Tag Archives: Drama

13 Reasons Why is a teen show built for Netflix, for better or worse

13ReasonsKeyArtLast week, media scholar Casey McCormick posted a piece at Flow—where I have also been contributing during this most recent cycle—based on her research into Netflix, with a specific interest in the way they tell stories. I saw her present some of this research last week, and at the heart of it is an interest in what she terms “Netflix Poetics.” While this can take many forms, at Flow McCormick narrows in one element wherein many series “tend to be particularly metafictional, or self-conscious about storytelling,” citing the use of voiceover or direct address in shows like House of Cards or Narcos.

I was thinking a lot about the idea of “Netflix Poetics” as I watched 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s most recent drama series, and the second this year that we could call “Young Adult” programming after A Series of Unfortunate Events. But whereas that series adapts a dark but ultimately whimsical set of children’s books, 13 Reasons Why—developed by Brian Yorkey with Tom McCarthy as the director of the opening episodes—taps into the very real tragedy of Jay Asher’s novel about a teenage girl who commits suicide, and the tapes she leaves behind to call out those she holds responsible. Channeling the type of issue-focused storytelling that’s characterized shows like Canada’s Degrassi, and which emerges more sporadically in teen programming on U.S. cable channels like MTV and Freeform, 13 Reasons Why offers an unflinching consideration of the social problems that would leave someone like Hannah Baker to take their own life.

I have a lot of thoughts about 13 Reasons Why, but more than any other Netflix series all those thoughts are caught up in the fact that it is a Netflix series. Based on both the narrative it presents and the way it chooses to tell that story, both the good and the bad of the show feel inseparable from the context of its distribution. It is a show that feels like it might have only been able to do what it does on Netflix while simultaneously feeling like it encapsulates some of the pitfalls of the rigidity of the Netflix model and its associated expectations. It is a show that is brutally honest about the struggles teenagers face today in ways that are refreshing and important, while simultaneously positioning itself to appeal to the cynical binge culture that Netflix increasingly relies on its original programming to construct.

It is also ultimately very good, and well worth your time, but I want to focus on how it represents a meaningful case study of the distinctiveness of Netflix’s original programming on the level of both the text itself as well as its distribution.

[The following will contain light spoilers for the entire first season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.]

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The Orange is the New Black Rule: Emmys Rule Change Has Clear Target, Unclear Results

Orange new black Emmy 2014 crazy eyes billboard

Orange is the New Black competed as a Comedy at the 2014 Writer’s Guild Awards. It then competed as a Drama at the 2014 Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards. It then competed as a Comedy at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards and the 2014 Emmy Awards, before eventually winning its first major awards at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild awards competing as a Comedy.

This happened because the system allowed it to. Regardless of whether or not we believe Orange is the New Black is a drama or a comedy, the distinction was more or less up to Netflix, who consciously positioned it as a comedy in part to reduce competition with its other major awards contender, House of Cards. I would argue the show is unequivocally structured as a dramatic series, but that didn’t matter, because the system has no qualitative measure to change this. Over this same period, Showtime’s Shameless made a similar switch late in its run, petitioning to become a comedy (and earning William H. Macy an Emmy nomination and Screen Actors Guild win in the process); Gilmore Girls did the same late in its run, trying desperately but failing to earn Lauren Graham a nomination.

I feel pretty safe in saying that Orange is the New Black and its “category fraud” are the impetus behind an Academy rule change announced today that labels half-hour series as comedies and hour-long series as dramas. While Shameless’ category switch is likely a contributing factor, I feel comfortable calling this the Orange is the New Black rule, directly targeting a series that I would tend to agree is committing category fraud based on the objective facts of the show itself.

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What Genre Is This?: How We Classify Webseries

JulesAndMonty

Since I originally wrote a Tumblr post about it, I’ve been following college-set Romeo & Juliet adaptation webseries Jules and Monty, which wraps up its eighteen-episode run on Monday (May 5th). As that Tumblr post suggests, some of this has to do with a general appreciation of what the project represents, and the way the webseries form gives real college students the chance to produce and then distribute something that can reach potential fans in the same places where other big-name projects can be found. However, the show itself has been a compelling take on the material, and has been pushing at a question I’ve been puzzling over regarding webseries—and television more broadly, really—for some time.

It began with two relatively concurrent events. The first was the release of Episode 14 of the series, in which Jules is confronted by her brother, Cliff.

The episode is notable for the presence of a trigger warning, preparing its audience for the violence within. In a Tumblr post, executive producer Imogen Browder explains the logic behind the trigger warning:

“I knew that if that scene had affected me so much in the room, and I knew it was coming, then we would be doing a disservice to our audience to not give at least a simple warning—and based upon the reaction we’ve received, I’m glad it’s there. It was important to our team that we protect our audience, as no one wants to go on to YouTube expecting to see another montage and instead watch something that could potentially have a seriously negative effect upon them.”

In a response to that post, director Evey Reidy notes that the trigger warning conversation is ongoing within the theater community at Tufts (where the webseries and its cast and crew are based), placing this as part of a broader conversation within the world of the cast and crew. In both cases, the creative team reveals their belief protecting their viewers outweighs any sort of narrative purity (which would have, one presumes, maintained the shock of the moment rather than “spoiling” that Cliff would strike Juliet in the midst of their argument, a decision that reflects many adaptations of the source material).

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Cultural Check-In: Thoughts on the Fall Survivors

Thoughts on the Fall Survivors

October 22nd, 2011

First off, despite the image above, Survivor was actually an early casualty of this fall season.

This fall has been tremendously busy in terms of my “real” job, and the scholarly side of things has been equally complicated by some looming deadlines and a general increase in workload. In order to feel as though I’ve been giving that my full attention, Cultural Learnings has definitely suffered, and as much as that pains me I also think it is very much necessary given the current state of things.

However, this is not to suggest that the behaviors which drove me to blog in the first place have been entirely squashed. I’ve still been keeping up with most of my shows (although I’ve fallen behind on a few, like The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy and How I Met Your Mother), and I’ve still been tweeting about most of them and writing about The Office (and, last night, Strike Back) for The A.V. Club. That being said, I know that there are some things which have been left somewhat more vague, and so I wanted to drop in with a few thoughts and a link to something else I’ve been working on.

First and foremost, I exchanged some emails with my colleague Ryan McGee on the subject of how critics review television comedy, a fitting subject given that I recently took part in an academic conference on the subject of TV comedy (which my colleague Jennifer Smith summarized for Antenna). This is something that he had suggested earlier this Fall, and struck me as a good way to enter into a dialogue without having to carve out the time for a podcast. The conversation spanned over the course of a week or so, and I hope it touched on some issues that can spur on some more conversation.

Ryan has posted Part One of the conversation over at Boob Tube Dude, and I’ll be posting Part Two here at Cultural Learnings on Monday. Please leave any comments you might have, as this is really something that requires a broader discussion than just the two of us to really come to life.

Funny Business: Critical Analysis of Television Comedies [Part One] – Boob Tube Dude

Next, though, I want to spend at least a bit of time discussing the new shows that have remained programmed into my DVR after premiere week, which proved to be a fairly small (and generically limited) collection. I’ve also thrown in a few thoughts on new series that have yet to premiere, and one that has already premiered but is still relatively new all things considered.

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Hope Springs Intermittently: Stories of the 2011 Emmy Nominations

Stories of the 2011 Emmy Nominations

July 14th, 2011

My favorite thing about Emmy nomination morning is the sense of hope.

It lingers in the air before the 5:35am PT announcement – last night, as both coasts drifted off to sleep, people on Twitter were posting lists of contenders that they were crossing their fingers for, still believing that shows like Fringe or Community had a shot of breaking into their respective categories. This is not a slight on either show, or on their fans who choose to believe. As always, some part of me wishes that I didn’t know enough about the Emmy nomination process to logic away any chance of sentimental favorites garnering a nomination.

My least favorite thing about Emmy nomination morning is the moment the bubble bursts. When the nominations are actually announced, it’s this constant rollercoaster: one nominees brings excitement while another brings disappointment. The bubble hasn’t burst yet, at that point, as there are often enough shifts in momentum that no one emotion wins out, leaving us struggling to figure out just how we feel.

The moment it bursts is when you open the PDF and see all the nominations laid out before you, and when the math starts adding up. Twitter has quickened this process: you don’t need to wait until critics and reporters break down the nominations, as everyone is tweeting the sobering details by the time 8:45am rolls around. Excitement in one area turns to disappointment in another, with one favorite’s surprise nomination becoming deflated when you realize that other favorites were entirely shut out.

As always, I was one of those people sorting through the list of nominations, and the bubble did burst at a certain point. It was the point when I remembered that surprise nominees are often unlikely to be surprise winners, and that for every category with a surprising amount of freshness there’s another that reeks of complacency and laziness. These are not new narratives, of course, but they’re narratives that overpower any sense of hope that could possibly remain after a morning of sobering reality, and that temper any enthusiasm that might nonetheless remain.

Although we cannot say that there is no enthusiasm to be found. While there are no real dominant narratives at this year’s Emmys, I do want to focus on a number of stories that I consider important based on the nominations, some of which involve excitement and others which involve that defeatist Emmy spirit we cynics hold so dear. One deals with how a network fights to remain relevant after giving up its Emmy bait, while another deals with the failings of an oft-derided set of categories. The others, meanwhile, look at the difference between being nominated and being competitive, as well as why it might be that an entire set of categories can’t help but feel like a disappointment.

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Season Finale: Shameless – “Father Frank, Full of Grace”

“Father Frank, Full of Grace”

March 27th, 2011

By the conclusion of its first season, I would argue that Showtime’s Shameless found something of an identity independent of its British predecessor. This is not to say that the show is better or worse, something I can’t judge given that I’ve seen only brief glimpses of the British series, but I felt as though the first season seemed driven by characters more than versions of characters. Between the work of Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan and Emma Kenney, the Gallagher siblings feel as though they (if not necessarily the world they inhabit) are real people who I want to see face the challenges that result from their position. Their story never felt like we were seeing someone else’s story transposed onto these characters, as each performer seemed to be driving the characterization as much as any sort of influence from across the pond.

That is a testament to the strength of the cast, and the writers for working with them, but it is only one component of the series’ future. The other side, the part where we consider the world that John Wells and Paul Abbott have created in Shameless’ Chicago, seems problematic as the show heads into an extended hiatus before a second season. “Father Frank, Full of Grace” has some strong moments, but it has already put into motion an enormously problematic return to the status quo which threatens to undermine whatever strong character work might be done.

Or, to put it in other words, it’s already threatening to be just like every other problematic Showtime series.

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2010 Emmy Award Predictions: Supporting Acting in a Drama Series

Supporting Acting in a Drama Series

August 23rd, 2010

The complete lack of a frontrunner in neither Supporting Actor nor Supporting Actress in a Drama Series isn’t particularly surprising: these categories are always fairly stacked, and so predicting them is always a bit of a crapshoot.

This year, though, the lack of a frontrunner should prove particularly interesting, and potentially quite frustrating for the majority of television viewers.

Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

  • Andre Braugher (Men of a Certain Age)
  • Martin Short (Damages)
  • Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad)
  • Terry O’Quinn (Lost)
  • Michael Emerson (Lost)
  • John Slattery (Mad Men)

On the Actor side of things, it’s a problem of too much talent: while many are right to complain about John Lithgow getting dropped down to (and winning) Guest Actor from Supporting on a technicality, I think this category is better for his absence, as it allows people like Aaron Paul (still looking for his first Emmy win for this spectacular work on Breaking Bad) to have a legitimate shot at the trophy instead of appearing as also-rans. However, when he’s alongside someone as respected as Martin Short, and when former winners Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson are riding the momentum of Lost coming to its conclusion, Paul still seems like a small fish in a big pond (Slattery, as good as he is, is simply not going to be the Mad Men actor to break the series’ drought in performance categories).

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HBO at TCA: Story, Genre and Scheduling

HBO at TCA: Story, Genre and Scheduling

August 8th, 2010

I’ve been following along with the news out of the Television Critics Association Press Tour through Twitter, but to be honest there hasn’t really been anything that’s caught my attention: while I’m incredibly wary of the changes being made to Human Target, I’ll save any judgment until I actually see them in action, and since I haven’t seen the fall pilots I can’t really offer any opinion on how the panels seems to have changed my view on each series.

However, on the final day the HBO executive session ended up being a really interesting one: not only did HBO programming guru Michael Lombardo confirm that Entourage’s next season will be its last, but he also offered up some intriguing quotes about their planned Spring launch of Game of Thrones as well as a curious statement regarding the network’s approach to scheduling. With the networks, there’s this sense that they’re there to sell the critics on their already announced lineups, but with HBO there’s a laid-back confidence which could be read as cockiness, and it makes for a more interesting environment in terms of the kinds of discussion it creates.

So, let’s take a gander at what an Entourage movie and a question of genre vs. storytelling tell us about the channel’s approach as compared with its pay cable counterparts.

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Handicapping the 2010 Emmys: FX’s Sons of Anarchy

Handicapping the 2010 Emmys: FX’s Sons of Anarchy

July 6th, 2010

When I started handicapping the Emmy awards, I had presumed that Sons of Anarchy would be the kind of show heralded by critics but ignored by voters: the show got no attention for its first season, and FX’s Emmy hopes have centered on Damages to the point where I expected them to ignore the series. As a result, I was surprised (in a good way) to discover that FX was actually placing Sons of Anarchy at the front of its Emmy materials, a move which reflects its critical, creative, and viewership surges in its second season.

The series’ Emmy chances are still a long shot: while Damages broke into the field for FX last year, it was on the back of Glenn Close, and voters tend to value star power over critical praise or viewership numbers (Damages, for example, has been a ratings failure in its final two seasons). However, while the show may be a dark horse in Outstanding Drama Series, I’d argue it’s a legitimate contender in both Writing and Directing: Kurt Sutter submitted strong episodes which reflect the season’s strong points, and like Battlestar Galactica before it I think that voters will gravitate towards it for these creative awards where the series’ accomplishments may be better recognized.

The series’ other contender is its most deserving: Katey Sagal absolutely deserves to be part of the conversation surrounding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and FX’s decision to promote the series more heavily (and feature her pivotal episode, “Balm,” in their DVD mailer) has placed the actress in legitimate contention. Her work as the matriarch of the series’ dysfunctional family, holding a terrible secret inside so as to avoid the family tearing itself and others apart, was the anchor of the show’s second season, and she’s got a real shot at this one: not only is she truly fantastic on the show, but there’s the potential for an amends narrative here, as Saga – along with likely nominee in Comedy Ed O’Neill – was never recognized by the Academy for her work on Married…with Children, an oversight which they may want to rectify for this very different, but deserving, work. Mind you, she still has to compete with stablemate Glenn Close, and stalwarts like TNT’s Sedgwick/Hunter, and a bevy of other contenders, but if anyone is going to break into that fold outside of January Jones I believe it is Sagal.

As for the rest of the series, its chances are unfortunately slim: Charlie Hunnam and Ron Pearlman did some great work in the season but are unlikely to be recognized, while Ryan Hurst gave a stunning performance early in the season which will be summarily ignored by voters. There are also a bevy of guest stars who did some great work during the season, like Adam Arkin, Henry Rollins, and Ally Walker, who deserve to be part of these conversations but who might as well not even be on the ballot as far as voters are concerned.

Like with a show like Battlestar Galactica before it, voters will admit that the show is good, admit that it has a key lead performance or two, and that it is well crafted in terms of writing, directing and perhaps some technical awards as well. However, they’re not likely to dig a little bit deeper to find the supporting players who really sell the series’ complexity, a fact which has become sadly commonplace for the Emmys. While I understand that there are a lot of shows on television, and that the Supporting categories are particularly challenging in terms of the sheer volume of strong peformances, the fact remains that some of the best work on television never even enters into the conversation for various Emmys. Thankfully, with FX’s support, the series and Sagal have captured the Academy’s ear, so let’s hope that they’re paying attention.

Contender in:

  • Lead Actress in a Drama Series
  • Writing for a Drama Series
  • Directing for a Drama Series

Dark Horse in:

  • Outstanding Drama Series

Should, but Won’t, Contend In:

  • Lead Actor in a Drama Series (Charlie Hunnam)
  • Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (Ryan Hurst, Ron Pearlman, Kim Coates)
  • Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Maggie Siff, Ally Walker)
  • Guest Actor in a Drama Series (Adam Arkin, Henry Rollins)

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Season Premiere: Hung – “Just the Tip”

“Just the Tip”

June 27th, 2010

Like Cougar Town in the fall, Hung was a show in which some viewers and critics became hung up on its title and its initial premise to the point where they were unable to see the ways in which the show was something more than a dude with a large penis. Those of us who kept watching, and writing about, the show were considered outliers, those who were perhaps reading more into the series than was actually there. And as Hung returns for its second season, it does so in a way which makes us wonder if us outliers were wrong all along.

It’s not that “Just the Tip” is particularly bad, but rather than it feels particularly pointless: the plots in the episode feel either like continuations of first season stories or cliche-riddled story arcs which feel divorced from the social circumstances which created them. While there is meaning in the fact that the central image of Ray’s struggle, his fire-damaged house, remains fire-damaged, it also means that the show feels exactly like it did last summer, which is a problem on a show which seems like its stakes should be escalating rather than normalizing, and which makes me question just what this show wants to be.

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