There are two facial expressions I haven’t seen on TV before. One is a look of suppressed speech. The other is perplexity. Both show TV characters going blank.
If you’re a fan of The Office or Modern Family, you know the looks I mean.
Suppressed speech blank
Jim or Pam (in The Office) stare blankly, as if to say, "I know exactly what I think but I can’t say it." Michael Scott or Dwight Schrute are up to something embarrassing, stupid or juvenile (usually all three) and comment is unnecessary. It is in any case forbidden. Michael is the boss and Dwight is a lunatic. Provoking them is a bad idea. Better to stare blankly. (Occasionally they Jim or Pam will blank to the camera, because they know we know exactly what they mean.)
Phil or Claire Dunphy (in Modern Family) stares into the middle distance, as if to say, "I have no idea what to think.". A little cloud appears between the brows. They are nonplussed. They have done something embarrassing, stupid or juvenile, and now they are perplexed. Occasionally, Phil or Claire will blank to the camera, because, well, they know we know they have no idea what they mean.)
1) Is this new? There is a standard sit com facial repertoire, that includes, laugh out loud, smirk, grin, frown, grimace, and operatic outrage. There is every kind of facial posturing. And, yes, there are blank looks. In fact there’s a long tradition here that includes Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Don Adams, Edith Bunker right up and through The 70s Show, Frasier, and Seinfeld,
But this blank? The one that says says, "I am not saying. I’m not reacting"? Yes, I think this kind of blank perhaps is new. Is it customary to seeing sit com characters biting their tongues? The point of situation comedy is to loosen tongues and let fly. Conventional sit coms were positively disinclined to silence a character in this way. This blank is new.
2) What does "blank" stand for? In the first case, The Office case, the blank is a way of acknowledging how utterly and hopelessly over the top is the behavior of a Michael Scott. Without these characters registering a real world reaction, this comedy would tip into its own lunatic world and cease being exceptional. The blank exists to refresh the standard by which Michael Scott is appalling. This blank exists to prevent a "Dunder Mifflin" world from terraforming in which the bizarre is ordinary.
The Modern Family blank is confessional. The character is saying, "I understand that I have completely failed in the responsibilities of a social actor, to manage social impressions. I am undone." We are now looking at the person behind Goffman’s mask. The character is saying, "I stand before you without credibility." (How much fun must it be for a theatrical actor to play a social actor who is no longer capable of action?)
3) Why is this facial expression now a ubiquitous part of some sit coms? I’m not sure. I welcome reader speculation. Some of it has to do with the mockumentary convention that has characters aware of the cameras and playing to it. It’s also an expression of the comedic moment championed by Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and the antics of Michael Cera, Jack Black and Seth Rogen as directed by Judd Apatow. Call it squirm comedy. It excavates social rules by breaking them. And there has to be someone standing around to observe the mayhem (to make sure it remains departure and does not "freeze" into norm).
Plus squirm comedy pushes characters into appalling situations. (Think Ben Stiller in Something About Mary.) And now in a sense they have played out the string of the scene. There is no recovery. There is no next. And this means there is no way of way to end the scene, except to show the character just standing there. The social actor can’t act anymore. The writer has written herself into a corner. The only thing left to do is blank.
4) But here’s the really hard question. Why should our culture find this funny now? Readers (and I think it is now clear I have the most interesting and brilliant readers) start your engines.
Those of you who haven’t seen Modern Family might want to take a look. It’s now a critic’s darling and according to TV By The Numbers it is the no. 1 scripted show in its time slot for 6 weeks in a row and nows ties with American Idol as the No. 1 program among men 18 to 34.
Really last note:
I just want to say how grateful I am for reader comments. I haven’t been at all good at responding to them lately. Things are hectic. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t read them. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t treasure them. Thanks a million.
Totally last note, and this time I mean it: This post reposted December 23, 2010. It was destroyed by Network Solution neglect. I just came across it floating around on line. Hurray!
“The social actor can’t act anymore. The writer has written herself into a corner. The only thing left to do is blank.”