The “TV Dictionary” is a collaborative collection of videos premised on a simple prompt: each video attempts to capture the essence of a television series using a single word, by juxtaposing the dictionary definition(s) of that word with a clip or several clips from the series. It is currently comprised of 48 videos by 25 makers, and has been warmly embraced by the academic videographic community, receiving numerous mentions on Sight & Sound’s poll for the best video essays of 2021, with many others expressing an interest in making their own entries or in applying the prompt as part of their teaching.
While the prompt itself is quite simple, the various videos in the collection have responded to it in very different ways, applying a diverse range of formal and stylistic choices, at times sombre, at times playful; at times adopting the tone and language of the chosen series, at times deconstructing or subverting them. Some of the contributors are well-established videographic practitioners, who welcomed the opportunity to apply this new perspective on their own objects of research and fandom, in some cases incorporating their entries as part of their broader videographic and theoretical projects; for others, scholars and fans of television, this was a first dabble in videographic criticism, one that will hopefully lead to further experimentation with the form.
In this blog post, the first in a series of posts about the TV Dictionary, I offer a few examples of my own entries, to illustrate something of the range of possibilities enabled by its underlying prompt. Subsequent posts will be written by other contributors, who will showcase and discuss their own work, exemplifying the diverse ways in which these possibilities can be explored and developed further.
Many of my own entries – and indeed, many of the entries in the collection as a whole – consist of one, unedited sequence taken from the series, over which various dictionary definitions are placed as a simple epigraphic text, such as this entry on Lost:
Or this one on The Wire (in which the word itself is only revealed at the end of the video):
In the case of this next entry, I opted to use Dexter’s unforgettable opening title sequence, and employ a somewhat more flexible and rhythmic interaction between text and image (mimicking the placement of the subtitles in the original title sequence):
Other entries, rather than settle for a single sequence, edit together several clips from various episodes of a series, as I did in my entry on BoJack Horseman, which incorporates memorable ending scenes from almost every season of the series (vague spoilers ahead):
Lastly, I offer a more detailed account of my eighth and final entry (thus far); while my previous selections had been entirely limited to recent, 21st century television series, and almost exclusively to “prestige” or “quality” serial drama I had watched as a film scholar, for this entry I decided to return to Seinfeld, a multicamera sitcom I had encountered for the first time as a preteen. Any critical observations I’ve had on this seminal 90s program were only made in retrospect, which made for a refreshingly different experience while engaging with it videographically. Perhaps this is also partly the reason for my more playful application of the epigraphic mode in this instance:
What hasn’t been said about Seinfeld, a show whose ensemble of characters would routinely sit and talk about themselves to death for nearly a decade, a show that has itself been talked about to death, from its original airing in the late 80s, through its dominance of the pop-cultural zeitgeist of the nineties, to its faux-reunion in 2009’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and its recent resurgence in discourse surrounding its acquisition by Netflix late last year. What is there left to say?
Well, quite frankly, perhaps nothing. Which is what Seinfeld is all about, after all. Choosing the word to match it up with was a no-brainer, really. As was the choice of the memorable scene in which George pitches Jerry the idea for “a show about nothing” (season 4, episode 3 – “The Pitch”). Wanting to try something different, I decided to use the dictionary definitions as subtitles. And as Jerry and George’s high-pitched, nasally ramblings would prove too distracting to enable focusing on the text, I decided to remove the dialogue all together, and have the two conduct an entire conversation in which they would say everything by saying nothing at all. Lastly, I set out to compose an artificial laugh-track using stock audio samples; this was actually accomplished with far greater ease than I was expecting – I was worried that it would take much more work to make it sound remotely decent rather than pasted-on and artificial. But the effortlessness with which the canned laughter and the images came together was yet another reminder of the classical sitcom’s fundamental artificiality.
This was for me both a refreshing generic break from my other entries to the collection, and an instructive opportunity to materially engage with the formal conventions of a quintessentially televisual genre. And while we’ve all known for decades that Seinfeld is a show about nothing – in more ways than one, as making this video has made me realize – perhaps we haven’t always stopped to question just what “nothing” actually is.
I believe at least part of the appeal of this parameter-based prompt, in the context of videographic TV studies, is in the (relatively) narrow focus dictated by the selection of a single word (and in many cases, a single sequence as well) – a welcome focus, as the long-form serial nature of television texts and the at times immense amounts of raw material available can make videographic engagement seem daunting to begin with. As such, I believe the collection holds interest for scholars of television, videographic and otherwise, as an example of “videographic telephilia” (Mittell, 2017) that offers a productive range of avenues of engagement with televisual texts.
Over the next weeks, you will read posts from other people who have contributed to the TV Dictionary collection and see their fascinating offerings; for now, I’d like finish by offering this hidden gem from Clara Richter, one of my favourite recent entries:
You can also check out the entire collection here – and are welcome to make your own contributions!
Ariel Avissar is a lecturer, PhD student and Tisch Film School Scholar at Tel Aviv University. His main areas of scholarly interest are videographic criticism and television studies. He was co-editor of Sight & Sound’s “Best Video Essays” polls for 2019, 2020 and 2021, and co-editor (along with Evelyn Kreutzer) of the “Once Upon a Screen” audio-visual essay collection published in The Cine-Files (issue 15, fall 2020). Since 2021 he has served as Associate Editor of [in]Transition: The Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies.