Monthly Archives: January 2010

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.


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.

post Leno ergo propter Leno

I’m beginning this venture of a scholastic-ish blog with, of course, the one story that everyone and their mother has written about.

Mike Mitchell's call to arms

There are so many opinions about the “late night wars” that it seems almost impossible to have an original one.  They’re already out there, often expressed by those in the imbroglio themselves.  Regarding fault, the opinions range: Leno’s just a company man who’s sticking with the myopic NBC (that’s Leno’s image of himself); Leno’s a schemer who is repeating the underhanded dealings of the early 90s (Letterman‘s opinion); NBC is justified in canceling Conan because of his poor rating (the “it’s just business” NBC line); and every iteration/combination of the above.

I am undeniably on Team Conan, but I am savvy enough to understand that he’s not just a martyr in this situation.  Annie Peterson, a fellow grad student (and inspiration for my shift to this format of blogging) does a great job of covering why so many people have joined in supporting Conan.  I encourage everyone to take a read, but her point boils down to this: We like Conan, more specifically, the idea we have of Conan.

We like Conan because he was undoubtedly wronged.  We like Conan because he strives for excellence instead of willfully accepting mediocrity as a path to popularity.  We like Conan because he’s smart (and silly) and doesn’t try to hide it.  We like Conan because his ambition is tempered by reverence for the object of his ambition.  We may even like Conan because he represents the little man being mistreated by his corporate bosses.  I think all of these reason bear a little unpacking.

I say that Conan was “undoubtedly wronged” because that is how he has been portrayed and will be remembered regarding this fracas.  Jay Leno continually tries to portray himself as the victim of NBC’s machinations–implying that he was strong-armed to retire, calling The Jay Leno Show‘s fate a cancellation,  joking to his (overwhelmingly supportive) audience on that show that he’s now been fired twice from NBC.  While perhaps technically true, these aspects will not stick to the public persona of Jay Leno because he is getting exactly what he wants at the expense of Conan.  (And just today, to add a cherry to the sundae of Jay Leno’s career victories, it was announced that he will host this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner.)  It’s tough to play the victim when everything’s coming up Leno.

Conan graduated from Harvard, but one of his most famous creations is the Masturbating Bear, a bit both “low brow” and absurd.  The Masturbating Bear could never have come into being without the kind of artistic/comedic boundary-pushing that is often characterized as throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.  There’s a huge probability of failure with this strategy, but there’s also a great potential for growth.  This is the kind of risk that I just can’t imagine Jay Leno considering.  Similarly, Conan’s best bits are both smart and ridiculous, tapping into his roots as editor of the National Lampoon.  My favorite recurring gag on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien was the perpetually brooding and somehow perpetually suicidal vampire assistant, Cody.

First Cody had to compete with Wolfboy then the Blind Side. You can understand why he broods.

Cody’s segments always contained the same elements: Cody is obsessed with someone or something he can’t have, faces either competition or reality, an over-the-top ballad plays (“I’ll love you forever / Never saying goodbye”), and Cody runs crying outside to the sunlight (no sparkle for him; he dies).  Silly silly stuff.  But, it’s smart too because it’s satirizing both the Twilight phenomenon and the shoehorning of vampires or Twilight-like elements into various productions as a clear ploy for the Twilight audience.

Of course, Conan’s intelligence (and I realize I’m conflating Conan-the-person with Conan-the-show-written-and-produced-by-a-team, but that ties back into the fact that I’m discussing the idea of Conan; he is his show to a certain extent) often leads to the label of elitism, which is why I’m so curious about both the generational and class explanation of motivation behind Team Conan.  Mike Mitchell, who drew the header image, likens Conan to “a lot of people [who] have crappy bosses” and can thus “relate.”  This implies that Team Conan is tapping into the angst and anger of the workers–those of middle and lower classes.  But Conan as a working-class hero is too simplistic, especially as most assume the Leno has the support of “middle America” which is often classed as blue-collar.  The spanner in the works here is the generational argument: Jay Leno is a baby boomer, Conan is the voice of Generation X.  Leno is popular with–and thus represents in the popular imagination–blue-collar (when blue-collar was middle class) boomers.  Conan, however, appeals to and represents a different image of the middle-class: a young, white-collar, educated middle class.  They’re cubicle workers who have grown up with the internet for a majority of their lives.  They torrent, they stream, they DVR, time-shifting in ways that upend the standard measurements of viewership and ad-revenue.  The whole Leno vs. Conan debacle can be read as entitled boomers refusing to relinquish their position of power and importance the the next generation that do things so differently that the boomers can’t even see that they exist on the same spectrum.  All of this applies mainly to white America, but it’s still a divided idea of America, even within one racial and class bloc.

My opinion?  The system of ratings is fundamentally flawed as the basis for television revenue; technology is surpassing the business model.  The drop in Conan’s ratings from Leno’s at 11:35 ET  resulted from a perfect storm of problems: the generational gap regarding who watches TV how; the ratings failure to reflect alternate viewing practices; the general downturn of ratings at NBC and the specific downturn at 10pm due to Leno’s show that led to a 50% drop in local news ratings, the direct lead-in for Conan; Leno stealing the publicity momentum as well as some guests (Kanye couldn’t have gone on The Tonight Show to apologize to Taylor Swift?  Maybe it could have been Conan’s “What were you thinking?!” moment); and even Conan’s drive for excellence creating an uneven first few months.  NBC is to blame, Jeff Zucker specifically, and Leno is tarnished (though perhaps not in the eyes of his core audience).  Team Coco got an amazing two weeks where almost everything that was thrown against the wall stuck and was seen by more people than usual.  Conan keeps his outsider quirkiness–hopefully soon to be put to better use outside such a venerable institution– and Team Conan gets the high ground.

Conando is dead.*  Long live Conan.

Si, Conando!

*Or at least as good as, for it is widely believed that that character falls under the agreement that ALL of Conan’s characters and bits created while at NBC is the intellectual property of NBC.


UPDATE 1/23/09: For further evidence of the generational motivation, The New York Times Media Decoder blog is reporting that Conan’s final show drew an astounding rating among the desired 18-49 year-old demographic.

More impressive was the number for 18-to-49-year-old viewers — the gold standard for NBC because advertisers seek to reach that audience. There, in overnight numbers from the country’s 25 largest cities, Mr. O’Brien hit an extraordinary rating, a 4.8.

Not only would that be by far the biggest rating in that age group for any kind of show at any time Friday night (if it holds up as a national rating and it will likely decrease only slightly), it is also a better number than almost every prime-time show that has appeared on NBC this television season.