Fall TV [September 20-24, 2010]

Avi Santo's picture

Monday September 20, 2010 – Jennifer Pozner (Women in Media and News) presents: ”Bridalplasty”: If you’re shocked, you haven’t been paying attention

Tuesday September 21, 2010 – Erin Copple Smith (Denison University) presents: Everyone at Comic-Con Loved “The Event”!: Creating Pre-Season Buzz for Fall Premieres

Wednesday September 22, 2010 – Victoria M. Sturtevant (University of Oklahoma) presents: Project Runaway: On the Road with Austin and Santino

Thursday September 23, 2010 – Aymar Jean Christian (University of Pennsylvania) presents: From Four to Ten: A New Lens for Scripted TV

Friday September 24, 2010 – Michael Newman (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) presents: “Running Wilde” and the State of Network Comedy


Theme week organized by Darcey West (Georgia State University)

Picture from Terry Bain via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License  and altered with permission from the photographer.

  • “Bridalplasty”: If you’re shocked, … by Jennifer L. Pozner

  • In November, just in time for sweeps (and the same month as my book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, will be published), E! will debut Bridalplasty, a headline-baiting reality show combining the body dysmorphia of Fox’s cosmetic surgery competition The Swan with the unbridled hyperconsumption hawked by TLC and WeTV’s wedding industrial complex series such as Say Yes to the Dress, Bridezillas and My Fair Wedding.

    Dismally derivative, Bridalplasty will pit future brides who “want the dream wedding AND the dream body to go along with it” and “are willing to do whatever it takes to beat the competition in order to get that perfection” against one another in wedding planning challenges to “win a wedding fit for the stars where she will unveil her shocking new look” to the man she’s about to marry. According to E!’s press release, each week the “lucky” winner of each challenge “will also get one piece of her dream body – going under the knife for one of the surgeries off her ‘wish list’… Each episode ends in a dramatic elimination with one bride… possibly walking away with nothing and losing her chance to be the perfect bride.”

    Mark Cronin and Cris Abrego of 51 Minds (who modernized the minstrel show via VH1′s Flavor of Love franchise) undoubtedly counted on the PR-happy shockwaves that ripped through the interwebs following the series’ announcement. Critics’ outrage is warranted, but their shock is misplaced. There is nothing more inherently exploitative than what reality TV has been subjecting women to for a decade. Why should anyone be surprised that the template ABC set with Extreme Makeover (2002), and which Fox tweaked with The Swan’s post-surgical beauty pageant competition (2004), would be retooled via E!’s quest for bridal “perfection?”

    Go ahead and be outraged at this latest backlash fare–send letters to E!, and to media outlets’ editors. But don’t be surprised. Your shock just plays into 51 Minds’ PR plans. As I wrote in the introduction to Reality Bites Back:

    “TV execs believe that the more they bait advocacy groups like NOW, the NAACP, and GLAAD, the more controversy a show will generate. Offensiveness = hype = increased eyeballs for advertisers  and cash for networks, making outrageous bigotry less a by-product of reality TV than its blueprint.”

    A more in-depth version of this post is available at the Reality Bites Back Book blog.

  • “Everyone at ComicCon Loved The … by Erin Copple Smith

  • The Event aired last night, but you’ve probably been hearing it about it for months.  Network previews and promotions, interviews with producers and cast members, “leaked” clips and trailers all designed to get you to wonder, “What is the event?!”  (Importantly, NBC doesn’t want you to wonder what The Event is, just about what “event” might be at the heart of the series.)  Every television premiere gets promotional support from its network, but the efforts made on behalf of The Event demonstrate the ways the network and producers have worked to reach, excite and soothe the series’ potential fan base before a single episode aired.

    The Event is yet another iteration of the hyper-serialized, sci-fi/mystery format that has worked well for some series (Lost, early Heroes) and gone awry for others (Invasion, FlashForward).  The Event has sought its audience among fans of those other series—sci-fi geeks, appointment TV viewers, and perhaps most importantly, Lost fanatics looking for something new to fill the void.  But all these shows faced the same obstacle: keeping audiences invested in the mystery by giving them some answers, but not all of them—a balance that has proven fatal in most cases.

    To reach their audience, The Event’s cast and producers made a trip to ComicCon 2010 in July, where they screened the pilot and offered a brief Q&A panel.  The video at left offers some clips from the panel, and highlights the attempts of the promoters and producers to focus on the hype and intrigue, while soothing fears about the storytelling.  To begin, moderator Kristin dos Santos identifies with the audience, exclaiming, “I was so afraid to get sucked into a show like this, but after seeing the pilot, I’m so on board,” echoing the worries (and enthusiasm) of the audience to whom she’s speaking.  Executive Producer Evan Katz takes a page from Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, promising answers and asserting that those behind the scenes know where the series is headed.  Throughout, the theme of being “sucked in” and yet eventually rewarded for viewership continues, in an effort to create buzz and address concerns.

    Pre-season promotional events like ComicCon offer networks and producers an opportunity to get out in front of the series itself, to round up audiences, get them excited, and make them promises before they’ve seen a single episode.  Examples like The Event’s panel demonstrate the strategies deployed to generate interest and respond to concerns—and, of course, to create headlines like “Everyone at ComicCon loved The Event!” based on extremely scientific data.


  • Project Runaway: On the Road with … by Victoria Sturtevant

  • The previews for Lifetime’s late summer Project Runway spinoff, On the Road with Austin and Santino, did not fill me with glee.  The popular reality alums were shown taking a road trip “To bring deserving women across America a one-of-a-kind look.”  Oh dear.  At first blush, the premise seems to mix the class voyeurism of The Simple Life with the lifestyle-guru gay stereotypes of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  The odd-couple structure of competing out-groups troubled me as well:  hicks, meet queers.  Which would be reinforced at the expense of the other, heteronormative privilege or class privilege?

    However, the actual show has surprised and frankly delighted me, navigating clumsily but endearingly around these traps.  This road trip interests me as a reversal of the decades-long national migration of gay young men from rural locations to the nation’s cities.  The frisson of exploitation in On the Road is the expectation that Austin will shock the rubes with his dandyish appearance, but in practice that element simply falls flat.  The occasional peripheral character stares at Austin, but for the most part, people know how to behave on TV.  Instead, the show foregrounds the banter of Austin and Santino, who are sweetly funny and seem genuinely, unironically delighted with these small towns and small town folk.  Their clients are treated with respect, and never invited to perform “deservingness” or make tearful confessions about their body images.  Best of all, Austin and Santino are not always banished to the ghetto of the sewing room or make-up studio, but have identities outside of their dressmaking services.

    Throughout the series, Austin also deflects the discomfort of people he meets by actively teaching others how to interact with him, from training fabric store proprietors in the art of air-kissing to his references to himself and his military client as “two gentleman,” evoking an identity that means something different to each of them, but that they can share an investment in.  His boater hats, parsols, and gentility evoke an aestheticized Neverland American past—he looks quite at home in ye olde towne centers and historic inns the two pass through on their travels.  It strikes me as politically rich for Austin to insert himself this way into a pastoral fantasy of American history, because that very fantasy is so often used to exclude gay people from full rights in institutions such as marriage and the military.  As I watch it, I find myself hoping, with a naivete that surprises me, that this charm offensive makes a difference in the larger culture war it references.

  • From Four to Ten: A New Lens for … by Aymar Jean Christian

  • It’s “premiere week” for the Big Four! This is usually an exciting time for TV fans. Television series are blessed with the gloss of the new; hope is in the air!

    So it’s telling how HBO’s Sopranos follow-up, Boardwalk Empire, stole the buzz leading up to this week, even as NBC breathlessly promoted their Event. It’s yet another example of how the “big four” have now become at least ten in scripted market, as HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, TNT, even Starz churn out quality primetime TV.

    For years conventional wisdom has been telling us broadcasters can’t compete for buzzworthy shows. Usually I’d say that’s simplistic. But looking at my list of must-sees, I’d say the truism rings true. Sure, I’ll watch The Event, with its mysterious marketing, and Undercovers, with its feverish pace and daring “post-racial” duo. Lone Star, Running Wilde, My Generation, Outsourced, $#*! My Dad Says and others will all get my attention for various reasons, but I can hardly say they have me pumped.

    If “premiere week” has really lost its fire, the networks can’t shoulder all the blame. Ambitious programming like the decade-defining Lost and 24 or underappreciated Flash Forward and Kings are increasingly rare and risky. As the networks see what’s working on cable – from conventional sitcoms to TNT and USA’s procedurals – my gut feeling tells me they’ll be trying less to impress us and more to just please.

    Can we really blame them? Not to overstretch the broadcast vs. cable debate, but primetime premieres have been dogged by competition since the 1990s, as their share of the audience dwindled and as the number of networks producing content rose. They’re not the only players in town.

    Today the Big Four churn out hours and hours of primetime programming, but we’ve come to expect quality from a broader range of networks. Year round, we’re entertained by a growing number of players. We get quality from at least ten. The CW guns for the young. USA pleases us all summer. Would-be music channels MTV and BET are ordering scripts with newfound zeal, alongside other niche channels from Lifetime to TVOne.

    All this activity puts a damper on premiere week, diluting the excitement, no matter how many times we see promos for The Event. TV has never been better, but premiere week is increasingly less, well, eventful.

  • “Running Wilde” and the State of … by Michael Z. Newman

  • Here are some expository scenes of the new Fox sitcom, Running Wilde, with Will Arnett and Keri Russell.  A yet-to-be-identified girl’s voice introduces the characters by name and habit (“always one-upping each other”).  The title character, Steve Wilde, inhabits an expansive mansion, which is presented in high-angle long-shot.  We see visual humor based on cartoonish compositions, as in the shot of the friends facing one another, one on a huge horse and the other on a ludicrously small pony. The introduction of Steve’s secretary Mr. Lunt is presented in horizontal split-screen, a novel stylistic choice in a network comedy.  In terms of the sound and image, the sitcom is hardly the same genre as it was even ten years ago, when Malcolm in the Middle debuted on Fox as a novelty — a live-action single camera show with a voice-over and no laugh track.

    Now comedies on the networks are easily sorted into two kinds, the “mass” sitcoms on CBS and the “class” shows on the rest of the nets.  No one thinks of Chuck Lorre as “Quality TV” but on ABC, last season’s favorite new half hour, Modern Family, has slid into that category, accompanying the Thursday night slate on NBC.  Now within the class/Quality category of course there are distinctions; some shows work better than others as stories and some casts come together better than others as effective ensembles.  Running Wilde seems less likely to make it to 100 episodes than the show following it on Tuesdays, Raising Hope, another class sitcom emphasizing visual humor.  On Running Wilde, the screwball situation between the shallow overgrown rich kid and Keri Russell’s earnest liberal do-gooder requires a frisson of sexual tension à la Sam and Diane, and we don’t get that from the pilot.  But whether it turns out to be a classic or a dud, it’s interesting to consider how expectations around a show like Running Wilde are set, and what terms we use to consider its success or failure.

    Unlike Mike & Molly or $#*! My Dad Says, Running Wilde comes to us bundled in discourses of art, including the identification of creator and oeuvre.  It is the next project by the Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz, and Arnett as well as David Cross are veterans of that beloved earlier Fox show, which was also of course in the “class” mold of zany, cartoonish single-camera shows with distanced voice-over narrators and visually and verbally sophisticated humor.  Most television shows are not publicly identified with an individual’s vision, but this one certainly is, and critical as well as popular judgment measures it against the beloved earlier favorite.  But Arrested Development was not a commercial success, having lasted as long as it did not by virtue of solid ratings but in hopes that cult viewing might eventually spread to the mainstream.  Indeed its ratings failures and cancellation after three seasons are central to its artistic identity as the show too good for network television.  Quality TV performs its own quality, and Running Wilde does this in its sophisticated mise en scène and camerawork, as well as in its liberal political viewpoint (though we might hesitate to pin this down based on a pilot).  But perhaps the most obvious way it sells itself as Quality is by association with AD — Arnett is playing a similar character to Gob Bluth, and the scenario of over-privileged rich folks whose foibles are milked for sophisticated comedy is familiar.  Meanwhile on CBS, “your grandfather’s network,” you can tune in to see their newest  “conventional, cynical, yet sentimental joke-pause-joke comedy.” The state of network comedy is split between two poles of cultural legitimacy, and even if it’s a stinker, Running Wilde represents the more highly valued of them.



Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 20 Sep 2010 04:01:33 +0000