Cultivating TV aesthetics

June 3, 2014 - 06:38

The most discerning TV buffs, or “telephiles”, watch TV series in their own special way.

Betty Draper stages herself in the kitchen on the TV series “Mad Men”. A perfect facade with realistic 1960s colouring camouflages an unhappy life. “She is a housewife trapped in the kitchen who stares longingly through the window toward freedom,” says TV analyst Gry Rustad. (Photo: Album)

What about the hemlines on the women in Mad Men, and why are the characters placed in a particular way in the picture? What do the colours repeated in the clothes symbolise?

These are the kinds of issues telephiles ponder.

“A telephile is an analytical viewer who is engrossed in details of a series. They watch TV in an extremely concentrated way,” explains media expert Gry Cecilie Rustad of the University of Oslo.

She wrote her doctoral thesis on TV fans, or more precisely on the true aficionados who cultivate the aesthetics of TV imagery. They have their own blogs and web fora for discussing such aspects.

“They take 100 still shots from an episode and analyse them, picture for picture,” says Rustad.

TV snobs

Telephiles are less concerned about plots than other fans. They will describe a series they appreciate as beautiful.

Rustad has studied the series Mad Men, Treme, Luck and The Wire with an eye on how such fans analyse themes and milieus instead of hashing out plots or speculating on how the characters will develop.

Interiors, a certain facial expression, how the protagonists holds a cigarette – everything is dissected.

“You could call them TV snobs,” she says, with a smile.

Impossible without internet

In this sense they resemble cinephiles, film buffs who view movies as works of art. Rustad thinks that akin to them, telephiles are likely to be well educated. This would explain why series like Mad Men have become more popular in Norway – where education levels are high – than in the USA.

While films have long been recognised as a form of art, TV has been frowned upon. TV was the idiot box or the boob tube, not art. 

This changed with the advent of quality series in the 1980s. More TV channels were made available in Scandinavia and that called for stronger competition to win viewers. Advertisers wanted to reach the young, well-off and well-educated set and encouraged TV producers to concentrate on quality. Twin Peaks came in the 1990s and was followed up by award-winning HBO series in the 2000s.

But the telephile fan culture did not take off until homes were wired with internet. Many people watch series on the web and discuss them with fans worldwide. 

“I don’t think telephilia could have been possible without the internet. Whereas film lovers can meet at the cinema and discuss the movie afterwards, TV lovers sit at home and find one another on the web,” says Rustad.

Feminism in a skirt

The series Mad Men is about a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s. The colouring used is precise for the period and changes in pace with the social developments of the decade.

Peggy, the secretary, becomes liberated as a text writer and the hemlines of her skirts rise as American society grows less conservative.

TV expert Gry Cecilie Rustad researchers fan cultures. She too is a telephile. (Photo: Anna Løvlund)

“The series depicts the big events in the light of daily life,” says Rustad.

“It show social changes through its aesthetics.”

She directs us to a blog in which stills from each scene are presented and analysed by the blogger, and commented on by fellow fans.

Many fans wonder why there’s a scene where a man stands on steps in front of a house, repeatedly asking his wife if she bought pears.

One thinks the situation symbolises the divorced protagonist Don Draper’s yearning for a wife to nag, another that it shows how the barriers between public and private spheres are breaking down – not everything has to be kept within the four walls of the home.

No solution to this conundrum is given. The couple enter the house and we never find out if she did buy pears. The scene has no direct impact on the plot. Quality series like these are open to interpretation and they allow viewers to create their own meaning.

Slow TV

Few researchers have been particularly keen to analyse the aesthetics in TV series. In this sense, Rustad is largely forging a path in virgin territory in Norway. She deems it important to find out more about why viewers are willing to sacrifice so much time and energy to detailed analyses of such series.

She claims that some types of series promote such fan cultures. They depict realistic milieus and dwell on details.

“The series are slow-paced so that people have time to really appreciate the movements. We see the reactions of the various characters, images that are repeated and ample use of slow motion and music,” she says.

Classic soaps provide slim pickings for analysts. They usually present a dialogue from one person’s perspective, rarely treating viewers to general reference images.

The most salient scenes in the series that nurture telephilia are often free of dialogue.

This can easily become wearisome.

“Most people like plot-driven series where things happen,” asserts Rustad.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling