Monday, August 11, 2014

My Personal Slayer: A Review of Anne Billson's Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I like writing book reviews. I really, really do. So why do I like working in such a looked down upon by academics genre like the book review? The answer to that question is simple and easy for me to answer: When I read books I often get angry at what someone else has argued or said and it is this anger that stimulates the muse in me. Additionally, it is in book reviews that my theoretical and methodological approach and perspective and my critiquing skills--what few I have--become most clear. Needless to say, I really, really, really like theory, method, and intellectual critique. I just wish more people, academics included, partook of critical, critical thinking more often. Anyway, I hope you enjoy my book reviews here on my blog site. Good reading.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a Critical Reading of the Series
Anne Billson, 2005
London, British Film Institute / Berkeley, University of California Press
pp. 154, index, bibliography, illus., £9.00 / $19.95 (paper)

Building on the success of its monograph series’ on ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ films the British Film Institute has recently decided to move into the classic TV show market as well and has begun publishing a series of monographs on television shows. The first monographs released in the BFI TV Classics series include Kim Newman’s study of the long running BBC TV show Doctor Who, Ben Walter’s exploration of the BBC show The Office, Michael Eaton’s monograph on the BBC’s Our Friends in the North, and Anne Billson’s work on the American TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buffy might seem a surprising and unlikely candidate for a series on “classic” TV shows to many in the ivory tower. However, since Buffy appeared on the air in 1997 on the fledgling WB network and later on UPN in 2001 the show has garnered more academic interest than any other TV series past or present—something itself probably worthy of analysis. Currently there are over 400 academic essays, over a dozen academic books, and two academic websites—-Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies and the undergraduate online journal Watcher Junior—-devoted to the show with more coming every year. Billson’s monograph is one of the latest.

Like the monographs in the BFI Film Classics and BFI Modern Film Classics series Billson’s book is lavishly presented and includes a number of colour stills from the series. The monograph is divided into ten chapters. Chapter 1 allows us to tag along with Billson as she reflects on her journey through the jungle of British and American popular culture and TV in search of a strong female role model. Chapter 2 explores the prehistory of Buffy—the vampire films that preceded it and presumably influenced it and the film that was its direct predecessor. Chapters 3 through 9 discuss the seven seasons of Buffy each beginning with a plot summary followed by a “personal” and “critical” reflection on each season. Chapter 10 briefly explores the life of Buffy after the series finale in 2003. The book closes with a list of Billson’s favourite episodes. It is the “personal” aspect of Billson’s study that I find most problematic about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Not all of this perhaps is Billson’s fault. Unlike the Classic Film and Modern Classic Film series, the TV Classics mission statement calls for authors to offer their personal responses along with critical readings of the classic TV shows they are writing on. The problem is that Billson interprets the ‘critical’ directive of the series in a very ‘personal’ way as well. For instance, in the chapter on season four of Buffy, the season in which Buffy and the Scoobies leave high school for college, work, and various life crises, Billson’s “critical” reading of the season involves criticism of Riley for being too “vanilla” (p. 86), criticism of Tara for being all “sweetness and light (p. 90), and criticism of the Initiative for being too X-Filesy (p. 84). Unfortunately this personal criticism, at least in my opinion, is quite far off the mark. The Riley Billson accuses of being “vanilla” is the same Riley who has a melt down at Willy’s and comes terrifyingly close to killing someone who doesn’t fall into the its dangerous category and who in the fifth season will find dark excitement in allowing female vampires to “bite” him. The Tara Billson accuses of being all “sweetness and light” is the same Tara who sabotages a magic spell she and Willow perform to try to find Adam, an Initiative frankensteinian uberman “botched science experiment” on the loose. The Initiative Billson accuses of being too X-Filesy is the same Initiative that is part of a secret military/governmental/ academic complex which brooks no questioning of its mission as Buffy (the character) finds out. In her attempt to be critical in a personal way Billson misses several things that are really important in Buffy: that while Riley was meant to be, as one of Buffy’s writers put it, the Jimmy Stewart of the Buffyverse he doesn’t, as is the case with virtually every major character in the Buffyverse, remain stuck in “vanilla” gear for long; that while Tara does have a sweet and light side she also, as is true for virtually every other major character in the Buffyverse, has a dark side—she fears, thanks to a family stuck in 1950s patriarchalism, that she might be a demon; and that while the Initiative is a secret organization in the X-Files mode—-though the X-Files did not pioneer conspiracy theories in American popular culture—-it is also one of the few explorations on recent American TV exploring the dark sides of American militarism and its relationship to academe. Time and again throughout the substantive chapters of the book Billson makes similar problematic personal critical assertions.

If season four has a fault it is, in my opinion, that it is too short. Creator Joss Whedon and company tried to do too much in too short a period of time—-exploring the sometimes difficult transitions to college life, the impact college life can have on high school friendships, the fears Buffy, Willow, Xander, Oz, and Giles continue to deal with, the dark side of academe, and the dark side of the military mentality with its macho no questions asked mode of operation as opposed to the Scoobies more collective decision making approach—-one of the military men from the Initiative calls it anarchic. The arc of the Scoobies drifting apart only to get back together at the end of the season was, in particular, far too brief and, as a result, of far less impact than I am sure was intended. While the crossovers between Buffy and the first season of the Buffy spin-off Angel—-at least five first season episodes of Angel weave in and out of season four episodes of Buffy—-helps fill in some of the gaps of season four and for this reason every analyst of Buffy should watch both simultaneously and in broadcast order—-this really doesn’t allay my feeling that season four was far too dense and far too rushed.

I’m not sure who the intended audience for Billson’s monograph is. If it was aimed at the Buffy scholar-fan community it is too short and too light to displace works like Nikki Stafford’s in-depth analyses of the show in Bite Me and Once Bitten or the numerous in depth analytical essays which range from explorations of the existentialism of Buffy at scholar fan sites like All Things Philosophical in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series to issues surrounding Spike’s redemption at scholar fan sites like The Soulful Spike Society. If it was aimed at the Buffy fan-scholar then it is far too critically light too add much to the enormous volume of academic discourse that has been generated on Buffy’s feminism, Buffy’s supposed sexism, Buffy’s suppose post-colonialism, and Buffy’s ageism in contemporary Cultural and English Studies. If it was aimed at the general non-Buffy audience I am not sure they are interested. All I can say in conclusion is that a show which has garnered the massive scholar-fan and fan-scholar attention deserved better than this from the BFI the enjoyable prose and pretty pictures notwithstanding. Still, all this said this book is often more insightful and certainly more enjoyable than most of the jargon filled tomes and articles that come off of academic word processors these days.

This review appeared in somewhat different form as “Review of Anne Billson’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 27.4 (October 2007), pp. 601-602.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Pop Video Comes of Age?

I was, as I mentioned previously on I, Ron, eek!, born before the media revolutions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. I was born BC8T, before the eight track. I was born BCT, before the cassette tape, I was born BCW, before the Sony Walkman. I was born BCD, before the CD, BDVD, before the DVD, BCP, before the cell phone. And I was born BMV, before the music video.

Popular music videos come in several varieties. One of the earliest and probably one of the most extensive is the faux concert music video. Exhibit A the 1981 AC/DC video for the song "Hell's Bells". Here the Australian/Scottish band simply sing and play like they are playing this song at a concert. There are variations on this type of video. Exhibit B AC/DC's "Rock and Roll Train" from 2008. This video follows the in concert model but inserts footage of vintage trains in between scenes of the faux concert.

Type two: artist or artists lip synching to their song at home, in the studio, on a beach, in the streets, wherever. Exhibit A this video of "Waters Part" (1984) by North Carolina's Let's Active. One very prominent variation of this type of video is what might be called the artist as film or TV star video. Here the artist or artists are in virtually every frame of the video acting out the song as if they were a star in a Hollywood film or television show as in this video of Michelle Branch's "Are You Happy Now?" from 2003. A variation on this type is the controversial video which usually revolves around sex. Exhibit A, King Missile's "Detachable Penis". Unfortunately, not all the videos in this subcategory--"raunch" videos by Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Nicki Minaj, for example, aren't as wonderfully parodic and satirical as this song and video by King Missile.

Type three: the collage or montage video. Exhibit A Inspiral Carpets's "Two Worlds Collide" from 1992. Here the Inspiral's lip synching of "Two World's Collide is sat within a collage or a montage of psychedelicy science fictiony scenes. Exhibit B REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" from 1987. Here a teenager picks through and displays some of the detritus of the end of the world as we know it in an abandoned house.

Type four: the action video. Exhibit A Michael Penn's "Try" from 1997. Here director Paul Thomas Anderson takes a lip synching Penn from one end of a hallway (the longest one in the US in LA) to another without any cuts. There are a number of references to Burt Reynolds, the films They Shoot Horses Don't They and Boogie Nights, the changing of the seasons, and death in this superb video. Exhibit B the Ramones "I Wanna Be Sedated", directed by Bill Fishman from 1988. Here the Ramones sit at a table in a relatively sedated state while speeded up action goes on around them.

Type five: the story video. Exhibit A Nickelback's 2003 "Someday". Here Nickelback "in concert" scenes are interspersed with a narrative about lost love with a surprise ending. Exhibit B "Breaking the Law" by Judas Priest (1980). Here Judas Priest are criminals who are breaking the law. Exhibit C Johnny Cash's incredibly moving video of his cover of Trent Reznor's (Nine Inch Nails) "Hurt" from 2002 directed by Mark Romanek. Here Cash looks back over his career and reflects on his faith as death draws near.

Type six: the theme video. Exhibit A the Finn Brothers "Part of Me, Part of You". Here Neil Finn and Tim Finn, who are present in the video along with members of the Finn clan, reflect on the themes of family, brotherhood, and home (Te Awamutu).

Type seven: the musical music video. Exhibit A the Dandy Warhols "Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth". Here the director turns this song about heroin abuse into a colourful, humourous, and terrifying Busby Berkeleyish dance number.

Recently I ran across a couple of videos which I think take the pop video into more artistically mature and much more aesthetically exciting, territory, Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" (2010) and The Civil Wars "The One That Got Away" (2013). "The Suburbs", directed by Spike Jonze, tells a tale of suburban teen play, boredom, love, pain, bullying, and violence set amidst an expanding police state. "The One that Got Away" directed by Tom Haines tells a tale of a young female outsider who rides the rails looking for work. The video's young woman is a kind of neo-hobo in yet another depression age who wonders through the landscapes and detritus of the American South. As she does she recalls the things she saw, the people she met, and the love triangle she became entangled in. Both videos deserve to have greater attention paid not only to their narratives but also to their mise-en-scenes. In neither video are Arcade Fire or The Civil Wars present in any way, shape, or form.

While the more artistically mature mini-film video seems to be a rarity at the moment in the industry those of us who prefer our art, whatever that art may be, thoughtful and aesthetically interesting can only hope that Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs", The Civil Wars "The One that God Away", and Johnny Cash's "Hurt" are the tip of the iceberg of greater artistic things to come, even if that greater artistic things to come seem unlikely given the commercial nature of pop music videos.

Friday, August 8, 2014

An Open Letter to Kathy Sheehan, Mayor of Albany, New York

Dear Mayor Sheehan,

The other day as I was walking along Holland Avenue in the city of Albany, New York I spied something with my two little eyes taking place at that lovely old apartment complex on Holland between Walgreen's and Delaware Avenue. The beautiful shrubs which had not been trimmed in ages had become stubble sticking up out of the ground. The windows that once were in place in the apartment building had been replaced by plywood, you know that ugly plywood made out of wood shavings and paste. The plywood that replaced the windows didn't fully cover the space where windows once were making it likely that the elements can and will undermine the apartment complex. As I was thinking about this as I was walking I couldn't help but think of the historic Tudor homes lying intentionally vacant for years on the other side, the southside, of Holland Avenue across from Walgreen's and the VA.

The reason that both the apartment complex and the Tudor homes are lying vacant and have been left to decay is not difficult to fathom. Now that Holland Avenue and New Scotland Avenue have been transformed from more residential areas into areas zoned for business at the behest, no doubt, of Albany Medical Center and its cheerleaders, owners of these properties, worshipers of the great golden green god Mammon, see dollar signs in them there properties. All the while the city of Albany twiddle their thumbs in wonder and look the other way making one wonder if they too will accrue profits from the destruction of these properties thanks to that old time American past-time of the greasing of palms.

I have learned a lesson from my excursions along Holland Avenue. The lesson I have learned from all of this is that Kathy Sheehan the supposed Democratic reform candidate that many believed would be the messiah that Albany had been waiting for for seventy some years who would finally turn over the tables of Albany's old machine politics moneymakers and bring back life once again to this once great ancient city by the Hudson was yet another of those false messiahs. Meet the new boss, new mayor Kathy Sheehan, much the same as the old boss, former mayor Jerry Jennings.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Into the Black: Review of Investigating Firefly and Serenity and Special Issue on Firefly and Serenity edited by Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran

Investigating Firefly and Serenity
By Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran (eds.),
London, I.B. Tauris, 2008, xiii + 290 pp., 13: 978-1845116545 and 10: 1845116542
$22.50, £14.99 (pbk.)

"Special Issue on Firefly and Serenity"
By Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran (eds.), Slayage 25, winter 2008 [7.1]

Books on the television and film work of Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along-Blog, Dollhouse) continue rolling off the presses rivaling even those published on those old film warhorses Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. Investigating Firefly and Serenity edited by Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran, the latest in Tauris’s Investigating Cult TV series, and its companion special issue (issue 25, winter 2008) found at the online journal Slayage: The Online International Journal of Whedon Studies focusing on Whedon’s hybrid sci-fi/western Firefly and the film based on that short lived television series, Serenity, are among the latest.

For those unfamiliar with the series Firefly (Fox, 2002) is the brainchild of creator/writer/director Joss Whedon and creator/writer/director Tim Minear (X-Files, Wonderfalls, Drive). The show debuted in the dreaded Friday night time slot on the Fox network in the US on 20 September 2002. It lasted for eleven episodes before Fox gave it the axe. The TV graveyard didn’t spell the end of Firefly, however. When Fox released all fourteen episodes of the show on DVD in December 2003 it became a hit in the first weeks it was offered for sale. Universal took notice and three years later released the Whedon written and directed film Serenity (2005) which reunited the Firefly crew in an adventure set sometime after the events of the television series.

Firefly, as I mentioned earlier, is a science fiction/western and more—Whedon’s shows are invariably genre blenders. The show is set in a 26th century where the two remaining superpowers, China and the US, have merged to form the Alliance. There are essentially two worlds in this future, the antiseptic “utopia” of the wealthy core planets and the “primitive”, “dystopian” poverty stricken planets of the new wild frontier (metaphors for the first and third worlds of today?). On these frontier planets settlers, out of necessity, live in frontier towns, ride horses, speak in a kind of nouveau western slang with a bit of Mandarin thrown in now and again for good often expletive deleted measure, and engage in an awful lot of good old vigilante “justice”. As we learn in the first episode (Fox didn’t broadcast this until the end of the shows run) there was a civil war between the Alliance and the Browncoats (many fans of the show refer to themselves as Browncoats). The Alliance won. The show centres around the crew of nine aboard the Firefly class ship Serenity (at least two of whom fought for the Browncoats) who sail “the black” trying to stay out of the way of the Alliance all the while trying to eek out a living through a variety of barely legal and not so legal means. Lurking in the background of Firefly is the mysterious Blue Sun corporation which, as we find out in Serenity, works in tandem with the Alliance to create the warrior/spies of the future. Like all of Whedon’s work Firefly is full of dense and complex narrative and character arcs and themes revolving around existentialist social ethics, chosen families, friendship, love, conflict, disillusionment, and the possibility of redemption. And like all of Whedon’s work it contains his trademark wit and humour.

The essays in both Investigating Firefly and Serenity and the Slayage Special Issue on Firefly and Serenity reflect a growing international interest in the work of Whedon. In both scholars from the US, Canada, the UK, and Italy explore the representation of gender (Beadling, Aberdein, Magill, Buckman), the representation of race and ethnicity (Mandala, Lerner), the representation of the “savage” (Curry, Rabb and Richardson), orientalism (Brown), contemporary politics (Jencson, Bussolini), genre (Battis, Jowett, Money), themes (Battis, Jencson, Sutherland and Swan, Wilcox, Erickson, Pateman), character (Gelineau), music (Lerner, Neal), design (Maio), rhetoric (Masson), fandom (Abbott, Cochran), the resurrection of Firefly as Serenity (Abbott), and even Whedon Studies itself (Cochran and Wilcox).

Some of the essays in both collections reflect unfortunate tendencies in some contemporary media explorations of television shows and films. Cynthea Masson’s “‘But She was all Naked! And All Articulate’: The Rhetoric of Seduction in Firefly”, for example, reflects a trend in media studies to use popular culture as a way to talk about academic subjects (a trend particularly prominent in Open Court’s Philosophy and Popular Culture series). Masson uses rhetorical analysis to explore the character of Inara in Firefly and Serenity and the nature of companionship in the Firefly verse. The essay reads more like an academic introduction to rhetorical analysis than an analysis of Firefly. Neil Lerner’s “Music, Race, and Paradoxes of Representation: Jubal Early’s Musical Motif of Barbarism in ‘Objects in Space’”, essay reflects the trend in much contemporary popular culture analysis to jettison primary source research beyond the text in favour of a kind of text as crystal ball approach, an approach which sees the text as a crystal ball revealing all about itself, its production, and its contexts. Lerner, despite having interviewed Firefly composer Greg Edmondson, focuses exclusively on a textual reading of the Firefly musical text and links musical motifs in Firefly to previous musical motifs and their ethnic and racial connotations in previous film and television texts. Not only does Lerner fail to explore the possible contradictory nature of musical motifs both from a production and audience perspective, but he fails to make use of the potentially rich vein of primary source material for television analysis.

Other essays offer insight but sometimes don’t go far enough or go too far. Wilcox’s and Cochran’s excellent “Introduction: ‘Good Myth”: Joss Whedon’s Further Worlds” and Mary Alice Money’s “Firefly’s ‘Out of Gas’: Genre Echoes and the Heroes Journey” rightly note the influence of John Ford’s Stagecoach on Firefly but fail to note the influence of Hawks (the chosen family of professionals), Anthony Mann (themes of revenge and damaged men—the latter stretches from Homer to Austen and the Bronte’s through film noir and to Mann and beyond), and Richard Slotkin (regeneration through violence) on Whedon’s work in general and Firefly and Serenity. Matthew Pateman’s outstanding “Deathly Serious: Mortality, Morality, and Mise-en-Scene in Firefly and Serenity” rightly points out the omnipresence of death in Firefly (and Whedon’s work in general) but fails to place it sufficiently in the context of Whedon’s humanist existentialism with its concern for social ethics. It is this that gives death its meaning in Whedon’s work.

Academic readers with an interest in contemporary textual criticism (what David Bordwell calls therapeutic criticism) will probably find much to like in the essays focusing on representation in both collections. Academics with an interest in using popular culture to explore academic disciplines and disciplinary concerns are likely to find some of the essays intriguing and helpful. Academics with an interest in auteurism are likely to find the essays exploring Whedon’s themes interesting. Academics who believe that sound textual analysis must be grounded in extra textual primary research (like myself) are likely to be somewhat disappointed in both collections—only a few of the essays draw, in varying degrees, on primary source material usually interviews with Whedon or other writers and DVD commentaries by Whedon and Company). Beyond the ivory tower I suspect that both collections are too academic and hence too arcane for readers interested in Firefly, Serenity, or the work of Joss Whedon. They are likely to find more insight into the Fireflyverse in the two Benbella readers on Firefly and Serenity, Finding Serenity and Serenity Found both edited by Jane Espenson (2005, 2007) and in the two volume Firefly: The Official Companion published by Titan (2006, 2007).

This review appeared in a slightly different form as “Review of Rhonda Wilcox’s and Tanya Cochran’s Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier, Scope: An Online Journal of Film and TV, 18 (October 2010).

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Yeah I Like You: Watching Dandy Warhols Videos...

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s an era where rock music was for many central of us not only entertainment but central to our identities, central to the countercultural identities and communities some of us created, and central to lives. I am old enough to remember when MTV came along in the early 1980s and offered us wall to wall (in between the commercials, of course) music with videos, rock videos.

By and large the rock videos I have seen--admittedly I haven't seem them all nor do I want to--are wretched. Whether there are more wretched rock videos than films, television shows, or works of literature remains another matter and is worth investigation. Personally, I suspect 90% of works of film, TV, literature, or rock videos are crap. This doesn't mean, however, that they are not worthy of social, cultural, and historical examination.

I found much interesting in two recent rock videos I have been perusing: the Dandy Warhols "Bohemian Like You" and "We Used to Be Friends". I like satire, Twainsian satire in particular. That is why I like the Dandies video "Bohemian Like You", a tune I first hear on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No song or video, it seems to me, better captures the modern day collegy bohemian world of sex, drugs, rock and roll, fashion, narcissism, and Bacchic joy better than this song while at the same time poking fun at it. Having your cake and eating it too?.

Another Dandies song I was introduced via the small screed was the Dandies song, "We Used to Be Friends". I first heard "We Used to Be Friends" on Veronica Mars. It was the introductory theme tune for the show. There is a lot or references one can explore in this video whether it is the references to Warhol and house band at the factory, the Velvet Underground (the banana), the link between food and sex, the surrealistic mirror effect at one point in the video, the video's use of pop artish oranges and yellows, the satiric humans in the monkey house watching the video inserts, and the uber cliched band and crowd scenes thatt dominate the video. What I found most interesting about the "We Used to be Friends" video, however, is its references to and back to the video of "Bohemian Like You". The young man and woman who enter the monkey house in "We Used to Be Friends" were the waiter and customer who hooked up in "Bohemian Like You". Apparently, young bohemian "casual easy things" don't last very long at least in the world of the Dandy Warhols. And we shouldn't forget that the hulu hoop guy who briefly appears in "We Used to Be Friends" was also in the "Bohemian Like You" video. I give you intertextuality.

Whoa ho woo!

Shiny: Review of Finding Serenity and Serenity Found edited by Jane Espenson

Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly
Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon’s Firefly Universe
Jane Espenson (ed.), 2004, 2007
Dallas, TX, Benbella Books
pp. viii + 238 and pp. 218
both $17.95, £12.99 (paper)

The story of Firefly will always be for me one of the great tragedies in the history of American television. Firefly, the brainchild of creator/writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) and writer/director Tim Minear, debuted on the Fox network on 20 September 2002 in the dreaded Friday night time slot. It lasted for eleven episodes. Despite its “failure” on broadcast television, however, Fox decided to release the show on DVD in December of 2003—all fourteen episodes in their correct running order. It became a hit, such a hit that three years later Universal and Whedon brought the fireflyverse to the big screen with the film Serenity. I wish I could say that there was a Hollywood happy ending here but there wasn’t. Serenity earned back a little more than what it cost thus making it unlikely that any further resurrection of the fireflyverse will occur. Die hard fans like myself were left to reflect on what might have been.

But what of the Firefly that was? Firefly was a SF/western (with, like all Whedon shows, a wicked sense of humour) set in a 26th century where China and the US, the two remaining superpowers, have merged into the Alliance. As is the case today the Alliance has strong ties with corporations, specifically one giant megacorporation, the mysterious Blue Sun, which appears to have united all corporations under its economic umbrella just as the Alliance has united (using force) all the planets under its political umbrella (a metaphor for political and economic monopolization common today?). There are essentially two worlds in the fireflyverse—the clean and clinical antiseptic “utopia” of the wealthy core planets and the “primitive”, “dystopian” poverty stricken planets of the new wild frontier (metaphors for the first and third worlds of today?) where the settlers, out of necessity, live in frontier towns, ride horses, speak in western slang with a bit of Chinese thrown in now and again for good [expletive deleted] measure, and engage in an awful lot of good old vigilante “justice” (Whedon was a student of Richard Slotkin at Wesleyan, well known for his regeneration through violence thesis). The show centres on a group of nine people living aboard the Firefly class ship Serenity who sail “the black” trying to stay out of the way of the Alliance and trying to eek out a living through a variety of barely legal and not so legal means. Like all of Whedon’s work Firefly is full of dense and complex narrative and character arcs and themes revolving around existentialist social ethics, chosen families, friendship, love, conflict, disillusionment, and the possibility of redemption.

The essays in Finding Serenity and Serenity Found touch on these and much more. As in the other collections in Benbella’s Smart Pop series writers, intellectuals, critics, and academics reflect on a variety of aspects in the fireflyverse and the Whedonverse. And, there’s really a little bit of something for everyone in these two collections. Fans (and really anyone interested in inside information on how TV is made) will enjoy Firefly actors Nathan Fillions’s (“I, Malcolm”) and Jewel Staite’s (“Kaylee Speaks: Jewel Staite on Firefly”), and Buffy, Angel, and Firefly special effects guru Loni Peristere’s (“Mutunt Enemy U”) memories of the series. Those interested in how TV shows work from the inside will appreciate Buffy, Angel, and Firefly writer Jane Espenson’s (Espenson, by the way, was an undergraduate and graduate student in Linguistics at Berkeley) always interesting and intriguing if far too brief introductions to each essay. SF nerds will appreciate Orson Scott Card’s appreciation of Serenity (“Catching Up with the Future”), David Gerold’s (he of Star Trek fame) exploration of character development in Firefly (“Star Truck”), and Roxanne Longstreet Conrad’s wonderfully imagined comparison of Firefly and Enterprise (“Mirror, Mirror: A Parody”). Those interested in the use of Chinese in the series will revel in Kevin Sullivan’s “Chinese Words in the Verse” and “Unofficial Glossary of Firefly Chinese”. Academics will learn much from Geoff Klock’s superb structural analysis of the episode “Out of Gas” (“Firefly and Story Structure, Advanced”), Natalie Haynes’s brilliant exploration of the portrayal of women in Firefly (“Girls, Guns, Gags: Why the Future Belongs to the Funny”), and Michael Marona’s fascinating analysis of “weaponised women” in Firefly and the Whedonverse beyond Firefly.

As with any collection some of the essays in Finding Serenity and Serenity Found are interesting though not earth shattering. There are enough interesting and sometimes enlightening analyses in both collections, however, for me to recommend both books to anyone interested in quality storytelling and filmmaking, in how social ethical concerns impact film and television, in the work of Joss Whedon and Company in general, and in everything Firefly in particular. By the way, I recommend both in tandem with the two volume official companions to the series published by Titan Books (Firefly: The Official Companion, volumes I and II). The interview with Joss Whedon in those books alone is worth the price of admission.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form as “Review of Jane Espenson’s Finding Serenity and Serenity Found”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 29:1 (April 2009), pp. 151-153. The editor of this piece, by the way, didn't like my assertion that upon its release the Firefly DVD was a hot item. He failed to note the following statistics: Firefly DVD's at had average daily rankings of between 1st and 75th in 2003, 22nd and 397th in 2004, 2nd and 232nd in 2005, and 2nd and 31st in 2006 as of June 27, 2006.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Long Time Ago We Used to Be Friends: Review of Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations Into Veronica Mars edited by Rob Thomas

Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars
Rob Thomas (editor) with Leah Wilson
Dallas, Texas: Benbella
Smart Pop series
no index,
213 pages, US$17.95, Canada$22.95, UK£17.95 (paper)

I blame the recent tsunami of academic publications on American television on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There were, of course, publications on television history, economics, and culture prior to 1997, the year Buffy came on the air. There was that slew of “scientific” books on the impact of TV on viewers in the 1940s and 1950s. There was Erik Barnouw’s multivolume history of American television and Horace Newcomb’s work on television as a cultural form in the 1970s. There was David Marc’s work on TV comedy in the 1980s. There was Robert Thompson’s exploration of “quality TV” in the 1990s. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s there has been an ever increasing number of academic books on TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (easily the leader here with host of academic books, hundreds of academic articles, and an academic website devoted to it thus far), My So-Called Life, Stargate SG-1, The Sopranos, CSI, Farscape, Alias, Angel, Firefly, Sex and the City, Charmed, The Gilmore Girls, Desperate Housewives, and Lost.

Several publishers have led the TV Studies charge prominent among them I.B. Tauris, Wayne State University Press, McFarland Publishers, Lexington Books, and Benbella Books. What makes the recent wave of television studies different from much of the earlier academic analysis is that many of these recent works bring to TV Studies what has been prevalent in literary and film studies since the late 1960s. There are exceptions to this trend, of course. The publications of the Dallas based Benbella Books, for instance, generally take an approach to TV “texts” that emphasises close critical readings TV texts in order to discern authorial intent. The recent Benbella publication of a collection of essays on the TV show Veronica Mars is, by and large, no different.

But first, a little backstory on the show itself. Veronica Mars , the creation of veteran TV writer, producer, and show runner Rob Thomas (he was the creator of the TV show Cupid in both its incarnations), debuted on the UPN network in 2004 and moved to the newly created CW network in 2006. The show was cancelled in 2007. Veronica centres around the trials, travails, loves, hates, and detective abilities of the title character, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell). Veronica is a high school student when the show begins and a freshman in college (at the appropriately named Hearst College) when it ends. She lives in the unincorporated town of Neptune, California near San Diego (she describes it in a voiceover in the first episode as a town in which you are either a millionaire or you work for one) with her father Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni).

Veronica and Keith live a marginal limbo life in Neptune. When the show begins Keith, the former sheriff of the town, has been recalled from office as a result of his accusations against the town’s mega millionaire computer baron (the appropriately named) Jake Kane (Kyle Secor) that he killed his daughter Lilly (Amanda Seyfried), and is now operating a private investigation firm with a little help from Veronica. Veronica, like her father has also been marginalized by her classmates and by Neptune’s youthful social circles because she stood by her father. Her best friend Lilly Kane is dead. Her ex-boyfriend (who may be her half-brother), Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), brother of Lilly, doesn’t want to have much to do with here. Her mother has left both her and her father. She is being harassed by the town’s “psychopathic jackass” (every town has one snaps Veronica at one point) Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), son of Neptune’s resident mega action movie star Aaron Echols (Harry Hamlin) at almost every turn. And she has been raped at a school year party shortly before the programme begins by someone, who, she is not sure. Both Keith and Veronica quickly learn the lesson that when you mess with money and power you find yourself an outsider in a community that is grounded in both.

Veronica Mars, like Buffy (one critic aptly described Veronica as Buffy meets Bogart), is a novelistic TV show. It is a show with episode arcs, seasonal arcs, character arcs, and series arcs (we may never learn what these latter were thanks to the CW’s cancellation of the show). During the first season we follow high schooler Veronica as she solves several different crimes—sometimes with the aid of her father, sometimes not—usually by the end of each episode. At seasons end she solves the mystery of who murdered Lilly (it was Aaron Echols) and who had raped her (it turns out she wasn’t raped at all). During the second season Veronica continues to solve the mysteries of the week and by seasons end solves the mystery of who blew up a bus full of Neptune High School students in the first episode. By solving that crime she also solves the mystery of who raped her (it turns out that Veronica was raped) the year before (Cassidy “Beaver” Casablancas did both). The third season during which Veronica heads to college was a bit different—I chalk this up to the interference of the new CW and its overriding interest in higher ratings at least in part. The show continued to have its mysteries of the week each of which Veronica would solve. And it continued to have overriding mysteries though the first of these was solved about half way through the season and the second at seasons end.

Veronica was never that successful ratings wise. It rarely garnered more than two million viewers an episode. It did, however, acquire a devoted fan base (Mars Investigations is a wonderful website run by some VM scholar fans) and received critical acclaim from critics, writers, film and TV makers, and even academics. Both the critical and the academic interest in the show is evident in the collection of essays on the series recently published by Benbella Books, Neptune Noir.

The essays in Neptune Noir—some by critics, some by writers, and a few by academics—explore various aspects of the series. A number of essays try to delineate exactly what Veronica Mars is. For Evelyn Vaughn VM is femme noir. For Lani Diane Rich it is camp noir. For Deanna Carlyle it is teen noir. Others look at aesthetic aspects of the show. Geoff Klock looks at the storytelling art behind Veronica while Lynn Edwards reveals why see prefers Veronica Mars to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Still other essays explore various themes running through the show. Alafair Burke explores the portrayal of law enforcement agencies in the show. Amy Berner and Joyce Millman look into the various father-son and father-daughter relationships in VM. Amanda Ann Klein investigates how class plays out in the show. Lawrence Watt-Evans looks at what the automobiles Veronica’s characters drive tell us about them. John Ramos and Kristen Kidder explore what Veronica’s lies and vigilantism tell us about her. Judy Fitzwater and Heather Havrilesky analyse how Lilly Kane’s murder, Neptune’s reactions to Keith’s accusations about Jake Kane, and Veronica’s mother leaving her and her father in the midst of it all led to Veronica’s loss of innocence and growing world weariness opening her eyes, in the process, to the inequalities of life in a Neptune she once perceived as edenic. Misty Hook, looks at the dynamics of the major romantic relationship at the centre of the show, that between Veronica and Logan.

Few of the essays in Neptune Noir are either groundbreaking or eye opening though they are, for the most part, interesting. A few of them, however, are important. Geoff Klock’s “Story Structure and Veronica Mars” urges those of us interested in narrative TV to pay attention once again to the character arcs, exposition practices, pacing, “beats”, act breaks, plottings, and sequencings that make up the art and practice of television storytelling. Samantha Bornemann’s “Innocence Lost” nicely places Veronica Mars in the genealogy of teen drama shows that preceded it—the first wave teen drama My So-Called Life (ABC, 1994-1995) and the second wave teen drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003). Lynne Edwards’s “On the Down-Low: How a Buffy Fan Fell in Love with Veronica Mars” points up (I don’t think she intended to do this) the fact that crystal ball textual criticism (the text as revelatory of a host of social and cultural factors to experts in the know) in general is value laden and ideologically driven.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Neptune Noir, however, are the editorial comments by series creator Rob Thomas. Thomas reminds us that American television operates within specific institutional and narrative contexts, that TV’s creators have to negotiate their way through these multiple contexts, and that chance occurrences can sometimes take a television show in directions it creator or creators hadn’t foreseen. Thomas discusses how difficult it is to get a show on the air (pp. 1-7), how he wanted action to define character in the Veronicaverse (p. 34), how budgetary factors affected VM (p. 34), how suggestions from network and studio executives can be positive as well as negative (p. 46), and how he wanted Veronica to achieve realism in its characters motivations, reactions, and behaviours (p. 94). He notes that the chemistry between Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring and the acting skills both brought to the show were factors that led VM’s writers to develop the sometimes tortured romantic relationship between them (p. 170). All of these are worth keeping in mind anytime one is analyzing a TV show. They certainly point up the fact that if we really want to understand American TV we have to go beyond the text as crystal ball (I owe this metaphor to my colleague Jonathan Nash) perspective and explore institutional practices, authorial intent, chance, and the dynamics of the acting craft.

Neptune Noir is definitely worth investigating (pun intended) particularly if you have any interest in contemporary American television, contemporary noir, contemporary teen drama, or Veronica Mars itself. For the moment it is the only book which explores one of the seminal TV series’ of the mid-2000s.

As for the show, I watched VM for most of its run. I particularly enjoyed Veronica’s first season where its mix of noir, teen drama, Buffy, and Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991) works quite well. There was, in my opinion, a marked decline in the quality of the show in the second and an even further decline in the third season. With respect to the inevitable Veronica/Buffy comparison, I consider Buffy more illuminating, more thoughtful (the existentialist feminism that undergrids the show is, in my opinion, fascinating and quite compelling), more moving, more emotionally intense (Whedon and Company, in my opinion, give Bergman a run for his money here), and more narratively complex than VM. Don’t let my slight criticisms stop you from watching one of the better shows on recent American television, however. Few American shows have paid as much attention to how class plays out in an American community and it is worth watching for this reason alone. And now that all three seasons of Veronica are available on DVD watching VM couldn’t be easier.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form as “Review of Rob Thomas’s Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 28.3 (August 2008), pp. 433-435.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Review of M*A*S*H by David Scott Diffrient

David Scott Diffrient, 2008
TV Milestones Series
Detroit, Wayne State University Press
pp. 156, index, bibliography, illustrations
$14.95 (paper)

M*A*S*H is one America’s most beloved television shows from the 1970s and 1980s. It ran from 1972 to 1983 on CBS and along with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (CBS, 1967-1970), All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977), and Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-1987) changed the face of American television forever. During its run, M*A*S*H finished in the Nielsen top ten nine out of its eleven years. The final episode, “Goodbye, Amen” (11:16, 13 February 1983) was watched by some 105.9 million Americans, 60.2% million households. “Goodbye, Amen” remains today the most watched finale in American TV history. Both M*A*S*H’s cultural impact and its viewing numbers alone merit M*A*S*H’s inclusion in Wayne State University Press’s TV Milestones Series.

In an introduction, eight chapters, and a conclusion David Scott Diffrient traces the antecedents of M*A*S*H (the book by Richard Hooker a nom de plume of Dr. Richard Hornberger) and the film by noted director Robert Altman), the origins of the show and how it differed from its literary and cinematic cousins, M*A*S*H as ensemble TV, M*A*S*H as a Korean War show, how the character Margaret “Hot Lips” Hoolihan (Loretta Swit) was transformed over the years from a stereotype and caricature to a respected professional and how this transformation reflected the impact of the feminist movement on the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, M*A*S*H as a sexual hijinks comedy, the representation of Koreans in the show, and M*A*S*H as a TV show which reflects the contradictions of American liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s.

On the plus side Diffrient puts M*A*S*H into its broader social and cultural contexts. And he also goes where far too few film and TV analysts dare to go: Into the archives. The early chapters of the book which focus on the creation of M*A*S*H are helped immensely by Diffrient’s exploration of archival materials at UCLA’s Arts Library including the Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H’s leading writer, producer, and occasional director until he left the show in the fourth season), Burt Metcalfe (producer and occasional writer and director on the show), and Gene Reynolds, (a producer, and occasional writer, and occasional director on the show until he left after the fifth season) papers.

On the minus side there is the limited archival research Diffrient undertook some of which, I suspect, can be chalked up to inaccessibility of materials. But the real problem with the book lies in the books structure. The book would have probably been helped by a chapter focusing on M*A*S*H and genre. Diffrient calls it a screwball comedy, a Chaplinesque comedy, a dark comedy, a sexual hijinks show, a satire, a workplace comedy, and a war show in various places throughout the text but he doesn’t systematically explore M*A*S*H's genre mixing or genre hybridity, one of the things that connects M*A*S*H to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hill Street Blues, two other shows that were influential in the development of an important genre, dramedy, on American television. Additionally, while Diffrient does make a somewhat compelling case for taking the Korean setting of M*A*S*H seriously he gives far too limited attention to another important aspect of the show, Korea as metaphor for Vietnam. Finally, it sometimes seems that Diffrient, because he had such limited space to manoeuvre in, tries to weave as much into each chapter as possible, too much. In chapter three, “Ensemble TV” Diffrient weaves together a comparison of M*A*S*H to All in the Family, a discussion of Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970), a discussion of the traits of its leading characters, a discussion of M*A*S*H as a workplace show, a discussion of Corporal Klinger, Radar O’Reilly and the actor who played him, Gary Burghoff, a brief discussion of the famous episode “Abyssinia Henry” (3:24, 18 March 1975), and a brief discussion to alterations made in the show over its run. This kitchen sink quality of the book is probably a result of the fact that it is an impossible task to write a book on an important television series that ran for eleven seasons on American TV in around 150 pages.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form as “Review of M*A*S*H by David Scott Diffrient”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 30:1 (March 2010), pp. 151-152.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Let's Go Sexing: Review of Sex and the City by Deborah Jermyn

Sex and the City. Deborah Jermyn. TV Milestones Series. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2009.

Sex and the City ran for six seasons from 23 August 1998 to 22 February 2004 on the US premium cable channel Home Box Office (HBO). Sex, along with The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007), brought greater visibility to HBO as a producer of television programmes. It also brought the network greater recognition. Sex won over fifty awards during its run. But perhaps most importantly Sex and the City brought a greater number of viewers and hence subscribers and money to HBO. In its last two seasons SatC drew some 6 to 7 million viewers, excellent numbers for a cable network.

Deborah Jermyn’s book Sex and the City is the second academic book to take on Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, Miranda, and their Manhattan. In four chapters and an introduction Jermyn explores Sex’s authorship, costuming, precedents, generic aspects, Manhattaness, ensemble cast, the traits of its leading characters, and its legacy.

Jermyn’s book, limited as it is by a word count imposed by the TV Milestones series, is not a comprehensive analysis of Sex and the City. There is no episode guide. The archival work done for the book is limited to interviews with creator, writer, and executive producer Darren Star, writer, show runner, and executive producer Michael Patrick King (both recorded at the Museum of Television and Radio (now the Paley Center for Media)) and to interviews with Star, King, and executive producer and actor Sarah Jessica Parker from Amy Sohn’s official guide to the show (Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell, 2004). Jermyn offers limited details on the production of SatC beyond the fact that it was filmed in New York City and a brief discussion of the differences between HBO and “free TV” production schedules. While Jermyn rightly looks at precedents for SatC such as I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1960), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977), Rhoda (CBS, 1974-1978), Golden Girls (NBC, 1985-1992), and the absolutely brilliant Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1992-1996, 2001, 2004, 2011-2012), a show, by the way, SaTC doesn't share a satirical edge with, she says nothing about a show which like Sex pushed the boundaries of sex on the small screen, had screwball and slapstick elements, arcs, verbal jousting and wit, and swerved towards fantasy and fairy tale on occasion, David E. Kelley’s Ally McBeal (Fox, 1997-2002). While Jermyn praises SatC for its location shooting she doesn’t mention those previous shows that shot on location such as Kojak (CBS, 1973-1978) and the superb The Rockford Files (NBC, 1974-1980). While Jermyn praises the cinematic qualities of Sex she fails to note those previous shows on the small screen that had a cinematic quality to them including Father Knows Best (CBS, 1954-1960), The Rifleman (ABC, 1958-1963), Peter Gunn (NBC, 1958-1960, ABC, 1960-1961), Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991), X-Files (Fox, 1993-2002), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003). Finally, while Jermyn praises Sex’s celebration of Manolo Blahniks, Prada, and Vera Wang as feminist—these women, she claims, have enough independence and money to buy what they want—she doesn’t engage the criticism that Sex and the City is a celebration of late twentieth century consumerism and product placement.

The limitations imposed by the TV Milestones series don’t always work against Jermyn. Jermyn focuses on the aspects of the show which have garnered the most attention in academic circles, the fairy tale aspects of the series and the debate over whether the show is feminist or not. Jermyn’s argument that the fairy tale aspects of the series including its ending are more complex than some critics have recognized and don’t undermine the Third Wave feminist qualities of the series has much to be said for it. Sex’s “chat and chew” scenes, those scenes in which Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte meet, eat, share, and commiserate, do exude a sense of sisterhood as Jermyn notes. Jermyn’s book is superbly written and largely eschews “academic jargon”. It is a worthy addition to the literature on Sex and the City and on television programmes in general.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form as “Review of Sex and the City by Deborah Jermyn”, Journal of Popular Culture, 43:3 (June 2010), pp. 662-663.

Buffy Slays the Academy: Review of Buffy Meets the Academy edited by Kevin Durand

Buffy Meets the Academy: Essays on the Episodes and Scripts as Texts. Kevin Durand (editor). Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on the WB network on 10 March 1997 and ran for seven seasons, the last two on the UPN network, until 20 May 2003. Buffy’s afterlife has been just as impressive. Academic writing on Buffy dwarfs that of any other recent television show and even rivals and surpasses that on the Star Trek franchise. McFarland and Company has become one of the leading purveyors of Buffy and Whedon Studies (Buffy was created by Joss Whedon, the son and grandson of TV writers and Wesleyan University grad) in the publishing world. The latest is Kevin Durand’s edited collection, Buffy Meets the Academy.

The twenty-one essays in Buffy Meets the Academy explore a variety of aspects of Buffy. Essays explore what constitutes the Buffy text (Durand, “Canon Fodder”, Linsley), Buffy season eight comics (Clemons), Buffy and Shakespeare (Atchley), Buffy and fairy tales (Bridges), Buffy and gender issues (Comeford, Payne-Mulliken and Renegar, Durand, “It’s all About Power”, Durand, “Buffy’s Insight into Wollstonecraft and Mill”, Durand “The Battle Against the Patriarchal Forces of Power”, Comeford, Schultz), Buffy and education (Fudge, Tamara Wilson), and Buffy as story (Fritts, Melanie Wilson, Linsley, Bobbitt).

Edited collections are often notorious for being less than unified. Buffy Meets the Academy, however, is more unified than most due to the fact that most of the essays engage Buffy as text and story. And most of these essays are insightful and illuminating. Standout essays include Durand’s “Introduction” which argues that all approaches to popular culture texts (“isn’t that neat”, cultural solipsism, point of departure, theory exemplar/corrective, and critical engagement) save the critical engagement approach, look beyond the text for the texts meaning: the “isn’t it neat” and cultural solipsistic approaches see intertextualites in the text, the point of departure and theory exemplar approaches see social and cultural factors (gender, race, ethnicity, class, age) and theoretical approaches (psychoanalytic, cultural, feminist) as the filters through which to explore the text. As a result, claims Durand, all these approaches save the critical engagement approach, are flawed. Other standout essays include those by Durand (“Canon Fodder”) and Linsley “Canon Fodder Revisited”) which debate what constitutes the Buffy canon (the shooting script for Durand, the broadcast text for Linsley) and Bridges essay on Buffy and fairy tales (“Grimm Realities”).

There are essays in Buffy Meets the Academy which don’t quite fit in. Comeford’s essay “Cordelia Chase as Failed Feminist” exemplifies a crystal ball textualualism which see texts as an immanent sites of transcendental social and cultural factors like race, gender, colonialism, psyche, age, class, and so on. Comeford argues that Cordelia Chase is a failed feminist gesture which reflects a residual misogyny among Buffy’s writers. What Comeford, doesn’t explore, however, is whether most of the major characters in the Buffyverse (Buffy and Angel), male or female, are abused and damaged in some way, shape, or form.

None of this, however, detracts from the quality of Buffy Meets the Academy. Buffy Meets the Academy is one of the best collections I have read on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I highly recommend it to any serious student of Buffy, the work of Joss Whedon, and Popular Culture. It belongs on the bookshelf of every serious Buffy Studies and Whedon Studies scholar alongside Gregory Stevenson’s Televised Morality and Deborah Thomas’s “Reading Buffy” in Close-Up 1.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form as “Review of Buffy Meets the Academy: Essays on the Episodes and Scripts as Texts edited by Kevin Durand”, Journal of Popular Culture, 43:3 (June 2010), pp. 652-653.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

He Married a Witch: Review of Bewitched by Walter Metz

Walter Metz, 2007
TV Milestones Series
Detroit, Wayne State University Press
pp. 151, index, bibliography, illustrations
$14.95 (paper)

During its long run Bewitched (1964-1972)—a sitcom that focuses on the wacky situations that result from the “mixed” marriage (as Metz puts it) between a “mortal” and a “witch”—was one of ABC’s most popular shows during its run. The brainchild of Sol Saks, Harry Ackerman, and William Asher and starring Asher’s then wife Elizabeth Montgomery as the witch Samantha, Bewitched has been described by several critics as a “formulaic” sitcom (Metz describes it as I Love Lucy meets the films I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle, pp. 30-33 which it most certainly, in part, is). Walter Metz’s monograph (one of the first publications in Wayne State University Press’s TV Milestones Series) tries to go beyond this “reductive” analysis of Bewitched and explore its industrial contexts, its textual form, and its theoretical implications instead.

In Bewitched Metz makes a number of important if perhaps obvious points—that academics need to get beyond their knee jerk perception of television as a vast wasteland (academics should know better given the similar caricaturing and stereotyping of film in an earlier era) (pp. 34-39), that before we can analyse a television show we have to place it in its historical and its industrial contexts (pp. 13), that before we can explore a televisual text we must closely investigate each and every episode of the show (all 254 half hour episodes in the case of Bewitched (pp. 2-3), that Bewitched was more than just a children’s show (pp. 3-7), and that Bewitched had a cinematic quality to it (pp. 52-77 and pp. 130-137). Despite Metz’s emphasis on the need for an industrial analysis of television shows, however, his monograph is, in essence, just one more example of the text as crystal ball criticism that dominates literary, film, and television studies today.

Many of the usual suspects associated with crystal ball textual criticism make cameo appearances in Metz’s monograph. There’s the emphasis on Bewitched as bourgeois text. Metz notes that Bewitched is about a working husband and a stay at home wife who live in the suburbs (pp. 84-92). There’s the emphasis on the contradictory nature of Bewitched’s “text”. For Metz Bewitched expresses “liberal” paternalism and feminism (p. 92), liberal pro-civil rights mentalities and “liberal” ethnic stereotyping (pp. 64-65) and “liberal” positive and negative reactions to America’s burgeoning counterculture (pp.106-114). There’s the emphasis on Bewitched’s queerness. Metz argues that the show is, to some extent, about outsiders where witches and warlocks serve as metaphors for bored suburban housewives, counterculture types, and gays and lesbians (pp 77-84). There’s the emphasis on Bewitched’s subversive aspects. Metz asserts that Bewitched satirises America’s consumer culture (pp. 90-91), critiques America’s Cold War surveillance culture (pp. 44-46), and expresses discontent with America’s patriarchal culture (p. 92). There’s the supposed postmodernist aspects of the show. Metz argues that the replacement of Dick York with Dick Sargent allowed the shows creators and writers to play with Bewitched’s themes of transformation and the threat of transformation (pp. 124-130). And finally, there’s the exploration of textual consumption by fans. Metz briefly mentions that the replacement of Dick York with Dick Sargent as Darrin is the primary means of fan camp identification with the show (p. 125) and explores how his attitude towards the show changed as he moved from childhood to adulthood (pp. 1, 5-6, and 124-130).

It is this text as crystal ball methodology that I find particularly problematic in Metz’s book. Text centred analysis, of course, has long been a central practice and core symbol of certain tendencies in biblical, literary, and film studies. Students of Biblical Studies have long made careers out of divining “documents” like “J”, “E”, “P”, and “D” from the Torah and “Q” from the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. They can, however, offer no extra-textual evidence from the broader Mediterranean world to support their hypotheses that such “documents” existed, however (I prefer to see the tales of the Torah as oral in nature a la Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey). Metz’s monograph has similar problems. Metz may talk the talk of historical and industrial analysis but he doesn’t walk the walk. Metz asserts that the change in actors playing Darrin necessitated by Dick York’s retirement from the show due to back problems led Asher and Company toward metatextual” terrain. But he offers no evidence beyond the text for this hypothesis (did the creators and writers discuss how to deal with this necessary change in casting during staff meetings? in discussions with network executives?). Metz speaks broadly of the “liberalism” of Bewitched (a liberalism, by the way, he views in too singular a form) but he provides no documentary evidence that the creators of Bewitched were “liberals” (apart from reference to the fact that Asher produced the birthday celebration for John F. Kennedy at which Marilyn Monroe infamously sang happy birthday to the president and that he and Montgomery felt particularly close to JFK and were shaken by his assassination (p. 14)) and that their liberalism impacted the show (were there discussions among the creators and staff about how they could integrate their liberal politics into the show?). Once again the only evidence Metz can point to for Bewitched’s liberalism is Bewitched’s “text” as he “reads” it. One of these days crystal ball critics are going to have to explain to me why I should regard their analysis as anything other than a form of ideological textual poaching (given its emphases and its lack of extra textual evidence) that tells us more about the social and cultural contexts academics find themselves in than the “texts” they claim to decipher.

Despite my reservations with Metz’s monograph (and it is a monograph with all the attendant limitations) his Bewitched is an important study of a television show that has received limited and limiting attention from scholars. For this reason alone I think it is an important book that deserves to be read alongside (though it will not displace) the more institutionally and narratively oriented guides to the show like Herbie Pilato’s The Bewitched Book (1992). Interestingly and perhaps ironically it is works like this by fan-scholars rather than those by scholar-fans which actually do a better job of exploring the institutional contexts and narrative terrain of television shows (a point Metz makes on p. 139). Metz’s monograph has not changed this state of affairs.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form as “Review of Walter Metz’s Bewitched, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 29:1 (April 2009), pp. 150-151.

Vampire Noir: Review of Angel by Stacey Abbott

Angel. Stacey Abbott. TV Milestones Series. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.

Angel, the spin off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has always been in the shadow of its more famous sire ever since its debut on the WB network in 1999. The show would run for five seasons and end in 2004. Not surprisingly the show has also been in the shadow of Buffy in the world of academic publishing. While Buffy has been the subject of hundreds of articles and almost a dozen books Angel has been the sole subject of Stacey Abbott’s edited collection, Reading Angel (Tauris, 2005) and this one hot off the press from Wayne State University Press.

Like other books in Wayne State’s TV Milestones series Angel is short and leaves Abbott little room to manoeuvre. In five chapters and an introduction Abbott focuses on the collective and collaborative nature of Angel’s creation (Abbott critiques auteur theory arguing instead that Angel is the product of writers, directors, actors, and craftspeople and not creator Joss Whedon alone), Angel’s narrative and visual generic hybridity (a fashionable term these days which simply means that Angel mixes and matches multiple genres in this instance noir, horror, melodrama, comedy, and parody), Angel as horror (Abbott defends Angel as horror against those who claim that TV, because of its inherent limitations, can never be “true” horror), Angel and masculinity (Abbott sees Angel as post-masculinist buddy TV), and how Angel broke the rules of American television “stylistically, narratively, and generically” all the while challenging its viewers to step outside the box.

It is hard to disagree with Abbott that Angel mixes genres, including horror, and that it puts masculinity under its looking glass (as do Whedon’s other shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse). I do have some qualms about Abbott’s critique of auteurism in Angel and auteur theory in general, however. Abbott’s critique of auteurism is hardly novel. Many auteurists (and there are a variety of them ranging from Francois Truffaut to Andre Bazin to Robin Wood to Andrew Sarris) themselves have noted that film is a collaborative enterprise. Even Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema) limited the status of auteur to only a few “Olympians” like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks). The question then is not whether film, TV, or even literature are collaborative and collective enterprises. They are to varying degrees. The question is whether Joss Whedon, the co-creator or Angel along with David Greenwalt, is Angel’s auteur, Angel’s conductor-creator. And while all things Whedon may not end with Joss they certainly, as Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse writer Jane Espenson says, begin with him and return to him throughout the creative process. Joss, as Buffy’s costume designer says, even had a hand in what Buffy’s characters wore. Anyway, one only has to look at the themes that suffuse Whedon’s work in general (feminism, masculinity, family, existentialism, and moral choice to name only a few) to recognise Whedon’s guiding hand in the series. Finally, it would have been nice to see greater engagement with Angel as Angel, as narrative, as opposed to Angel as cipher of late twentieth century authorship, genre, and masculinity.

Wayne State is to be applauded for its publication of milestones in American TV show history. However, the format of the series is too brief to do justice to a complex series like Angel. Within these constraints Abbott has written a book that will likely, along with the essays in Reading Angel, be the academic standard for Angel Studies and the jumping off point for books on the series in the future.

This review originally appeared in a slightly different form as “Review of Angel by Stacey Abbott in the Journal of Popular Culture, 43:2 (April 2010), pp. 419-420.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Was the Holocaust Unique? Memories of a Blue Book Long Ago...

Long long ago in an undergraduate galaxy far far away I wrote a blue book on the uniqueness of the Holocaust for my Holocaust class with Dr. Todd Endelman sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. While I can't remember everything that I wrote for my examination, I can recall, in outline form, what my argument was.

If memory serves I began my exploration of the question Dr. Endelman posed to the class, was the Holocaust unique, by thinking first about murder itself since the Holocaust was clearly a species of murder. Instead of arguing that murder could be defined as a series of discreet acts--for example, murder, mass murder, genocide--I argued that murder had to be conceptualised as a continuum with the murder of one person on the right end of the continuum and genocide on the continuum's left side.

Redefining murder in this way, I next argued that the Holocaust could not be seen as unique from other instances of murder and from other instances of genocide. The Holocaust may have been genocide that resulted in the deaths of some six million European Jews, 60% of the Jewish population of Europe, the highest percentage of a people or a group genocided by genociders, but it was still a genocide. Genocide too, just like murder, I argued, had to be conceptualised as a continuum within a continuum with the Holocaust on the far left end of the genocide spectrum and other genocides lying at other points along the right part of the continuum line. The Cambodian genocide, for instance, saw 25% of the Cambodian population, defined as "westerners" exterminated.

In the end my point was that murder was murder and that no form of murder was unique, just qualitatively, continuumly, different. All murder, by and large, I argued, was and is, in some way, shape, or form, a violation of human rights.

By the way, the paper I wrote for my Holocaust class wasn't as well received as my blue book essay. In my paper I tried to apply Erving Goffman's notion of total institution to the ghettos created by the Nazis to help turn Jews into the very stereotypes and caricatures they had of Jews. Despite the unconvincing nature of the paper I would still maintain that Jewish ghettos were examples of Goffman's total institutions.