more from the
May/June 2015 issue:
Kahlil Joseph's Double Act
– Lilly Lampe
A Pilot for a Show
– Martine Syms
– Travis Diehl
– Cornelia Sollfrank
– Maija Timonen
Abra: BLQ Velvet
– by Sam Thorne
Movement as Social Consciousness
Interview: Lauri Stallings
– Maggie Davis
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A Pilot for a
Show About Nowhere
Text / Martine Syms
I DON'T WATCH GOOD TELEVISION.
"I told her I once heard a comedian say that if you put an apple on television everyday for six months, and then placed
that apple in a glass case and put that on display at the mall, people would go up to it and say, Oooh, look, there's that
apple that's on television. America's a lot like that apple."
—Paul Beatty, Slumberland, 2008
Right now, I'm watching two shows in earnest. Nashville is a primetime musical soap about Rayna Jaymes, an aging star in
the cutthroat country music biz. The show was created by Callie Khouri, best known for the 1991 womanist film, Thelma & Louise.
Past episodes have tackled paternity rights, alcoholism, sexual harassment, mental illness, homophobia, and infidelity, among other
themes. This season has a domestic violence story line. Scandal is a political melodrama about a DC "fixer" named Olivia Pope.
Pope is the sidepiece of POTUS, a petulant man-child with perpetually sullen eyes. Scandal is heavy on monologuing, walking-and-talking,
sappy synths, and the voyeuristic specter of camera shutter sound effects. The series hails from ShondaLand, a production company
that traffics in ensemble casts and emotional devastation. (Showrunner Shonda Rhimes is often pejoratively referred to as "colorblind,"
though she also uses the term herself to describe her casting process. I think that's too easy. Scandal is almost science fiction.
As Willa Paskin wrote for The New York Times, "[O]n her show, America is run by an African-American spin expert, a scheming first lady
and a mercenary gay guy who also happens to be in one of the sexiest homosexual marriages on television.")
In 1971, Paul Klein, former VP Audience Measurement at NBC, wrote an article for TV Guide magazine titled "Why You Watch What You
Watch When You Watch." The piece focused on a theory of the "Least Objectionable Program" (LOP). Under the heavy influence of Marshall
McLuhan, Klein argued that viewers consume the medium itself, rather than the content. Viewers do not turn on the TV searching for their
favorite shows, he claimed; instead, they are happy with whatever doesn't suck—that is, with the LOP.
Klein was wrong. My preferences, for instance, are clear: I like a strong female lead. My father, a passive watcher who keeps the TV
on as he floats between rooms fiddling around, still only tunes in to local news, sports, or cop shows—informative, masculine programs
that are suggestive of reality. I don't think he's ever watched a show without at least one black character. Every viewer makes a choice.
Television viewing has always been highly personalized, and highly politicized.
WHAT IS OPRAH'S FAVORITE SITCOM?
The term "quality television" emerged in 1970, with the fall season premiere of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When
All in the Family joined the CBS Saturday night line-up in 1971, critics declared a new era for the medium.
ARCHIE: Hey, Jefferson, I seen you hosing down your porch yesterday.
GEORGE: Oh yeah? When am I going to see you hosing down yours? [Beat] Bartender—get the man a drink, please.
BARTENDER: Yes, sir. What will it be?
BARTENDER: Any particular brand?
ARCHIE: Uh, yeah, the expensive brand.
BARTENDER: And what about you sir?
GEORGE: Scotch and soda, please.
BARTENDER: Yes, sir!
ARCHIE: Hey hey, Jefferson, there's a switch for you. This guy giving you the big "Yes, sir"?
GEORGE: Why? He's a bartender ain't he?
ARCHIE: Yeah, but what I meant was that I'm used to having it the other way around.
GEORGE: Oh yeah? How many servants you got in that mansion you're living in?
ARCHIE: What do you mean by that?
BARTENDER: Here you are, sir.
GEORGE: Let me tell you something about people. [...] That bartender's willing to work for me, because if you've got enough green
in your pocket then black becomes his favorite color!
TELEVISION IS HOW WE FEEL
Television has always been in my life. I was born in the late 80s, after the tube had been fully integrated into American society.
Young urban professionals (like my parents) had seen JFK's assassination, witnessed the Television War, watched the Watergate hearings,
and gotten their MTV. Ted Turner splintered the three-channel monopoly, and Fox was born. Non-whites and gays were regularly on TV.
The Cosby Show (1984) followed an upper-middle class black family; Roseanne (1988) was a sitcom in which the title character worked
in a factory; A Different World (1987) was about students at a historically black university. These were the three highest-rated shows
of my birth year. Advertisers had discovered new demographic frontiers, and the networks responded in turn. This trend continued
through the mid-1990s, but by the early 2000s, whiteness had peaked with the improbable New Yorks of Friends and Sex and the City.
Last year, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, and How to Get Away with Murder—a ShondaLand production—took the top three spots.
The success of How to Get Away with Murder and this year's Empire prompted Deadline.com TV editor Nellie Andreeva to write an article
called, "Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings," in reference to the recent string of black shows. Andreeva suggests that white
actors are being discriminated against and that the talent pool of "experienced minority performers" is insufficient. I hate Empire
because it's written for an audience that isn't familiar with black life. Twenty years from now we'll see this televisual moment is
as complex as the 1980s were, when The Cosby Show was framed by the crack epidemic and the welfare queen. What's the relationship
between #Ferguson and Empire's Cookie?
Television expresses the values of its culture. To quote television executive Lauren Zalaznick, it "directly reflects the moral, political,
social and emotional need states of our nation. ... [T]elevision is how we actually disseminate our entire value system." Nonviolent Communication
(NVC), a method developed by psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg, provides a useful framework for understanding how television conveys our desires.
NVC focuses on four components: observation, feelings, needs, and request. Basic NVC involves observing the concrete actions that affect our
well-being; stating how we feel in relation to what we observe; identifying the needs, values, and desires that create our feelings; and requesting
the concrete actions necessary to enrich our lives. In the language of NVC, every conflict is a result of needs unmet, and every joy a result of
American television replicates this approach in a commercial setting. As an advertising medium, its economic engine is powered by demographic
statistics, by which producers might interpret "need." Viewers tune in to programs according to a given feeling, accommodated by a given genre:
drama, comedy, romance, action, etc. This relationship stops short of the fourth focus of NVC: "request."
Zalaznick revealed in a 2011 TED talk that her team at NBCUniversal surveyed almost 3,600 individuals, ages 18 to 70, and asked them how they
felt emotionally while watching the top 20 Nielsen-rated shows of each year since the 1959/1960 season. Participants were asked to respond to
questions such as the following: "How did you feel watching every single one of these shows? Did you feel a sense of moral ambiguity? Did you
feel outrage? Did you laugh? What did this mean for you?"
WHATEVER CARROLL O'CONNOR GETS, PLUS A DOLLAR
The sitcom format originated in radio. There is little consensus about the very first sitcom, although WMAQ Chicago's
Amos 'n' Andy is considered one of the genre's pioneers. Originally aired on WGN as Sam 'n' Henry, two men who had recently
migrated to Chicago from the rural show, it was the first show to be syndicated nationally. Voiced by white comedians Freeman Gosden
and Charles Correll, it relied on dialect, malapropism, and stereotype: the fast-paced banter between the titular players was directly
inspired by that of Tambo and Bones, the stock character end men of minstrel shows. The conventions of minstrelsy set the tone for ethnic
performances in popular entertainment, and for sitcoms as such.
One of television's most popular 20th-century inheritors to this tradition was Norman Lear's Sanford and Son, which starred the comedian
Redd Foxx. Foxx, a protégé of Moms Mabley well known in the black community for his raunchy party albums, cut his teeth in vaudeville and
brought a vernacular comic style to the small screen. By the mid-1970s, leading sitcoms had adopted some narrative techniques from controversial
stand-up comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Direct, extended conversation would become a hallmark of the form. Pryor even wrote
a few episodes of Sanford and Son.
Foxx had a traditional style. There was a sharp distinction between the "Fred Sanford" character, the Redd Foxx comic persona, and the actor's
personal identity. Foxx told one-liners; his show featured guests from his "chitlin' circuit" days, with appearances from co-star LaWanda Page,
and Billy Eckstine and Scatman Crothers cameos; the effect gave visibility to a black private sphere. Sanford and Son was a huge success
throughout its six-season run.
Foxx was making a lot of money for NBC, but the network still treated him like a second banana. In 1974, the radical playwright turned story
editor Ilunga Adell told the Sarasota Herald Tribune, "Everybody was angry. People yelling at each other, yelling at Redd. You can't say
'do this, do that' to Redd .... People had never ordered him around before. I respect him for his stand." Foxx was a crossover sensation who
refused to assimilate.
THE COMMODIFICATION OF DIFFERENCE
An abundance of shows imitating the innovative style developed by MTM and Tandem followed in the 1970s. Yet by the mid-1980s
CBS, ABC, and NBC were losing viewers to cable channels and the newly minted Fox. They responded by targeting new audiences for
their programming. As the yuppie fell in love with the hour-long drama, we took the sitcom.
In his book Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness (1995), sociologist Herman Gray proposes three practices
for representing "otherness" on television: assimilation, pluralism, and multiculturalism. The assimilation narrative is color-blind.
Every character exists equally, no matter his background. The themes of the show are "universal." The social and political realities
of racism are the problems of individuals, reserved for very special episodes. The pluralist television show operates by a separate-but-equal
doctrine. Bronzeville, Harlem, Southeast DC, or Watts are merely relatable versions of other neighborhoods. Occasionally, a protagonist
finds herself in a "fish out of water" scenario.
The multiculturalist approach situates the "other" at the social and cultural heart of the program. The narrative acknowledges the structural
implications of race and class. There is an explicit construction of identity in the show's aesthetics, through music, costuming, language,
and style. These shows usually last for only one season, but we treasure them nonetheless.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is one notable deviation. The series ran from 1990 to 1996 and, like its star, Will Smith, managed to transcend
race and its surrounding discourses (and to become the cultural symbol of the 1990s). In high school, I went to a taping of The Tyra Banks Show.
Smith was her guest and they played a clip of a scene from "Father of the Year" (season 4, episode 4), in which their characters bicker like
old lovers. Later, Banks and Smith laughed about footage like it was from a family barbecue.
THE SITCOM IS AS AMERICAN AS JAZZ OR COMIC BOOKS
In 1967 the sociologist Robin M. Williams Jr. published an essay, unassumingly titled "Individual and Group Values," in the
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. Williams' text distinguished 15 "major value-belief clusterings" that influence
American society and individuals, as follows: activity and work; achievement and success; moral orientation; humanitarianism; efficiency and practicality;
science and secular rationality; material comfort; progress; equality; freedom; democracy; external conformity; nationalism and patriotism; individual
personality; racism and related group superiority. Williams derived these 15 values from the study of commercial fiction and used it to analyze how they
changed over time. He noted that fiction typically targets specific audiences and does not "reflect reality in a total way." Rather, it argued, it shows
"specific kinds of transformation" within a given population.
Although this research is 48 years old, it is still particularly resonant to me. The contradictions in Williams' list correspond to my own constant—and
perhaps distinctly American—anxieties. How can we value equality yet still believe in group superiority? How do we cultivate the individualism we claim
to value, if we must conform to external pressure? Why is being a good person so often conflated with having a good job?
What does it mean to be American and watch TV? This country is defined by its commercialism. President John Calvin Coolidge Jr. famously said,
"the chief business of the American people is business"—or, in other words, specifically author James M. Cain's, "The whole goddamn country
lives selling hot dogs to each other." The "best" Americans buy for a dollar and sell for two; the worst are bought and sold. Every American exists
between product and merchant. We're a market, not a public. We're all hucksters for the ideologies sold on our televisions.
ARE YOU THE STAR OF YOUR OWN LIFE?
In Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (2004), media theorist Allison Landsberg notes
that the introduction of the word "empathy" into 20th-century vocabularies coincides with the birth of cinema. In the public imagination, cinema made
it possible to feel what another person was feeling—to touch or be touched by a picture. Today, days of video are uploaded to the Internet by members
of this public every minute; for any event, real or cinematic, thousands of images are generated, through which we might make feelings and memories (and,
of course, forget them).
Every time I talk about one of my favorite sitcoms, a well-intentioned friend invariably mentions that he watched the show too, that he never considered it
to be "black"—as if its popularity had annulled its specificity. How do I explain the secrets hidden in plain sight? Double entendre? The dozens?
Call and response? Tonal semantics? Indirection?
My shows were infected with a "meaning-virus." The very presence of a black family on television is self-reference. The black sitcom destabilizes the medium's
core vocabulary of the close-up, the zoom shot, and the "two faces east" shot to break the fourth wall, compelling viewers (like me) to respond. Television
like this makes our beliefs visible, and because we see them, we believe them more. The sitcom is a "comic performance structure" entangled with the production
of identity. The stand-up comedians who inspire and star in them provide a model for the self-reflexivity that characterizes the contemporary moment. Think of
your most Internet-famous friend. Do you even recognize her life? Does it have a plot? Is there a will-they-won't-they romance at its core? Does she find
herself in wacky situations? If you can't think of such a friend, you are that friend.
When my parents were kids in St. Louis, the television broadcast stopped at midnight. My mom and her siblings would sit through it every night, watching as
if they'd never seen it before. They'd wait for the sign-off speech, while Ray Charles' version of America the Beautiful played in the background. Then the
test pattern came on and the set went dark. Today, it never stops.
My show hasn't been picked up yet—I'm still working on the pilot. It's called She Mad. It's a half-hour comedy about what it means to be an adult, set
against the backdrop of the Los Angeles creative industry. It follows a young, ambitious black woman and her friends as they try to create the lives they want,
and deal with the unrealistic goals they and society have set. It's about futility and hope, individuality and community, privacy and fame. Its themes include
survival, self-performance, and the idea that longing for pleasure is the only real pleasure.
She Mad is a show about nowhere.
Martine Syms is a conceptual entrepreneur based in Los Angeles who uses publishing, video, and performance to look
at the making and reception of meaning in contemporary America. She currently runs DOMINICA, an imprint dedicated to exploring blackness as
a topic, reference, marker, and audience in visual culture. From 2007 to 2011, Syms directed Golden Age, a project space focused
on printed matter. She has presented work at universities and museums internationally.