Analysis of HBO, and Six Feet Under specifically, may actually benefit from the theory of flow that Kristin Thompson describes. Flow obviously has its issues, but Thompson explains, “The concept of flow, though neither self-evidently useful nor true, has been immensely influential in television studies up to the present day” (Thompson, 8). Unlike other television networks, HBO does not have commercials because it is a monthly subscription. As HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht describes in The Essential HBO Reader, “The product we sell is HBO the network. You can’t buy a piece of it. You have to buy it all” (Anderson, 29). HBO operates with the flow theory in mind. They sell the whole schedule and experience of the network, and not individual programs. While flow may be outdated and logically flawed, it helps explain HBO’s philosophy.
Flow is particularly interesting when looking at the pilot episode of Six Feet Under. Even though the program had no commercials, it put fake funeral-themed commercials in between the acts. The commercials for a new style of hertz or living splendor mortician oil serve a humorous purpose. Yet they also set the mood and world of the series by telling the audience about the things that surround the characters. Further, the audience tends to expect commercials and the fake ads add a sense of comfort to the viewing experience. Six Feet Under uses the concept of flow to create an all-encompassing world. By using the idea of commercials to better the show, Six Feet Under takes a note from John Hartley and creates an hour of viewing experience.
The influence of Dragnet on television fascinates me. Before reading the Jason Mittell article on “Policing Genres,” I had not considered how much of an emphasis on authenticity we put onto television programs. Mittell describes how writers of Dragnet often “shadowed police officers,” the scripts were vetted by the LAPD, and the final episodes were screened before airing (134). Mittell likens this process to that of a documentary film. This quite obviously influenced Homicide, which is based on David Simon’s year-long observation project. I was also surprised to read the radio show segment quoted that “explicitly situat[es] the listener in the policeman’s shoes” (139). Simon uses this exact technique in the book, beginning chapters with descriptions that place the reader in the job of a homicide detective. Both the book and the television show have been influenced by Dragnet.
But in an even broader sense, it influenced almost all television programs. Viewers have come to expect authenticity and realism in a show about a certain profession. Any show that explores an industry is practically required to show viewers what that industry really looks like. For example, The West Wing gained much praise for accurately portraying the white house. President Clinton’s former press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, and Al Gore’s former speechwriter Eli Attie were both consultants on the show and Attie even wrote later episodes. Audiences have come to rely on this knowledge. Perhaps because viewers watch workplace shows to go behind the scenes. Viewers want to understand other jobs and professions, especially seemingly exciting ones like homicide work and the presidency.
For my essay, I hope to explore the scene in episode 3 in which Bayless gives the new janitor a cup of coffee after her child has gone missing. I am interested in the scene because there are so few female characters on the show, and the issue of sexuality and motherhood are prominent in the scene. The janitor continuously tells Bayless “not to be nice to [her]” (Homicide, episode 3). This seems to imply that she has had previous problems with sexual advances in the workplace. There is also a clear economic divide between Bayless and the janitor. When she explains why her baby was in a cage, she describes how being a mother is a full time job, but she is working several jobs to try to support her child. Further, I find Bayless’s interest in the woman intriguing since she looks a bit like a grown-up Adena Watson. Perhaps Bayless’s obsession with the Watson case is giving him an interest in the new janitor. Overall, I hope to examine the power relations in the scene and how they relate to the greater themes of the show.
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In “Go with the Flow,” Kristin Thompson demonstrates the similarities between film and television. In her analysis of Jurassic Park and The Bob Newhart Show, she proves that both programs rely on the motivations of the characters to drive the show. She writes, “In virtually all cases, the main character in a classical Hollywood film desires something, and that desire provides the forward impetus for the narrative. We can call this figure the goal-oriented protagonist” (21). In most television shows, this is obviously true. Every character has a motivation, a goal, and a series of character traits that likely prevent them from reaching that goal. Good television is made up of all of these things.
The concept of motivation in television interests me when discussing crime shows. When the show focuses around detectives, all of their motivations appear clear. Detectives want solved crimes, justice, and retribution for the dead. While detectives may have different reasons for this motivation, the motivation remains the same and hardly changes from episode to episode. So how do these shows stay interesting?
I think Homicide differs from other crime shows in its way of dealing with motivation. The homicide detectives act differently towards different cases, unlike cops in CSI or Law and Order who see every crime as the same high level of horrendous. In Homicide, Bayless is more invested in the Adena Watson case than the case of Jake, the police dog. His obsession with the Watson case differs from the various investigations into other murders done by other detectives. To me, this makes motivation more interesting. Motivation into single cases differs across the detectives, even though they are all seeking a similar justice. By developing the characters by showing the cases that interest them most, Homicide sets itself apart from other crime shows.
The role of the writer has always been of interest to me as someone who identifies with lost, tortured creative souls. Peter Wollen’s essay on auteur theory made me question the impact of the idea of a film auteur on writers. In auteur theory, the written word is crucial but the writer does not seem to matter much. Wollen writes, “What the auteur theory demonstrates is that the director is not simply in command of a performance of a pre-existing text…The director does not subordinate himself to another author” (53). In other words, the script is a mere outline for the final work. While many screenwriters would agree with this definition, I imagine that they might resent Wollen’s word choice. By respecting the script, a director is more of a collaborator than a “subordinate.” From the perspective of the Wollen essay, the writer, while still important, does not have the level of artistic respect that the visionary director possesses.
Yet John Caldwell’s essay provided an opposing perspective on the writer’s role in auteur theory in regards to television. Caldwell describes Horace Newcomb and Robert Alley’s theory that television “was a ‘producer’s medium’ (not a director’s)” (199). They argue that television changed auteur theory by making the producer-writer figure more central than the director. While they describe the issues of singling out a television auteur because the medium is collaborative, they recognize that the writer’s room is the heart of most show’s direction. It is interesting to me that television and film, two similar forms, have vastly different treatments of writers. While screenwriters often do not have a final say in their work, television writers are commonly show runners who control the general sense of the series. The differences between the Wollen and Caldwell essays highlight the contrasting treatment of writers in television and film.
In the John Hartley article, the phrase “television literacy” struck me (Hartley, 396). He writes, “Television literacy was gained informally. Especially in relation to television’s most popular forms, there was no school, no tutoring, no orderly progression through levels of difficulty, no homework and no canon of required reading” (Hartley, 396). Media literacy has not been spread throughout schools in the way that Internet awareness has been taught. While many schools give lectures about the dangers of the Internet and how to best use the valuable resource, few will ever discuss the messages of media and how to navigate them. Until college, the concept of studying media is largely discarded.
This lack of formal knowledge about television perhaps causes the disrespect that McGrath mentions at the beginning of his article. Many deny that they watch television because it has such a negative connotation. Yes, there is bad television. But there are plenty of bad novels published each year that do not detract from the masterpieces. Without training to decode television, it is often dismissed as lowly and mind-numbing. Watching a show like Homicide reminds me of just how literary television can be. For example, Detective Crosetti constantly references Lincoln’s assassination during the first two episodes (Homicide, episodes 1 and 2). The historical reference provides humorous banter while also foreshadowing future conflicts on the show. By discussing an old murder that dealt with issues of race and power, Crosetti informs the audience of conspiracies, racially charged murders, and unsolved crimes yet to come.
Television literacy would shed new light on shows that make these sorts of references. It would also likely train students to recognize other types of messages, like a show laden with sexism or racism. I have no idea what a public school media literacy class would look like, but I imagine it would include decoding television, films, advertisement, and every image thrown at us from an early age. To me, decoding media is just as important as protecting yourself from Internet predators and learning the best search engines to use. If students can be taught how to discriminate in books and in the Internet, then they ought to be taught how to navigate media.