Is Ally McBeal a Thing of Beauty?: An Interview with Greg M. Smith (Part One)

Greg M. Smith (Georgia State University) argues that there is no word more “obscene” in television studies than “beauty.” Television studies has run away from aesthetic claims from its inception and in so doing, they contribute to (or at least do nothing to combat) the wide spread public perception that mainstream television has little or no aesthetic value. In his new book, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal, Smith offers a sustained reading of a single television series, demonstrating how key themes and images unfold over time, and how the intriguing parts add up to a most satisfying whole. Smith doesn’t avoid issues of gender and sexuality which have concerned earlier writers who have discussed this series, but he shows the complex ways that these issues get worked through across the entire run of the series, rather than pulling out one “representative” episode as standing for the work as a whole. Smith insists that we need to respect the particular character of television series as a kind of long form storytelling even if doing so places serious demands on a critic, especially in discussing a series which ran for more than a hundred episodes.

A died-in-the-wool formalist in the Wisconsin tradition, Smith is utterly fearless in his defense of applying aesthetic standards to talk about popular art both here and his other work (which deals with topics as diverse as the cognitive theory of emotion, the formal experimentation of Myst, the functions of dialog in the Final Fantasy series, the visual style of The West Wing, and the adaptation of The Maxx from comics to cartoon series). As this list suggests, Smith has been willing to apply his skills at textual analysis to film, television, games, and comics. Some years ago, Smith wrote one of the best answers I’ve ever read to the oft-heard protest of undergrads taking Introduction to Cinema classes: “But it’s just a movie!”

Smith has by now become accustomed to people asking “Why Ally McBeal?” It’s a question which he deftly discusses in the book’s introduction and in the interview below, he offers at least some of the rationale for this selection. In this first installment, Smith discusses the place of aesthetic evaluation in television studies, makes an argument for why we need to expand our canon as a field to include works which do not necessarily seem “cool” to our students or “worthy” to our colleagues, and offers a new take on the relationship between formal and ideological analysis. In tomorrow’s installment, we will explore more fully the lasting impact of Ally McBeal on American television.

You open the book with the observation, “Complexity of narrative or the beauty of construction can justify critical consideration of a novel or a film, but when a television show is no longer au courant, those considerations matter little.” Why do you think this double standard has persisted for so long and

how does your book attempt to address it?

Television’s low critical status is eroding, but like all erosion, the process is erratic.

Last week the Sunday Washington Post discussed the “dumbing of America” and laid the blame squarely on “video culture.” In the same week I went to dinner with someone who sniffed in derision when I said that my latest book was on Ally McBeal. “You can write a whole book on that?” He’d never have said the same thing about a novel or a play, even though there’s an awful lot of bad fiction and theater. But junk novels and crappy plays don’t get piped into your living room (unlike television), so they’re easier to ignore. As an aca/fan of television, you have to recognize the larger context of your work in society: the broadly held assumption that TV is crap.

Unfortunately, most academic writing on television has done little to combat this assumption. In fact, most academic writing on TV implicitly sends a similar message. that we can look through the television text to more “important” issues (race, class, gender, and so on). The construction of the program itself is the least important factor.

The reason for this has to do with how television studies grew up in universities. TV studies wanted to differentiate itself from film studies, a discipline deeply interested in the text, and so it adopted cultural studies as a way to clearly distinguish itself: “It’s not about the text; it’s about the context.” TV studies has greatly benefited from its alliance with cultural studies, but now the field is mature enough that we should create a space for criticism that focuses on the text itself: its complicated narrative construction, its interesting aesthetic choices. If we academics don’t do this work, then we leave the dominant social view of television unchallenged: that television isn’t worthy of close analysis unless you justify your work with other social concerns.

The best way to demonstrate that television is good is to proceed as if this were clearly true. Lots of people who are making this argument today: you can see it in popular magazine and newspaper criticism, in online writing by devoted fans, and even in online writing by academics (such as in the journal Flow). But the gold standard in academia still remains that old-fashioned medium: the single authored book. There are anthologies on TV shows, but none with a focus on the show’s aesthetics. A book like Beautiful TV (by its very existence) demonstrates that a contemporary television show can sustain a long, productive aesthetic analysis. It’s a small step toward eroding the big social assumption that TV is bad.

You’ve also been critical, though, of the formation of a cannon of “cool television” shows within the field of media studies, asking why we don’t study series, such as Jag, which are extremely successful over a long period of time but do not appeal to the same aesthetic criteria as those shows academics like to watch. Explain.

Television studies is a small field, and like any small town, there’s a tendency to be a bit insular. If you poll TV scholars, there’s a remarkable consistency in what we watch. We watch hip stuff like Lost and 30 Rock. And so when we write, we naturally tend to write about the shows that appeal to that particular sensibility.

The paradigm of cool TV for many of us was defined by Buffy: complicated, long-term storytelling with liberatory “go girl” politics, appealing to a diehard fan base. It’s great that we can have an entire subfield devoted to a single show like Buffy; that’s a step toward a more mature television studies. But the trap is in focusing too much on television that fits that mold (which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the same kind of television that producers are aiming for: shows that inspire loyal fans to visit the website and buy the DVDs).

If we’re going to call our field “television studies,” then we should study all of television. If we just study the shows we think are “hip,” then let’s stop pretending and call it “hip studies.” Basically, television studies needs to become as broad as television itself. I would love to see us producing scholars who are sincerely interested in a show with not-so-progressive politics but which still has strong popularity: something like JAG or Everybody Loves Raymond.

I’m not proposing a field of “square studies” to counter our “hip” tendencies, but we need to be aware of our blind spots. Just as we need to make room for studies of TV aesthetics and narrative (as well as cultural studies), we also need to broaden our field to look at shows that are utterly middlebrow. One of the reasons I chose Ally McBeal was that it seems so squarely middlebrow: not as high-falutin’ as The Sopranos, but not Jackass either. If we can make the argument for the aesthetic importance of Ally, then that makes the discussion of TV aesthetics that much easier in the future.

Your analysis of Ally McBeal operates first and foremost as an aesthetic analysis of an innovative television series. Yet, you also explore what the series has to say about love, sexuality, and the workplace. What relationship do you posit between formal and ideological analysis?

When I was first writing this book, I sincerely tried to make it all about aesthetics and narrative just to prove that such an approach could be done. But I couldn’t do it, partly because of my training. Cultural studies has changed how we study film and television, and we can’t pretend that aesthetics exists in a timeless vacuum outside of culture. I realize that if I wanted to show an alternative to a cultural studies approach to television, I shouldn’t artificially ignore culture but instead should restore a balance to dealing with the text.

I had to talk about the place of sexuality in the workplace because that’s so much of what Ally’s storylines are about. If I kept my blinders on and didn’t talk at all about culture, then I would be doing violence to the show. I realized that my point was that I wanted to do television criticism that took the show seriously on its own terms, not justifying my criticism in “more important” issues that I brought to the text.

This allowed me to present one of my biggest justifications for studying Ally’s narrative. I argue that the show takes advantage of serial television’s ability to work through a complex set of issues over time. An individual episode can make an assertion about the nature of love in the workplace, only to have those assertions turned on their head in the next episode. Over time the show eventually makes a long-running argument about the tension between love and career in the modern workplace.

I don’t follow this argument because it deals with a big social issue; I write about this to demonstrate how serial TV narrative can make a complicated, subtle argument. I started this book when I realized that I loved Ally McBeal but hated all of the characters. What, then, brought me back every week? The gradual unfolding of an argument that was more intricate and captivating because it was staged in narrative.

Links for Those Who Attended My Tampa Talk

On Monday, I spoke in Tampa at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Tech Forum. My central topic was on the ways that the new media landscape was enabling the emergence of new kinds of public intellectuals. I promised folks in the audience that I would provide them with links to some of the examples which I cited.

I began the talk with some thoughts about Marshall McLuhan as a model for what a public intellectual looked like in the 1960s — at a moment where mass media still was the only channel for reaching the public, when middle brow culture still embraced academics as part of the national culture, and when media studies was first forming as a discipline. I described the ways that McLuhan exploited mass media channels — from Playboy Magazine to Annie Hall — to increase awareness of his key ideas and developed the concept of the “probe” as a way of translating theoretical debates into effective soundbytes (“the global village,” “the Medium is the message.”) At the same time, I discussed McLuhan’s use of newsletters and recordings as looking towards more grassroots modes of communication such as blogs and podcasts.

I then argued that if there was a modern equivalent of McLuhan, it might be someone like Cornell West, who has made extensive use of mass media (from talk television to The Matrix Reloaded) to direct attention towards his critical perspective on American race relations. I referenced seeing West’s picture on a billboard in L.A. as well as his conflicts with Harvard President Lawrence Summers over some of his more “public” activities as an activist and as a hip hop recording artist.

I argued that one reason why there couldn’t be a McLuhan today is that there are so many other important thinkers about media change speaking from outside the academy, including game designers (Eric Zimmerman), journalists (Steven Johnson) Science fiction writers (Bruce Sterling), comic book creators (Scott McCloud), and sex activists (Susie Bright), to cite just a few examples. Each of these writers provide important perspectives on the mediascape, often with much greater impact on public perspectives than anything coming out of the academy.

I cited several important ideas about public intellectuals taken from an MIT Communications Forum event on Public Intellectuals featuring Alan Lightman and Steven Pinker.

I cited some examples of other academics and intellectuals who are effectively deploying participatory media, especially blogs and podcasts, to reach a larger public with their ideas, including:

Douglas Rushkoff, who has translated his insights into Biblical Studies into the Vertigo comic book series Testament, using the forums around the book to spark intellectual exchanges.

Howard Rheingold – Howard Rheingold’s Video blog and recent article for MIT Press/MacArthur book on using participatory media to increase civic engagement – has increasingly turned towards blogs and videopodcasts as a platform for what I call “just in time” scholarship, responding to contemporary debates and controversies from a theoretically informed perspective.

Alex Juhasz – interview on my Blog – has used YouTube as a platform to teach a class and frame a critique of YouTube’s particular vision of participatory culture.

Randy Pausch – Final Lecture on YouTube (Part 0, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10) and Blog – is battling terminal cancer. His public summation of his life’s work and his discussion of his life philosophy has enjoyed enormous circulation via YouTube, leading to his appearance on Oprah and a contract to produce a mass market book.

Peter Ludlow – Second Life Herald – helped to establish a “town newspaper” for the virtual world, Second Life, and in the process, helped the community reflect on its own practices.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson – two distinguished film scholars, now retired – use their blog as an extension of their succesful textbook, offering real time responses to developments in contemporary cinema.

I referenced several young scholars who were gaining wide recognition for their work while still finishing off their PhDs through their public roles as blogger:

Jane McGonigal

danah boyd

danah boyd recently announced that she would no longer publish her work in any journal which “locks down” content, a gutsy move for someone at the start of their professional career.

I mentioned that many of our own Comparative Media Studies graduate students have also built wider followings through their blogging activities:

Ilya Vedrashko — Ad Lab blog

Michael Danziger — Visual Methods blog

Sam Ford — Convergence Culture Consortium blog

I described several recent projects in media studies where scholars were trying to use new media platforms to offer more immediate reactions to developments in the media landscape and in the process broaden the public visibility of their work:

Flow

In Media Res

A central theme of my talk had to do with my belief that part of being a public intellectual in the digital age is allowing yourself to be appropriated by various publics, becoming a resouce for their ongoing discussions, rather than necessarily exerting top down control over the circulation of your own ideas. As you give up control, you in fact achieve greater public impact. I cited, for example, what happened when I released my account of my testimony to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and the ways it was picked up by diverse communities, representing very different ideological agendas but sharing a concern for the ways that political leaders and school officials were declaring war on popular culture. I pointed to the ways that my image, and that of other theorists, have been appropriated playfully through the practice of LOL Theorists, and I cited the ways that various reporters have projected alternative frames around my work, often radically different from my own understanding of who I am but opening the work up to audiences I might never have reached otherwise. And I described my visit to Teen Second Life at an event hosted by Global Kids and the ways that the youth group produced and circulated

a music video, which in the process spread the word about some of my thinking about new media literacies and participatory culture.

I made reference to a recent essay in Flow which compared my blog to Steven King’s columns for Entertainment Weekly, arguing that we need to offer a pithier style of writing if we want to be embraced by the general public. I suggested that some of the suggestions in the piece would require us to sacrifice what we as academics bring to the table that is potentially valuable to a larger public conversation about media change. I feel strongly that we do need to become more accessible but that accessibility was not the same thing as dummying down. It refers rather to the act of taking responsibility for giving the reader the information they need to follow our arguments rather than writing to a reader we assume is already inside academic conversations. As we do so, we can challenge them to think more deeply than they are asked to do by the popular press as long as we provide the scaffolding which will enable them to join the conversation.

Examples from My Blog

One of my goals for the talk was to describe some of the uses I’ve made of my blog to date. I see the blog as an ongoing experiment into how we can build bridges from the academy and the larger public. Some of the ways I use the blog are designed to serve the needs of the CMS program, some are designed to serve the larger discipline of media studies, and some are designed to serve a range of publics to which I feel a strong allegiance. Having a blog…

Comparative Media Studies Program online

The Comparative Media Studies has made a very strong commitment to public outreach, including the use of blogs to publish our research findings and to spark larger conversations in the field. Here are a few examples of CMS affiliated blogs:

GAMBIT

Project Good Luck