Tag Archives: form

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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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.

Chronology, Class, and the Mise-en-scène of The Wire

I recently began to watch The Wire for the first time.  The series is one of the most discussed in academia, and I and a few other budding media scholars decided we had to rectify our lack of knowledge of the show.  The catch-up plan was part entertainment and part edification. Though I didn’t begin watching completely ignorant of the narrative and setting, I spent much of the first season questioning when the action takes place.  Only after a reference to September 11 did I fully accept that it was set during the early 2000s.  To my eye, much of the mise-en-scène–especially female costumes and hair–seemed straight out of the mid-1990s.  Most clearly, the character of Asst. State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman looked like she was styled as if she were Dana Scully‘s sister.

Season 1 Rhonda

The X-Files's Scully

Maybe the style of women-of-authority hasn’t changed much in the years between these two shots, but I think it runs deeper than that.  The ostensible time-lag on The Wire may be another element of the show’s much-heralded realism, but I think it also speaks to the show’s portrayal of class both within and of the city of Baltimore.

The sense of lagging chronology is explicitly discussed on the show in the first season, with police officers complaining about having to fill out paperwork on typewriters (though this apparently still occurs) and discussing why the drug dealers use beepers instead of cell phones.  Despite these explanations of the use of old technology, its presence still adds to my sense of time displacement.  The computers used for the wiretaps in the first season are massive and clunky, looking more like my old Windows-97-running desktop than what I’d imagine law enforcement to have. But, I think that may be the point.  The Baltimore police is embattled and the group investigating the Barksdale drug ring even more so.  Each police officer and piece of technology on the detail has been fought for and begrudgingly won from the higher-ups in the department.  They are given the least-valued people and equipment as a marker of the investigation’s low status.

I could swear I played the Oregon Trail on that computer

Beyond the costuming and props, some of the camera shots from the first season also seem rather mid-nineties.  Perhaps it is David Simon’s Homicide influence or someone just thought it would look cool, but the first season featured a few cuts from shots framed in a more standard television-realist mode to feed from a nearby surveillance camera.  While Simon attributes this style to wanting to convey the panoptical oppression of the wire, it’s a method I associate more with 1990s television procedurals that were still fighting for the attribution of realism.  Moreover, I don’t entirely buy Simon’s interpretation of the surveillance shots because so much of the first season deals with how little the police actually know about Barksdale and how difficult it is to obtain even that information.  Despite the presence–and highlighting through cinematography–of surveillance equipment, there is no real sense of police omnipresence among the criminals. The panopticon isn’t at work in Baltimore.

Bodie can break the surveillance camera in broad daylight because he has no fear of authoritarian consequences from the video watchers.  He knows the camera isn’t actually linked to any kind of police power.

The security cameras so highlighted seem obsolete, as if they were established in order to create the panoptical gaze often attributed to CCTV but without any follow-through of punishment.  In addition to the time-lag corresponding with bureaucratic status, the technology, fashion, and camera shots seemingly from a bygone decade give the viewer the sense that the mid-nineties didn’t make it to Baltimore until 2002, which inherently places the city as a whole in a lower class than other American cities.

Pookie, Bodie, D'Angelo, and Wallace: keeping warm never goes out of style

Of course, discussing class on The Wire is inextricably linked to race, and as such I must examine my own expectations and biases.  While much of my musings on fashion focuses on white women because that is the fashion genealogy I know, I found fewer male costume choices as examples of a classism-tinged temporal lag.  The time-markers for the black male characters often corresponded to clothing branding–such as Sean John, RocaWear, Phat Farm, and the like–that fit with a very specific time in the early 2000s, but in terms of cut and style of wear, I am unable to see changes as I can with women’s wear.  Maybe I can’t see it because I don’t know it, or maybe there is less chronological dissonance the styles of The Wire‘s black drug dealers because their image is so tied to a lower class that their style choices fit with the lower-class portrayal of Baltimore.  While I know that Beadie’s look from the second season (below) is dated because I lived through the time when the stick-straight flipped-out hair was “in” and I may have owned a similar sweater tank top in the 1990s, I simply don’t have the cultural memory or knowledge to place D’Angelo’s, Bodie’s, or Wallace’s dress (above) in a specific point of the last two decades.

Oh, Beadie

Baltimore, as a city, is often portrayed as dying, and many of the establishing shots of the first two series are of boarded-up, condemned, and abandoned buildings.  Most of the police homes we see are lower-middle-class, and their investigations in the first two seasons center on the projects and the docks without straying too far from those class barriers.  Though I’m only a few episodes into the third season, that seems about to change with the advent of the “political” season.  But the groundwork has been laid.  As The Wire moves beyond the lower classes in narrative, so too do they appear to move beyond the 1990s in mise-en-scène.  The technology is newer and the clothing is more time-appropriate.

From season 3, episode 2: Rhonda looks like she works in the 21st century as does the laptop

Yet this movement supports my argument that the time-lag presented by the mise-en-scène of the early seasons links to Baltimore’s lower class both as a characteristic of the city as a whole and as a segment of its people surrounding the investigation.

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.