The Passion: New Orleans: #ThePassionHalfLive

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The word “live” has value in our contemporary television environment. As actual live viewing grows increasingly less common, events that can promote their liveness—sports, award shows, etc.—have an advantage in the current TV marketplace. There is a belief that those shows, more than others, will draw audiences who will tune in live, and thus consume ads live, and thus make money for broadcasters like Fox.

The trend toward live musicals is an extension of this, and this was undoubtedly the context in which Fox has positioned The Passion: New Orleans. After Grease: Live, Fox has entered into the genre rebuilt by NBC over the past three holidays, and the Tyler Perry-hosted contemporary retelling of the Passion Play certainly wants to be the same type of success. It also framed itself around the idea of liveness, promoting that the event would run rain or shine, and using #ThePassionLive as the show’s hashtag.

But The Passion: New Orleans is not a live musical. It is a live broadcast interspersed with a television adaptation of the Passion Play, recorded in advance and featuring what would appear to be pre-recorded performances. It’s a choice that those involved with the production have discussed in interviews, and lines up with the desire to stage the scenes throughout the city of New Orleans for dramatic effect—logistically, this was not possible to stage live while retaining its geographic diversity, maximizing the idea of tracing the story of Jesus against modern day issues such as police prosecution.

And yet the balance between live and recorded content was somewhat surprising, especially with the chosen hashtag. The broadcast came to resemble a PBS pledge drive, with brief musical numbers—musical videos, really—interrupted by cuts to Tyler Perry, reporting from the crowd following the large cross making its way through New Orleans, and occasional live performances by Yolanda Adams, Trisha Yearwood, and Seal (and eventually Jencarlos Canela, playing Jesus). It’s a practical issue on any level, interrupting any sense of flow and continually disrupting the “story”: while it’s true that the basics of the Passion Play are pretty much common knowledge, any ability for the performers to establish specific characters or create a complete “performance” were rendered impossible by the constant interruptions.

The specific issue, however, comes from the fact that The Passion: New Orleans is not really a live musical despite being discursively understood as one by news outlets and audiences. To Fox’s credit, I can’t find any evidence of them ever calling it that—it has always been framed as a “live musical event,” which is a fair description for the concert/scripted combo that they aired earlier tonight. The “live” segments are comparable to “concert” stagings of Musicals, with minimal staging and focus on the songs themselves. But between the #ThePassionLive hashtag and the recent trend of live musicals, I at least expected more of the actual plot of the Passion Play to take place live, and so there was an aesthetic shock when they cut to the first main number—“Love Can Move Mountains”—and it was clearly taped in advance.

I understand why they would make this decision, logistically speaking, but some of their other choices are more confounding. Why, for example, would they still give the performers headset microphones and ear monitors in these pre-taped segments as though they were performing live, when either the aesthetic distinction (liveness has a clear aesthetic that the overly “cinematic” pre-taped segments diverge from significantly, especially given the huge variety of camera angles) or the time of day would betray the fact they were pre-recorded? Why use #ThePassionLive as a hashtag if the majority of your musical numbers were going to be pre-recorded, and #ThePassion would have served more or less the same purpose?

The answer is that the “promise” of a live musical has marketing value, even if that’s decidedly not what The Passion: New Orleans is. It’s undoubtedly false advertising to focus on the show’s liveness and then have the majority of musical numbers be pre-recorded—some performers never even appeared live under the curtain call—and Twitter chatter certainly reacted negatively when it became clear that the show wasn’t as live as they presumed. But that actually proves Fox’s point that the idea of a live musical will convince people to tune in, and whatever negative reaction comes from those who know enough to understand the difference between live and pre-taped aesthetics will likely be a very small percentage of the audience.

The Passion: New Orleans is not designed to be understood through an aesthetic lens: whereas Grease: Live reveled in its complex staging and choreography, The Passion: New Orleans is about the idea of community and spirituality. It’s about the procession of the cross through New Orleans, and the audience who are there to witness the live concert—it is about feeling, in other words, something that is tougher to achieve at home and certainly tougher for me to engage with given my lack of connection to the Passion Play. It wants to use liveness as a short-hand for togetherness, making us feel like we’re on the streets with the cross (hence the live check-ins), or that we’re among those crying or singing along to the vaguely spiritual pop songs chosen for the show’s jukebox soundtrack.

But while it would be disingenuous to take that experience away from those who felt it, the staging choices were a barrier for me. Too much of the story was told through Perry’s narration, limiting the ability for the songs—already, I must admit, facing barriers created by some questionable choices with the likes of Creed, Evanescence, and Hoobastank—to tap into the meaning of these characters and their story. As someone who knows the basic story but has no particular attachment to it, I would argue The Passion: New Orleans was on some level designed to appeal to me—Perry has framed his involvement as a desire to spread the gospel, rather than just preaching to the choir, but the disconnected narrative limited the ability for the music to communicate the emotions of this story. Specific moments tapped into the symbolic effect of the cross processional and the live audience—Yearwood and Seal’s numbers had the most impact—but too much of the story was trapped in screens, and weakened by the lack of flow (which was inevitable with commercials, but made worse by Perry’s scripted intros and outros from that footage).

I can see why The Passion: New Orleans became a hodge-podge of live and pre-recorded content. The actual story would have been better told if this had been entirely pre-recorded, with Perry’s narration playing over footage from the story instead of interrupting the flow of events. It would have been more focused on character, and it would have avoided the aesthetic dissonance that pulled me—if not its target audience—out of the narrative. But then it wouldn’t have been “live,” and they wouldn’t have been able to use both the commercial appeals of that term as well as the emotional appeal of seeing the cross work its way through New Orleans, and building this as a local event that can be viewed nationally (and internationally on Netflix).

The resulting production fails even basic tests of flow, and I still view too much of the soundtrack ironically to take the production wholly seriously, but it is ultimately a fair representation of Fox’s goals: to tap into a faith-based audience increasingly hailed by the film and television industry, and to extend a reputation for live events that draw advertisers interested in reaching those and other audiences. And so while The Passion: New Orleans betrays principles of liveness, it does so to balance its commercial goals with its spiritual ones, a legible mess instead of an incomprehensible one.

Cultural Observations

  • As far as I can tell, the amount of pre-recorded content is unprecedented for the format—while the report following the procession and the “host” are also in the Manchester Passion (the U.K.’s rendition of the same concept), the earlier numbers are staged nearby, and clearly live.

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American Crime puts Pedagogy before Story

LILI TAYLOR, CONNOR JESSUP

(ABC/Felicia Graham)

A lot of television criticism becomes a critique of execution. Good ideas are put forward, but something’s off: a performance doesn’t quite land, the character logic doesn’t quite track, or limitations of budget or time—basic realities of making broadcast television—stand in the way of telling the story the way they wanted to.

But then you have cases like tonight’s American Crime, which I believe is executing the story it wants to tell at a high level. It’s just not the story I thought they were telling, and dramatically alters the scale and focus of the show in ways that in my experience undercut what made the show so compelling earlier in the season.

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Grease Live: With An Emphasis on the Live

For as much as live theatre is about the quality of specific performers or the strength of the material involved, it’s also about energy. There is an energy to song-and-dance performed onstage, and it’s an energy that has always been a central struggle for the recent revival of the live television staging of musical theatre.

Over the course of this recent trend, begun by NBC with The Sound of Music and now picked up by Fox with Grease Live, the various productions have been searching for how to tap into this energy when the conductive force of the audience is absent. The experience of seeing live theatre is in large part the experience of viewing it with other people, and not just in terms of being able to whisper reactions to the people around you. It’s about energy, a feeling in a room that you’re seeing a spectacle unfold before you or you’re being transported by an emotional ballad.

Social media can theoretically serve to bring the individual households tuned into one of these broadcasts together, but there isn’t the same type of energy, manifesting more as commentary than a natural emotional response. And while NBC’s musicals have evolved since The Sound of Music, this is one particular problem they’ve never quite solved: they have, by-and-large, been staging live theatre devoid of the energy that fuels it, hoping that what’s happening on the other side of the TV screens will cooperate without doing much to specifically address the issue. When Peter Pan build to its all-important audience participation moment, they accepted that the call would lead to no response in many cases.

And so when they announced that Grease Live would include a live audience, it seemed—on paper, at least—to be an effort to replicate this energy more directly. But whereas I imagined this as having an audience reacting to the production as one would at an actual theatrical production, it wasn’t like that at all. The vast majority of scenes went by without any audience reaction at all, with the audience only making appearances in selected large crowd scenes.

It was a decision I found confounding at first, but over time I started to realize that it was a byproduct of a central decision made by the production—led by director Thomas Kail—when it came to what they were making. Rather than a live staging of a theatrical production, Grease Live is the first real “television musical” to emerge from this era, designed from top-to-bottom to embrace the energy of watching live television.

And in the process, they managed to capture some of the energy of live theatre for good measure.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Rising Action as Climax

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterIn his “review” of Star Wars: The Force Awakens—it’s really more of a commentary piece if we’re playing semantics—Salon’s Andrew O’Heir makes what I would say is a fair point regarding the film:

“You can choose to understand “The Force Awakens” as an embrace of the mythological tradition, in which the same stories recur over and over with minor variations. Or you can see it as the ultimate retreat into formula: “Let’s just make the same damn movie they loved so much the first time!” There are moments when it feels like both of those things, profound and cynical, deeply satisfying and oddly empty.”

O’Heir’s instinct to work against his initial either-or binary here is telling, and reflects a lot of what I reacted to within The Force Awakens. There is a larger narrative ongoing about this film being “safe,” and about duplicating and/or rebooting the existing films—primarily A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. I think this argument makes a lot of sense when considering an overview of the film’s plot, but I think we need to fully acknowledge the tension with which this process takes place. O’Heir’s argument about the mythological tradition absolutely echoes in The Force Awakens, but the questions of how those stories will recur, and who they belong to, are more important to my experience of this film than the level to which they do or do not vary from the previous narratives.

[Warning: Pretty extensive spoilers for The Force Awakens, so proceed at your own peril.] Continue reading

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Fall TV & the Fireworks Factory: Quantico and Heroes Reborn‘s Misleading “Next Week on” Promos

Quantico

After this past Sunday’s episode of ABC’s fall drama Quantico—recently picked up for an additional six episodes—ABC did what a network always does: they showed a quick preview of the next week’s episode, just as they had done the previous two weeks.

And yet there are two particular scenes in this trailer that stood out to me. In one scene, we see the characters of Alex and Ryan in the midst of a steamy encounter; in another, we see what appears to be Shelby and Caleb in a similar sexual rendezvous.

These scenes did not stand out because they are unexpected or atypical: as an ABC drama, there is an expectation of a certain degree of steaminess, and we saw a similar scene between Alex and Ryan in the show’s pilot. The reason they stood out is that I’d seen them before; in fact, I’d seen them every week he show had aired, because they were part of every preview ABC had produced up to that point.

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Cultural Announcement: Reflections on an “Academic Blogging” Journey

This has never exactly been a personal blog—while Cultural Learnings started in 2007 as a broadly conceptualized space for personal expression, it quickly morphed toward television and other media, and at some point or another I eradicated whatever markers of personal blogging were left over from the early days.

But, at the same time, any blog is ultimately personal, regardless of the specific topic of discussion, and this is particularly true given how the personal and the professional converge around the space of critical studies of media in my case when I started work as a PhD student in Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And so it feels right to use this as a space to discuss a professional (and personal) development, which is that having defended my dissertation earlier this month, I will begin a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia this fall.

First and foremost, I need to acknowledge the fortune of this opportunity. Within the space of academia, jobs—and especially tenure-track jobs—are in short supply, both due to a surplus of qualified candidates and the increased (and problematic) reliance on part-time adjunct positions, and I am incredibly lucky to be in this position. This was made possible by the guidance of advisors (both formal and informal), the support of family, and the confidence of friends and colleagues, yes—but it also depends on right jobs at right times, and chips falling in the right places, all of which are more difficult to control. To say that luck was involved is not to self depreciate the work I did, or the support I received at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and Acadia University before that), but rather to acknowledge that even with all of the hard work and support in the world, there are still people who don’t get jobs. And so the fact that I have this opportunity has put into perspective the various individuals whose generosity, wisdom, and in some cases timing led to the series of events that made this opportunity possible. I give thanks for it all.

But I want to take a moment to reflect specifically on the role that this blog played in this process, given how interconnected it is with all of the above. Although this was not designed as an “academic blog” initially given that I was still an undergrad when I started it, it evolved into one when I became a graduate student, and has transformed in ways that have made it a significant part of my professional identity. There is much debate in academia regarding the role of blogs and other social media in how grad students and junior scholars develop their place within the field, and I knew entering the job market that my output in this space was something that could set me apart for better—“he’s written a lot, on a lot of topics, for a diverse audience!”—or for worse—“why was he writing blog posts when he could have been publishing peer-reviewed journal articles?”

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Handicapping Hannibal’s Future: Netflix, Amazon, and Gaumont’s Unknown Design

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NBC did not “cancel” Hannibal.

Well, okay, that’s maybe a bit confusing. NBC did in fact announce that Season 3 would be the end of the show’s run on the network, following a slide from “problematic” to “abysmal” demographic ratings this summer. But while the rhetoric of cancellation was perhaps logically used to describe this decision, the simple fact is that NBC does not have the authority to cancel Hannibal. They are, in this case, one licensee of an international co-production, who Entertainment Weekly has revealed is paying only $185,000—this is absurdly low for a broadcast series, even in summer—in order to air season three of the show produced by Gaumont International Television. And so what’s really happening here is that Gaumont and its other producing partners—including Sony Pictures Television, who distributes the series and co-produces through its AXN international cable network—are losing their U.S. distributor. [I talked a little bit more about this in a Periscope broadcast you can watch if you’re more connected to nascent social media platforms than I am]

This type of inside knowledge regarding the show’s production is, admittedly, not going to be something your average fan knows. But it’s something fans should know as they make efforts to save the series, because finding a U.S. distributor is very different from finding the show a new home more broadly. They are not asking someone to “save” a show from outright cancellation—they are asking a streaming service or cable channel to step in as a licensee (and potentially production partner) as part of a pre-existing cocktail of financial interests, which shifts the show’s value in significant ways. And so the below is an effort to handicap how this reality shifts the logic by which different parties would be interested in the series.

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