Lucy Fife Donaldson, Sarah Cardwell, and Jonathan Bignell
This introduction traces how the key terms of the collection have been addressed in television studies, providing a snapshot of the differing ways we might encounter substance and style in relation to television. Moving from the commonplace axiom of ‘substance over style’, which reinforces a hierarchical relationship between substance (as aligned with seriousness, intellectual weight and solidity) and style (associated with frivolous decoration and ephemerality), the introduction highlights varied ways to nuance and complicate the relationship between these terms, which are reflected in the chapters that follow. Substance is considered in its figurative usage, particularly in relation to the work television studies has done to present television as a serious object of study, as well as in terms of its ontological basis, reflecting on the materiality and technology of television production and reception. Style is connected to the work of television aesthetics, as well as to other work which places form centrally, such as that which seeks to connect stylishness to the ‘cinematic’, a contentious move which this volume is keen to challenge in its integration of substance with style. The introduction concludes by situating its chapters, which bring a breadth of approaches, interrogating the binary across programming ranging from the 1960s to today, from network and public service broadcasting to premium cable, serial and episodic drama, as well as comedy, sitcom and animation.
Sarah Cardwell, Jonathan Bignell, and Lucy Fife Donaldson
The Introduction introduces the terms complexity and simplicity. It advocates that we might expand our critical vocabulary by reconsidering how these terms are employed in television studies. Overt references to complexity and ‘complex TV’ have burgeoned in recent years. Complexity has played a particularly salient role in television aesthetics, where it supports evaluative appreciations of specific programmes. However, the range of television works considered in terms of ‘complexity’ is rather narrow: twenty-first century, American, ‘quality’ serial dramas predominate. Furthermore, narrative complexity is frequently prioritised over other kinds. We suggest that conceptions of complexity drawn from analytic aesthetics might help direct attention to other sources of complexity and complex pleasures. In TV studies, the word ‘simplicity’ is often used as a negative counterpoint, associated with unfashionable and critically slighted television, rather than as an alternative criterion for value. We make a case for reappraising simplicity, not merely as a route to clarity, concision or accessibility, but also as a potentially valuable aesthetic feature. We note that the achievement and indeed the appreciation of simplicity, just as in the case of complexity, requires complex skills on part of the creator or viewer. The Introduction sets out the book’s chapters. Contributors come from diverse areas of TV studies; the range of television works addressed is similarly broad, covering UK and US drama, comedy-drama, sitcom, animation, sci-fi, adaptation and advertisement. But all chapters attend closely to stylistic details of specific moments, and all explore the chosen programmes’ achievements in terms of their balance of complexity and simplicity.
Jonathan Bignell, Sarah Cardwell, and Lucy Fife Donaldson
The Introduction makes a case for the advantages of greater appreciative attentiveness to both sound and image, their interactions with each other and their roles in establishing meaning and style. Such attentiveness means focusing on technical and stylistic aspects of the image, including production design, framing and camera movement, mise-en-scène and performance. As regards sound, television soundtracks may comprise diegetic and non-diegetic sound, including music, dialogue, voice-over, bodily sounds, performed and non-performed sounds. Analysis and appreciation of individual programmes means looking for coherence between image and sound but also for discontinuity, discordance and tension. The development of television image technologies is a story of the quest for realistic accuracy, yet the artistry of image production can run with, or counter to, the discourse of ever-increasing clarity. Television camera work can give intimacy to performance, and repeated, intense engagement with performance over a long duration could be argued to be a distinctive property of television drama. The repetition of serial and series forms in television, and the longevity of some programmes, also give music in television a special significance. The chapters in this volume analyse some of the expressive potential that the visual and acoustic material of television can have. They explore and evaluate the plasticity of images, sounds and their interrelationships, through close attention to programmes that invite a reconsideration of how television sound and image can engage and affect their audiences.
One of the most popular and successful crime dramas of the 1990s, Inspector Morse (ITV, 1987-–2000) starred John Thaw as the Oxford detective with a passion for classical music and real ale, and encompassed seven series and five special episodes. While existing academic work has lauded the series for its ‘quality’ and ‘heritage’ signifiers, to date little research has been conducted with regard to its innovative approach to sound and image. The series was particularly notable for how it either juxtaposed these elements – as in debut episode ‘The Dead of Jericho’, in which Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ and Hubert Parry’s ‘My soul there is a country’ contrast with a police raid – or allowed them an unusual degree of dominance, as when Brian Johnston’s cricket commentary, a radio call-in show and the strains of Saint-Saens’s ‘Concerto for Cello’ compete for the viewer’s (and Morse’s) attention in the opening to ‘Deceived by Flight’. Such experimentation set the series apart from contemporary generic conventions, developing a self-conscious style that helped ensure its success, leaving audiences by turns captivated, unsettled and entranced, and reaching viewing figures of 18 million in the process. This chapter draws upon examples from a range of episodes to examine how the series employed sound and image in often unusual, dissonant or defamiliarising ways. Inspector Morse’s pioneering approach to these elements created a truly distinctive look and feel, particularly when compared to its crime drama contemporaries, and this will be unpacked here in detail for the first time.
Set during the 1980s, The Americans (FX, 2013–18) is a US drama series whose narrative combines cold-war spy thriller with family melodrama; a stylish evocation of spycraft in the period embedded within a substantive, emotionally complex serial drama. This chapter illuminates how the style, and stylishness, of the series are made material and dense, through attention to design. Style is often aligned with surface, with artifice, construction, ephemerality. The work of the central characters, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), involves inhabiting different styles or disguises, and the design of the programme foregrounds the artifice of their work through surface changes of costume and make-up. Substance, on the other hand, is concerned with complexity, with materiality, thickness, solidity. The layered narrative of The Americans, as well as its historical/political grounding and multifaceted lead performances, delivers such weight and seriousness. Special attention is paid to the intersection of design with Keri Russell’s performance, as her embodiment of Elizabeth Jennings – a key surface in the show’s design – enables a focused opportunity to track the materially meaningful qualities of style. Russell’s performance engages carefully with costume and make-up, to render her character through a meticulous layering of elements: ruthless violence, tender tactility, professional detachment, patriotic dedication, vulnerability and ferociousness.
This chapter challenges the style versus substance binary in thinking about television’s meaning-making process by arguing for the function of costume design as a key element in television’s creation of meaning which shows that style and substance are inextricable. The moment in focus is the opening episode of Series 5 of BBC1’s period drama Call the Midwife (2012–present), in which, at the start of the 1960s, the nurses receive a new set of uniforms. Rather than seeing the cosy and nostalgic style of the serial drama as an opposition to or cover-up of the taboo-ridden and often tragic subjects it deals with, this study of the programme’s costume strategies illustrates that even pretty, decorative aspects of style are constructive of the text’s narrative substance.
This chapter examines Alan Clarke’s TV version of Jim Cartwright’s play Road (BBC, 1987). Part of the BBC’s Screenplay series, Road was both harshly realist and non-naturalist; especially in its deployment of sounds and images. Heavily dependent on its soundtrack and its use of Steadicam, Road is a searing indictment of Thatcherite Britain but also an assertion of the aesthetic possibilities of television, in what was perhaps, for Britain at least, the last period of popular experimentation. Importantly (given Kennedy Martin’s assertions), Clarke turned a piece of theatre into a memorable piece of TV. Road exemplifies what is an underexplored area of realist screen drama: the soundtrack. In the canon of critical writing on social realism, sound appears very sparsely and the analysis of music even less. This lacuna is understandable given that social realist films and television texts themselves often eschew non-diegetic music due to the distancing effect it has on an audience. Many of Clarke’s films and TV plays begin without an opening soundtrack, the viewer being plunged into the narrative without the comforting signifier of music to underline the meaning. This chapter looks at a key scene of Clarke’s drama and explores how the play’s visual experimentation is matched by its sonic landscape. It also explores the relationship that both have to canonical definitions of realism.
This chapter examines the relationship between issues concerning substance and style in relation to acting, specifically, the performance of laughing. It considers the significance of an act that is widely considered to be involuntary, spontaneous and authentic – thus, substantive – but that, in the context of performance, is marked by planning and technical execution – thus becoming a matter of style. The chapter begins by outlining the critical terrain, setting up the argument that the substantive event of laughter depends, in the context of screen fiction, on the stylistic act. It then moves on to its main case study, namely the sitcom Friends. Specifically, it explores the scene in Series 5, Episode 2 in which Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) laughs after confessing to a recently married Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) that she still loves him. Through in-depth close analysis of Aniston’s and Schwimmer’s performance choices, the chapter unpicks the different layers (both character and actor) that frame the laughter. It demonstrates that Aniston’s is unconvincing laughter that appears self-conscious and not properly embodied, which is contrasted with Schwimmer’s performance choices. As the chapter argues, this is not a failure of performance by Aniston, but actually a deliberate acting choice, as she is using this unconvincing laughter as a tool for her character to manage the awkward moment and to convey her character’s embarrassment and emotional vulnerability. With a successful performance by the actor of an unsuccessful performance by the character, Aniston also adds a reflexive quality to the scene, which aids the characterisation.
The David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker trio – ‘ZAZ’ – gained wide attention with their disaster-movie spoof Airplane! (1980), showcasing their trademark surrealistic humour. Their next project was a TV series for ABC, Police Squad! (1982), that spoofed the police-detective shows. Police Squad! met an untimely demise, cancelled after only six episodes. TV in the early 1980s was still considered more like a household appliance and more akin to radio than cinema: a voice-led medium. ZAZ’s wordplays and nonsensical dialogue demanded more focus and elaboration than the TV shows of the time, and their sight gags and absurdist byplays were too demanding for the small size of an early 1980s TV screen. The chapter examines this landmark TV show in terms of the clash between the ‘audiovisual disjunction’ and ‘nonsensical accumulation’ strategies of ZAZ’s style and the expectations of the viewer accustomed to the sound-dominated substance of early 1980s network television. ZAZ’s show, although short-lived, would prove influential and contributed in a substantial way to the stylistic evolution of TV comedy: for example, theirs was one of the first comedy shows to discard the standard laugh-track. Police Squad! enjoyed a second life in the following decades, even becoming a cult show, when in the meantime TV had been transformed by shows like The Simpsons, whose sight gags owe much to ZAZ’s style. The key moment under examination is the iconic title sequence followed by the investigation of the crime scene in Episode 1, ‘A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise)’.
This chapter argues that, despite enormous variations in on-screen style and off-screen modes of production, the serials of classic Doctor Who (1963–89) share a common interest in television’s role in the production and circulation of knowledge. The programme’s self-reflexive acknowledgement of its own status as a television text creates a complex both/and logic in which characters, objects and events both generate the illusion of a coherent science fiction universe and expose how this illusion is created. The chapter analyses elements of the series’ production which have been discussed as simple – or even simplistic – and argues that this simplicity can be read as a baring of the televisual device which offers a complex critique of knowledge formation. The chapter’s analysis of Doctor Who’s performativity aligns with queer theory’s rejection of binary thinking and interest in how simplifying cultural myths – including those concerning sexuality, gender, identity and meaning – are made. These general arguments are complemented by a detailed reading of a moment from the 1966 serial ‘The Gunfighters’ in which the Wild West is exposed as a complex intersection of history, myth, genre and medium. The chapter argues that this serial critiques heteronormative myths of masculine power, familial honour and cultural exceptionalism through its playful – and complex – acknowledgement of its own construction as television.