Tag Archives: TV Cultures

Week 7: The Problems With “Quality TV” and Emergence of Narrative Complexity

The term “Quality TV” was destined to be contentious. It is used by some to describe a distinct form of television storytelling that has emerged in the last 20 or so years. Specifically, it refers to those long-form programs presented in series structure which bring narrative complexity and innovation to the fore and present an alternative to traditional episodic and serial storytelling. Commonly cited examples include The SopranosThe Wire and Breaking Bad.

“Quality TV” is a problematic term because it sounds like a value judgement, apparently positioning one of television’s many branches as superior to the others. At their simplest, value judgements manifest as notions of what is “good” or “bad” and are subjective by nature. There are widely held views on certain things, but just because a lot of people hated Garfield 2 (Tim Hill, 2006) doesn’t mean everyone hated Garfield 2. Come on, the animation is pretty cool.

This is the primary reason why I prefer the way Jason Mittell describes this relatively new breed of programming: “narratively complex” TV. As Mittell points out in his article, ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’: “Complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed.” He goes on to explore some of the key aspects of complex narrative television.

…we thrill both at the stories being told and at the way in which their telling breaks television conventions” (Jason Mittell, 2006, p.36).

It’s hard to define narratively complex television for the simple reason that it is not nearly so formula-driven as typical episodic (e.g. The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) or serial programming (e.g. Neighbours, Home and Away, General Hospital). Instead, Mittel says, narrative complexity challenges these television norms, while simultaneously employing the two. He proclaims that this “…interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling” is one of the key identifying factors of narrative complexity. It is “non-discrete” episodic TV that promotes the sense of ongoing and multi-faceted narratives spanning a variety of established genres.

This multi-focal approach – with both story arcs across both episodes and seasons – immediately reminds me of Showtime’s Dexter. Mittell describes The X-Files as having a “monster-of-the-week” focus while proliferating the longer-term narrative arc of the show’s own “mythology”. Similarly, episodes of Dexter mostly feature a “kill of the week” – a bad guy that Dexter (Michael C. Hall) researches, stalks and idiosyncratically whacks for their crimes. These weekly tales occur within season-long narrative frameworks similar to those Mittell associates with Buffy. Each season of Dexter has a primary “villain”: The Ice Truck Killer (Season 1), Bay Harbor Butcher (Season 2), Miguel Prado (Season 3), The Trinity Killer (Season 4), and so on. It is a mix of cop show, thriller, mystery, romance and black comedy and the show’s numerous episodic and season-long story arcs reflect this.

But there is also an over-arching narrative arc that runs for the show’s entirety. Dexter finds himself  unable to meaningfully connect with human feelings and emotions. By remembering more and more from his past (which take the form of flashbacks), he is forever trying to discover himself and his humanity. Dexter’s voiceover narration is an amazing storytelling device. It offers insights into his state of mind, reveals where he is at in his quest for self-discovery and frequently contradicts what his face and body language is outwardly telling other characters. It can be funny, frightening and strange. I can’t see this plot arc ever reaching any kind of genuine resolution – Dexter’s character is too foreign, layered and unknowable.

Season 10: Dexter remembers everything from his troubled past, suddenly feels true emotions and IT ALL MAKES SENSE. I don’t see this happening. It had better not!

Mittell also points out that episodes of narratively complex programs rarely have neatly packaged endings. This encourages viewers to watch the next installment, which will then propel or colour the narrative further. “Cliffhangers” immediately spring to mind – moments that have you demanding to know what happens next. The Game of Thrones pilot ends in this fashion, with one character pushed out of a window by another – will they live, or will they perish?

Sometimes it is an entire season of a narratively complex program that ends with a cliffhanger, like the Twin Peaks season one finale, which concludes as Agent Cooper is gunned down, his fate unknown. Being forced to wait until the release of a new episode or season can be frustrating, but also exciting.

Mittell goes as far as to say that narrative mechanics, the way a complicated story is written and constructed, can be a source of viewer pleasure in itself – “narrative special effects”. He connects this to the “operational aesthetic” audiences revel in while watching the work of elaborate physical/stunt comedies like those of Buster Keaton, or more recently Frank Woodley. Mittell says the viewer satisfaction and wonder derived from many complex comedies as coming from asking “how did they do that?” as opposed to “what will happen next?”.

Seinfeld is the perfect example of the remarkable tying together of several seemingly unrelated storylines through cleverly orchestrated “coincidence” and “chance”. That’s why Mittell cites it. HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (also created by Seinfeld‘s Larry David) is also mentioned, but not given nearly enough time.

Littered with self-referentiality, Curb is sometimes so beautifully cringeworthy that it’s hard to watch. But it’s also impossible to look away – I blame the artful writing. At its centre is the painfully inflammatory “Larry David” (Larry David). No matter how hard he tries, Larry cannot escape conflict. Sometimes it looks like he’ll escape condemnation, ridicule, attack, physical violence or some or all of the above. That’s just what the creators want you to think. But he never does. The show’s writing creates the equivalent effect of an on-screen explosion. It never fails to amaze me.

It seems appropriate to finish this post with a nod to this week’s timely edition of The Age‘s greenguide, the front cover of which reads: “The A-List: We choose the best 25 shows from the last 25 years.” You can probably take a guess at which shows are on the list. No prizes.

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Week 6: Fantasy Furore – The Reception of HBO’s ‘Game Of Thrones’

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*.

If recent talk is anything to go by, Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-) is destined to earn the “classic” tag in the future. The screening of the pilot in week six was my first look at television’s latest craze.

“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.

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 excitedly mentions 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. 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 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).

Week 5: An Awkwardly Anglocentric Admission

To kick off this post I’d like to include a brief history of my favourite television programs from over the years. I did this in my head at the start of this semester and it was very revealing…

Local highlights from my childhood include Round the Twist and SeaChange. My teenage years were all about Channel Ten’s American exports The O.C. and House. More recently, I’ve taken to The Walking Dead, Offspring and Twin Peaks.

      

One thing is immediately noticeable – the distinct lack of anything even vaguely “non-Western”. How disconcerting.

With the exceptions of the odd Bollywood movie and piece of Hong Kong cinema screened in RMIT’s cinema strand, my film and television viewing habits have revolved almost exclusively around “texts” of “Western” origins.

The U.S.A., the United Kingdom and Australia are the collective epicentre of my television activities. Boring? Maybe. Something I want to change? Definitely.

Occasionally friends or family members have mentioned to me the virtues of Japanese manga. International mega hit Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) aside, I haven’t yet delved into much of what this popular segment of Japanese culture has to offer.

What I have witnessed, though, is my brother absorbing episode after episode of manga television shows, including NarutoCowboy Bebop and Fullmetal Alchemist. But, cartoons have never really been my thing.

Cue my thoughts on Brian’s lecture from last week, specifically the sections we were shown from three popular East Asian television programs. These tastes of Tokyo Love Story (Japan), Long Vacation (Japan) and Winter’s Sonata (Korea), as you can probably guess, were my first experiences of non-English language TV drama.

Prior to screening the excerpts, Brian quoted the words of media and cultural studies theorists Ien Ang and Jon Stratton as utilised by Koichi Iwabuchi.

In “Discrepant Intimacy: Popular Culture Flows in East Asia” (2005), Iwabuchi notes Ang and Stratton’s identification of the roles of urbanisation and modernisation in the creation of a world “…where familiar difference and bizarre sameness are simultaneously articulated in multiple ways…”.

Cultural products, including television shows, are one way in which the similarities and differences between cultures are revealed.

These ideas of familiar difference and bizarre sameness were apparent in Brian’s juxtaposition of American super sitcom Friends and Tokyo Love Story. I was surprised to find that, for me, the similarities between the two programs were just as easy to see as the differences. I did not think I would be able to move past the differences. I was wrong.

The most overt “familiar difference”  was the simple fact that the dialogue in Tokyo Love Story is in Japanese. This meant that, in order to understand the narrative, I had to read English subtitles.

Reading subtitles has never been a problem for me, but no matter how hard I try the process always takes something away from my immersion in a storyworld. The reflexive nature of subtitling constantly reminds me that what I’m watching is constructed. The suspension of my disbelief dwindles.

The other immediately noticeable difference was just as expected: the presence of Japanese actors dramatising the action. Without wanting to engage in borderline racist pseudo-science, the fact that I don’t look or sound like the people I was seeing onscreen did not affect my enjoyment.

Instead, I was drawn in and intrigued by the “foreignness” of Tokyo Love Story. Yes, I do live in a multicultural city. Yes, I do have Japanese friends. But no, as I said earlier, I had never seen anything like this aside from the odd clip on YouTube. My history of consuming largely “Western” cultural texts made watching this popular Japanese drama a completely new experience. It was a breath of fresh air. And I loved it.

The similarities between Friends and Tokyo Love Story that resonated with me most were largely related to storytelling and narrative. I remember one student remarking after the lecture that Tokyo Love Story was “just Friends in Japanese”. Personally I wouldn’t go that far, but I was shocked at how easily some of the dominant themes could easily be transferred from one show to the other.

For example, if Monica echoed the famous words of Rika in Tokyo Love Story: “Chandler, let’s have sex,” I wouldn’t blink twice.

They are both stories of young people living in modern cities that symbolically represent the pursuits of the everyday. Characters dream of romance, have fun and attempt to resolve both internal and external frustrations.

With the globalisation of communication technologies, migration of people and growing transience of traditional geographic boundaries, much success seems to be derived from concentrating on these increasingly universal aspects of the human condition.

I hope that targeting transnational success is going to become a more readily achievable feature of television production in the near future.

Week 4: Webisodes and Transmedia

Yes WordPress, I would like to add the word “webisode” to my dictionary. I know it’s obvious to some, but the term webisode combines the words “web” and “episode”.

Put simply, webisodes could be described as made for online videos with links to the storyworld of a program that is (or has been) broadcast on television.

In his article, ‘Television’s Aesthetic of Efficiency: Convergence Television and the Digital Short’, Max Dawson provides an in-depth look at the webisode as a platform for storytelling and the politics surrounding this. He calls webisodes by a number of names, including “digital shorts”, which he describes as:

“The short-form ancillary texts produced by television networks, studios, or independent producers as digital extensions of present or past television series for commercial and/or promotional purposes.”

Webisodes are just part of “transmedia”, an emerging and transient element of the mediascape explored by Matt in his guest lecture last week. One blog post just isn’t enough to encompass such a complex and layered topic.

Matt’s description of “transmedia”, like Dawson’s definition of webisodes, contained references to the extension of a show’s narrative – but across more than one medium.

Novels, video games, board games and comics could all be considered forays into the transmedia jungle, offering more ways for viewers to interact with and become immersed in their favourite shows.

My first transmedia experience (I only see it this way in hindsight) was reading “The Outsider“, a novel detailing the backstory of Ryan Atwood, one of the protagonists in The O.C.. Although it was not particularly well written, I distinctly remember lapping up page after page for no other reason than it was new O.C. material.

Regardless of the text’s quality, I was willing to persist with it in order to experience more branded O.C. moments. Some critics of transmedia would say that it is this attitude that networks are (often literally) banking on when they choose to experiment in the area.

Interestingly, the name of The Outsider‘s author is not printed on the front or back covers. Instead, an enormous O.C. logo occupies the place where that name may normally be, encouraging readers to see the book as “authentic” – the “official” story.

When searching for a webisode to watch and analyse for this blog post, I was restricted by my Australian location, with some American networks’ websites barring me from viewing their video content. Note to self: read “The Tyranny of Digital Distance” by Tama Leaver.

Instead, I was forced to watch webisodes of AMC’s The Walking Dead on king of the video aggregation sites, YouTube. This allowed me to watch all of the webisodes without “external” advertising interruptions – a user had uploaded them as one video.

This was great, but did not allow me to experience the webisodes as AMC would have liked me to.

Immediately after hit the play button, the tension between commercial and narrative concerns, which Dawson says is present in all webisodes, became apparent. The Walking Dead: Torn Apart is “presented by Pizza Hut”. Pizza and reanimated corpses – quite the combo.

Torn Apart (2011) is a six-part webisode series that documents the otherwise unknown backstory of Hannah, one of the most iconic “walkers” in the “key” text. In episode one of The Walking Dead, Hannah appears only as the mutilated and partially decomposed upper half of an infected woman.

Without legs, zombie Hannah moves by clawing her way forward commando style, her spinal chord dragging along the ground as she goes. It’s a hard image to forget.

Each installment of Torn Apart is between two and three minutes in duration and contains part of the lead up to Hannah becoming the pitiful sub-human creature seen in episode one.

As a huge fan of The Walking Dead, I found the web series thoroughly engrossing despite its having no impact on the trajectory of the show. Why?

Every webisode ends climactically, but also leaves plot points unresolved. Websode one ends with Sarah clambering into the relative safety of a live man’s home following a near-fatal encounter with a walker. Who is the man? Will they survive for long? It’s hard not to want answers to these questions, so I watched on.

I’m not sure my desire to see what happens next would have been so great had I been waiting for a new webisode to be released once a week. As it happened, thanks to YouTube user ministorm1985, I had every episode at my fingertips.

Torn Apart “looks” the same as the key text. It is shot in a way that should be familiar and satisfying to fans of the show, but also enticing to people that have not seen it.

Towards the end of his article, Dawson asserts: “Nearly all of the digital shorts found on television networks’ and studios’ websites and mobile portals promote something.”

Torn Apart is a great advertisement for the show: energetic, action-packed and heavily branded with beginning and end title brand reinforcement.

Wouldn’t mind a pizza actually…

Vox Pops = Pretty Frightening

Last week I posted some thoughts about the function and purpose of vox pops in the contemporary mediascape. I voiced scepticism at the common belief that these TV mainstays were an accurate indicator of public opinion.

On Thursday last week I had a crack at conducting some vox pops of my own and here’s hoping the famous saying that “practice makes perfect” applies.

Don’t get me wrong, the “voxies” I conducted with my Television Journalism classmates Annie and Soren were not bad, just nerve-wracking to obtain.

Having recorded radio vox pops on a number of occasions, I went into the exercise with some idea of what to expect. But bring out a camera and people seem less likely to want to chat. Myself included.

Intimidating aren’t they?

It’s not that I dislike being on camera, I love it. But many others don’t. It was almost as if their reluctance was transferring onto me – I didn’t want to ask somebody to do something they didn’t want to do.

But the fact is that some people are more than happy to have their opinions captured on video. You just have to be willing to suffer a few rejections in order to find them.

Bite the bullet, son, bite the bullet.

Next week we are required to edit the footage using Final Cut Pro. I’ll post a few videos up here, I’m interested to hear the thoughts of others.

Week 3: Vox Pops – Representative of Public Opinion?

The short excerpt that Matt handed out in tutes last week contained some interesting food for thought. Written by Gordon Finlayson, it examined some of German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas’ ideas about the “public sphere” and its supposed decline.

Finlayson supplies an adequate definition for “public sphere”: “…a space where subjects participate as equals in rational discussion in pursuit of truth and the common good”. It sounds pretty good when you put it like that.

Too good to be true? Habermas thinks so, describing this notion of the public sphere as both an idea and an ideology – a democratic ideal so deeply rooted in society that its existence has become a Utopian assumption.

Finlayson asserts that in the 19th and 20th centuries, the cracks started to appear – “…public opinion could be stage-managed and manipulated” by the mass-media, which (perhaps arguably) only represented the interests of a privileged minority.

Sitting in a Television Journalism lecture this morning, I noticed the connection between vox pops and Habermas’ theory.

My lecturer, acclaimed Australian journalist Jill Singer, channelled Habermas in stating that vox pops – that old favourite gauge of public opinion – are in fact anything but representative of wider public opinion.

This is despite the common mode of presenting them as unmediated and all-inclusive input from, for example, the “everyday Australian”.

The program conducting the vox pops will, more often than not, enter the process with an agenda or at least an idea of the material they would like to come away with.

Finlayson’s use of the term “stage-managed” to describe the modern approach to depicting public opinion seems most appropriate.

The BBC, Jill noted, sees vox pops as nothing more than expressions of one side of an argument and not an indication of the weight of opinion on either side of an issue.

When it comes time to record my own “news” vox pops this semester, I’ll get a hands on, practitioner’s perspective on obtaining vox populi – “the voice of the people”.

Week 3: Television and the National Family

Too many people live in Australia for each individual to know everyone else. Instead, it is the mass media – print, radio, television and online outlets – that instill a sense of what it means to be Australian (‘Strayan?).

That is the basic principle behind Benedict Anderson’s theory of the “imagined community”, which is echoed and expanded upon by David Morley in his article ‘Broadcasting and the Construction of the National Family’.

Before moving to discussion of “brekky shows”, a quick moment of reflection on the local coverage of the 2012 London Olympics – perhaps the pinnacle of all sports spectacles.

Last night, the Australian men’s basketball team came up against the might of the American “Dream Team” in the Olympic quarter-finals. In the game for the first three quarters, the Boomers gave a good account of themselves against the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

One of the key ways in which television hammers home notions of “Australianness”, having played a part of developing a “collective national identity”, is by ritualising certain themes and ideas. Does the Australian “fighting spirit” ring any bells? What about the “fair go” attitude, or “our” country as the perennial underdog?

It’s no coincidence that the catchy theme from Men At Work’s “I Come From a Land Down Under” appears in every Channel Nine ad break. The fact that it is a Telstra ad is almost irrelevant as it airs stereotypes with which we are all familiar and features people from “all walks of life”.

In national sporting events, this “fighting spirit” has come to be symbolised by the boxing kangaroo mascot, among other manifestations. Following several successful shots by the Aussie ‘ballers, Channel Nine showed the ever-patriotic Laurie Lawrence parading through the aisles with one of these blow-up ‘roos.

Lawrence, a former member of the Australian rugby union team and former national swimming coach, represents part of Australian sporting history. His presence inspired a sense of nostalgia in me and memories of “our” proud sporting tradition in this country.

It is interesting that I “remembered” several past Olympic moments upon seeing Lawrence. Especially considering some of those moments occurred at the 1956 Melbourne Games, some 35 years before I was born. What I was in fact remembering came from the national memory bank.

Television broadcasts from the time, some of the first images seen on television in Australia (seen by the select few who could afford a TV and invite friends over to watch), have a sense of timelessness. That is because footage of, for example, Dawn Fraser’s performances in the pool or Betty Cuthbert’s success on the track are always replayed as each Olympics rolls around.

Morley explores the extent to which broadcasting promotes national unity and character through “synchronised experience” – people watching the same thing at the same time.

I would argue that the truly synchronised experience is becoming less prominent as television recording technologies become more and more sophisticated. TiVo, Foxtel IQ and online downloads have changed when and how many “texts” are consumed. Large numbers of people now have the ability to watch what they want, when they want.

The “breakfast television” format is largely immune to this trend. Why? Programs like Seven’s Sunrise and Nine’s Today have entrenched themselves in the AM timeslot. Anyway, who would want to record a breakfast show to enjoy over lunch or dinner?

The answer to this question is obvious – a small number of eccentrics. This is because the conventions of “brekky TV”, like bright set design, casual presentation style, coffee cups on the desk and the clock in the bottom right are what we expect to see when we turn on the box in the morning.

All of these things seem to scream, as Morley quotes Paddy Scannell: “time to get up”!.

The segment of Sunrise we watched in last week’s lecture contained all these things, along with a “liveness” accentuated by showing the cameras, microphones and crew upon returning from an ad break.

Although it is based in Sydney, Sunrise is “everyday”, national programming at its most extreme, most simply illustrated by the weather updates that appear in the bottom left of the screen for all major cities.

Morley states that at the BBC “even the weather was nationalised…”. In Britain this involved listing ocean conditions all around the country’s boundaries. Not only does this update come at the same time every day as it has done for years, it also highlights the importance of the region’s maritime industries.

Another explicit demonstration of breakfast television’s “we are one, but we are many” nationalising approach can be seen in the “around the country” segments that have become common to many morning programs.

These segments involve a dissecting the screen into a multi-screen for each major city. A presenter, often a television personality, then covers what’s going on in their own city on that day – special events etc..

Can you imagine a day in which breakfast programming (as we know it) is not shown?

I can’t.