“Way Down in the Hole”: Title Sequences

A shared feature of many recent shows is their focus on downward spirals, character demises, and mourning, grief, and loss – and their title sequences show it. The credits of these shows are exemplary of their respective shows’ themes and indicate the turn towards darker, more complex content that has been occurring.

Mad Men

Mad Men’s opening titles depict an ad man falling from office buildings, floating downwards past oversized advertisements on the walls of the buildings. The image has been used in print campaigns for the show as well, depending on the viewers’ alignment with the figure and the show (this has caused some controversy, as the image is reminiscent of a 9/11 photograph). The instrumental music accompanying the titles mimicks the trajectory of the falling man, dipping lower somewhat ominously until the man is finally shown sitting in an office chair.

The Wire

The Wire used a different version of the same song for its five seasons. The song, originally by Tom Waits, is called “Down in the Hole” and evokes religious imagery – temptation, salvation, and the fall from grace – that can be applied to the program as a whole. For each title sequence, a sequence of clips from the show is strung together. The clips may be focused on certain themes depending on which season it is, but it is the same effect for each: this show is a glimpse into a fragmented, broken world, composed of various crimes and characters that are in some way associated with “The Hole.” (Notably, much of the first season is set in a location called “The Pit”).

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad uses a short, simple title piece to neatly string together science and drugs, or, more appropriate to the show, formula and effect. In just a few short seconds, the sequence illustrates how rationality can be overtaken by something darkly appealing – in the show this is Walter White, his old life based on formula and routine fading into smoke.

The Sopranos

The opening lyrics to The Sopranos’ title sequence: “woke up this morning, got yourself a gun,” immediately sets up the violence that saturates the program. Tony’s uneasy expression as he drives through the bleak landscape of New Jersey indicates his discomfort in both his work and family life without explicitly showing either.

Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under, a show completely based on narratives of death, loss, and grief, immediately introduces its content with a bleak, desaturated series of images related to the world of funerals. The starkness of the sequence reflects the frankness of the way the show deals with its primary theme, while at the same time bringing artistic detail to what could otherwise be a cursory look at a funeral home.

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The Hummingbird Theory

In case you missed it, and in honour of International Women’s Day, here’s Emily Nussbaum’s recent article about her newly defined television archetype, “The Hummingbird.” Brought on by the pervasive discussions about the renewal of Enlightened, Nussbaum looks at its heroine Amy Jellicoe and several other female leads in current TV programs to define this new type of protagonist.

“They’re idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants. They are not merely spunky, but downright obsessive. And most crucially, these are not minor characters. On each show, the Hummingbird is a protagonist—an alienating-yet-sympathetic figure whose struggles are taken seriously and considered meaningful.”

Nussbaum lists Jellicoe along with Carrie Mathison (Homeland), Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation), and Sue Heck (The Middle); discussion on Twitter has since also suggested Lisa Simpson, Hillary Clinton and her film shadow Tracy Flick (Election). Elements of the archetype can be seen across shows such as Mad Men, Community, and Friends.

It will be interesting to see if this archetype becomes as ubiquitous in use as the “manic pixie dream girl” – interesting and exciting, since the former has become one-dimensional and cliche since its conception. The Hummingbird is a character with depth, one that requires a show like Enlightened devoted to her (or his) unpacking and understanding. 

In other words, #renew #Enlightened!

The Drama over Digitalization

The other day in The Guardian, this headline ran: “Could online video consumption overtake linear viewing TV by 2020?” Recently, the director of YouTube Latin America made the prediction that “the online video audience will eclipse traditional linear TV watching by 2020,” citing changing consumer desires that can only be addressed by Internet video platforms.Image

The article argues that a pre-emptive focus on consumer needs and personalization is key for the major players of TV programming. A surprising example used is that of Netflix’s varied trailers for recently released House of Cards – the platform edited 10 different cuts of the show’s trailer based on users’ Netflix viewing history, to guarantee that the subscriber would be interested in watching the show.

In “Broadcast Television: The chances of its survival in a digital age”, Jostein Gripsrud makes a case against these types of headlines, becoming more and more prolific as digital television keeps rising. Using Raymond Williams’ seminal work on broadcast TV, Gripsrud argues that digitalization is less dramatic that it is often portrayed for a variety of reasons relating to the attributes of both types of television. He points out that patterns of viewing aren’t changing drastically, because analog satellite TV already involves a multitude of choice and time-shifting technology has existed since the VCR. He claims that the idea of individuals watching TV in complete freedom is utopian, since the choices are still pre-determined and based in commercial interests.

I really like Gripsrud’s article for two main reasons. Firstly, he emphasizes the continuing importance of watching TV “live” using the concept of water cooler discussions. While the water cooler may be a bit of an outdated notion, I see Twitter as the current equivalent – during a popular show, you aren’t part of any online community discussion unless you’re watching simultaneously with the rest of the audience. While it is convenient to be able to watch a series on one’s own time, there have been many times where I wish I had watched a show while it aired so I could engage with other viewers in real-time.

Gripsrud also addresses the concern that with a proliferation of channel choices, viewers may be led to watch more “trash” or “low-quality” television programs. He argues against this concern, pointing out that “the greater the number of channels, the more valuable to viewers are those channels that experience has taught them can largely be trusted as suppliers of reliable information and genuinely high-quality engaging, relevant, and entertaining material.” Looking at channels such as Showtime and HBO compared to channels that show primarily reality shows, etc., I think this argument really makes sense. Just because there are approximately ten channels on which to watch cake decorating competitions doesn’t mean I’m going to choose to watch them. As Gripsrud aptly sums up, “the fact that daytime gradually fades into nighttime does nto mean we cannot tell the difference between day and night.”

The Indifferent Gods

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In creating “The Wire,” Simon said, he and his colleagues had “ripped off the Greeks: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides. Not funny boy—not Aristophanes. We’ve basically taken the idea of Greek tragedy and applied it to the modern city-state.” He went on, “What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”

Taken from “Stealing Life: The crusader behind The Wire” by Margaret Talbot. A great profile of the authorial minds behind the show, often considered to resemble the form of a novel. 

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/10/22/071022fa_fact_talbot#ixzz2L68qHqrP

Crosstalk: How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

Crosstalk: How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

This is a great conversation between Noel Murray and Scott Tobias from The AV Club, discussing their respective views on the culture around television viewing. Some issues they discuss include dropping in on a show partway through a season versus watching it from the pilot episode; the focus of critics on high-quality serial television instead of television that “most people actually watch”; and how analyzing television compares to analyzing film.

I fully agree with Tobias when he argues against Murray’s willingness to drop in on a program. Tobias’ point that “if we accept the premise that many of the best shows on television unfold like novels, with richly developed characters and grand narrative arcs, wouldn’t checking in mid-season be equivalent to starting a book on chapter five?” rings true to me, especially having just completed the entirety of The Wire. I can’t imagine casually watching an episode during season 2 without having seen character relationships develop over the course of the first season.

What’s great about the discussion is the positive way that the two characterize television criticism: as something more engaged with the public, less indebted to traditional forms, and able to delve into details on a weekly basis. This point from Tobias is worth quoting in full:

“Because we aren’t primarily engaged in telling people whether they should or shouldn’t watch a show—because we’re usually talking with people who are already watching—we get to kick around symbolism, character development, and real-world connections to what’s on the screen, rather than just writing about whether the show is worth a damn. Sure, we write about what’s working and what isn’t, and why, but we have the space and the freedom to get into so much more. And the people we get into it with—the readers, and our fellow critics—seem so much more open, friendly, and engaged than, say, cinephiles these days.”

The idea that television viewing experiences can be immersive, not just simply through watching but actively participating in a discussion, is thrilling to me. After finishing The Wire, I felt as though I had spent two months in the world of the Baltimore police, building knowledge about characters and themes in a way that I never really experienced with a film or a sitcom. As a result, once the episodes finished I wanted to seek out other people that had also had that experience, that I could talk to about specific details and moments to get a deeper involvement.

In other words, let’s talk about The Wire, everyone! And television in general! Are you a purist, watching from the very beginning, or are you comfortable with diving into a season midway through? How do you see television criticism in relation to that of cinema? Which version of “Way Down in the Hole” do you like the best?

Four Favourite TV Couples

In honour of Valentine’s Day, here’s some great television couples that you can use to model your romantic life (or, maybe not…) – *warning, some spoilers!*

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Buffy and Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Angel’s such a drag, don’t you think? I’ve always preferred the complicated Buffy/Spike chemistry, especially in “Once More With Feeling.”

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Jesse and Jane, Breaking Bad

Tragic, doomed, heartbreaking. This storyline gave Jesse depth that no one would have seen coming at the beginning of the series, and makes me cry every time I watch.

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Kim and Daniel, Freaks and Geeks

The dreamy rebel and his tough-chick girlfriend? Definitely the most realistic portrayal of a high-school romance, and the source of my favourite Kim quote of all time:

“Are you calling me irrational? Because I’ll tear your head off, Daniel. I’ll tear it off and ‘Ill throw it over that fence.”

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Joan and Roger, Mad Men

Mad Men knows how to work the “not together, but still connected” romantic plot perfectly (see also: Pete and Peggy), and Joan and Roger’s continued chemistry throughout the series is a perfect balance of humour and melancholy.

So, who did I miss?

The Many Faces of The Sopranos

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A striking feature of the first season of The Sopranos is the ease with which the show introduces and connects its large ensemble of supporting characters. In addition to Tony’s wife, kids, relatives, and close circle of business associates, the show also features neighbours, members of other Mafia groups, victims of Tony’s friends, various mobster girlfriends/wives, and distance family members. For a show that centres around the psychological investigation of one protagonist, the cast list is impressively vast.

What maintains connections between characters and plotlines is the repetition of phrases, uses of certain language, and impersonations of common culture. Viewers can see how deeply Livia Soprano affects Tony by seeing him imitate her gestures of indifference and lack of sympathy (“poor you!”). Episode seven, “Down Neck,” involves detailed flashbacks to Tony’s childhood, and when his father scolds his mother “always with the drama,” it’s as if Tony is yellilng the words because he has – at both Carmela and his mother, earlier in the season. Johnny Boy Soprano, though deceased in the actual show, is used to explain Tony’s behaviour and relationships and therefore works as a link to understanding characters rather than getting confused between them.

In the same episode, the word “polio” gets used by many characters, each in their own conversations. As the show switches between multiple plotlines, there is a constant connection between each. As well, throughout the first season Tony can be seen incorporating the language of Dr. Melfi’s therapy into his everyday interactions, emphasizing the influence that his psychological state has on his work and family. The infiltration of plotlines into one another, usually stemming from Tony himself, prevents The Sopranos from becoming disconnected scenes of mobster/domestic conflict and instead allows it to become a reflection on transferred emotional states.