Tag Archives: serial

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.

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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.