In Honor of "X-Files" Day: A Discussion of Narrative Complexity in THE X-FILES

The X-Files is a beautifully crafted show that successfully blends “monster of the week” independent episodes with an immensely complex overarching narrative, involving the pasts and personal lives of Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. While other shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Law and Order: SVU have narrative structures that involve a similar mixture of episodic and long-term plot, The X-Files is exceptional in the complexity of its overarching narrative and the process through which information about that narrative is concealed from and revealed to the viewers, and to Mulder and Scully themselves. The show creates a vast web of unanswered questions and possibilities over the course of the series, alienating some viewers and enticing others with a convoluted narrative that forces constant reevaluation of information.  

There are also instances of multi-episodic plots that involve the overarching narrative while creating shorter arcs that are opened and resolved in the course of two or three episodes. This is perfectly illustrated by “Colony” and “End Games,” episodes sixteen and seventeen, respectively, of the second season. By this point in the show, it has been established that Agent Mulder’s interest in the X-Files project is deeply seated in the mystery surrounding his sister’s abduction when he was twelve. He suspects, but cannot prove, that aliens abducted his sister and have been keeping her for experimentation; Mulder’s constant search for the truth leads him and Scully deep into a world of conspiracies and secrets, and on multiple occasions results in their being abducted themselves and experimented on by seemingly alien life forms.

 “Colony” opens with a voice-over of Mulder and a dark screen; Mulder describes his past and reasons for joining the X-Files in detail, laying out not only his motivations, but also the very building blocks of the overarching narrative:

“I have lived with a fragile faith built on the ether of vague memories from an experience that I can neither prove nor explain. When I was twelve, my sister was taken from me, taken from our home by a force that I came to believe was extraterrestrial. (A light shines down from the mist.) This belief sustained me, fueling a quest for truths that were as elusive as the memory itself. To believe as passionately as I did was not without sacrifice, but I always accepted the risks... to my career, my reputation, my relationships... to life itself…”


As he speaks, a spotlight comes into frame, followed by the sounds of a helicopter, then the chopper itself, and a scene of frantic sirens and activity opens. Someone is being medevaced on a stretcher, rushed into an operating room. As the doctors describe the patient’s dire condition, a shot reveals the man is Mulder. Almost immediately, Scully rushes into the scene, attempting to force her way into the room; she is held back by guards, but continues to force her way in, saying, “there is no time, a man is dying.” The scene then cuts back to Mulder with a clearer shot on his frozen and bruised face, zooming out as his voice-over cuts back in:  

            “What happened to me out on the ice justified all of my beliefs...that there is intelligent life in the universe other than our own, that they are here among us, and that they have begun to colonize us.”


These two speeches are among the most significant of the entire series; Mulder not only details his past and his motivations, but also sets up the rest of the episode: the audience now knows deeply important information is going to be revealed about the presence of alien life on Earth, precisely what Mulder has been seeking to discover since the show’s start. The title sequence is then followed by an establishing shot of an arctic research vessel with the subtitle “two weeks earlier” at the bottom. This opening creates expectations and suspense in the viewer by utilizing what Mittell calls an “operational aesthetic”— now the viewer is engaged not only in what action unfolds in the episode, but also how it is presented, specifically, how it will lead to the episode’s opening scene: Scully trying, seemingly in vain, to save her dying partner by keeping him cold.

The first five minutes of the episode proper continue to set up the action in a remarkably concise manner. A doctor in a women’s care facility sees the news of the recovery of a man presumed to be a pilot, and leaves the room with a terrified expression on his face. He runs straight into the “pilot”, who appears out of nowhere and kills the doctor with a stab to the base of the neck. This is followed by a shot of the stab wound, which oozes fizzing green goo, indicating that the man is not a normal human. There is then a cut to Mulder and Scully’s office, where they are receiving information involving a set of identical men, all of whom were murdered, worked as doctors in abortion clinics, and are named Gregor.

 As Mulder and Scully attempt to figure out who these men are, another FBI agent, Weiss, goes to the house of another doctor, identical to those found murdered, who they suspect will be the next victim. When he gets there, the killer is already inside, and as Weiss enters the house, there is a shot, from Weiss’s POV, of a puddle of the sizzling goo where the doctor’s dead body should be. There is a cut to Weiss’s reaction; he shoots the killer but instead of killing him, the bullets make three holes that spout green goo. Weiss is shown grabbing his head in pain, and then there’s a cut to Mulder and Scully pulling up to the house. Weiss comes around from the side and tells them there’s no one inside, that it’s too late. He then goes to the trunk of his car where the real Agent Weiss lies dead—the man posing as Weiss is actually the killer, who the viewer now realizes can shape shift.

This introduction creates a situation that imbues the rest of the episode, and its continuation “End Games,” with a thrilling suspense: the killer, who it’s revealed is an alien bounty hunter come to kill all the “clones,” can change his form at will, meaning no character can be trusted because anyone could be the killer in disguise. Additionally, in the middle of this action, more crucial information is revealed. Mulder is called home for an urgent matter and finds his sister has come home. She tells him that she’s in danger, and that her adoptive father was one of the identical doctors, who she also reveals are aliens, as the viewer already knows.

While Mulder is learning all of this, the looming threat comes to a head as Scully reveals where she’ll be staying while on a call with Mulder, unaware the bounty hunter is only feet away from her, listening. This again impregnates the moment with suspense; the viewer knows Scully is being followed by a figure who can disguise himself from her. This acts as a primer for when Scully lets “Mulder” into her hotel room, only to answer the phone and find Mulder on the other end. Now, both the viewer and Scully know that the man in her room is the bounty hunter, and the episode cuts off on this intense cliffhanger.

“End Games” then opens with a scene in the submarine sent out to find the vessel that crashed in the arctic. By deferring our return to the scene of Scully and the bounty hunter, the show  prolongs and heightens the suspense generated at  the end scene of “Colony.” As the episode progresses, Mulder negotiates a trade of his sister for Scully, who has been taken by the bounty hunter, and believes his sister dies as a result. However, when her dead body is brought out of the freezing water and begins to thaw, it corrodes into green goo the exact way the alien doctor did.

This cues the viewer to know she was never actually Mulder’s sister, but another alien; Mulder himself then discovers this information when he goes to an address she had left him and he finds multiple alien clones of his “sister.” They inform him they knew he could be manipulated and needed his help, but that they do have information about his sister, thus inducing him to think the bounty hunter knows where his sister is as well. The bounty hunter arrives and knocks Mulder out; the scene clearly implies he then finds and kills the women clones.

An ellipse follows, and Scully learns from the autopsy of Weiss that the alien goo contains a retrovirus unknown in humans that dies at cold temperatures, explaining why the body of Mulder’s “sister” corroded after it was pulled from the river. This also causes the viewer to flash back to the beginning of “Colony” when Scully tells the doctors to stop heating up Mulder’s body. It is now clear Mulder is going to be infected by the virus, creating suspense as Carroll defines it: knowing Mulder is going to be infected and at serious risk of death, but not knowing how or what will lead up to that event; the suspense is intensified by the knowledge that he will be in critical condition by the time Scully finds him.

A meeting between Mulder and Deep Throat, a mysterious man who shows up only in episodes related to the overarching plot, follows Scully’s discovery in the lab. Deep Throat tells Mulder the only surviving alien is the bounty hunter, and that his ship was located by a submarine off the coast of Alaska—as shown in the opening scene of the episode. He also warns Mulder that “this is a battle you can’t win,” adding to the suspense by decreasing the likelihood that Mulder will achieve his goals, and hinting at what will lead Mulder to his frozen, near-death condition. As the episode continues, there is a series of confrontations between Scully, Deep Throat, and Mulder and Scully’s superior, Agent Skinner, about where Mulder went and why. There is then a cut to Mulder finding the vessel in the arctic; he is attacked by the bounty hunter, who then takes off in his ship, leaving Mulder on the ice to die.

There is then a cut to the first scene of “Colony,” but now the story time has caught up to the flash forward that opened the episode. The viewer knows what Scully knows: the cold is the only thing keeping Mulder alive. The tension caused by this knowledge and the doctors’ refusal to listen to Scully reinforces the suspense felt throughout the episode. The doctors eventually give into her demands, and the episode concludes with Mulder convalescing in a hospital bed with Scully by his side. When she asks if he found what he was looking for out on the ice he responds, “I found something I thought I’d lost: faith to keep looking.”

This ending ties up the two-episode arc in that the bounty hunter is clearly gone, but the storyline isn’t finished completely because of Mulder’s implication he’s going to keep looking for his sister whom he now thinks is still alive. This keeps the sister-search storyline open, while deferring resolution, yet again, allowing other storylines to be pursued in what, from the perspective of the arc, is an indefinitely extended interval. The viewer doesn’t know when Mulder’s search for his sister will be brought back into the show again, but it’s certain that eventually it will be. These episodes of The X-Files embody the unique narrative complexity of the show in a succinct and enthralling manner; acting as a short installment of the overarching narrative, while also creating plot arc within that narrative that is resolved with the end of “End Games”.


Game of Thrones Season 5 Premiere: The Wars to Come

Isn’t it a beautiful time of year? The snow has melted, the Mister Softee jingle is playing in the streets, andGame of Thrones is back with a Lannister-like vengeance. The first and final episodes of each GoT season are always solid, but “The Wars to Come” has to be among the best. Dripping with intrigue and exposition, the episode set up a number of conflicts and questions in the midst of strong revelations in character development and motivation—and some blood, butts, and dragons.

I’m in the obnoxious camp of “I’ve read all the books so I know what’s coming….” and while I know this season should break from that and be full of surprises (G.R.R.M. has been quoted all over the place about the deviations from the book), the premiere did include a number of scenes straight out of A Feast for Crows. I’ve long sung the praises of Game of Thrones as a literary adaptation, though mostly to my old thesis advisor. Game of Thrones, strongly influenced by the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, works so well because it successfully translates the tone and themes of A Song of Ice and Fire. Like LOTR, Game of Thrones combines the spectacular appeal of fantasy (and unlike LOTR, sex) with compelling stories of human melodrama, reframing the books’ most significant characterizations and narratives to create a show that successfully resonates with a wide audience. But I digress—if anyone wants to hear a very long-winded rant about the influence of LOTR on GoT, hit me up. Let’s get into the premiere.

This episode is a beautiful illustration of the meticulous care and planning that the writers put into this show. Opening with Cersei’s flashback, we immediately delve deep into the heart of her character, immersed in the mysterious woods of her past. The maegi’s prophecy is incredibly revealing of Cersei’s motivations; her paranoia regarding Margaery, her ferocity in protecting her children. However, the scene also reveals that it isn’t just fear of the prophecy that led to adult Cersei’s cruelty. In her threats to the maegi, the young Cersei sounds not unlike Joffrey; the poisoned apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The scene that follows of Cersei and Jamie saying goodbye to their father’s corpse highlights not only her vitriolic hate for Tyrion, but her anger with Jamie. Her words (“you’re a man of action, aren’t you? When it occurs to you to do something you do it, never mind the consequences,”) and the framing over and around the late Tywin’s body, the Seeing Stones on his eyes, are a pointed remaindered of Jamie’s actions the last time the two were alone in the Great Sept, and it’s clear Cersei has not forgiven him for doing what he wanted then either (nor have I forgiven the show for that unnecessarily violent scene).

Moving on to focus on the targets of the present Cersei’s contempt, the show presents a slightly more than half-assed attempt to balance the gender ratio of its nudity with a scene of Loras and his latest lover. Loras is nonchalant to the point of arrogance when Margaery reprimands him for his lack of discretion, but when Loras points out Cersei will remain hovering over her in King’s Landing, that same casual arrogance is displayed, twice as interestingly and far more threateningly, in Margaery’s lingering “perhaps.” There is something brewing behind that charming half-smile, though whether she’s planning a manipulation through Tommen or something more sinister is yet to be revealed. Cersei better hope Margaery doesn’t have her grandmother’s success when it comes to treachery.

And more plans are brewing across the Narrow Sea in Pentos, where Varys has smuggled a very dirty and very despondent Tyrion. Varys has long established himself as one of the most shrewd and powerful players in the game, and Tyrion has been one of his most consistent allies. Their alliance is natural; Tyrion was born with the right name but the wrong body, and his intelligence has been overshadowed by his deformations to most of King’s Landing and the Seven Kingdoms, but Varys, himself a eunch, recognized Tyrion’s value despite his (literal) shortcomings, and that recognition led them to Pentos together. The scene of Varys and Tyrion’s conversation on the balcony is gorgeously written and composed, opening with their mutual mocking acknowledgement of one another before quickly transitioning into serious plot and character development. Ignoring Tyrion’s sarcastic responses, Varys makes clear his confidence in Tyrion and hints at his plan for establishing a new monarch. “Good luck finding him,” Tyrion responds apathetically, but Varys catches his attention (and that of anyone who missed the trailer featuring this scene) when he responds, “Who said anything about ‘him’?” As a final hint, the score comes in with the rising notes of the Targaryen leitmotif just before Varys lays out his full proposition for Tyrion, leaving no more ambiguity about where their story is going but a lot of anticipation for how it goes. Game of Thrones’ cinematic score has been one of the most powerful devices throughout the show, emotionally evocative in its narrative associations and tension building, but invoked sparingly enough so as never to be taken for granted or go unnoticed.

Back in Westeros, in a place that never seems safe, Jon Snow is caught in the negotiations between two very different but equally stubborn kings at Castle Black. We first see Jon in this episode as he spars with a young boy (the boy who shot Ygritte) in the training yard, his instruction style reminiscent of the late Lord Commander Mormont, and then there are discussions of who will be chosen to replace the Old Bear. In his attempts to convince Mance to bend the knee, Jon demonstrates that he stills knows nothing— he cannot understand, even after Mance explains in no uncertain terms, that it isn’t that Mance won’t save Wildlings the by kneeling to Stannis, but that he can’t because they wouldn’t follow him if he did. But Mance’s lesson in leadership and sticking to one’s principles does take seed in Jon, as he steps up and shoots Mance with an arrow and allows him to die with dignity instead of burning alive. Acting in open defiance of Stannis is an incredibly bold move on Jon’s part, but it also displays the rare and highly valued combination of intelligence, toughness, and compassion that Varys described as exactly what the Seven Kingdoms needed in a leader.

This premiere neatly lays out who the main players will be in the titular game this season. Moving from Cersei’s flashback to focus on Meereen and Daenerys makes it clear she’s the real threat, but the red herring in Margaery adds another layer of intrigue, especially as she begins to become a real player in her own right. Varys’s faith in Daenerys, and in Tyrion, demonstrate he continues to be a few steps ahead of everyone else, just as Daenerys demonstrates her inability to yet control either her dragons or her city. What will happen to the Stark girls is yet to be seen; their stories seem to be losing momentum while others rise in leaps, but that’s the beauty of Game of Thrones— even if you read the books and study the show, you never really know might happen in the wars to come.



Mad Men Season 7B Premiere

Exactly one week ago, as a friend gushed over the return of Mad Men, I confessed I had never gotten into the show and received a telling-off worthy of Don Draper himself. At the behest of this incensed friend, I opened Netflix and started the pilot; five or six hours later, I looked up and noticed the sun had gone down and I had finished the first season. I fell in love with the show as Don fell in love with Betty— lustily consumed at first sight by the glamour, the costumes, the people, the sets, the dialogue. Beauty and intrigue draped through every shot like the ubiquitous clouds of cigarette smoke.

In a mixture of impulse and ambition, I decided that I would catch up on the entire show in time for the release of the new episodes, and through a heady mixture of blood, sweat, tears and caffeine, I goddamn did it. (Please save me the embarrassment and don’t try to calculate how many hours of Netflix that is). But after seeing the new episode, “Severance,” I can confidently say it was well worth it. Mad Men is a wild ride, and though there were a few lags in the later seasons, Sunday’s new episode proved that this show is going out the same enticing way it came in.

This week’s episode starts off with what seems like a very intimate scene: a long-limbed brunette poses seductively in a chinchilla coat, following specific instructions from “sexy voice” Don. As the brunette stares up at him (and us), flashing baby blues through dark lashes and slowly drawing her fingertips up the length of her exposed leg, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” begins playing— for me, this was the defining moment when I knew the rest of the show would not disappoint.

This song choice is so perfect—the piano melody recalls a burlesque club, adding more heat to the already intimate scene, but the lyrics are even more evocative, as Lee singsongs the question Don has been asking himself every day of his adult life: “Is this all there is?” Don has been chasing a loose dream of happiness for the entire show, never satisfied with what he has, never sure what he’s searching for, but searching forsomething nonetheless. The song, which plays again during the credits, sets the tone not only for the episode, but for the rest of the series.

The episode continues with twists and turns of plot and character development. As the song begins to fade out in this opening scene, the frame pulls back and reveals this isn’t one of Don’s trysts but a casting call, subverting our expectations and switching our focus from Don’s personal escapades to his professional life. As “Severance” continues, we see Roger (now equipped with a mustache that would make the Monopoly man green with envy) and Don out at a diner with a group of girls. Don tells a seemingly true story about his childhood in the “boarding house,” closing the time gap since the last episode and reminding us neatly of his past as it contrasts with his present— which Roger notably points out: “He loves to tell stories about how poor he was, but he’s not anymore.”

As episode goes on, it moves between glimpses into the personal and professional lives of not just Don, but Peggy, Joan, and, somewhat surprisingly, Ken. Despite the less significant role he usually plays, Ken is one of my favorite characters because he’s one of the only truly good people in the show. He is honest (well, as honest as he can be), he loves his family, and he really captured my heart with his short story “The Man With the Miniature Orchestra” in Season 5 episode “Signal 30.” I love Ken’s storyline in this episode because it’s one of the few times we see good conquer evil as he turns his firing into a promotion at Dow, pulling the wool over Roger’s head and shocking Pete into speechlessness (a rare feat).

The storylines of Peggy and Joan are less heartening— in an effort to rebrand Topaz pantyhose, the two women attend a meeting with some men from McCann, who spend the entire time sexually harassing Joan in a disgusting display of misogyny. This scene exemplifies what I most admire about Mad Men: the unabashed demonstrations of sexism and misogyny that don’t shy away from reality, but highlight what some people might call the more banal sexism that is still common today. Though no man in 2015 would be able to get away with saying what these assholes say to Joan, Peggy’s response to the situation (a comment about how Joan can’t expect more the way she dresses) is right on par with the slut-shaming, victim-blaming rhetoric circulating society today. Keeping her head held high, Joan handles it like the bad bitch [register] she is, refuting Peggy’s insult and pointing out that the problem is how she’s built, not how she dresses. Joan later bails on a meeting with the pigs from McCann to go out and buy herself a bunch of sexy, expensive dresses, and when the department store clerk recognizes her, Joan looks fiercely at herself in the mirror and says she must have her mistaken for someone else. This was an Ilana Glazer “YASSS QUEEN” moment for me because Joan is a different person from who she was when she worked there, and she is never looking back—she’s gonna get hers, girl, and I am so excited to watch her do it.

Though the beginning of the episode made it clear Don is back to his drunken playboy ways in the wake of his second failed marriage, we do see genuine emotion from him in the second half of the episode, after he learns of Rebecca Menkin’s death. He goes back to the diner and the sex scene in the dank alleyway that follows is a poignant display of loneliness, rather than lust. This loneliness is only compounded as he inappropriately shows up at Rebecca’s shiva and then returns to the diner to sit by himself, and even before the song fades back in, the question is written all over his face: “Is this really all there is?”

Guess we’ll find out over the next six weeks.



5000 Candles in the Wind: Saying Good-bye to Parks and Recreation

I admit it. I cried during Parks and Rec finale. Several times. Donna telling Joe she wanted to use her adventure fund to start the foundation, Ron and Leslie’s moment on the mall. But when Leslie walked into the Parks and Rec office to find everyone waiting for her and Ann walked out, I really lost it. It wasn’t because her appearance surprised me (I have great intuition, and also I saw “guest starring Rashida Jones” in the credits) or because she was a favorite character of mine (I’m partial to Donna), but because that’s when Leslie lost it. Because, through its mockumentary-style format and character-driven narrative, Parks and Rec makes you feel what the character feels, and this finale had a lot of feeling. (It doesn’t help that my two best friends and I live across the country from one another and recently had a strikingly similar reunion— but I digress.)

Though it had a rough first season, people who gave up on Leslie and the P&R family should give it another shot because Parks and Rec went on to become one of the most endearing and genuinely funny shows on television (or Netflix). The development of the show’s comedic voice and the transformations the characters went through over the course of P&R’s seven seasons were well thought-out, well executed, and well, really just damn enjoyable to watch unfold and be a part of. And as I said, thanks to the show’s structure, you do truly feel like you’re a part of it— Parks and Rec follows a single-camera, mockumentary format spun off that of The Office, creating intimate moments between the characters and us, the viewers. This is accomplished through the talking head segments (when characters speak directly into the camera, as if in an interview) and the frequent looks characters direct at the camera the underline some of the more deadpan jokes, inviting us into the world of Pawnee, Indiana and letting us in on the action.

The finale of Parks and Rec brought this sentiment, and the series, full circle. As Leslie speaks to the dear friends assembled around her, the camera moves through the other characters, placing us in each of their perspectives and on Leslie’s level, right in the midst of the emotional farewell. Though I can’t say it surpassed my personal favorite series finale, that of my beloved 30 Rock, the finale of Parks and Recreation really did justice to the fantastic and highly under-appreciated show (booooo network ratings).

The personal growth of each character was concisely but thoroughly demonstrated in the flashforwards and flashbacks.  Things as simple as the color of Leslie’s hair, which started off a jarringly brassy yellow and became increasingly polished as her life came together across the seasons, or Ron’s role move from father figure to actual father, guided our perceptions and our experience as viewers for seven seasons, aligning us with the characters by allowing us to grow with them and bask in their happiness and success. Lousy with references to long-running jokes— such as Gail’s unnatural beauty and Jerry’s misspelled tombstone; the cover photo on Tom’s best-seller, which has appeared in multiple episodes over the course of the series; Donna naming her foundation “Teach Yo Self;” and Leslie’s disgust at having a motherfucking library named after her— the finale paid homage to some of the shows best jokes and our best memories, wrapping up the series with a touching but not overly-sappy moment of love and friendship.

The bloopers that ran with the credits leading up to the final wrap shot of the cast hugging in the middle of the office were the icing on an unfairly perfect cake, bringing us in one last time to feel the embrace of the most loving fictional family in America.

I’m going to go watch it again now, someone pass me the Kleenex.


The Levels of Laughter in 30 Rock

While there has been plenty of traditional comedy present in television over the last twenty years, there has been a distinct increase in shows deriving humor from what film theorist Neil Harris calls the “’operational aesthetic,’ — shows in which the laughter is less about “what will happen?” and more about “how did he do that?”[1] NBC’s cult classic 30 Rock is perhaps the most brilliant television show to come out of this trend (and probably the best comedy absolutely ever bar none). The show mixes reflexive, self-aware winks at the audience and operational appeal with traditional sources of comedy such as character-based, situational humor and witty one-liners. Generating comedy through both traditional and innovative means, 30 Rock amassed a huge fan following (which is still growing, thanks to Netflix) and garnered critical acclaim with its uniquely complex narrative structure and consistent mix of long-running jokes, character humor, and slapstick gags. The show follows a fairly set episodic narrative pattern, introducing a conflict that temporally prevents television producer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) from achieving her goals, which almost always center on successfully producing that week’s episode of The Girly Show but also involve her silly and disastrous personal life. Liz always comes to her boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) with her problems— usually while he is involved in a sub-drama of his own, frequently involving his romantic interest of the moment. The stars of TGS Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) and Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) are constantly mucking up everyone else’s lives, Liz’s in particular, while working out some absurd issue they’ve concocted or gotten involved in.

Each character has a few well-established patterns of dialogue and behavior that the audience can expect to see repeated in various iterations across episodic, seasonal and series-wide arcs. For example, Jack is incredibly elitist, condescending and intelligent while acting as a mentor to Liz; Liz herself is consistently cynical and snarky as she mothers the entire cast, dealing with absurd situations that arise while trying to navigate New York as single, working woman in her thirties. Jenna is prone to extreme fits and temper tantrums, usually stemming from jealousy about other people getting more attention than her; she histrionically threatens to kill herself in at least five different episodes. In season four, Jenna starts dating Paul (Will Forte), a male Jenna Maroney impersonator; their relationship provides a fantastic new source of comedy throughout the rest of the series, as they stay together and eventually get married. They make a big point of having as weird and kinky a sex life as possible, a joke that is threaded into many narrative sub-plots, such as in the episode “The Tuxedo Begins.”

Though it’s subtle at first, “The Tuxedo Begins” is a parody of the film Batman Begins— as the episode progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious, leading up to arguably one of the best final scenes in any 30 Rock episode. This episode is a fantastic example of 30 Rock’s various styles of comedy, from the self-referential winks and satire of New York City and pop culture to the witty dialogue and snappy one-liners. We open on Liz and Jack walking down the street as Jack talks on the phone and Liz complains about New York; as they pass a bus, a young girl gets off with a bag, belts out a few notes of a song, and then turns and says to Liz, “Say, where does a young prostitute get a start in this city?” Many of the best jokes in 30 Rock are based on this kind of over-the-top situation and subversions of expectations. Later in the episode, Liz sneezes into her elbow, leaving a snot stain in the image of Jesus, which her co-producer Pete (Scott Adsit) looks at and acknowledges with only mild disinterest. Jaded reaction shots frequently follow the especially ridiculous or unbelievable things that happen in the show to add a deadpan feel to the more slapstick gags and get more comedic mileage from the combination of the set-up and the unexpected reaction. 

30 Rock makes use of the operational aesthetic through frequent, self-referential jokes about and/or out of the fact that it’s a TV show, as well as through jokes about TGS. An example of this can be seen in the fifth episode of the first season, in which Jack tells Liz she needs to do a “product integration” sketch on TGS to market GE products. Liz starts to tell Jack off, saying she won’t sacrifice the integrity of the show to sell stuff, but is cut off by Pete prominently holding up a bottle of Snapple and exclaiming, “Wow, this is diet Snapple??” Liz then holds up her own bottle saying, “I know, it tastes just like regular Snapple!” Everyone at the table picks up the conversation, discussing their favorite flavors and showing their own bottles.

This reflexive self-awareness of the “show within a show” jokes are carried throughout the episode, as Liz tells Pete she wrote a product integration sketch to which he replies, “I cant believe you wrote a product integration sketch, the show isn’t a commercial,” just as a person in a giant Snapple costume exits the elevator behind them. The “show within a show” model functions as an inherent, recurring source of comedy throughout all seven seasons of 30 Rock, much in the same way it worked in The Larry Sanders Show in the 1990s. The influence of Larry Sanders in 30 Rock is significant, as it was a clear inspiration for the premise of the show, as well as the focus on strongly defined characters, which allows most of the comedy in the show to play out organically. 

However, 30 Rock calls more attention to the apparatus of the show with gags such as the Snapple placement and the live episodes. These threads continue to appear over the course of the series, with frequent jokes about the troubles of producing a television show and with the dramas that unfold on the TGS set exemplifying those troubles. Perhaps the best example of this is a scene in the eleventh episode of the sixth season, “Standards and Practices,” in which Kenneth the Page (Jack Mc Brayer) has been promoted to network censor. The scene opens with classic 30 Rock character jokes and one-liners, as Kenneth offers Liz “chickpeas, moonshine, or turtle meat” as a refreshment when she enters his office. After she starts talking, Kenneth interrupts her, presenting a list he made of “television no-nos,” which he hands to Liz. If you pause the show, you can clearly see the list is made up entirely of words directly relating to 30 Rock: “conflict”, “urban”, “woman”, “divorce”, “shows about shows”, “dramedy”, “New York”, “high concept”, “complex”, “niche”, “quality,” and, snuck in right at the end of the frame, “immortal characters.” This is a beautiful example of an Easter egg, a winking joke made specifically for the dedicated viewer who takes the time to stop and see it.

In this way, 30 Rock generates added comedy by tying in the self-reflexivity with previously established running gags. Any given episode of 30 Rock features multiple seemingly disparate narratives that eventually become intertwined and resolved or are just left hanging intentionally-- part of the fun is in not knowing whether or not a joke will reappear in a later episode, and if it does, there’s always an unexpected and whimsical twist. So if you haven't watched all of 30 Rock, I don't care where you are or what you're doing-- stop right now and do it. You can thank me later.


[1] Mittell, Jason. "Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television." Velvet Light Trap. 58. (2006): 29-40. Web.


The Mockingjay, Part 1

            I read a lot. Usually in short, intense, ADHD-driven bursts. I read all of the Hunger Games books on vacation in 2012 and got so caught up in them I used up the batteries of two flashlights reading at night. (Luckily, I had my phone’s light to fall back on then.) So, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that I was one of the eight or nine people milling around in the cold outside of the Cobble Hill Cinema last Thursday night in anticipation of the 8 o’clock premiere of The Mockingjay, Part 1, the third installment of The Hunger Games films. While I enjoyed the first of the films based upon Suzanne Collins’s books, it didn't quite do justice to the serious tone of the books, nor did it seem to fully flesh out the themes of massive oppression and classism, focusing more superficially on Katniss Everdeen’s personal struggles and her developing relationship with Peeta. The second film, Catching Fire, was much better, but still seemed to downplay the darker political themes in favor of the dramatic action of the games. In The Mockingjay, however, the Hunger Games are over and the real game of war has begun.

Set in a dystopian future in the ruins of what used to be North America, the film picks up the story where Catching Fire left off, as Katniss is rescued from the destruction of the Quarter Quell Hunger Games and taken, along with fellow tributes Finnick Odair and Beetee, to the secret underground stronghold of District 13, where a militaristic new government has formed and the rebellion against the Capitol is fully underway. Thanks to Collins’ significant involvement in the screenwriting process, Mockingjay is a remarkably faithful adaptation and an impressive film overall; the third installment of the franchise takes The Hunger Games out of the kiddy territory expected from a “young adult” story and addresses the themes of militarism, oppression, and classism without the coyness of the previous films. To put it simply, shit gets dark.

Perhaps this is because Katniss herself has gone through such a stark transformation as a result of her experiences in the Hunger Games and the Quarter Quell; displaying unmistakable signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, our protagonist is caught in the midst of a rebellion she unknowingly began. The audience follows Katniss through the film, and so our viewing experience and understanding of the story are shaped by Katniss’ own experiences and understanding. She acts as a guide and surrogate for the audience throughout the story, translating the first-person narrative of the book into cinematic subjectivity by visually aligning the audience with her state of mind. Throughout the film, we discover information when and how Katniss does. While the book starts with Katniss already in District 12, the film doesn’t show the ruined remains of District 12 until Katniss sees it for the first time herself; by starting the film instead with the shot of Katniss talking to herself (and the audience) hunkered in a dark corner of 13 instead, the reveal of 12’s destruction is more powerful because we react alongside Katniss, seeing it together for the first time. And because we’ve been aligned with her already, our reaction to the destruction continues to echo hers.

The changes made throughout the film all reflect differences in literary and cinematic storytelling; every scene that differs significantly from the book does so in order to heighten the audience’s experience through the film, increasing the dramatic tension and emotional impact through the visualizations of the narrative. The most outstanding examples are some of the most powerful scenes in the film: the bombing raid on 8, the bombing raid on 13, the mission to rescue Peeta, and the acts of rebellion in the other Districts, blowing up the Peacekeepers and breaking the dam. Each of these scenes takes action that occurs over a only few pages or even paragraphs in writing.  While those passages are dramatic in text, when they brought to the big screen, the power of the action and associated emotion are intensified exponentially.

The destruction of the giant dam that powers the Capitol is especially noteworthy, as the film so beautifully carries and transitions the emotional momentum created by Katniss singing “The Hanging Tree” (a lilting song with a dark message, strongly reminiscent of the protest song “Strange Fruit”) into a poignant moment of collective heroism and spectacular action.  Katniss’s song continues in voiceover as the image cuts to Command and then to a group of marching rebels, who take it up and turn it into a battle hymn as they storm the dam and knowingly sacrifice their lives to destroy it. This sequence is gorgeously composed and the haunting lyrics and melody of the song underscore the dramatic tension and emotional payoff as a magnificent series of shots shows wave after wave of water crashing over the ruined dam, sending the Capitol into a blackout. The combination of the slow, ethereal song layered over the violent clatter of gun-fire and fighting has a profoundly chilling effect, recalling how Pippin sang as Faramir marched to his own sacrifice in The Lord of the Rings.  (I had to bring it up somehow.)

 Throughout the film, these sorts of turning points and moments of emotional turmoil are marked by shaky, handheld cinematography and extreme close-ups on Katniss, again placing the audience in her subjectivity and encouraging us to feel her emotions as powerfully as she does. I could go on for another couple hours about all the nuanced ways in which the filmmakers guided the audience’s perceptions of each character and use subtle foreshadowing to set the stage for the last installment of the series. But I’ll restrain myself. Might tweet a few more tidbits because, let’s be honest: I can’t really restrain myself (I like to think I’m channeling a little bit of Katniss). I do have to praise the judicious use of CGI; especially compared to the ridiculous indulgence and over-stylization of the Hobbit preview that preceded it onscreen, Mockingjay is an artfully restrained sci-fi film, dipping into extravagant CGI and action in sufficient moderation that each big action sequence is thrilling without being collectively over the top. Suffice it to say, in bringing The Hunger Games series to a new level, with its insightful social commentary and truly moving portrayal of human trauma and resilience, The Mockingjay soars. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) 

Concerning Hobbits, Heroes, and Film: Lessons “The Lord of the Rings” Taught Us

What about the visualization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring struck global audiences in December 2001 so powerfully? And what is it about Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films that has allowed them to continue captivating and inspiring international audiences new and old over a decade after their release? The Lord of the Rings films and franchise themselves have been heavily critiqued and commented on, but this literature has centered around either the mechanics of producing and marketing the films or the precise details of how Jackson changed Tolkien’s story, without considering the implications of those changes. There is a significant dearth of intelligent analysis of Jackson’s singular accomplishment; i.e., how his changes to the story and his manipulation of cinematic devices endowed the films with a uniquely successful combination of believability, narrative cohesion, and emotional depth. My book, Concerning Hobbits, Film, and Heroism, will help to fill this gap by revealing the thoughtful and meticulous filmmaking decisions that lifted Tolkien’s fantasy story out of its literary niche and brought it to the highest realm of critical acclaim, resulting in one of the most celebrated cinematic franchises in history.

Literature and cinema have their own distinct languages. To successfully adapt a piece of literature into film, a director has to use the vocabulary of cinema (screenwriting, mise-en-scene,[1] visual effects, cinematography, and editing) to translate the written word into something recognizable, yet entirely new and unique – ideally, something that can stand on its own merits as an influential and historic work of art. While J.R.R. Tolkien was a master of Old (and new) English and the inventor of several languages of his own, he could not imagine how his sprawling, fantastic novel could successfully become a film.  And yet Peter Jackson succeeded, spectacularly.  In my book, I will delve into an exploration of the language of cinema and how Jackson used this language to visually translate the themes and tone of Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.

Based on my Honors Film Studies thesis for Wesleyan University, Concerning Hobbits, Film, and Heroism will lay out how Peter Jackson’s narrative development of distinct threads of humble heroism in each of Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin was balanced with the use of popular cinematic devices, such as Aragorn’s romantic hook or the myriad spectacular action sequences, to create a trilogy of films that dominated global box offices and has had a substantial, lasting influence on contemporary filmmaking. I will reveal the lessons in effective, emotive filmmaking that are illustrated by Jackson’s visualization of Middle-Earth and his cinematic translation of The Lord of the Rings’ two predominant themes: moral opposition (i.e., good versus evil) and the power of the modest Tolkienian hero (i.e., the notion that the most humble of characters can become the chief hero through acts of honest bravery and self-sacrifice). This book will use objective analysis of specific shots, scenes and characterizations throughout the trilogy to highlight exactly how Jackson accomplished the impossible with The Lord of the Rings, breaking down the movies in terms that average fans of the films and the book can understand and appreciate. Millions of people know that Peter Jackson took a dense, high-fantasy text and respectfully turned it into compelling and exhilarating cinema. My book will let them understand how.


[1] The book will, of course, explain phrases like mise-en-scene in laymen’s terms-- MES refers to all the things in front of the camera, e.g. composition, framing, lighting, staging, coloration, acting, sets, props, costuming, etc