Fall Pilot Score Card – Week One

September 22nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

~

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

~

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.

~

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:

~

~

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.

~

~

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.

~

~

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.

~

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

~

Tags: , , , ,

new shows , , , ,

Paratexts as 527s, 527s as Paratexts

August 22nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

~~

~~

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…

Tags: , , , , , , ,

politics , , , , , , ,

A Companion to Media Authorship

August 4th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

~~

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…

Tags: , ,

book reviews , ,

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

July 26th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

~~

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.

~~ Read more…

No tag for this post.

Uncategorized

“Best” Opening Credit Sequences, Part 2

July 25th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

~~

~~

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

~~

Read more…

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

lists, opening credit sequences , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Best” Opening Credit Sequences, Part 1

July 24th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

~~

~~

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…

Tags: , , , , , , ,

lists, opening credit sequences, Uncategorized , , , , , , ,

Is Mad Men Feminist? Ask the Paratexts

July 22nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

~~

~~

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.

~~

Read more…

Tags: , , , , , ,

ads, bonus materials, stars , , , , , ,

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…

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

bonus materials , , , , , , , , , , ,

Who is Roger Chapman?

July 16th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

~~

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?

~ ~ ~

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?

~~

Tags:

Uncategorized

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

Tags: , ,

Academic Job Market , ,