We ended this week’s TV-themed show "Monsters We Love" with an invitation to tell us about the series we didn’t include in the production — shows that matter to you that are telling a bigger story about who we are, what we fear, and who we aspire to be. Some of you responded with surprising, off-the radar recommendations.
Take the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, which aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971. I’d never heard of it. Artist Patrick Lynch, who wrote to us from Paris, Kentucky, would run home after school to watch it. Patrick calls it the ancestral precursor to the modern-day vampire shows we’re seeing on TV right now:
”[Dark Shadows] tackled all of the same issues of morality, conscience, humanity, redemption, love, obsession, etc., foremost through the character of Barnabas Collins who was made a vampire against his will. This fully realised character was made possible by not only the scriptwriting of the time but actor Jonathan Frid's deep understanding of the character through the seeking of the humanity underneath what superficially seemed like a monster.”
For Patrick, the gore and “fanging” weren’t the show’s leading draws. Rather it was vampire Barnabas Collins’ enduringly relatable quest to find home, love, and belonging.
The public will get to discover Dark Shadows anew when director Tim Burton releases his film adaptation starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins this spring.
About the image: A portrait of Barnabas Collins holding the music box of his long lost love Josette. (Painting by Patrick Lynch)
My wife and I have been loyal listeners of your show for years. Even when we moved to Southampton, NY for 8 years, we were able to find a station and time to hear your very interesting guests, topics and insightful questions and we've progressed with you through the program's name and musical enhancement. But today's show, about TV Monster Shows, seemed to be more like a digression into your personal TV viewing habits and your zeal to appeal to a much younger audience of couch potatoes. Why?
Good morning, Anonymous—
First and foremost, thank you for listening to our program for eight years. This means you’ve been listening since the beginning when we started broadcasting nationally on public radio stations in 2003. What a journey that has been!
As to your critiques about "Monsters We Love: TV’s Pop Culture Theodicy," thank you for the feedback. It helps make us a better, more responsive program in the future and I’d be glad to address your two points. The assumption that we’re catering to a younger demographic isn’t correct. It never came up in any editorial planning meeting or scheduling discussion. Today’s television viewers come in all ages and races. This show came about in part because a fair number of our colleagues and friends over the age of 50 are talking about True Blood, Mad Men, and other shows in the office kitchen, the yoga studio, and at the local coffee shop. And so is Krista. We wanted to embrace this experience and insight, treating it as a production value in and of itself.
That said, we are trying to open up a bit more and taking some fresh approaches. For a few shows each year, we will be address popular culture more directly when we can. We’re trying to serve many types of sensibilities, and this is one area that’s been neglected in my opinion. It’s a stretch area for us and we’re continually trying to find our producing voice for these types of shows.
As to your point about Diane Winston and our host’s “personal TV viewing habits” being a digression, I don’t think of it that way. The intent is to be inclusive as possible, creating an inside-the-room atmosphere. As a producer, I encourage her to show more of her personality in these types of shows about entertainment and culture. Isn’t that part of the power (and the fun) of television: being able to talk about scenes intimately with other people, even acquaintances.
She gives herself over, openly and honestly, to the questions about the material and the conversation. This tone and style had her step out from behind the microphone a bit more than usual so that she wasn’t just an outside observer who feels disconnected from what’s being talked about. Her questions come by way of familiarity and research. She’s a fan and a journalist. This line is a tricky one, and it may move depending on the individual ear.
You are not alone in your criticisms. Some listeners objected to this type of subject matter being on at such an early hour on stations, i.e. the talk about zombies and vampires. Others objected in that we didn’t address particular programs they were watching. But, we also heard from a new group of listeners, via email or Facebook, who appreciated the show. This serves part of our mission too.
Thank you for sticking with us all these years and for adding to the discussion. Hopefully this brief note adds to your understanding of our decisions and we’ll do better next time. Please let us know if we don’t.
The Learning Channel (TLC) recently aired the new reality television program, All-American Muslim, amid a great deal of buzz both within and outside the Muslim American community. Set in Dearborn, Michigan, a city that is well-known for its large Muslim and Arab populations, the series focuses on American-born Muslims and aims to answer the question: “What is it like to be Muslim in America?”
America’s Muslim population is diverse in ethnicity, class and religious expression. Attending a Friday prayer or better yet, an Eid celebration showcases this diversity at its best — Turkish Americans next to Bosnian Americans, next to Bangladeshi, Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani, Palestinian and African Americans — the list goes on. There are those who attend mosque regularly and others who show up to socialize during the holidays.
While TLC does not claim to represent all Muslim Americans, by focusing only on American Shia Muslims of Lebanese descent living in Detroit, and with a title that claims to speak on behalf of the “All-American Muslim,” the series certainly raises the question of whether it represents the experience of Muslim Americans in general.
Women gone wild. The rise of the anti-hero. Reenchanting the world. Nostalgia for the recent past.
These are just a few of the themes peppering our television landscape. How do these narratives reflect who we are (or want to be)? Why are we longing for stories about these kinds of characters and situations at this particular moment? Where do religious themes and imagery figure into the latest crop of television storytelling?
Sifting Through Screens Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
The image above is a photo of artist Nam June Paik's video installation "TV Buddha." It’s always been a favorite of mine for its clever take on the practice of meditation — a Buddha statue “contemplating” a live video image of itself. This picture is one of the photos that we considered for our recent program, "TV and Parables of Our Time," but it didn’t end up making the final cut.
Choosing images for our programs is one of my favorite parts of this job, but it’s not always easy. The best image usually contains some mix of aesthetic appeal, editorial relevance, and that slippery, hard to pin-down thing we call “sensibility.”
"TV and Parables of Our Time" was no exception. I initially proposed to Trent (SOF’s online editor) using images from the TV shows Krista and Diane Winston discussed (much like our Web site for "A Return to the Mystery"). After talking it over a bit, we decided this conversation deserved a different approach — so it was off to Flickr, Getty, or any other place I might be able to find the right image.
I struggled to figure out where to start searching for an image with this program. The most obvious starting point was to start with an image search for “television,” but that seemed a little too easy. I came back to Trent with a set of images (included above), pushing the one you see on top with the young girl facing sideways. Unable to find something directly related to the program (other than the presence of a television), I had mostly gone for images I found visually interesting. Trent’s advice: keep looking.
I find that there’s no sure-fire way to accomplish this task, but it often helps to have more than one set of eyes looking to get it right. It’s real easy to get attached to one element of the program — in this case, the image of a television — and lose track of the larger message. On my second round of searching, I encountered photos of “TV Buddha” and got excited to have found something I already loved — hoping I might be able to make it work for the show. Talking it over with Trent — someone a little less infatuated with the image’s content — helped me realized that, while it may have been a cool image, it wasn’t the right fit for the program.
I finally came back with one last set of images (above), which included the photo we ended up using, on top. Not only did I like the image, I also appreciated the quote that the photographer included on the photo’s Flickr page. From the Egyptian screenwriter Mohammed Amer, on the subject of Egyptian musalsalat (TV series): “One of the most important things soap operas have done is encourage the public to condemn terrorism.”
I liked that it kept with one of the themes of the program — the power of televised storytelling to help us cope with contemporary issues — but came from a different cultural perspective: Egyptian television rather than the American-made shows discussed in the program. My one concern was that the image seemed a little grainy, but Trent’s input was that the image quality didn’t make it less compelling.
Oh yeah, and I did manage to sneak Nam June Paik into the Web site. Another image I’d found on the last round of searching included Paik’s large installation "Megatron/Matrix," which we ended up using for the site’s secondary pages. (photo: Garrett Miller/Flickr)
Opening Clip, from Battlestar Galactica Trent Gilliss, online editor
As I wrote yesterday, Krista and crew went gung-ho on the audio clips from TV series for this week’s show. We included a good number of clips and I thought that would suffice. So, as I was editing Krista’s journal for this week’s newsletter, I find her enthusiasm hasn’t yet waned, as she has promised her devoted readers that they could listen to the Battlestar Galactica clip selected to open the top of the program.
Here I, with Nancy’s help, have isolated, encoded, and uploaded an mp3 for your ears. It’s quite compelling, and I’m glad Krista made the offer.
The Gospel According to Battlestar Galactica Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
Ever since Krista got me hooked on Battlestar Galactica a couple of years ago, I have noticed very few episodes that didn’t offer some not-so-subtle references to Judeo-Christian theological influences. There are countless examples throughout the program’s four seasons: a “chosen” or select group of survivors travelling great distances trying to find the prophesied “home”; the twelve tribes of mankind; transitioning from pantheism to monotheism, etc. But one of the more blatant is the refrain at the end of most speeches in BSG, “So say we all” — basically serving the same function when a congregation says “Amen” after a part of a church liturgy. And hearing the pantheistic human characters say “Gods damn it” still catches me off guard.
In this week’s program, "TV and Parables of our Time," USC professor Diane Winston notes how the writers of BSG would also weave issues found in today’s real-life news into their story lines. She cites the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib as one example. Winston goes on to suggest that maybe we need good storytelling in order to process the events happening in our world, and that trying to understand the complexity of these events only through news media may not be enough.
As someone who finds the Bible in desperate need of an editor, I wonder if I would find the biblical stories more compelling if they had spaceships and cool sound effects and thrilling scores. Would I find the messages more relevant? I don’t know. It does makes me wonder if these modern narratives like Battlestar Galactica need to have familiar touch points, such as religious rituals and themes that we grew up with, in order to make a space-based story somehow more accessible to our terrestrial lives. Or do they just borrow from great stories, many of which can be found in religious texts? What do you think?
The production staff diligently spent hours selecting clips from their favorite television series for inclusion in this week’s program with Diane Winston. We’ve even got a title: "TV and Parables of Our Time." Somehow, I am told, downloading and watching 24 and Lost and Battlestar Galactica and The Wire is really hard work. Ah fellow producers, “you suffer for your soup.” *grin*
The professor of religion and media at USC appealed to the heart of Krista’s eclectic consumption of TV series on DVD. After all, they actually have sat together and watched the tube. This enthusiasm spilled over into our search for actualities from these episodes.
And, this passion bore itself out in last week’s cuts and copy session. The script was extraordinarily rough. There were at least five spots for audio clips from some of those series. Then it really got messy — two or three clips with an average length of 3-5 minutes (one more than 8 minutes) were included in the listen. Heads were spinning.
What I experienced was an insider’s perspective. Script was trying to explain too much of each plot, and the opening scene from 24 (“8:00 AM–9:30 AM” - season 2, episode 1) was heavy. So we sussed out the needs of various listeners and focused on illustrating or accentuating a point made at the out-cue. The result: a much better, more listenable production.
What I realized is that I don’t watch that much TV — well, except for my utter obsession of the Tour de France on Versus — and felt a bit sheltered, out of the loop actually, when talking about these dramatic series. Not being part of these conversations and the larger culture is isolating. I’m an outsider who can only politely smile and lean in when Krista and Mitch and Colleen and Nancy start discussing characters like Snot Boogie and McNulty, or Cylons and Caprica, or Jack Shepard and John Locke.
My hope is that an unknowing perspective helps those of you who are in the same boat that I’m in. That Thursday’s podcast clues you in rather than leaving your face pressed against the window watching the family sit in front of a toasty fire, chomping on popcorn and sodas, with a 42” HD screen glowing in the background.
So, here’s a list of the episodes and scenes we considered. I’ve flagged in bold the clips we’re using.
The Wire. The vernacular of the characters is difficult track at first, but somehow your ear tunes in after a while and you get the gist. Nevertheless, the distinct dialects and slang used eliminated a lot of great scenes from consideration for the radio.
"Misgivings" (Season 4, episode 10) - In the scene we chose, Colvin meets with Miss Shepherdson to seek permission to continue the alternative class.
"Final Grades" (Season 4, episode 13) - This scene presents Colvin meeting with Wee-bay in prison and asks if he can adopt his son Namond.
"Corner Boys" (Season 4, episode 8) - Colvin gives speech about corner boys to the alternative class.
"Refugees" (Season 4, episode 4) - Here, Mr. Prezbo (Pryzbylewski ) tries talking to his class after a student has been slashed.
Battlestar Galactica. Probably Krista’s favorite series. And so we found a place for three clips in the program.
"Flesh and Bone" (season 1, episode 8) - Compelling scenes with aural allusions to waterboarding and torture, as well as rich dialogue about the being human and being an artificial life form.
"White Rabbit" (season 1, episode 5) - We used two scenes from this episode: one where Jack Shepard tells the group that they have to learn to live together or die alone, and the other in which John Locke speaks dramatically about looking into the eye of the island and seeing its beauty.
"Exodus part 2" (season 1, episodes 24/25) - A rich discussion between Jack and Locke on science and faith.
House. A late entry to the production process that wasn’t part of the first cuts and copy session. A clip from this series was selected because it’s a different genre of drama and it is a popular series still in production.
"Informed Consent" (season 3, episode 3) - Here we have multiple scenes featuring a patient who wishes to die and not be treated while Dr. House tricks him into continuing testing/treatment.
"The Socratic Method" (season 1, episode 6) - We strongly considered this scene with Dr. House and his nemesis Dr. Cuddy about the ethics of using unapproved protocols to shrink a patient’s tumor so it could be operated on.