A New Academic Year Ahead

A new academic year is upon us and once more I look to finally begin blogging on a regular basis.

This year already feels different however – in 12 months time I will be handing in my MA dissertation, and the work for that begins now. I have already asserted the topics I’m interested in over the previous modules – television comedy and fandom – and am beginning to piece together fragments of inspiration that will eventually deliver my central thesis. 

I want this academic year to have a focus, however. It’s time to go big or go home – time to start taking risks. Often it feels in the writing of assignments I am merely recycling portions of previous research before gloating over a small synthesis, bludgeoning my way to some successful first-class results. My focus this year is to go further – read complete texts, not just summary chapters. Break down and critique my favoured theorists, not just jump on and bang on about potential links between them. Aim to contribute to the field of cultural theory rather than state where my interests lie.

A lot of my motivation for this research path is a personal journey – it is an attempt to deconstruct my own fandom. Why might I, or any number of sitcom fans, be happy to boxset the same series, over and over again? Am I watching a particular show because of a particular actor, producer, writer? A particular form – mockumentary? Are there elements of nostalgia and comfort, danger and tensions?

This year also stands to be make-or-break in relation to a professional journey as well as a personal one. For starters, I require a further ‘mastery’ over my subject, which begins with a confidence when talking about particular theorists and their writings. I have already aligned myself closely to the fields of research popularised by John Fiske, Henry Jenkins, Matt Hills, Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and Brett Mills. They have been the books that have got me started on this path.

What I am looking to do this year is broaden my horizons and begin to look further afield for research that may have a significant impact on my understanding of this field. For instance over the summer I have read with great interest Amanda Lotz’s “Cable Guys”, which investigates what she terms the “male-centered serial” such as Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. I feel Lotz was unfortunate to publish before she could include the series “True Detective” in her work. 

Lotz includes an interesting chapter on ‘Homosocial Enclaves’ while discussing what we could describe as “banter” between on-screen males. Lotz looks at comedy series “The League” and her thoughts on this topic could viably stretch out to any number of television comedy programs and their handling of male relationships. Instantly I believe a quick look at the original BBC version of ‘The Office’ might reveal how homosocial enclaves work under the comedy-documentary style.

I have turned to Matt Hills “How to Do Things With Cultural Theory” to further inspire me as I head into the first semester module that involves a negotiated study aspect. My initial plan for this module is to produce my own module outline, and Hills books is so far inspiring in its critique of how academics (or more specifically new academics such as myself) tend to a more ‘instrumental’ reading of academic texts, rather than a cover-to-cover exploration. I already feel these ideas might bear on how I would produce a module outline. 

Both modules this year might lend to a bit of breathing room as regards to reading literature – the second module entitled “Research Methods” intends to sharpen up my practical execution and thus should allow me further opportunities to get to grips with “proper” academia. The aim is to write on this blog again in 12 months time satisfied that I have earned the title of “master” – not just satisfied to have scored over 70. 

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Kickstarter, Yahoo, Netflix, Amazon: Is this what we mean by Video On-Demand?

When Yahoo Screen announced it was to bequeath a sixth season onto the former NBC comedy ‘Community’, thousands of fans were grateful that someone had finally come forth to give them this mythical batch of new episodes.

There were some mixed opinions across the internet, however – season five had felt like a natural stopping point for a show bleeding cast members and prone to network power struggles for its entire life. The last 2014 season had brought along some new highs and some spectacular episodes but there was definitely a sense it was running on fumes. But due to the power of the people – and the power of a certain hashtag – ‘Community’ will be back, probably in 2015 for a limited run.

This comes not long after Netflix resuscitated ‘Arrested Development’  in a populist move to further encroach on the traditional television industry. With a similar cult, digitally literate fan base as ‘Community’, the fourth season of ‘Arrested Development’ was a similarly smart move to not only continue a fine comedic show but to divert a large amount of internet traffic and noise in the streaming company’s direction.

Due to the loyalty of its fans, ‘Veronica Mars’ recently made its feature-film debut, seven years after the series had finished its run on television. Instead of protest-like campaigns of the above two fan groups, ‘Veronica Mars’ fans backed the production through crowd funding website Kickstarter. It wasn’t just their own private time they spent as part of a loud fan base, but their own money, too.

Amazon Prime went a different route last year, by producing a series of pilot episodes and letting the public vote for their favourites. While it may still be up in the air whether this was a cost-effective move compared to the normal network pilot season – I would presume it was – once more the show’s audiences lead the way in ensuring selected series made it to ‘air’.

These developments have brought a new shade of meaning to the phrase “on-demand”. Used to show video platforms that allow you to stream programs as and when you like – Hulu, Netflix, iPlayer, Youtube – “on-demand”, or “VOD”, is an expression pushed to the fore in this remarkable period of change in the media industries.

Yet surely the above examples highlight a different sort of “on demand” philosophy. It would seem that if a large enough amount of people request the continuation or resurrection of a series, there is a company ready to step in and develop the project. ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘Community’ are two examples of streaming services picking up popular axed series that almost act as ‘launch’ series.

So perhaps we are not in an era where audiences will watch whatever they want, when they want. If trends like this are to continue, then it is the industry itself which will have to cater to its audience’s demands. I don’t use that verb accidentally – where once television may have been a fast food chain, where audiences are given a menu and series come in mega sized batches of 24 episodes. Instead, this more refined landscape is a top of the market restaurant in which the chef’s seem are all too willing to resource and dish up whatever off-menu requests its punters ask for.

We’re still in the dark about whether this is a successful business model or not. But it is another recent development in a period of fascinating industrial change.

Where Next for the Mockumentary Aesthetic?

NBC’s ‘The Office’ finished up last year after a (mostly) successful 9-season run. It’s sister show, ‘Parks and Recreation’, heads into the 2014/15 schedule with a limited home stretch. ‘Modern Family’ juggernauts into a sixth season on ABC with critics already sharpening their knives.

These three series show how this particular form of American comedy has evolved. ‘The Office’ was transported from the British version and stuck most closely to the documentary conceit. Albeit the forms became more subtle in the middle of its run, it then took pride of place in the complex, meta-textual turns of its final year.

‘Parks and Recreation’, which shares a particular Greg Daniels strand of DNA with ‘The Office’, made several changes to the aesthetic. It introduced the jump-cut into its talking head segments, allowing for greater room for improvisation from its performers. It made greater use of other media forms, such as the television talk show, news programme, and local radio station, mainly for quaint parody with a distinct ‘Simpsons’ influence. ‘Parks and Recreation’ also became a more expansive series which focused less on the characters relation to the camera and more on the relations between the characters themselves.

‘Modern Family’, meanwhile, plays down the fact that it uses the documentary form at all. The talking-head sequences are far more organically tied to the narratives, and the camera is a far less intrusive tool than compared to the other shows. While in season one it is easy to see how Phil Dunphy might be trying to play up to the camera his “cool dad” persona, there is very little in ‘Modern Family’ that points to these characters being aware of the camera’s presence. Therefore it sits much more closely to the crop of single-camera comedies such as ‘The Mindy Project’ and ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ rather than ‘The Office’.

The newly-crowned Emmy award winner ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ is either an example of the aesthetic going full-circle or another tweak to the formula. While it doesn’t utilise some of the conventions of the above series – talking heads, through-the-blinds shots, self-aware characters – it does feel like it still belongs to this small crop of successful shows. Replacing the talking head sequences with flashbacks a la ‘New Girl’ is a small tweak that takes us out of the documentary form.

But is the ‘Nine-Nine’ mainstream network’s way of telling us the mock-doc is over? Have audiences got bored of looking sitcom characters in the eyes? Or have producers just been inundated with such scripts that they have decided to go another way?

A sideline to one of my most recent essays for my course set out the argument that the mockumentary aesthetic was important to freeing up comedic actors to perform at their full potential – a brief internet search will show how many of the stars of the above shows are indebted to a hard schooling in the American improv circuits. Would a turn away from this style take us back to the more classic sitcom acting style, where performers have less of a contribution?

It’s be interesting to see if another mockumentary-like show manages the mainstream success of the ones mentioned in this blog post. The sitcom landscape is incredibly complex – the high ratings of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ still confounds in this context – and critically engaging with the next wave of popular shows is going to be an important part of understanding this area of culture.