“Best” Opening Credit Sequences, Part 2

July 25th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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Continuing from the last post with my listing of some notable credit sequences, I now turn to Best Thematic Rendering. I’ve got a bunch to list, so let’s subcategorize:

  1. Best Showtime Credit Sequences
  2. Best One-Off Viewing
  3. Best Overall Thematic Introduction

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“Best” Opening Credit Sequences, Part 1

July 24th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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Recently, Salon posted an odd list of the Top 29 HBO credit sequences by Daniel D’Addario. We know it’s odd for several reasons: (1) who does Top 29s?, (2) the rankings are rather absurd, imho, and (3) no, really, who does Top 29s?

 

I’m not going to re-rank them, in part because that would just seem snippy, in part because I’ve only ever had HBO when a cable company gives it to me for free, or when The Wire was finishing, so my HBO viewing has been spotty, and in part because I’m tired of HBO taking all the credit for credit sequences. But it did get me thinking about best credit sequences. And thus I thought I’d respond by trying to list (though not rank) some of the best credit sequences I know.

 

Unlike Myles McNutt, whose attack of Salon’s list first brought my attention to it, I don’t believe a list needs a criteria (“I like what I like” seems fair to me), but I do want to lay out some ground rules first:

 

1. I am not saying these are objectively, unequivocally the best. I am saying I personally like them. So to the inevitable objection of “How could you say X about Y, then not include Z?”, I simply respond, “Cause that’s what I feel.”

 

2. I am considering these as parts of their texts. While opening credit sequences can definitely be enjoyed in and of themselves, devoid of consideration of the show to which they’re attached, I am considering them as entities that are trying both to capture something important about the show and communicate it to newbies, and serving as a re-entrypoint for returning viewers, beckoning them back in and suggesting why they should do so. Thus, for instance, I think True Blood’s opening credit sequence is pretty lousy, to be honest, for while it’s brilliant in and of itself, it lies to me by suggesting a different tone. Okay, yes, it tells me we’re in the South and that we’re examining Dark Things, but it doesn’t adequately gesture (to my liking) to the tone, address, style, or pitch of the show.

 

3. Put the above two rules together and we arrive at a third: I can only list and discuss opening credit sequences for shows I’ve actually seen. I read impassioned defense of the Salon-maligned credit sequence for How to Make it in America on Facebook, for instance, but I’ve never seen this show. Also, I only moved to the US ten years ago, so I was at the mercy of what was exported and what wasn’t growing up, which means that I’ve not seen a great deal of older shows.

 

That said, let’s begin. I’ve broken them into three categories: Best Telling of Backstory, Love the Music But the Rest is Just Meh, and Best Thematic Rendering. The latter category will be in the next post, broken into yet more sub-categories. Read more…

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Is Mad Men Feminist? Ask the Paratexts

July 22nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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In this post, I want to continue to examine the role that paratexts can play in setting the politics of a text. I’ll do so by asking the seemingly simple question of whether Mad Men is feminist.

 

Is the show Feminist?

Many writers have suggested it is. Too many for me to cite them or link to them all (here’s one from Jezebel, and another from Stephanie Coontz). The show regularly examines gender politics in the 1960s, yet with an eye towards discussing issues that are still salient today. In Peggy Olson, we have a rare (proto?) feminist character on television, and we’re not only invited into the world of Sterling Cooper through Peggy’s eyes in the pilot; she’s regularly offered as the primary point of identification. Betty Draper serves as one of the better televisual smackdowns of the image of the happy, doting, dutiful 50s housewife. Joan is similarly used to focus all sorts of critiques of how women were and are treated in the workplace, and of domestic abuse. And the jocularity of the guys in the office is regularly held up to ridicule and/or critique, whether through strategies of infantilization whereby they seem like 13 year-olds to Peggy or Joan’s adult behavior (in a way that often avoids romanticizing that childishness, as compared to the men of Judd Apatow films, for instance), through depictions of their haplessness and ineffectiveness, or through scenes of male cruelty, violence, and pettiness (think of almost any scene with Pete, for example). There’s a lot going on that’s feminist, in other words.

 

Within the show, though, there’s also a fair amount that isn’t feminist. It’s still ostensibly Don’s show, after all, and the show teeters on romanticizing his bad behavior or forgiving it through Jon Hamm’s handsomeness. If Betty decimates one half of the myth of the 1950s couple, not enough is done to ensure that Don decimates his half: despite all his roguishness, he’s still The Best At What He Does and the show still allows him many of its best scenes of triumph. Seasons 2 and 3 also risked undoing the earlier work with Betty, as she was increasingly portrayed as a spoiled princess (who, we can infer, deserved her unhappiness) rather than as the “June Cleaver is a Lie” neon sign that she began the series as. And though on one level it pains me to critique John Slattery’s Roger Sterling, it pains me because he’s often so affable, despite being a sexist (and racist) jerk at heart, and so perhaps they shouldn’t be writing this guy so lovingly?

 

At the level of the show itself, then, I’d propose that we have something that is way more feminist than much of what’s on television, but that has its many rifts, failures, and contradictions. It is not unequivocally feminist, in other words. This leaves the text open, to audiences on one hand, and to whether they want it to be feminist and read it as such or whether they don’t and don’t. On the other hand, it leaves the door wide open for paratexts to weigh in and make it more or less feminist.

 

So what are the paratexts doing and saying? Some are feminist, many are not.

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Queer Paratextual Politics in Fellowship of the Rings

July 17th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

 

This blog has been dormant for way too long. See, life intervened, in the form of my lovely daughter Abigail. Over the last 17 months, I’ve realized how truly amazing anyone who can be productive while being a parent is, as I’ve struggled to reinvent myself as an academic who works at sane times that allow me to parent. I’ve had time to blog, for sure, but usually been too tired. But I’ve missed writing, and missed blogging in particular. So let’s see if I can get this back up and rolling.

 

Towards that end, I thought I’d elaborate on a very specific paratextual fragment, by way of making some comments about paratexts, identity politics, authorship, and queer readings and writings.

 

This stems from a talk I recently gave in Bologna, at a conference all about paratexts (!), where I was given the opportunity to revisit Show Sold Separately. Since writing that book, I’ve been excited to see the wealth of scholarship on paratexts that is now published, forthcoming, or in the works. The stuff that’s excited me most, though, has reminded me what the project was really about, since it’s the stuff about paratextual politics that I find most innovative. In particular, let me point to an excellent article in Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture by Jimmy Draper, called Idol Speculation: Queer Identity and a Media-Imposed Lens of Detection.” There, Draper looks at the case of Adam Lambert, a glam contestant and runner-up on American Idol. One of the things that interests Draper is how American Idol the television show avoided declaring Lambert’s sexuality, which as a result held significant queer potential; paratexts surrounding the show, however, applied a “lens of detection,” forever asking “is he gay?” and thereby foreclosing the queer potential of Lambert by reducing the performance to a “gay or straight” binary. I love this piece since it captures how paratexts can be the site at which politics are declared, or where they can be muted or mutated. Indeed, I hearken back to one of the first articles explicitly about paratexts/extratexts, by Robert Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus, in which they similarly find a paratext – the DVD bonus materials – working to curtail queer readings of Fight Club.

 

Paratexts are important textually, and that was the argument of Show Sold Separately. But in making that point, I didn’t underscore enough why that matters: because they can and do therefore play a constitutive role in determining the politics and ideological work of texts. Above I note two examples of paratexts dampening the ostensible politics of “the work itself.” For another such example, we might look to many of the paratexts that surround Glee: for all the television show’s often self-congratulatory attempts to include storylines about LGBTQ identities, from the 3D Concert Movie (hat-tip to Kyra Hunting for telling me about this) to many of its other paratexts, this interest and commitment ranges from quieted to entirely absent. But, and on the other hand, we might also look to paratexts as a realm in which other political or ideological readings and meanings can be added or amplified.

 

That sounds like a tidy binary: paratexts either add or subtract politics. Of course, though, it’s not that simple. Not only is it problematic to use the terminology of “add or subtract,” given how they imply meanings were or were not definitively “there” already, but we also see examples that are more murky. Below, I want to consider one of those examples.

 

 

The example is a snippet of the cast commentary track on the Fellowship of the Rings DVD. Following a run-in with the Ring Wraiths, an injured Frodo is taken to Rivendell to heal, and when he awakens, Sam runs to his bedside, both characters’ faces light up, and Sam takes Frodo by the hand. On the cast commentary track, Ian McKellen offers background on the filming of this scene:

When I suggested to Sean [Astin / Sam] that he take Elijah [Wood / Frodo]’s hand, I thought it was because anyone who knew the book would care about the deep friendship, often of an innocently physical nature, and that that might be missed by two resolutely heterosexual actors who mightn’t appreciate that gay people like myself saw in a touch something perhaps more meaningful than others might. And so to persuade him to touch Elijah, I’d say, “well, look, it’s in the book.”

We then cut to Sean Astin, who makes no reference to the scene’s potential queer reading, but instead confirms that McKellen brought the book to him before he filmed the scene, told him that fans would expect Sam and Frodo to touch hands, and that he therefore played it this way. Astin then notes that he got a fan letter saying how much this meant to the woman who wrote the letter. Elijah Wood then marvels at how great that is. Read more…

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Who is Roger Chapman?

July 16th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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In the Summer of 2013, Roger Chapman came to prominence on the Teaching Media Facebook group, achieving folk hero status. But who is this man, and what does the record tell us about him?

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Roger Chapman was born on April 17, 1965, the same day as William Mapother. Just as Mapother would later enjoy brief fame for his role as the secret Other, Ethan, who infiltrates the protagonists’ camp on hit show Lost, so too would Chapman’s crowning grace in life come with his successful infiltration of the Teaching Media Facebook group in 2013 – an infiltration for which he would receive even more high fives from co-workers than for his legendary spam email sent to the University of South Dakota’s German department listserv. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

 

It was a warm day in Disco, Tennessee when his mother Gertrude, a teacher at Disco High, gave birth to young Roger after laboring at home for hours. A single mother, Gertrude nevertheless gave Roger the family name of his father and her only true love, Mark David. April 17 was an auspicious day, for only two days prior the NFL had changed the color of penalty flags from white to bright gold. How fitting that a man who masterfully dodged penalty flags his whole life would be born that day!

 

His childhood was uneventful, save for the highlight of his adolescent years, when in 1972, Gertrude made the three hour drive to Nashville so they could both see the young Tanya Tucker delight with her hit “Delta Dawn.” Young Roger loved Country so much, until two years later, Olivia Newton-John won the Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year award; fiercely patriotic Roger couldn’t fathom how an Australian could win such an award, and he parted ways with Country, setting out instead on a musical journey that would ironically end up leading him back away from American music to Dutch death metal, upon Severe Torture’s release, in 2002, of back-to-back albums Butchery of the Soul and Misanthropic Carnage.

 

As a teen, he was known for his funny impressions of television stars of the day, and for his virtuoso one-man, self-written stage version of Hart to Hart. He excelled at math, especially subtraction. In the summers, he would divide his time between circling Disco in his beloved Big Wheels, and working on yet more recipes for canned precooked meats.

 

Upon graduation, he left Tennessee and a tearful Gertrude for the University of Houston-Downtown, where he studied General Business. In between studying and working part-time at an advertising agency, he would watch all sorts of movies, though none delighted him quite as much as did Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach, a film which he still watches weekly and which gave rise to his favorite movie quotes, “Well, I’m sorry to hear that … Captain Dork!” and “You leave the swimming area NOW, mister.” A professor at UHD would write glowingly of him in a reference letter that “Roger is of sound mind.”

 

Work at the advertising agency took off, such that he began there full time following graduation. It is also in the halls of what is now Campbell and Chapman Associates that he met his wife, Christine. They later married, on August 16, 1989. That day, a solar flare from the Sun created a freak geomagnetic storm that affected micro chips and that led to the halt of all trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange; Roger boasted that “our love is electric, baby” as the true explanation. Their honeymoon to Belfast, Northern Ireland was cut short a week later when Dutch dancer Helen le Clerq died and Roger packed his bags to return home saying “I’m just not feeling it anymore, honey.” He still wears a wristband memorializing le Clerq to this day.

 

Roger and Christine live happily in Houston, and Roger’s work continues to provide him constant fulfillment, though he now works exclusively from home, making mad money!!! He is known amongst co-workers as “MC Facebook,” for his remarkable abilities to sell product and evade being banned on the popular social media site. Roger and Christine long ago made a principled stand never to have children until Texas schools no longer insist on teaching geography.

 

Roger’s maxim in life is “I’m ranking things like crazy.” Do you know Roger and have stories to share?

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Be My Colleague, Part II

October 25th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

And a third posting …

The Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison seeks applicants for a tenure-track position at the rank of Assistant Professor in Media and Cultural Studies, to begin in August 2012. Candidates will be expected to conduct research, develop and teach courses, and supervise graduate students in the critical, intersectional analysis of identity and representation in contemporary media, including race, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexuality. Those whose work demonstrates a transnational/global/diasporic focus and an ability to combine methodological approaches are especially encouraged to apply. The successful candidate will teach a large undergraduate lecture course in addition to other specialist courses to both undergraduate and graduate students. Ph.D. in a related field and evidence of scholarly excellence and teaching ability are required. See also http://commarts.wisc.edu. Please submit a CV and a letter detailing interests and capabilities, and arrange to have sent three letters of reference, to Professor Jonathan Gray, Media, Identity, and Representation Search, Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 821 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706. Electronic applications will not be accepted. The deadline to assure full consideration is December 29, 2011. EOE/AA. Employment may require a criminal background check. Unless confidentiality is requested in writing, information regarding the applicants must be released upon request. Finalists cannot be guaranteed confidentiality. The Department of Communication Arts is committed to building a culturally diverse intellectual community and strongly encourages applications from women, ethnic minorities, and other underrepresented groups. Questions about the search may be directed to Professor Jonathan Gray at jagray3@wisc.edu

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Be My Colleague

October 24th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

For anyone on the job market in media studies, or anyone who knows someone, please do pass on these two opportunities, the first a tenure-track position in digital media production with a fast-approaching deadline, the second a pretty sweet postdoc position due two weeks later. I have fantastic colleagues, but am greedy and want more. Read more…

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Looking for an academic job or a place in grad school?

October 10th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

While I slack off from writing real posts, instead I thought I’d give a wholly narcissistic shout out to some of my earlier posts. If you or someone you know is on the academic job market in media and cultural studies, this time last year I wrote a multi-part series with some advice, and some great folk contributed their own advice in the comments too, so be sure to read them. Earlier this year, I also wrote a three part series on applying to grad school, and once again some great minds chipped in down in the comments, so read those too.

The academic job market pieces, and links:

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As for the series on getting into grad schools:

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What My DVR Thinks of the New Shows

September 25th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

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: Read more…

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