Tag Archives: TV Cultures

Closing my eyes during Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’

Viewing/listening context: Laptop (From File)

Written by The West Wing‘s Aaron Sorkin, HBO’s The Newsroom is one my favourite new television shows this year. Starring Jeff Daniels as news anchor Will McAvoy, it’s the story of…drum roll…a newsroom. A television newsroom to be exact – an important distinction.

McAvoy is the hard-hitting main man at “News Night”, which screens on the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) channel. The show is trying to rediscover its place in the news landscape and establish an identity that is in line with traditional news values. But it’s easier said than done. News Night’s producers face constant pressure from “above” to sacrifice journalistic integrity in favour of the network’s commercial interests.

The Newsroom‘s soundtrack is, for the most part, naturalistic – rich (not heavy) with well-written, perfectly recorded dialogue and context-driven ambient noise when appropriate. Music doesn’t play a huge role, but occasionally a pre-existing song is used to add something extra to a scene. Notably, the use of Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” in episode three and Coldplay’s “Fix You” in episode four.

Because the narrative is so dialogue-driven, and despite the fact that the show is about making television news – a profoundly visual beast, I think the program would still have meaning if presented in a solely audio format. It’s a big call, one I arrived at after (as was suggested in the first ‘Modern Soundtrack’ class) closing my eyes and “listening” to portions of episode four of The Newsroom. 

The only thing I found disconcerting was when elements of the soundtrack undergo changes in sonic quality that are driven by a change of shot. When only listening to what was going on, the changes were confusing because I didn’t know what motivated them.

The best example of this from episode four was McAvoy’s presentation of a story about the lies of the Tea Party. McAvoy and various audio grabs are heard from a variety of locations (the control room, out of a television, from in the news studio etc.). His address is cleanest in the news studio. In the control room, it’s played back in mediated form through what sounds like television speakers. Sometimes McAvoy’s voice fades into the background so that those behind the scenes can be heard. Without the accompanying visuals this sequence would be hard to follow in sound alone.

Now, those rare inclusions of well-known songs.

Not only does “Burning Love” set a robust, high energy pace for the sequence it accompanies, its lyrics symbolically encompass much of what is onscreen. The words trace the physical feelings often associated with being “in love” – namely an increase in body temperature to “flaming” and heart palpitations.

The song begins as McAvoy’s boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) lights the proverbial fire within the anchor by anonymously supplying him with provocative polling data from Utah. The sequence that follows shows McAvoy grilling a variety of politicians and spokespeople in an attempt to reveal what he calls the “radicalising” of the American Tea Party. This becomes the hot issue for numerous editions of News Night. McAvoy is angry, things are heating up. “Burning Love” evokes that.

To a lesser extent the song may be interpreted as referring to McAvoy’s feelings for the woman who broke his heart, News Night producer Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer). She’s hard not to love…pity about that whole cheating thing.

I’m going to dedicate an entire post to the use of “Fix You” – watch this space. Until then, although it’s not strictly relevant to sound, I have got to get something of my chest regarding The Newsroom.

I’m five episodes in and already hooked. That said, most of the characters infuriate me, particularly associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), departing producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) and News Night newcomer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.).

Maggie, Don and Jim remind are members of that frustrating breed who love to flaunt their current affairs knowledge on a regular basis. They are intolerably self-centred most of the time and painfully familiar. They are satisfyingly annoying. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

My favourite character is…the news. It’s dynamic, layered and what the show is all about. The other character dramas in the narrative become peripheral.

[Showcase Post Two] Reality Television: Stranger Than Fiction?

I have a fractured relationship with ”reality TV”. My first memories of this now ubiquitous television format are of Big Brother in its first incarnation on Network Ten (2001-2008).

I remember doing a surprisingly academic project on that very program in primary school, which included a paper of sorts referring to George Orwell’s dystopic masterpiece, 1984.

If I were to hazard an attempt at defining reality TV, my definition would read something along the lines of: “A television program featuring real people in real situations (sometimes in real time) that encourages viewers to relate to what they are seeing on-screen.”

Candid Camera (1953-), a hidden camera/practical joke program, wasarguably the first reality TV program. Its popularity was partly due to simulation anxiety – “the inability to distinguish between the real and the manufactured in the age of technological reproduction” (Clissold, 2004, p.33). Surveilling people without their permission was part of the show’s identity. In some ways shows like Candid Camera were not only the precursor to surveillance reality TV like Big Brother, but also CCTV (Closed-Circuit Television).

Watching the CCTV footage employed as an investigatory tool by police in the tragic case of Jill Meagher is an unnerving experience because it brings up such contradictory feelings. It sounds twisted but it could be said that, through shows like Candid Camera, society has been groomed to get off on the voyeuristic pleasures and entertainment value of even the most frightening and foreboding footage. Some see CCTV as the seemingly innocuous beginnings of Orwell’s prediction being realised – an incursion on privacy. But without it, some crimes may never be solved.

On a lighter note, more recently I’ve found myself indulging in The Farmer Wants a Wife – yes, you’re allowed to have a chuckle at that one. It rolls notions of what it means to be an “Aussie bloke”, gender roles and unabashed romantic cliches into one neat package. Another program that has captured my attention is Beauty and the Geek Australia, a show that brings together beautiful women and geeky men in the name of mutual benefit.

Both of these shows claim to represent “real life”, while not discounting the possibility of a fairytale ending. Surely this reality claim is the central premise of reality TV. Does anyone agree with me on this latter point? Frances Bonner does.

In her book, “Ordinary Television: Analyzing Popular TV”, Bonner explains that her use of the term “ordinary” is intended to be “…interchangeable with ‘everyday’, ‘familiar’, even ‘routine” (Bonner, 2003, p.29). Reality TV has certainly become that. It’s everywhere, and comes in a variety of familiar formats.

Bonner asserts that both reality TV and lifestyle programming (e.g. advice programs about finance, gardening, cooking, chat/talk shows, breakfast shows) “…operate as non-fiction” (Bonner, 2003, p.3). But she doesn’t do so without the necessarily lengthy explanation. Reality and lifestyle programming, she says, share the central claim that what they depict has “…a reasonably direct relationship with ‘real life’” (Bonner, 2003, p.3).

In 2012, a time when much “unscripted programming” requires a team of dedicated writers, directors and an army of stylists, “non-fiction” is an even more problematic term. Reality TV and notions of “reality” in general occupy murky territory – a strange middle-ground between fact and fiction.

J. Ryan Stradal is an American writer who has worked on shows including Ice Road Truckers and The Deadliest Catch. In a reveal-all piece, “Unscripted does not mean Unwritten”, published on the Writers Guild of America, West website, Stradal explains that a lot of so-called reality TV is anything but “unscripted”.

“Hundreds of hours of footage are shot to make a single hour of reality television, and the final cut ultimately is very similar in its narrative structure to scripted television. There is a beginning, middle, and end, with character development, goals, conflict, and resolution. If you’ve ever been pulled into watching a reality series, it’s for the same reasons you get invested in scripted TV: sympathetic characters, interesting settings, and a sequence of events that provokes, edifies, and/or entertains” (Stradal, 2012).

The fact is that some reality programming is, in fact, quite the opposite. In 2004, Hollywood writers really ruined the illusion by demanding a greater cut of profits earned by reality TV. The rapid increase in reality shows occupying primetime slots was the justification used by the writers of shows including The Simple Life (2003-2007) and Meet My Folks (2002-).

     

Even in a situation where people featuring in reality TV have not been given explicit “direction” in the purest sense, John Corner says the presence of cameras is enough to alter a person’s behaviour. In “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions”, Corner focuses an analysis on the reality game show format, particularly the Big Brother franchise:

“…Big Brother operates its claims to the real within a fully managed artificiality, in which almost everything that might be deemed to be true about what people do and say is necessarily and obviously predicated on the larger contrivance of their being in front of the camera in the first place” (John Corner in “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions” (Corner, 2009, p.45).

Reality game shows like Big BrotherThe Farmer Wants a Wife and Beauty and the Geek show a series of essentially “real” events. Those things may well have happened, but the context framing them must not be forgotten. For example, Michael did cry when he saw a video message from his older brother last week on Channel Nine’s revamped version of Big Brother. The implied question I take from Corner’s paper is whether Michael would have behaved in the same manner without a camera in his face?

Big Brother contestant Michael sheds a tear.

It’s impossible to know, but to paraphrase Michael himself: “I feel like I’m being an idiot, because I mean It’s only been two months. I’ve gone six months without seeing him, but time just slows down in here [the Big Brother house].” Judging by that statement, had he been leading a normal life for those two months, I suspect he would not have broken down. He probably would have thought it strange to receive a recorded message from a relative. Facebook may well offer that function now, but it’s still weird and I have never used it.

Corner’s argument about the camera’s tendency to change and shape what is occurring before it in Big Brother has a strong correlation to a key criticism of the “fly-on-the-wall” observational documentary. In “‘A Fiction (Un)Like Any Other’?”, Corner says that the techniques used to “narrativise” a documentary, further emphasise the age-old issue “…concerning the viewer’s ability to tell the difference [between actual events and contrivances]” (Corner, 2006, p.93).

Corner reduces this potential confusion about what is real and what is not down to a question of ethics. Should viewers be shown anything fabricated that purports to be representative of “real life”? It’s a tough one, but I think contemporary consumers of reality TV are wising up to the truth of the matter – that reality TV isn’t always what it may claim to be.

Another aspect of Big Brother’s contrived nature that must be considered is the editing process. Michael crying was deemed worthy of inclusion in the “Big Brother Daily Show” by someone. Can a 20-60 minute program that shows only carefully selected events (presumably from 24 hours of material) capture what is “real” without skewing audience perception? It can’t possibly.

British journalist and parody king Charlie Brooker illustrates this point perfectly as part of his BBC4 TV series Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe.  Here’s Brooker on reality TV editing:

Using Big Brother as his poorly disguised example, Brooker shows that by capturing action from multiple camera angles, even the most banal sequence of events can be made to mean almost anything in post-production.

The fact is, even television news stories can be highly fabricated. Do you really think that that academic casually typing on their computer is working and not typing something like “playful otters” into Google? I have little doubt that beforehand the producer would have said, or at least been thinking, something along the lines of: “it will make great overlay if we can get them to do this“. Some TV news stories even incorporate actors. Gasp! My friend Annie has played a victim of cyber-bullying on multiple occasions for multiple channels.

Critics of reality television must come to terms with the fact that the genre is not going the way of the dodo any time soon. We may as well have fun with it. Who knows, maybe in 50 years or so, docusoaps like Jersey Shore (2009-) and The Real Housewives of…(wherever) will be labelled as “classics”. Anyway, Shakespeare is overrated.

If the “realness” of even one of the long list of reality TV formats can be brought into question, surely a re-naming of the genre is in order? Reputed Hollywood reporter and media columnist Ray Richmond is pushing for just that. “Partially scripted television” is his term of choice. Doesn’t have a great ring to it, does it? “Sort of Real TV”, maybe…or what about “Reality(ish) TV”? If it was up to me, I’d go for this one: “Quasi-Reality TV”.

[Showcase Post One] Matters of Taste: Fandom and Reviewing

I can’t profess to having delved extensively into the fantasy genre. Aside from recognising some of its dominant tropes – which include magic, sword battles, supernatural creatures and sorcerers – my knowledge is relatively limited.

There are fantasy texts widely considered to be classics. The first that come to mind, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, are originally book series that have subsequently been adapted into films. Loved for their elaborate plot lines, fantastical settings and  iconic characters, both have a loyal fan following*.

Look out! “Trekkies”!

Originally a term reserved for sports and theatre, “fandom” was adopted by science fiction literature enthusiasts (Coppa, 2006, p.42). It was only in the 1960s, upon the arrival of Star Trek, that it became commonplace to talk of “fans” of TV shows.

It is hard to define exactly what it means to be a fan, because there are so many different levels of engagement. An in-class brainstorm during the week six lecture on “Matters of Taste” resulted in a number of common themes:

  • Fans are passionate and care deeply about the object of their fannish attention.
  • Fans often document their thoughts in some form.
  • Fans are actively engaged – possibly even producing fan fiction.
  • Fans often have their own interpretations.

In the same session, lecturer Brian Morris touched on the importance of the internet in modern television fan culture. Online, fans can undertake a range of activities, from interpreting storylines and alternative readings on forums, to extending a show’s storytelling world by creating fan fiction (Morris, 2012).

Loyal is perhaps the understatement of the century when it comes to fantasy fans, but they are not the only “fanstremists” in the television world. To name but some of the die-hard fan communities connected to specific TV programs (courtesy TV Tropes, 2012):

  • “Trekkies” (Star Trek 1966-1969])
  • “Gleeks” (Glee [2009-])
  • “Robot Skeleton Army” (Craig Ferguson and The Late Late Show [2005-)
  • “Babblers” or “Fivers” (Babylon 5 [1994-1998])
  • “Wingnuts” (The West Wing [1999-2006])
  • “Browncoats” or “Flans” (Firefly [2002-2003])
  • “X-Philes” (The X-Files [1993-2002])
  • “Whovians” or “Wholigans” (Doctor Who [1963-1989 & 2005-])
  • “Dwarfers” and “Smegheads” (Red Dwarf [1988-]

There are even individual actors who have devoted followings with colourful names: “Cumberbitches” or “Cucumbers” (Benedict Cumberbatch [Sherlock]), “Smilers” (Miley Cyrus [Hannah Montana]), and my personal favourite – “Fillionaires” (Nathan Fillion [Firefly, Castle]).

I’m a Fillionaire.

If recent talk is anything to go by, Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-) is destined to earn the “classic” tag. Because the series is relatively new, a name for its fans is yet to be decided.

This indecision manifests as an amiable “broken base” situation (a term for when a division exists between two schools of fan thought) on the pages of well-known television discussion website Television Without Pity. Here, Game of Thrones fans identify as being in one of two categories: those that have read the books by George R. R. Martin upon which the series is based (“Bookwalkers”), or those that haven’t (the “Unsullied”). It’s curious that, unlike in a typical broken base environment, these groups do not infight with one another (given time, I predict dissent in the ranks). The one exception, so I’m told, is when a Bookwalker drops a spoiler.

Broken base is just one of thousands, nay hundreds of thousands (or perhaps millions), of terms used in the fan world. You’d have to be a genius to keep track of even half of these often obscure, usually very specific words. Cue the emergence of fan culture and fandom as a legitimate field of academic inquiry.

Possibly the best known fan culture academic is Henry Jenkins, a current MIT communications professor fascinated by the relationship between “text” and reader. His well-trafficked blog Confessions of an Aca-Fan is a good place to start if, like me, you are new to the concept of fandom. “Aca-fan”, you may ask? Media studies academic Matt Hills is credited with coining the term, also referred to as “scholar-fan” (Hills, 2002, p.41), in his 2002 book Fan Cultures. On his blog, Jenkins supplies this definition: “…a hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic” (Jenkins, 2012). I read the following sentence as a tidy mission statement for all of Jenkins’ life’s work: “The goal of my work has been to bridge the gap between these two worlds” (Jenkins, 2012).

Not everyone is in favour of “aca-fandom”. Jenkins sees it as a means of affirming the importance of the consumer point-of-view in academia. Some academics consider the term to be rather problematic. Jenkins has published a series of blog posts that invite various academics to have their say in an aca-fandom “debate” of sorts.

Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley Abigail De Kosnik had this to say: “I conceive of “acafan” [sic] as a term that designates a certain professionalism, a certain demeanor (a “seeming”) of critical distance, a certain coolness and calmness in discussing all the many facets and valences of fandom” (De Kosnik in Jenkins, 2012).

De Kosnik’s connection of aca-fandom with “critical distance” is one of the issues at the heart of the debate. It implies “objectivity”.

Media and Cultural Studies professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison Jonathan Gray questions this aca-fan assumption: “I don’t believe anyone who tries to tell me that their choice of what to study and how to study isn’t deeply informed by their own personal likes and dislikes” (Gray in Jenkins, 2012).

To put it bluntly, Gray doesn’t see how aca-fans can claim to be able to separate their own fannish tendencies from their academic work. This brings the “superiority”/”authority” of aca-fans over “regular” fans into serious question.

“Dallas”: A fan tells it like it is on TV fan site “Television Without Pity”

By way of moving on, a truism: academic or otherwise, fans know what they do and do not like. If the material on the abundance of fan websites is anything to go by, they don’t mind telling everyone all about it either.

The screening of the Game of Thrones pilot in week six was my first look at television’s latest craze. As you have probably ascertained by now, I am one of the Unsullied.

“Dude, have you seen Game of Thrones?” 

That’s a question I’m often asked, both inside and outside the context of this subject. Usually I answer truthfully with a cautious: “No, but I’m planning on it.” Which I am. Not since the emergence of a certain boy wizard have I felt this much pressure to be more than just familiar with a cultural product.

For me, reading the early reviews Game of Thrones was thus akin to examining the thoughts of The Age‘s Philippa Hawker or Jake Wilson before going to see a newly released movie. I not only found myself using reviewers’ words to build my knowledge of the show’s premise, but also to gain an idea of its likely audience. One thing was immediately apparent – some loved it and some hated it. But it didn’t stop there. The fans came out to play.

Female “Game of Thrones” fan Amy Ratcliffe lets fly at Ginia Bellafante’s review of the program.

Yes. Reviewing can be a dangerous game.

As Myles McNutt points out in his blog post ‘Questions of Taste: Dissecting the Dissection of Early Reviews’, things get even dicier when reviews start getting reviewed. The spat that broke out within the reviewing world regarding Game of Thrones was enough to rival any showdown between the Fellowship and the orcs. At its proverbial heart is Ginia Bellafante’s New York Times piece, ‘A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms’.

The key point of contention is Bellafante’s assertion that overt eroticism is included in the show as “…something for ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.” I’m quite new to media studies, but that sounds like a wild generalisation to me. However, I can see how Bellafante arrived at this point of view…

As David Barnett says in his Guardian article Game of Thrones: Girls want to play too”, it is common, but wrong to assume that the fantasy genre is nothing more than “boy fiction”.

Critics of Bellafante’s piece accuse her of ignoring the existence of female fantasy fans, patronising her female readers and blatant inaccuracy. Her proclamation that illicitness is something that has been “…tossed in” implies that it is unfounded and removed from, or even irrelevant to narrative. This is simply not the case according to Barnett, who enthusiastically reports that “…the source material has plenty of bonking”.

Maybe it’s my RMIT-induced tendency to “question everything”, but while watching the pilot I cringed at the portrayal of women – the submissive wife, the daughter with only marriage on her mind, the “wenches” and forced marriages.

Admittedly, I have only seen one episode and am expecting one or two woman-to-warrior scenarios. It must also be said that the show’s “mediaeval-esque” setting demands a patriarchal setup.

Having heard what seems like hundreds of positive testimonies about Game of Thrones from friends and family, I’m wondering how many of them even knew this “review war” was going on. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say no. Even if they did, I’m not sure how much of a difference it would make, if any, to their experience and enjoyment of the show.

This is a sign of the times.

We are constantly bombarded by the opinions of every Tom, Dick and Harriet via social media. In a recent talk at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the aforementioned Philippa Hawker voiced her uncertainty about the future of her profession. The opinions of even the most influential and respected reviewers now carry almost equal weight to those of, for example, my mate Geoff on Facebook who says: “GAME OF THRONES ROCKS! SO ADDICTED!!”. Are the readers of professional reviews the same people who are likely to want to check out a given show? I’m not so sure anymore.

* Online hubs for Lord of the Rings and Narnia fans include: Narnia Web (narniaweb.com) and the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Network (lordotrings.com).

Television Cultures: Comments Post

It has been a joy reading the blogs of other TV Cultures students and receiving feedback from some of them on my own posts.

Here are my contributions to the comment sections of other blogs:

1. Stevie Vulture (Madeleine Rebbechi): “Week 4: Examining Transmedia Trends”

“First things first – this is a great post. It’s written in an engaging and informed manner with text supplemented by well-chosen images.

I relate to your frustration regarding limited access to online transmedia content, including webisodes, because we live in Australia – television tyranny of the highest order. As you say, that’s where our friends at YouTube come in.

Thankfully, in recent years there has been a noticeable reduction in the cultural “lag period” that has plagued Australia for so long. The time gap between the release of new episode of a program in the USA and its availability Down Under is going down. I credit this to the popularisation of the “dirty download”, but Australian networks have at least started to feign interest in addressing the issue.

I’m interested that you included The Nurses and 24’s The Rookie in the same sentence, questioning the value of both series. Your assessment of The Nurses is bang on, but I think The Rookie is well made in comparison. It’s shot well and I’m a sucker for parallel storylines. Let’s agree to disagree on that one!”

2. Clip Fume & Wander (Sarah Jackson): “Television; a dead medium? Old White Man says no”

“Sarah, thank you for alerting me to the existence of these hilarious Community Twitter accounts. I would be very interested to know who administrates them – the show’s writers or diehard fans?

It genuinely excites me when TV shows expand their storyworlds, be it through webisodes, books or board games. Like many people, I’m a Twitter fiend. There, I said it. Community’s innovative use of Twitter to promote active fandom is illustrative of where I think TV is headed in the short term – online, but not at the expense of “standard” broadcasting.

As you mention, the Twitter accounts certainly double as (pause for dramatic tension) promotional material. There is such a negative stigma attached to this function of developing a show’s online presence. But is it such a bad thing? If it means more Community, shoot more of it my way!”

3. studyingtvwithme (Paul Kelly): “Reality Check”

“Paul, you have done everyone a service by articulating what many of us have been thinking for years. Namely, that “reality TV” is a wildly inadequate term for programs like Big Brother and The Farmer Wants a Wife.

Your analysis and subsequent “de-bunking” of definitions from two respected sources (dictionary.com and the Cambridge online dictionary) is a clever device. It’s illustrative of just how indefinable this type of television programming is. If these two English language institutions can’t get it completely right, then who can?

I quite like the online English dictionary’s inclusion of “…which are intended to represent everyday life” to its definition. By doing so, the definition captures the essence of a greater number of reality TV shows.

But you are right; the phrase “everyday life” does let the definition down. I think it could be improved by the elimination of any descriptor of the life reality TV claims to depict. Just “life”? Is that crazy? I don’t think so.”

4. TV Cultures… Zach Ribert’s Perspective (Zachary Ribert): “Week 9 – The Dispersal of Quality Television”

“Z-Money, you are right to proclaim your newfound love of HBO!

You will surely get the hang of Mad Men’s narrative style and storytelling techniques with a few more episodes to your name.

I struggle to do anything other than dwell on Mad Men’s evocative portrayal of the happening 1960s. What a setting! I’ll never get sick of looking at the impeccable (now “vintage”) suits worn by male characters or the secretary chic of women in the Sterling Cooper office, particularly Joan.

This is one of the reasons why I love your inclusion of so many pictures in this post!

Words cannot describe the delight I take in the show’s visual style, undoubtedly its hallmark. The amount of effort that is put in to make Mad Men an authentic (and wonderfully romantic) representation of 1960s American life is awe-inspiring. That alone is enough to earn it the label: “Quality TV”.”

Week 10: “Reality Television” – is a renaming in order?

I have a fractured relationship with “reality TV”. My first memories of this now ubiquitous television format are of Big Brother in its first incarnation on Network Ten (2001-2008).

I remember doing a surprisingly academic project on that very program in primary school, which included a paper of sorts referring to George Orwell’s dystopic masterpiece, 1984.

If I were to hazard an attempt at defining reality TV, my definition would read something along the lines of: “A television program featuring real people in real situations (sometimes in real time) that encourages viewers to relate to what they are seeing on-screen.”

He’s watching…

More recently, I’ve found myself indulging in The Farmer Wants a Wife – yes, you’re allowed to have a chuckle at that one. It rolls notions of what it means to be an “Aussie bloke”, gender roles and unabashed romantic cliches into one neat package. Another program that has captured my attention is Beauty and the Geek Australia, a show that brings together beautiful women and geeky men in the name of mutual benefit.

Both of these shows claim to represent “real life”, while not discounting the possibility of a fairytale ending. Surely this reality claim is the central premise of reality TV. Does anyone agree with me on this latter point? Frances Bonner does.

In her book, “Ordinary Television: Analyzing Popular TV”, Bonner explains that her use of the term “ordinary” is intended to be “…interchangeable with ‘everyday’, ‘familiar’, even ‘routine” (Bonner, 2003, p.29). Reality TV has certainly become that. It’s everywhere, and comes in a variety of familiar formats.

Bonner asserts that both reality TV and lifestyle programming (e.g. advice programs about finance, gardening, cooking, chat/talk shows, breakfast shows) “…operate as non-fiction” (Bonner, 2003, p.3). But she doesn’t do so without the necessarily lengthy explanation. Reality and lifestyle programming, she says, share the central claim that what they depict has “…a reasonably direct relationship with ‘real life'” (Bonner, 2003, p.3).

In 2012, a time when much “unscripted programming” requires a team of dedicated writers, directors and an army of stylists, “non-fiction” is an even more problematic term. Reality TV and notions of “reality” in general occupy murky territory.

In “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions”, John Corner focuses an analysis on the reality game show format, particularly the Big Brother franchise:

“…Big Brother operates its claims to the real within a fully managed artificiality, in which almost everything that might be deemed to be true about what people do and say is necessarily and obviously predicated on the larger contrivance of their being in front of the camera in the first place” (John Corner in “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions” (Corner, 2009, p.45).

Reality game show formats like Big BrotherThe Farmer Wants a Wife and Beauty and the Geek may well show a series of essentially “real” events. Those things may well have happened, but the context framing them must not be forgotten. For example, Michael did cry when he saw a video message from his older brother last week on Channel Nine’s revamped version of Big Brother. The implied question I take from Corner’s paper is whether Michael would have behaved in the same manner without a camera in his face?

Big Brother contestant Michael sheds a tear.

It’s impossible to know, but to paraphrase Michael himself: “I feel like I’m being an idiot, because I mean It’s only been two months. I’ve gone six months without seeing him, but time just slows down in here [the Big Brother house].” Judging by that statement, had he been leading a normal life for those two months, I suspect he would not have broken down. He probably would have thought it strange to receive a recorded message from a relative. Facebook may well offer that function now, but it’s still weird and I have never used it.

Another aspect of the show’s contrived nature that must be considered is the editing process. Michael crying was deemed worthy of inclusion in the “Big Brother Daily Show” by someone. Can a 20-60 minute program that shows only carefully selected events (presumably from 24 hours of material) capture what is “real” without skewing audience perception? It can’t possibly.

If the “realness” of even one of the long list of reality TV formats can be brought into question, surely a re-naming of the genre is in order? “Sort of Real TV”, maybe…or what about “Reality(ish) TV”? If it was up to me, I’d go for this one: “Quasi-Reality TV”.

Week 9: ‘Mad Men’ – Episode 13, Opening Sequence

Having majored in cinema studies in my time at RMIT, I’m no stranger to the close textual analysis of audiovisual forms. That said, I’ve never approached a television program in this way. An open homage to the visual style of classic film, AMC’s Mad Men (2007-) seems an appropriate place to start.

Set in the 1960s, a decade of great political and social change in the USA, Mad Men explores the personal and professional lives of men and women employed by advertising giant Sterling Cooper. At its centre is ad executive and master manipulator Donald Draper (Jon Hamm).

An iconic still from the Mad Men opening title sequence.

The reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in the show’s animated opening credits, specifically the symbolism of a falling man, is too perfect not to mention first up.

On initial viewing, with little knowledge of the show, I immediately read this image as symbolic of crumbling patriarchy. Having reached the halfway point of season one, the opening credits are richer with meaning for me. They infer mystery (particularly Don’s enigmatic character), suggest the growing power of women during the 1960s and critique capitalism and consumerism. I could go on and on, but let’s save that for my group presentation with Paul and Blake.

In this week’s lecture Brian screened “The Wheel”, the thirteenth and final episode of Mad Men‘s first season. Instead of examining the unknowable Don Draper, however tempting that may be, I’d like to take a closer look at the episode’s opening sequence.

The sequence depicts two simultaneous conversations – one between Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and his father-in-law Tom Vogel (Joe O’Connor), the other between Pete’s wife Trudy (Alison Brie) and her mother Jeannie Vogel (Sheila Shaw). Smart, neat clothing abounds. Perhaps surprisingly there’s not a cigarette in sight. But there is alcohol, it wouldn’t be Mad Men without it.

Subtle brass music plays throughout the sequence but it never escapes background status, encouraging viewers to concentrate on the dialogue.

Naturalistically lit, the sequence begins with an extreme close-up of a fabric pattern propped up on a dining table – a vivid lime green number with colourful bubbles and “powder-room” items printed on it. A pull back reveals Trudy and Jeannie keenly assessing the pattern.

Without a cut, the camera tracks right to show Tom talking to Pete about “man stuff”, namely sports and politics, in an adjoining sitting area, before pulling back to show all four characters in the frame. The women are in the background and out of focus and their speech is inaudible. It’s clear who we are meant to be looking at and listening to. Hint: it’s not the women.

The separation of the men and women in the sequence’s staging highlights the gender division that’s a common theme throughout Mad Men. Think of the Sterling Cooper work environment, with female secretaries working in an open-plan space for men in offices. It is interesting that Tom takes it upon himself to tell Pete about Trudy’s feelings, reiterating what she has told Pete herself during season one.

Having established the setting and locations of the characters within it, the camera then cuts away to a mid-shot of Pete. This is the establishing shot in the shot-reverse shot pattern that follows, an editing choice used to signal an abrupt change of direction in the men’s conversation. This new trajectory is categorically marked by Tom clearing his throat, moving from politics to the business of baby-making.

The latter topic seems to be in direct opposition to the “secret men’s business” vibe of the men’s exchange, but is neatly positioned in the ideological construct that is “The American Dream” – financial independence, nuclear families, white picket fences, traditional values…the works.

Notably, the subject of work (Pete’s promotion opportunity and Tom’s own business expansion) proves tempting for Tom. It’s a hurdle he gradually overcomes in order to discuss the issue of starting a family – something he believes he should, but is not necessarily keen, to address.

By this stage Jeannie and Trudy are no longer able to remain unresponsive to the men’s conversation. Upon hearing the word “child”, the ladies join the men in the sitting area. Jeannie sits next to her husband on the couch and Trudy stands behind her parents. This staging creates a “Wall of Vogels” effect that screams “CONCEPTION!” –  it’s three against one. All Pete can do is smile and nod in awkward silence as the sequence comes to a close.

One thought on casting. No matter how much I watch Mad Men, I can’t see Alison Brie as anyone other than Annie from Community. It can be truly bizarre, almost as though Brie is playing Annie playing Trudy. I expect to get over that at some point…but maybe not for a while. 

Week 8: ‘Big Love’, It’s Mighty Hard to Classify

Phwoar! Imagine having three (or even four) wives, all of which know about and accept the existence of each other. That foreign concept alone was enough to capture my curiosity about HBO drama Big Love (2006-2011).

For a show that is widely regarded as complex narrative television, Big Love relies on many of the conventions commonly associated with melodrama-rich soap operas. These include, but are not limited to: a focus on a network of interconnected relationships, moments of sentimentality and melodrama and narrative seriality.

The characters in Big Love are about as interconnected as characters get. In the pilot, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives, Barb Henrickson (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicolette Grant (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene Heffman (Ginnifer Goodwin), are in one big, four-pronged relationship. The opening episode contains numerous highs and lows and sets up narrative and character conflicts. It contains moments, both brief and prolonged, that encapsulate a variety of established genres – drama, romance, tragedy, comedy and soap opera to name a few. Multiplicity of genre is a feature of narratively complex television, as outlined by Jason Mittell.

It’s impossible to nail down a narratively complex show as being this or that with regards to genre. In the case of Big Love it would be possible to find evidence to back up a plethora of claims: “It’s a soap”, “It’s quality TV”, “It’s a tragedy”, “It’s a dark comedy”, “It’s a political piece about the Mormon existence in modern day America” – the list goes on and on. I think the reality is that it is all of these things, and more. That’s what I like about “high-end” programming. There’s something there for most people.

Being asked to classify Big Love for this blog post has transported me back to my primary school days, when I would come home after school, prepare afternoon tea and sit down in front of Passions. This pattern went on for about a year, maybe it was grade four or five. The trials and tribulations of Timmy (the creepy doll that comes to life) and Tabitha (the evil witch in hiding) was my favourite aspect of this soapiest of soaps, the only program of its type I’ve ever watched more than once.

After my first viewing of Big Love and being asked to consider its relationship to the soap opera, I saw some likeness between it and Passions. It is curious that soaps, so often mocked and written off as “bad TV” without a second thought, appear to share some common ground with one of HBO’s glorified, “super-TV” texts.

For scholar Michael Kackman, the crossover that exists between narratively complex television (such as Big Love) and the daytime soap opera suggests a very direct relationship between the two. He reads it as an indication that soap operas inform and influence the “quality TV” dramas that form what some have heralded as “television’s new golden age of aesthetic quality”.

In his article, ‘Flow Favorites: Quality Television, Melodrama, and Cultural Complexity”, Kackman uses Lost to illustrate his point. Specifically, he asserts that a sappy, melodramatic exchange between characters Jack and Kate is “…a shameless wallow in weak-kneed, bodice-ripping melodrama”. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to describe the sequence that follows – a flash-forward of Jack driving a Mustang blaring Nirvana and contemplating one of the narratives many mysteries. Kackman sees it as similarly soapy in its melodramatic excess, just in a less traditional, more “masculine” way.

Kackman’s provocative and contentious argument paints recent primetime dramas, like Big Love, as current manifestations of the soap opera – the next stop along TV’s evolutionary path, rather than as an entirely new televisual form.

Standing in opposition to Kackman, Jason Mittell sees primetime narratively complex television as influenced not by daytime soaps, but by comic books and 19th Century literature. I haven’t read an e-mail interview as assigned material for a university course before, but I like the appearance of honesty fostered by Mittell’s first-person responses.

Mittell believes the only real commonality between soaps and narrative complexity is their “…connections to 1970s and 1980s primetime serials”. Both Kackman and Mittell have compelling arguments, but I can’t help but sit on the fence.

Personally, I think the presence of “soap opera-esque” moments and themes in narratively complex programs can sometimes be explained by the fact that writers often fall into writing “melodramatically” by accident. It can be easy, but it’s not necessarily a cop out. Because it’s such well-covered territory, writing in a soapy fashion is sometimes the most effective way of getting information across – those two characters love each other, there’s tension in the air etc..

As Mittell says, it’s hard to dip in and out of narratively complex programs, which tend to progress a lot faster than soap operas. Maybe it’s time I dip back into Passions, if just for old time’s sake.