (then with Grey’s Anatomy [2005- ] and Private Practice [2007-2013] on ABC), Tyler Perry (then executive producing House of Payne, syndication 2006, TBS 2007-2012), Mara Brock Akil (The Game, the CW 2006-2009, BET 2011- ), and Veena Sud (The Killing, AMC 2011-2013, Netflix 2014).

Fresh off the Boat cast

The cast and executive producers of Fresh Off the Boat, inspired by the humorous memoir of chef Eddie Huang, in red, at Disney| ABC Television Group’s Winter Press Tour.

So what has happened in the last four years? Shonda Rhimes, for one thing. Her series Scandal, a soapy drama starring Kerry Washington as a hyper-capable PR “fixer” working in the world of DC politics, made a dramatic splash when it began airing in 2012. A quick hit with the first African American female lead in television since Diahann Carroll in Julia (NBC, 1968-1971), it proved that series starring non-white actors in compelling, well-written roles and narratives could in fact be smarts bets. Nielsen’s Twitter TV ratings documented when it became the top-tweeted series; most recently, it averages over 300,000 tweets per episode. (Ironically, it lost the Twitter crown to Empire, which soon topped Scandal and has broken all records since. Empire garnered over 2.4 million tweets during its two-hour season finale last week, according to Variety, reporting statistics gathered by Nielsen Social Guide). Show runner Ilene Chaiken, who executive produces Empire alongside series creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, has credited the success of Rhimes’ series Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder with convincing network executives to try more shows featuring non-white actors in lead roles. (( Elizabeth Wagmeister, “Empire Showrunner: Women Creating TV ‘Are Doing It Fabulously.’” Variety (January 21, 2015). )) After Scandal, series such as Empire and Fresh Off the Boat were likely considered smaller gambles to the ever-risk-averse television industry.

And while the ratings juggernaut that is Empire is a Fox series, much of the credit for the relative boom of non-white-led shows belongs to ABC, which airs the Shondaland series Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, and Grey’s Anatomy, in addition to launching the sitcoms black-ish, Cristela (2014- ), and Fresh Off the Boat and the drama American Crime (2015- ) in the last year. Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and the CW’s Jane the Virgin, while exciting new developments for the streaming media outlet and cable network, don’t represent the clear commitment to change evident from ABC. Paul Lee, ABC’s entertainment president, promoted the network’s decisions at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in January. He explained that they viewed their greenlighting of diverse series as a matter of choosing “great series” that just happened to be created by nonwhite writer-producers. (( Jason Lynch, “ABC’s Success With Diversity Comes From Focusing on Creators, Not Just Stars: ‘It’s Our Job to Reflect America.” Ad Week (January 15, 2015). )) A particular effort to support series creators rather than just actors of color clearly has been a successful new formula for the network.

Regardless of the motivation on the part of the networks, these new series are a sea change for those of us looking for TV characters and narratives to which we can personally relate. The anecdote that sticks out from my research on the new series is one written by Jeff Yang, cultural critic and father of Hudson Yang, who plays the funny and sweet young hiphop wannabe Eddie Huang in Fresh Off the Boat. In his regular column for The Wall Street Journal, under the byline Tao Jones, Jeff Yang describes a small party he helped plan to screen the first episodes of FOTB for their friends and family in a Koreatown bar in Manhattan. Without any effort on their part, the family party mushroomed into a must-see event; ultimately about 1000 people happily crammed into the space, while countless others had to be turned away. As Yang describes, the people who came clearly wanted to share with other Asian Americans as history was being made by Fresh Off The Boat, the buzzed-about, second-ever show about an Asian American family.

FOTB viewing party

The impromptu Fresh Off the Boat viewing party at a Koreatown bar in Manhattan

“We had to see this together,” he notes, “with as many others of us who’d shared these experiences and the twanging hunger for them to finally be explored in the spotlight.” (( (‘Fresh Off the Boat’: A TV Dad and Hundreds More Cram Viewing Party,” Wall Street Journal, Speakeasy, Feb. 6, 2015. )) Similarly, both FOTB and Empire have inspired viewing parties and panel discussions sponsored by cultural organizations around the nation. These celebratory communal viewing events and group discussions underscore how rare it is even now for television narratives to center on non-white American individuals, families, work places, or communities, and how important each rare example (and its success or failure with audiences) can be to future opportunities for representation.

Empire viewing party

A radio station in Atlanta hosed one of the countless Empire viewing parties around the nation.

We’ll need to follow these shows and their successes to see where they take us. However, I believe there are several takeaways for media scholars and fans even at this early stage. First, I believe it proves once again that the lives of ordinary Americans of color (and not just those making hiphop music) are relevant, interesting and eminently watchable. In fact, viewers nowadays are often ordinary Americans of color ourselves. And we want to see ourselves as the heroes in the narratives we’re watching, as Gina Rodriguez noted in her acceptance speech when she recently won a Golden Globe for her role in Jane the Virgin.

It makes a difference to have substantially diverse writing teams as well. Fresh Off the Boat, under show runner Nahnatchka Kahn (who is Persian American, and also was creator of the very funny The B- in Apartment 23 [2012-2013]), hired a writing team that includes several Chinese and Asian American writers, among them Kourtney Kang, Sanjay Shah, Jeff Chiang, and Ali Wong. Empire’s writing team boasts six writers of color among its writing staff of nine. In contrast, the arguably less inspired series Jane the Virgin and Cristela include only a few Latina/o writers among their writing teams. I believe it takes members of a particular cultural community to know what’s compelling, what’s important, and what’s funny within that community – and also to be knowledgeable of interesting stories that might be drawn from it that would speak to viewers of all backgrounds.

Finally, I hope that the success of these new race-specific shows will clarify once and for all: We’re not really post-racial. Our racial, ethnic, and cultural histories and perspectives actually matter to us, and are a large part of what makes us interesting. Given that the ratings are the real news here, I believe viewers are demonstrating that we appreciate programming that respects unique cultural perspectives and shines a light on the fascinating diversity of American lives.

Image Credits:

1. Empire cast members Trai Byers, Bryshere Gray, Jussie Smollett, Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard at FOX’s 2015 Winter Television Critics Association press tour.
2. The cast and executive producers of Fresh Off the Boat, inspired by the humorous memoir of chef Eddie Huang, in red, at Disney| ABC Television Group’s Winter Press Tour.
3. The impromptu Fresh Off the Boat viewing party at a Koreatown bar in Manhattan.
4. A radio station in Atlanta hosed one of the countless Empire viewing parties around the nation.

Please feel free to comment.

The Cost of Convenience: Exclusive Licensing and Subscription Video On Demand
Karen Petruska / University of California, Santa Barbara


Transforming Audiences

Historical broadcasting, distributing content over the publicly-owned airwaves, dramatically extended the reach of popular culture, particularly through live airings that brought entire families in front of the radio or television set. Today, however, audience fragmentation, a pull (rather than push) method of consumption, and channel/platform proliferation have limited water cooler chatter to focus only on the most major of events, like the Superbowl. Beyond major events, it is quite difficult to find common ground in terms of simultaneous viewing. Critics have had to account for this lack of simultaneity, tardy viewers surf the web haunted by the threat of spoilers, and television programs like Scandal work every social media angle available to maintain some sense of “must-see” (read: live) viewing.

At the Flow Conference in October 2014, panel moderator Horace Newcomb repeatedly asked a panel of industry experts about the implications of audience fragmentation. In particular, he wanted to know what is at stake if we lose the communal nature of television. Acknowledging his own investment in the model of television as a “cultural forum,” Newcomb was not able to entice the other panelists to engage in this debate, perhaps due to their realistic acknowledgment that the days of mass media may be over. Yet Newcomb’s question speaks to broader, and significant, changes in the cultural role of television, especially its ability to incite debate about the most urgent issues facing Americans today. Consider a program like House of Cards—the show has its critics, but it nevertheless attempts to expose an extremely ugly side of politics that could inspire discussions of real-life political scandals. But that show streams exclusively to Netflix subscribers, accessible to non-subscribers only through piracy or digital purchase. Similarly, Amazon’s groundbreaking portrayal of a transsexual father of three in Transparent, which became the first online program to win a Golden Globe, is available only to Amazon Prime members. A recent one-time offer by Amazon to watch Transparent for free, designed to drive increased subscriptions to their Prime service, only highlights the limited access to the program for non-subscribers. Is Newcomb right that the people who most need to see a sensitive portrayal of a man’s decision to live life as a woman probably never will see it?



Intensifying this silo-ing of TV viewers is one of the hottest trends in the business of digital content licensing: exclusivity, or giving exhibition rights to one distributor (here: one website) only. One example of an exclusive licensing deal is CBS’s arrangement with Hulu that designates it as the only streaming source for episodes of the Sherlock Holmes series Elementary. (( WGN America made a similar deal to air Elementary on its cable channel, so while WGN enjoyed exclusivity among cable channels, Hulu had the same privilege among online streaming sites. )) A key feature of the deal, however, requires Hulu to wait until after the conclusion of the program’s third season on CBS to begin streaming older seasons, likely an effort to encourage viewers to keep up with the program live as it airs on CBS. Children’s content has also become a hot ticket in the licensing wars between subscription video sites like Netflix and Amazon. Netflix made a wide-ranging deal with Dreamworks to air 300 hours of familiar and new children’s programming, while Amazon established an exclusive streaming arrangement with Viacom for Nickelodeon programs. Among streaming sites, including smaller competitors to Netflix and Amazon like Hulu, AOL, Vimeo, and Yahoo Screen, there have been countless smaller exclusive arrangements for individual programs or groups of shows, including New Girl, South Park, Community, HBO original content, and a block of FX’s original series.

Exclusive licensing is a trend, but not necessarily a new one; HBO subscribers, for example, have long enjoyed privileged access to HBO content. (( HBO’s eased its control over some of its original programs when it dabbled in syndication, exploring as early as 2000 the possibility of licensing Sex and the City to the wider masses of basic cable. )) Among subscription video businesses like HBO and streaming video on demand sites, exclusive licensing sustains their business model by providing special access to subscribers, and it can involve both new and old content, particularly as digital windows often serve as one more outlet to syndicate broadcast programs. As Reed Hastings of Netflix explained, “If the content is not exclusive and it’s on cable and on other services, it might be pleasant to watch on Netflix, but it’s not really reinforcing customers to stay with Netflix.”

With distribution platforms proliferating online, and dominant streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon expanding their production of original content, an exclusive licensing deal can serve as a distinguishing factor for any website (the licensee) trying to build a recognizable brand. For instance, Yahoo’s decision to resurrect Community (canceled by NBC) as an exclusive weekly web series will bring profound attention to a relatively second-tier site like Yahoo Screen. For the content owner, or licensor, exclusivity serves as the mechanism for extracting enhanced value for content, and it provides a program with a longer life span.


Community on Yahoo

Enhanced value matters in a marketplace that defies the usual agreements that determine exchange value. In traditional media distribution, like over-the-air television, the ratings system has withstood decades of methodological (( For example, Nielsen has endured longstanding questions about accurate accounting for minority viewers among its sample size. )) and technological (( Among the prominent technological changes to Nielsen’s survey methodology has been its adoption of People Meters and current efforts to account for mobile viewing. )) shifts to serve as what Ien Ang has termed the “convenient fiction” of ratings accuracy. The fiction is convenient because it is only through a common faith in the accuracy of this data that television networks and advertisers can agree upon a fair market value for the airtime purchased by sponsors. While not without controversy, the data collection practices of companies like Nielsen have established some stability for television stakeholders needing a mutually agreed upon measurement system. Online, though, no such convenient fiction exists. Exclusive licensing deals protect content value by negotiating premium licensing fees and by limiting the circulation of content online. (( Within the economics of media, the practice of distribution windowing has created an artificial scarcity that helped elevate the value of content that is otherwise a pubic good. ))

The stakes for subscription-based media companies are relatively clear—a popular series can help a site gain a competitive advantage in a crowded content landscape—but what are the implications of exclusive licensing for viewers? “Disruption” has long been a buzzword to describe contemporary media change, but its application often angles toward industry concerns about monetization, piracy, and threatening new media companies. Industry discourse tends to isolate viewer needs through the rhetoric of “TV everywhere” (or TVE), a term popularized by Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes that describes consumer desire to watch television where, when, and how they want. TVE may purport to describe an on-demand world where consumers drive engagement, but its narrower business function protects the operations of cable companies.

The best way for cable companies to maintain a subscriber base in an increasingly online world is to build up their “on demand” and online streaming capabilities. Take, for example, industry leader Comcast’s intensive focus on branding their own TVE efforts as “Xfinity” and, now, X1. While technical challenges have slowed the adoption of TVE more widely, it should not be misconstrued as an effort to break down the walls that control access to cable content—in fact, TVE reinforces those walls. There is an unsettling economic prerogative to an on-demand culture that extends the logic of television as a paid—rather than a free—medium, with exclusivity as a particularly effective tactic to encourage financial outlay by consumers for access.


Broadcasting has of course never been truly free in that Americans had to own a receiver and “paid” for content through the labor of viewing (eyeballs converted into ratings data points translated into dollars), but today there are a variety of additional ways viewers pay for (access to) content. From HD televisions to cable subscriptions, over-the-top devices, digital video recorders, and a variety of subscription packages—viewers pay for “free” television repeatedly. (( It is worth noting that the concept of “free” TV continues to have importance in pubic culture. Consider, the U.S. government demonstrated an impressive dedication to the notion of broadcasting as “free” when it underwrote the costs of analog households buying a digital converter box to prepare their cathode-ray television sets for the digital transition in 2009. ))

Increasingly, however, even “free” content is not free online. Broadcast network CBS has created a subscription video-on-demand site called CBS All Access, providing viewers with a deeper library of content for $5.99 a month. So, what you could watch for “free” during initial airings on CBS, you can pay to watch delayed, on demand, and live through an internet connected device. Similarly, you could watch NBC’s most recent airing of the Olympics for “free” live during its highly edited primetime broadcasts, but if you wanted to view a live stream online or otherwise catch up on demand, you had to be a cable subscriber. Sports, in general, have proven to be a powerful motivator for viewers to watch content live, partly because streaming sports platforms usually require a subscription fee. Streaming may therefore be convenient, but it adds to the costs of television viewing today.


The flip side of the debate is that subscription streaming television on Netflix and Amazon airs without commercials, which means the content may not be free, but at least Americans are not paying for it twice (through their subscription and their viewing of advertisements). Television has always positioned the viewer as ancillary, with the real business transactions occurring between the network and the sponsor. The relationship between the two—content distributor and advertisers—is longstanding but has also been adopted widely by new media companies like Facebook, Buzzfeed, and Twitter. Netflix and Amazon have so far chosen not to adopt the advertising model. (( Amazon and Netflix may not deliver ratings data to a measurement company, but they are decidedly active data crunchers, tracking consumer behavior on their own websites. )) Netflix does not report its viewing numbers publicly, and Amazon is perhaps even more cagey, unwilling to break down how many users subscribe to Prime, how many of those subscribers then stream content through Amazon Instant Video, and how many individuals stream particular programs. Because these streaming subscription sites do not participate in the advertising economy, they not only protect the secrecy of their (likely small) viewing data but also sell directly to consumers in a way that broadcasters and basic cable networks have never done. Direct to consumer may indeed be the brave new world of television, though most likely, it will cost a lot more up front.

Image Credits:

1. Transforming Audiences
2. Transparent
3. Community on Yahoo

Please feel free to comment.

I Am The One Who Acts: Breaking Down Bryan Cranston’s Breaking Bad Performance
R. Colin Tait / Texas Christian University

“The worst thing the French ever gave us is the auteur theory,” he said flatly. “It’s a load of horseshit. You don’t make a movie by yourself, you certainly don’t make a TV show by yourself. You invest people in their work. You make people feel comfortable in their jobs; you keep people talking.”
– Vince Gilligan (( Quoted in Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos to Mad Men to Breaking Bad, p 265. ))
Despite Breaking Bad’s series creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan’s protestations to the contrary, orthodoxy surrounding the “showrunner” as the primary author of TV is a discourse rigidly embedded within the discipline — one that sweepingly omits the contributions of many collaborators and actors in particular. This omission is partly due to the lack of scholarship that concretely explains what an actor does within a given show. Since an actor’s labor is ethereal in nature, credit tends to be attributed to other agents, such as writers and directors, or ignored completely.

Acting is not commonly discussed in relation to television. More often than not, television acting, and by proxy, television actors, has been viewed as inferior to film, which is more often associated with prestige. Although TV’s cultural value is on the upswing, perceptions about TV acting is still an under-examined subject, especially in latest era of great television. However, as Torben Grodal reminds us, scholars and critics are drawn to directors, while audiences relate to actors, dissertation writer and their performances. (( See Grodal, Torbin “Introduction” in Grodal, Torben K, Bente Larsen, and Iben T. Laursen. Visual Authorship: Creativity and Intentionality in Media. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2005. Print. ))
So, while TV may now be more cinematic, good acting is still what ultimately fuels the engine.

I offer Bryan Cranston’s universally lauded, multiple Emmy Award-winning performance in Breaking Bad as an intervention to this problem. By characterizing Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White as a “long-form performance text,” and concentrating on what is arguably the series’ most memorable moment – I propose an alternate method to consider television authorship and an actor’s contribution to the series. As Cranston’s five-season-long character arc from the nebbish White to methamphetamine kingpin “Heisenberg” is one of the most pronounced and vivid transformations in television history, I maintain that it can consequently be utilized to read moments of agency and labor that Cranston brought to his role.

Only by considering Cranston as a complementary author to showrunner Vince Gilligan can we understand how he shapes the series, and how actors function within television more generally. The question remains: how do we quantify Cranston’s performance of research papers as Walter White? Without direct access to his script pages, there is little room for such analysis of the actor’s interpretation, not to mention the difficulty of translation from the script page to the screen. Moreover, how is Cranston’s performance shaped by his fellow actors, including multiple Emmy-winning performers Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn.

Inspired by Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke’s analysis of “character interactions” within The Grifters (Steven Frears, 1990) I will analyze Breaking Bad’s most famous monologue (( see Baron and Carnicke “Stanislavski: Player’s Actions as a Window into Character’s Interactions” and “Case Study: The Grifters” in Reframing Screen Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. Print. pp 208-230 )) . Next, I will illustrate the scene’s context in order to account for the shifts within it. I will also position this scene within the rules of classical tragedy, where the protagonist makes a fatal decision that ultimately leads to his downfall. Finally, I will analyze the scene as a performance within a performance, where Walt’s bravado in the scene is actually a sign of his weakness rather than his strength.

The “I Am The One Who Knocks” Scene


The scene, From Season 4 Episode 6 “Cornered”
Adding nuance to the monologue deemed the series best is not an easy task, particularly as the “I am the one who knocks” speech has taken on a life of its own as a robust paratext (( See Gray, Jonathan, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press, 2010. Print. )) –as seen in Samuel L. Jackson’s reinterpretation of the monologue and its many, many online imitators. .


Samuel L. Jackson’s version of the monologue
Putting this monologue back into context is a necessary step if we are to understand not only how these lines work within the larger scene, but also within the series as a whole. Recontextualizing the lines also means remembering that Walter is not operating from a position of strength at this moment of the series and that these lines are spoken in order to make his wife Skylar submit to his will.

The scene actually begins as Skylar listens to her husband’s message on the answering machine and she believes that she detects fear in his voice. Then, she walks into the bedroom where Walter is nursing his hangover and eventually goads him into talking to her. Conflict here is based on a balance of power, and this power is exchanged within the course of the scene. Walter also begins lying down, pretending to be hung over and then snaps into lucidity with Skylar standing and when they are level to one another (when this clip begins) they are on equal footing and equal volume.

As famed acting guru Stella Adler once pronounced, all “acting is reacting.” One reason that this scene is so memorable is because of the skillful work of Anna Gunn as Skyler White. While Cranston may score the goal in this particular power play it is only because he gets a great assist from his scene partner. So despite this scene being more famous for Cranston’s monologue, it is his scene partner Gunn who anchors the action and has the more difficult role of reacting to Walter’s bravado.

What the meme-ification of this line misses, then, is the opportunity for us to read the scene as it plays out organically. Thus, the first step in understanding how it operates is to remember that it opens and closes on Skylar (Anna Gunn), thus giving her much of the focus. In fact, when put into this context one can easily argue that the scene is, in fact, hers, rather than Walt’s. Watching the scene again, we can see the dynamics of power and conflict within it.

Indeed, as Cranston relates in the following clip, the scene takes place at Walt’s complete transformation into Heisenberg as he reveals his tragic flaw.

Dramatic irony also comes into play here. What the audience knows and Skylar doesn’t is that Walter’s speech is itself an act, very much calculated in order to silence his wife on the subject. So, despite Walter’s protestations to the contrary term papers, what is clear in the scene, is that he is actually in a much more precarious position than he is indicating here — making this a violent performance within a performance.

Moreover, what the scene ultimately reveals is that Walt’s superpower is not his ability to cook crystal meth better than anyone else, but, in fact, it is the power of his performances and his ability to lie convincingly. In other words, he is an actor of the highest order, and much of his empire is built on theatre — the main source of his power.

There is also the question of whose scene this is. Since it begins and ends with Skylar, I would argue that it is actually hers. Again, following Adler, her reactions to Walter’s bravado are crucial to the way the scene plays out. Taken as a whole, we see a classic staging of the transfer of power. It is also a demonstration of extreme violence under the surface and from here, Skylar is basically cowed into submission by Walter’s display. I would also state that what is unsaid is as important as what is being said and the subtextual dimension (what is neither spoken nor heard within the scene, but is clearly going on in Skylar’s silence) speaks more effectively than Walter’s monologue does. Here, the acting is combined with editing to register the contrast between Walter’s madness and Skylar’s growing anxiety.


Within this short piece, I have demonstrated that television acting needs to be taken seriously within the context of television’s commercial and critical resurgence. Only by examining Walter White’s famous monologue in relation to the character it is spoken at, and within the series-long character arcs that Cranston, Brandt and Paul perform in, can we productively come to conclusions  at about the state of contemporary TV. What I offer here is merely a snapshot of the kinds of methods that could be employed if critics and scholars are to effectively understand some of the overlooked elements that are largely responsible for the current ascension of Television’s “Quality.”

Image Credits:

1. One Who Knocks
2. Danger
3. Skylar

Please feel free to comment.

Ranking Archer
Matt Sienkiewicz / Boston College

Archer chained to a dungeon wall

Archer chained to a dungeon wall in the pilot

Archer is a trap. It is a tantalizing, glimmering object bobbing in the murky, docu-serial infested waters of non-premium cable. Each 22-minute episode says so much, both with words and images, that the critic salivates instinctually. And, yet, Archer is a perfectly designed lure. The joke is on the biter.

To switch metaphors, Archer is the patient whose mother is a surgeon, who took a few anatomy classes in college, who spent the whole afternoon on WebMD. She may not know more about medicine than her doctor. She does, however, know exactly what to say to lead the expert down a path of her choosing.

Archer’s favorite version of this game is Freudian. Its opening scene screams out a litany of Oedipal themes. Sterling Archer, shirtless, muscled and paradigmatically handsome, dangles from a dungeon wall. An interrogator declares that Archer, codename Dutchess, is “known from Berlin to Bangkok as the world’s most dangerous spy.” The scene’s S&M implications morph quickly into explications. The ostensible spycraft narrative fades away. The scene lights up, revealing the truth. It has all been a show with an audience of one. Sterling’s boss, an elegant, 50-something year old woman, has been watching the torture—a training session—from the start. She is also, of course, Archer’s mother. Dutchess, in addition to being Archer’s nom de guerre, is revealed to be the name of mother’s favorite pet. As the scene cuts out, mother glances longingly at an Annie Leibowitz-style portrait in which she, naked, caresses Dutchess—the dog—in bed.

The scene sends a clear instruction to those viewers who have taken the time to memorize Dr. Freud’s number: page him. It’s all right there. A son takes pleasure in pain, sexualizing himself in front of his mother. The mother displaces the sexual bond of the breast onto another object, claiming that Archer’s codename was “random” i.e. not conscious. Archer, it seems, is luring viewers into a state of comfort through a blend of strange comedy and fantastic animation. It then scratches unconscious itches, giving expression to desires for mother-love that no one dares express in normal, waking life and yet are capable of providing great pleasure. And perhaps it does.

But, perhaps it does not. More than being Freudian, the scene is about Freud, Freud’s place in contemporary humor and Freud’s role in the 1950s culture from which Archer draws its aesthetic. Throughout its run, it has asked viewers to think about Freud when considering Archer’s character. In episode eleven of season three, the script makes this official, with Archer’s on-and-off lover Lana proclaiming:  “If you want to know why Archer is Archer, you need to go back in time and have a threesome with Oedipus and Sigmund Freud.” To think overtly about the unconscious, however, is to deny its power. The unconscious is like Keyser Soze’s devil— its power derives from our ability to ignore its existence.

Mother and Duchess

Archer’s mother and her dog, Dutchess

And yet, I cannot help but take a bite at Archer’s psychoanalytic spinnerbait. There is, undeniably, something profoundly dreamlike in Archer’s construction. In addition to the oft-noted surreal qualities of animation, the show’s diagetic landscape is perhaps television’s most comprehensive presentation of the “Kettle logic” that Freud invokes in The Interpretation of Dreams (1978). (( Freud, S. (1978). The Interpretation of Dreams. Hayes Barton Press. )) Using the example of a patient’s dream about returning a broken kettle, Freud notes the mysterious, powerful way in which the unconscious supports simultaneous, incompatible states of being. Questioned by his neighbor, the dreamer in Freud’s example offers three explanations: 1. He returned the kettle unbroken 2. The kettle was damaged at the time of his borrowing 3. He had not, in fact, ever borrowed the kettle. Crucially, these are not alternative excuses, as they would be in waking life. In the world of dreams they, somehow, can be simultaneously true, allowing for the unconscious psyche to play out its own contradictory desires and understandings.

Archer’s is a world full of kettles simultaneously borrowed and unborrowed, broken and unbroken. It is a universe in which there are futuristic cellphones, planes, guns and cars. And, yet the Soviet Union and the KGB are going strong. It is a time in which 9/11 has already happened, but Burt Reynolds is still a picture of virility. Archer has an English butler who served in World War I and yet takes supersonic jets to enjoy transgender prostitutes in, of course, Bangkok.

This kettle logic, I submit, is not a commentary on Freud like the mother-love scene that began the series. It is instead a (seemingly unconsciously) attractive way to construct a world in which to play out the complex desires of the unconscious. Yes, some of these are certainly sexual. However, as noted above, the sexual aspects are often tainted by the show’s very intentional invocation of Freudian themes and ideas.


Archer’s mother watching the interrogation

Instead, I turn to the work of Otto Rank, a student and colleague of Freud’s who would, eventually, come to diverge in important ways from his mentor. Rank, who is rarely mentioned in the realm of media theory, represents one of the earliest thinkers to overtly connect the moving screen image with the play of the unconscious. In his 1914 book The Double, Rank (1971) analyzes the film 1913 film The Student of Prague, noting that cinematography “in numerous ways reminds us of the dreamwork (p.4). (( Rank, O. (1971). The Double: A psychoanalytic study. UNC Press Books. )) One cannot help but imagine how much Rank’s conviction in this confluence would strengthen were he to see a college student curled up in bed, in the dark, watching seasons of Archer flow from episode to episode as she drifts to sleep.

In his analysis of The Student of Prague, Rank focuses on the literary theme of the double, something he associates with modern man’s desire to maintain a belief in the immortality of the soul in an age the rejects spiritual thinking. However, the heart of Rank’s approach to psychoanalysis resides in what Rankian theorist Ernest Becker (2007) summarizes as “the denial of death.” (( Becker, E. (2007). The Denial of Death. Simon and Schuster. )) In contrast to Freud, Rank held that people do not, consciously or unconsciously, harbor a desire for their own destruction. Invoking a theory of the psyche in which the conscious mind exercises a greater influence than in Freud’s approach, Rank argued that much, if not all human activity, can be understood through man’s struggle to reject the fact of her mortality. In particular, he argued, dreams can be understood through such a lens. There are two types of dreams pertaining to death, he writes in Psychology and the Soul (2002). (( Rank, O. (2002). Psychology and the soul: A study of the origin, conceptual evolution, and nature of the soul. JHU Press. )) The first type, in which the dreamer somehow improbably survives danger, denies death by suggesting the subject’s immortality. The second, in which the dreamer either dies or is about to die, also denies death, this time by forcing the subject to awaken and contrast her livingness with a death that has proven illusorily. In either case, the dream serves the dreamer by bolstering her ability to keep death at bay in waking life.

Archer, already taking place in a world that recalls the dream state, consistently invokes themes that play on each of Rank’s dream-types. Nearly every episode features someone, most often Archer, on the absolute brink of death. A lethally poisonous snake bites him, he contracts aggressive breast cancer, he falls into a punji tiger pit. He confronts 99 ways to die, but submits to none of them. Whereas most action series slide into the unrealistic in the construction of gun battles, Archer takes the idea ad absurdum. Every Archer episode recalls Butch and Sundance’s showdown with the Bolivian army. Except in Archer, the army is defeated and the heroes live on.

Other plots hew closer to Rank’s second type of dream, going as far as to kill off characters and then, nearly immediately, return them to life. Barry, Archer’s archrival, dies. So does Archer’s fiancé Katya. There is a moment of shock and mourning but then, just as the dreamer awakes, the dead character returns to life, often as a cyborg, denying death in the process. Such scenes, I submit, are attractive not simply due to the comedic logic of their absurdity, but also their appeal to the viewer’s desire to demote death from inevitability to impossibility.

It is perhaps odd to dismiss Freudian interpretations of Archer while embracing those of Rank, a follower of Freud. However, in this case, Rank’s relative obscurity helps preserve the potentially unconscious nature of the program’s engagement with death themes. Neither writer nor viewer is likely to step back and view Archer’s comedic approach to mortality as a comment on Rankian theories death, while they very well may take the time to make conscious the more obvious Freudian aspects of the show. That, or I’m engaging in my own little denial, believing that I’ve mastered the process of death denial and thus, in some way, controlled the uncontrollable. One never knows.

Image Credits:
1. Archer chained to a dungeon wall in the pilot, Reed, A. (Writer), & Williams, M. (Director). (2010). Mole Hunt [Television series episode]. In N. Holman (Producer), Archer. Irving, Texas: FX Networks, LLC.
2. Archer’s mother and her dog, Dutchess, Reed, A. (Writer), & Williams, M. (Director). (2010). Mole Hunt [Television series episode]. In N. Holman (Producer), Archer. Irving, Texas: FX Networks, LLC.
3. Archer’s mother watching the interrogation, Reed, A. (Writer), & Williams, M. (Director). (2010). Mole Hunt [Television series episode]. In N. Holman (Producer), Archer. Irving, Texas: FX Networks, LLC.

Stasis, Change, and Televisual Comic Book Film Franchising
Derek Johnson / University of Wisconsin-Madison

The “televisualization” of the comic book film.
Looking back at the year 2014, Mark Harris of the sports and pop culture blog Grantland recently characterized Hollywood as haunted by superheroes, unable to break its cyclical dependence on formulaic sequels even as that franchising threatens to “poop all over everything.” Such overwrought, doomsday reflection on the “toxic” and “annihilating” creative atmosphere within the blockbuster-driven film industry is anything but novel. Over at Antenna, Brad Schauer has explored the ways in which critics lamenting the supposed end of narrative in Hollywood position themselves as the “last bastion” of good taste in opposition to the audiences of comic book films, and his research more broadly has revealed the long history by which science fiction and other franchise blockbusters have been dismissed by critics. So I’d add very little here to merely take Harris to task for keeping that story running. But where Harris does make an extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of contemporary Hollywood—in need of both further exploration and further critique of the kind Schauer might call for—is in his realization that the contemporary comic book blockbuster has given film an increasingly televisual quality.

Of greatest concern to Harris about the film industry of 2014 is the way that it replicated itself into 2015 and beyond, as made most tangibly clear by the carefully planned futures of the DC Comics and Marvel Comics film franchises. Each company made spectacular announcements throughout the year revealing the titles of dozens of comic book films to be produced by the end of the decade. As Harris writes, the film industry of 2014 is all about “creating a sense of anticipation in its target audience that is so heightened, so nurtured, and so constant that moviegoers are effectively distracted from how infrequently their expectations are actually satisfied. Movies are no longer about the thing; they’re about the next thing, the tease, the Easter egg, the post-credit sequence, the promise of a future at which the moment we’re in can only hint.” Despite his doom and gloom, Harris provides here an extremely useful perspective on narrative aesthetics in contemporary media franchising. Much as I have argued that media franchising applies the logic of episodic production long central to US television to a host of other entertainment industries, Harris conceptualizes this promise and anticipation of the future as a televisionification of blockbuster film. “TV knows how to keep people coming back, which is its job, every day and every week, and is a quality that, above all others, the people who finance movies would dearly love to poach,” Harris writes. While the specific episodic logics that have long been a part of comic book form can be seen to have their own transformational effects on television (as argued by Alisa Perren), Harris’ insight encourages us to look in parallel to television studies to understand what is happening in the industrial embrace of the comic book film.

Marvel film slate
The Marvel film slate through 2018 is announced.
While Harris’ invocation of television seems meant to evoke a sense of monotonous, economically determined, illegitimate, and above all risk-averse form of cultural production to justify his claims about creative bankruptcy, television scholars might consider the case of comic book film franchising with somewhat more ambivalence. Yes, we have long known that episodic television is an especially risk averse and particularly repetitive cultural form. Yet TV scholars like Jeff Sconce have considered what it might mean to be creative within that context. Thinking about the challenges of ongoing, episodic production and above all the need to generate episodic difference amid the reuse of series and generic formula, Sconce argues that the “true art in the algebra of televisual repetition is not the formula but the unique integers plugged into the equation.” ((Jeffrey Sconce, “What If: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition (eds. Lynn Spiegel and Jan Olsson, pp. 93-112. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 105.)) In this way, television studies can prompt us to think about franchised creativity as something that comes as much in response to repetition as something annihilated by it. Creativity in that sense might be a little less celebrated and magical, and instead a more negotiated struggle through which formula support both stasis and change at the same time.

Harris’ essay seems to focus only on stasis. He looks at the production slate for Marvel Studios and sees the extension of a 2014 formula (itself an extension of what’s proven successful in years past) to the next several years of blockbuster filmmaking through 2020. He sees the replication of that formula as a reason to be concerned for all “the movies that aren’t getting made.” And he’s right. The Marvel films are nothing if not formulaic, and the crowding of the blockbuster market by comic book films like here —to say nothing of what blockbuster emphasis in general means for quieter independent projects and untested ideas—is a concern about diversity of voice and perspective that cannot be waved away by a conversation about the art of repetition. But Harris’ invocation of television means we have to think about the unique integers demanded by repetition too.

DC slate
The DC Comics film release line-up through 2020.
Of course Harris is willing to admit that with the huge number of comic book films being
produced, the odds are that one or two “good” movies will “sprout up.” Instead of looking at such instances as anomalies in an otherwise homogeneous sea of carefully managed production, though, we might think about them as important parts of franchising logic—the variance and “unique integers” necessary to keep the formula fresh and, especially, to adapt that formula to new audiences and tastes. More than anything, Harris seems troubled by the “Stalinist” way studios have planned out the road to 2020, introducing one new comic book hero or property after another to be run through the same blockbuster franchise formula. For DC, Superman vs. Batman will lead to Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman; for Marvel, Avengers: Age of Ultron will lead to Ant-Man and Captain Marvel. Yet there’s something permitted here in the plugging of all these different integers into the same formula that earlier moments in the franchising of comic book films did not. The promise of a future represented by these extended production slates depends on a commitment to gradual, cumulative narrative change and the exploration of new characters to replace the old (no more rebooting in order to tell the exact same story again, a la Sony’s Spider-Man film franchise; though the breaking news that Sony will allow Marvel to reunite Spider-Man and The Avengers suggests one last reboot may be required there before Marvel commits to integrating the character in their long-term, future-thinking strategy). That promise of cumulative development may ultimately go undelivered, but it imagines Hollywood franchise filmmaking as something ideally balancing formulaic stasis with iterative dynamism.

Captain Marvel
Carol Danvers, also known as Captain Marvel, is set to make her big-screen debut in 2018.
While glacial, these dynamic shifts have political importance too. How might the stability of the formula allow a broader range of experimentation in imagining power and who gets to wield it in these popular fantasies? Even if formulaic, both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel represent a shift in industrial logic as to whom the subjects and audiences of blockbuster franchising might include. Make no mistake—this is a shift based in market analysis and calculated risk assessment, but nevertheless one that should be recognized as something other than simply more of the same. Unfolding over time across a decade of industry strategy, franchising is a site where we can see glacial changes in corporate culture, logics, and lore. As Joss Whedon so eloquently quipped in describing Marvel’s post-Guardians of the Galaxy confidence in the extension of its franchise formula, “If a raccoon can carry a movie, then they believe maybe even a woman can.”

Wonder Woman
A publicity still for Wonder Woman, directed by Michelle MacLaren and slated for a 2017 release.
With this in mind, my point is not that we should celebrate Marvel for offering change in the most cynical, managed, and risk averse way possible. Instead, it is to point out that the persistent presence of almost imperceptible change helps us put in new perspective the concerns that Harris and others have about the movies that aren’t getting made. Because franchise formulas do change, they can be applied to new markets and new audiences. Five years ago, moviegoers had to look well outside of Marvel’s offerings to find strong female heroes at the center of a film narrative; five years from now, strong female heroes dissertation help will have become one of the many unique integers plugged into the Marvel formula, and that formula may have become the most profitable, risk averse place for that kind of content. If successful, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman may create a larger market for fantasy narratives focused on women (and hopefully made by women), but at the same time they may cement the overall Marvel film franchise as a one-size-fits-all formula that can be adjusted to suit all audiences (and producers). We might similarly think of the Ghostbusters franchise as one of many new potential containers for comedians like Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. Our critical concern for media franchising, therefore, should take a page from television studies (and in this case, feminist television studies) to be equally attuned to formulaic mutability as the potential for creative stasis.

Image Credits:

1. The “televisualization” of the comic book film.
2. The Marvel film slate through 2018 is announced.
3. The DC Comics film release line-up through 2020.
4. Carol Danvers, also known as Captain Marvel, is set to make her big-screen debut in 2018.
5. A publicity still for Wonder Woman, directed by Michelle MacLaren and slated for a 2017 release.

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