Encyclopedia Brown’s Idaville sure has a lot of crime

The kid’s book series involving boy detective Encyclopedia Brown includes this description of the town of Idaville, the setting for the stories and home to Leroy Brown and his family:

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Idaville was like most seaside towns. It had lovely beaches, three movie theaters, and two delicatessens. It had churches, a synagogue, and four banks

But, read enough of these cases and it all adds up to something: Idaville is not like most seaside towns as it has a lot of crime. Enough crime to fill 29 books with numerous cases in each. Crimes ranging from small violations to larger issues. Lots of different kinds of criminals.

This is not an unusual perspective on crime. Television shows often have a similar message, particularly if they are long-running: crime is happening all of the time. This has the potential to change how viewers understand crime and locations. If you see a particular place associated with criminal activity over and over, how much of an impact does this have?

Some of the other phrases in the intro to the cases provide further clues at how crime is perceived in Idaville and in these cases: “the forces of law and order were in control” and “the town’s war on crime.” Is this the normal experience of small towns or just how we often present mysteries and the work of police?

The bland interiors that pushes viewers to choose gaudy McMansions instead

A review of a renovation TV show suggests it is more fun to see McMansion than bland interiors:

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But like any good home design show, the real main character is not the couple doing the renovations, but the end results. For the two years that I’ve watched this program, I’ve tried to dial down what one might call this aesthetic, which is both specific and generic—like every other high-end Airbnb listing on the market, or an antiseptic boutique hotel that prides itself on design. But it wasn’t until halfway through this season when one of the McGee’s clients hit the nail on the head. “It’s upscale-looking,” a woman says of her newly-renovated basement, which is divided into three clear “zones” meant to delineate what kinds of leisure activities should occur there and why. It’s not quite upscale, but suggestive of it instead, a different kind of new money aesthetic. But if given the choice between Studio McGee’s all-white fantasia and a giant McMansion fit for a Real Housewife of New Jersey, I’d take gold restroom fixtures and Travertine tile any day. At the very least, it’s fun.

What is the look inferior to glitzy McMansions?

What this translates to is large architectural gestures that convey wealth—vaulted ceilings in the kitchen and the living room, a “wine room” with built-in bookshelves that meet the ceiling, and other flourishes that speak to the vast amounts of money this couple must have to maintain their bonus home. It’s not that any of these design choices are anywhere close to hideous, per se—Studio McGee’s signature look is quieter than the Property Brothers, but more sophisticated that Chip and Joanna Gaines’s farmhouse chic. Staged as they are, though, the spaces designed by Studio McGee lack any discernible personality. Children get giant bedrooms with queen-size beds; every kitchen has an enormous island, whether or not the space actually needs it. (While most kitchens could use an island, not every space needs one. Understanding this difference is crucial.)

Is the primary offense that the bland yet wealthy interiors required a lot of money to implement but have no personality? McMansions are often criticized for their blandness; they are big boxes with large rooms that people can fill in many different ways.

It could be that the “fun” of the loud McMansion is that it shows up better on TV and with its particular cast of characters. The show under review is meant to show off a particular aesthetic of its designers while the Real Housewives of New Jersey has a different purpose. The loud McMansion on TV might be fun in the way that McMansion Hell is fun: you make fun of the McMansion and its dwellers. Which home viewers might want to live in might be a different story.

What children learn from HGTV #3: Houses are symbols of success and making it

In watching HGTV with children and studying suburbs and housing, I have several ideas of what kids learn while watching the network’s programming.

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Put together the ideas in the previous two posts – homes involve emotionally satisfying arcs and they pay off financially in the end – and add decades-long American ideology and houses are symbols of success and making it. The house, typically a single-family home on HGTV, is a visible, tangible monument that the owner is successful. Residents and show hosts talk about how the house symbolizes all of the struggle and work of a family. They talk about passing down a legacy to kids. They usually do not come out an say it but the home and its exterior provide a positive impression to neighbors and those passing by about the status of the residents.

Homeownership is celebrated on HGTV. An attractive house that meets the needs of the residents and broadcasts a message of success to others is the ideal. Almost no one wants to rent or live long-term with family or friends. Almost everyone is trying to move up to a better and/or more attractive home. The goal is to acquire one’s own home which provides well-being and financial security.

Ultimately, HGTV helps perpetuate homeownership and its link with the American Dream in the way it presents houses and what they are for. The people on the network find success in acquiring and improving homes and almost nothing else is discussed. Kids watching HGTV see that people need to acquire and/or improve a house to be a successful adult.

What children learn from HGTV #2: Houses pay off financially

In watching HGTV with children and studying suburbs and housing, I have several ideas of what kids learn while watching the network’s programming.

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In addition to the upbeat emotions on HGTV, the network relentlessly suggests houses are worth the financial investment. Numerous shows discuss how much money is involved, whether that is in the purchase price or the profit or equity made in repairing a home or the costs to particular changes. These are often not small sums; budgets are usually in the tens of thousands or more and few characters discuss how they have such money to spend.

But, the big sums of money are worth it in the end because homes are an important investment. Sure, they are to be enjoyed – and the reveals at the end of many HGTV episodes are full of positivity – but the money may be even more important. Everyone has spent a lot of money on these homes and they are worth it because they will be worth even more in the future.

HGTV often embodies the shift in the United States from homes as important centers of family life to financial investments. The money to be gained by owning or renovating a home is never far away on HGTV.

What children learn from HGTV #1: Houses are worthy of emotional investment

In watching HGTV with children and studying suburbs and housing, I have several ideas of what kids learn while watching the network’s programming.  

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To start, HGTV shows are built around emotional stories about home repair or home acquisition. There is a regular narrative arc where people want to improve where they live or find a new place to live, they face some obstacles along the way, and then they are successful by the end of the episode. The shows are filmed, edited, and scored in such a way to create such a positive emotional payoff. The shows suggest they are helping people find happiness.

All of this weds the idea of homes with happy feelings. The shows are upbeat, the search for a better homes a success, and viewers have a positive resolution. HGTV has very few negative outcomes or unsuccessful work. The characters rarely talk about emotional distress, financial difficulties, and difficult family relationships. Only rarely do people not find what they were looking for and even then the ending is cast as a successful change in focus. Any obstacle is easily overcome.

In sum, HGTV is an emotionally positive network. I could see why parents or families might feel comfortable having kids watch such happy outcomes. A new or renovated home is good for the well-being of the resident(s) as well as the viewers.

When no one knows how popular televisions shows are

The television streaming services do not release numbers on how many people watched their shows:

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But nobody else — not Disney, not Apple, not HBO Max, not Amazon, not Peacock — is providing numbers. Or when they do make an announcement, it’s relative: They might say it’s the biggest show in the history of Apple TV+, but that’s vague and data-free.

We’re heading into a football season next fall where Amazon is going to be the only place to watch the Thursday night game, and nobody I’ve talked to expects any viewer numbers to be released from Amazon. What a remarkable thing in the context of media history, that they don’t need to or feel incentivized to report these numbers.

The definition of success on their end is generating new subscriptions and retaining existing ones. Those are the key metrics. So a show that gets lukewarm reviews can be a huge driver of subscriptions. That’s the black box that we don’t really have access to, so we don’t know what is considered a valuable show. All of us — consumers and creators — are operating in the dark.

It’s a fascinating and discombobulating time. If you want to be open-minded and upbeat, you could say: For too long, there’s been this tyranny of the popular. We’ve all been bombarded by advertising that says “This is the No. 1 movie in America!” It was an incessant drumbeat and this syllogism that if it’s popular, then it’s worth your time. So maybe it’s healthy to break away from that.

The lack of data on viewership makes it difficult for serious observers – journalists, pundits, researchers – to know what Americans are watching and consider the consequences. This may seem inconsequential but those interested in what the masses are watching are then left to other methods to figure out what people are watching. Does a lot of Twitter activity suggest a show is popular? Do many conversations with friends and colleagues about the same show make for a popular show? Are subscriber numbers indicative of something?

Much has already been said about the fragmentation of television and other media sources in recent decades. The most enduring or cohesive media forms today might be viral videos or memes. Concurrently, the lack of numbers regarding viewers only adds to this trend and perception.

Satirizing the suburbs by poking fun at past depictions of suburbia

A review of a new television comedy notes that part of its appeal is that it plays with previous portrayals of the suburbs:

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The layers of brilliance within the writing continue. While the series satirizes the suburbs, the trio takes it a step even further. The show also makes fun of all the clichés in film about American suburbia – from Blue Velvet to American Beauty toThe Stepford Wives. Because each one of those films is trying to say something about the darkness of the suburbs, Three Busy Debras pokes fun at them by doing exactly not that. The series is so perplexing and over the top, not a single character learning anything to “progress” in their worldview, that it pokes fun at these tropes through their use of absurdist comedy. You can immerse yourself in the surreal world of Lemoncurd and witness the masterful work of Three Busy Debras for yourself by streaming the latest season on HBO Max.

The genre of suburban critique is alive and well in numerous culture industries including poetry, books, music, film, and television. For at least seven decades, these works have depicted the darker sides of suburbia, the true issues facing suburbanites beyond the shiny single-family homes and nuclear families. This is a familiar genre that both speaks to some realities in suburbs and tells similar stories over time.

Thus, I am intrigued by an absurdist or surrealist take on this. Are the suburbs just absurd and the only way to deal with them is to laugh rather than to try to overcome them or find out what is truly going on?

It will also be interesting to see how this fits in the long run with the other critical depictions of suburbia. Laughter and humor can be good ways to address difficult situations. Would suburbanites, the majority of Americans, laugh gently at absurd or surreal depictions or would it be the laughter of realizing how absurd the suburbs actually are?

What exactly makes for an “unscripted series”? The case of Flip or Flop

In an announcement about the end of HGTV’s Flip or Flop, the network said the show was an “unscripted series”:

“Tarek El Moussa and Christina Haack are long-time, fan-favorite stars on HGTV and it’s true that ‘Flip or Flop’ is coming to an end after an epic 10-season run as a top-rated unscripted series,” a representative for HGTV said in a statement to Insider. “More than 90 million viewers have watched the popular series since its premiere in 2013.

When this show is described as “unscripted,” what exactly does this mean?

Having watched a lot of episodes, here is my guess: there is not necessarily a set script for every episode. At the same time, the producers, El Moussa, and Haack make sure there are narrative elements to build an episode around including crises or cliffhangers for commercial breaks, summaries of the work at hand, and reshoots to get the right angles and lines.

When the typical viewer hears “unscripted,” is this what they imagine? It does not mean that the main actors just do their business, cameras are rolling, and they piece it together at the end. Does any reality show come close to that these days? However, there is likely some wiggle room of how much can be improvised or how much the main characters can get right in the first pass.

The wait for a weekly TV show versus binge watching a show quickly

We are far into a world where viewers of television shows can watch season after season of a show. Whether through a streaming service, on DVD, on a DVR, or on-demand, fans can watch everything right in a row. Depending on the length of the series, this can go relatively quickly or stretch out a while. Because of this possibility, I just recently started a list of TV shows where I have seen every episode and most of this has happened in the last ten years.

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In contrast, I had two primary options in the past: watch episodes as they aired each week or watch an occasional episode. For the first, I only really remember doing this for a few shows. The most memorable is Lost. We started watching late in Season One and did not miss a weekly episode for years. The show certainly took advantage of this with numerous cliffhangers and important episodes to start and close seasons. For the second option, I saw a number of TV shows through syndication as they worked through their cycles. For example, I am not sure I ever saw Frasier in its prime-time slot but I saw nearly every episode because of the 2+ episodes that there on every night.

The two types of watching are very different. Binge watching allows viewers to take it all in quickly. I can enable mass consumption. Feelings come and turn quickly with changing narrative arcs. The weekly or episodic watch required a certain discipline and memory or the kind of show where one could easily dip in for a few episodes and then tune out for a while. The resolution of stories takes longer.

It will be interesting to see how shows continue to navigate these options: release everything at once or a show at a time? How long can a traditional TV model of shows every week hold on? Or, will we see more hybrid approaches where episodes come out in different batches tied to story lines and times of the year?

Naperville’s status and Farley’s “Van Down by the River” performance inspired by Naperville bridge over the DuPage River

According to Naperville native Bob Odenkirk, he was inspired by his hometown when writing Chris Farley’s famous SNL skit “Matt Foley: Van Down by the River.”

Q: Speaking of “SNL,” that famous sketch for Chris Farley you wrote, about him living in a van down by the river — were you writing with Naperville in mind?

A: There is the DuPage River, and when I was writing that I did picture the bridge in Naperville over the DuPage. It was a bridge for stoners when I was a kid. Stoner kids hung out there. So this guy parking his van by a river — yes, that was the image I had.

There are several bridges Odenkirk could be referring to. Could it be this bridge (in a picture from nearly a decade ago)? This is a little removed from the busier downtown area and the more manicured areas of the lively Riverwalk.

Naperville has a reputation as a wealthy and large suburb with a thriving downtown and numerous high-status jobs. Does the image of a guy living in a van down by the river fit this or kids smoking pot by the DuPage River? Probably not and the city in recent years was not interested in marijuana dispensaries.

I cannot imagine a statue of Matt Foley near the DuPage River in downtown Naperville among the suburb’s collection of public art...but perhaps Odenkirk could eventually make the cut?