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Repetitive Pleasures: TV and (the Lack of) Originality

I left Jane Feuer’s recent talk (“Musical Television: Glee, Smash and the Backstage Musical on TV”) thinking about the relationship between academic treatment of TV and the pleasure derived from viewing it. Feuer is the perfect lens through which to approach this topic, for in addition to being a scholar of television she is its devoted, unabashed fan. Her enjoyment of the shows she works on inflects the way she writes and talks about them: “I’m team Ivy,” she said in reference to Smash, having taken the on-line quiz she used to show NBC’s encouragement of multiple and competing audience identifications. Her approach to television is thus intellectual but not coldly distanced; she allows herself a place in Smash’s audience even as she theorizes it.  

I point this out because her attitude stands in sharp distinction to the way much of academia seems to regard television: as a questionable if not outright bad object, something dangerous to get too close to. The shows that gain the most attention tend to do so through their apparent exceptionality, their distance from the broad, undifferentiated stream of programming that television can seem to be. Mad Men is a paradigmatic case here. In the ever-expanding body of scholarship that takes it as subject there is the implicit assumption that its worth derives in large part from how unlike other shows it is.  Following this logic, TV is interesting only when it transcends the medium – only when it stops, in effect, being TV – and ordinary television sinks lower in comparison, becoming the dull, uninspired background against which the brilliance of Mad Men and other “quality” shows stand out all the more brightly.

The account I give here is necessarily simplistic, and my purpose in sketching it is not to argue that no one should write on “quality” programming. I want rather to interrogate the logic that makes originality the highest criterion of value in approaching television, for it seems to me alien to the medium’s structure. As we learned last semester in Feuer’s TV Studies class, repetition with difference is built into television’s DNA: the show must go on (and on and on) for as long as it is economically viable. So, while examining the shows that stretch the limits of TV’s capabilities is certainly worthwhile, it is important at the same time not to lose sight of television itself and the repetitive pleasures that lie at its heart. That is, I would argue, what Feuer seeks to accomplish both in this talk and in her work more broadly: to think in terms of what TV does best, not just what it can be made to accommodate.