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.