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Welcome to the Fempire: The NWSL on Lifetime

All this week, the National Women’s Soccer League has been spreading the news on social media of an upcoming announcement with A+E Networks. In naming the new partner, the NWSL was not being coy about what the press conference would be about. The only question was which network would it make sense and would it be digital-only. The press conference was this morning, and it revealed what I suspected: select games on Lifetime, developing digital platforms in partnership for other games. The centrality of Lifetime in this partnership was illustrated by its logo on the backdrop and not A+E networks’ logo.

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This partnership makes sense for a number of reasons for both entities.

First and foremost, this is a godsend for the NWSL. TV deals are the life’s blood of finances for major sports leagues, and that is particularly true for soccer leagues around the world. One need only look at the massive amounts of money broadcasters have paid in recent years for rights to show the English Premier League and MLS on both television and digital platforms. Meanwhile, women’s soccer leagues have struggled to even survive beyond 3 year stints in the US. Following on the success of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s stunning 1999 World Cup win, the Women’s United Soccer Association formed in 2000 and folded in 2003. After the WUSA, the Women’s Professional Soccer league was founded in 2007 (the year of the Women’s World Cup in Bejing) and ran from 2009-2012. WUSA matches, like some NWSL matches for the past few years, would occasionally air on various cable channels, but did not have a regular television schedule or home. The WPS fared better regarding television, airing weekly matches on Fox Soccer Channel. However, in 2009-2012, FSC had minimal reach among cable television households. In fact, the deal made between the WPS and FSC in 2008 reads as very similar to the NWSL-Lifetime deal today. The major differences make all the difference: Lifetime is a basic cable channel with far greater market saturation than FSC (then or today), the deal includes non-linear digital platform distribution, and perhaps most importantly, the threshold for successful ratings is much lower in 2017 than it was even five years ago.

On the face of it, Lifetime is an odd choice for a live sports partnership. Lifetime has had some variation of its “Television for Women” brand since the 1980s, but that television has only once included live sports. As Nancy Dubuc, President and CEO of A+E Networks, pointed out at this morning’s press conference: Lifetime aired select WNBA games during the league’s early years, only shifting their coverage to ESPN in 2000. In 2000, a Lifetime executive described the move away from sports as “very exciting for us because now we will be able to do what we do best, which is tell women’s stories, and ESPN can do what they do best, which is cover live sports.” In the press conference this morning, however, the division between “live sports” and “women’s stories” was erased by Dubuc. She discussed the NWSL as a site of women’s stories and sports as entertainment.  The way the NWSL was framed fits both with Lifetime’s emerging brand as a place for upscale women’s entertainment–soccer is an considered upscale sport in the US–and fits with a growing strain of sports discourse for which soccer is an epicenter: sport-as-narrative.

The discussion of sport-as-narrative in this instance is somewhat murkily playing into gender stereotypes of women seeking soap-opera drama in all genres. There is a sense from some of the press conference’s discussion of how the NWSL fits into the Lifetime brand that the process of narrativizing may also soap-opera-ize the approach to the sport because it’s assumed that that’s what women want. However, Dubuc was also quick to point out that half of NFL viewers are women, implying that the market for women’s sport is already there and doesn’t need gimmicks to be found.

Regardless of how Lifetime will package the NWSL come April, this partnership indicates the ongoing–and growing–importance of live sport in the television industry. As DVRs, waiting-to-binge practices, and chord-cutting all erode advertising deals, live sports remains a dependable site for live viewers and the advertising money they generate. As such, in the last few years, we’ve seen an expansion of cable sports channels with NBC Sports, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and CBS Sports joining the various ESPNs in more cable packages. Additionally, more elite and/or  esoteric sports have started showing up on those channels and even occasionally on their broadcast parents, such as Formula 1 on NBC. However, even these live sports audiences are starting to dwindle, as are audiences across television as more and more options are available to them in the era of Peak TV. But in that context, a small, upscale, and committed audience, such as that of women’s soccer, can be a boon to any cable channel. Dubuc said as much in today’s press conference when answering a question about audience across platforms for the NWSL. She said,”The aggregate is what’s important and what we’re paying attention to.” Many small but significant slices of the audience pie will help to sustain the NWSL. This is why this partnership makes sense now for Lifetime, and why I believe it will do well for both entities in terms of branding.

And we really should have known this was coming based on this recent Lifetime channel promo. Just count the soccer players. Welcome to the fempire, indeed.

Containing the Bad Girl: Hope Solo’s Social Media Branding Versus Authenticity in Women’s Soccer

Hope Solo is a bad girl, a train wreck, a fiasco.

.@AlexiLalas speaks out about Hope Solo. The #USWNT press conference is coming up next on FS1! http://t.co/oWU1GQ9S4B

— FOX Sports 1 (@FOXSports1) June 7, 2015

But she’s also a superstar and a huge figure in not only women’s sports but sports in general. Soccer broadcasters have to talk about her because she makes noise and money. While other world-class players miss their anti-doping checks and get written about only on soccer blogs, Hope Solo’s perennial issues gain far more sports section ink than almost any other soccer player in the U.S., male or female. Despite the fact that she has consistently been named the best goalkeeper in the world and her on-field and off-field life has done a great deal toward raising the profile of women’s soccer in the last eight years, her talent has always gone hand-in-hand with her “bad” behavior. Solo made her mark on the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) in the 2007 World Cup with truly spectacular play, but it was her comments following the US loss in the semifinals that cemented the Hope Solo persona. She was benched in the game in favor of the legendary but out-of-form Brianna Scurry who hadn’t played internationally in months. Visibly upset after the game but still required to do the press rounds, Solo told a reporter: “[Starting Scurry] was the wrong decision. And I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that. There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. And the fact of the matter is, it’s not 2004 anymore.” Then the soccer world imploded and the US Soccer apparatus began to treat Hope Solo as a kind of necessary evil.

As a goalkeeper and a USWNT fan since the 1999 World Cup, Solo was the player I was most invested in, and I couldn’t help thinking she was right. I–and I assume myriad other fans–thought and said the exact same thing. What was the coach thinking? Solo’s on a hot-streak! But immediately, news leaked about the USWNT ostracizing Solo. The prevailing talking point among broadcasters–who would have said the same thing–was you don’t say that to a reporter; you keep it in the locker room. Following that moment of infamy, Solo’s pattern was established: She performs excellently between the posts, inevitably says or does something that US Soccer doesn’t think appropriate or that is illegal, and spends the next few months rehabilitating her image within both the team and the media. This is not to say that the allegations she has been involved with–her husband’s DUI, his domestic abuse, her alcohol problems, and her domestic abuse–are not serious. They are, even if most remain only allegations and rumors. But the strained relationship with US Soccer is the true constant of the Hope Solo persona.

Thus, when Hope Solo started posting to instagram with her personal logo embedded in each image in March 2015, it reads as containment. The inclusion of the logo creates a barrier to authenticity. The Hope Solo brand is one that we assume has to pass through a gatekeeper to approve the content. That separate step of adding the logo indicates that Solo didn’t merely snap the picture and upload it in the moment. Solo uploaded a few pictures to instagram without the logo during the spring of 2015, including up to the last post before the US won the Algarve Cup, the last tournament before the World Cup.

March 10, 2015: 

Day before the final downtime…group trip to the pottery shop! #uswnt

A post shared by Hope Solo (@hopesolo) on

March 11, 2015: USWNT win Algarve Cup, Solo saves PK

But following that win, the next instagram upload features the logo. The Algarve Cup cemented that the USWNT needed Solo for the World Cup, despite the looming potential of a court case. With the USWNT players seemingly pushed toward more social media interaction as part of the ramp-up to the World Cup as well as during the World Cup in the summer of 2015, Solo’s social media presence is an outlier in that branding filter. In part, it’s about Hope Solo as the product, one of the most prominent female athletes in the US and thus a monetized brand, but so are Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, neither of whom adds a logo to their pictures. As the only one with that, Solo comes off as either arrogant or contained, far removed from the brand of authenticity that women’s soccer desires to cultivate.

March 27, 2015: 

Compare the Solo posts with those of other players, even on the official USWNT instagram account. Morgan Brian and Amy Rodriguez whisper-scream their excitement after beating Germany.

When @moebrian and A-Rod takeover. #WeWon

A post shared by U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) on

Teammates participate in piggyback rides.

When everyone has a 🐷 but you. #Unlucky

A post shared by U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) on

And throughout the USWNT instagram account, picture after picture portrays these world class athletes in a “just like you” light. They play pranks, they joke with each other, they make weird faces and ham it up for the camera, and more than anything they seem authentic and even approachable. That’s the brand for the USWNT, and it’s one dictated by gender ideology. Our women’s team is better than our men’s team, demonstrably so, and soccer is still a minor sport in the US regardless of gender, so US Soccer chose authenticity, approachability, and the illusion of closeness to make the relatively small sport supporter base feel part of the action. The USWNT brand focuses on engagement over image. Hope Solo does the opposite. She rarely videotapes anything, her images are usually fairly posed or even professionally photographed, and that damn logo makes sure you know she’s not just like you. She has her own brand. And that brand is paramount, even when taking a picture of a teammate’s birthday celebration.

Because she's #USWNT royalty, @christierampone3 gets two birthday Instagram's and a tiara. #SheBelieves

A post shared by U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) on

Happy 40th birthday @christierampone3!

A post shared by Hope Solo (@hopesolo) on

The Hope Solo logo is a rupture in the regime of authenticity that is demanded of women’s soccer. It’s not just the USWNT, although that is the largest platform for that. NWSL teams like the Houston Dash create promotional videos and images that continue in this mode or approachability. It’s heady and it works. But what Hope Solo’s persona and her logo remind us of is that it’s a brand that is deeply indebted to gender ideology that requires female athletes to be “nice” and “good” to counteract their physical domination on the field. Hope Solo’s original sin of criticizing her fellow goalkeeper and her coach to a reporter may not have been the best choice, but if she had respond to the reporter with “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” she likely would have faced the same excoriation from the press because she wasn’t “nice” enough. Ironic that her one moment of true authenticity set the wheels in motion for Hope Solo to be the disruptor of authenticity.

Lois and Clark and Supergirl: Gender, Romance, and Superheroes

Yesterday, CBS revealed this six-minute trailer/first look of their upcoming fall show, Supergirl.  Since then, on news and social media sites, there has been joy and trepidation. Regarding the latter reaction, I’ve seen quite a bit of worry about the romantic comedy set-up, comparing the trailer to The Devil Wears Prada and SNL’s recent Black Widow trailer.

Certainly there are rom-com elements to the Supergirl trailer, and presumably, the show, but the true specter that haunts the Supergirl trailer is the failed Wonder Woman pilot from 2011. The leaked script pages and rough footage of the pilot were terrible on myriad levels and was the closest superhero adaptation to the SNL parody. There was actually a scene of Wonder Woman/Diana crying about her break-up with Steve Trevor while eating ice cream. We know how bad a female-led superhero show can actually be, but rom-com elements are not the root of these problems. It’s a symptom of a two-fold cause: the scarcity of female representation in superhero media that leads to an incredibly high burden of representation, and a general loss of uniqueness attached to superhero characters or worlds.  The two issues coincide most clearly in the House of El.

We cannot avoid that Supergirl is derivative of Superman. She was introduced 20 years after Action Comics #1 introduced Superman to the world, and she is Kal-El/Clark/Superman’s cousin in almost every iteration. Her origin is tied to his (in some versions, she’s meant to be his babysitter), her outfit mirrors his, and her tone is usually as hopeful as his. The first look of Supergirl even begins with Kal-El’s story and ends with his approval-via-cape. Yes, it’s sexist and paternalistic, but it rings true for the character, her history, and her relationships. She is inspired by her cousin, loves him, and values his esteem, but she also chooses to be a superhero without even asking his opinion. This is all to say that Supergirl shares a lot of characteristics and tone with Superman, and the romance is part of that.

Although the New 52 run of these characters moved far away from the core Super-characteristic of love, Superman and his many iterations are mostly romances. Yes, there are massive battles and alien threats and all manner of derring-do, but the heart of Superman is Lois Lane. She has been around as long as Superman and has been his primary love interest for all of that time; in fact, every modern adaptation of Superman has devoted considerable time to the relationship between Clark/Superman and Lois. Almost every first meeting is essentially a rom-com meet-cute twice over: bumbling new guy Clark meets confident, talented Lois and falls for her, and facing-death Lois meets high-flying Superman and falls for him. But because it’s a male superhero story, these movies and TV shows are generally not categorized as romances or romantic comedies. Except for one notable adaptation that was a romantic action-adventure series: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (ABC 1993-1997).

Lois and Clark was created by Debrah Joy-Levine to be a story about Lois Lane, but as it progressed, it also happened to become, in my opinion, the Superman adaptation that had the best understanding of Superman’s story and what makes Superman a unique superhero, both of which revolve around relationships with humans, particularly his love of his parents and Lois. When Superman is accused of having a god complex in an episode in which he is put on trial, he replies, “I really do believe that we’re all put here on this earth, or whatever planet we’re put on, to do better than we think we can. To be kind, helpful, generous, and forgiving.” It’s corny, earnest, and infused with hope. And, like almost every moment in Lois and Clark that exemplifies who and what Superman is, it is said because of Lois and his relationship with her. Superman does not exist without Lois Lane. Literally, she names the hero, and figuratively, she is the one who gives him the strength to do what he does while in the cape. Even on Smallville (WB/CW 2001-2011), the entire final season revolves around Lois and Clark’s relationship and how she is the reason he finally makes it to both tights and flights.

And in many Supergirl stories, love is just as much a goal for Kara Zor-El as it is for her cousin. She develops crushes, goes on dates, and finds her grounding with her family. Superman and Supergirl are both aliens, orphans, sole survivors of an entire planet, and as such love–familial or romantic–is an important element to their sense of belonging on earth. That sense of belonging, of loving humans and humanity more generally, and trying to be the best version of themselves in relationship to other living things is the core of their morality and the check against their potential for tyranny.

For all these reasons, I am not worried about romance being a part–even a big part–of Supergirl. But I am worried about the narrative of Supergirl being a rom-com. Where Superman has as many iterations as factions of fans, Supergirl struggles to even hold on to her own title in comics publishing, and few live-action versions. More than merely her own history, she will be the first live-action eponymous super woman of this current cycle of superhero media. She beat both Wonder Woman (2017) (who hasn’t had live-action iteration since Lynda Carter in the 1970s) and Captain Marvel (2018) to the scene, and as such she’ll face heightened scrutiny and–being on CBS and going agains Gotham in the fall–a higher barrier to success. She carries the burden of representing female superheroes on her shoulders alone, but that I hate to think that means that any romance diminishes any female superhero. Supergirl–optimistic, loved and loving, hopeful and inspirational, loves being a superhero–is not Black Widow–emotionally scarred, suspicious, guilt-ridden, badass spy. Where elements of romantic comedy work with one, they do not with another.

This is the second part of the problem facing Supergirl. In shared universes and with more exposure in mainstream media adaptations, there are certain tropes that are repeated and certain unique characteristics that are sloughed off. It’s easy to use differences in accent, powers, costume, and general temperament as shorthand to differentiate among superheroes, but it takes many hours of exploring these characters to get to how the characters view and approach the world. There are over 20 hours of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but we’re only getting hints at how these heroes view the world and their responsibility to it. In the DC cinematic universe being built, it’s even more apparent how differences are being erased as Superman became dark-and-gritty in Man of Steel and images of Wonder Woman, a warrior, yes, but for peace, place her in a muted wasteland. Instead of Batman providing the pragmatic, cynical accent to a group of heroes who embrace intrinsic goodness, the DC cinematic world is bleak, as if it’s the world as seen by Batman not a wider world featuring Batman. The CW’s Arrow as well started out as basically a Batman story; gone was Ollie’s notorious liberalism. But Arrow has led to the one superhero adaptation that understand that different heroes require different worldviews: The Flash. In last week’s episode, The Flash tried to handle a situation like he thought The Arrow would and failed utterly, only to be reassured that his unique compassion and ability to see the best in people are what make him a hero. Supergirl doesn’t have an in-universe superhero to compare herself to other than Superman, but the acknowledgment of difference, that not all superheroes are alike–especially since The Flash and Supergirl are produced by the same people–makes me hopeful. Supergirl is not Black Widow, but she is like Superman, and neither of those things is a bad think or something to ignore. Now we just need to get her some super (best) friends (forever).

The Return of the Adventure Show

flying-car-agents-of-shield

A few years ago, I taught a History of American Television Genres course, in which I lamented the apparent death of the adventure show following its peak in the 1980s.  Shows like Quantum Leap, The A-Team, Hart to Hart, Fantasy Island, and The Greatest American Hero seemed worlds away from the broadcast schedule in early 2012, but watching new shows like Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, two of the successful new hour-long programs of this fall, I think the adventure show is returning.  However, despite the obvious debt Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. owes to episodic adventure shows like The A-Team, purely episodic dramas outside of procedural franchises are nonexistent. Even one of the 1980s cycle’s closest descendants on cable, Psych, has some drawn-out serial arcs.  Although the 1980s broadcast adventure shows lay the groundwork for this genre’s apparent resurgence, I’d argue that the 90s spate of first-run syndicated adventure shows are the most direct antecedent to the new broadcast adventures. For these shows, syndication freed them from the weight of legitimation and network brand identity allowing for fun to be their watchword.

“Adventure show,” like most generic designations is a discourse, a construction that provides a way of organizing the media we interact with. While certain elements of the adventure genre mixed, evolved, or fused with various other genres (notably spy and crime shows), the particular generic construction I am looking at is exemplified by that 1980s cycle and picked up again in the 90s syndication mode. These shows are most clearly characterized by their tone: breezy, fun, and often alternating between formulaic storytelling and kitchen-sink narratives that seem to throw together multiple disparate genres, formulas, character types, and plot developments with a wry wink, knowing full well exactly what they are and how they operate in their generic and narrative worlds.

Xena, Hercules, and Taking the World Seriously Without Being Too Serious

The adventure show’s winking tone provides levity without condescension toward the show’s characters, plots, and worlds. The characters and viewers both realize and occasionally acknowledge the ridiculous and/or strange elements, but everyone is in on the joke, not the butt of it.  This is one of the key characteristics that spans all three cycles. Quantum Leap would put Sam Beckett in ridiculous situations, but always treated the characters’ emotions with serious attention. The 90s first-run syndicated shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess excelled at this winking tone. They nodded to popular culture and their own fans often without diminishing the weight of the core character relationships. Hercules and Iolaus’ and Xena and Gabrielle’s platonic (or not so much) love for each other and genuine desire to help people was not part of the “wink.” Among ludicrous squabbling gods, cartoonish sound effects, and the often juvenile take on the fantasy genre, the characters’ sacrifices and victories were taken seriously.

SH1

This balance is one of the strongest elements in the success of Sleepy Hollow. The premise is complicated and potentially alienating: Ichabod Crane was a Revolutionary War spy for the colonists who was tasked by George Washington to protect various mystical artifacts while fighting the British and fending off Biblical prophecy; he met the Horseman Death on the field of battle, cut off his head, accidentally mixed their bloods together, mostly died, then returned to life in 2013 Sleepy Hollow to combat the apocalypse with Sheriff Abbie Mills. Various reviews have praised the show for its “insanity” or “bonkers” storytelling (not hyperbole given its premise), and the characters are fully aware of the ridiculousness of their situation but carry on through the fantastic adventures, finding humor in the absurdity.

Death may be serious, but that doesn’t mean shows that feature the weekly threat of death need to be heavy with that seriousness. In a television landscape with a lot of “grim” and “dark” anti-heroes and gray morality, shows that are fun are sadly rare. The adventure show may have dark moments, but there is always comedy to keep the show moving without being ponderous.

Trusting the Audience: Complexity, Rapidity, and Genre Confidence

Another element of that “insane” descriptor for the contemporary adventure show is their full commitment to the genre(s) they engage in and the viewing audience to keep up as they speed through their complicated premises. Hercules and Xena used voice-over opening credits to provide the background for the fantastic world in which the heroes existed. Sleepy Hollow, toohas been using voice-over recaps of the premise in addition to the standard “previously on” bumper before the credits. Despite these voice overs indicating an audience that needs reminding, the shows move their characters quickly through disbelief into pragmatism. Both Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. place a lot of faith in the audience to keep up with their relatively rapid movement through complex premises and to use their generic knowledge to fill in the gaps. Why is no one reacting to Ichabod Crane reawakening in Sleepy Hollow?  This is a fantastic narrative world with an alternative history that doesn’t include Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” of course. How did that tech company get their hands on alien technology? Because that’s the way of comic book villains, of course. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  also assumes audience knowledge of the Marvel franchise of which it is an off-shoot, so they don’t waste time explaining what Extremis is or recapping the Battle of New York from The Avengers.  The adventure show moves at a quick pace and because it has confidence in itself and its attendant genres as well as its audience to keep up, it can wind its way through more locations, set-ups, and pay-offs than many other series.

The Adventure Aesthetic Bind: Exotic Locales and VFX a Must, But On a Budget

That rapidity of both storytelling and often travel, however, comes at a price. Although visual effects (vfx) have become more widespread across all media, television budgets are still much much smaller than film or video game budgets, yet adventure shows are expected to present travel to exotic locales and/or create believable dangers to the heroes using vfx.  For the 90s syndicated shows, the small budgets’ resulting vfx were expected. No one tuned into Cleopatra 2525 on a Saturday morning expecting state-of the art vfx, so the laughable images were part of the levity.

cleopatra_2525_01

For today’s adventure shows, however, television bears the weight of 20 years of a discourse of cinematic progress regarding acting, writing, and aesthetics. At the same time, the audience for broadcast fictional programming continues to shrink and networks continue to struggle to boost their revenue streams.  The result is broadcast adventure shows in 2013 that share an astoundingly similar vfx aesthetic with their 90s syndicated counterparts.

normal_aos102-0346

yellowbrick(The second image is from ABC’s Once Upon A Time In Wonderland which may fit this genre if it focuses more on Alice’s time in Wonderland and doesn’t go the Lost route with flashbacks to her time in the “real world,” but after one episode, it’s difficult to tell.)

New/Old Industrial Logics: Diving In with Trusted Producers

Both Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were guaranteed at least 13 episodes before even their pilots aired, and both have since been renewed for a second 13-episode season and the back nine for a full 22 episode season, respectively. Because these adventure shows are relatively outside the standard logics of successful television–they may have procedural elements but they aren’t procedurals nor do either have big stars heading their ensembles–they are high-risk-high-reward series. Yet that risk is mitigated by the backing of producers with proven track records and industrial relationships that the networks want to maintain. These relationships likely allow a bit more freedom to take risks and try new (or new-old) approaches to television: breezy instead of grim, more episodic than serial, more generically complex than simplified categorization.

Joss Whedon, king of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and cult television demigod, executive produces Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman are in-demand film and television writers with close ties to J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions via Star Trek, Alias, and Fringe.  Kurtzman and Orci were also key writers on both Hercules and Xena, and they cut their teeth on those syndicated shows (as shown in their fictionalized representation in this self-reflexive Hercules episode).

Escapism, Seriousness, and the Weight of Legitimation

For all these parallels between the earlier cycles of adventure shows and their apparent resurgence in 2013, why now?  The 1980s adventure shows were trying to lure back the dwindling mass audience, one of a few strategies broadcast networks attempted at the time. The other main strategy was the move toward televisuality, which is the strategy that persisted. Nearly 30 years later, and that push toward legitimating television has weighed the medium down, leading to a current conflation of quality and serious, heavy, serial dramas. Cable used to be a haven for “blue skies” fun programming, but the push toward serialization and movement away from the apparent frivolity of fun has even shifted USA Network’s anchor programs toward seriousness. Thus, a niche has been opened for fun shows, and broadcast is well positioned to fill that niche, as they have historically been the provider of escapist of television (and at various historical periods been criticized for that), and they cannot compete with the ability of cable to portray the adult situations that are required of this turn in quality. Instead, they can turn into the skid, so to speak, and return to the strategy they tried in the 1980s for appealing to more of a mass audience: fun, adventure, escapism, levity, and giving certain trusted producers the space (though not very large budgets) to build programming that winks as it throws everything but the kitchen sink at the audience.

Birth of a Meme: Applying Spreadable Media

Last week, Kyle Wrather and I created a meme that picked up steam and spreadability. This is the story of how it happened across social media. Kyle and I plan to pen a blog post soon, but until then: http://storify.com/cehowell6/birth-of-a-meme

 

AmericaJammed.jpg

On “Trojan Horse” Television and Genre

Today, I jumped into a twitter thread started by a retweeted response to Alyssa Rosenberg’s recent post about the rise of “Trojan Horse” television shows.

Full disclosure, I have never met this person and have no idea of his or her background or context, but it was an interesting idea that I wanted to push a bit. The use of genre television here, as in much popular uses of the term, seems to refer to the fantastic genres: fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and the further examples used in the twitter thread follow this line.

In case you’re new to this blog or have never met me, you should know that I tend to work through this idea–that genres, particularly fantastic genres, can “make safe” challenging social topics through displacement–in a lot of my writings. Also, thanks to taking a general genre theory course pretty early in my graduate career, I am highly conscious of the shifting boundaries around the definition(s) of genre(s).  Now heading toward taking a comprehensive exam on the subject, I find questions about genre as a term coming up again and again: Why use this new term when “genre” will do? Why does this other term seem like it’s trying to swallow “genre”? How are industry and audience discourses shaping how we think of any particular genre?  In short, I am both aware and wary of the often fraught shorthand of “genre” in both popular and academic circles. That’s what happens when you spend an entire semester defining, undefining and redefining an idea and then think, “Yeah, let me continue doing this all the time forever.” That’s me. Hello!

So, genre. I think about it a lot. Some might say overthink it. But one of the fundamental things about most definitions of genre (at least most that are studied and taught today) is that audience plays a role, even if it’s just a fantasy of their expectations. There is some sense when discussing genre that the audience is engaged with the text. They expect certain things, are savvy enough to “read” the genre.  This is a movement away from early text-based genre definitions and toward Jason Mittell’s definition of genres as discursively constructed. In Genre and Television, he writes:

[I]nstead of reading outwards from a textual interpretation to posit how people make sense of a genre, we should look at the meanings people make in their interactions with media genres to understand the genre’s meanings. (5)

This is a way of looking at genre befitting the cultural-studies-skewing television studies.

“Trojan Horse” television, however, is a relatively new term, at least as it’s being used in the popular discussions now.  Meaning has not settled in its use. The Trojans have yet to be agreed on: Showtime President David Nevins and author of Difficult Men Brett Martin imply the audience are the duped Trojans, but Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan configures network executives as those who are tricked to let something past their gates.  This leads to two distinct ideas of “Trojan Horse” television, both explored by Rosenberg in the essay that started this whole post, that nevertheless appear to me to share a similar idea of superiority over the intended audience. As Rosenberg defines it, Trojan Horse television uses “characters and ideas with whom audiences think they’re familiar to lure viewers in, and then taking them to entirely unpredictable places . . . For a Trojan Horse to function as such, of course, it has to offer up something to lull audiences into accepting its outward appearance.” For Kohan, a woman trying to get other women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and kinds into the representational field, the “audience” is the mostly white, mostly male cohort of network executives. For her, “Trojan Horse” television is a tactic used to help the subaltern speak and be seen. It’s not about sneaking into the home of Netflix subscribers and surprising them into feeling for a transgender woman or a former drug addict. It’s about circumventing the power structures that have barred so many such representations from the powerful worlds of fiction and changing the industry from within by playing on the very ideas of the audience that shape the other kind of “Trojan Horse” television. In her NPR interview, Kohan describes Piper, in terms of selling the show to networks, and even when audiences figure, it’s still the business of television that is foregrounded.

In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful. (Fresh Air,emphasis mine).

This is the kind of thinking of that other mode of “Trojan Horse” television that uses sensationalism or popular tropes to draw audiences. For those who think in this mode of television, like Nevins and Martin, deep, complex, troubling, taboo, and under-represented issues or characters will not draw the attention of the audience quick enough to gain traction. Thus, the audience needs to be lured in, lulled into complacency, then basically tricked into engaging. When Rosenberg calls for television (read: producers, executives, and other cultural gatekeepers) to learn the lessons of both modes of Trojan Horse television, the audience is barely a factor.  Which brings me back to why I must disagree with the idea that genre television is always Trojan Horse television.

It’s an intriguing idea, but one that configures the audience in troubling ways and ossifies too much of genre’s plasticity. One of the great values of the fantastic genres has historically been and continues to be its openness to allegory by reconfiguring reality into a fantastic past, present, or future, but this has also often been a weakness of the genres as well. Allegory is interesting but when layered onto generic formulas can come across as trite or heavy-handed. Where “Trojan Horse” television implies some degree or kind of producerly or authorial intent (packing the Greeks into the horse, if you will), genre allows for more audience agency in the creation of meaning. Certainly authors and producers of fantastic television shows can create their shows as “Trojan Horse” television, as Gene Roddenberry famously did, but Star Trek gave rise to slash fiction as much as it preached tolerance. Fantastic genre television operates through displacement that provides space for “safe” approaches to complex and potentially ratings-crippling topics and ideas, that space should not be given wholly to the producers’ side of meaning-making. Without the producerly intent of “Trojan Horse” television, fantastic television fans can find or build a religion or a political movement or a charity out of an ethos or a character that was created as exposition or characterization. They can construct a “Trojan Horse” from within the walls of Troy, to belabor the metaphor. But then it’s just a regular construction, an idea that has taken form and created something from the scattered materials provided, purposeful but not forced upon them. What does thinking of fantastic genre television as always “Trojan Horse” television give us that continuing to develop its genre discourse does not?  I think it gives us nothing extra an diminishes the importance and power of the fans in building meaning from and within the fantastic space of displacement. Perhaps it will be a new buzzword or way of diminishing ratings failures by talking about a new type of quality, as Faye Woods suggested on twitter.  But if so, let’s talk about it as an industry term and not let it invade the negotiated space between industry and audience that genre gives us.

Fans of Misha Collins and Supernatural didn’t need a Trojan Horse to engage in random acts of kindness.

Where Have All the Summer Shows Gone?

This summer, when USA’s spy drama, Covert Affairs, returned to the air, it’s laughable but fun credit sequence was replaced with a simple, serious white on black title card. When the change was discussed on twitter, the writers claimed the “maturity” of the show and its storylines led to the change.

Covert Affairs has evolved to the point that the winkingly cheap credits would seem disjointed. Just as the tongue-in-cheek voiceover on Burn Notice did as the series relied more heavily on dark, high stakes serial stories and Leverage‘s introduction of character roles might have been if it continued to focus on serious, serial narratives. These shows were all once the ideal escapist summer fair. They were, at one point at least, fun shows that you could tune in to after a day baking in the sun or when you missed a few episodes while on vacation. They were the “blue skies” summer cable fair that required less intense, prolonged focus than the season-long network dramas, but still mined deeply their characters and offered a satisfying episodic resolution at the end of the hour. They were fun but also had strong contingents of vocal fans that kept them from being guilty pleasures. They were able to exemplify the connotations of summer: easy, breezy, satisfying but not heavy, popular but not a zeitgeist. And they seem to be gone, or at least going.

TNT is still making its procedurals in the vein of these summer shows–Rizolli & Isles, Franklin & Bash, and King & Maxwell–that aside from their ampersands share a location in a relative blind spot of social media. Where the former grouping of shows would get mentioned on the AV Club, featured on Television Without Pity, and the like, these drama merit barely a dollop of all the virtual ink spent on discussing television. More frequently this summer has seen heavy serial dramas populate the summer: The Killing, Ray Donovan, The Bridge, and Breaking Bad.

The new boys of summer

As television more generally is shifting its economic models, the standard logic of summer being an escapist, lower-stakes season populated mostly by reruns and reality is shifting as well. Now the summer is a time of less competition and more potential reward to build an audience and/or find the quality audience that is starved for serial, complex entertainment and have the DVRs and means to keep up the the series. But this means that cable programming is going through a change that seems precedented in the 1980s network shift to quality. Leverage and the like share a historical kinship with the light, mostly-episodic network dramas of the early cable era like Quantum Leap and Remington Steele. These 80s hour-long, episodic, comedic dramas became folded under the televisual quality drive spearheaded by Hill Street Blues, and the early 2000s saw them reappear on cable channels. In the 1980s this marked a shift in the idea of what television is or could be; likewise, this trend illustrates a similar shift in cable. Whereas the 1980s was mostly a network response to the threat of cable, this current shift seems the fulfillment of that threat. Cable is now competing with and beating the networks in ratings in any season and are less mired in older forms of business logics that are slower to change.

For now, it appears that the summer is becoming home to serial dramas and quality programming–and all that connotes. But as these television forms move in, they force out the former residents of the summer: the episodic or lightly serial summer drama, the sense of escape, and the “blue skies” mode of cable programming. As a fan of all these things, I hope they find a place somewhere else. Until then, the series of the past are mostly available on Netflix and Hulu for summer rewatches. I’ll be streaming them and basking in the cheesiness of the Covert Affairs credits there.