“They’re not fans, they’re freaks”: CW’s Cult and how its pathologisation of fans can’t have won them favours in fandom

In the pilot episode of Cult, a midseason show on the CW Network in the US that premiered in February 2013 [1], a disembodied voice of a friend tells the lead female character, Skye, over the phone:

“They’re not fans, they’re freaks”

cultSkye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas, Cloverfield) is a production assistant on a TV show called Cult (featuring Alona Tal of Supernatural and Robert Knepper of Stargate Universe as actors in the show within a show) which has attracted a very large and passionate fanbase. Unfortunately, said fanbase may also have developed into a real cult and may be involved with a range of suspicious disappearances and deaths. An experienced production assistant, Skye was suspicious about the (unsanctioned) activities that the fans get up to in unofficial fansites and forums. In the following clip, she voices her concerns to one of the producers of the show, warning him of the “other”, “scary” fans who do not congregate at the official sites nor consume any of the official materials the producers provide for the “normal” fans.

Her concerns brushed off by the producer, Skye later agrees to help journalist, Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis, The Vampire Diaries) investigate the mysterious disappearance of his estranged brother, Nate, who is, incidentally, a fan of Cult, and have previously communicated to Jeff that fans of the show are “weird” and “dangerous” prior to his disappearance. As the duo delve further into the investigation, they are increasingly drawn into ‘mysterious’ world of Cult’s fandom, whose fans physically gather at an Internet cafe called Fandomain.

I followed the development of Cult ever since it was announced, somewhat mortified but curious by the show’s description and the way that the CW network, home to other popular shows such as Arrow, Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries, chose to promote it. I find it hard to reconcile the idea that a show which boasts lead casts from cult-favourite shows such as The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural would alienate the very demographics that they are presumably trying to court. Many TV critics who covered the initial promotion of the show posed the same question to Rockne S. O’Bannon, the show’s creator but O’Bannon continually profess that the producers are in the unique position of putting a “magnifying glass on the idea itself”, on questioning fandom and fans’ passionate attachment to a TV show at a time when the relationship between fans and producers are shifting, no doubt influenced by the proliferation of social media networks like Twitter and the supposed heightened interaction between fans and media industry professionals as a result of it. Indeed, Henry Jenkins (2006) has indicated that media companies “are giving out profoundly mixed signals because they really can’t decide what kind of relationships they want to have with [audiences]. They want us to look at but not touch, buy but not use, media content” (p. 138).  A correlation can be made here between Jenkins’ point about media companies and Cult’s producers, who want to draw audiences – particularly those who will become loyal fans and viewers – into the programme because it is tailor-made to fans’ genre interests, but at the same time, the producers seemingly only want certain types of fan engagement within a managed space like an official site or forum. Continue reading

Flashback: Television horror and BBC1’s Ghostwatch (1992)

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Presenters Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene

In the course of researching for a recent piece on Whitechapel and representations of horror and place, I necessarily ended up reading a huge amount of work on television horror. In tandem with this, I found my Twitter feed exploding with Tweets from people posting about the BBC one-off drama Ghostwatch, which was aired in 1992. Many of these were being retweeted and shared by the @ghostwatch Twitter feed and included responses from viewers watching the programme for the first time, those who were re-watching it, and people sharing their other thoughts and opinions on the controversial drama. Why, I began to wonder, was Ghostwatch still prompting such discussion over twenty years after it was aired? How does it still have the power to provoke such vivid memories or feelings in those who watched it back in 1992 or who are discovering it for the first time now?

For the uninitiated, Ghostwatch was screened on BBC1 in a slot called Screen One, which broadcast drama shows on Saturday nights. Ghostwatch was shown on Halloween in 1992 in its first and only BBC broadcast. Written by Stephen Volk and directed by Lesley Manning, Ghostwatch occupies a unique and interesting place within TV history for a number of reasons.

The show was advertised and trailed as a live broadcast investigating nationwide claims of paranormal phenomena. The programme was, in fact, an elaborately staged drama, written by horror specialist Stephen Volk and pre-recorded months earlier. Ghostwatch was presented by Michael Parkinson and real-life husband and wife television presenters Mike Smith and Sarah Greene appearing as themselves in a completely scripted horror drama in which one of them apparently dies at the end. This added to a sense of authenticity and realism for the viewer who was encouraged at all turns to believe that the show was real and was happening in real-time. Whilst Sarah Greene and Craig Charles were on location, interviewing locals about spooky goings-on and observing strange phenomena, Parkinson and Smith remained in the studio, interviewing experts and appealing for the public to phone in to report unusual events or sightings. Events become increasingly more intense, with apparent sightings of the ghostly Mr. Pipes in the house where Sarah Greene is with the family as well as other strange experiences whilst the story of the ghost’s origins (hanging himself in the space under the stairs and subsequently being eaten by his cats) is pieced together from ‘viewer phone calls’ and the events in the house. The show ends with Sarah Greene entering the haunted space under the stairs and presumed dead, the television studio destroyed by poltergeist activity, and Michael Parkinson turning to the camera, apparently possessed.

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The ghostly Pipes caught on camera

The broadcast prompted outraged complaints that the show had frightened viewers and, once the hoax was revealed, more complaints ensured regarding the fact that the BBC had duped the audience. More serious were accusations that the show had contributed to several suicides in young people after its broadcast.

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Reports of teen suicide

The writer Stephen Volk notes,

The reactions ranged from one person who thought it could have been a lot scarier to a woman viewer who demanded recompense from the BBC for a pair of jeans because her husband was so terrified he had soiled himself. None of us could have anticipated the scale or diversity of its impact on its audience.

Having viewed Ghostwatch on its original screening, it is hard now to articulate the response that it provoked in me. As an 11 year old watching at home on Halloween, and being slightly naïve with regard to how the media worked, the sense of fear and dread that the show prompted were very palpable and real. Of course, reviewing it now with the benefit of age and greater knowledge of television convention, makes it easy to laugh at the things which once frightened countless viewers. The ending, for example, makes clear that the show is a work of fiction but, by the time it ends, the viewer has already been left confused and, presumably, scared by what has come before.

Indeed, no critical consensus can be reached regarding the true reasons for the strong audience response to Ghostwatch. Sergio Angelini from the BFI argues that

it is clear that the strong audience response Ghostwatch received at the time was due less to its dubious credibility as a factual broadcast than to the way that it tapped into audiences’ desire to be fooled, to be tickled by even the slightest possibility that a live broadcast could really go out of control.

However, in assigning this reason he overlooks the affective and emotional responses which many viewers had to the show, including those people who are now discussing the show on Twitter. One online fan recalls:

Halloween, 1992: I was 13 years old and staying over at a friend’s house. As devotees of all things supernatural, we were excited because BBC1 was showing a programme called Ghostwatch. […] The show began in an innocuous – if not downright vapid – manner but, over the course of ninety minutes, built to a climax that had my nerves jangling like the Polyphonic Spree’s tambourine section.

Helen Wheatley argues in her book Gothic Television that responses to Ghostwatch were a backlash against trends in the 1980s which saw an increase in representations in the horror genre of horror within everyday life; within the home and in familiar spaces which should be ‘safe’. She also points to the increase in VCRs and the ways in which they allowed potentially offensive or scary material to invade the home. She notes that complaints about Ghostwatch suggest that

the closeness between horror and the familiar could in fact be taken too far for some viewers. Of course, the 1980s was also the decade which saw the introduction of home video, and the domestic reception of horror became more commonplace thanks to this development in film exhibition and distribution (Wheatley 2006:87).

Now, over twenty years on from Ghostwatch its place within TV history and the TV studies canon is relatively marginal. This may be related to a general reluctance to acknowledge the genre of horror television, related to debates about whether true horror can ever be shown on a medium which is associated so closely with family viewing. Indeed, as Matt Hills suggests, when Ghostwatch is discussed it can only be talked about if it is elevated to a position of cultural value which makes the otherwise problematic genre of television horror more culturally acceptable. He points to the show’s DVD release through the BFI’s ‘Archive TV’ label in 200l; “Even Ghostwatch takes on the distancing patina of ‘TV history’, having been commercially released ten years on from its first and only BBC broadcast” (Hills 2005:121).

However, it is only now that interest in the show is really starting to re-emerge. A retrospective documentary (Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains) based on the film’s lasting impact has been in production since late 2007 and released in 2013, and is backed by many of the film’s original cast and crew. On October 31st, 2008 (exactly sixteen years after the original film was originally broadcast), the Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains blog was launched.

In December 2008, a link to the official Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains forum was also added. It is certainly this documentary this has helped to introduce the show to a new audience. Furthermore, the creation of the documentary highlights a willingness by many to return to a programme which had a profound impact upon its viewing audience and which proved so controversial that, not only have the BBC never repeated it, but they have almost refused to discuss or comment on it at all.

I strongly recommend tracking down the show and giving it a watch. You may find the programme has dated – I don’t think it has. The presenters may be less recognizable, some of the fashion styles may look silly, but given the current climate of reality television, generic blurring, and lines between reality and fiction being eroded, Ghostwatch stands as a televisual piece of work which deserves its place in the study and understanding of TV horror.

Writer Stephen Volk discusses Ghostwatch

Sherlock Goes to Tokyo

When Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch arrived at Narita International Airport in December 2012 as part of a Star Trek Into Darkness promotional tour that also included director J.J. Abrams and co-star Chris Pine, he was (now famously) greeted there by an estimated 500 fans. An overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, female gathering, they had waited patiently behind a barrier at the arrivals floor of Terminal 2 since as early as 7:30 am (some accounts give 4 am), and by the time of Cumberbatch’s 4:45 pm appearance fans filled not only the lobby itself but the mezzanine floor above, which looked out over the hall.


Cumberbatch was neither the first foreign star to be greeted in this way by Japanese fans, nor was this an entirely grassroots event; according to the Japanese website SHERLOCK(BBC) & Benedict Cumberbatch, the film’s distributor had circulated Cumberbatch’s arrival information in advance, hoping for such a turnout and, presumably, the word-of-mouth it would generate in the Japanese press. And generate it it did, to judge by not only the press turnout at the airport that day, but also by the considerable number of interviews with Cumberbatch that began appearing in Japanese periodicals ranging from the mainstream movie magazine Screen to Vogue Japan beginning in March 2013.

Continue reading

Warm Bodies: Zombies in media and culture

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On Friday I was invited to speak at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff as part of the Before I Die festival. I was asked to talk about zombies after a screening of the film ‘Warm Bodies’, hosted by Sci Screen.

Sci Screen is a cross-disciplinary programme that promotes the engagement of publics with science and the academy. Using special showings of new release films, sciSCREEN uses local academic expertise to discuss contemporary developments in science in an understandable and entertaining way, facilitating debate on the wider social and cultural implications of these advances. These discussions draw on a range of disciplinary perspectives and the broad repertoire of themes found within contemporary cinema.

If you’re interested in reading my thoughts, you can do so here.

Using satire in climate change communication

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I’ve just finished co-writing an article on the use of satire in climate change communication and wanted to share some of our findings here. Back in 2010 my former Cardiff University colleague Grace Reid (now at University of Alberta, Canada) invited me to work with her on a science communication project that was focusing on the satirical stage play U: The Comedy of Global Warming. Despite being busy with developing the play, writer / director Ian Leung was happy to take an active part in our project. As such, this is what is often termed a knowledge transfer or knowledge exchange project. Ian helped us learn about some of the political, creative and practical issues involved in such a production, and we got to share our research findings with someone who could use them in their work.

So, here’s what we did: The play ran for nine days in Edmonton, Alberta, and we conducted one interview with Ian beforehand and a second one after it had finished. We also did a performance analysis of the play itself, based on Grace’s observations from attending multiple performances, and on two DVD recordings provided by Ian. Finally, we did questionnaires with 87 of the 180 or so people who saw the play, and two follow-up focus groups with six audience members in each.

U: The Comedy of Global Warming has a local setting and deals with some of the issues around living in an oil-rich province while being aware of debates around climate change effects. It focuses on the gay love triangle between oil executive Albert A. Oyl (Al), Tuvaluan climate change refugee Tivo, and TV presenter Clinton Carew. The premise is that the island nation of Tuvalu is disappearing into the ocean because of climate change, and Al has “sponsored” Tivo so that he can come to Canada. This turns out to mean that Tivo lives in Al’s house as a servant, and we also see Al making forceful sexual advances towards him. Tivo then ends up dating Clinton, who presents a TV show on climate change. This show-within-a show device involves big screens displaying video interviews with real-life scientists and politicians discussing climate change issues. The love triangle narrative is interspersed with these interview segments, as well as speeches addressing the audience, musical performances and audience participation. The play also has a companion website (www.albertaville.ca), which includes information about its interview subjects, as well as recommendations for various resources on climate change issues and suggestions for how citizens can get involved.

Our project was concerned with several key issues, but here I want to focus specifically on what we found in terms of how satire might be used in climate change communication. We hope this can be generalised beyond our particular case study, and that it might be helpful for communicators interested in using satire (or other humorous modes) to engage audiences in climate change debates, whether through theatre, screen media or other cultural forms.

The current ideal in science communication is to encourage citizens to engage actively with science. This has replaced the one-way model of scientists trying to transmit factual information to lay people. With that in mind, we want to highlight two important benefits of using satire to promote active public engagement, and two significant challenges.

First of all, because humour tends to involve comic incongruities of some sort, these conflicting discourses create a certain textual ambiguity. That doesn’t mean the joker’s intentions can’t be completely obvious to anyone from a similar cultural context, but humorous texts can leave quite a bit of room for interpretation. It depends, in part, on how much creators want to anchor the meaning, and how skilful they are at doing so. I’m sure we can all think of numerous occasions where jokes have fallen flat or been misunderstood, though, so this is tricky territory. For climate change communication, such textual openness can be used to encourage audiences to make sense of representations based on their local context and their own experiences. It can also invite audiences to question what they’re seeing, to reflect on ideas and look for more information. That would help prolong audience engagement with climate change issues beyond the moment of reception.

The second benefit we want to highlight is that using humour can help avoid what is known, in the parlance of our times, as freaking people out. Climate change effects are pretty scary, and telling people about them can make them feel so overwhelmed that they end up concluding that we’re all doomed and there’s no point trying to do anything about it. But humour can help us explore difficult issues in a “safe” space, and that might make it easier to get audiences interested in what is happening without frightening them too much.

However, that leads me onto the first of the two challenges we want to focus on. The comic distance that can cushion us from these scary things can also prevent us from taking them seriously enough. For climate change communicators, this could clearly undermine the primary purpose of their text. The ideas that they are presenting cannot remain confined to the realm of humour – they must be more than jokes, and they have to include productive proposals to climate change debates. In the case of U: The Comedy of Global Warming, Ian’s use of video interviews with scientists and politicians kept disrupting the humorous tone, while the website also offered audiences practical means of finding information and taking action.

Having said that, if you’re going to sell something as satire, audiences will expect laughs. And while predicting what people will find funny is always going to be difficult, getting people to laugh at satire tends to require that they both enjoy the particular humour style(s) adopted in the text and that they (at least to a certain extent) sympathise with the underlying critique. This means that satirists will need to consider their target audience’s attitudes towards climate change as well as their humour preferences, and those may depend on factors such as age, class, education, gender, previous cultural consumption, and so on. This means that satire may be less useful for targeting diverse publics and more suitable for communication specifically tailored to niche groups.

Funding:

This research was funded by the CRYSTAL-Alberta Science Education Centre.

Renaissance or Otherwise?: Broadchurch, ITV’s Re-Branding and Imagined Audiences

by Ross P. Garner, Cardiff University.

N.B. This article contains spoilers.

On Monday 22nd April, ITV’s serialized crime drama Broadchurch (2013) concluded with a ratings high of over 9 million viewers . The series, which focused around the investigation of the murder of eleven-year-old Danny Latimer (Oskar McNamara) and its after-effects upon a small, tightly-knit and (on the surface) idyllic seaside town in the English county of Dorset, has gripped audiences and been seen as evidence of a renaissance for the UK’s main commercially-funded broadcaster. As John Plunkett of The Guardian observes, the channel has “not necessarily [been] …known to viewers as the home of edgy (or edge-of-your-seat) thrills” in recent years. Instead ITV1’s recent branding as ‘The Brighter Side’ – utilizing stark juxtapositions between golden light and darkness in its idents – could have been rephrased as ‘The Lighter Side’ given the centrality of entertainment shows such as The X-Factor (2004- ) and Britain’s Got Talent (2007- ) to its recent public image. However, since January of this year, the channel has undergone a major re-brand. The ‘1’ has been dropped from its name and a chameleonic new logo that changes colour in response to the perceived tone of the accompanying programme has been introduced with the aim of reasserting the channel’s centrality within British television culture. Broadchurch has been central to this re-branding campaign by occupying a prime position within the channel’s trailers for 2013 drama. As this blog-post invites such indulgences, Broadchurch’s publicity strategies regularly piqued my interest through making intertextual connections with some of my existing fan interests: utilizing electro-pop star Ellie Goulding’s ‘Explosions’ as audio-accompaniment to trailers and overtly referencing key dialogue from Twin Peaks (1990-1) within billboard adverts (see below) put Broadchurch firmly on my cultural radar (and that’s before we get onto the show’s plethora of ex-Doctor Who (2005- ) talent both on- and off-screen). However, despite acknowledging David Lynch’s TV masterpiece in episode two (searching young Danny’s bedroom unearthed – as Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) found in Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) safety deposit box –  cocaine and a large sum of money), Broadchurch overlooked direct and sustained appeals to ‘cult’ audiences.

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Broadchurch‘s side-stepping of red drapes and dancing dwarves nevertheless provides an entry point for critically assessing both the series and, due to its centrality within the campaign, ITV’s wider re-branding. This is because, in line with both industrial data concerning gendered viewing trends within British television and cultural discourses concerning wide-reaching or ‘mainstream’ appeal (see Jancovich and Hunt 2004), Broadchurch clearly imagines women as its primary target audience. Despite David Tennant’s leading man status, the series’ core is undeniably mothers. Olivia Colman’s DS Ellie Millar and Jodie Whittaker’s Beth Latimer provide the dramatic centre as, whilst the former experiences gradual estrangement from her previous intimate understanding of the town’s inhabitants, the latter portrays the adjustment to losing a child with significant aplomb. When this narrative  focus is recognized, alongside how Pauline Quirke’s Susan Wright moves slowly from periphery to centre and eventual exit across the eight episodes, it’s clear that issues of motherhood provide the programme with its central focus. With respect to the channel’s re-branding, then, occupying an integral position within British TV culture seems to here involve recourse to pre-existing gendered understandings of what ‘mainstream’ appeal means within a UK commercial context. This should not be taken as a gripe, though. In fact, recognizing this production constraint allows for complaints directed towards how Broadchurch resolved its central enigma to be rethought. Whilst some (not all) reviewers criticized the series for revealing the murderer too soon – and so relinquishing the programme’s tension too early – this narrative strategy makes sense given the centrality of female audiences to ITV and its imagining of ‘mainstream’ appeal. Revealing the murderer within the first half of the final episode allowed Broadchurch to remain focused on its female characters as DC Millar’s coming to terms with her husband’s deviance, and attempts at re-building bridges with the community, occupy the foreground.

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Further evidence of female audiences’ centrality to Broadchurch and ITV is identifiable by examining how the enigmas surrounding Tennant’s character are handled. Revealing DI Alec Hardy’s past misdemeanors as his taking the fall for his then-partner’s errors and adultery draws upon associations from romance fiction via the making the character the rejected male figure  who still longs for the woman he loves. Wider questions concerning police incompetence are thus avoided. Not only does Hardy’s characterization align Broadchurch with culturally-feminised genres, though. It also moves the series towards scholarly understandings of the popular. Robin Nelson (2007: 175-6) names as ‘quality popular dramas’ those series which are transmitted on broadcast channels in the UK (the term is, as Nelson notes (ibid: 175), lifted from ITV discourses), work within established TV genres (e.g. the police series in this instance) and move towards a sense-making paradigm for audiences. As Nelson (ibid: 176) states, ‘quality popular’ television “resonates[s] with the need to negotiate with [the external world] but not to open up fundamentally disturbing questions and, ultimately, to reassure through narrative but also ideological closure”. Various textual strategies mobilized by Broadchurch support Nelson’s point: beyond DI Hardy’s opening up, but ultimate avoidance, of questions about police capability, the programme provides ideological closure within dominant sense-making paradigms in two ways. Firstly, the cultural institution of the family is firmly reinstated by Broadchurch’s conclusion. Not only are DI Millar and her children reunited with previously-estranged family members Lucy (Tanya Franks) and Olly (Jonathan Bailey), who provide support through which the family can move forward, but the Latimers remain unified (despite father Mark’s (Andrew Buchan) infidelity) as Beth decides to keep her baby. What’s more, the programme continually restates the Church’s role. The clue, perhaps, is in the series’ title (notions of the church’s ‘broad’ reach being connoted?) but, although questions are raised about Arthur Darvill’s  Rev. Paul Coates, Broadchurch also avoids the topic of paedophile clergymen. Instead, Coates is revealed to be an insomniac and recovering alcoholic who, despite having previously assaulted an overly aggressive child, continually supports the townsfolk in their hour(s) of need. In all of these instances interrogations of conservative social institutions are suggested, but ultimately avoided, as potentially difficult questions are brought in line with dominant perspectives.

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All of this perhaps suggests that, despite ITV’s re-brand, nothing much has changed. However, subscribing to this position does Broadchurch a great disservice. The programme’s overall aesthetic of disorientation, constructed through jump cuts, obscure camera angles and off-centre character framing, brilliantly complements the narrative’s themes of individual displacement and altered perspectives. This aesthetic has been used elsewhere to similar effect in recognized examples of ‘quality’ television such as the BBC’s critically-lauded Wallander (2008- ) series and similarly allowed tension and ‘uneasiness’ to accrue whilst watching Broadchurch. These aesthetic strategies also helped to provide Broadchurch with much of its emotional impact. Kristyn Gorton (2006) has convincingly argued that the emotionality of television series can be considered as criteria of aesthetic value and Broadchurch should thus be celebrated accordingly. Whoever thought that something as mundane as a trip to the supermarket undertaken by a grieving mother could be so moving by articulating how everyday experiences had now become strange for Beth and how quotidian items such as cereal packaging can articulate deep feelings of absence and loss? Scenes such as this, as well as perhaps more obvious set pieces such as the death of newsagent Jack Marshall (David Bradley), underline that discussions of ‘quality’ television should not overlook series which provoke audiences with emotional experiences by stimulating sympathy between characters and viewers.

In summary, then, Broadchurch has occupied a central position within ITV’s 2013 re-brand and, although the evidence suggests that this has not coincided with a wider shift in the channel’s understanding of ‘mainstream’ appeal, the programme’s ambition and movement within these constraints certainly make it distinct within the channel’s schedules. If not perhaps the renaissance some have suggested, Broadchurch nevertheless suggests re-invigoration within the channel’s attitude towards TV drama.

Author Bio:

Ross P. Garner is a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. He teaches a variety of undergraduate modules concerning television, textuality and industry and has recently completed his PhD on Nostalgia and Post-2005 British Time Travel Dramas.

Academic References:

Gorton, K. (2006) ‘A Sentimental Journey: Television, Meaning and Emotion’. Journal of British Cinema and Television, 3 (1), pp. 72-81.

Jancovich, M. and Hunt, N. (2004) ‘The Mainstream, Distinction and Cult TV’, in S Gwenllian-Jones and R E Pearson (eds.) Cult Television. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 27-44.

Nelson, R. (2007) State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” TV Drama. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Why am I laughing at New Girl?

Season 2 of New Girl (Fox, since 2011) has started on E4 in Britain, and I’ve been trying to reflect on what it is that I find funny about this show. Because, although I study comedy, I don’t actually watch a lot of current sitcoms, because I don’t find them very funny. Girls is another exception, and I’m still hoping they’ll do another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. But those are both quite innovative sitcoms, in terms of form and content, while New Girl feels pretty conventional to me. The other night, while we were fast-forwarding through an ad break, I asked my partner if it has a laugh track. I couldn’t remember any audience laughter, but it seemed like the kind of show that would have one, and I thought I might just not have noticed because I was laughing myself. But it doesn’t. It’s also a single-camera sitcom. So how does it still feel so conventional to me?

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I think it’s because the premise seems so familiar – a group of straight people (Jess, Schmidt, Winston and Nick) in their late twenties or early thirties sharing a big flat, struggling a bit with figuring out what they want to do with their lives, and dating various attractive people. The representations are rarely particularly challenging, and the characters are generally pretty nice to each other. Pretty comforting viewing, really. I do feel like it’s safe to laugh here, while Schmidt’s (Max Greenfield) enthusiasm for “brown people” would probably have been awkward in a sitcom with a more “naturalist” style. And it’s a reasonably snappy show that is unapologetic about its frequent use of jokes and visual gags. It doesn’t tend to dwell on uncomfortable or emotional bits, so I don’t have the time to get too invested in characters or storylines. As a result, I don’t really care if Jess (Zooey Deschanel) embarrasses herself, and I’m someone who’s otherwise easily uncomfortable on other people’s behalf. I actually smile politely during scenes where fictional characters meet and greet new people, as if I can help keep things running smoothly. But while watching this show, I feel comfortable and I’m ready to laugh.

I found the season 2 premier particularly funny. Jess had lost her job (I have no idea why) and followed Nick’s advice to “go off the grid”. So, completely out of character, she got drunk in a bar in the middle of the day, gave her phone number to one guy and pretended to another (Sam) that she was the “Katie” he had arranged to meet via a dating website. Plenty of academic studies on comedic representations of femininity will tell you that this kind of behaviour is usually punished within the narrative, and I was fully expecting Jess to embarrass herself or just feel terrible about her deceit. But no. Instead, Nick (Jake Johnson) and Schmidt told her this was a fantastic and unique phase in her life during which she was somehow irresistible to men, and she happily continued to have casual sex with Sam. This jollity was even maintained when she told an unwanted date that she was feeling poorly, only for him to catch her with Sam in a public toilet shortly after. And when Sam found out she wasn’t Katie? He just turned up at her door for more sex. I think this comic incongruity made me feel quite relieved. It was “no hugging, no learning”, and the lack of responsibility felt refreshing.

Of course, the second episode saw things returning to normal, with Jess struggling to have sex with Sam without engaging in any romantic activities. Oh well.

Do You Hear The People Cry? Les Miserables and the affective audience

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This week sees the DVD release of the film version of Les Miserables, as well as the release of the Deluxe Edition of the movie soundtrack, following the disappointing highlights CD released earlier in the year. There are many ways to approach discussing the film; from its status as an adaptation to the curious way in which its actress Anne Hathaway (who plays Fantine) moved, over the course of the 2012-2013 Awards season from being a respected actress to a subject of derision and irritation, not to mention broader debates over the status of musicals in the cinema. Here, though, I want to reflect more personally on the film and consider its affective impact on audiences in general, and on myself more specifically.

The propensity of both the theatre version and, now, the film version of Les Miserables for inducing tears in its audiences has been widely noted. In a story on the BBC News website psychologist Averil Leimon argues that the expectation of being moved to tears is part of this experience, noting “Les Miserables is known for causing people immense emotional response. So people go expecting to be moved and are prepared to let themselves go.” The question of whether the movie was the ‘film world’s biggest ever weepie?’ was posted by The Guardian whilst the BBC, again, sought to discover which moments caused the greatest amount of crying. Why this seeming obsession with audiences and their emotional or affective reactions? Why is this response to the film seen as so interesting or, in some cases, peculiar? Audiences are moved by a range of films, often for quite complex or personal reasons. Examples such as the death of Bambi’s mother, the opening sequence of Pixar’s recent animated Up, the end of Titanic, the resolution of The Notebook, The Green Mile, and E.T. are all widely accepted as films that include emotional scenes or resolutions that may pull at the heart strings. Personally, I find the ending of Terminator 2, when Arnold Schwarzannegar’s Terminator sacrifices himself in a pool of molten lead, brings me to tears; there is apparently no accounting for some of the things that move certain audiences or individuals.

Given this, and the fact that even a brief survey would surely unveil odder anomalies than an Austrian cyborg giving a thumbs-up in terms of films that move or affect, the focus on Les Miserables does seem a little odd. Is this a result of a discomfort with public displays of emotion? Should we still be expected to maintain a stiff upper lip, no matter how moved we might be by a film or a play? Does this stem from an ongoing cultural assumption that such emotive displays are somehow feminised, a little too ‘girlie’ for us to take seriously? Or, is there some cynicism about media texts that might be seen to be ‘programming’ us to cry at certain points (the BBC’s film of people crying at the film might seem to attest to this), a sense that audiences are being emotionally manipulated by film-makers to weep on cue? Without some empirical audience research, perhaps we cannot yet offer answers to these questions.

For me, however, my emotional responses to the film are complex. Whilst the story is undoubtedly full of tragedy, death and grief, and the performers offer often heartbreaking renditions of songs such as Anne Hathaway’s lauded ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ , Eddie Tremayne’s ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, or Hugh Jackman’s ‘Bring Him Home’ , for me, this isn’t the full story. My own love of Les Miserables is long-standing, spanning over twenty years of adoration for the music version. This is not a unique story; the musical has many dedicated fans who, too, have seen both the stage and screen versions multiple times. There are also others whose lives and memories are surely interwoven with the songs and experiences of seeing different stage versions and performers and who, like me, have shared those experiences with family and friends. This disclosure is not to claim any special rights or insight into what it means to watch, and be moved by, Les Miserables. Rather, it is an attempt to suggest that, whilst questions about affective audience responses to texts should be asked, the only way to really uncover answers is to ask the people themselves. Rather than assuming reasons for why Les Miserables might be one of the world’s greatest weepies, we should consider the histories and attachments, the lived associations, of audiences and the story. Audience emotions should be taken seriously, and a film like Les Mis offers us the chance, as audience researchers, to do so. Only when we talk to audiences, when we figuratively allow them to sing (as the musical would have it), can we start to truly understand why they might continue to be moved to tears.

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The Veronica Mars Movie: crowdfunding – or fan-funding – at its best?

While the world’s media agencies have been tuned to the Vatican for news on the papal conclave, my social media feeds – Twitter, especially – have been filled with news of the Veronica Mars Movie project on Kickstarter.


Less than half a day after the project was announced, funding for the film has reached more than $1.5 million (with 30 more days to go to reach their initial $2 million funding goal). Judging from Rob Thomas’s (Veronica Mars’s creator) and Kristen Bell’s (Veronica Mars herself) tweets, they were surprised by fans’ reaction and enormous support for the project. That a cult show that averaged about 2.5 million viewers, which was cancelled in 2007, could still amass such speedy response to a call for action to make a film. Talk about the power of crowdfunding, or more specifically in this case, fan-funding.

I’ve been reading a lot of op-eds, and listening to a lot of Twitter conversations, on the case for and against this particular project. One school of thought seems to question why Thomas and Bell do not just fund the project themselves, as the belief appears to be that since they’re “Hollywood types”, forking out $2 million shouldn’t be too difficult. While I don’t claim to know the inside workings of the Hollywood film and television industry, that may be too simplified a view. Warner Bros owns the rights to the show, and it is only with their approval, as Thomas writes in the Kickstarter rationale, that he and Bell launches the campaign on Kickstarter. Furthermore, Entertainment Weekly reports that Warner Bros Digital Distribution has agreed to foot marketing, promotional and distribution costs if the project manages to reach its $2 million goal in 30 days. So, to me, it sounds more likely that Kickstarter is used as a platform by Warner Bros to gauge fan interest in a potential product that they claim (as Thomas reported) does not warrant a studio-sized movie.

This also brings to light some people’s uneasiness and concern that money raised through this Kickstarter project is not going towards an indie project, but instead towards a studio film that Warner Bros is essentially too cheap to finance. It obviously brings up question of fan labour and the monetisation of fans, which big conglomerates (such as the Disney-backed Fanlib years ago) have been trying to tap into. And it’s precisely why this post is being written.

While I think it’s a valid point to bring up the issue of fan labour (or investment in this case?), and whether the success of this funding campaign [1] might prompt other media conglomerates to start seeking funding for other ventures this way, we must not forget at the very core of this, is the fans. EW is currently running a poll asking fans which other TV series they would fund for a film, while X-Files fans are asking if 20th Century Fox is paying attention to this campaign, and if a similar thing can be done to get a 3rd film green-lighted. Ultimately, fans choose to fund this project, and this is the voice that’s missing in some of the concerns raised; that somehow fans need to be educated that they’re financing a studio film, so they’re not actually doing anything for the so-called greater good. But, as Jason Mittell rightly argues in a tweet, fans funding this project is no different than pre-ordering merchandise such as DVDs or going to conventions to relive favourite moments of a beloved show. Just as, I’m sure, buying a cinema ticket and helping films like The Hobbit or The Avengers break box office records is a film fan’s indirect investment towards New Line and Marvel’s next projects.

Frustratingly, fan agency always gets left out in arguments which purports concern that fans are being duped by studios and networks. Perhaps, rather than assuming that fans are being duped into donating towards a studio film, thought should be given to implications the success of this campaign might bring to Hollywood’s system; or more importantly, the power fans can wield if they decide a Veronica Mars movie is deserving to be made.

And yes, as a fan of Veronica Mars, I would proudly declare that I donated to the campaign, and if the perks offered were not bounded by geography, I would have contributed more.

[1] As I write this, funding for the project has reached over $2 million.

Before Midnight

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As a researcher, my interests lie in screen distribution and exhibition. I rarely write about individual films. But when I heard about the pending release of Before Midnight, I was excited to say the least.

Before Midnight is the third installment of Richard Linklater‘s series of romantic dramas that began with Before Sunrise in 1995 and continued with Before Sunset in 2004. The films follow the eighteen year, on-off relationship between an American writer, Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) and a French woman, Celine (played by Julie Delpy).

In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet by chance on a train in Europe and spend a single evening together in Vienna. They are then in their early twenties. Nine years later in Before Sunset, having married or settled down with other people, they reunite in Paris for an afternoon. In Before Midnight, we meet the two again in Greece, and it’s clear that their lives have changed. Jesse is divorced from his wife, and Celine is caring for twin girls.

According to a recent interview with Hawke, expectations of the film were running so high following the second installment that production of the third installment was deliberately kept under wraps. Before Midnight was one of the most anticipated titles at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was eventually acquired for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. A limited release in the U.S. is planned for May 24.

There are other indicators of the series’ unusual resonance with its audience. One of the these is the volume of critical writing, and depth of feeling, that Before Sunrise and especially Before Sunset have inspired.

The films are distinctive for their cooperative mode of screenwriting (Hawke and Delpy are credited as writers in Before Sunset and Before Midnight); the remarkable naturalism of the dialogue and acting; the long-take camera work creating the illusion of real time; and the films’ philosophical bent and refusal of narrative closure. However, as this review of Before Sunset by Chris Wisniewski in Reverse Shot observes, they are also personal touchstones for many fans.

I’m looking forward to spending cinematic time with Jesse and Celine again. Variety reviewer Justin Chang has predicted here that Before Midnight will send established and new audiences for the films “into the emotional stratosphere.” Heady words, indeed.