Show Case Post #2 – When it comes to television ‘quality’ doesn’t necessarily mean good

I don’t know how I feel about the term “quality TV”. It automatically assumes the program must be good and worth watching, however in my experience of viewing such shows this isn’t always the case. One example that comes to mind is AMC’s The Killing, which I recently watched on the recommendation of my auntie. Well at least I thought she was recommending it; she actually meant the Danish version of the show. Over two series, the show follows the murder of schoolgirl Rosie Larsen, trying to solve the mystery surrounding her death. The show has all the hallmarks of ‘quality TV’. The narrative is complex spanning across episodes; the characters develop throughout the series, and the intricate plot can be quite challenging. It definitely wasn’t a show you could miss episodes of, in fact even watching every episode did not make the plot less confusing. And this was my biggest quam with the show. Over two series (26 episodes) almost every character brought into the show is accused of Rosie’s murder, some dismissed and some still left as possible culprits. It isn’t until the final episode that the murderer is revealed, and even then I didn’t entirely understand how this had come to be. The feeling of dissatisfaction after watching two series of a show where the plot became almost as convoluted as that of Lost left me wondering about the idea of demanding narratives in this kind of show.

It seems I wasn’t alone in my opinion of the show, with an article in Pop Matters, expressing a similar view – ‘When “Good” TV Goes Bad: Five (Out of Many Flaws of ‘The Killing’’. Lee argues: the hardest thing about watching AMC’s The Killing is that, despite of the show’s grand potential, it seems hell bent on destroying itself. Week after week you’re left with a constant string of “WTF” moments where you wonder if the writers are putting us on, haven’t watched prior episodes, or are trying to bring down the show on purpose.”  (Lee, 2012) It was the same issue I had with Lost, there were just two many of these ‘WTF’ moments to keep up with, that only ever left me feeling frustrated. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they came out with the line ‘and it was all a dream’. I guess the trick is in balancing such moments, which Jason Mittell discusses in his article from this week. He argues that a key goal of complex television is “the desire to be both actively engaged in the story and successful surprised through storytelling manipulations…we want to enjoy the machine’s results while also marveling at how it works” (Mittell, 2006). After all viewers deserve some reward for their continual dedication to a TV show. Perhaps another reason this show disappointed me was because I automatically assumed it must be a good show being an AMC production– an opinion shared by Lee “I wonder if it’s really just a bad show and we just think it has potential because it airs on basic cable’s prestige network (AMC) and its “supposed to be good”, i.e. more artistic, stylistic, and dramatically risky than a network show” (Lee, 2012). This leads me to my next point about branding.

During this weeks lecture we discussed the idea of branding within television, with particular reference to HBO, known for its ‘quality’ programs, such as the Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. Mittell asserts, “the prestige of these programmes furthers the channel’s brand image of being more sophisticated than traditional television” (Mittel, 2006). Would I have found The Killing as frustrating had it been just another cop show like CSI? Probably not. There is no doubt that we expect more from long form narrative series, especially when they come from networks with stellar reputations. I can think of plenty of examples where I have been satisfied with this style of television, Mad Men is one example. The complex characters make for enjoyable viewing. Whether or not you love or hate Don Draper you have to agree that he is a well-crafted character, with a complex back-story. The complex ‘narrative world’ of Mad Men is carefully constructed, and draws you in. We looked at this idea of “word building” in the lecture, where there is a shift in emphasis away from the plot and more to the world of the show and the characters involved. There are certain episodes in Mad Men where this is cleverly done through flashbacks, or framing the action of an entire episode in the past tense. Through the five series of Mad Men we are treated to a few such episodes where we slowly piece together Don Draper and his often-cold, rude and misogynist ways.

So if ‘quality’ television isn’t good television what is it then? Quality is synonymous with a particular set of conventions and stylistic features. The complex long form narrative mentioned above is one such convention. It can be argued that “Quality TV has a memory…these shows tend to refer back to previous episodes and characters develop and change as the series goes on” (Thompson, 1997 pp.24). According to Academics Janet McCabe and Kim Akass “American quality television programmes tend to exhibit high production values, naturalistic performance styles, recognized and esteemed actors, a sense of visual style created through careful, even innovative camera work and editing, and a sense of aural style created through the judicious use of appropriate, even original music” (McCabe & Akass, 2007 pp.26). They argue that ‘quality’ programs are more likely to cover serious themes, rather than the superficial events of life. They also believe that part of what makes a program quality, is the way the audience receives it. The audience will likely “be rewarded for seeking out greater emotional or symbolic resonance within the details of the program” (McCabe & Akass, 2007 pp.26). Perhaps the term quality is just misleading then, for if we consider these arguments they are by no means suggesting the program appeals to everyone’s particular tastes, just that these shows are generally well made.

Lastly, it can be argued that ‘quality’ TV is a genre in itself, just like art house films within film. Genre sets up specific codes and patterns of familiarity that make a program distinguishable within its genre. Just because we have a specific preference to a genre doesn’t mean we necessarily like every show within it. Taste is very much dependent on the person, and therefore “almost any discussion involving quality cannot escape issues of value judgment and personal taste” (McCabe & Akass, 2007 pp.2). Consider my tastes – comedy: I like Modern Family but not the Big Bang Theory. Drama: I like House but not Grey’s Anatomy. Reality TV: I like Master Chef but not Big Brother. You get the point. So lets not fall into the trap of thinking quality TV must be good. This point is well summed up in Mittell’s article where he argues “value judgments should be tied to individual programs rather than claiming the superiority of an entire narrational mode or genre” (Mittell, 2006).

 References:

 

 

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Show Case Post #1 – Mad Men: a social commentary of women in the 50s and 60s

The women of Mad Men vary greatly in their personalities, attitudes and beliefs, offering a social commentary of what life was like for women in America during the 1950s and 1960s. Considering this, the characters of Betty Draper and Peggy Olson reveal opposite ends of the spectrum, with Betty a typical housewife, and Peggy trying to pave her way in a mans world. Through these two distinctly different women, Mad Men is able to highlight debates around feminism and gender roles in American society during this period. As a period drama, based on extensive research, Mad Men has great appeal to audiences wishing to understand and be educated on the cultural and political norms of this period, whilst equally being entertained. TV critic Jason Mittel believes that it is this sophisticated form of social engagement unique to such serial forms of ‘quality’ TV that allow us to follow characters, and understand them on a deeper and more personal level. Mittel argues that “Mad Men’s genre of period drama is lodged not only within its style, but also shapes its cultural commentary, spanning both its visual and interpretive pleasures” (Mittel, 2010).

In the first season of Mad Men we see Betty Draper as a typical 50s American housewife – husband, two kids, a dog, a nice home and so on. Like many women during this time, Betty is yet to adapt to the changes occurring in society around her. Betty seems to lack her own personality. She’s a hard book to read, and while she’s generally always polite, we sense this is a façade and that she doesn’t mean a lot of what she says. It is then not surprising that when you search “I hate Betty Draper” into Google you will come across hundreds of pages with fans of the show slamming her cold nature, and childish ways. Having watched all five seasons I tend to agree with such claims, however I think it’s worth looking at what role a character like Betty plays.

For all the criticism Betty’s character receives people need to remember that she is representational of many women in her socioeconomic demographic during this time. For this reason, sympathetic views towards Betty are justifiable. In her article for the Washington Post Jen Chaney acknowledges this sympathy for Betty asserting “I have, on more than one occasion, carried a measure of sympathy for her. Betty is a product of the era that preceded her current one, a simple housewife of the ’50s attempting to move through the ’60s in impossibly flouncy skirts and high heels. She has no sense of self and an existence stifled by the daily suburban grind of backyard parties, cocktail hours and, at least when she was with Don, a perpetually adulterous husband. I have felt for her. I really have” (Chaney, 2010).

Chaney touches on, and rightly so, Betty’s non-existent sense of self. Betty is often depicted as an incompetent mother, a cold wife, and disingenuous with her friends. However, it’s fair to say much of this stems from deep insecurities, fuelled by her husband Don. For despite how charming and sexy Don many appear on the surface, his upbringing has left him a deeply troubled man, who resorts to strings of affairs with women, all the while neglecting his wife.

The season one finale ‘The Wheel’ reveals just how insecure and troubled Betty is. The episode chronicles her suspicions that Don is having an affair, and shows Betty at her most vulnerable. In fact, “Betty is so broken and lonely she turns to a nine-year-old boy for comfort in an agonizing scene” (Miller, 2010). I can’t help but think this moment was inappropriate, for a grown woman to place her emotional burden so heavily on a child. Betty lacks maturity, and at times struggles to show empathy towards others. During the scene in which Francine inconsolably breaks down about Carlton’s affair, we see little genuine care and compassion from Betty, who remains cold and contrived. Hello Betty, she’s just confiding to her best friend that her husband has been having an affair. Don’t you think a hug would be reasonable at this moment? Then again, as an ‘object’ of her husband Don, Betty hasn’t exactly had a chance to mature; again reflecting women during this period.

TV critic Dawn Shanks argues that “most episodes becoming dreary chronicles of Betty’s bratty ennui” (Shanks, 2009). Playing the housewife role, Betty reflects the boredom probably experienced by many women in the 50s and 60s. Betty’s meeting with her psychologist in this episode reveals just this. On the surface she has it all, however deep down she is frustrated and feels helpless. This episode shows Betty knows exactly what kind of a man her husband in, but also shows Betty is helpless to act on this. It can be seen that Betty’s character is never developed beyond this point. We often assume Betty might be upset, but behind her cold stare, and immaculate manner and persona we are given very little evidence to go by. It can be seen that Betty “pantomimes through struggle and strife some women of that time may have experienced in that era, but we never see any deeper character development in her than a flash in her eyes like she’s some angry repressed phoenix” (Shanks, 2009)

And now to Peggy, a female who represents everything Betty is not. Peggy is determined to make it in a man’s world; to succeed in the advertising industry based on talent alone. However as Mad Men so often reveals, this isn’t easy with Peggy constantly subjected to harassment from men in the office, and often deemed incapable of tasks based purely on the fact she’s not a man. Monique Miggelbrink, writer for visual culture journal InVisible Culture, argues this point that “at work sexist and discrediting (speech) acts characterize a regressive atmosphere…apart from the hierarchical structures, which exclude women from any position other than secretary, it is obvious sexism at the women’s work place that identifies the regressive milieu” (Miggelbrink, 2012). She argues that despite Peggy being able to work her way up to become to first female copywriter at Sterling Cooper, “her long and hard professional ascent illustrates women’s precarious situation” (Miggelbrink, 2012).

Peggy is a strong female character and representational of the feminist movement. TV critic Jason Meindersee argues, “strong female characters that act and succeed like mean are important, but strong female characters that are brutalized for their strength and yet somehow persevere are rarer and more inspiring” (Meindersee, 2012). Peggy is not just an excellent social and cultural commentary she is an excellent character, created by excellent writers. Meindersee believes “the most beautiful thing about Peggy as a character is that in a series filled with so much disappointment and failure, she is someone we can look up to and want to be like” (Meindersee, 2012).

Summing up it is worth noting the social and cultural commentaries reflected in Mad Men’s characters would not be possible if it weren’t for the shows “narrative complexity”, allowing storylines to unfold over an extended period of time, and characters to really be developed. Director Matthew Weiner has been vocal about his feminist ideals, and was keen to convey this through Mad Men. This is highlighted through the contrast of Joan and Peggy in the work place, which reveals Mad Men’s feminist intentions within the text which steadily deconstructs the female objectification it so famously showcases, but also strongly feminist critical possibilities contained within the very format of the series” (Cox, 2012).

Thanks to Mad Men’s extended narratives viewers become emotionally vested in the show, sympathizing with characters, in particular those who are female. Themes of feminism come across strong through the cultural commentaries of the various women on the show. Mad Men is in many ways more than just a enjoying viewing experience, it educates people on a time gone by.

References

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Comments on other people’s posts

1. Hopelessly Devoted to Reality TV

Nice post Gen! :) I really liked your arguments about the hybrid of genres, balancing documentary and drama, and the more ‘authentic’ reality programs versus the highly produced ones. I definitely think its true that the appeal of shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Made in Chelsea is due to the dramatized situations they portray. It doesn’t matter that these shows don’t portray an absolutely genuine reality, because we know this is the case when we are watching them. Besides everyone needs some light hearted, trashy TV viewing every now and then! I also like your point “Without the realness, it becomes a lot of bad actors in poorly scripted scenarios. It’s a balancing act – encouraging drama, not creating it”. Yes we want to be entertained, but we also have to believe at least some of what we are seeing, otherwise it shouldn’t really be considered ‘reality TV’ at all.

2. Ethnocentric Me and Asian TV

I find the ethnocentrism argument a really interesting one, often something I too am left thinking. I also couldn’t stand Winter Sonata or Long Vacation, but was left wondering whether this was purely because the kinds of shows they were varied far to much from the ones I am used to in western culture. I too wonder if we watch these shows with a bias from the outset, with the mindset that American shows are superior and of higher quality, or whether its just due to largely differing tastes between Asian and Western culture. Perhaps people in Asian countries find some American dramas equally as cringe worthy? Interesting stories from Cambodia, particularly the Asian covers for western songs you came across. So perhaps this dislike of cultures isn’t reciprocal, with Asian cultures more willing to absorb our culture, then we are theirs?

3. It’s a mad world

I think you analysis of Peggy’s character is spot on in this post. Having looked at the scene with Peggy casting for the radio advertisement in depth, I completely agree about the themes of feminism and gender roles explored. It almost seems as if Peggy pities this girl, who is seemingly succeeding in life based on her looks, unlike Peggy, who has to make her way based on talent. Peggy certainly holds the reigns in this scene, evidence of her new found confidence in her role. The way Peggy berates Annie in this scene is perhaps also out of jealousy, for Peggy recently fat (not knowing she is pregnant), has completely let herself go, no longer making the effort to look nice for work. I agree with your point about Peggy’s rude awakening, upon discovering she is pregnant, leaving the audience wondering if her sudden rise in the workplace could be over thanks to her womanhood.

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Reality TV

Reality TV is an ever-expanding increasingly popular genre on television today, largely thanks to the success of Big Brother. The reality TV category is broad, including infotainment, surveillance reality, fly-on-the-wall docu-soap, reality game, and reality talent formats just to name a few. This wave of reality TV programs has been accompanied by “a discernible intensification of the histrionic commentaries in magazines, tabloids and web-sites with which ‘reality’ forms are now inter-dependent” (Piper, 2006). The publicity and widespread media coverage of such programs creates celebrities, a top priority of today’s TV programs. Shows such as X Factor and Australian Idol hope to find homegrown talent and produce international super stars, and even shows like Big Brother and Master Chef are concerned with producing local celebrities who will continue to support both the network brand, and the programs image.  

In television discourse ‘reality TV’ often appears in quotation marks, a technique to make us question the shows contested claim to be ‘real’. TV critics Su Holmes and Deborah Jermyn consider reality TV’s relationship to the ‘real’ in their book Understanding Reality Television, where they argue that “early attempts to define reality TV emphasized the importance of a focus on ‘real life’ and ‘real people’ as the crucial criteria…yet the more recent proliferation of reality TV has witnessed a move away from an attempt to ‘capture’ a ‘life lived’ to the televisual arenas of formatted environments in which the more traditional observational rhetoric of documentary jostles for space with the discourses of display and performance” (Holmes & Jermyn, 2004 pp.5).

Traditional reality TV programs fell into the observational documentary category, attempting to convey a non-contrived, as reflective of real life events as possible. Watching excerpts from the hugely popular British series 7 Up, provided an interesting insight into the earlier days of reality TV. Whilst the program was obviously still designed, structured and edited, this was minimal compared to today’s reality programs. The shows idea of covering lives in time, with a new series airing every seven years, allowed for an extraordinary development of, and depth of perspective of ‘the self’ as viewers follow these ordinary people’s lives as they grow up.

In recent decades there has been a shift away from this more traditional observational documentary to docusoap formats. A key element of reality television is ‘the self’ and how this is constructed and transformed throughout a program. In this sense some reality television can be seen as a drama performance, with individuals knowing they are on camera, and must convey themselves in a particular way, often seemingly contrived. The British show Made in Chelsea, about the lives of London’s young and wealthy,is a perfect example of this contrived reality. There has been no denying from the production team and cast members that Made in Chelsea is a ‘scripted reality’. As a viewer this is obvious, and sometimes results in cringe worthy awkward moments where we feel the conversation seems unnatural and forced. However this is all done with the producer’s idea of which aspect of ‘the self’ of each participant they wish to portray. As a viewer you must move beyond the view ‘oh but its not really reality’ and instead look at how what works and appeals to the audience and why. As a viewer you have to wonder if Caggie and Spencer’s ‘on again off again, will they ever hook up’ thing they have going is played up and prolonged to create appealing television viewing, not because that’s actually how they feel about each other. In saying this though, this continual storyline with lingering hope they might get together is perhaps what keeps people hooked on the show and coming back for more.

A key feature of many reality TV programs that appeals to audiences is the idea of observing ‘ordinary people’. In the book Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, John Corner looks at Big Brother and its portray of real people and real behavior, asserting “such observation finds its grounding reference, and a large part of its interest and pleasure in the real characteristics of real people”  (Corner, 2009 pp.44). This isn’t to say Big Brother isn’t contrived, because to an extent it is, by the very setting of the Big Brother House, a ‘world’ is created for participants to live in, outside of their normal realities.

Another key feature of reality television is its relationship with audience participation. Game shows such as Big Brother, Australian Idol and Biggest Loser allow viewers to vote for their favourite participants. This allows viewers to have an influence on the direction of these shows and how they will eventually unfold. This idea of viewer participation has very much coincided with the emergence of technologies that have allowed for online participation as well, where viewers can follow programs 24 hours a day.

Reality TV has seen a trade it format and program ideas globally, with American ideas for shows often sold to Asian networks. In her book Reality TV: Audiences and popular factual television, Annette Hill argues that “the success of European versions of reality formats illustrates reality TV’s strong performance within the global television sphere” (Hill, 2005 pp.25). This isn’t to say its always America coming up with the ideas, take Iron Chef, this Japanese show was recreated in America, and the idea for popular program Survivor began in Sweden. This global exchange in formatting just goes to show how successful a genre reality TV has been, particularly since the late 1990s.

 

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Betty Draper: a social commentary of women in the 50s and 60s

Search “I hate Betty Draper” into Google and you will come across hundreds of pages with fans of the show slamming her cold nature, and childish ways. Having watched all five seasons I tend to agree with such claims, however I think it’s worth looking at what role a character like Betty plays. TV critic Jason Mittel argues that “Mad Men’s genre of period drama is lodged not only within its style, but also shapes its cultural commentary, spanning both its visual and interpretive pleasures” (Mittel, 2010). Betty’s character is an obvious character commentary of American women, of the ‘housewife’ variety in the 50s and 60s. Mittel believes that it is this sophisticated form of social engagement unique to such serial forms of ‘quality’ TV that allow us to follow characters, and understand them on a deeper and more personal level. Don’s treatment of Betty throughout the five series is a social commentary of gender roles, sexism and marriage in this period in America.

As a cultural commentary of women in the 50s and 60s, sympathetic views towards Betty are justified. In her article for the Washington Post Jen Chaney acknowledges this sympathy for Betty asserting “I have, on more than one occasion, carried a measure of sympathy for her. Betty is a product of the era that preceded her current one, a simple housewife of the ’50s attempting to move through the ’60s in impossibly flouncy skirts and high heels. She has no sense of self and an existence stifled by the daily suburban grind of backyard parties, cocktail hours and, at least when she was with Don, a perpetually adulterous husband. I have felt for her. I really have” (Chaney, 2010). This idea of having no sense of self is worth exploring. Betty is often depicted as an incompetent mother, a cold wife, and disingenuous with her friends. I think this stems from deep insecurities, fuelled by her husband Don, who while charming and sexy on the surface, is in fact a serial cheater, liar, cold, and unloving man.

The season one finale ‘The Wheel’ reveals just how insecure and troubled Betty is. The episode chronicles her suspicions that Don is having an affair, and shows Betty at her most vulnerable. In fact, “Betty is so broken and lonely she turns to a nine-year-old boy for comfort in an agonizing scene” (Miller, 2010). I can’t but help thinking this moment was inappropriate, for a grown woman to place her emotional burden so heavily on a child. Betty is a seemingly immature character, who shows a lack of empathy towards others. The scene in which Francine is breaking down to Betty about Carlton’s affair, we don’t see so much as a change in tone in Betty’s voice. Hello Betty, she’s just confiding to her best friend that her husband has been having an affair. Don’t you think a hug would be reasonable at this moment?

TV critic Dawn Shanks argues that “most episodes becoming dreary chronicles of Betty’s bratty ennui” (Shanks, 2009). Playing the housewife role, Betty reflects the boredom probably experienced by many women of this time. Betty’s meeting with her psychologist in this episode reveals just this. On the surface she has it all, loving husband and children, a nice home, and no shortage of money when it comes to material things. However Bratty Betty seems, it stems from a deep frustration, and helplessness. This episode shows Betty knows exactly what kind of a man her husband in, but also shows Betty is helpless to act on this. Then again it can be seen that Betty’s character is never developed beyond this point. We often assume Betty might be upset, but behind her cold stare, and immaculate manner and persona we are given very little evidence to go by. It can be seen that Betty “pantomimes through struggle and strife some women of that time may have experienced in that era, but we never see any deeper character development in her than a flash in her eyes like she’s some angry repressed phoenix” (Shanks, 2009)

An interesting trend, that I’m not sure I entirely agree upon, has been recognized in highbrow TV is the beautiful control freak characters. Eleanor Barkhorn, writer for The Atlantic argues that Betty, like Sex and the City’s Charlotte, and Girls’ Marnie fits squarely into this character form. These “stunning women with deep neuroses…highlight a strange trend in highbrow television: with beauty comes a desire for control – which the character must lose in humiliating fashion” (Barkhorn, 2012). She believes Betty and these other characters stand out for their near physical perfection, but at the core, they are all controlling and childish. Whilst I find this an interesting comparison across these three TV shows, I don’t necessarily think when developing a character the writer thinks, oh if she is going to be beautiful she must be flawed.

However regardless of this, Betty is obviously a flawed character. Despite hr being one of those characters you love to hate, you can’t help but feel sorry for her. With a husband that struggles to show any love to her, let alone their children (He abandons his family on Thanksgiving in this episode), Betty’s situation is somewhat grim. As a period drama, Betty’s character is an excellent social commentary of women in a particular time, whose challenges, trials and tribulations are vastly different to women of today.

 

 

 

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Big Love – Reinventing Genre

Whilst HBO’s Big Love falls into the realm of ‘quality’ television, it highlights the influences that other genres may have on shaping a program. In the case of Big Love the heightened melodrama is reminiscent of that of soap operas, but at the same time the recurring themes of faith, gender and power are more reminiscent of that of ‘quality’ television. Watching the pilot episode of Big Love we were introduced to Bill Hendrickson and his family – which consists of his three wives and his various children. The way that the three ‘sister-wives’ fight for Bills love and affection, and the subtle jealously between them, reminded me of the usual relationship dramas found in soap operas. However it was obvious there was depth to the characters that was slowly unpacked, and viewing more episodes would no doubt have revealed great character development and change.

TV critic Michael Kackman suggests that melodrama is in some ways a necessary component of quality television, and should not only be thought of as a trait of ‘low brow’ television. He believes that within quality television melodrama is important “because of its investment in its immediate cultural environs, that is to say, not just its formal play, but its engagement of cultural tensions, instabilities, and anxieties” (Kackman 2010). The way melodrama is used to highlight and resolve social tensions, make it a central focus of serial narrativization. He cites that “for melodrama, as Christine Gledhill wrote, “draws into a public arena desires, fears, values and identities which lie beneath the surface of the publicly acknowledged world.” (Kackman, 2010). From a glimpse into the very first episode of the show, and then the season 5 finale we see the way this melodrama is used to draw focus to religious and social issues, both personal and public. Bill’s first wife Barb disillusionment with her marriage and faith, coinciding with Bill’s public battle to legalize polygamy is just one example of this.

Perhaps what best defines Big Love as a quality television program is the way it provides insight into another culture and way of life, challenging questions of gender roles and religion in society in a complex way. Michael Kackman argues that by watching quality television “we’re not just appreciating narrative craft. Instead, we’re embracing the dream of a more complex world. Maybe, even, a more just one” (Kackman, 2010). This kind of viewing experience is far different to that of a soap opera where a viewer may tune in an out, even months apart and be able to pick up on the general plot line, one that generally doesn’t raise these sort of big picture issues.

The shows take on Mormonism and polygamy as central literary devices work favorably in terms of narrative complexity. Television critic Myles McNutt believes the shows success in the first season can be attributed to this, arguing that “Part of the show’s impact in its first season was the idea that these people [the characters] have beliefs that we don’t understand, and more importantly that we’re not being shown the moments where those beliefs came into being. We’re not shown Bill Henrickson receiving his testament and taking a second wife, we’re shown Bill Henrickson getting settled into suburbia with his three wives, dropping us into a world that we’re not expected to understand” (McNutt, 2010).

 The narrative complexity of Big Love is seen through the multiple themes explored, including gender politics, and the institutions of family and marriage. It is worth noting that narrative complexity itself is not a genre, a point highlighted my Jason Mittel – “I was careful not to call it a “genre,” as I believe it crosses most primetime genres and operates at the more macro-level of narrational mode” (Mittel, 2009). Big Love cleverly blends episodic and serial techniques that build upon the back-stories of the plot and the character. This is characteristic of complex narratives, that are often self-consciously aesthetically experimental, and which promote a particular kind of spectatorial pleasure in the mechanisms of narration itself” (Kackman 2010). These serial techniques allow for a complex narrative to ensue in which the audience can make subtle readings of the text at hand.

Issues of gender roles are inescapable throughout the series. The concept of plural marriage “is already one that puts women in a position of lesser status…by making the husband the head of the family spiritually, his wives are expected to follow absolutely and without question”. (Suarez, 2011). However interestingly, while the Hendrickson family is seen as conservative in comparison to the rest of society it lives in it, it is seen as moderate and progressive compared to the more traditional polygamists of Juniper Creek. The focus of the role of religion in everyday life is worth considering. This ties in with “HBO’s promise of something different and simultaneously American” (Luckett, 2006). Basing the show around a fringe, fundamentalist polygamist group detached from the LSD (Mormon Church) the show “presents a religion that derives from American millenialist tendencies and emphasizes American individualism and non-conformism” (Luckett, 2006).

 

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When it comes to television, ‘quality’ doesn’t necessarily mean good

I don’t know how I feel about he term “quality TV”. It automatically assumes the program must be good and worth watching, however in my experience of viewing such shows this isn’t always the case. One recent example that comes to mind is AMC’s The Killing, which I recently watched on the recommendation of my auntie. Well at least I thought she was recommending it; she actually meant the Danish version of the show. Over two series, the show follows the murder of schoolgirl Rosie Larsen, trying to solve the mystery surrounding her death. The show has all the hallmarks of ‘quality TV’. The narrative is complex spanning across episodes; the characters develop throughout the series, and the intricate plot can be quite challenging. It definitely wasn’t a show you could miss episodes of, in fact even watching every episode did not make the plot less confusing. And this was my biggest quam with the show. Over two series (26 episodes) almost every character brought into the show is accused of Rosie’s murder, some dismissed and some still left as possible culprits. It isn’t until the final episode that the murderer is revealed, and even then I didn’t entirely understand how this had come to be. The feeling of dissatisfaction after watching two series of a show were the plot became almost as convoluted as that of Lost left me wondering about the idea of demanding narratives in this kind of show.

It seems I wasn’t alone in my opinion of the show, with an article in Pop Matters, expressing a similar view – ‘When “Good” TV Goes Bad: Five (Out of Many) Flaws of ‘The Killing’’. Lee argues: the hardest thing about watching AMC’s The Killing is that, despite of the show’s grand potential, it seems hell bent on destroying itself. Week after week you’re left with a constant string of “WTF” moments where you wonder if the writers are putting us on, haven’t watched prior episodes, or are trying to bring down the show on purpose.”  (Lee, 2012) It was the same issue I with Lost, there were just two many of these ‘WTF’ moments to keep up with, that only ever left me feeling frustrated, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if they came out with the line ‘and it was all a dream…’. I guess the trick is in balancing such moments, which Jason Mittell discusses in his article from this week. He argues that a key goal of complex television is “the desire to be both actively engaged in the story and successful surprised through storytelling manipulations…we want to enjoy the machine’s results while also marveling at how it works”.  (Mittell, 2006) After all viewers deserve some reward for their continual dedication to a TV show. Perhaps another reason this show disappointed me was because I automatically assumed it must be a good show being an AMC production– an opinion shared by Lee “I wonder if it’s really just a bad show and we just think it has potential because it airs on basic cable’s prestige network (AMC) and its “supposed to be good”, i.e. more artistic, stylistic, and dramatically risky than a network show” (Lee, 2012). This leads me to my next point about branding.

During this weeks lecture we discussed the idea of branding within television, with particular reference to HBO, known for its ‘quality’ programs, such as the Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. Mittell asserts, “the prestige of these programmes furthers the channel’s brand image of being more sophisticated than traditional television” (Mittell, 2006). Would I have found The Killing as frustrating had it been just another cop show like CSI? Probably not. There is no doubt that we expect more from long form narrative series, especially when they come from networks with stellar reputations. I can think of plenty of examples where I have been satisfied with this style of television, Mad Men is one example. The complex characters make for enjoyable viewing. Whether or not you love or hate Don Draper you can’t disagree that he is a well-crafted character, with a complex back-story. The complex ‘narrative world’ of Mad Men is carefully constructed, and draws you in. We looked at this idea of “word building” in the lecture, where there is a shift in emphasis away from the plot and more to the world of the show and the characters involved. There are certain episodes in Mad Men where this is cleverly done through flashbacks, or framing the action of an entire episode in the past tense. Through the five series of Mad Men we are treated to a few such episodes where we slowly piece together Don Draper and his often-cold, rude and misogynist ways.

Lastly, it can be argued that ‘quality’ TV is a genre in itself, just like art house films within film. Genre sets up specific codes and patterns of familiarity that make a program distinguishable within its genre. Just because we have a specific preference to a genre doesn’t mean we necessarily like every show within it. Comedy: I like Modern Family but not the Big Bang Theory. Drama: I like House but not Grey’s Anatomy. Reality TV: I like Master Chef but not Big Brother. You get the point. So lets not fall into the trap of thinking quality TV must be good. This point is well summed up in Mittell’s article where he argues “value judgments should be tied to individual programs rather than claiming the superiority of an entire narrational mode or genre” (Mittell, 2006).

 

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