Against the flow

Jason Mittell posted a fantastic blog post, based on an essay he’s written for an upcoming book on Mad Men, discussing why the critically-acclaimed series has not grabbed him, despite the time he’s put into trying to get into it. The post can be read here, and I thoroughly recommend reading it.

While I actually have a similar take on Mad Men to Mittell, although without having watched nearly as much as he has – I still have every intention of watching more, given the critical and academic acclaim that the show has received, but having seen the first episode, I find that I just can’t bring myself to watch more. What I was presented with was a storyverse that just held no interest to me and although the ‘quality’ was evident (quality used in multiple connotations) , I just had no inspiration to continue. I see it just in the same way that I feel about Thomas Hardy novels – I hear that they’re well written, but having attempted a couple of different ones, I have no desire to ever finish them or pick up another.

But Mittell’s post raised two major questions for me, one from his text, and one from the comments which followed. Firstly, as television academics, what requirement do we have to watch series? Mittell has made a concerted attempt to watch Mad Men, only conceding defeat after a full season. There are any number of critically-acclaimed series which I have yet to really put any time into – The Wire, and Breaking Bad are just two recent series which spring to mind, whilst a lack of television viewing when I was growing up means that I have yet to see an episode of Hill Street Blues, and have only recent seen the pilot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So how much of these shows does one need to see in order to be able to think about television as a whole? And why is it only critically-acclaimed shows which tend to enter these discussions? Do we not need to have a good understanding of something like Hank in order to appreciate why Modern Family or Community are breaking boundaries? And how much of the decisions we make about our viewing needs to be guided by academia rather than by taste? Can one be a television academic and only watch the programming that we enjoy?

The second question I want to raise is in regards to a comment made on the blog, who questions whether academics should be writing about a series before it is completed. Now, I found this interesting on a couple of levels. Firstly, I should establish that I thoroughly disagree with this viewpoint. (I’ve actually just gone back to Mittell’s blog and seen that this is further discussed in the comments than when I was last there). I believe strongly that television can be analysed and discussed before the “text” of a series is complete – otherwise how would we ever study long-running soaps or current affairs shows. And I would pity all the people sitting around waiting desperately for The Simpsons to end before they could write about it. Of course, I think that it would be difficult to make sweeping generalisations about Buffy The Vampire Slayer having only seen a couple of episodes from season 1. But as I was trying to explain to a group of 3rd year students a few days ago, the television text is a problematic entity. Where does it begin, and where does it end. Does it include the various format constraints that might surround it in it’s broadcast entity (ie advertising breaks, network promos etc)? Does it include outtakes and extras that might appear on a DVD? Does it include webisodes that might have fleshed out a backstory or a particular character? Does it include an ARG which may have been active at the time? Does it include fan-fiction which draws on the storyverse? At which point has an academic watched and read enough in order to be able to write on a series?

The difficulty in this sort of definition of the television text is what makes it very clear to me that an academic can write about whatever material they have encountered, as long as they are not attempting to make claims which step beyond the bounds of that material. Having seen the pilot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I could write a textual analysis of that episode, I might even be able to make some conjecture about what the producers were trying to achieve from the nature of pilots, I could comment about the presentation of the period in the 70s, maybe even produce a feminist critique of the episode. I could have written that the day after it first aired (notwithstanding that I wasn’t alive then), and although with the benefit of hindsight and having seen the remaining episodes, that critique might change, that doesn’t mean that the original analysis doesn’t hold a huge amount of academic value.

This post has ended up not being very well thought out, but I was just spurred to make a couple of these points, as these ideas are constantly swirling around me, and I am constantly being forced to consider and reassess them.

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2 thoughts on “Against the flow

  1. citizenparable

    Your thoughts on the TV series as unfinshed text were interesting, Mark. I think in some senses a reading of a ‘snipped’ excerpt of a series could be more revealing, and more…truthful?

    Consider this – with a novel, by the time you get your hands on it to critique or analyse, it has been edited, revised and very much resolved into a unified whole.

    Whereas with a TV series there is very little retro-revison that occurs. Especially in a long run series, the final direction of the story may not be set in stone as the early episodes are shot & broadcast. The series will be shaped and revised as shooting goes on based on testing and other feedback. So, in a sense, to contextualise your reading of early episodes with the later developments could be misleading.

    As with your Mary Tyler Moore example, an analysis of the producers aims in terms of feminist agenda based on the first episode would not just be valid, but arguably MORE valid than a reading based on the whole series, or even the whole first season. It’s possible that the producers were more radical in intent, but had to compromise, or were spurred on to more radical heights by the response to the show.

    If your analysing in particular the artistic intent of the creators, the closer to the start and the shorter the period analysed the better, in some ways. The longer a series goes on the less it is the pure creation of the originators, it becomes increasingly the property of the audience.

  2. Mark S

    There’s a lot of great stuff here, and I want to re-read it a bit to digest it. But “the property of the audience” – now there’s an idea I want to sit with for a while. Might even throw it out to the Twitterverse, to all my TV Studies friends, get their thoughts too. I think there’s a paper there!

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