This account builds on an earlier blog, ‘Problems of Style in High-end Drama’ and an article published in Critical Studies in Television. It deals with ideas in a new book that accounts for contemporary US television drama’s formal strategies, due to the growing complexity of television narrative.
Seeing It on Television: Televisuality in the Contemporary US ‘High-end’ Series is to be published on 11th March 2021 by Bloomsbury Academic. My colleague, Dominic Lees, and I wrote the book after we had already encountered scholarly resistance to the examination of visual style in contemporary television drama. The resistance seemed to be derived from the misplaced notion that we were proposing a new form of structuralism, which would re-privilege notions of a canon based on values of ‘distinction’ and ‘quality’. This was not our intention.
Well, not exactly.
The aim of Seeing It on Television is not to suggest that a category of television – the ‘high-end’ series can be discussed as being ‘cinematic’ or understood using long-established ‘authorial’ theories in the cultural field. Instead, as I wrote the introduction to the book, it became obvious that an examination of a type of contemporary TV drama whose production model appeared to rely on notions of the showrunner or a theatrical director such as Stephen Soderbergh (The Knick, Cinemax, 2014-15), demanded a complex response. To this end, the book includes a discussion of several interrelated cultural, as well as industrial, discourses about originality, seriality, or the remembrance of television history. Within this response, creative work in the ‘high-end’ TV drama is shown to rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on shared beliefs in the specific capabilities of single or multiple agents – the director, the showrunner and the performer, who are seeking to convey a personalised vision. However, a network of different production strategies for the development of an aesthetic in high-end television also raises the possibility of identifying the methods used to access the text without authorial enunciation or a set of privileged readings, opening new nuances of narrative meaning within the style.
Without wishing to be bogged down in chapter one by a discussion about either a possible conflict or osmosis between film and television (a contentious topic but one which is surprisingly productive), the book makes clear that its aims are limited to how we might understand the high-end drama at a formal level, as well as within socially meaningful relations to do with its production, reception and/or consumption. If increased budgets exist and feature cinematography becomes more ambitious in high-end drama, the book draws the conclusion that the production model in US high-end drama is not the same as claims about TV becoming cinematic nor is it the recognition of the signature of a particular agent, as has been established in film. For example, the first case study in the book, The Young Pope (Sky Atlantic/HBO/Canal+, 2016) directed by Paulo Sorrentino, explores the reconfiguring of Televisuality to not only understand how it achieves its aesthetic goals and desired effects. But also refers to how systems of value have been transformed by the technological, economic and social context of contemporary US high-end drama.
Now that some of the more basic obstacles to a discussion of style in high-end television had been dealt with, it was incumbent to explain why the examination of visual style on television mattered at all. This can feel, at times, a lonely topic with few contributors in the field, albeit some significant ones. Clearly, scholarly investigation continues to re-direct prospective students of television back to the safer territory of investigating serial narrative in all its complexity. But a formal analysis can be used to investigate diverse modes in high-end drama that mediate the relations between the text and the reader, and deserves to be given greater consideration than in the past.
However, the analysis of style in high-end television drama presents another pressing problem. The more we examined its diverse form, the more it became obvious that as co-authors we faced the challenge of finding a secure analysis for high-end drama. The book explains that it is not possible to find taxonomic features which can be tied to a single category of high-end drama: the reading of moments of sheer technique. Instead, these are tied to cultural, economic or technological discourses, and this becomes a discussion of the process of making the show. An additional aim of the book is an examination of the extent to which production practices in high-end drama, including production design, cinematography, editing and performance, are dialogic. In this way, chapters of the book demonstrate what might be evidence for a high-end show by referring again to how, for example, discourses around technology or television’s history affect the actualisation of a high-end text. Equally, Seeing It on Television fulfils the attempt to find the basis of a secure analysis because if it appears highly differentiated, it coalesces within a marketable value of original content or as an example of commodified authorship.
In the book, one consequence of this development has been that our intention is less about finding visual techniques to distinguish one text from another.
Well, not exactly.
In fact, the approach that Dominic and I have taken in the book is one where we search for stylistic clusters consisting of, for example, camera movement, focus, colour, or performance techniques. Such clusters and their semantic actualisation are shown to be variable from one show to the next and indicate how these clusters are being developed within individual programmes. Such clusters are not simply an experiment with style. Crucially, they appear to be a shared mode within high-end television. If unorthodox or complex, they continue to be linked to our previously described structural requirements, conferring the relative legitimacy of a prestige project. In the programmes investigated by the book, issues of agency suggest not only the reconfiguring of Televisuality but also the repositioning of the authorial voice. This includes directors such as Soderbergh (The Knick), Paulo Sorrentino (The Young Pope), and producers such as Ron Howard (Mars, National Geographic/Disney+, 2016-18), who work within new technologies (colour grading) and cultural discourses about television’s history (nostalgia). We hope the result in the book is to produce a more comprehensive understanding of contemporary US television’s authorship in high-end drama, as well as television’s relations to other media, principally cinema, which will be informative for scholars and students alike.
At last, as we approached the final portions of the book, the diverse response to Televisuality in the high-end drama enabled a focus on the difficulty of constructing disquisitions about the showrunner or director, and the possibilities of the meaning of the story being predicated on discourses about agency. As these factors were explored in the shows looked at, we concluded that the style in each show is a product of the exchange of competing needs. However, none are permanent outside the confines of a particular show such as The Young Pope, The Knick, Stranger Things (Netflix, 2016- ), Fargo (FX, 2014- ), The Leftovers (HBO, 2014-17), Vinyl (HBO, 2016) and Mars. If stylistic clusters exist, they are not repeated from one show to the next in the same way that examples within an older TV series and genre may have been replicated. Neither do they allude to auteurist traditions from the cinema.
High-end television is a product whose actualisation represents a distinctive and equally diverse modality within television drama and, in turn, the possibility of the continued specificity of high-end drama. The book responds to questions about style by demonstrating that a variable visual form with its authored enunciations has been mapped onto new cultural values in, for example, The Young Pope. The result of television’s heritage in Stranger Things or Vinyl, as well as technological factors such as the use of newer Digital Special Effects technologies in Mars demonstrate how any debate about whether this represents a distinctive modality in television drama and its production of cultural values is complex but benefits from a close reading of style.
Max Sexton teaches film and television theory and practice. He is interested in aesthetics and narrative, particularly in how they can be used to disrupt dominant production practices in television drama before forming new paradigms. His last book Secular Magic and the Moving Image (Bloomsbury) includes debates about aesthetics that feature conjuring and similar wondrous acts and how they complicate our understanding of mediation and liveness in the moving image. His new book on Televisuality, co-authored with Dominic Lees, is due in 2021 from Bloomsbury.