JJ Abrams versus Joss Whedon, your CCO assignment

Here’s your assignment.

JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon, compare and contrast.

One way to study our culture is to compare the roughly comparable.  Nothing comes of the wildly different.  It’s all contrast, no shades of grey.  

No, what we want is a common ground from which Instructive contrasts can then emerge.  

JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon are roughly comparable. Both were born in the middle 60s.  And in the world of popular culture, both were well born.  Abrams’ mother and father were TV producers. Whedon is a third generation TV writer.  Both have changed the face of television, Abrams with… well, now I’m doing your work for you.

What I want is a brief essay, no more than 1000 words.  Let’s stick to their TV work.  Point out the similarities between these two fellas, and then their differences.  Show what they mean to popular culture.  Compare Felicity and Buffy.  Or Lost and Dollhouse.  It’s up to you.  Tell us how their TV has changed our culture.

Keep it short, crisp, intelligent and illuminating.  The winner will receive the winged bird you see above.  I like to think of her as the Owl of Minerva from Greek mythology.  We have been searching for the right statuette for years now.  Ana Domb found this one in a museum catalog. (Thank you, Ana.) Officially, this is the Chief Culture Officer Award.  Unofficially, we will call her the Minerva. 

The Minerva is really heavy.  (I have held an Oscar and I’d say they are about the same weight. It was Julie Christie’s Oscar if you must know.)  It will look good on your desk or bookcase.  When friends and strangers say, "what’s that?"  You can say, ever so distractedly, "Oh, that’s my Minerva.  I won it for something I wrote."  There will be a small pause as your friend recalculates your standing in the world and considers now whether reverence should perhaps replace the impatience with which they now generally regard you. 

Our last contest, Betty White versus Karen Black, has a winner.  It’s Tim Sullivan.  See his excellent answer below.  Congratulations, Tim.


McCracken, Grant.  2010.  Betty White versus Karen Black, your CCO assignment.  This Blog.  May 11.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2009.  Chief Culture Officer.  New York: Basic Books.  Available on Amazon here.  (Citing this book in your essay will curry no favor with the judges.  But really, if you haven’t bought a copy, please do so now.)

Previous Minerva winners (now immortal)

Juri Saar

Brent Shelkey

Tim Sullivan

Reiko Waisglass

Tim Sullivan’s answer to the Betty While versus Karen Black assignment

Betty White v. Karen Black

This is a story of generations and media and sex, and the nostalgic value we place on them.

White: born 1922, lived through the Depression—actually arrived in California because of it, and started her career in radio in 1939, followed by TV in the 40s.
Black: born 1939, on the verge of being a Boomer. Trained in theater in college, moved to off-Broadway productions, and then to movies.

White: Since the ‘50s—with her show Life with Elizabeth—she’s had a devilish glint in her eye. She’s played against type: the pretty, sweet, slightly befuddled “girl” who secretly knew exactly what’s going on.
Black: Her first big hit is Easy Rider, 1969, a generational touchstone, cementing her place as a Boomer touchstone. In Five Easy Pieces, she’s plays the easy-to-dupe and pregnant girlfriend—no glint in her eye there. Myrtle Wilson, a variation on a theme, follows in The Great Gatsby.

White: Her medium is TV, in our living rooms every day, especially since her hit shows went into syndication. Some of us ate snacks with her after school or after work. Comforting, familiar.
Black: Lives on the Silver Screen. We visit her once in a while, and we usually don’t much like her—even when she’s determined and focused. By the late 70s and beyond, she had moved on to schlocky sci-fi and horror combined with art house pics.

White: Comedy (i.e., hard work) made to look easy. Sweet, smart, and sexy in our living rooms every day.
Black: Drama that feels hard, a little overwrought, spilling over into a genre that gets no respect.

White: She persists, she’s controlled her own destiny. In fact, with Life with Elizabeth, she was the first woman to have complete creative control over her own show,
Black: The characters she’s best known for were not people we would want to spend time with. Her affect is forced and demanding.

White: Another blow to Christopher Hitchens, who told us, infamously, in the pages of Vanity Fair “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The reaction to that article, and the respect that female comedians have garnered before and since, culminate in the current celebration of Betty as a model for the current crop of successful women.
Black: Celebrated by the fanboy horror community, but b-grade horror flicks have little chance of breaking out into the mainstream. She’s painted herself into a corner. We can’t be nostalgic for her because her early career represents something about relationships between the sexes that we now eschew: the testosterone driven man chewing the scenery while Black’s character tries to create space for herself. She’s pre-Title IX.

Looking forward: A continued move away from and against the Boomers, as we as a society look for icons who create a foundation for Boomers, X, and Y alike through shared media.

11 thoughts on “JJ Abrams versus Joss Whedon, your CCO assignment

  1. hampsterinmypocket

    This is a joke right? Abrams is willing to sacrifice integrity for ratings. Lost was all flash and no sense. It was Surreal to the point that the drama was undercut. Abrams took a vaguely good idea and killed it dead. The strange thing is, people still watched the show!!! As for Cloverfield, I didn’t care about any character. They all seemed like the kind of people that you would want to get eaten. (Partially Drew’s fault). Joss Whedon NEVER compromises. He would rather pull a show than cater to the slightly dim masses. And when Joss killed a character, THERE WAS A REASON FOR IT. Killing off many of your central cast in the first season … and people still watched the show. I have to site Nietzsche’s Übermensch. If you cannot see the gulf between these two men then your eyes have never been open.

    1. Itai

      That is extremely one sided. I am a huge Joss Whedon fan, (I think the best show ever created is Firefly), but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the comparison. Joss Whedon doesn’t ever compromise? Really? Firefly was a compromise with Fox, (it was going to be much darker and in widescreen), Dollhouse season 2 is the definition of a compromise and the ending of Dollhouse is one of the biggest compromises I’ve ever seen, when Joss pushed a five year storyline into five episodes.
      Plus the comparison with JJ is obvious. Beyond the fact that JJs Firefly-style camera work in Star Trek was very Whedon-esque, both he and Joss are masters of the unexplained and supernatural. Comparing Angel’s “The Powers that Be” to the Island in Lost is easy and as far as changing the face of television, while I’m not a Lost fan, it greatly impacted television by creating a daring and new format through one of the best uses of flashbacks I’ve ever seen. I consider it the best of bad television and a pretty good compromise. It caters to the general audience, as you say, (which is a good thing as Joss had his last three shows canceled prematurely), while actually supplying some substance. You can’t deny, Lost had moments of brilliance between the cheesy acting and writing, but Buffy and Angel, while at times brilliant, have had bad, very bad moments.
      I think you’re working completely out of opinions when, on paper, Joss and JJ have similar interests, personalities, have very similar shows, now working on similar movies, both obviously like science fiction and the supernatural, and both have made cult hits. The similarities are clearly there and I see them even though I, like many will be biased in favor of Joss because he caters to the elite market of TV fans who can be arrogant and close-minded at times, I can’t pretend that they aren’t there in the same way that the dozens of millions Lost fans will be biased against Joss because his shows are too quirky or that the production values on Buffy are too low.

  2. Grant Post author


    what a great comment. it stakes one side of the debate with great clarity: there is no comparison. I am hoping we will hear from others. 1) Someone who will make the argument for Abrams that you made for Whedon. It won’t be easy, but this blog isn’t about easy. Oh, alright, sure it is. And gratuitous. We are all about the gratuitous. Surely there is a passionate Lost fan who will make the case. And then with these two poles in place, we could expect to see still others arraying themselves on the continuum. And thanks for the Nietzsche ref. is esp. welcome here.

  3. Star

    It’s easy enough really. Joss Whedon gave us a number of strong female role models in a time that need them and didn’t have any. Abrams female characters come off as being supplimentary to the male leads without any stregnth and only vunerability. On other levels Whedon’s writing is relatable since he writes from his heart and his life. Abrams is trying to push the envelope into a place no one can understand and thinks confusing the audiance is as good as having them understand what you’re trying to say. I also enjoy Whedon’s sprinkled use of Shakespeare and the philosophy of duality of personality.

  4. Jason Laughlin

    Maybe I’m just cranky, but the idea of going after someone’s integrity in the entertainment business just seems insane. To be clear about where my allegiances lie: I have none. I only watched about 5 episodes of Lost and decided I couldn’t be invested in yet another show (though I enjoyed it). I loved Firefly, but thought Buffy was a grown up, fantasy version of Saved By The Bell. But given my limited relationship with the shows, It does seem that there are thematic differences between the TV work of both men. Whedon’s stories hinge much more on communal groups. The Abrams shows have much more of an individualist bent, even with ensemble casts. Perhaps connecting on some level with the individualist spirit has helped Abrams achieve the commercial success that he has.

    Additionally, there is the conspiratorial theme running through Abrams work. And lets face it, people love conspiracy. Unfortunately when you build an ever growing conspiracy, you risk watering things down when you try to wrap things up. It’s always anticlimactic (see X-Files).

    And if Whedon is the Übermensch, then the Übermensch isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  5. peter

    Grant —

    The contest prize (the owl) looks like a sculpture by a Shona artist from Zimbabwe. Is that the case? If so, who is the artist?

    Zimbabwean stone sculpture is a completely modern phenomenon, about 50 years old, and the result of deliberate mixing of cultures. The art produced by these artists taps into and evokes traditional Shona myths, while at the same time appearing strange and modern to western eyes.

  6. klinqueen

    You just had to coax me out with this pairing, didn’t you…

    While Abrams and Whedon have similar creative lineages and professional pedigrees, the difference between the two (and the effects of their TV shows) can be, I believe, seen as the difference between “consumerism” and “community.”

    Abrams’ TV shows have been more about creating something to be consumed — there is an underlying conspiracy, mystery, bizarre situation at their core, and the experience of viewing an Abrams show seems to me to be about consuming each episode through not only viewership, but also (especially with Lost) through transmedia and fan analysis (critique and problem solving), leading rapidly into consuming the next episode or carefully placed viral media clip. It never seems like enough to just “enjoy” an Abrams show; instead, viewers are teased along by increasingly complex storylines and unbelievable situations, which whets their desire (if they don’t fry their brains first) to be fed the next snippet of the story. Consume, discuss, repeat.

    Whedon’s shows seem to be more about building a community, a family, that he wants you to become more emotionally involved with — these shows encourage people to watch and discuss with other fans, but in a much different way than Abrams’ shows do. Whedon’s shows make you want to savor the relationships, to view the episodes again for the complexity of relationships, not the technical problem/mystery solving of Abrams’ shows. Where Abrams’ shows make you want to see what’s the next “event” is in the storyline (and keeps stretching out the payoff more and more with each series), Whedon’s shows make you want to see what the next “relationship” is.

    I see it kind of like comparing a big corporate chain (but who really, really tries hard to make them selves seem cool and unique) to a neighborhood store with the quirky guy behind the counter, where you know you can always get that imported soda you love, and you’ll run into at least three people you know when you’re there. It’s Starbucks vs. Your Local Coffee Shop.

    Both want you to consume their product, absolutely. Both have quality products, for sure. It comes down to what kind of an experience do you want to have as a consumer — do you want to be constantly fighting and analyzing and struggling to form a relationship with your viewing experience (which some viewers do, apparently, find fullfilling) or do you want to have a more emotional connection, enjoying the eccentricities and quirks of the experience?

    Abrams has changed TV by challenging us to become extremely active participants, rather than passive viewers. Whedon has also challenged us to become active participants in his creative world, but through the actions of the communities that develop around his shows and their characters, rather than through the actions of simply trying to understand what it is you just saw.

    (disclaimer: I am not a fan of Abrams’ TV series, but I LOVE his Star Trek reboot. I am a huge “Firefly” and “Serenity” fan, but am not a fan of any of Whedon’s other TV shows. I do, however, think “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog” is sheer genius.)

    Sue Regonini

  7. klinqueen

    @peter — Ooh! So, Zimbabwean stone sculpture is a contemporary art form, based on a deliberate mixing of cultures…so it’s remix culture? How appropriate… 🙂

  8. klinqueen

    And, yes, I know, I threw in the dreaded “passive viewer” comment above. Mea culpa; I was not slugging at my intellectual best, having wound down for bed at that point, but was responding a bit more viscerally to what I believe they’ve both done, increased the amount of time and energy viewers expend on their media experience (and the expectations of their viewers for more of the same).

    I thought of an even better metaphor than the “coffee shop” one I gave above: I feel like watching an Abrams’ series is like eating Chinese food — interesting, exotic (and sometimes mysterious) ingredients…but you want more an hour later. My experience with Whedon’s works was more like enjoying a family pot luck: Lots of comfort food, some “experiments” that are more successful than others, favorite desserts, and the ups and downs of communal dining…but you always want to come back for more in the future, and not just because you’re hungry.

    Among Browncoats (the fans of “Firefly” and “Serenity”), it’s often said that the series was best represented by the galley scenes where the entire crew was gathered around a meal, exchanging stories. It always felt like home, and you always wanted to see them there, safe in each other’s love.

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