TV – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A New Brand of Tea Leaves?: The 2015 Emmy Awards Mon, 21 Sep 2015 04:23:07 +0000 Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 12.20.58 AMPredicting the Emmy Awards is a fool’s errand, even in the grand scheme of the fallibility of award predictions: whereas the Oscars have precursor awards (primarily the Guilds) with voting base overlap, the Emmys have no such preview, leaving experts to effectively read tea leaves.

However, this year came with a new brand of tea leaves, brought on by a significant change: whereas past years have seen winners determined by a limited blue-ribbon panel of voters in a given peer group, this year the voting was opened up to all members of said groups, meaning the voting pool increased exponentially. Reporting speculated that this could dramatically alter the winners, skewing toward populist series and diminishing the impact of the episode submissions that were typically considered crucial variables in the blue-ribbon panels’ decisions.

Accordingly, this year’s predictions narrative had more weight than usual, pushing those who were following the story to see each early win as a marker of a given narrative. And it didn’t take long for such a narrative to emerge, even if I joked about it being premature when I called it early on: HBO swept through the broadcast like the behemoth it once was, laying waste to numerous records in the process. Game of Thrones shattered the record for most wins by a series in a single year well before it won for Outstanding Drama Series, and Veep won three awards—including the fourth consecutive win for Julia Louis-Dreyfus and second for Tony Hale—before it emerged to dethrone Modern Family and take HBO’s second-ever win for Outstanding Comedy Series. Combine with Olive Kitteridge’s near-sweep of the Limited Series category—losing only Supporting Actress—and you have the most dominant performance for a single channel or network in recent Emmys history. It’s the first time that a single channel has taken home the TV Movie (Bessie), Limited Series (or Miniseries), Drama, and Comedy awards in the same year since the TV Movie category was added in 1980.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 12.21.52 AMThere are a large number of conclusions we could make based on this. We could discuss how the opening up of the voting pool privileged a show like Game of Thrones that has both large viewership and strength in the creative arts categories whose voters were previously unlikely to vote in the program awards. We might ask if the accessibility of HBO programming—both through elaborate screener DVD boxes sent to voters and through the ease of HBO Go/HBO Now—makes it more likely that voters have seen shows on the channel, versus some of the competition. We can ponder how the potential dilution of submitted episodes’ importance to the process privileged past winners and nominees with whom voters were familiar (thus giving Veep an advantage over newcomer Transparent, which won Lead Actor and Directing Emmys for Amazon Studios).

And yet here’s the thing about awards: we’ll never know. Although the social media consensus on my feed seems to be that Game of Thrones would have been more deserving in earlier seasons, or that Transparent was breaking more ground in comedy than Veep’s political satire, there’s every possibility Emmy voters felt Game of Thrones had its strongest year yet and Transparent was a drama masquerading as a comedy and dragged down by Maura’s unlikeable children. It becomes easy to forget in efforts to “solve” the Emmy voting process by turning it into an objective process that it is an inherently subjective one. And while I am an advocate for contextualizing the specific subjectivities that shape each year’s winners lest we accept the prestige they’ve come to represent as an asterisk-free marker of television greatness, this year’s awards reminded me and everyone else who follows the Emmys too closely that there will never be evidence to support any of our conclusions. We will never know exactly why a given series or performer or writer or director won an Emmy award. It is beyond our reach.

And yet lest the above read as an outright rejection of Emmys narratives, this was nonetheless a night that reinforced how the swirling subjectivity of industry awards can transform such that objective consensus emerges. Fitting given the night’s controversial spoiler-laden montage of series finales—which would’ve been harmless with fewer climactic moments chosen in editing—this was a night where two actors had their last chance to win an Emmy for a role that will define their career. And whereas Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler had her chance swept away by the HBO tide, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm emerged victorious, winning his first Emmy—and the first acting Emmy for any actor on the AMC series, inconceivably—and earning a standing ovation in the process.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 12.20.32 AMTechnically, that win inspires just as many questions. Had the tape system and limited voting pools held an often-reprehensible character back in previous years? Did all those HBO-happy voters feel about The Newsroom the way I felt about The Newsroom? And yet those questions don’t matter as much when the victory feels just, as was also the case when Viola Davis—the clear standout of the uneven How To Get Away With Murder—took to the stage after winning Lead Actress in a Drama Series and spoke eloquently and righteously about the struggle facing actresses of color when you don’t see people like you standing on that stage winning Emmys. It doesn’t matter if this new voting system was responsible for Davis’ win, because it was both a deserving performance—although there’s that subjectivity again—and because it represents a small step toward addressing the Academy’s longstanding struggle with diversity.

You could argue that “it doesn’t matter” describes the whole evening, and not just the various procedures that preceded it: it is very possible to overstate the importance of the Emmy Awards, as HBO publicity will helpfully—if deservedly—demonstrate over the next 24-72 hours. But Davis’ win stands out as an example of an Emmys moment that unquestionably matters, and pushes a deeper consideration into not simply who wins Emmys, but how they win them, and how that remains an area where greater work in diversity and representation can and should be explored by the Television Academy. And perhaps here we can make a distinction, then: it may be impossible to safely predict the Emmys, but it’s very possible to investigate that process with a critical eye, one that hopefully with move beyond procedures to the politics that underlie them in the years that follow.


On Radio: The Influence of Comedy Podcasts on TV Narrative, Production, and Cross-Promotion Wed, 29 Apr 2015 12:00:04 +0000 maron-tvPost by Mark Lashley, La Salle University.

If you’ve been enjoying television comedy over the past several years, you likely owe a debt of gratitude to a wholly different production form: the podcast. 

Podcasts have existed in their current form for well over a decade now, and have been much discussed as a technological form and an industrial challenge. Last year the format got perhaps its largest mass exposure ever, with the success of the docu-series Serial, an absolute sensation that was influenced by some of the finer elements of true crime TV and long form radio production techniques. There have been a number of popular podcasts in many other genres, like sports (The B.S. Report), technology (TED Radio Hour), and business (Planet Money), each of which can be found tucked into its little niche on the iTunes charts.

But I would argue, the unbridled cachet of something like Serial excepted, that the biggest cultural impact of the podcasting revolution, such as it is, has come from comedy. A cursory glance at the iTunes charts in the comedy category reveals a host of comic talent that would be familiar to nearly every TV fan in 2015: Marc Maron, Aisha Tyler, Bill Burr, John Oliver, Chelsea Peretti, Dan Harmon. These comics are joined by other comedy podcasters who have made their bones in screenwriting, local radio, improv theater, and even YouTube. While the technological ease of podcasting has allowed inroads for all kinds of talent to reach increasingly segmented audiences, comedians have reaped the greatest televisual benefits in a media landscape that we have come to accept as both post-television and, almost unquestionably, post-radio.

MaronTake Maron as an example. The 51-year-old standup has widely credited podcasting (in his act, his book, and his podcast itself, WTF With Marc Maron) with saving his stagnant career. Cable network IFC developed a starring sitcom vehicle for Maron (cleverly titled Maron), which features the comic as a fictionalized version of himself, a comedian and podcaster, and which draws heavily on personal stories Maron had shared with his WTF audience. The show has been successful enough to advance to a third season, which premieres in May. Maron was certainly a known commodity as a comic before he began his podcast in 2009, but Maron is undoubtedly a career zenith, and owes its existence to the podcast’s success. In other cases, like in the case of Joe Rogan’s The Joe Rogan Experience (routinely near the top of the iTunes’s rankings), the podcast’s success owes far more to its host’s TV credits. And Rogan has plenty of those, from Newsradio, to Fear Factor, to his current role as UFC commentator.

What I think is most fascinating about this reciprocal influence between the arenas of podcasting and television are the narrative challenges (and opportunities) that come from translating one to the other. And on this count there are several podcast-to-TV properties that have had both critical and commercial success. In the case of Maron, the writing staff has whittled down years of Maron’s musings about his personal life, personal history, and personal neuroses (delivered in an extemporaneous monologue in the first ten minutes of each WTF episode) to a series of fairly average, wholly recognizable 22-minute sitcom episodes. WTF listeners know more about Maron’s outlook on the world than they probably ever cared to hear. In the resulting television product, Maron’s perspective is acted out and contextualized with re-enacted versions of those rants serving as de facto narration. It’s a far different approach to the same material. Some of the 200,000 regular WTF listeners may feel that the sitcom format neuters Maron’s delivery or diminishes the parasocial effect of engaging with the host’s current life crises twice a week for years on end; others may feel the sitcom effectively cuts Maron’s ranting off at a more appropriate juncture (it’s not uncommon for fans or other comedians to profess to loving WTF “except for the first ten minutes”).

comedybangbangAnother of the most popular comedy podcasts, Comedy Bang! Bang!, has also made the transition to television (also on IFC, now in its fourth season). Unlike WTF, which is primarily an interview show outside of Maron’s monologue, the podcast version of CBB is essentially an improvisational showcase for comedians of various backgrounds. Framed as an interview program, CBB typically begins with host Scott Aukerman talking with a celebrity guest. Soon enough, the show is interrupted by at least one other guest, a skilled improviser performing in character in an attempt to derail the proceedings. Very little about the character’s personality is known to the other participants ahead of time. The results are often very funny, sometimes fall flat, and are never in any way constricted; the format of the show is incredibly loose with episodes stretching from 45 minutes to upwards of two hours, depending on when Aukerman decides to rein things in. In 2012, the IFC version of the show was developed, and included major celebrity guests (some of whom had appeared on the podcast), along with recurring characters from the audio version. The CBB television show faces significant narrative challenges in its adaptation, especially considering the fact that a typical episode must be delivered in under 25% of the podcast’s running time. In the adaptation, Aukerman has tried to remain true to the improvisational roots of the podcast. Clearly the appearances of the celebrities and guest characters are edited down from longer, looser improv sessions, but the show has taken advantage of the televisual format to include produced sketches, narrative framing devices, and musical elements (featuring comedian and bandleader Reggie Watts).

nerdistIn addition to these more direct adaptations (of which I could also mention TBS’s failed, though critically well-received Pete Holmes Show), podcasting’s influence on television comedy is felt in more subtle ways. Lost in the recent shuffle of late night Comedy Central hosts is the continued success of Chris Hardwick’s @midnight, a panel show meant to skewer web culture that features three comedian guests each night, many of whom (like Hardwick himself) have had a great deal of success in podcasting, and who use the show’s promotional opportunity to drive traffic to their online offerings. Some of the most frequent guests on @midnight include Doug Benson, Nikki Glaser, Paul Scheer, and Kumail Nanjiani, who have all promoted their popular podcasts on the show (Doug Loves Movies, You Had to Be There, How Did This Get Made?, and The Indoor Kids, respectively). The ABC-Univision collaborative cable venture Fusion has had modest success with one of its first original series No, You Shut Up, featuring comedy podcast all-star Paul F. Tompkins (CBB, The Pod F. Tompcast, Spontaneanation, among others) improvising with fellow comedians and puppets from Henson Alternative (an offshoot of the Jim Henson Company). Comedy Central’s popular Review stars comedian Andy Daly, who is well known among podcast fans for his improvised appearances on dozens of shows. USA’s Playing House features comedians Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair who honed their skills through character work on scores of podcast episodes. The list could go on.

The influence and overlap between the worlds of podcasting and television (and live comedy) is expanding as visual and audio media continue to fragment. Issues of narrative construction and narrative influence are ripe for questioning, as are issues of economic viability and the longevity of both of these forms as the landscape continues to change. Additionally, the cross-pollination of talent between these forms could lead to interesting transmedia inquiries. To my mind, it’s heartening that, in just the past half-decade or so, many more prospects have developed for varied comedic voices, and that a burgeoning format like the podcast has incubated many of those opportunities.


The Many Faces of Tatiana: The Orphan Black Finale Mon, 23 Jun 2014 17:15:37 +0000 After ten break-neck episodes, season 2 of Orphan Black has drawn to a close. As with every episode of this show, we are left with many answers, and with many more questions left hanging. Amid the action, intrigue, back-stabbing and barefaced lies, the emotional core of the show remained with the remarkable clone-women at the center of the story. As with every episode, we are treated to some moments of clone-style brilliance, the likes of which only Tatiana Maslany (and a team of special effects technicians) could give us.

Although rarely is there an episode that doesn’t showcase Maslany’s skills, the finale especially highlighted the differences of each clone. After a season of excellent character arcs, Alison fades into the background while Helena, Cosima, and Sarah take the focus, interacting with each other and the ever-present Felix and Kira to remind the audience that this show isn’t entirely about fictional science and thrilling set-ups. The clones are often seen interacting in the same frame, a trick of green-screen technology and old fashioned body-doubles. However, given the contentious relationship of the violent Helena with the rest of the clones, it is not often that the four main women come together at once. But what better time than the finale for such a reunion?

Having reunited Sarah and Kira, the four clones celebrate by gathering together for an impromptu dance scene. The scene is surprisingly long and lingering, given the generally quick pace of the episode. The weight of Cosima’s increasingly visible illness hangs over the group. The tension in the scene is palpable as she slips off her oxygen mask and slides on a record, starting the dance party. It seems as though this is a last hurrah before her seemingly inevitable death (although a glimmer of hope is visible before the end of the episode in the form of a miraculous touch from Kira).

This scene serves to heighten the sense of impending doom around Cosima’s health, yet it also works to demonstrate Maslany’s exceptional talent and the work that goes into creating and performing these wildly different women. It’s hard to ignore the technical expertise that goes into splicing each of her takes together to form one cohesive scene. Not only was this scene a notable standout in an already exceptional episode, it’s been the focus of much of the talk surrounding the episode. An official behind-the-scenes/making-of/extended sequence was posted on the same day the episode aired, highlighting both the technical and performative complexity of filming such a scene (see the clip embedded above).

Sarah and Cosima discuss the clones

Sarah and Cosima discuss the clones

Later in the episode, while laying in bed talking, Cosima explains her nautilus/fibonacci tattoo. Sarah remarks “God, we’re so different, all of us.” Meta-praise aside, Maslany demonstrates how each woman is their own separate entity, a unique person with their own style, voice, mannerisms, movements and, of course, their own dance moves. The restrained Alison, the bar-shuffling Sarah, the club-savvy Cosima and the awkward and energetic Helena all perform their own style of dance in unison, highlighting all the differences even as they all join together for what seems like the last time.

This focus on Maslany’s abilities, so close to Emmy nomination time, seems like a savvy move on the part of showrunners Graeme Manson and John Fawcett. Last year Orphan Black received no Emmy nominations. Although this is not unusual for a science fiction show, there was general disappointment on the part of fans and critics at this snub. This isn’t to say that Maslany’s work has gone unrecognized; she has received a handful of awards for her role(s), including, most recently, her second Critics’ Choice Television Award. Yet many people are eagerly awaiting the upcoming release (Thursday, July 10th) of Emmy nominations to see if Orphan Black is acknowledged – or if Maslany’s work is once again acknowledged only by her clones.


Gogglebox: A Crash Course on Personal Politics in the UK Mon, 02 Jun 2014 13:46:38 +0000 Every night over 20 million of us enjoy an evening in front of the telly, but imagine if the TV looked back at you – what would it see?                                                

-Opening line of Gogglebox


A TV show about watching TV, in theory, sounds more banal than most contemporary reality programming. But in the UK, Gogglebox became a hit since it premiered in March 2013. It’s the stuff of reception studies scholars’ dreams, officially called an “observational documentary.”

Gogglebox follows households from across Britain responding to relevant news stories, reality TV shows like Top Chef and Britain’s Got Talent, and popular films from Titanic to The Full Monty.

As a sleeper success that recently won a BAFTA for “Best Reality & Constructed Factual,” it may have just reached its peak. Certainly, watching the cast watch the BAFTAS is a top meta moment, but also a great scene of pure jubilation. Bill from Cambridge claimed it was the first thing he’s won since the 1975 British Chess Championship; best friends Sandra and Sandy embraced in the south London neighborhood of Brixton; and exes-turned-pals Christopher and Stephen in Brighton hurriedly opened a bottle of champagne.

The cast, who welcome viewers in their homes with uncensored and sometimes quite explicit commentary, is what really makes the show so enjoyable. The appointed “Posh Ones,” Dominic and Stephanie, are rumored to be on the next installation of Celebrity Big Brother.


Retired duo June and Leon, the quintessential “old married couple” provide cheeky banter on everything from finding the remote control to Leon’s interview for MI6 when he was in the army. I couldn’t help but tear up when they watched a recent widower speak of his late wife, or during the famous scene in Titanic when Rose lets go of Jack. Following both scenes, Leon says to June, “I couldn’t do without you.”


But the most telling parts of the series for a foreigner in the UK, such as myself, are the households’ responses to recent political events.

June and Leon are quite possibly the most liberal-minded of the Gogglebox bunch. The two cheered when the UK passed same sex marriage legislation. They empathized while watching a documentary on a group of men risking their lives to find a better life in England.

Leon is particularly supportive of immigrants, citing that his grandfather came to the country as one. He expresses his distaste for the head of the UK Independent Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage, whose party swept victories in the recent European election. Leon voted for Labour “with a heavy heart,” and the party is attempting to appease UKIP, as former Prime Minister Tony Blair has addressed.

During a news brief on David Cameron, Leon pointed out that working class citizens do not vote for “posh rich boys who look after the posh rich boys,” while Reverend Kate from Nottinghamshire stated it isn’t easy to vote for him “when you’ve seen the heart of your city ripped out by a Tory government.”

I first came to London in 2011, and most of my graduate cohort also hailed from other nations, from China to Portugal to Canada, and our British colleagues were welcoming and open-minded. Since returning in 2013, immigration issues have exacerbated. Farage spoke of less civilized” Europeans from Romania and Bulgaria who could cause crime while taking jobs and abusing the benefits and healthcare system. The blatant xenophobia struck a chord with me as I am originally from Romania.

The reactions on Googlebox towards foreigners helped me understand attitudes towards outsiders in the UK, as foreign born residents in continue to be on the rise. Goggleboxer Andrew is a retired hotelier in Brighton, and furiously responded to an ad by the current head of the Labour Party Ed Miliband who said there is nothing wrong with employing from abroad, but that the rules should be regulated so “local people get a fair crack at the whip”:

“No, local people should be offered the jobs first, not just a ‘fair crack at the whip,’ whatever that means. They should be offered the job first because they’re born here, brought up here, their parents were born here, their grandparents were born here, so they should be offered the available jobs first. And then, if all that local labor is absorbed … bring them in and that’s fine.”

Gogglebox has essentially assembled a televised social experiment. It encapsulates pop culture nuggets from film and TV, and the most significant news events of each week, with unfiltered reactions to how it impacts individual citizens based on their beliefs, backgrounds and education. It’s only a shame the Season 3 finale ended before the results of this European election. I know Leon in Liverpool will be disappointed but not surprised. And I know I’ll be waiting patiently for Season 4.


There Are Worse Things Fox Could Do: Grease Live and TV’s Sad Affair with the Live Musical Thu, 29 May 2014 12:58:12 +0000 Grease seems to ignore a string of warning signs.]]> greasefoxIt seems that the problematic life of the Broadway musical has run full steam into the struggles of 21st century network television. For the last couple decades, the Broadway musical has been solidly taken over by (assumedly surefire) pre-sold properties like Mamma Mia!, The Wedding Singer, The Producers, and High Fidelity. Crossover actors and content allow Broadway producers to hedge their bets on recouping their quite sizable investments. Life’s hard all over. They need something to get tourists’ butts into very expensive seats on the Great White Way, and the people like seeing things they recognize.

Now television, struggling in the era of multiple platform viewing and increased time-shifting, is turning to the clay feet of the musical for a wallop of financial and “special event” adrenaline. After 18 million Americans (hate) watched NBC’s live airing of The Sound of Music, it took less than five months for both NBC and Fox to announce their upcoming live musical projects, Peter Pan and Grease respectively. Of course this practice of airing live musicals has precedent. The New York-based 1950s live television era was bejeweled with live musical events. NBC’s 1955 airing of Peter Pan with Mary Martin garnered 64 million viewers. (Take that Carrie Underwood!) For the first time, television was bringing Middle America (and everyone else) the elusive sights and sounds of Broadway.

You're the one that I want cast

Today, the networks are struggling to find some way—other than awards shows—to draw a 21st century, distracted, i-device obsessed audience to their living rooms. The ratings success of The Sound of Music seems to have been just the encouragement needed to reproduce the tele-theatrical disaster that was Underwood’s performance. The selection of Grease by Fox seems to ignore a string of warning signs.

(1) As was the case with The Sound of Music, Grease is an iconic text. Just as most Americans can only imagine Julie Andrews descending the Alps, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are Grease to most. As many of the press announcements note, Grease is the highest grossing movie musical of all time. Casting is going to be a bear. (2) The Broadway version—even the latest incarnation that hybridized the Broadway and film versions—is not the 1978 Paramount film. The energy is different. The songs are different. This means something when one is trying to capitalize on an audience’s existing emotional attachment to a property. It is nearly impossible to deliver on such a promise when millions are saddled with memories of specific choreography, inflections, phrasing, etc. Overcoming this is no easy feat. (3) Television viewers have already chimed in on Grease and they did not emit a rousing “we go together.” NBC’s 2006 reality show Grease: You’re the One That I Want served as a televised audition for the 2007 Broadway revival’s Danny and Sandy and ranked 75th in annual Nielsens, garnering about a quarter the number of American Idol’s “hopelessly devoted” viewers. Fox’s Glee also took a shot at the musical with its own “Glease,” one of the lowest rated episodes of its drooping fourth season. (And let’s not even get started on Smash.)

grease on glee

As a devoted fan and scholar of the musical, I always try to root for the genre’s triumph over the jaded sensibilities of contemporary audiences, producers, and ticket buyers. (Although the lasting wounds from viewing 7th Heaven’s musical episode may never heal.) That said, I often find myself disappointed by the nasty effects a network’s or producer’s hope for commercial appeal has on the musical product itself. Although Paramount TV President Amy Powell sounds like a latter day Sylvester “Pat” Weaver (NBC 1950’s head of programming/chairman of the board and cheerleader for the “spectacular”) as she states, “Fox’s passion for engaging audiences with bold storytelling and live musical formats make it a perfect home for this special broadcast,” perhaps NBC’s current chairman Bob Greenblatt was a bit more honest and on point in his response to the Sound of Music, “We own it so we can repeat it every year for the next 10 years…Even if it does just a small fraction of what it did, it’s free to repeat it.” Who knows, maybe this new trend will catch fire and save the networks and produce a whole new generation of musical fans, or just maybe we’ll all get a real treat and Stockard Channing—high on Good Wife street cred—will reprise her role of Rizzo, only slightly more age inappropriate now than in 1978.



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On Kale, Transmedia, and Winning GISHWHES Fri, 23 May 2014 13:00:01 +0000 Saturday_Viking_boat_25_smallerHave you ever had a life experience you never expected? One that makes you step back and ask: how did I get here? That was me, for basically the whole weekend of the winning team’s reward trip for GISHWHES: the Greatest Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen. A few choice moments: rising up into the air in a sea plane with half of my teammates, or sitting around a waterside bonfire with our team plus Misha Collins and the other organizers of GISHWHES — these are now cherished memories that in part I can’t quite believe happened, and yet that I’m having a tough time coming back down from. It was made even better that I was there with a strange mix: my five month old son, my BFF, and a group of teammates who had never before met in person but who together had created innumerable strange things (like team uniforms made from kale) in the name of the scavenger hunt that brought us together.GISHWHES Item 137

GISHWHES is a dada-istic experience of creative mayhem coordinated by actor/genius Misha Collins and his very talented/visionary collaborators, including the mysterious Miss Jean Louis Alexander, who communicates to gishwhesian participants primarily in poetic email missives. You may know Collins as the actor who plays the angel Castiel in the CW series, Supernatural, or you may know him as his satiric Twitter persona, @mishacollins. I discovered Collins through Supernatural, and have followed his various online projects avidly (his twitter, the charity Random Acts, the web series Divine and Cooking Fast and Fresh With West, even Stonehenge Apocalypse), but it was with GISHWHES that I felt most clearly the invitation to participate and create.

I’ve participated in GISHWHES for all three years, for the last two with my now-winning team, Vatican Cameos. The team that wins GISHWHES each year is rewarded with a weekend trip and visit with Misha Collins. For the first year (in 2011), this meant eating pasta with Misha in Rome; the second winning team (2012) spent the night with Misha in a haunted castle; for our year/team (2013), we went to Vancouver, rode on a Viking boat, and flew on a sea plane to an island retreat where we held a séance/bonfire and conjured up some local car salesmen.

Long before I could have fathomed I might be on a GISHWHES winning team, I wrote that GISHWHES models the potential for “transmedia creative authorship” that “finds its engine in the collective coordination and agency of all involved.” I’ve also written about the sense of the intimate collective created by thoughtfully designed transmedia projects — a sense of community facilitated by interaction across coordinated yet open-ended digital fronts. GISHWHES sees the intimate collective and raises it an inappropriate public, in which individuals, families, and team members shed all sense of shame and go out and create silly, provocative, and/or insane public art, later to be shared across online networks. GISHWHES takes the fannish/digital ethos of playful creativity and experimentation and, importantly, awareness of community and our place in it and responsibility to it and enacts it in the world, resulting in images like the ones that pepper this post.

GISHWES Item 20 Although GISHWHES is rooted in embodied as well as digital engagement, I wasn’t prepared for what it felt like to be united with my team and with the GISHWHES creators in person as we were taken on an extravagant and crazy journey through Vancouver. My past work has almost always at least indirectly argued that the relationships we build online can be substantive and nuanced, and every bit as “real” as in person relationships. I almost felt this belief challenged by the experience of meeting my full team and the GISHWHES crew in person. But if we were just a bunch of strangers who hadn’t had this past digital history, meeting together wouldn’t have had the power it did.GISHWHES Item 23

I’ve also always held that as scholars and fans, we congregate around the star “text” rather than the person, and I’ve stayed away from interviewing the figures I study. I’ve written an entire essay on Misha Collins, and at the time it would have felt anathema to me to consider interviewing him; that would have been for a different methodology, a different project. (Since then, I’d already begun to chip away at this assertion in my experience with a press pass at LeakyCon and the access that it gave to producers and actors of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.) I found this assumption of mine, too, challenged fundamentally by my experience in Vancouver. Misha seemed excited to talk to me about the thought processes behind his Twitter persona and his various transmedia endeavors, and I found myself very much wanting to have that conversation, to integrate his perspective on star texts and branding and the power of limits in digital creativity, to see how what he had to say, or better yet, our dialogue, would change the picture I had created.

Our experience of winning GISHWHES was a rare one and one that very few will be lucky enough to have. But it drove home to me something that I think is at the heart of GISHWHES as a whole and a reason for its growing success: GISHWHES unites our virtual and real worlds, our online and in person social networks, and overturns our assumptions about both. Now I feel the loss of seeing my team in person but look forward to the digital and embodied mayhem we will create this August, when we gish again.


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I, Reboot (Part II) Tue, 20 May 2014 13:25:31 +0000 Casting off my weak and overused metaphor of a motor vehicle for a moment, I will tell the story of a “word,” and how it semiotically multiplied into a conceptual hubbub of meanings, and why. My thesis deconstructs the reboot term and I shall share with you what I have uncovered. It is not often, if ever, we get to see a word, a single, linguistic seed, evolve from the neologistic birth canal into a semantic formation.

And before you get your knickers all twisted up in a poststructuralist knot, it is necessary to construct definitions before we can even begin to analyse, examine and debate how cultural processes operate. The idea that concepts can be interpreted any which way possible is to misinterpret poststructuralism that suggests that language.

Let’s get down to brass tacks here. The term “reboot” – as in rebooting your computer – is only forty-three years old, its birthday being 1971. Relatively speaking, that’s a squealing, squawking baby! If words could grow legs and arms, reboot couldn’t even clench a fist, let alone walk or run.

ac1Etymologically, a reboot-as-narrative-analogy is even younger, a foetus, a seedling even (1989 is its birthday according to the Oxford English Dictionary). Many have commented that the reboot narrative concept comes from the comic book medium. Indeed it does. But this is where the problems begin, you see? This is where the genre process and rebooting get all entangled and entwined in a Gordian knot of conceptual hodge-podge. Comic books have been rebooting for decades, since “minute zero,” as Michael Chabon calls the publication of Action Comics #1 which introduced the world to Superman in 1938.

Not true.

To be sure, comic books have always sufficiently engaged in periodic revisions, regenerations and reformations. As Geoff Klock has argued, one of the principle reasons why long-running vast narratives, such as DC and Marvel, have managed to expand and enhance their brand “life” is by delicately dancing the dialectic between standardisation and differentiation to great effect as an elemental part of their survival code, a kind of Darwinism, a natural (textual) selection.

This is how all texts operate and not a description of the reboot process. “Mere repetition would not satisfy an audience,” claims Steve Neale. I concur, Steve. For Derek Johnson, “product differentiation is the key to profit.” Well said, Derek. Or, as Stringer Bell would no doubt say: “word” (which is cool-talk for “definitely,” or so I am led to believe).

What, then, is a reboot, I hear you ask?

In 1986, DC Comics sought to purge their labyrinthine story-program of continuity errors and a narrative history that deterred potential “newbies” from jumping on-board. Sales had been declining rapidly for over a decade and Marvel “ruled the roost.” A twelve-part mini-series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, was the answer to their problems. Annihilate the DC Universe and start over from scratch. In short, reboot the system. Wipe away a publication history and begin again with a new story-program.


To be sure – and I do not mince my words here – engaging with the DC comic book hyperdiegesis at that time could not have been helped by three PhDs in Quantum Physics, a Macarthur Grant and a five-year long sabbatical from life, the universe and nutritional necessity! Douglas Wolf describes fans who can successfully navigate the chaotic contours of the DC and Marvel hyperdiegetic continuities as “super-readers.” I think this does them a disservice. Comic book readers of the 1980s who consumed and understood the continuity are nothing less than geniuses, gurus, veritable professors of alternate realities and monstrous geographies. I say award them MBEs, each and every one of them. Stick ‘em in a laboratory and watch them create the time machine. Hell, throw in a Delorean, let’s see life really imitate art….

spider-manThe notion that comic books have been rebooting since its inception is misleading and fallacious. One technique which DC and Marvel have adopted over the years is that of the “ret-con,” an abbreviation of “retroactive continuity.” A ret-con retroactively changes continuity by altering the details of an event in the past to make sense of a current storyline. Sometimes this technique can be extreme, such as the Spider-Man arc, One More Day, which ret-conned Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s marriage out of continuity – and created a fan backlash in the process for good reason: it was just too darn silly!

It is not only comics that engage in ret-conning. If anyone remembers Dallas, and the infamous season where Bobby Ewing is killed and is miraculously resurrected the following year. How did he return? It was all a dream! This ret-con wiped away an entire season’s worth of episodes in one fell swoop. Of course, it was all downhill from there and Dallas had “jumped the shark.”

bobby ewing

A ret-con is not a reboot. A reboot wipes away a publication history or, in film or television, a screen history and begins again with a new syntagmatic layer.

Of course, rebooting can never truly wipe the slate clean. The slate is a palimpsest and contains all the traces and ghosts of previous incarnations. However, we can see (hypothetically) intertextuality and dialogism spiralling along a horizontal axis – the paradigmatic – and the story itself unfolding sequentially along a vertical axis which is the syntagm. Intertextuality may “destroy the linearity of the text,” as Laurent Jenny argues, but linearity is still preserved. I prefer to understand narrative as a dialectic between linearity and non-linearity, chaos and order, paradigm and syntagm. Intertextuality vandalise the text while at the same time readability is guaranteed. As Mark J.P Wolf states, “without causality, narrative is lost.”

Next time, I shall illustrate how the reboot terminology has been marshalled by academics and journalists in ill-conceived ways, one which has birthed a buzz word – fuzz-word even – that has set in motion a range of non-sequiturs.


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Only Marginally More Unreal: Reconsidering CNN’s Coverage of Malaysia Airlines 370 Mon, 12 May 2014 13:30:14 +0000 Although the disappearance of the March 8 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was extraordinary, the initial coverage of it was not. All the major news outlets began with lavish reporting, becoming briefly and predictably singular in their focus on the missing plane. If the story had ended conventionally—perhaps with recovery of the plane, identification of a mechanical malfunction that had sent it fatally awry, or revelation of some incontrovertible evidence that the pilot or the crew had acted deliberately—the coverage would have found its way to denouement. But the story did not end conventionally, and in the absence of this, most popular media attention has merely drifted in other directions, without resolution. Updates on the search still merit passing mentions, but the biggest story about the missing plane has now become the meta-story of its coverage, and specifically CNN’s persistent and often journalistically questionable work.

While the criticisms of CNN’s approach to Malaysia Airlines 370 are by now familiar, I want to explore the possibility that CNN’s coverage is actually—albeit unintentionally—meaningful. With its reliance on speculation, dependence on simulation, and occasional swerves into absurdity, it indexes the incomprehensibility of this disaster, marked by the failures of so many systems that seemed to promise safety, visibility, and order. To be clear, I do not mean to exonerate CNN, which is rather unabashedly utilizing this as a ratings grab. Nonetheless, their coverage vividly captures the essence of this disaster.

Some measure of qualified guessing is expected, even necessary, in any coverage of an unfolding disaster; CNN’s coverage is distinguished by its continued recourse to hypothesizing, but also the amount of latitude it gives to conjecture, as when it reported, in a way that many found insufficiently incredulous, that some people believed zombies had hijacked the plane. Criticizing such reportage is important, surely, but also eclipses its significance, as CNN’s speculation starkly illuminates the enormous epistemological gap created by the plane. It also reflects the failure of the rational and technologized systems designed to track aircraft during flight or locate them afterward. The imagined world governed by those devices (organized into grids of latitudes and longitudes, synchronized time zones, and orderly networks of predictable flight paths) cannot countenance the possibility of something like this.  But CNN’s coverage shows us how far we have strayed from that map.

toy plane

This departure is amplified by the visual elements of its coverage. The now-infamous use of a toy plane as a prop surely risked trivializing the disaster; likewise its reliance on flight simulator cockpits and computer-generated images that hover around its “virtual studio.” Even as it spectacularizes the disaster, however, simulation also resonates uncannily with it. All the visual modes of searching have failed to locate the plane: satellite images, aerial surveillance, maps of ocean topography. The utterly perplexing and apparently absolute disappearance of the plane, whereby all that is solid does not melt into air but vanishes into the sea, is the sort of thing that we, with expectations that our most advanced machines will function perfectly and our acculturation to being monitored at all times, can scarcely imagine. In that context, a holographic plane is only marginally more unreal.

The only signature element of CNN’s coverage that has not yet been widely lampooned is its attention to the stories of bereaved families and friends, many of whom give interviews in which they profess hope that their loved one will be found alive. Stories like that of the daughter who has been devotedly tweeting her crew-member father, steeped in poignant absurdity, would not find much purchase in a more staid outlet. One man, Pralhad Shirsath, in an April 23 interview, asserted that the paucity and poor quality of the information from the Malaysian government indicates that they do not have enough “data” about what happened, and, by extension, to convince him that his wife is truly lost. Necessarily, the journalist pressed him, citing conclusive evidence about the fate of the plane, but the potential widower remains undaunted. CNN, by creating this universe that defies the conventions of journalism (and the sometimes cruel boundaries of common sense), has provided these mourners with a space where their bewildering grief might be articulated. Given the likelihood that it will be months, or years, or longer before the plane is found (if it is found at all), CNN’s lingering on the story mimics the looping returns of sadness in the perseverating endlessness of grief.


Although CNN’s vigil is often self-interested and carnivalesque, the clamor against it is problematic, too. It endeavors to sanitize our visual field by expunging the traces of the logically unknowable, the empirically invisible, and the affectively unpalatable in defense of all that they threaten to destabilize. To partake of CNN’s vision of the disaster is to acknowledge that it was, and remains, both tragic and incomprehensible, and to allow those two dimensions of the event to dictate the disorderly and unpredictable terms by which it appears.


Amazon’s Betas: From the Valley to the City Mon, 23 Dec 2013 14:00:18 +0000 0419-betas-amazon-630x420Amazon’s new series, Betas, opens with a google maps-like zoom from the earth to the suburbs of Silicon Valley, somewhere between Palo Alto and Mountain View, finally stopping at the Mind Hub Communal Workspace. Inside, Nash (Karan Soni), a sometimes painfully stereotyped Indian American brainiac, is struggling to write code while avoiding Nerf darts and Cheetos crumbs. The communal space is chaotic – the Google workplay gone awry – as if the parents left town leaving a refrigerator full of beer, red bull, and massive amounts of broadband.

In the second episode, Nash and the BRB team get a big chance to develop their mobile app from the Stuart Brand-like investor, George Murchison or ‘Murch’ (Ed Belgey Jr.) and the whole BRB team moves to ‘the city’. In contrast to the Mind Hub in the Valley, ‘Murch’s Accelerator’ is cool. It’s in a gentrified building in downtown SF somewhere with exposed HVAC ducts, brick walls, and is so hip you have to enter from a secret passage in the alley. Painted on one wall is the famous quote from John Carpenter’s 1988 anti-consumption film, They Live. It reads:

“KICK       betas_publicitystills7_1020_large





It’s witty or ironic, or something. However in They Live, Roddy Piper says he’s here (in a bank) to “chew bubblegum”, and then he says, “and kick ass”. Next he says he’s all out of bubblegum and starts blowing away aliens who control our thoughts and actions through media and advertisements.

The contrast between the two spaces is meant to be obvious. The Mind Hub is a neat idea, nestled cozily in the fat suburbanism of the Valley, babysitting young tech geeks. The Murch Accelerator, however, is for serious, cutting edge app development. It’s sharp, urban and ballsy. It’s not baby communal egalitarianism, its big boy competitive capitalism – it chews gum and kicks ass without worrying about running out of either. But rather than simply backdrops for the show, the contrast between the two spaces expresses a hierarchy of social practices, i.e., private competitive copyrights over communal open source coding practices, and market-driven co-operation over idealist cooperation. It constructs a structure of value through a historic migratory myth about moving to and from the City.

The Valley to the City is also more than simply climbing the app development ladder. It intersects an embattled political history of redevelopment that is transforming the physical space and cultural character of San Francisco. Slow growth polices in the 1970s that curbed the construction of office space in order to preserve affordable housing have slowly given way to new ‘smart’ growth policies that push redevelopment of ‘underutilized’ urban areas to increase density. But whether the results are bad gentrification or good progressive land use, the production of urban space has a lot to do with who, how, and why.

For geographer Neil Smith, cities can map for us the ‘spatialization’ of capital accumulation. He suggests urban development follows a political logic, a history of negotiations between policy and economics that unevenly accommodate the patterns and habits of productive spaces, and those who can access them. This is why property zoning, transportation and parking, and a city’s tax structure are such important political fronts. According to San Francisco State professor of geography Jason Henderson, the politics of space are the politics of San Francisco and a large part of its culture.

For residents who protested outside Twitter’s Mid Market headquarters in downtown San Francisco just two weeks before the Betas premiere, a political logic of urban development isn’t simply theoretical. As Twitter introduced its IPO on November 7th, they held signs calling attention to the role of high-tech industries in displacing the poor and elderly. Their argument was simple: when you move in, we get moved out. The importance context of their argument is that historically, when companies like Twitter, Spotify, Pinterest, and Zendesk take advantage of large tax incentives to move downtown, it’s overwhelmingly the disabled, elderly, poor, working-class, and minority residents that are forced to move. But the middle class (once gentrifiers themselves) are no longer safe either and skyrocketing rents are not the only issue.

Both the East Bay Express and New Republic recently expressed an uneasiness about the cultural and political effects of the young, mostly male, entrepreneurial, free marketeers, once content shooting Nerf guns and eating Cheetos in the Valley, moving downtown SF to chew gum and kick ass. While mega rich entrepreneurial types in SF are nothing new, the articles question whether the new stock of rich, pampered by Mayor Lee, are just as eager to invest in the traditional civic-minded institutionalism of the city – things like arts funding, transit first, and public goods. Some readers commented that it is all too easy to mix the consumptive choices of the new digital elite with real, material disparities. Perhaps. But maybe, like the expressive relationship between space and social practice, they are already mixed from the beginning.

Like BRB’s mobile app meant to connect you to people you ‘should’ know, the issue of who’s in and who’s out is literally geographic in San Francisco. As a comedy (but not because) Betas has little room for big stakes issues in SF like the politics of redevelopment. Amazon has to choose carefully which story of high-tech San Francisco people will buy. But public transportation, in a famously transit-first city, is wallpaper in the show until Trey (Joe Dinicol), BRB’s CEO, trades his vintage mercedes for stolen hardware after their app gets hacked in episode five. This is an outright rejection of geography. Space is not neutral, especially the mobile app world in San Francisco. Like all technology, including Amazon, BRB is constructed by particular cultural and political biases and assertions about people and the world that are grounded in relationships to physical space. That Betas writers miss or ignore the politics of space in San Francisco as an active character in the show’s development is perhaps one of its fatal flaws.


The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: The Hype of the Doctor Tue, 17 Dec 2013 17:35:16 +0000 Matt Smith flicks a V-sign on Doctor Who Live: The AfterpartyI’ve recently written about the marketing of the Steven Moffat era, but here I’d like to look back at the promotional events of last month. ‘The Day of the Doctor’ stretched out into at least a week of the Doctor (if not longer) thanks to ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’, ‘The Night of the Doctor’, ‘The Science of Doctor Who’, ‘The Ultimate Guide’, ‘Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty’, ‘The Story of Trock’, ‘The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot’, The ExCeL Celebration, and more.  Indeed, such was the level of Doctor Who’s UK cultural presence that it reached number three in the cinema box office, its “red button” BBC offerings out-rated many BBC1 and BBC2 TV shows, and broadsheet newspapers carried front-page images of a Royal reception hosted by Sophie, Countess of Wessex.

Given this omni-coverage, and proliferation of texts that could easily be construed as paratexts (or vice versa), it’s hardly surprising that showrunner Steven Moffat has recently remarked in Doctor Who Magazine: “I dreaded this month, because… how do you pitch it at the right level. How do you make sure there’s enough Doctor Who without making people vomit with it all being too much? But it seems to be about bang on, I think”.

However, Doctor Who’s November ascension to the heights of hype brought with it a few unhappy voices: aggravated letter-writers and email-senders complained to the BBC’s Newswatch programme that BBC News coverage constituted advertising for a Corporation product rather than media/entertainment reportage, whilst The Radio Times’ letter section (14—20 Dec) included the following gem, from one Stephen Thompson: “Having enjoyed Doctor Who as young people in the 1960s and again as parents in the 70s, my wife and I decline to go along with the hype surrounding the 50th-anniversary ‘special’. Like the little boy who watched the king parading in his new clothes, we did watch it, but we found it incomprehensible… Labyrinth, also featuring John Hurt as a centuries-old survivor, though panned by the critics, was much better!”

The ‘hype of the Doctor’ becomes a thing in itself for these members of the public, inciting them to critique and reject excessive promotion from a public service broadcaster. The show’s production team were aware of this potential danger, however, with Moffat observing that there “has been more hype than I thought possible, and vastly more than I thought (in my weaker moments) wise.” For, as Jonathan Gray has noted, paratextual promotion’s mere existence can devalue a text. Hype indicates a text’s industrial and commercial roots all too obviously for some audiences.

Doctor Who is perhaps unlikely to be deemed ‘art’, but it can certainly be positioned as a public good linked to historical worth and cultural value. The Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, got in on this act when he aligned Who with the “nurturing” values and virtues of the BBC in a piece written for the anniversary edition of the Radio Times (23—30 Nov): “If I may be allowed a small plug, it was the BBC that brought William Hartnell to that scrapyard in 1963. The BBC who nurtured [the series]… and invented the miracle of regeneration to explain cast changes. And after the decision to cancel the show was reversed, it was the BBC who reinvented it with some of the best acting and writing on television, anywhere in the world. And you can now watch the Doctor …in 206 territories… Each has fans tuning in and buying the merchandise. …All that helps the BBC generate income to spend on high-quality programmes at home.”

Setting aside how this objectifies “the decision to cancel” the show, whilst attributing agency to the BBC for keeping Who alive via regeneration and reinvention, “plugging” something usually means selling it. And hype conveys a version of the same thing – it’s generally construed as a blatantly commercial practice. Likewise, members of the public who complained about the BBC “advertising” its own wares under the guise of entertainment news were also hurling a devalued discourse of commerce at the Beeb.

Doctor Who’s explosion of paratextual incarnations across November thus risked casting a market(ing) shadow over the BBC’s status as a public service broadcaster, over-writing royalty with revenue-generation. Though Tony Hall was quick to point out that Who’s money-making would help to fund public service productions, by aligning the show with a kind of blockbuster paratextuality, the BBC unwittingly cast itself as a hype merchant as well as the custodian of a valued creation loved by generations.

Meanwhile, getting 3D cinema tickets or entry to the BBC Worldwide-led Celebration event became neoliberal exercises in consumer sovereignty. In the first instance, punters had to compete amongst themselves to secure bookings, with a Celebration ballot only subsequently being run. Sitting in the front few rows at the ExCeL required a higher fee – a VIP TARDIS ticket – giving the impression that profits from the fan market were being keenly maximized by BBC Worldwide.

Whilst sections of fandom might embrace neoliberal common-sense, this ultimately leads to calls for Doctor Who’s merchandising/ticketing profits to be fed straight back into the show. Fan magazine SFX says in its review of ‘Day of the Doctor’, “More than half a million people watched it globally in cinemas, and it made £1.7 million in UK cinemas alone! Let’s pump that cash right back into Who, eh Beeb…?” But this is not something the BBC could ever entertain without fatally undermining its public service principles. BBC Worldwide is probably already putting amounts of money into the series – but little information on such funding has made it into the public domain. Just how much of Doctor Who’s budgeting can now – directly or indirectly – be traced back to Worldwide and its various commercial operations?

As if to distract from questions of profiteering, the global ‘simulcast’ was immediately badged with a Guinness World Record, awarded on Sunday November 24th. This had obviously been pre-arranged as a photo opportunity (and as a way of persuading paying customers at the Celebration that they were participating in an “historic moment”). Articulating the episode with a grandeur of reach, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ was paratextually inflected here by a preferred BBC interpretation; as a record-breaking achievement rather than a money-making activity. Who Guinness World Record

The BBC also addressed Doctor Who fandom via “red button” and online provision. ‘The Night of the Doctor’ and ‘The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot’ both blatantly catered to fan agendas whilst being made available at no charge. Were these texts or paratexts? Marketing for the Who brand, or gifts to fandom? I’d hazard that such ‘extras’ were liminal (para)texts, permanently caught in mid-regeneration between market and gift economies.

Whilst trying to make itself a kind of social glue uniting the nation (and multiple territories) around special event programming, the BBC consistently found itself enmeshed in commercial discourses of revenue, profit and (excessive/blockbuster) promotion. November’s week of the Doctor, and the hype of the Doctor, demonstrate an undecidability of commerce/public service, as each is caught up in the other, tangled together in an inseparably mixed economy. Throwing the Royal family, World Records, One Direction, and red button mockdocs into the paratextual mix, the BBC wants to be read as a source of public value: a giver of gifts rather than a shaper of hype. But like ‘The Day of the Doctor’, which rewrites the show’s back-story and yet fits into established continuity at one and the same time, the BBC’s celebration of the 50th anniversary rewrites the extent to which commercial operations can be built onto a licence fee-funded property, whilst still fitting into traditional PSB continuities of nation-building and community-serving.


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