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.
@VladaGelman with the tone getting increasingly darker and the story denser, consensus was it was time for a more mature opening title card!
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.
I admit to being a latecomer to The Good Wife. I only began watching it a few weeks ago, succumbing to various recommendations, but I am all caught up and felt I had to write something about it. The Good Wife fills a space recently vacated by the original Law and Order by entertainingly and critically using “ripped from the headlines” episodic storytelling that is grounded in characters who exist in the tension between idealism and practicality. But unlike Law and Order, The Good Wife revels in its melodramatic serial elements. It recalls 19th century novels, particularly Austen and Dickens in a few ways: the constant presence of public scrutiny, the romantic tension between Alicia and Will (and especially the missed connection represented by the “lost” voicemail from the end of the first season, reminiscent of the miscommunications that undergird the romantic novels), and, perhaps most interestingly, the kind of semi-Victorian attention to guilt. Guilt is not shame in this conceptualization, though they are linked. I’m using guilt here to play not only on the legal elements of the show but also to confine the affect to the specific sphere of the Florrick family. While Peter and Alicia might feel shame (or at least portray themselves in public as ashamed as required by the political machine) as a result of the press and public attention to Peter’s affair, guilt within the Florrick family is a little more slippery.
The reference to morality at home and morality at work in the title of this post is lifted from the second-season episode “Wrongful Termination.” Michael J. Fox’s character, Louis Canning, an in-court antagonist to Alicia, describes her as feeling guilty about what she does in her job, particularly the moral compromises required of her as a high-powered lawyer. He advocates moral compartmentalization while much of Alicia’s character arc over the two seasons occurs in the space between her (and others’) idea of herself as a moral person and the moral pragmatism required of her as both a lawyer and a politician’s wife. And yet, as Suzanne Leonard wrote for Flow, Alicia is often afforded a degree of privacy that somewhat obscures the question of her morality. She is shaped by the political world around her and is mostly reactive to it. Attention to her morality (and her guilt) is elliptical.
Jackie Florrick: She may look harmless, but she can out-maneuver Eli Gold (while being less charming).
If Alicia does, as Canning claims, go home and feel guilty about her work, it seems in direct contrast to Peter and his mother, Jackie. The show executes a fairly masterful work of sleight-of-hand in its jump from the initial press conference where Peter resigns from his post as State Attorney and admits to his adultery to six months later when Peter is in jail and Alicia has started her job. It keeps the viewer from seeing his apologies, from seeing his expressions of guilt. By the time the action of the series really begins, it’s six months later and any apologies seem rote instead of earnest. Jackie tells Peter in “Boom,” “You are a good man. You want to blame yourself. But you apologized. You apologized again, and again. Anybody who wants another apology from you only wants you to be weak. So stop this. Stop this now. My son will not be made weak.” It’s a moment that she is pitting herself against Alicia and her requirements and reminders of Peter’s guilt.
Apologies are easy; repentance is hard, and it’s repentance that Alicia seems to want. Repentance requires acknowledgement of guilt from within then earnest attempts to atone; it requires humility and acknowledgement of one’s own weakness. Jackie thinks only in terms of public scrutiny: Peter apologized publicly and went through the motions of a repentant politician, but–and this may be due to Chris Noth’s performance and intertextual persona–Peter never seemed all that guilty at home, particularly in his relationship with Alicia. He accepted her requirements for his return home, including sleeping in separate rooms, but he often framed his self-reform in terms of never committing the same sin again. This is a key element in religious repentance, yes, but it elides over the deeper issues in his personality and in their marriage that led to his affairs. He goes through the steps of repentance, especially as mandated by Christianity, but I never got the sense that Peter feels guilty. And Jackie serves as an absolving force, pushing Peter away from feelings of guilt and casting Alicia’s desire to see his guilt as completely ludicrous and cruel. Jackie even sets herself against the possibility of Peter’s movement toward guilt and atonement when she tells the pastor from whom Peter seeks spiritual guidance, “You just say ‘God’ and you think you can make people feel bad about themselves. . . . You don’t know my son. This is a phase. You are a phase” (“Running”). But I never saw Peter feeling bad about himself, in deference to neither God nor Alicia.
What's the verdict: Guilty or Not Guilty?
While Peter’s relationship with Pastor Isaiah folds into his political ambitions and maneuvering–it helps him shore up the black vote and provides a place for him to surreptitiously meet with political operatives during his house arrest–it is still a viable avenue toward atonement, especially with Alicia if it can help him to display guilt. However, as the politics of his race for State Attorney heat up and the political benefits of the pastor fall by the wayside, Isaiah is essentially dismissed as spiritual advisor. This occurs as Peter continues to cover-up an affair from his past that Alicia does not know about. The cover-up and betrayal push Alicia over the edge, and she moves Peter out of the house. Guilt would have Peter disclose all his past sins in order to seek atonement and Alicia’s forgiveness. Such simultaneity is not coincidental, and I’m very interested to see how Peter is characterized next season regarding his affairs, his guilt, and his either continued or halted (and ostensibly completed) path of attempted redemption. And I’m interested to see where Alicia’s morality goes and how her possible turning away from guilt could be liberating instead of morally isolating. After the final betrayal, she is hardened but also perhaps more herself, and as she insists to Jackie, “I am this way. Your son made me this way” (“In Sickness”).
Last week, Starz dropped the axe that many of us knew was coming when they canceledParty Down, a brilliant comedy that reached most of its audience through Netflix Instant Watch, which streamed new episodes the day after they aired on Starz. I consoled myself that Party Down could at least live on and gain admirers through it’s presence on Netflix’s streaming service. Then, it was reported today that all 20 episodes of the show will be removed from Netflix tomorrow. Someone who knows more about distribution and business models featuring streaming content will perhaps ask and answer the questions many fans of the show have: What metrics are used to mark viewership on third-party sites like Netflix? Did Starz or Netflix make money off of the deal? Why would Netflix be taking it down only a week after the series cancellation? And what does Martin Starr need to do to make it to 22 episodes on a series?
Are We Having Fun Yet?: Martin Starr, Ryan Hansen, Lizzy Caplan, Adam Scott, Ken Marino, and Jane Lynch
I can’t offer answers to those questions, but I can highlight one of the show’s most intelligent thematic motifs: the use of theater tropes. The first scene of the first episode is of Ron Donald (Ken Marino) directly addressing the camera, making his pitch as Party Down team leader, ostensibly to the audience but in reality to that week’s party host. It’s a monologue disguised as a soliloquy, laying out the exposition of both the situation and of Ron as a character. Moreover, it establishes an unstable relationship with reality. Though Ron is the only caterer of the crew without Hollywood aspirations, his monologue underlines the “All the world’s a stage” theme of Party Down. While he is putting on a show for his client, the series begins down a path that will develop just how many “shows” are being put on in the world of Party Down. The show doesn’t occur in a “real” world, but instead it’s characters are constantly performing themselves and their Hollywood dreams in the world of theatricality.
In “Investors Dinner,” Constance (Jane Lynch) brings in Baretta‘s prop gun to settle a bet, then right before the act break, the scene from the above clip happens followed by Casey (Lizzy Caplan) saying, “Well you know what they say about a gun in the first act, Ron.” While Casey understands the absurd world she’s living in enough to make a reference to Chekhov’s gun, Kyle response, “What act?” There are varying degrees of self-awareness of the theatrical elements of Party Down, but even Casey doesn’t expect the gun to actually play a dramatic role in the final act of the episode. The party is revealed to be an investment scam, with two con men/actors playing their roles in the presentation and Ron pretending to be a tough action hero because he knows the gun is fake. All of the masks the actors wear are eventually broken in a fittingly theatrical reveal, as if the show suddenly became a dinner-theater whodunit, but with the shyster getting away with it and the “hero” cleaning his own pee off the carpet.
Ron tries so hard to be the star of his own life
Even formally, there’s a bit of theatrical echoing, as each episode ends with a bonus clip embedded in the closing credits, an encore of sorts. Nowhere is this better used than in the most “theatrical” of all the Party Down episodes: “Not On Your Wife Opening Night.” Geneveive Koski at the A.V. Club mines well how the episode uses the framing device of a community theater after-party to play its own farce, complete with mistaken identities, semi-happy endings, and more couplings (and a mild bacchanalia behind the bar) than comedysuperstars in the episode. Throughout the episode, failed screenwriter/scifi novelist Roman (Martin Starr) is plied with wine and praise by pretentious community theater actors. What begins with the actors proclaiming, “In the theater, the writer is God,” proceeds to their creation of him in the form of the God of the Theater, where everything is “magnificent,” complete with laurel leaf and orgy. In the final moments, the credits role, then they cut to the declaration of the theater being saved, to which he declares:
Roman, briefly, buys into the theatricality of his life, taking the reigns as a caterer-turned-Bacchus and declaring, just as his actor-acolytes did, the theater to be “magnificent.”
In Party Down, this level of theatricality does not break nor bend the show’s verisimilitude, fitting well into a world where the absurd expectations of a theatrical world have become normalized. Baretta’s gun has become Chekhov’s gun, and Roman has become Bacchus for a night. These metamorphoses work because the show’s foundation is the stage, one that has been built stronger with each episode. Monologues, acting–conscious for work, schemes, pranks or unconscious for self-preservation in a sad life–mistaken identities, reversals of fortune, and discovery abound with each new party the group caters. “Cole Landry’s Draft Day Party” turns into a melodramatic farce with secrets revealed and a reversal of a reversal of fortunes, and “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday Party” revolves around a script workshop and read-through, with Steve Guttenberg playing a version of himself amped up enough to be read in the fifth (or fiftieth) row.
And like some theater, Party Down will only be accessed and loved by few people. But perhaps that’s part of their struggle.
In some ways, I really wish I could avoid this post. Everyone’s talking about the Lost finale and offering theseincrediblyeloquentreviews and retrospectives on the series. I love that so many people love to discuss this show; I think it’s a wonderful sign for television criticism (both academic and not) and especially for the evolving relationship between “quality” and “genre” labels. I, however, am somewhat intimidated by the cacophony of voices in the discourse of Lost, especially in academic circles, and am trepidatious about discussing a show that so many people love but that I only like. But I am a television scholar focusing on religion and genre television, and once I commented on Louisa Stein’s take on the finale, I realized I had to do it.
I watched the Lost finale live with a friend who loves the series, so I tried to curb my less-than-favorable reactions to the final scenes in the church for her sake. I understand what it means to mourn a series, and I didn’t want to tarnish that, but alone moments later all I could do was compare “The End” to Supernatural‘s fifth season finale “Swan Song,” and the former suffered from the comparison. There are quite a few interesting parallels between the two, but there seems to be so few people who are invested in both, that Stein’s comparison is the only one I’ve seen.
Looking for an actor to play a powerful, plot-driving being who is always three steps ahead? Mark Pellegrino: Lucifer on SPN and Jacob on Lost
Lost and Supernatural operate on vastly different scales: Lost is an epic with an enormous cast and sprawling sets and locations, while Supernatural had no standing set until the third season and a cast of regulars that has grown from two to four over five seasons. Yet they share similar ambitions, especially regarding their overall worldviews. Both shows frame their narrative mythology in Christian terms but leave plenty of room to play with non-Christian and sometimes non-religious symbols, themes, and messages. The ultimate concern of both series seems to be that salvation can be achieved through humanity and its expression through love and communitas on earth. I must first–admittedly briefly and, for now, through broad strokes–analyze the Christian frames to the shows’ mythologies in order to argue why Lost (perhaps unintentionally) denies its ultimate concern by focusing on the afterlife in the last 15 minutes of the series.
Both Lost and Supernatural may make gestures to a more Universalist idea of religion, but these gestures are contained by Christian symbols. This containment becomes clearest in Supernatural‘s “Hammer of the Gods” and in Lost‘s “The End.” In “Hammer of the Gods,” Kali tells the Winchesters, “Westerners, I swear — the sheer arrogance. You think you’re the only ones on Earth? You pillage and you butcher in your God’s name. But you’re not the only religion. And he’s not the only god. Now you think you can just rip the planet apart? You’re wrong. There are billions of us, and we were here first. If anyone gets to end this world…it’s me.” Kali seems to act as an acknowledgment of other religions’ importance and their own apocalyptic narratives and prophecies, but the episode culminates in Lucifer easily decimating the gathering of non-Christian gods, implying that the Christian figure of the Devil is more powerful than Norse, Taoist, Greek, Hindu, and animist gods. Christianity is the frame for this particular narrative, giving Lucifer the power over other gods, but not over humanity. Lucifer is ultimately himself contained by the willpower of Sam Winchester because of his brotherhood with Dean and their shared human experiences in life.
Similarly, Lost visualizes other religions within a church that acts as a way-station to the afterlife. In the quarters of the church, Jack encounters symbols of almost every world religion, most clearly in the stained glass window that acts as the backdrop to his emotional and revelatory discussion with his father. While the stained glass window does contain symbols of (from top left to bottom right) Islam, Judaism, Hinduism (and other Indian religions), Christianity, Buddhism or Jainism, and Taoism, the symbols and the window are all contained within a church. Architecturally and symbolically, Christianity holds all the other represented religions, a point further supported by the character Christian Shepherd leading the castaways into the white light over the church threshold that is flanked by two angelic fonts.
Jack and the "Universalist" window in the church
The problem is that Lost contains these religions in the afterlife. It may be a creation of the characters inhabiting it, but its nature as “the afterlife” ties it to a larger, transcendent power. This sanctions the containment in a way that Supernatural doesn’t. In the latter, Lucifer may appear to cut a swath through the other gods, but the episode is ultimately a Trickster episode, signaling that there may be alternate explanations, that everything may not be as it appears. Moreover, Kali, the character who acts as voice of the ignored or minimized non-Abrahamic religions survives. She still exists to prove that Christianity is “not the only religion.” I read Lost‘s afterlife church as a statement of Christian “Truth;” all of the castaways, regardless of creed, gather in a church to “move on,” presumably to heaven as the heretofore “sideways-verse” had been mostly happy and positive–and the whole being led by (the) Christian Shepherd past the gates bit.
Half of the sixth season was devoted to events in the “sideways” realm that is revealed to be the afterlife; thus, the focus in the final season retroactively shifts from the relationship between two alternate earthly lives to the relationship between a life on earth and the afterlife beyond earth. On the island in “The End,” Jack insists that “All of this matters,” but in the church afterlife that becomes patently untrue. To a degree, the characters’ experiences on the island matter–and certainly matter from a character standpoint–but including relatively short-lived characters like Boone, Libby, or Ana-Lucia (who may not have been “ready” but is still existing in the afterlife-anteroom reality) emphasizes for the narrative the event and survival of the crash over the life led thereafter. We know nothing about Sawyer, Kate, or Claire’s lives after they left the island, nor do we know how Hurley and Ben governed the island after Jack’s death. I would be fine with not knowing these things except for the knowing about what happens after they all die and subtly insisting that knowledge is what really matters. The reunions, the recognition of love and communitas, that had previously made me giddy with happiness now seem hollow because that happiness now seems only possible after life. The choice is no longer “Live together, [or] die alone;” instead, it’s “Live together in order to die together.” The tragedies and victories of life become important only in that they lead to a happy afterlife.
The Winchester communitas: Sam, Dean, and the Metallicar
Supernatural takes the opposite view. Any glimpse of the afterlife is always directly connected back to earthly life. Dean goes to hell so that Sam may live, and Sam jumps into the Pit to contain Lucifer, save Dean’s life and the world. Both Winchesters briefly visit heaven in “Dark Side of the Moon” but find it full of memories from life and lacking as a result. Dean says, “That’s not Nivana; that’s the Matrix;” Heaven is many simulations of life with each individual existing separately from others, and it’s anything but pleasurable to the Winchesters. Every visit to an afterlife is used to cement life on earth as the most important realm of existence. Earthly tragedies and victories mean everything on Supernatural because life is where it all happens. Winchester brotherly communitas may extend beyond life–instigating both brothers’ trips to hell and shaping their shared axis mundi in heaven (an exception to the separation rule)–but on earth and in life their bond is formed, cultivated, tested, and affirmed. If Lost ultimately undermines salvation through humanity on earth by shifting emphasis to communitas after life, Supernatural has continually underlined salvation through humanity on earth by minimizing the power and possibility of communitas beyond earth. If salvation is to be found, it is through human bonds on earth, and it is all the more precious for being limited to one lifetime.
I watch a lot of television, obviously, and a lot of what I watch is on cable. In the last year or so, I’ve had the growing sense that, in the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield, “There’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.” The “here” being cable networks with original programming aimed at adults. I’m not talking about Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, both of which have built their empires around original programming aimed at kids and teens. They’re ahead of the curve in terms of original niche programming. Instead, I’m interested in the success of USA network original programming. I’m especially interested in the question of what ties the shows on this networks together: are they a brand, a formula, or a genre?
USA network: Characters Welcome
The 2005 rebranding, the first step
USA network has been showing original programming since the 80s, but the network began the push for quality series–accessible to both critics and fans that would last in prime-time–in 2002, with Monk and The Dead Zone. Both proved successful for the network, lasting seven and five years, respectively, but it is in the former more than the latter that I see the kernel of the network’s current successful spate of programs. Monk won Emmys (mostly for acting) and was seen as a breakout for cable programming in terms of both popularity and quality, but it was also the clearest reason for USA’s 2005 rebranding with the slogan “Characters Welcome.” Monk was a procedural detective show that followed its formula closely, but what elevated it above similar formulaic fare was its central character, Adrien Monk, a “quirky” obsessive-compulsive detective. From Monk the character, came the tone: comedy with a perpetual underpinning of drama (just as Monk recognized his OCD as somewhat ludicrous but an unavoidable and somewhat tragic part of his life). Fittingly, Monk as progenitor of the current cycle, is the only original programming from the rebranding period to survive past 2007, the year Burn Notice premiered.
Burn Notice and the current state of USA
Burn Notice, to my mind, appears as the turning point, the series that made USA executives take note of what they were doing right and how they could reproduce whatever that was. Though Psych premiered the year before–to great ratings, no less–it remained a blip on the cultural radar until Burn Noticecemented USA as the cable network to go to for original programming. Psych has always been a bit fluffier than its more dramatic USA brethren, with no central tragic mystery (like Monk) or driving arc for drama (Michael Westen’s titular burn notice) or even sense of moral purpose (as in In Plain Sight). Burn Notice became the exemplar of the burgeoning USA Network brand, and perhaps its emerging genre.
Burn Notice took Monk‘s central “quirky” straight man and its structure of narrative complexity and folded in Psych‘s generic self-consciousness. All three central characters shared the distinction of being the best at what the do but lacking the social skills needed in order to properly function outside of the families of understanding they created around them. Throw in an under-utilized, often exotic locale, shuffle the procedural episodic formula, and this is the “USA Network show” formula. But could it be more than that? Could it be a genre?
Brand or Genre? Does it matter when it’s a success?
Genre is a slippery term; there are as many definitions as there are genres themselves. At its core, genre is a categorization based on expectations. Perhaps one of the better known theories of genre is Rick Altman’s Semantic/Syntactic method, wherein genre can be defined in terms of a group of signs (characters, images, iconography, etc.) that are arranged into syntactic formulas and plots, and together they form the generic conventions. So, if I were to plot USA network series as a genre in this way, it might look something like this:
Semantic: “smartest guy in the room” central character (Michael Westen [Burn Notice], Adrien Monk [Monk], Shawn Spencer [Psych], Neal Caffery [White Collar], Hank Lawson [Royal Pains], Goren/Nichols [Law and Order: Criminal Intent]) [outlier: Mary Shannon (In Plain Sight), also the only female central character], under-utilized locale (Miami, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, the Hamptons, Albuquerque) [outliers: White Collar and Law and Order: CI are set in New York City), best friend/partner/family member that serves as emotional/moral/humor grounding force for central character (all of ’em), a “helping people” job (spy, detective, “psychic” detective, FBI agent/consultant, doctor, detective, US Marshal)
Syntactic: central character dismissed from/unable to pursue lucrative/traditional form of their job for bureaucratic/nefarious/mysterious reasons, chooses instead to help people/earn a living outside or ancillary to “the law” [variations: pursues traditional form of job in untraditional ways that make them both good at their job but forever in conflict with reigning authority]
The question I must ask is: can a brand become a genre? Maybe. The closest example to support an answer of yes is the idea of “Disney feature animation” as a genre that extended beyond the brand. Animated musicals of the late 1980s and 1990s are dominated by Disney animation, yet when I talk with my peers about what constitutes that generic corpus, non-Disney film such as Anastasia and An American Tail sometimes get lumped under the Disney label. Whether that is enough to argue for Disney as a genre, I don’t know, and certainly whether I can extend that analysis to USA network programming. If USA network can be seen as a genre, TNT original programs like Leverage and The Closer become part of the generic corpus, as they could easily fit into the semantic/syntactic conventions of USA network programming.
Justified and the FX formula: Lawman or Lawbreaker
Regardless of what I can call USA’s programming as a group, I believe its success has become a model for other cable networks with increasing original programming. Most notably, FX network is gaining a reputation for darker, “grittier,” and notably “masculine” dramas that push against the line between law and outlaw with successful hour-long programs: Rescue Me, The Shield, Damages, Sons of Anarchy, and most recently Justified. To put the stakes of cable programming in perspective, the premiere of Justified attracted 4.2 million viewers, which would put it at #23 in the Nielsen top broadcast ratings for the week. Increasingly successful cable programs are becoming successful programs without the need for the modifier of “cable,” and USA network was and currently is the leader of that change. There’s something happening here . . .
Within ten minutes of last night’s opening ceremonies, I knew I had to write about them, but I didn’t know what exactly it was that seemed so interesting to me. I’m still kind of stuck in an admittedly reductive dichotomy of analysis: If Beijing’s opening ceremonies were an intimidating show of might, precision, and sheer numbers, then Vancouver’s ceremonies was about inclusion, intimacy, and telling a surprisingly quiet story. While the former highlighted spectacle, the latter incorporating the spectacular into a narrative. My initial thought remains: Beijing was a “jock,” and Vancouver is a “nerd.”
Jocks are certain of their power (Beijing opening ceremonies)
The Jocks vs. Nerds metaphorical dichotomy has been a part of American popular discourse for quite a while, it came to the fore within the discourse surrounding Barack Obama, who many bloggers and comedians refered to as the first modern nerd president. John Hodgman delivered a speech at the 2009 Radio & TV Correspondents’ Dinner to such an effect and in it he laid out the differences between jocks and nerds: it’s a difference in philosophy, those who approach the world from a position of certainty versus those who approach from a position of scrutiny. Jocks operate on a level of assumption of the narrative: the story is true so they act from there. But nerds question those assumptions, creating new or alternate narratives, and often these stories directly address the hegemony of the jocks. Nerds produce narratives of the undervalued and marginalized, seeking inclusion and tolerance because they understand the power of narratives and instability of the narrative.
Key text in the nerd narrative canon
The inclusivity of the Vancouver opening ceremonies was striking. Last night began with a number of indigenous nations of Canada offering traditional welcomes. The attention to the native peoples of Canada and the iconography of the western tribes was present throughout the production, but the Vancouver ceremonies’ inclusivity was not limited to racial terms. There was a great emphasis placed throughout of the various streams of history that comprise Canada, cementing the national spirit as multi-valent: native peoples, Québécois, Scottish and Irish immigrants, youth, rural, and metropolitan citizens.
The beauty and magic of nature was the foundation on which this multicultural multi-valency found purchase, and as a result a cohesive–if bricolage–narrative formed: a poetic story of movement in Canada through space, time, and the seasons, beginning with the indigenous welcome and passage across the ice and moving through the coasts, the forests, the plains, the rivers, and even the cities, David Atkins told the story of modern Canada. What is most striking about that narrative is how quiet it turned out to be. While certainly there were spectacular elements, they were used in aid to the story being told. The difference between spectacle and spectacular elements within a narrative is a fine one that I need to clarify. A moment of spectacle pulls the audience out of the narrative whereas spectacular elements can heighten the tone of the narrative. When you see a giant forest take shape, it is spectacular in that it takes you somewhat out of the narrative in awe of the technology, but when that awe is the desired emotion of that moment of the story, it maintains the narrative.
Into the woods
Atkins used myriad projectors to “paint” his various settings onto the floor, hanging fabrics, and even the audience; it is a strategy that–with the various modern dance scenes–turned the opening ceremonies from spectacle to theater (a home for many many nerds). Often while watching, I felt like I was watching dance theater, with modern dancers frolicking in a set of trees, or fiddling tap dancers mimicking the crackles of the dried maple leaves they were dancing on. But the dances were telling a very distinct story of a people, place, season, and time in addition to the spectacular nature of the set or the dance. The fiddling tap dancers notwithstanding, the stories told were humble and quiet: a lone boy wire-dancing to Joni Mitchell over fields of golden grains, Orca and salmon swimming and transforming into the aboriginal symbols, and perhaps most nerd-ish, a modern poetry recitation.
All this is to say that I found the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremonies daring in their embrace of inclusivity, theater, and narrative over monolithism and visual and technical spectacle, in embracing their inner nerd.
(Further proof that the Vancouver games appeal to nerd-dom? Their mascots are mythical creatures, including the Sasquatch, a totem for many young hipster nerds.)