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The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling by Jason Mittell

Evaluation

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 [posted 6 June – release notes]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In the Introduction, I discussed how my experience watching Alias and 24 in 2001 helped shape this book, as I looked for ways to explain both programs’ narrative complexity, inspiring me to contribute to a vocabulary for studying television’s storytelling form that has become part of television scholarship for the past decade. However, these dual programs raise another blind spot in television studies that has been less directly addressed by the field: my own experience watching these series was framed in large part by my sense that Alias was a much better show than 24. There was no shortage of discussion over questions of the relative worth of these or other series in the backstage arenas of media scholars, whether on barstools at conferences or in departmental mailrooms—sites that today extend to online networks on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. But there was then, and still is, little space for a media scholar to make such an evaluative argument within the realm of official professional discourse. Perhaps such evaluation might appear in disguise, masked in the garb of political analysis where one might argue the superiority of Alias’s representations of gender, race, and global politics in comparison to 24. While I wouldn’t argue with such an assessment (although those are certainly complicated questions), my own evaluation was more due to an aesthetic judgment than a political preference: I believe that Alias succeeds as an effective serialized narrative far more than 24 does.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 So what might I do with this evaluative judgment? The most common tactic among media scholars is to pack it away, bracketing it off from our professional writing in the name of analytic objectivity, or at least neutrality. But I see two main flaws with this quick dismissal. First, it is dishonest—my aesthetic judgments do structure and shape this book. Since analyzing serial television requires an investment of many hours into watching, rewatching, and researching any given series, I have chosen to focus on programs that I actually enjoy as my primary case studies. Does this emphasis on my favorite programs like The Wire, Lost, Veronica Mars, and Breaking Bad over complex television series I don’t particularly enjoy, like Mad Men, 24, and Heroes, mean that my analysis is skewed? Certainly, as this would be a different book if my analysis had focused on other objects of study. But I make no claims toward objectivity nor neutrality, as I fully acknowledge that my own taste biases shape the choice of series I analyze and how I approach them. I know of no way that someone could manage to write a book like this without being selective in what programs to cover, and it is far better to be upfront about why I have focused on these particular programs rather than burying the hidden rationale in pseudo-objectivity. And while I don’t personally like some of the programs that I overlook, I would never claim that they are irrelevant to our understanding of television storytelling—I encourage critics with more sympathy for and interest in Mad Men or 24 to offer their own analyses of such important series.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The more vital problem with bracketing off questions of taste and evaluation is that it ignores key questions concerning television storytelling: can we analyze why some programs work better than others for particular viewers? Can we analyze taste as anything more than a reflection of either textually-inherent aesthetic value or contextually-determined markers of the critic’s social strata? In analyzing the poetics of television narrative, can we ask both how something works and how it works well? I believe the answers to all of these questions are yes—we can use evaluative criticism to strengthen our understanding of how a television program works, how viewers and fans invest themselves in a text, and what inspires them (and us) to make television a meaningful part of everyday life.[1] At its best, evaluative criticism invites us to see a series differently, providing a glimpse into one viewer’s aesthetic experience and inviting readers to try on such vicarious reading positions for themselves.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Before proceeding to such evaluations, it is important to contextualize what it is we do when we evaluate. An evaluative critique does not aspire to the status of fact or proof. By claiming that a given program is good, or that one series is better than another, I am making an argument that I believe to be true, but I do not assert it as a truth claim—in the terms laid out decades ago by Stanley Fish, evaluation is a discursive act of persuasion rather than demonstration.[2] Even more than other types of analysis, evaluation is an invitation to a dialogue, as debating the merits of cultural works is one of the most enjoyable ways we engage with texts, establish relationships with other cultural consumers, and gain respect for other critics and viewers’ opinions and insights. Of course I do hope to convince you that my evaluation is correct, and I certainly believe it to be true, but we do not make evaluations to make a definitive statement about the importance of any given text; instead they are contingent assertions lodged in their contextual moment that will almost undoubtedly be revised after future viewing and conversation. While my persuasive evaluation emerges from a context of authority, with an imprint of academic expertise that might give it more weight than a random pseudonym in an internet comment thread, in the end I think that any evaluation’s effectiveness of stems more from successful analysis and argumentation than the backing of institutional power or authority.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 So why do I claim (contingently) that Alias is a better case of complex television than 24? For me (as such evaluations are always draped in the cloak of personal caveat), both shows are ludicrous, but Alias revels in its own ludicrousness in a way that 24 fails to. Both programs tell ridiculous tales of action-oriented espionage, double (and triple) agents uncovering moles and layers of deception, and far-fetched scenarios that strain credulity. However, Alias never pretends to be serious in its vision of espionage and global intrigue—it wears its preposterous vision of globe-trotting secret agents as part of its flashy wardrobe of high-fashion and stylistic sheen. It invites us to care about the characters and their relationships, but winkingly acknowledges that its plot and scenarios are absurd in their fantastic glossy style, undercut by the comic relief of Marshall’s nerdy fanboy reflexivity, by the inhuman talents of Sydney Bristow and her fellow agents, and the scenery-chewing villainy of Arvin Sloan and Irina Derevko. Alias presents itself as a rollicking good time of a series, a thrill ride with a campy level of self-awareness and overt embrace of an endless attempts to top its own cliffhanging twists and reversals—in short, it’s a hoot.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In contrast, 24 takes its own ludicrousness way too seriously. From its production style of gritty realism to the realtime storytelling gimmick to its naturalistic high-stakes acting tone, 24 invites viewers to believe that this all might be real.[3] At least judging from the first season (which is the only year I watched in full, along with selected episodes from subsequent years), the program does little to puncture its own self-serious tone, with minimal comic undercutting, reflexive acknowledgement, or moments of stylistic artifice. This is not to say that a program must mock itself or undercut its own seriousness to be good, but that there seems to be an inherent incompatibility between 24’s serious, naturalistic style employing techniques that connote realism (onscreen anchoring text, splitscreens signalling simultaneity, handheld camerawork) and its ridiculous first-season storylines about fake deaths, body doubles, a double-crossing mistress, and a plane-exploding, seductive lesbian terrorist—not to mention Kim randomly getting attacked by a cougar in season 2! As a viewer, I found myself perpetually unsure how seriously I was supposed to be taking the series and its dramatic arcs, an uncertainty that becomes even more troubling with the show’s political celebration of torture and demonization of Muslims. Additionally, the plotting was frequently sloppy, with loose ends and shortcuts that belied the show’s realtime illusion of tightness and planning. Although Alias had its own fair share of narrative missteps and shortcuts, it never presented itself as anything more than a stylish fantasy, while 24 always maintained a pretense of being a coherent and well-constructed suspense thriller.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The takeaway from this brief evaluative comparison of Alias and 24 is that a series must effectively provide a framework for understanding its own storytelling and style to be successful—the text must speak to its viewers in a voice that guides us how to watch it. To me, Alias is a far more effective series (especially for its first three seasons) because it clearly established my expectations to offer escapist, fantastic propulsive fun, with character relationships providing emotional weight to plotlines that were far from grounded. Of course, 24 was far more commercially successful in the long-run, with higher ratings, a larger fan base, and a broader cultural influence. However, as an outsider to the show’s viewership, I don’t understand the framework by which viewers made sense of the program’s contradictions in tone and storytelling—is it supposed to be a serious thriller, a campy hyper-masculine melodrama, or somewhere in between? A common occurrence for viewers who fail to appreciate a series is this sense of not speaking the program’s language, creating a layer of miscommunication between what the text is saying and what we might be hearing. Many of the best complex television series work on numerous levels, providing both surface pleasures and deeper resonances for different groups of viewers, so I’m sure that many of 24’s fans find that it does succeed at these goals, as they can understand the program’s language. But 24 fails for me at multiple levels, succeeding only at developing cliffhangers that make me want to keep watching, even if I don’t enjoy the program, making it the televisual equivalent of a can of Pringles. I do find it an interesting failure, marrying ambitious formal innovations to more conventional content that seemed to speak to viewers in ways that run counter to numerous trends of other innovative television of the contemporary era that are frequently labelled “quality television,” a label that deserves more discussion.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The Qualities of Complexity

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 4 In writing about complex television series, many of which I find highly compelling and successful works of popular art, I have consciously avoided the label “quality television.” This term is most usefully understood as a discursive category used to elevate certain programs over others, with such programs united less by a formal or thematic elements than a mark of prestige that reflects well upon the sophisticated viewers who embrace such “quality” programming. The field of television studies splits on the term, with one prominent strand (based mostly in Europe) using the term quality to demarcate a legitimated object of study and corpus of programming, while the more common American tradition regards the emphasis on quality with skepticism and even outright hostility toward the notion that television might be regarded as an aesthetic object. In charting out some of these different approaches, I hope to move away from the discursive trap of quality, and model an approach to evaluating television programming that can hopefully open up a space for scholars to engage more productively with aesthetic analysis.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The first approach to evaluation might be considered unselfconscious quality television discourse, but this is actually quite rare among media scholars. “Quality television” as a term is rarely used without layers of caveats and disclaimers, noting that “quality” is subjective or that it is more interesting as a discourse circulating within the industry or fans, rather than an evaluative label itself.[4] Yet for all of these caveats, there still seems to be a general consensus as to what programs are included and excluded among scholars who use the term, suggesting that it has some salience as a critical category. Looking at books that use the term “quality television,” as well as the I.B. Tauris “Reading Contemporary Television Series” that typically embraces the category if not the term, we can see common series categorized including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, The X-Files, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Lost, and Six Feet Under. While we might see a shared corpus identified under the label, there is rarely any analytic clarity as to what precisely counts as quality television, making it hard to justify why CSI, Deadwood, Scrubs, and The Daily Show are all covered within the book Quality TV, aside from all being part of a shared taste culture that appeals to academics and critics.[5]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Attempts to define quality television typically depend on implied resemblances, contrasting quality with its presumed opposite and used to elevate certain series over others, with such programs united less by a clear set of formal or thematic elements than by cultural markers of prestige linked to “serious” content, cinematic style, and convention-breaking innovations that reflect well upon viewers who embrace such programming as a distinctive (and oft-repeated) exception to their standard anti-television tastes—“that’s the only program that I watch.” For the commercial television industry, quality refers most directly to the “quality audience,” the educated, upscale, urbane demographic that mainstream television frequently struggles to attract, but that advertisers most want to capture—it was this niche audience that helped make unlikely commercial successes out of programs like All in the Family, Hill Street Blues, and The West Wing, the latter of which was renowned as the most popular program with viewers who didn’t otherwise watch television. Historically in the U.S., quality television was rhetorically crystallized in opposition to the “vast wasteland” of lowbrow, interchangeable formulaic programming, with the term reaching its highest profile in the 1980s to celebrate, and lobby for the continuation of, programs like St. Elsewhere and Cagney & Lacey. The American scholar who has touted quality television most directly is Robert Thompson, who fully admits that the label is ultimately relational: “Quality TV is best defined by what it is not. It is not ‘regular’ TV.”[6] Under this formulation, quality television refers to shows that stand in opposition to the majority of programming, with an oxymoronic implication to the term—television must be redeemed by its opposite. For some critics, quality is a marker of value, suggesting that these shows are better than others, while for others it serves as a construction of either a class of targeted viewers (“the quality audience”) or a set of textual attributes of high production values, serious themes, and connection to other more culturally legitimated, prestigious media like literature and cinema. However, the slippage between notions of value, prestige, and audience, as well as the need for quality to assert its equally vague opposite of assumed “low quality” or worthless television, make the concept aesthetically incoherent and not particularly useful either as a textual category with analytic or evaluative precision, or as a label for how television circulates among industry and audience.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Many uses of quality television accept an implicit notion of textual value, where evaluative criteria are left unspoken or undeveloped, and a program’s critical worth is viewed as inherent to the text itself rather than tied to contingent contexts or active viewer engagement. In a rare exception of a self-aware and reflective piece about quality television, Sarah Cardwell outlines a number of features that distinguish quality television more as a genre and less as an evaluative category, noting that, “to notice a programme’s signifiers of quality is not to assert anything about its value.” But her next sentence reinforces the assumption that a text’s value is inherently tied to such markers of quality: “Yet I believe these qualities also make them good.”[7] She stops short of carrying her detailed account of the quality genre forward to explore the experiential dimension of television evaluation that she briefly points to, allowing the illuminated category of quality television to stand in for more in-depth evaluative criticism. I agree fully with Cardwell that we should be upfront and open about discussing programs that we like and engage in evaluative discourse, but I find that the category of quality television does little to help explain this facet of media engagement, frequently complicating an already muddy terrain through a slippage between the established category and the type of aesthetic possibilities that such texts offer. Instead, we need to find a way to engage in evaluation without resorting to the loaded and misleading category of quality television.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 The second approach to evaluation that dominates American television scholarship is explicitly anti-evaluative, arguing that questions of value should not be on the disciplinary agenda.[8] Often this position is constructed by omission, as most scholarship avoids engaging in evaluative work so pervasively that there is not any need to even mark the gap as notable—evaluation is framed as what journalistic critics and fans do, and is only studied by media scholars at a discursive remove when analyzing those cultural practices. When such scholars do raise questions of evaluation, they follow a tradition of cultural studies that frames issues of taste and aesthetics as social constructions functioning to reinforce power dynamics and hierarchies, inspired primarily by the work of Pierre Bourdieu.[9] Under this formulation, evaluation is viewed as creating distinctions that elevate one social sphere by belittling others, typically mirroring established class and gender norms. Bourdieu and his followers certainly offer a vital rejoinder to the universalizing discourses of aesthetics by highlighting how such practices are always embedded in social relations and cultural contexts, rather than inherent in texts themselves; however, this critique can be taken too far by reductively dismissing all issues of aesthetics and value in the name of political egalitarianism. Additionally, there’s an unintentional consequence of Bourdieu’s sociology of taste—in an attempt to empower those with delegitimated tastes via denaturalized aesthetics, the resulting social determination of taste becomes too rigid and disempowering to account for the actions of people who help constitute their own aesthetic realms and taste cultures, such as fans and active audiences.[10]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 A recent book that exemplifies both this anti-aesthetic approach and its shortcomings is Michael Newman and Elana Levine’s Legitimating Television, which provides a detailed account of how television has become more culturally valued over the past decade, and in turn has reinforced cultural hierarchies. As they write in the book’s thesis statement:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 The work of analyzing patterns of taste judgment and classification is thus to unmask misrecognitions of authentic and autonomous value, bringing to light their political and social functions. Such is the project of this book. We argue that it is a mistake to accept naively that television has grown better over the years, even while such a discourse is intensifying within popular, industrial, and scholarly sites. In contrast, we argue that it is primarily cultural elites… who have intensified the legitimation of television by investing the medium with aesthetic and other prized values, nudging it closer to more established arts and cultural forms and preserving their own privileged status in return. [11]

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 In surveying an array of critical, industrial, and scholarly practices as part of a larger discourse of cultural distinction, they do a fine job mapping this discursive terrain and highlighting the ways that it can reinforce class and gender norms. They also shine an important light on how evaluative approaches to television often strive for legitimacy by highlighting connections to other, more legitimated media like cinema and literature, instead of focusing on specific attributes unique to television. But they fall prey to a core danger of such discursive analysis: glossing over the varieties of micro-practices that fall under a discursive umbrella in the name of mapping a more totalizing and cohesive macro-picture. Thus while they claim to be arguing for more self-awareness and reflection in our analyses, they quickly label everything fitting into these broader trends of legitimation as “naïve” and thus reinforcing pre-existing class and gender hierarchies, while they themselves often ignore the very self-awareness and reflection that they call for. And thus we’re left with a situation where we cannot escape legitimating discourse, leaving all evaluative judgments rendered suspect or invalid by studying the pragmatics of taste as reflections of social strata rather than cultural practices on their own contextualized but non-determined terms.[12]

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 A danger in treating Bourdieu’s critique as gospel is that it paralyzes scholars who want to say anything about issues of evaluation, as accusing an academic of “perpetuating class and gender hierarchies” is among the harshest critiques imaginable within contemporary scholarly discourse. But just as “quality television” is too vague of a brush to paint an effective picture of media practices, “legitimating discourse” is a similarly slippery concept, used both to focus closely on specific technological or genre shifts, and more broadly to caricature criticism as politically complicit or naïve. This is not to say that Bourdieu is wrong in highlighting how aesthetic evaluation is a socially situated practice that can perpetuate power relations, or that the legitimating discourse mapped by Newman and Levine is not an important facet of media today. But taken to their extreme, these are critical dead-ends, providing little room to account for the pragmatics of taste distinctions and evaluations that cultural consumers regularly engage with and find great pleasure from, the very practices that arguably are much more constitutive of the field of television’s cultural hierarchies than any top-down institutional power that Bourdieu charted via the French educational system. Thus we need to take the anti-universalist lessons of Bourdieu and his followers seriously, but use them to reimagine how we can talk about issues of aesthetics and evaluation more contingently and without the broad brushes of universalized quality television claims.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Thus I want to position myself within a middle-ground approach to the critical evaluation of television, one that avoids the categorical sweep of either quality television or anti-legitimation discourses. This approach follows a number of other mostly-British and Australian media scholars who have discussed similar issues, but whose writings have had unfortunately little influence in American television studies, where treatment of evaluation mostly falls into either the quality television or anti-legitimating modes I sketched out above. Before Stuart Hall effectively defined the scope of the cultural strain of television studies with his seminal “Encoding/Decoding” essay, he co-wrote The Popular Arts with Paddy Whannel, offering a defense of popular culture via aesthetic analysis and evaluation.[13] For Hall and Whannel, the category of popular art is forged by the type of distinctions made unfashionable by Bourdieu, but still remains analytically useful even after the recognition that aesthetic judgments are embedded more in cultural power than transcendent essences of beauty. Hall and Whannel, like other early cultural studies work by Raymond Williams and Dick Hebdidge, look for the aesthetics of everyday life, attempting to understand popular culture on its own terrain, not measured against alien paradigms of high art. Likewise, a number of newer works of cultural studies, and a few in television studies, return to questions of aesthetics and value to open up the possibilities of evaluative criticism.[14] This approach to evaluative criticism allows scholars to be honest and reflexive about our own taste cultures and commitments, and provide insight into our conversations with television texts concerning their aesthetic goals, without assuming universal or essential criteria of value. I distinguish typical notions of valuation, where a text’s worth is seen as intrinsic and needing to be discovered by the critic like an appraiser setting a price on an antique, from evaluation, which I see as an active process of engaging with aesthetic criteria, textual features, and cultural circulation—valuation follows a norm of close reading that presumes that meaning and value exist in texts, awaiting a critic to reveal their truth, while evaluation highlights the contextualized cultural processes of consumption where meaning and value is produced. Quality television typically posits a product of valuation, while evaluation foregrounds the process of critical analysis and the ongoing conversation about text, contexts, and aesthetic criteria.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 In discussing television’s complexity, it’s important to emphasize that complex television is not a synonym for quality television. Complexity and value are far from mutually guaranteed—personally, I much prefer watching excellent conventional programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Everybody Loves Raymond to narratively complex, but conceptually muddled and logically maddening series like Heroes and FlashForward. Nonetheless, we can see complexity as one criterion of value, a distinct goal for many contemporary programs that fits into broader cultural norms. To call something complex is to highlight its sophistication and nuance, suggesting that it presents a vision of the world that avoids being reductive or artificially simplistic, but that grows richer through sustained engagement and consideration. It suggests that the consumer of complexity needs to engage fully and attentively, and such engagement will yield an experience distinct from more casual or partial attention. We teach our students to strive for complexity in their analyses, as we believe the world to be multifaceted and intricate enough to require a complex account to accurately gain insight, whether the field is biology or media studies. Contrast “complex” with “complicated,” and the latter seems to suggest both less coherence and more artifice, an attempt to make something appear more nuanced than it really is, rather than offering a more intrinsically motivated elaboration or unconventionality that might be found within complex programming. Thus while complexity need not be seen solely as an evaluative criterion, it can certainly serve as one that helps shine a light on how serial television can reach aesthetic achievements.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 One frequent objection to evaluation is that it inherently creates cultural hierarchies by valorizing one cultural practice over another, a mode of distinction that Bourdieu has convincingly shown can work to reinforce social power relations. However, we must think beyond a reductive binary logic that insists that value is a zero-sum game where lauding any single criterion inherently derides its opposite. Thus while I do believe that complexity is potentially a virtue, that doesn’t mean that simplicity is a sin—there are many contexts where simple would trump complex, whether in constructing an effective rhetorical motto or designing a user interface. There is certainly pleasure and value in some forms of simple television, where a straightforward elegance of purpose and execution is a laudable achievement—there are few televisual pleasures as purely satisfying as the single-scene transformation of Lucy Ricardo into the drunken Vitameatavegemin spokeswoman on I Love Lucy. Likewise, achieving complexity is no inherent marker of value, as a complex narrative that sacrifices coherence or emotional engagement is likely to fall short in any evaluative analysis. In analyzing a specific series, we can use the multifaceted qualities of complexity as an evaluative category, avoiding the assumption only complex series are worthwhile or that there is only one formula for successful televisual art.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Complexity is a guiding feature of the two television series that I currently place atop my shifting personal list of best all-time television: The Wire and Breaking Bad. I am certainly not alone in celebrating these two serial dramas, as both are roundly celebrated by critics and frequently appear in discussions of the best television series of all time—for instance, New York Magazine ran a series of articles in 2012 to determine the best television drama of the past 25 years, with The Wire winning the critic’s prize and Breaking Bad capturing the fan vote.[15] The parallels and differences between the two series shine a light on complexity as an aesthetic tendency, highlighting how it can function in divergent ways toward similar positive outcomes. In contrasting the two, I’m not interested in attempting to argue that one series is superior to the other, or even validating why I see them as more successful than many other excellent programs, but instead I want to use the pair to tease out the qualities of complexity and how each manages to succeed in accomplishing its own ambitious aesthetic approach. Like all evaluative claims, my analysis is an argument that is not offered as fact, but supported belief—I make my case in the hopes of helping other viewers see the shows in a new light, not to convince the world that these two programs are the pinnacle of television. Additionally, I aim to evaluate them both on their own medium terms: they are television programs, not novels or films adapted to the small screen, and thus we can look to their successes as aspects of a uniquely televisual aesthetic. Hopefully this evaluative analysis demonstrates the usefulness of academic critics engaging in such discussions and not abdicating questions of judgment solely to journalistic critics and fans.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 In many ways, The Wire and Breaking Bad are strikingly similar. Both were produced for emerging cable channels in the shadow of a critical darling that had immediately established the channel’s brand identity (HBO’s The Sopranos and AMC’s Mad Men respectively), but both pushed the channel toward new aesthetic directions and slowly grew to match the earlier show in critical reputation. Both came from writers who had established themselves on landmark network innovators in the 1990s (David Simon on Homicide and Vince Gilligan on The X-Files), but neither producer seemed poised to create programs as innovative and acclaimed as these follow-ups. Both shows feature five-season runs, ending on their own terms after approximately 60 episodes.[16] And both shows have a somewhat similar focus on drug dealers, crime syndicates, and ongoing battles among police and competing criminal groups in an unheralded midsize American city, while mixing intense drama with a vibrant vein of dark comedy to explore contemporary struggles of men attempting to find meaning in their relationship to work and labor, along with a commitment to portraying procedure through a detailed vision of how characters do what they do, whether that’s wire-tapping pay phones or cooking crystal meth.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 2 Yet in other ways, the two series are diametrically opposed, serving as stark contrasts among the range of options within the realm of serialized primetime dramas. The Wire is generally restrained in its visual and sonic style, following norms of naturalistic cinema, eschewing the use of non-diegetic music except for its opening credits and notable season-ending montages, and adhering to typical editing conventions of that we read as “realistic” storytelling.[17] Breaking Bad embraces a much wider visual palette, ranging from stylized landscape shots evoking Sergio Leone westerns to exaggerated camera tricks and gimmicks situating our vantage point within a chemical vat or on the end of a shovel, as well as editing devices like time-lapse and sped-up montages. The program’s sound design is widely varying with unusual choices of licensed pop songs, ambient electronic score, and even an original composition of a narcocorrido ballad (a Mexican genre of songs celebrating drug dealers) about the main character. While Breaking Bad embraces atemporal storytelling jumps and subjective sequences much like other examples of complex television, The Wire is fully linear and conventional in presenting chronology and objective narrative perspective throughout. In short, The Wire embraces a “zero degree style” that strives to render its televisual storytelling techniques invisible, whereas Breaking Bad foregrounds a “maximum degree style” through kinetic visuals, bold sounds, and unpredictable storytelling form—it is hard to imagine two programs within the general norms of crime drama that take such different approaches to narrative, visual and sonic style.[18]

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 The two series also approach their thematic and storytelling scope in similarly contrasting manners. The Wire is nominally about the drug war, especially in its first season, but eventually reveals itself to be more interested in using crime as a window into the larger urban condition of 21st century America. As seasons progress, the show’s scope expands to include the shipping docks, City Hall, public schools, and the newsroom, tracing the interplay between these new dramatic sites and the established police precincts and drug corners. The show begins with an already large scope, as the pilot episode introduces more than two dozen characters who will serve recurring roles, with more to come in subsequent episodes to reach a mass of sixty significant characters in the first season alone. This narrative scope gradually broadens over the course of its run to create the sense that viewers have experienced a full range of people and places comprising the show’s fictionalized Baltimore. Moreover, the show not only creates a vast world, but presents a guided tour of the city’s political and economic machinery by portraying how each person, place, and institution fits into a broader system of function and dysfunction. No other television series comes close to achieving such a sense of vast breadth as The Wire’s storyworld, and arguably few examples from other narrative media do either.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 The Wire’s emphasis on the vastness of Baltimore’s interlocking institutions and inhabitants necessitates that it sacrifice character depth to achieve such breadth. Characters on The Wire are certainly multi-dimensional and quite nuanced human beings, but they are defined primarily by their relationships to larger institutions, whether the police force, the school system, or the drug enterprise—the characters that accomplish their goals are usually those that play the rules of their particular games best, while individualistic rebels fail to escape, change themselves, or transform unjust systems. There is little sense of characters’ interior lives, psychological depths, or nuanced relationships with each other as a focus of the show’s storytelling, as The Wire creates a world where people are defined more by what they do than what they think or feel, except as those thoughts and emotions become manifest in their actions. Many individual characters do feel robust and fully realized, but interiority is never the focus of The Wire’s representations, as our sense of characters comes from nuanced subtleties in performance and glimpses into how these people do their jobs and live their lives. Depth accrues from the accumulation of numerous characters and their institutional affiliations, as Baltimore itself is constructed as a living entity with its own complex interiority. If one of the pleasures of serial narratives is the desire to read the minds of fictional figures, as discussed in the Character chapter, then The Wire poses Baltimore as the most engaging site of interiority and depth rather than the individuals that inhabit the city.[19]

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Despite its shared focus on drug criminals, Breaking Bad has quite different concerns, shifting away from a vast sociological breadth toward an inward-looking psychological depth. The show has little interest in constructing a working model of Albuquerque, forgoing urban verisimilitude in exchange for a tighter focus on a central character and his immediate associates. It has a comparatively small cast for a serialized program, with an initial core ensemble of six main characters with little expansion over its first four seasons. Every character is defined primarily through his or her relationship to Walter White, and the narrative is focused on how his choices and actions impact each of their relationships. Instead of subsequent seasons spinning outward from the core characters and setting, the show layers itself inward, creating deeper layers of Walt’s psychological makeup. If The Wire presents a world where characters and institutions are immutably locked into a larger system, Breaking Bad is a profile of psychological change as the core character becomes darker and more amoral, pulling everyone around him down on his descent, the journey that creator Gilligan has frequently called the “transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” a unique model of change discussed more in the Character chapter. Even after four seasons, the program’s spatial universe seems fairly small and non-distinct, but the psychological depth and web of interpersonal history is arguably as complex as the political machinery of The Wire’s Baltimore.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 These different approaches to style and storytelling highlight distinct modes of realism pursued by each series. Televisual realism is not a marker of accurate representation of the real world, but rather an attempt to render the world in a way that creates the representational illusion of accuracy—a program is seen as realist when it feels authentic, even though no media text actually comes close to actual accurate representation of the truly complex world.[20] The Wire embraces a fairly traditional mode of social realism, with minimal stylization and strict adherence to norms of accuracy that befit Simon’s background as a journalist; we are asked to judge the storyworld, its characters, and their actions on the metric of plausibility, with success measured by how much the fiction mirrors society as we know it. The degree to which the show succeeds on this front can be seen by how many sociologists, geographers, and other scholars of urban America have used the show as a teaching tool and research reference point to illustrate social conditions, often ignoring its fictional frame.[21] The show’s realist goals may be conventional, but its techniques for achieving its social realist effects are innovative in their scope and vastness, resulting in a vision of the world with great explanatory and rhetorical power. It is telling that for many fans and critics, The Wire’s final season fell short of its earlier heights primarily because it forsook its full commitment to such realist storytelling in exchange for a more reflexive and satirical tone, as discussed more in the Endings chapter.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Breaking Bad strives for a different mode of realism, privileging the psychological over the social. In its portrayal of a long-term character transformation, the show aims for a nearly unprecedented effect in television: chronicling how a character’s core identity and beliefs can drastically change over time in a convincing manner. The program’s flashy visual style signals that the world seen onscreen is less naturalistic than the thoughts and emotions playing out inside characters’ heads, so even something as implausible and even anti-realist as the plane crash triggered by Walt’s selfish actions is grounded as psychologically plausible and consistent with the show’s thematic and tonal approach. Breaking Bad is ultimately less invested in creating a realistic representation of its storyworld than in portraying people who feel true, and through this sense of honest representation the show engages with real questions of morality, identity, and responsibility.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 So The Wire and Breaking Bad are both similar and different—a banal observation probably true for any random pair of series. But their storytelling differences point to two distinct modes of narrative complexity, and the fact that two such different shows can be so successful with the same critics (including myself) is instructive for how we evaluate television. The two shows approach serialization with distinctly different vectors, paralleling terminology discussed more in the Transmedia Storytelling chapter. The Wire embraces what we might call centrifugal complexity, where the ongoing narrative pushes outward, spreading characters across an expanding storyworld. On a centrifugal program, there is no clear narrative centre, as the central action is about what happens between characters and institutions as they spread outward. It is not just that the show expands in quantity of characters and settings, but that its richness is found in the complex web of interconnectivity forged across the social system rather than in the depth of any one individual’s role in the narrative or psychological layers. For instance, the fourth season’s resolution is predicated on how the fate of kids like Randy and Namond are not determined by their own mettle or talents, but by the conjuncture of almost random actions undertaken by agents of the interconnected institutions of the school system, the police, drug gangs, and city government. Based on conventional narrative logics, Randy’s entrepreneurial spirit and warmth would allow him to rise above his circumstances, while Namond’s bitterness and sense of entitlement should doom him to replicating his father’s role on the corners—but on The Wire, character traits and choices are circumscribed and frequently determined by complex networks of institutions portrayed through the show’s vast serial expanses. The series presents a world where character agency is rarely able to make a difference in broader institution systems, and characters at best can hope to escape their fates by happy accident combined with a willingness to make personal sacrifice. Systemic logic trumps character actions or motivations, as when Snoop (quoting Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven) answers the question of what a potential victim did to deserve his fate—she justifies an unjustifiable murder by saying, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 But on Breaking Bad, deserve’s got everything to do with it. If The Wire is all about broad systemic vastness, Breaking Bad exemplifies a model of dense television, embracing centripetal complexity where the narrative movement pulls the actions and characters inward toward a more cohesive centre, establishing a thickness of backstory and character depth that drives the action. The effect is to create a storyworld with unmatched depth of characterization, layers of backstory, and psychological complexity building upon viewer experiences and memories over its numerous seasons. All narrative expansions connect back to Walter White or his associate Jesse Pinkman, and typically become part of their ongoing interrelated transformations, with nearly every plot event triggered by Walt’s choices and behaviors, rather than social systems or conditions. Walt’s choices may be circumscribed by his contexts, but they usually present multiple options with divergent outcomes—he could have accepted the generosity of Elliot and Gretchen, walked away from Gus’s financial offers, rescued Jane, or numerous other chances to avoid getting deeper into his criminal lifestyle, yet each time he opts to break bad, triggering spirals of pain and suffering on his community. Additionally, the show frequently revisits moments from the narrative past to fill-in gaps in character histories or relationships, whether it’s flashbacks to Walt’s hyper-confident persona before becoming a teacher or returning to the narrative consequences of Combo’s murder, an event that at the time felt marginal but reemerged to directly trigger a crucial narrative turn at the end of the third season. On Breaking Bad, there is always the sense that a past event that seems marginal might get sucked back into the narrative center and impact Walt’s fate in unpredictable but justifiable ways; this centripetal force creates a complex storyworld that seems to always hold its main characters accountable for past misdeeds and refuses to let them (or us) escape these transgressions at the level of story consequences or internal psychology.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 A comparison between two similar climactic moments, each coming from the penultimate episodes of their respective seasons, highlights these dual approaches to complexity. Breaking Bad’s second season leads Walt to a moment of conflict with his partner Jesse, who is immersed in a heroin habit with his girlfriend Jane; Walt goes to Jesse’s house to try to save him, but finds him passed out in bed with Jane. When Jane starts vomiting and choking, Walt reaches out to turn her body to save her life, but hesitates—for the next minute, we watch Walt wordlessly realize that Jane’s death provides him an opportunity, and he thus rationalizes letting her die in front of him. As Bryan Cranston’s stunning performance portrays Walt’s thought processes as discussed more in the Character chapter, we watch his character’s morality continue to erode through his rationalized selfishness around a choice that might be triggered by his contexts, but is clearly marked as a psychologically motivated action conveyed to viewers through the shared layers of character experience and memories. At the end of The Wire’s first season, we also witness the death of character at another’s hands, as Bodie and Poot shoot Wallace per Stringer Bell’s orders. While there are certainly character resonances between the three friends, and we recognize that this is a point of no return for Bodie and Poot’s morality, it is made clear that they have no real choices: their only source of livelihood is as part of a drug crew, and the rules of game demand that they demonstrate their loyalty or end up like Wallace. Ultimately the emotional impact of the scene underlies the social conditions and institutional logics that led inevitably to this moment, not complex moral calculations or psychological developments for the characters—Poot and Bodie undertake an all-too-common action dictated by their institutional marginalization, while Walt’s act is fully unique and individualistic, not standing in for larger social forces. Both deaths are powerful, memorable scenes that resonate emotionally, but Breaking Bad’s impact is felt more through Walt’s complex psychological characterization and the lingering shadow it casts on his and relationship with Jesse, while The Wire uses Wallace’s death to put a memorable human face on the social costs of urban poverty and the drug war.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 1 These two different modes of complexity point to the need to evaluate a series on its own aesthetic terms. Even under the same umbrella of complexity, we can see that their approaches are so different that each would fall short of each other’s aesthetic criteria: The Wire provides little psychological depth to its characters to suggest how their actions are forged by personal histories and individual tragic choices, while Breaking Bad fails to paint a picture of how people are impacted and constrained by interlocking institutions. But their specific modes of complexity function as criteria for their own evaluation, as each demonstrates a relentless commitment to their own storytelling norms and approaches—the failure of each series to achieve the other’s model of complexity is not to be viewed as an aesthetic shortcoming, but a facet of its own individual commitments to its particular model of complex storytelling. And it is through these serialized storytelling strategies that each program speaks to its viewers, and we can see their ongoing attachment to each series through their engagement with such aesthetic facets. Thus I would argue that such models of complexity are not simply embedded in the texts to be rooted out by critics, but emerge through viewers’ contextualized engagements with a series—we are the ones who flesh out the models of centripetal and centrifugal complexity by filling in gaps, making connections, and investing our emotional energies into these storyworlds, and then discussing those engagements in public fora, both online and in person. By critics and fans publicly reiterating the qualities that they value in their favorite series, the broader cultural understanding of the program’s evaluative terms becomes more established and shared.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 My goal here is not to prove that these are great shows (although I believe that they are), but to argue that analyzing the ways they each achieve aesthetic success is important to understand how they each work as texts and what they say about the world, as well as pointing toward avenues for further research on how they engage viewers, contrast with other series, and fit into trends across media. We could probably analyze such dual models of complexity without considering evaluation, but it would be untrue to cast me as a detached objective observer of these programs. I find them both tremendously powerful and compelling works of fiction, and I am moved to write about them because I find them exceptional aesthetically, and exceptionally interesting—two facets that are certainly related. By acknowledging my own personal investments, it allows me to go beyond asking “how do these programs work?” to consider “how do they work so well?” By bracketing off that facet of our engagement with media, we are not only being dishonest, but also missing the chance to participate in larger conversations with critics, fans, and producers about the very cultural hierarchies that some scholars seem fearful of replicating. What is most important about this analysis is not whether you agree with my take on the evaluative worth of The Wire or Breaking Bad. Instead, the takeaway should be what these programs teach us about contemporary television storytelling and the particular qualities of complexity. Through the dual vectors of vast centrifugal and dense centripetal complexity, we can have a better sense of how various series create their storyworlds and characters, and help establish expectations for narrative payoffs and parameters.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 I began this chapter by highlighting evaluative criticism as an invitation to dialogue rather than attempt to impose a critical judgement onto others, and an important part of this dialogic approach is to be upfront about our own self situation. I write this, and watch these shows, as who I am: an American, white, educated, heterosexual, middle-aged professional man, one with an academic investment and expertise in long-form television narrative that is far from universal. I fully acknowledge that my identity is similar to the class habitus that has long policed traditional aesthetic judgments, as well as that of the creators of these two specific programs—in other words, these shows are speaking my language in my own accent, and I have a vocabulary and voice to respond. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that the texts are speaking, creating their own aesthetic fields and urging viewers and critics to respond. But I am not responding with a universalized appeal to transcendent aesthetics outside of who I am. I am not asking you to join me in celebrating the complexity of The Wire and Breaking Bad (although I’m happy if you do), but rather I am inviting you to see the shows how I see them, hear how they are speaking to me. I have faith that my analysis is solid enough that you would see something interesting if you do, but I also think it’s partial enough that there is much more in each show to be explored and discussed—and I welcome the opportunity to read different perspectives that highlight other aspects and evaluations of these and other programs. What I have done here, and what I think evaluation does more broadly, is to present an argument to open a conversation. Making an evaluative claim is not necessarily designed to construct a canon to exclude other possibilities, but rather to posit a contingent perspective on why something matters, both to me and presumably to other viewers who similarly embrace it. It is neither a statement of fact nor a proof, but an invitation to dialogue and debate.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 The Challenges of Devaluation

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 The dialogic approach to evaluation works well to argue for the worth of something, as we can explore the criteria offered and implemented by a series, and contextualize our judgments within larger social and intertextual systems. But what of the arguments against a program? What does it mean to proclaim that something lacks aesthetic value? I started the chapter with such a claim, highlighting 24’s shortcomings in establishing its own internal conventions and viewing logics. I’m sure some readers felt put off by my critiques, as the devaluation of something that you enjoy can feel like a personal attack on your own tastes and pleasures. But 24 is a frequently critiqued show that even its biggest supporters admit is erratic in quality, so I doubt my criticisms would be viewed as too controversial. But what happens when you devalue a series that garners nearly universal critical praise and is particularly embraced by the social strata of media scholars who might be reading such a critique?

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 I had that particular experience in 2010, when I was invited to contribute to an anthology about Mad Men. I informed the editors that I didn’t really like the show, and we decided that an essay exploring that dislike would be an interesting addition to the volume. I posted the subsequent essay to my blog under the title “On Disliking Mad Men,” and it has subsequently become the site’s most read and commented-upon entry.[22] The piece explored both my critiques of the program, and the challenges of thinking about devaluation in a scholarly context, highlighting the difficulties in writing about a negative aesthetic reaction without appearing to condemn other people’s tastes, or slipping into a persuasive mode of convincing viewers that the pleasure they take in the show is somehow false or unwarranted. I’m sure I convinced nobody that Mad Men was bad television (which was neither my goal nor my argument), and at best I offered a snapshot of how a series that clearly works well for many viewers with similar tastes can fail to speak to a would-be sympathetic viewer. It is telling that the piece was cut from the anthology, as it did not fit the typical paradigms of academic analysis and the tonal norms of a collection of media criticism. I won’t attempt to fully repurpose my critique here (as it lives on online for anyone to read and rebut), but I do think it is interesting to revisit my negative take on the show to highlight some of the perils of aesthetic devaluation, and hopefully some of the benefits to going beyond simple declarations like “it’s boring,” which might be where another conversation about Mad Men both starts and ends.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 I approached Mad Men inspired by the best account of critical dislike I’ve read, Carl Wilson’s “Journey to the End of Taste” with Céline Dion—Wilson offers a vision of a different mode of aesthetic discussion beyond argumentation:

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it weren’t about making cases for or against things? It wouldn’t need to adopt the kind of “objective” (or self-consciously hip) tone that conceals the identity and social location of the author, the better to win you over. It might be more frank about the two-sidedness of aesthetic encounter, and offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir.[23]

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 4 My aesthetic travelogue of Mad Men starts in my habitus, as the show’s narrative complexity, slow-burn seriality, and immersion in American media and cultural history make it required viewing for people in my taste culture. I fully acknowledge that it is a “good” series: well-crafted, impeccably styled, smartly written, expertly produced, and effectively acted. It is certainly better made than the vast majority of programs airing on American television. But despite its clear markers of quality, I would rather watch many programs that are less well-made, less intelligent, and less ambitious, as I find them more satisfying and pleasurable. My failure to enjoy and value Mad Men points to the limits of Bourdieu’s deterministic take on aesthetics and the dangers of trying to reduce aesthetic response to a reflection of social structures—according to his model, I am supposed to love Mad Men, since it resides squarely within my sphere of high cultural capital.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 2 But I don’t love it; in fact, I dislike it.[24] I find its sumptuous production design to be a cold artifice, echoing the program’s thematic exploration of advertising as the dominant site of constructed imagery defining post-war America’s visual culture, but creating a hypocrisy in the incongruity inherent in fans embracing and emulating the stylistic sense of a series that regularly highlights the manipulations of marketing and the creation of consumerist consciousness. Embracing its design as a primary pleasure, as many fans and critics do, seems to me intellectually incompatible with the show’s own critical edge, suggesting either internal inconsistencies within the text, or a widespread misreading of the program’s use of style. I find it hard to understand how Mad Men’s champions navigate this terrain and reconcile this seeming contradiction—in reading criticism, I recognize that many do find this tension productive and compelling, rather than off-putting, but it makes no sense to me, either intellectually or emotionally. If one of the goals of any serial is to teach its viewers how to watch, relate to, and enjoy it, Mad Men’s efforts to establish its intrinsic norms simply fail to convince me; the dialogue between this viewer and text is a case of miscommunication, where I fail to understand the guiding norms that clearly many others find clear and compelling.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 This disconnection is not limited to the program’s treatment of visual style and production design, but extends to its larger treatment of period culture and values. The show seems to want to create a world that is simultaneously an idealized nostalgic place and an object of cultural critique, an opposition that I find impossible to either intellectually reconcile or aesthetically experience. Mad Men employs a sophisticated form of social engagement that is unique to the form of a serial period drama—we watch the characters move forward in small installments, but with foreknowledge of much of what is to come in their world. Thus, when we witness the characters’ casual sexism and racism, we regard them as dinosaurs unaware of the coming ice age; from our privileged perch in the 21st century, we know that the characters of Sterling Cooper will be forced to adapt or become extinct. At times, such commentary seems to be little more than condescension toward the 1960s characters, as we are meant to feel superior to them at a fairly obvious level—as critic Mark Grief dismissively characterizes the show’s message, “Now We Know Better.”[25] Often the series embraces a more subtle take on 1960s norms, but not without its own discomforts. While we are obviously supposed to disagree with the sexist attitudes of the ad men, the fact that we spend so much time with these characters and grow to like them (at least to a degree), makes it awkward when they casually belittle and mistreat people. For example, when in a seemingly heartfelt moment in the episode “Indian Summer,” Roger Sterling compliments Joan Holloway by calling her “the finest piece of ass I’ve ever had,” we certainly are dismayed by what strikes us as cruel insensitivity—but Roger’s character makes such offensive behavior charming and charismatic, and thus we can simultaneously dismiss and embrace his attitudes, especially as Joan seems content to take it as a compliment. Coupled with the fact that Christina Hendricks has emerged as a sex symbol through her hyper-sexualized portrayal of Joan, regarding her as a “fine piece of ass” is not too dissimilar from how many contemporary fans regard her.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 This discomfort is more problematic in the numerous scenes of the ad men engaging in group one-upmanship in belittling their secretaries and wives. We simultaneously recoil at their attitudes and appreciate being invited into their gang. In many ways, Mad Men’s social critique functions similarly to the ambivalent politics common in many contemporary advertisements, especially for beer. In this beer commercial logic, male protagonists are presented as unrealistically stupid, offensive, and clueless, and we are invited to mock them—but simultaneously, we are encouraged to want to be like them, hanging out, enjoying their camaraderie, and sharing their beer. In Mad Men‘s upscale version of this mode of address, the more time we spend with the ad men, the more charming they become, making their outmoded sensibilities less offensive and more appealing. By situating us as insiders in a shared culture stretched out over serialized time, the show promotes character and group sympathies and engagement, resulting in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in sympathy for values that we might otherwise find abhorrent. Spending hours of time with characters whom we dislike either makes that time unpleasant or invites us to see their behavior as more sympathetic and acceptable—I’m not sure which option is worse.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 As I discuss in the Character chapter, serial television is dependent on creating connections between viewers and fictional characters over the course of hours and years. That does not mean that such characters must be sympathetic or morally upright to promote identification, as we can see with problematic figures like Walter White, Tony Soprano, and Dexter Morgan, but they must be compelling, creating an emotional attachment and investment in their lives, relationships, and actions. As I watch Mad Men, I find myself simply unmoved by these people and what they are doing, seeing them more as both inscrutable and inhuman—I lack empathy with these characters, watching from an emotional remove that makes them appear as pieces in a mannered dance, not people I enjoy spending time with. Don Draper is posited as analogous to other television anti-heroes, but I find his character and Jon Hamm’s performance to be more of a blank slate of callowness than a complex rendering of a psychologically damaged man. The series plays with the enigma of Don Draper’s identity, but as a viewer I find little beneath the surface to care about who he really is or what he becomes. Hamm’s performance nails Don’s slick exterior, but I have little sense of any humanity or motives underneath his callous charms beyond a backdrop of blank brooding. The show constructs Don as a charming bad boy whose sex appeal regularly allows people to overlook his misdeeds, but I find his charisma to lack depth, and thus am only invested in seeing his failure. As critic Todd VanDerWerff notes in a review of “Nixon vs. Kennedy,” “the show doesn’t work if you can’t buy that Don is a cold bastard but capable, somehow, of being both better than his contemporaries and himself.”[26] I simply can’t buy how Don is, or could be, better than everyone else, except in his abilities to pitch products and charm women, and thus the show doesn’t work for me.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 In the end, watching Mad Men leaves me feeling unclean and unpleasant, having spent time in an unenjoyable place with people I don’t care about, and coming out smelling of stale cigarettes. The gloss and sheen is seemingly meant to be charming, but instead it masks something hollow, dark and cancerous. For people who like the show, this resonance is affecting and provocative, but for me, it feels like one of Don Draper’s callow ad pitches. None of the emotional arcs of the characters feel real or earned; instead I’m being sold the illusion of drama rather than honest drama itself, much like the packaging of nostalgia and memory in a Kodak slide projector. But I wouldn’t try to convince you of that assessment, as condemning something that a fan loves can feel like a personal insult—and I fully expect that most people who are reading a book on complex television would likely be current or future Mad Men admirers. My negative reaction is ultimately analytically inexplicable, only pointing to my own personal preferences and tendencies toward a form of textual complexity exemplified by The Wire and Breaking Bad, and against the subtextual interpretative complexity invited by Mad Men’s symbolism and thematic sensibility. This is not an argument about the show’s value, but rather the transcript of my own aesthetic dialogue as suggested by Wilson’s approach to Céline Dion. Since we watch television as a dialog between text and viewer, hopefully there is critical value to be gained from sharing such intimate conversations with others, especially when the dialog becomes awkward and non-communicative, leading to a public breakup.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 My devaluation of Mad Men, along with more positive evaluative takes on other programs, aims to shine a light on how we engage in these aesthetic dialogues. My approach is non-normative, as I am not trying to measure these programs up to any universal or pre-established norms of aesthetic quality or uniform set of criteria, and I make no claims that my accounts are inherently more valid than any others. But what I have tried to do is to put my own non-universal engagement under the microscope and share it to try to discover what we can about how serial television works as part of an aesthetic experience. By sharing such in-depth accounts more broadly, we can gain a range of perspectives from multiple critics that together can help us understand the multiple voices, appeals, and pleasures offered by serialized texts. We cannot simply lump all of these programs together into an undifferentiated category of “quality television,” nor can we bracket aesthetic engagement off as a simple byproduct of social power. Instead, we need to listen to the aesthetic exchanges that are ongoing, sharing such dialogues to understand the voices of serial television texts, and look closely to unpack the long arc mystery of why we find such programming either so frustrating or rewarding. That is the shared goal of evaluation.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Notes

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 [1] I discuss the role of evaluation in television studies more fully in Jason Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies),” in Reading LOST: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 119-38. For other examples of the possibilities of evaluative television criticism, see Charlotte Brunsdon, Screen Tastes: Soap Opera to Satellite Dishes (London: Routledge, 1997); Sarah Cardwell, “Is Quality Television Any Good? Generic Distinctions, Evaluations and the Troubling Matter of Critical Judgement,” in Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond, ed. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007), 19–34; Christine Geraghty, “Aesthetics and Quality in Popular Television Drama,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 1 (2003): 25–45; Jason Jacobs, “Issues of Judgment and Value in Television Studies,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4, no. 4 (2001): 427–447; Jason Jacobs, “Television Aesthetics: An Infantile Disorder,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 3, no. 1 (May 2006): 19–33; Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 [2] Stanley Fish, Is There A Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 365-68.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 [3] See Daniel Chamberlain and Scott Ruston, “24 and Twenty-First Century Quality Television,” and Steven Peacock, “24: Status and Style,” both in Reading 24: TV Against the Clock, ed. Steven Peacock (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 13–34, for more sympathetic takes on the show’s style and aesthetics.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 [4] For discussions of the discursive use of “quality television,” see Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, MTM: “Quality Television” (London: BFI Publishing, 1984); Philip W. Sewell, “From Discourse to Discord: Quality and Dramedy at the End of the Classic Network System,” Television & New Media 11: 4 (July 2010): 235 -259; and Dorothy Collins Swanson, The story of Viewers for Quality Television: from grassroots to prime time (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 [5] Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, Quality TV: contemporary American television and beyond (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007). See also Mark Jancovich and James Lyons, Quality popular television: cult TV, the industry and fans (British Film Institute, 2003), and Robert J. Thompson, Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill St. Blues to ER (New York: Continuum, 1996) for other corpus defining efforts.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 [6] Thompson, 13.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 [7] Cardwell, “Is Quality Television Any Good?”.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 [8] See Jonathan Gray and Amanda D. Lotz, Television Studies (Boston: Polity, 2011), for an account of the field’s push away from questions of aesthetics.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 [9] See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1987) for the landmark work on the topic; John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, second edition (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2010) offers an influential application of Bourdieu to television and other popular media.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 [10] See Antoine Hennion, “Pragmatics of Taste,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture, ed. Mark Jacobs and Nancy Weiss Hanrahan (Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), 131–144 for an elaboration of this critique of Bourdieu.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 [11] Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011), 7.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 [12] See Hennion, “Pragmatics of Taste.”

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 [13] Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel, The Popular Arts (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965); Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Culture, Media, Language, ed. Stuart Hall et al. (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 128–140.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 [14] See Brunsdon, Screen tastes; Jacobs, “Issues of Judgment”; Geraghty, “Aesthetics and Quality”; Michael Bérubé, The aesthetics of cultural studies (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005); Jacobs, “Television Aesthetics”; Alan McKee, Beautiful things in popular culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006); Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007) and Matt Hills, “Television Aesthetics: A Pre-structuralist Danger?,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 8: 1 (April 2011): 99-117.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 [15] See Matt Zoller Seitz, “The Greatest TV Drama of the Past 25 Years, the Finals: The Wire Vs. The Sopranos,” Vulture blog, March 26, 2012.

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 [16] As of this writing, Breaking Bad has aired four seasons, with the fifth and final season still to come that will end the series at 62 episodes.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 [17] For more on The Wire’s visual style, see Erlend Lavik, Style inThe Wire, 2012, video essay.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 [18] See Jeremy G. Butler, Television Style (New York: Routledge, 2009), for a discussion of zero degree style. I offer the term “maximum degree style” as its opposite; although maximum degree bears some similarly to John Caldwell’s notion of “televisuality,” the highly cinematic influence of Breaking Bad makes it far less televisual than Caldwell’s video-centered account. See John Thornton Caldwell, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995).

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 [19] I discuss The Wire’s approach to simulating urban systems more in Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 429-38. For other takes on the show’s representation of urban America, see Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall, The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television (Continuum, 2009).

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 [20] For an influential take on television’s realism, see John Fiske, Television Culture (New York: Routledge, 1987).

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 [21] For one of many such instances, see Anmol Chaddha, William Julius Wilson, and Sudhir Venkatesh, “In Defense of The Wire,” Dissent Magazine, Summer 2008, where the authors, including two noted sociologists, write “Quite simply, The Wire—even with its too-modest viewership—has done more to enhance both the popular and the scholarly understanding of the challenges of urban life and the problems of urban inequality than any other program in the media or academic publication we can think of.”

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 [22] Jason Mittell, “On Disliking Mad Men,” Just TV, July 29, 2010; as of March 2012, the post has been viewed over 11,000 times and has received over 100 comments.

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 [23] Carl Wilson, Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (New York: Continuum Pub Group, 2007), 156.

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 [24] To clarify, I watched Mad Men’s first season in full, along with assorted episodes of the subsequent three seasons. While numerous commenters on my blog criticized me for basing my claims on a first season that they acknowledged was weaker than subsequent years, the critical praise and awards began in season one, and my sampling of later seasons did not change my opinions. Whether we can fairly judge a serial text on a limited sample is a larger topic for another time.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 [25] Mark Grief, “You’ll Love the Way It Makes You Feel,” London Review of Books, October 23, 2008, 15.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 [26] Todd VanDerWerff, “‘Look! They’re Doing Math!’: Mad Men,” South Dakota Dark, October 12, 2007.

  • 75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0
  • 1 I discuss the role of evaluation in television studies more fully in Jason Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies),” in Reading LOST: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 119-38. For other examples of the possibilities of evaluative television criticism, see Charlotte Brunsdon, Screen Tastes: Soap Opera to Satellite Dishes (London: Routledge, 1997); Sarah Cardwell, “Is Quality Television Any Good? Generic Distinctions, Evaluations and the Troubling Matter of Critical Judgement,” in Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond, ed. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007), 19–34; Christine Geraghty, “Aesthetics and Quality in Popular Television Drama,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 1 (2003): 25–45; Jason Jacobs, “Issues of Judgment and Value in Television Studies,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4, no. 4 (2001): 427–447; Jason Jacobs, “Television Aesthetics: An Infantile Disorder,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 3, no. 1 (May 2006): 19–33; Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).
  • 2 Stanley Fish, Is There A Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 365-68.
  • 3 See Daniel Chamberlain and Scott Ruston, “24 and Twenty-First Century Quality Television,” and Steven Peacock, “24: Status and Style,” both in Reading 24: TV Against the Clock, ed. Steven Peacock (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 13–34, for more sympathetic takes on the show’s style and aesthetics.
  • 4 For discussions of the discursive use of “quality television,” see Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, MTM: “Quality Television” (London: BFI Publishing, 1984); Philip W. Sewell, “From Discourse to Discord: Quality and Dramedy at the End of the Classic Network System,” Television & New Media 11: 4 (July 2010): 235 -259; and Dorothy Collins Swanson, The story of Viewers for Quality Television: from grassroots to prime time (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000).
  • 5 Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, Quality TV: contemporary American television and beyond (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007). See also Mark Jancovich and James Lyons, Quality popular television: cult TV, the industry and fans (British Film Institute, 2003), and Robert J. Thompson, Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill St. Blues to ER (New York: Continuum, 1996) for other corpus defining efforts.
  • 6 Thompson, 13.
  • 7 Cardwell, “Is Quality Television Any Good?”.
  • 8 See Jonathan Gray and Amanda D. Lotz, Television Studies (Boston: Polity, 2011), for an account of the field’s push away from questions of aesthetics.
  • 9 See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1987) for the landmark work on the topic; John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, second edition (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2010) offers an influential application of Bourdieu to television and other popular media.
  • 10 See Antoine Hennion, “Pragmatics of Taste,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture, ed. Mark Jacobs and Nancy Weiss Hanrahan (Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), 131–144 for an elaboration of this critique of Bourdieu.
  • 11 Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011), 7.
  • 12 See Hennion, “Pragmatics of Taste.”
  • 13 Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel, The Popular Arts (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965); Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Culture, Media, Language, ed. Stuart Hall et al. (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 128–140.
  • 14 See Brunsdon, Screen tastes; Jacobs, “Issues of Judgment”; Geraghty, “Aesthetics and Quality”; Michael Bérubé, The aesthetics of cultural studies (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005); Jacobs, “Television Aesthetics”; Alan McKee, Beautiful things in popular culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006); Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007) and Matt Hills, “Television Aesthetics: A Pre-structuralist Danger?,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 8: 1 (April 2011): 99-117.
  • 15 See Matt Zoller Seitz, “The Greatest TV Drama of the Past 25 Years, the Finals: The Wire Vs. The Sopranos,” Vulture blog, March 26, 2012.
  • 16 As of this writing, Breaking Bad has aired four seasons, with the fifth and final season still to come that will end the series at 62 episodes.
  • 17 For more on The Wire’s visual style, see Erlend Lavik, Style inThe Wire, 2012, video essay.
  • 18 See Jeremy G. Butler, Television Style (New York: Routledge, 2009), for a discussion of zero degree style. I offer the term “maximum degree style” as its opposite; although maximum degree bears some similarly to John Caldwell’s notion of “televisuality,” the highly cinematic influence of Breaking Bad makes it far less televisual than Caldwell’s video-centered account. See John Thornton Caldwell, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995).
  • 19 I discuss The Wire’s approach to simulating urban systems more in Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 429-38. For other takes on the show’s representation of urban America, see Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall, The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television (Continuum, 2009).
  • 20 For an influential take on television’s realism, see John Fiske, Television Culture (New York: Routledge, 1987).
  • 21 For one of many such instances, see Anmol Chaddha, William Julius Wilson, and Sudhir Venkatesh, “In Defense of The Wire,” Dissent Magazine, Summer 2008, where the authors, including two noted sociologists, write “Quite simply, The Wire—even with its too-modest viewership—has done more to enhance both the popular and the scholarly understanding of the challenges of urban life and the problems of urban inequality than any other program in the media or academic publication we can think of.”
  • 22 Jason Mittell, “On Disliking Mad Men,” Just TV, July 29, 2010; as of March 2012, the post has been viewed over 11,000 times and has received over 100 comments.
  • 23 Carl Wilson, Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (New York: Continuum Pub Group, 2007), 156.
  • 24 To clarify, I watched Mad Men’s first season in full, along with assorted episodes of the subsequent three seasons. While numerous commenters on my blog criticized me for basing my claims on a first season that they acknowledged was weaker than subsequent years, the critical praise and awards began in season one, and my sampling of later seasons did not change my opinions. Whether we can fairly judge a serial text on a limited sample is a larger topic for another time.
  • 25 Mark Grief, “You’ll Love the Way It Makes You Feel,” London Review of Books, October 23, 2008, 15.
  • 26 Todd VanDerWerff, “‘Look! They’re Doing Math!’: Mad Men,” South Dakota Dark, October 12, 2007.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/complextelevision/evaluation/