The Problem of Gerry Grgich: Pity and Comedy on Parks and Recreation 

In the fictional Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, IN, Jerry Gergich [misspelled Gerry Grgich in “Telethon”] is THE object of ridicule, but Jerry differs from his kin in other NBC Thursday night comedies.  His closest cousin in sad-sackery might be Toby Flenderson from The Office, but Toby only had to face unsubstantiated derision from Michael, not the entire office.  He may be the “Pierce” of the Parks and Rec workers, but unlike the title-holder on Community, Jerry seems almost preternaturally kind and considerate instead of meriting derision as the group scapegoat.  And yet the characters surrounding him have created the idea of Jerry as “the worst”  that far outstrips his actual bouts of bad luck, which admittedly can be pretty epic.

While Jerry’s use as a comedic character is almost entirely comprised of the slapstick performances of his bad luck, much of the comedy surrounding Jerry emanates from his role as a somewhat tragic character within a comedy show.  Jerry invokes pity in us because of the almost pathological lack of empathy shown him by his fellow characters.  In the most recent episode, “Telethon,” Jerry beautifully and emotionally plays the piano:

You know he's playing well because his eyes are closed.

But his friends and colleagues react as if they just witnessed and alternate reality where Jerry’s piano-playing was aurally offensive:

"Okay. Alright. Enough of that racket."

His every achievement–from artistic pursuits to his off-camera happy and loving family–is completely undermined by every other character in the show.  Whatever little happiness he finds is taken from him almost immediately, but more than that, he understands his piteous position and only reaches for appropriate goals: he has a time-share vacation home, but it’s in Muncie, IN; he makes up a story about being mugged to cover up a more embarrassing tale of falling into a creek in an attempt to retrieve a soggy breakfast burrito; and he looks forward to an all-male hunting weekend because it means he can pee standing up (presumably unlike his female-crowded home), a joy crushed when the other Parks and Rec workers join the trip.  But Jerry never languishes in self-pity.

Somehow, Jerry continues to put himself out there for his coworkers despite their cruel treatment of him.  He offers to play the piano for the telethon even after he is stymied in his offer to perform magic when Leslie breaks his only prop, an egg.  Jerry’s mild tenacity is the heart of the character.  No matter what happens to him, he still tries, still reaches for the little happiness he can.

Even after a busted arm and humiliation, Jerry can raise a glass to himself.

In another setting, in another genre, Jerry could be the workaday everyman character that the audience is supposed to identify with.  There’s a certain nobility in his willingness to take his emotional punishment and not let it change him.  He continually treats others as he would want to be treated: offering help unsolicited, treating his coworkers with respect, politely asking them not to tease him, and appreciating their work.  In “Telethon,” he is the only character who wears the Pawnee Cares t-shirt Lesley spent eight hours making for her staff (I don’t count the two extras working the phones).

So is it okay to laugh at him?  More specifically, is it okay to laugh at everyone else’s cruel treatment of him?  This blog post was inspired by a twitter exchange between @memles and @crsbecker regarding how much cruelty they could handle seeing Jerry withstand.  I aside more with Myles McNutt in that as long as the show itself is not especially cruel to Jerry (making the viewers complicit in mocking him), I think the dynamic works.  Then, the question is why and how does it work?

Full disclosure: I haven’t done much research into comedy and am mostly terrified of it as an object of study.  Having said that, I want to try to understand why I find the mockery of Jerry so effective and how it differs from other cringe-inducing cruel comedy like in The Office.

Let’s begin with some analysis through difference.  I’ve already touched on the difference between Jerry’s treatment and Toby’s and Pierce’s on their respective sitcoms, but I think it will be useful to expand on that.  Toby Flenderson is an Eeyore character: the object of undue ridicule and bad luck who internalizes that negativity and accepts the sad-sack role as his lot in life.  We pity him for bearing the brunt of Michael’s hatred, but his complete pessimism makes it difficult to empathize with him.  At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Pierce, a racist, bigoted, sexist,  privileged old man who seemingly deserves any and all mocking he gets. He is to be laughed at by both characters and viewers alike.  He is not to be pitied, but you can sometimes empathize with him because he at least owns his agency in life, unlike Toby, for whom life is perpetually occurring in passive voice.

I'm not the only one who thinks of Toby as Eeyore; this composite was the first google image result.

Between the two, there is Jerry.  He warrants both pity and empathy because he is a victim without being helpless.  The drive to do more, be more, and be seen as more–even if it’s just a little bit–keeps Jerry from Toby’s internalized pessimism and abdicated agency, and his consideration of others keeps him from Pierce’s overbearing offensiveness.  Jerry may be a sad sack character, but he avoids the extremes of these other characters, making him more accessible emotionally.

But if I both pity and empathize with Jerry, why do I laugh when others taunt him?  The key point–at it is hinted at by McNutt in the above twitter conversation–is that I am laughing at the characters mocking Jerry, not really at Jerry.  Though I may laugh at a good Jerry pratfall or an inopportunely timed fart, the true deep mine of comedy is the increasingly ludicrous levels the staff goes to justify Jerry’s awfulness.  The funniest parts of the following clip are not Jerry’s mishaps but instead the reaction shots, especially Donna’s unbridled joy at Jerry’s split pants.

The comedy, in my mind, truly lies in the delusions of the other characters, their stubborn blindness to any of Jerry’s actual achievements in favor of maintaining Jerry as the butt of all jokes.  They choose to focus on Jerry as the guy who said “murinal” instead of the guy who created a beautiful–in both sentiment and execution–mural idea.  But far funnier than a slip of the tongue is the other characters’ refusal to let such a minimal joke die.  They are the joke.  Jerry’s just the poor schlemiel/schlemazl who instigates the joke.

Jerry's "murinal" idea: a collage of all the faces of Pawnee. You're beautiful, Jerry, no matter what they say!

Together Again: Onscreen Actor Reunions and Viewer Pleasure

Watching last night’s  Justified (“Blind Spot”), I exclaimed aloud when I realized that Ray McKinnon was playing the week’s shady character.  Anybody reading this blog knows that I’m perhaps more attuned to character actors than I should be, but that’s not what caused me to clap my hands like a child who just got her first glimpse at birthday cake.  Ray McKinnon played Rev. H.W. Smith on Deadwood with Justified‘s star, Timothy Olyphant.  The two, sadly, never shared the screen on Justified, but I still felt the trill of happiness when I thought that the two actors were inhabiting the same universe again.  But why?  Why do I find pleasure in a casting happenstance?

Timothy Olyphant on Justified. Intrigued?

Certainly part of it is the pleasure of recognition–and in this example, a particular recognition that leads to intertextual cultural capital transference– and of insider knowledge.  Knowing that these two actors previously shared credits in a little-seen but much-lauded other television text lends cultural capital not only to me, the viewer, for recognizing the connection, but also the text itself through intertextual linkages.  Deadwood fans who recognize McKinnon on Justified are instantly reminded of the other brilliant-but-canceled program, and some of the nostalgia and pleasure related to Deadwood overlays onto Justified.  Moreover, the appearance has no “wink” at the audience or acknowledgment of the intertextuality so the pleasure in the moment of recognition also gains from the pleasure of solving a puzzle, but a puzzle that much of the audience–one assumes–can’t even see let alone solve.

I think the latter explanation for the sense of pleasure lies at the heart of what I felt.  It resembles the kind of pleasure surrounding cult fandom as a way to exceptionalize the self in regard to vast swaths of apparent sameness.  Part of the pleasure of being a fan of a cult text is the sense of distinction (generally without being elitist) from the masses through knowing and appreciating a text that few know.  This is perhaps easiest seen in an example of two cult texts meeting through actors: Kristen Bell guest starring on Party Down, which stars various former Veronica Mars actors.

Veronica Mars, still able to own Dick Casablancas

Though the characters are far removed from those they played on Veronica Mars, the relationship between Uda and Kyle on Party Down partially resembles the relationship between Veronica and Dick on Veronica Mars: Kristen Bell’s character is smarter, more powerful, and utterly competent at her job than Kyle and can therefore dictate with authority Ryan Hansen’s shallow, dumb, arrogant character.  It’s as if Veronica and Dick somehow entered an alternate universe where they’re caterers.  On such stuff is AU fanfic made on.

Michael Vartan and Bradley Cooper, Alias stars (friends?) on Kitchen Confidential

But there’s at least one more level of pleasure these actor reunions elicit: the extra-textual idea that the actors themselves derive pleasure from being able to work together again.  With certain series, especially those constantly on the brink of cancellation and/or with cult status, the actor narratives that persist are those that position the cast as a family.  Group interviews, appearances at fan conventions, and the occasional candid shot of the stars outside the context of the show create the narrative that these actors actually really like each other and enjoy working together.  This serves a few purposes: 1) It undermines the construction of actors (through connection with a common construct of “stars”) as selfish narcissists; 2)It adds an affective layer to the emotions and connections portrayed within the text between the actors (drawing on the “realism” of the emotions); and 3) for canceled cult shows, it comforts fans and can keep hope of one more iterations of the text alive (see: Arrested Development movie rumors).

Victor Garber is Jennifer Garner's Spydaddy even after the end of Alias

Some combination of all of the above elicited the admittedly girlish giggle of delight and aforementioned hand-clapping in me when I see actors reunited in a different television universe.  Am I alone in this feeling?  Perhaps in my explanations of them, but a cursory look at fan reaction to last night’s Justified proves that others similarly take pleasure in seeing actors reunited onscreen.  These slanted reunions represent an interesting intersection of text, intertext, and extra-text that certainly bears more investigation (and at least from me, more giggling outbursts in my living room).

The TV Character Actor in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Garret Dillahunt and the Deconstruction of Aura

I should preface this post with the disclaimer that I am not very well versed in star studies.  For someone who knows about that, check out Annie Peterson’s blog.  What I will be arguing is not so much about star studies, anyway, because in the acting hierarchy “character actor” is not the same as “star.”  Instead, I want to analyze one television character actor, Garret Dillahunt, and the trend of his recent appearances in deconstructing through inversion the idea of “aura.”

The unflappable Garret Dillahunt on White Collar

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argues that the aura of a work of art becomes degraded through reproduction.  Moreover, he extends his argument to film actors, writing, “The aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays. [. . .] The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity” (Benjamin).  Though Benjamin argues regarding film, certainly the reproduction central to television distribution fits his argument as well.

Character actors share the “star” characteristic of being bringing a “personality” to their roles, for often character actors make their living by being typecast.  This plays not only on the intertextuality of their roles but also on the illusion of “aura” the actor can give a character.  The idea behind casting a character actor is for the audience to be able to instantly know what type of person he or she is supposed to be.  Go to That Guy! and you can sketch a general character for each actor.

Hey, it's that guy! (on Life)

With Garret Dillahunt, you can still read him as a “bad guy” through his cold stare and austere look, but there is something else.  Over the last few years, Dillahunt has played more ciphers than characters, or to be more accurate, he’s the character actor of choice when your character IS a cipher.  His characters are always more a flexible reflection of the plot or other characters (or his character’s own play-acting) than a set individual.  He’s played robot terminators, slippery mafia dons, killers, con men, and spies, but his characters are always a bit of a closed circuit.  This is done purposefully.  The “aura” that he brings to his character roles is precisely a lack of “aura.”  He could be anyone because he plays lack of specific character so well.

The following clip illustrates this inversion of “aura” nicely.  From Dillahunt’s appearance on Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, he plays “John Henry” with the body of a Terminator from the future and the first Terminator programming as his mind.

There’s a blankness to Dillahunt in almost all of his roles, a deliberate separation from both a connection with the viewer and a connection with the characters with whom he shares the screen.  It’s not that he’s a static actor, unable to connect.  His film roles tend to take him more in that direction (see especially his comedic performance as wide-eyed Wendell in No Country for Old Men), but on television, his blankness has become his “aura.”  His lack of “aura” intentionally draws attention to Benjamin’s articulation of the modern withering of “aura” in filmic media and actors.  However, Garret Dillahunt serves as a counterexample, a deconstruction of the idea of “aura” based around original/copy or character/cipher, for his recent roles reverse and displace these binaries–and their implied hierarchies–by making the cipher the character and the copy the original.  The idea of difference in undermined through inversion.  Dillahunt can play machine because he embraces the mechanical reproduction of character.  His blankness is valued in his villain characters because it captures the terrifying ramifications of the destruction of personal “aura” in the age of mechanical (and now more-widespread digital) reproduction.

Sometimes even the chyron doesn't know what to make of him.

Image credits:

1. Unflappable

2. Hey, it’s that guy!

3. Chyron

“I’m not alright, but neither are you”: Fetishized Objects and Melodrama on Supernatural

Thursday night, I found myself in the unusual position of trying to explain to someone why seeing a Supernatural character (Dean) throw away a necklace emotionally wrecked me. I had trouble articulating all the symbolic meanings in that one act, particularly the complex emotional construction that had imbued the amulet over the last five seasons. Being an aca-fan, I figured I’d turn my consternation into analysis: Why is this one object so powerful and how did it get that way?  What is going on within the text to so fetishize (not the Freudian psycho-sexual use of the term) this amulet?  It’s gone beyond symbolism to have a power–relational though it is–within itself.  Are there other objects that operate similarly on the show?

Season one Dean (with amulet): so happy, so long ago

First, the scene itself.  In the foreground is Castiel, the angel who is helping Sam (background) and Dean (midground) fight the apocalypse.  Earlier in the season, Dean had loaned Castiel his amulet because it was supposed to aid in Cas’ quest to find God (who through the angel Joshua just told the boys God’s not going to intervene).

The last thirty seconds of that clip (and the episode) are entirely wordless.  The moment is so emotional that it moves beyond words.  It emphasizes the melodramatic mode that has increasingly become a part of the series.  As Thomas Elsaesser writes in “Tales of Sound and Fury,” in melodrama there is often “the feeling that there is always more to tell than can be said” (Film Genre Reader III 377).  Melodrama–be it as a genre or mode–tends to sublimate that which cannot be said (usually complex emotions or emotional complexes) into mise-en-scene: music, lighting, framing, decor, etc.  In this scene, the music, the cuts from Dean’s back and hand to Sam’s face in close up highlight the significance of the act, but only regular viewers would be able to read the various powers and emotions the amulet holds as fetish for their brotherly bond.

The amulet itself is an aspect of costume design for Dean since the pilot but whose origin wasn’t explained until the third season, in Christmas flashbacks:

This scene explains why Dean has never taken off the amulet in the 50+ episodes to this point: it’s a fetish for Sam’s love and trust for him that by his wearing it becomes an active pact of brotherly trust.  The Winchester brothers live transient lifestyles with very few permanent objects in their lives, so the amulet’s ever-presence gives it more authority in this show and its context than it could have in another context.

Sam keeps their covenant alive by wearing the amulet while Dean is dead (the four months between seasons 3 and 4), implying that the bond symbolized by the amulet is reciprocal.  It’s not just Sam’s trust in Dean that give it power for Dean; Sam wears it as a reminder, remnant, and seed of his brotherly bond, continuing even after Dean is dead. When Sam gives it back to Dean, it recalls the earlier, original scene of giving which heightens the power of the amulet-as-fetish.  Both brothers inscribed their bond into it by wearing it.

Sam wears it to maintain the bond while Dean's dead

Dean reclaims the amulet, reinscribing it as a fetish for their bond

Sam gave Dean the amulet when they were children; Dean wore it constantly for 16 years until he died; then Sam wore it during Dean’s time in Hell.  Dean reclaims it upon his raising from perdition, and wears it faithfully even through what he perceives as Sam’s betrayals and selfish actions, until he reluctantly gives it to Castiel to help him find God (and he warns Castiel explicitly not to lose it).  Yet when he gets the amulet back from Cas, he doesn’t put it on, doesn’t even put it among his things.  Instead, he lets Castiel call it worthless and implicitly agrees by dropping it in the rubbish bin, slowly, performing this act in front of Sam, because of Sam, for Sam’s benefit.  He understands the power of the fetish as much as he understands the power of his denial of the fetish.

There is, however, some precedent for this act.  Dean is positioned as a character that strongly identifies a few key objects with the few people he loves.  In episode 3.10 “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” Dean faces his dark double in his dreamworld:

Dark Dean: I mean after all, you got nothing outside of Sam. You are nothing. You’re as mindless and obedient as an attack dog.

Dean: That’s not true.

DD: No? What are the things you want? What are you things you dream? Your car? That’s Dad’s. Your favorite leather jacket? Dad’s. Your music? Dad’s. Do you even have an original thought? All there is is watch out for Sammy! Look out for your little brother, boy! You can still hear your dad’s voice in your head, clear as a bell.

Dean’s esteem issues fill entire worlds of fan discussion, but the car is perhaps the most key piece of evidence for my argument.  The 1967 Chevy Impala is often said to be the third main character of the show and the only permanent home the boys have had.  So in 3.02 “Everybody Loves a Clown,” when Dean attacks the Impala with a crowbar, it’s another incidence of emotions bursting into the melodramatic mode by Dean’s desecration and denial of a key emotional/relational fetish.

In this scene, we can perhaps see hope regarding the final seconds of “Dark Side of the Moon” and the disavowal of the amulet.  Though Dean destroys part of the Impala as he is trying to reclaim it after an accident, the next episode sees the car back in full force as both a means of conveyance and a fetish for the Winchester home.

Metallicar, the third Winchester

Dean is still broken, but he knows that using the fetish to express his anger is not the end of the fetish’s power.  Similarly, though Dean discards the amulet-fetish in his depression and disappointment, from the look on Sam’s face and the ceremony of Dean’s action we know that the power of the fetish still exists, ready to be reclaimed and repaired, likely in a scene with more to tell than can be said.

Characters Welcome: USA Network Brand, Formula, or Genre

I watch a lot of television, obviously, and a lot of what I watch is on cable.  In the last year or so, I’ve had the growing sense that, in the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield, “There’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.”  The “here” being cable networks with original programming aimed at adults.  I’m not talking about Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, both of which have built their empires around original programming aimed at kids and teens.  They’re ahead of the curve in terms of original niche programming.  Instead, I’m interested in the success of USA network original programming.  I’m especially interested in the question of what ties the shows on this networks together: are they a brand, a formula, or a genre?

USA network: Characters Welcome

The 2005 rebranding, the first step

USA network has been showing original programming since the 80s, but the network began the push for quality series–accessible to both critics and fans that would last in prime-time–in 2002, with Monk and The Dead Zone.  Both proved successful for the network, lasting seven and five years, respectively, but it is in the former more than the latter that I see the kernel of the network’s current successful spate of programs.  Monk won Emmys (mostly for acting) and was seen as a breakout for cable programming in terms of both popularity and quality, but it was also the clearest reason for USA’s 2005 rebranding with the slogan “Characters Welcome.”  Monk was a procedural detective show that followed its formula closely, but what elevated it above similar formulaic fare was its central character, Adrien Monk, a “quirky” obsessive-compulsive detective.  From Monk the character, came the tone: comedy with a perpetual underpinning of drama (just as Monk recognized his OCD as somewhat ludicrous but an unavoidable and somewhat tragic part of his life).    Fittingly, Monk as progenitor of the current cycle, is the only original programming from the rebranding period to survive past 2007, the year Burn Notice premiered.

Burn Notice and the current state of USA

Burn Notice, to my mind, appears as the turning point, the series that made USA executives take note of what they were doing right and how they could reproduce whatever that was.  Though Psych premiered the year before–to great ratings, no less–it remained a blip on the cultural radar until Burn Notice cemented USA as the cable network to go to for original programming.  Psych has always been a bit fluffier than its more dramatic USA brethren, with no central tragic mystery (like Monk) or driving arc for drama (Michael Westen’s titular burn notice) or even sense of moral purpose (as in In Plain Sight).  Burn Notice became the exemplar of the burgeoning USA Network brand, and perhaps its emerging genre.

Burn Notice took Monk‘s central “quirky” straight man and its structure of narrative complexity and folded in Psych‘s generic self-consciousness. All three central characters shared the distinction of being the best at what the do but lacking the social skills needed in order to properly function outside of the families of understanding they created around them.  Throw in an under-utilized, often exotic locale, shuffle the procedural episodic formula, and this is the “USA Network show” formula.  But could it be more than that?  Could it be a genre?

Brand or Genre?  Does it matter when it’s a success?

Genre is a slippery term; there are as many definitions as there are genres themselves.  At its core, genre is a categorization based on expectations.  Perhaps one of the better known theories of genre is Rick Altman’s Semantic/Syntactic method, wherein genre can be defined in terms of a group of signs (characters, images, iconography, etc.) that are arranged into syntactic formulas and plots, and together they form the generic conventions.  So, if I were to plot USA network series as a genre in this way, it might look something like this:

Semantic: “smartest guy in the room” central character (Michael Westen [Burn Notice], Adrien Monk [Monk], Shawn Spencer [Psych], Neal Caffery [White Collar], Hank Lawson [Royal Pains], Goren/Nichols [Law and Order: Criminal Intent]) [outlier: Mary Shannon (In Plain Sight), also the only female central character], under-utilized locale (Miami, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, the Hamptons, Albuquerque) [outliers: White Collar and Law and Order: CI are set in New York City), best friend/partner/family member that serves as emotional/moral/humor grounding force for central character (all of ’em), a “helping people” job (spy, detective, “psychic” detective, FBI agent/consultant, doctor, detective, US Marshal)

Syntactic: central character dismissed from/unable to pursue lucrative/traditional form of their job for bureaucratic/nefarious/mysterious reasons, chooses instead to help people/earn a living outside or ancillary to “the law” [variations: pursues traditional form of job in untraditional ways that make them both good at their job but forever in conflict with reigning authority]

The question I must ask is: can a brand become a genre?  Maybe.  The closest example to support an answer of yes is the idea of “Disney feature animation” as a genre that extended beyond the brand.  Animated musicals of the late 1980s and 1990s are dominated by Disney animation, yet when I talk with my peers about what constitutes that generic corpus, non-Disney film such as Anastasia and An American Tail sometimes get lumped under the Disney label.  Whether that is enough to argue for Disney as a genre, I don’t know, and certainly whether I can extend that analysis to USA network programming.  If USA network can be seen as a genre, TNT original programs like Leverage and The Closer become part of the generic corpus, as they could easily fit into the semantic/syntactic conventions of USA network programming.

Justified and the FX formula: Lawman or Lawbreaker

Regardless of what I can call USA’s programming as a group, I believe its success has become a model for other cable networks with increasing original programming.  Most notably, FX network is gaining a reputation for darker, “grittier,” and notably “masculine” dramas that push against the line between law and outlaw with successful hour-long programs: Rescue Me, The Shield, Damages, Sons of Anarchy, and most recently Justified.  To put the stakes of cable programming in perspective, the premiere of Justified attracted 4.2 million viewers, which would put it at #23 in the Nielsen top broadcast ratings for the week.  Increasingly successful cable programs are becoming successful programs without the need for the modifier of “cable,” and USA network was and currently is the leader of that change.  There’s something happening here . . .

“You understand the TV and life are different, right?”: Community and Performativity

This clip is the most recent “tag” during the credits of Community.  Often these tags center on Abed and Troy’s strange but hilarious enactments of their friendship, and they are almost exclusively directed at the television audience.  They display an implicit acknowledgment of themselves as characters to be viewed by an outside audience.  This mode of self-consciousness is not only present in these “tags” but also appear throughout the show, usually but not necessarily with Abed as its nexus.

While this is certainly part of the trend of reflexive television, especially prominent in comedies (see: Psych, 30 Rock, and the mocumentary-style sitcoms Arrested Development, The Office, Modern Family, etc.), I’m more concerned with the way in which this reflexivity reflects an idea of contemporary performativity.  Specifically, characters like Abed conceptualize themselves as always performing for some (unseen) camera or audience.  Celebrity and fame could happen at any moment, so they live their lives as if they were already an object-subject within the media to be seen.

We all–to some extent–perform ourselves in public.  We may want to appear attractive or cool

Jeff Winger: 10% Dick Van Dyke, 20% Sam Malone, 40% Zach Braff from Scrubs, and 30% Hilary Swank from Boys Don’t Cry

But Community often exaggerates this performativity to emphasize the idea that we act in relation to an unseen or assumed viewer.  The characters are not in a mocumentary like The Office; they don’t know that they’re television characters, but they often act as though they do.  And in performing as if there were someone else watching, they are creating their subjectivity as performers.

For whom does Pierce dance?

The emphasized performativity in Community, aside from being funny and self-conscious, comments on the increased performativity in contemporary culture.  We’re inundated with reality shows and youtube stars, and we can create our own television shows regardless of the presence of cameras.  We are our own actors in the webcam of life.

Olympics Opening Ceremonies: Spectacle, Theater, and Jocks vs. Nerds

Vancouver's buzzword: intimacy

Within ten minutes of last night’s opening ceremonies, I knew I had to write about them, but I didn’t know what exactly it was that seemed so interesting to me.  I’m still kind of stuck in an admittedly reductive dichotomy of analysis: If Beijing’s opening ceremonies were an intimidating show of might, precision, and sheer numbers, then Vancouver’s ceremonies was about inclusion, intimacy, and telling a surprisingly quiet story.  While the former highlighted spectacle, the latter incorporating the spectacular into a narrative.  My initial thought remains: Beijing was a “jock,” and Vancouver is a “nerd.”

Jocks are certain of their power (Beijing opening ceremonies)

The Jocks vs. Nerds metaphorical dichotomy has been a part of American popular discourse for quite a while, it came to the fore within the discourse surrounding Barack Obama, who many bloggers and comedians refered to as the first modern nerd president.  John Hodgman delivered a speech at the 2009 Radio & TV Correspondents’ Dinner to such an effect and in it he laid out the differences between jocks and nerds: it’s a difference in philosophy, those who approach the world from a position of certainty versus those who approach from a position of scrutiny.  Jocks operate on a level of assumption of the narrative: the story is true so they act from there.  But nerds question those assumptions, creating new or alternate narratives, and often these stories directly address the hegemony of the jocks.  Nerds produce narratives of the undervalued and marginalized, seeking inclusion and tolerance because they understand the power of narratives and instability of the narrative.

Key text in the nerd narrative canon

The inclusivity of the Vancouver opening ceremonies was striking.  Last night began with a number of indigenous nations of Canada offering traditional welcomes.  The attention to the native peoples of Canada and the iconography of the western tribes was present throughout the production, but the Vancouver ceremonies’ inclusivity was not limited to racial terms.  There was a great emphasis placed throughout of the various streams of history that comprise Canada, cementing the national spirit as multi-valent: native peoples, Québécois, Scottish and Irish immigrants, youth, rural, and metropolitan citizens.

The beauty and magic of nature was the foundation on which this multicultural multi-valency found purchase, and as a result a cohesive–if bricolage–narrative formed: a poetic story of movement in Canada through space, time, and the seasons, beginning with the indigenous welcome and passage across the ice and moving through the coasts, the forests, the plains, the rivers, and even the cities,  David Atkins told the story of modern Canada.  What is most striking about that narrative is how quiet it turned out to be.  While certainly there were spectacular elements, they were used in aid to the story being told.  The difference between spectacle and spectacular elements within a narrative is a fine one that I need to clarify.  A moment of spectacle pulls the audience out of the narrative whereas spectacular elements can heighten the tone of the narrative.  When you see a giant forest take shape, it is spectacular in that it takes you somewhat out of the narrative in awe of the technology, but when that awe is the desired emotion of that moment of the story, it maintains the narrative.

Into the woods

Atkins used myriad projectors to “paint” his various settings onto the floor, hanging fabrics, and even the audience; it is a strategy that–with the various modern dance scenes–turned the opening ceremonies from spectacle to theater (a home for many many nerds).  Often while watching, I felt like I was watching dance theater, with modern dancers frolicking in a set of trees, or fiddling tap dancers mimicking the crackles of the dried maple leaves they were dancing on.  But the dances were telling a very distinct story of a people, place, season, and time in addition to the spectacular nature of the set or the dance.  The fiddling tap dancers notwithstanding, the stories told were humble and quiet: a lone boy wire-dancing to Joni Mitchell over fields of golden grains, Orca and salmon swimming and transforming into the aboriginal symbols, and perhaps most nerd-ish, a modern poetry recitation.

All this is to say that I found the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremonies daring in their embrace of inclusivity, theater, and narrative over monolithism and visual and technical spectacle, in embracing their inner nerd.


(Further proof that the Vancouver games appeal to nerd-dom?  Their mascots are mythical creatures, including the Sasquatch, a totem for many young hipster nerds.)