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

Mad Men

The cast of AMC’s Mad Men

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

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

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

Twin Peaks

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

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

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

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

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


The first season cast of ABC’s Lost

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

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

The Sopranos

David Chase’s narratively complex Sopranos

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

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Let Me Tell You—

by: Craig Jacobsen / Mesa Community College

Broadcast network television in the U.S. seems to have a growing fixation on storytelling. I’m not saying that they’re fixated on telling stories. That would only be natural, as that’s a big part of what they do. What’s new, or at least notable by degree, is the attention being given to the portrayal of storytelling within broadcast network programming.

Joey Ice-Cream from The Black Donnellys

Joey Ice-Cream from The Black Donnellys

The first two episodes of NBC’s new family/crime drama The Black Donnellys have both been framed narrations, stories told (in the first episode to police and in the second to his lawyer) by a character named Joey Ice-Cream, a minor figure in his own stories about the four Donnelly brothers. The show’s departure from such shows’ default objective point of view raises interesting complications. Early in the pilot episode Joey begins his narration three different times, restarting after his interrogators challenge his accuracy. Each time he starts, viewers see a different version of the story’s beginning. Right from the start we’re clued in that what we’re seeing on screen in the framed narrative isn’t necessarily what “really” happened, but is instead a performance of sorts, a dramatization of what Joey is telling the cops. This isn’t a flashback. We aren’t privileged to see earlier events as they unfold before us. We’re seeing and hearing only what a decidedly unreliable narrator wants us to. It’s a bit of narrative playfulness, of attention to the act of storytelling and its inherent limitations and biases, that demonstrates a level of respect for its audience that broadcast television networks in this country often seem to lack.

Meanwhile, How I Met Your Mother, a series that I cited in an earlier Flow article as an example of narrative complexity in a banal program, has become more experimental. The show itself is presented from the frame of a future narrator, and is thus one big analepsis, but within that device episodes rely heavily on flashbacks to show us previous action. In the episode “Ted Mosby, Architect,” the show becomes even more playful. Following an argument, Robin goes looking for her boyfriend Ted. As she follows him from bar to party to nightclub to another woman’s apartment, various narrators tell Robin of Ted’s behavior, and we see it on screen in flashback. At episode’s end we’ve learned that another character has been using Ted’s name, and so everything that we’ve “seen” becomes instead something we’re “told,” or, more properly, what appears on the screen is the way Robin is imagining the stories being told to her.

Ted Mosby

How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted Mosby

It’s a clever device that is surprising because we expect flashbacks to be “true,” and the show itself has relied heavily on “true” flashbacks throughout its two seasons. Undercutting its own (and the dominant) use of flashbacks provides the episode with its comedic (Barney’s pretending to be Ted) rather than dramatic (Ted’s cheating on Robin) resolution. Despite my earlier near-dismissal of How I Met Your Mother, it deserves more critical attention than it’s getting, perhaps because it disguises itself so well.

And try as I might, I can never quite get away from Lost. Just when I think we’ve settled into a pattern of flashbacks that raise more questions than they answer, finally a twist in the analepsis: time travel. Whether Desmond actually did or did not travel back in time to before he was stranded on the island, the possibility that he did throws a new twist into Lost‘s predictable format. It potentially rearranges the relationship between the show’s narrative present and narrative past. How the writers choose to exploit the possibilities may determine their ability to reinvigorate the stagnating series.


Lost‘s Desmond

These shows (one in its first season, one in its second, and one in its third) complicate viewing in interesting ways. Viewers are forced to accept that what we are seeing on screen may not be simply “what happened before,” but “what this character says happened before” or “what this character thinks happened before.” Such strategies introduce an element of contingency that undermines viewers’ confidence in the narrative, forcing the adoption of tentative interpretations that might require revision in the light of future information. Judging by the comments on NBC’s official website for The Black Donnellys, some viewers find this confusing. No surprise there. Until recently, broadcast network television had done little to “train” viewers in how to watch this kind of show. And perhaps the demise of narratively complex programs like The Nine or Day Break demonstrates that viewership for such shows remains limited, thought it’s hard to pin a show’s failure on its structure. Networks’ willingness to continue with sophisticated programming indicates some faith that narrative complexity isn’t an insurmountable barrier.

Indeed, narrative complexity may be precisely what broadcast network television most needs. The questions generated by such complexity (Did Desmond really time travel? Was Joey Ice-Cream really there?) fuel internet discussion boards, and they provide incentive to catch reruns or download episodes. They invite attention.

While I’d like to see narratively sophisticated series prosper, I’m not concerned about the survival of any particular program. Indeed I’m curious to see what will happen to complex narrative strategies in the light of the cancellation of shows that employ them. Just as I was interested to see ABC take a chance on The Nine after the failure of Fox’s Reunion, and I was happy to see NBC gamble on The Black Donnellys after the failure of The Nine, I anxiously await the next slate of new shows. It might help us to see whether the last couple of years have been a failed experiment or the start of genuine maturation for broadcast television narrative.

Image Credits:
1. Joey Ice-Cream from The Black Donnellys
2. How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted Mosby
3. Lost‘s Desmond

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Get Lost in a Good Story: Serial Creativity on a Desert Island

“The intent seems to have been to alleviate one of the oldest problems of the continuous-serial form, that of stimulating and maintaining interest in plot points in an acceptable manner — what I will hereafter refer to as the ‘surprise/acceptability problem.'”

— Marc Dolan, “The Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity: What Happened to/on Twin Peaks

Creator JJ Abrams

Creator JJ Abrams

In a column in Entertainment Weekly entitled “Lost’s Soul, Stephen King offers some fascinating speculations on what lies ahead for a series he has touted as the best on the small screen. “There’s never been anything like it on TV for capturing the imagination,” he insists, “except The Twilight Zone and The X-Files.” And yet he fears Lost might succumb to the same serial narrative fate as the latter, a great series that ended badly because it violated the Nietzschean dictum to “die at the right time,” remaining faithful instead to what King deems “the Prime Network Directive: Thou Shalt Not Kill the Cash Cow.” “I could have throttled the executives at Fox for doing that, and Chris Carter for letting it happen,” King rants, and he has no desire to experience deja vu all over again.

As ABC’s Lost continues to be a mainstream top ten show and an international cult phenomenon, engendering enthusiastic fan behavior, the extraordinary tests faced by the Lost castaways may pale by comparison to those J. J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and company have and will face. Not since Lynch and Frost’s Twin Peaks, another rule-breaking, genre-defying ABC series that started strong but flamed out in its second season, and Carter’s X-Files, a Lost ancestor text with a perplexing mythology that perpetually promised but seldom delivered solutions to the myriad puzzles it raised, alienating its fans in the end, has an episodic television series been required to navigate a more dangerous narratological Scylla and Charybdis.

How can Lost sustain its suspense while retaining the good faith of and credibility with a deeply inquisitive viewership, determined to puzzle out its mysteries? Can it become a “long haul show” (Sarah Vowell’s term) while maintaining immediate water cooler buzz? How can Lost‘s creative team out-imagine its obsessed, ingenious fan base? (“People who post online — they’re infinitely smarter than anyone working on the show,” J. J. Abrams effused on The Jimmy Kimmel Show.) The conundrums, and pitfalls, of “serial creativity,” as Marc Dolan has cogently articulated them, “are enough to intimidate any narrative genius.” Must Lost, of necessity, eventually disappoint? A “serial killer,” if you will, is loose in the medium of television. Will it claim Lost as its latest victim?

When given the opportunity to colonize the dream space of a South Pacific island, Abrams and fellow prime mover Lindelof both felt the need for it to be something more than Gilligan’s Island, Cast Away, Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, Survivor, Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland, The Stand, A Wrinkle in Time — all identifiable Lost ancestor texts. To a question about why his new creation needed a monster and all the other mysteries of the island — why it couldn’t just be a drama about survival — Abrams replied:

“It wouldn’t work for me. Personally, [the monster is] what interests me. Someone else I’m sure could do the show with that absent from it entirely, but it wasn’t the version I was interested in. . . . Increasingly it became clear that it was about adding an element that was, for me, hvper-real. . . . It’s just my tendency. Whether it’s smart or successful storytelling or not, it’s just what interests me” (qtd. in Gross, 36).

Lost, of course, is not just a series about a monster, and its ongoing enigmas are not just island-specific. It’s an anthology series, as well, with the complex, fecund, multi-genre pre-crash backstories of fourteen characters (fifteen, if we count Vincent the Dog) to tell.

Despite such narrative potential, Lost‘s ongoing development has nevertheless faced challenges from both above and below, from network doubts as well as fan demands. Both before and during Lost‘s first season, ABC made its concerns about the show’s course well known. A Daily Variety story reported in July 2004 that the network had expressed alarm over the series’ fear factor, evidently worried too much of the scary might drive away viewers, especially in Lost‘s early evening time slot. In mid-season, Joss Whedon-alum David Fury, who had been a major contributor as both writer and director for both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, reported in an interview in Dreamwatch that network interference had intensified.

Damon Lindelof

Damon Lindelof

“We didn’t run into [it],” Fury would admit, “until roughly around episodes nine [“Solitary” — written by Fury] and 10 [“Raised by Another”]. We were starting to make some choices that definitely terrified the network. There was a feeling on our part, particularly Damon’s, that we need to goose things and take it a bit further. So in terms of “network interference,” there were a lot of meetings at that time about the direction of the show” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41). Why would a network that once had the audacity to air Twin Peaks, one of the most bizarre series ever to air on the small screen, be apprehensive about the plans of Lost‘s creative team? Had not the greatest puzzle TV had proffered since the question of “Who shot J. R.?” in 1980 — “Who killed Laura Palmer?” — been satisfactorily answered right there on ABC? Laura, it was quite clear, had been killed by her father while under the control of BOB, a psychopathic supernatural parasite emanating from the ghostly Black Lodge which manifested periodically in Glastonbury Grove outside the town of Twin Peaks! As Twin Peaks finally began to disclose its “answers” in its second season, such as the identity of BOB, the ratings had, of course, plummeted.

But that was so last century. Surely ABC couldn’t be worried that its new Goose That Laid the Golden Nielsens would be destroyed by the “goosing” Abrams, et al., were contemplating. Weren’t the fans anxious to be goosed? Fury, who has since left the show, admitted to “a frustration . . . as a viewer, in that I’d like some clearer answers [to Lost‘s mysteries], but those answers were resting in the area of sci-fi and that’s where we had to draw the line” (qtd. in DiLullo).

Using a metaphor drawn from one of Lost‘s genetic ancestors, Fury even managed to find a way to make this triangulation sound like a good thing: “We are respecting the network’s desire to not make the show too “out there” too fast. . . . We were trying to approach the show from the Scully perspective and always try to have a reasonable explanation for everything, despite anything that seems out of the ordinary. That was our self-imposed mandate because the networks are scared of genre television” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41; my emphasis).

Hyper-conscious of the classic “surprise/acceptability problem” Marc Dolan identifies (see the epigraph above), Fury knew very well that such a situation, as King, too, has reminded, has inherent risks: “there is the challenge of how long an audience will be invested in the show and in these characters without getting enough concrete answers.” If, Fury thought, “we answer some of these questions, and if we do it in the most reality based way, I think people will feel cheated.” On the other hand, supplying answers to Lost‘s enigmas “in the most interesting sci fi way” could well result in “alienat[ing]” — a telling word choice — “the core audience of the series” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41-42). Did I mention that Fury is no longer with the show?

Now, at the beginning of its second season, with Lost the most-imitated show on television and all the networks, judging by this fall’s offerings, no longer concerned that SF/fantastic story lines might drive viewers away, the series remains firmly perched on the horns of its indigenous creative dilemma, though we have at least now gone down the hatch. Lindelof and Cuse’s three-part finale last spring gave with one hand and took away with the other. We were left wanting to know more about the crash itself, but only saw the survivors boarding the plane and learned nothing new about the flight itself or the crash. We longed for insight into the mysterious numbers, and though the proliferating 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 had repeated cameos, they remained inscrutable. We saw (and heard) more of The Monster than ever before, and yet it still dwells in the mystery. We met The Others (we think) but still have no idea who/what they are and why they were wearing winter clothes. The hatch was opened, but we still had no idea until this week where or to what it lead. And, by all indications, the fan-base was not entirely pleased by the lack of answers. Entertainment Weekly reports that throughout the summer of 2005 the cast had to endure “the brunt of fan angst” (Armstrong 2005). David Fury had insisted last season, after all his laments about network interference, that Lost “is and always will be an unfolding mystery” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41). Did I mention he’s no longer with the show?

From the outset, Abrams and company have insisted the story they want to tell is complex enough to take years to tell (Nelson, 12). ABC Entertainment President McPherson confirmed that “We have a good sense of where a lot of the bigger arcs and mysteries are going well beyond this year” (Hibberd). We could be Lost for a very long time, but if we remain at the same time completely “lost,” then the series will have failed to triumph against the intimidating challenges of serial creativity on a desert island.


Armstrong, Jennifer. “Love, Labor, Lost.” Entertainment Weekly 9 Sept. 2005: 28-32, 41.

Dilmore, Kevin. “Of Spies and Survivors.” Amazing Stories 608 (2005): 20-24. (Interview with J. J. Abrams)

DiLullo, Tara. “Deepening the Lost Mystery.” Dreamwatch 5 (2005): 40-43. (Interview with David Fury)

Dolan, Marc. “The Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity: What Happened to/on Twin Peaks.” In Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, edited by David Lavery. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1995. 30-50.

Gross, Edward. “Man on a Mission.” Cinefantastique 36.1 (2005): 34-36. (Interview with J. J. Abrams)

Hibberd, James. “‘Lost’ Finds Top Spot.” Television Week 3 Jan. 2005: 19.

King, Stephen. “Lost’s Soul.” Entertainment Weekly 9 Sept. 2005: 150.

Nelson, Resa. “Television: Lost Breaks Out as the Cult Hit with Mass Appeal.” Realms of Fantasy Apr. 2005: 8, 10-12.

Vowell, Sarah. “Please Sir May I Have a Mother?” 2 Feb 2000.

Image Credits:
1. Creator JJ Abrams

2. Damon Lindelof

Lost‘s Official ABC Television Site
Lost‘s Internet Movie Database Page
Lost‘s TV Fansite
Oceanic Air Website
Lost‘s Media Fansite
The Fuselage

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I Love Lucy in the Sixties

The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show

My grandmother had made it clear that she wanted the items on her shopping list soon, as in the next day. It was 10:00 at night, in Biddeford, Maine, and where the hell was I going to find Jarlsberg cheese, a small watering can, skirt hangers, Danish butter cookies, Miracle Grow, peanut butter, Stayfree maxipads (extra-long, with “wings”), and bedroom slippers? I boarded Grandma’s boat-sized 1991 Lincoln Town Car and headed towards my inevitable, unenviable destination: Wal-Mart.

Entering the frigid belly of the consumerist beast, I meekly wondered, as long as I’m here, maybe I could pick up a copy of the South Park anti-Wal-Mart episode? So after getting my assigned shopping done, I decided to check out the DVD department. It turns out that DVDs are a loss-leader at Wal-Mart, and soon I was up to my elbows in the $4.99 bargain bin, sifting through crappy transfers of Glenn Ford World War II movies, miscellaneous Brat Pack flicks, and the entire Tom Arnold oeuvre. Then, jackpot! Creepshow, Frogs (Ray Milland, 1972, killer amphibians, why not?), and numerous episodes of The Lucy Show (CBS, 1962-1968).

Lucille Ball’s 1960s TV show ran in the afternoons when I was a kid, and I found it infinitely superior to I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957), which was too stressful for me. On her 50s program it seemed that Lucy was always afraid that she would get caught for doing something she had been cruelly forbidden to do, and that Ricky would punish her. Though Ricky’s actual spankings were infrequent, the threat of domestic violence loomed large for this young viewer. On the post-Ricky series, Lucy was a widow, and her blustery boss Mr. Mooney did not seem to represent a true threat. Mooney hollered a lot, but Lucy remained insouciant about taking two hour lunch breaks. The Lucy Show was friendlier than I Love Lucy. And guest stars were frequent. Luminaries included Ethel Merman, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, and Sid Caesar. Already well past being “une femme d’un certain age,” Lucy wore smashing outfits and had dates with Dan Rowan, Robert Goulet, and, to her great dismay (in the show’s later incarnation as Here’s Lucy), Don Knotts. It’s hard to imagine a sitcom about such a cool, sexy old lady making it onto TV today.

Milton Berle on Here\'s Lucy

Milton Berle on Here’s Lucy

Mary Richards gets a lot of credit as a pioneering working woman, but Lucy was a plucky career gal some years before Mary, and she faced a number of workplace crises, though these were always played for laughs. Lucy had constant money problems, and Mr. Mooney frequently made her work overtime and on weekends without compensation. For Lucy, there was no union to turn to, no solidarity with other “girls” in the office, and no possibility of a raise, or of raised consciousness. Gloria Steinem’s influence clearly did not extend to this particular television universe. Helen Gurley Brown’s impact, conversely, could certainly be felt. Though Lucy would never use sex to get ahead at work, the flirty substitute hired when Lucy goes on vacation wraps Mr. Mooney around her little finger, almost stealing Lucy’s job. Lucy uses elaborate and decidedly unglamorous disguises to sabotage the sexpot. In another episode, Lucy explains how other secretaries in the office get raises, but she “is not the type of girl to wear sweaters two sizes too small.” Lucy may not think she’s a feminist, but she knows that she is being exploited, and that Sex and the Single Girl would not provide palatable solutions to her problems. So she remained broke.

In one episode, the penurious Lucy meets her friend Dottie for lunch and, to the great irritation of the cranky waitress, orders nothing but a bowl of hot water. Lucy adds free condiments-ketchup, steak sauce, lemon wedges, and a handful of sugar cubes-and then tucks into her bowl of free soup. Dottie exclaims, “Congratulations, you’re winning the War on Poverty!” and Lucy replies, “We all have to do our part.” Viewing this episode again for the first time in over 30 years, I remembered the hot water shtick very clearly, but not the quip about the War on Poverty, which would not have meant much to a five year old middle-class suburban kid. Certainly, no one who has read Aniko Bodroghozy’s Groove Tube will be shocked by my insight that The Lucy Show was, like most 1960s TV shows, more political than it appeared at first glance.

Allison McCracken has recently argued convincingly for the cultural and political significance of The Partridge Family. While The Brady Bunch stuck to the confines of the suburban home, the Partridges dealt with the outside world, encountering hippies, feminists, and other countercultural character types. In fact, the Partridges were themselves, in some limited ways, countercultural character types. Reading McCracken’s essay, it would be hard not to admit that The Partridge Family was “better” than The Brady Bunch. Be that as it may, I’ll admit to being a hard-core Brady booster. I always thought the Partridges were dullsville. Maybe it was just the submerged incestuous tension, but The Brady Bunch was always more compelling to me. Watching the Bradys and the Partridges today, I still prefer the former. My current viewing self matches my image of my past viewing self, and this is somehow reassuring.

But thawing out frozen TV memories by revisiting the shows of one’s youth can also be quite disconcerting. I fancied myself quite the feminist at age nine, which was why I wore a Farrah Fawcett t-shirt. Since I had never seen a woman solve crimes on TV, I thought Farrah was liberated. At age twelve, I carried a Ms. bookbag. (If anyone else in Alabama had actually heard of Ms., I might have gotten quite an ass-whipping.) These memories make me feel pretty good about myself and my past media tastes, but, of course, they have been frozen into consciousness at the expense of other memories less flattering to my grown-up self. Me, a huge fan of Family Ties? Impossible! The danger of being a TV studies scholar is that one is forced, eventually, to revisit the fetish shows of one’s youth, only to find that the affection one felt for a show was a screen memory covering up for a less-than-spectacular primal scene: Bob and Carol Brady, in bed, trading incredibly feeble quips about the impossibility of Sam the Butcher ever proposing to Alice. The writing just doesn’t seem as clever as it used to. So, did the 1960s Lucy live up to my high expectations? Yes and no.

There are a couple of things that are really great about Lucy in the 60s. First of all, she knows when to steal the show and when to sit back and let her brilliant guest stars do their thing. She is the center of attention when she dumps a bowl of Caesar salad on Milton Berle’s head, but afterwards he takes over, mugging it up while the audience virtually ignores Lucy. There is likewise an exceptional give and take when Carole Burnett guests as Lucy’s roommate. These winsome natural redheads (ahem!) do song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat, but it is Burnett, playing an introverted librarian, who steals the show when, after downing a few glasses of Chianti she shakes her booty through a spirited performance of “Hard Hearted Hannah.”

Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show is most compelling when all pretense of the fourth wall is dropped and performers (many of them with roots in vaudeville or other live theatrical forms) put on a show for the audience. Narrative is just a pesky intrusion: no one really cares why Ethel Merman is in Lucy’s living room-we just want to hear Lucy sing badly and Merman belt out a trademark tune. Likewise, the climax of Lucy’s trip to Palm Springs is not her successful explanation to Mr. Mooney of why she is there, when she was supposedly at home with the flu, but rather Lucy’s terrific “Up A Lazy River” song-and-dance routine. It turns out that Lucy was almost as good at singing and dancing as she was at pretending she could do neither.

When pure spectacle takes over-Lucy pretends to be a high-falutin’ interior decorator, Lucy babysits baby chimps, Lucy thinks she is hallucinating that Mr. Mooney is a monkey-these shows are everything I remember them being. When hippies, politics, the draft, and other ’60s realities appear, the show takes an unexpected turn towards the dispiriting. When Lucy and Viv go to the Sunset Strip dressed up like hippie chicks, they are repulsed by the longhaired weirdoes. After some crazy dancing, I guessed they might realize that there are some fun things about being a hippie, but they remained disgusted by the whole scene. When Lucy gets drafted, having received a letter meant for “Lew C. Carmichael,” it is oddly poignant to see her fight the draft board, the military doctor, and finally her drill sergeant, all of whom agree that she should be disqualified for being a woman, but none of whom have the authority to let her off the hook. The show’s critique of the military is tepid at best-the military’s not bad, just too bureaucratic-yet the “comic” spectacle of someone trying to get out of the Marines (and implicitly out of going to Vietnam) is more than a little disconcerting.

Ultimately, it is striking how much The Lucy Show is like the Wal-Mart bargain bin, mixing together big, medium, and little stars, some at their peak, some past their prime-like Joan Crawford, who got in trouble on the set for dipping into her hip flask. To older viewers in the ’60s, Lucy’s guest stars were not cultural detritus-Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, and Kirk Douglas were still “major stars.” Yet to many younger viewers at the time, these were hopelessly square old-timers who already belonged in a bargain bin, if not a trash bin. You couldn’t get much more counter-counter-cultural, after all, than the George Wallace and John Birch Society booster John Wayne, whom Lucy worshiped like a god when he appeared on the show.

A showbiz pro, Lucy tried to come up with a wide variety of guests so that there was something for everybody, but that didn’t mean that she was going to host the kind of “radicals” that would show up on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour! Here’s Lucy (CBS, 1968-1974), unfortunately, could not maintain the energy and pace of the earlier Lucy Show. How reassuring, though, to see that Eve Plumb (Jan Brady) was a guest, with Donny Osmond, on Here’s Lucy in 1972. The great Jan Brady was not exactly countercultural, but she wore braces and glasses, had a fake secret admirer, and was fed up with “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” She was cool. Alas, the Biddeford Wal-Mart doesn’t sell Brady Bunch DVDs. Or the anti-Wal-Mart South Park episode. Or Jarslberg cheese, for that matter. They do, however, have computer stations set up for creating personalized shopping wish lists and sending letters to the troops in Iraq. John Wayne would have been proud.

Image Credits:
1. The Lucy Show

2. Milton Berle on Here’s Lucy

3. Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show episode guide

Please feel free to comment.

An Analog Form in a Digital Box: Sitcoms, Mitcoms, and New Media Pliancy


A CNN Screencaputure

A CNN Screencapture

There’s a lot of static these days, in both industry and academic circles, about the ways in which new media are reshaping television’s visual field. Folks are talking about the flattening and fracturing of televisual space, the addition of overlays, banners, text crawls, and side bars to news and information programs, and the borrowing of many other techniques and aesthetics from the world of computer software.

At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be much talk about the powerful influence television exerts on new media aesthetics and the methods of information delivery. In the interest of prompting more discussion, we’d like to share some thoughts on machinima, a method of making animated videos using off-the-shelf computer games such as The Sims (Maxis) or Halo (Bungie Studios), and ways machinima sitcoms (or “mitcoms”) such as The Strangerhood (Rooster Teeth Productions) represent a kind of “televisualization” of computer games.

Nuke Winter

Nuke Winter

For readers unfamiliar with machinima (short for “machine cinema”), it’s basically bricolage storytelling for the information age. The repurposed objects in this case are computer game graphics and the engines that produce them. With real-time machinima, game play is recorded as “raw footage” and then edited using a digital video editing package such as Premiere Pro (Adobe) or Final Cut Pro (Apple). Script-driven machinima, on the other hand, requires machinima-makers to input action commands directly into development environments such as the ones that sit behind Unreal Tournament (Epic Games) and Quake (id software). These commands then are translated into animations by the game’s engine.

Though machinima depends on repurposing both stock and fan-created digital assets (e.g., 3D avatars and buildings, soundtracks), as well as the techniques used to generate such material, machinimations don’t always wind up resembling the games they’re derived from. Indeed, much of the appeal of machinima is the artistic freedom it allows. Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences board member Hugh Hancock documents this point well when he lists machinima’s most significant liberties: “with ‘virtual cameras’ you can develop an entirely new language…not hampered by the constraints of the real world.” Moreover, Hancock continues, there’s “the sheer flexibility of a world where you make up all the rules of physics, the option to add interactivity…. And on. And on.” Strangely enough, machinima-makers are using this seemingly infinite creative flexibility to explore the aesthetic and storytelling possibilities of the television sitcom.

We say “strangely enough” for several reasons, not the least of which is that television sitcoms may very well be going the way of the dodo. A leaner (and definitely meaner) kind of program has appeared — the reality show — and it’s chasing the sitcom from the airwaves. Whether or not television sitcoms eventually become extinct is anyone’s guess, but there is certainly a sentiment shared by both the broadcast and cable industries that the genre’s time is running out. This anachronistic quality is, in part, what makes mitcoms such as The Strangerhood — replete as it is with a living room couch, goofy neighbors, and a laugh track — such odd ducks: they’re emerging just as the sitcom form has been declared dead (or, at least, dying an expensive and unpleasant death) by its progenitor, network television.

The mitcom also is weird because of the inherent pliancy of machinimation. If machinima-makers are not “hampered by the constraints of the real world” (which they’re not), and therefore have the opportunity to “develop an entirely new language” (which they do), why are they looking to one of the most famously formulaic modes of storytelling? Ten years ago, when the first machinimations started appearing on the Internet, serialization and an adherence to well-established genres were necessary because of bandwidth restrictions. The pipes were simply too narrow to allow much content through, meaning machinima-makers (like the early game developers before them) had to rely on well-worn and thus easily and quickly recognizable tropes and iconography to tell their stories.

Today, that’s not the case: consumer-level broadband connections and distributed, self-organizing networks with multi-source file sharing such as eDonkey (MetaMachine) and Morpheus (StreamCast Networks) make short work of even the largest video downloads. There really are no restrictions to storytelling, which makes machinima-makers’ interest in the sedimented and highly-structured narrative form of the sitcom so curious.

Granted, in the case of The Strangerhood, the sitcom form is used in part because of its antique qualities (e.g., ensemble cast, laugh track, catch phrases, and recurring plotlines). What better way, then, to both parody and critique the medium (not to mention indulge in a bit of nostalgia) than through one of its most iconic forms?

That said, The Stangerhood and mitcoms like it are more than just parodic: they’re also explorations of televisuality — of the form and function of television as a medium, an art form, an industrial complex, and a cultural force. In both borrowing from and playing with the sitcom form, mitcoms bring to the surface the nature of that form and the agential and structural networks that created it.

Of course, mitcoms as explorations of televisuality are yet nascent, but they nonetheless show the resiliency and potential of televisual forms of meaning-making across media. The pre-machinima history of computer games includes numerous examples of the television/game crossover, some of which — such as the run-a-network simulation Mad TV (Rainbow Arts) and Eugene Jarvis’ infamous parody/action game Smash TV (Acclaim Entertainment) — exercised the new medium’s pliancy far more vigorously than such ham-fisted tie-ins as The Adventures of Gilligan’s Island (Bandai America), Yes, Prime Minister (Mosaic Publishing), and ALF (SEGA Entertainment).

The mitcom may very well be a kind of televisual future anteriorism, a seeing of what will have been, an artifact from the future documenting an interregnum. We can’t help but think of Harold Innis’ observation that “sudden extensions of communication are reflected in cultural
disturbances.” Perhaps in drawing on the sitcom, the mitcom is not only celebrating a predecessor’s aesthetic, but also subverting that aesthetic’s representations of social relations.

Our guess is that we won’t find out what will have been until we see how HDTV, digital cinema, and next-generation game consoles such as the PlayStation 3 converge. That’s likely to be sooner than most of us expect.


We prefer the term “computer game” over “video game” as the universal designation for electronic entertainment software because it privileges the medium’s inevasible technological foundation rather than its admittedly dominant but nonetheless excludable sensory element, video. There are many games that have no video at all (see Games for the Blind for examples).

Hugh Hancock, “A View from the Shack,” 1 January 2000.

Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 31.

Image Credits:

1. A CNN Screencapture

2. Nuke Winter

The Strangerhood
Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences
Red vs. Blue (Halo Machinima)

Please feel free to comment.

Bring the War Home: Iraq War Stories from Steven Bochco and Cindy Sheehan

FX\'s Over There

FX’s Over There

American television has been telling two separate but interestingly related stories about the war in Iraq this past month. One is Over There, producer Steven Bochco’s highly touted new series for the FX cable channel which purports to be the first dramatic television series depicting a war while the country is still engaged in combat. The other is the non fictional story the cable and broadcast news shows have been telling about Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain American soldier who has been protesting outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas during his rather long summer vacation. Both these stories are instructive for what they suggest about how this war is being made sense of right now. They also provide instructive comparisons to the way U.S. television handled the last war-as-quagmire into which Americans found themselves sinking.

Publicity and commentary about Over There have made much of the fact that the series depicts fictional US soldiers while their real-life counterparts are still fighting and dying. Let’s remember that M*A*S*H also debuted while the war in Vietnam raged. Of course M*A*S*H wasn’t actually about Vietnam, even though, of course, it was. However, as I’ve written about elsewhere, prime time TV, especially during the so-called “season of social relevance” of 1970/71, but to a lesser extent before that as well, did acknowledge and represent versions of the conflict, albeit largely about the “war at home” (Bodroghkozy, 2001). It took the entertainment divisions of the networks a significant number of years before they decided that they needed to take notice. Nevertheless, Over There is not as remarkable a moment in TV programming history as many observers seem to think. What is novel about the series is its attempt to portray ripped-from-the-headlines combat, and to do it without the cover of comedy or without displacing the events into an easier-to-manage past.

As sentiment about the Iraq war have been getting increasingly polarized of late, it is interesting to look at the debates that have gathered steam about whether the show is fundamentally pro or anti war in its portrayal of the conflict.

Commentary is all over the map: The show is antiwar. The show is pro war. The show is inaccurate. These conflicted and clashing readings may be exacerbated by Bochco’s insistence over and over again that the series does not take a political position about the war. Larry Gelbart, M*A*S*H’s producer, was similarly reluctant to admit that his show had a political stance about the specific situation in Vietnam (Gitlin, 1983, p. 217). In both cases, we have classic cases of the “polysemic” text, although the preferred anti-war encoding of M*A*S*H seems hard to miss, even though some viewers apparently negotiated readings that were positive about military service (Gitlin, p.217). Bochco’s series is in some ways not unlike Gelbart’s show in its representation of war and its personnel (whether soldiers or doctors). Both shows focus on daily life and “muddling through.” The grunts of Sargeant Scream’s unit do so grimly, doggedly, and humourlessly. The doctors and nurses of the 4077th did so with jokes, wild antics, sex, and an appreciation for the absurd. In both cases, the reasons for the war are largely unexplored. By focusing so closely on the “grunts’ eye view,” Over There gives us a war that is mostly about staying alive and seeing enemies everywhere since there is no defined battlefield. All Iraqis could be terrorists, much like all Vietnamese could be VC. The show’s representational strategies owe a great deal to the visual codification of the Vietnam war, especially in cinema. More generally, it’s a war with no articulated purpose, rationale, or definition of victory. A conversation between two characters (one Arab American) let’s us know that both enlisted because of 9/11; episode three gives us a jihadist terrorist to hate. But are these troops in Iraq to fight a war on terrorism? The show doesn’t tell us. In the interests on avoiding “politics” Bochco and his team have managed to give us a Vietnam-esque war, both visually and thematically. It isn’t absurdist the way that M*A*S*H’s “Vietnam” was (war on godless communism — yeah, right!), but it certainly isn’t heroic.

The series’ inability or unwillingness to posit a clear purpose for the war connects it neatly to the other major Iraq story that television and other media outlets have been following intently this summer. The Cindy Sheehan story is a narrative of the home front and one that is probably easier for television to tell than the one Steve Bochco wants to tell. (Ratings for Over There, which started very strong for a cable offering, have sagged since the premier.) The costs of the war are effectively personalized in the figure of the grieving, but strong mother. Soap opera-ish drama gets injected into the story by the continuing question of whether an emotionally callous president will meet with this lone embodiment of suffering motherhood. The story also produces great visuals of emotional impact such as the tiny crosses representing dead soldiers that Sheehan’s supporters at the Camp Casey encampment erected. The dramatic visuals were only enhanced when the crosses were mowed down by opponents of the protest. The melodramatic qualities of this story are then further enhanced with the failed attempt to “swift-boat” Sheehan. Our heroine must suffer, and suffer, and suffer some more. That Sheehan needed to attend briefly to her own mother’s medical crisis and that her husband filed divorce proceedings against her only solidifies her status as a quintessential melodrama heroine.

This is the kind of war story that television knows how to tell. This is the kind of war story that audiences may find more compelling. Like Over There, the Cindy Sheehan story begins with the premise that there is no clear rationale for the war. The problem with Bochco’s series is that it takes this as given and then proceeds with the assumption that the narrative doesn’t need to grapple further with this matter. Sheehan’s story is a “successful” one because it doesn’t accept the “muddle through” theme. Sheehan’ story is a quest to find meaning and truth: why did her son die? That her quest galvanizes large numbers of supporters who either join her vigil or who support her with candle lit vigils from afar only increases the poignancy of the story. Over There just cannot compete with the legible “moral occult” Sheehan’s Iraq story constructs.

The Bochco series and the Sheehan story share another similarity: both focus entirely on the Iraq war as a story about military personnel: soldiers and their families. American civilians and those not in some way connected to military life are irrelevant to the story. Over There‘s major home front story involves a member of the squad whose leg was blown off by a roadside bomb. In episodes to date, we see him struggling with the VA hospital and his diminished sense of masculinity, while his loving and supportive wife provides nurturance. Other home front stories also concern themselves exclusively with the loved ones (faithful and not) of the troops overseas. Sheehan’s story is remarkable for the emphasis on “Gold Star Families” as the representatives and activists of this new antiwar movement. Those who have joined Cindy at Camp Casey and make the news are mostly other military moms. Those who are trotted out to provide a counterbalance to Cindy’s arguments are also mothers of soldiers.

These narratives suggest that both the fighting of this war and the protesting against it are jobs for non-civilians and their loved ones. The role of civilians (either those who may support the war or those who oppose it) is a vicarious one: you can watch.

The war in Iraq has been an odd kind of non-event for most Americans. Unlike World War II, the Iraq war has not resulted in total war mobilization by the entire population. Unlike Vietnam, all able-bodied young men (and their families, girlfriends, and wives) don’t need to confront the prospects that they may be drafted to fight this war. The war is already rather fictitious to most Americans. Aside from news coverage (which one can avoid and which gets easily knocked off the headlines by natural disasters like the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina or by human disasters like Michael Jackson), little in Americans’ daily lives forces them to confront, engage with, or acknowledge that there’s a war going on. I suspect that there may be a certain amount of unease about that. Shouldn’t we be sacrificing something for the war? Aren’t we supposed to be doing something? If we support it, shouldn’t we be participating? If we oppose it, shouldn’t we be protesting in the streets?

To some extent Over There and Cindy Sheehan’s narratives provide a simulated way by which Americans can use their TVs to pretend to be involved with this war. Consider the audiences for the Bochco series. Why would anyone want to watch a relentless, graphically violent fictionalization of a war that, especially recently, has generated significant up ticks in the number of U.S. casualties? I’m wondering to what extent watching this show allows some viewers to experience emotionally and viscerally a war that otherwise is largely a nonevent in most Americans’ experience. Bochco’s series gives audiences something to do: they can go to Iraq vicariously with the troops. They can identify and empathize with these fictional stand-ins for the real troops and feel patriotic doing so. In a hyperreal war fought on television (although not cleanly and according to a predetermined script, a Baudrillard’s Gulf War), and fought by a professionalized military not needed a civilian population to assist, what else can the folks back home do to feel involved?

And what about those who oppose this war? Considering how quickly the war has become unpopular and considering how widespread the dismay and disillusionment has spread about both the reasons for the war and its winnability, the lack of an activated grassroots protest movement seems odd. However, if the war, for the majority of Americans, is a hyperreal conflict fought on television, then perhaps it makes sense that when antiwar activity finally does erupt, it does so as a made-for-TV soap opera. And because the majority of Americans really aren’t involved, our antiwar activists could only be those connected to the institutions of militarism. Those of us who hate the war, but really aren’t affected by it, align ourselves with Cindy and turn her into our heroine. She and the other grieving Gold Star mothers become our televisual surrogates. They organize a hyperreal antiwar movement made up largely of military families, the only Americans actually impacted by the growing carnage in Iraq.

Will this hyperreal antiwar movement centered around one melodramatic heroine develop into an actual movement with grassroots mobilization among citizens not directly connected to the military? Or will it remain a media event like the professionalized war it protests? I suspect we will mostly remain spectators, voyeurs, tricking ourselves into believing that we are actually engaged with and involved in this awful drama of human slaughter.


Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Bodroghkozy, Aniko. Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion. Durham, NC. Duke UP, 2001.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Image Credits:
1. FX’s Over There

Over There homepage
Cindy Sheehan website

Please feel free to comment.

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

Dead Like Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

This dead chick rocked; their dead housewife reeked.

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

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

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

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

The Cast of Dead Like Me

The Cast of Dead Like Me

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

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

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

Dead Like Me Online
Ellen Muth site

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Fuller Bio
Bryan Fuller interview
Save Wonderfalls

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

SirLinksalot: Dead Like Me

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

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

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

Image Credits:

1. Dead Like Me

2. The Cast of Dead Like Me

Please feel free to comment.

What is Lost?

In two recent columns in Flow (“The Loss of Value (or the Value of Lost)” and “The Value of Lost Part II”), Jason Mittell has argued with some vehemence that “Lost is the best show on American broadcast TV.” The claim seems puzzling on several levels, despite the fact that Lost is certainly a very well-made and provocative program that many viewers, myself included, find extremely compelling. Is there an objective, or even interesting, sense in which one can claim that one program or the other is “the best”? What exactly does it mean for a TV program, or another cultural object, to be “the best,” or even “aesthetically good”?

Debates on issues like this are so familiar within the realm of cultural criticism, which I take to be the main goal of Flow, that I find it surprising to have them so decontextualized. So many of the theorists we read even in introductory Media Studies classes show the problems with trying to make such judgments outside of their cultural contexts; surely it is a part of the cutural criticism of media itself to become familiar with the ways that canons of taste reflect the social, political and cultural norms of the societies and persons who produce them. Rather than arguing about which objects do or do not meet certain standards of taste, I understand the task of cultural criticism to be to explicate why certain kinds of aesthetic principles resonate with the cultures in which they are embedded. In this sense it is surprising that Mittell (and by extension Flow itself, and also its readers, including those who have commented on Mittell’s articles) think the question of whether Lost is the best program or not is a question for the cultural criticism of television. It is especially surprising given Allison McCracken’s earlier essay on other programs that hints at why the logics on display in Lost (“Lost“) might be so relevant to our own cultural situation, and on which the following analysis builds.

In particular, as a response to the enormous wave of reality television programs over the past few years, Lost restages the “lost in the unknown wilderness” narrative that is primary to the West (especially via the Robinson Crusoe story) and primary to much serial television (Gilligan’s Island, The Prisoner, Lost in Space, Star Trek: Voyager), and also seemingly primary in reality TV, via the one-character-“dies-“-each-week structure popularized in Survivor and maintained in many other reality TV shows.

Lost recapitulates all of these formulae while explicitly scripting its characters’ interactions, thus foregrounding exactly the process that in reality TV is controversial, often hidden, sometimes absent. At the same time, the show is organized around a central mystery, the “purpose” of the island (and a number of associated mysteries including the “identity of the monster,” “connection of all the central characters,” “nature of the plane crash,” etc.).

In structuring an ongoing serial television program around both the promise of main-character “death” and a single primary mystery, producers face a dilemma rarely faced by novelists and filmmakers. Media that usually have a concrete ending point (novels, movies, hour-long police dramas, even many video games) can sustain and then resolve a mystery in a more-or-less satisfying manner. But when a single central mystery is made structural to the show’s premise, it becomes almost impossible to reveal the mystery without undoing the show itself. This structure creates tension, and because of that, the core mystery, as a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin, ends up having very little content itself, and becomes more like a metonym of the show’s popularity (the more popular the show is, the more pressure there is to “reveal” very little of the mystery so as to keep the premise intact).

Instead of the mystery, in fact, the show focuses on character and background, but then, due to the Survivor structure, these character stories also exist in metonymic relation to the actors’ roles on the show, and to the show’s popularity. The more successful the show is, the less about the characters can be “definitively” said, and against the Survivor structure, the more pressure there will be not to kill off the main characters, since these figures are tied at least as directly to capital as are their reality-TV counterparts. When a single actual character from the show (Boone) was killed during the first season, stories were published in popular magazines outlining the actor’s grief at losing his role.

Thus in the season finale, although the death one or more major characters and the revelation of a major mystery were teased to viewers repetitively, they were also not on offer. Instead, viewers of the season finale experienced little drama and an apparently unexpected and formalized recapitulation of the show’s premise. Many of the season’s apparently central mysteries were teased in slow-motion chase sequences, miming our own mechanical implication in the media circuit. But unlike in Survivor, it was a new character, much like a Star Trek “red shirt,” who was to be sacrificed, rather than any continuing member of the cast. The new character, Artz, was introduced two episodes prior to the finale as a helper for Michael as he is building the raft.

Figure 1. Artz in the scene from episode 22 where he is introduced

Figure 1. Artz in the scene from episode 22 where he is introduced

In the finale, Artz insists on coming with the main characters on a search for dynamite, despite the lack of dramatic reason for him to go, and thus threatening the program’s characterological set-up. Suggestively, Artz’s dialogue during these scenes focuses on exactly two areas: first, that dynamite itself is very dangerous and can go off unexpectedly, and second, that everything on the island seems focused on the main characters like Hurley (to whom Artz speaks these lines) who are like the popular kids in high school. No other character talks about the dangers in dynamite, and no other character is harmed by it. No other character speaks about the strange dramatic setting of the show, and the improbabilities the show sustains in order to work its synthetic action. This is the first new character to be introduced to the main group since the beginning, and it would be far too obvious to introduce such a character just to kill him off so obvious in fact that there would be little dramatic tension in actually killing him off.But Artz blows up while handling dynamite in the first half-hour of the two-hour finale, thus immediately reassuring viewers that no member of the core cast will be killed off and failing to live up to the true Survivor promise.

By pointing out that Hurley has lost no weight in their months of privation, Artz briefly occupies the ego world that sees that this journey leads nowhere. We are supposed to be relieved that no main character has died, and yet in this scenario Lost shows that it depends precisely on revealing nothing of its mystery, since its mystery must remain mysterious, since the show must remain the show, despite the repeated promise to show us more. The longest extended sequence during the finale shows the main characters assembling on Flight 815 (the flight that lands them on the island in the first place), but instead of ending in drama this sequence ends in stasis, showing the characters in their seats and ready for takeoff. Some viewers report seeing a tentacle enveloping John Locke’s leg as he is pulled down a hole in the ground by the show’s “monster,” and a fog of smoke contains traces of what look like the most familiar of SF devices, the intelligent cloud of nanobots, perhaps also present in the show’s pilot.

Figure 2. Black smoke that appears to have \

Figure 2. Black smoke that appears to have “eyes” or a “face” in it.

Lost dramatizes exactly its own scripted coming-into-being, the very process of its writers and producers crafting a suture that we viewers must engage with and submit to, gluing the stand-ins of the main characters’ life histories (the true dramatic content of most episodes) to the real-time reality-TV-like mystery story supposedly at the series’ heart.

The dynamite that killed Artz is finally used at the end of the episode to open the hatch, over Hurley’s objection, that is, over the objection of the character whose presence has now been marked out precisely as the one that shows that there is no island, no journey, no mystery at all. “Don’t open the hatch! The numbers! They’re evil!” Hurley runs and cries, perhaps thinking of Nielsen as much as Lost‘s cryptic numeric sequence, but they blow open the hatch, revealing the mise-en-abyme that is in fact the show’s premise, the thing the show shares with we its viewers. We are on a journey, pursuing an empty object, a desire we do not understand.

Figures 3 & 4. Final scenes of Lost

Figures 3 & 4. Final scenes of Lost

Figures 3 & 4. Final scenes of Lost

We suspect there is safety, knowledge, insight down there, even though we know that all that is down there must be structured precisely by our own desires. We can only look down into the void that we have created for ourselves. Who are we, that we find such an obviously aporetic narrative, one that mimics the commercial structure of contemporary television itself, so profoundly compelling?

McCracken, Allison. “‘Lost.’” Flow 1.4. November 2004.
Mittell, Jason. “The Loss of Value (or the Value of Lost).” Flow 2.5. May 2005.
—. “The Value of Lost Part II.” Flow 2.10. August 2005.

Lost forum 1
Lost forum 2
Lost fansite with forums, screencaps, media
Official JJ Abrams creator’s site with writers’ forum
Unofficial Lost transcripts

Image Credits:

1. Figure 1. Artz in the scene from episode 22 where he is introduced

2. Figure 2. Black smoke that appears to have “eyes” or a “face” in it.

3. Figures 3 Final scenes of Lost

4. Figures 4 Final scenes of Lost

Please feel free to comment.

Evaluating TV Smarts in the Public Sphere

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

Book Cover
Everything Bad is Good for You

The April 24th edition of The New York Times Magazine carried an intriguingly titled article, “Watching TV Makes You Smarter.” As is common to the Times, the article was an excerpt from a new book by cultural critic Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Since the Times piece, the book has become the media darling of many in the liberal media establishment, which has run feature stories and positive reviews of Johnson’s “provocative” and even “brilliant” thesis: that television is valuable because of the “cognitive workout” its formal complexities offer the viewer. Johnson’s defense of popular media is, not surprisingly, a welcome relief for liberals weary of most media effects studies, which serve both high cultural elitists and conservatives by emphasizing television’s infantilizing properties and/or its promotion of violence and indecency.

But what interests me about the public embrace of Johnson’s work and why I think it is important to examine, are the terms of his defense of television and what they reveal about the place of television studies in the public sphere. Unlike television critics who want to endorse certain programs as art or as ethically or morally superior, Johnson’s approach offers a cognitive blueprint for television studies that evaluates programs based on their structural complexity and their promotion of strategy skills. This approach certainly has its shortcomings as a method (its almost exclusively textual focus and ahistorical nature), but it could valuably be employed to shake up the current television canon. After all, if we’re going to utilize an approach that removes the industrial, generic, historical and political context of television programs to focus on formal elements, shouldn’t that make possible a new kind of textual adultery that would question or at least expose our assumptions about television quality? In such a study, soap operas and Court TV could be considered as the structural equals of prime time dramas and children’s programming could be evaluated against the ABC Evening News (I suspect Blue’s Clues would fare very well). Sounds promising, yes?

Would that were the case. Instead, we find ourselves with yet another argument as to why The Sopranos is the best show in television history (and do we really need another one?) Far from breaking new ground with his analysis, Johnson’s argument replicates and reinforces existing social hierarchies in television discourse by providing yet another method with which to validate an elitist, masculinist, capitalist view of what is valuable about the box and its audience. Johnson’s biases – ones shared by many tv critics, viewers and, I’ll warrant, more than a few scholars – are most obvious in his definitions of “complexity and “intelligence,” as well as the kinds of “strategies” and “pleasures” he argues TV teaches and the value judgments he attaches to his results.

To wit:
Complexity and Intelligence: A television text is complex, according to Johnson, based on how many narrative threads it has operating at any one time, its degree of seriality, how much information it conveys, and the number of characters in motion. Quantity over quality is important here — the more plot threads, the more info, the more characters, the more intensely serial — the more complex and therefore better the text. Soap operas, which get drive-by mention here as important original texts in this regard, have been replaced by “smarter” programs with more narrative threads, more characters, and more plot. This scheme results in Johnson’s elevating a ludicrously overplotted program like 24 to Shakespearean proportions, while giving no acknowledgment of the kinds of complexity that are defined by depth rather than breadth. Depth is most easily demonstrated in programs that focus on relationships between people or single ethical or social dilemmas rather than a relentless move through plot points. And depth is often difficult to achieve in programs that are overpopulated. Simply having many characters does not make for a “complex social network,” especially if those characters are thinly drawn (as in 24). Johnson fails to recognize that the psychological shifts in individuals and the social reverberations taking place among couples and small groups also constitute complexity, just as the presentation of an ethical or social problem on any non-serial program can solicit complex analyses. Roseanne may only have six characters, yet the relationships between them and the cultural critique the program offers is as or more complex as any episode of The Sopranos.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that character depth and relationship complexity are considered feminine tv territory, and “social problem” or genre programs generally mass or low art. But more than a gender or low art bias seems to be at work when Johnson neglects to mention HBO’s Oz or The Wire — surely the most complex of serial/action programs according to Johnson’s criteria. The critiques of normative white masculinity these shows offer (reflected in the class, racial and sexual diversity of their casts) would seem to make them arguably more complex than The Sopranos, yet Johnson follows the lead of many critics by neglecting to mention or promote them. This omission suggests that the level of social critique a program makes is not a marker of complexity in Johnson’s schema, and therefore tellingly not a factor in determining whether the program should be recommended to smarten audiences.

Intelligence and Strategy: Johnson provocatively states that most programs associated with quality television don’t actually help make you smarter because “there’s no intellectual labor involved,” since the intelligence in programs like Mary Tyler Moore and Frasier is already on the screen. Thus, intelligence here, again, is not about relationship depth or complexity or social critique (upon which much comedy depends), or even the kinds of social knowledge some audiences might be getting by watching Will and Grace. Such narrative fictions are merely “absorbed,” according to Johnson, but overpopulated serials and reality programs “engage the mind.” Johnson’s argument about reality programs is particularly revealing because he suggests that reality tv (like the video games he also defends) encourages its audience to strategize and evaluate the strategies of others. At long last, emotion makes an appearance when Johnson argues that reality programs encourage a kind of “emotional intelligence,” but only so audiences can better read the emotions of contestants in order to figure out who’s going to win. Reality television, concludes Johnson, is thus more engaging and makes us smarter than traditional narratives which also “trigger emotional connections to characters” because “traditional narratives aren’t about strategy.”

The social values being promoted here are clear: attention to emotion and social relationships on television (feminine values) is only really good for us if it is linked in some way to strategy and competition (masculine values). Certainly, strategic thinking “engages the mind”– but what does it engage the mind to do? Apparently, it teaches us to better read people’s emotions so we can more efficiently leave them in our dust as we climb the ladder of success. But do we really want to be training a nation of Karl Roves? Because Johnson’s “smart” television privileges the individual over the community, he never suggests the ways in which emotional or social awareness might also be valuable because it offers insight into other people, ways to build community, to bridge difference, and to create mutual understanding. Instead, Johnson’s television follows the good old-fashioned Protestant work ethic, in which the “mental labor” of watching the Apprentice pays off handsomely in the Big Boardroom of Life.

Pleasure: Although primarily concerned with the text, Johnson does at times address the existence of an audience. Not surprisingly, television’s “smart” viewers are interested in “challenging their minds” by “solving puzzles, detecting patterns, or unpacking complex narrative systems.” As proof, Johnson points to the many television internet chat sites where audiences dissect the plot points of “more complicated shows” like Lost or Alias. In this claim, Johnson ignores a whole history of creative fan activity surrounding television, in which underground fanzines as well as other types of creative activity have been flourishing for years. But such evidence doesn’t fit into an argument about “smart” tv which depends on the evolution of “complex” texts worthy of being decoded at length. The fact that most television fans have been 1) female, 2) engaged with narrative pleasures other than strategy and structural complexity, 3) not afraid to call themselves fans (a term Johnson never employs), and 4) unconcerned with proving their “smarts” indicates the exclusiveness and narrowness of Johnson’s argument.

Again, however, I single out Johnson only because his point of view is so representative of pervading trends in liberal television studies. Indeed, his argument is particularly seductive because it justifies the work of TV critics, scholars and quality audiences who have spent their lives arguing for television’s complexity in the face of continual dismissal from cultural authorities. Indeed, even some of my television studies colleagues have argued with me about the superiority of texts like Lost or Alias on the basis of their structural complexity, as if that alone determined their cultural significance. But, ultimately, such an approach seems to me to undermine the original purpose of popular culture studies: to pay attention to that which is not deemed “good for you” in order to validate and better understand the social lives of non-elites.

Image Credits:
1. Everything Bad is Good for You

Center for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image
Television and Cognitive Development

Please feel free to comment.

“Roswell! Roswell! The People Have a Right to Know!”: The State of Fluff, part 2.

by: Eileen Meehan / Louisiana State University

Roswell autopsy
Roswell autopsy

In The X-Files’ episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” these words are spoken by Blaine, an UFO enthusiast, as he grapples with a police detective trying to keep him out of the morgue where Scully will autopsy an alien. Mulder stops the altercation, inviting Blaine to tape the proceeding. When released, the tape has been edited to show the autopsy but without Scully’s interesting finding: the air force pilot inside the alien suit. Once more, the media has ill-served the public’s right to know.

My interest here is in Roswell, the people’s right to know, and how news and good fluff uphold that right while newslessness and bad fluff deny it. Last time, I argued that “Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs — Seeing Is Believing” was bad fluff because it erased two sources of priming discourses about UFOs: the carefully mainstream National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena and the flamboyantly eccentric contactees of the 1950s and 1960s. Here, I turn to the documentary’s treatment of Roswell to further illustrate how “Seeing” oversimplifies Roswell’s stories and the people who argue about them.

For “Seeing,” Major Jesse Marcel Sr. is the hero in this Roswell story. Stationed at Roswell Army Air Force Base, Marcel responded to a phone call from Mack Brazel, who had found strange debris in a remote pasture of his ranch. On 7 July 1947, Marcel drove to the ranch and gathered up the materials. Impressed by their odd appearance and properties, Marcel believed them to be extraterrestrial. He drove home and woke up his wife and son, Jesse Jr., to show them the debris. The next morning, Marcel delivered the materials to the base. By noon, base commander Colonel William Blanchard approved a press release: a UFO had been recovered and would be shipped to Wright Field, Ohio, for further examination. On 9 July, General Roger Ramey’s press conference rescinded that announcement. Newspapers ran headlines like “General Ramey Empties Roswell Saucer,” often accompanied by a photo of Marcel handling a damaged weather balloon. This tale emerges through clips and voice-overs featuring Peter Jennings, Jesse Jr in late middle-age, conspiracy historian Professor Robert Goldberg, and the Roswell-debunking UFOlogist Karl Pflock. The Marcel/Roswell story is not the only version of the Roswell Incident. In UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth, Benson Saler, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore deftly analyze Roswell’s basic story and its many permutations. Several Roswell stories make Brazel the hero including stories from sites maintained by David Rudiak and the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell.

Rudiak’s site includes a section titled Newspaper Stories About Mack Brazel’s Interview, Roswell Daily Record, July 9, 1947 (Afternoon), “Harassed Rancher Who Located ‘Saucer’ Sorry He Told About It.” In this story, a thunderstorm blew through on the evening of 13 June. The next day, Brazel and his son Vernon found the wreckage while checking their sheep, which grazed on the leased J.B. Foster Ranch. Brazel saw a “large area of bright wreckage made up on rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper and sticks” with “no sign of any metal in the area.” Brazel mentioned the debris that evening to his wife and daughter, Betty. On 4 July, the family brought some debris back to the ranch house. Three days later, Brazel went to Roswell to sell wool and mentioned his find to Sheriff George Wilcox, who contacted the base. Marcel and a man in plainclothes responded, accompanying Brazel to the ranch, where they tried unsuccessfully to reassemble the wreckage. Marcel took possession of it; later Brazel heard about the press release and its recantation. Brazel is quoted thus: “”I am sure that what I found was not any weather observation balloon.”

The IUFOMRC offers two versions. The first has Brazel accompanied by the son of Floyd and Loretta Proctor, who leased their ranch to Brazel. Brazel noticed “unusual pieces of what seemed to be metal debris, scattered over a large area. Upon further inspection, Brazel saw that a shallow trench, several hundred feet long, had been gouged into the land.” Noting the “unusual properties of the debris” and “after dragging a large piece of it to a shed,” Brazel decided to tell the Proctors. They urged him to contact Wilcox, believing the debris was either extraterrestrial or top secret. After a day or two, Brazel did and Wilcox informed Marcel, who commandeered the site. Removing the wreckage took several days. On 8 July, at 11 a.m., the base’s public information officer, Lt. Walter G. Haut, issued the historic press release with Blanchard’s approval. Hours later another statement rescinded the UFO claim.

The IUFOMRC also summarizes an account from Don Schmitt and Kevin Randle’s A History of UFO Crashes. This time the UFO crashed on 4 July and was witnessed from afar by William Woody and his father. By the 5th, military had cordoned off the area. Next day, Wilcox contacted Marcel, who drove to Brazel’s ranch with intelligence officer Captain Sheridan Cavitt. Arriving that evening, they stayed at the ranch house and examined a “large piece of debris that Brazel had dragged from the pasture.” The next morning, they surveyed the debris, which covered three-quarters of a mile and included pieces of indestructible metal and short I-beams marked with symbols. Impressed, Marcel took some debris and, before delivering it to the base, showed it to his wife and son. Later, Haut issued the press release; Blanchard sent Marcel to show the debris to Ramey. Ramey had Marcel leave the material in Ramey’s office while they went to the map room. Returning they found the debris gone, replaced by a wrecked weather balloon. Ramey had Marcel photographed while handling that debris.

Disregarding contradictions within and across stories, Saler et al.’s point should be clear: people proliferate Roswell stories, shifting emphases and adding details along the way. All storytellers have reasons for their particular selections from the dozens of Roswell stories circulating. After telling the Marcel/Roswell story, “Seeing” debunks it, revealing the truth about the military cover-up: Ramey wasn’t covering up a UFO crash but the crash of a 650 foot long assemblage of plastic pipe and weather balloons launched by the top secret Project Mogul to monitor Soviet bomb tests. Ironically, Marcel outed the wrong cover-up, setting the stage for Roswell-mania with folks producing increasingly sensationalized accounts which In Search of …, Unsolved Mysteries, Larry King Live, Alien Autopsy, and The X-Files exploited.

Jennings states: “Jesse Marcel’s unproven story was now primetime mythology.” Referring to hard-core Roswell believers, he closes the section on Roswell: “They cling to a myth, a myth that here outside Roswell in 1947, the question of are we alone was finally answered. It was not.” Ironically, Marcel’s misunderstanding became enshrined as mythology; sadly, he never learned the truth about the real cover-up.

Thus “Seeing” lays to rest the Marcel/Roswell version. But the sad irony surrounding Marcel depends on his credibility, which has been questioned by the same Karl Pflock who helped “Seeing” construct its Marcel/Roswell story. In “Roswell in Perspective” and in “Karl Pflock’s Real Roswell Views”, Pflock claims that the elderly Marcel lied about his educational record, civilian accomplishments, and military record. Since the Marcel/Roswell story depends on Marcel’s veracity, Pflock’s charges deserve some screen time. But that would have destroyed the poignancy of the Marcel/Roswell story as told by “Seeing.” By oversimplifying the story and going for pathos, “Seeing” essentially fictionalizes Marcel. By papering over the controversy, it similarly fictionalizes the UFO community. This treatment of Roswell targets our ability to feel, not our right to know. To know, we need the facts in all of their complexity as people discover and develop them through time via research, argumentation, and narrativization. In the end, the facts do matter to the public’s right to know even when that right addresses fluff.

Next time: abductees.

Image Credits:
1. Roswell autopsy

A critical evaluation of abduction experiences

Please feel free to comment.

Faith-Based Plot Initiatives

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

Joan of Arcadia
Joan of Arcadia

What is the story with Joan of Arcadia? I don’t mean this literally, since the basic story (or perhaps more accurately, the “high concept”) is pretty clear: teen girl talks to God. I have been watching the show, off and on, and trying to make sense of it. Brief disclaimer: I watched the show occasionally during its first season on U.S. television and am also watching it now in Finland, where they are airing the first season. So I am not “up to date” with the current season. I have perused episode summaries on line, and it seems that my concerns are still relevant, but I cannot be certain about this.

My confusion starts with the high concept at the heart of the show: I really don’t know how to take the God(s) that speak(s) to Joan. Is it an actual divine being, a figment of Joan’s imagination, or something else? In Touched by an Angel at least the angels were really supposed to be angels…really. The God(s) in Joan is not so clear. At some level, it seems to function as a faith-based initiative for generating plots, kind of like an inverse deus ex machina, where God shows up at the start, to get things going, instead of appearing in the nick of time to resolve dilemmas. Can’t figure out how to get Joan into awkward situations, interacting with different high school factions and misfits each week? Gee, let’s have God tell her to join the band (even though she doesn’t play an instrument) or the debate club or the cheerleading team.

But then I wonder about what sort of “God” would put a stumbling, angst-ridden teenager into such difficult situations week after week. I realize there is an ostensible moral, more or less, to be drawn from each situation: Joan doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as she is trying; she makes good or bad decisions and learns something new as a result; she learns about taking responsibility for her actions and exercising free will; etc. But having God in the picture seems to belie these very lessons. After all–and being quite literal here–by following God’s instructions, Joan is precisely not exercising free will, not taking responsibility, not figuring out things for herself. Instead she is obeying the direct orders of someone(s) she takes for an almighty power, even when doing so often places her in yet another impossible position, or embroils her in some new harebrained scheme. (At times–for example when Joan has promised to cook dinner at home, help a friend mount an art exhibit, and fetch her brother’s science notebook from another friend all at the same time–I imagine a sit-com version of the show, revising it, and Joan herself, along the lines of I Love Lucy instead of the angst-ridden domestic drama it is.)

Joan’s God (Gods?) seems to derive from some sort of multicultural Judeo-Christian tradition, broadly speaking, embodied in humans of varying races, genders, and ages. (There aren’t any flora, fauna, or inanimate objects that speak as God. The short-lived Wonderfalls did endow inanimate objects in a Niagara Falls gift shop with the power of directive advice.) This is also God without a specific religion, just a range of muddled, generic ideas about doing deeds, exercising free will, and so on. God(s) starts verging upon New Age spiritualism, as some kind of diffuse power, existing in everyone, or some sort of higher ethical consciousness.

Of course, God could be a metaphor, or an objective correlative, possibly for the interior state of an insecure teenager fitfully progressing toward womanhood (ick!), or something like that. Or Joan could be mentally ill, and hallucinating the Gods who speak to her. But in the larger context of the program, these explanations don’t quite fit. The first of these moots the whole point of bringing in God, specifically, in the first place (as opposed to something along the lines of the inanimate objects of Wonderfalls). As for mental illness, the program suggests that high school is generally an age of affective and cognitive extremes, if not full mental imbalance; everyone is a little crazy. But only Joan actually talks to God(s).

Joan of Arcadia
The cast of Joan of Arcadia

I could continue with my questions and confusions about the show, and how come different ideas about what God is doing there (besides bossing Joan around) all seem inchoate or nonsensical. But there are reasons for my impulse to try to figure out what is going on. “God” clearly means many different and particular things to many people. Depending, God does or does not exist; God exists in manifold versions; God is (or is not) already a metaphor. The show implicates different versions of God at different times; it is almost impossible to “invent” God without invoking, referencing, or including/excluding at least some of the versions that already exist.

More specifically, here is a show that makes God a manifest part of its content at a time when the American President has publicly called for more faith-based initiatives and even established an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House, (although there is no specific mention of television drama in its purview). In this context, the program might be expressing, or at least trying to tap into, this conservative socio-political discourse. In addition to having embodied God(s) as a recurring character, Joan’s nuclear family includes prominent representatives of repressive and ideological state apparatuses with her father on the police force (originally brought to town as chief of police) and her mother a high school teacher.

Yet even though this is not inaccurate, it still seems too pat. For example, the program’s general tenor of angst and disorder extends beyond the high school characters, into the socio-political world of Arcadia with the rampant political and police corruption that the father exposes, losing his job as police chief in the process. In some ways, at least, the program seems to question the quiescent conservatism that it also advances (in part by having God direct Joan’s fate). And when it comes to religion, the program undercuts its God as avatar of mainstream religion just as readily as it encourages the idea that religion, or at least some sort of faith in a higher being, is a meaningful force in the life of its eponymous heroine.

Maybe the show’s idea of God is just so half-baked that it isn’t even worth thinking about this much. (The inverse of this is something along the lines of “God is whatever you think it means,” yielding a quiescent liberal complement to its quiescent conservatism.) Maybe putting God quite literally in the picture is a means of giving the impression that there really is something substantive to think about. You start to wonder if it isn’t just a cheap gimmick. Perhaps it really is a faith-based initiative after all, or maybe even a perverse joke on the very idea of faith-based initiatives.

Image Credits:
1. Joan of Arcadia
2. The cast of Joan of Arcadia

Links – Joan of Arcadia
Joan of Arcadia Fansite
Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

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Belaboring Reality

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

In season one of The Simple Life, the apparently soulless Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton spend a month in rural Arkansas disappointing the Ledings, the humble, hard-working farm family that has agreed to take them in. Each day the girls French kiss the local boys, ignore their chores, assemble slutty outfits, and make a half-assed attempt to work a blue-collar job. They don’t even feel gratitude for the freshly slaughtered chickens offered to them by good ‘ol grandma Curly, the only person in town who sees goodness in them despite the depths of bitchdom they sink to. The Simple Life seems to offer a Simple Moral: rich people are stupid assholes (but sexy), while working class people are saints (but fat).

A Marxist parable? Not exactly. The “working class” Ledings have a big house, an above-ground pool, and at least one nice car. They aren’t poor, they just have working class tastes. The show is really about Nicole and Paris, so it is hard to glean many details about the Ledings, but one has to wonder how Fox found these farmers who seem to have no giant machinery, let their chickens breathe fresh air in outdoor coops, and manage a large farm without any hired laborers. Didn’t agribusiness wipe out this Little House on the Prairie lifestyle some years ago? Altus, Arkansas, it seems, is a Southern working class Stars Hollow, the fantasy New England town of The Gilmore Girls. Both towns feature quaint pie contests and sack races, but in Altus the locals are likely to sport mullets and beer bellies.

As on The Gilmore Girls, the little private dramas of The Simple Life are wedged in between public dramas at work. Though TV has pictured the workplace for years, reality TV is the first genre to emerge that is obsessively focused on labor. Indeed, it seems that there is no human activity that cannot be turned into labor on a reality show. On The Apprentice, participants construct business strategies, and the effort displayed is often mental. On the other hand, their labor also has a physical dimension, as contestants are often asked to pound the pavement and do grunt work. (Also, one cannot fail to notice the labor of self-production on the program. Contestants put together special outfits to catch Trump’s eye, and the taut female participants have bodies that are the visible result of labor in the gym.) Notwithstanding The Apprentice, on most programs the “work” demanded is not the kind of thing one would normally be paid for. Often, the labor is emotional: participants on The Bachelor are working really hard to make someone love them.

In real life, your job involves stacking things on shelves, balancing ledgers, plugging information into a database, or cleaning people’s teeth. But on TV your job is to cheat on your girlfriend, pretend to be a millionaire, eat slimy bugs, pretend to marry a jerk, lose a ton of weight, or live with fellow washed up celebrities. If you do your job well, you can win a million bucks, or a Chapstick contract, or the chance to be on other reality TV shows. In regular jobs, the people who work the hardest don’t necessarily advance, but if you do your job on TV, your effort is often rewarded. Moreover, in an information economy where manufacturing has been sent overseas and where minimum wage service jobs are among the few remaining jobs that require rigorous physical activity, reality TV is one of the few places where you can do hard physical labor for big bucks—if you win, that is.

The roots of genres such as the sitcom, soap opera, and drama date back to radio, but reality TV is a bit of generic puzzle. It may contain moments indebted to soap opera, and offer a sprinkling of cinema vérité pastiche, but it is really a new genre. Though reality programming might seem to have some kinship with game shows, game shows have never been so labor-intensive. In fact, before the money pots increased in the 1980s, shows like What’s My Line? and Match Game were more about clever banter than actually winning prizes. The sly quips of Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly are sorely lacking from the gotta-get-things-done (or die) work ethic that drives the competitive reality programs.

The heroines of The Simple Life lack this ethic, of course. The saddest illustration of this occurs at the Sonic fast-food restaurant, where a young manager desperately tries to get the girls to do their work. In other episodes, the older, self-employed male bosses have the option of firing the girls (after telling one of them “you’re a real screw-up!”), but the fast-food manager knows that these nubile, lazy screw-ups are jeopardizing her own job, and there’s nothing she can do about it. She works hard but has no money; Nicole and Paris do no work, are rich, and enjoy wasting money. Can anyone hear Thorstein Veblen shouting, “see, I told you so!” from the grave?

The Simple Life

The Simple Life baldly reveals the shaky foundations of the American myth of class mobility. Unlike on the competitive shows, where merit is rewarded, here doing a bad job brings no real punishment, and people who work hard do not necessarily advance. It seemed to me as I watched it that the show’s underlying moral message was that hard work was better than slacking off. After all, it ends with the sympathetic Ledings saying that they hope the girls have benefited from the values the family has tried to teach them. But I cannot help but fear that many viewers find this about as convincing as Jerry Springer’s “Final Thought,” a tacked on moral that does little to mitigate the rich-and-lazy-and-proud-of-it ethos that has preceded it.

Given reality TV’s relentless focus on work, one might naively imagine a behind-the-scenes team of empathic laborers creating the shows. The BBC’s scripted faux-reality show The Office, for example, obviously springs from an impulse of proletarian solidarity: only writers who have endured the proverbial boss-from-hell could create the monstrous David Brent. Alas, American reality programs do not spring from a similar impulse. For, in theory, reality TV has no writers. Instead, videographers shoot endlessly, and editors then step in and collaborate with “story producers” or “story editors” (actually writers) to attempt to create dramatic tension, a Herculean feat that often requires the addition of goofy sound effects, voice-overs, or music (a recently heard ditty on Strange Love: “He’s a jester, she’s a fox. She likes smoking, he likes clocks.”). According to a Washington Post article, the story editors “use the expression ‘frankenbites’ to describe the art of switching around contestant sound bites recorded at different times and patched together to create what appears to be a seamless narrative.”

The premise that the people on reality shows are real translates into one thing as far as producers are concerned: free labor. These are regular people, not actors with SAG cards. And once you’ve gotten rid of unionized actors, why not get rid of the unionized writers? In fact, it is rare for any of the workers creating reality TV to be unionized — not the directors, not the carpenters, not the camera operators. The Screen Writers Guild has made reality TV central to its contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers but has had no success in attempts to get reality writers unionized. These young workers have lower salaries than Guild members, no health care, no pension, and, of course, they don’t get a writing credit for their work, since no producer wants his show tainted by a credit acknowledging that stories are managed and banter is often scripted. The shows have much shorter shooting schedules than regular programs, so writers typically work 12 to 18 hours a day, but they tolerate such conditions because reality TV is seen as a steppingstone to better gigs for young writers. Willingly overworked, and desperate for a permanent job with benefits, these kids would be perfect candidates for The Apprentice!

In fact, I have a great idea: how about a reality show about workers on a reality show? I can imagine how the networks would respond to my brilliant pitch: “You’re fired!”

Image Credits:

The Simple Life

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