THE ENIGMAS OF ALIAS AND TV STYLE by Steven Peacock
Pressing ‘play’ or finding the series on television, the first, fundamentally eye-catching quality of J. J. Abrams’ TV drama Alias (2001-2006 Touchstone Television) is its supercharged style. Even before the series opens up a Pandora’s Box of spy games, generic combinations, and narrative twists, it presents panoplies of visual pleasures.
Soaring landscape shots of exotic locations scud into close-ups of shifty looking agents. The camera roams and skims over the series’ glossy décor and day-glo designs before plunging into undercover activity. Jackhammer edits rivet set-pieces and schemes of subterfuge. Poker-faces and tense bluffs suddenly snap into balletic freefalls of hyper-violence. Across shots, sequences and seasons, aspects shift in kaleidoscopic style: costumes, accents, allegiances, hair colour. In the storm’s eye, central protagonist Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) remains a tantalisingly ethereal presence: plastically nimble; coldly detached; almost always on the screen but equally constantly on the move: present and at one remove. Flitting across Alias’ world in outrageous cat-suits and a flame-red mane of hair, Garner-as-Bristow embodies the series’ chimerical appeals: an impossibly foolish fancy with visionary flair.
Alias’ thrusting visuals, its urgent tone and alluring designs compel me to consider its style, to think through its stylistic choices. Yet, such discussions remain curiously lacking in critical appraisals of contemporary television. On the subject of the same series and in reviewing the book Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies (eds. Stacey Abbott and Simon Brown, I B Tauris 2007), I have elsewhere, together with co-writer Thalia Baldwin, noted this odd methodological omission:
A...worrying and widespread trend in TV Studies is the lack of attention to style. As the discipline shifts away from the broad overviews often offered in Media and Cultural Studies, a promising focus on the particular has emerged. In this respect, I.B. Tauris’s output of books devoted to a sustained scrutiny of individual programmes is at the forefront of the discipline. Yet, for whatever reason, TV style keeps getting missed. This is a particularly curious omission in any study of Alias, considering the emphasis the series places on stylistic rhetoric and playfulness. The distinctively slick, cinematic look of Alias is at once deceptively superficial and worthy of further attention. Whilst creating a glossy aesthetic akin to the hyper-real cinematic panoramas offered by, for example, McG and Michael Bay, Alias uses its sleek surfaces to explore aspects of artifice: in both theme and style the world of the series is rife with artfulness and shallow designs ... Yet, the odd allusion aside, a concentration on matters of style in Alias remains as elusive as the series’ mystical overlord, Rambaldi.1
This gap in scholarship is not only evidenced in relation to Alias. Despite a resurgence of stylistic criticism in Film Studies, the related discipline of Television Studies has not followed suit. Academic work on television remains, for the most part, entrenched in contextual frameworks. As noted, there has been a shift from considerations of television in general (as a medium, in terms of ‘flow’ for instance) to particular programmes (exemplified by I.B. Tauris’ Reading Contemporary Television Series and BFI’s TV Classics). Yet, such studies remain, for the most part, informed by established theoretical approaches in which theory is ‘mapped’ onto the television ‘text’ to decipher its ‘coded meanings’, in post-structuralist, feminist, political or socio-cultural readings. Equally, despite many writers’ assertions that, within these readings, close textual analysis will be employed, there is a key conflation of terms. Too often, such analysis becomes systematic, determined to ‘solve’ the text’s engagement with a specific subject, rather than employing critical principles that work with enough flexibility to meet individual series' overlapping meanings and concerns. Further, such work resists a dedicated and sustained scrutiny of television style, attempting to undertake ‘close textual analysis’ without getting close to the text’s integral compositional elements.
Citing the intellectual history and academic origins of Television Studies as reasons for what he terms the ‘evacuation of the evaluative’, Jason Mittell offers a call to arms:
It is time to let evaluative criticism out of the closet. It is not enough to use coded signifiers of value like ‘sophistication’ and ‘nuance’ in referring to television programming worth studying or teaching – let us admit openly when we think a programme is great. Especially in the context of a book dedicated to exploring a single programme in depth, we must be explicit in acknowledging the roles of evaluation and aesthetic judgement that help to frame our research and drive our field. Many of our scholarly efforts are focused on programmes that we enjoy, value and think are better than others, a forbidden admission that is more often assumed in other fields like film or literary studies, where engaging in close study of an author or text often constitutes an implicit endorsement of its aesthetic merits.2
Together with fellow blogger for CST Online Jason Jacobs, I am editing a collection of essays to encourage engagement of a wider critical community, to attend to television aesthetics as a conceptual matter, within individual programmes, and in works from around the world. The collection is Global Television: Aesthetics and Style, Continuum, forthcoming 2013. Annette Kuhn and Andrew Klevan are co-editing a future issue of the journal Screen on the subject of film and television aesthetics. As the call for papers notes, 'This work is interested in philosophical approaches (‘film-philosophy’) and/or close criticism, and is revitalising theory and textual analysis. It is also concerned, implicitly or explicitly, to reveal artistic merit by illuminating the ways in which audiovisual work may be effective, affective or thoughtful.' I co-ordinate a new taught MA programme on Film and Television Aesthetics at the University of Hertfordshire. Audiovisualcy, the online forum for videographic film studies leads the way in showcasing video essays on film; exemplary forms of television style merit similar, precise and expressive treatment. From different yet converging perspectives, all of the above see an advancement of television scholars engaging in stylistic criticism as both fruitful in refining our understanding of individual programmes and in the development of the discipline. I would like not only to promote such calls, but also, crucially, to encourage more collaborative critical responses to stylistic studies. This blog entry forms an invitation then, to talk and think about television style both more widely and more closely, to create not only a wealth of stylistic criticism on television in print and online, but also to commence a vital conversation across published interpretations.
Steven Peacock is Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of Hertfordshire. He is the editor/author of Reading 24: TV against the Clock (2007), and the co-editor of The Television Series for Manchester University Press. He is also the author of Colour: Cinema Aesthetics (Manchester University Press, 2010) and Hollywood and Intimacy: Style, Moments, Magnificence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He is currently writing Swedish Crime Fiction: Adaptations from Novel to Global Film and Television (Manchester University Press), and is co-editor with Jason Jacobs of the forthcoming collection Global Television: Aesthetics and Style (Continuum).
1 Thalia Baldwin and Steven Peacock, ‘Review of Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, I B Tauris, 2007’, in Critical Studies in Television, 3:1, spring 2008, pp. 103-106. ↩
2 Jason Mittell, ‘Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies)’, in Reading Lost: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show (London: I B Tauris, 2009), pp. 122. ↩
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