JJ: So, our edited collection Television Aesthetics and Style is being launched at the ‘Doctor WhoWalking In Eternity’ conference at the University of Hertfordshire. This is an opportunity to reflect on what we think the book does as an intervention in the field, so can I ask you first what you think the book does well – or badly!
SP: The field of television aesthetics is – I’m not sure if it’s right to call it an emergent field anymore. Because there has to come a point where it’s established and no longer emergent. But people are still calling it an emergent field which is complicated because of the traditions that television studies grows out of… but the book set itself the task of presenting both a picture of where television aesthetics is at now, and pointing the way in which it could move forward. My aim was to encourage a critical community to discuss television style through papers and online debates, and a critical dialogue about some of the key questions in television aesthetics; also to foster the appreciation and interpretation of individual television series and programmes and episodes in a way that hadn’t been done before. And I think that’s one of the achievements of the book, that’s what it does particularly well, which is to shine a light on one particular approach and hold it there not only on episodes and programmes but also looking at broader questions too in terms of, What do we mean by aesthetics? What do we mean by ‘cinematic’? What do we mean by ‘televisual’? It does so in a way that avoids some of the difficulties of the I.B. Tauris collections on individual television programmes, for example, which are multi-disciplinary, with multiple approaches, and without a real sense of coherence in terms of the goals and achievements of the books. I was also pleased with the way the sections grew organically out of the submissions we received. As we say in the Introduction we had a lot on comedy so it’s clear that there’s a real and urgent desire by scholars to write about television as an art, as well as considering particular kinds of television in new ways, in ways that free it – free television comedy in this case, from those quite schematic approaches that try to label or theorise or categorise using quasi-scientific language to talk about particular kinds of comedy. By contrast we have writers who use everyday language to articulate rhythms and concerns and achievements in particular shows. So those are the things I like very much, that it set out to do something different, it set out to focus attention on one area, and it allowed for particular points of focus to emerge, such as comedy. What about you?
JJ: I agree with that, it does all those things. It’s quite a good snapshot of the field, which seems to be, at least in this area, in transition. The thing about the book is that it has this newness to it that’s different, that’s shaped toward evaluation in its various gradations, but it also has a remainder which is the other scholarship derived from cultural studies, so there’s a residual hanging-on to that tradition that’s in the book as well. And that’s what’s interesting, you can’t just shift suddenly to a new clean, hygienically different mode of attention, there’s an adhesive connection to previous scholarship. It’s a form of attention in transition and maybe in the coming years the collection might be seen as an emblem or marker of a process or shift in one direction. Which is not to denigrate any of the essays in the book. It just seems to capture a certain sense of movement in the field.
SP: I like that description because I think one of the problems with the small amount of work that’s been done already on television aesthetics deriving from a Bordwellian, formalist approach is that it tries to pin down, lock in, and definitively describe and understand particular programmes when of course we know that the point about critical investigation is that it is fluid, it’s going to be organic and incremental, so the book does not set out to be the definitive tome on television aesthetics or a definitive reading of, say, Mad Men. Instead it is feeling its way toward something. What’s also striking to me about the book, and this is true of what I would say is the keystone chapter by George Toles on Mad Men, which shows the potential and possibilities of not going down the formalist approach, not trying to pin down Mad Menand make sense of it definitively once and for all, but just to hold on to a few moments, to describe in meticulous and poetic language the rhythms and movements and contours of that show as they shift and move. So I’m very pleased with that, it raises a lot of questions, but it also shows you in the movement of the writing in that essay – and others as well in the book – that we don’t have to follow one approach to television aesthetics.
JJ: Since we’re blowing our own trumpet here, I think that’s partly to do with our commissioning those scholars who we knew could write well about film style and we deliberately sought to entice them to write about television.
SP: Well I have a question for you about that, which is a possible accusation that might be, Well why are you approaching people in film studies to write about television? Some people might say that could be seen as a backward step, reaching out to a different discipline. What would you say?
JJ: We did that deliberately. That kind of criticism in film stylistic analysis, the sort that attends to the artwork in deep and profound ways, that submits itself to the mystery of the artwork – I know this sounds mystical! – in ways that as you say does not seek to solve it – that approach seemed to me to be a novelty in television studies. Usually in television studies you tend to get an academic or scholarly comportment that is superior, confident that it knows what is going on in the text, and the job of the writing is simply to lay that out for the reader. So we were deliberately seeking out that sort of writing that wouldn’t have that sense of superiority. So that’s why we approached those scholars and they did produce an incredibly rich engagement with the material and which didn’t have that sense of closing it down, solving it.
SP: Why do you think there were so many papers submitted about television comedy?
JJ: Raymond Williams, in one of the few insights he has in Television: Technology and Cultural Form, does acknowledge that television generated something relatively new in the sitcom – although not really that new because you had it in radio too. But I think as we say in the Introduction, there is a kind of a paradox with television comedy that goes to the heart of the paradox of artworks in general, which is that they can seem to be absolutely of their time and place – and comedy has to do that, it has to be attentive and attuned to contemporary fashions in order to be successful – and yet there is some television comedy that transcends, goes beyond, is able to detach itself from its time of making and the test of that, the test of its success in that dislocation is very immediate: laughter. That might be one reason why comedy got a lot of attention, because it’s a testable emblem of the artwork’s potential to go beyond its time of making. But there’s also the idea that profound art has to be serious and solemn and we know that’s not the case, to be profound you don’t have to be like a lot of British social realist drama – which is as far as I can see is mostly about murder and child abuse and ultimate experiences as the only way you can do serious work. But if you can still laugh at the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, where all the social and historical context for it is really now deflated, with no muscle to it any more and yet you can still get that comic bang out of it – then that’s interesting if you’re concerned with how cultural entities travel over time.
SP: I also think television comedy is extremely difficult to write about in a way that doesn’t destroy the comedic tone of the piece. You have to very carefully judge the writing so that it reaches into the tone and moments of the programme without seeming glib or parodic or overly serious and somehow flattening out the program into a map or plan or scheme of social and historical significance. And particularly the Four Yorkshiremen chapter by Alex Clayton is able to think very precisely about the relationship between the medium and comedy whilst also taking us through that moment in an illuminating fashion. Another thing that struck me about this book arriving now is that I’ve read a lot of pieces about the death of television about YouTube, iPlayer, and so on, claiming that television is now a dead art, a dead medium, as people have talked about cinema for many years. So the book stands as testimony not only to artistic achievement of and on television but the lasting quality of the medium and celebrates its particular intricacies and characteristics. What do we make of this argument about the death of television?
JJ: It’s a bit absurd to catastrophize in that why I think, and as you say cinema is still here, radio is etc. etc. But that reminds me I’ve just written something that is quite skeptical about that kind of medium-centric approach where the central criterion of achievement is the artwork’s ability to reveal something profound about its medium. I characterize that, crudely, as hangover of modernism and modernist-inflected criticism. I put a question mark against that, but I’m not so sure all aesthetic achievement can be hung on one thing, the way that the significance of the medium is revealed in the artwork. It may be that case, and it is undoubtedly something to attend to, but there is more as well.
SP: You can take that so far and but there are shows which do that which come across as quite shallow and fatuous. Thinking about television aesthetics more broadly I get the sense from the book that television as opposed to film still celebrates and holds onto genre in such a profound way – I’m talking about television drama and television comedy in particular – in a way in which we might talk about film directors of the 1950s using genre in Hollywood, but using the parameters of genre to produce something rich and meaningful not trying to transcend them in any way but just using the trapping and tools of the genre, its tropes and motifs. I’m just surprised that the field of television studies has talked quite often about television genre but not really in terms of style and significance as some contributors do in the book.
JJ: I’ve been reading My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, which reminded me of something that comes up frequently in my CST Blogs, the question of acting. And we have a number of essays in the book that deal with performance.
SP: Lucy Fife Donaldson comes to mind, her excellent chapter on The Shield and performance.
JJ: And Frances Bonner’s chapter about dance on television. So Welles says to Jaglom at one point, ‘It’s hard enough to know what’s directing, what’s acting. You really don’t know, in any single instance, whether it’s the actor or the director. But you can never tell that to a critic.’ There’s not that much done on the real peculiarity of television acting, especially in long form drama, where the actor does not have a known destination for their character, a place to land. That open endedness is unlike anything else – that’s an area that could stand more attention. But I’d also like to see more done on intention and the importance of that in our experience of artworks. That’s not to say that intentions determine once and for all our responses forever, since an artwork, once it is received in the world, allows our experience of it to enfold and possess it even as we submit to its authority as art. But that is not to say intention is irrelevant, it’s just not necessarily determinate. I suppose what I’m saying is that television can withstand these larger questions that we use to address any artwork and our book shows that it can. All the questions that have been kind of bracketed off or shoved aside as inappropriate for a ‘folk’ medium are brought back to the table.
SP: There is a great deal of skepticism and hostility in some areas about television aesthetics in the discipline, there seems to be a hesitation – calling it a ‘pre-structuralist danger’ and so on… why do you think that all other approaches are permissible whereas aesthetics carries with it this flavour of ‘danger’? Are we just very dangerous people?
JJ:I think the danger is real in the sense that it opens things up to a kind of attention that is not prescriptive, that is open to experience that challenges through its criticism those who disagree…. I’ve been reading a lot of Hannah Arendt, especially her lectures on Kant’s Third Critique, and of course the famous problem with that is the claim that if you find something beautiful then everyone else must agree that it is. Cavell’s version of that is that agreement is not guaranteed, but you have a moral duty to provide an account of your experience. I wonder if moral duty is what is feared, that you should be compelled to account for experience in that way rather than the kind of administrative approach which is to talk about other people – fans, audiences, industry, etc., – and their putative experiences, anybody and everybody else but one’s own stake and confidence in saying, This is good and you should also experience this. I don’t mean that in a BBC/eat your greens kind of way. You make the claim public not because you know you will be agreed with, you say it according to Cavell, acknowledging that rebuke is a possibility. But the reason one makes an aesthetic claim is the profound feeling that this should be shareable; that the world cannot make sense to you as a shared world unless other people can have that experience. The pre-structuralist danger stuff and the formalist accusations of mysticism is really a way of closing off the anxiety about rebuke, of wanting a world where disagreement and dissent only takes place in a fairly limited menu of terms and theoretical comportments.
SP: It seems that there is a suggestion from some scholars that this sort of aesthetic approach is not appropriate for the classroom but it does seem to be appropriate for the blogs that they write, where they openly appreciate particular episodes and moments from television shows. There is this need to fence off the aesthetic approach as something that’s ok in the fan world and yet not ok in the classroom. I can’t get my head around why that should be – I haven’t got an answer, but it is a question worth addressing. The other thing, when you said ‘moral duty’ that sounded a bit like Robin Wood, and I worry sometimes about the relationship between moral obligation and criticism because I appreciate lots of programmes that have immoral reflexes; I’m not sure morality has to be central to the art of criticism.
JJ: What I really think is there’s a difference between the moral spur to write criticism and moralizing – but by moral I mean – and I believe if I’m reading this right it comes up a lot in later Arendt, but if you really are moved by something, you really believe in it as a force in your life, the depth of that engagement, then…
SP: You have a moral obligation to say so.
JJ: Yes or it’s just private, just a kind of secret pleasure.
SP: The emphasis is on the place of the critic rather than the text.
JJ: But the power is with the work initially, the work compels you or puts you in a position where you need to speak – now one can remain silent, that’s an option – but it’s a measure or calibration of the power of the artworks encountered that you cannot help but articulate or try to articulate that power. That’s the moral position and then you’re exposed. These things matter, the way of their mattering means that there is an ought, a moral ought, that one should share this publically in words.
SP: I was watching an interview with Morrissey on the Jonathan Ross show, and Ross asks him, Look you live in LA, what do you miss about the UK?, and Morrissey said, I miss television because I’ve come to the understanding that television in America is made for children. So Ross tries to call his bluff by mentioning shows like ER and The West Wing and Morrissey replies, ‘I think you’ve answered your own question.’ What I’m interested in finally talking about is, I find that we’re at a stage now where we’ve gone through about three different Golden Ages of contemporary television, every five years or so we call it a new Golden Age. The first Golden Age came with things like thirtysomething, the second Golden Age with things like The West Wing and The Sopranos, the third Golden Age came with things like Mad Men and now we’re in this kind of fetishistic, especially in Britain, relationship with Scandinavian dramas such as Wallander, and British imitations like Broadchurch and The Fall as examples of that kind of genre. So are we in an infantilizing relationship with the world of television especially American dramas as Morrissey thinks, or is that a fatuous point, and if we’re not where are we, are we really in a Golden Age?
JJ: Well I think Matt Hills made this excellent point, or somebody did anyway, that you really don’t know whether you’re in a Golden Age, when you are so proximate to new shows. I mean you can recognize achievement at the time, but really it needs time to unfold, it needs time to bed in and that’s not about canon formation. One of the problems is that it has been understood, or the achievement of a Golden Age has been understood as a sort of institutional or critical building of a certain kind of legitimacy – that some things have been taken up as merely the expression of an elitist point of view that gets solidified into a canon or list of ‘greats’. But it’s really not so instrumental as that. Things like great artworks need to stand the weathering of time and critical attention, and that’s not to say we’re not allowed to talk about these things and engage with them, but that when we do we should acknowledge that they are being passed on into the future too. We can help that process along, but maybe we’re mistaken in some cases. We should be mindful that we’re going to make use of the artworks we engage with for our own purposes, but the best criticism acknowledges that. Actually the most interesting television for me is not so much that which reflects on itself as a medium, but that which engages with this fact of artworks as available for dislocation from the time of their making.
SP: I think you’re absolutely right that artworks need room and time to breathe and for our appreciation to grow, because there is a great deal of impatience it seems in television studies to talk about things now, to somehow pin them down like butterflies, because they are fleeting and they are going to disappear. So I think it’s important that we do make sense of that. I also think something like Mad Men– that grew out of The Sopranos because of the Matthew Weiner connection, and I would make the argument that The Sopranos was the sketch ready to prepare for the painting that is Mad Men. Nobody talks about that idea of preparation through dramas towards something better. The other thing is about legitimacy. There is an idea that we are enamored or beguiled by prestige dramas in a way that I think, hopefully, many critics are not anymore: the prestige drama is seen as what it is on film, it’s a worthy piece of work. So the gibberish that Stephen Poliakoff comes out with, and the metaphysical stretching and forcedness that was part of The Fall get celebrated, whereas the dramas that I think are not celebrated and should be are precisely those that Morrissey might class as infantilized such as Hannibal, such as White Collar, such as Girls. The dramas and comedies that don’t pitch themselves as Important or Significant, but that through their love of their own genre, and their understanding of their own handling of their concerns create something rather extraordinary without appearing portentous or pretentious.
JJ: Yes, like Shameless, Breaking Bad, and Justified, all unfolding through close critical scrutiny in the book.
Jason Jacobs is Reader in Cultural History in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History, University of Queensland. He is author of The Intimate Screen and Body Trauma TV. He is currently working on an Australian Research Council funded project called ‘Worldwide: the history of the commercial arm of the BBC’. His BFI TV Classic on Deadwood was published in July 2012. He is writing a book on David Milch for the Manchester University Press Television Series and is co-editor with Steven Peacock of the collection Television: Aesthetics and Style (Continuum, 2013).
Steven Peacock is Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of Hertfordshire. He is the editor/author ofReading 24: TV against the Clock (2007), and the co-editor of The Television Series for Manchester University Press. He is also the author of Colour: Cinema Aesthetics (Manchester University Press, 2010) and Hollywood and Intimacy: Style, Moments, Magnificence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He is currently writing Swedish Crime Fiction: Adaptations from Novel to Global Film and Television(Manchester University Press), and is co-editor with Jason Jacobs of the collection Global Television: Aesthetics and Style (Continuum, 2013).