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.

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MasterBlog: I See Gay People

The specter of lesbianism stalks the periphery of These Three (1936) at every turn. Even though this adaptation of the overtly lesbian dramatic novel The Children’s Hour was actually adapted for the screen by the original writer Lillian Hellman, the resulting film stands more as a compelling example of the ham-handed Hays Code than a completely viable text. The character Joe becomes an embodiment of suppression, a substitute for female/female sexuality, a corporeal form behind with the true theme of lesbian love and struggle hides in plain sight. Watching this film is such a strange experience, especially for one familiar with the source material. I could liken it to eating a cake that was made with a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar, and telling yourself with every bite that the saltiness is SUPPOSED to represent sweetness. As “unnamed and invisible” as lesbian romance and sexuality is in the Code, it finds a weird kind of vitality when male sexual mores attempt to define it, refine it, or erase it. Foucault also touches on this sort of self-defeating mechanism of sexual repression as an act of tamping down “useless energies and the intensity of pleasure.”

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MasterBlog: Voice, Sound, Ownership and Intimacy

I’ve come to organize my ideas on sound (and how we hear) into two lines of thought: that pursuing pleasure through sound is an active mechanism, and pursuing truth through sound is an automatic mechanism that is constantly confronted. Of course, sensual pleasure and truth/positive identification are related, but like Freud says, they arise separately and are later conflated. I’ll get to truth later, but first I wanted to engage the concept of aural pleasure.

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MasterBlog: The Cinematic Apparatus

I’ve decided to start posting some of my work as I happily plod my way through the Masters in Cinema & Media Studies program at UCLA. It’ll be a lot of dense theory mixed with my usual manic fangirl stuff. I’ll list all my references, films, TV, etc at the bottom. Enjoy!

At first glance, Christian Metz’s analysis of the cinematic apparatus appears to engage Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in a straightforward way; he begins with the child conceiving of himself (and all that makes him human and corporeal and cognizant) through gazing at his own reflection in a mirror. But the amount of “perceptual wealth” that Metz describes in audiovisual media, particularly film, requires an apparatus with far more nuance than the child’s first mirror. Metz really deconstructs the very nature of watching fiction in “The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema” – and the important distinction which serves as a jumping-off point is that the viewer (unlike the child) identifies himself as the character, not the spectator. S/he not only views a film as a passive appreciator – like a museum-goer – s/he essentially jumps in, seeing her/himself within the action of the world and seeing him/herself seeing the film. Metz’ audience is hyperaware of filmic fiction’s need for an audience, to function and to be comprehensible. “At every moment, I am in the film by my look’s caress.”

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The Changing State of Feels in American Television

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what our favorite television shows say about us, at this moment. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about what our current slate of Art Television tells us about how we view ourselves; tell the stories of ourselves.

(Of course, when I say “us” and our,” I’m speaking really just about the psychic state of the privileged viewer. The audience with the education, the advantage, the time, the luxury to lose themselves. I just need to throw out that disclaimer before I talk about the reflection of humanity in a screen.)

Anyway, this past Sunday I did the usual rotation of overheating and cooling down. Breaking Bad to start, followed by The Real Housewives of New Jersey so I have something colorful to look at while I die inside, then The Newsroom, and then Boardwalk Empire if I’m still awake. Although lately I’ve been rewatching Breaking Bad as sort of an evening bookend instead of Boardwalk because I’m over it. Is it a bad idea to put myself on blast like this? Whatever. That’s what I do on Sunday nights. Now you know. That’s why your texts don’t get answered, she scoffed at absolutely no one.

Anyway, this week I was particularly struck by the differences between BB and Newsroom. I mean, of course there’s the main distinction, which is GOOD vs. BAD MASQUERADING AS GOOD. Dear Aaron Sorkin: HBO cinematography and a Thomas Newman theme song do not a quality show make. But I also got to thinking about how these two shows function in our current television landscape, and what they tell us in their successes and failures.

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Sorkin’s style has succeeded so well on network television. Why is Newsroom such a dud? The problem is that it thinks it’s airing on ABC in the late ’90s. Sorkin is a very gifted writer and an astute observer of the American workplace, but he never really evolved past the zenith of his success, which is arguably The West Wing. Banter banter, men are from Mars women are from Venus, idealistic young leaders, pratfalls. We all saw the Sorkinisms Supercut. He sticks with what he knows. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Newsroom revolves around current political events, it comes from a very un-current place.

Casual sexism and intellectual whimsy aren’t going down so easy these days, especially in a progressive space like HBO. Newsroom‘s main problem is cultural context. It’s pitted against a slate of drama and dark comedy that’s firmly rooted in the NOW. Communication between the genders may still suck, and rapid-fire bickering may stimulate the medulla, but the 2013 privileged viewer just doesn’t give a shit about glorifying themselves anymore. I mean, can we talk about protagonist Will McAvoy’s RIDICULOUS affectation of smoking cigarettes in his office? Jeff Daniels looks like an idiot every time he lights up and I know Sorkin wrote every cigarette into the script to make McAvoy seem like some kind of maverick. Sorkin’s self-obsession worked really well at a time in American history where the president played the saxophone and little girls got board games for Christmas where THE MAIN OBJECTIVE is to ANSWER THE PHONE and TALK TO A BOY. Pre-9/11, pre-Internet, Sorkin was sittin’ pretty. Back before people wanted their popular TV to get really real.

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There’s a kind of anxiety and self-critique that is essential to good television these days. Breaking Bad is a perfect example, because it illustrates the moral decay of a respectable, white, middle-class family man – and a lot of Walter White’s corruption is tied to the rejection of that stock character. Being a bad guy just feels more honest to him. And the tragedy, the absurdity, the unrelenting tension that marks every episode would not have worked on television in 1999.

I also think that the phenomenon of online watching – THE BINGE – figures greatly into BB‘s success relative to Newsroom‘s failure. The viewer consumes 10 episodes in one sitting if the shit is exciting. There is absolutely no compelling reason to watch a bunch of Newsroom at once because there’s no drive, no hurtling storylines or characters going through anything compelling. Even Girls beats it in that regard, because there’s an urgent sadness to that show and a relatability factor that encourages a sympathy binge. Banter doesn’t make me want to watch an entire season in one weekend. In fact, Sorkin-style banter is so twee and tiresome that it’s tough to rationalize two episodes back to back.

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You know, the more I write about this, the more I feel I’m floating away from my original point. I guess it’s tough to talk about a cultural moment. There are so many different types of programs on the air, and it’s hard for me to generalize “existential anxiety” to encompass everything we’re watching these days. But I do think that the act of destabilizing – our expectations, our identities, our familiar character types – is something that comedies, dramas, and action series of the 2010s do share. From the cringe humor of The Office to the unrelenting frustration of Lost, we like to feel uncomfortable in this day and age. We hate cute. We hate formula. It has to be downplayed and bastardized to work onscreen nowadays.

It does not surprise me that there’s such an air of uncertainty about Newsroom getting renewed. The finale a couple of days ago probably cemented its fate. It was a super-trite episode, very Sorkin-esque in the absolute worst way. Two characters got engaged after two seasons of sexual tension with NARY A KISS ON THE MOUTH before the proposal. Are you kidding me? There was so much character redemption and neat little one-liners that I wanted to barf. It’s just not cool, anymore, Aaron. Stop trying to make Sorkin happen. It’s never going to happen (again).

I’m interested in what you guys think about the above. Do you think there’s been a significant change in creative output and audience expectations in the last 20 years of television? Any examples to prove me wrong? Curious to know what others think about how the tube is projecting US back onto US.