As a television scholar and critic, I watch a lot of television. It’s an occupational perk and an occupational hazard, because watching a lot of television means that one develops certain complexes—when you see a particular trend move across multiple series, over months and years, it’s hard not to become a little bit obsessive about it.
I am not lacking for such obsessions, and they are united by a common theme: verisimilitude. Television is not real, of course, but for the most part it is invested in making its stories feel as real as possible, despite the various challenges associated with that task. And for whatever reason, I’ve developed a complex as it relates to failed efforts at verisimilitude: the badly photoshopped family photos, the unconvincing car green screen, the improbably high quality video chat. All of these are there to sell us on the story being told, but all are shortcuts: it would take more time to have actors take real photos, there’s way more logistics in taking out a driving rig, and it’s more efficient to just superimpose a webcam-like angle onto a screen than recreating the pixelated mess we experience in reality. But as much as I understand why this happens, I can’t turn off the part of my brain that gets pulled out of the show when I see such blatant disregard for something my brain has decided is critical, unlike 99.9% of likely viewers.
But of these various bugaboos, there is no doubt that TV characters brandishing empty coffee cups has been my kryptonite. While I traced my first mention of this particular objection on Twitter back to 2012, it emerged most significantly in 2014, when a quick succession of examples led to my decision to start tagging them with #EmptyCupAwards. The following eighteen months or so have turned the #EmptyCupAwards into something of a performance art piece, as I’ve used Instagram to document examples of bad cup acting on television. It’s become a distinct part of my online identity: other critics have sent people with the same affliction in my direction, followers have started seeing it themselves and blamed me for ruining it for them, and I’ve even had people warning me about shows before I get a chance to watch them. For better or worse (probably the latter, although I really do get a kick out of it), people know that I am the one leading a Quixotic crusade against actors who are bad at pretending there is something in the empty cup they’re carrying on television.
So when Slate approached me about writing something related to the Empty Cup Awards, I was presented with an opportunity to work through my demons. I wanted to better understand why this particular betrayal of verisimilitude bugged me more than the others, and why it was it was that these cups so frequently appear empty (or, at the very least, emptier than they should be based on the context we’ve been presented). And, in addition, I wanted to create a definitive statement of my objection, in the hope that elaborating on my concern could release me from the affliction whereby I see people on the street carrying coffee cups and start to guess how much liquid is in them (and yes, this has actually happened).
The resulting video essay—which the good people at Slate did a bang-up job on, to the point where it makes me look even more obsessive than I imagined, which is an impressive feat—is more than a little tongue-in-cheek, picking up on the tone of the #EmptyCupAwards posts in general, but at its core is an argument about the semiotics of coffee-drinking on TV shows, and a consideration of how viewers engage with television’s “realism” in general.
*The most infuriating thing on television is definitely its failure to address systemic issues with representation, but SEO gonna SEO.
Someone asked me recently what I would say if some of those who are critiqued for their “cup acting” in this video were to reveal that the cups in question were actually full of liquid, and that this was all in my head. And the truth is we’re past the point where this is about truth: it’s about how the persistence of empty cups has fundamentally altered the way I experience television, and exploring the reasons why that’s happened (and will continue to happen for entirely logical, practical reasons that my brain won’t compute because that’s just how it’s going to be).
While the video ends with a “call to action” related to the #EmptyCupAwards, and I would certainly like to see my little project spread to a wider group of viewers who could spot infractions on shows I don’t watch, the real “call to action” is to anyone who has this or any other pet peeve that shapes their experience immersing themselves in television worlds. If the social era of television gives us nothing else, it should create a space where our individual complexes as television viewers can become shared complexes, and our respective pet peeves can come together to help us better understand why we can’t turn off the part of our brain that pulls us out of television’s fictional worlds.
- Okay, so because this video essay is already longer than I anticipated and looking to make a more rhetorical argument, a few footnotes:
- From my research (there was research), there are some within the TV industry aware of this problem and insistent on fixing it, which means not all cups are empty. But there’s only so much you could control: all it takes is a last-minute suggestion of adding coffee to a scene, and no time to add liquid to cups. Circumstances are always different, and cups are never a priority (nor should they be, realistically).
- Not all empty cups are alike: if we don’t see when a character purchased a cup of coffee, we can’t necessarily know how full it is supposed to be, and so those examples are less egregious than in cases where we know a cup of coffee is supposed to be full.
- The deeper you get into this particular obsessive viewing pattern, the more that the angle of consumption becomes important (this is where I sound the craziest, I think). The fact is that you don’t drink a full cup of coffee at the same angle as you drink an empty one, but that angle is controlled by the flow of liquid, making it an even bigger acting challenge than creating the impression of weight.
- While coffee mugs and take-out coffee cups are obviously related, they’re not necessarily the same problem: mugs have weight, and are less likely to be filled to the brim, so the differences between an “empty” and “full” cup are less noticeable.
- Necessary credit to Veep’s Timothy Simons, who filmed a video as part of a crowdfunding campaign for a coffee shop where he proposed some necessary standards for cup acting—should we eventually honor the worst of the worst as part of an actual Empty Cup Awards, my earlier offer of a hosting gig still stands.
- And yes, this post was written from a psychiatric institution, how did you know?