TV – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Original or Exclusive? Shifts in Television Financing and Distribution Shift Meanings Fri, 01 Jan 2016 15:00:40 +0000 netflixoriginalseries

By  Amanda D. Lotz and Timothy Havens

In addition to increasing the possible objects of study, broadband-distributed television services have introduced new challenges to grounding the television shows we study in their industrial milieu. In truth, this is not an issue that originates with broadband services—it has been a part of international distribution for some time—but has become more acute since the late 1980s, when co-productions became common in Europe, Asia, and the Americas as a way to compete against a growing onslaught of US imports. Before that, if you knew a show’s country of origin, it was pretty easy to ascertain what entity it had been produced for: even though many public broadcasters acquired programming from independent producers, they nevertheless aired it on their national broadcast channels. With some noteworthy exceptions, very little television produced outside the US at this time traveled beyond its nation of origin.

Pinpointing a television series’ industrial and national origins became more complicated as cable and satellite introduced a greater range and variety of television services around the globe. These newcomers were often commercial distributors in systems where public service broadcasting had long dominated, as well as various advertising-subscription hybrid services, as was the case for most US cable channels. Not only did the upstarts tend to source their programming much more widely than their broadcast counterparts; they also quickly developed sister channels in multiple markets that shared program acquisitions.

Television programming has consequently expanded its flow through international markets and now more regularly flows in countervailing directions. The greater diversity of services that deliver programming and the greater diversity of flows have made it more challenging for scholars to develop a shared understanding of the impact that industrial conditions have on programming decisions and the meanings we associate with particular programs, because changes in distributors reinscribe how we understand shows as they move beyond their original licensing distributor. For example, what is an “HBO show”? A show produced by HBO and aired in the US on HBO, as was the case of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under? Does The Leftovers’ production by Warner Bros. make it less of an HBO show, or does the distinction hold because through produced by another studio, it was created for the logics of a subscriber supported service?

The more difficult question is are these still HBO shows when they air on Sky Atlantic, Canal Plus, and HBO Nordic? What about Homeland? The US-based scholar would immediately categorize it as a Showtime “original”—or at least as one produced under the logics of subscriber-funded television (though it is produced by Fox 21)—but how is that show defined in a conversation between a US based scholar and one in Denmark who watches Homeland on HBO Nordic, which is also the source of The Walking Dead? And what about co-productions? Should they always be described as sourced by all financial contributors or just those involved creatively?

Netflix’s marketers have added to the challenge with its liberal use of the term “original” in marketing, typically marketing any show it has exclusive rights to in a country as “original”—hence Netflix claimed Lilyhammer was a “Netflix original” in the US and often claims shows produced for other US networks and channels as “original” in markets outside the US. But we would argue that the only “Netflix originals” are those Netflix pays to have produced. Most of what Netflix promotes as original content is more accurately described as “exclusive” in a particular market (though they seem to be somewhat liberal in calling programming “Netflix originals” even by this designation!)

All we’re really arguing for is the need to follow the money in order to discern for what type of entity the series we write about are produced. Such distinctions are important to discussions of texts because the mandate (commercial; public service) and business model of the entity it is created for (advertising; subscription; advertising and subscription) ends up imprinted upon it in ways often relevant to the argument at hand. Thus, the sale of shows in secondary markets can obscure those origins. And while we may think that much of this is reasonably beyond the notice of general viewers, it certainly matters for television scholars looking to make precise claims about industrial conditions and representation.

But we would like to push this observation even further, to encourage scholars to consider the ways in which various and subsequent industrial practices and conditions leave their mark on the programming we encounter and our orientations toward that programming. We believe that multiple iterations of industrial authorship—the production company, the original channel, the syndicator, and subsequent channels can be thought of as what Derrida calls a “trace.” For Derrida, the trace is the absent other that makes meaning possible; the other side of a binary, such as “woman” is to “man,” which is necessary to make any term meaningful. But the trace is more than this: it contains within it all of the meanings and contradictions that have accrued to a signifier over time, much like the endless links of chain Jacob Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol drags behind him wherever he goes.

Economic practices, industrial arrangements, brands, and corporate cultures all leave a trace on programming. These traces range from the obvious to the barely perceptible, but they undoubtedly shape televisual representations and viewers’ engagements with those representations.


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Fall Premieres 2015: The Best and the Worst Sun, 18 Oct 2015 15:00:54 +0000 combo

The Fall pilot season is not over – it lingers on well into Winter – but our sustained coverage at Antenna ends here with 47 shows reviewed. Partly as a coda, partly to change things up and have one person weigh in on several shows, and partly because my own blog is currently hacked and/or dead, I thought I’d give a round up of what I consider to be the best and worst. These aren’t group picks, just the choices of my own addled brain.

(and a quick disclaimer: I’ve not yet seen Casual [don’t have Hulu] or Blood and Oil [didn’t record], so they’re not included in consideration)


Best New Sitcom


The Grinder – Rob Lowe is excellent in this, bringing the best of his Parks and Rec performance, with both a great knack for comedy and a deft ability to hit touching moments within and through that comedy. It’s outlandish and over-the-top, but quite gloriously so. And, to compare to the other alliteratively paired FOX new sitcom starring an ageless 80s icon, The Grinder is smart enough not to rely upon Lowe as much as Grandfathered relies upon John Stamos, as Fred Savage holds the show together in many ways. It’s lightweight and has little of note to say about anything, but it’s very funny.

Honorable mentions:

The Muppets – This is fun. It’s not brilliant, but it’s done well, the script is at times very crisp, I’m not wailing “think of the children!” just because there’s some adult humor, and the sub-genre at least pulls something different out of a set of characters that I love. Perhaps I’ll turn off in a week or four, but for now I’m happy to continue with the ride. Besides, Gonzo always deserved more comic action, and here he gets it.

The Carmichael Show – Loretta Devine bugs me, as she does on Doc McStuffins, but otherwise it’s a passable sitcom. I’d never seen Carmichael prior to the show, yet he is all types of comfortable in the genre. I fully plan to check back in on this one, but with such a tiny first season, it hardly encouraged me to do so till later.


Worst New Sitcom


Benders – I was happy to see my old neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens feature on television as something other than the location of a key witness on Law and Order, but that’s almost all I liked. It’s trying to be It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and yet doesn’t pull it off. Weak performances make it feel like a bad script reading not even the final product, weak and telegraphed humor tries to be edgy but is too unoriginal to manage it, a weak concept holds over it all, and there’s not even any ice hockey in a show about an ice hockey team.

Honorable mentions:

Dr. Ken – The stinkiness of the writing here is quite stunning at times. Sitcom pilots regularly stink but this one has so far to go to get anywhere half-decent. The jokes are the worst sort of dad jokes, making Two and a Half Men and According to Jim look proficient and positively witty by comparison. A real pity, especially since Albert Tsai ruled Trophy Wife and can do so, so much more than half-baked mime jokes.

Moonbeam City – Take Archer, modify it slightly for the 80s (but only slightly: visual and comic styles should remain), add comically gifted actors, and it should be alright, yeah? Nope. Very unfunny.


Best New Procedural

The Player

The Player – This show is really stupid, and makes no or negative sense half the time. But it’s a lot of fun and it’s never trying to be more than it is. I’ll need to be in the right mood to watch it, but if that mood calls for mindless, silly, yet high-paced action, it fits the bill. NBC out CBS’d CBS. Plus, all those silly elements (people running the world who like to bet on whether some random dude in Vegas will stop a predicted kidnapping or robbery? Whuh?) are silly enough to allow for a touch of camp, like a higher budget A-Team.

Honorable mention:

Blindspot – A rather gripping pilot that did a good job announcing itself as The Blacklist 2. The Blacklist doesn’t do it for me, and nor will this one, but it’s well-acted, tightly scripted, and once the woman is out of the bag (not a metaphor), it sets a good pace and isn’t as icky as I thought it would be. Not for me on a regular basis, but a step above the “No Thanks” category.


Worst New Procedural


Limitless – Matt Sienkiewicz’s review is really smart and deserves reading, much more than the show deserves watching alas. For me, it just couldn’t get its tone right, jolting between camp, serious, goofy, cool, grave, and frequently with music that jolted a different way. Not horrible, just not worth more time.

Honorable mentions:

Rosewood – Morris Chestnut is good in this, but it’s paint-by-numbers. Granted, some other things I like are paint-by-numbers, too, but I don’t especially care for these numbers. You know those B- papers you read that are okay but don’t really try to do or say anything about anything? This is that. It doesn’t fail, it’s not bad – it just put so little effort into being anything other than adequate.

Public Morals – Just so boring. I guess it’s okay, but I couldn’t get far enough into it. Ed Burns may be one of the more boring people alive, so this show fits him, but after rewinding twice to watch a scene that I’d zoned out of, I realized it wasn’t my fault. (note: maybe it’s not a procedural and belongs in the serial category, which is why I gave the nod to Limitless here, but I’d need to watch more to work that out, and I just can’t).


Best New Serialized Drama


Fargo – A brief history of me and this show: I thought it immensely stupid to try and make the film into a television show, and I avoided it. Then Myles McNutt told me I really should watch Season One, for my class, so I did, and I was blown away. When my fellow Peabody Board members and I awarded it a Peabody, I was excited and proud. It’s a truly amazing season. So where could one go from there? Season Two is off to a superb start, again visually and aurally experimental for television, yet in different ways from Season One, again getting amazing performances from its cast (I saw better acting from Kirsten Dunst in a scene than in her career to date. Even Kieran Culkin rocks his scenes), again delighting with an unpredictable plot, and again an artful mix of gravity and levity. If you choose to watch only one of the new shows, make it this one.

Honorable mentions (though a big gap exists between the above and the below):

The Last Kingdom – Compelling television, this has been billed as BBC and BBC America’s attempt to do Game of Thrones with some historical stakes and referents. So it’s not the fantastical universe of GoT, but nor is it entirely trying to be the same thing. If anything, in fact, it’s BBC and BBC America trying to do The Vikings. And they’re doing it well for now. A decent mix of drama, action, and a tiny bit of history to make it feel like one is eating one’s cauliflower while watching men with unkempt beards bash swords and heads against each other.

Quantico – After the second episode, I already feel this one sliding down in my estimation, but it delivered a very impressive pilot, that packed about ten times as much in as its peers, and that balanced anti-terrorist intrigue and suspense with hot young people mating and dating. Grey’s Anatomy meets Homeland, we were told, but since both shows fell apart, I see the writing on the wall for this hybrid.


Worst New Serialized Drama


Bastard Executioner – I was bowled over by how bad the acting and writing were, such that twenty minutes in, I turned it off. It’s hard for me to comprehend that the same guy who wrote Sons of Anarchy penned this pile of medieval turd.

Honorable mentions:

American Horror Story: Hotel – I don’t subscribe to the AHS Just Gets Worse script that so many others uphold, but this season just strikes me as a different type of horror altogether. I grew up reading and watching huge amounts of horror, but I simply can’t stomach torture porn, and this season is too gleefully going the way of AHS: Hostel. Its filming, editing, and cinematography are still beautiful and refreshingly inventive, but I just can’t watch. At least something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre built up to and earned its scenes of gore, whereas the pilot stumbles from death and bloodbath to death and bloodbath with only thirty seconds or so of setup each time.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – Stalking is neither funny nor endearing, Hollywood. So I was overboard and swimming for dry land at the premise alone. Jenny Clark’s review made me consider turning around to swim back a little, but we only have so much time in our lives. Extra points docked for putting a “West Covina” earworm in my skull.


Best New Reality Show


I’ll Have What Phil’s Having – I really don’t like Exporting Raymond, seeing it as the Uncommon Grounds (see below) of documentaries about the media, and it led to me finding Phil Rosenthal as intensely annoying. But if we hit the mute button on Rosenthal, this is amazing food porn, filmed beautifully, and striking, for me, the right balance between travel show and food show. And Rosenthal’s not that bad – I appreciate how nothing grosses him out, and he’s not out to depict anywhere as a space of either mysterious exoticism or odd barbarism (so far?). I’ve watched two to date and enjoyed both quite a lot.

Honorable mention:

Suddenly Royal – my review is here. I expected nothing from it but was intrigued. Still, as much as I’ve meant to check back, I haven’t, and that probably says something. Passable, interesting, a cut above many others, and just such an interesting premise that makes it somewhat unique in a very paint-by-numbers genre, but ultimately nothing to write home about.


Worst New Reality Show

Uncommon Grounds

Uncommon Grounds – Todd Carmichael proves himself to be a jerk, but I thank him for providing me with a few clips to use next time I teach Othering, since his belittling commentary on Japan dominates a glorified informercial pilot. Many of the other shows that I disliked at least tried to do something and do it well for an audience that isn’t me, whereas this is lazy in every way, and the only people I could conceive of who’d want to watch this are in the “people who enjoy seeing other countries made fun of” demo, which may be large, but fuck them.

Honorable mentions:

Bazillion Dollar Club – my review is here. When you find yourself rooting for everyone on a reality show, contestants and judges alike, to fail and fail abysmally, it’s kind of over, yeah?

Monica the Medium – my review is here. There’s just so much wrong with the person at the center of the show that I can’t stomach the idea of spending more time with her.


Best New Variety or Talk Show


The Daily Show with Trevor Noah – my review is here. Noah’s still not done enough to suggest he’s up to the challenge of interviewing real political guests, which worries me, but with John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore, South Park, and occasionally Bill Maher (when he’s not being a monumentally sexist, racist douchebag) doing some heavy-lifting on the satire front, The Daily Show doesn’t need to lead the pack any more, and there’s enough in it to amuse and impress me, so I can wait it out a bit longer.

Honorable mention:

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – Sacrilege not to rate this higher? Look, it’s me – I just don’t like hour-long latenight talk shows that much: too much loud cheering, sketches that go on too long, a lot of guests that say the same thing. They all do it, and it’s great for some people (I don’t mean that to sound patronizing either: I’m just not one of them). Colbert’s better than many, and he’s using the new platform in some interesting and exciting ways, but I liked The Colbert Report better, so I’m still ambivalent about this one.


Worst New Variety or Talk Show


Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris – Blame me, since I’m not a fan of variety shows in general – or blame the show, as did Antenna’s reviewers. Either way, it’s clawing, contrived, and as much as I love NPH, that only made me want to conduct a rescue mission.

Honorable mention:

Fashionably Late with Rachel Zoe – I could be all kinds of snarky about this, and obviously I’m too old and fat to be part of its intended audience (which is why I take some mercy on it, and don’t let it win this category), but I haven’t seen another television host who is so clearly just reading cue cards. Heck, I’d settle for someone underlining the words Zoe could emphasize on those cue cards; Siri and xtranormal put more inflection into their speech than Zoe. It’s wooden, dry, slow, and lifeless.



Fall Premieres 2015: The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Tue, 06 Oct 2015 14:00:06 +0000 By the end of his run with The Daily Show, Jon Stewart had been both credited by some with doing more than anyone else to save American politics and journalism, and damned by others for doing more than most to destroy the very fabric of democracy. How does Trevor Noah compare? A group of experts on political entertainment and/or comedy discuss his first week as host.

First, some quick introductions:

  • Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) co-edited Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era and is author of Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality.
  • Amber Day (Bryant University) is author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.
  • Chuck Tryon (Fayateville State University) wrote for many years at his blog The Chutry Experiment on political television, and is author of the forthcoming Political TV.
  • Geoffrey Baym (Temple University) is Professor Colbert himself, having written many of the canonical treatments of Colbert, and is author of From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.
  • Ethan Thompson (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) co-edited Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era and is author of Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture.
  • Nick Marx (Colorado State University) is co-editor of Saturday Night Live and American TV and is currently editing a reader on comedy studies.


Jonathan Gray:

With each of the other major change in hosts of the various late night shows in the last few years, the new host has been given considerable scope to change the show considerably. It may still be called The Late Show, therefore, but the set’s different, the band’s different, Colbert’s not doing Top Ten lists, Rupert and Biff are gone, etc. What struck me immediately about The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, therefore, was the same old voice announcing the date, the camera swooping over a fairly familiar looking set, while the same ol’ theme song played. Interestingly, then, while a lot has been made about whether Noah can “replace” Jon Stewart, in fact he seems only to have been asked to fill the chair and role of convenor, as Jon’s show, style, and feel are very much still in play. This extends even to Noah’s comic style at time: I’ll discuss a few differences, but so much of his delivery, his play with the camera, his faces at the on-screen bad punny section titles, and so forth felt very “Stewartian.” Even the crappy, unfunny, politically sterile segment about police racism and brutality on Wednesday night’s show feels like the junk that Stewart’s lesser staff members phoned in some times.

I wonder, though, how much of this continuation is a bridging strategy. I think here of the advice I give to grad student lecturers, to teach the regular professor’s class as the professor did, and to leave changes to the second time they teach it. Maybe Week 10 or Season 2 of Noah’s Daily Show will look as different from Stewart’s Daily Show as Colbert’s Late Show is different from Letterman’s, but for now it’s a shrewd move with a not-entirely-popular choice for replacement to keep the machine running rather than reinventing it.

And run it did. Noah is good at this job. He’s funny, he mixes groany dad jokes with edge with skill, as did Stewart. He has good chemistry with the camera. He exudes an intelligence becoming of the role. Nor is he just aping Stewart completely: his own segments seem to move quicker, his delivery and pacing crisper; his relative youth means he doesn’t need to adopt the patrician mode that Stewart did increasingly; and like John Oliver, he can use his non-Americanness to great comic and satirical effect. I was not one of Noah’s many detractors, but I still expected far less than he provided in those first three nights.

Still, though, he’ll need to improve with interviews to keep me from turning off the TV half way in. While the experienced Colbert was booking Jeb Bush and Joe Biden in his first few days, The Daily Show’s bookers either lost their mojo completely, or were savvy enough to give Noah training wheels, opening with Kevin Hart then moving to the founder of a new dating app. Even Chris Christie was a wise first “real” interviewee, since one can count on Christie to know the audience and show and move the interview himself. Even then, in the interviews Noah has been feckless, clearly out of his depth, starstruck, wooden, and a far, far cry from Stewart. Admittedly, Stewart was a superb interviewer, and it’s early days, but the beauty of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was the two shows in one — critique of the news, then an interview with bite — and unless Noah is a quick study, and as much as the producers may have kept a lot of the old Daily Show, the new one may be only half its former self. I’ll definitely stick around, though, and I don’t begrudge Noah the need to improve.


Amber Day:

This first week of Trevor Noah’s tenure on the Daily Show has had its ups and downs, but I do think that the host shows a good deal of promise.

I agree with Jonathan that the interviews have been disappointing.  In particular, the first two interviews both began with what seemed like a pre-rehearsed (or pre-agreed upon) opening joke that fell so flat as to be almost unintelligible (Kevin Hart’s supposedly disappointing gift of ties and the Whitney Wolfe conceit that interviewer and interviewee were on a date).  Like Jonathan, I may well end up turning off the program half way through (or more likely, cherry picking segments to watch on the Comedy Central website), though I do acknowledge that being a good interviewer is a skill that is entirely different from delivering a tight monologue, and one that will almost certainly take some time to develop.

On the other hand, I think that the comedy portions of the program this past week were well done.  Noah’s self-deprecating bits about the perils of trying to fill Jon Stewart’s shoes struck the right opening note, while momentum continued to pick up as the week progressed.  Here, the one segment over which I disagree with Jonathan was the correspondent piece about racial profiling and police brutality.  I thought the segment did a very good job of highlighting the radically divergent ways in which the majority of white Americans versus black Americans view the police force, while very deliberately allowing the spokesperson for a police anti-bias training program to make a case for why such a program is necessary and what it is meant to accomplish, a message that slipped through in the background while the correspondents clowned in the foreground.  Though it was certainly gentle, I think it was a form of advocacy journalism tailored for an exceedingly touchy subject.  I happened to be watching that episode with my mother-in-law, whose political views are widely divergent from my own, but it felt like a conversation starter that we were both comfortable with, while it did still have substance.

The other highlight of the week for me was the extended story on Donald Trump being akin to an African president, detailing his striking similarities to notorious military strong-men and megalomaniac dictators like Gaddafi or Amin.  Though Trump is certainly an easy target, the piece allowed Noah to use his own background and knowledge to provide global context for the American political race, while also producing a very funny segment.

Going forward, Noah will, of course, have to grapple with the ins and outs of American party politics, but he would do well to continue to draw liberally from his strengths: an international perspective, as well as a heightened sensitivity to contemporary race relations.  If he can manage to bring some of that savviness to his interviews, he will have it made.


Chuck Tryon:

During the opening monologue of his debut episode on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah promised to uphold the legacy of Jon Stewart by continuing the “war on bullshit.” For those of us who became accustomed to Stewart’s relentless attacks on cable news, however, Noah’s contributions actually look quite a bit different, at least so far. Thus far, Noah has generally offered a much more genial perspective, one that draws on his experiences as a non-U.S. native to denaturalize some aspects of American political discourse rather than focusing excessively on cable news (although he did offer a mildly humorous critique of cable news’s tendency to focus on distractions such as “pumpkin spice” season). That being said, like Jonathan and Amber, I also see plenty of room for Noah to grow into the role of Daily Show host and to adapt the format to his comedic strengths, in much the same way that Stewart refocused the show away from Craig Kilborn’s sterile, apolitical humor.

This “outsider” status was powerfully displayed in the inspired segment in which Noah compared Donald Trump to a laundry list of African dictators. Like Amber, I appreciated this segment, in no small part because it provided a more global perspective on American politics, but also because it brought a fresh perspective to the Trump parodies, which have become overly obvious in recent weeks. Other segments were somewhat less successful. I was somewhat ambivalent about the police brutality sketch, in that its politics seemed somewhat incoherent to me, but that’s likely a product of the writers finding their stride, rather than any limitations on Noah’s part. The “Panderdemic” segment also showed promise, as Noah worked to pick apart the ways in which politicians seek to appeal to specific voters, often in disingenuous ways.

Perhaps the biggest concern about Noah has been his performance during interviews. But it’s worth remembering that Stewart, especially during his early career, seemed equally star-struck during interviews. And while I’m no fan of Chris Christie, Noah was probably better served by taking a relatively genial tone with him. In fact, Noah did offer a subtle pushback against one of the common tropes of conservative politics, in which presidential candidates campaign against “the government,” even though they are part of that government. He also managed to tease out some of the absurdities of Christie’s draconian immigration policy. These moments suggest that Noah may be a quick study on American political discourse, and I’m willing to give him time to develop his skills as an interviewer while waiting for Colbert to start.

Ultimately, I think Noah will grow into his role as host of The Daily Show. It’s unfair at this stage to hold him to the high standards established by Jon Stewart, who seemed to become the political conscience of cable television over the last few years, but given time, I’m hopeful that Noah can bring a unique perspective to the fake news genre.


Geoffrey Baym:

I want to build briefly on Jonathan’s suggestion that Trevor Noah has kept “the machinery running” through his first week.  While it is right to consider what changes Noah will make to the program as he settles in to the role, I’m also quite interested in the power of the machine to operate as designed.  Or to put the point differently, we’re seeing what I would characterize as the institutionalization of the form.  When so many of us began paying careful attention to The Daily Show more than a decade ago, it seemed like something unprecedented and risky – a novel mechanism for engaging with and interrogating the public political conversation that had more to do with the particular vision and talents of the host than it did the power of formal convention or institutional lineage.  And the host himself long insisted that he was an institutional outsider, a jester throwing spitballs, rather than the opinion leader and influence broker he so clearly became.  That of course is the point of the long-running joke: “From Comedy Central World News headquarters in New York, this is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Unlike those long-established and institutionally entrenched news outlets on the other channels, Comedy Central of course had no “world news” operation, nor a “headquarters” where nationally significant command and control decisions could be made.

Notably, that intro line remains – the only difference being the last two words (“with Trevor Noah”) – as does the swooping camera motion, the spinning globe, and the theme music.  All of this suggests that the joke has taken on new complexities, it seems now to fold back in on itself.  Like the institution of nightly news it long imitated, The Daily Show truly has become more than the personality and skills of its host. It is an institutional product – conceptualized by a team of producers and writers, governed by production conventions and audience expectations, and located in a particular cultural milieu.  It may have a new set, new font, and a new graphics package, but those are the same kind of cosmetic changes that all news operations make periodically, just as they bring in new anchors and new correspondents from time to time.  Certainly, Noah’s personality and interests will begin to shape the content.  Chuck and Amber are right that the Trump-as-African-Dictator gave us a glimpse at the more global and ethnically nuanced discourse most of us are expecting to see from Noah.  And of course, his interviewing skills are far from where they’ll need to be.  But through a wider lens, this Daily Show is remarkably like the last Daily Show (or the one that John Oliver hosted while Stewart was on leave directing Rosewater), and that continuity is for me the major take-away here.

Finally, there are important linkages to be made between the institutional consistency of The Daily Show and the work that Colbert (and Stewart apparently) are doing on CBS.  After nearly a month on air, the Late Show looks a lot like a more grandly theatrical, if perhaps slightly less subversive, Colbert Report.  Just the other day, John Oliver sat with Colbert for an interview, with the two explicitly positioning themselves as former Daily Show correspondents.  Oliver, of course, has taken the genre of news parody in a new direction on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, devoting 18 minutes per episode to deconstructing often obtuse public problems.  Meanwhile, back on Comedy Central, Larry Wilmore (formerly The Daily Show’s Senior Black Correspondent) is still holding on with his panel discussion program, The Nightly Show.  Scholars of TV and political communication have long been looking for “The Daily Show effect,” and finally I think we can identify one.  Jon Stewart’s show spawned numerous copycats, both in the US and around the world, but more importantly, it has seeded the landscape of political television and created a new kind of media institution while doing so.

TV STILL - DO NOT PURGE - The Daily Show - Trevor Noah (CREDIT: Peter Yang)

Ethan Thompson:

A few minutes into Trevor Noah’s first interview with Kevin Hart it hit me, and I felt oh-so-stupid for not realizing it sooner: the shift from Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah is first and foremost a generational shift.

Stewart was 37 when he started back in 1999. Have you seen a photo of him recently? Noah is now just 31. Stewart’s departure was a chance for Comedy Central to reset the show with a new host who might appeal to a more youthful demo. The olds will keep tuning in anyway, and if Noah isn’t quite suited to their (my) tastes, there’s always Oliver, Wilmore, Maher, Colbert, and/or Myers to queue up on the DVR or switch the channel to later. The Daily Show may be the house that Jon Stewart (re)built, but Daniel Tosh has done more for Comedy Central in recent years, and I expect that that is the audience the network hopes to attract. I wish them luck.

I could think of at least a half dozen people I would have rather seen taking over the anchor spot, but that’s because I was thinking of established people in the post-Boomer/Generation X cohort. Dumb me, and smart Comedy Central. I thought Noah’s first week of programs was solid. He has the presence and personality to carry the show as host, and the various correspondent pieces showed that the program can sail on without Stewart’s guiding hand. I’m glad that Comedy Central is investing in Noah as a host who might cultivate another generation of satire fans.

Noah’s biography is compelling and much has been said about the potential his global perspective might bring to the show. This amorphous “global” perspective was rightly ridiculed on his first show. Still, the standout piece of the first week for me (and apparently the others writing here!) was Donald Trump: America’s African President. Whether or not this was a product of Noah’s global perspective, it was both meaningful and funny.

Television satire, especially the fake news variety, is expected to live and die by the personalities of the performers. Ever since Chevy Chase transitioned from Weekend Update host to movie star after the first season of SNL, fake news has been a springboard, with Colbert’s ascension from Daily Show correspondent to the Colbert Report to his CBS show the corresponding bookend. Stewart’s tenure is an anomaly.

The truth, of course, is the other writers and producers are largely responsible for making the show funny and meaningful on a consistent basis. I hate to take too much credit away from Noah, because I do think he has done a good job and it would be a different show without him. However, I think what Geoffrey Baym describes above as the institutionalization of news satire may ultimately be most interesting to consider. Comedy Central can choose a youthful host without a track record because the form has gelled enough that the program is not dependent upon the host the way it once was. There won’t be anything revolutionary about Noah’s Daily Show the way Stewart’s once seemed. The form, and not just the viewers, have matured.


Nick Marx:

Geoffrey’s description of the “institutionalization” of satire television and Ethan’s observation about generational shifts echo a lot of what I thought about the Stewart-to-Noah transition before last week–that The Daily Show has more or less become Saturday Night Live at this point.  That’s intended neither to slight nor compliment either show, but to highlight how both have been integrated into political, industrial, and social discourses beyond the programs themselves.  Noah’s hiring (like that of SNL’s Sasheer Zamata, Leslie Jones, or short-lived Daily Show correspondent Michael Che) was less about late-night transitions than it was about race, gender, and televisual representation.  It’s been heartening to see Noah, then, arrive in Stewart’s chair with little else around him changed and instantly shine.

Conversely, I was often much more appreciative of the way Stewart’s Daily Show shaped broader public deliberation about important topics™ than I was of his on air presence (good riddance, exaggeratedly-Jewish-Jerry-Lewis voice!).  Noah seems to be, at least so far, a much more conventionally funny and likable stand-up comedian.  I expect that we’ll see a lot more bits rooted in Noah’s race and nationality (like the Trump-as-African-dictator segment), and I hope the show will continue experimenting with correspondent segments in act one, or even entirely interview-free episodes.  Like Colbert’s Late Show, The Daily Show is clearly still struggling to find a new voice while paying proper homage to its predecessor.  Fortunately, it’s also got the charismatic ringleader to find that voice quickly.  Here’s to hoping Noah doesn’t jump ship after seven or so seasons to make buddy comedies with Will Ferrell.


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Roundtable on The Carmichael Show Mon, 21 Sep 2015 17:07:43 +0000 1

Following Alfred Martin’s initial review of The Carmichael Show here at Antenna, he, Khadijah Costley White and Phillip Cunningham had a roundtable discussion on the new show.


Phillip Lamarr Cunningham (Quinnipiac University) is a scholar and critic of popular culture.

Alfred L. Martin, Jr. (The New School) studies race, gender and sexuality in American media as they intersect with production and audience reception.

Khadijah White (Rutgers University) is a writer, producer, and scholar studying race, gender, and politics in media.


AM:     Ok. Well, I’ve been kind of in my feelings about The Carmichael Show because as my review of the series suggests, it’s kind of old school, but still there’s something charming about it. It simultaneously works and doesn’t work.

PC:      In a nutshell, what do you believe doesn’t work about the series?

AM:     It feels like a throwback to the “turn to relevance” series of the 1970s because it attempts to tackle “issues” in each episode. That feels forced to me in a way, but then it also kind of works. Although I will admit that it feels heavy-handed like a Tyler Perry movie in a lot of ways.

KW:    It’s definitely a black version of All in the Family, but I think it’s a necessary intervention. I mean, as an educated black person, it feels like “What If Tyler Perry’s World Met Me?”. Part of the reason it works as a program that keeps us tuning in is because it takes a really familiar black sitcom format and brings it some real politics. I’d say it’s more like Good Times than anything Tyler Perry can muster.

AM:     But I don’t feel like it gets the “offensive” in the way Archie Bunker was supposed to be offensive. So, while All in the Family was deemed cutting edge for the 1970s, I don’t think the same can be said for The Carmichael Show. I think it’s dealing with “issues” but it’s doing so in a way that is palatable for a network television audience. Where All in the Family, Good Times, Maude and other [Norman] Lear “turn to relevance series” were deliberately trying to make statements, I feel like The Carmichael Show is doing it in a way that feels dated and perhaps even forced.

PC:      Well, it’s heavy handed in that there’s always a resolution, it’s a self-contained narrative, etc. However, it almost feels as if he is trying to subvert that traditional black sitcom in a way.

AM:     How so, Phil?

PC:      Take the recent issue about the gun, for example. Certainly, we’ve seen sitcoms deal with gun issues, but the very idea that black men pack heat and, as the father suggests, do so in order to protect themselves from cops or white people feels a bit subversive to me. Now this is not to suggest that the show’s subversive nature always works, but I think it makes the attempt.

AM:     But I think it is in some ways undermined by the way the series needs to resolve itself. Ultimately Jerrod (who is the series’ axial character) ends up turning around his position on guns.

PC:      You’re right, Al. That certainly may be the weakness, but subversion does, in part, require that one negotiates with network constraints, genre conventions, and so on.

AM:     I think what bothers me is that its episodes seem to exist solely for the purpose of “bringing up issues” rather than them necessarily developing in a way that feels organic.

KW:    Yes, but the cool part is that it really exposes all the many issues about which black people think and discuss, the kinds of views that you’d have hashed out at your own house. That’s satisfying. There’s a sense of interiority; all the scenes are in the home. It gets at the ways in which black people engage in these sophisticated political conversations when they’re with each other, some of which involve race but mostly don’t. Everyone is able to articulate a really solid, logical argument.

AM:     I think the point you raise is a good one, Khadijah, but I think part of the issue I raised is that I’m not convinced that the series is having a conversation about blackness for black folks. I’d be surprised if given the way its audience has grown that the majority of the folks watching are, in fact, black.

KW:    I’m okay with that, inasmuch as I feel like it’s presenting the kind of complex and dissonant conversations we have with one another.

AM:     So it might also be that it’s a conversation happening about blackness out of class in a way. Also, I think its placement within the home is a central component of the black-cast sitcom. Other than Frank’s Place, I’m not sure there’s been a black-cast workplace comedy; black folks are always tethered to the home in the black-cast sitcom. Even something like Girlfriends and The Game were tethered to the home even as certain scenes happened at work. Living Single is, at base, a black-cast sitcom about black women living together (and Maxine).

KW:    I think your point about class is an important one, Alfred, and one that is really important here as an alternative to black-ish. This is an intra-class sitcom that I don’t know we’ve really seen since Roc.

AM:     Since Good Times and Roc, the only other working class black family in black-cast sitcom has been Everybody Hates Chris.

KW:    I’d leave out Everybody Hates Chris, because they owned a brownstone in Brooklyn and the mother was a stay-at-home mom. But the Carmichaels also own a home and have a housewife, and that gets at the way sitcom conventions don’t do class well at all.

THE CARMICHAEL SHOW -- "Kale" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jerrod Carmichael as Jerrod, David Alan Grier as Joe Carmichael, Amber Stevens West as Maxine, Loretta Devine as Cynthia Carmichael -- (Photo by: Ben Cohen/NBC)

PC:      Well do we even know what Jerrod is supposed to do in the show? Is he playing Jerrod the comedian? It doesn’t seem so, it hasn’t mentioned (yet) what he actually does. We know Maxine is a therapist-in-training.

KW:    We know Jarrod went to business school and seems to be doing well for himself based on the apartment and neighborhood he lives in.

AM:     And we are very clearly to understand that his apartment is a “come up” from where he came from. The family space is giving me Roseanne Realness.

KW:    Yes, Alfred, I was totally thinking Roseanne!

AM:     The show implicitly is dealing with class mobility as well–that (perhaps) black notion that the parents worked hard so their children could do better than they did.

KW:    But his brother is still struggling. We get a sense that, like so many of us, Jerrod made it but his brother and sister-in-law are still trying.

AM:     But I think that is the implicitness of the series. Jerrod succeeds because he worked hard. His brother didn’t because he’s lazy and trifling (and liked “ghetto” women).

KW:    No, I don’t get the sense that his brother doesn’t work hard. He’s maybe not as ambitious, but I don’t think it’s about laziness. For me, there’s such a sense of authenticity in this show because of its complexity–for example, the episode “Gender,” which focused on transgendergender identity. It was done so deftly, especially in terms of stomping on the idea that the black community is entirely homophobic or unable to have a conversation about gender.

AM:     That episode had me in my feelings. I felt like it was a very facile way to approach that topic. But I think that’s endemic of the genre. I just sat there looking at my screen…

PC:      I think you’re right about that episode being facile, but I think there’s something to be said that the resolution wasn’t neat.

AM:     I tend to hate the “neat” transition from gay to transgender. I think I got hung up on that.

KW:    Well, he said he was gay to test the waters. That felt somewhat like what a kid figuring stuff out might do. And there’s something really powerful about a person who appears to be a black boy who is a basketball star identifying as a girl and saying that she’s not confused about that identity! That is subversive. Like look it up in a dictionary and that scene is next to the word subversive.

AM:     I think it would have worked better to just have to deal with transgender-ness without gayness.. While I don’t profess to be transgender, I do know that a transition from straight to gay (in my case) wasn’t an overnight move. By attempting to do both, it gave both the short shrift

KW:    I think it was an attempt to fit in discussion about transgender identity and sexuality in one episode. A little simple, but fair-play in the world of sitcom plots.


AM:     Thinking about flow, do we think the stakes were/are “just” much higher for black-ish given its spot with Modern Family (and needing to capture a bulk of that audience and being run in the “real” TV season) versus The Carmichael Show as a summer series?

PC:      Well, black-ish is at least partially about the tensions in feeling distant from a “traditional” black life. The Carmichael Show is somewhat steeped in that “traditional” black life in a way.

KW:    In part, because Modern Family isn’t really so modern, there’s a chance that black-ish felt the need to be a lot more conservative, too. But that allowed The Carmichael Show to aim for a different feel. I mean there’s a theme song! Sort of. A live audience! We’re in 1993. Like, if The Cosby Show and A Different World had a baby.

AM:     Can we talk about that? I don’t feel like I am in love with the live audience and the laugh track. I feel like it seeks to telegraph (and control) the funny in a way that makes me stabby.

KW:    In part, I think it’s because we’re dealing with comics who are used to performing in front of live audiences. It helps them in their work. Also, I think it’s very much about nostalgia.

AM:     Part of the live studio audience is really about cost. A three-camera, proscenium set-up series is cheaper to shoot because there are a limited number of sets and often limited editing (because it can be edited while it’s being filmed).

PC:      Well those nostalgic touches are really what make The Carmichael Show a bit of a postmodern black sitcom.

AM:     In the sense of pastiche or in some other way?

PC:      It’s taking those conventions and embracing them, on the one hand, and attempting (the keyword here) to subvert them, in another way. I think Alfred is right when he suggests that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

KW:    For sure, I mean, there are a lot of Gina/Martin moments with Jerrod and Maxine In terms of her trying to accommodate “traditional” domestic roles and feminist ideals.

AM:     I’m still not sure I’m on board with the series as subversive, though. To what degree are these Gina/Martin moments really endemic of the ways relationships function in the sitcom broadly and the black-cast sitcom specifically? Put another way, do we see Gina and Martin because we have them as cultural touchstones?

KW:    The hyper-confident dark-skinned comic with conservative tendencies and his light-skinned, awkward, professional girlfriend? I think that dynamic is there.


PC:      In a way, the well-to-do light-skinned and/or biracial girlfriend/wife has become a hallmark of the black sitcom. In The Carmichael Show, Maxine is clearly marked as a bit of an outlier, which in a way makes her distinctive. Nobody in The Carmichael Show is trying to negotiate with whiteness, which I think is amazing. In fact–there hasn’t been a white person on The Carmichael Show, right?

KW:    Yes! So true. I don’t think there has been a white character. This show is trying to single-handedly keep black people employed, and in an age of colorblind comedy and drama, that’s important.

AM:     I can certainly raise my glass and drink to that. They are very clearly aware of their blackness and interact little (if at all) with a broader white world. In that sense, coming back to what (I think) Khadijah said, there is a sense of interiority in the series–almost in that Amos ‘n Andy way where there is a self-sustaining black world that does not consider or interact with whiteness.

KW:    But it’s also one that’s having really challenging conversations. What other show is doing this? Gun control? Police brutality? Even Scandal couldn’t do that right.

PC:      I think the brilliance of Maxine is that she’s not relinquishing her biracial identity either.

AM:     I think where Maxine does, in a way, represent whiteness in that her views are seen (I think) to stand in for whiteness (often attributed to her white parent).

KW:    We haven’t touched Nekeisha, and I think, in part, because I’m conflicted.

AM:     Can we see that as somewhat subversive and postmodern? Nekeisha as the “quintessential” black girl name and them playing with that?

KW:    On one hand, what she does in a lot of cases could be called cooning. Stealing TVs, showing up just to get free food, threatening to fight or cut people.

AM:     I admit that I hollered when she “found” that television in the “Protest” episode!

KW:    I did, too. Though I also cringed because I wasn’t sure where the “protestors are looters” storyline was going to go. And she has this big weave. I mean, in certain ways, I’m not sure about her.

PC:      However, I love the relationship between Bobby and her because it is complex (for television). Here is a divorcing couple who still have to navigate the same spaces.

KW:    Exactly. And I love that she’s still family.

AM:     But, to an earlier point, doesn’t she make blackness more complex as a “rainbow” of blackness that doesn’t sit firmly within respectable?

KW:    To be honest, I think it’s clear that the male characters are the core of the show. They end up performing the typical stoic, reasonable male role and the women often provide the humor and the jokes.

AM:     I’m not sure I’d concede the center to them because of La Divine.

PC:      Well, it’s interesting how Divine and Grier are actually de-centering Carmichael. And I’m wondering if that’s due to intention or just Divine’s powerful persona and Grier’s embrace of this character?

AM:     But I don’t think that’s on the page. I think it’s them and their skill. One thing I wanted to discuss that we haven’t really touched upon is why NBC? Why not BET or Comedy Central or some other cable network? What does an NBC sitcom (even if they were being burned off two at a time) mean with respect to a politics of representation?

KW:    Well, in part I think the turn to black is about what’s happening with for-pay web TV, the same way we got black sitcoms with the rise of cable. I’m not sure what it says about representation, though. I mean, NBC gave us The Cosby Show.

THE CARMICHAEL SHOW -- "Pilot" -- Pictured: (l-r) Lil Rel Howery as Bobby Carmichael, Loretta Devine as Cynthia Carmichael, Jerrod Carmichael as Jerrod, Amber Stevens West as Maxine, David Alan Grier as Joe Carmichael -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

PC:      It’s interesting to think about the success of The Carmichael Show in lieu of the failure of Mr. Robinson, which also debuted this summer and with a bigger celebrity at the helm.

KW:    Maybe we should comment on why Mr. Robinson failed, other than it being a sad attempt at The Steve Harvey Show. It has a black lead, but blackness isn’t a central theme of the show. It felt like an old UPN show.

AM:     I think a lot of shows with black leads got greenlit this season so that the industry can watch most of them fail and then say, “See, we told y’all all this blackness wasn’t gone work.”

KW:    I think they got greenlit because Empire was successful. And because they don’t know why, that gives Jerrod Carmichael more editorial control.

AM:     For sure they did. But I still think the strategy remains the same from an industrial perspective. We’ve been to this rodeo before. I think the “major” networks are still attempting to “broadcast” when cable is narrowcasting, so their somewhat myopic view of “universal” has to supersede anything else. black-ish succeeds because there’s nothing really that black about it.

PC:      Well, The Carmichael Show also has benefitted from when it aired.

AM:     Meaning that the ratings assumptions were lower because it was a summer show?

PC:      Exactly, Al. It had the good fortune of airing new content just before the fall season really kicks off. If it was a mid-season replacement, we might not be having this conversation nor would it likely be renewed. How does the show grow from this point? Or can it even do so?

KW:    I think more discussions about their careers and choices, especially between the women, would be useful. I mean, neither son has children. That’s interesting.

AM:     I’d like to see it move less in a direction of “turn to relevance” and attempt to do some more in the way of character development. I’d love for it to get rid of the live shooting and laugh track. I just tend to be a postmodern viewer who wants to decide where I think the funny is located.

KW:    I want it to keep hashing out these tough debates we have within our own family. I think it’s helpful to have a space where everyone gets presented in a really humanizing way, regardless of education or occupation. I think that pushes against respectability, too.

PC:      My primary concern is whether it can remain funny with its current approach on a full season order. Right now, the success for the show has been that it has tackled black taboo, but there’s only so much left of that to address.

KW:    Well, I want to nominate that we title this discussion “Y’all All Nasty!!!” after Mama Carmichael’s favorite expression on the show.

PC:     Agreed.



First Impressions: Fear the Walking Dead Fri, 28 Aug 2015 14:25:25 +0000 fear1Post by Amanda Keeler, Marquette University

The Walking Deadcompanion” series Fear the Walking Dead is the latest iteration of offshoot/spinoff storytelling around this narrative universe. Fear the Walking Dead premiered Sunday night on AMC, setting another ratings record for the cable channel by reaching approximately 10.1 million viewers. I’ve written about The Walking Dead previously on Antenna, in a piece that focuses on the complexities of genre and how the show fluctuates over time to blend multiple genres, primarily by mixing western imagery to create a post-apocalyptic return to the frontier. The announcement of the new program Fear the Walking Dead led me to a number of questions related to how the show would work in terms of storytelling, genre, setting, and character. Without the comic book as a reference point, how would its narrative progress and/or differ from the original television show? How would its differing landscape and location, set in Los Angeles, California, rather than the American south, shift its tone and genre? What types of character would populate its world? Would it function as an ensemble cast, or would one or two characters dominate the central narrative?

While the prolific nature of film sequels and blockbuster franchises suggests the relative safety of building new pieces around known narrative worlds, the enormous popularity of The Walking Dead puts a lot of pressure on its new companion piece. Audiences at this point, on the cusp of The Walking Dead’s sixth season premiere slated for 11 October 2015, are accustomed to many of the elements that define the original show. This precursor sets up the new show in some positive and negative ways, depending on which elements of the original show resonate with individual viewers. But unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead will likely not be given multiple seasons to find its audience or to have the luxury of missteps along the way.

Critical reviews thus far have been mixed. Laura Bradley at Slate thinks it should have been a comedy so that the two shows could function as “palate cleansers for each other.” Todd VanDerWerff at Vox writes that “the show is basically Parenthood with zombies.” But, is that a bad thing? What do we want so-called “zombie” shows to look and feel like? Do viewers want this to be the same show but in a different setting, and is that even possible? Will it create the same kind of viewer dissatisfaction that the second season of True Detective experienced this summer when the central story moved from Louisiana to California?


In terms of the show’s location, I wonder if the Los Angeles location might disrupt the deeply traditional gender norms that define the characters across the first three seasons on The Walking Dead. This isn’t clear yet, but remains something to pay attention to in the context of this show’s cast, being that Kim Dickens (as Madison Clark) is the show’s most famous cast member, who may or may not be the “Rick Grimes” (Andrew Lincoln) of this world. As well, my interpretation of The Walking Dead as a western is deeply tied to its location in the south and the pre-apocalyptic professions of its two main characters in seasons one and two. Rick and Shane (Jon Bernthal), who were both law enforcement officers, have the knowledge of and access to the guns and ammunition that are key to their post-apocalyptic survival. In Los Angeles, who or what will have that kind of upper hand?

To address my pre-viewing questions: It is definitely a different show than its precedent — and it is much too soon to tell if that is good or bad. It was an entertaining hour of television that moved slowly, much like the pilot of The Walking Dead. Unlike that pilot episode, “Days Gone Bye,” however, the main character will not wake up after everything in the world has changed. This new show gives us Rick’s coma time, through the Clark-Manawa family, and it will take viewing a few more episodes to find out if this unexplored timeline is worthy of the screen time that Fear the Walking Dead is giving it.

From the perspective of the first episode, the show does one thing quite well. While not terribly visually interesting beyond the shots of a bleak, polluted urban landscape, the pilot episode of Fear the Walking Dead uses sound to tell its story in a fascinating way. As somewhat omniscient viewers who are aware of the events that will soon transpire, we know a lot more than the characters and it builds anticipation towards some unknown tipping point. The show plays with this audience knowledge by cleverly using the cacophony of the city to foreshadow the slow yet inevitable realization that zombies (or walkers) will soon be a threat to these characters’ existence. The characters hear sirens, helicopters, gunshots, but continue through their days with these “normal” city sounds. Cars zip by, narrowly missing people and objects. Shots are fired, and ignored. Dogs continue to bark incessantly off screen. With each scene the sirens grow in volume and proximity, building towards the one sound that viewers know, but these characters cannot yet comprehend: the telltale rasp of the undead walkers. These sounds all build powerfully as the characters move towards the knowledge that the audience already has. The city noises are a wonderful contrast to the prominent sounds of the first seasons of The Walking Dead: the absolute silence of a technological, industrial society that has already ceased existing punctuated by the buzzing cicadas and blood-thirsty walkers.


On the other hand, not everything in the pilot episode came together cohesively. The writing is a little clunky, the characters and their motivations don’t yet make sense, and some of the acting feels unsatisfactory. The main characters work in a high school, which the show (unfortunately) uses as a backdrop to show Travis lecture his students about the battle of man versus nature, in which “nature always wins.” In a different classroom, Madison’s daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Cary) fools around with her girlfriends while her teacher lectures on chaos theory. As attempts at textured mise-en-scène or layered storytelling, these elements feel forced.

Nonetheless, after viewing only one episode into this new show, I am looking forward to watching how the questions I posed at the beginning are addressed in the coming weeks.


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Love for the Fannish Archive: Fuller’s Hannibal as Fanfiction Tue, 25 Aug 2015 13:00:01 +0000 Hannibal show runner Bryan Fuller and his team claim the identity and ethos of the feminine-gendered fan, a position that allows them to intertextually and ardently acknowledge both the practices and the affect of its primarily female fandom.]]> Post by KT Torrey, Virginia Tech

[Note: This is the second of a three-part series highlighting some of Hannibal‘s unique contributions to the television world, in commemoration of its final week on NBC. See Part 1 here, and tune in tomorrow for the third installment. Finally, please note that this post contains spoilers through episode 3.9]


Throughout the series’ three-season run, Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller has asserted that he regards the show as fanfiction: an affectionate remix of elements from Thomas Harris’ novels Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising, as well as from previous adaptations of those works. Hannibal, then, is transparent about being one of many “proliferations of shared sources” that comprise the “metaphorical archive” of the fandom’s fiction (De Kosnik 119). In positioning the series as fanfiction, and he and his team as fanfiction writers, Fuller claims the identity and ethos of not just a fan, but a feminine-gendered fan, those most maligned and oft-mocked in many media depictions of fandom. With that ethos in hand, Hannibal-as-fanfic has chosen to intertextually and ardently acknowledge both the practices and the affect of its primarily female fandom—allowing Fannibals to see some part of themselves, of their fannish identity, reflected back with love from within the series itself.

Hannibal treats the repetitive nature of fanfic—stories that “play out” a multiplicity of variations of the same basic story—as a source of narrative strength: because in repetition, the series suggests, there is possibility (ibid). Within a fandom’s archive, as Will puts it: “Everything that can happen, happens. It has to end well and it has to end badly. It has to end every way that it can” (Hannibal, “Primavera” 3.2). The archive is always in the act of Becoming, and, as Abigail De Kosnik argues in “Fifty Shades and the Archive of Women’s Culture,” that ongoing evolution asks fans to repeatedly engage with the archive’s contents, old and new, and to determine for themselves which stories “satisfy, which . . . liberate, and which . . . alienate” (De Kosnik 120). In this way, fans perform a careful cultivation of their preferred variations of the narrative and sketch out their own corner of the archive—their “fanon”—which captures the story elements they most enjoy (ibid).

As fanfic—as a fan-authored text, albeit a network televised one—Hannibal openly acknowledges that it’s both a product of fannish cultivation and a participant in a wider ecology of fannish production. The events of episode 3.9, “…and the Woman Clothed with the Sun,” for example, underscore Fuller and company’s awareness of—and affection for—contributions that fans themselves have made to this shared archive during the series’ run.

In this scene, a reluctantly un-retired Will Graham is prowling the scene of the Tooth Fairy’s latest murder when he’s confronted by tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds. Will hasn’t seen Freddie years—since he pretended to kill her in order to impress Hannibal at the end of season two—but he’s clearly been keeping up with her work at Tattle Crime.

Will: I’m not talking to you.
Freddie: We’re co-conspirators, Will. I died for you and your cause.
Will: You didn’t die enough. You came into my hospital room while I was sleeping, flipped back the covers, and snapped a photo of my temporary colostomy bag.
Freddie: I covered your junk with a black box. A big black box. You’re welcome.
Will: You called us ‘murder husbands’!
Freddie: You did run off to Europe together.



GIF credit:

What’s important here—aside from actor Hugh Dancy’s delicious facial expression—is that “murder husbands” is a fan-generated term, one that some Fannibals use to describe the gorgeous, gory relationship between Hannibal and Will. Specifically, describing the men as “murder husbands” underscores the deadly potential of their pairing, something explored with particular aplomb at the end of season 2, when Will not only pretended to kill Freddie but actually did murder one of Hannibal’s former patients—whom Hannibal had sent to kill Will. With Hannibal’s lethal cunning and Will’s own capacity for violence combined, some Fannibals believe that “Hannigram” could form a deadly power couple and wreak beautiful, terrible havoc.


While other TV series like the CW’s Supernatural have invoked fan-created names for slash ships within their diegesis, what makes Hannibal‘s move distinctive is that the way in which “murder husbands” was incorporated points to a canonization of not only fans’ terminology but also of the slashy interpretive practices from which it arose. That is, Freddie’s breezy response to Will’s frustration—”Well, you did run off to Europe together”—suggests that Fuller and his writers anticipated one way in which fans might interpret the pair’s adventures abroad during the first half of season three. Of course, the men didn’t really run off together—Hannibal fled and Will chased after—but Freddie, like many fans, reads that pursuit and their eventual reunion as romantic in nature.

Further, putting the term in Freddie’s hands seems utterly in character; after all, “murder husbands” makes for great copy. But she’s also spent a lot of time writing about Will and Hannibal: dissecting their relationship, giving their stories her own special twist, and even contemplating Will’s, uh, “junk”—in essence, Freddie makes a living doing female fannish work. Thus, in calling out the “murder husbands,” she acts as a savvy avatar for the series’ female fans.


Ultimately, the invocation of “murder husbands” doesn’t read as either a mocking of fandom or as red meat tossed to keep the Fannibals at bay, but rather as a meaningful incorporation of fannish practice into the diegetic narrative. The canonization of “murder husbands” reflects Fuller and company’s awareness that the shared archive of Hannibal fandom, of which the series is part, continues to evolve. By employing both fan terminology and interpretative practice within its narrative, Hannibal firmly positions both its own story and those of the Fannibals as co-equal parts of that archive’s transformative ecology.

In the context of the series’ cancellation, Hannibal‘s intertextual alliance with its fans is a source of hope a reminder that within the fandom’s archive, no matter what choices NBC makes, “Everything that can happens, happens . . . This is [just] the way it ended for us” (Hannibal, “Primavera” 3.2).


Branding Hannibal: When Quality TV Viewers and Social Media Fans Converge Mon, 24 Aug 2015 13:00:51 +0000 Hannibal, Allison McCracken and Brian Faucette discuss the show's and network's branding efforts in relation to their appeals to "feminized" audiences. ]]> Post by Allison McCracken (DePaul University) and Brian Faucette (Caldwell Community College)

[Note: This is the first of a three-part series highlighting some of Hannibal‘s unique contributions to the television world, to commemorate its final week on NBC. The images and video in this post contain spoilers. Also macabre humor.]

Hannibal completes its third (and last) season this week, despite its critical acclaim and the devotion of its passionate fanbase (known as “Fannibals”). Critics have praised the program’s reconceptualization of the horror series and its compelling version of the familiar Hannibal character, but Hannibal has left its mark in other ways as well. This short series of posts examines how Hannibal has engaged with questions of gender: in remixing the markers of quality TV, in embracing the potential of its position within the fannish archive, and in privileging a complex teen girl character within its narrative.


A common exclamation for new viewers of Hannibal is “I can’t believe this is on network!” This astonishment reflects the dominant cultural hierarchies of value in which television critics have elevated non-network shows as “quality TV” for discerning viewers over network shows largely assumed to be mindless fodder for the undiscerning masses. As Elana Levine and Michael Z. Newman have argued (and critic Noah Berlatsky recently affirmed), such critical divides of taste and value perpetuate inequalities of class and gender in which quality is associated with middle class, male audiences/”masculine” tastes, and non-quality tv with mass, largely female audiences with “feminine” tastes.

This divide has become even more obvious as white middle-class audiences have largely fled the networks, preferring the suburban pastures of original programming on HBO, Netflix, Amazon, etc. In the face of this divide, networks have been even more willing to serve the audiences that remain by developing programming for undervalued viewers such as teens, women, queer people, and people of color, many of whom still watch live TV. In addition, networks have developed more programming from less critically regarded pulp genres (as opposed to “adult dramas”) such as musicals, science fiction, and horror.

NBC’s Hannibal is unusual in its ability to bridge this cultural divide by successfully developing a “class and mass” brand that has provided an innovative, unique model of program and promotion. Hannibal‘s brand appeals to and actively serves both quality TV audiences and an intensely invested fan base, led primarily by young women utilizing social media. The easy co-existence of these seemingly odd bedfellows is particularly remarkable given that the presence of young women is often seen to degrade (“feminize”) the quality bona fides of any media product. Yet just as Hannibal queered its source material, the program’s producers were able to develop a mode of promotional address that combined quality markers with overt acknowledgements of its fandom. Far from “degrading” the text, this integration has resulted in a richer, more experimental, more politically progressive program and a more inclusive viewer experience.

IMAGE2 Hannibal+series+premiere+billboard

In 2011, amidst the backdrop of reboots, rebranding, origin stories, and sequels, Hannibal seemed to be a perfect fit for NBC. The recent popularity of horror on American television—in series like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story—suggested to the network that a reboot of the familiar character of Hannibal Lecter would allow them to tap into this growing viewer demand. At the same time, NBC sought to establish a “quality” brand for the show. For example, the network committed to thirteen episodes rather than a full season, a break with network traditions that replicated the practices of cable’s prestige programs. The network also chose to skip the pilot stage because of the involvement of the French Gaumont studio group, who purchased the rights to the novel—and thus the characters from—Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which would serve as the foundation for the series. The inclusion of Gaumont as a producing partner gave the show an international feel; European high-art aesthetics were evoked throughout the series, which included location filming in Paris and Florence.

Gaumont’s CEO Katie O’Connell then hired Bryan Fuller to write the first script and serve as showrunner. As the creator of several critically acclaimed series including Pushing Daisies (2007-09), Fuller brought with him his own auteur brand. He promised to reimagine the source material by altering key aspects of the original books, including diversifying the cast; focusing on character development and motivation; and establishing a signature lush, beautiful, and sophisticated style for the program that would look and feel expensive. Likewise, NBC promoted these “quality” production aesthetics throughout its publicity for the series.


Still, Hannibal struggled to find an audience on NBC, which, unlike premium outlets, needed the buy-in of at least a portion of its mass audience for the program to succeed. In this regard, the network and the program’s producers encouraged the activities of the Fannibals. Demographic research suggested that a significant portion of the audience was “young, smart, well-read women,” which delighted Fuller, who adored their creative production, their appreciation of the show’s dark humor, and their emotional investment in his development of a romance between Hannibal and Will Graham. The network embraced the community, setting up an official Tumblr account for the series and sponsoring a fan art contest (winners below). The NBC Hannibal Tumblr mods have been widely praised for their understanding of the platform and their supportive, respectful interaction with fans.

Image4 FanArtContestWinners

In addition, Hannibal‘s producers and cast members, led by Fuller (in flower crowns, below), have frequently used Twitter to encourage fan activity, including regularly live-tweeting episodes; re-tweeting fan art and GIFs; and giving fans access to script pages, production details, and set photos. This sense of community between the series producers and its fans generated tangible results in the form of a third season renewal, as network officials and producers have openly acknowledged. This final season has both rewarded Fannibals’ ardor and affirmed quality TV tastes by further shifting the series from its procedural beginnings. Set partially in Europe, this season utilizes an art-house style of filming and focuses on character relationships in even more depth and detail, particularly that between the two leads. By developing program content that appealed to viewers across gender and class lines and by involving and supporting their “feminized,” network audiences, Hannibal constructed both an innovative program text and a series brand that will hopefully inspire television producers working across platforms to explore more ways of blurring cultural hierarchies.



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AnTENNA, UnREAL: Channel Branding and Racial Politics Fri, 21 Aug 2015 13:00:29 +0000 UnREAL explores the series in relation to cable branding and racial politics.]]> [The following is the third in a series of conversations between Antenna contributors regarding the Lifetime drama series UnREAL, which recently completed its first season. See part 1 here, and part 2 here.]

UnREAL, Unwatched


Myles McNUTT, Old Dominion University: It seems important to acknowledge in any conversation about an original scripted cable drama in the contemporary moment that, if it’s not The Walking Dead, chances are very few people are watching it. In the case of UnREAL, this is particularly true: the ratings have not been good, despite Lifetime going out of their way to give the first four episodes available to binge for free after the premiere.

That UnREAL lives to see a second season is, itself, not a huge surprise: it’s one of the first Lifetime dramas produced in-house, the critical acclaim gives them a foothold to brand rearticulation, and the show’s strengths give them a chance to woo the Hollywood Foreign Press Association into some valuable Golden Globes attention. A second season is the kind of calculated risk that the primary profit participant in a TV drama tends to take: if the show streams well, and if critical acclaim helps international sales, and if live viewership manages to tick upward, there’s a chance this turns into a hit.

UnREAL says a lot about the reality TV industry as a text, but it also says a lot about cable branding, discourses of quality, and metrics of success as a product of the television industry more broadly. How far is Lifetime willing to hold onto a show like UnREAL for theoretical value to its brand if no one is watching? It’s easy to look at the ways that UnREAL helps Lifetime’s cause, expanding its brand to audiences that may have previously dismissed it. But at what point do they stop touting the “viewership across platforms” statistic—still mostly meaningless to advertisers—and give up if they fail to see tangible improvement?

Phillip Maciak, Louisiana State University: If I say Lena Dunham’s name one more time she’ll appear, right? I’m not invested in any qualitative comparisons between Girls and UnREAL, but it’s hard not to notice that the numbers UnREAL is sporting right now that are causing us so much concern are very similar to the numbers Girls has been pulling for four seasons. There are differences in streaming platforms, OnDemand numbers, etc, but it seems like we’ve got yet another water-cooler favorite of the critterati taking up proportionally more space in arts and culture verticals than its viewership would seem to warrant. As you mentioned before, though, Myles, this show is radically off-brand for Lifetime. Or, at least it’s pushing hard at the edges of the brand. Is it possible, do we think, that UnREAL‘s financial success might mean less than its perceived critical success for the network? In other words, is it more important for UnREAL to lure viewers or for UnREAL‘s critical success to lure writers to produce a different kind of content for Lifetime?

Myles: After I wrote my response, FX’s John Landgraf suggested they follow a “2 out of 3” model for renewing their shows: FX, “Experts,” and viewers (or ratings, if we prefer) all get a vote, and if it gets 2 out of 3, it’s getting renewed. It’s far from an easy calculus, but it gives you an example of how a basic cable channel with experience in programming sees that uneasy mix of needing to compete on a branding level with premium channels but also have to be more aware of the number of people watching (versus simply the type of people watching, which serves HBO well in the case of Girls).

The issue with drawing a comparison between Girls and UnREAL, though, is that I’m pretty sure we—as in academics/critics/journalists—are the only people talking about UnREAL. This isn’t an actual watercooler show: it’s a watercooler show in the corners of the internet we frequent, and a complete non-entity everywhere else even despite Lifetime’s pretty significant efforts to get it out there. While it certainly has a bit more buzz than something like Terriers—which is an historical example of FX overriding their “2 of 3” model—it still strikes me as something that has had very minimal “cultural impact” once we move beyond these circles.

Jason Mittell, Middlebury College: One series that UnREAL reminds me of a lot in a number of ways is The Joe Schmo Show, which is one of my favorite unheralded television programs of the century. Joe Schmo also provides a critical take on reality TV, albeit through the “reality hoax” mode rather than scripted drama, and the amazing second season offered a similarly biting critique of The Bachelor (seriously, if you haven’t watched Joe Schmo Show 2, it’s dirt cheap on Amazon and I promise you won’t regret it!). Joe Schmo aired on Spike TV, Lifetime’s binary counterpart branded as “The First Network for Men” (apparently, besides all the other ones…). Both programs simultaneously fit with and resist their home channel’s brand identity—although Joe Schmo did often include events with bikini models or porn stars to pander to the assumed Spike audience, it was far more critical than celebratory of the bro lifestyle. Likewise, UnREAL seems to be addressing a much different type of viewer (or at least, mode of viewing) than Dance Moms or Bring It! This makes me wonder if UnREAL becoming a hit (if it builds a following once the first season is available on streaming and attracts attention through awards and year-end accolades) might actually be a danger to Lifetime’s brand—after all, the temptation to go upscale and legit might be too tempting for parent company A&E, whose various networks have all struggled to find their equivalent of The Shield or Mad Men that might give them a foothold into the quality brand.

Kristen Warner, University of Alabama: I wonder if a better parallel between series trying to push the edges of their current brand is UnReal and USA’s Mr. Robot? Both shows push their respective networks into darker content while simultaneously targeting different demographics than they’ve been able to capture previously. Is Mr. Robot, despite its premiere at a film festival, its tie to Anonymous Content and ultimately to David Fincher, and its (annoyingly heavy) borrowing of style from high brow auteurs, similarly unwatched?

Myles: It’s drawing close to twice as many viewers as UnREAL, but compared to what USA used to draw in the era of Monk, no one is watching Mr. Robot.

Kristen: Interesting. So do its similarities keep it as a potential comparison?

Myles: I think both offer a case study in how much discursive framing of “success” is becoming a creative exercise in the television industry right now—whether it’s USA picking up Mr. Robot before its premiere or Lifetime releasing all four episodes of UnREAL online, they’re asking us to see a show as successful so as to attain brand value from that. And there’s a point at which the “Emperor’s New Clothes” model of brand development starts to fall apart.

Christine Becker, University of Notre Dame: One of my mom’s must-see shows is Devious Maids, which airs before UnREAL on Lifetime’s schedule. On a recent family vacation, I tried to convince her to watch UnREAL with me, but she showed no interest and seemed to not even know what it was, despite the fact promos for it surely aired during Devious Maids (maybe she’s watching on a DVR and fast-forwarding through the ad breaks—the challenge of marketing a series/channel lineup today). I now regret not digging deeper into her reluctance, especially given that she’s the one who first instilled a love of melodrama and soap opera in me. But this example would seem to affirm that UnREAL is outside of Lifetime’s typical purview. My mom doesn’t like it when her soaps get too “real” or violent (she stopped watching General Hospital because of the mob stuff, as sanitized as it is there compared to, say, The Sopranos). And UnREAL might look too intense to her. She also doesn’t really watch reality TV, so that could be another reason it wouldn’t hook her. Finally, I don’t watch Devious Maids, but I do know that it has “Erica Kane” (perhaps my mom’s favorite character/actress of any medium ever), plus, putting together the title with the cast list, I presume it features Latinas as maids, so it might stay within my mom’s acceptable range of racial representations too. Which leads to another topic I’d like to see discussed:

UnREAL and Race

Christine: And here I gratuitously invite Kristen to chime in, because she has expressed on social media such insightful readings of the show and of reality TV from a racial perspective, and I want to hear more. I’ve found the racial critique UnREAL offers to be among its most revealing aspects, perhaps because the gender critiques are more familiar to me, so the deconstruction of the rigged racial game in reality TV, both on screen and (especially) offscreen, feels even more revelatory.

Kristen: Oh Chris, where to begin? Regarding its take on industry, in many ways UnREAL proves that with mild exception (and the exceptions in the instance of this series fail), the film and television industry really reproduces itself in the image of those who run it: i.e., white men and women. There’s very clearly three generations of white lady producers (and I mostly predicted that all three would be producers prior to the finale so where’s my ribbon) who all are at different phases of the same career. And while these white women face very real and painful oppressions, I am still gobsmacked that no one has noticed how, it is the certainty of whiteness that allows them to push through those constraints (at all kinds of costs) and succeed.


Nevertheless, the exceptions like Shia and Jay don’t. Also at all kinds of costs—and firings. So this little micro model is useful in thinking about the difficulties that folks of color face in breaking into industry work while getting close enough to see the next level—even trying to create opportunities for themselves at the cost of some moral and legal scruples—but still unable to make it because they aren’t in the image of the person in charge. What’s more, thinking more about Shia, in an interview Sarah Gertrude Shapiro talked about how she feels sympathy for Shia because she’s been misunderstood: “she just wants to be loved.” “She’s not as pretty or whatever.” Besides the obvious yet unintentional infantilization of that woman of color that quote implies (who to be honest I was glad to see go as that character was far too on the nose for my liking—her strategies negotiating her precarity didn’t prove to me she realized she was living that precarious life—a pitfall of blindcasting I would argue), Shapiro didn’t seem to realize she played into the very tropes that her show within the show tried so hard to bust up from the very beginning. Simply put there’s no future for Shia. We knew this going in. Just like we know there’s no future for Shamequa or Athena.

Last point: While UnREAL is so astute about explicitly stating what people REALLY say about racialized bodies (the first five minutes of the pilot, the scene between Jay and the two black competitors, the moment where Adam’s grandmother tells him they don’t marry the brown people), there’s still huge blind spots among their own reflexivity at the level of production.

Phil: Yes to all of this. And, just to tie in Kristen’s comments with earlier discussions of labor and competence, it’s interesting (troubling) to me how Shia was presented, from the very first episode, as the kind of inverse of Rachel. So much is made of Rachel’s genius as a producer for this show, but we learn that Rachel’s special by repeatedly seeing how Shia isn’t. Seeing Shia struggle is how we understand the grotesque artistry of what Rachel and Quinn do. Rachel has a natural facility with manipulation; Shia’s attempts are forced and awkward. Rachel operates precisely and responsibly, cutting just enough to hurt but not enough to kill the patient; Shia operates sloppily and irresponsibly, blood spraying everywhere, corpses piling up. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a compliment to say that Shia isn’t quite the virtuosic sociopath that Rachel is, but, within the economy of the show, it means she’s less worthy of everyone’s time. (Literally so, inasmuch as she disappears from the series.) In any case, it’s curious not only that one of the show’s few people of color is marginalized but that we’re supposed to see that marginalization as deserved. Shia isn’t allowed into the structuring female mentorship relationship at the center of this show, and the show is very clear that it’s because Shia’s missing something innate that Quinn and Rachel have.

Jason: One thing I struggle with is how much this portrayal of the perpetuation of white success within the industry is presented as object of critique, the simple reality of how it works, and/or an unquestioned normalization. I want to believe the former is the dominant tone, and that they chose to make the racial critique overt in the production of Everlasting but more subtle in the production of UnREAL. After all, the three producers are explicitly pitted against each other in a contest. The failure of ethnically-unmarked-but-nonwhite Shia leads to her erasure from the cast, just as most of the non-white contestants disappear once suitor Adam has not found anything noteworthy to hold onto; likewise, Jay is sent packing once both shows have no need of the “black bitch.” Madison’s unexpected (to everyone but Kristen!) elevation mirrors the last-minute return of Britney to the cast, both elevated by Chet in reward for their oral services, highlighting that “success” is open to white women willing to leverage their sexuality. UnREAL highlights the role of sex as career advancement (including one of my favorite lines of Chet’s utter sleezeballery—in defending his Madison dalliance to Quinn, his exasperated explanation is “she’s a mouth!”), but leaves the racial dimension unspoken. I noticed the parallels, and took it as a subtle commentary to avoid on-the-nose gesturing, rather than unquestioned normalization, but I grant that when it comes to such matters of calling out white privilege, subtlety is dangerous.


Kristen: It’s very dangerous, Jason. So much so that subtlety to most untrained eyes who never see the precarity of intersectional identity in industry labor called out explicitly—unless it’s by racialized bodies who they can then characterize as being too sensitive or overly cautious—will be able to ignore it or just miss it completely. And, listen, on a show that examines how white women explicitly navigate the labor game through whatever strategies they can maneuver, it’s not a difficult thing to ask that they be explicit about the fact that it’s THEM who keep and maintain power because it’s their “mouths” that are desired. The Latina contestant is probably the closest voice to one who acknowledges how stuck she is between the trope she fulfills and the fact that she knows she has to play that trope in order to get to where she wants to be. That is most certainly a labor issue and it is handled well. But it reveals, similar to the conversation Jay has with Athena and Shamiqua, Shapiro’s comfort discussing race, gender, and talent as labor but not race, gender, gatekeepers, and labor. And that is unfortunate because as Phillip mentioned earlier, if we do not signal for the fact that Shia is a woman of color in an industry where she is always already at the margins, how do we understand her utter failures and Rachel’s inate “know-how” as anything outside of the traditional binaries of racial competencies? This show ain’t subtle about shit so I can’t buy that it’s taking a quiet tack on the race stuff. It’s more likely that its writers just missed it on that front in the service of diversity without considering for the problems that may occur or the reinforcement of the status quo they’ve maintained (which, I mean, it’s true, so…).

Chris: I was going to reply to Jason’s comment with something along the lines that none of the other critiques made by the show are subtle, which makes me question if they’d make the racial labor critique subtle, but Kristen takes care of that just fine with “This show ain’t subtle about shit.”

Jason: Okay, I’ll grant that my reading of the parallels between producers and contestants as a veiled racial critique is overly generous. And “This show ain’t subtle about shit” is as good as a conclusion as we’re going to find!

Thanks to everyone for participating in, and reading, this conversation! Continue on in the comments…


AnTENNA, UnREAL: Romance and Pedagogy Wed, 19 Aug 2015 13:00:18 +0000 UnREAL explores the series in relation to romance and pedagogy.]]> [The following is the second in a series of conversations between Antenna contributors regarding the Lifetime drama series UnREAL, which recently completed its first season. See part 1 here, and stay tuned for part 3 on Friday!]

A Savvy Romance

Jason Mittell, Middlebury College: One thing that fascinates me about the show is how it simultaneously dismantles the romantic fantasy peddled by The Bachelor, and offers its own savvy version. Framed by its presentation on Lifetime, the series is targeting female viewers who “know better” than to be duped by conventional reality TV (a savvy attitude that Allison Hearn has argued is core to reality TV fandom). The narrative constructs Rachel as the stand-in for such savvy viewers—and yet makes her the object of desire for both the hunky cameraman Jeremy, and the hunky “suitor” Adam. Despite the fact that her life (and hair) is a total mess, Jeremy finds her hotter than his perky blond fiance, and Adam seems ready to choose Rachel over the line-up of primped and perfected contestants.

If one of the appeals of The Bachelor is the vicarious desire for women to imagine that if only they were in the competition, they could beat out those other shallow boobs for his heart, then UnREAL dramatizes that by putting a viewer surrogate for women who might scoff at such desires behind-the-scenes, and then making her inadvertently beat out all of the shallow boobs. She is the savvy viewer incarnate, and she wins the hearts of the show’s only two attractive straight men by being smarter than the other women, without even showering!

So I’m curious if others found themselves motivated by these romances? Any shippers? Or were you with me, on the sidelines rooting for the show’s purest “romance,” Quinchel?


Melissa Lenos, Donnelly College: I know I’m in the minority with this opinion, but I find the romance elements to be the least interesting part of the show. While I get the structural intrigue of framing a sort of anti-romance within the staged romance of Everlasting, I like the show best when it’s focusing on Rachel’s (and Quinn’s!) character development and motivations and general messiness as a human.

Kathleen Battles, Oakland University: You are not in the minority, Melissa. I also found the romances to be the least interesting parts of the shows, especially Rachel’s. Quinn’s “romance” with Chet was far more interesting, particularly as it was mediated by Quinn’s especially non romantic idea of love.

I also find myself deeply uncomfortable with the idea of “shipping” Quinn and Rachel. I found their relationship to be, as I said on Twitter, the central “romance” of the show—but that is different than shipping. Theirs is a complex relationship of teacher/student, boss/worker, idol/worshipper, etc. I also find the poster above deeply, and hilariously, ironic.

I can’t say how much I enjoyed the last minutes of this show (minus Jeremy’s visit to Rachel’s mother—which I only saw later as my recording clipped the end). The scene of Anna taking her moment (I love how self-aware the contestants were) and claiming something better for herself in her white dress followed by Quinn and Rachel discussing the coming season of the show was wonderful on so many levels. Their spat out “I love yous” were a perfect end. The show is unrelentingly grim, as many have noted, but I find the constant tension between the allure of romance and the realization that it is unattainable utterly compelling.

Phillip Maciak, Louisiana State University: I totally agree with your take on the final minutes of the finale. UnREAL is a show built around this narcotic, corrosive relationship between Quinn and Rachel, their shared competence, its costs, etc. But it was fascinating to me that the season didn’t actually end there and, instead, cut to that seedy bit of business that your DVR mercifully edited out for you. (The cut to Jeremy was even aesthetically disappointing, given that we’d just had that crane shot as a nice visual punctuation mark.) This was a great finale, but I thought that final twist was both a move to the show’s weak side—Margaret Lyons referred to Jeremy as a “humanoid henley”—and an uncharacteristic hedge. That “I love you” exchange, preceded as it was by Quinn’s essential admission of her betrayal and some pointed references to murder, left plenty of questions open for us. We don’t have to be shipping Quinn and Rachel to know that their relationship is both more interesting and more important than any of the erotic relationships on the show. Dredging up an essentially abandoned subplot from earlier in the season—one that was excessive even by this melodrama’s standards—to amp up the stakes seemed both confusing and confused. And so did the shift of focus back (away) to Jeremy, especially in context of Kathleen’s earlier point that the heterosexual couplings mostly serve to shift our gaze to relationships between women. I had kind of hoped we were heading into a glorious season two without either Jeremy or Adam, but Fake Chris Pratt isn’t going away that easy, I guess.

Melissa: That moment in the finale when Rachel says, “I don’t think our audience is interested in girls with jobs” felt like a shout out to those of us watching for the Quinn/Rachel relationship—and watching these women work is so satisfying!—rather than the romance. To me, this was first and foremost a show about a woman who is very good at her job, and sometimes loves her job, but also knows that her job isn’t very good for her. Sound familiar, academics? (I’m 30% joking.)

Myles McNutt, Old Dominion University: I definitely felt the chemistry between Rachel and Adam, but the show has an uneasy relationship with romance—its takedown of Everlasting‘s forward-facing romantic framing is thorough and matter-of-fact, but at the same time it leaned on the love triangle, and although the finale shifts to more complex “romances” like Rachel and Quinn there’s still the reliance on a more conventional romantic thrust when it comes to promoting the show. The original key art for the show somewhat inexplicably featured Jeremy, for example—the key art eventually shifted to Adam (the romantic partner with a clearer link to the themes of the show), but in both cases you see the show leaning on a more traditional Lifetime framing even as the writers showed more interest in other areas.


I feel this is a space the show could evolve in future seasons—the depiction of Everlasting itself ended up very scattershot, and unfocused, and while this is not a show about the contestants, I do feel it’s a space to clarify and focus—and evolve—its position vis-a-vis “romance” as it continues to live and breathe in this world.

Melissa: That’s what I was wondering by the end, Myles—if future seasons will embrace the less obvious—but ultimately more interesting—tensions explored in season one.

Kristen Warner, University of Alabama: I know how y’all feel about the romance function of the series. But I’m here for it! I love the romance genre and all of the many ways that it finds itself deployed in series where it may or may not be warranted (looking at you Homeland and The Good Wife) or may or may not be considered ironic like UnReal. So, yeah—give me all the lingering stares and the angsty dialogue and the flirty banter and the hay rolls and the scorched earth manpain and the romantic jitters. Haters gonna hate.

While I vigilantly tried to remain “shipper agnostic” in my choice of suitor for Rachel for many reasons (my distrust of Marti Noxon one of the biggest with regard to triangles—best not to unpack that 15-year-old-suitcase), it was fun to watch Rachel enact different versions of herself with both men. To Jason’s earlier point, I’m most certain our identification is linked to Rachel (although I have seen a number of women stress how much they wish to be Quinn especially because of the messiness of her relationship with Chet) and that she is indeed the best at making us “normal” girls feel powerful in how she pulls these men folks’ strings. That IS the quintessential essence of good fantasy. I mean, at one point she and one of her men roll around in a bale of hay for Crissakes. They are clearly playing at well-known romance conventions: the “Rustic bodice ripper” versus the “Billionaire English Gent” types to be specific.

My point here is that I don’t think UnReal is necessarily subversive in the way it sells the romance to the consumerable “savvy” viewer; I can think of a host of “new era” romantic comedies that do similar work. However, I do think the show excels in identificatory suture in that it makes it super clear that the things that excite and arouse women aren’t just hard bodies—although say what you want about Jeremy, but between the henley, the clawfoot tub, the glass shower and the log cabin house, I’d find myself at peace, I’m just saying—but that the personas she performs with each of those men are all wonderfully fantastical and immaterial. For me the scene that sums up the moment of meta romantic fantasy is when Rachel discovers that watching the fantasy version of herself and Jeremy on that beach talking about love and their future and (cis, white, hetero) normalcy is what ultimately gets her off after all of her previously failed attempts. Meta because as a viewer watching her watch a fantastical version of herself be happy how different is that from reading the romance novel or watching a soap opera and suturing yourself into it? Not really much difference at all.

Dana Och, University of Pittsburgh: Yes, all of this. That moment of Rachel achieving orgasm finally with that video of her and Jeremy is the indelible moment of the show to me. It is easy to mock the various romance myths being overtly marketed in dating reality shows—though another great moment was the horse riding scene—but this moment cuts to the myths of romance that we spin in our real lives (and then post on Facebook). Smart.

Jason: I totally agree with Kristen that Rachel as savvy romantic heroine has a long lineage in various genres and media, but I’m particularly curious about its articulation to the reality dating show. The Bachelor and its ilk seems to be television’s most unreconstructed site of conventional romantic fantasy, or at least it seems to be to me as an outsider who rarely watches them. As y’all have said, things have gotten (or have been for a long time) darker and more complicated on soaps, Lifetime movies, romcoms, romance novels, and prestige prime time dramas—but not (ironically, I guess) “reality.” Does UnREAL throw down the gauntlet to dating reality shows to acknowledge and complicate the fantasy?

Kathleen: I think the show actually reveals how complex the fantasy already is. If anything, the show doesn’t so much throw down a gauntlet to reality TV as to show how complex the work of building even the most basic fantasy of romance really is. Let’s not forget one of the series writers came from the world of The Bachelor. Here is a show that yes, asks a lot of hard questions, is filled with cynicism, but also keeps reminding us just how damn good Quinn and Rachel are at creating this fantasy world. Sure the fantasy is trite, but this show reminds us over and over again just how much work it takes to make it actually happen.

I really appreciate Kristen and Dana’s points about the ways that the show also includes so many nods to romance beyond reality. The love triangle itself is a pretty well worn trope central to so much fiction aimed at women—as in the various “teams” women can join. This show also plays with the good boy/bad boy set up well (Jeremy/Adam, Dean/Jess, Angel/Spike). I think we see moments where both Rachel—in the wonderful scene discussed above—and Quinn—between getting her ring and catching Chet—submit to the fantasy, even though they are ostensibly savvy.

I also feel like this comment might refer to the above two threads, but in this whole discussion, I just keep wondering why a show needs to be “dark” or “complex” to pass some legitimation test. I think one thing the show perversely does is demonstrate the extreme complexity of managing and running a reality show where unlike a scripted show helmed by the auteur showrunner, producers are forced to make something out of a hodgepodge of events. And though it doesn’t focus on the contestants enough, I think it also demonstrates a range of complex reasoning among the them. Why must we consistently equate “darkness” or “anti-ness” with “complexity” as well?

Reality and Pedagogy

Jason: One of UnREAL‘s hooks, especially with savvy viewers, critics, and scholars, seems to be the speculation over what we’re seeing is “real” concerning how the reality TV industry works. Knowing that Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked as a producer for The Bachelor before applying that experience to the fictional world of UnREAL fuels such matters, despite her (assuredly lawyer-mandated) insistence that all actual events and characters are fictional. Whether specific events are fictional or fictionalized versions of real “reality,” there is no doubt that the series captures the underlying realities of reality TV production, where drama is created both on-set and in the edit bays, where casting is as crucial as it is in a Hollywood film, and where savvy contestants are self-aware of their own performances, potential leverage over producers, and possibilities of post-reality notoriety. In other words, nobody involved in making reality TV has any illusions that there is anything “real” happening—and I would argue this extends to a great deal of the audience as well.

Thus the series serves a pedagogical function, teaching viewers how to watch reality TV with an expanded understanding of what might be happening behind the scenes. Although I’ve read enough about reality TV that I felt sufficiently savvy, I was surprised by the role of “reality fluffers” like Rachel, working off-screen to heighten drama and point characters in the “right” direction. This pedagogical impulse interests me in large part because I’ve decided to teach the first season as the semester-long case study for my Television and American Culture course next spring. It will replace Homeland‘s first season, which I’ve used three times before—while Homeland worked well to teach serial narrative, explore premium television’s industrial strategies, and raise issues around representations of nation, gender, race, and religion, it has grown a bit tired for me. UnREAL allows more conversations about the meta representation of television itself, foregrounds questions of genre, and most importantly, highlights how television can be “worth” teaching beyond the elite realm of HBO/Showtime (and I know some of my bro-ier students will squirm productively at watching Television For Women!).

So how do the rest of you view the series pedagogically? How might you teach it productively? And how would you deal with inevitable questions that students will ask about “how real is it?”

Dana: I would pair it with Big Brother (a show that actually does have a very short window between events happening and then being constructed into storylines and aired, as well as one live show a week), Big Brother After Dark (“You will not talk about production” bellows over the loudspeaker endlessly while we watch unedited live feeds of “houseguests” eating pudding and talking about stubbed toes), and the final episode of The Hills. These texts offer a range of reality show examples for how the construction of the “real” is already visible and open to interrogation, not to mention the ways that these discussions of manipulation are part and parcel of audience investment, discussion, and resistance (in particular with the racism scandal unveiled and mainstreamed by Twitter users during #bb15 but visible in banal ways daily on Big Brother live feed, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblrs, blogs, and message boards). A quick peek at the #bb17 hashtag on Twitter will reveal lots of fans talking not only about how CBS shapes narratives for the three hours per week of televised shows, but also the “houseguests” misconceptions about playing to the audience. If so much of the denigration of soap operas and reality television is wrapped up in the projection of a naive and unsavvy feminine audience, a consideration of online discussions and artifacts could complicate and—gasp—maybe even dispel some of the horror at being aligned to Television For Women.

Phil: I’m with Dana. For me, I think the pedagogical value lies, not necessarily in its journalistic expose of how the sausage gets made, but rather in its up-front visualization of the constructedness of the “reality” space. I teach a course called “Multimedia Realisms,” for instance, and I think the pilot at least will be able to serve as a zippy introduction to the labor of manufacturing a documentary aesthetic during the weeks when we discuss Reality TV and its single-camera comedy offspring. The thing I like about it, though, is less in the way it explicitly teaches us about the genre (here’s how we do the talking heads, here’s how the narrative comes together, etc.) than in the way that it frames that mediation visually. For example, I love how many screens this show has constantly zipping in and out of frame—the dailies, the surveillance cameras, even the iPhones—and I look forward to having students literally name and peel away the layers as we move into discussions of texts for which those layers are not so readily visible.

Melissa: There was a moment early on—it’s after Adam cuts Britney—when Quinn walks down a wall tearing down a timeline with pieces like, “Britney hogs Adam at the Ballroom Dance, Britney ruins Pepper’s first kiss with Adam”—she’s making the point that they’ve already structured the entire season (before the second episode!) around the “character” Adam has just cut. Quinn is adamant that—above all other “types”—they must have a villain for the program to work. The wall has other things written on it—scheduled catfights and skinny dipping sessions—and when I first saw this scene, all I could think of was how I can’t wait to use it when I talk about narrative structure in any of my classes—media studies, film or literature-based. In the past, with first-year students, I’ve used the basic structure of Cinderella (and the old Classroom Jedi trick of having them try to name a story that isn’t basically some version of Cinderella)—I think a few screenshots of Quinn’s timeline could do a lot of that same work … while also fulfilling all of the same Cinderella narrative arc-points.

From episode 1.2, Quinn shows how "we built a whole season around Britney," not accounting for her getting voted off in the first episode.

From episode 1.2, Quinn shows how “we built a whole season around Britney,” not accounting for her getting voted off in the first episode.

Next time on the finale of AnTENNA UnREAL: Branding and Race!



AnTENNA, UnREAL: Anti-Heroes, Genre and Legitimation Mon, 17 Aug 2015 16:04:22 +0000 UnREAL explores the series in relation to contemporary anti-hero dramas.]]> The Lifetime drama series UnREAL, which recently completed its first season, was one of the surprises of the summer. A dark look behind-the-scenes of a reality dating show, the series has particular interest for scholars of contemporary television. After some robust social media conversations, Jason Mittell assembled a group of media scholars to share their thoughts in a three-part forum, to be serialized this week – see part 2 here.

Jason Mittell, Middlebury College: Just to launch the conversation, I’m wondering if people can share what brought them to UnREAL, and what assumptions they brought to the series.

I’ll start: I’m certainly not in the target demographic for Lifetime, so I was unaware of the series until I started seeing some of the early strong reviews, specifically pieces by Todd VanDerWerff and Linda Holmes. Then I heard the segment on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and I was intrigued enough to check it out. Part of that was the praise for the program’s execution and “quality,” part was the involvement of Marti Noxon as a producer with a strong track record, but it was mostly because it was about television. I’m a sucker for the meta, so I’m onboard with anything that provide a window into its own medium. Based on that advanced info, I wasn’t surprised that it was great—but I was shocked by how unrelentingly dark and scathing it was, shattering my assumptions of what tone a “Lifetime series” might offer.


Myles McNutt, Old Dominion University: I came to the series knowing about its development, a byproduct of following the trades too closely: there, it was defined by Noxon’s participation and Appleby’s casting, which joined my Twitter feed’s dissection of the news relative to both the talent involved and—if I recall correctly—the similarly premised (but much lighter thematically-speaking) TV Movie I Want To Marry Ryan Banks, later retitled The Reality of Love, which features a post-Alias, pre-movie stardom Bradley Cooper.

But ahead of viewing it, I had a discussion with a reviewer who was somewhat incredulous to the idea that the show being on Lifetime would be a hindrance to viewers, comparing them to AMC before Mad Men in their lack of significant dramatic programming. And while I admired his optimism, Lifetime has spent the past half-decade developing series that actively played into their “Television For Women” branding, tied unequivocally to its Lifetime movies that so welcome parody Lifetime actually aired one. Despite the fact that Lifetime—albeit with an acquired network castoff, The Days And Nights of Molly Dodd—was the first cable channel to earn a lead acting nomination at the Primetime Emmy Awards, and despite the fact they went through the same experimentation phase of sitcoms, dramas, and reality as original cable programming expanded exponentially in the late 2000s, it was all done under the auspices of that “Television for Women” brand, which perhaps explains the way critical discourse has overenunciated its (deserved) praise of the show in an effort to cut through the years of delegitimation.

Melissa Lenos, Donnelly College: I heard about UnREAL pretty quickly through other media studies people and the positive NPR press (as someone who is primarily a film scholar, I don’t tend to follow the TV trades; any scoop I get is from Myles on Twitter). I’d been under the impression that Lifetime was moving in the SyFy direction: sort of embracing the popular association with camp and launching their own Sharknados. Everyone I know talked about watching the Flowers in the Attic adaptation. Very few people I know actually watched it.

I wasn’t sure I was the target audience for UnREAL because I have a very hard time watching dating game shows, but I gave it a shot and fell pretty hard on episode one. I then agreed to continue on this journey for another week.

Kristen Warner, University of Alabama: I saw folks on Twitter talking about it after the first episode aired and thought I would give it a try. And the smart marketing move of releasing the first four episodes all at once bound me to the show fairly quickly. I had misgivings about the series as I have a longstanding mistrust of Marti Noxon (I’ll never forget) but I enjoyed the series she wrote for Bravo Girlfriends Guide to Divorce so I thought it could be equally as interesting.

My assumptions were wholly incorrect. Initially I thought it was some kind of horror anthology series akin to American Horror Story. I was (pleasantly) mistaken.

Phillip Maciak, Louisiana State University: I’d heard about UnREAL via Emily Nussbaum and Willa Paskin’s raves. However, as my television slate was already pretty full with fancy serial dramas and, well, this season of The Bachelorette, I took a pass. But my friend Rachel kept texting me about it, so I tried the first episode. After that intro, I shotgunned the first six episodes pretty quick, loved them, and wrote a fast piece on it for The Los Angeles Review of Books. The social media response I got was unbelievable! So many people wanted to talk about the series. I feel like everyone who watched this show quickly became an evangelist for it, which is what happens, I think, when people are genuinely surprised by something on TV. (If not because it’s wholly new, at least because they didn’t expect it.) So I’m very happy to help spread the good—or ambivalent, but mostly good—news here.

Christine Becker, University of Notre Dame: As with seemingly everything in my life these days, I was lured to UnREAL by my Twitter feed. In particular, I saw multiple TV critics tweeting praise about the show’s high level of insight into reality TV production and representation, and especially as a TV studies teacher always looking for meta fodder to bring into the classroom, I was very intrigued. But that critical buildup turned out to be a detriment for my initial viewing. The show’s early points about the sexism endemic to romance competition shows seemed overly familiar to me (an academic who has, for instance, read both editions of Murray and Ouellette’s Reality TV cover to cover). Even the much-acclaimed ironic overhead shot of Rachel wearing the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt struck me as pouring it on thick. (And my problems with the production-within-the-production contrivances never fully went away, a point for another section). But then the story and character complexity really started to kick in. I think it was episode four that really grabbed me, where the story threads started to coalesce so that I felt like I was experiencing a cohesive narrative, not just contrived plot points. So I’m not sure if my initial resistance was due more to the show’s clunkiness or my own resistant frame of reference, but maybe that’s indicative of how hard it usually is to parse out one’s initial reactions to any show.

Dana Och, University of Pittsburgh: UnREAL was promoted pretty heavily on ABC Family, so I expected that the show would be a combination of savvy soap opera and pretty people. I was a bit reluctant at first because of the dating show angle: while I adore the early cycle of campy dating shows that aired on VH1 and other networks (Rock of Love, I Love New York, Flavor of Love, Temptation Island), I have little interest in shows that promote ideas of traditional romance (or even the facade of traditional romance). Twitter of course played a role in me deciding to watch, as a few of us decided to watch and I am a sucker for group watching.

UnReal exposes the sick, twisted heart of shows like The Bachelor.

An Anti-Heroine?

Jason: The inspiration for this forum came from the robust conversations that we all were having about UnREAL on social media, and no topic generated more heat than framing Rachel as an anti-heroine—specifically the “first female anti-hero” of the modern drama age—with explicit ties to Breaking Bad as a reference point. This was fueled by a Vanity Fair article arguing that Rachel was “TV’s First Pure Female Antihero,” and subsequent interviews with producers where they talk about how the writers search for “Walter White moments” in Rachel’s character.

I’m not particularly invested in arguing about “firsts” or the parameters of being an anti-hero—I am more interested in the framing of the character and how Breaking Bad is used as an inspiration and comparison, issues that I’ve explored in a chapter of my book Complex TV. I do find UnREAL‘s investment in Rachel’s moral choices and dissolution to be in keeping with anti-hero model that dominated one vein of prime time television for the past decade, but it is interesting in how her power and persona is quite different than the typical male anti-hero. Rachel’s “superpower” is her ability to manipulate via empathy, spinning a contestant or colleague to do her bidding by creating an emotional bond, a stark difference from the modes of bullying and belittling more common to male counterpart characters. The results are similar—she destroys lives out of rationalized self-interest, and even admits to effectively killing someone in the finale—but the methods and emotional palette are distinct.

I know that many of my colleagues were “vexed” by this framing and comparison. So what vexes you most?

Kathleen Battles, Oakland University: The set-up of this particular issue already directs answers towards thinking of Rachel in terms of male anti-heroes. The origins question is an important one to a lot of people, myself included, because the show is in many ways a straight up soap opera. I mean this as a compliment. Like many good soap operas, a lot of the narrative energy is not tied to heterosexual coupling, rather coupling becomes the springboard to represent the relationship between women. I also don’t know why it would be striking that a female anti hero would NOT be different than a male one. Men and women (and right now we are speaking primarily of white, heterosexual, men and women) operate under different sets of conditions. To me one of the best parts of of UnREAL is precisely its consideration of the ways that patriarchy shapes the lives of women, from its unrelentingly cynical take on romance to its consideration of workplace politics. But more than that, I find some of the discourse in these reviews troubling as the reviewers themselves seem to want to work hard to like Rachel, like the review that mentioned her “doe eyes” over and over.

The other thing about the anti-hero focus (as the marker of “quality”) is that it ignores the other terrific character, Quinn. To my mind, Quinn is one of my favorite television characters in a long while. Her talents, command of her world, intelligence, and cynicism make her a force to be reckoned with. I loved every minute she was on screen, and I suspect I’m not the only one. #quinning

Melissa: Kathleen, by the time the finale rolled around, Quinn was my favorite part of the show. And I agree that the anti-hero argument is beside the point—for me mostly because the writers went out of their way to drive home that Rachel is a complex character who is (among other characteristics) struggling with possible (likely?) mental illness. By the end of episode nine I felt guilty for my level of frustration with her—that she simply seemed to be bouncing back and forth between Jeremy and Adam and unable to do anything on her own—or in her own self-interest. That tension as a viewer—for me—was heavily dependent on the focus on Rachel’s mental health, something that the Vanity Fair article, if I remember correctly, doesn’t even mention. (Although they do mention the “doe eyes” at least once.) If Rachel’s hyper-empathy and ability to manipulate people are—as her terrifying mother claims—actually part of an illness, can we really tag her behavior as “anti-hero”? Even if she seems to be getting pleasure from her destructive influence? Or is she a character who suffers, and then causes suffering and feels incredible guilt for what she’s done? She’s so very well-written.

Jason: Melissa, I’ll jump in here just to say that mental illness doesn’t disqualify a character from being an anti-hero—after all, the current wave of prime time anti-hero dramas was launched by The Sopranos, whose concept was defined as “gangster in therapy.” Which of the prominent TV anti-heroes couldn’t be diagnosed with some sort of mental illness?

Melissa: Sure, Jason, I can see that. But my question is something like, “do we have a responsibility to reconsider a character’s agency when writers pointedly foreground serious mental illness?” And I’m sure someone’s already written something very brilliant on this idea that I should go look up. Something I am very interested in, though, that the Vanity Fair article mentions, is the move away from the focus on “feminine likeability.” But UnREAL feels more like that glorious Amy Poehler “I don’t fucking care if you like it” moment than anything to do with Lena Dunham.

Kristen: I’m the one who was vexed by the anti-hero discourse emerging about this show. I get why the comparisons are there and it makes sense. But it vexes me because 1) the whiteness of anti-heroness (the Vanity Fair article suggests that Empire‘s Cookie Lyons and Scandal‘s Olivia Pope can’t be anti-heroines because they’re really heroes fighting men. HAAA. Christ. Deliver us.) and 2) if you’re going to make an anti-heroine for WOMEN why on earth would you parallel it to characteristics of the anti-hero placed on a man?! Those comparisons assume the author is only familiar with those examples when, in fact, we have tons of prime time and daytime soap characters who embody the essence (even at a “proto” level) of women we love to hate who do what they do because they get off on causing havoc and yet also have feelings and want love and also to destroy everyone who has hurt them and maybe possesses mommy/daddy/social issues. For example, during a Twitter conversation, some were asking for early analogs of Rachel and the first person who popped in my head was All My Children‘s Kendall Hart aka Erica Kane’s illegitimate daughter (the child she conceived after being raped and subsequently giving up for adoption). While Appleby’s character certainly has nuances and tonal shifts that strongly differ from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s daytime character, I would argue that she still serves as part of the “proto” anti-heroine genealogy that this newest descendant benefits from. I point that example out because it is absolutely absurd that an entire genre is continually left out of the conversation and reinforces that television criticism always needs to legitimate these kinds of texts as “masculine” and “non-histrionically, soapy.”

Which brings me to this point: I feel like the analysis of UnREAL is going to push us all into our separate camps like The Killing did but in reverse. For me The Killing felt like a feminine text–it had the ambience and affect of what soap tries to generate (maybe unconsciously; maybe unintentionally) with something of an antiheroine in its lead (and as its showrunner). While UnREAL placing itself in the genealogy of Breaking Bad is a smart self-fashioning auteuristic tactic in this contemporary era where awards and critical praise demand such lineage, the core of the series is female melodrama AND fantasy. As I said elsewhere in response to this lineage thing: Daytime soap is to many who do TV criticism as the grandchild of a stereotypical downtrodden prostitute. The grandchild is cool; the grandma? Not so much. Popular TV criticism says, “oh that child looks just like his respectable on the up and up granddaddy.” But that baby looks (and acts) like his grandma too. It’s crude but it is the best metaphor I can draw to describe how legitimation and bastardization work. Lastly, I would submit that female audiences who recognize feminine texts in “wolf’s clothing” KNOW how to root for a lead despite everything that suggests they shouldn’t. Female audiences know how to deal with Rachel AND Quinn and it’s certainly not biologically inherent knowledge. On the contrary, it had to have been a knowledge gleaned from texts they’ve seen before and I think it most certainly is that.

Phillip: I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that that Vanity Fair piece is less about anti-heroines and more about anxiety! The anti-heroine discourse as it’s presented in Vanity Fair piece strikes me as really condescending for a few of reasons. The first is the one Kristen rightly points to here: the rhetorical gymnastics the writer goes through in order to disqualify legions of previous anti-heroines kind of enacts the absurdity of its own critical project. Why do we need to immediately find this show’s precise position in the line of succession from Tony Soprano to Arya Stark? All hail her grace Rachel Goldberg, first of her name—long may she reign!

The second is that it’s such a bald attempt to legitimize a show that doesn’t especially need legitimizing. I understand the impetus on the part of the showrunners to invoke Breaking Bad as a structural model—though I think the better comparisons are Damages and Mad Men—but, as this brief conversation has already shown, there are many more interesting ways to talk about this show than as a Lady-Ghostbusters version of Breaking Bad. To me, the Vanity Fair essay was very similar to a piece in The Atlantic called, I’m not kidding, “How Lifetime’s UnREAL Turned The Bachelor Into Literature.” (The TV-Is-The-New-Novel Discourse is Dead; Long Live TV-Is-The-New-Novel!) The author, Megan Garber, writes, “It does, instead, what the best literature does: It leaves itself open to interpretation and argument. It asks its audience to think, and analyze, and come to their own conclusions. It makes a point of its own ambiguity.” Okay, yes, that’s what the best literature does, but isn’t it also what the best TV does, what the best cinema does, what the best art does? These pieces both seem gripped by the same high-culture/low-culture panic. The invocation of the novel or the anti-hero serves less as substantive critical lens than as permission to write in praise of a show about trashy Reality TV broadcast on the trashy Lifetime Network.

Christine: I’ve seen multiple reactions along the lines of “Who knew I’d ever like something on Lifetime?” or “I’m a guy actually watching a Lifetime show!” Not to unnecessarily muddy the waters here, but it struck me as similar to when someone tweets a link to a smart news piece on BuzzFeed and feels compelled to express surprise that it’s on BuzzFeed and is not a listicle, as if those formats can’t co-exist on one platform. As if newspapers never had comics and as if comics can’t be as profoundly gratifying as something on the front page. But here, of course, it’s the assumption that “television for women” can’t possibly be insightful and must by definition be a guilty pleasure that is only apologetically enjoyed. Though I fully grant the reservations expressed, I can live with the Walter White comparisons, because the creator herself invited it and at least it’s staying within the realm of TV. But the “It’s ambiguous so it’s like literature!” take makes me want to cordially invite that writer to take my History of TV class.

Kristen: Just jumping in here to tag Chris’s point: Lifetime viewers well acquainted with the network and all of its content will be quick to remind you that their “bad women” films are some of the most highly popular programming. How many times have some of us watched Meredith Baxter play Betty Broderick (PLEASE read the comments) and felt like, “I mean … I don’t agree what she did was right but…she kinda had a point.” All I’m saying: The anti-heroine has a LONG history … on Lifetime.

Dana: And this is key to why the Walter White comparison actually does drive me up the wall. Yes, I get why the creator invokes it as legitimation, but that doesn’t mean that we have to also take it up. Walter White is interesting to me for the way that he is introduced in a manner that invites the viewer to assume the best about him: he is a normal guy with a good heart who is forced into unlawful activities due to circumstances beyond his control. Walter White is interesting, that is, for the way that the viewer is manipulated over the seasons to eventually realize that he is much more a villain. Our own assumptions about white male leads (and maybe even patriarchy) are revealed. Now, with Rachel, we are told right off the bat that she is unstable, ruthless, and unethical. And we can roll with that without having to be manipulated (a bit more like Tony Soprano than Walter White considering the habituation of generic structures and types) because whether it is Kendall, Erika, Dorian, Carly, or Alexis—let alone Brenda, Valerie, Amanda, Blair, Alison, Katherine, or Sutter—we fully expect a female character with dimensions, motivations, and the ability to exist as more than just a projection of male desire. The reading frames are already there, so the show can simply signal them and move on.


Jason: I agree with most of what everyone says here about legitimation, but to return to my initial prompt on this issue, I’m curious if others find the “hook” of the show to be framed around Rachel’s morality. One thing I find so compelling is to watch her do things she knows are wrong politically and ethically, but she convinces herself that she has no choice so she rationalizes her behaviors in an assortment of ways. As the season progresses, she becomes more emotionally invested in the show and her role in it, letting go of the rationalizations and just embracing her power to ruin people for fun and profit. Meanwhile, Quinn is the embodiment of Ayn Randian self-interest (but in a fun way, rather than Rand’s own leaden drama), setting up an ethical pole that Rachel wants to distance herself from, but keeps moving toward. This moral dance, which is obviously much more than just the “Breaking Bad but with a lady!” frame, is what kept me rapt throughout the season. And, since I don’t know many of the examples of precedents y’all have mentioned, this figuration of the feminist reluctantly working to uphold the worst of patriarchy seems innovative to me. Do those precedents similarly rationalize their knowing misdeeds as being for the greater feminist good?

Christine: I see that too, and I particularly found the Faith hometown visit episode to be a really interesting pivot point in the season in that regard. (Perhaps not coincidentally, that was also right when I started to get consumed by the narrative, not just the show’s meta elements.) Rachel seems at her most altruistic there, albeit utilizing her usual manipulative skills, but then she gets trumped by the production’s usual larger dark forces. It seemed like a key turning point in her emotional relationship to the show and the other producers.

Kathleen: I see the point about the “dance,” but it’s a familiar one to some viewers. Since the 80s scholars have noted that soap opera viewers prefer their villainesses to other female characters. As Kristen noted, Lifetime viewers (myself included) will prefer the “bad girl” movies. If anything, industrially speaking, Lifetime is already positioned as “darker” than its current actual competitor, the Hallmark Channel (I get that’s not how any of this is being positioned in the trades, as Lifetime wants its reputation stock to rise. But from a viewer perspective, they offer similar kinds of programming with very different tones). The relationship between Quinn and Rachel is a complex one, but I wouldn’t put it in such stark moral terms or such polarized terms. I think the season starts that way, but I think as we see Rachel make increasingly bad decisions, we also see Quinn increasingly humanized. In other words, I enjoyed the dance between the characters, but not as something particularly innovative, but as something very well done in the case of this show.

Next time on AnTENNA UnREAL: Romance and Pedagogy!


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