Rachel Brethauer FTVS 512 For: Heather Osborne-Thompson October 27, 2011
E X A M I N I N G M I T T E L L’ S C U LT U R A L A P P R O A C H T O T E L E V I S I O N G E N R E T H E O RY T H R O U G H L O U I E Originally published in Cinema Journal 40, No. 3, Spring 2001, Jason Mittell’s “A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory” conceives of television genre as a cultural category rather than merely a textual component. In the decade since the original publishing of the article, television has evolved out of the multi-channel era and into the post-network era. In this new television landscape, genres are no longer a fixed entity1, and there is great academic potential in the in the study of television genres. The text, Thinking Outside the Box: A Contemporary Television Genre Reader, aims to explore and analyze genre in the current television landscape, and the Mittell article, republished in the book, serves as an entry point to such scholarship. Jason Mittell is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture and Chair of the Film & Media Culture Department at Middlebury College in Vermont. His 2004 book, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture is a more in-depth examination of television genre theory. “A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory” argues that the application of film and literary genre theory do not fully translate when analyzing television, because of “the specific industry and audience practices unique to television, or for the mixture of fictional and nonfictional programming that constitutes the lineup on nearly every TV channel. 2 ” The goal of media genre Gary R. Edgerton and Brian G. Rose, eds., Thinking Outside the Box: A Contemporary Television Genre Reader (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 7. 1
Jason Mittell, “A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory”, in Thinking Outside the Box: A Contemporary Television Genre Reader (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 37. 2
studies, Mittell asserts, is to understand how media is arranged within the contexts of production and reception, and how media work to create our vision of the world. Mittell’s argument for the examination of genre within a cultural context is useful, particularly when applied to post-network television programming. This paper will use key passages from the article and an analysis of the FX series Louie to outline the stakes of Mittell’s approach, the theoretical shortcomings addressed by this method of analysis, and how this method allows for the assessment of the term “post-network”. Finally, this concept of genre will be applied to the development of the central questions in my final project. LOUIE: A GENERIC DISCOURSE Mittell suggests that genre studies should negotiate between specificity and generality, and offers the following as an approach: “The second way would be to start with a specific media case study and analyze how genre processes operate within this specific instance. Such projects might isolate a variety of starting points—an industrial formation, audience practices, a textual instance, a policy decision, or a moment in social history. We may start with a textual case to motivate our study, but we must still examine how genres transcend textual boundaries and operate within audience and industry practices as well.3” Also, according to the article, “we should focus on the breadth of discursive enunciations around any given instance, mapping out as many articulations of genre as possible and situating them within larger cultural contexts and relations of power.4” So, any generic discourse must begin with a full understanding of the context of a particular text—in this case, Louie.
Mittell, Approach, 55-56.
Mittell, Approach, 45. 2
Louis C.K. is one of the most influential and respected stand-up comedians working today. He has written for The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Dana Carvey Show, and The Chris Rock Show. In 2006, C.K. had his first series, Lucky Louie, on HBO. The show sought to subvert the traditional sitcom genre, “to bring back the look and tone of classic ‘shot in front of a live studio audience’ sitcoms like All In The Family and The Honeymooners, but with profanity, nudity, and frank talk about sex, race, labor, and our common despair. Formally, the conceit is brilliant: Take a familiar genre with rigidly constructed visual elements, and then twist it just enough that it becomes either refreshingly new or beguilingly alienating. But even among the adventurous subscriber base of HBO, Lucky Louie didn’t connect. The reviews and ratings were mixed, and at a time when the channel was going through a rough transition, Lucky Louie fell through the cracks and wasn’t renewed.5” In the creation of his new show for FX, C.K. sought creative control—and got it. Louie costs “about $150,000 per episode, or less than 10 percent of what Charlie Sheen used to earn for a single episode of Two and a Half Men6” The result is perhaps the most personal series on television, one that after two successful seasons is frequently lauded by critics as one of the best shows on TV— even if those same critics struggle to define the show. In many ways, Louie aligns with a lot of “quality” sitcoms on television today—it stars a stand-up comedian, its production style is single-camera without a laugh track, and the show is often hilarious. At the same time, there are many ways in which Louie does not align with traditional
Murray, Noel. 2011 “Lucky Louie, ‘Kim Moves Out’.” The A.V. Club, March 17. http://www.avclub.com/articles/lucky-louiekim-moves-out,53266/ 5
Zoller Seitz, Matt. 2011 “The Rough Magic of Louie.” Salon, August 25. http://entertainment.salon.com/2011/08/25/ rough_magic_of_louie/ 6
sitcom genre hallmarks, the largest being that the show is a hugely personal undertaking. With C.K. writing, directing, editing, and starring in each episode and working with a tiny crew in New York City, the show eschews “the traditional sitcom-production technique of spitballing collaboration, with competitive writers’ rooms and improv-ready ensembles.7” Both sets of these examples illustrate how, as Mittell asserts, textual conventions are not what define a genre.8 Another way Louie transcends the textual approach to the sitcom genre is its accessibility, or lack thereof. This is not necessarily a show one can half-watch while folding laundry, as with a traditional sitcom. The show has created a largely realistic world, offering up truth, pain, and comedy on a level of realism similar to that of The Wire. The emotions displayed in Louie are raw, and often unexpected. There is deep feeling in the show, and not a small amount of heart. Unlike today’s most successful multi-camera sitcoms, where the audience is often left wondering why people who hate each other so much spend so much time together, one can easily see the feelings Louie has for his daughters and the rest of the cast of characters on the show. Louie is most definitely a show for today’s sophisticated post-network audiences. Unlike many traditional sitcoms, it does not spoon feed comedy to the viewer. Of course, there are jokes, and not just during the stand-up comedy portions of each episode, but this approach appeals more to a self-selecting group of television viewers (such as television critics and scholars). In the post-network era, the rise of not just premium cable channels such as HBO and Showcase but also basic cable channels like USA—and the subscriber dollars that come with them—afford television writers and producers to create shows with more edge, that subvert the textual Nussbaum, Emily. 2011. “One-man Show.” New York Magazine, May 15. http://nymag.com/arts/tv/upfronts/2011/louisck-2011-5/ 7
Mittell, Approach, 43. 4
assumptions of traditional genre theory, and create a media landscape that allows us to, as Mittell suggests, “look outside the texts to locate the range of sites in which genres operate, change, proliferate, and die out.9” Louie airs on FX, a channel with a rather loosely defined generic approach (especially as compared to, for example, SyFy). With programming that ranges from the criminal anti-heroes on Sons of Anarchy to the animated spy on Archer, the main attribute of FX appears to be a commitment to pushing the envelope and producing edgy, hip television. Louie absolutely fits that mold. In a television landscape where even sitcoms tend toward the serialized, Louie’s commitment to selfcontained stories (most episodes tell two discrete stories, like two short films linked by footage of Louis C.K.’s stand-up comedy act) and raw emotion over a barrage of setups and punchlines are an interesting new addition to the sitcom genre. Even though it airs on a basic cable channel, Louie has the reputation of being a “quality” show. And Louis C.K. himself has quickly joined the ranks of a number of highly respected television auteurs10. As Ellen Seiter and Mary Jeanne Wilson state in their article, “Soap Opera Survival Tactics”, “the association of a television text with a particular author invokes the image of the artist, thus linking it to traditions of high art rather than a mass-produced commodity.11” The aspiration of television as art, and the resulting rise in the status of the showrunner/executive producer as auteur are a large part of today’s cultural obsession with “quality” as it applies to post-network television. While moguls such as Norman Lear, Sherwood Schwartz, and Aaron Spelling existed in the network era,
Mittell, Approach, 42.
10 Wilson, Stacey. 2011 “Top
50 Power Showrunners 2011.” The Hollywood Reporter, October 12. http:// www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/louis-ck-247392 Ellen Seiter and Mary Jeanne Wilson, “Soap Opera Survival Tactics”, in Thinking Outside the Box: A Contemporary Television Genre Reader (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 138. 11
today’s showrunners are now a part of the context of a television series—and beyond that, genre. The way these executive producers interact with audiences and the press colors not just the interpretation of the show, but also the network, and genre. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Louie is how it mirrors the function of television as a medium, especially as outlined by Mittell: “Television’s constant integration of fiction and nonfiction, narrative and non-narrative, especially confounds the dependence on narrative structure typical of most film genre criticism. Film has few equivalents to the genre-defined channels or genredelimited scheduling practices that are commonplace in television, especially today.12” Louie integrates non-fiction elements of C.K.’s real life (like his character, he is a single father of two daughters, also a stand-up comedian living in New York) with fictional, sometimes fantastical elements. The show also blends narrative and non-narrative structure, with its rejection of serialization, lack of continuity, and the stand-up comedy bits that punctuate each episode. The result is a deeply resonant, shockingly personal sitcom that is helping to redefine the genre. MITTELL’S APPROACH AND THE FINAL PAPER I am currently in the process of narrowing down the central question(s) I will explore in my final paper. However, no matter what I choose, Mittell’s cultural approach to television genres will be a driving factor in my analysis. One option I am considering for my paper is a survey of another FX series, Sons of Anarchy. For this approach, I would use the “vital sites of generic discursive practice”, such as ratings, advertising, promotions, and intertextual references—whether the comparison of Sons of Anarchy to The Shield,
Mittell, Approach, 55. 6
the series where SoA showrunner Kurt Sutter cut his TV writing and producing teeth, or an investigation of either the Shakespearean or gangster themes in the show’s narrative to examine the presentation of masculinity and family in the post-network action-adventure drama. A second option would be a historical examination of the failure of both Sports Night and Freaks and Geeks, and how each of these shows, in their own way, were harbingers of the transition from the multi-channel era into the post-network era. Following the model of Foucauldian genealogy, as suggested by Mittell13 , I would collect a broad range of discursive instances to explore this transition. These instances could include the mixture of genres present in each show, the state of network television at the turn of the millennium, the rise of reality television during this period, ratings information—especially as compared to the ratings of today’s hit shows, and how these failures have influenced the successes of their showrunners, and also the current television landscape. A third option, which I am still researching and considering, would combine elements from the previous suggestions. That would be an investigation of television authorship in the current postnetwork landscape. The paper could explore the history of television authorship, discuss the importance of the showrunner/author as auteur in relation to a variety of genres—it tends to be more important in science-fiction and fantasy, though the rise of Shonda Rhimes’ brand of modern day primetime soap cannot be ignored. A thorough examination of television authors and authorship would allow me to achieve what Mittell states is the goal of most cultural media scholarship: “not to understand the media in and of themselves, but rather to look at the workings of media as a component of social contexts and power relations.14” 13
Mittell, Approach, 56.
Mittell, Approach, 45. 7
CONCLUSION As asserted earlier, literary and film genre paradigms cannot fully apply to television, “importing non-indigenous genre theories into television studies without significant revision creates many difficulties when accounting for the specifics of the medium.15” Because most genre theory tends to focus on issues that seem outdated to media scholars, it would appear that “A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory” came along at just the right time for television. In 2001, as the post-network era was gaining steam, and the mixture of genres was becoming more common on our collective TV screens, it was the perfect time to reengage with the analysis of television genres. Mittell’s cultural approach to television genre theory is a constructive method for the analysis of such a broad topic. Because of the complexities involved with television—the production process, the sheer number of programming types, and moving forward into the new distribution channels and options for consumption, it is essential to adopt a method of evaluation that can fully capture the context of the medium and help us to understand how the definition, interpretation, and evaluation of genres allow us to better understand our culture.
Mittell, Approach, 37-38. 8