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.

NEEERRRRDDDDSSSS!

(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.)

Dollhouse and the question of (episodic/serial) identity

parts and a whole

Dollhouse is a show that will be written about more than it was watched.  As a text, it’s challenging, ambitious, flawed, prescient, interrogative, philosophical, troubling, exploitative, reflective, reflexive, and a hell of a ride.  From a production standpoint, it’s an interesting object of study regarding who has power over a program, the tug-of-war between “network” and “auteur,” and the limits of the latter’s plan(s) in the frame of the former’s goals.  With regards to reception, Dollhouse asked a great deal of its audience (in part due to the production imbalance): Joss Whedon, the show-runner, sent a missive to the press admitting the weakness of the first five episodes but promising a better show with episode six, implicitly requiring six weeks of patience from his audience; the most important episode of the series, “Epitaph One,” was never aired on television and could only be found on iTunes of the season one DVD set, forcing the audience to seek the episode out via alternative means; and perhaps most importantly to my thesis here, by the end of the series, the audience is rewarded for that patience and that multimedia savvy in not only the narrative but also the form, an aspect of television not often examined.

The shift from episode five to episode six of the first season is a shift from episodic television to serial television, and with that, a widening worldview within the series.  The first five episodes consist of closed narratives: Echo (Eliza Dushku), a human doll, can be programmed to be anyone and do anything, but her brain gets the tabula rasa treatment at the end of each engagement, returning her to her placid, anonymous doll state.  Each episode returns to the status quo for Echo and the Dollhouse, and that is the reach of the world.  Episode six, “Man on the Street”, however, begins with the dilation of this world.  Textually, the episode opens with interviews of supposedly random Los Angelinos about the Dollhouse, positioning the Dollhouse as an urban legend, a story existing out in the world, not just confined to the Dollhouse as an actual location.  (Admittedly, the “rumor” of the Dollhouse was part of the B-plot of these early episodes in which FBI agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) investigates the Dollhouse as his white whale, but his investigation is so tied with Dushku’s character that it doesn’t seem larger than the A-stories.) Instead, it’s a locus of rumors, fears, and meanings created by those who are aware of it, not unlike the show’s relationship with its viewers.  The form of these interviews further supports this meta-relationship; shot in verite style, with hand-held camera and degraded quality, they look strikingly like real-world evening news “man on the street” interviews.  This world may not be our world, but it could be.  Our eyes have been opened to both our world and the wider one within the program, undermining the supposed containment of the first five episodes.

"realism" complete with real-world news host

Moreover, this supposed containment within the text of the early episodes extends to the form, for the world’s containment reflects the formal containment in the episodic narratives.  The wider world behind the Dollhouse has always been there, but the veil was solid in the early episodes.  However, as the series progressed, especially regarding the big reveals in the later season two episodes, the early episodes become important because of the seriality of the later episodes.

We’re supposed to be frustrated by those first episodes, feel the tedium and exhaustion of not having a stable character with whom to identify, of always returning to an empty status quo.  We are thus able to identify–at least empathetically–with the dolls who lack any such stability.  Like those who tuned into Dollhouse expecting the serial (or at least the complex narrative) we’ve come to expect from a Joss Whedon show and were instead stymied by episodic–and kind of boring–stories, the dolls’ identities, compendiums of memories and serial stories of existing, are put on hold.  When Echo starts to actualize as a gestalt person instead of an empty vessel, holding onto her past experiences, those of us who endured the frustration can grab onto that evolution in the same way her incipient identity does.  This is perhaps the most difficult process Whedon and his team require of the audience, but the linkage of the form, the character, the story, and the audience is extremely sophisticated and rewarding.

another "Man on the Street" reward

I can’t say the show was perfect, or even overall a great series, but it was one of the most ambitious shows I’ve seen.  And when those ambitions were fulfilled and realized, it was astounding, pushing the form, narrative, and audience into uniquely interrelated analytical space.

Psych: postmodern fun (not an oxymoron!)

One of my favorite episodic television series is back on the air tonight, so I thought it the appropriate time to delve into one part of Psych‘s appeal: it speaks to the postmodernist in me.

While far from perfect Psych boasts a number of strengths: the central friendship between Shawn Spencer (James Roday) and Burton “Gus” Guster (Dule Hill) is  breezy but believable (as is Roday’s and Hill’s off-the-charts comedic chemistry); the supporting cast provide balance in the day-glo hyperreal world of the show; and some of the snappiest and most popular culture reference-laden dialogue on the air occurs at a pace that would sometimes make Aaron Sorkin jealous.

Yet, the plots are ludicrous, especially the premise: for going on four years, Shawn has been able to fool both private clients and the Santa Barbara police department into believing he is psychic merely by his powers of observation. (Yes, The Mentalist basically stole the idea of this premise.)  However, the show never takes itself–or anything–seriously.

Witness the element that first made me tune back in: the Psych out.  These outtakes played over the end credits of many of the early episodes and were often Roday and Hill singing and dancing their way into my heart.

These Psych outs continue, if less frequently, and stand as illuminating examples of both the overall irreverent tone of the series and the first postmodern element I’ll investigate: The Breakdown of the Signifying Chain. [1]

Jameson characterized the postmodern as being temporally schizophrenic.  “With the breakdown of the signifying chain, therefore, the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material Signifiers, or in other words as a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.”[2] In Psych, the 80s seem perpetually present, with Shawn and Gus continually making reference to 80s popular culture (as well as the pop culture of other decades and the present, but the 80s take the majority), with a special focus on the minutia of that cultural moment.  The result is often that only Gus understands Shawn’s references and vice versa, as the references to cultural ephemera has become obscure with the passage of time.  For Shawn and Gus, though, that past is perpetually present and available. (Shawn lives in a state of arrested development, often having to borrow his father’s truck and installing school lockers in his office, so for him, the 80s–as the formative years that he never matured beyond–are his present.) This is in part because of Psych‘s form as a pastiche of many 80s detective programs.

Crockett and Tubbs or Spencer and Guster?

The episodic nature of the form runs counter to the serial trend of some television post-Lost, and the light tone also separates Psych from its fellow closed-in-an-episode mysteries like the self-serious Law & Order and CSI franchises.  Instead, the show appears in tone and plot more like Murder, She Wrote, Columbo, or MacGuyver.

Moreover, both it’s blank parody of and myriad references to the 1980s are made with a clear lack of critical distance, as both elements rarely say anything about the characters or the show itself beyond their ability to make those references or embody that tone.  The show is not commenting on the formula or tone of those 1980s detective predecessors, nor on those cultural works to which the characters refer.  Even its most recent advertising campaign evokes the 80s for no discernible reason other than somehow fits a show that constructs itself from old forms, old styles, and old speech from “the imaginary museum”[3] from which current cultural producers must turn.

If you didn’t know anything about Psych before that ad, would you guess that its present context would be the 1980s?

The point of all these references and this tone, though, is not a lofty expression of the postmodern moment.  It evokes the 80s because they have taken on this day-glo sheen, shining bright and fun in the popular consciousness.  Psych may be a postmodern program, but it lacks the dour notes of Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism.  Instead, it takes the presence of the past and the lack of critical distance and owns it, accepting it as, perhaps, a cultural dominant, but insisting that there is still room for play.  On Psych the characters can play dress-up in the clothes, speech, references, and tone of the 1980s–or the neon idea of the 80s–because it’s fun, and that’s all the reason the show needs.

Footnotes

1. I’m mostly using Frederic Jameson’s identifying features of postmodernism, though it should be noted, Jameson viewed postmodernism as a cultural dominant, not to be parsed out into attributes.
2. Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works, Eds. Durham and Kellner, (New York: Blackwell, 2006), 500.
3. Ibid., 494.