Month: January 2010
I was just getting back into the blogging habit after my end of the semester/holiday sabbatical when, wouldn’t you know it, I gave birth. Right now my days are consumed with feedings, diaper changes, multiple loads of laundry and assuring the 3-year-old that despite all evidence to the contrary, she is still the center of the universe. Blogging is currently not a possibility.
However, I did finish up an article in early January which has just been published at Flow TV , the online journal of television and media studies. So this makes me feel like I’m still blogging even though all I’m doing is wiping poop off of my pet human’s rear end, which is more delightful than it sounds, I assure you. So until I am able to resume a more regular blogging schedule (i.e., when the pet human agrees to sleep for than 1 to 2 hours at a stretch), all I have to offer you is this article on MTV’s The City, “Window Dressing: Spectacular Costuming in MTV’s The City.“ Please feel free to leave a comment in the comment section and get some dialogue going. Also, big shout out to Devan Goldstein, who came up with the title for this piece. Thanks Devan!
I should add that the current issue of FlowTV is filled with lots of interesting articles — while you’re there, check ’em out!
I had big plans to dissect the Big Love season 4 premiere but instead I find myself completely distracted by the fact that, after 3 seasons, the show’s creators decided to change the opening credit sequence. As I sat on the couch, waiting to hear the plaintive strains of French horn and harpsichord that open the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” I was instead assaulted by “Home,”a song by some group called the Engineers.
This should not be that big of a deal, but you see, I’m a big fan of opening credit sequences. Credit sequences are arguably one of the most important segments of the text, both in film and television, because they are the first images the viewer encounters. Traditionally, television credit sequences have served a simple function, namely introducing the show’s cast, creators and guest stars, usually against the backdrop of a few images representative of the series.
The Cosby Show‘s opening credits:
Friends’ opening credits:
This trend has changed somewhat in recent years. Programs like Deadwood (2004-2006), Desperate Housewives (2004-), Six Feet Under (2001-2005), Dexter (2006- ), True Blood (2008- ), and others have replaced this traditional format with a sequence of disconnected, “dreamlike” images that are more “generic,” than specific, more connotative than denotative. These credit sequences clearly borrow their stylistic cues from music videos, which employ chains of disparate images that stress discontinuities in time and space to evoke abstract concepts.
Deadwood‘s opening credits:
Desperate Housewives‘ opening credits:
Of course, in this day of DVRs and TV on DVD, many people fast forward right past the opening credits. But the above sequences serve more than a utilitarian purpose — their imagery begs to be watched over and over. They beg for analysis. And I’m pleased to see that many TV scholars have recently turned their attentions to analyzing opening credits: Angelina Kaprovich on Dexter’s opening credits, Lisa Nakamura on True Blood‘s opening credits, Myles McNutt on Nurse Jackie‘s opening credits, etc.
Big Love‘s original credit sequence:
Although I always watch Big Love via my DVR, I almost always watch the opening credits all the way through. Why? First, there’s the music. I’m not a big Beach Boys fan but “God Only Knows” gets me every time I hear it. As so many music critics have mentioned, it is highly unusual for a love song to begin with the line “I may not always love you…” What I love about the song is precisely this honesty. When Carl Wilson sings, “If you should ever leave me, life would still go on, believe me,” he isn’t making any grand claims — he knows that the world does not begin and end with his beloved. But he still recognizes the beloved’s significance, as well as his own insignificance: “God only knows what I’d be without you.”
This mixture of idealism and realism, devotion and resignation, fits well with the imagery in Big Love‘s original credit sequence. When the sequence opens we see Bill (Bill Paxton), bathed in heavenly light, reach out with confidence to his first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn). They ice skate in a circle. When there is a cut to a medium close up of Bill we expect to see Barb again, but instead he is embracing second wife, Nikki (Chloe Sevigny), who studies his face in total absorption. Her gaze is different from Barb’s — less confident, more awestruck. Yet another cut reveals Bill’s third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). This may be favorite moment of the sequence — Margene, the youngest and newest bride, seems the most unsteady on her feet. And she embraces Bill like a ballast in a storm.
We then see Bill and the three women form a circle, each hand clasp shot in a close up:
The bright blue sky, lush greens and soft lighting reflect the idealism of this arrangement, the “Principle” by which these four adults have chosen to live their lives. But in the midst of their bliss, we see a crack forming in the ice, which splits the four adults apart. This split could signify the various struggles the quartet faces over the course of each season. It could also represent the inevitable separation/destruction that will come with death:
This final image could be a rendering of the Henricksons’ existence in the afterlife — the family’s reward for faithfully adhering to the Principle. Or, more simply, this image could represent how the Henricksons are continually able to reconnect after each crisis. By opening each episode in this way the viewer is reminded of the characters’ own “big love.” No, I don’t support polygamy, but I find Big Love compelling because the show makes it easy for me to believe that these four people truly love each other and truly believe in the lifestyle they’ve chosen. They believe the sacrifices of polygamy are worth it — not because Bill is power hungry or his wives are brainwashed — but because they really do believe. A show about the devious Alby (Matt Ross) and his drone-like wives would not be nearly as interesting or poignant.
The new opening credits:
So, I suppose you could argue then that this change in the opening credits signals a profound change in the show’s characters and their relationships with one another. Los Angeles Times critic Allyssa Lee writes “…there’s no togetherness in this one. They’re all pretty much alone in their frames, except for the last one, where Bill and someone else are just reaching — only, they never connect. It’s all so … so distant. And so lonely,” while The Wall Street Journal‘s Dawn Fallik opens her recap with “We’re back in Utah and no longer skating on thin ice in ‘Big Love.’ Instead, the new intro has us falling, falling, falling through the air, as the four members of the Henrickson clan try to build a church, open a casino and bury past problems. We’re no longer in Beach Boy territory, folks.”
Sure sure, I get it. But I feel like this new sequence fails to establish what is so important about Big Love — why viewers keep tuning in week after week — the connections between the Henricksons. In this sequence Bill, Barb, Nikki and Margene are unable to touch each other. I think this is the wrong tone to set for this show week after week. And frankly, the final image’s nod to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, is pretty ludicrous.
Finally, so it doesn’t seem as if I stopped watching the Big Love premiere after the credits, here are a few things I loved about last night’s episode:
Alby, dressed in possibly the dorkiest outfit ever, picks up a fine hunk of man (Ben Koldyke) at the park. Must have been those pasty white legs.
They served ice cream sundaes at the opening of the Blackfoot Magic Casino. Mormons are so naughty.
When Lura (Anne Dudek) hears that Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) is dead, she immediately goes to the safe to break out…a can of Coors light! So that’s the drink teetotalers choose when they really want to celebrate?
Lois (Grace Zabriskie) always finds a way to make to money (latest venture: smuggling exotic birds), leading me to wonder what kind of life she might have led had she not gotten mixed up with Juniper Creek. CEO of a Fortune 500 company perhaps?
Also, I don’t care what the critics say, I will never tire of Lois’ and Frank’s (Bruce Dern) attempts to kill each other in new and inventive ways. I love how Frank picked up Lois, outfitted in a girlish dress and head scarf, as if they were two kids on their way to the malt shop, a goofy moment made even more ridiculous by the two goons in the pick up truck who were planning to…tie Lois up in public?
Bill, who possibly had the most reason to hate Roman, is the only person who has the decency to close the dead man’s eyes.
So what did you think of the premiere? And are you happy with the new opening credits? Please share your thoughts below.
“The Italian, whatever, national, whatever their organization is, they don’t understand that ‘guidos’ and ‘guidettes’ are good-looking people that, you know, like to make a scene and be center of attention and just take care of themselves. They are old-fashioned.
They don’t know that; they think it’s offensive, because maybe in their time it was offensive, but now it’s kind of a compliment. So they don’t understand that and that is what we are trying to say. They are way overreacting to the show. We’re 22 to 29 just having fun at the shore. They are just taking it way out of proportion.”
-“Snooki” on The Wendy Williams Show
Back in November I watching an episode of The City when MTV aired an ad for its latest “reality” series, Jersey Shore. The trailer promised to show me the “hottest, tannest, craziest guidos!” As if to make good on that promise, a young man with gelled hair (DJ Pauly D) confesses to the camera “I takes me about 25 minutes to do my hair” while another (Mike, aka, “The Situation”) explains, quite objectively, that he is “ripped up like Rambo.” But when another gentleman (Vinny) appears on-screen, amid a montage of fist pumping ecstasies, it was then that I paused what I watching, went to the DVR recording menu, and selected a season pass for Jersey Shore.
Despite its early low numbers (the premiere averaged just 1.375 million viewers), Jersey Shore‘s ratings have risen steadily since its December 3rd premiere. Bloggers and entertainment reporters speculate that this ratings increase has to do with the various controversies surrounding the program, including 1) the outrage and even violent threats against MTV coming from some Italian American groups over what they say is a stereotypical and offensive portrayal of their community (some companies have already pulled their ads from the program) and 2) the airing (and later the omission) of a scene in which one of the female cast members, Nicole, aka “Snooki,” is sucker punched by a male stranger. While both complaints are worth getting riled up over (i.e., it’s wrong to stereotype people and it’s wrong to exploit violence against women), neither actually applies to Jersey Shore. Here’s why:
1. The Stereotypes
The biggest controversy surrounding Jersey Shore is over its allegedly stereotypical portrayal of Italian American youth. I use the word “allegedly” here because I’m not convinced that the show’s “guidos” are stereotypical Italian Americans. There are currently 16 million Italian Americans living in this country. When I think “Italian American” I do not automatically think of “The Situation.”
Yes, I have met Italian Americans with gelled hair, waxed chests and glossed lips (particularly during my short-lived clubbing days). And yes, these people are frequently given the label “guido.” And yes, in my experience with the term, guido is used in a pejorative manner. People designated as guidos are associated not simply with tanning and muscles (two ostensibly positive traits, depending on your preferences) but also with bad taste, few inhibitions, and low intelligence. Jersey Shore‘s editors seem to support these negative stereotypes by including the following line from 22-year-old Staten Island native, Angelina, who complained about having to work in a T-shirt shop on the boardwalk “I feel like this is beneath me. I’m a bartender. I do great things.” And in the premiere episode Vinny pointed out that “Most people might consider being a guido like you’re stupid but I went to school, graduated college…”
Despite Vinny’s admission that guidos are believed to be stupid, everyone in the house embraces the term, referring to themselves as guidos and guidettes, and expressing a clear preference for dating guidos/guidettes. As Sammi “Sweetheart” explains, “If you’re not a guido then you can get the fuck out of my face!” Lines like these do complicate the idea that these individuals are being portrayed in a negative light. After all, no one is forcing DJ Pauly D into the tanning booth or demanding that Jenni “J-WOWW” wear studded hot pants and fishnet stockings out to the club. These kids are making these choices. And loving every minute of it.
Now I can hear your objections already: “MTV is responsible for this portrayal of Italian Americans because they selected only those cast members who fit the guido stereotypes.” This is true. Except that people like The Situation, J-WOWW and Angelina are less indicative of the guido stereotypes than they are of youth stereotypes in general. Indeed, as Huffington Post columnist Simon Maxwell Apter wrote in a recent piece, “Their persistent claims of ethnic pride notwithstanding, the only ‘ethnic group’ that the Jersey Shore septet really represents is Jersey Shore cast members. Though the cast clearly relishes their shared ethnic background, they use their Italian heritage not as an identity, but instead as a license to develop an orangeish skin tone, use a lot of hair gel, and spend hours lifting weights.”
I agree. In fact, if the cast members of Jersey Shore didn’t have thick Long Island, Staten Island and New Jersey accents, MTV could have easily named the show The Real World: New Jersey. If you have watched any season of MTV’s The Real World since at least 2002 (the year of the infamous Las Vegas season), then you know that MTV generally populates its casts with individuals who:
are incredibly narcissistic
have an inflated sense of self-worth
are not particularly bright or well-informed about current events
prefer to spend every night drinking to excess
enjoy wearing tight, revealing clothing (both sexes)
are extremely horny
abuse self tanners
work out obsessively
get into fist fights whenever possible
Need I go on? What we are seeing on Jersey Shore are not MTV’s exploitation of so-called guidos, but rather, MTV’s exploitation of American youth, something MTV has been doing for years. So if there is going to be outrage over this program, it should be coming from twentysomethings across the county, not just UNICO, the national Italian-American service organization, or the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.
2. The Punch
Early teasers for Jersey Shore contained footage of Snooki, the diminutive but loud-mouthed house mate, being punched in the face by a large, male stranger at a bar. Teasers are used to lure viewers into watching a program by featuring the season’s most sensational imagery, so it makes sense that MTV would include this footage. However, when the episode, “Fade to Black,” finally aired on December 18th, MTV decided to pull the footage of the punch, replacing it instead with a black screen. MTV issued a statement about this decision:
“What happened to Snooki was a crime and obviously extremely disturbing. After hearing from our viewers, further consulting with experts on the issue of violence, and seeing how the video footage has been taken out of context not to show the severity of this act or resulting consequences, MTV has decided not to air Snooki being physically punched in the face.”
Given that MTV had aired the 5 second clip multiple times in the weeks leading up to the episode, this decision seems strange. Or rather, it makes perfect sense. Realizing that the key to Jersey Shore‘s ratings is controversy, MTV cleverly channeled the outrage over the “punch heard round the shore” into even more free publicity for the program.
Like the exploiteers of old (Kroger Babb, David Friedman, etc.) MTV understands how to work its target audience. Sensationalizing and then censoring the punch footage is a rhetorical strategy rooted in classical ballyhoo. Eric Schaefer defines ballyhoo as “that noisy, vulgar spiel that drew audiences to circuses and sideshows …a hyperbolic excess of words and images that sparked the imagination” (103). Ballyhoo promises its audiences something — an image, an experience, or reaction (“This movie will nauseate you!”) — that it does not necessarily fulfill. Similarly, MTV promised us a punch, but did not deliver. Therefore, they pulled in viewers and still got to look like the good guy. Sort of.
Keep in mind that MTV has aired many sucker punches in the past. In particular, I’m thinking about a sucker punch that took place during a season of The Real World: Austin. In the premiere episode the Austin cast mates go out to a bar and Danny Jamieson is punched in the face. The sucker punch crushed Danny’s eye socket, resulting in blurred vision and requiring surgery. Despite Danny’s rather serious injuries, MTV had no qualms about airing this footage repeatedly — in ads promoting the series and then in recaps throughout the course of the season.
It seems a bit sexist to me that there was outrage over MTV’s (almost) airing of Snooki’s punch but not over Danny’s punch. Now, I understand that Snooki is a small woman and Danny is a strapping young man. But both were sucker punched, meaning both were completely defenseless when they were hit. And Danny sustained far more serious injuries — those who watched the Austin season may recall that Danny’s face was disfigured throughout the duration of the season. If there is any outrage here, it should be over MTV’s exploitation of violence. It is wrong to sucker punch anyone, whether they are male or female, big or small. Furthermore, Snooki and Danny were assaulted precisely because they were on MTV reality programs (for some reason the presence of the MTV camera crew throws bar patrons into an uncontrollable rage) and MTV then reaped the rewards of that unmotivated violence by exploiting it in ads. This is the true outrage of this situation.
Just in case my comments might be misread, let me make this clear: domestic violence against women is a serious issue. But Snooki’s punch is not an example of domestic violence nor is it an issue of violence against women. Snooki’s punch, like Danny’s, boils down, not to gender, but to the exploitative, circus-like climate created and nurtured by MTV and its film crews. By omitting the footage of Snooki’s punch MTV wants to look like the hero, but they are a primary culprit (along with the two douchebags who did the punching, of course. Big, big douchebags).
Therefore my friends, if you are watching and enjoying Jersey Shore, don’t feel like you are implicitly supporting ethnic stereotyping or violence against women. Instead you are supporting the stereotyping of youth culture and the violence that results when these youth are given too much alcohol, self tanner, body glitter and a barrage of cameras. Oh wait. That’s not good either, is it?