Showcase Post 2: Reality TV

Over the past two decades, reality TV has undeniably become one of the dominant genres in contemporary television programming. There are many conceivable explanations for this explosion of reality programming, one of the more pragmatic being simply that “from the side of production, reality programs, with the absence of highly paid actors and writers, are less expensive to produce. (Rymsza-Pawlowska, p38) However there are also cultural reasons for this emergence, as well as a growing viewer fascination with this representation of the “real.”  Here I will attempt to examine the difference in features between the “reality TV” genre and the more traditional, “documentary” genre.

 

While reality TV could be loosely described as the unfolding of real people’s reactions to real events – reality TV has become a far cry from its documentary origins.  Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska writes that: “[w]hile reality television certainly bears some resemblance to a documentary format, there are several very important distinctions. Foremost is the fact that while the documentary can be said to present itself as the “truth,” the reality show is more concerned with the “authentic.”” (p37)

She states that while the terms appear to be interchangeable, “the subtle differentiation between them emphasizes the contrasts inform between the two genres.” In a documentary, while individual perceptions of the event are typically included, it is the “accuracy aspect of the narrative that is underscored.” Conversely, reality shows are more interested in “social actors” whereas their situation “takes a secondary role”. She states that subsequently reality TV is not as much “an account of the event, but of the experience.” (p37)

She continues that as explored by Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, while documentary is primarily concerned with social issues, reality television is more akin to “therapeutic television” in that “audiences often gauge the authenticity of truthfulness of reality TV on a scale of emotional realism and personal revelation.” (p38 – Biressi & Nunn, p5)

I feel that as well as this focus on the emotional experience, another inherent difference is that while the documentary maker generally presents an account of a naturally occurring or current event, reality TV often takes ordinary people and put them in an artificially created situation, or rather, they fabricate the event or arena for the participants. This notion is especially apparent in shows like Survivor, where contestants are put on an island with limited resources with the goal being to “survive” as long as possible (against the harsh environment and the bitchy co-contestants). Another obvious example is a show like Wife Swap – which simply takes women out of their “natural habitat” and places them in an unfamiliar domestic environment in order to demonstrate the difference between the two family’s divergent lifestyles.

(In fact it could also be said that a feature of reality TV (as opposed to the documentary) is its limited, almost superficial (or non-existent) treatment of social issues. Neither of these examples of reality TV shows particularly explores social issues. Julie Anne Taddeo writes that “[n]ot surprisingly, [Wife Swap] does not intend a serious re-evaluation of the social structures that define these contrasting households, instead viewing class more as a matter of lifestyle than economics. Families get a brief taste of life on the other side of the socio-economic divide but always come to realize that the grass is not greener there. (p10) On the other hand – social issues are almost always fore-grounded by the documentary maker.)

Of course there are many “reality TV” programs that appear to challenge this feature of the “fabricated event.” One of the more obvious examples is the standard cooking show format, in which a celebrity chef such as Nigella Lawson will simply prepare a meal while simultaneously teaching the audience her techniques. This kind of reality TV program is more akin to its documentary roots in its attempt to first inform the viewer and secondarily to entertain them. However the notion of the celebrity is still an important feature in that viewers are not concerned with the cooking alone, but more so with the cooking presented by their pre-loved Nigella Lawsons, Jamie Olivers, and previous Masterchef contestants.

Taddeo writes that while “our obsession with celebrity isn’t new, the ranks of those entitled to this label have definitely expanded, as witnessed by the media attention devoted to winners (and losers) of such programs as American Idol and Survivor.” (p9) Reality TV is inherently focused on the celebrity – from the celebrity host, celebrity judge, or by merely serving as the contraption that creates these celebrities. Indeed, reality TV could be seen as the cause (or the result) of the West’s growing fascination with celebrity culture and idolisation – and the root of the ability for nearly anyone to be labelled as such (Kim Kardashian from Keeping Up With the Kardashians being the most striking example.)

However there are again exceptions of reality TV programs which do not simulate incidents or environments, nor do they rely on the notion of celebrity. “Docu-soaps”, for example, are reality programs which, according to TV Tropes, follow “a group of people…around, through their professional and sometimes personal lives”. In docu-soaps, people go about whatever it is they are doing, and are followed around with a camera which acts as a “fly on the wall” – showing us the private lives of these “real life” people. Some docu-soaps do however rely on the “celebrity” – such as The Real Housewives of… (O.C, Atlanta etc) series which tend to follow around the socialite wives of rich or famous members of the local city.

Many docu-soaps however present themselves far more refined or modest manner. A clear example is the British show One Born Every Minute, which is set in a labour ward and follows the mothers and their families awaiting the birth of their child. The mothers and midwives are “regular” people, and of course their childbirth and the labour ward are real and not stimulated. Though non-diagetic music is overlayed onto the footage, the naturally tense environment means that little is done in the way of the artificial creation of drama.  In this way, more reserved docudramas like One Born Every Minute have much more in common with their documentary roots than other reality shows in their rejection of celebrity interference or dramatising of non-issues.

Of course childbirth is a very nerve-racking and important time for families, and so the setting is perfect in portraying “real life” drama and emotion.  In this way, docu-soaps like One Born Every Minute still conform to the importance of the representation of “emotional realism and personal revelation” (Biressi & Nunn, p5). Moreover, they present little in the way of social commentary. Though occasionally the allusion to a social comment appears to underpin the families’ conversations, such as the ethics of having child after child after child, the show is far more focused on the emotional experience of the participators than on anything in the way of social issues.

Ultimately I feel that the difference between the reality TV program and the documentary is in their agendas. The first seeks primarily to entertain (and perhaps teach or inform a little on the side) whereas the documentary serves primarily to inform or explore a social issue – often in a creative or entertaining fashion. While I feel that reality TV’s focus on artificial events and environments and the importance of celebrity are certainly dominant features within the genre, I feel that the genre as a whole is consistent in its presentation or impression of the “real” and through this the “authentic” human emotions and narratives that are developed.

Works cited (in the order they appear in my post):

i Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska

Frontier House : Reality Television and the Historical Experience

from Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Volume 37.1 (2007) p37-38

ii. Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn

Reality TV: Realism and Revelation

from Wallflower Press, London (2005) p5

iii. Julie Anne Taddeo

Reality Television, Part 2

from Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Volume 37.2 (2007) p9-10

iv. TV Tropes

Docu Soap

accessed at: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DocuSoap

Advertisements

Showcase Post 1: Quality TV – “Big Love”

In his article How TV Met Narrative Sophistication, Craig Jacobsen writes that the increasingly complex use of structure in television “demonstrates network broadcast television’s increasing sophistication as a narrative medium.” He continues that “[g]iven network television’s conservative approach to narrative structure…any trend toward more complex narrative forms demands attention.” Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer’s series Big Love serves as a fantastic case-study for exploring this increased sophistication within television programming, also known as “quality TV.”

Big Love certainly fits under the umbrella of complex narrative television. However like many other shows of the same vein, The Wire or Lost for example, it could be said to have clear links to other forms or genres – notably the soap opera. This rooting of complex narrative television in the classic soap opera genre stems from the fact that they share two important common elements, established by Mittell as “seriality…and an investment in melodrama.”

In his article Making Sense of Soaps Robert C. Allen writes that “television serials together constitute one of the most popular and resilient forms of storytelling ever devices.” He continues that “television serials are linked – in the way they are constructed, broadcast and watched – by their distinctive serial narrational structure.” (p242) Although the term “television serial” is most closely related to the soap opera, Allen’s description of the television serial certainly features in many of the shows defined as “quality TV”. So where does Big Love fit into this?

Big Love certainly represents all the things this new wave of “quality TV” has to offer as discussed in Mittell’s initial article Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.  Firstly, it aired on HBO, the self-proclaimed champions of “quality TV.” Moreover, it balances “serial and episodic pleasures”. In the pilot episode there are many questions (direct and indirect) left unanswered which prevail over the episodes and seasons to come. Is Bill’s mother poisoning his father? How will Bill continue to satisfy his three multi-faceted wives? Will Bill prevail in his wish to keep his business separate from Roman’s Mormon enterprise?  Will Barb and Nicki learn to get along or will their constant fighting prove to be the destruction of the family unit? Etc. etc. However, we also get a neat episodic, beginning, middle and end portion of the episode, most notably in the impotence plot-line. Moreover, the characters are complex and three-dimensional, as is the overall theme and story world the show is tackling. All this suggests that Big Love fits nicely in the “quality TV” genre.

However, critics such as Michael Kackman disagree entirely with this label “quality.” In his article Lost: Quality Television, Melodrama and Culturally Complex, Kackman proposes that the “quality” label merely serves as an attempt to “legitimise” this new form of serial drama as a kind of art-form in opposition to it’s low-form, soap-operatic “roots”. Kackman writes that serialised television relies on melodrama (a feature traditionally employed in soap operas) as its “simultaneous invocation of, and inability to resolve, social tensions, that makes it such a ripe form for serial narrativization, and which makes it a central, and maybe even necessary, component of quality television.”

Indeed, Big Love certainly succumbs to the melodramatic. This is clearest in the show’s finale, when a previously unimportant character shoots Bill relatively out of the blue. The three wives crowd over him like angels as he disappears into the white light. This kind of “killing” – the randomness of it and the fact that it seemingly was put in there for some spectacular closure, smacks of the kind of yearning for something dramatic to happen which is so apparent in soap operas such as Neighbours. Furthermore, Jacobsen writes that complex narrative television is primarily concerned with “complex form rather than novel content.” Big Love on the other hand does little in the way of structural experimentation – but rather unfolds before us chronologically, as a soap-opera typically would.

Mittell counter-argues this notion that “complex narrative television” is in fact based on a format of the “legitimised” soap in his article More Thoughts on Soap Operas and Television Seriality. He claims that despite the link though seriality and melodrama:

I don’t think the contemporary primetime narrative complexity that I write about has much in common with or influence from soap operas, except through their common connections to 1970s and 1980s primetime serials. They are distinctly different in production method, scheduling, acting style, pacing, and formal structure.

Indeed, the acting style in Big Love is realistic and understated (a definite preference of the “complex narrative” show), the pacing is necessarily much faster and the exposition isto the point considering the vast difference in airtime. (Big Love only aired 53 hours over five years, whereas a typical soap might air for 200 hours over a single year.) The audience is decidedly different. The primetime night show lends itself to fully attentive individuals, picking up on all the character subtleties and narrative shifts imbedded in the plot. The daytime viewer, however, tends to have the show on in the background, multi-tasking with the show and something else. This is reinforced by the fact that very little changes over a week in a soap-opera compared to over a single episode of a primetime show like Big Love.

InThe Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling Mittell also disputes the notion of legitimacy in stating that instead of comparing “quality TV” shows to notions of high-art instead of low-form entertainment such as the television soap, “quality TV” should rather be definedthrough careful analysis of television itself rather than holding onto cross-media metaphors of aspiration and legitimation.”

Though Big Love certainly features melodrama, often to a somewhat irksome extent as with in the finale, I find it hard to think of it as merely a “legitimised” soap. Mittell’s statement that “[t]he idea that viewers would want to watch—and rewatch—a television series in strict chronology and collectively document their discoveries with a group of strangers was once laughable” highlights what I feel to be the distinction between the two genres. Where I would never dream of rewatching a favourite season of a soap – “quality TV” shows such as Big Love I can visit again and again.

Furthermore, Big Love has a unique, complicated relationship structure and story world – that of an illegal polygamist family in Salt Lake City, which necessarily brings about complex character relations, story arcs, and moreover a tricky approach to themes such as family, sex, religion and the law. Although Jacobsen believes we should preference form over content in our assessment of “quality TV”, I can’t help but think that compared to a show like Big Love, soap-operas pale in comparison in terms of their themes and content. Though they indeed have features in common, I feel that the two formats serve completely different pleasures – the escapist pleasure, in which we frequently tune out and disengage and the thoughtful pleasure, in which we fully engage with the show’s characters, the plot, and its formal structure.

Works cited: (in the order that they appeared in this post):

i. Craig Jacobsen

How TV Met Narrative Sophistication

accessed at: http://flowtv.org/2006/10/reunion-the-nine-24-narrative-flashback-arrested-development-the-office-how-i-met-your-mother/

ii. Jason Mittell.

Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television

from “Project Muse”

iii. Robert C. Allen

Making Sense of Soaps

from ‘The Television Studies Reader’ (2004, p242)

iv. Jason Mittell

More thoughts on soap operas and television seriality

http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/content/more-thoughts-soap-operas-and-television-seriality

v. Michael Kackman.

Quality Television, Melodrama, and Cultural Complexity

http://flowtv.org/2010/03/flow-favorites-quality-television-melodrama-and-cultural-complexity-michael-kackman-university-of-texas-austin/

vi. Jason Mittell

The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling

accessed at: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/complextelevision/introduction/

Reality TV: a far cry from documentary

Over the past two decades, reality TV has undeniably become one of the dominant genres in contemporary television programming. There are many conceivable explanations for this explosion of reality programming, one of the more pragmatic being simply that “from the side of production, reality programs, with the absence of highly paid actors and writers, are less expensive to produce. (Rymsza-Pawlowska, p38) However there are also cultural reasons for this emergence, as well as a growing viewer fascination with this representation of the “real.”  Here I will attempt to examine the difference in features between the “reality TV” genre and the more traditional, “documentary” genre.

While reality TV could be loosely described as the unfolding of real people’s reactions to real events – reality TV has become a far cry from its documentary origins.  Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska writes:

“While reality television certainly bears some resemblance to a documentary format, there are several very important distinctions. Foremost is the fact that while the documentary can be said to present itself as the “truth,” the reality show is more concerned with the “authentic.” These two words seem to be interchangeable, but the subtle differentiation between them emphasizes the contrasts inform between the two genres. Documentaries typically present an account of an event. While there is some reflection of individuals’ perceptions of the event, it is the accuracy aspect of the narrative that is underscored. On the other hand, the reality program is more concerned with the social actors; their situation takes a secondary role. Reality television, thus, is not so much an account of the event, but of the experience.” (p37)

She continues that as explored by Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, while documentary is primarily concerned with social issues, reality television is more akin to “therapeutic television” in that “audiences often gauge the authenticity of truthfulness of reality TV on a scale of emotional realism and personal revelation.” (p38 – Biressi & Nunn, p5)

I feel that as well as this focus on the emotional experience, another inherent difference is that while the documentary maker generally presents an account of a naturally occurring or current event, reality TV often takes ordinary people and put them in an artificially created arena, or rather, they fabricate the event for the participants. This notion is especially apparent in shows like Survivor, where contestants are put on an island with limited resources with the goal being to “survive” as long as possible (against the harsh environment and the bitchy co-contestants) or Masterchef – where contestants are placed in an arena spectacular filled with any ingredient they can imagine at their disposal in order to demonstrate their skills in a particular area – in this case cooking – by completing a vast array of difficult and obscure challenges. Another obvious example is a show like Wife Swap – which simply takes women out of their “natural habitat” and places them in an unfamiliar domestic environment in order to demonstrate the difference between the two family’s divergent lifestyles.

(In fact it could also be said that a feature of reality TV (as opposed to the documentary) is its limited, almost superficial (or non-existent) treatment of social issues. None of these examples of reality TV particular contribute to discussions of social issues favoured by documentary makers. Julie Anne Taddeo writes that “[n]ot surprisingly, [Wife Swap] does not intend a serious re-evaluation of the social structures that define these contrasting households, instead viewing class more as a matter of lifestyle than economics. Families get a brief taste of life on the other side of the socio-economic divide but always come to realize that the grass is not greener there. (p10))

Of course there are many “reality TV” programs that appear to challenge this feature of the “fabricated event.” One of the more obvious examples is the standard cooking show format, in which a celebrity chef such as Nigella Lawson will simply prepare a meal while simultaneously teaching the audience her techniques. This kind of reality TV program is more akin to its documentary roots in its attempt to first inform the viewer and secondarily to entertain them. However the notion of the celebrity is still an important feature in that viewers are not concerned with the cooking alone, but more so with the cooking presented by their pre-loved Nigella Lawsons, Jamie Olivers, and previous Masterchef contestants.

Taddeo writes that while “our obsession with celebrity isn’t new, the ranks of those entitled to this label have definitely expanded, as witnessed by the media attention devoted to winners (and losers) of such programs as American Idol and Survivor.” (p9) Reality TV is inherently focused on the celebrity – from the celebrity host, celebrity judge, or by merely serving as the contraption that creates these celebrities. Indeed, reality TV could be seen as the cause (or the result) of the West’s growing fascination with celebrity culture and idolisation – and the root of the ability for nearly anyone to be labelled as such (Kim Kardashian from Keeping Up With the Kardashians being the most striking example.)

Ultimately I feel that the difference between the reality TV program and the documentary is in their agendas. The first seeks primarily to entertain (and perhaps teach or inform a little on the side) whereas the documentary serves primarily to inform or explore a social issue – often in a creative or entertaining fashion. Reality TV’s focus on artificial environments, “authentic” human emotions and narratives, and the importance of celebrity, are a few of the dominant features that I feel define the genre.

(Please see my reference page for works cited!)

“Mad Men”: Don’s character progression in “The Wheel”

In the finale episode of the first season of Mad Men entitled The Wheel we see a definite shift between Don’s relationship to work and his family from the start of the episode to the end of the episode. Though I personally haven’t seen much Mad Men in the past, in this blog post I will attempt to map out Don’s character shift through closely analysing a few scenes in this episode which I feel are the most relevant to this character development.

The first scene I wish to discuss is near the beginning of the episode in which Don and Betty are sitting up in bed beside each other. The lighting is typical to any “boudoir” television scene. The room is dark, shadowy, typically subdued. Generally this type of lighting in this type of setting is used to convey the intimacy of the scene. However this scene is anything but intimate. In a way, the lighting undermines the notion of intimacy, its darkness instead suggesting the moodiness and harshness of the marriage in its current state.

Don is reading the paper while Betty natters on about and jots down notes on shopping items. Betty begins to goad Don about not wanting to come to her family’s thanksgiving celebrations. At first we get a medium shot of the couple in their bed, but as the conversation continues we get close-ups in order to garner the pair’s expressions.  Betty’s plea, “What about Sally and Bobby’s childhood memories?” is important to the arc of the episode, as will be established later.  At this point, the comment is immediately brushed off by Don. The couple don’t talk to each other; instead they talk forwards, not looking at each other, highlighting their emotional distance.  However when Betty states “I don’t think you want to go” she looks straight at Don, making his harsh response, “I’m sorry, was I unclear about that?” all the more cutting.

In a later scene, in a darkened, lonely room, sits Don, looking gloomy and isolated. He is staring at an old, black and white picture of his brother as a child. The use of the picture is important; it conveys the past, the link between nostalgia and family bonds, as Don will soon learn. He attempts to contact his brother, who in previous episodes he has shunned, and receives the terrible news that he has hanged himself. Don is clearly devastated. We get a close-up of Don’s traumatised face, his head in his hands. The camera then zooms out and fades to black, leaving Don in his emotional turmoil. This is the turning point in terms of Don’s emotional development of the episode – he begins to realise the consequences that his arrogance and current value system has on the people around him; namely his family, the people closest to him.

In the boardroom scene with the Kodak representatives – we see the notion of “nostalgia” established as an important theme of the episode and relevant to Don’s emotional change of heart. Don states to the executives that sometimes the public can become “engaged on a level beyond flash.” This is a neat sum up of Don’s shift throughout the episode. Can he be engaged with the elements of his life that exist beyond his flashy, important, executive lifestyle, namely through reconnecting with his family?

The scene begins in a large, bright, well lit office room. The “mad men” are laughing, jovially – very macho and businesslike. When Don begins his sales pitch, we see a long shot of all the men in the boardroom. Don is at the centre of the scene; he is controlling it. We get a shot from below – conveying his power in the scene; the men are resting on his every word. However, when Don utters “Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent” the lights are switched off, the projector starts, and suddenly there is a shift in the tone of the scene. The room is suddenly shrouded in darkness, and the viewer is invited into Don’s private world. We are directed to the slides glowing on the projector; they are of his life; his memories.

This is Don’s intimate emotional state in the guise of a boardroom meeting. (Though of course the presentation is still commercially compelling for the Kodak representatives.) As he watches the pictures of his life, his family, his wife, he becomes increasingly emotional. He wishes to return to “a place where we know we are loved” as a picture of his and Betty embracing appears on the projector. It is clear that he has learnt a lesson stemming from the notion of nostalgia – that his relationship to his family is what moves him, what will ultimately matter, and what he will wish to remember.

This realisation makes the episodes conclusion all the more moving. We get Don’s initial return, which we don’t yet know is imagined. Don arrives home, he calls out, “Hello?” Betty responds, “Don?” Don moves through their lovely, warmly lit home, as his beautiful wife stands before him. His cute kids are sitting on the couch in their thanksgiving garb. Sally calls out, “Daddy! Are you coming with us?” and when Betty declines, the children are clearly disappointed. Don then states, “I’m coming with you.” Betty smiles; the couple kiss, and the kids run up to hug their father. It is a warm, fairytale moment. If it had been real, it would have been a moment to remember.

However then we see the reality. Don comes home, he calls out “Hello? Hello?” The house is dark; empty. We get a shot from the stairs, looking down. Don stands there dwarfed and alone. Slowly, he sits down on the stairs. We see him from front on, close up. He is disappointed, lonely and dejected. Then we see him again from the back; he is tiny and dark. He realises it is too late. The lyric from a song pierces the scene: “It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, baby.”  However this is exactly what Don is doing. He sits before us, weighing up the choices he has made in his life and their consequences. He appears to be pondering how he could have gotten to this point of distance in his married life. The darkness and loneliness of the scene reaffirms the notion of the importance of family apart from the “flash” of Don’s arrogant, executive lifestyle. It establishes the overall difficulty of Don’s character progression throughout the episode and indeed the season: the struggle between his work life and ambitions – and his increasingly distant relationship with his family and wife.

‘Big Love’ – the Legitimised Soap-Opera?

Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer’s series Big Love serves as a fantastic case-study for exploring this apparent emergence of “quality TV.” Big Love certainly fits under the umbrella of “complex narrative television” that Jason Mittell explores. However like many other shows of the same vein, The Wire or Lost for example, it could be said to have clear links to other forms or genres – notably the soap opera. This rooting of complex narrative television in the classic soap opera genre stems from the fact that they share two important common elements, established by Mittell as “seriality…and an investment in melodrama.”

Big Love represents all the fascinating things that this new wave of “quality TV” has to offer as discussed in Mittell’s initial article Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.  Firstly, it aired on HBO, the self-proclaimed champions of “quality TV.” Moreover, it balances “serial and episodic pleasures”. In the pilot episode there are many questions (direct and indirect) left unanswered which prevail over the episodes and seasons to come. Is Bill’s mother poisoning his father? How will Bill continue to satisfy his three multi-faceted wives? Will Bill prevail in his wish to keep his business separate from Roman’s Mormon enterprise?  Will Barb and Nicki learn to get along or will their constant fighting prove to be the destruction of the family unit? Etc. etc. However, we also get a neat episodic, beginning, middle and end portion of the episode, most notably in the impotence plot-line. Moreover, the characters are complex and three-dimensional, as is the overall theme and story world the show is tackling. All this suggests that Big Love fits nicely in the “quality TV” genre.

However, critics such as Michael Kackman disagree entirely with this label “quality.” In his article Lost: Quality Television, Melodrama and Culturally Complex, Kackman proposes that the “quality” label merely serves as an attempt to “legitimise” this new form of serial drama as a kind of art-form in opposition to it’s low-form, soap-operatic “roots”. Kackman writes that serialised television relies on melodrama (a feature traditionally employed in soap operas) as its “simultaneous invocation of, and inability to resolve, social tensions, that makes it such a ripe form for serial narrativization, and which makes it a central, and maybe even necessary, component of quality television.”

Indeed, Big Love certainly succumbs to the melodramatic. This is clearest in the show’s finale, when a previously unimportant character shoots Bill relatively out of the blue. The three wives crowd over him like angels as he disappears into the white light. This kind of “killing” – the randomness of it and the fact that it seemingly was put in there for some spectacular closure, smacks of the kind of yearning for something dramatic to happen which is so apparent in soap operas such as Neighbours. Sometimes we can’t help but wonder if the writer’s are thinking “A lesbian! We haven’t had a female character come out yet! Let’s do that!”

However my interpretation of the final killing might be reductive. In his lecture, Brian Morris discussed the notion of “tragedy”. If interpreted in this way, Bill’s being killed by a seemingly unimportant character is reflective of the tragedy’s narrative resolution through “punishment” of the protagonist – Bill didn’t realise the consequences of his arrogance until it was too late. Regardless of the interpretation, Bill’s untimely end is certainly a melodramatic feature of the show.

Mittell counter-argues this notion that “complex narrative television” is in fact based on a format of the “legitimised” soap in his article More Thoughts on Soap Operas and Television Seriality. He claims that despite the link though seriality and melodrama:

I don’t think the contemporary primetime narrative complexity that I write about has much in common with or influence from soap operas, except through their common connections to 1970s and 1980s primetime serials. They are distinctly different in production method, scheduling, acting style, pacing, and formal structure.

Indeed, the acting style in Big Love is realistic and understated (a definite preference of the “complex narrative” show), the pacing is necessarily much faster and the exposition isto the point considering the vast difference in airtime. (Big Love only aired 53 hours over five years, whereas a typical soap might air for 200 hours over a single year.) The audience is decidedly different. The primetime night show lends itself to fully attentive individuals, picking up on all the character subtleties and narrative shifts imbedded in the plot. The daytime viewer, however, tends to have the show on in the background, multi-tasking with the show and something else. This is reinforced by the fact that very little changes over a week in a soap-opera compared to over a single episode of a primetime show like Big Love.

Ultimately I have to agree with Mittell. Though Big Love certainly features melodrama, often to a somewhat irksome extent as with in the finale, I find it hard to think of it as merely a “legitimised” soap. I feel that this comes down to the agenda of a “complex narrative” show like Big Love compared to the typical soap. Big Love explores a complicated relationship structure and story world – that of an illegal polygamist family in Salt Lake City, which necessarily brings about complex character relations, story arcs, and moreover a tricky approach to themes such as family, sex, religion and the law. Compared to a show like Big Love, soap-operas pale in comparison in terms of their themes and agendas.  Though they indeed have features in common, I feel that the two formats serve completely different pleasures – the escapist pleasure, and the thoughtful pleasure.

 

Complex Narrative Television or “Quality TV”

Jason Mittell’s article Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television explores the new mode of television which has emerged over the past two decades – distinct for its use of narrative complexity. HBO as a network has taken advantage of this new paradigm – marketing their brand on the notion of “quality TV.”

One of the key elements of narrative complex television is its juggling of “serial and episodic pleasures.” This mode of television tends to respect a single episode as an entity in its own right while also contributing to and progressing through the serial as a whole.

Mittell states that a key reason for the rise of this narrative complexity on the television is the “changing perception of the medium’s legitimacy and its appeal to creators.”  He continues that “many of the innovative television programs of the past twenty years have come from creators who launched their careers in film, a medium with more traditional cultural cachet.”

Twin Peaks, for example, was a television show created by art-film director David Lynch.  Another reason for the emergence of narrative complexity, Mittell suggests, is a kind of backlash to the ubiquitous reality TV genre. Writers are now asserting that what they have to offer to television is unique and irreplaceable.

He continues that “many complex programs expressly appeal to a boutique audience of more upscale, educated viewers who typically avoid television, save for programs like The West Wing”. These kinds of viewers could also be generally described as a wealthier target market, and as noted in the Television Cultures lecture, both commercial and cable TV providers recognise the benefits of [a] focus on…more affluent audiences…who are worth more to advertisers.”

Interestingly, the idea of “quality TV” could be seen as a marketing technique to draw in a particular socioeconomic group that were previously fairly uninvolved in the television community – essentially creating an entirely new market of television watchers. On another commercial note; unlike cheaply made reality TV, complex narrative television or “quality TV” lends itself more to DVD sales and the notion of “rewatchability” – financial incentives for the networks.

Complex narrative television also has an element of “operational aesthetic”, especially in comedy programs. This operational aesthetic invites us to “care about the story world while simultaneously appreciating its construction.” More important than “what will happen?” is the notion of “how will they do it?” A fan of Arrested Development or Seinfeld will recognise this trope – as each character’s story unfolds, we can’t help but wonder how all these different story strands will combine spectacularly at the end of each episode.

Despite the clear commercial reasons behind the shift to complex narrative television – I feel it also marks an exciting shift in the perception of television and its place in our cultural hierarchy. Television isn’t a “cultural ‘problem’ to be solved” anymore. Rather it is becoming an active reflection and participator in our popular and wider culture.  The Wire is a great example of this kind of quality television. It contains strong themes, three-dimensional, interesting characters, and fascinating story arcs as well as serving as a literary reflection and commentary of our society (a role previously left to novels and films). Complex narrative shows like The Wire prove that television is becoming a medium to be taken seriously by viewers and critics alike.

Sex and Gender in ‘Game of Thrones’

Game of Thrones has seemingly divided opinions as to whether a fantasy show can indeed be ‘high drama’ to contend with the likes of HBO’s programming. One of the more contentious issues is that of the targeted gender audience and the use of sex in the show itself. Ginia Bellafante’s article in the New York Times A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms in April 2011 inspired anger in many fans of the show who read it.

Bellafante makes it clear that fantasy isn’t her personal taste and urges HBO to return to its regular dramatic programming. It appears that perhaps she hasn’t done her research on the show, as the series A Song of Ice and Fire is hugely popular, as is the show that follows, putting her in the relative minority in her plea. Her disrespect for genre fiction is apparent and somewhat surprising for a reviewer. As fantasy isn’t Bellafante’s personal taste she reduces it to cheapness. Genres are important, and have always been loved by the masses and the critic alike. Where would we be without the Mary Shelley’s and Agatha Christie’s of this world?

Regardless, her biggest problem is her attitude towards sex. She writes that “[I]t says something about current American attitudes toward sex … nearly all eroticism on television is past tense.” This seems to be for a fairly apparent reason. Writers look at the Christian values imbedded in our society, which though becoming outdated still linger (no bed before marriage, the horror of having more than a few sexual partners and more generally just the uptight, censorship happy attitude towards sex). It makes sense for us to reject these stifling values, and perhaps daydream about a time when sex wasn’t considered something to be so guilty about. Subsequently we look back to the pre-Christ Roman empire in Rome or to a far away fantasy alternate universe, free from the notion of restricting a hedonistic pleasure because of divine judgment.  Game of Thrones embraces this, and what I feel Bellafante fails to understand is that men and women alike do appreciate this freer attitude to sex and don’t consider it merely a “sexual hopscotch”.

Rome

However she brazenly continues, “The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to ”The Hobbit” first. I struggle with this statement on many levels; first and foremost being that frankly I find the idea of injecting violent sex into a show to make it appeal to women is a strange concept – in fact I would probably suggest it does the complete opposite.  Furthermore as David Barnett puts it in his article in the Guardian, Game of Thrones: Girls Want to Play too: “She seemed to be referring to what she imagined was the shoehorning of a bit of nookie into the screenplay (although in fact the source material has plenty of bonking)”. Indeed, it’s quite obvious that she hasn’t read the books, nor should she have had to review the show, however it does contribute to the impression that for her “ to stick so blinkeredly to such a generalisation, especially in a review for the New York Times, smacks of a lack of research.”

Bellafante continues by stating, ”Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.” This statement was objected strongly to by many female fans of the show online: most aggressively by girls who refer to themselves as the cringe term “geek girls.” Though “Geek Girl Diva’s” response in her blog was pretty offensive, her point was completely justified. – “geek” culture, including the fantasy genre is just as strong amongst women as well as men. Personally I feel that you don’t even have to be a “geek” to enjoy the occasional fantasy romp – especially one as dramatic and carefully crafted as Game of Thrones. In fact I’ve found that many if not all of my intelligent female friends would much rather watch an episode of Game of Thrones than go anywhere near “reruns of ‘Sex and the City.’” Perhaps, dare I say it; Bellafante is past the stage in her life where she is open to new or different styles of entertainment.

Clearly fantasy is not her area of expertise or fandom, nor should it have to be. But neither must she write a review for a show which would apparently fall short of the mark just for reasons of genre or the reviewer’s ill-conceived notions of sex. Though it could be argued that as a reviewer she should review all types of shows with her subjective opinion – what’s the use in her reviewing a show within a genre that she clearly has biased disdain for?

Game of Thrones