MasterBlog: “Quality” Television

Enlightened, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Key & Peele: a three-pronged beacon of hope for television. What a great cross-section of the different industrial and creative worlds that can be built within the medium; in fact, Key & Peele is an excellent example of the potential that digital production holds for imploding the preconceived notions of TV as a form. I want to talk about these three texts chronologically, as historical placeholders in the development of the televisual medium.

First of all, I’m fascinated by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In my opinion, it defined the structure and cultural function of the modern sitcom as we know it, even beyond any of the seminal creations of Norman Lear (All In the Family, et al). As Jane Feuer notes in “MTM Quality Television,” the sitcom is a foolproof kind of ideology machine: a text that presents an unresolvable situation and then neatly solves it, with a familiar sequences of narrative steps, inside a half hour, by characters we know in an environment we know. But to stop there at the junction of Barthes and Althusser with an analysis of sitcoms – and indeed all “trash TV” – is a grave misstep. What makes MTM “quality”? Feuer talks about the unusual (for the industry) “creative freedoms” afforded to above-the-line personnel; she talks about the depth of character study that set MTM apart from its counterparts; she talks about the high comedic pedigree of its cast; she talks about its sense of self-reflexivity, of ingrained audience media literacy, as a hallmark of quality. I’m most interested in the second point – characters as texts unto themselves.

The episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust” contains a wide range of emotional beats, and our lead Mary swings between many different roles in the narrative – comedic straight man, moral conscience, philosopher, and finally comic relief. We’re looking at characters that are so multi-dimensional (and multi-use) that the show was able to spawn a half-dozen successful spinoffs. I mean, let’s compare James L. Brooks as a TV auteur to Norman Lear. Where Lear produced sitcoms as social allegories, using anger and societal fracture as a jumping-off point (according to Michael Arlen), Brooks employed a sneakier but not softer auteurial hand. His comedy is cynicism mediated by impossible optimism, full of contradiction and hope. This is the guy that made The Simpsons, arguably the most sophisticated, intertextual sitcom of all time! The sitcom’s potential for art and auterial vision doesn’t begin and end with King Lear. He, Brooks, and others are responsible for creating serialized character studies inside the sitcom format; these precursors begot Friends, Frasier, and others.

Moving on to Enlightened – I think of this as a new evolutionary phase of the complex moralizing and “situation resolution” engendered by sitcoms and dramatic programming alike in years past. Our current (and possibly dying) “Golden Age of Television” began in the late ’90s and is propelled by HBO, home of Enlightened. Back to Jane Feuer, who writes about HBO as the home of the TV auteur – and of “quality TV.” She talks a lot about Six Feet Under, removing it from Mark Lawson’s position of groundbreaking uniqueness by walking us through the filmic and televisual history that it directly builds on; its pervasive “magical realism” aesthetic, its spectacular visual tactics, its soap opera serialization mixed with avante-garde narrative are all things that came before. Honestly, I don’t think she had to shut down Lawson with such vitriol at the beginning of this piece – the “quality audience” has a high degree of televisual fluency and a sense of history whether they know it or not. I don’t think critics/audiences found SFU unusually original, just unusually great. For me, the hallmark of Six Feet Under, and Enlightened, as “texts that are not TV,” are their hybrids of intimacy and alienation. Quality TV is uncanny in a sense; we know these characters and these worlds, and yet there is a sense of unpredictability and weirdness and darkness. Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe is a (rare) anti-heroine, with whom we are able to profoundly empathize and yet feel alienated from, revolted by. This kind of TV, HBO TV, is a novelistic experience.

It’s worth noting that Feuer’s rosy picture of the creative freedoms afforded to MTM producers (if not lower-level, below-the-line personnel) clashes with some of John Caldwell’s work on TV auteurs and the empires they create. “Screenplays are business plans” to producers, which Caldwell calls the “key author” of a TV text; essentially, Caldwell foregrounds the industrial context of television as opposed to visual analysis. He also details the “downward animosity” coming from auteurs and other above-the-line personnel, emerging from a kind of personal and professional alienation in the television workplace (from board meetings to writer’s rooms). This is where Key & Peele really comes in as a revolutionary answer to these traditional industrial practices.

I’m biased because I love K&P (actually, this whole post is biased because I love TV and I love everything and nothing hurts), but it really is a brand-new kind of televisual experience that rejects the invisible corporate hierarchy encoded in the traditional TV text. The stylistic format of K&P is a transmutation of the two guys’ comedic personas into short fictional narratives, interspersing their observational standup comedy (“authenticity”) with skits that effectively present that same authentic observational humor as intertextual fantasy. The fact that the show is primarily consumed through spliced online clips, NOT as entire episodes, opens up an entirely new world in the field of TV scholarship – this is satire, packaged and distributed in small parcels by the auteur(s), passed around like currency amongst its audience. Amy Schumer does the exact same thing, except her auterial vision is a (white) feminist satire. Caldwell loves to talk about the presentation of style as an aspect in itself of TV style, and this is a perfect example. The mode of consumption is built into the text. This got to the point that Key and Peele had to remind their audience to watch the entire episodes on TV rather than Youtube before their ratings were run into the ground!

Lastly: Dave Chappelle’s show was wildly incisive, both an indictment of white supremacy and an invitation to learn, to join others who were “down” and to become “down” (according to Bambi Haggins). His show’s model privileges the auteur most of all. It’s my belief that the definining characteristic of the TV auteur is an identity watermark, coded into every episode; the creative vision of the auteur as defined by his/her psychology, cultural positionality, politics, etc. is “worked through” in some way throughout the TV text. I think many people would say the same of the filmmaker auteur. Look at Shonda Rhimes, whose showrunning is decidedly auterial; she’s put some of the first narratives privileging the intersectional black (female) experience front and center in American primetime. The auteur creates the worlds that he/she knows and asks the questions he/she personally wants answered. Sitcom, drama, supernatural, thriller, the genres and formats don’t matter; it’s the CONTENT that is auteured.

P.S. If anyone watches sophisticated animated television, I highly recommend The Critic, which was autered by James L. Brooks in the ’90s. It’s a dry cultural critique, kind of like a cartoon Seinfeld, very incisive and surreal; though the writing is brilliant, Jon Lovitz’s voice just makes me laugh no matter what.
P.P.S. The book “Thinking Outside the Box,” a collection of essays on TV, has been indispensable for me since undergrad. It’s relatively current and very useful for meditating on genre.

Media discussed:
Enlightened (2011-2013)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show – “Chuckles Bites the Dust” (1975)
Key & Peele (2012 – )
Six Feet Under (2001 – 2005)
Chappelle’s Show (2003 – 2006)

John Caldwell – “The Industrial Auteur Theory”
Jane Feuer – “The MTM Style”
Jane Feuer – “HBO and the Concept of Quality TV”
Bambi Haggins – “In the Wake of Nigger Pixie: Dave Chapelle and the Politics of Cross-over Comedy”
Adorno and Horkheimer – “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”
John Caldwell – “Excessive Style”

Leah Steuer
COURSE: Text & Context
QUARTER: Fall 2015

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