Tag Archives: tv

The Return of the Adventure Show

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A few years ago, I taught a History of American Television Genres course, in which I lamented the apparent death of the adventure show following its peak in the 1980s.  Shows like Quantum Leap, The A-Team, Hart to Hart, Fantasy Island, and The Greatest American Hero seemed worlds away from the broadcast schedule in early 2012, but watching new shows like Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, two of the successful new hour-long programs of this fall, I think the adventure show is returning.  However, despite the obvious debt Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. owes to episodic adventure shows like The A-Team, purely episodic dramas outside of procedural franchises are nonexistent. Even one of the 1980s cycle’s closest descendants on cable, Psych, has some drawn-out serial arcs.  Although the 1980s broadcast adventure shows lay the groundwork for this genre’s apparent resurgence, I’d argue that the 90s spate of first-run syndicated adventure shows are the most direct antecedent to the new broadcast adventures. For these shows, syndication freed them from the weight of legitimation and network brand identity allowing for fun to be their watchword.

“Adventure show,” like most generic designations is a discourse, a construction that provides a way of organizing the media we interact with. While certain elements of the adventure genre mixed, evolved, or fused with various other genres (notably spy and crime shows), the particular generic construction I am looking at is exemplified by that 1980s cycle and picked up again in the 90s syndication mode. These shows are most clearly characterized by their tone: breezy, fun, and often alternating between formulaic storytelling and kitchen-sink narratives that seem to throw together multiple disparate genres, formulas, character types, and plot developments with a wry wink, knowing full well exactly what they are and how they operate in their generic and narrative worlds.

Xena, Hercules, and Taking the World Seriously Without Being Too Serious

The adventure show’s winking tone provides levity without condescension toward the show’s characters, plots, and worlds. The characters and viewers both realize and occasionally acknowledge the ridiculous and/or strange elements, but everyone is in on the joke, not the butt of it.  This is one of the key characteristics that spans all three cycles. Quantum Leap would put Sam Beckett in ridiculous situations, but always treated the characters’ emotions with serious attention. The 90s first-run syndicated shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess excelled at this winking tone. They nodded to popular culture and their own fans often without diminishing the weight of the core character relationships. Hercules and Iolaus’ and Xena and Gabrielle’s platonic (or not so much) love for each other and genuine desire to help people was not part of the “wink.” Among ludicrous squabbling gods, cartoonish sound effects, and the often juvenile take on the fantasy genre, the characters’ sacrifices and victories were taken seriously.

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This balance is one of the strongest elements in the success of Sleepy Hollow. The premise is complicated and potentially alienating: Ichabod Crane was a Revolutionary War spy for the colonists who was tasked by George Washington to protect various mystical artifacts while fighting the British and fending off Biblical prophecy; he met the Horseman Death on the field of battle, cut off his head, accidentally mixed their bloods together, mostly died, then returned to life in 2013 Sleepy Hollow to combat the apocalypse with Sheriff Abbie Mills. Various reviews have praised the show for its “insanity” or “bonkers” storytelling (not hyperbole given its premise), and the characters are fully aware of the ridiculousness of their situation but carry on through the fantastic adventures, finding humor in the absurdity.

Death may be serious, but that doesn’t mean shows that feature the weekly threat of death need to be heavy with that seriousness. In a television landscape with a lot of “grim” and “dark” anti-heroes and gray morality, shows that are fun are sadly rare. The adventure show may have dark moments, but there is always comedy to keep the show moving without being ponderous.

Trusting the Audience: Complexity, Rapidity, and Genre Confidence

Another element of that “insane” descriptor for the contemporary adventure show is their full commitment to the genre(s) they engage in and the viewing audience to keep up as they speed through their complicated premises. Hercules and Xena used voice-over opening credits to provide the background for the fantastic world in which the heroes existed. Sleepy Hollow, toohas been using voice-over recaps of the premise in addition to the standard “previously on” bumper before the credits. Despite these voice overs indicating an audience that needs reminding, the shows move their characters quickly through disbelief into pragmatism. Both Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. place a lot of faith in the audience to keep up with their relatively rapid movement through complex premises and to use their generic knowledge to fill in the gaps. Why is no one reacting to Ichabod Crane reawakening in Sleepy Hollow?  This is a fantastic narrative world with an alternative history that doesn’t include Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” of course. How did that tech company get their hands on alien technology? Because that’s the way of comic book villains, of course. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  also assumes audience knowledge of the Marvel franchise of which it is an off-shoot, so they don’t waste time explaining what Extremis is or recapping the Battle of New York from The Avengers.  The adventure show moves at a quick pace and because it has confidence in itself and its attendant genres as well as its audience to keep up, it can wind its way through more locations, set-ups, and pay-offs than many other series.

The Adventure Aesthetic Bind: Exotic Locales and VFX a Must, But On a Budget

That rapidity of both storytelling and often travel, however, comes at a price. Although visual effects (vfx) have become more widespread across all media, television budgets are still much much smaller than film or video game budgets, yet adventure shows are expected to present travel to exotic locales and/or create believable dangers to the heroes using vfx.  For the 90s syndicated shows, the small budgets’ resulting vfx were expected. No one tuned into Cleopatra 2525 on a Saturday morning expecting state-of the art vfx, so the laughable images were part of the levity.

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For today’s adventure shows, however, television bears the weight of 20 years of a discourse of cinematic progress regarding acting, writing, and aesthetics. At the same time, the audience for broadcast fictional programming continues to shrink and networks continue to struggle to boost their revenue streams.  The result is broadcast adventure shows in 2013 that share an astoundingly similar vfx aesthetic with their 90s syndicated counterparts.

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yellowbrick(The second image is from ABC’s Once Upon A Time In Wonderland which may fit this genre if it focuses more on Alice’s time in Wonderland and doesn’t go the Lost route with flashbacks to her time in the “real world,” but after one episode, it’s difficult to tell.)

New/Old Industrial Logics: Diving In with Trusted Producers

Both Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were guaranteed at least 13 episodes before even their pilots aired, and both have since been renewed for a second 13-episode season and the back nine for a full 22 episode season, respectively. Because these adventure shows are relatively outside the standard logics of successful television–they may have procedural elements but they aren’t procedurals nor do either have big stars heading their ensembles–they are high-risk-high-reward series. Yet that risk is mitigated by the backing of producers with proven track records and industrial relationships that the networks want to maintain. These relationships likely allow a bit more freedom to take risks and try new (or new-old) approaches to television: breezy instead of grim, more episodic than serial, more generically complex than simplified categorization.

Joss Whedon, king of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and cult television demigod, executive produces Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman are in-demand film and television writers with close ties to J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions via Star Trek, Alias, and Fringe.  Kurtzman and Orci were also key writers on both Hercules and Xena, and they cut their teeth on those syndicated shows (as shown in their fictionalized representation in this self-reflexive Hercules episode).

Escapism, Seriousness, and the Weight of Legitimation

For all these parallels between the earlier cycles of adventure shows and their apparent resurgence in 2013, why now?  The 1980s adventure shows were trying to lure back the dwindling mass audience, one of a few strategies broadcast networks attempted at the time. The other main strategy was the move toward televisuality, which is the strategy that persisted. Nearly 30 years later, and that push toward legitimating television has weighed the medium down, leading to a current conflation of quality and serious, heavy, serial dramas. Cable used to be a haven for “blue skies” fun programming, but the push toward serialization and movement away from the apparent frivolity of fun has even shifted USA Network’s anchor programs toward seriousness. Thus, a niche has been opened for fun shows, and broadcast is well positioned to fill that niche, as they have historically been the provider of escapist of television (and at various historical periods been criticized for that), and they cannot compete with the ability of cable to portray the adult situations that are required of this turn in quality. Instead, they can turn into the skid, so to speak, and return to the strategy they tried in the 1980s for appealing to more of a mass audience: fun, adventure, escapism, levity, and giving certain trusted producers the space (though not very large budgets) to build programming that winks as it throws everything but the kitchen sink at the 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.

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.

Why We Need Wonder Woman Now

A few weeks ago, the blogs and news outlets that follow this kind of story got their hands on some casting script pages and character descriptions for the CW’s developing Wonder Woman project. From these very sketchy documents and the network’s superhero history, it looks like they’re going the fairly traditional route with Diana’s origin: Already mostly grown, Diana is a visitor from the Amazon’s island Themyscira to America, with Steve Trevor acting as a kind of guide to what appears to Diana as a mostly alien culture.  Most heartening is the idea that this take on Wonder Woman seems to hem much closer to the eponymous and excellent 2009 animated film than the atrocity that was the David E. Kelley pilot.  So why do I think this approach to her origins is so important?  For the same reason it worked so well–and so unexpectedly and complicatedly politically–in the 2009 version.  When Diana’s outsiderness is emphasized, she can point out the ludicrousness of certain aspects of contemporary culture’s gender politics.  After encountering a woman who asks Steve to move a desk for her to get her pen, she says, “Remarkable, the advanced brainwashing that has been perpetuated on the females of your culture. Raised from birth to believe they’re not strong enough to compete with the boys, and then as adults, taught to trade on their very femininity.”  Themyscira is a place literally removed from patriarchal power, which allows Diana to see the effects of such all the more clearly when she comes to America. Even when she feels she must adhere to the culture to hide her identity, she does so mockingly.

This is the kind of Wonder Woman we need, a feminist and a warrior, a superhero and a woman trying to live in this world.  Moreover, this seems like the kind of superhero the CW might actually be able to deliver.  With Arrow working at similarly complicated but worthwhile approaches to class warfare, the path seems marked for a more political Wonder Woman.

As some have pointed out, Arrow sometimes suffers from its approach, with class warfare attributed to a nefarious cabal of evildoers and Oliver Queen’s propensity for killing off underlings undercutting the institutional nature of class disparities.  But this dichotomy between the stated morals of the hero and the actions that seem to perpetuate that which he or she is trying to battle is part of the base mythology of superheroes. Superman’s “truth, justice, and the American Way” can toe the line of fascism. Heroes and their nemeses are often designed as two sides of the same coin: Captain America and Red Skull share their patriotism; Thor and Loki are both gods; and Batman and the Joker both use the power of theatricality and fear.  For Wonder Woman, her main nemesis has most often been her visual representation.  She is a woman warrior who can look like this: 

But more often looks like this in her media incarnations:

The balance of Wonder Woman as a feminist subject and as an object of desire is one she must strike in order to succeed.  The Lynda Carter version of Wonder Woman reflected this difficult balance as it aired during the height of “jiggle television” that was also the height of second wave feminism. Objectification is part of the CW take on superheroes (one need only count the astounding number of minutes Ollie’s been shirtless on Arrow), but it’s often countered by fairly decent character development to make these heroes rounded, complex individuals instead of one-dimensional symbolic ciphers. By emphasizing Diana’s outsider perspective, she can have it both ways: commenting on the ridiculousness of a culture that makes a habit of reducing a woman who lifts cars to a mere object of the male gaze without disrupting the unfortunate television and comic book standards that make that gaze the norm.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly for the “Why” of my title is the fact that Wonder Woman can be doubly mythic, tapping into both wider allegorical mythical figures because of her connection to the Greek pantheon while also standing as a mythic feminist icon, representing its changing politics and cultural place.  Wonder Woman can fight war by fighting War (Ares) or fear by fighting Phobos, but she can also wage war against sexism because she has so often been held up as a demigod of feminism, striding across the world and its entertainment media as a warrior for the feminist cause. She, like all good myths, is a woman out of time who can thus be of any time.  As female lawmakers are thrown out of their own legislatures for saying “vagina,” and women’s healthcare hearings feature panels of all men, her time is once again now.

Morality at Home and Morality at Work: Guilt and Repentance on The Good Wife

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.

Giving Angela Landsbury a run for her money in the category of playing hateful, manipulative, political matriarchs

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”).

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.

“You’re delusional!”: Patti Stanger and Tabatha Coffey as aggressive heralds of reality

I have never seen Moonstruck, but because of its pop-culture ubiquity, I know the few-second clip of Cher’s famous “Snap out of it!” slap.  Without knowing its context, I still understand it as an aggressive act in favor of reality, and it is this scene I most often think of when trying to explain why I find pleasure watching The Millionaire Matchmaker and Tabatha’s Salon Takeover.  Both programs share a core of bubble-bursting sometimes hidden under troubling gender and sexuality conventions and/or the trappings of the self-adjacent (love, business, etc. as a way of becoming a more whole individual) improvement reality genre.  The idea that these two women and the shows they carry act as heralds of reality within a reality show, of course, troubles the idea of a reality removed from artifice, but the reality that these women preach ties into the percieved reality of the audience.  That is, Patti and Tabatha derive their power and induce viewer pleasure by engaging the unheard voice of the audience.  They often say what I and the friends with whom I watch these shows are thinking or have articulated among ourselves.  The reality aggressively wielded by Patti and Tabatha calls for their self-deluded clients to “snap out of it!” and thus be better able to interact with their fellow human beings.

Patti in the early seasons, ready to pop any delusional client's bubble

The Millionaire Matchmaker: “Truly successful people have to be somewhat delusional”?

In its first episode of 2011, The Millionaire Matchmaker featured a “millionairess”–as Patti calls them–Robin, who provided the above quote.  Patti accused her of being delusional for believing that her behavior on her date: including getting visibly drunk, physically groping her date, and implying that she would buy him an expensive motorcycle in exchange for his continuing to date her.  While watching the date, I was shocked, not only by her behavior–she blatantly broke a number of Patti’s rules and guidelines–but also by the obviousness of her date’s gold-digging tendencies.  He repeatedly told the camera that he was not attracted to Robin but would continue seeing her because of her money.  Moreover, his reactions to her advances–and her physical body itself (she was plus-sized)–verged on disgusted.  Robin chose him for his looks alone, and he followed her for her money alone, with both laying bare their superficial conceptions of each other to an unexpected degree.  Yet Robin, who as the client was given more follow-up camera time, seemed totally oblivious to her own shallowness, maintaining that her date was an excellent step on the path to finding love.  This is where Patti began yelling.  After spending a great deal of time before Robin’s date coaching her on what she should seek in a partner and how to behave to find that person, Patti sees her words fall on self-styled deaf ears and proclaims that she has nothing else to do with Robin.  This is a typical narrative for Patti’s interactions with her clients this year and illustrates how I can derive pleasure from such shrillness and schadenfreude.

While Robin’s crimes are mostly against propriety and expectations–perhaps in that she is the most self-aware of the delusional clientele Patti has found in New York–Patti’s most notorious clients, the ones that I derived the most pleasure from witnessing their breakdowns or comeuppance, have been those that think they are great human beings but their interviews, interactions with Patti and her staff, and most clearly in their dates prove them to be completely deluded in this idea of themselves.  Clients have: run away screaming from a man 5-10 years older than she, called or insinuated that their dates were low-class, and even brought their fiends or assistants on dates with them.  Most often they are rude, inconsiderate, and condescending, and to see Patti verbally eviscerate them for their behavior provides pleasure.  We had to sit through their abominable behavior and have encountered people similarly removed from the minimal consideration of others, so when Patti tells them exactly what they did wrong and how horrible they are to others, it’s cathartic.  Although the “reality” that Patti’s tirades reinforce is only what is presented through the editing and chosen narrative for each episode, there is only so much “editing” can create, emphasizing some form of reality amidst the artifice.

Tabatha Coffey: styled to aggressive perfection

Tabatha’s Salon Takeover: “I think I’m a great boss/hairstylist/assistant.”

Where Patti’s verbal smacks to her deluded clients are loud and occasionally mean-spirited, Tabatha almost always keeps a cool demeanor and an acerbic approach to the salons she’s been contracted to help.  Her criticisms are authoratative because of her personal success as both a hairstylist and a salon owner and manager (an authority that is always present but never provided with evidence) and give her aggressive characteristics legitimacy.  (This is unlike Patti who consistently draws fire from [anti-]fans and clients for being unsuccessful in love herself.)  Tabatha’s show premiered years after The Millionaire Matchmaker, but they seem two sides to the same coin.  Tabatha constantly battles with her “clients” to get them to see their own strengths and–more importantly–weaknesses in hairstyling and management just as Patti does for her clients in the field of love, but Tabatha’s attempts involve a whole microeconomic system in the salon.  To take Tabatha’s advice to heart impacts the livelihoods of multiple people, so the pleasure derived from seeing her pop the delusional bubbles of those in the salons add an element of social uplift to the shadenfreude.  For both to occur, though, reality must be forced onto those who choose not to recognize the reality of their effect on the world.  They must see how the way they treat others negatively impacts their love lives or business prospects; it’s a painful but necessary realization for those who can see it.  But from the viewer’s perspective,  it’s a necessary slap to the head.

“Magnicifent!”: Verisimilitude and Theatricality on Party Down 

Last week, Starz dropped the axe that many of us knew was coming when they canceled Party 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 comedy superstars 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.

The Fantastic, Feminist Religion of Wonderfalls at FLOW

As a summer column editor for flowtv.org, I got the chance to write an article for them.  It appeared last week; you should read it (and the other great columns Flow puts out biweekly!).

The Fantastic, Feminist Religion of Wonderfalls

The Wax Lion says, "Read the words."

We Save Each Other: Humanistic Soteriology in Lost vs. Supernatural

In some ways, I really wish I could avoid this post.  Everyone’s talking about the Lost finale and offering these incredibly eloquent reviews 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.

Image Credits
1. Mark Pellegrino
2. Lost Church
3. Winchester Communitas