Stripping (Part 2)
In my last column, I began to discuss the practice of stripping — placing reruns of a series in the same daily slot five times a week on a local station or cable channel. I argued that series that offer dollops of quotidian delights do particularly well when stripped, as their subtle qualities become more visible with the increased exposure of daily presentation. I would like to continue by discussing another source of heightened appreciation of stripped series, our changing views of characters and actors in reruns, before comparing stripping to DVD bingeing, and wrapping up with a programming note.
Watching a weekly show on a daily basis changes our exposure to actors and the characters they play. Secondary characters sometimes rise to the fore once syndication begins, as watching material that is already familiar affords us the chance to focus on less central elements of the show. Characters who may appear briefly on a weekly basis become more familiar when watched daily, and their cumulative impact intensifies once freed from the seven-day break between performances. Even important secondary characters can gain more attention in stripped series, as patterns of narrative become more obvious. A classic example comes from Taxi, the late ’70s-early ’80s sitcom that became a syndication favorite. When introduced in its first run, cast members Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, and Andy Kaufman attracted press attention, and their characters were certainly important to the show. In syndication, however, fan attention turned more toward Christopher Lloyd as Reverend Jim and Danny DeVito as Louie. Reverend Jim rarely had a large role in the narrative, but regularly offered one or two observations or scenes per episode that got big laughs. Daily viewing reduced the isolated quality of his non sequitur-based humor, and the details of his bizarre personality could be gathered by viewers trying to understand his hippie-burn-out-street-preacher persona. His cumulative impact was much greater in syndication than in the original run.
Watching the show on a daily (or nightly) basis also made clear the importance of Danny DeVito’s character to the series. Louie the dispatcher was often the main catalyst of story lines, despite the fact that he was usually stuck in a cage to the side of the main action. Louie also got some of the best dialogue in his role as the main comic foil on the show. The Taxi writers clearly fell in love with the characters of Reverend Jim and Louie, whose comic styles were more extreme than the rather mild tone that was sustained by most of the other regulars. (Carol Kane’s Simka, another outlandish personality, also benefited, but she was not featured as regularly). The writers may also have fallen in love with Lloyd and DeVito’s comic talents. It is no coincidence that these two actors have had the strongest film careers among the cast since the series ended. Did the two’s heightened visibility in syndication lead to better roles in later productions? Or did their success in film make them seem more important in the Taxi reruns? Probably both, but their impact in reruns preceded their leaps to major film success in the mid-1980s.
Views of primary characters can also change through stripping. In the last column, I mentioned the popularity of James Garner in The Rockford Files and Jerry Orbach in Law and Order as the product of daily exposure. Even a performer as attention-getting as Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer could be seen in new ways once the series went into syndication. Personally, I became much more impressed with Gellar’s performance once stripping brought into relief her range in moving between comedy, romance, and action (once she learned how to stake with conviction). The series was already known for its mixture of modes, but the daily juxtaposition of episodes that required Gellar to constantly switch performative gears made her ability to do so seem more central to the success of the show.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Stripping became more prevalent with the proliferation of cable channels, but that may soon change. Syndicators once thought successful stripping required five or six seasons of an original run, but the great maw of the multichannel universe will now settle for fewer episodes, allowing more series to be stripped. The advent of DVD versions of television series, however, poses new questions for syndicators and programmers. Will the DVD market drive down demand for stripped series? Will the appeal of a ritualistic daily visitation of a series withstand the easy availability of the same material on demand? Will we see an era of DIY stripping, when viewers can schedule their own viewing preferences? Or do DVD box set owners skip DIY stripping and go straight to video bingeing, watching as many episodes as personal schedules will allow (and then some), in the shortest amount of time? Perhaps some genres, such as sitcoms, are amenable to DIY stripping, while others, such as thrillers with strong narrative arcs, lead to bingeing. Friends of mine who recently disappeared for nights and weekends at a time to obsessively watch 24 attest to the power of suspense, even when the show is “bad, but compelling,” as those in its clutches agreed. If once seen as a symbol of plenty compared to the weekly presentation schedule of an original run, the measured charms of stripping’s daily discipline may appear inadequate to a society bent toward bingeing. Does binge viewing offer different dynamics to the appreciation of small touches, secondary characters, and narrative patterns? Binge viewers of the FLOW community, what say ye?
Finally, I would like to end my cycle of articles this year by noting another sort of prevalence on cable television of late. I am referring to the David Mamet film Spartan, which plays repeatedly on HBO virtually every month, and pops up on TNT and other channels from time to time. Some Mamet-scripted films have been common cable fare before — Glengarry Glen Ross was often screened throughout the ’90s, and Ronin, which he co-wrote under a pseudonym, can still be seen regularly. The prevalence of Spartan, however, is astonishing, given its lack of success in its theatrical run in 2004. A cloak and dagger story of the search for the kidnapped daughter of a President, the film is replete with themes of the management of the news, White House sexual peccadilloes, duplicitous Presidential aides, the use of torture and other extralegal methods during a security emergency, Arab treatment of women, shadowy involvement by Israelis, and the protection of the powerful at the expense of working-class, African-American, and Latina populations. Has it become a cult favorite? Is this merely a case of the studio — Warner Bros. — milking its property by using its affiliated television channels? Or, given that the film is the clearest echo in contemporary American film of the hyperparanoiac thrillers of the Watergate era (The Parallax View, The Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation), is somebody (other than Mamet, who most assuredly is) trying to tell us something?
Please feel free to comment.
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I really appreciate this article Daniel. I have often wondered about the powerful appeal of reruns. Myself, I have a peculiar and unwavering attachment to Seinfeld, which is about in its 8th (?) year of syndication, and my desire to watch the show has not waned in the least. Seinfeld is a great example of how secondary characters become much more prominent and interesting – the obvious example is a character like Nueman. I would also suggest that repeat viewings for me have become a game of sorts – I like to see what gets cut from the original, or spotting ‘unknowns’, many of whom are celebrities in their own right now. I find with stripping that I pay more attention to narrative structure, set design, and acting styles/techniques – in this way, offering audiences never ending viewing pleasures. I would also like to add to your discussion, a note on the mainstream syndication of specialty cable shows, like HBO’s Sex and the City. This show is now available all hours of the day, almost every day on any number of cable channels. But, the show has been edited to fit into a half hour time slot. I see this as somewhat problematic – much of the show’s edginess becomes literally ‘cut out’ – profanities of all kinds removed. I don’t find the censored version of the show as enjoyable to watch and it says a lot about who’s making these editing decisions. Who gets to decide what to leave in and what to take out? How does this change the meaning of the show for audiences and do they find themselves, like me, trying to ‘fill in the gaps’? Just a few thoughts on a very interesting topic…
Thank you very much for writing this essay. Daniel