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What’s in a Title?

September 17th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

Paratexts and extratexts play a key role not only in telling us what to expect, but in setting the genre and tone for a show. I’ve looked at this in past posts (duh – that’s kind of the deal with this blog) and work, but usually with longer form or more elaborate paratexts such as posters, trailers, alternate reality games, and such. What about those most seemingly simple and brief of paratexts, titles?

On one hand, titles may appear to have less room to create meaning for a show. And yet they’re way more mobile than other paratexts, and thus their scope is significant. Many audiences may only see a trailer or poster once, if at all, but titles find their way into lists of new and continuing shows, they can be picked out of a conversation in which most other details are confusing to the uninitiated, they often appear on the bottom of a screen while watching another show, and they find their way into all sorts of other odd places. If they’re evocative, they can do a great deal; if not, there’s a lost opportunity, and often a failed show.

Looking at a few of the new shows’ titles:

Once Upon a Time is the most obvious example of a title that tells you its genre, but it’s so obvious as to be worth moving beyond quickly to other examples :-)

ABC’s Revenge would seem to offer two possibilities generically – it’s either going to be hypermasculine and action-packed quest to avenge a child, wife, or village, or lean female and be a soap-ish tale of hidden conniving to ruin someone(s). The concept of revenge is so germane to both action and soap, while rarely the driving emotion in other genres (one may be able to find revenge in quiz shows, sitcom, and medical procedural, but it’s an emotion that’s associated most commonly with action and soaps). So we’re then just left working out which of the two it’ll be – action or soap. As a primetime show, not daytime, it may seem to lean towards the former, and yet being on ABC – given that network’s female programming in recent years – tips it towards the latter. All that’s needed to confirm is a star on the poster, I’d suggest: if it’s a guy, we’re likely talking action, but if it’s a woman, it’s a soap. No wonder, then, that the poster is pretty much just Emily VanCamp.

Speaking of men and women, CBS’s A Gifted Man is interesting for not just being called Gifted. Why the need for the “man” in there, and why not go with the leaner title? “Gifted” already suggests someone who can commune with the dead, or who has some other supernatural power. Add a reference to CBS and a place on the Friday night schedule, and the knowing viewer might think of Medium and Ghost Whisperer, confirming this meaning of the word “gifted.” Indeed, the title gestures towards these shows (which, by the way, have been invoked in other advertising for the show – I saw one ad that framed it as “in the tradition of” those two forerunners) with that addition of “man,” since it suggests that being gifted may be more usually female (just as, for instance, the word “homework” suggests that work is more regularly done outside the home). Part of that suggestion is intertextual, part complimentary and flattering to women, and hence the title delicately suggests that the show may be directed especially at women (perhaps all the more necessary when CBS is usually quite fond of programming shows about great white men solving crimes).

“Man” is popular in titles this year. Witness ABC’s Man Up and Last Man Standing. Both have a burgeoning anti-fandom waiting for them in media and cultural studies, I’d suggest, in large part because of what they imply. Last Man Standing is about a father in a house with women all around him, so it communicates that he’s the only dude around, but “last man standing” suggests that other men have been struck down. And so the show taps in to a discourse of male victimization, and to the idea of this being “a woman’s world” that is hostile to men. Similarly, Man Up suggests a lack of mannishness that is now in need of being rectified by more masculinity. Just as CBS’s Gifted Man might be trying to tell women it’s not regular CBS CSI: Poughkeepsie fare, though, Last Man Standing and Man Up might also be acknowledging their network’s reputation as being a premier site for programming for women. They might, in other words, be declaring that ABC itself is about to “man up” since it’s become a “woman’s world.” Either reading (that life itself belongs to women, or that TV does) is laughably moronic, but therein lies the intended appeal of the shows.

Changing gears, I Hate My Teenage Daughter bears the distinction of being the longest title of the new shows, alongside How to be a Gentleman. It’s kind of fun, since it invites one to identify with the lead character simply in taking on the “I” in the title, or, alternately, if one actually has a teenage daughter, there’s a carnivalesque delight in being invited to repeatedly say the phrase. It clearly sets the tone, too, for a FOX-style sitcom, as the speaker is not behaving like Danny Tanner or Jason Seaver. And yet since hating one’s child is such a no-no, the title immediately provokes the question of whether the speaker is being entirely truthful, and sets up what will presumably be a key tension in the show, of the push and pull between maternal care and outright hate.

What’s the worst title this year? For me, it’s Unforgettable. First, it’s almost like a challenge to me, to forget the show – a challenge at which I imagine I’ll do quite well. What’s it trying to say? That the show is unforgettable? The character? I know the premise – of a cop with a perfect memory – so I know that officially it’s the clues that are unforgettable, but that’s not the default assumption when hearing the title. So I’m left thinking the character is meant to be unforgettable. Which either posits her as stunning looking within an ogling discourse, as saint-like and the show as Highway to Heaven or Lassie-like, or perhaps as super-quirky in Psych-like manner. And I’m not sure what the Nat King Cole / Natalie Cole reference is meant to tell me; or, rather, it suggests a romance, and so when I hear this is a procedural, I’m confused. The title creates red herrings, and does little to explain the show itself. If it fails, I blame the title.

What titles do you like and why (continuing shows included)?

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  1. September 17th, 2011 at 07:36 | #1

    Just to put Unforgettable into context: its original title was The Rememberer.

  2. September 17th, 2011 at 10:27 | #2

    @Myles McNutt
    yikes. You’re not making me feel more comfortable about the “creative” team behind this one, Myles :-)

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