My year has been defined more than anything by being a parent of a very young child, a baby boy born in late November 2009. I saw many of my favorite movies of 2009 on video in early 2010 (A Serious Man and Inglourious Basterds were among them but The Hurt Locker was a disappointment, and none of what I have seen of the '09 vintage impresses me more than Up), and very few of what I expect to be my favorite movies of 2010. I also played a lot of video games, but few of the year's releases. This is in such contrast to earlier times in my life, when I had no television or gaming console, and would see several films a week, and not infrequently more than one a day in the theater. Over the years I have become just as interested in television as an object of study as cinema, and have been spending more home time with TV than movies for several years. With two kids and busy semester business for much of the year, in addition to a number of active research projects, this has left barely an hour a day of audiovisual media consumption in the evenings, which is enough to keep up with a big handful of shows but not a very satisfying condition for consuming motion picture features. I'd like to seem a bit ashamed of how much I have given up watching movies, but I have a hard time seeing greater value in them than I find in television shows.
And more than any other form of media, it's the internet that got the largest share of my attention in 2010. If I had to say what was my favorite thing of all, it would probably be the web in all its various forms and in the many ways I have accessed it -- MacBook Pro, iPod touch, iPad, computer terminals in public places. I was reluctant to become one of those new gadget enthusiasts, the bleeding-edge tech geeks so ridiculously enamored of mere devices. But I often feel excessively for the iPad, which I got late in the summer. It's my best toy since the Wii. It's a portable TV for showing YouTube videos to the baby, an easy way of checking in on email and Twitter from the couch of away from home, and a great format for reading many kinds of prose. I still use an iPod touch all the time too, for reading in bed and carrying in my pocket, and for music much more than the iPad. I would want to give either one of them up.
Of course much of my time this year was spent with culture of the past, and I'm keeping this list 2010 only. As in previous installments, what follows is in no particular order.
Definitely Twitter, certainly not Facebook. Amanda Klein recently wrote a very nice appreciation of why Twitter is so appealing and so useful. Someone said Facebook is for the people you used to know, Twitter is for the people you want to know. Twitter is amusing, informative, and sometimes outrageous. I sometimes go to it for advice and conversation, but more than that I find it offers a continual connection with a cluster of overlapping public communities of shared interest. I stay with Facebook because I care about many of the people I keep in touch with there, but I always wish there were a better way to keep us connected.
Terriers was my favorite new show of the season, and I wasn't surprised or even really devastated by its cancellation, which seemed inevitable. I admired its crackling dialog and subtle characterizations, and it eventually made me forget that Donal Logue was the title character in The Tao of Steve. The theme song by Robert Duncan made us dance on the couch once a week. We'll miss you.
Devour is a web video aggregator, a sort of curated best-of-YouTube site where there is always something worth watching. It has an appealing layout, with blurred thumbnails on which simple titles are superimposed. I follow it in an RSS reader, but increasingly RSS reader interfaces are losing their appeal as new forms of aggregation do what they do better. Devour is a good example, as the visual experience of a grid of selected videos beats the listed headlines or river of news you find in feedreaders.
I'm really fascinated by user-generated movie posters, which John August blogged about as "unsheets" (a play on "onesheets"). These are especially intriguing when they are especially minimalist and geometric, or just graphically simple and spare. They often call on your familiarity with a text, but they are also often highly suggestive and appetizing, making the viewer eager to know more. See also minimal movie posters and minimal TV series posters. I guess part of what makes these so arresting is that they're so different from the official posters issued by publicity departments. They might not effectively sell films and television shows to the most desirable audiences, but they allow us to imagine how visual culture might be different if it approached audiences differently.
Girl Talk, All Day. Girl Talk is all about the culture clashes inherent in popular music, making white music more dangerous and black music more palatable to white people. I find it totally audacious and inspiring, and I don't tire of listening even long after the most original and shocking moments have become familiar.
That Rube Goldberg OK Go video, "This Too Shall Pass" (see this interview for more).
30 Rock, which still makes me laugh every time. Honorable mention, among the sitcoms, to Modern Family. I have tried watching Community and Parks & Rec, and I know you probably think I'm lame for saying this but, they irritate me and I don't find them all that funny.
Mad Men, whose fourth season was as insanely watchable and engrossing as the first three. I'm eager to rewatch on DVD to pay more attention to Megan and Faye, and to appreciate the delicacy with which the story of Don's return to middle-class family life was unfolded. The scene of Don's return to Anna Draper's house, when he tells his kids that Dick refers to him, was especially memorable. Zosia Mamet as Joyce, Peggy's friend in the photo dept at Life magazine, was always fascinating, even more so given that the same actress also had quite different roles on United States of Tara and Parenthood.
Mallory’s Clothes, a compendium of screencaps from episodes of Family Ties. I'm fascinated by the use of screencaps in a kind of vernacular media criticism and appreciation, extending the apparatus of scholarly analysis to ordinary folks. The appreciation of the visuals of this 1980s sitcom strikes me as deeply loving and real.
Nicholson Baker on video games in the New Yorker.
The meta ending of The Hills, a gesture of real fakery in an increasingly unsuccessful representation of fake reality.
In Treatment's third season, especially the genius casting of Amy Ryan as Paul's new shrink Adele who's so hard to read, and Irrfan Khan as Sunil, a patient from Calcutta who wins Paul's admiration and affection but to his own selfish ends.
Parenthood is one of the few network dramas I ever look forward to these days, except I don’t like the whole show, just parts and things it could be -- I like Dax Shepard as a comical leading man type (Crosby) and Sarah Ramos in the Angela Chase role (Haddie) much more than Peter Krause and Lauren Graham, both of them too familiar from earlier roles (I wonder if Nate or Lorelai would have any patience for these two), love classic cute kid Jabbar of course, don’t buy Craig T. Nelson as a Berkeley type, hate the overuse of communal happy endings and little victories you know the network execs love and the writers find tiresome. I think what I really like is that it reminds me of the Zwick and Herskovitz dramas like thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, and Once & Again that I wish were still on the air.
I liked the stoner roommate on Accidentally on Purpose and the curly-haired Jewish kid on Huge, two shows I enjoyed watching occasionally and without paying that much attention.
Pants on the Ground. Best thing about a fairly terrible season of Idol.
Survivor All-Stars was good entertainment, and was especially enjoyable through the filter of snarky Twitter fans like @fymaxwell. Twitter has put "appointment television" back on the agenda, though it seems many of the shows people like to watch all at once come in for some considerable mockery (I'm thinking of The Oscars as well as other awards shows and reality competitions). I generally avoid this stuff not just because I usually really like the shows I watch, but also because we aren't giving up time-shifting so quickly.
The Olympics, especially curling, held my attention last winter. I wish there were more curling on TV at other times. The World Cup was equally consuming. I seem to focus my attention on the aesthetics of sports as much as the play, and with the World Cup I get fascinated by the difference between sports style at home and abroad. For instance, check out the typography on the Italian kit. I was delighted by the vuvuzelas and all the bourgeois consternation they caused. It's always interesting to encounter differing gender norms, as when seeing men like Sergio Ramos in headbands, or the Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o's form-fitting jersey.
Belle & Sebastian, Write about Love. The same catchy melodic lines and melancholy lyrics, the same vocal harmonies and inventive instrumentations familiar from earlier recordings, but now with indelible guest vocals by Norah Jones and Carey Mulligan. I like how the band has moved toward more female vocals but without changing much of what makes Stuart Murdoch's songs so original and catchy.
Movies in Frames, a tumblr blog to which people submit four frames stacked one on top of the other from a film. Sometimes these remind me of a movie I liked by recalling some of the most memorable or arresting images. But just as often they give the impression of having seen an interesting film I probably won't ever see. And they appreciate the qualities of movies as a pictorial art.
The Perfect Getaway
O Cheiro do Ralo (Drained)
A Woman is a Woman
Molly Young on immersive retail in The Believer, about the aesthetics of stores like Hollister.
Lone Star, a great pilot, really wish it had the chance to become a great show. And thanks for the Mumford & Sons.
The Lady Gaga profile in New York by Vanessa Grigoriadis. I've been listening to Lady Gaga all year. My kids like her too. I still find her videos pretty fascinating and her Larry King interview was amusing, but I find that underneath the pastiche of Madonna and the performance of celebrity is a quality of classic songcraft and vocal performance missing from much of today's pop. When a Twitter friend asked who people thought we'd still be listening to in 25 from among today's artists, I didn't think long before naming Lady Gaga. I already feel like Bad Romance has been stuck in my head for 20 years.
Damages, Martin Short and Campbell Scott in particular as morally compromised men embroiled in scandal.
The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and its two predecesors, which I read on an iPod touch in a pretty brief period of time. Great character, impressive plotting, sometimes preposterous, unimpressive prose style. I like reading on the iPod because the screen is so small you can turn pages frequently and it feels like perpetual progress.
xkcd, the only comic strip I never miss.
Treme, which started slow and seemed populated by an unnecessary number of obnoxious male characters, but worked its way up to a pretty poignant ending celebrating the human spirit and the vitality of New Orleans culture. The most memorable sequence for me was the montage in the finale set to "My Indian Red."
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, visually exuberant, and very Torontonian.
The Imperfectionists, a network narrative about the news biz.
Arcade Fire's video "The Wilderness Downtown." I like the album but not as much as the hype made me want to, and as rock music meditations on suburbia go, I still like Billy Joel's Captain Jack.
I don't think I've seen her work in person, but I was glad to read anything about Marina Abramovic at MoMA, like the writeup by Arthur Danto in the NYT.
The Social Network didn't seem like it could have been the best film of the year, but it's images and narrative have stuck with me, and I saw so few films in the theater that I guess it's a fave. I mean, I liked it much more than Eat Pray Love or The Kids are Alright. I still wonder if it would have made any impression at all if it weren't about Facebook -- if the company in the movie were something no one has heard of. I think it would be really boring, but maybe Facebook represents something interesting enough that making a fairly pedestrian movie about it can tap into something vital.
I like the Facebook like button. I wish the whole world were covered in those thumbs you could click on to indicate your approval. Ever since the like button appeared, I find myself in situations in which it would be nice to have the option to just like, and engage no further. People often gripe that there ought to be a dislike button, but I appreciate any effort to keep the internet and the world for that matter civil. (I do not like the things the Facebook like button represents re Facebook's business model, its notion of community, its eagerness to sell my data to advertisers, etc.)
I have a bunch of favorite iPad apps and I'm not that eager to go on about them, but I'll mention a few: Flipboard, Note Taker HD, GoodReader, and Reeder. All are ways of reading certain kinds of things -- Flipboard and Reeder for news, blog, and social network content, NoteTaker and GoodReader for PDF documents. One of my most important uses of the iPad is to read (and annotate) PDFs.
Finally, some favorite blogs or blog-like sites, God bless you all, and here's to oodles of good pictures and words in 2011:
The Awl, News for TV Majors, Antenna, Flow, Ludic Despair, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, This Recording, Kottke, Marginal Revolution, Torontoist, Waxy, Boing Boing, By Ken Levine, Seriocity, Observations on Film Art, Just TV, The Film Doctor, flickr blog, The Big Picture, Language Log, Uni Watch, Abstract City, James Fallows, Wordyard, Collision Detection, HRO, Film Studies for Free, Girish, Judgmental Observer, Cultural Learnings, The Gurgling Cod, Torrent Freak,The Extratextuals, Press Start to Drink, longreads, The Browser, and a few more fun tumblrs for good measure: this isn't happiness, Unhappy Hipsters, and Selleck Waterfall Sandwich. Clicking that last link is one recommended way to ring in a new year with a smile and a good feeling about what's possible when just about anyone can put just about anything in public.
See you next year!
"The Attention-Span Myth"
I spent a couple of hours corresponding with VH and she didn't quote me at all, which is a bit disappointing but not surprising. I was aware that sources often wonder why so little of what they tell reporters makes it into print, and I was really only hoping for a phrase or two. But I spent more than a few minutes on this so I figure it might as well be published here on the blog. I wrote most it trying to sound like a quote from a media scholar in a NYT article, but not the kind in an article on spaghetti tacos.
The following is pasted from three separate emails I wrote. This isn't everything I wrote, and I'm not reproducing the messages these respond to, so this might have some of the qualities of an overheard half of a phone conversation.
from my email #1, which I sent with my article attached:
My thoughts, in brief, are that we blame media for harming our attention without having very compelling evidence that this is so, and that this fits within a larger pattern of ascribing harmful effects to media, especially those aimed at young audiences, like children's television and music videos. But I guess you're supposed to ask me questions? Looking forward!
from my email #2 in response to a message containing a number of questions about attention spans:
Part of what I have to say I have already written about. We used to use "attention span" mainly to refer to children's abilities relative to adults. Everyone knows children are worse than adults at paying attention to some things. Thus the problems with sitting still in church/school, and the praise of kids who are good at doing this for being smart or well brought up. In my research I found that after Sesame Street had been on the air for a few years, the term migrated from mainly educational and child-related contexts to broader ones. The popular press circulated the technique of shaping media to suit children's habits of attention (which was how Sesame Street's "magazine" format was discussed), and this got turned around by experts and media feeding off of them. Now the idea was that television harms children's attention, or the whole of society's attention.
I should say I'm a media scholar and not a psychologist, and I am not the most competent person to discuss attention/attention span as a psychological or cognitive concept. I study the social circulation of ideas about media. But from what I have read, "attention span" is a term with no technical meaning. It could be a good example of a lay theory -- a widely held idea that may have little basis in science.
from my email #3 answering some of the initial questions I didn't respond to in #2, and follwing VH's encouragement to keep writing:
We are mistaken if we think that attention is a virtue and distraction is a vice. Sometimes it's intensely pleasurable and productive to be absorbed totally in an activity like reading, watching a movie or TV show, or playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii. When I'm writing I like to eliminate distraction as much as possible. But some forms of media (and life) call on a different mode of experience. I have always loved The Price is Right but these days usually when I get to watch it I'm looking after my kids. If the baby cries I pick him up and take him away to be fed or changed. A lot of radio and TV is made to be experienced with our attention divided, and the pleasures are often casual and repetitive, short bursts over a long term. A contestant wins a car and is overcome with exuberance, and Drew Carey breaks into a huge grin. You can appreciate one great moment of something and it's sufficient and beautiful. Thirty seconds of SportsCenter is all you need sometimes. I look up from the book I'm reading while working out at the gym and see a couple of miraculous or even merely lively highlights. Sustained attention wouldn't improve the experience (hearing the sound from the TV might diminish it). Then the moment is over and I go back to reading intensively.
Distraction has often been seen as an essentially modern condition. Writing in 1936, Walter Benjamin described a "mode of perception" typical of modernity, which he connected to the arts and culture of his pre-war European experience: Cubism and Dada and especially cinema with its montage aesthetics. So much of what seemed new about modern experience was understood as disruptive or fragmentary or fast-paced, like the bustling city with flashing lights and traffic moving in every direction. Dziga Vertov's constructivist film The Man With a Movie Camera captures this sense of modernity's energy and vitality in all of its revolutionary character. Benjamin describes modernity as shocking. The contemporary ideas circulating about the internet making us stupid pick up on a long line of thought about technology shaping our habits of thought, though to Benjamin distraction was supposed to improve our critical faculties rather than diminish them. (Film puts the public "in the position of the critic.") Of course "modernity" itself is the idea that our world is marked off from that of the past, that there is a historical break, a radical discontinuity.
I think you're right that much of the cultural concern with diminishing attention spans over the past few decades requires a nostalgic projection of how our minds used to work before modern technologies came along and corrupted us. There is a dystopian rhetoric that runs through much of the thinking about advanced media technologies and their social effects. If only we could get back to that idealized past before the invention of the transformative machines. This is fantasy of unattainable authentic experience. Buying into it might help us manage our anxiety over the changes that accompany the introduction of new media technologies.
My research on attention spans is trying to get at a specific history of thinking about one aspect of this big topic of media having powerful social effects. In particular I look at how the popular press promotes ideas about media effects. The Times, among other sources, helped popularize the idea that Sesame Street was not really helping children learn, as was its intention and as many people believed, as much as it was harming kids by shrinking their attention spans. Popular press discourses have power in influencing the popular imagination about media and their effects, helping shape our lay theories of how things work, which may or may not align with the theories of experts. Society under threat by the new, good-seeming thing is a familiar, but powerful, trope of reporting about issues like this one. So these ideas about attention come from many places, and satisfy many needs and desires, but one way they achieve their status as a kind of common sense is by circulating so widely and repetitively in the press.
This week I received the page proofs of Indie: An American Film Culture, my book to be published early in 2011 by Columbia University Press. Now finally it looks like a book rather than just a folder of Word documents and image files that I work with on my computer. It has a title page and a copyright page, and section titles and page numbers at the top of each page in interesting typefaces. I've been writing this book for ages so I'm pretty excited for it to be ready for you to read it. A chapter about film festivals and art houses incorporates some research and a few paragraphs from a paper I wrote for a historiography seminar I took in graduate school ten years ago. Much of the conceptual frame was developed for my PhD dissertation, which I defended almost six years ago. So the culmination of this project feels big considering how much of my life it has consumed.
I decided a few years ago not to blog much about this book as a work in progress. Partly it was because I didn't see the topic being particularly timely (indie cinema is still a going concern, but to save myself the angst of seeing the topic as a moving target I have been thinking of it as historical). Partly it was because I was interested in exploring other topics on the blog, as a break from my focus on independent cinema. More so it's been to save the ideas for the published final product, to hold off until it's done.
Blog and book as textual forms can both be thought of as publishing, but each has its own distinctive qualities, expectations we bring to the experience. Each has its own time. As we migrate our reading experience to networks and screens, the book (along with the magazine, journal, newspaper...) is defamiliarized. Now we consider the benefits and detriments of reading paper-and-ink rather than pixels or e-ink, and the old ways seem less natural and more contingent. Maybe now we can appreciate book time as we could not before, can think of how we might want book time to be integral to the experience of reading using our new technologies and interfaces and communities of knowledge. I think of book time as slow and careful time, as time for patient and immersive, even contemplative experience. I don't mean to essentialize too much, and I often use books as reference works, I read only the two pages I need, I skim, I photocopy one chapter, etc. But a book has the potential to have a certain temporal feel if you use it the way I'm thinking of.
My thoughts about book time and blog time are part of a larger fascination with temporality. Lately I've been strangely conscious of the temporal disunity and variability of my life, and in particular of the various forms of media creation and consumption that fill so much of it. I wrote about this last spring at Antenna, when I described the Wii as a time machine taking me back to a nostalgic ideal of my youth in which I have Nintendo games to play. I get a similar feeling watching TV with my kids. Noah, who is almost one, now pretty avidly watches Teletubbies. Seeing him become animated and giggly at the sight of the baby in the sun takes me back to the days when Leo, now six, used to watch it. Leo has reached an age that is familiar to me from my own memories of childhood, and taking him to school and soccer games and piano lessons inspires constant wistful reveries. Watching commercials with him for products he wants to have reminds me of my own lifetime of consumer desires and frustrations.
When I was writing Indie, I would sometimes imagine it as a finished product. At first I only imagined it as a printed monograph with a cover and paper pages pasted together, with my name on the spine, shelved in the N's in part of the library beginning PN199something (LoC). In the past couple of years I have begun to think of it more often as a product for sale at Amazon.com with the "click to look inside" feature. More recently I have started to imagine it as a searchable volume in Google Books, and as a downloadable e-book to be read on a tablet or e-reader. I have begun to think of phrases I use and names and titles that I reference that might come up in a web search. (Are books being search engine optimized yet? They should be.) I wonder if it will be published for the Kindle, and if so what might be the most highlighted passages?
All of this is of course forward-looking, anticipatory excitement. But much of my experience of writing and publishing a book is also marked by time lag. By early next year when Indie is out I will (God willing!) have submitted the manuscript of a second book, which I have been co-writing for the past couple of years with Elana Levine, called Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. I imagine my feelings about Indie are similar to those of actors who have to go on talk shows to promote a film they shot a year ago, when their more recent work is more fresh in mind. I have to pretend that Indie is fresh as of 2011 when most of it was written at least two years ago, and some parts are from the early oughts. Compared with the instant gratification I have gotten from years of blogging -- you can read my thoughts moments after I write them, they can get a comment or link and it's all NOW -- the patience required by academic publishing is considerable. I have to perform my past self to greet the publication of this new product, and it's not that I'm lacking enthusiasm for the new thing but, well, it's not new to me, not at all. Having a book with my name on it is what's new, but the words and ideas are in the past.
Despite the frustration that comes from feeling this lag, I'm pretty pleased to have been patient. I like the form and expectations of the slow-paced book. I like its unique temporality. A book has its advantages in relation to an article or blog (and not just in its prestige/tenure functions), and even in its new digital formats a book should still maintain many of the things I like about it.
In particular what I have in mind is the argument for books offered by Susan Wallace Boehmer, Editor-in-Chief of Harvard UP in this blog post called "Standing by the Book"
I will restrain myself from quoting the whole thing, but here are some good parts. What is it about books that Boehmer likes?
I like their length. I prefer ideas and opinions and narratives that are just too complicated, too nuanced, to fit into a New Yorker article, or a Wikipedia entry, or a series of public lectures. But at the same time, I like the boundedness of books—the sense you get at the end of 300 or 400 pages that you really have a good firm grip on the subject.
She also likes the book's
division into chapters. Chapters are not like essays. Essays—in a magazine, let’s say—relate to one another sort of the way out-of-town first cousins relate at a family reunion. They have polite conversations, and maybe you’ll notice a little family resemblance, but mostly they come together briefly and then they go away to live their separate lives. Chapters in a book relate to one another the way siblings do: every one of them is looking around at every other one, all the time, sizing them up and figuring out when to play together and when to get out of the way. A book with chapters is a tight-knit little family: there’s tension in every relationship, but they’re still all in it together.
(You really should go read the whole thing. There's a part about how a table of contents ought to be a poem, what a beautiful idea.)
I also like the book's long-term temporality. There are books on my shelf that I have had for most of my life: a dictionary and a Bible that I used in grade school, an atlas I got when I was 13, children's books that my parents read to me as a little boy. I'm not very confident that the Kindle books I bought to read on my portable device will be accessible to me five or ten years down the road. E-books seem ephemeral to me, and old-fashioned paper books seem durable. But whether digital or not, a book is a pretty good way to make ideas last.
Photos, from top to bottom, are by flickr users ginnerobot, paper.clip, sapheron, simiant,, sapheron, gadl, and .michael.newman., used under creative commons licenses.
I would get her so pregnant
Pete Campbell: I’m going to be a father.
His father-in-law: Can you believe it?
Mad Men viewers: uh, yeah!
Irony is one of Mad Men's most indispensible storytelling strategies. Irony is at home in many kinds of storytelling, but Quality TV benefits from one of the most essential effects of ironic narration: it requires that we "get it." It exploits the audience's special knowledge and competence, which the text flatters us for having.
Mad Men's irony comes in several varieties. This historical setting provides frequent “we know better now” bits, as in season one’s scene at Sally Draper’s birthday party when a man slaps a boy in the face--not his own child--for running in the house. Pregnant women smoke and drink, babies ride in cars unrestrained, middle-class picnickers litter conspicuously and without hesitation. Sexist and anti-semitic attitudes are simply there, unremarkable, and though Don seems to find Roger Sterling's blackface number in "My Old Kentucky Home" to be rather unpleasant, no one calls Roger out as racist or even seems to find such a display to want in taste. Our superior knowledge gives these bits much of their dramatic weight, allowing us to see the past as a more innocent but also less advanced era and anticipating the changes that made our world. Even our foreknowledge of historical events, like Kennedy's triumph over Nixon in the 1960 election, functions to give us the kind of insider knowledge that is the essence of ironic discourse.
Another form of ironic storytelling similarly depends on the superior knowledge of the audience, but depends on the familiarity of viewers with characters and storylines stretching back through the previous seasons. This is what high school English teachers tell us is "dramatic irony" of the sort we often find in Shakespeare, in which the hierarchies of knowledge set up by the narration invite the audience to view situations from multiple perspectives. It arises frequently in this week's episode in situations in which characters' speech unwittingly comments on their situation, but only to the extent that the audience knows more than the characters.
Ken Cosgrove, to Pete: Look how lucky we are. Another Campbell, that’s just what the world needs.
In this episode, focused especially on Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson, the most devastating ironies are those referencing the ongoing storyline in which Pete impregnates Peggy and she gives the baby up for adoption. Pete remains unaware of this development until late in season 2, when he confesses his feelings for Peggy and she tells him what really happened.
In "The Rejected" (my favorite episode of this season so far) we learn that Trudy Campbell, who we had thought might be infertile, is expecting a baby. This gives the writers all kinds of opportunities to subtly refer back to the Pete and Peggy storyline.
Pete: It feels much different from what I expected.
Trudy: How would you know what this feels like?
Eventually they get around to setting up the interaction we are most eager to see: Peggy addressing Pete having heard this news. But first a series of other scenes in which we observe characters who do not know of Pete's earlier paternity respond to the news. Invariably the developments have meaning that resonate with the central thematic preoccupations of the show, those with the power imbalances of gender and class distinctions. Peggy could not have borne Pete's baby openly and also pursued her career. It would have ended her working life, at least for many years. The product of Pete's legitimate parental expectancy, however, is a new $6 million account. He who has so much advantage gains more.
This disparity is made clear in the late scene of Pete and Peggy each going off on their own lunch outing, Pete with his male colleagues and his father-in-law and his business associate from Vick's, the new account, and Peggy with her new hipster friends from Life magazine. This distinction between corporate and creative power is a fine illustration of Bourdieu's distinction between economic and cultural capital, and of the ultimate inevitable subsurvience of the latter to the former.
The storyline around the research for Pond's reinforces the themes of the Pete/Peggy situation. Allison's public breakdown over Don's inattention following their post-Christmas-party tryst gives Peggy the opportunity to deny that her sexuality ever might have gotten in the way of her job prospects, and she berates Allison for assuming that Peggy would sleep with her boss and then find herself unable to get over him. Of course the situation with Pete was quite similar in the first season, and the ultimate repercussions much worse than what we suspect will be the case here. If season 1 Peggy had only had the courage Allison shows in telling Don that he's not a good person!
Peggy, to Allison: Your problem is not my problem. And honestly? You should get over it.
This plot also reintroduces Faye, the married professional market researcher, another model of femininity against which to judge Peggy. Faye's performance in the focus group scene, changing attire to blend in with the secretaries and removing her ring (which Don catches Peggy trying on, delicious moment), shows her adapting her feminine appearance to her situation with great confidence and effectiveness. By contrast, Peggy seems to struggle with the negotiation of gender norms in the workplace.
In relation to the two-way mirror scene of season one, much is now different. In the test group using Belle Jolie lipsticks, Peggy stands out as the one who doesn't want to be one of a hundred lipsticks in a box, and she impresses Freddie Rumsen with her observation that the trash bin containing the spent blotted lipstick tissues is a "basket of kisses." (He likens this turn of events, in which a secretary says something worth using in a sales pitch, to seeing a dog play the piano.) Now Peggy and Joan are on the other side of the glass and in positions of more power and authority, and Freddie complains that he has no office in which they can meet. Of course Peggy, Freddie's protege in earlier days, does have her own office (from which to peek at Don's in the best visual humor of the season so far).
The introduction of Joyce, the hipster lesbian photo editor at Life, offers Peggy an entree into a world antithetical to the corporate milieu of SCDP and Pete's in-laws. The line about Peggy's boyfriend renting her vagina recalls the prostitution trope of "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" and raises the idea of male control over female sexuality and reproduction. Had Peggy shamed Pete into leaving Trudy for her and raising their baby together, this experience would have been totally unavailable to her.
Peggy: Trudy’s pregnant?
Joey: I can’t believe that guy’s married to her. I would get her so pregnant.
Peggy and Pete are fated to be paired up for as long as Mad Men tells its story. In "The Rejected," many are rejected -- Joyce's photog friend, Allison, Clearasil, Joyce, Faye (I'm sure there are more). We can't forget as well that Peggy rejected Pete for her career and independence. The parallelism of these characters is reinforced by the two scenes of beating the head, first Pete's against the wall after learning of the Clearasil account, then Peggy's against the desk after learning of Trudy's pregnancy.
Peggy, to Pete: I just wanted to let you know how happy I am for you both.
And in the end they exchange these meaningful glances, which those of us who have been watching all along fill in with all of our accumulated Mad Men knowledge. We see these characters acknowledge one another, wordlessly recognizing all that has gone on between them, showing that they are in on the ironies we have been catching throughout. It's like the show is congratulating us for getting it, but with such subtlety that the forceful emotional impact of this resolution to the episode narrative is totally undiminished.
Mad Men tells its story very slowly and carefully. There are so many more ironic situations pregnant with potential for emotionally charged storytelling. Pete among others still knows about Don's identity, and Don and Pete know about Peggy's pregnancy. In a good serial narrative, the past is never dead or even past.
Update 8/17: cryptoxin appreciates MM's ironic mode too in a response to Jason Mittell's negative take on the show.
Who is Dick Whitman?
Sometimes this season I try to imagine myself watching Mad Men as some people I know are doing it, without having seen seasons 1-3. This week’s episode, “The Good News,” might be among the less comprehensible in the whole series, but there would certainly be funny and poignant moments. Don’s man-date with Lane has its outrageous bit of comedy. Joan’s firing of Lane’s secretary for failing to take responsibility for the flowers fuckup is deliciously dramatic. I would gladly watch Don Draper drive a red convertible along the Pacific coast for an hour or two each week. The scene in which Greg stitches up Joan’s finger while telling his hillbilly joke is one of the most arresting in the episode whether or not you know the backstory of these two, though it packs much more of an emotional wallop if you know [SPOILER ALERT!] that (1) he raped her, and (2) he has no brains in his fingers, which has led to (3): he joins the army and is soon shipping off to Vietnam, where he will die.
I said as the scene ended, “I really don’t want to like that guy” and well, that scene made me LOVE him, which is just wrong. Of course I don’t know that he’s going to die. The M.D.s are less likely to die in a war than the G.I.s, but given that these scenes were paired with the ones of Dick finding out about Anna’s terminal illness, death is a theme.
This show makes me want to fish for thematic parallels and obscure allusions, and bear with me. One of the movies Don and Lane consider seeing on New Year’s Eve is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (IMO, the greatest film ever made) and in that movie, the protagonist played by Catherine Deneuve becomes pregnant with a child just before her lover departs for the war. When he returns he finds her having set up a family in his absence with another man. In “The Good News” Joan is looking to get pregnant at the same time that her husband is shipping off to Vietnam. Uh huh. Another thing this episode makes me think about is harm to people’s legs and feet. First in Season 3 Guy McKendrick is run over by the John Deere driven by Lois, his career ending in that awful bloody moment; then the Ad Age reporter sent to interview Don in “Public Relations” is missing a leg (lost in the war, of course, the same one in which Dick became Don), and now Anna Draper, who already limped from polio, has her leg in a walking cast. I’ll get back to you about the ultimate significance of the deep symbolic meanings involved here but they sure suggest mortality and pain.
We learn a lot in this episode, which I found to be among the most amusing, surreal, and inconsequential of the series so far. Joan has had two abortions, one of them performed under questionable and undoubtedly dangerous circumstances. This threatens her ability to have a child with Greg, though the gyno (he calls her Jojo and she calls him Walter -- interesting!) seems confident enough.
I would predict that Joan can’t have kids, though perhaps an even better storyline for her would follow the Umbrellas situation -- pregnant with an absent husband, or maybe Greg returns from the war with a bum foot? Let’s keep going: Anna Draper is dying and everyone is keeping it a secret from her. This is one of the show's "period" ironies -- in those days, that's how things were done. Can you believe that? As well, Lane, like Don, is divorced. (Remember the scene in “Love Among the Ruins” when the Pryces an Drapers go out for dinner together?) The students at Berkeley are staging sit-ins. A whore cost $25 in mid-1960s NYC. Don Draper will indeed put the moves on every young, attractive woman he comes across. And so on.
If you haven’t watched every episode leading up to this one, you don’t know that scenes in an OBGYN office are always important.
Peggy goes to Joan’s doctor -- the same one we see in this episode -- for birth control in “Smoke Get in Your Eyes” only to meet with his paternalism and disapproval. (“Even in our modern times, easy women don’t find husbands,” he admonishes.) Betty sees hers in season 2 to find out about her surprise pregnancy with baby Gene. Now here we are back with Jojo’s Walter. This is so obviously a “setting things up” episode that Joan’s fertility is undoubtedly in play as S4 progresses, as is Anna Draper’s mortality. I can’t help but anticipate a connection between them.
But what seems most in play is the underlying identity of Don Draper as Dick Whitman. If Anna Draper dies, so does the experience Don/Dick has of being a true, authentic self, a pre-Don Draper innocent. We know that the season’s theme is supposed to be “Who is Don Draper?” This episode pushes us to consider the possibility that Don is no longer the assumed identity of Dick, that enough time and experience has passed that the identity of Don supersedes that of Dick. When Don signs her wall "Dick + Anna '64" it makes it seem as if Don is performing an earlier, more youthful identity rather than, as earlier in the series, as if Don is Dick's performance.
The larger significance of these observations for my ongoing MM blogging project is to see the dense interconnection of themes and motifs, along with the backstory and our memories of characters’ journeys, as essentially legitimating of shows like this one. A network serial would most often belabor the backstory with expository recapping dialogue. Characters would remind one another of their situations. For instance, Joan and Greg’s exquisite home surgery scene would find more obvious ways of reminding us that Greg’s career as a surgeon had seemed so promising, only to fall apart when he was denied the chief residency. Anna and Dick’s moments together would find more obvious ways of reminding us of that earlier episode, “The Mountain King,” when Don first pays her a visit and remembers the earlier time when they were together. The subtlety of this episode’s allusions and cues to memory works in a different register of audience address than the typical mass television fare, rewarding and flattering the completist audience for Quality TV (and especially the people like me who have seen every episode at least twice) and basically showing a lack of interest in pleasing the casual viewer who, presumably, is necessary for guaranteeing the networks their larger audiences. But who knows, maybe those casual viewers -- you know who you are -- get their own kinds of pleasure from watching casually, which I only wish I knew about. I find the show to be a kind of reverse guilty pleasure at this point, pushing me to invest in its symbols and references, its dense thematic interconnection of episodes. I almost wish I could watch it in a state of innocence, just to find out what will happen next.
PS I never thought Don was really going to make it to Acapulco in this episode, and I'm still not sure why they decided to call this one "The Good News."
(updated to add a title to the post)
I Brought You Cookies!
Prostitution is a recurring presence in Mad Men, both as representation and metaphor. In the very first episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Peggy offers herself to Don by placing her hand on his only to be brusquely cast aside with the line, “I’m not your boyfriend.”
Is part of her paying job to be sexually available? Maybe, but Don’s not interested. It could be because she dresses too modestly for Manhattan in 1959 and seems unsure of herself -- the opposite of the office sexpot, Joan. Now in “Christmas Comes But Once A Year” with Don several secretaries past Peggy at Christmastime 1964, Allison returns Don’s lost keys and must be sexually available to him. Her recompense is a $100 Christmas bonus. He might have given her as much otherwise, we’ll never know. But the unavoidable suggestion is that she is being paid for a service more intimate than typing letters and buying birthday gifts for Sally, Bobby, and baby Gene. We know by her facial expressions when called into his office on the morning after that she is falling for Don (or has fallen for him already) and feels like his lover rather than his whore, which debases them both when it becomes clear that he intends to treat their encounter like his pre-Korea identity and Peggy’s baby -- as something that didn’t happen. (We have prostitution in mind already this season from the previous episode, in which Don sleeps with a whore who knows what he likes -- being slapped around in bed.)
Quality TV like Mad Men rewards the attention of the most serious, committed viewer who watches from the beginning and in order, who never misses an episode, who remembers and appreciates details. This is TV in its aestheticized mode encouraging attention to form and to thematic meaning, soliciting explication and interpretation (I am the victim of this appeal as much as anyone). “Christmas Comes...” works ok as a standalone episode but this kind of show has no standalone episodes. We are especially gratified by the prostitution theme considering our previous encounters with Lee Garner, Jr., the Lucky Strike heir who in the previous season ruined the career of the closeted gay illustrator, Sal, by demanding that Sal be fired after refusing a sexual advance.
In this new episode Garner again demands quid pro quo. Not only must the ad firm throw a Christmas party at which he is given the only significant gift, but Roger Sterling must don the Santa suit and pose for ridiculous photos with the SCDP men posing on his red velvet lap.
There is one more moment of quid pro quo involving sex and power in this episode, but by contrast to these more despicable representations, the story of Peggy’s relationship with Mark is more gentle and affectionate, though I foresee bad times ahead for these two. Peggy says in season one that she tries always to be honest, but she has let her boyfriend think she is a virgin and of course she is hardly that. The previously before this episode reminds us that she slept with Duck Phillips in season 3, and we committed viewers know of other lovers including Pete Campbell. Every sexual situation involving Peggy reminds us that she got pregnant at the beginning of the series and gave away her baby. Now Mark is trying to pressure her to giver herself to him, and in a humorous bit of dialogue he says, “I brought you cookies!” He doesn’t really mean that she should have sex in exchange for cookies, but as ever there are resonances from elsewhere that amplify the meaning of what might have been a throwaway line.
Earlier in the episode the market research people Bert Cooper brings in offer the SCDP folks cookies in exchange for taking a test they administer to collect data about consumers, which Don refuses to take (because it reminds him of his awful childhood and diasterous domestic situation). Later Faye, the self-assured blonde who runs the testing, explains her methods to Don and seems to have him totally figured out, which troubles him. She even infers that his cinematic Glo-Coat ad of the previous episode was a product of his childhood! Along with his neighbor Phoebe, a nurse at St. Vincent’s, Faye seems like a potential new romantic partner for Don (maybe she still is), so it surprises us at the end of the episode when he winds up with his secretary. But of course of all of these women, she is the one over whom Don holds power.
The thematic parallelism of Don’s fling with Allison and SCDP’s submissive deference to Lucky Strike, as well as the bits with the cookies, brings home a meaning familiar from earlier seasons and episodes: that business and personal affairs alike are structured around unequal relations of power. Capitalism and Patriarchy both demand supplication to authority and money. They thrive on inequality. The story of the 60s which Mad Men is so methodically telling is a story of progress toward equality in some spheres. But it’s also a story of our own times, in which consumer capitalism has grown only more rampant, and in which “post-feminism” has obscured many of the persistent and insidious inequalities between and among genders. Prostitution is a metaphor for unequal power relations, for the degradation of the weak by the powerful.
It is also a potent metaphor for the creative process, and in a commercial medium like television as in advertising, the authentic talent of artistic workers is often represented being under threat from the power of capital to pervert and exploit. The creative person whores their talent. Art like love ought to be a gift, but a both are often given with expectations of something else in return. In feminist analyses, heterosexual relations and in particular marriage are sometimes seen as variations on prostitution. Betty is often portrayed as a victim of such unequal relations between married persons before she and Don split up, and in season 2 she flirts with selling her body to the auto mechanic who stops to help her (this is a way of getting back at Don for his affair with Bobbie Barrett). Joan is likewise represented as selling herself to her husband, Greg, who asserts his ownership of her body in the season 2 scene in which he rapes her on the floor of Don’s office. The overarching metaphor of advertising as a big lie, an illusion of authentic reality, also feeds into the recurring prostitution theme. The work Don and Peggy and Sal and the others do, work that has real meaning and comes from a place of real personal inspiration, is sold to the corporations who exploit it for their profit. As I argued last week, this functions not just as a critique of advertising or capitalism, but as a metatextual commentary on the status of the television creator. Being beholden to a powerful master cuts across all the levels of meaning.
Peggy does sleep with Mark, but the truth about her virginity is still her secret. Don is an asshole to Allison but we'll see where things go with her. Faye and Phoebe still seem like potential romantic partners, and I doubt we have seen the last of Bethany. And the prostitution theme will undoubtedly persist. At this point, a fourth season of a show that promises to go on several more (I will be disappointed if it ends before 1969), much of the pleasure of Mad Men comes from the repetition with variation, the situations and ideas that come up again and again but tweaked each time to reveal a different shade of meaning or a new twist on a familiar character. I watched some of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" earlier to make the framegrab above and was astounded by how much the characters have changed, especially Pete and Peggy, despite the fact that the show continues to tell much the same story.
Turning creative success into business is your work!
Quality TV performs its own quality, and Mad Men does this as much as any upscale program. It is constantly, flauntingly reaffirming its own value in so many ways: by dramatizing creative struggles against commercialism; by making itself into an audiovisual history museum; by beaming progressive, liberal ideals through the contrasts it loves to draw between then and now; by investing every detail with thematic meaning, from dialogue to chairs to hairstyles and cocktails (not by accident or genre convention does our anti-hero drink Old Fashioneds). It does so in the by now traditional modernist fashion, being deftly metatextual and intertextual. Quality TV performs its own quality to reassure us that, despite our many and various misgivings about television, we who appreciate it are doing something more than watching soap opera. But what makes so much Quality TV enjoyable is precisely its appeal AS soap opera, the continuing stories of characters we get to know over time, episode by episode and season by season, their larger-than-life conflicts, their fears and dreams, their neverending cycles of relationships and breakups and makeups. Mad Men is about secret identities and hidden pregnancies, rape and infidelity, schemes and counter-schemes. It is about primitive office politics and the fetid suburban reality of self-loathing. We watch to find out what will happen next and how. We watch as communal social practice and ritual, and to have something to talk about when we’re not busy watching. Somehow the geniuses who make this show have sold the boutique cable audience on the fantasy that all of the soap opera we love is legitimated by Quality and its trappings.
Advertising in Mad Men is, among other things, a metaphor for television. Is it Art like the opera in which Bethany Van Nuys is a supernumerary, like the Rothko on Bert Cooper’s office wall, like Frank O’Hara’s Meditations on an Emergency that Dick Whitman mails to Anna Draper? Or is it just a way of selling housewives canned hams and floor cleaners? And can it be both? Keep in mind, last night’s Mad Men was chock full of branded props, like Don’s Canadian Club.
On a second-season commentary, Matt Weiner says he sees himself in both Don and Peggy, mentor and protegee. He identifies with their struggles to produce good work in the face of demanding clients and bosses. There is always the tension between art and commerce in television and advertising, and the authentic is ever the artistic rather than commercial value of “creative” work (remember Don is “head of creative”). Run-of-the-mill TV need not advertise its creative ambitions, but to rise above the status of guilty pleasure, the Mad Men type shows need protection against the inauthenticity of commercialism.
Thus the very contemporary ambition Don voices to make his Glo-Coat spot “indistinguishable from the movies” as a way of holding the audience’s attention and make them forget they are the victims of a pitch. Here we have the cinematization of television so prevalent in contemporary discourses projected backwards
“Public Relations” also dramatizes the tension between devotion to work and to selling the work, and in order to do so effectively, also the selling of the self as personal brand. Don Draper was taught not to talk about himself but that’s not good public relations. He wants his work to speak for itself. Hard not to see this as the TV creator’s resistance to promotional press, to interviewers asking him to explain himself. Don Draper can always be read as a stand-in for something or someone, and certainly as an ideal of spontaneous creative genius, the kind that cannot be taught. But his successes are only realized when the products he is selling really sell; genius is not its own reward. When he complains about having to do PR for himself and his firm, insisting that his work speaks for him, Bert Cooper, ever the canny businessman, retorts, “Turning creative success into business is your work!” No truer motto will ever be coined for the TV creator.
After a long time away we are dying to know what has happened and how. Season Four begins by announcing its theme in bold, italics, and underline: Who is Don Draper? The show often comments on its own meanings in this way, as season two begins “Let’s twist again like we did last summer,” referring at once to the dancing in season one and to AMC’s scheduling. Who is Don Draper? is not just the new season’s theme -- it is the whole series’, and by now we know a fair bit of the answer. But as a theme for the season this looks a little weak. I would rather, Who is Peggy Olson? More is new about Peggy than her hair. She bosses this new male creative guy Joey around (“I need it in an hour, chop chop Joey”) and drinks neat Jameson whiskey. She has become considerably more assertive and confident, and seems to have a steady boyfriend. Mad Men has always let its female characters fascinate us more than its eponymous males, and this is itself thematically significant considering its style of subtle feminism -- while seeming to be about men, it’s really about gender and its recent American history. I’m more eager to fill in Peggy’s story in the time that has passed between seasons than any other character’s.
On the History of Media and the "Attention Span"
Upgrading the Situation Comedy
Despite frequent declarations of the death of TV comedy and the absence of “Blockbuster TV” sitcoms in recent Nielsen ratings, the past decade has seen a new movement in the American sit-com that has found many champions. Comedies such as Scrubs, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, 30 Rock, and Modern Family have explored forms of audiovisual style and storytelling rarely seen in American TV comedy before the year 2000. These are usually called single-camera shows for short to contrast them against the multiple-camera format of traditional sit-coms. Although rarely big hits, these shows win awards and accolades, appeal as Cult or Quality TV to upscale audiences, and have found some enthusiastic viewers in popular press critics like Time magazine’s James Poniewozik who admire them for being “more ambitious” than traditional comedies and television scholars who praise them for “reinvigorating the sitcom format” (Thompson, 63) or for “resurrecting” the genre through their “stylistic innovation” (Butler, 19). In discourses of television criticism both popular and scholarly, the style of these new programs is positioned as an upgrade on a lowly and exhausted formula -- as a welcome improvement to a genre often denigrated as unoriginal and inartistic.
I want to talk today about this idea of upgrading the situation comedy in terms of television historiography, and in particular in terms of our understanding of the history of television aesthetics. The upgrading I have described is part of a wider process of discursive legitimation of television which positions some forms of TV as more respectable than others, and contrasts putatively more aesthetically advanced contemporary TV against shows of the past. The idea that single-camera comedies are an improvement on the traditional sit-com rests on some questionable assumptions about television history and aesthetics, which I wish to interrogate. Most importantly, I want to insist that if TV scholars are to turn to questions of aesthetics (which I think is a really good idea!), we do so in a way that appreciates all of television history in aesthetic terms rather than just the most recent Quality TV that appeals to folks like us, and that we do so in a manner attentive to the cultural functions of aesthetic discourses.
I’m assuming this audience is pretty clear on what I mean by single-camera and multiple-camera shows, but just to be sure here’s a quick comparison. The traditional sit-com like All in the Family is shot on a three-wall set in front of an audible studio audience -- a production style Jeremy Butler calls the “multiple-camera proscenium schema,” which comedies share with soap opera, another genre with radio origins.
This format allows for the main stylistic emphasis to be placed on verbal and physical comedy, and on the comedians’ performance. Single-camera shows, by contrast, have no invisible “fourth wall” and no audible live audience (or laugh track). They use camerawork and editing much more prominently than multi-cam shows, often as sources of humor, as in punch-in flashback or fantasy shots (think “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”). They are filmed "like a movie," allowing the camera to penetrate the space of the scene and to shoot from any angle. And as an alternative to the laugh track, many of them use music to punctuate scenes and set a comical tone, or in cases of comedy verité like The Office, awkward silences (Mills 2004, Thompson).
The contrast between multi- and single-cam styles in popular and critical discourse is often quite explicitly framed in terms of value and aesthetics: the newer style is positioned as an advance, and as a marker of television’s newfound artistic and cultural legitimacy. The old style is figured as primitive and unchanging, a relic of an earlier era of TV as mass medium but not as art. Specific characteristics of the old style like verbal setup-punchline/one-liner humor, dramatic entrances and exits, comedic performance style regarded as excessive, and the laugh track now might come off as corny or passé, good today mainly as something to laugh or sneer at – as an example of this attitude, consider the critical reception of The Return of Jezebel James (Newman). Advanced taste has shifted away from traditional forms of TV comedy. Thus the valuation of single-cam style depends on a historical progress narrative, a way of seeing TV history as leading up toward a more perfect present against which we can judge the failures of the past. This is often how histories of the arts proceed especially in the modern era, by figuring the new as a reaction to and improvement on the old. But TV scholars especially must be wary of hastily recognizing present-day Quality TV as the medium’s height of achievement without considering how aesthetic judgment and valuation function culturally to reaffirm social distinctions, especially those of class. The multi-cam shows with their historical mass appeal are the negative example against which the new single-cam shows with their upscale niche audiences are understood. Additionally, we must be wary of assuming that we can understand the historical significance of the present. Often the celebration of recent and contemporary TV aesthetics risks promoting the current shows, their audiences, and the industry’s strategies of marketing to them, rather than advancing a serious historical understanding of the medium and its forms and functions.
This presentist discourse of the newfound sophistication of television comedy ignores the place of the sit-com in the history of Quality TV. Today the paradigm of Quality is heavily serialized drama shot in a style often called “cinematic.” The single-camera comedy has arisen to its place of high status in the context of this reigning paradigm, and it is no coincidence that single-cam comedies share many traits with the legitimated dramas – not only production norms but also storytelling practices, as comedies also have become more serialized. But we must not forget that in earlier periods of TV history, the traditional multi-camera sitcom was central to conceptions of Quality. In the 1970s, when MTM and Tandem were the production studios most closely identified with programming of high cultural value, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family were among the medium’s most respectable programs. In the 1980s and 90s and early 2000s, NBC’s must-see TV lineup combined serialized dramas like Hill Street Blues and ER with traditional sit-coms like Cheers, The Cosby Show and Friends. Praise for the stylistic innovations of the single-camera sit-com often implicitly – or even explicitly – slights the value of the multi-cam show as such without regard to the aesthetic achievements – and cultural significance – of these earlier shows. In celebrations of the new sit-com, the style of old multi-cam shows is sometimes described as an impoverished antistyle (Caldwell), but the positive aesthetic appeals of these shows are generally ignored.
The discourse of the sit-com's reinvention presents a “before” and “after” of TV comedy, and I argue that the “before” is figured as a primitive form. In art history, primitivism is often identified as naïve, unsophisticated, and lacking tradition or stylistic development; the artistic movements that come after primitive stages are generally seen as bringing welcome innovation and advance, i.e., progress (Errington). In the case of TV comedy, the primitive multi-cam style is not only figured as banal and artless, but as having no significant stylistic history. This meshes with the idea that network-era television can be characterized as “least objectionable programming,” essentially unremarkable and aesthetically degraded, a characterization attributed to TV network executives from decades ago which some contemporary TV scholars still find acceptable (e.g., Lotz). The multi-cam shows are seen in the discourse of aesthetic progress as more or less homogeneous, the better to distinguish the new single-cam style. But this presentist celebration overlooks the diversity of the history of American television comedy and paints all sitcoms in the “old style” with a single brush to emphasize their uniformity.
Consider the variety among these shows, all of which are sitcoms predating the rise of the single-cam: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Andy Griffith Show, All in the Family, Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke Show, M*A*S*H, Soap, Cheers, The Wonder Years, and Friends. Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke are black and white, but later shows are in color. Many of these shows were shot on film to give a polished look of high production values, while others such as All in the Family were videotaped to produce an effect of immediacy and liveness. Not all were shot in front of a live studio audience; some, like Bewitched, relied on special effects that could not be accomplished with typical live studio audience setups. Not all have laugh tracks; Dobie Gillis and The Wonder Years have voice-over narration. Not all are shot with the “three-headed monster” originated by Karl Freund for I Love Lucy; Andy Griffith and M*A*S*H were shot single-cam, and M*A*S*H aired without a laugh track in some countries. Not all multi-cam shows were shot with three cameras; Cheers and most multi-cam shows since the early 80s have been shot with four, an innovation of James Burrows beginning with Taxi which allows for larger ensembles, more expansive sets, and arguably more fluid editing. The traditional sit-com’s storytelling is quintessentially episodic, with every episode beginning as though the narrative has been fully reset and characters having no memory of previous events. But some traditional multi-cam sitcoms do have some serial aspects to their storytelling, like the relationship arcs on Friends. Of today’s multi-cam shows, not all are uniform in style either. As Christine Becker has written, How I Met Your Mother is shot with multiple cameras on a three-wall set, but without a live audience, a choice she argues makes for a more restrained performance style in contrast to shows that film before an audience. The point is that multi-cam shows are hardly uniform and static in style, but themselves have a stylistic history continuing through the present time.
I want now to go into more detail in considering the way that scholarly discussion of the new sit-com frames the new style in relation to the old style, and the implications of the terms this scholarship adopts for addressing TV style. In particular I’m talking about Jeremy Butler’s Television Style, which relies extensively on two sources for ideas about visual representation: David Bordwell’s work on film form and style, and John Caldwell’s Televisuality.
Much of Butler’s book is concerned with understanding how TV style in recent years has been become more prominent and aggressive, similar to the style of contemporary Hollywood movies that Bordwell calls intensified continuity, which is characterized by fast and aggressive editing, incessant camera movement, and shooting with very long and very short lenses. In some respects, this use of prominent visuals meshes with John Caldwell’s concept of televisuality to describe TV since the 1980s, which Caldwell terms “excessive” and “exhibitionistic.” Butler also borrows a term of Caldwell’s to describe the style of pre-televisuality/intensified continuity movies and TV: “zero-degree” style. Zero-degree denotes a lack of style – Caldwell defines it using the words “empty” and “meager” – or at least a style that isn’t noticeable or interesting. Critics of classical Hollywood cinema often describe its visual style as invisible or transparent, the better to focus the audience on the realism of the diegesis. (In Bordwell’s terms, “zero-degree” is roughly the same as “classical continuity,” though in The Classical Hollywood Cinema he rejects the term “zero-degree.”) In Butler’s argument, the multi-cam sit-com is the zero-degree sit-com, and the single-cam sit-com is the televisual sit-com. Butler celebrates the televisuality of the contemporary single-cam sitcom and even confesses that it brings him “pure aesthetic pleasure.” (216) “In the televisual schema, style is aggressive, roughened, and opaque, not smooth and transparent. It carries meaning. It makes jokes. It might call attention to itself.” (197) Butler discusses many aspects of Scrubs to offer evidence of this, including the show’s staging, shooting, editing, and use of sound.
I see two shortcomings here in the discussion of the style of the multi-cam sit-com in particular, as well as several additional issues of concern. First, both Caldwell and Butler adopt a Bordwellian, film-centered conception of style. They take for granted that style means those things that film or video can do that are unique to -- or at least distinctive of -- them as a medium. In Bordwell’s terms, these include editing, mise en scene, cinematography, and sound, though in the history of film criticism camerawork and editing have often been especially privileged as they are in Caldwell and Butler. This idea of audiovisual style has origins in classical film theory (writers like Arnheim, Bazin, and the Soviets of the revolutionary period), which was often concerned above all with defending the status of cinema as an art form and, thus, with finding those aspects of cinema that are essentially cinematic. Literary or theatrical techniques to be found in cinema, such as dialogue, are hard to defend as “cinematic” style, and have little place in the history of film theory and stylistics. So this idea of what “television style” consists of essentially takes the prevailing conception of film style, which is a product of cinematic medium essentialism, and imposes it on TV.
Second, those who promote the single-cam shows at the expense of the multi-cam shows fail to recognize the positive style of a theatrical genre like the traditional sit-com. While the camerawork, editing, and lighting of a multi-cam show might be unremarkable, they serve effectively to support the elements of style that are emphasized: writing and performance. As Brett Mills argues, the sit-com is among the TV genres most identified with live performance on the stage (Mills 2005). Instead of regarding this as “lacking style,” we can see it rather as having a theatrical rather than cinematic style (without intending these terms to essentialize either cinema or theater -- I mean that their styles share some significant elements with prominent uses of cinema and theater). The contemporary ideal of Quality TV is thoroughly cinematized – good television is supposed to look and feel like a contemporary Hollywood movie, or even to surpass it. An ideal of television art that makes theater values more significant than cinema values seems today hopelessly out of date. And yet an aesthetic appreciation of television that is not ahistorical should be sensitive to the significance of shifting tastes over time. An All in the Family episode was meant to come off like a one-act play, and was staged and performed as such. The idea of television recording a performance, rather than using camerawork or editing as performance, is not naturally stylistically impoverished as Caldwell and Butler suggest. Rather, it follows from a different conception of style and its uses.
This scene from season 2, episode 15 of Cheers ("Father Knows Last," orig. aired January 20, 1983) is typical of the power of the traditional sit-com's style. It begins as so many traditional sit-coms of its period did with the reminder that the show was filmed before a live audience, marking its style as theatrical. Camerawork and editing are fluid and emphasize reactions, as well as contrast between the confidence of the women and the cowardice of the men. In terms of cinematography and editing, there is little difference between this kind of style and that of numerous Hollywood films of the studio era. But we might say the dominant stylistic features are in the script and the actors' performances. The editing and camera styles serve to support the verbal humor, such as Cliff's reference to women as "petunias" and his remark that they are "hot for" him and Norm, and the bit about talking out of the side of your mouth. The comical value of the scene comes from the actors' styles of dialogue delivery and movement, as when Cliff and Norm saunter over to the end of the bar and back trying to appear nonchalant, and especially in the comical high point of the scene as they stand helpless in the face of the invitation to go out with the women, unable even to utter a word as Cliff vocalizes his terror. I confess to my own aesthetic pleasure when I watch shows like this, which delight me easily as much as the best single-cam shows. The images and sounds in a show like Cheers are not best considered as an antistyle or impoverished style. They may not be “televisuality” or intensified continuity or comedy verité, yet they are part of a robust and enduring tradition of comedy on television.
Becker, Christine. “Acting for the Cameras: Performance in the Multi-Camera Sitcom” Mediascape (Spring 2008).
Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (California, 2006).
Butler, Jeremy. Television Style (Routledge, 2009).
Caldwell, John Thornton. Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television (Rutgers UP, 1995).
Errington, Shelly. The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress. (California, 1998).
Lotz, Amanda. The Television Will Be Revolutionized (NYU, 2007)/
Mills, Brett. “Comedy verite: contemporary sitcom form” Screen 45:1 (Spring 2004), 63-78.
_____. Television Sitcom (BFI, 2005).
Newman, Michael Z. “The Return of Jezebel James,” The Velvet Light Trap 64 (Fall 2009), 77-78.
Thompson, Ethan. “Comedy Verité? The Observational Documentary Meets the Televisual Sitcom” The Velvet Light Trap 60 (Fall 2007), 63-72.
Previously: 30 Rock, My Boys, and the New Sit-Com, Hating on Jezebel James: The Laugh Track as Bad Object, and Tween Comedies and the Evolution of a Genre.