Tag Archives: NBC

Investigating Criminal Intent: Law and Order Outlier

Before Law and Order: Criminal Intent moved from NBC to USA Network in 2007, I had written off the variation, choosing instead Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit as my version of choice.  I took notice of Criminal Intent as it shifted to cable, interested in seeing if it would change at all to fit the USA Network original programming brand.  With the abundance of Law and Order: CI reruns that still pervade cable’s daytime schedules, it was (and still is) surprisingly easy to get sucked into Groren and Eames’s investigations. However, as Criminal Intent prepares to return to USA for its tenth and final season this Sunday with the ballyhooed return of the original detective partnership of Goren and Eames, I find myself drawn to the show as an outlier of the Law and Order franchise.  It’s more “Law” than “Order,” going so far as to strike the lone Assistant District Attorney character after the fifth season to focus solely on the investigations and the (alternating) detective teams.  The removal of the courtroom element imbues the detectives with an almost preternatural ability to get confessions from their suspects, aligning the lead detectives, particularly Det. Bobby Goren, with exceptional (male) investigator brethren like Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, or Adrian Monk.

Columbo informs Law and Order: Criminal Intent‘s format and characterization.  The initial “twist” on the Law and Order formula that Criminal Intent advertised was the focus on the criminal in the opening scenes.  Early episodes hewed closer to the inverted detective story that Columbo popularized on television, some going as far as showing the criminal committing the murder, providing all the information the viewer needed to establish dramatic irony (see: season one, episode five, “Jones”).  The format connection between Columbo and Criminal Intent is “common knowledge” enough to be present in LO:CI‘s IMDb trivia page.  Most later episodes show only a few scenes establishing the victim and general circumstances of the murder, keeping the culprit hidden to maintain the tension of a “whodunit” narrative.

A byproduct of this later obfuscation of the murderer is that the skills of the investigating detectives appear heightened, making deductive and inductive leaps based solely on their skills and the information shared by viewer and detective.  This appears most often and explicitly regarding Det. Goren, a character who others repeatedly discuss as a genius.  Jeff Goldblum’s Det. Nichols similarly gained the mantle of “genius” during his tenure as a CI lead detective but less emphatically than Goren and more as code for “successful eccentric.”  The other alternating lead detective, Logan, was an import from the original Law and Order series and was characterized more as a stubborn but street-smart bruiser.  Goren’s shadow fell over both detectives because of his “genius” and ability to wrench confessions from his suspects.  Goren’s cerebral approach to detective work and D’Onofrio‘s performance of his awkward and lean-prone physicality also recall Columbo, particularly Peter Falk‘s portrayal of the eponymous detective as bumbling and physically askance. (Goran’s proclivity for leaning has even garnered a fan-made music video montage to “Lean Back.”)  Goren even occasionally drops the famous “Just one more thing . . .” Columbo catchphrase when questioning his suspects.

I have thus far only discussed the male detectives; this is because only the male detectives are positioned as the lead detectives (and thus lead characters) on Criminal Intent.  Though the characterization of the female detectives is strong–particularly with Eames’s multidimensionality–they are almost always primarily characterized in relation to their male partners.  Logan, Nichols, and Goren often take the active role in the investigation with their female partner forced into a reactive role.  Gender dynamics in the Law and Order franchise is deserving of much more attention than I can give here.  I point out this focus on male lead detectives and their exceptional skills to highlight the perhaps closer connection Criminal Intent has with that mode of detective storytelling than the bi-valent Law and Order formula.  Goren’s antecedents include Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, and Adrian Monk.  I have argued previously that this exceptional individual take on Law and Order helps Criminal Intent fit with USA Network’s brand, a brand based explicitly on characters and heavily influenced by Monk‘s success.  None of these detectives face the scrutiny of the courts within their narratives; their confessions only have to imply that they would lead to legal conviction.  This format allows for the detectives to be exceptional without facing the realism of paperwork, technicalities, and courtroom arguments.

Though Law and Order: Special Victims Unit also focuses on the detectives, their partnerships are part of a team unit that also includes a clear connection to the legal system though their prominent ADA characters.  Criminal Intent has been allowed to be an outlier to the formula–doing away with “Order” and focusing on an exceptional individual male detective– in part because it has been a network-outlier since its 2007 move from NBC and actually fits nicely into USA Network’s brand identity.

The Problem of Gerry Grgich: Pity and Comedy on Parks and Recreation 

In the fictional Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, IN, Jerry Gergich [misspelled Gerry Grgich in “Telethon”] is THE object of ridicule, but Jerry differs from his kin in other NBC Thursday night comedies.  His closest cousin in sad-sackery might be Toby Flenderson from The Office, but Toby only had to face unsubstantiated derision from Michael, not the entire office.  He may be the “Pierce” of the Parks and Rec workers, but unlike the title-holder on Community, Jerry seems almost preternaturally kind and considerate instead of meriting derision as the group scapegoat.  And yet the characters surrounding him have created the idea of Jerry as “the worst”  that far outstrips his actual bouts of bad luck, which admittedly can be pretty epic.

While Jerry’s use as a comedic character is almost entirely comprised of the slapstick performances of his bad luck, much of the comedy surrounding Jerry emanates from his role as a somewhat tragic character within a comedy show.  Jerry invokes pity in us because of the almost pathological lack of empathy shown him by his fellow characters.  In the most recent episode, “Telethon,” Jerry beautifully and emotionally plays the piano:

You know he's playing well because his eyes are closed.

But his friends and colleagues react as if they just witnessed and alternate reality where Jerry’s piano-playing was aurally offensive:

"Okay. Alright. Enough of that racket."

His every achievement–from artistic pursuits to his off-camera happy and loving family–is completely undermined by every other character in the show.  Whatever little happiness he finds is taken from him almost immediately, but more than that, he understands his piteous position and only reaches for appropriate goals: he has a time-share vacation home, but it’s in Muncie, IN; he makes up a story about being mugged to cover up a more embarrassing tale of falling into a creek in an attempt to retrieve a soggy breakfast burrito; and he looks forward to an all-male hunting weekend because it means he can pee standing up (presumably unlike his female-crowded home), a joy crushed when the other Parks and Rec workers join the trip.  But Jerry never languishes in self-pity.

Somehow, Jerry continues to put himself out there for his coworkers despite their cruel treatment of him.  He offers to play the piano for the telethon even after he is stymied in his offer to perform magic when Leslie breaks his only prop, an egg.  Jerry’s mild tenacity is the heart of the character.  No matter what happens to him, he still tries, still reaches for the little happiness he can.

Even after a busted arm and humiliation, Jerry can raise a glass to himself.

In another setting, in another genre, Jerry could be the workaday everyman character that the audience is supposed to identify with.  There’s a certain nobility in his willingness to take his emotional punishment and not let it change him.  He continually treats others as he would want to be treated: offering help unsolicited, treating his coworkers with respect, politely asking them not to tease him, and appreciating their work.  In “Telethon,” he is the only character who wears the Pawnee Cares t-shirt Lesley spent eight hours making for her staff (I don’t count the two extras working the phones).

So is it okay to laugh at him?  More specifically, is it okay to laugh at everyone else’s cruel treatment of him?  This blog post was inspired by a twitter exchange between @memles and @crsbecker regarding how much cruelty they could handle seeing Jerry withstand.  I aside more with Myles McNutt in that as long as the show itself is not especially cruel to Jerry (making the viewers complicit in mocking him), I think the dynamic works.  Then, the question is why and how does it work?

Full disclosure: I haven’t done much research into comedy and am mostly terrified of it as an object of study.  Having said that, I want to try to understand why I find the mockery of Jerry so effective and how it differs from other cringe-inducing cruel comedy like in The Office.

Let’s begin with some analysis through difference.  I’ve already touched on the difference between Jerry’s treatment and Toby’s and Pierce’s on their respective sitcoms, but I think it will be useful to expand on that.  Toby Flenderson is an Eeyore character: the object of undue ridicule and bad luck who internalizes that negativity and accepts the sad-sack role as his lot in life.  We pity him for bearing the brunt of Michael’s hatred, but his complete pessimism makes it difficult to empathize with him.  At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Pierce, a racist, bigoted, sexist,  privileged old man who seemingly deserves any and all mocking he gets. He is to be laughed at by both characters and viewers alike.  He is not to be pitied, but you can sometimes empathize with him because he at least owns his agency in life, unlike Toby, for whom life is perpetually occurring in passive voice.

I'm not the only one who thinks of Toby as Eeyore; this composite was the first google image result.

Between the two, there is Jerry.  He warrants both pity and empathy because he is a victim without being helpless.  The drive to do more, be more, and be seen as more–even if it’s just a little bit–keeps Jerry from Toby’s internalized pessimism and abdicated agency, and his consideration of others keeps him from Pierce’s overbearing offensiveness.  Jerry may be a sad sack character, but he avoids the extremes of these other characters, making him more accessible emotionally.

But if I both pity and empathize with Jerry, why do I laugh when others taunt him?  The key point–at it is hinted at by McNutt in the above twitter conversation–is that I am laughing at the characters mocking Jerry, not really at Jerry.  Though I may laugh at a good Jerry pratfall or an inopportunely timed fart, the true deep mine of comedy is the increasingly ludicrous levels the staff goes to justify Jerry’s awfulness.  The funniest parts of the following clip are not Jerry’s mishaps but instead the reaction shots, especially Donna’s unbridled joy at Jerry’s split pants.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The comedy, in my mind, truly lies in the delusions of the other characters, their stubborn blindness to any of Jerry’s actual achievements in favor of maintaining Jerry as the butt of all jokes.  They choose to focus on Jerry as the guy who said “murinal” instead of the guy who created a beautiful–in both sentiment and execution–mural idea.  But far funnier than a slip of the tongue is the other characters’ refusal to let such a minimal joke die.  They are the joke.  Jerry’s just the poor schlemiel/schlemazl who instigates the joke.

Jerry's "murinal" idea: a collage of all the faces of Pawnee. You're beautiful, Jerry, no matter what they say!

“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.

post Leno ergo propter Leno

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

Mike Mitchell's call to arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conando is dead.*  Long live Conan.

Si, Conando!

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


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

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

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