The academic rabbit trails to watching a particular TV show for fun/analysis

In a recent trip to the campus library, I checked out the first season of a television show. I briefly interacted with the checkout clerk who remarked that I was in for a good viewing experience. My path to this show was not a straightforward one; rather, it involved reading, my own research, and a lot of time. Here is the path to this one TV show:

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  1. I develop an interest in the sociology of culture as an undergraduate studying both sociology and anthropology. The study of the “processes of meaning-making” becomes one of my primary graduate school interests and I continue to work within this subfield today. In my daily life, any cultural product or expression can then be both experienced and analyzed. This can be applied both to cultural activity as well as places, connected to my interest in suburbs and cities.
  2. Even as I continue with the sociology of culture, I also run into media studies, a field that combines insights from multiple fields and tackles all sorts of media. I teach a class titled “Culture, Media, and Society” where we consider multiple media and cultural forms including documentaries, films, television, comics, theater, music, art, news coverage, social media, and other phenomena. In conducting research on social media (several studies here, here, and here), I also encounter media studies research and journals.
  3. Several years later, I combine an interest in places and media by publishing two studies: one considers television shows set in suburbs and one examines the role of McMansion on The Sopranos. These works straddle the lines between sociology and media studies.
  4. In the summer of 2021, I read the book Divine Programming by television studies scholar Charlotte Howell. I watch one television shows Howell points out treats religion seriously (see posts here and here).
  5. With a little more flexibility in my schedule as we reach the holidays and approach the end of the semester, I decide to watch a second show featured in Howell’s book to continue to explore and enjoy how religion is depicted in television.

There are certainly other ways to come to a television show, including receiving recommendations from friends and family, reading a review, browsing or receiving a recommendation on a streaming service, and more. My path is probably not a typical one. But, I am also reminded of the ways that knowledge and studies develop as an academic: there is not necessarily a linear path toward a predetermined goal and a guaranteed outcome plus there can be a lot of time involved as ideas and projects wax and wane.

Divine Programming and the last two seasons of a critically acclaimed TV show that takes religion seriously

In September, I wrote about reading the academic study Divine Programming and watching seasons one and two of the TV show Rectify. I have now watched the final two seasons of the show, seasons three and four, and was interested to see the role religion played. Here are some thoughts.

  1. Religion is certainly not as important to the plot as it was in the first season. The number of times it is mentioned decreases. There is no presence of organized or institutional religion; it is all personal or individual.
  2. The primary religious character has a return to their faith in the final season. This does not mean everything turns out correctly for them or religion helps solve big issues. It appears that their privatized faith emerges again after going through some personal trials.
  3. The final episodes interact with the themes of hope and disappointment. Arguably, these themes run throughout the entire series; when Daniel is released from prison at the beginning, this does not necessarily lead to long-term consequences for the characters as they engage with what happened in the past and their current circumstances. These are themes that certainly fit with a religious theme. Why do bad things happen? Why are we disappointed? What gives us hope? In the end, the themes of hope and disappointment are left more to the individual characters and immediate family to address, not to religion.

Considering the full show, religion did matter in the narrative arc of the show but it was not a primary force, one that even a majority of the characters engaged with, and did not provide hope or disappointment in the end. Other forces and actors were more influential and the show, like many American narratives, puts a lot of hope in individuals and close relationships among family.

Lacking studio space with all of the TV and film production going on

With a lot of demand for new streaming content, production is moving to different places:

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A show the size of The Wheel of Time has to hunt for a part of the world large enough to contain it—especially at a moment when the boom in streaming television has overwhelmed studios from Los Angeles to Atlanta to London to Prague. “We are, as a worldwide industry, quite close to capacity because of this demand for content by our friends at Amazon and all the other streamers,” David Brown, the producer of Wheel of Time, told me. Los Angeles is booked out, and too expensive, anyway. Ditto Atlanta, where Marvel Studios regularly shoots. Ditto London, a longtime production hub that is currently oversubscribed—and, once again, too expensive. So Brown thought: maybe Budapest.

Central and Eastern Europe have traditionally been accommodating places to make movies and television. The locations are suitably grand and variable and ancient; the local expertise, honed by decades of Hollywood productions coming and going, is high-level and relatively affordable. So Brown initially looked at Hungary. But, he said, “I spoke to friends in Budapest who’d worked there, and they just said, ‘You won’t get in.’ ” Then he tried Prague, and found that the waiting list for production space was just as long. So, after some consideration, Brown and his production partners decided to create their own studio from scratch. “You know, we are a big company,” Brown, who is exacting and English and who has worked on everything from The Phantom Menace to Outlander, said. “The show is hugely ambitious creatively. So how do we fill that? That’s why we’re in this building that is 350,000 square feet.”

And so Jordan Studios, where the Wheel of Time production is headquartered, ended up in a remote corner of Prague, in a giant pale-blue complex of industrial buildings that used to be the warehouse of a trucking company.

This caught my attention as I have been working in recent years on research involving the locations of television shows. When you look into television production, it takes place in a number of predictable locations. There are centers of production where all of the space, workers, and synergy is present. In the story above, these typical centers were booked and/or expensive. So, they moved to Prague and put together what they needed in a context where Hollywood production is known and possible.

At least for this particular show, the filming in and around Prague may not matter as much because it is a work of fiction. All sorts of landscapes, inside and outside buildings, could work. At the same time, for many other TV shows and films, they claim to be in a particular location. But, would someone watching know whether if it was filmed in that said location or somewhere else? Through the work of studio filming, editing, and implication, how many stories are filmed on location and how many are filmed elsewhere? The viewer may not know. The filming location might be all sorts of places.

All that to say, the geography of production can continue to change with changing conditions and new content. And would the viewer know any different?

“Halfheartedly” air a first episode at 1:30 AM on FXX to keep the TV rights

An overview of a potential blockbuster Amazon TV show includes this paragraph about how the television rights continued:

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At the time of Judkins’s pitch, the screen rights to The Wheel of Time were just coming out of a byzantine and uniquely Hollywood maze—the books had been optioned by two former tech guys, who in turn licensed the rights to Universal, which developed the series as a feature and then shelved it. Then the tech guys enlisted two new producers, Mike Weber and Ted Field. In time, they noticed an obscure provision in the contract, as Weber recalled. It turned out, he said, that “if you aired an episode of television, the rights will vest in perpetuity.” As in, any episode of television at all. And so one mysterious night in 2015—just before the rights to the books were scheduled to return to Jordan’s widow—an episode aired on FXX at 1:30 a.m., halfheartedly adapting the first book’s prologue and starring, for some reason, Billy Zane. The show, such as it was, aired only once and was never seen again. “That’s not the prettiest way to do it,” Weber admitted. “But it cleaned up the rights.” (McDougal Rigney, who released an unhappy statement about this gambit at the time, has since come back into the fold as a consulting producer.)

This is one way to hold on to the rights. It sounds like it all was legal via an “obscure provision.” It would be interesting to hear more about why the provision was in the contract (was it considered a deterrent since it required a television episode to be made?), what was in the 1:30 AM episode, and how all the involved actors responded.

And if The Wheel of Time becomes a megahit in the vein of Game of Thrones, this will look like a necessary and genius move.

Do we live in a Ted Lasso or a Squid Game world?

Two popular shows present very different approaches to the world. Is the world full of redemptive possibilities and sharp conversation or is it a fight-to-the-death game under unfair conditions? Ted Lasso vs. Squid Game.

Take Ted Lasso. After an age of television anti-heroes and heavy themes on television, the lead character brings an upbeat approach to his new coaching position in London. While the second season hints that Ted’s good cheer may hide some life issues, the show’s arcs thus far suggest people can overcome challenges with friendship and good will.

In contrast, Squid Game presents people either facing significant issues or drunk on control and power. Opportunities for good outcomes are unthinkable as even winners survive more than they achieve a warm ending. The bleakness of urban and artificial landscapes add to the trauma that the main characters face.

Given today’s context, Squid Game may match many viewer’s moods. The dystopia may not seem that far away from a world troubled by inequality, lack of trust, and abuses of power. Ted Lasso may seem pleasant but it is just a pleasant or a mocking story when so many are struggling.

Yet, humans often embrace hope in difficult circumstances. Many stories throughout time feature virtuous characters overcoming obstacles and less hopeful people around them. Many want to believe that people will do the right thing when given the opportunity.

If people watch one show, I hope they also get a chance to see the other. Perhaps together they present important parts of human experience and how we might tell very different yet important stories.

Limiting the presence of people in city-building video games

A recent review of several city-building video games suggests they focus more on buildings and landscapes than residents:

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What’s missing from these titles are people, but this is arguably part of the fantasy they’re presenting. Citizens are complicated; they have needs and wants, which of course influence the way towns, virtual or otherwise, are laid out. On the one hand, the absence of people could be interpreted as an unintentional but darkly misanthropic view of the city. On the other, perhaps these are exercises in utopian thinking; cities are filled with compromises that these city-builders allow us to calmly transcend.

I have not played any of these games – my video game attention is elsewhere – but I have a lot of experience with SimCity where the role of residents was interesting, to say the least. The people themselves were not often present on the screen. Instead, the focus was on land and how it could be transformed into different uses.

Where citizens tended to show up were in their reactions to your choices as mayor. Perhaps it was demanding a police station or a school. Perhaps it is was in the mayor’s approval rating. Perhaps it was in the construction of new residences, suggesting your community had some attractive features.

But, they were just abstract concepts. If you wanted to deal with people directly, you could play The Sims. SimCity was about systems, not characters. While this broke ground in some ways, it also obscures the real and productive roles residents play in cities. SimCity encourages a top-down view of cities: development happens at the behest of one leader, a mayor/tyrant urban planner or leader, who is only curbed by a budget, complaints, and the occasional disaster. This is not the participatory community building that can help link residents to their neighborhoods and communities.

It is hard to imagine a city-building game that fully incorporates residents and community members as part of the process. The mayor wants to build a new bridge but residents complain about the effects on the environment and demand input? The mayor wants to put a highway through to reduce traffic but the community believes it will scar their neighborhoods? Imagine a virtual reality game where the leader makes decisions, walks through the places they have helped create, and has to interact with the people there. Perhaps this is the next step, games about communities and the people that inhabit them rather than cities as systems easily changed.

Divine Programming and watching two seasons of a critically acclaimed TV show that treats religion seriously

This summer I read the book Divine Programming: Negotiating Christianity in American Dramatic Television Production 1996-2016. Charlotte Howell argues that television often utilizes two techniques when portraying Christian faith: keeping it at a critical distance or depicting it a cultural feature of Southern life. However, not all television shows do this. One critically-acclaimed show Howell highlighted, Rectify, sounded interesting.

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I have now watched the first two seasons of the show. And it is indeed interesting to see how religion in incorporated as part of the plot. The main character in the drama, a man who has been released from death row even as law enforcement and legal actors are interested in putting him back in prison, finds religion in the middle of the opening season. He has a conversion and a baptism. He is attracted to this faith through the example of his sister-in-law who attends church regularly, encourages her husband to be more faithful, attends a small group, and has a gentle spirit.

Yet, at least through two seasons, the reassurances faith provides have difficulty matching up the problems the characters face. The released prisoner finds that his conversion is perhaps less important to his thriving than interacting with his sister-in-law. The sister-in-law confronts new problems and her faith no longer provides all the answers. The other main characters do not seem to interact with faith much at all and their own self-interest and hurt drives their decisions. Outside of several individual characters engaging religion (a common approach in American religiosity) , it is not present for the other characters or the community.

The faith of this show is not simple or does not always provide an answer or does not even matter to many of them. The characters have religious highs and lows and wrestle with how faith matters in real situations. The faith on the show is not front and center in the way it is in Seventh Heaven (also a case study in Howell’s book) nor is it derided or just a cultural artifact.

At the same time, it is clear that faith or religion is not driving the plot: human desires are. I will keep watching and see whether this is ultimately commentary about the ability or inability for religious faith to intercede in human affairs.

McMansion as a symbol of a lot of something and more

A ranking of every Weezer song includes using the term “McMansion” for the second-worst song on the list:

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204. “Beverly Hills,” Make Believe

To this day, Weezer’s highest charting single – which makes sense, as it’s about as close to the lowest common denominator as the band has ever sunk. A lumbering monument to the pursuit of wealth and luxury, “Beverly Hills” matches its vapidity of message with a McMansion’s worth of painful musical ideas: the clumsy half-rapping of the verses, the annoying “gimme, gimme” rejoinder of the chorus, the talkbox solo of the bridge. Even louder than the caveman thud of Pat Wilson’s opening drum salvo was the sound of dyed-in-the-wool diehards stampeding for the exit, finally ready to accept that the glorydays of Pinkerton weren’t coming back.

The most obvious use of the word here is to suggest the song has a lot of bad ideas. McMansions are criticized for their size and their poor architectural ideas.

But, there could be more here in this paragraph. A few quick ideas:

  1. Beverly Hills is a wealthy neighborhood with a lot of big houses. Are some of them McMansions? McMansions are connected to displays of wealth and excessive consumption.
  2. The reference to “the lowest common denominator” could be linked to the critique that McMansions are vapid and mass produced. They are not real mansions; they are attempts to mimic higher quality construction and more architecturally pure mansions.

All together, the use of the term McMansion here does not refer directly to the actual homes. Rather, it highlights how familiar the term is in order for its use in a music review to highlight abstract ideas.

The Sopranos prequel highlights the path from Newark neighborhood to suburban McMansion

The Sopranos’ McMansion is a key part of the original show. The new prequel movie might help explain how the family ended up in a New Jersey McMansion:

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By the 1990s, the mob was operating out of detached villas with swimming pools in upstate New Jersey, but if you want to learn precisely why the adult Tony Soprano lives in a gilded McMansion rather than a clapboard house with a stoop in Newark like his mother’s, The Many Saints Of Newark has the answer.

As Harold’s fortunes rise, black families move onto the same streets as Italians, causing much angst to the latter, including Tony’s parents, Johnny Boy and Livia Soprano. It makes Tony’s racism that much more obvious when, 30 years later, his daughter, Meadow, brings home her mixed-race college boyfriend. “I think there was talk, back in the day, about ‘Were black people getting short shrift on The Sopranos?’” says Odom Jr. “Was our story being told? I think David had a desire this time to look at an arc that really didn’t get explored the first time, at how the two communities intertwined and where they butted up against each other.”

This sounds like a white flight story line: as the population of Newark changed, as more Black residents moved into what were exclusively white neighborhoods, white residents moved out. This happened in numerous cities across the United States (as my own research on religious groups in the Chicago area adds to). In The Sopranos, Tony and cronies make money off housing programs in the city.

At the same time, this narrative could say more about a general move to the suburbs and less about the specific move to the suburban McMansion at the heart of the show. Tony Soprano presumably used his wealth to purchase a big home in a quiet subdivision to hide his work and give his family an opportunity at a more normal suburban life. But, did he go straight from Newark to the suburban McMansion? Did his journey include a more modest suburban starter home or a suburban apartment (as it did for other characters on The Sopranos)? Did a young adult Tony Soprano make his moves from a suburban split-level or anonymous apartment off a major suburban road?

The housing path of Tony Soprano is not an inconsequential part of the story that is being developed here; it highlights his family history, his success, and his goals in life. If I see The Many Saints of Newark, I will be keeping an eye on the residences depicted within the film.

The difference between a psychological and a sociological story

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci describes what makes a sociological story different than a psychological one:

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In a sociological story, you can imagine yourself being almost anyone. Instead of terrible, evil character and good people, where you just identify with the good ones – which is the classic Hollywood narrative, which is also most of human narrative, you have the good one, the bad one – it’s more like a complicated mythology where you can imagine yourself being any one of those characters, even the ones that do the terrible things, you can see yourself doing it.

The second sign of a sociological story, for me, is when nobody has plot armor because it’s the setting that’s carrying the story, with lots of people, but it doesn’t rely on one person dying or not dying. For six seasons, you have a very institution sociology, very interesting. It’s like The Wire. People can die, but the story is still gripping because it’s sociological…

They took a great story that was going to be how power corrupts, which clearly was the story, and in the end, they made the dragon lady snap just because she heard the church bells or something. [laughs] That’s not a good sociological story.

The key to the explanation above seems to be that a institution or a social group or a particular moment is the focus of the story, not a particular character or two. By shifting the narrative away from the actions and/or thoughts of a certain person, the story can be about the social setting.

Since it is hard to imagine compelling stories without any focus on individual characters, perhaps this dichotomy between a psychological and sociological story is more like a continuum. On the psychological side, I could think of stories like Crime and Punishment where so much is about what is going on in one person’s head. On the sociological side is The Wire or War and Peace where the focus is more on the setting and the larger social and historical factors at play.

With this said, I would love to have a list of sociological stories in various genres and mediums. This could be useful to share with students and to explore on my own.