I kicked off my Reading Popular Culture course this semester with a screening of an episode of Friends (“The One with the Male Nanny”). Before we could actually start talking about depictions of masculinity and heteronormativity, I had to wade through groans and complaints about the laugh track. The laugh track has quickly become outdated and it is one of the key things that fuels my students' aversion to anything that they deem too “old.” “It’s just not realistic,” they say. Or, “it’s too obvious.” They tend to recoil because they find an episode that tells them how to respond disingenuous.
As we have continued throughout the semester, we have started exploring the types of things that open themselves up to more active viewer engagement (such as excess, narrative complexity, and self-reflexivity). Last week we watched the first two episodes of Homeland in order to talk about the importance of recognizing generic codes and understanding how they operate within a text. (For Homeland we discussed melodrama’s tendency to construct a morally legible world of good and evil and tied that to Homeland’s Othering.) While watching, though, I also took note of the ways that this contemporary television drama also trains its viewers how to respond, in ways not unlike the laugh track.
Many people have beef with Homeland—for its racism, obvious and excessive plotting, and its constant reversals. I don’t disagree with these complaints yet I still find the show compelling. For the most part this is because I’m a sucker for heavy handed dramatic music. But I also find the ways that it trains its viewers to respond to its dramatic structure incredibly provocative. Margaret Lyons has written that it’s a series that “explores what happens to us when we observe people, how surveilling Brody changed Carrie, say, or how Dana accidentally observing her father raying affected their relationship in ways neither would have predicted.” I would venture, though, that the surveillance also comments on (and encourages!) our own voyeuristic relationship to television.
Starting as early as the first episode, the show foregrounds the importance of surveillance and, in doing so, allows Carrie to serve as a surrogate for the viewer. After she sets up her illegal surveillance of Brody, she spends the majority of the first couple episodes on her couch just watching Brody and his family. And the viewer spends a great deal of time watching Carrie watch Brody. He has aggressive and heart wrenching sex with his wife Jessica for the first time after his return and the viewer watches on uncomfortably as the camera depicts Jessica’s pained face in close up. The camera then cuts to Carrie in the dark, listening in with headphones and looking uncomfortable. The viewer watches on as she takes her headphones off. This signals to viewers that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable—Carrie does, too. But, at that moment, Carrie slides the headphones back on and continues to watch. The camera then cuts back to Jessica and Brody as Brody finishes and Jessica begins to cry. This signals that it’s okay to keep voyeuristically watching. Later, Carrie eats a yogurt in the dark while watching the Brody family sit down to dinner sitcom family style. The viewer watches what Carrie observes on the surveillance video and then the viewer watches her react to the content. In the second episode “Grace,” Brody unexpectedly punches a reporter in the neck. As soon as he does so, the camera cuts to Carrie watching it happen on her own screen and she gasps. I found myself gasping along with her.
I have been attempting to get my students to notice tricks such as this and the different ways that popular culture trains us to respond to it in certain ways. Contrary to what many of my students believe, newer forms of media are not “better” than their predecessors. Their strategies for addressing viewers have just shifted and become slightly less noticeable. Though that is true, they are still very much training us how to respond. And, as I tell my students, being an active viewer means being on guard for those tricks and learning how to respond to them critically and analytically.