Even after all these weeks I am still quite uncertain as to what constitutes ‘quality’ television. Part of it, I think, is definitely brand association particularly in regards to HBO and their almost copyright possession of ‘quality’. Other shows like Mad Men that are not affiliated with HBO can be seen to be quality because of their likeness to other HBO dramas.
But anyway, the lecture today indicated several guidelines as to what makes a quality TV show:
- attribution of authorship
- large budgets
- ability to represent difficult/adult/taboo subjects
- promiscuous approach to genre
- emphasis on building immersive storyworlds
- slow plot development
- availability of paratexts
- experimentation with extended modes of audience engagement
So what makes Mad Men “quality” TV? It fits into all of the above categories, I think. Writer and producer Matthew Weiner is attributed in the opening credits of every episode, and the budget stands at a whopping $2 million (at least!) per episode. While I haven’t seen many episodes yet, it is already obvious that some subjects are treated with insensitivity, such as blatant sexism (which is possibly an over-exaggeration of values that actually existed in the 1960s). Then there is that incredibly uncomfortable scene at the doctor’s in the pilot episode… only a quality TV show could get away with something like that.
I feel that this treatment towards women is so blatantly bad because in a broader way it suggests our (humankind’s) continual bad behaviour towards certain peoples. Take, for example, Gary Edgerton’s comment:
“In Mad Men whatever says ‘This was them then’ connotes ‘This is us now’, mutatis mutandis. The characters’ smugness is undermined by our knowing more than they do, but that targets our certainty. Those foolish mortals are us, fifty years ago but us. Fifty years hence our present values and conventions may prove as foolish to the next enlightened age as these are to ours. When our advantage in cultural perspective tempts us to feel superior, the satire of the 1950s complacency turns upon ours.” (pg. 87)
In terms of the ‘promiscuous approach to genre’, Mad Men certainly fits the bill. Is it a period drama? Is it a satire? Is it “quality” TV? The ‘hybrid’ type genre is obvious. Furthermore, the show is slow-paced and character-centred. Not much action actually takes place at all. Being Australian (and not having access to the Mad Men series at all right now) I know little about the ‘immersive storyworld’ connected to the series, however by visiting the Mad Men website, it seems that there are interactive transmedia forms that go along with it – games, webisodes, quizzes, ‘behind the scenes’ footage and so on. (Available to Americans?? As if.)
However, to quote Brian directly, what makes Mad Men really stand out as a quality show is that:
“it’s just frickin’ beautiful.” (Morris, 2012)
And so now I have to engage in a close textual analysis of the episode we watched in the lecture. * sigh * I don’t want to. Just kidding! I totally want to!! Give me HDs.
The scene that stood out most to me from episode 13, season 1, “The Wheel”, was the very final one, as Don is on his way back home from work. We see him isolated and out of place on a crowded train as he heads home, the camera panning across the busy carriage full of happy, moving people to rest on him sitting reservedly to the right of the screen. We then see him enter his house, call out ‘hello’ and walk into the kitchen to find his wife and the kids about to leave for the Thanksgiving holiday. He announces he will be coming with them, and an emotional Betty watches on as he hugs his ecstatic children. The audience is shocked and disappointed when the scene cuts to Don entering the house again, revealing that he was actually only imagining the first sequence of events. Betty and the children have already left, so Don sits on the stairs and rests his head in his hands.
The Invisible Culture blog says the following of the scene:
“The episode’s denouement, then, is all the more fitting as a double ending in which desire abuts reality. Don arrives home and catches Betty and the children as they’re about to head out the door; just in time, he is able to accompany them to Betty’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Then, the scene repeats: Don arrives home and his family is already gone, the first arrival only a fantasy of his return. In this scene, Don’s nostalgia, on such stark display during the Kodak pitch, works forward instead of backwards, projecting an impossible vision of familial forgiveness into a future that will never be realized.”
I love this narrative technique of playing out the two endings, as it seems to stand in contrast to the rest of the episode. Although I can’t entirely speak confidently on the nature of Mad Men as a complex narrative (as I have only seen the first and last episodes of season one), it seems to try to convey a sense of ‘reality’ in that the narrative is generally linear and logical. This ending sequence messes up that logical flow, and in working with a 1960s themed era this technique surprises us. We don’t expect it because the show does not normally flow like this, and because the 1960s itself doesn’t expect it (the video camera, and the ability to watch a moment in time over and over still relatively new).
This scene drew my attention as it made me think of an argument made by Jason Mittell:
“The operational aesthetic is heightened in spectacular moments within narratively complex programs, specific sequences or episodes that we might consider akin to special effects.” (pg. 35)
Indeed, I would argue that this ending scene acts as a ‘special effect’, pulling us out of the comfortable progression of chronological events.
“In contemporary narratively complex shows such variations in storytelling strategies are more commonplace and signalled with much more subtlety or delay; these shows are constructed without fear of temporary confusion for viewers. Fantasy sequences abound… present visions of events that oscillate between character subjectivity and diegetic reality, playing with the ambiguous boundary to offer character depth, suspense, and comedic effect.” (pg. 37)
In this case, the effect is insight into Don’s thought and fantasies, and an acknowledgement of the strain in his relationship with his family.
Invisible Culture – electronic journal of visual culture
O’Barr, William M. “Mad Men:Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Sexuality, and Class”. Advertising & Society Review Volume 11, Issue 4, 2011. (Project Muse)
AMC Website – Mad Men
Mittell, J. Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. The Velvet Light Trap
Number 58, Fall 2006.
Edgerton, Gary R. Mad Men: Reading Contemporary Television. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. 2011.
What kind of show is Big Love? That is the question.
What a broad, strange thing to ask. Do we even think about this when we watch TV? Do we strain to think about what genre it is? What audience is going to watch it? How the identity of the network company alters our view of it? Do we care about how complex it is, or if television scholars consider it ‘quality’ TV?
For the most part, no. We don’t think of these things. We don’t care. We just watch what interests us. For some people this is shows that display ‘narrative complexity’, for others a simple soap opera will do the trick. We why have to categorise them all is beyond me, but okay.
A commenter on Michael Kackman’s piece on Flow TV, Jeffrey Sconce, highlights how unusual it is that we equate complexity with quality:
“…the unexamined equation of quality with complexity is a particularly strange move for television studies to make. It reached its apotheosis in the Steve Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You” book from a few years back, with its rather hilarious charts demonstrating how much more complex and thus worthy “The Sopranos” were in relation to “Starsky and Hutch.” Complex TV is apparently better because it forces you to make more neural connections, in the same way that video games are good for hand-eye coordination!”
Considering Big Love was Brian’s choice this week on our discussion on quality TV, I suppose it falls under this category. Michael Kackman loosely describes such narrative complex programs as:
“those that blend episodic and serial narrative techniques, build upon extended back stories of both plot and character, are often self-consciously aesthetically experimental, and which promote a particular kind of spectatorial pleasure in the mechanisms of narration itself.”
I would say that Big Love is more of an episodic structure than a serial. The focus is on the overall movement of the plot, rather than the small conflicts and resolutions that take place episode-to-episode. The main driving force of the show is that the family situation is so unusual: the main character has three wives, and has had children with all of these wives, yet they all live together as one family entity. This challenges the notion of the typical American nuclear family, and the institution of marriage, while also strengthening the idea that the Big love family is unusual, and that the normal family functions better (*statement open to criticism*).
In terms of genre, I like how Jason Mittel puts it:
“My concept of genre is as a cultural category bearing assumptions and associations – and probably no television genre is as laden with assumptions as the soap opera!”
Sure, soap opera is a fairly solid genre with all of its respective assumptions, but this notion of complex television shows… is this a genre in itself? Given what Mittel describes as the function of soap operas – “immersive, slow-paced, dialogue-driven melodramatic storytelling that rewards long-term accrual of character knowledge” – it would appear that there is a parallel between soap operas and these long form complex narratives.
In Big Love, we rely a lot on what the dialogue provides us: it demonstrates the jealousy of the wives, the feelings of the children, the strong stance on polygamous marriage that Bill Henrickson has. It is also true of Big Love that viewers are rewarded with ‘long-term accrual of character knowledge’. Watching the final episode of the series after watching the pilot, I actually began to tear up when Bill was dying and looking up at all of his wives. I was able to see from the pilot episode that he had feelings for them all and loved them deeply, and it was truly rewarding to see how far they had come as a family. It would have been even more rewarding had I seen all the problems they had encountered between the first and last episodes as well, I am sure.
So, to answer my original question, Big Love is an HBO branded (and therefore a “quality”) television show. The brand literally does carry ‘baggage’ with it, and works to form the genre along with the show’s specifics. While it shares aspects of soap operas and melodramas, the way in which it blends episodic and serial structuring, as well as its position within the HBO brand leaves it categorised along with other shows of narrative complexity. I would also argue that this is also due to the time in which it was created, as long form complex narratives have been developed and studied at large during the early 21st century.
Michael Kackman, 2010, ‘Quality Television, Melodrama and Cultural Complexity’
Jason Mittel, 2009, ‘More thoughts on soap operas and television seriality’