Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Since last week’s blog offered two posts for the price of one (and since I've been battling a bad cold), I thought I’d offer just a few light bit and pieces I’ve run across this week that you might enjoy.
Two follow-ups from the Emmys last week (and then I’ll be done with TV and the Emmys for a while, I promise. I realize not everyone likes TV and, even more, not everyone has the premium cable channels that many of those nominated shows are on).
I was surprised to hear host Jimmy Kimmel actually use the g-word (that’s genre, for anyone new to this blog and my ability to see genres anywhere and everywhere). Kimmel's comment on genre,
With talk shows all hosted by white male nominees, the genre is ironically titled Variety
Shakespeare showed up at the Emmys, too, with remarks on the genre of comedy. Or at least that’s how Damon Wayans Jr introduced his category
“Shakespeare said there is no comedy more pure than the Variety sketch.”
Following up my posts on the syllabus, I saw Kevn Gannon's first post on the DIY Syllabus this week. He comments on the statements of institutional policies overtaking the original purposes of a syllabus, and advises a return to the learning-centered syllabus. This is first of a series, he notes, so his topic would be worth following.
The comic strip Candorville reprinted a strip from 2014 that reminded me of Amy Schumer’s take on comedy skits (I wrote about it in one of my earlier posts about whether we all just follow genres thoughtlessly, like sheep). Two guys standing at a bus stop. One comments on the local sports team, the other on the weather. When the first objects about the different topic, the character says it makes no difference what you actually say. "Stranger-small-talk be interchangeable, Bruh. It never mean nothin' no-way."
Darrin Bell of Candorville has played with genre expectations before. In another strip, his character writes a realistic screenplay that has the audience watching characters search for a parking space for half an hour. A convention we probably don’t even notice, the routines of daily life that stories skip right by. As the character’s friend replies,
Cliches are clichés for a reason”
So for your viewing pleasure and to give you a laugh, here is the skit from Inside Amy Schumer, from Comedy Central, that shows the sitcom's cliched genre conventions degenerating into empty blathering.
I hope you'll share any follow-ups to our topics that you run across. May your week be filled with only the cliches that still work for you, and may the bits and pieces of your week help you smile
And the Emmy went to . . .
Following up on my Emmy preshow posted Sunday before the awards, where I speculated about whether the Emmy voters would prefer more traditional versions of a genre or vote for more innovative ones.
So which shows won Emmys in 2016? The more conventional versions of the genre, or the more innovative ones?
Here’s how they match up with my original ranking:
Comedy: Winner Veep
I ranked Veep high on the conventionality list, second only to Modern Family. I do think the show does the traditional sit-com, but it does it spectacularly well. And the Emmy voters seem to agree.
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss had one of the best genre comments of the whole Emmy broadcast (and references to genres were surprisingly common this year, I found as I was live-tweeting the show).
Veep has torn down the wall between comedy and politics. It started out as a political satire but now seems like a documentary”
Drama: Winner Game of Thrones
I ranked Game of Thrones as the least conventional drama, so score one for genre-busting (but more below)
According to Entertainment, Game of Thrones was the top winner in all awards, with 12 Emmys won. It has won 38 Emmys since its beginning, making it the show with the most awards ever.
Reality-Competition: Winner The Voice
I considered The Voice the most conventional of the shows, hearkening back to old-time talent shows. I’m surprised by its beating out The Amazing Race, but maybe that show has run its course (pun intended).
Shows with the Most Wins
Another way to look at whether Emmy winners are more conventional or innovative is to look at which shows won the most awards of all kinds, not just the top in its overall category.
As I said, Game of Thrones is the big winner, this year and in history, with 12 trophies this year.
Next on the list is the Outstanding Limited Series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. It certainly deserved its many awards (but wow, what competition in that category, with the equally deserving American Crime and Fargo).
Then it drops down to Grease: Live, with 5 awards. Talk about your conventional show! An old-timey live broadcast of a Broadway show from 1971 and movie from 1978.
Genre-conventional or Genre-busting?
With Game of Thrones the big winner, it might seem that genre-busting wins hands down. And it does. But I noted the problem with the Drama category. “Drama” seems less important than the multiple other genres its shows represent. Game of Thrones fits clearly into the genre of fantasy. Based on a wildly popular series of books that are sold as fantasy, I don’t think people would first say, “Oh, there’s an unconventional drama.” Instead, they might say, “What a great fantasy series!”
As LJ commented in her tweet during the broadcast
Drama is a category that is probably past due for a makeover, to make it a meaningful category for the people who use it. But it may take more time until other genres have enough representatives to have competition. Because these are, after all, award categories. Megan Faver Hardline noted the genre-busting of Tatiana Maslany winning lead actress for Orphan Black, a drama that busts out of drama and maybe even out of sci-fi--in the process busting the genre of the Emmy award itself
If only one fantasy, or one science fiction show, or one genre-buster rises to the top, then a loose catch-all category is needed. But just needing a label doesn’t make drama a genuine genre, in this context. To be a genre, drama needs to do something.
The rising category of “Limited Series” complicates and helps this discussion. Those shows were among the best dramas of the year, if that term has any meaning, but they’re classified by the number of episodes rather than what they do. In these days of streaming episodes, it might not matter much whether a program has 6 or 13 episodes. What matters more is that the limited series has a story arc that allows it to complete its action. American Crime even changes its setting, characters, and stories each year. Game of Thrones, as a drama series, just keeps keeping on--adding, killing, and even resurrecting its characters to keep its story going. If the label “drama” is to be a meaningful genre, let it be applied to the currently labeled Limited Series shows. Like classical dramas or Shakespearean plays, they tell a dramatic story and allow us resolution.
Interesting to play with what's conventional and what's innovative, a distinction harder to make than we might think. The most genre-busting programs often turn out to be ones that aren't genre-busting at all. They're just a different genre.
If you have 13 minutes, check out the youtube video of the Top 10 Out-of-Genre Episodes in TV series. How many of those out-of-genre moments are very much in-the-genre of a different genre?
Tonight is the Emmy awards, so how can I not write about the genre labels for classifying TV shows? Besides, I like TV (well, lots of it), and I always watch the Emmys. Yes, I confess it. So for the sake of a much-needed lighter topic this week, I risk your thinking less of me as a lover of the boob tube and idiot box.
Plus, even more than TV, I love watching the genres of television shift and change as the shows shift and change as our culture shifts and changes. New shows don’t quite fit existing categories, but they become popular and get good ratings, so then other shows imitate them to capitalize on their popularity. The emergence of new TV genres is about creative innovation, yes, and genre-busting. But it’s also about creative marketing and genre-copying.
I’ve seen it happen over and over again in my long TV-watching years. Reality shows start popping up, then the competition shows in particular start repeating, then the musical talent shows are everywhere, and next thing you know I’m hooked on The Voice and So You Think You Can Dance. I start watching this new show called Trading Spaces in 2001 and in 2016 I’m hooked on Flip or Flop, Fixer Upper, and Property Brothers, not to be confused with House Hunters, except that last night I discovered a show called House Hunters Renovation, combining both the house hunting series and the renovation series. What’s next? Probably a competitive talent show where young designers live in and renovate a house together by scrabbling over physical obstacles while sharing romantic moments in hot tubs with champagne before eliminating each other with snarky comments and black roses. Oh wait, how did The Bachelor get in there?
How all that genre-mixing and emerging happens is complex, I’m sure, and too much for one post. Today, I’ll just get started on the genres of the Emmy Awards. The Emmys make those questions of genres all seem so simple—a show is a comedy, drama, or variety show. But they also reveal when a genre has emerged all the way into acceptability—reality/competition program was added in 2003.
In recent years, at least, the nominees for the Emmys have sometimes seemed like uncomfortable fits for their genres. Orange is the New Black is a comedy??!! But some shows may be pushing the boundaries of a genre, either changing our acceptance of what a comedy is or busting out into a new genre.
So here’s my own reality program for this week, with TV shows competing for successful renovation of a TV genre
Which shows will win an Emmy tonight—the ones that fit into their genres more conventionally? Or the ones that stretch the genre more?
Here are the rules: I’ll run through my own opinion of how conventional the shows nominated in each major genre are, and then I’ll compare with the results after the winners are announced. To keep from slanting it after the fact, I’ll post my opinions today, Sunday, before the winners are announced, and then update the post tomorrow with the results (the broadcast ends way too near my bedtime for me to write the follow-up post tonight). Feel free to play along with your own judgments of the nominees. I’m bound to get some things wrong, especially with shows I don’t watch consistently.
And the nominees are:
The 2016 nominees for outstanding Comedy series are
Here’s how I’d rank them for conventionality, from most conventional to least:
Modern Family is surely the most conventional but still very funny sit-com, with Veep (starring frequent comedy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (created by sit-com pro Tina Fey) close behind. Even though I’ve seen blackish described as an old-fashioned sit-com with contemporary awareness, I find it remarkably old-fashioned in everything but subject matter. I’d say Silicon Valley also has unconventional subject matter but plays with the genre, too. Master of None may fit as a simple comedy—Time magazine reviewed it as a “wistful TV romantic comedy”—but that “wistful” part twists the genre a bit. Transparent goes way beyond wistful all the way to comedy-drama. That series got a lot of attention for its controversial subject matter last year, but it’s also a bit genre-busting in its mix of comedy and drama.
So what is a TV comedy? One that has laughs in it, presumably. You know, like Better Call Saul, the spinoff from Breaking Bad, starring the very funny actor Bob Odenkirk. But you may be way ahead of me--Better Caul Saul is a nominee for outstanding drama series, and Bob Odenkirk nominated for outstanding lead actor in a drama series.
What else is nominated for best drama series?
A comedy-drama, period soap opera mini-series, violent fantasy, political thriller, Shakespearean play, science fiction, and espionage thriller.
Those are my genre labels, of course, and any show can be labeled in multiple ways. But if “drama” can include such a wide range of shows, is it a meaningful genre? I’ve been known to say that a genre is anything that people say is a genre. If the people who use it, make it, read it, or watch it call it by a common category name, who am I to say it’s not a genre? But I’m not sure most TV fans would say Game of Thrones is a “drama.” More likely to call it a fantasy. And everyone talks about Downton Abbey as a soap opera.
So ranking these nominees for how conventional a drama they are is especially tough, I think, since I don’t know what a drama is. But here goes—my ranking from most conventional drama series to least:
,All right, this could go on all day, and I wouldn't get my rankings posted before the Emmys begin. Since the other categories are subdivided by form (structured/unstructured reality programs; limited series/TV movie) or are genres I don't watch enough of the nominees in to judge (Variety series--talk or sketch), I'll try just one more category.
For me, the sharpest, most distinct genre in the awards categories is Reality-Competition Program. The nominees all fit that descriptive label, of being reality shows based on a competition:
My rankings for most conventional to least:
I struggled with The Amazing Race in part because it largely created this genre, so I would expect it to be highly conventional, but it doesn’t seem to have as many direct copiers as others. The fact that it keeps winning the Emmy may indicate that it’s keeping the genre fresh. Or that it’s comfortingly predictable. Same for Project Runway, though its imitators now are many.
But it seems to me that this category is one ready to break into newly emerged genres. Surely Project Runway and Top Chef have more in common with each other than with The Amazing Race. And the old talent show genre seems reincarnated in The Voice and Dancing with the Stars. But I’m not sure where American Ninja Warrior comes from.
So there you have it--one person's rankings of the Emmy nominees from most conventional to least conventional. Which will win out tonight? Will convention trump innovation? Or will the newly expanded set of Emmy voters recognize artistic creativity? Or are they all pretty conventional shows, and the Emmys are just confirming what the powers-that-be in the entertainment industry prefer?
As if you needed anything to make the Emmy broadcast even more exciting than it always is, I'll be tweeting from @AmyDevitt1 during the show. I'd love to hear what you think.
Tune in for the results tomorrow.
How do we commemorate 9/11?
Let me count the ways.
On Sunday, the fifteenth anniversary of the horrific 9/11 attacks in the US, I kept a record of all the ways I noticed that people were commemorating the events. From my morning newspapers to social media and other blogs to nighttime television news and specials, I watched for how people were being mindful of the day.
It did not make for a happy day. But it did get me thinking about the different ways (genres, if you like) we can achieve the same purpose. The many different ways we commemorate.
Commemoration might make you think of public ceremonies. And those did happen, as I learned from the three newspapers I read, both nationally and locally.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center 9/11 Memorial streamed a commemoration ceremony live. (You may have heard more about Hillary Clinton's supposed "collapse" on leaving that ceremony than the commemoration itself.) And the Memorial displayed the Tribute in Light
Closer to home, the University of Kansas announced a 9/11 commemoration at 8 pm with a flag presentation, words from the local fire chief, candle lighting, and tolling of campanile bells
In Kansas City, beginning at 8:56 am and each wearing a picture of a rescuer who died in the attempt to save others’ lives, a commemorative stair climb.
"343 firefighters climbed 110 fights of stairs to remember the victims of 9/11 from the New York Fire Department.”
Another kind of commemoration was held during the pregame show at the Kansas City Chiefs football game. During the playing of the national anthem before the Kansas City Chiefs football game, 150 first responders held an American flag across the field
And President Barack Obama gave an address, as he did for Labor Day, this time at the Pentagon Memorial.
Some editorial writers also commemorated the day, using the event for more pointed arguments. The Kansas City Star's Sunday editorial argued for shifting tactics against terrorism. And Michael Gerson (Washington Post Writers Group, printed in KC Star) on “What did 9/11 mean?”
Editorial cartoonists used single images for great impact. I couldn't find a legal link to the one I found most powerful (and used in both my local newspapers) by Tom Stiglich--an image of the World Trade Center towers superimposed on an American flag with the words "NEVER FORGET." But such editorial cartoons were common September 11, with a few linked below
In an intriguing transformation of a genre, several comic strips this Sunday morning commemorated 9/11, looking more like editorial cartoons than what I grew up calling “the funnies.”
The cartoonists of BC, The Wizard of Id and Luann offered tributes to the first responders
While Mallard Fillmore and Prickly City depicted the tower and the slogan "Never Forget"
#Never Forget of course is a common hashtag I saw September 11 (though I do typically search some topics on Twitter so it might not have come up if I hadn't been browsing). #NeverForget tweets offered heartfelt sorrows and prayers, images of American flags and of the Tribute in Light, and variations on the photo gallery of the lives lost that day
On my Facebook feed, the top stories included no commemorations of 9/11 or its 15th anniversary. Breaking my rule not to go looking for it, I searched Facebook for #NeverForget and, while I found many thousands using that hashtag, it clearly was not a big topic on others' news feeds either. Of course, in 2001, 9/11 posts covered Facebook. Maybe Facebook is less the place for commemorating public events and more for connecting personally to the current moment.
Other types of commemorations I noticed that day:
The New York Times reviewed two young adult novels about 9/11, so some new fiction is remembering, if not necessarily commemorating. But the NY Times' pointing out books appropriate to the occasion commemorates it.
The New Yorker tweeted its past magazine covers commemorating 9/11
And then there was television. Well, no, actually, there wasn't. I saw that one PBS show commemorated 9/11, "Inside the Pentagon." If there were other TV documentaries or tribute concerts, they weren't heavily enough advertised or I didn’t run across them.
There was one notable TV commemoration of 9/11-- President Obama’s brief address to the nation before the NFL games
Of course, these are just the ways of commemorating I happened to encounter on September 11, 2016, a Sunday, in the middle of the country far from New York City, the Pentagon, or Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And I looked only for the public ways people paid tribute. My account doesn’t include all the many ways those who lost loved ones that day grieve, or the actions of survivors suffering from PTSD, or the private acts that might comfort as well as remind us.
But I kept thinking that day not about the ceremonies, speeches, flag displays, editorials, cartoons, tweets, magazine covers, or even the stair climbs. In the end, I was most moved by a single photograph from the morning newspaper that represented many. An image of the back of a young woman's neck, where you can see the tattoo she got to honor her mother, who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. Hers and the many other tattoos like hers may be the most powerful act of commemorating. Reminding us in their public commemoration of their private grief.