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org/2006/12/civilized-viewing-and-its-discontents/) Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who I had not seen for quite some time about the pleasures and/or irritations of watching television with others. Do I find it more enjoyable, he asked, to watch TV alone or with a group? He himself, he explained, had been finding it difficult to watch TV with other people, particularly after having spent quite a bit of time away from his social circle, busy with work and various projects. Although he recognized and (in theory) valued the companionability that group TV viewing could yield, he feared that it made the TV programs themselves seem "bad"...and even worse than that, it could make him feel bad— unappreciative, anti-social, and inhumane, a "bad person." What program did he try watching with others, I asked. "Dexter," he said. "Oh...well there’s your problem; that’s a program that really has to be watched with one’s self."
While I will return to Showtime's Dexter and its relation to the self in a moment, the issues that this seemingly simple and somewhat silly conversation raised are really not quite that silly nor simple. What is the relationship (if any) between "bad TV" and "bad personhood," between television and "humanness" (as self and as sociality), between appreciating media texts and appreciating one's self in relation to others (and vice-versa—appreciating others in conjunction, or in distinction, to oneself)? Of course, by traditional standards, it may seem nonsensical to link one's complaints about the possibility of "bad TV" to a fear of being a "bad person." By high cultural norms, all TV (or at least almost all TV) is by definition "bad," and the aesthetic taste and judgment to recognize this is, if anything, a mark of a more discerning humanity, a sign of
In other words.S. no doubt. TV's twin obsessions with "liveness" and with death). rather than deployment of.e. the prison serial Oz. aesthetics and politics. exactly. This discourse in the U. been changing over the past decade or so. television typically tends not to be treated seriously in . they're amongst my favorite and most admired TV shows.S. Civilized 2 civilization and culture. "It's not TV. this is not because I would want to argue that subscription cable programs like Oz or Dexter are "bad". There are numerous reasons why U." Yet as that line indicates. as well as with the borders that exist between televisual realism and its anti-realist artifices and between U. in their televisual articulations.S.Joyrich. televisual qualities. with greater acknowledgment of the aesthetic possibilities of television and a discourse of "television appreciation" now more common in both commercial and (supposedly) anticommercial venues. being a "good show" and being a "good person" (or just being "a person" in relation to other people). pay cable) networks as Showtime and its even more esteemed competitor HBO. to the contrary. While I disagree with such assessments. narrative dynamics and viewing dynamics. in 1997—the same year that it introduced its famous tagline. it's HBO. "good" TV still tends to be defined by most people by its supposed lack of televisuality—by its difference from. which began airing its first original dramatic program. But what I admire about them has to do precisely with the ways in which they make use of—rather than repudiate—the potential that exists in television's forms (such as the potential that emerges from playing with the border between television's "masculine" coded crime-and-punishment genres and it "feminine" coded soap opera genres. my interest in these programs arises because of how. is related to the development of original programming on such "commercial free" (i. they are TV (not just pay cable) and how. Such views have.. they can make us think about the relationships between textual forms and social forms.
but. routine existence in our lives. its commercial-driven base). its individual texts and the metatext of its flow (that is. or perhaps alone in precisely an attempt to get space away from those with whom we live). even beyond these literal enactments (or rejections) of family dynamics. its ability to be unfamiliar. which television seems constantly to articulate not just in its stories but in its very terms of address (its hailing "we"). Most of us watch television in familial space (together with those with whom we live. television's familiarity is intimately bound up with its "familialarity": its relation to the ordinary. Indeed. this familial construction extends to the television audience. Its very ordinariness seems to belie the discourse of "appreciation" (which is why a channel like HBO attempts to assert its supposedly extraordinary features. Because of both this address (literalized in such things as networks' greetings "from our family to yours") and the typical domestic viewing context itself. Family is also the way we come to matter as subjects for TV—the way that we are interpellated across TV's series and serial forms. distinct from the usual family of networks). But one of these reasons is simply its familiarity: television's omnipresent. via narrative display of others' situations and the inclusive rhetoric of "our" shared interests. within the enclosures of TV's domestic settings and the reflexive self-enclosure of the domesticated TV world as a whole). its "fact" and "fiction" genres. In other words. routinized construction of family life. a family of friends or co-workers. not only is "the family" television's favorite subject matter (whether figured as an "actual" family. everyday. through both repetitions of family reintegration and continuations of family disintegrations. or a jocular "news family"). significantly. Civilized 3 aesthetic or political terms (including. given how such formations have historically developed and crystallized.Joyrich. one way of establishing and marking a comfortable closeness among people is to watch TV together—even . television has the interesting effect of making any viewing group feel like a "familial" one (so that. for instance.
or does it. middle-class. white. and the familiar. and communication can we envision? Are families the epitome of "civilization. almost always. a great many things that one can critique about television's familiarity/"familialarity" (with the aforementioned consequence of discouraging serious aesthetic discussion being probably the least of them). But while I certainly think that it's crucial to critique these oppressive restrictions. I also think that it's important to see what other effects. affiliation." the mark of Western culture (as proponents of "family values" like to argue) or its opposite (particularly given the often "uncivilized" behavior that takes place around the TV set or the way .S. One effect is to raise questions about the very meanings of "family. the structures I've briefly noted have made U. culture. Civilized 4 if this is a "virtual togetherness" as occurs with TV fan communities)." familialism. to gangs of buddies or co-workers. our psyches and our social dynamics. television particularly effective at instilling and installing restrictive notions of. broaden our understanding. There are. If "TV families" can encompass groupings that range from biologically linked clans. to assemblages formed across diverse diegeses and locales. possibilities. appropriating the notion of "family" from "family values" discourse and deploying it instead for the formation of a variety of modes of humanity and community (including the "virtual"—yet quite familiar and "real"—ones created by shared media interest and communication)? If "families" can be constituted by media formations. No doubt. then what new ways of thinking about kinship. of course. rather. and if this can extend out to us as viewers in our own diverse situations and locales.Joyrich. heteronormative "family values" into the most intimate recesses of our spaces and times. then what is a "family"? Does this narrow our understanding of human relations by defining everything via just one familiar form. and openings—even if small—might emerge from these formations.
they are also posed within television scenes themselves. something might. the self? And with such multiple possibilities for self and other. believes he has no real feelings. new conjunctures and collectivities? All of which brings me back to the question of what it is like to watch television alone or with others—situations which themselves raise the question of what it means to be a mediated self and/or to mediate one's relation to others. Whereas the promotions for the program have played up its (rather clichéd in its very improbability) high-concept premise of a serial killer who kills only other serial killers. new socialities. as some TV texts seem to press these very issues. my comment about Dexter being a show best watched alone was somewhat flippant. It's not because of squeamishness that this text strikes me as one I'd prefer to view by myself (with no one to see my potential gasps and grimaces). have been on to my "I"). I would argue that the show is much more about what it means to be a person than what it means to do away with people." to balance between being human and acting . Civilized 5 in which TV viewing can be used as a strategy to impede conversation and closeness as much as it might be used to establish such familiarity)? If this familiarity can help us negotiate either being alone or being with others. I might have been on to something about this program (or.Joyrich. and the familiarity to. While. Through its focus on a character who. for extended families and for intensive communities. to reverse that. Dexter poses the question of what it is to feel (and feel like) a familiar "self. although in close contact with many others. through this program. admittedly. how can it also help us negotiate (or question) both the otherness within. these questions are not simply posed by the scene of television viewing. making them (as my previously mentioned answer to my friend suggests) particularly appropriate for various enactments of mediated being and/or sociality. Moreoever. how might we envision new forms of being.
a program that I love watching with others is the Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica—a text that. connections to or refusals of others. conversely to Dexter's explorations of selfhood which may incite the viewer's own exploration of self. assuming an air of ordinary familiarity so as to mask and manage his sense of estrangement from the world. producing an uneasy experience (again. dramatizes the struggles of group alliances even while eliciting group feelings in its audience. through serialization and intrusions of "reality. In contrast. to relate to and be known by others and the self. this program doesn't only dramatize questions of "humanity. the damaged Dexter was. to its revision of TV's usual portrayals of family matters (both the "father-knows-best" model of "actual" families and the camaraderie of the TV "cop family"). In its very textual construction. From its opening credits that hint at the moments of uncanny violence which lurk in daily domestic routine (squeezing orange juice. the recognition of the self in the other and the alienation that may emerge from the other-in-the-self. to the program's use of punctuating voice-over (in moments of direct address to the viewer that invert TV's usual mutually flattering "we" through their self and social repudiations). flossing teeth). the ordinary and the extra-ordinary. tutored by his father on how to live in society." to mediate between "inner" emotions and "outer" appearances." much more complex figures of their own self/other struggles). perhaps one best experienced alone) of evaluating our own singular and/or sociable selves. to its intermixtures of several TV forms (so that characters that start out seeming like mere caricatures or backdrops to a central series figure become. In the narrative. it draws the viewer into these questions as well. while a child. Like Dexter. Battlestar Galactica might also be described as a . Civilized 6 "humane. emotion and performance.Joyrich. the program reproduces this ambivalence of familiarity and estrangement." civilized or savage selfhood.
Joyrich. community. through Vietnam and Bosnia. much more generously. it raises these questions in a very different way (through its science-fiction space opera about the battle between the human Colonies and their cyborgian Cylon creations and/or "offspring"). Civilized 7 program about the very meaning of what it is to be a person. I don't actually watch Ugly . Or. for example. to the clear references to today's Israeli-Palestinian conflict and War in Iraq). again. daringly brainy) device of voicing much of our commentary via the avatars of stuffed animal puppets! Producing a similar effect of invoked group viewing—but. Battlestar Galactica uses futuristic drama to comment on multiple incidents in our historical past and. in a very different way—is. making it a text that. prison camps and forced occupation. Through its use of allegorical narrative (with stories that involve issues like religious warfare. in our present day (ranging from references to World War II Poland and France.. reproducing the program's own play with the line between the human and the non-human through our harebrained (or. the ABC program Ugly Betty. I think. I would suggest.." and so on). the treatment of "traitors. of course. of course.although. I am delighted to have the chance to get together weekly with a gang of folks to watch and discuss Battlestar Galactica. Needless to say. webs of virtual communities) even if one doesn't literally watch this show with a group. For example. the conjunctures and disjunctures between appearances and emotions in a more earthly global fashion than Battlestar Galactica's movement through the universe. which takes up such issues of humanity. the use of torture. suicide bombings. this can inspire a great deal of discussion and debate on the part of the show's viewers. but I also participate in a post-viewing "vlog" in which we bring that discussion out to anyone in cyberculture who might want to tune in. one might do both. abortion and "ethnic cleansing". to be part of the "family of humankind". implies group viewing (via. importantly.
paradoxically (or maybe this is precisely to the point). ethnic. differently articulated than the standard inclusive (but. and sexuality lines. in effect. I can feel part of multiple viewing communities—communities that cross the usual borders of nation and class. ironic camp and heartwarming sentiment. Not only has this program finally broken down mainstream U. which was not only a huge hit in Columbia but was rebroadcast and/or adapted in numerous other countries (from throughout Latin America. Israel. and its shows-within-shows (since Betty's family in this telenovela are themselves fans of a fictional telenovela. this inclusivity is. the Netherlands. because of that border- .S. among others). just to give a few examples. which just happens to feature many "real" telenovela stars.but.S. to Germany. and Russia. India. TV's jingoist resistance to the globally popular form of the telenovela. but where else on TV have we ever seen.S. for (as they say) a "mainstream" network and a "general audience. after all. class. not to mention a revision of what counts as "good" or "bad" aesthetics (for both programming and people)? Watching this program. Through this text's dispersion over space and time. this program truly institutes a "global" perspective—one that invites the viewer to be part of its inclusive community. gender and sexuality—and. gender." Ugly Betty (produced through a joint venture between Salma Hayek's production company Ventanarosa and Touchstone Television) is based on the enormously popular Columbian Yo Soy Betty La Fea (written by Fernando Gaitán and produced between 1999 and 2001 by the network RCN). a soap opera). racial.Joyrich. thus calling up a whole web of interrelated soaps. actually exclusive) "we" typical of U.. Civilized 8 Betty together with others. and soap communities). a sympathetic on-going story of an "illegal alien" or a loving portrayal of a proto-gay child. broadcasting. I would argue. soap figures. While certainly a "familial" show (it is. its cast of characters that cross national. its movement between comedy and melodrama. generational. The first telenovela made in the U. I feel as if I do..
and singularity. in their quite distinct ways. . get a different sense of what it might mean to be a person among other people in today's world. and/or "universal" communities and insisting on recognizing differences. to think about the relations between personal feelings and public mediations. Battlestar Galactica." TV that is "good" to watch. between being a "person" alone and being a person among others.Joyrich. specificity. all of the programs I've mentioned—Oz. between joining familial. But more important than my own personal assessment of these program's aesthetics and politics is the fact that. Dexter. they open these very questions for viewers: they incite us. as I've tried to suggest. global. between what's considered "good" and what's considered "bad" (whether in appearance or action). While radically different from one another. Does this make watching television (whether alone or with others) good for you? Go ask your (real or virtual) viewing companions what they think. and Ugly Betty—are examples of what I would call "good TV. Civilized 9 crossing.
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