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:

Photo by Jean van der Meulen on Pexels.com
  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:

Photo by Ju00c9SHOOTS on Pexels.com

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:

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

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.

Using capitalist means, such as TV shows and consumer goods, to critique capitalism

Capitalism is the economic system of the United States and many other parts of the world. Can actors use capitalist means to critique capitalism? Two recent examples.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

First, television shows, films, and cultural products more broadly often contain critiques of capitalist systems and outcomes. For example, one writer highlights how this happens with the popular series Squid Games:

One of the key things wealth can buy is the ability to make decisions and change your circumstances. Money gives you options and choices. For everyone else in the vicinity of Just Getting By (or worse), choice is often little more than an illusion. Most of us fall into the latter category and perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Netflix Korean series “Squid Game” has become such a global phenomenon since premiering last month, with its brutal critique of capitalist imperatives and the traps therein…

Because is it really a choice — such a slippery word — when you’re this desperate? Is it really a choice when the systems we live by are put in place by the rich and powerful to deliberately create that desperation? Put another way: Scarcity in modern life is as manufactured as the life-or-death scenarios in “Squid Game.”

In the show’s view, we are powerless to band together, to refuse to play along or create a different reality. When pushed to the brink, we become selfish or scared or just beaten down. And ultimately, we turn on one another. Another clear thematic through-line: It is men who run and enforce these games, and it is men who watch them from afar as spectators numb to (or thrilled by) the suffering at hand…

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — the real-world embodiment of the show’s exploitative VIPs — tweeted congratulations to Netflix’s head honchos before adding: “And I can’t wait to watch the show”? Nothing bizarre or surreal about that, nope, nope, nope. Is this the part where I also mention that Netflix and Amazon are among the studios playing hardball with the union for TV and film crews in the U.S. on issues like livable wages, reasonable work hours and meal breaks? Everything is fine, pay no mind to all the contradictions we live with every day!

So wealthy studios, streaming services, and individuals put together and promote a series critiquing capitalism and there is plenty of money to be made off of this.

Second, consumers are regularly asked to purchase items or experiences that funnel money to worthwhile charities and causes. This could be celebrity-backed lines that donate a portion of the price to charity, religious organizations or civic groups selling items, or companies donating money through purchases. All of this assumes that purchases will be made and that consumers will want to purchase products or experiences that give back as opposed to ones just sold for profit. Consuming is the way to give, as opposed to just giving without the need for consumption.

Perhaps this is a consequence of the fact that anything can be made into a commodity. This includes items needed for daily survival to luxury goods to experiences to things that once were “sacred.” If anything can be bought and sold, including objects that critique the very system under which they are bought and sold, is there hope of a different reality?

Consumerism is also a powerful force. Whether consuming TV shows – binge-watching a critique of capitalism? – or consumer goods, the consumer is in a particular position of taking things in. I like the distinction I have heard from multiple sources over the last decade or so: there is a difference between being a consumer and a citizen. The first primarily takes while the second contains the ideas of duties, responsibilities, and obligations alongside personal or collective benefits.

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.

Photo by Nicola Barts on Pexels.com

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.

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:

Photo by Dhyamis Kleber on Pexels.com

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.

Defining sociology in the pilot of “All in the Family”

The 1971 pilot of All in the Family included Michael, son-in-law of Archie Bunker and a college student, as a main character. After the first commercial break, Michael and Archie go at it about Michael’s study of sociology (with some input from Gloria, Michael’s wife and Archie’s daughter):

Michael: What do you want from me anyway? I don’t have time to do anything. I’m studying six hours, I’m in class six hours. You know it’s not easy going to college, it’s hard work.

Archie: For you it’s like building the pyramids. I’ll tell you it’s all that sociology and studying that welfare stuff. I don’t call that no hard work.

Gloria: Oh Daddy, leave him alone. I think it’s beautiful that Michael wants to help the underprivileged.

Archie: Listen, if he wants to help the underprivileged let him start with himself. He’s got no brains, he’s got no ambitions, if that ain’t underprivileged, I don’t know what is.

Sociology does not feature on television shows very often. While it had a spot on the popular All in the Family, the way it is set up here provides two opposite views of the discipline.

On one side, sociology is the discipline of a younger generation interested in social change and improving society. Sociology can help the disadvantaged and provide for the better distribution of resources.

On the other side, sociology is a waste of time. It is a liberal enterprise composed of people who should themselves focus on working hard and not stirring up trouble.

Fifty years later, are these two reactions to sociology common? Given that sociology does not always get much attention on television or among the general public, have we advanced much in our public understanding of sociology?

This is the focus of the opening stages of my Introduction to Sociology courses: how does sociology view the world? What are its methods and theories? What do we hope to see? This takes more time than television sitcoms can provide.

The Chair is about a unique role and some bigger issues facing higher education

The Chair follows a new English Department chair as she navigates crises and pressure from administrators and faculty. On one hand, it is about a unique academic position where the department chair is caught between the interests of the institution and the interests of faculty. On the other hand, the six episode season considers some of the large issues facing higher education in 2021. These include:

Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

-Hiring, retaining, promoting, and celebrating female faculty and faculty of color.

-Responding to student interests amid faculty and institutional expertise and will that might or might not line up with those interests. This can come out in discussions about attracting students and majors or whether programs and faculty are contributing to or harming the school’s brand.

-The personal lives of faculty juggling family, teaching, research, and other commitments.

-Generational change within departments and institutions.

-Addressing social change, new ideas, and controversies when expertise takes time to develop and research cycles are long.

These may not be new questions in academia but relatively few television shows, movies, or other cultural products grapple with issues in what might seem to outsiders to be a strange world.