Taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the (sitcom) suburbs

The new television show WandaVision is set in the suburbs portrayed on earlier sitcom TV:

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With “WandaVision,” Feige said that he had wanted to honor the complexity of the title characters and Wanda’s reality-warping abilities but also to leaven the story with tributes to sitcom history…

The series finds Wanda and Vision — now somehow alive — residing in suburban bliss, not entirely sure of why they are cycling through various eras of television history and encountering veteran Marvel performers like Kat Dennings (as her “Thor” character, Darcy Lewis) and Randall Park (reprising his “Ant-Man and the Wasp” role of Jimmy Woo) as well as new additions to the roster, like Teyonah Parris (as Monica Rambeau) and Kathryn Hahn (playing a perplexingly nosy neighbor named Agnes)…

“You enter a sitcom episode with the understanding it’s going to make you feel good and it’s all going to be OK at the end,” said Schaeffer, who also worked on “Captain Marvel” and “Black Widow.”

What “WandaVision” adds to this formula, she said, is an element of “creepiness — the idea of shattering that safety in a calculated way.”

In a recent post, I summarize scholarly work on television depicting the suburbs. It sounds like this new show tries to do something new but it might just fall into already existing patterns.

The suburban sitcoms of the 1950s are often portrayed as providing a common image: the white nuclear family living happily in a single-family home. The episodes revolve around relatively minor issues that are resolved at the end of the show.

By the 1960s, there were some twists to this theme. Lynn Spigel writes of new television characters who provide an edge to the typical suburban image. Think Samantha on Bewitched who with her magic powers and odd relatives provides a new angle to the suburban sitcom.

In the late 1990s, more shows looked to push the suburban sitcom in even further – and often darker – directions. Take The Sopranos: from the outside, the family has the look of a successful suburban family living in a large McMansion in an upscale community. But, of course, the secret is that the gains are ill-gotten and the attempts to find happiness in this suburban lifestyle never coalesce.

Indeed, this darker approach to the suburban sitcom has an extended history in other mediums as well with novels, films, and other narratives suggesting something similar: the suburbs are not what they seem. These products offer a critique of the the suburbs where the American Dream is not what it seems, where all the suburban striving does not amount to much or falls apart spectacularly.

While I have not seen WandaVision, the narrative arc may then fall into familiar territory: the suburban household with a twist or dark secret is already an established genre. These may be new characters in the suburbs and it may be an expansion of the Marvel Universe but it remains to be seen how much new suburban ground it really treads.

“Who sings the song of suburbia?” Part Four on music

Parts One, Two, and Three of this series have summarized academic work on how poetry, novels, and screens (television and film) have engaged and depicted suburbs. What about popular music? While I have not comprehensively looked for academic sources regarding music in the ways I have for the other cultural mediums, I do not know of as much work in this area. At the same time, this does not mean music has not addressed the suburbs.

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Starting with a broad view, the rise of mass suburbia coincides with the spread of pop and rock music in the twentieth century. Rock music arose amid the development of teenagerdom as a life stage (now in suburbs that privileged children and family life), as music that borrowed from blues music (now heard in largely white suburbs and from many white performers), and broadcast through mass media like radio and television (now in many suburban homes).

Here are some of my own ideas on this connection between suburbs and music:

-Popular music offered another means for protesting and reflecting on the suburbs. This could take many forms. Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 song “Little Boxes” criticized the tract homes arising outside many American cities. Ben Folds’ 2001 album Rockin’ the Suburbs profiled sad and angry suburban lives. The 2010 album The Suburbs from Arcade Fire built on the experiences of two band members in a suburb outside Houston. Numerous other songs and albums addressed suburban life.

-All popular music from the 1950s onward was created by some artists who had spent formative years in the suburbs. The postwar Baby Boomers and subsequent generations wrote about what they knew. For example, the Beatles song “Penny Lane” highlights the suburban nature of communities the group knew. Or, see this 2014 post about a band from the Chicago suburbs that was trying to make it big.

-Another aspect of this possible connection is how music is produced and consumed in the suburbs. The reputation of suburbs is that they are not exactly hotspots of culture, notwithstanding the occasional community that serves as an entertainment center. Music is occasionally performed in restaurants, bars, and festivals (with a heavy emphasis around here on rock/pop cover bands at community festivals). The stereotypical garage band of teenagers working out their music would benefit from the surfeit of suburban garages. Compared to the music ecosystem in larger cities including performance spaces of various sizes, the presence of music labels, and the mixing of musical groups and settings, the suburbs may not be the liveliest music scene.

-The connection between poetry about the suburbs and music about the suburbs would be worth exploring further. If singer/songwriters or popular artists are writing for the masses, how do their words and products compare? Furthermore, the role of music in all those television shows and films about suburbs could be worth considering. Is there a stereotypical “suburban soundtrack”?

-Certain genres of music have connections to particular places. Country, as its name implies, is connected to more rural areas and the South. Hip-hop and rap music emerged from urban settings. Is there a genre or type of music closely connected to suburbs? Middle-of-the-road (MOR) pop music?

Tomorrow, I will sum up this series on cultural works and the suburbs.

Claim: end of urban friends TV shows, revival of happy suburban McMansion shows

With the end of “How I Met Your Mother,” one critic argues TV shows have moved on to happy suburban McMansions and darker shows about urban singles:

The series is among the last of a vanishing breed, the romantic comedy about well-educated, pop culturally attuned young white people trying to find love and sex in the city as they embark on their careers and independent lives. Such sitcoms proliferated after “Friends” became a huge hit for NBC in the 1990s.

But since ABC struck gold with “Modern Family,” networks have traded the urban coffee shops and bars for the suburban McMansion. TV comedies that explore the dating lives of young people now tend to be a lot darker than “How I Met Your Mother.” Take, for instance, HBO’s “Girls,” where the sex is graphic — and often soul-crushing for the characters.

Such a claim might sound true – but where is the data to back this up? Later in the article:

But that distinctive [storytelling] approach may have come at a price. “It’s that kind of innovation that never makes it to huge ratings heights of the good, old-fashioned sitcom,” Thompson said. “They’re very post-modern characters, so steeped in the irony and cynicism of the ’90s they grew up in, that sometimes it’s kind of hard to like them.”

Indeed, “HIMYM” never cracked even the Top 40 in total viewers, consistently averaging around 9 million or so over the course of its run, according to Nielsen. Yet it still occupied an important role for CBS, which is the most-watched network in the U.S. but often has trouble attracting young adults.

So no data on the number of shows with each genre or kind of storyline (young, happy singles vs. suburban McMansion dwelling families vs. unhappy urban singles) and then another knock against HIMYM and “Girls” and similar shows: they often don’t draw big ratings. So, while critics might like these shows (and critics might live in an alternate universe , how many of them are popular? Check out the Nielsen Top 25 for the week ending March 23, 2014: I don’t know all of these shows that well but I don’t see too many suburban McMansions. The suburbs are a common theme on television shows with a long history, dating back to the happy family shows of the 1950s. Yet, they don’t necessarily draw big ratings or the positive attention of critics even if they seem to be fodder for cancellations when the new crop of shows are rolled out each fall.

Analyzing Netflix’s thousands of movie genres

Alexis Madrigal decided to look into the movie genres of Netflix – and found lots of interesting data:

As the hours ticked by, the Netflix grammar—how it pieced together the words to form comprehensible genres—began to become apparent as well.

If a movie was both romantic and Oscar-winning, Oscar-winning always went to the left: Oscar-winning Romantic Dramas. Time periods always went at the end of the genre: Oscar-winning Romantic Dramas from the 1950s

In fact, there was a hierarchy for each category of descriptor. Generally speaking, a genre would be formed out of a subset of these components:

Region + Adjectives + Noun Genre + Based On… + Set In… + From the… + About… + For Age X to Y

Yellin said that the genres were limited by three main factors: 1) they only want to display 50 characters for various UI reasons, which eliminates most long genres; 2) there had to be a “critical mass” of content that fit the description of the genre, at least in Netflix’s extended DVD catalog; and 3) they only wanted genres that made syntactic sense.

And the conclusion is that there are so many genres that they don’t necessarily make sense to humans. This strikes me as a uniquely modern problem: we know how to find patterns via algorithm and then we have to decide whether we want to know why the patterns exist. We might call this the Freakonomics problem: we can collect reams of data, data mine it, and then have to develop explanations. This, of course, is the reverse of the typical scientific process that starts with theories and then goes about testing them. The Netflix “reverse engineering” can be quite useful but wouldn’t it be nice to know why Perry Mason and a few other less celebrated actors show up so often?

At the least, I bet Hollywood would like access to such explanations. This also reminds me of the Music Genome Project that underlies Pandora. Unlock the genres and there is money to be made.

Arguing over Frank Gehry’s plans for the Eisenhower Memorial illustrates the social construction of memorials

Architect Frank Gehry’s designs for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. are drawing criticism. Curbed sums it up:

Anyone who still believes that “any press is good press” doesn’t know a thing about Frank Gehry’s plans for D.C.’s Eisenhower Memorial, which, ever since renderings were released for public fodder well over two years ago, has attracted a publicity buzz not unlike flies swarming a dying animal. Indeed, the memorial’s most hyperbolic and outspoken critic, the National Civic Art Society, has called Gehry’s plans for an architectural memorial park—which, with 80-foot columns and woven steel tapestries, is as nonlinear and flourished as the rest of his oeuvre—”sentimental kitsch,” “a temple to nothingness,” and a “behemoth [that] commemorates Gehry’s ego, not Eisenhower’s greatness and humility.” President Eisenhower’s grandchildren have spoken out against the design, as well, most recently calling it “regretfully, unworkable.” Oh, and don’t even get them started on those tapestries, which have been likened to the stuff of Communist regimes, derided as an “Iron Curtain to Ike,” and described by the NCAS as “a rat’s nest of tangled steel, a true maintenance nightmare.”

This week, Congress joined the clamor: Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, has just introduced legislation that would officially halt all of Gehry’s efforts and start the whole process afresh. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) chimed in: “I want to know how we came up with this monstrosity.” This, of course, has ruffled a whole other set of feathers, namely those of the American Institute of Architects, which has said in a statement that the bill “is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the innovative thinking for which our profession is recognized at home and around the globe.”

This highlights the socially constructed nature of memorials. What are they supposed to look like? To know, we often look at genres. We have memorials that celebrate war victories and they look a certain way: perhaps a big arch, perhaps a leader on a horse. We have memorials to celebrate the loss of life and the ambiguous outcomes of war. See the Vietnam War Memorial or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe in Berlin. These public discussions can help ensure the public or leaders get what they want out of the memorial but might also stifle innovation.

In addition to this issue of genre, I see a few other issues in this criticism:

1. Why build a memorial for Eisenhower in the first place? Is it for his actions as president in being in charge during a time of prosperity or is it for his leadership in World War II (though we tend not to honor generals in these large ways anymore)? Here is the reasoning courtesy of the official website: eisenhowermemorial.gov.

Why honor President Eisenhower with a Memorial?

Congress approved the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial in 1999 with the passage of Public Law 106-79, signed into law by President Clinton. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission is entrusted with the task of building an enduring memorial honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and the 34th President of the United States. Eisenhower understood war as only a soldier could and believed the possibility of a nuclear or thermonuclear, World War III, would be unwinnable for mankind.  He set in place a strategy for winning the Cold War, that was followed and implemented by future Presidents until the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Eisenhower’s prescience and his strategic understanding of science and technology in establishing the United States as a pre-eminent world power was essential to securing freedom for generations of Americans to come. Eisenhower was influential in bringing World War II to an end and his efforts throughout the War, especially with the planning and execution of D-Day, stopped the Nazi war machine. He also ended the Korean War and maintained active communications with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.This Memorial will not only tell the story of Eisenhower, the young man from Kansas who became a great soldier, a U.S. President, and a world leader, but will also reflect the story of America – humble, isolated beginnings, and a rapid ascension on the world stage.  His example is an inspiration that, through leadership, cooperation, and public service, we too can achieve the American dream and make a difference in the world.  Eisenhower, like America, rose to the occasion with courage and integrity.With the 60th Anniversary of his election to President and the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II, it is fitting to celebrate Eisenhower´s numerous accomplishments as a General, President, and world citizen. Dwight D. Eisenhower´s dedicated service to his country spanned 50 years. It is appropriate that the first national presidential memorial of the 21st century will honor President Eisenhower.  If there was ever a moment in our nation’s history to recognize a leader committed to both security and peace for the good of his nation and the world, now is that time.

How many presidents will receive memorials like this? How many should and who gets to decide?

2. I wonder how much of this is tied to Frank Gehry as architect. Gehry has a particular approach to structures. What if it was a lesser-known architect or even an unknown? Back to the official website:

How was Frank Gehry selected to design the Eisenhower Memorial?

Mr. Gehry was one of four finalists in a competitive process  managed by GSA under the guidelines of the General Services Administration Design Excellence Program.  The process consisted of three stages.  A notice was published in FedBizOpps announcing the opportunity for any designer with an existing portfolio to compete for the project.  Submissions were received from forty-four qualified design firms in 2008. Evaluation factors included previous work, ability to work within the constraints of an urban site, interviews, and responses to the memorial´s pre-design program. That program addressed Eisenhower´s accomplishments as well as the physical parameters of the memorial site. Mr. Gehry´s creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness demonstrated his understanding of Eisenhower as a General, President, and world citizen. An independent panel of reviewers, including Commissioner David Eisenhower, reviewed the presentations by the final four designers and recommended Frank Gehry.  The Eisenhower Commission unanimously accepted their recommendation.

3. How much should the family of the memorialized person be involved? Curbed cites the family’s dislike for the structure. But, isn’t the memorial more for the people of the United States? This is a matter of competing interests.

4. I wonder if there are any critics of Eisenhower’s presidency who might object loudly to the design of the memorial. The Eisenhower administration wasn’t perfect…

In the end, this memorial partly reflects something about Eisenhower himself but also strongly reflects our understanding of Eisenhower from the years 1999 when the Memorial process started to 2016 when the project is supposed to be done.

Mixing genres with Sears’ “Connecting Flight” commercial

The Sears TV commercial running right now titled “Connecting Flights” turns a holiday romantic comedy trailer into an appliance advertisement. Watch here.

My Culture, Media, and Society class recently discussed genres and how they help structure narratives. If you have seen a holiday romantic comedy movie trailer or commercial, you have seen the opening part of this particular advertisement. Two people are trapped at an airport after their flights have been canceled. They meet and start enjoying each other’s company in the airport. Yet, when they finally find flights out, they realize they want to stay together and start running toward each other.

This is where the genre falls apart. Instead of running the arms of the other, each crashes into a stainless steel refrigerator. And it turns into a clear advertisement for Sears. On one hand, it is a smart use of an existing type of cultural work. On the other hand, the ending is so different than the beginning that I wonder how many people like Sears at the end. It is a bait and switch: what happened to the cheesy, feel-good romantic comedy?

In the end, Sears uses an existing narrative form to try to provide a new perspective on appliances, one of the few things Sears now has going for it. But, the contrast in genres, switching so abruptly from holiday romantic comedy to selling home appliances, is jarring.

Adapting the genre of transit maps to other kinds of data

Check out this collection of 6 transit-style maps based on different kinds of information: the best movies of all time, the National Parks system, web trends, the Mississippi River, the US Interstate system, and the world’s transit systems.

Within the sociology of culture, this could lead to an interesting discussion regarding genres. The average city-dweller likely has some idea of what transit maps look like: they involve color coding and also possibly symbols to denote different lines as well as marking stops and important junctions. These maps aren’t necessarily about geography but about a coherent traffic map that showcases the lines and the broad outlines of a city. Some maps, particularly London’s, are quite famous for their design.

So what happens if people are presented with transit maps that convey other bits of information? Could they easily understand them? Looking at all six, the one that might be the most difficult is the best movies map as it would take a little time to figure out how the movies are all connected and the map also implies the movies are derived or connected to each other in significant ways (is the genre of movie enough?).

Flipping the question around, could transit system data be easily “translated” into another genre of maps or data presentation?

A call for more TV shows about science and academia

Certain television genres are well-established. One academic suggests TV should branch out and include a show about science, knowledge, and academia:

No matter what new sitcoms and dramas the networks dream up this coming fall, I can almost guarantee the absence of one type of show: a show about academia. But a television show about academics — professors, scientist and graduate students — is more necessary than ever before. And with a film being made out of Piled Higher and Deeper — an online comic about the trials and tribulations of graduate students — the time may be right to fill this gaping hole on the small screen…

The interplay between the objective quest for knowledge and the all-too-human drama that surrounds it is something that the average viewer has probably heard of, but does not know much about.

And there’s no shortage of real drama to fuel story lines. This show, which I would call The Ivory Tower, would be packed with backstabbing and gossip, glimpses into the intellectual servitude of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, the agony of dissertation defenses, the thrill of scientific discoveries, the ulcer-creating tenure process, professors’ quests for 15 minutes of fame, and, of course, the inevitable lab love affairs.

Episodes could revolve around topics ranging from the conflict-of-interest riddled nature of how scientific ideas are vetted by peers, to those rare but gut-wrenching cases of academic dishonesty and faking data, to the intense deliberations over thesis defenses. Academia is a very non-rational endeavor.

Here are a few things such a show would have to deal with:

1. There seems to be a good number of Americans who think academics are elitist or liberal or Godless (or perhaps all three). Viewers need to be able to relate to the characters or the settings. This is an image problem.

2. As the writer suggests, the show would have to revolve around relationships in the same way that every other show does. Yes, it would have to include all of TV’s tropes including unrequited love between co-workers and bad/incompetent bosses.

3. I have a sneaking suspicion that this whole proposal is a joke. Who wants to watch “the agony of dissertation defenses” or the “ulcer-creating tenure process”?

4. Perhaps such a show could be based around an innovative science or research project. Therefore, the overall payoff of the show wouldn’t just be the episode-to-episode relationships but rather a large story arc about curing cancer or developing space travel vehicles for humans that would go beyond the moon.

4a. Why couldn’t the project-driven show work as a reality show on Discovery or National Geographic?

5. I suspect many academics get into academia because they are excited about “the objective quest for knowledge.” But how many professors have given such a speech to students about the joys of research, hard work, and discovery only to be met with blank stares? Some students enjoy this – but would the general public?

6. Which discipline would get to be featured in such a show? I wonder how TV creators and producers would make this choice. I imagine they would have to go with something relatively well-known and/or controversial.

7. There are plenty of shows and movies about high school. There still aren’t that many about college, let alone the academic side of college. Is this because high school is a more universal experience or is it more uniform across schools?

A stronger market for sociological themes, due in part to the rise of the “Gladwellian” genre

While considering David Brook’s new book The Social Animal (some earlier thoughts here), a reviewer provides some context by explaining why books invoking social science, including sociology, have been more popular recently:

The public appetite for books on social science was weak for decades. In the 1980s, particle physicists and cosmologists like Stephen Hawking learned to cut out the equations and reached a big audience. But in the 1990s, interest shifted to sociology and psychology. Steven Pinker wrote about the evolution of the mind, and Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” signaled a tipping point itself by scaling the best-seller lists and staying there for 10 years (and counting).

Mr. Gladwell’s ability to create page-turners out of material from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cast a long shadow over the genre. “Gladwellian” would not have been listed on the Word Exchange in 1986, but if you had invested at its IPO in the early 2000s you would have earned a tidy sum by now. Authors in this genre now labor to find Gladwellian stories and characters to vivify the theories and studies that support their counterintuitive insights. Sometimes they focus on the stories to the exclusion of the studies, a practice that makes it easy to reach pleasing but unsound conclusions.

Gladwell’s use of sociological ideas and themes earned him the first award for “Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues” in 2007 from the American Sociological Association.

While Gladwell certainly wasn’t the first to write such books, he certainly seems to have spawned a number of (often inferior) imitators. The “Gladwellian” genre goes something like this: take a common facet of life, explain why it matters, and then winsomely weave together both established bodies of scientific research with compelling stories. Since David Brooks seems to be taking a slightly different approach by developing two characters to carry his narrative, does this mean Brooks is trying to deliberately break out of this genre by returning to “the 18th-century didactic narrative”? Just how many “Gladwellian” books or articles can the market bear?

But someone could do a much deeper analysis of this. While Gladwell may have a good presentation, what changed in American society such that his books would find a receptive audience? If physics ruled the day in the 1980s, why the shift to the social sciences in the 1990s? Was this some response to a booming economy or the end of the Cold War or a number of new discoveries and exciting theories in the social sciences around this time?