True Detective and Hyper Attention

HBO’s lastest master, True Detective, just announced their leads for a second series. This anthology piece is definitely one of the best shows TV has to offer its audience of the early twenty-first century. It has so much going for it.

True Detective plays with conventional structure of a Police Detective narrative to keep the audience constantly engaged. Gone are the days of the typical Good Cop, Bad Cop role, and the traditional Whodunit … Modern audiences constantly seek new plot structures and reveals to entertain them. We’ve been taught to look for the slimeball who appears early on offering advice to the detectives only to later reveal that they themselves are the revenge filled killer. Whilst audiences will still find satisfaction and enjoyment in the routine predictable nature of these texts (NCIS has been going how long now…?), the media literate audience will continue to look for deeper meaning within texts, fuelling the rise in popularity of Complex Form Narrative on TV.

These new shows, this new 6-8episode format of complex narrative allows for a more cinematic production combined with the character development that we have come to expect from TV. Meckeller and Valelly suggest that this new long-form on the small screen gives rise to an new, more “indulgent, private [viewing] experience”, which builds strong fan cultures. True Detective is a great example of this.

New distribution methods have made consuming TV simple, no longer needing to wait months for releases shows like True Detective capitalize on this. They are complex; designed to be watched multiple times, and more then one episode at a time. The serial-binge culture nature of the show is facilitated by the auteur-like writer/producer relationship resulting in the creation of rich, immersive story worlds. Produced with one sole director it has a clear vision and style that HBO are so good at developing.

The Police Detective genre has its own formula, True Detective is notable because it refutes the traditional model; instead choosing to reinvent the formula in a post-modern way. They do this by defying genre expectations, jumping through time and rejecting the need for closure at the end of episodes. The plot is set-up more like a long drawn out film which, as James Franco highlights,  allows the show to “handle more plot development without imploding and still have character development”. The BBC Wales production Utopia is another great example of this. Sitting at around 6-8 episodes, these shows are not too long or too short. They have achieved a near perfect balance that keeps todays audience deeply engaged.

True Detective employs prolepsis (or flash forwards) consistently throughout the first episode. These constant jumps in time mean that the audience must be paying full attention to the text to fully appreciate  and understand the narrative that is being formed and the characters relationship with one another. This method of story reveal (similar to the backwards reveal used in Memento) correlates directly with Katherine Hayles’ arguments surrounding Hyper and Deep Attention Modes. Hayles suggests that in the technology driven age we have trouble focusing on one thing at a time, constantly multitasking, or turning to our phones for engagement; flicking through webpages, comments, videos etc.

Networked and programmable media are part of a rapidly developing mediascape transforming how citizens of developed countries do business, conduct their social lives, communicate with each other, and perhaps most significantly, how they think.

True Detective uses this to it’s advantage – the prolepsis means that audiences need to put down their phones and pay attention to the text. Costume, makeup and manner of characters behaviour becomes extremely important because we are given few explicit time markers throughout the first episode. True Detective really uses the visual to its best extent, you cannot look away for fear you will miss some significant detail. You cannot stop watching because instead of searching for closure the episode ending deliberately opens up more questions leaving you questioning the importance of what you just watched in regard to the bigger picture.

Longform complex narrative offers the media savvy audience exactly what it wants. From the first episode of True Detective one is hooked from the beginning, but then left with their mouth open at the end, wondering what happened for the relationships to end the way they are and how these two seemingly opposite characters could have ever worked together to solve something as significant as a murder.

“…obvi, we’re the [new age] ladies”; Girls and Sex and the City

I find it hard to talk specifics about Girls because it really hits home in terms of character and content. I am, to put it as Shoshanna would, “the ladies”. I am 100% the targeted audience for HBO’s comedy-drama that follows the lives of four twenty-somethings as they attempt to find their place in downtown New York.

Even before watching the show for the first time (earlier this year) I knew I would like it. Described to me by one of my best friends as “Sex and the City but for people like us“. And it is. I see a great deal of myself in Hannah; her values, her outlook, her dreams – it hits so close to home it’s scary.

This is no coincidence. The creation of Girls has been highly curated. Well thought out and planned to the most minute detail, as is the style of QTV, it contains multiple intertextual references. It draws heavily from it’s highly successful predecessor, Sex and the City (SATC), that ran throughout the nineties and noughties. Girls is SATC reinvented, for a new generation, with new issues to face and new desires to chase.

The Pilot episode of Girls does not fail to recognise this, and the way in which it does succeeds in paying hommage to to SATC, as depicted in the clip below. Intertextual references are used frequently throughout Girls. They create a framework for a broader understanding of the text and how it functions in relation to other prominent media texts. Author/Director/Actress/All-Around-Inspirational Lena Dunham has very cleverly created a text that taps into it’s target audience and their understanding and knowledge of broader media texts.

This extract is a great example because it references SATC whilst also suggesting that although a knowledge of SATC is not inherent to understanding Girls, it is key to contextualising it and thus comprehending the text in the broader media landscape (the way HBO intends QTV to be received).

This scene is key to understanding the way Quality TV works with audiences knowledge to build detail into the narrative and character arcs. The SATC film poster features prominantly on Shoshanna’s wall, however when it is directly referred to in the dialogue no shot, no close-up, of the poster is shown on screen. This assumes that the audience already have an understanding of SATC; what it is and what it looks like. It assumes the audience to be intelligent, well read (in terms of TV) and able to draw on separate texts to build on the viewing experience. Once Shoshanna brings up the poster, and continues by describing how she perceives herself in terms of the traits of the SATC girls, it sticks at the forefront of the viewers mind as a framework to base further judgements of character on (whilst Hannah is no Carrie, they do still have a great deal in common; both aspiring writers wanting to succeed in New York. Continually mystified by the city, they are out to enjoy life with their best friends).

Jessa’s non-existant knowledge of the show (and the fact that she does not have a Facebook account) is a shock to Shoshanna and becomes a joke to the audience. She is made to look and feel out of place here because she is not in touch with popular culture and technology, something that the audience of Girls would take as a necessity for living in the twenty-first century.

A great deal of what Girls sets up is built around a knowledge of SATC. Both as a development on the framework and episodic structure and as a contrast to everything that SATC is about. Girls is everything that SATC is, but at the same time it is everything that SATC is not.

The structure and characters of SATC work to strengthen our understanding of Girls by directly contrasting it through image, values and characters and at other times playing on what SATC built in terms of structure and themes. Both centre around 4 women trying to find their way in New York City. As Lewis (in Kaklamanidou & Tally) writes, “Sex and the City’s representations of independent women who have been sexually free but romantically disenchanted provide a frame through which Girls could be understood” (2014, p176). Much of the shows structure, and wider appeal, is drawn from the way the women in SATC are so very different to the women of Girls. Whilst Carrie was more concerned with her next pair of shoes, Hannah is worried about paying rent. Girls manages to paint a very realistic picture of the time and does not attempt to romanticise the lead women. As in SATC, they are still obviously flawed; egotistical and self-absorbed the majority of the drama is brought about by their own actions, as in SATC.


HBO’s Girls: Questions of Genre, Politics and Millennial Angst, Kaklamanidou & Tally

Blurred Lines: True Blood

It’s not porn. It’s HBO. 

Post-broadcast television is a new breed: a genre bending, stereotype breaking, discourse creating television show like True Blood. Designed to be binge watched and hyped up it blurs the lines between the way an audience should interact with a high budget production.

Each HBO program has it’s own style, and set of production elements. But they are all so well produced and highly engaging. It is hard to define exactly what characterizes the ‘binge factor’, but I think that has a large part in making it so addictive in nature.

TV audiences have come a long way since the Trekkie. Transmedia texts and the availability of broadcast programs has both encouraged and allowed audiences to develop closer relations with texts and fandom takes on a new meaning. Being a fan is no longer holds the same level of degradation it once did because the texts are not seen as culturally low-brow. And engagement is important, because these texts offer more then just entertainment, they offer a comment on the issues facing society; creating a discourse.

True Blood is a perfect example. It is not one single genre, it contains elements of horror, drama, romance and fantasy. Set in Southern USA it has a very distinctive feel – one that may turn some viewers away. It does very well at setting up contrasting worlds where vampires live amongst humans. These worlds are at the same time very similar, and different to what we know of society today.

It’s got plenty of the cheesy romance aspects, but the show is very self-aware as playing into the vampire genre and use of popular culture. Just as you’re being sucked in by the slow-track-in shot on to get you gushing for the lead vampire Bill, or the moment the male and female leads lock eyes, the lead character, Sookie (Anna Paquin), pulls out some witty remark about just how gross it is to suck blood out of the handsome vampire (something any twi-hard would jump out of their skin to do).

But True Blood is about more then vampires, it uses the pop-culture phenomenon of vampires to exploit issues around race and cult religion. There are elements of the drama and the unfolding of the narrative that create that fandom aspect and draw the viewer in. But True Blood is not designed for the teen girl who got hooked on Twilight, rather for her mother who wanted to know what all the fuss was about and got a little sucked in too. It’s audience is interested in pop culture and aware of what is popular in society today but they are also concerned with larger political, social and economic issues.

Vampires, and monsters in general have been used across texts as metaphors to enable discourse around issues facing modern societies. Taking place in fantastical worlds things tend to be a little more over-the-top, allowing for issues to be raised in texts that may otherwise be not talked about amongst the audience. The guise of the vampire enables social matters to be explored on screen for people to watch in the comfort of their own home where they can decide their level of engagement.

Vampires tend to be symbolic for death and sex. In True Blood these symbols are prevalent however, the vampire more specifically symbolises the issues of integration that different races have had in Southern America. The vampires represent the African Americans who have been and are unfairly treated. The white supremacist outlook is clearly portrayed by the Humans, especially the Church who are against Vampire integration.

The world created within the TV series is somewhat dystopic yet comments on the political, environmental, social and religious aspects of our human world. In the final moments of the episode Sookie stays with Godric on the roof when he sacrifices himself. This moment represents a union between the two groups, and can be seen as a union between races – they are together, helping each other through difficult times, unified.