Hard-Hitting reality

•October 1, 2011 • Leave a Comment

With this week’s lecture covering the emergence of reality TV and its popularity, I think it’s a good time to do some analysis on one of my favourite reality series which I am watching right now, The Ultimate Fighter. I actually mentioned this series in one of my earlier posts, but in this post I think I’ll cover more about how it fits in with the conventions of modern popular reality TV.

As the above trailer shows, The Ultimate Fighter is a reality TV show and mixed martial arts (MMA) competition that features unknown, professional MMA fighters who live together in a house-type setup,  with the cameras following them as they train and compete against each other for a prized contract with the UFC. Already, it is easy to see how it shares many aspects of the modern reality TV series, especially those within the “games frames” style of program, with each character a competitor in both the series and the sport, hoping to gain the prized contract as a fighter for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. If you were to liken it to any other reality TV series, the best comparison I could think of would have to be The Biggest Loser. When you think about it, both series have very similar setups: competitors split into two teams, each team headed by rival coaches, all the competitors living in one house, all the competitors looking to train and develop throughout the competition to better themselves from the experience, all of them with eyes on the final life-changing prize that ultimately make the original team setup obsolete. The only real difference that exists is that there is no voting system or audience participation which dictates a fighter’s exit from the competition, as it is MMA fights which will dictate who remains in contention for the ultimate glory. Also, all competitors remain in the house throughout the entire series despite any losses and being knocked out of contention for the final prize (only serious injury that leaves a fighter unable to train will see them leave your screens), which is an interesting feature that not many reality series implement.

So what is the appeal of the series?

Well for starters, the clever use of the reality TV genre crossover into the world of sport television already gains the appeal from all those who are fans of the UFC (which is the main reason for the series grabbing my attention). However, as I outlined in my previous post about the series, it was actually The Ultimate Fighter reality series which was pivotal in rejuvenating support for the sport itself and lifted it out from a difficult period, so this point gives a significant insight into how the show managed to tap into the rising reality television culture and its popularity of the time (in 2005, when the first season aired) in order to benefit the sport itself. So, it is useful to go beyond the genre hybridisation here in order to consider the appeal of the series.

In my view, the appeal came from this ability to tap into the current television culture surrounding reality TV back in 2005. It was back when the “game frame” setup was quite popular amongst fans, especially using the system of all the contestants living in the one house, where audiences are able to view the dynamic between the different characters, and possibly decide on a “favourite” who they wanted to win. Episodes contain frequent commentary from fighters and coaches alike, mini-interviews and grabs that are used to provide insight into events that unfold on the screen as told from the perspectives of these different characters. In addition, it also very much seemed to tap into this quality of “authenticity” in the relationship between the fighters, where there would be genuine hatred between competitors (and more often and not, even more conflict between rival coaches). And most importantly with this series, this hatred would commonly be able to play out in a physical duel inside the octagon, a real treat for fight fans deeply immersed in the series.

It also gained much appeal from its use of everyday characters, ordinary people (mostly American, but also featuring fighters from other countries and nationalities) who were looking to make it big and live their dream of becoming a fighter in the big leagues. For many, this pursuit of the ultimate dream is quite appealing to American audiences and even audiences worldwide, especially with many of these fighters having difficult childhoods and who use the sport of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) in order to make a better life for themselves and distance themselves from the mistakes of their past. It is this deeper insight into the lives of each contestant that broadens the appeal of not only the series, but the sport itself, and audiences are really able to see when fighters give it their all and leave nothing behind in their fights.

The interesting thing to note about earlier seasons of the show is about its lack of ‘live-ness’ and audience participation which many reality TV shows tend to employ. The inherent “live-ness” of each season of the show was not really made apparent until the finales, which were turned into live and official fighting events under the UFC. It was only here where the audiences were actually live and shown on our screens, witnessing the fight which would determine the winner of the  television series. It’s also interesting how with the latest season of TUF (season 14), that it’s been decided to be run live each week with audiences now able to actively participate in the deciding of fight matchups from week to week. This is an interesting development for the series, and one that I find comes at a perculiar time. It’s not as if the audience participation system is anything new, and if anything it’s actually becoming quite outdated, with countless reality TV shows like Idol using this framework. Perhaps the UFC is simply trying to test the waters with these new additions to the series. After all, the audience doesn’t necessarily dictate who is knocked out of contention for the final prize; all the knocking-out is quite literally left up to the fighters themselves and the performances they manage to display inside the octagon!


Breaking out from the norm

•September 24, 2011 • Leave a Comment

This week’s look at The Wire and some of the conventions of the ‘police procedural’ television drama beckoned me to take a critical look at one of the recent dramas I have been watching which could fall under this same genre. The series Breakout Kings  recently finished airing its first season, and it’s a show that I found myself quite enjoying. I am not a massive fan of the police procedural, and I tend to stay away from watching shows like Law and Order or CSI, although I have been dabbling in the new series of Hawaii 5-0 since it’s been remade from the original show. While these shows aren’t examples of exceptional narrative writing as would be considered of ‘quality TV’ programs like The Wire, they do retain a degree of action and an element of interest to their stories which manage to keep me watching. Here, I’ll take a brief look at Breakout Kings and both its shared commonalities with the typical police procedural, as well as some narrative differences it chooses to employ.

To describe the show briefly, the premise is about a small taskforce of U.S Marshals who are dedicated to the capturing of escaped convicts within 72 hours of their flight, after which it is virtually impossible to recapture an escaped con. To add a spin on things, the taskforce employs a team of 3 current prisoners who are serving time for their various felonies, who are then offered time off their sentences for every con they assist in recapturing. Each of these prisoners brings a certain speciality of knowledge and skill according to the line of thinking that ‘it takes a con to catch a con’. Each episode deals primarily with the capturing of the “escapee of-the-week” as well as various conflicts amongst the team and their own character conflicts and backstories.

In its delivery, Breakout Kings does share a few common conventions employed in other police procedural and crime drama series. For example, the start of each episode will feature a brief scene documenting the prisoner’s escape from their compound (often incorporating various displays of violence) before the cut to the opening credits. This is a convention that can be associated with the opening sequence of a number of similar dramas, where either the “crime” is committed or  “the body” is discovered. The recapture of this criminal then becomes the primary focus for the episode, with the team succeeding within the final 5 minutes, just in time for some epilogue resolving some character conflict that occured within the episode, or establishing a wider dramatic concern for a character that will be further explored later on in the series. In this way, the narrative is both a blend of the internal narrative closure of each episode focused on the capture of the escaped convict, as well as wider narrative elements that are to build a bigger picture.

Where the series intends to differentiate itself though, is more in the greater moral issues addressed, blurring the line of justice and “doing things by the book” that the traditional police procedurals of the past would have involved. As I described before, the team that represents “the law” in this drama is far from your conventional team; 3 of its members are current felons themselves and one of the marshals is a former dirty cop. Furthermore, not only does the team have to contend with the recapture of the “criminal of-the-week”, it also has to deal with its own internal conflicts, namely the cosntant potential for one of their own to decide to run. The only thing keeping them from doing this is the threat of having their sentences doubled if recaptured (a punishment which extends to the entire team if just one of them runs), and subsequently, an element of trust and a bond that is gradually built amongst the team as the series continues. This is probably one of the “hooks” of the program, and its most defining feature that separates it from the rest.

In this way, Breakout Kings explores one of the concepts addressed by Philip J. Lane is his article The Existential Condition of Television Crime Drama. Lane focuses on the notion of existentialism that many programs within this genre involve, and the conflict between internal concerns and the duty to work as part of a team. It is often the case in these established television worlds of crime drama that ‘questions of right and wrong, good and evil, do not boil down to “just the facts ma’am,’’ but to the rules of the game and how it is played’ (p. 140). This to me is one of the central concerns of this program, especially given the extraordinary nature of “the team” in question. In any case, these wider moral concerns remain to be one of the hallmarks of the Breakout Kings program, and it is quite entertaining to have the traditional side of “the law” (which is often splotched with shades of grey), to be further shaken up by the presence of criminals themselves embodying this figure of “justice”.

And one final point on this program before I finish. Breakout Kings is also interesting for its feature of a significant instance of character overlap that occurs on the third episode of the first season. This episode’s “criminal of-the-week” is in fact, Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell, who breaks out from Fox River State Penitentiary. Sound familiar? That would be because it is the same prison featured in the Fox series Prison Break, with “T-Bag” being a prominent character from the show. It is quite interesting to see such a crossover of narrative worlds between two programs that are inherently unrelated and are in fact featured on different networks, and it serves as a small ‘Easter egg’ for fans of the Prison Break series. While this doesn’t serve to have any inherent narrative value, it is an interesting point to note, especially the ease of which this character does seamlessly cross over between programs. Usually, the implementation of character overlap comes across as quite cheesy and tokenistic, but in this case it seems to work.


Painful Goodbyes

•September 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

This week’s lecture and look at the beginning and end to the Big Love series presents a good opportunity to reflect on the concept of concluding a television series. Carrying on from my commentary about the narrative aspects of so-called ‘quality TV’, it’s only fitting that I pay some attention to the way that such narratives are brought to a close, which is undoubtedly the most important point for the viewer within the whole narrative experience. After all, so much time has been so far invested into a series, and certainly within the genre of ‘quality TV’, every single moment before is building up to the climax of the final episode. Ultimately, the success of an entire series hinges on its conclusion, and it represents the writer’s overall goal of where he wanted to take the story and all its characters. It can be a time for closure, drama, soppy montages, or even unresolved plots that abruptly end on a knife-edge. There are a whole host of ways a series can come to a close, and in any case, the one thing for sure is that for viewers, it will always be a hard goodbye.

Jason Mittell provides an interesting article on his blog which covers all the different narrative and logistical ways that a television series can conclude, arguing that it’s actually quite rare for an American TV show to reach a planned finale. He writes that ‘much more common is the stoppage, an abrupt, unplanned end to a show when the network pulls the plug midseason (usually in its first season). A stoppage is always extra-textually motivated, when a network loses faith in a show’s ratings or potential for growth (or perhaps the star has a drug-fueled meltdown and starts making anti-semitic insults about the producer) resulting a premature cessation of a series with no narratively motivated closure or finality’. Here the pain for the audience lies in a narrative being cut short, not necessarily a lack of resolution, but the fact that the series itself did not end in the way that was originally intended by the creators.

A wrap-up is another method which doesn’t necessarily involve a planned series finality, but where a particular season has ended in a way that can be accepted as a natural stopping point. This is particularly pertinent to shows which involve seasons with internal narrative structures and resolutions, thus there isn’t an overarching narrative that needs to be addressed.

A conclusion however, is a planned end to a series, and they ‘offer a sense of finality and resolution, following the centuries-old assumption that well-crafted stories need to end’. Within this category itself is another series of variations in narrative conclusion. A cessation doesn’t gift the viewer with the benefit of definite finality, and can often be quite ambiguous in the way that it ends. The opposite of this is a resurrection, where a series is revived at some point down the track, often through other mediums such as a film. On this point of resurrection though I’d like to offer a clear warning. Only attempt to resurrect a series if it was never given a proper conclusion to begin with. Don’t try bringing back something that was given a proper burial, because you might find that the horrible corpse you’ve brought back has passed its expiry date. Not only this, but you might find your former audience to no longer be receptive given they have already dealt with the emotional experience of closure in the supposed final episode. Here I am of course talking about the renewal of the series Scrubs into its ninth season, after the series 8 finale had already seemingly provided a fitting end. This “revival” saw the series lowest ever ratings and an eventual cancellation, enough said.

And then, there’s the big one, the finale. The planned climax which has been building ever since the pilot hit the screens. It is these that ultimately serve the greatest narrative purpose, and provide some useful examples to examine. Mittell says it best when he writes ‘Finales are not thrust upon creators, but emerge out of the planning process of crafting an ongoing serial, and thus the resulting discourses center around authorial presence and the challenges of successfully ending a  series. The discursive importance of finales raise the stakes for the narrative, and thus frequently produce disappointment and backlash when they inevitably fail to please everyone’.

Just as the narrative of an entire series of ‘quality TV’ can be considered a matter of “taste”, so too with these finales. Sometimes, an ending can seem almost too planned, where the writers seem to throw in a critical dramatic moment just for the sake of the occasion, resulting in something overdramatised and cheesy. I haven’t actually seen the series Big Love so perhaps it isn’t my place to comment, but I felt the finale we were shown in the lecture seemed to meet this critique, with the death of the main character Bill a cliche way to end it.

More in my domain to comment on is quite possibly the most polarising end to a long-form narrative series in the finale of The Sopranos. Here is a brilliant example of creativity when it comes to a climactic ending; continue to build upon an escalating point of drama until it reaches boiling point, then cut to black, give the viewers absolutely nothing. A lot of fans were upset with the seeming lack of resolution, and initially I experienced similar sentiments. But now, looking back on it, it seems fitting that there is not a definitive narrative conclusion, but a whole host of possibilities that could have occurred. Who says that a long-form narrative can’t end with the viewer hungry for more? I also like the fact that it was such a planned end…for such an unplanned end. And after all, there had already been a ton of bloodshed and violence in the build up to the finale, so there was no real need to end it with similar results. Everyone almost seemed to expect it, so to be given nothing was quite a clever twist of events. In any case, it offers an extremely interesting example when it comes to the concept of finales withing ‘quality TV’ viewing and study.

And just to finish this post off, a more lighthearted way to approach what is in reality quite a sad ending for the hopes and dreams of the main characters.

Quality Read

•September 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Having read Jason Mittell’s article on Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, I can now appreciate another level of depth into the study of this Television Cultures course. It really does reaffirm television as not only a legitimate medium for academic study, but also one where deep meaning can be discovered through its analysis, not only about the nature of the medium itself, but also about the audiences that are caught up within it. The basis for Mittell’s article is the recent trend that has emerged in television since the 1990s in narratively complex programs (also referred to as “quality TV”), and it is this mode of storytelling that is the hallmark of the medium’s claim as a legitimate area for academic analysis.

In order to understand this concept, Mittell explains that ‘television’s narrative complexity is predicated on specific facets of storytelling that seem uniquely suited to the series structure that sets television apart from film and distinguish it from conventional modes of episodic and serial form’ (p.29). In this way, complex narrative becomes more of a particular mode of storytelling. In last week’s lecture the question was raised whether complex narrative or “quality TV” becomes a genre in itself, despite there being genre distinctions within it. It is quite a difficult question to answer and there is a lot of grey area involved, but I guess for me, it’s not really a genre, but a way of storytelling, as it is more concerned with a kind of narrative structure than the narrative content itself. Furthermore, narrative complexity can occur in just about any genre, and so isn’t restricted to a particular kind in the way that the sitcom genre is inextricably tied to the genre of comedy. In fact, narrative complexity can also occur in sitcoms itself, as Mittell points out in his analysis of Seinfeld.

On this same note, it was also interesting to hear in the lecture about how American television station HBO attempts to use these concepts of narrative complexity and “quality television” as a way of defining their brand and differentiating it from the competition. Their slogan of “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” can be seen as a clear attempt to in a sense redefine its programming as not a separate genre of television viewing, but almost an entirely different medium in itself, even though it is reliant on the platform of television for its broadcast. An effective way of advertising the brand perhaps, but for me it is far from being its own medium. The HBO name does not transcend the realm of television, all it does is portray a number of assumptions that the audience of its programming can come to expect, namely long-form narrative incorporating sex and violence as can be seen in shows such as The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and (dare I use this as an example in one of my blog posts) True Blood.

On this note it’s also important to highlight Mittell’s point that ‘complexity and value are not always mutually exclusive’ (p.30). With all this hype around the success of narratively complex drama, it is easy to fall under the assumption that all of these narratively complex programs are fantastic and a must-see. But again, as often must be considered in television analysis, it’s usually dependent on individual “taste” and ‘value judgements should be tied to individual programs rather than claiming the superiority of an entire narrational mode or genre.’ (p.30). Even perspectives on the worth of individual shows will undoubtedly vary among analysts. After all, if you dislike a program you’re hardly encouraged to give it a good wrap.

Mittell also points out that despite the clear influences from other mediums such as novels, films, comics and videogames, this sort of narrative complexity conveyed through this “quality TV” is in fact, unique to the medium of television itself. This is probably the one point I don’t completely agree with, as I do see these other mediums (novels, videogames etc.) also littered with examples of complex narrative seriality. However, I do see it as the major differentiation between the mediums of television and cinema, and especially on the point of television as the writer’s medium, and film as the realm of the director.

While the genre of film is still perfectly capable of narrative complexity, I do see it’s structural limitations as being unable to accommodate long-form narrative in the same way that television can. After all, how many times do we hear of particular novels or television series being “adapted” for the big screen? Adapted obviously being the key word here. The general convention of film is to convey a story within a one to three hour time frame, which in the case of adaptations often involves changing  or compressing narrative to fit within the medium. You just have to look at the division of the final Harry Potter book into two films to see how film is really an inflexible medium when it comes to long-form narrative. On the other hand, television allows for greater creativity through a long-form series, with extended character depth, ongoing plotting and episodic variations, and these attributes are seamlessly implemented within this medium.

Mittell defines narrative complexity as ‘a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of social narration’ (p.32), which often rejects the need for plot closure after every episode and can often leave the viewer hanging on a particular moment in the plot. In fact, leaving the viewer on edge is usually the hallmark of this narrative mode, and can come to be expected by its audience, and often the reason which leaves them hungry for more and obsessed with the series itself. In my own experience, I’ve recently just got into the HBO series Game of Thrones, and every one of the seven episodes I’ve watched so far has ended on a cliffhanger which has left me struggling to pull myself away from the TV. For this television series and other narratively complex dramas like it, there is no need for the disclaimer ‘to be continued’ at the end of an epsiode, because it’s expected of this mode of storytelling. My theory is then if this disclaimer needs to be established for the audience, then the program itself is not inherently narratively complex.

But this is also not to assume that such narratively complex shows are always centred on and obsessed with the long-term story that is to be told, and Mittell points out that they can ‘often oscillate between long-term arc storytelling and stand-alone episodes’ (p.33). He uses the example of The X Files and it’s fluctuation between episodes devoted to the long-term narrative of the series and those surrounding the “monster-of-the-week” in order to break up this focus and allow viewers a reprieve from dealing with this underlying plot line (which in its complexity can often be exhausting to constantly consume). One of my favourite series, Supernatural, also employs this same method of episodic variation between the long-term narrative (which eventually evolves into a plot involving angels, demons and God Himself) and stand-alone episodes involving hunting a particular supernatural monster. It was these stand-alone episodes which were so prominent in Season 1 and is where the show could really be seen to have built its fanbase from. I know many people who rewatch the first season specifically in order to get back to its roots in just hunting things, and thus it is really the duty of the writers to continue to include such episodes in later seasons which have become so focused on the bigger narrative. In this way, this example is very much like what Mittell writes of The X Files, and funnily enough, one of Supernatural‘s stand-alone episodes is actually a parody of The X Files itself, and is considered one of the best episodes of the series.

As stated earlier, Mittell highlights that narrative complexity is not just limited to long-form drama, but can also occur in comedies such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons which ‘use television’s episodic form to undercut conventional assumptions of returning to equilibrium and situational continuity while embracing conditional seriality’ (p.34). These comedies have quite an interesting and humerous approach to narrative complexity, choosing to continue some plot lines while the wider world around it is never altered. For example, at the start of every Simpson’s episode the world is reset back to normal despite the chaos the previous episode may have ended on.  However, some plot events carry on through the series and are continually referenced such as Maggie always referred to as shooting Mr Burns, and Sideshow Bob’s continual attempts at murdering Bart. Other than these select continuing plot points, time stands still, which in effect is quite a humerous paradox, but is simply considered as part of the writers’ comedy. These comedies too will often employ stand-along episodes, none more notable than The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horrors, which have become a series within themselves. In fact, it is within this series that the audience has come to expect that plot lines are never continued, especially since they usually involve one or more of the characters being killed off. Take this example of Ned Flanders being killed here, whereas in the rest of the series, the death of Maud Flanders is a continuing plot line.

I think Mittell sums it up nicely when he says that ‘we watch these shows not just to get swept away in a realistic narrative world…but also to watch the gears at work, marveling at the craft required to pull off such narrative pyrotechnics’ (p.35). It is this point here that again provides a true distinction between film and television, and the director’s medium as opposed to that of the writer. In the realm of television and narratively complex drama, we are drawn in by the writers and the “narrative special effect” as opposed to the aesthetic one that is a hallmark of the film genre. I mean, I only watch the Transformers movies  for what every other man wants to see, massive explosions and widespread destruction, and we walk away thanking Michael Bay for the experience. But, no one would ever try and argue that the hallmark of those films are its complex narrative. Whereas, in my recent addiction to Game of Thrones, I’m caught up by the ever complex plotline filled with conflict among its wide array of characters. So far, I am yet to see any examples of an enthralling battle scene which is usually the staple of narratives set within medieval times. But this doesn’t bother me at all, because there are countless movies I can see if I wanted to watch well-directed epic battles filled with special effects. For this series, it’s narrative that’s got me hooked, and this is something which belongs to television.


4 Posts for assessment

•August 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

1. World building and platform jumping

2. Textual Killers

3. Textual Hunters

4. Eventful Viewing

World building and platform jumping

•August 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

This week’s lecture brought up some very interesting points of thought about the contemporary buzzword of ‘transmedia’ and the role of the ‘webisode’ as another platform in which media texts cross. Being a marketing buzzword, there is much deviation in meaning in just exactly what transmedia incorporates, but for me, the world-building and expansion aspect is most pivotal to my understanding. For me, the meaning of the word is summed up nicely in Elizabeth Evan’s book Transmedia Television in that ‘transmedia elements do not involve the telling of the same events on a different platform; they involve the telling of new events from the same storyworld’ (p. 27).  Here then, the emphasis is less about the physical crossing of media platforms, but about another entry point into the story world that is first created by the core text (eg. a television show). However, despite these different media forms offering new narratives or ‘an expansion of the fictional world that was first presented in the television series, they remain not only separate but also ancillary and secondary to it’ (p. 23). Hence, ‘the television programme, or film, is consistently the primary point of engagement, with non-television-based texts, be they digital or not, functioning superfluously to it, merely promoting the primary series or opening up new revenue streams via merchandise’ (p. 23).

In the modern media world following the advent of web 2.0, the online realm is becoming increasingly more of a feature within this concept of transmedia, with the webisode in particular becoming a prominent method of expanding a world first established by a core text and promoting and fostering audience engagement with this primary platform. One example of this which I checked out straight after the lecture was the animated webisodes revolving around one of my favourite television series, Dexter, called Dexter: Early Cuts. These 8 minute webisodes involved stories of the main character, Dexter, and his early life before the narrative of the television series kicks in. The 3 separate webisodes feature the voice of the character himself, Michael C Hall, as he narrates these short stories over the illustrated animation. Throughout the television series, there are many references made to Dexter’s childhood life which serve to explain how he developed many of his rituals that he follows throughout the program. However, these webisodes offer unique narratives that are both textually enhancing to audiences, yet are not pivotal towards the understanding of the core text itself in the television series. Here then, this example reaffirms the argument about transmedia platforms being both a unique entry point into the narrative world of the core text, but also being secondary to it, a mere extension which acts as a sweet bonus for those that decide to tap into it. Though, it is interesting to note that in this example, the webisodes have only received around 100000-200000 views on Youtube (the primary hosting place of the webisodes), whereas the television series attracts millions of viewers worldwide with each episode. This does make an interesting suggestion into the popularity and prominence of the webisode as compared to the core text itself.

Another interesting view  which is explored by Evans’ book is about the commercial aspect and motivation of transmedia and the expansion of a narrative world. Evans highlights the arguments of Marsha Kinder that ‘transmedia storytelling…becomes about merchandising and marketing’ (p.21). Toys are an obvious example of this financially motivated transmedia pursuit, as they ‘are produced [to] allow viewers to imaginatively explore the fictional world of a televisual or cinematic supersystem, but at the same time they teach children how to be consumers, to desire material objects’ (p.21). Here then, the concept of transmedia takes on more malicious connotations, seemingly to be more about fostering a person’s need to consume the narrative world than to enjoy it. The emphasis on consumption seems to take away much of the majestic and fantastical aura that surrounds the concept of world-building, and replaces it with implications of company greed and consumer exploitation. Thinking of it in this way, the Transformers world and its expansion is an interesting case study to comment on, especially considering this now transmedia juggernaut was first born out of a series of toys marketed to young children. In a way, this desire to consume the Transformers world was first created, which was then fostered and tapped into through the development of a animated television series, comics, video games and of course, the recent trilogy of blockbuster films which attracted huge audiences and made big dollars. In this example, the commerical aspect really does shine through.

However, I believe that the webisode, and in particular, web 2.0’s facilitation of fan-made and user-generated content does much to give something back to this once noble and wondrous perception of transmedia and the image of world-building. Here, the emphasis is less about the concept of consumption, but the expansion of the particular narrative worlds purely for the sake of imagining new stories or by offering unique perspectives on this established world. In particular, I think one of the best examples of this is online fan-generated content which expands on the various worlds created by video games as the core text. One such instance of this is in the fan-made web series There Will be Brawl,  which takes a live-action approach to the world revolving around the video game series, Super Smash Brothers. To give some quick context here, the game is a fighter which involves taking a range of different characters from a range of their different video-game worlds, and bringing them into the one game in order to bash the living daylights out of each other for the entertainment of players.

As you can probably grasp from the trailer, the game itself already involves the clash of a variety of narrative worlds into the one place. However, what the web series does is expand this narrative world even further, and gives it a live-action, real-world spin on things. Here, each character becomes a real-world persona and these fantasy worlds which exist in the videogame platform are reimagined into a modern-day American gangster-city environment. The webisodes take a unique, more adult and darker approach in their expansion of these narrative worlds, bringing these characters into a world of violence, sex, drugs, and corruption. Of course, this narrative approach is mostly taken for the humerous contrast this brings to the characters’ worlds of their core texts within the games, and it is quite funny to see the villians reinterpreted in a real-world scenario as mob bosses a part of warring families. In any case, the point here is that the series was entirely fan-developed and a not-for-profit endeavour by its creators. Hence, the sole emphasis is on playing with the imaginary narrative worlds created by the core texts for the enjoyment of fellow fans. This to me represents the lifeblood of what transmedia is, and though commercial gains are often a key aspect of what the term involves, narrative and world-expansion are still the hallmarks of what it stands for. Undoubtedly, the web and webisodes do open up an additional avenue for further marketing and promotion development, but even more significant is their encouragement and facilitation of user-generated content, which while not having any official affiliation to the production of the core texts, can offer interesting and unique interpretations and re-imaginings of different narrative worlds.

Textual Killers

•August 25, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The basis for last week’s tutorial discussion was about the title sequences of different television programs and how they establish certain perceptions about the show, it’s identity surrounding cultural preference, as well as the kind of audience who would be drawn to such a program. When you think about it, the title sequence can often say a lot about the show and the kind of taste that is accompanied with such viewing. For me, one of the greatest title sequences ever created in my opinion is the long introduction to the Showtime drama series Dexter. For me, this cleverly crafted title sequence speaks much about the show, its themes, its moral dilemmas that it poses to the audience, and of course, the character of Dexter himself and the complex identities that exist within this character. Brian didn’t seem to share my same enthusiasm for this credit sequence, but perhaps it has a much deeper level of meaning to fans of the show who have avidly watched the first 5 seasons, or maybe it just comes down to a broader matter of taste. In any case, if it was up to me, I’d have Dexter‘s intro as the top TV title sequence ever created.

Even if you know nothing about the show, straight off the bat you have to give the title sequence some credit for some of the amazing visual shots they achieve, and how unsettling and menacing these visuals make such a simple everyday morning routine appear. All the extreme close-ups implemented are extremely striking and vivid, and there is never a dull moment in what is quite a long title sequence compared to most other programs. I find myself watching the entire sequence before the start of every episode, even though I have seen them countless times before.

Blood is of course a major feature of the title sequence, and each individual shot is designed to represent some aspect of a brutal murder scene, whether it’s the ravaging of the bacon with the blade, the splash of the blood-coloured juices from the fried eggs, or the forceful tightening of the shoelaces. This is of course a major theme of the show, with the protagonist Dexter, being a serial killer who attempt to control or manage his violent urges throughout his everyday life. By day, Dexter is a subdued and polite blood spatter analyst working for the Miami Metro Police Force, but underneath this mild-mannered facade lies an inner darkness, his ‘dark passenger’ as he calls it,  a monster who thirsts for the thrill of stealing the lives of others. The show is compiled of an array of ironies and character conflicts, and the visual metaphors the title sequence employs embodies these very complex scenarios that is explored through each episode of the program. You only have to look at the contrast between the menacing smile on Dexter’s face after he tightens his laces, to the polite smile he wears as he locks the door to his apartment, or his private world if you will.

There are a number of other interesting meanings behind this specific title sequence, and I’m sure I could sit here all day writing about them as they come to mind. But I think what is more interesting to note here is how these title sequences take on such added meaning to a long-time fan of the show, than compared to someone (like Brian) who is watching them from an outside perspective. Perhaps this does speak a lot about the study of television as compared to that of literature and cinema, and perhaps I have just appeared to confirm Jenkin’s theories about fans as ‘textual poachers’ and ‘active producers ad manipulators of meanings’. I have no doubt that it is my emotional investment in the show that leads me to make such connections surrounding meaning in the title sequence, but who is to say this is necessarily a negative thing for the academic study of television? Who’s to say that one should not be considered a ‘fan’ when analysing television as a text and that we must stay completely emotionally detached from that which we are evaluating for inherent meaning? I would argue it is virtually impossible to remain completely objective in the critical evaluation of any text, and emotion is bound to come into play in one way or another. In any case, whether it be my ‘fandom’ surrounding Dexter which leads me to discover these meanings in the text’s introduction, I actually firmly believe that these connections were deliberate visual decisions made by the creators of the show, and that these meanings were inherent in the sequence’s creation. I don’t see myself as textually ‘poaching’ in this circumstance, and I think it is wrong to maintain this assumption of ‘textual poachers’ and the idea of fans conjuring false or unintended textual meanings in the process of analysing televisual texts. To quote Henry Jenkins in his journal article  Star Trek rerun, reread, rewritten: Fan writing as textual poaching (1988), ‘fans appear to be frighteningly out of control, undisciplined and unrepentant, rogue readers’…For fans, reading becomes a type of play, responsive only to its own loosely structured rules and generating its own types of pleasure’.

But, perhaps my reading of Dexter’s introductory titles is a legitimate interpretation of the text, and maybe it doesn’t fit into this perception of ‘textual poaching’ at all. After all, as Jenkins states ‘my primary concern is with what happens when these fans produce their own texts, texts that inflect program content with their own social experience and displace commercially produced commodities for a kind of popular economy’. Here, he talks more about user-produced content and how these types of media are produced for more hardcore ‘cult’ audiences. If this is the case, then this represents a distinction between a critical view of television content as part of a traditional text analysis (as I have done with the credit sequence), and fan-produced material that is completely outside the meanings of the original text. In this respect, I have to agree with Jenkins, as in my viewing experience of user-produced content, I have to admit that there is some weird stuff and scenarios that exist in the minds of some fans. Some things that should remain hidden, a bit like Dexter’s dark passenger.