Civilized Viewing and its Discontents

by: Lynne Joyrich / Brown University

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who I had not seen for quite some time about the pleasures and/or irritations of watching television with others. Do I find it more enjoyable, he asked, to watch TV alone or with a group? He himself, he explained, had been finding it difficult to watch TV with other people, particularly after having spent quite a bit of time away from his social circle, busy with work and various projects. Although he recognized and (in theory) valued the companionability that group TV viewing could yield, he feared that it made the TV programs themselves seem “bad”…and even worse than that, it could make him feel bad–unappreciative, anti-social, and inhumane, a “bad person.” What program did he try watching with others, I asked. “Dexter,” he said. “Oh…well there's your problem; that's a program that really has to be watched with one's self.”


Showtime’s Dexter

While I will return to Showtime's Dexter and its relation to the self in a moment, the issues that this seemingly simple and somewhat silly conversation raised are really not quite that silly nor simple. What is the relationship (if any) between “bad TV” and “bad personhood,” between television and “humanness” (as self and as sociality), between appreciating media texts and appreciating one's self in relation to others (and vice-versa–appreciating others in conjunction, or in distinction, to oneself)? Of course, by traditional standards, it may seem nonsensical to link one's complaints about the possibility of “bad TV” to a fear of being a “bad person.” By high cultural norms, all TV (or at least almost all TV) is by definition “bad,” and the aesthetic taste and judgment to recognize this is, if anything, a mark of a more discerning humanity, a sign of civilization and culture. Such views have, no doubt, been changing over the past decade or so, with greater acknowledgment of the aesthetic possibilities of television and a discourse of “television appreciation” now more common in both commercial and (supposedly) anti-commercial venues. This discourse in the U.S. is related to the development of original programming on such “commercial free” (i.e., pay cable) networks as Showtime and its even more esteemed competitor HBO, which began airing its first original dramatic program, the prison serial Oz, in 1997–the same year that it introduced its famous tagline, “It's not TV, it's HBO.” Yet as that line indicates, “good” TV still tends to be defined by most people by its supposed lack of televisuality–by its difference from, rather than deployment of, televisual qualities. While I disagree with such assessments, this is not because I would want to argue that subscription cable programs like Oz or Dexter are “bad”; to the contrary, they're amongst my favorite and most admired TV shows. But what I admire about them has to do precisely with the ways in which they make use of–rather than repudiate–the potential that exists in television's forms (such as the potential that emerges from playing with the border between television's “masculine” coded crime-and-punishment genres and it “feminine” coded soap opera genres, as well as with the borders that exist between televisual realism and its anti-realist artifices and between U.S. TV's twin obsessions with “liveness” and with death). In other words, my interest in these programs arises because of how, exactly, they are TV (not just pay cable) and how, in their televisual articulations, they can make us think about the relationships between textual forms and social forms, aesthetics and politics, narrative dynamics and viewing dynamics, being a “good show” and being a “good person” (or just being “a person” in relation to other people).

There are numerous reasons why U.S. television typically tends not to be treated seriously in aesthetic or political terms (including, significantly, its commercial-driven base). But one of these reasons is simply its familiarity: television's omnipresent, everyday, routine existence in our lives. Its very ordinariness seems to belie the discourse of “appreciation” (which is why a channel like HBO attempts to assert its supposedly extraordinary features, its ability to be unfamiliar, distinct from the usual family of networks). Indeed, television's familiarity is intimately bound up with its “familialarity”: its relation to the ordinary, routinized construction of family life, which television seems constantly to articulate not just in its stories but in its very terms of address (its hailing “we”). In other words, not only is “the family” television's favorite subject matter (whether figured as an “actual” family, a family of friends or co-workers, or a jocular “news family”). Family is also the way we come to matter as subjects for TV–the way that we are interpellated across TV's series and serial forms, its “fact” and “fiction” genres, its individual texts and the metatext of its flow (that is, through both repetitions of family reintegration and continuations of family disintegrations, via narrative display of others' situations and the inclusive rhetoric of “our” shared interests, within the enclosures of TV's domestic settings and the reflexive self-enclosure of the domesticated TV world as a whole). Because of both this address (literalized in such things as networks' greetings “from our family to yours”) and the typical domestic viewing context itself, this familial construction extends to the television audience. Most of us watch television in familial space (together with those with whom we live, or perhaps alone in precisely an attempt to get space away from those with whom we live), but, given how such formations have historically developed and crystallized, even beyond these literal enactments (or rejections) of family dynamics, television has the interesting effect of making any viewing group feel like a “familial” one (so that, for instance, one way of establishing and marking a comfortable closeness among people is to watch TV together–even if this is a “virtual togetherness” as occurs with TV fan communities).

There are, of course, a great many things that one can critique about television's familiarity/”familialarity” (with the aforementioned consequence of discouraging serious aesthetic discussion being probably the least of them). No doubt, the structures I've briefly noted have made U.S. television particularly effective at instilling and installing restrictive notions of, almost always, middle-class, white, heteronormative “family values” into the most intimate recesses of our spaces and times, our psyches and our social dynamics. But while I certainly think that it's crucial to critique these oppressive restrictions, I also think that it's important to see what other effects, possibilities, and openings–even if small–might emerge from these formations. One effect is to raise questions about the very meanings of “family,” familialism, and the familiar. If “TV families” can encompass groupings that range from biologically linked clans, to gangs of buddies or co-workers, to assemblages formed across diverse diegeses and locales, and if this can extend out to us as viewers in our own diverse situations and locales, then what is a “family”? Does this narrow our understanding of human relations by defining everything via just one familiar form, or does it, rather, broaden our understanding, appropriating the notion of “family” from “family values” discourse and deploying it instead for the formation of a variety of modes of humanity and community (including the “virtual”–yet quite familiar and “real”–ones created by shared media interest and communication)? If “families” can be constituted by media formations, then what new ways of thinking about kinship, affiliation, culture, and communication can we envision? Are families the epitome of “civilization,” the mark of Western culture (as proponents of “family values” like to argue) or its opposite (particularly given the often “uncivilized” behavior that takes place around the TV set or the way in which TV viewing can be used as a strategy to impede conversation and closeness as much as it might be used to establish such familiarity)? If this familiarity can help us negotiate either being alone or being with others, how can it also help us negotiate (or question) both the otherness within, and the familiarity to, the self? And with such multiple possibilities for self and other, for extended families and for intensive communities, how might we envision new forms of being, new socialities, new conjunctures and collectivities?

All of which brings me back to the question of what it is like to watch television alone or with others–situations which themselves raise the question of what it means to be a mediated self and/or to mediate one's relation to others. Moreover, these questions are not simply posed by the scene of television viewing; they are also posed within television scenes themselves, as some TV texts seem to press these very issues, making them (as my previously mentioned answer to my friend suggests) particularly appropriate for various enactments of mediated being and/or sociality. While, admittedly, my comment about Dexter being a show best watched alone was somewhat flippant, I might have been on to something about this program (or, to reverse that, something might, through this program, have been on to my “I”). It's not because of squeamishness that this text strikes me as one I'd prefer to view by myself (with no one to see my potential gasps and grimaces). Whereas the promotions for the program have played up its (rather clichéd in its very improbability) high-concept premise of a serial killer who kills only other serial killers, I would argue that the show is much more about what it means to be a person than what it means to do away with people. Through its focus on a character who, although in close contact with many others, believes he has no real feelings, Dexter poses the question of what it is to feel (and feel like) a familiar “self,” to balance between being human and acting “humane,” to mediate between “inner” emotions and “outer” appearances, to relate to and be known by others and the self. In the narrative, the damaged Dexter was, while a child, tutored by his father on how to live in society, assuming an air of ordinary familiarity so as to mask and manage his sense of estrangement from the world. In its very textual construction, the program reproduces this ambivalence of familiarity and estrangement, emotion and performance, the ordinary and the extra-ordinary, the recognition of the self in the other and the alienation that may emerge from the other-in-the-self. From its opening credits that hint at the moments of uncanny violence which lurk in daily domestic routine (squeezing orange juice, flossing teeth), to the program's use of punctuating voice-over (in moments of direct address to the viewer that invert TV's usual mutually flattering “we” through their self and social repudiations), to its intermixtures of several TV forms (so that characters that start out seeming like mere caricatures or backdrops to a central series figure become, through serialization and intrusions of “reality,” much more complex figures of their own self/other struggles), to its revision of TV's usual portrayals of family matters (both the “father-knows-best” model of “actual” families and the camaraderie of the TV “cop family”), this program doesn't only dramatize questions of “humanity,” civilized or savage selfhood, connections to or refusals of others; it draws the viewer into these questions as well, producing an uneasy experience (again, perhaps one best experienced alone) of evaluating our own singular and/or sociable selves.

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

In contrast, a program that I love watching with others is the Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica–a text that, conversely to Dexter's explorations of selfhood which may incite the viewer's own exploration of self, dramatizes the struggles of group alliances even while eliciting group feelings in its audience. Like Dexter, Battlestar Galactica might also be described as a program about the very meaning of what it is to be a person, to be part of the “family of humankind”…although, of course, it raises these questions in a very different way (through its science-fiction space opera about the battle between the human Colonies and their cyborgian Cylon creations and/or “offspring”). Through its use of allegorical narrative (with stories that involve issues like religious warfare, abortion and “ethnic cleansing”, suicide bombings, the use of torture, prison camps and forced occupation, the treatment of “traitors,” and so on), Battlestar Galactica uses futuristic drama to comment on multiple incidents in our historical past and, importantly, in our present day (ranging from references to World War II Poland and France, through Vietnam and Bosnia, to the clear references to today's Israeli-Palestinian conflict and War in Iraq). Needless to say, this can inspire a great deal of discussion and debate on the part of the show's viewers, making it a text that, I would suggest, implies group viewing (via, for example, webs of virtual communities) even if one doesn't literally watch this show with a group. Or, of course, one might do both. For example, I am delighted to have the chance to get together weekly with a gang of folks to watch and discuss Battlestar Galactica, but I also participate in a post-viewing “vlog” in which we bring that discussion out to anyone in cyberculture who might want to tune in, reproducing the program's own play with the line between the human and the non-human through our harebrained (or, much more generously, daringly brainy) device of voicing much of our commentary via the avatars of stuffed animal puppets!

Ugly Betty

Ugly Betty

Producing a similar effect of invoked group viewing–but, again, in a very different way–is, I think, the ABC program Ugly Betty, which takes up such issues of humanity, community, the conjunctures and disjunctures between appearances and emotions in a more earthly global fashion than Battlestar Galactica's movement through the universe. I don't actually watch Ugly Betty together with others…but, paradoxically (or maybe this is precisely to the point), I feel as if I do. The first telenovela made in the U.S. for (as they say) a “mainstream” network and a “general audience,” Ugly Betty (produced through a joint venture between Salma Hayek's production company Ventanarosa and Touchstone Television) is based on the enormously popular Colombian Yo Soy Betty La Fea (written by Fernando Gaitán and produced between 1999 and 2001 by the network RCN), which was not only a huge hit in Colombia but was rebroadcast and/or adapted in numerous other countries (from throughout Latin America, to Germany, India, Israel, the Netherlands, and Russia, among others). Through this text's dispersion over space and time; its movement between comedy and melodrama, ironic camp and heartwarming sentiment; its cast of characters that cross national, ethnic, racial, class, gender, generational, and sexuality lines; and its shows-within-shows (since Betty's family in this telenovela are themselves fans of a fictional telenovela, which just happens to feature many “real” telenovela stars, thus calling up a whole web of interrelated soaps, soap figures, and soap communities), this program truly institutes a “global” perspective–one that invites the viewer to be part of its inclusive community. While certainly a “familial” show (it is, after all, a soap opera), this inclusivity is, I would argue, differently articulated than the standard inclusive (but, in effect, actually exclusive) “we” typical of U.S. broadcasting. Not only has this program finally broken down mainstream U.S. TV's jingoist resistance to the globally popular form of the telenovela, but where else on TV have we ever seen, just to give a few examples, a sympathetic on-going story of an “illegal alien” or a loving portrayal of a proto-gay child, not to mention a revision of what counts as “good” or “bad” aesthetics (for both programming and people)? Watching this program, I can feel part of multiple viewing communities–communities that cross the usual borders of nation and class, gender and sexuality–and, because of that border-crossing, get a different sense of what it might mean to be a person among other people in today's world.

While radically different from one another, all of the programs I've mentioned–Oz, Dexter, Battlestar Galactica, and Ugly Betty–are examples of what I would call “good TV,” TV that is “good” to watch. But more important than my own personal assessment of these program's aesthetics and politics is the fact that, as I've tried to suggest, they open these very questions for viewers: they incite us, in their quite distinct ways, to think about the relations between personal feelings and public mediations; between what's considered “good” and what's considered “bad” (whether in appearance or action); between being a “person” alone and being a person among others; between joining familial, global, and/or “universal” communities and insisting on recognizing differences, specificity, and singularity. Does this make watching television (whether alone or with others) good for you? Go ask your (real or virtual) viewing companions what they think.

Image Credits:
1. Showtime’s Dexter
2. Battlestar Galactica
3. Ugly Betty

Please feel free to comment.


  • julie levin russo

    Very rich and thought-provoking essay! In my simultaneous participation in online and RL viewing collectives (particularly around Battlestar Galactica), I’m struck by how different these experiences are. TV parties rely on a tradition of appointment viewing (indeed, in this era of time-shifting, they are my only remaining motivation for structuring my life around the TV schedule), hearkening back very literally to TV’s historical role as the nexus of family space (and as you point out, making a miscellaneous group of attendees feel like family). This arrangement thus capitalizes on TV’s sense of liveness, its ability to bring us a media event (stretching this category to include fictional dramas) as it happens. Virtual communities are episodic to some degree (in the flood of new commentary that is produced in the day or two after each new ep airs), but far less live. In their global scope (primarily anglophone, in the case of US TV), they rely on new architectures of TV distribution such as downloading/streaming. Their discourses tend to respond to television rather than being coextensive with it, and perhaps as a result these collectives feel more like subcultures (a more public but also more homogeneous mode of address) than families. Perhaps this says something about the different affordances of television and the internet as media forms

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