Laurel, I really enjoyed your post and I think it pulled on a lot of contradictions inherent in the current expectations of college attendance. One thing I have noticed among students is a desire only to “go through the motions” of getting a college degree, because they have been told over and over again that they must attend, but sometimes they are barely passing the core requirements. Another issue that came to mind while reading your post - are the goals of a college experience that needs to generate lots of money (requiring large student loans) incompatible with the goals of learning for learning’s sake?
Well done, Justin, on your timely reminder of some of the predilections and biases of so-called Quality Television. It seems, however, that these particular emphases and tendencies are shared by good old “Regular TV” as well. One wonders, though, at the differences between the degrees of self-awareness that these different televisual traditions demonstrate towards these identity politics.
And yet even a program as normative as GLEE can demonstrate a considerable level of self-awareness regarding its own representation of disability. The show certainly uses the conventions of musical fantasy adroitly to address the fact that Kevin McHale (who portrays paraplegic club member Artie Abrams) is “playing crip.” While GLEE’s homiletic impulses are often the subject of online derision, its self-conscious attempts to take a “progressive” approach to identity politics are not simply relegated to sermons on inclusivity in tolerance. Occasionally it presents the opportunity to consider the performativity of disability - something Quality TV might attend to more often, perhaps?
All of this is to stay that you’ve provided a valuable reminder that the particularities of a given show - and the performance choices of its actors - can circumvent sweeping charges of representational insensitivity. Take the considerable discussion around the infamous “telephone scene” in BREAKING BAD - in which Bryan Cranston expertly shows the emotional cost to Walter White at playing the misogynist creep others assume him to be. Like Artie’s fantasy sequences on GLEE, it is a moment in which the show, and its white, male antihero, “speaks back” to its critics through creatively deliberate and self-conscious play acting.
Laurel thank you for starting the conversation this week and doing an excellent job of framing the discussion. I also wanted to add an additional line of discourse that of the “don’t go to college” and become a tech entrepreneur mythos. This is the cousin to the “go to college and network to launch your dot.com or app company.” Its connected to the strand of financially driven thinking you identify but with a new media twist. As if the barrier breaking potential of the Internet is all that is needed to start a career. I think the success stories of the “didn’t even go to college” tech billionaires contributes to the frustration many students feel when they enter a university and learn that the goals are different. Some examples of the media objects that engage this discourse are the new HBO series Silicon Valley, the upcoming AMC series Halt and Catch Fire and the Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn comedy The Internship (basically a long commercial about how people “who think outside the box” are the key to what makes Google so great).
RIchard, I love that you have highlighted the relationship between acting and reality tv. I haven’t been able to watch my house hunting shows with my usual suspension of disbelief. I also like that you have analyzed the body language of the people to illustrate how uncomfortable with the scenario and how the scene is shot in such a way so as to best allow the people to lie about it. Overall, it makes me wonder how we can expect people to ‘act’ on the occasions when a camera is placed in front of them, and how we can apply this schema to reality tv more generally.
Regardless, Stanislavski and Strasberg are definitely turning in their graves!!
Justin - I think that this is a great piece and concerns a lot of key insights here. Highlighting gender and the ways that this and disablility are often combined also seems a useful thread for investigation.
Though I haven’t seen The Bridge yet, one of the elements I find compelling in Homeland is just how often the acting transcends the script pages. In particular, I’m thinking of the scene in season 1 where Carrie is thrown off the case and the sound basically goes out, but Danes is left screaming and ‘acting’. I wonder if by analyzing these scenes against the final script pages, we might find the labor involved…
I also appreciate your implication that disability and quality performances usually go hand in hand, and there is definitely something here that Kruger’s and Danes’ portrayals are harnessing here.
Thanks for the astute comment, Colin. A simple reply would be to say, “No opposition here!” Especially given the show’s venerable and long-lived run, as well as its more recent pop cultural elevation (the show is both a commercial and critical hit in North America as well as the UK). Moreover, it’s readily becoming apparent how conducive deep characterization is to the construction of “quality TV” - and since returning to broadcast Doctor Who has become an ideal vehicle for the exploration of character complexity. The appreciation for and fun with this aspect of a recurring role is readily and transparently visible in the clip chosen, as these two actors clown around lovingly in an extended tribute to the role that has made both of their careers.
Thanks for the comment, Mark. The companions have always been a simple yet deft structural device: they function primarily as audience analogues. We explore and experience new worlds for the first time just as they do. Moreover, they also serve as a helpful anchor to help weather the transition from one Doctor to the next (typically, an old companion will meet a newly regenerated Doctor). They also serve as fodder for fan comparisons, and useful catalysts for characterization (each Doctor gets the companion that he needs). Thus, like any good supporting player, they are privileged vehicles for our comprehension and appreciation for a work’s broader thematic concerns. Here’s to all who’ve gone before, and are still to come. May they all aspire to Catherine Tate’s remarkable work on the show!
Well done, Christine, on pointing out one of the particular pleasures of assessing performance. In particular, your reference to extratextual knowledge is a useful reminder that the evaluation of acting is not only frequently a comparative endeavour (how well an actor lives up to previous performances), but also a matter of responding to novelty (how well an actor performs in a new situation). Certainly a Whovian rushes to Gracepoint to see Tennant “go American.” Moreover, Tennant’s accent also becomes the locus of concern for broader debates about cultural and industrial differences in televisual adaptations. Here an actor shoulders the burden of audience scrutiny: if Tennant’s accent is “unconvincing” or “wooden,” then what an audience is listening for are audible signs of Fox “idiocy” in Americanizing (read: dumbing down) quality British programming…
Great piece, Colin. Orphan Black’s been in my queue for a while. Thanks for a good excuse to bump it to the top of the list.
It strikes me that there’s more work to be done here on this particular topic. At the very least: a comparative look at Orphan Black and Whedon’s Dollhouse, which also features a recurring character taking on a different role or identity each week. Quantum Leap too, maybe?
One of the fascinating dimensions here is to consider the tensions or differences between performance traditions across media. This particular show - and others like it - seem tailor-made to consider the confluences of performance styles and modalities that only seem possible in serialized media. If “versatility” is the hallmark of “quality” film acting, and “consistency” is a virtue in repertory theatre, then TV (as well as webseries) acting represents an opportunity for the performer to showcase both virtues.
Moreover, a show like Orphan Black becomes interesting for its potential to consider both of these different performance expectations, but also how TV can merge and blend the two - i.e. versatility AS consistency. The unique dilemma of serialized narrative is also addressed: audiences tolerate conceptual changes and character transformation only within limits (or one risks jumping the shark in a bad way), but equally we grow tired of repetition and stasis. Maslany’s consistency in versatility would seem to address this paradox quite neatly.
Aaron - I really like this post and some of the questions it raises. To me, it really seems The Doctor provides the actor with the opportunity to play an iconic role - similar to what occurs to the stage actor who portrays Hamlet. I’m not as familiar with the show (haven’t really watched since Baker was the Doctor) but I wonder if this interpretive framework is in any way opposed to the show’s cult or ‘low’ cultural status.
Either way, I think that your ideas present us with a great way to move forward with the topic, especially regarding frameworks and texts which lend themselves to analysis.