We have two winners for the latest Minerva essay contest.
Lauren La Cascia and Diandra Mintz.
Hearty congratulations to them both. Here’s the question Lauren and Diandra took on.
The Essay question:
The Big C, the new show starring the deeply talented Laura Linney gives us a glimpse of what is now possible on cable. It resembles a second show on Showtime, Weeds.
Together these shows give us a glimpse into the Showtime thinktank. (One of the principles, apparently: let’s see what happens to suburban living when we mix things up.)
There is a another experiment at work at USA Networks, from which a string of hits has recently issued (Burn Notice, Psych, Royal Pains, White Collar). (One of the principles, apparently, stay as far away from the suburbs as possible.)
1. Compare and contrast Showtime and USA Networks. Identify the grammar or algorithm that produces the shows in question. (Consider my "suburb" reference a hint, but merely one very rough indicator of the possibilities. Please do feel free to contradict me.)
2. What larger cultural significance do you attach to the fact that these two approaches to making TV now exist? Did they exist in the 20th century. Why do they exist now?
Fewer than 1000 words.
point form preferred.
points for being crisp and clear.
Contest winners will receive a Minerva (as pictured) and a place on the winner’s list.
Rick Boyko, Director and Professor, VCU Brandcenter
(Mr. Boyko recused himself because on of the essay contestants is a VCU student)
Schuyler Brown, Skylab
Mark Earls, author, Herd
Brad Grossman, Grossman and Partners
Christine W. Huang, PSFK, Huffington Post and Global Hue
Juri Saar (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)
Reiko Waisglass (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)
Brent Shelkey (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)
Daniel Saunders (for the "JJ Abrams vs. Joss Whedon" contest)
Tim Sullivan (for the "Karen Black vs. Betty White" contest?)
Essay answer by Lauren La Cascia:
“You’re my livestock,” he slurs menacingly as the camera shows the victim’s silent screaming behind the cell glass.
In this first episode of Oz in 1997, a homophobic white supremacist repeatedly rapes and uses a Bic pen to brand a swastika on his cellmate’s buttocks after lights out. With the scene, HBO introduced its version of “original programming” to audiences—in both the unique and primary sense—forever changing television. It debuted the omniscient narrator, point of view camerawork, violence, hard language, male frontal nudity, drug use, homosexuality, mature content and veritè grittiness—all tropes usually reserved for cinema. Sex and the City and The Sopranos followed quickly, making clear HBO’s version of television meant new and different. And successful: once HBO proved risk-taking led to commercial and critical reward, Showtime followed their lead, first rebranding with the “No Limits” tagline in 1997, then launching the groundbreaking Queer as Folk in 2000.
Showtime is still applying cable’s “Is it new and different?” litmus test to great effect. Examining their current line-up, one can verify the shows have no obvious forerunners; imagined (Dexter), implausible (Weeds) and genre-blending (The Big C), the network has no trouble devising kooky premises and giving characters a long leash. This license allows shows to create themselves organically, to build long arcs while still delivering each week, to shock by exploring paths broadcast never could. On another level, Showtime’s thesis reveals a connection to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio: to shred any idealized depiction of small-town American life left and expose the alienation, standardization and soullessness pervading actual existence. It finds the bizarre and alien—a drug-dealing mom, a serial killer who kills serial killers—contending always that uncanny inner lives belie generic exteriors.
If Showtime is about invention, USA Networks is about reinvention—of the police procedural, the medical drama, the spy thriller. Its programming has definite roots: Psych is made possible by Sherlock Holmes and the kitschiness of Columbo, while Royal Pains seems ripped from the headlines with the death of Michael Jackson highlighting concierge medicine; if Burn Notice is a hybrid of MacGyver and the Bourne franchise, then White Collar’s premise is a straight rip of Catch Me If You Can. By piggybacking off a lineage, USA wisely increases appeal. By executing their versions so well, they maintain broad acceptance and court more discerning segments. The retail industry coined the term “masstige” to illustrate this sweet spot between mass and prestige; USA is the Target of basic cable.
All the mainstream-cool shows in USA’s line-up offer a fresh take on classic escapism. Like much of the screen storytelling from the last century, concepts are built around idiosyncratic personalities barreling through implausible scenarios. The shows read as fiction, acted by “real characters,” and, in fact, two of their keystone programs—Burn Notice and Psych—have led to spin-off novel series, so easy is the leap from viewer to reader. Taking a cue from riskier programs pioneered by non-ad-supported channels like HBO and Showtime, USA’s update comes in execution: the in situ production design’s look and feel, better camerawork, well-researched stunts that border on just possible, witty quips we’d never be able to think of in the moment. The marinated slices of Miami or the Hamptons impart reality even to locals, and it’s this legitimacy that keeps the shows believable even if they aren’t probable. If Showtime is new and different, then USA is familiar but different.
The sturdiest common ground Showtime and USA share is in their mutual fascination with new beginnings: a cancer diagnosis is dropped on Laura Linney, Mary-Louise Parker’s husband dies, newly ex-spy, Jeffrey Donovan, must adapt to his burning, a confidence man is reborn on the straight and narrow. This need/desire of protagonists to reinvent themselves seems especially modern. Recent events, though, have necessitated adaptation at speeds and to degrees historically reserved by Industrial Revolutions and Iron Ages. Our concept of entertainment, too, likes characters to adjust as we have—to quickly-eclipsed digital advances, to terrorism, to economic slides, to mega natural disasters. The stories reflect our dynamism and explore what it means to survive financially, physically, professionally and emotionally in these times. We love seeing the steps and missteps taken to acclimate, the humor people can find in it all, the heartbreaking undercurrents as they beat back gloom. They thrive like phoenixes, whether criminal (Dexter, Weeds, Royal Pains, White Collar), cancer patient (The Big C) or hedonist (Californication).
In contrast, the latter 20th Century was static: the markets only went up, there was no lengthy war, kids were bored and television followed a formula. Sitcoms from the 1980s, in particular, dropped us into this familiar territory in medias mes. Full of stereotypes, programs didn’t require set-up or denouement because the concept stayed largely the same throughout: the Facts of Life girls never leave Eastland in Peekskill; the cast of Friends never changes apartments. Most of these beloved characters would fail in the wild like creatures bred in captivity. So inflexible were these sitcoms that sometimes entire shows had to be spun off to accommodate developments, like The Cosby Show’s begetting of A Different World as Denise heads to college; others died entirely trying to explore new directions, like The Brady Bunch, which couldn’t even accommodate the addition of another character, cousin Oliver. Of course execution matters, but it’s difficult to imagine a successful show today unable to handle such minor tweaks.
Perhaps we, dear viewers, have sophisticated or writers have exhausted all the iconic sitcom premises, but the old constructs seem unforgivably juvenile now. As viewers, we’re like middle-aged men who’ve finally started dating our age. And what a golden age it is. The modern situational comedy/dramedy has been redefined to include more complex, sticky and unpredictable situations. Unafraid of actual character development, writers reject the use of two-dimensional archetypes and trust viewers will join them in exploring the unchartered. Unfailingly, this new covenant between writer and viewer has brokered great television. Perhaps we all were branded in that opening episode of Oz, held in TV’s thrall since.
Essay answer by Diandra Mintz
The male and female fantasies of breaking traditional mores and what it means to be extraordinary.
Woman + composed suburban lifestyle + unexpected tragedy out of her control + newfound self-sufficiency + unorthodox redemption = Weeds, The Big C (Showtime)
Man + remarkable talent + fall from grace + sidekick who tempers and fuels man’s efforts + unorthodox redemption = Burn Notice, Psych, Royal Pains, White Collar (USA)
Ordinary vs. Extraordinary
Showtime gives us ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. Nancy and Cathy are going about their lives when they suffer sudden and unexpected setbacks. They seem in no way equipped to deal with tragedy and yet their underlying resilience shines through. Conversely, USA portrays extraordinary people living in ordinary circumstances. Each protagonist possesses an innate talent honed over time through discipline and practice. Standouts in their fields, the men are resourceful and cunning when necessary to come out on top — with their wit and charm in tact.
There is a marked difference in the protagonists’ gender on each network that is echoed by the gender of the shows’ creators. Showtime’s programs are led by women both on and off-screen, while USA’s programs star men and were created by men. Furthermore, the role of gender is complicated on both networks as each protoganist’s progression is threatened and frustrated by the presence of the opposite sex.
On Showtime, the women have been in some way failed by the men in their lives and seek to take matters into their own hands. The women must overcome the shortcomings of the men who continue to surround them.
At the end of the first episode of The Big C, Laura Linney’s character pours her heart out to an unseen companion: “I’m warning you that this laughter might turn into a sob in a second.” With a wider shot, the companion is revealed to be her dog. Even if they want a shoulder to cry on, the women make do on their own, demonstrating self-sufficiency.
USA’s protagonists are cushioned by the presence of sidekicks. The sidekick serves a variety of purposes in each program, but across the board the most important task is keeping the main character grounded. At moments when the leading male may seem too quirky or start to veer off plan, the sidekick is there to reel him in and reinforce an objective.
Aspiration and Identification
Not just any actors, Linney and Mary Louise Parker are accomplished actors in their own rights. They made names for themselves long before Showtime came calling. Both actors have the clout to carry a show and the ability to engage an audience on the small screen over the course of an entire series.
In a different vein, relatively unknown actors portray the protagonists on USA series. The actors are good looking enough to be realistically desired by the opposite sex, but not too good looking as to alienate the same sex from identifying with them. In this regard, the shows take a step back from focusing too tightly on the main character and open up to the ensemble cast.
Echoes of the 90s
The programming on Showtime is an extension of an approach seen on the small screen in the form of Twin Peaks (1990-91) later in the decade on the silver screen in American Beauty (1999). David Lynch’s television series asked viewers to take a closer look at suburban life. Below the guise of a smooth veneer, character flaws bubble to the surface. The difference now, in 2010, is that we are painfully aware that things are not what they seem. Bubbles have burst and dips are doubling and we are ready to examine the traditions and ideals that have become cumbersome. While Parker and Linney’s faces are familiar, just as familiar are the darker underbellies exposed in the storylines. As a culture we are re-educating ourselves on what it means to be satisfied.
USA’s programs echo another sentiment of the early 90s represented in the television series MacGyver (1985-92). MacGyver followed ever-resourceful secret agent Angus MacGyver as he solved problems with nothing more than his scientific know-how and ability to improvise with everyday common items. When put to the test, the protagonist comes through no matter what it takes — a mantra especially relevant today when we are recalibrating our lifestyles and learning how to do more with less.
Earned Success and Everyday Heroism
In an era moving past reality television when just about anyone could get their fifteen minutes by being in the right place at right time, the programming on USA and Showtime reflect the common desire to see earned success. As a culture we have moved beyond ascribed fame and fortune and instead hold earned heroism in higher regard. We leap to hear the stories of everyday heroes like Chesley Sullenberger and Jaycee Dugard, who have each signed movie and book deals respectively. We understand that success won’t be handed to us, and there is an inherent value in what is rightfully earned.
USA and Showtime have defined algorithms that resonate with an audience that values the talented and irrepressible spirit. When the chips are down and our flaws are showing, there is the hope of an underlying resilience that will come through in the end. Just test us.
Congratulations to Lauren and Diandra.