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Design and embodiment in The Americans
Lucy Fife Donaldson

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.

in Substance / style
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Moments in television

Substance and style have been attended to separately in different strands of television studies, from those who have sought to establish the discipline as serious and worthy of study, to the work of television aesthetics, which has taken stylistic achievement as a primary focus. This collection interrogates and overturns the typical relationships between the terms, instead setting them alongside one another and renegotiating their relationship through new perspectives and with reference to a range of television programming. Contributors draw attention to the ways substance and style inform one another, placing value on their integration and highlighting the potential for new meanings to form through their combination. In this way, the binary is used to re-evaluate television that has been deemed a failure, or to highlight the achievements of programming or creative personnel who are less celebrated. Chapters present style as a matter of substance, in terms of it being both part of the material constitution of television and an aspect of television that rewards detailed attention. Substance is developed through a range of interpretations which invite discussion of television’s essential qualities and capabilities as well as its meaningfulness, in conjunction with its stylistic achievements. Programmes studied comprise The Americans, Call the Midwife, Les Revenants, The Good Wife, Friends, The Simpsons, John From Cincinnati, Police Squad! and The Time Tunnel. Substance and style are evaluated across these examples from a wide range of television forms, formats and genres, which include series and serial dramas, sitcoms, science fiction, animation, horror, thrillers and period dramas.

Moments in television

This collection appraises an eclectic selection of programmes, exploring and weighing their particular achievements and their contribution to the television landscape. It does so via a simultaneous engagement with the concepts of complexity and simplicity. This book considers how complexity, which is currently attracting much interest in TV studies, impacts upon the practice of critical and evaluative interpretation. It engages reflectively and critically with a range of recent work on televisual complexity, expands existing conceptions of complex TV and directs attention to neglected sources and types of complexity. It also reassesses simplicity, a relatively neglected category in TV criticism, as a helpful criterion for evaluation. It seeks out and reappraises the importance of simple qualities to particular TV works, and explores how simplicity might be revalued as a potentially positive and valuable aesthetic feature. Finally, the book illuminates the creative achievements that arise from balancing simplicity with complexity.

The contributors to this collection come from diverse areas of TV studies, bringing with them myriad interests, expertise and perspectives. All chapters undertake close analysis of selected moments in television, considering a wide range of stylistic elements including mise-en-scène, spatial organisation and composition, scripting, costuming, characterisation, performance, lighting and sound design, colour and patterning. The range of television works addressed is similarly broad, covering UK and US drama, comedy-drama, sitcom, animation, science fiction, adaptation and advertisement. Programmes comprise The Handmaid’s Tale, House of Cards, Father Ted, Rick and Morty, Killing Eve, The Wire, Veep, Doctor Who, Vanity Fair and The Long Wait.

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Moments in television

In television scholarship, sound and image have been attended to in different ways, but image has historically dominated. The chapters gathered here attend to both: they weigh the impact and significance of specific choices of sound and image, explore their interactions, and assess their roles in establishing meaning and style. The contributors address a wide range of technical and stylistic elements relating to the television image. They consider production design choices, the spatial organisation of the television frame and how camera movements position and reposition parts of the visible world. They explore mise-en-scène, landscapes and backgrounds, settings and scenery, and costumes and props. They attend to details of actors’ performances, as well as lighting design and patterns of colour and scale. As regards sound, each chapter distinguishes different components on a soundtrack, delineating diegetic from non-diegetic sound, and evaluating the roles of elements such as music, dialogue, voice-over, bodily sounds, performed and non-performed sounds. Attending to sound design, contributors address motifs, repetition and rhythm in both music and non-musical sound. Consideration is also given to the significance of quietness, the absence of sounds, and silence. Programmes studied comprise The Twilight Zone, Inspector Morse, Children of the Stones, Dancing on the Edge, Road, Twin Peaks: The Return, Bodyguard, The Walking Dead and Mad Men. Sound and image are evaluated across these examples from a wide range of television forms, formats and genres, which includes series, serial and one-off dramas, children’s programmes, science fiction, thrillers and detective shows.

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Substance / style
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.

in Substance / style
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Complexity / simplicity
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.

in Complexity / simplicity
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Sound / image
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.

in Sound / image