This roundtable, focusing on the season 2 premiere of NBC’s Smash (which aired on February 5th), arose in response to a recent article “How “Smash” Became TV’s Biggest Train Wreck” by Kate Arthur. Though the article accurately addresses many of the problems in Smash’s first season (Emory Cohen’s dead performance as marijuana addict, Leo, Ellis’ unexplained and over-the-top villainy, Debra Messing’s scarves), it also pins most of the series’ failures onto the Season 1 showrunner, Theresa Rebeck (who apparently also likes scarves). So one goal of this roundtable was to identify what changes, if any, have been made to season 2 with its new showrunner, Josh Safran (of Gossip Girl fame).
Another question that was raised by those of us who read this article was: was Smash’s first season really “TV’s Biggest Trainwreck” or are the people who watch (or rather who “hate watch”) Smash simply unaccustomed to rhythms of the musical? The six academics participating in this roundtable are all fans of the musical genre and therefore, never saw Smash’s narrative as a failure since we were never watching the show for its narrative in the first place. But are great numbers enough to keep viewers around for season 2? Let’s find out…
The roundtable started off discussing what was great about the season 2 premiere:
Overall Narrative Structure
Alfred Martin: I do like that they’ve seemed to cut out all the extraneous plot and really focused in on the show and aren’t dinking around with Julia’s (Debra Messing) marriage. And thank GOD they seem to have gotten rid of her HORRIBLE son (Emery Cohen).
Kyra Hunting: I understand that many people feel that the show didn’t work because of the narrative or that the show worked despite the narrative on the strength of the musical numbers, cast, etc. But here is the thing: I LOVE the narrative – and so do many of my colleagues who are big fans of classical Hollywood musical. I feel like the disconnect for many is that a musical narrative logic is being imposed on a television environment. At its core I feel like Smash is a sexed up, knives out version of a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical – New York is a pretty big barn – but hey lets put on a show!
No More Scarves
Amanda Ann Klein: I wasn’t all that bothered by Julia’s (Debra Messing) scarf-wearing in season 1 but now that her scarves are gone I like Julia more. Coincidence? I think not.
Jennifer Lynn Jones: I honestly never noticed the scarves either, although I feel that I subconsciously registered that the costume designers were signifying that Julia was approaching “a certain age.” Thinking back on it now, that and some other Julia plot points are bugging me, like too many offstage domestic dramas being heaped on her plate. And why can’t Julia be reaching “a certain age” and still be fabulous? Maybe scarfless Julia will be. Maybe that’s something to look forward to.
Alfred: I never noticed the scarves either. I find it interesting that (and I can’t remember from last season if) Debra Messing got top billing last season.
Amanda: Her scarves got top billing.
Amanda: The best number of the night was definitely Jennifer Hudson’s first number, “Mama Makes Three,” in the musical within a musical, Beautiful (though I thought it was hilarious that Karen [Katherine McPhee] described Hudson’s character in the show as “this sweet 1950s Aretha/Etta James type but she has this really overbearing mother.”). I personally love musical numbers that are set on an actual stage and this one was really fun: costumes, dancers, etc. This is what I want from my musicals! All I wrote in my notebook during this number was “WOMAN CAN SING.” On a related note, Katherine McPhee must never ever, ever sing another duet with Jennifer Hudson (“On Broadway”). Never.
Jennifer: I agree! Just hearing J.Hud in the previews for the next episode gave me chills.
Alfred: Why does the black lady have to be connected to Aretha Franklin and Etta James? But Jennifer Hudson looks and sounds AMAZING (I’ve loved her since her days on American Idol). The first scene shown seems to suggest that she is starring in a “black” musical, which I think is really interesting given this show. Really? She’s getting ready to star in a revival of The Wiz? This role seems to be trading on clichés big time, particularly with this character. The song “On Broadway” should just simply be barred from anyone singing it ever. It’s a horrible song that is locked in its specific temporal moment (and I always see the opening of All That Jazz in my head whenever I hear it). Also, her character doesn’t seem to be integral to the story. I’ll be really interested to see how (and if) they integrate her more deeply into the story.
Sad Julia & Sad Derek
Amanda: I’m glad Julia is getting a divorce and I’m glad that Derek (Jack Davenport) is realizing that maybe women only sleep with him because their jobs depend on it.
Alfred: For me, it’s less about getting rid of the scarves and more about them having gotten rid of her husband, Frank (Brian D’arcy James). As much as I liked Brian D’arcy James in Next to Normal on Broadway, he was underutilized and annoying as hell in Smash. I’m not sure about them going down this Will & Grace retread with Julia and Tom (Christian Borle) planning to live together.
Kelli Marshall: I kinda like that Derek is realizing this too, but that “Robert Palmer” number was just…too much.
Jennifer: No, the Palmer-style Eurythmics song did not work for me either, but can we really imagine a kinder, gentler Derek? And would we really want one? Dickishness is half his charm, the rest obviously being accent and scruffy hair. I think he does a good job with that bad boy charmer role. As director, he rides the line between leader and villain well.
Kyra: Derek without Dickishness and arrogance hardly seems like Derek at all. It seem odd to me that this never occurred to him before and while I really like him having to deal with the consequences of his actions, I don’t want him to become a saint.
Amanda: I agree the “Would I Lie to You?” number was odd. But I believe it was the only “fantasy” number in the first two episodes of season 2 and so for that reason, I was glad to see it. I read somewhere that the show is trying to get away from these numbers, as they are the ones most likely to turn off audiences who don’t like musicals. I think that if you view a spontaneous Bollywood number ( “A Thousand and One Nights”) as odd simply because it was inspired by the eating of Indian food (to name one example of a fantasy number that was skewered by fans last season), then you probably don’t like musicals all that much. So why are you watching this show then, haters? Musicals need the flimsiest of excuses to launch into a number. This is the point of a musical, no? I really enjoyed Karen’s Bollywood fantasy number from Season 1. If you can get past the ethnocentrism of the piece, it had all the elements of a great number: beautiful costumes and make up, fun choreography, and loads and loads of performers. I thought it was aware of its own campiness and embraced it. I loved it. Click here to watch.
Kelli: I like the way you think, Klein! I’ve repressed my love for and enjoyment of the Bollywood number on The Twitter Machine (and the like) so I would not be reamed in public. I did, however, show it to my Cinema History course last spring when we discussed America’s appropriation of Bollywood. Also showed a Zumba workout video, if you’re interested. 😉
Amanda: Hilty’s last number, “They Just Keep Moving the Line,” performed at the Generic Theater Association Event (you know, the one filled with “Broadway Bigwigs”) was amazing. I will sit through 90 minutes of bullshit narrative to hear this woman sing.
Kelli: Indeed, girl. Indeed. Hilty ain’t messin’ around.
Jennifer: Yep. I wasn’t always on Ivy’s team, but this and all the sorrow they’re heaping on her now are definitely getting me there.
Kyra: I never disliked Karen the way many did, but I do think the best possible thing about the stupid Hipster musical is Karen could move on to that, the sort of Songs For A New World thing her voice might work for, and Ivy could finally go back to being Marilyn. Derek splitting these two projects might be interesting to and would take Karen/Ivy’s rivalry in a novel direction.
Alfred: I really disliked Ivy until two things happened: One, it was revealed that her TV mother is Bernadette Peters; Two, she became one of the more complexly-written characters on the show. And she is really acting the crap out of that character. And indeed, this episode started when she SLAYED that song. That voice?!?!?!?
Amanda: I loved McPhee during her season of American Idol, maybe because she performed mostly pop music? But on Smash, which is mostly focused on broadway music, her voice just never sounds as strong as it needs to be. It’s almost impossible to believe that she would be cast in the lead role of Bombshell, over Megan Hilty. I don’t buy the excuse that she is Derek’s “muse.” Or does “muse” just mean “someone I want to screw”? If so, she is totally Derek’s “muse.” That plot, which was so central to season 1, was always the most problematic one for me. But it seems like that will be less of an issue for this season, which is a plus.
Jennifer: I’ve had several conversations with different people about McPhee’s character Karen, though, especially comparing her to Ivy. Most people I’ve spoken to about the contrast between Karen and Ivy don’t seem to get why Karen would even be in the running against Ivy, something that Rachel Shukert brought up during Julie Klausne’s special Smash-themed podcast episode “How Was Your Smash.” Ivy seems to look so much more like Marilyn Monroe, and has those great Broadway pipes to boot. However, there’s a certain vulnerability in Karen that I think really resonates with Monroe and often gets overlooked, so for that reason, I’ve pretty much been pulling for Karen all along. However, I found her whinier and more cloying in these first two episodes, so we’ll see how it goes for the second season.
Kyra: Jennifer, I really really share some of your feelings about Karen and her vulnerability. I saw below that she is Norma Jean, and Norma Jean after all was the core that made Marilyn so appealing. I also think the assumption that her voice couldn’t be a broadway one depends on a pretty narrow understanding of a broadway voice. Ivy definitely has the more traditional belt but I’ve certainly seen modern musicals with the quieter/poppier sound that Karen has. Nonetheless, I think this has been such a flashpoint for people, and so often used to deny realism, that breaking the Ivy/Karen Marilyn competition might be necessary.
Amanda: Well said, Jennifer and Kyra. I understand this reasoning but for me, broadway numbers are about being BIG! BIG! BIG! I want big emotion, big drama and big pipes. This is why I was so disappointed with Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables ( 2012, Tom Hooper). [http://vimeo.com/57307781] Her voice sounded pretty and her acting was moving but I don’t care about all of those things when I’m listening to that song. When Fantine sings “I Dreamed a Dream” I want it to bore into my soul: I want her pain and rage over her lover’s betrayal and consequences of that betrayal to crescendo into a big, full throated burst of song. I don’t want quiet in my musicals. One exception: Once (2006, John Carney)
Alfred: I’m just happy that the other characters have stopped calling McPhee “Iowa.” I kind of think she makes sense as Marilyn because she has a kind of lightweight, breathy voice that I think is more suited for what the role is in my head and seems to be more “realistically” (as if that word even makes sense in the world of Smash) rooted in the person she is supposed to be portraying. All that having been said, I just don’t think McPhee is ready for the role she’s been thrust into. For me, she just doesn’t have the chops to carry a show (or the show within the show).
Karen’s Hipster Love Interest
Amanda: What singer/songwriter living in New York City and working on composing a musical doesn’t want people to hear his work, especially when those people are in a position to help him? Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) tells Karen “I write for myself” and “I don’t need other people to tell me I’m good.” Ridiculous. I declare shenanigans on this hipster character.
Jennifer: This guy? Too much. The fact that they namecheck The Strokes, even just to mock Karen, gives the tell that these writers don’t know from hipsters. And how many hipsters are writing musical theater anyway? Nonetheless, I do like the idea of having more than one musical being staged for the show, and I love the idea of these shows competing against each other. That seems fitting for Broadway in a sense: competing for space, competing for talent, competing for attention and audiences. And if the new musical brings in more songs, ALL THE BETTER.
Alfred: More importantly, what an awkward way to let the viewer know that he is “fair game” for Karen as a love interest than to have his gay pal declare his heterosexuality. Is it too soon to ask for this dude to be written out? His whole “too cool for school” act is old already and we’re only two hours in. It would seem, as y’all have said before, that someone writing a musical would really be a lot more open to people who could drum up opportunities for him rather than being an asshole hipster.
Amanda: [raises fist in anger] HIPSTERS!!!
Too Much Talky, Not Enough Singy
Amanda: In an effort to mend the narrative and character issues from season 1, I think Josh Safran decided to frontload all the narrative changes and focus less on the musical performances (and just giving a few solo/duet performances at that, very few group numbers with dancing). At least I’m hoping this was the case. Because if it’s not, I am not sure I’ll continue to watch. The narrative in this show isn’t strong enough to keep me around–there are better melodramas out there.
Jennifer: I’m a little worried that the remaining staff have taken too many of the criticisms to heart and gone to what might seem like safer zones. That might mean fewer numbers, or numbers more motivated by the musical. That might also mean going in a more familiar direction with Debra Messing’s character, Julia. I got antsy when I noticed how many “Grace” (of Will and Grace) moments there seemed to be in the second episode: moving in with her gay best friend after the end of a failed relationship, taking to the bed with her misery and not bathing enough, even doing Grace’s little “d’oh” sound at one point. Having looked back over the first season a bit and re-read a lot of the recent commentaries, I will agree that Julia was probably given too many of the plot points and paring some back may have been a wise choice, but I don’t think taking Debra Messing back to Grace will make the show any better.
Alfred: One of the things that made Smash so great in the first season is that it did not rely so heavly on covers (a la Glee) and instead produced some really top notch Broadway songs (“History is Made at Night” is an AMAZING song). It seems like the notes (from these first two episodes) have been to try to make it more like Glee because the theory (I think) might be that by doing cover songs, it gives viewers a point of entry. Instead, it’s just sucked all the air out of the room and as we saw from the overnights, the ratings were no bueno. And someone breaking into song at a party wouldn’t be told to shut the hell up?
Kelli: I’ll admit it: the premiere was not good. I’m not sure if this shift is a result of all the backlash from Season 1, i.e., setting up new storylines to compensate for those we’re losing (Ellis, Frank and Leo), introducing new characters such as the douchebag bartender/lyricist and his amiable friend/co-worker, generally fixing what the creators assumed (or TV critics and social media kept telling them?) was “broken.” Whatever the reason, the episode didn’t work for me overall.
On the Shift from Season 1 to Season 2:
Karen Petruska: I’m not sure how helpful I’ll be–I didn’t watch all of last season, and I had a strongly negative reaction to the first hour of the new season premiere. So, I used to work in theatre. And I hate these people on Smash. I hate their petty problems, I hate their fakeness, I hate their sham stakes. I hate them all. I would never hate watch this show because I don’t enjoy hating.
How is it that they completely miss the allure of theatre? The work in the rehearsal room? Best part. Television seems to have transformed the theatre into these big production numbers–all flash, no substance. It is the work, the sweat, the tears, the failed attempts, the successful guesses–that’s what is interesting. Oh, and all those chorus people in the background? They matter. They make up the heart of the show. Focusing on the stars in theatre is dumb–it makes zero sense. Sure, in film it makes sense. Even in television, it may make sense. But in theatre? Nope. You are only as good as the person across from you. If their energy saps, your energy saps. If they can’t look at you with a genuine reaction, you can’t be in the moment.
Amanda: Karen, I think it’s really interesting having you in this conversation since you didn’t watch the first season. I will say that we did see a bit more of the “work, the sweat, the tears, the failed attempts, the successful guesses” of putting on a show in season 1. We see Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia composing songs and trying them out. We watch Karen learning how to become a better dancer. We see the cast workshopping the numbers and trying out different routines. One thing we do not see much of though, is what life is like for the members of the chorus. Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.) gets a bit of a spotlight at the end of season 1, but only because he is dating Tom (and once he started to get more screen time we knew he was going to be Tom’s next love interest). All of this is to say that I think the season 2 premiere was highly focused on critics’ problems with the show and, consequently, not very interested in pulling in new viewers like yourself.
Kelli: Yes, one of my favorite things about season 1 is the repetition of the numbers during rehearsals, workshopping, etc. The viewer gets to learn the numbers alongside the cast members–and the duplication of them from episode to episode makes it feel as though the toil, practice, etc. is legit.
Amanda: Yes! By the end of season 1 I felt like I was getting to know the numbers and starting to fall in love with them (like listening to an album a few times before you really start to love it), and I got excited when I started to recognize the numbers. That’s quite a feat for original music. I’ve said this a few times on Twitter: I would pay to see Bombshell. Even without Megan Hilty and the others in it.
Kyra: Agreed, and the struggles the show is having would be the perfect opportunity to go back to that. Workshopping scenes that didn’t work, changing numbers, trying to sell themselves to new investors…it would have fit this new narrative so easily, but no sign in sight. The best moment in the two new episodes was the one moment Ivy did a number from the show.
Karen: And I will never, ever, ever buy Katherine McPhee. Her character (based on the few episodes I have seen) is timid, weak, and way too “aw, shucks.” She’s like the person on reality TV who kills it every week yet still pretends to be surprised by their praise–and that has been blown up to be her entire character trait. I’m from the midwest. Have these writers ever met anyone from the midwest? So I hate this show because nothing in it seems real. Or sincere.
On Switching Showrunners
Karen: In terms of journalism, it is more of a gossip piece than anything else, but I think there are interesting things to read between the lines. This is a clash of culture, in some ways. But I am intrigued that everyone resisted Rebeck’s seeming authority as a writer. As if a writer should not want to protect their work–that seems an awfully cruel treatment of a writer. But in television we praise showrunners and ignore all other writers in the room. So showrunners get blamed, too. Why the show sucked in the ratings could be a lot of things, but who wants to watch a show that has the stink of an old, smelly sock? They needed a radical shift–like, for example, firing McPhee. It wouldn’t have been her fault, necessarily, but it would have been news. And it could have prompted curiosity–more than firing a relatively unknown showrunner.
Jennifer: Smash had everything going for it: It had the famous director. It had the best producers for adapting stage to screen. It had the Tony-award winning songwriting team. It had great–even some legendary–Broadway performers. It had the network’s full backing. And at the beginning it had the critics’ love. And then over the course of the first season, it failed to deliver because of one megalomaniacal old crone who couldn’t see that all her ideas were shit.
That may be the legend, but I’m not buying it. Not that there weren’t problems in the first season. However, laying the blame for all those misses at the feet of one person, the only woman in a team of nine executive producers, is fallacious, even if her name is the one under the marquee in the opening credits. From the initial promos alone, we know that her name wasn’t the one being used to sell the program anyway; her name wasn’t being dragged out until there needed to be a scapegoat. The plight of the female showrunner has been an ongoing story over the past few years, as there are so few in the industry but of late so many of those have been raked over the coals and thrown under the bus.
Kyra: The two biggest potential pitfalls of the show that I see for many viewers is the pacing and the stakes and both work for me if you accept some musical logics. I feel like the stakes and therefore the narrative are high enough for me because in my world who gets the part, or what number makes it into the show really does feel like life or death stakes.
The season two reboot, however, worried me. Certainly I’m not sad to see Ellis (Jaime Cepero) go, and I can only hope that ditching the romantic partners means ditching some of the excess narrative that distracts from the shows larger focus. But I totally agree with Karen that we need much more time in the studio, at the piano, rehearsal, etc. It is, when its at its best, a backstage show and these two episodes pretty much took away our backstage. I can see the eventual value of the Hipster guy’s musical in bringing in a different musical theater style, one better suited to Katherine McPhee’s voice, but right now it seems a weird detour. Most worrying to me, as Amanda points out, there is a lack of well-integrated musical numbers. There aren’t enough numbers and very very few pull their narrative and emotional weight. Josh Safran seems to want to stick with largely diegetic realistic musical moments (with limited exceptions) and they often feel small (not in the good intimate way). Ivy at the end of the second episode gives a hint of the possibility of the magic. But I fear Safran is going to make this a show about a musical and not a musical television show, clearly a risky proposition for the critical mass but one that I had come to love.
Kelli: “It is, when its at its best, a backstage show and these two episodes pretty much took away our backstage.” I like this point very much, Kyra. It’s not necessarily narrative coherence or complex characterization I’m seeking when I watch Smash (or Glee, Top Hat, Grease, or *gasp* Singin’ in the Rain for that matter). Rather, I need spectacle. And I’d appreciate it if a few of said numbers were integrated (not sung onstage or in a dream state). See, for example, the pilot’s “Let Me Be Your Star,” which--in spite of its (and the show’s) clichéd contrasting of blonde girl/brunette girl–is just about as perfect a closing number as one could hope for. Through montage, crosscutting, and the pairing of McPhee and Hilty (at home, on the street, onstage), it so nicely sets up the stories and, more importantly, the caliber of numbers to come.
Last night’s episode, however, didn’t leave me feeling this hopeful…or impressed. Thus, if 2.1 is what we’re going to get after the infamous showrunner-swap and “the most involved reboot of the TV season” to quote EW (Jan. 11), I think I’d rather stick with Season 1, Julia’s scarves included.
Kyra: Kelli, I completely agree with the above. “Let Me Be Your Star” was exactly the number I was thinking of missing in the first two episodes. It was just the right amount of diegetic and fantasy, did tons of narrative and emotional work, and was just a great number. There was nothing like that last night.
In Denise Martin’s “How Smash Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hate-Watchers” she writes:
“Numbers will either be grounded in reality… or entirely in the clouds. Safran likes fantasy sequences so long as they make sense in the context of the characters…. But no more sudden singing and dancing in the bowling alley. ‘I am against bursting out into song,’ Safran said.”
I cite Safran’s “rules” because I just don’t think that he gets it, and I’m not sure that any of these kinds of changes are going to make much of a difference in the critical reception of the show. Like Kelli wrote above, musicals aren’t about narrative coherence, and they’re not about rules either. Even when music and dancing are “motivated” by a performance storyline, so much of the pleasure is in the opportunities for the extraordinary in the everyday from the unexpected performance Did that guy not even see Fame? Musicals aren’t about fantasy that makes “sense.” They’re about the fantastic and the impossible, the hoping against hope that all will work out, that you’ll get the part, that you’ll be the star, even when all the odds are stacked against you. Putting parameters on the performances sounds a bit like taking the musical out of the musical. I’m not yet willing to claim that that’s the intent or the result, but it does put a damper on the proceedings, and I think we’ve seen some of that in these first two episodes.
So, what did you think of the second season premiere of Smash? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.
About the Roundtable:
Kyra Hunting is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she is completing a dissertation entitled: “Genre Trouble: Cultural Difference and Contemporary Genre TV.” Her work has appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture, Transformative Works and Culture and Communication Review she blogs at and co-edits the media blog Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture. You can find me at: http://wisc.academia.edu/KHunting.
Jennifer Lynn Jones is a doctoral candidate in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University’s Communication and Culture program, writing a dissertation on celebrity, convergence, and corpulence (in short, “fat stars”).
Amanda Ann Klein is an Assistant Professor of film studies at East Carolina University. She recently published her first book, American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures (University of Texas Press, 2011). You can follow her on Twitter: @AmandaAnnKlein or read her blog: Judgmental Observer.
Kelli Marshall is a lecturer of Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University. When she’s not teaching or live-tweeting Smash, Kelli researches two rather disparate fields: Shakespeare in film and popular culture, and the film musical, specifically the star image and work of Hollywood song-and-dance man Gene Kelly. Follow Kelli on Twitter at @kellimarshall and/or read more about her take on TV/film (and her adventures in higher ed) on her blog, MediAcademia.
Alfred L. Martin. Jr. is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Texas -Austin where he studies race and sexuality on television. He currently serves as Co-Managing Editor for Flow, the Department of Radio-Television-Film’s online media journal.
Karen Petruska received her PhD in moving image studies from Georgia State University in 2012. She is currently a Postdoctoral Teaching Associate at Northeastern University. Her scholarly interests include television studies, media industry studies, new media, and feminist studies.
Note to the reader: Below is a work in progress. I am sharing it here in the hopes of generating discussion and recommendations for further reading and research.
American children born after 1980 are the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. They have seen an African American be reelected as the President of the United States of America. Many high schools now have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (even as the bullying of gay students continues). Thus, Millennials are often labeled as “post racial,” “post gender,” or “pomosexual,” as if they have solved the eternal problem of human difference that none of us, stretching back for centuries, have been able to solve. However, according to studies conducted by the Applied Research Center, today’s youth still see race (and identity in general):
“The majority of people in our focus groups continue to see racism at work in multiple areas of American life, particularly in criminal justice and employment. When asked in the abstract if race is still a significant factor, a minority of our focus group participants initially said that they don’t believe it is—and some young people clearly believe that class matters more. But when asked to discuss the impact, or lack thereof, that race and racism have within specific systems and institutions, a large majority asserted that race continues to matter deeply.”
Indeed, in my experiences working with Millennials in the classroom, I have found that they are quite eager to self identify by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sexuality. In fact, the more invisible the identity, the more eager they are to make it visible. There seems to be a heightened interest in identity, defining its parameters and its meanings. Here I am defining “identity” in very simple terms: it is a vision of yourself that is based on actual traits (your race, gender, sexual preference, nationality, etc.) but which you might also inflate or redefine to suit your vision of yourself (or how you hope to envision yourself). It is rooted in the material conditions of lived experience and also highly constructed. It is thrust upon the individual but also, quite often, carefully selected by the individual.
As someone who studies media images for a living, I see similar evidence of the Millennial struggle with identity happening in a very specific location: MTV reality programming. MTV describes itself as “the world’s premier youth entertainment brand” and “the cultural home of the millennial generation, music fans and artists, and a pioneer in creating innovative programming for young people.” When it first premiered in 1981 it was a 24 hour music video jukebox (and my favorite thing ever). MTV began producing original non-music programming as early as 1987 with its TV-centered game show Remote Control. Other programming, including Singled Out, Just Say Julie, and The State followed, thus aligning MTV’s content with something other than music. The success of the reality television series, The Real World, in 1991 cemented MTV’s move towards non-music based programming. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of music videos aired on the channel dropped by 36% (Hay). Now MTV is primarily known for creating original, non-musical content. Specifically, MTV likes to produces reality shows about segments of the contemporary youth demographic–the very demographic that is watching MTV.
And what I have learned from watching a lot of MTV’s reality programming is that the youth featured on these shows continue to grapple with racial /gender/sexual/class difference. Cast members on MTV’s most highly rated reality shows (Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, The Hills, The Real World, and now Buckwild) willingly serve as synecdoches for their ethnic group, their subculture, their class, their gender, their sexuality, their religion, or their region of the U.S. I agree with Michael Hirschcorn, who offers a lengthy defense of reality programming in The Atlantic:
“Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters. They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness. Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter, reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact.”
When, for example, a cast member on The Real World defends a racist/sexist/homophobic comment in an “on the fly” (OTF) interview with the standard “Hey I’m just being real!” excuse, he is, in fact, being real. In other words, he is performing the identity he was cast to perform and which, he feels, he has the duty to perform since he was in fact cast on the show to perform that very identity.
Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is perhaps the best example of MTV’s labor of identity construction (a runner up would be the Shannon family from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, certainly an integral part of the poetics of TLC). Mike understands that he needs a single identity—that of the guido—in order to thrive on the series. Mike is defined by his abdominal muscles or rather Mike’s abdominal muscles tell us what kind of man he is—a man who is capable of performing the obsessive compulsive grooming ritual known as “Gym. Tan. Laundry” (aka, “GTL”):
I doubt that Mike GTLs as much as he claims to. But it only matters that he claims to GTL. In Jersey Shore and other MTV reality shows, the subject is in charge of defining himself before the camera. Mike tells us that GTLing makes him a guido and so the ritual becomes a clear marker of his identity. As a white American of European ancestry, Mike has the ability to choose his ethnic identity. He can take up a “symbolic ethnicity,” which Herbert Gans defines as “a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and a pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior” (9). Mike’s identity functions as an “ethnic pull” rather than as a “racial push.” He chooses to be a guido and constructs the parameters of this identity. Nancy Franklin explains the necessity of the utterance in the creation of the reality TV persona “Like all reality-show participants, Pauly D, The Situation, and the others speak in categorical certainties. They know things for sure, then those things blow up in their faces, then they hate those things and take about three seconds to find new things to believe in.” And Mike believes in GTL. Without it, he is unemployed. That’s because clear identity construction is central to the appeal of MTV’s current programming.
Imagine the following scene: a group of roommates have just come home from a night of drinking. An argument soon erupts between two of the female roommates over who gets to have guests in the house; there is only room for seven guests and the house is at capacity. When an urban, African American character named Brianna becomes irate that her friends cannot come inside, her white, Christian, Southern roommate, Kim, replies, “Let’s not get ghetto. Be…normal.” The women then exchange expletives and threaten each other with physical harm. In the next scene, Kim explains the fight to her roommate, Sarah, who is also white: “I don’t care where you’re from, if you’re from the most inner city…” and here she pauses to grimace, “blackville. You don’t act like that.” Sarah, who has, thus far, been a sympathetic listener, giggles nervously and advises, “Maybe you should watch what you say…just a little?”
Had this scene been in a film or a scripted television show about a group of strangers who move in together, we would likely find these conversations unbelievable. We would roll our eyes at Kim’s over-the-top, racially-inflected villainy and cry foul: “Come on, who would say that? A real person wouldn’t say that!” But when we hear Kim say this exact line to Brianna (in an episode of The Real World XX: Hollywood), we know it is real (or realish) and therefore we must engage with this very real racism:
[You can watch the entire scene here: http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/225650/lets-not-get-ghetto.jhtml]
Kim’s statements implicitly align Brianna’s behavior in this situation—her anger, her willingness to swear and make physical threats—as rooted in her class and her race (i.e., she acts this way because she comes from “the ghetto”) rather than the more plausible explanation: that Brianna is simply a hothead (like so many other young people who have been cast in the series. In fact, being a hothead is one of the primary criteria for snagging a spot in the show’s cast). Kim makes the racial and class bias of her comments explicit when she labels the nation’s “inner cities,” a location where people apparently behave in the most distasteful of fashions, “Blackville.” Yes, Blackville. LaToya Peterson over at Racialicous calls this scene (and others like it) “hit and run racial commentary” because it dredges up problematic racial prejudices without truly engaging with them. She is nostalgic for earlier incarnations of The Real World and Road Rules (ah Road Rules!) when characters who got into heated arguments would have “an actual conversation where they were both screaming and both making very good points, and both walking away determined to do their own thing. Growth. Development. An actual exchange of ideas.”
Though Peterson sees such scenes as indicative of a new kind of reality programming on MTV, where cast members (who were cast precisely so that they would say something like this) make a racist statement and then are chastised and asked to repent (rather than engaging in a productive dialogue about how and why they came to acquire such a racist/sexist/homophobic vision of the world), this kind of dialogue has been MTV’s bread and butter since it first started airing The Real World over 20 years ago. As Jon Kraszewski argues, “The Real World does not simply locate the reality of a racist statement and neutrally deliver it to an audience. Although not scripted, the show actively constructs what reality and racism are for its audience through a variety of production practices” (179). In The Real World (and other MTV programs), intolerance stems from identity. One is racist because one is from the South. One is sexist because one is a male jock. And over the course of a show these individuals are informed that their identities have led them astray–that they are in fact racist or sexist–but now they will know better! Yes, as outrageous as Kim’s comments are, they are nothing new for The Real World.
Currently, I am embarking on a new research project that seeks to understand the contours of MTV’s new cultural terrain, the images it creates for youth audiences, and the way Millennials consume and interact with its programming. Though I have written quite a lot about MTV programs like The Hills, Teen Mom, and Jersey Shore over the last few years, I am only now starting to think about these programs in relation to each other and how MTV understands youth selfhood. I imagine (I hope!) that this project will grow richer and more complicated as I move through it, but for now I’d like to outline how MTV has fostered what I see as a new poetics of being-in-the-world. While MTV initially catered to Generation X, a generation of passive spectators, Millennials are a generation of active spectators. For them, MTV is an “identity workbook”: cast members speak their differences openly, try on different identities, and pick fights in order to see how these identities play out and to what effect. The Jersey Shore cast members actively and self-consciously constructs “guido” identities for themselves while those on Buckwild tell MTV’s cameras what it means to be “country.” Thus, the difference between the MTV of 1981 and the MTV of today is not simply the difference between music videos and reality TV—the difference is in the way MTV conceives of youth selfhood. Instead of watching and observing, MTV’s contemporary youth audience is generating the identities they consume on screen, and marking out what they believe it means to be an African American, a Southerner, a Christian, a homosexual, or a transgender youth in America today.
This is not to say that Generation X (and I am speaking here not of actual people, but the image of this generation that exists in popular culture) was not also interested in identity, but we rarely took an active role in its construction. Exhausted or embarrassed by our parent’s endless spouts of energy and their marches for equality, we preferred (prefer) to toss our hands in the air and declare things to be “racist” or “sexist,” complain about it, maybe even blog about it (ahem!), but ultimately we don’t do anything. The image of this generation appearing in popular culture is one of apathy and spectatorship. As Jonathan I. Oake writes “Thus, the deviance of Xer subcultural subjectivity lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing.’ While baby boomers are mythologized as those who made history, Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict” (86-87).
But Millennials, like the Baby Boomers, are a generation of doers. Or rather, they “do” by “being.” They project themselves into the world—through social media, blogs and yes, through reality television. For this reason, Adam Wilson calls them the “Laptop Generation”: “If the 1980s was the Me generation — marked by consumerism and an obsession with personal needs (Give me hair gel! Give me cocaine!) — then we are living in the iGeneration, in which the self is projected back toward the world via social media.” This generation wrangles with our divisions, even if they lack the language and the critical distance to do so in a way that pleases us.
Take for example, Buckwild, MTV’s new series about West Virginia youth that premiered this week to respectable ratings. MTV is turning its cameras to this region of the country to capitalize, no doubt, on the recent cycle of hillbilly-sploitation (Hillbilly Handfishing, Swamp People, Bayou Billionaires, Rocket City Rednecks, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, etc). The difference, of course, is that MTV presents this subculture from the point of view of Millennials. And, as in all of MTV’s recent reality shows, it centers on a clear definition of identity. To see what I mean, let’s pause and take a look at the trailer for MTV’s new identity series, Buckwild:
It is fitting that the Buckwild trailer opens with a sign that reads “Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful” since for so many of MTV’s programs (Laguna Beach, The Hills, The City, Jersey Shore) location breeds identity. It is also crucial that the trailer is narrated by one of the show’s cast members since all of these programs are about self-construction. As we hear the narration, “West Virginia is a place founded on freedom. For me and my friends, that means the freedom to do whatever the fuck we want!” we see a montage of youthful hi-jinx: bridge diving, tubing, “mudding,” drinking and shooting firearms. In some ways these activities are region-specific—driving off-road vehicles through the mud and skinny-dipping in the local swimming hole are not activities in which Lauren Conrad (The Hills) or Snooki (Jersey Shore) are likely to participate. And yet, for all its specificity, this Buckwild trailer is also highly generic: we have a group of unemployed or underemployed young people in their late teens and early twenties drinking, having sex, and passing the time, believing that their way of life, their identities, are unique enough to warrant the presence of constant camera surveillance. “We’re young, free and Buckwild,” our narrator concludes. But she could have just as easily said “We’re young, free and Jersey Shore!” or “We’re young, free and living in The Hills!” In this way, MTV’s identity project works to both highlight and eradicate differences in contemporary youth cultures.
MTV is not shy about its identity project. Every series has a distinctive look marked by its cinematography, editing, lighting, and/or soundtrack choices. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, The Hills, Laguna Beach, and The City employ a seamless cinematic style—including the use of widescreen, shot/reverse shot sequences, high key lighting, and telephoto lenses—mirrors its cast members’ positions as wealthy white consumers living in a fantasy world. By contrast, Jersey Shore, with its out-of-focus shots, visible leaders, and 70s brothel-chic house, all give the impression that the text (and the people contained within that text) are sleaze. Programs like Making the Band employ “bling” style editing, a surface layer of glitz that mimics the ambitions of the gamedoc’s participants. And Buckwild aims for a naturalist aesthetic, with cast members filmed primarily against the backdrop of leafless trees, mud holes or open green spaces. Buckwild defines West Virginians as naturalists: individuals with little money who must rely on nature for their amusements.
Even MTV programs like The Real World, which maintain the aesthetics we typically associate with documentary realism (long takes, mobile framing, imperfect sound and lighting quality), cast members speak their difference openly so that by the end of each new season premiere most of the cast has aligned themselves with a particular identity: the homosexual, the homophobe, the African American, the racist, the Christian, the foreigner, the Midwestern one, the city child, the girl with a history of abuse, the boy who is borderline abusive, etc. These cast members are not simply participants in a reality show—they are also its progeny. MTV cast members were suckled at the teats of reality television and they understand how identity works within its confines. Identity must be visible if it is to mean anything. And so Jersey Shore’s The Situation must “GTL” in order to be a guido (and to keep his job performing guido-ness) and Buckwild’s Shaine tells what it means to live in the “holler” and go “muddin” (in order to keep his job performing West Virginia-ness). Identity is lucrative today.
So a poetics of MTV is, simply, an engagement with American identities as they constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. We film ourselves, we watch ourselves, we hate ourselves, we write about ourselves, and then we film ourselves again. It is our challenge to watch these programs and parse through the identity politics they present. I am not trying to argue that MTV is taking premeditated strides towards mending our broken social bonds. Rather, MTV is doing what it has always done—it is filling a gap, in this case, our desire to figure out what identity means in a society that really wants to believe it is post-identity.
Gans, Herbert. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2:1 (1979): 1-20.
Hay, Carla. “Proper Role of Music TV Debated in U.S.” Billboard. 17 Feb 2o01. Web. 10 Jan 2013.
Kraszewski, Jon. “Country Hicks and Urban Cliques: Mediating Race, Reality, and Liberalism on MTV’s The Real World.” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Eds. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 179-196.
Oake, Jonathan I. “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator.” The Velvet Light Trap 53 (2004): 83-97.
Around this time of year, every newspaper, magazine, and blog offers up some form of the “Best Of” list, chronicling the best films, television series (or episodes), music, books, Broadway shows, trends, etc. of the previous year. Obviously, ranking the year’s best of anything is subjective and also impossible (after all, only an individual who was watched every television episode that aired in 2012 could state, definitively, which were in the top 5). And yet, such lists are so alluring. As a working mom, who reads, watches and listens to only a fraction of what I would like to read, watch and listen to, these “Best Of” lists take an unwieldy set of pop culture possibilities and whittles it down to a manageable chunk. These lists tell me “These are the only films from 2012 that you need to watch.” Then I take a deep breath and load up my Netflix queue.
You might thinking to yourself “Why would I read a ‘Best Of’ list compiled by a woman who has just admitted that she relies on other people’s ‘Best Of’ lists to tell her what pop culture was worthwhile from the previous year?” Excellent question. Why are you reading this? Don’t you have something better to do? No? Well then settle in, friend. I have some completely subjective selections for you based on an unrepresentative sampling of the year’s popular culture. I think you’ve made the right choice.
So without further ado, I present Part I of my “Best of 2012” list:
Best Television Series
2012 was an excellent year for television. I loved watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lose the final pieces of his soul on Breaking Bad. The last shot of the Girls season finale, in which Hannah (Lena Dunham) finds herself on Coney Island (after passing out in the subway and getting her purse stolen) and slowly stuffs her face with cake, was the perfect end to a first season filled with uncomfortable, body-focused stories and imagery. The look on Don Draper’s (John Hamm) face when he sees his daughter wearing fishnets and go-go boots or the scene in which Henry (Christopher Stanley) feeds his newly-plump wife (aka, “Fat Betty”) some steak at the kitchen table in the middle of the night were two highlights of the Mad Men season. I also loved watching all or most of the 2012 seasons of Louie, Boardwalk Empire, Happy Endings, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23, Parenthood, Teen Mom, and Game of Thrones. No, I don’t watch Homeland, The Good Wife, or Justified. I’m sure I would like all three, but right now I don’t have room for them in my TV diet. Like I said, “best of” lists are subjective. Let’s move on.
Dog smoking cigarette = win
While I loved all of the aforementioned programs and could make a “Best” case for many of them, my choice for “best” television series of 2012 goes to the FX series, Wilfred, because it is, simply put, the most bizarre show I have ever watched, with the exception of (of course) Twin Peaks.
“Can you hear it?” “No, ma’am, I cannot.”
The pilot episode of Wilfred opens with Ryan (Elijah Woods) trying and failing to commit suicide. We eventually find out that Ryan used to be a successful lawyer, working in his father’s firm, but when we meet him he is unemployed and estranged from his father (the reasons for this are only explained in the second season). Ryan’s attempts to end his life are finally interrupted by his neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), who wants him to watch her dog, Wilfred. Ryan is surprised to discover that Wilfred appears to him as a large, vulgar, Australian pothead (Jason Gann) wearing a very unconvincing dog costume. And the kicker is: Ryan is the only one who sees Wilfred in this way. This may seem like a gimmicky basis for a show, but it is also the source of some of the show’s greatest gags: one minute Wilfred is lecturing Ryan on ethics and the next he is chasing and maiming pelicans on the beach (“It’s a pelican !!! IT’S A PELICAN!!!..It was a pelican!!!”):
In a lukewarm review of pilot, Todd VanDerWerff explains “the show gets a surprising amount of mileage out of having Gann running around in a dog costume and saying things a dog might say if it could speak.” But Wilfred isn’t just shots of Jason Gann humping or chatting up his life partner, Bear, who is a large stuffed bear. The reason I love the show is because it so deftly shifts from bleakness to laugh-out-loud comedy. I often read about how shows like Louie and Girls are changing the rules of the sitcom by offering up tragic moments (like when Louie’s love interest dies in front of him on Christmas Day) in between low-brow body humor and Seinnfeld-ian levels of navel-gazing. But Wilfred takes those devices to another level. In Wilfred, despair and laughter are produced by the same cue — what is light quickly becomes dark, and vice versa.This is because the series is structured around the tension between two realities: either Ryan is a lonely, depressed, schizophrenic who uses an imaginary friend to work through his life’s problems or he is a lonely, depressed but otherwise sane man who happens to see his neighbor’s dog in human form because that is something that happens in this world. Therefore almost every scene on the series can be read in two ways.
Each episode is named after a particular lesson or virtue that Ryan needs to learn, such as “Letting Go,” “Avoidance,” and “Honesty.” Wilfred teaches these lessons to an unwilling Ryan , usually embroiling him in interpersonal conflicts that force the passive man to say or do things he normally wouldn’t. Although Ryan’s suicide attempt from the pilot is barely acknowledged, the series is clearly about teaching Ryan how to “live” (and live) in the world again. Of course, every “lesson” Wilfred teaches Ryan serves Wilfred’s interests in some way. We feel good when Ryan learns to stand up for himself or to reconnect with his institutionalized mother (played by an excellently loopy Mary Steenburgen), but we are always left wondering: is Wilfred helping Ryan to live or is he destroying Ryan’s life, piece by piece? And if Ryan is simply imagining Wilfred, then is Ryan using this dog-shaped delusion as an excuse to destroy his own life? Is he committing suicide, just at an incredibly slow rate?
Wilfred dances in between these many possibilities. Its genius lies in convincing the viewer to believe one scenario and then upending that belief with a single line or image. For example, after Ryan finally gives up on the possibility of romance with Jenna, he begins dating a co-worker named Amanda (Allison Mack). Amanda seems perfect — she’s funny, quirky, and clearly besotted with Ryan. It seems that perhaps Ryan will finally be able to have a loving intimate relationship after past traumas had made this kind of human connection difficult for him. But in “Truth,” Wilfred tries to convince Ryan that he should not move in with Amanda because he is still too mentally unstable. Ryan believes that Wilfred, as usual, is just looking out for his own self interests — if Amanda moves in, Wilfred will lose his best friend. Who will take him for walks or smoke pot with him? As they have this argument, an earthquake traps Ryan and Wilfred in the basement (of course). Bruce (Dwight Yoakam), the only other human who can see Wilfred (and thus the only plot point in the series that lends credence to the theory that Ryan might not crazy), appears to rescue the duo, promising to reveal the “truth” about Amanda that is concealed in a suitcase. This truth will prove why Wilfred is right.
But first, Ryan and Bruce must engage in a game of “Calvinball,” which involves pillow fights and “truth or dare.” The game is deliriously surreal, like so much in the series. When Ryan finally “wins ” the game and is granted access to the magical suitcase, he doesn’t discover anything about Amanda. Instead he finds a timer that tells him that he has spent 12 hours in his basement playing a bizarre game orchestrated by his neighbor’s dog. In other words, Wilfred was right — Ryan should not move in with Amanda.
Ryan is such a likable character (he is kind, empathetic and selfless to a fault) and we want him to be happy. But when we see the timer, the audience realizes — at the same moment that Ryan does — that he is crazy … but wait, is he? Or is this just what Wilfred wants Ryan to think in order to maintain the status quo? Isn’t it suspicious that everything that ends up “being for the best” also happens to serve Wilfred’s interests? These uncertainties are what drive the series and which make this show more than a collection of pooping on the lawn jokes (though I am 100% for a show that is nothing more than pooping on the lawn jokes).
And if that doesn’t interest you, Wilfred is worth watching for its “couch scenes” alone. Incidentally, as I was writing this post I found out that these short scenes, appearing at the end of show (after the main story has been resolved), are called “tags,” or “codas” (thank you Twitter):
Learning is fun!
The tags in Wilfred almost always take place on the couch in Ryan’s basement and feature Ryan and Wilfred engaged in a banal task, like playing a board game or having an inane conversation. They’re always fabulous:
And if that doesn’t interest you? Well, there are loads of other shows to watch. I hear The Good Wife is awesome, so maybe you should watch that instead?
I will be posting my “Best Meme,” “Best Film,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” picks over the course of the next few weeks. Stay tuned! If you dare!
I wanted to use this space to promote an anthology I will be putting together with R. Barton Palmer, a wonderful scholar and colleague who I met back in the Spring of 2011, when he gave talk at ECU. If you are reading this post (Hello, YOU!) and you know of anyone who might like to submit an abstract (due August 30, 2012), please pass along the information below.
Multiplicities: Cycles, Sequels, Remakes and Reboots in Film & Television (working title)
Like film genres, film cycles are a series of films associated with each other due to shared images, characters, settings, plots, or themes. But while film genres are primarily defined by the repetition of key images (their semantics) and themes (their syntax), film cycles are primarily defined by how they are used (their pragmatics). In other words, the formation and longevity of film cycles are a direct result of their immediate financial viability as well as the public discourses circulating around them. And because they are so dependent on audience desires, film cycles are also subject to defined time constraints: most film cycles are financially viable for only five to ten years. The contemporaneity of the film cycle—which is made to capitalize on a trend before audience interest wanes—has contributed to its marginalized status, linking it with “low culture” and the masses.
As a result of their timeliness (as opposed to timelessness), film cycles remain a critically under examined area of inquiry in the field of film and media studies, despite the significant role film cycles have played in the history of American and international film production. This collection of essays seeks to remedy that gap by providing a wide-ranging examination of film cycles, sequels, franchises, remakes and reboots in both American and international cinema. Submissions should investigate the relationship between audience, industry and culture in relation to individual production cycles. We are also soliciting essays that examine how production cycles in the television industry are tied to audience, culture, and production trends in other media.
Possible topics include, but are not limited to:
-sequels, trilogies, and franchises as cycles
-the relationship between film cycles and subcultures
-the relationship between film cycles and political and social movements
-analyses of intrageneric cycles (film cycles within larger film genres) such as teen-targeted musicals (High School Musical, Save the Last Dance, You Got Served) or torture porn horror films (Saw, Hostel, Touristas)
-analyses of intergeneric film cycles (stand-alone film cycles) like disaster films (The Day After Tomorrow, Poseidon, 2012) or mumblecore (Baghead, Cyrus, Tiny Furniture)
-the transmedia nature of cycles (the relationship between Harry Potter books, films, toys, video games, fan fiction, vids, etc.)
-the relationships between cycles in television, music, and film, like the appearance of fairytale television shows (Once Upon a Time, Grimm) and films (Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror) in 2011-2012
-production cycles found within television (television musicals, comedy verite, etc.)
– essays that explore the (dis)connections between film cycles, on the one hand, and remakes, sequels, adaptations, and appropriations on the other
Please submit your abstracts of 400 words and a brief (1-page) CV via email to both of the editors by August 30, 2012. Finished essays should be approximately 6,000 to 7,000 words in length, including footnotes. Acceptance of essays will be contingent upon the contributors’ ability to deliver an essay that conforms to the work proposed by the submitted abstract. We will notify contributors by November 2012.
Please email your abstract and CV to both editors:
R. Barton Palmer: PPALMER@clemson.edu
Amanda Ann Klein: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am also happy to answer any questions you might have about this project over email.
A month ago I participated in a blogathon devoted to the new HBO program Girls. The impetus for the blogathon was a series of discussions I was having with some media studies scholars (primarily Kristen Warner and Jennifer Jones) about the hype leading up to the show’s April 15th premiere. The public discourses surrounding the Girls premiere — in commercials created by HBO, interviews with the press, and reviews by critics who received advanced copies of the first three episodes — primarily stuck to the same theme: Girls is an authentic portrait of what it is like to be a twentysomething female today. Had the show simply been promoted as a new quirky portrait of a pirvileged, highly-educated but emotionally immature young woman’s struggles to make it as an artist in New York City, I am not sure our blogathon would have taken place at all. But the show’s generic title, which implies a universality (even as it mocks the maturity of its protagonists), coupled with the ecstatic reviews lauding the program’s authenticity, bumped up against the program’s rather rigid white, heterosexual, upper-class cast in an unpleasant way. Thus, the blogathon was our attempt to ask: do we take a television series to task for claiming to provide an authentic female bildungsroman when its “authenticity” is limited to one vision of female life?
One thing I did not say in my original post about the show, and which I think needs to be said, is that I do not blame Lena Dunham, the show’s creator, head writer, and star, for the way HBO advertised her show or the way television critics made her show, before a single episode ever aired, into a text that “speaks” for all of today’s young women. Dunham did not, for example, ever claim that her show was “FUBU” (for us, by us). That unfortunate statement came from a glowing preview written by television critic Emily Nussbaum. I enjoy Nussbaum’s work, particularly the way she writes about female characters on TV, but this was an absurd thing to write (well, to be fair, she was quoting her colleague). In addition to the problem of appropriating the phrase “for us, by us,” which was first used by Daymond John for his 1992 clothing line, FUBU (made by and for African American clientele), the claim that Girls was written for “us” by “us” implies that the white, heterosexual, upper class experience is generalizable to all women.
I suppose I understand why Nussbaum would include this statement in her review of Girls. Sometimes when I watch a film or television show, a moment rings so true that I wonder, briefly, if the creator has somehow read my diary. Knowing that this is impossible — I burned all of my diaries! — I then wonder if perhaps this truthful moment is something “universal.” That is an exhilarating feeling — that a private, personal experience is actually an experience linking me to a larger group of individuals. Indeed, you can feel Nussbaum’s excitement and her joy as she writes about Girls — the show clearly tapped into something personal and true for her. I too had moments like that when I watched Girls this season. But, I am also aware that I will have many more moments of personal recognition than, say, a white woman who had to pay her own way through college, or an African American woman who is looking at the screen and seeing no black faces, or a lesbian who is thinking “Seriously ladies, this is one of the reasons why I don’t date men.” To call Girls a show “for us, by us” implies that all of those other “us-es” don’t count.
My reactions to the Girls pilot probably seems nitpicky. “Okay fine,” you might be thinking,”so you’re mad about the way the show was promoted. But what about the show itself? Isn’t it important to judge it on its own merits?” Yes, hypothetical, puzzled reader, you are right. Let’s talk about the show itself: in my original post about the pilot, I was critical of the show’s tone. I felt that Girls was playing coy with its politics. It felt like Dunham was adding a “first world problems” hashtag (complete with air quotes) to the pilot, rather than actually grappling with these issues head on. I wrote:
…the show is awash in its own privilege. It winks and nods, but then dismisses it as if to say “I acknowledged this okay? Can we move on to what I want to talk about now?” If you have the critical fortitude to acknowledge privilege, like when Hannah’s friend scoffs at her for whining about having to pay her own bills (reminding her that he has $50,000 in student loans), then you better well deal with it.
I was honestly confused about what, exactly, Lena Dunham was trying to tell us about her character, Hannah Horvath. Are we supposed to genuinely sympathize with her “plight” or are we supposed to view her existential struggle to become the “voice of her generation” (or “a voice of a generation”) as the whiny complaints of a young woman whose biggest dilemma is that her ex-boyfriend from college has finally come out of the closet? Or that her shirtless, douchebag lover doesn’t text her enough? Or that her best friend is dating a man with, to quote Hannah’s diary, “a vagina”? If, according to Jason Mittell, the goal of a pilot is “to educate viewers on what the show is, and inspire us to keep watching,” then I do think Girls failed in one of its primary jobs — to let us know what the series’ tone will be. Is it a serious drama with sympathetic characters (Parenthood) ? A broad comedy in which characters are built for punchlines (Big Bang Theory)? A world filled with unlikable characters who do awful things and it’s funny (Curb Your Enthusiasm)? A world filled with unlikable characters who do awful things and it FREAKS YOU OUT (Sopranos)?
The Girls pilot did not make its tone clear. If you take that ambiguous tone, couple it with the show’s overblown hype and claims to authenticity, and then look at the blinding whiteness of its cast, then that is the best way to explain why I (and so many others) did not react favorably to the pilot. But I feel differently now, which is why I am writing this follow up post. I think the tone of the series became crystal clear partway through episode 2, “Vagina Panic,” when Hannah decides to get tested for STDs. The scene opens with Hannah wearing one of those flimsy hospital gowns that open in the back, a piece of clothing that is engineered to make patients feel humiliated and therefore, pliant. As Hannah lays back on the examination table, feet in stirrups, she begins to ramble. I want to pause for a moment and point out that generally I hate the way movies and television depict the “foot in the stirrups” scenario because it is usually played for drama — “My God, Mrs. Smith, you’re seven months pregnant!” — or for comedy — “My God, Mrs. Smith, I’ve found your car keys!”
Instead, this scene reveals the pelvic exam, that necessary female rite of passage, for what it is — very, very, very uncomfortable. I don’t care how old I get, I will never be comfortable having a doctor slide her gloved hand into an area which is normally pretty selective about who may enter it, insert a cold metal instrument inside of me so as to make that personal opening wider, and then have a perfectly casual conversation about my summer travel plans as she examines my holy of holies like a miner digging for diamonds. The pelvic exam is one of the few scenarios in which a woman must act like she is totally cool with a stranger rummaging around in her vagina, not for the purposes of generating an orgasm, but to figure out if there is anything “wrong with it.” So I found Hannah’s verbal diarrhea in this scene to be completely appropriate (even if the content of her ramblings was not). This was my “universal moment,” in which I saw a genuinely frustrating experience from my own life recreated accurately on screen.
The tone of the series also became clear to me here because Hannah, in her attempt to fill the air with conversation, launches into a ludicrous monologue about AIDS. I will quote it at length because it must be read to be believed:
The thing is that, these days if you are diagnosed with AIDS, it’s actually not a death sentence. There are so many good drugs and people live a long time. Also, if you have AIDS, there’s a lot of stuff people aren’t going to bother you about. Like, for example, no one is going to call you on the phone and say ‘Did you get a job?’ or ‘Did you paid your rent?,’ or ‘Are you taking an HMTL course yet?’ because all they’re going to say is ‘Congratulations on not being dead.’ You know, it’s also a really good excuse to be mad at a guy. It’s not just something dumb like, ‘You didn’t text me back,’ it’s like ‘You gave me AIDS. So deal with that. Forever.’ Maybe I’m actually not scared of AIDS. Maybe I thought I was scared of AIDS, but really what I am is… wanting AIDS.
What the hell, Hannah?
A nice recap of the episode over at Press Play compares this scene to a scene in the pilot episode of My So Called Life (1994) in which Angela Chase (Claire Danes) tells her English teacher, during a discussion of The Diary of Anne Frank, that Anne Frank was “lucky.” Angela’s teacher is horrified by her response: “Is that suppsosed to be funny? How on earth could you make a statement like that?” she asks. Angela, who has been mooning over her first real crush, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), suddenly snaps out of her reverie. After her teacher prods her again, Angela begrudgingly clarifies her response: “I don’t know. Because she was trapped for three years in an attic with this guy she really liked?” If you’d like to watch this scene, start at the 3.30 minute mark on the video below:
This scene is the epitome of that oft-used term “First World Problems.” Only a young woman who is well fed, well loved, and generally provided for would look at the plight of a little Jewish girl forced into hiding during the Holocaust and be jealous of her. Angela is so caught in the throes of her own teenage crush that she is only capable of viewing the world in terms of young women who get to be with their crushes and young women who are kept apart from them. Even something as large as the Holocaust becomes invisible in this world view. If my daughter said something like that I would be forced to give her a lengthy lecture on the nature of “real problems” even as I know that I possibly said something similarly awful at age 15. Indeed, this moment appears in the My So Called Life to tell us almost everything we need to know about the series’ protagonist, Angela: she is privileged; she is uncomfortable in her own skin; she misunderstands and is misunderstood by the adults in her life; and most importantly, she is desperately in love (or what she believes to be love) with Jordan Catalano. This is all that matters to Angela Chase and so her skewed (and horrifying) analysis of The Diary of Anne Frank makes perfect sense in this context. The audience is not expected to identify with Angela here (unless she is also a privileged 15-year-old in love, in which case, she might) but to understand that this scene is telling us what we need to know about Angela as we move forward through this series.
In the same way, Hannah’s infuriating rant about AIDS is a wonderful crystallization of her character. Only a young woman with no “real problems” would fantasize about having a really real problem. Hannah feels that having AIDS would somehow be simpler and more desirable than having to find a job or a boyfriend just as Angela can only see the benefits of being hunted down by blood-thirsty Nazis. As I listened to Hannah blather on I wanted to chastise her for saying such obnoxious things. But then her gynecologist did it for me. She looked at Hannah and said, with the utmost sympathy, “You couldn’t pay me to be 24 again.” This moment acknowledged Hannah’s self centeredness, her privilege and her ignorance about her own privilege, and then, very carefully, cut her some slack. Hannah is, after all, 23. And if I learned anything from Blink-182, it is that “nobody likes you when you’re 23”:
In fact, people in their early twenties are really no better than people in their early teens. In many ways they are worse because they are now equipped with college degrees that lead them to believe that they “understand” things about “the world.” A recent roundtable discussion in Slate, called “Girls on Girls,” offered this perspective on Hannah’s age:
Isn’t that funny arrogance and vulnerability the special purview of the 22, 23, and 24 year old? You are confused, on the low end of the work totem pole or still trying to prove yourself (unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg), and yet you also are young. You’re the next thing. You’ve left your parents’ home and are free to reject all the posters and accoutrements and funny habits and small town-ness of their lives.
A 23-year-old is like a very independent, very entitled toddler who can drive a car and is legally allowed to drink. We say and do very, very dumb things when we are in our early twenties, and that seems to be what Girls is about.
So as this season of Girls draws to a close, I find myself in an uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, I am really enjoying this series. Not every scene or character works (I could completely do without Shoshannah [Zosia Mamet]), but every episode contains at least one scene that I would characterize as “sublime.” And yes, I am using sublime in the Kantian sense of the word, meaning an overwhelming experience that generates awe and respect. I felt this way when Charlie (Christopher Abbott) serenaded his girlfriend, Marnie (Allison Williams), with excerpts from Hannah’s stolen diary that document their relationship from her cynical and judgmental perspective.
When Charlie gets on stage and announces that his next song was wrriten for his girlfriend, Marnie looks pleased (even though we know she does not truly love Charlie). Then, looking Marnie right in the eye, Charlie sings:
What is Marnie thinking
she needs to know what’s out there
how does it feel to date a man with a vagina.
As I watched this slow-moving car crash I was overwhelmed with a confusing mixture of sadness, humiliation, and awkward triumph. To watch Charlie completely abase himself — to throw himself onto his own sensitive-boyfriend-sword — in order to drive home the point that he deserves to be treated with respect, was truly beautiful. Sublime. As Charlie tells Marnie in a follow up episode, he just wants to be treated “like my life is real.” His song did that. This is the kind of scene that makes me happy that I study film and television for a living.
But still, I keep coming back to my original problem with this show — it makes whiteness and it attendant privilege the default setting (and as John Scalzi recently pointed out, “white” is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life). Why am I picking on Girls for doing what just about every single TV show currently on the air does? Because Girls is written and produced by an extremely smart and talented young woman and if she can’t find a way to make non-white characters, non-straight characters, or non-wealthy characters the default setting, then who is going to do this? Cord Jefferson’s piece in Gawker really nails this issue:
One of the reasons Girls seems to be so adored is that its depiction of upper-middle class, Urban Outfitters ennui reads as more true than most everything before it, as if, at long last, there is finally a team of young people that “gets it.” Many sub-30, post-college men and women look at the show and nod their heads in agreement with every abortion joke, drug reference, and unfortunate sex scene. This stuff is indeed happening in Ivy League pockets throughout the United States, the only difference is it’s happening to black, Latino, and Asian people as well, not just Dunham and her trio of white friends.
There is currently not a single leading character on Girls that couldn’t be played honestly and convincingly by a black actor or a Pakistani actor or a Taiwanese actor. It may come as a surprise to some Americans, but there are women of all races who freeload off their wealthy parents and work in tony art galleries.
Jefferson concludes his piece with this heart-breaking statement:
The guys begging for money look like us. The mad black chicks telling white ladies to stay away from their families look like us. Always a gangster, never a rich kid whose parents are both college professors. After a while, the disparity between our affinity for these shows and their lack of affinity towards us puts reality into stark relief: When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld, we see people with whom we have a lot in common. When they look at us, they see strangers.
Like the fictional Charlie, the very real Jefferson wants for television to acknowledge that his life is “real.” Like Charlie, he is tired of sleeping over at the white folks’ apartments all the time and hanging out with their friends. He likes them and all, but he wants them to meet some of his other friends. Like Charlie, Jefferson (and every audience member whose world view is routinely hidden from mainstream television) has his own apartment, filled with cleverly constructed shelving units and lofted beds. But like Marnie, white audiences won’t ever know this until we take the time to visit this apartment and look around. So no, Girls is not unique in its erasure of all that is not white, straight and middle to upper-class. But I wish that it were.
For another reconsideration of the series by one of my fellow blogathoners, check out Jennifer Jones’ “GIRLS at the Half.”
Full disclosure: I am an upper-middle class, highly educated (I have a PhD!), white woman. So when the protagonist of Girls, Hannah (played by the show’s writer/producer/director Lena Dunham), admits to her emotionally distant, sometime-lover Adam (Adam Driver), that her parents have cut her off financially at age 24, and then adds, sheepishly, “Do you hate me?” her mixture of white privilege and liberal guilt reverberated with me. It was a moment of resonance, a particular feeling generated by a particular situation, and I experienced it as a “real” moment.
My guess is that Girls will create lots of resonant moments for many viewers for a variety of reasons. I imagine that some will relate to Marnie (Allison Williams) and her mixed feelings about her too-nice boyfriend or Jessa (Jemima Kirk) and her desire to travel in order to avoid impending adulthood. These are interesting characters. They are messy and imperfect, which is almost always preferable to neat and perfect characters. And I like that Hannah is slightly overweight, or as her fuck buddy assures her “You’re not that fat anymore.” I daresay that this is one of the most radical aspects of Girls: the very ordinariness of its protagonist. As I watched Hannah move across the screen, examining her for an inkling of physical charisma, I was both frustrated and elated. I was frustrated because I am so accustomed to looking at perfectly formed women on TV, with tiny waistlines and flat-ironed hair, that looking at a normal one was a little bit of a let down. But I was also elated by Hannah’s ordinariness and the radicalness of placing a slightly frumpy, slightly average-looking female character at the center of a television series about young women. Jenny Jones offers up a lovely analysis of Hannah’s appetites in her own response to the pilot:
The shot opens with Hannah in close-up but off-center, shoved into the bottom right corner of the shot, breathlessly stuffing spaghetti into her mouth. As the scene continues, she and her father voraciously shovel down food while Hannah’s mother encourages them to slow down. From the start this positions Hannah against her mother and toward her father, an issue which springs up later when her mother is also the instigator for stopping Hannah’s money flow. Hannah is portrayed as consuming carelessly–including sex, drugs, and money–and food does seem to be a primary way that’s characterized. Eating a cupcake in the shower seems to be the ultimate example of this.
I, too, loved seeing Hannah shoveling food into her mouth because I also eat this way and I know it is disgusting. It’s also unusual for a not-stick-thin actress to eat heartily on camera and not make it into a schtick (as Bridesmaids did with Melissa McCarthy’s character). As I watched I asked myself: what if every model and every actress was as average-looking as Lena Dunham? Note that I did not say “ugly” or “fat” (she is neither of these things). She’s just…plain. If film and television were populated with ordinary women would I feel less critical of my own aging body? Would my 5-year-old daughter be less likely to tell me, as she examines her perfectly perfect little body in the mirror,”This shirt makes me look fat”? (True story).
Why is it so rare and exceptional to have an ordinary-looking female protagonist? Ordinary male protagonists are ubiquitous, of course, but for some reason a female character can’t just be smart or powerful or deadly with a broadsword. She has to be fuckable. I don’t want to my 5-year-old to think she has to be fuckable. And the media are working against me and my attempts to bolster her self esteem. And that sucks.
But even as I praise Girls for these praiseworthy elements, it must be acknowledged that there is a wide swath of audience who will have difficulty finding an entryway into this show. As Francie Latour wrote in a recent editorial for the Boston Globe:
It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population.
Latour’s observations are not in any way surprising. Films and television series are usually not made with a non-white, non-middle class viewer in mind. And when television shows do feature, for example, an all African American cast, it is rare that these shows are allowed to explore the subtle realities of their character’s lives. These shows tend instead to be broad comedies or exploitative reality shows. So no, I’m not surprised that there were no brown faces (no poor faces, no queer faces) in the pilot episode of Girls. But I am disappointed.
No show can (or should) offer to represent all possible identities since this is both impossible and by nature unsatisfactory. But Girls is a specific kind of show. It is a show that aims for verisimilitude — with its focus on the plastic retainer Marnie sleeps in, the scene in which Jessa talks to Marnie while taking a dump and wiping herself (gross, but okay, there was some realism there) and the spartan decor in struggling actor Adam’s apartment. If this show takes the time and care to present the realities of life in New York City for this group of young women in their early twenties, then I do expect to see some homosexuals and some African Americans and definitely some Spanish-speaking characters. It’s New York City for crying out loud! It’s telling that the only person of color to speak a line of dialogue in the entire pilot is a crazy, homeless, African American man who makes a pass at Hannah as she leaves her parent’s hotel room. I mean, seriously, HBO? That’s the role you decided to give to the black guy? [note: I forgot about Hannah’s Asian coworker who asked for the Luna bar and the Smart Water and the Vitamin water. So that’s two POC]. They found a way to bring a British woman onto the show (she’s that Mamet girl’s “British cousin” of course!) so couldn’t an Indian girl be Hannah’s old friend from the weight loss camp her parents made her go to as a tween (I just made up that backstory, by the way)? Couldn’t an African American guy be an actor friend of Hannah’s fuck buddy? There are ways to do this that do not stretch the credibility of this program. And that would make the show more real because I just don’t buy that a girl like Hannah would only interact with straight white people when living in Brooklyn. I do not buy it. And by the way, saying that you wish you could have done this doesn’t count. Consider the following exchange from an interview with Dunham in The Huffington Post:
Are you concerned that people might just think “Girls” is another example of white people problems?
Definitely. We really tried to be aware and bring in characters whose job it was to go “Hashtag white people problems, guys.” I think that’s really important to be aware of. Because it can seem really rarified. When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, “I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.” You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.
What? Why could you not do that this season? As the show’s closing credits inform us, you run this show, Ms. Dunham. If your hands are tied, you’re the one who’s tied them.
So is identification necessary to the pleasures offered by Girls? I would argue yes. It is a program that aims to create “real” moments, such as Hannah awkwardly trying to maintain a sexy bondage position while her doltish lover looks for lube and condoms. We are meant to watch this scene and think “Ah yes, I remember having an awkward sexual encounter like that!” And this is not to say that a gay man or a black woman cannot identify with a straight white woman and her awkward, somewhat humiliating sexual experiences. Of course they can. But I don’t think the show is cultivating that identification. I believe this show is zeroed in on a particular kind of viewer, a viewer who is like Dunham: white, middle- to upper-middle class, educated, and liberal. A viewer like me.
Why do I think this? Because the show is awash in its own privilege. It winks and nods, but then dismisses it as if to say “I acknowledged this okay? Can we move on to what I want to talk about now?” If you have the critical fortitude to acknowledge privilege, like when Hannah’s friend scoffs at her for whining about having to pay her own bills (reminding her that he has $50,000 in student loans), then you better well deal with it. Kristen Warner addresses this nicely in her post on the pilot:
White womanhood holds in its grasp innocence. They are the only ones who can truly be innocent. The only ones who can truly and sincerely have a conversation about why working at McDonalds is not an option while waiting on a cup of opium with Jay-Z playing in the background without remotely considering the juxtaposition of all these um…ideas. And the way that the main character, Hannah, and her girlfriends deploy that innocence (in sometimes successful but mostly unsuccessful ways) reveals the invisibility and instability of whiteness.
To offer up a counterexample, the current season of Mad Men is finally starting to do a respectable job of acknowledging its insulated whiteness. In the past Roger Sterling (John Slattery) has been a likable cad, making skirt-chasing, cheating on your wife, and getting drunk at lunch almost (almost) seem charming. But this season Roger has become a dinosaur, an artifact of the white male patriarchy. He is no longer charming. He can’t bring in new clients because he can’t understand that the world is changing. Instead he sits in his office and stews, getting drunker and hazier as the days goes by. In the meantime, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) puts her feet up on her desk, wears ties, and extorts money from her desperate boss. She is going to replace Roger because she at least understands, in a limited way, that the culture around her is changing. Roger just puts his head in the sand and this will be his downfall.
But Girls does not really address its privilege in a satisfactory way (meaning, I was not satisfied). When Hannah steals the housekeeper’s money we cut to her walking on the street (being harassed by the craaaazy black man) and smirking a small smirk of triumph. What did I need after that scene? I needed a 30 second scene depicting the housekeeper walking into the hotel room, instinctively looking around for her tip, and then muttering something about “cheap motherfuckers” before stripping the bed. That’s all I needed. Just a moment of consequence. Instead, Hannah gets to commit her selfish act in a vacuum and whoosh, it’s gone. Invisible. Quirky.
Am I being picky? A little. Can you judge an entire series based on its pilot? No. But let me explain myself through a teaching analogy: when I am grading essays I tend to be harder on my best writers. I challenge them more on their ideas, get more annoyed at their grammatical errors, and more outraged at their lazy arguments. “I know you are capable of better work than this” I might write at the end of a perfectly respectable essay. If you have the ability and the intelligence, then why create something subpar? I’m taking the same critical eye to my study of Girls. Dunham is a great writer and a pretty good actress with an ear for smart dialogue, and I know she can do better. Do better, Dunham, you are capable of better work than this. I give you a B. I know you can get an A.
For more reactions to Girls, I encourage you to check out our Facebook group, which is the hub of our Girls blogathon.
In 1988 I was 12 years old. I was a 6th grader at the Susquehanna Township Middle School. I lived in the suburbs. I had never kissed a boy. I wore giant Sally Jesse Raphael-style glasses and every day was a bad hair day. In other words, I was a pretty typical 12-year-old kid.
Therefore, despite our gender differences, I felt a strong kinship with Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), the protagonist of The Wonder Years. Kevin was also a typical 12-year-old kid: he was alternately moral and selfish, brave and cowardly, kind and cruel. He knew better than to question his parents and teachers, but he did it anyway, and suffered the consequences. He had an older brother who tortured him and a father who worked a lot and said very little. He was grappling with an adult world he only partially understood, but felt its ramifications as strongly as any adult. Kevin was me, only in a boy’s body.
If you are unfamiliar with this program for some reason, The Wonder Years was a 30 minute comedy/drama that ran on ABC from 1988-1993. The series opens in 1968, when protagonist Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) is starting junior high. Throughout the series Kevin’s personal coming-of-age story runs parallel with America’s very different, public coming-of-age story. As Kevin becomes more of an adult, America is also coming to terms with a new kind of adulthood: Vietnam, 2nd wave feminism, the Black Power movement, hippies, free love, a man on the moon, you get the picture. In episode 4, “Angel,” Kevin’s older sister, Karen (Olivia D’Abo), introduces the family to her radical boyfriend, Louis (played by a very young, very handsome John Corbett). Kevin takes an instant dislike to Louis because he makes out with his sister on his parents’ lawn (gross!) and because, as Kevin’s voice over explains: “I don’t know what it was about Louis that I didn’t like. Guess there was something about him I didn’t understand.” Here we catch a glimpse of Louis’ spray-painted VW van, with the words “Somethings Happening” scrawled on the door. To Kevin, those words were ciphers, shorthand for a movement that he was too young to comprehend. Louis and his leather vest and VW van were something, to use Kevin’s words “that [were]…taking my sister away from us.”
When I watched this episode at age 12, those words were also meaningless to me. A spray-painted van and long hair signified “hippie,” but I didn’t actually know what a hippie was. To me, “hippie” was a costume worn at Halloween rather than a representative of a political movement. What I didn’t know then is that in 1968, a younger generation was beginning to question the way the world worked. They saw their parents as sleep walkers, as drones who had yet to be enlightened about “what’s going on.” For example, in the same episode Louis has dinner with Kevin and the rest of the Arnold family. When Norma (Alley Mills), Kevin’s mother, mentions that the son of a family friend was recently killed in Vietnam, a heated conversation ensues. I am quoting this scene at length because it is a testament to both the pitch-perfect writing of this series and the respect it has for its characters. No one is a caricature and no one is a “symbol” of his or her generation:
NORMA: One of the boys on our block was killed in Vietnam several weeks ago.
LOUIS: Oh, I know. I mean, uh, Karen told me. Another meaningless death.
JACK: I beg you pardon?
LOUIS: I just meant that…it’s just a shame, uh…a kid has to die for basically no reason.
NORMA: More broccoli, anyone?
JACK: I don’t think it’s meaningless when a young man dies for freedom and for his country.
LOUIS: I just have a little trouble…justifying dying for a government that systematically represses its citizens.
NORMA: Oh, honey. Try the potatoes – I put grated cheese on them.
JACK: What the hell is that supposed to mean?
KAREN: It means the United States government is responsible…For the oppression of blacks, women, free speech…
JACK: Well perhaps, little lady, you’d like to go live in Russia for a little while…
LOUIS: Oh, uh…I think what Karen is saying is that –
JACK : Look, buster! I happen to believe that freedom and democracy have certain advantages that Communist dictatorships don’t, and that is what Vietnam is all about!
LOUIS : No, man, that’s what they brainwash you to believe it’s all about.
JACK: So…you think I’ve been brainwashed, do you, Louis?
LOUIS: No. No. Look… I think anyone…who supports the American war effort in Vietnam…[shrugs]…is having the wool pulled over his eyes.
JACK: I see…
LOUIS : Just like they did with Korea.
JACK: [getting angry] What the hell do you know about Korea? I was in Korea. I lost a lot of good friends there.
KAREN: Daddy, that doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re saying.
JACK : And they weren’t brainwashed! They were brave men who weren’t afraid to fight for what they believed in. Now if you’re afraid to fight – why don’t you just say so?! Why don’t you just admit you’re chicken?
LOUIS: You’re damned right! I am chicken. I don’t want to die like your friends! What do you think that you achieved over there? Hmm? Do you think that those people are free? They’re not free, man.
JACK: That’s crap!
LOUIS : You were used, man, and your friends were used.
JACK : That’s crap!
KAREN : Daddy, you never listen to what we say! Some of what we say is true!
LOUIS: Don’t accept all this death and then justify it. It is wrong! Your friends should be alive – they should be…[gestures]…enjoying dinner, and arguing with their kids, just like you are.
JACK: What do you know about it?! Who the hell are you to say that?!
When I watched this scene in 1988, I don’t think I understood the nuances of the argument. I saw it much the same way that Kevin sees it: one more fight in a long string of fights that he has witnessed between his sister and his parents.
But recently my husband and I began rewatching this series (it’s streaming on Netflix RIGHT NOW) and I was struck by the honesty of this scene. It would have been easy to make Jack an out-of-touch defender of the old guard holding on to his ideals, even as he sees them crumbling around him. Yet, Jack is sympathetic here and so is his point of view: He fought in Korea. He served his country. Now he is enjoying his reward (or trying to): a comfortable home in the suburbs with his wife and children. When Louis, who could also come off as a radical caricature but doesn’t, begins to poke holes in Jack’s worldview, there is a sadness there. Louis is not enjoying this argument. You can feel that Louis is angry, which we expect, but what I love about this scene is that it also legitimizes Jack’s anger. When he snaps, “What do you know about it?! Who the hell are you to say that?!” you can feel the rage and betrayal of Jack’s generation. How does this hippie know anything about the way the world works? Where is his authority to speak? And why is his hair so damn long?
This scene was just one of many that has resonated with me in new ways since I began rewatching The Wonder Years, some 24 years after it first aired. This experience has resulted in a doubled viewing position. On the one hand, I am watching as a 35-year-old and so the historical and cultural touchstones that I missed when I was 12 (the changing meaning of the suburbs in America in the 1960s; the anti-war movement; the students protests of 1968; The Feminine Mystique) are suddenly visible and significant. But at the same time, as I watch, I am still watching as a 12 year old.
When I sat down to watch the pilot episode a few days ago, and the opening credits began to play, I felt crushed, not by nostalgia, but by the weight of being 12. Those credits, a faux-scratchy home movie of Kevin Arnold and his family enjoying their last days of innocence, were etched onto my brain so that each frame was a surprise and a memory.
This experience was like reliving entire pieces of my adolescence (complete with the attendant emotions) while simultaneously having the ability to contemplate these pieces of my youth from the detached perspective of an adult. When I was 12 I so strongly identified with Kevin Arnold that when Winnie Cooper walks up to the bus stop in the pilot episode, having shed her pigtails and glasses for pink fishnet stockings and white go-go boots, I too, fell madly in love with her. Even at 35 I was hit by that excruciating longing and terror so characteristic of 12-year-old desire. I was in the past and the present at the same time. Here is the scene below (start watching at the 1.30 mark):
Because of this doubled viewing position, revisiting The Wonder Years has been therapeutic for me. You see, almost three months ago, my father died. I will not say that he “passed away” since this term implies a softness, like falling asleep or slowly vanishing. Death can be like this, but this was not my experience of it. And when I returned to my regular life, after the funeral and the sad faces and the conversations I didn’t want to be having, I encountered a steady stream of condolence notes, tentative e-mails, and awkward conversations with well-meaning colleagues about my winter break. One condolence note in particular stood out to me. Here is what it said:
“My Dad died when I was 30. I remember being surprised at how his death could make me feel like a child again.”
This note made me think about my experiences sitting in my father’s beige hospital room with my mother and brother. As we sat there together I realized that it had been almost a decade since the four of us had been alone together; no spouses, no children, no reminders of the lives that we had built apart from the original family unit. Whether we liked it or not, the three of us were transported back to an earlier time in our lives and into roles we had long since abandoned. I was once again a daughter and a sister rather than a wife and mother. I suddenly felt like a child again.
Perhaps this is why, some three months later, I have been finding so much comfort in the past: looking through old photo albums, creating Pinterest boards chronicling my youth, and yes, rewatching shows from my childhood, like The Wonder Years. This choice is fitting, in a lot of ways, since almost every episode of The Wonder Years contains a shot, or an entire scene, that focuses on the Arnold family watching television. These scenes focus on iconic TV moments, of course, such as when Kevin and his family watch the crew of the Apollo 8 orbit the moon:
But we also see the family in more mundane television-viewing scenarios. The TV is a way for the family to bond and a way for them to escape from each other. In the pilot Kevin even addresses the primacy of television after experiencing one of the most important landmarks of his adolescence: his first kiss:
“It was the first kiss for both of us. We never really talked about it afterward. But I think about the events of that day again and again. And somehow I know that Winnie does too, whenever some blowhard starts talking about the anonymity of the suburbs or the mindlessness of the TV generation. Because we know that inside each one of those identical boxes, with its Dodge parked out front and its white bread on the table and its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there were people with stories, there were families bound together in the pain and the struggle of love. There were moments that made us cry with laughter, and there were moments, like that one, of sorrow and wonder.”
These words are a defense of suburban life with its “little boxes made of ticky tacky,” but they are also a defense of television watching itself. Kevin argues that although his generation seems to be living in identical houses and watching indentical shows on their indentical TV sets, that doesn’t mean that their experiences of the world aren’t unique, meaningful, and real. For Kevin, TV doesn’t detract from his reality. It is a meaningful part of his reality. Mine too.
When people write about a moment in the present sending them back in time, they almost always cite Marcel Prousts’ seven volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927). There’s a reason for the ubiquity of Proust quotes in writings about memory: the dude nails it. So here’s Proust talking about how eating a madeleine cookie and a hot cup of tea generated an “involuntary memory”:
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?…”
Rewatching The Wonder Years is performing the same spell on me as Proust’s madeleine did on him. Take for an example, the episode, “My Father’s Office,” in which Kevin attempts to understand why his father is so tired and grumpy when he comes from working his job as a middle-management drone in an ominous sounding place called NORCOM. After asking his father a few questions and receiving only unsatisfactory answers, Kevin agrees to go to work with him for the day. He sees that his dad has a lot of power, which makes him proud, but that he must also answer to a needling boss, which embarrasses him slightly. Over the course of the day, Kevin comes to understand that the trials his father endures everyday have nothing to do with being his father. He also learns that his father once wished to be a ship’s captain, navigating his vessel by watching the stars. This blows Kevin’s mind.
The episode concludes with Kevin joining his father in their yard to look at the stars. Up until this point, star-gazing had been something Kevin’s father did alone, when he was angry or frustrated. Kevin often watched him do this through the window with a mixture of curiosity and fear. But at the end of this episode, Kevin joins his father and they share this experience while strains of “Blackbird” play on the soundtrack.
Of course, as Kevin points out, understanding comes with a price: “That night my father stood there, looking up at the sky the way he always did. But suddenly I realized I wasn’t afraid of him in quite the same way anymore. The funny thing is, I felt like I lost something.” I’ll admit that at age 12 I did not quite understand the meaning of Kevin’s epiphany (he always concluded the episode with an epiphany well beyond his young age). I, too, had a hard time seeing my father as a “real person” but I didn’t see why such an understanding would also be a loss. In fact, it has only been in the last few years, as I’ve watched my father’s body deteriorate and his attendant anger and humiliation, that I understood what Kevin Arnold meant. He meant that when we are able to see our parents as something other than a servant of our needs, our relationship with them changes. Once we realize that our parents have feelings and desires that have nothing to do with us, we understand them better. They become people, rather than parents. But we also lose a piece of our childhood once we gain that understanding. This is a loss that needs to be mourned. And sure enough, as the credits rolled on “My Father’s Office,” I cried.
Over the last few months, I have been stumbling through my own grief. I thought it would move in a straight line, but it moves in circles, disappearing and returning. When the grief moves away, I enjoy the freedom and respite. But when it circles close I try to grab it and confront it. It may sound strange, but the involuntary memories evoked by The Wonder Years are helping me to work through my grief and bring it close. Proust writes:
“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
The Wonder Years is filled with such remembrances, structures of feelings I have long forgotten and which I doubt I could access in any other way. We all mourn in our own ways and in our own time. For now, I think, I’ll take my mourning in 30 minute journeys to my past, when my parents were both still my “parents” and when I had not yet become a parent myself. For some, nostalgia can be toxic and overwhelming but for me, right now, it is as comforting as a plate of madeleines, a cup of hot tea, and a seat on the couch in front of the glowing box.