Wrestling with an Angel: RIP Stuart Hall

February 10th, 2014 | Jonathan Gray

Professor Stuart Hall

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The year was 2002, my grad school days. 100 or so academics from across the UK (and in some cases Europe) were in one of Goldsmiths College’s lecture theaters, assembled as part of the After Media Studies conference. We were about twenty minutes into the morning’s session when the doors opened. Bill Schwarz regularly carries a gentle, warm smile, so nobody gave his “intrusion” more than a passing glance until another man walked in the room with Bill. Leaning heavily on his cane and hence unable to get the door himself, this man hobbled in slowly. By this point, everyone stopped and was staring. One might be inclined to reach to a Western for the clichéd analogy of the arrival of the gunslinger, but this man was no gunslinger. He carried more presence, and no menace. I’d never seen a photo of him prior to that day but the presence announced him, and I had two simultaneous thoughts: “Oh, that’s Stuart Hall,” and “this dude is Yoda.” For his part, Hall smiled nervously, apologetic for interrupting, and looking like a remorseful undergrad who’d stepped into class late: if he carried presence, in other words (and boy did he), he didn’t mean to do so, and was a gracious man.

But Stuart Hall was my Yoda. I say “was” because today I woke to the news that Stuart Hall died. An amazing scholar whose mission was always directed as much to civic society as to the academy, and who regularly tried to expand what the academy was or could be, he didn’t just write good stuff and say smart things – he did good work in the world.

There are many better obituaries from those who knew him better and loved him dearly. See this from David Morley and the above-mentioned Bill Schwarz in The Guardian, for instance. But here I wanted to reflect on what he meant to me. More after the fold … Read more…

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The Inner World of Doc McStuffins

February 5th, 2014 | Jonathan Gray

doc-mcstuffins1“It’s just a kids show. Why do you have to read so much into it?”

With that preemptive objection behind us, and with the answer “because I’m having fun,” let’s talk about Doc McStuffins’ mental wellbeing.

For those who don’t know, Doc McStuffins is a pretty excellent original show on Disney Junior. Doc is a young girl who clearly admires her mother, a doctor, and thus she too has become a doctor, of toys. She has a magical stethoscope that brings toys to life when nobody else is around. Or does it? I can’t help but wonder, as I watch this show with my daughter, whether this is Doc’s imagination, whether she is indeed magical, or whether she’s delusional.

The episode that led to this post is one in which Doc herself must go in for a check-up, since she’s sick. At her mother’s clinic, the nurse is voiced by Loretta Devine … who viewers/listeners would recognize as the voice of Doc’s own nurse, Hallie the Hippo. This was a fun choice, since it’s the first suggestion I’ve seen in the series that Doc is actually making all of this toy doctor stuff up: Hallie speaks like Doc’s mom’s nurse since that’s her referent for how nurses speak. And yet in another episode, Doc’s mom comes into her room and says she could’ve sworn she heard another voice in there; Doc defuses the comment by explaining that it was just a talking toy phone (which, this time, it was), but dramatically the snippet of dialogue plays with the idea that her toys are indeed talking to her, and that her mom almost walked in on this. So the show is inviting me to play along. I will, after the fold … Read more…

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Academic Publishing: Something’s Gotta Change

November 13th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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Imagine I told you that the biggest name academic in a particular field had just published a new book. How much would you expect to pay to buy it?

In my own field of media and cultural studies, I’d hope that the person had published with NYU Press, so that it was $20-25. But I’d know that if they hadn’t, it’d likely be something like $40. For instance, Graeme Turner’s recent What’s Become of Cultural Studies is $50 from Sage. Angela McRobbie’s The Aftermath of Feminism is $59 from Routledge. John Hartley’s Digital Futures for Media and Cultural Studies is $41.95 from Blackwell.

But David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s recent e-book Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages is $1.99.

Obviously, something is desperately wrong here (with the other books, not David and Kristin’s!), especially since I bet Angela and David & Kristin personally earn the same amount per sale, despite the 3000% price differential. And yes, yes, David and Kristin’s book is an e-book, but Kindle versions of the above three texts are non-existent for Turner, and are still $36.01 and $33.99 for McRobbie and Hartley respectively.

Something really must change in publishing. Many have been saying this for a long time. But Bordwell and Thompson are showing us ways to make it happen. In the rest of this post, I want to discuss this, and to invite you to dream with me about a better system, then to put on your practical hats and perhaps help make it happen. Read on: Read more…

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Fall Pilot Score Card — Week Three

October 13th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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Yikes, I’m getting behind. So much so that We Are Men was cancelled before my review. Ooops. Sorry. So here we go (Ironside to come later).

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Betrayal

Wow, now that is some bad acting. In the final scene, the plot twist is revealed, as we learn that the protagonist’s husband will be facing off in a very public lawsuit against her new boyfriend. I consider the fact that I was still awake by that point quite an achievement, since that was arguably the only interesting moment of an otherwise thoroughly dull, trite script acted out by actors who aren’t up to the task. No, I lie, there was another moment. When the protagonist (played by Hannah Ware) gets a hotel room with her new man, and just as they’re about to consummate things, she gets a call from her husband who is looking for a kid’s book that their child loves. We then cut back to a chilled-out protagonist and man lying on the bed and chatting, as she describes the plot from this book. I’m currently reading the book – Giraffes Can’t Dance – to my daughter many a night, so my ears perked up at its mention. I don’t know how to feel about it being used as a metaphor for the protagonist’s need to find the man who will let her flourish. That said, I’m not surprised to see the writers are experts on stories that put people to sleep.  More shows below: Read more…

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The Amazing Race: Global Othering

October 4th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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Recently, a truly fantastic book was published by NYU Press, How to Watch TV. Edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell, it collects 40 essays, each on a different show. I’m humbled and honored to be included, given the remarkable pedigree of the others in it, and I can’t wait to use it in class. At $29, there’s no way you can beat it (though — shameless plug — how awesome would it be with Television Studies or Television Entertainment?)

Anyways, NYU, Thompson, and Mittell have been nice enough to let me post my piece, on Amazing Race and Othering. It tries to come to terms with my deeply conflicted feelings about a show that is trying what very few other American shows bother to try, yet that can still so often make me wanna puke in my mouth a little (and no, that phrasing isn’t in the official piece).

So here’s my piece, below the fold: Read more…

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Fall Pilot Score Card — Week Two

October 2nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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Week 2 had a LOT of shows, so after noting that my reviews for Hostages, The Blacklist, Lucky 7, and The Goldbergs are elsewhere (follow the links), let’s get down to it:

First up was Mom, the latest move in Chuck Lorre’s master plan to fill American television with uninspired comedy. Mom beats Dad, not only in the show, where the fathers are piss-poor, but in a battle of networks, where Dads is just plain old bad. But being better than Dads is hardly much to brag about: so is leprosy. Ultimately, it may smooth out, but right now this isn’t even a sitcom: it’s just a series of jokes, and is one of the choppier pilots I’ve seen. Anna Faris is okay (though the opening scene’s supreme lameness left her needing to fight her way back up from the bottom all episode long), and might be able to hold a show, and Allison Janney is always great, though the television gods clearly hate me and Janney and are punishing us both for something by bringing CJ Cregg down to this. Won’t someone give her a better vehicle, since we all know she can drive? I’ve read reviews from those touched by the mother-daughter love, but I didn’t really see that show – the show I saw just strung together a whole bunch of jokes about sex and private parts that I’m sure I would have found really hilarious when I was nine: “I saw you at McDonald’s going down on a Filet-o-Fish,” “That’s a castrated chicken they beat with a hammer,” “My daughter’s an easy lay, and it’s not my fault” (which sets up the later “What did you do tonight?” “Watch TV” “Is your TV on your ceiling?”), “Don’t lie to the woman who washes your sheets,” “My mother taught me how to beat a cavity search and still feel like a lady,” “It is nice to see you wearing underwear. And not on your head,” “What time do you get off work? I could use a lap to cry on,” and the interchange “I think I may’ve found a way to pay you back for childcare” “Trust me, you can’t sell that much semen.” I’m sure it’ll do fine, since everything Lorre touches does fine. Luckily that means it doesn’t need my support, so I won’t be forthcoming with it.

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Read more…

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Fall Pilot Score Card – Week One

September 22nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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It’s Fall Premiere time in the US. And so it’s time to review them.

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At one point in May, I remember seeing a bunch of trailers and thinking the season looked great; since I’ve seen more, though, the paratexts have been uninspiring, and I now have very little excitement. Indeed, I had intended to write posts on their ads, posters, websites, etc., as I’ve tried to do sometimes in the past, but they were remarkably ho-hum. Most of the posters for these shows are boring, I’ve seen no inventive marketing (though I’m in Madison, not New York anymore, so perhaps there’s more there?), and the websites are as dull as they come, lacking any bells or whistles in most cases. So I’m left with the shows alone, since I’ve simply gotten too bored when looking at the paratexts.

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My colleagues at Antenna are reviewing all of the premieres in groups (see Week 1′s FOX reviews here and here), and I’ll be contributing a few, so I’d highly recommend folk head over there. But for my own opinions on Week 1:

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Sleepy Hollow is remarkably silly. The backstory seems designed to allow all sorts of other wrinkles and unbelievabilities further on down the road, but there’s still a point in the pilot in which a large amount is data-dumped, and all I could think was that midichlorians made more sense and seemed less obtrusive. Apparently when your blood mixes with that of a horseman of the Apocalypse, you both become linked and you can’t die. Or something like that. There was also a wife who was a witch. And George Washington. Frankly, trying to remember the backstory makes it feel a lot like it happened in a dream after I ate and drank too much. This sounds like I hate the show, but I don’t. Instead, right now I see the show as walking a thin line between being utterly stupid in a fun, campy way and being utterly stupid in a change-the-channel way. The performances are fine, if unspectacular. It gets points for beheading The Kurgan (Clancy Brown) in the first few minutes (and will get many more points if the tapes Abby’s listening to include him discussing a beheading with a head which at this time has no name, to which he responds “I know his name,” and Queen music is cued), and it’s shot well and looks nice. But here’s my problem: procedurals, for me, are preeminently shows that one can dip in and out of over the course of a season, and between the silliness of its serialized elements (I don’t care about his wife’s coven, or about finding out whether George Washington was a zombie vampire slave-freeing wizard) and the utter familiarity of its procedural elements (partner with quirky backstory assigned to work with a very competent yet ultimately rather boring partner) mixed with the sense that all those elements have been done better elsewhere (Castle, Bones, X-Files, Grimm, Law and Order: SVU, …), I have nothing encouraging me to come back next week, and little encouraging me to drop in thereafter. I’d certainly watch another episode, so it’s not “bad” per se. And I’m not ruling out that it could iron out some kinks, find its tempo and character, and become much better (especially if it plays for camp more). For now, though, fill in your beheading metaphor here for its status with me.

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Dads came next, and what a big steaming pile of shit this show was. Seriously. We were all meant to hate it because of its racism, and/or because Seth MacFarlane needs to leave American television alone for a while. But even before the racist jokes (about Chinese men with small penises. Wow. Comedy gold) started flying, the show had already been profoundly unfunny. And this format just doesn’t work for MacFarlane – robbed of the ability to cut away to endless flashbacks and dream sequences, required to keep a plot going, and without animated figures to distance ourselves from the sadness of the behavior in front of us, the show didn’t allow MacFarlane to be MacFarlane. I can often laugh a lot at Family Guy, I’ll sheepishly admit, but nothing here was funny. All the more cloying, then, that a live studio audience was guffawing at every step, look, and phrase. That studio audience bugged me for two other reasons: one, they coded it male early on (with the hooting and hollering at Brenda Song dressed up as a fetishized Japanese school girl), and douchebag male at that; two, it was ever-present. If you listen to the best shows with live studio audiences, the audiences don’t sound like they’re laughing their asses off at every joke, as the sound editor knows when to turn the volume down and trust the comedy to work by itself. Here, the sound editor knows the show sucks, and knows it sorely needs the help, so that laughter is constantly there, constantly loud. The performances are bad, too: Seth Green is so many miles away from lovable Oz, and seems not to know what to do between lines – a problem I shared when I did Drama in Grade 8. The fathers are so badly typed that I can’t remember anything they said or did. Giovanni Ribisi just looks constipated in most scenes. Brenda Song seems flummoxed by no longer being the most annoying person on screen. So, yeah, I don’t like this one. Sadly, when the show is cancelled, its defenders will say it was because of political correctness. And if the message sent to Hollywood is not to greenlight racist shows, I guess I’m okay with that. But in truth it’ll be cancelled since it’s just not at all funny, not even on its own MacFarlane-y terms.

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine was next, and since it follows Dads, I stumbled into it reeling, and needing a laugh. I have a soft spot for Andy Samberg, and like Andre Braugher, so I was expecting to laugh too. But it was Terry Jeffords who pulled me in, with a quick line about his young twins Cagney and Lacey. After half an hour of Dads, it was so very nice to laugh once again, to know that there was levity in the world. On the whole, I liked this. It’s not without its problems. For one, I don’t really care about them solving crimes, and I hope the show doesn’t care either; I want to believe that they solved one in the pilot to establish Samberg as a competent cop, and that they’ll now move away from that, but if I’m wrong, this will be a bad genre hybrid. And the structure was creaky at times, more bit-y than it should be. That a sitcom pilot didn’t have time to come into its own, though, is no real surprise, so I’ll allow it that. Indeed, sitcom pilots are so often so very bad. Even many shows I came to love began on a hammy, or at best mediocre, footing. And thus I don’t really expect much from a sitcom pilot, except for a few laughs and the promise of more. On that scale, this succeeded. Samburg’s performativity annoys many, but I like it, especially when reeled in and isolated by the straight-man performance by Braugher, and indeed by everyone else in the show, except the delightfully insane Chelsea Peretti. I liked this mix of comic styles, and liked how my laughs seemed spread out between the cast – a good sign not just of a strong cast, but of good writers who can work with that cast and feed them good material. The show is not a revelation, and I feel no need to play missionary and insist you watch it, but for now I like it quite a bit, and am keen to see more.

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In sum, Week One offered a so-so show, a crap show, and a good one. Now onto Week Two …

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Paratexts as 527s, 527s as Paratexts

August 22nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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In earlier posts on paratextual politics, I looked at a snippet from the cast commentary track of the Fellowship of the Ring DVD, and on some of the paratexts that surround Mad Men. Both posts examined identity politics and fictional texts. But what about capital P politics, where the “text” is a candidate, policy, platform, or party?

 

I hope to have more to say about this in future posts, but I’ll begin by discussing 527s and other entities not officially linked to or licensed by candidates as paratexts. Or perhaps the post is about paratexts as 527s. Read more…

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A Companion to Media Authorship

August 4th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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While my blog was sleeping, I’ve had not one but two edited collections come out. One’s kind of a cheat, so I’ll discuss the non-cheat one in this post, then return in a later post to the other one.

 

If you happened to be at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago this past academic year, you might have seen a very orange, very new book on Wiley-Blackwell’s stand: A Companion to Media Authorship, which I edited alongside my superb colleague and friend Derek Johnson. I’m extremely proud of it: we set out to challenge how authorship is discussed in media studies, and the collection of 23 essays, 4 interviews, and introduction do so from a wide variety of angles. Individual chapters explore film, television, radio, the Internet, videogames, comics, social media, academic authorship, magazines, popular music, theater, video, DVDs, and transmedia. And these media are explored in multiple settings, from the local video store to Kinshasan teleserial sets, from Mexico to France, from the slums of Nairobi to Japanese executive board rooms, from Twitter feeds to the spaces behind the camera in Hollywood, from San Francisco startups to Skywalker Ranch, from India to the UK, from courtrooms to advertising agencies, from the US to Hong Kong.

Read more…

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“Best” Opening Credit Sequences, Part 3: The Masses Speak

July 26th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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But wait: there’s more!!

When I posted a link to the first installment of this mini-series on Facebook, I got a whole bunch of recommendations and votes from friends. Partly to honor those suggestions (especially since there are a bunch I hadn’t seen), partly to record the list for future use, I thought I’d put some here. The masses speak (wherein “the masses” = my friends on Facebook. That’s how Marx defined them too, right?). Even more may, in theory, come later.

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