Tag Archives: audience

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.

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Together Again: Onscreen Actor Reunions and Viewer Pleasure

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

Timothy Olyphant on Justified. Intrigued?

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

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

Veronica Mars, still able to own Dick Casablancas

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

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.