Category Archives: Television

The Ideological Work of Television and the Zombie Apocalyse

I have long argued that television programs, particularly situation comedies, perform an important piece of ideological work in our culture. Far from being pure entertainment, they introduce ideas that society may not want to confront. Of course, no one who can remember All in the Family or Murphy Brown will dispute this; but we may well be surprised to realize that television has always done this, even from its earliest days.

The two examples I have chosen to demonstrate this theory come from The Honeymooners (1955) and Bewitched (1964-1972). Back in the 1950s and ’60s, these sitcoms had to code their messages, making them available only to subtle and clever television viewers. In fact, the entire premise of both series rests on the implicit understanding that while women may have to kow-tow to their husbands, they are in fact the brains in their marriages. After all, Samantha is presumably all-powerful, yet she chooses to remain with the awkward and pouty Darren. Alice Kramden’s situation is less enviable–she is constrained by the 1950s dictum that proclaims women to be subservient to their husbands–but at the same time, she demonstrates to herself, to Ralph, and most importantly, to the audience, that she is in fact much more capable than Ralph and that he is head of the household only because of society awards him this position.

Ideological work is hidden, or coded, in early sitcoms, but it’s still there. For example, in The Honeymooners, in Episode 4 (“A Woman’s Work is Never Done”), Alice decides to get a job after Ralph berates her for not being able to keep up with the housework, while telling him it’s easier to work outside the home than within it. Ralph ridicules the notion, but Alice succeeds quite well, and even earns enough money to hire a maid to carry out the household chores, a maid who turns out to be so efficient and sarcastic that Ralph begs Alice to quit and return to being a homemaker. The message here, years before either That Girl or The Mary Tyler Moore Show appear on television, is that women can indeed be successful in the professional world. This message might have been too revolutionary to appear without coding, but it is delivered nonetheless through this subtle means.

Perhaps more interesting is Episode 7 of the first season of Bewitched (“The Witches Are Out”), in which Darren’s work on an advertising campaign that features witches is critiqued by Samantha as being clichéd and, even worse, rife with prejudice. She takes to the streets to spearhead protests against the campaign, joining a picket line, clearly reflecting the actual protests that were taking place in 1964, when this episode first aired. Since it was too dangerous to talk openly about racial prejudice, the show used a fictional prejudice–against witches–that the viewers would still understand, though perhaps unconsciously.

Neither of these episodes were intentional about their ideological work: in early situation comedies, these shows’ writers merely reflected and refracted the social reality they observed. In other words, during the early years of television, shows didn’t consciously represent the women’s movement or the civil rights movement. They simply reflected and displaced the social trends that were present at the time of their creation and presented them in a non-threatening, palatable form for their viewers.

But by the mid-1970s and beyond, television changed and became more outspoken, taking on a more direct role in society, and at the same time becoming much less afraid to stand on a soap-box. The velvet gloves came off, and we grappled openly with all sorts of issues, from bigotry (All in the Family), to homosexuality (Will and Grace). However, I believe that television still uses coded messages from time to time, and I think I’ve found an example of one genre that horrifies me, and not for its intended reason.

Since the mid 2000s, zombie-themed shows and books have proliferated. I first noticed a fascination with zombies among my students in about 2005, and I found it strange that a genre that had lain dormant for so long was coming back to life (pardon the pun, please). Since then, we’ve had World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and The Walking Dead. Ever the cultural analyst, I wondered what this preoccupation with zombie infestation might represent: just what kind of ideological work is it performing? At first, I thought it might indicate a fear of contagion, of a swift-moving and deadly pandemic. After all, we’ve seen, in the last twenty years, outbreaks of swine and bird flu, SARS, and Ebola. It would certainly make sense for a fear of virulent and lethal illness to express itself as a zombie invasion.

But recently it dawned on me that the imagined zombie invasion might represent something far worse: an invasion of migrants. And, before you dismiss this idea, let me pose a question: Is it possible that the populist rhetoric directed against immigrants is connected, through a subtle, ideological sleight-of-hand, to the rise of the zombie genre in film and television?

After all, so much of zombie plots resemble the imagined threat of uncontrolled immigration: the influx of great numbers of threatening beings who are completely foreign to our way of thinking, who are willing to fight for resources, who will not give up easily, who make us just like them–and who must be destroyed at any cost. I think it’s just possible, in other words, that the present social climate of suspicion, of protectionism, of hostility towards outsiders, has been fostered and cultivated by our ideological immersion in the genre of the zombie plot. Again, as with early television situation comedies, I don’t think this is an intentional linkage on the part of the writers; but intentional or not, the ideological work gets done, and suddenly we find our culture and civilization hostile to the very force that made us what we Americans are.

About ten years ago, I had a student who adored horror films and books. I asked him how he could stand to be made frightened by what he loved and spent so much time on. His answer haunts me today: “This isn’t what frightens me,” he said, pointing to a Lovecraft novel. “What frightens me is the day-to-day things, such as how I’m going to pay my rent.” In the same vein, I’ll end by asking this question: what if the really frightening thing about zombie shows isn’t what happens to their characters, but what happens to us when we watch them?

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Filed under Criticism, culture, Films, Politics, Television, The Arts, Uncategorized

Television in the Age of Netflix

 

Let’s face it: we all need to escape from our reality every so often. It’s a fact of human nature, and I would guess that all human beings throughout all ages engage in escapism. The paleoglyphs in Lascaut, France,  as well as those in Painted Rocks, Arizona, were probably produced by hunter-gatherers who had tired of their daily grind, early humans who were looking for some type of entertainment outside the bounds of their usual activities. No doubt in medieval times, Europeans escaped the poverty and hardship of their lives through the romance, ritual, and mystery offered by the Church. In other words, the tendency to indulge in escapism is nothing to be ashamed of; on the contrary, it’s probably one of the few things that sets us apart from animals and makes us human.

All of this is a long, roundabout way of introducing my latest form of escapism: television. Of course, people have been escaping through television programs since the first transmissions occurred in the 1920s and ’30s. (My grandmother bought a set of World Encyclopedias in 1933, which I used to love skimming through as a child. Here “television” was deemed an experimental technology, which some people argued might one day reach the popularity of radio, although this was doubtful, according to the editors of the article.) But television has changed, as everyone knows. Netflix and Amazon, along with Hulu and other streaming platforms, have made it possible to binge watch shows, consuming in three days what used to take several months of patience, waiting for Wednesday nights to come around in order to watch the next episode of a favorite show.

What interests me isn’t so much the personal habits of television-watching; frankly, I’d rather not know who else is staying up late watching five episodes of a show in a single night. Some things should be private, after all. Instead, I think it’s important to point out that not only have the means of reception changed in this industry; the means of production (or at least of distribution) have changed profoundly as well, making it possible for Americans like me to watch any number of interesting programs, some of which would never be available in this country without streaming television. In my view, Netflix is the best thing to happen to television since Milton Berle himself.

And yet there’s one small problem. What’s missing from this plentiful choice of programs is a way of sorting through all of them.

Until now. I am pitching in to do my part in helping clueless viewers, like myself, figure out what to watch in order to avoid another boring evening at home filing receipts or folding clothes. Below I offer  a list of shows that I’ve watched recently. (Note: I omit shows like Broadchurch and Stranger Things, since they have become mainstream. The purpose of this list is to alert people to shows that are, so far as I can tell, still under the radar.) I recommend all of them. It’s true that some are less entrancing than others, but all of them are interesting and are worth watching through at least a couple of episodes.

  1. River. A psychological police procedural that is riveting. Skellan Skarsgard and Nicola Walker present fantastic performances in a miniseries that is impossible to stop watching.
  2. The Detectorists. Don’t be put off by the beginning of the series: it looks like an English version of Dumb and Dumber, but it’s not. Stick with it and by the third episode, you’ll be hooked. Season Two just became available, but I have not yet allowed myself to watch it, because I’m worried that it will fall prey to sophomore slump, like Grace and Frankie and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which seem to have become rather sophomoric in their second years.
  3. The Returned (French version only!). This provides a subtle horror feel in a program that presents interesting scenery and unusual characters, all while helping you review your high school French.
  4. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. A strange little episodic show, based in a diner that is only open from midnight to 8 am. It’s odd but interesting, with a fascinating peek into Japanese culture.
  5. Fearless. This is my current guilty pleasure. This documentary on professional bull riders is exceptionally well done, from the very unusual opening sequence and music (shown above) to the many interviews with Brazilian and American rodeo bull riders it presents. Even if you’re not a fan of PBR, it’s worth watching for the insight on the lives these men and their families lead and for the excellent cinematography.

All of these are interesting shows, and each provides a nice little escape from a contentious (sometimes ridiculous) election year and other disturbing news stories. Take a look if you have a chance. And don’t be afraid to binge watch: your secret is safe with me.

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How I Procrastinate

Bert Walker, from Wikipedia

Bert Williams, from Wikipedia

For the past few months, I’ve had lots of time on my hands. I left my full-time teaching job in May, so now I am no longer burdened with course preparation, grading, and committee meetings. I can read whatever I want whenever I want, and, despite doing quite a bit of traveling, I have plenty of time to devote to writing my  second novel, to researching topics of interest to me, and to developing whatever musical talent I have.

Of course, I’ve made very little progress on any of these things, because when time stretches out in front of you, it’s very hard to accomplish significant things on a daily basis. However, I’ve accomplished a number of insignificant things, and, by way of tallying up my achievements this year, I thought I’d make a list of the things that have taken me away from what I once considered the important things in my life. So here’s how I spend my time when I’m not doing what I should be doing:

  • Knitting. It’s become an obsession for me, which is kind of pitiful, because I’m really not that good at it. But, as I once told a friend, the lack of artistry in a pair of mittens does not affect its status as mittens: they still function as mittens. My inability to keep my tension constant, or my lack of talent at picking up stitches for the thumb, do not detract from the “mitten-ness” of the mittens I’m producing. I can always sew up holes and fill in gaps with a yarn needle, anyway. Still, I’m not sure it’s healthy to need to be knitting at all times. I’ve actually wondered whether one can knit while riding an exercise bike, although I’m happy to say that so far I have resisted the urge to try it.
  • Which brings me to another time-sink: Exercising. I’ve joined a gym in the apparently vain hope of losing some serious poundage that has accrued as a result of indiscriminate eating and ready access to good wine and beer while spending a month in a cramped camper in Europe earlier this year. So I have been spending a good deal of time on an elliptical machine or a stationary bicycle, sweating away. On the bright side, I’ve listened to an Audible recording of The Martian in its entirety, and am presently making my way through the history of Broadway musicals.
  • That last bit has led me to searching the internet for old clips of Bert Williams and the Nicholas Brothers so I can understand what the musical scene was like in the first part of the 1900s. There are some great clips on YouTube, and account for a couple of hours of completely wasted time. The picture above is a portrait of Bert Williams, described by legendary comic W.C. Fields as “the funniest man I ever saw–and the saddest man I ever knew.”
  • Once you enter the world of the small screen, it’s hard to back out of it. I won’t mention all the time I’ve spent on social media sites, because even I have my limits when I’m in the confessional mode, but I will admit to watching several episodes of The Supersizers (Victorian and Restoration periods), whole seasons of Call the Midwife, The Politician’s Husband, and Broadchurch (season 2). All I can say is that it’s a very good thing that season 2 of Les Revenants is not available on Netflix yet. Most embarrassing, perhaps, is my compulsion to watch every single episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show. I can think of few activities in life that are less relevant and more pointless, but then again, someday I might actually put together a course on the history of the situation comedy. Then all I’d need is some college crazy enough to want to run it.
  • I’ve also been finishing up some MOOCs (Massive Open On-Line Courses) I started months ago. If you haven’t tried these and have some time on your hands, I recommend them. They’re worth at least three to four hours of generally impractical but interesting edification a week. I’ve been indulging in Wordsworth on FutureLearn and Historical Fiction on Coursera. Both sites are very good, and I’m glad I left teaching before I became completely redundant and unnecessary as an educator.
  • I still have my old standby of reading. What kinds of books have I been reading since my time is all my own? The usual miscellaneous mish-mash: Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart (a very different book from her Pippi Longstocking tales), Far from the Madding Crowd, Three Men in a Boat, The Life of Pi, Wordsworth’s Prelude (the long version), and P.G. Wodehouse’s Picadilly Jim and Something New. I mustn’t forget Mrs. Edith Alec-Tweedie’s A Girl’s Ride in Iceland, published in 1895, and full of interesting and completely outmoded information on Iceland.

So that’s it. It turns out you can do a lot of procrastination when you really set your mind to it. I pride myself in achieving a great deal in the way of procrastination this year, and offer this list not only as evidence, but as a public confession of my inertia. Here’s to hoping that in the new year my list is much less diverse, and that I can actually make some progress on my next novel.

 

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Literature, Reading, Retirement, Television, Writing

Star Trek ,The Prime Directive, and Literary Studies

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For the past few months, I’ve been undertaking my own private, systematic study of Star Trek–not the movies, or the Next Generation, or any of other spin-offs, but the original series. It began as a way to lure me into mundane chores, like ironing, during which I would watch the first few episodes; then it morphed into a means of occupying my mind while pedaling an exercise bike. I’m happy to report that in the last couple of months I’ve lost about ten pounds, more or less, as I pedaled my way through various adventures with Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, Lieutenants Uhura and Sulu, Lieutenant Commander Scott, and the irascible Dr. McCoy.

I’ve learned a couple of things during this rather pointless but driven exercise. First, and most surprising, even those of us who were alive in the ’60s, we who remember the first-run reruns of the series, have seen far fewer episodes than we think we have. Oh, sure, we all remember “The Trouble with Tribbles,” but do we remember the episode in which Spock has to answer a call of nature (i.e., a mating ritual–which is to say he goes into a terrifying version of Vulcan rutting season) and nearly kills Kirk? Do we remember the first episode in which the famous Vulcan mind meld was ever used (“The Devil in the Dark,” Episode 26 of the first season)?

And what about the Prime Directive–a concept so compelling that it informs each iteration of Star Trek?

You can look up the Prime Directive in Wikipedia, and you’ll get a nice informative take on it there. In fact, if that’s what you want, you should probably stop reading this now and hop on over to it. While you might get a more systematic understanding of the concept there, you would miss my attempt to connect The Prime Directive with literature and writing, so I’m hoping you’ll stick it out for the rest of this post.

What I’ve found is that in the first season of the series, the Prime Directive is relatively unimportant, just a tidbit tossed in during random episodes. It’s first mentioned quite casually by Mr. Spock, as a regulation requiring non-interference in alien cultures, but only, he says, for living, creative cultures. It’s apparently perfectly acceptable to interfere with cultures that are neither living (what would that look like? isn’t the very definition of “culture” something that is dynamic and subject to change and thus living?) nor creative. The question is, of course, who determines whether a culture is living and creative? A few minutes later in this episode (“Return of the Archons,” Episode 21), Captain Kirk redefines the Prime Directive in Utilitarian terms: it is “the good of the body,” he says, going on to philosophize, “without freedom of choice there is no creativity, and without creativity, the body dies.” This is amended once more, only a few minutes later, when Kirk tells the evil robot Landru, “The evil must be destroyed: that is the Prime Directive. And you are the evil! Fulfill the Prime Directive!”

What we have here, then, is a mess of competing, non-aligning definitions, all iterated within a few minutes during one episode. (I’ll leave the connection between the Prime Directive as presented here and Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to real science fiction scholars.) It’s remarkable that the concept of the Prime Directive is so unstable that within a single episode–indeed, within a ten-minute span of a single episode–it changes three times. Only late in the second season will it attain the kind of stability and prominence that gives rise to our lasting notion of the Prime Directive. In Episode 27, “Errand of Mercy” — an embarrassingly implausible episode that deserves critical attention only because of how it redefines the Prime Directive–we see Captain Kirk’s reaction to his dawning realization that the Starship Captain of the Exeter, Ron Tracy, has violated the regulation. He declares in a solemn voice that Captain Tracy has “been interfering with the evolution of life on this planet. It seems impossible: a star captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.” Kirk’s sense of awed distress drips with drama and significance.

This episode, which is quite bad in and of itself and is based on a rather stupid allusion to the Cold War, becomes important in that it is responsible for the first serious definition of the Prime Directive.

Okay–fine. So what does it have to do with literature?

First, it shows us how concepts change and develop over time. It demonstrates that history–even the paltry history of a television series made 50 years ago–is not static, but is itself unstable, changing, and growing if we look at it closely enough. It also shows us that anything is a text that can be analyzed: a television show, a concept introduced by that show, even our attitudes towards that show. It illustrates that there is value in analyzing even (perhaps especially) those things we think least “artistic,” because, functional and practical in nature, they inform the way we think about a lot of different things. And finally, in terms of literary studies, it shows us that there is great value in studying an entire body of work, such as an entire television series, or all of Hemingway’s novels, or the films of Alfred Hitchcock, because when we do engage in this long (and often tedious) work, we are rewarded with greater insight into the ways in which ideas, themes, and the work of art itself develops.

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What I Learned from Mrs. Goldberg

TheGoldbergs

A few nights ago, I was looking for a break from the tedium of grading freshman compositions, and, in the course of doing the 21st-century equivalent of flipping channels (paging through Netflix on my smart DVD/TV set-up), I discovered something I had never known before: The Goldbergs.

Apparently, in the 1950s, before there was Archie Bunker or The Jeffersons, before Will and Grace and The George Lopez Show, there was a situation comedy about–get this–a Jewish family from the Bronx that moved to Haverford, Connecticut. I was floored, absolutely gob-smacked to discover this, because I thought (silly of me, I know) that diversity was a modern invention. And by modern, I mean a within-my-lifetime kind of thing. But apparently it’s not. After the shock of that discovery wore off, I had another shock to deal with: I, the person who has watched way too many episodes of Gilligan’s Island , who has a fondness for Mrs. Trumble in I Love Lucy, who knew the members of the Little Rascals at least as well as my own cousins, I had never been aware of this show. How could that happen?

If you’ve never watched the show, you might want to take a look at this teaser. Apparently someone else is aware of The Goldbergs; Aviva Kempner has created a documentary about the show (which has nothing to do with the brand-new ABC show of the same name). Here’s a link to the trailer:

I don’t pretend to be a more authoritative voice about Mrs. Goldberg and Gertrude Berg’s effect on the early days of television and radio in the United States than Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Susan Stamberg, but I do have a little something to say about Molly Goldberg and what she’s taught me after having watched a handful of episodes.

Molly is a woman of say, fifty to sixty years of age. She doesn’t try to be younger or more attractive. And it is clear in every moment of the show that she doesn’t need to. No one expects her to apologize for or cover up her age ; she is respected for being a smart, caring, and active woman. This is what Molly teaches us: it’s okay to be over fifty. Many older women today are trying to negotiate that tricky passage between the days of youth and attractiveness and the days of maturity. Unfortunately, we have few role models to help us navigate. Molly is a good role model. From her, I have learned that being thin, or wrinkle-free, or fashionably dressed isn’t as important as it seems to be.

Secondly, Molly cares about the people she lives with. She tries hard, even when she’s rebuffed. I think this is an important lesson for us today, and I wonder when our television shows stopped teaching it. When did laughing about people’s stupidity or meanness become more appealing to viewers than watching how characters negotiate the common difficulties of living together? These difficulties can be funny, too, but they are not dehumanizing. Molly teaches us what it means to be human and live in a social environment that may be less inclusive than we’d like it to be.

Most of all, Molly Goldberg is just a nice, lively character. I’d like to say that she’s larger than life, but the truth is she’s not, and I think that’s why I like her. She’s one of us–when we’re at our best. I say we could all do with a little bit more of Mrs. Goldberg in our lives.

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Filed under Films, Television, the Goldbergs