Friday, May 10, 2013

You're muted

What follows is my response to a paper on "Must-Klick TV" presented by Jennifer Gillan at a recent workshop held at FU Berlin.

Jennifer Gillan's paper discusses the web- and social-media-elements of tv shows like Lost and Pretty Little Liars; elements like, for example, fan-generated websites, Alternate Reality Games or specialized twitter accounts. In this short response, I'd like to look at a related aspect of the contemporary media landscape, from a different viewpoint, but with a similar question in mind: How can traditional forms of television programming sustain themselves as televisual texts when being confronted with a changing mediascape.
The form I'm interested in, is one of the most consistently succesfull genres of American television history: the sitcom. For several decades, the sitcom has been a surprisingly, even stubbornly conservative form: On a technical level, not much differentiates the first big success of I Love Lucy from a sophisticated 1990s sitcom like Seinfeld – or a recent program like The Big Bang Theory for that matter. All these shows are produced in a multi-camera mode that might be described as a curious residue of stage theater and vaudeville performances in the medium of television in as much as it privileges, at least in some aspects, the unity of time and space of the stage over the spatiotemporal fractures, which are generally thought to be a prime characteristic of technology-based audiovisual media.
In the last decade, however, the sitcom form has become much less stable. New formats like Curb Your Enthusiasm, both the British and the American Version of The Office, or, more recently, Louie, dismissed the multi-camera mode for production modes that are more in line with other forms of contemporary fictional television. Some of the innovations in the field of the sitcom can be described easily in the terms of Gillan's paper: It's especially obvious that shows like The Office or Parks & Recreations take its stilistic cues from reality tv. Likewise, other recent sitcoms like Community and 30 Rock seem to cater to the knowing internet-savvy audience in a way similar to a show like Lost. So, the changes in the sitcom form can and should be discussed in relation to the competing and intersecting mediascapes of the present day. The show I'm interested in here might open up this particular discourse a little bit further, because it has been a television-internet hybrid from the beginning.
Web Therapy started out as a web series, a comedy program consisting, like most web series, of short segments of five to seven minutes length. In 2009, Web Therapy was one of the first shows to successfully cross over into television. To be sure, Web Therapy isn't a runaway success. A low profile show on the pay-tv-channel Showtime, it might have been canceled long ago if not for its low production costs: The first two seasons recycled a lot of footage from the web series. The television version of Web Therapy combines this original footage with new segments, which prolong the episodes to the classic sitcom format of 20 to 30 minutes each. In this respect, Web Therapy might be typical for the new televisual economics of fragmented audiences and lowered thresholds for success.
The premise of both the web and the tv version is identical: Fiona Wallace, its main charakter, is a psychotherapist developing a new therapeutical method: All sessions of her soon to be franchised „Web Therapy“ take place online - and in the timeframe of three minutes. In the web series version, the show constisted of these – most of the times quickly derailing - sessions only. The tv version includes other storylines, that might seem like concessions to the more converntional sitcom form: Most importantly, Fiona Wallce gains a husband and a mother, which might set the stage for classic family sitcom shananigans.
More interesting than this changes is, I think, the fact, that some other basic characteristics of the show did not change at all. The tv version of Web Therapy is a show that seems to be thoroughly connected to the new media environment: In a very general sense, the whole show is set on the web. Instead of the master set of classic sitcoms – like the bar in Cheers, Jerry's apartment in Seinfeld or so many family living rooms – Web Therapy is set on the screen of Fiona's laptop. The conversations, that almost exclusively make up the show, evolve on pop-up-windows via skype – not only the therapy sessions but also the marriage quarrels with the husband and Fiona's increasingly weird relashionship with her mother are dealt with exclusively online.
From this perspective, Web Therapy seems to be a strange hybrid, at the same time the complete opposite of the classic sitcom form and its transformed continuation. The spatial unity, central to the multi-camera mode, makes way for the radical spatial fragmentation of mediated communication: In the world of Web Therapy, there seems to be almost no opportunity, or even need for eye to eye contact, let alone bodily interaction. The world of Web Therapy is made up of a theoretically infinite number of completely discontinuous spaces, artificially connected by the synthetic master space (instead of master set) of the laptop user interface.
It can be argued, however, that space in the classic sitcom was always first and foremost a vessel for communication. The standardizes sitcom sets weren't, for the most parts, at least, interesting in their own right, but for their ability to create different kinds of communicative environments – you might think, for example, of the dominance of the coach in so many sitcom sets. If communication has always been front and center in the sitcom form, Web Therapy might be thought of not as a repudiation, but as a radicalisation of the sitcom form. And at the same time it might allow some glances at the new kinds of communication, that has its roots in the web and might become more prominent in other medial settings, too.
In Web Therapy, a show almost exclusively made up of talking heads, there is virtually nothing but communication. This communication, however, is far removed from the everyday, gossipy, open-ended talk that characterized sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld. In sharp contrast, most communication in Web Therapy is framed at least threefold: diegetically as therapy talk, temporal by Fiona's self-imposed three minute time limit, grafically by the boundaries of the pop-up window. In a way, by removing it from the social, everyday world it is normally based in and in a way also by removing it from the body, which is most of the times reduced to a head-and-shoulders, Web Therapy absolutizes, canalizes and deroots communications. The humor of the show stems directly from this derooting and its psychological consequences that might be described as so many inflations of so many disembodied selfs.
So, I think, what Web Therapy suggests, is that, as long as sitcoms and maybe also other fictional television shows continue to function als televisual forms, they'll survive all other changes the new media environment is going to introduce.

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