Breaking Bad and Cinematic Television

Breaking Bad and Cinematic Television

by Angelo Restivo

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With its twisty serialized plots, compelling antiheroes, and stylish production, Breaking Bad has become a signature series for a new golden age of television, in which some premium cable shows have acquired the cultural prestige usually reserved for the cinema. In Breaking Bad and Cinematic Television Angelo Restivo uses the series as a point of departure for theorizing a new aesthetics of television: one based on an understanding of the cinematic that is tethered to affect rather than to medium or prestige. Restivo outlines how Breaking Bad and other contemporary “cinematic” television series take advantage of the new possibilities of postnetwork TV to create an aesthetic that inspires new ways to think about how television engages with the everyday. By exploring how the show presents domestic spaces and modes of experience under neoliberal capitalism in ways that allegorize the perceived twenty-first-century failures of masculinity, family, and the American Dream, Restivo shows how the televisual cinematic has the potential to change the ways viewers relate to and interact with the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478003441
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2019
Series: Spin Offs
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 29 MB
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About the Author

Angelo Restivo is Associate Professor in the School of Film, Media, and Theatre at Georgia State University and author of The Cinema of Economic Miracles: Visuality and Modernization in the Italian Art Film, also published by Duke University Press.

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The Cinematic

The notion that in the past decade or so, television — or more precisely, a certain kind of television — has become "cinematic" is as much a commonplace among industry workers, critics, and fans as it is a contentious point of debate for those engaged in academic television studies. If at the outset we can say one thing for certain about televisual cinematics, it is that the concept is highly overdetermined. To begin with what is most obvious, certainly technological innovations have provided a large percentage of the home viewing audience (within the relatively affluent nations, at least) greater real estate in the image, and a more distributed soundscape, which makes home viewing potentially more akin to film spectatorship than it had ever been before the spread of digital technologies. Industrial shifts in the postnetwork era — particularly shifts in the distribution and marketing of "product" toward smaller but more-targeted demographics, facilitated by the rise of pay cable and premium networks — allowed for the exploration of themes and the production of images that before, in the network era, would have been deemed inappropriate for broadcast television but were even then commonplace in the cinema. To this one must add refinements in digital recording and the widespread diffusion of web 2.0, which made it very easy to engage in time shifting, binge viewing, and other commonplaces of current television viewing practices. To be sure, none of this is news. But from the point of view of the discourses surrounding the cinematic, it is easy to see how these technological, industrial, and cultural developments might lead to the widespread colloquial adoption of the term by way of analogy: screen size, audio density, thematic content, provocative images, and viewing practices all seem to converge toward cinema. And it is this analogical use of the term that causes problems for many television scholars (as indeed it will, for different reasons, in my own arguments to come).

For one thing (television scholars will note), the new wave of "quality television" labeled "cinematic" in the postnetwork era is nevertheless embedded within older, inertial institutional structures that impose on these shows certain formal qualities that are eminently televisual: the narrative must be parsed out into episodes of a series, and within an episode the narrative must structure itself around a fixed number of commercial interruptions. Even those series made for pay cable and initially broadcast without commercial interruption are subject to this demand for programmed narrative pacing, insofar as the network underwriting the series has one eye on the market for syndication of the series after its initial run, a highly lucrative revenue stream. Thus, a certain kind of televisual rhythm is imposed on the unfolding narrative. In contemporary television, this is generally achieved by multiple story lines that intersect at various key points in the episode but that allow for a greater combinatoire when assembling (or reassembling) the episode to allow the commercial breaks to be inserted. Thus, there is at least one formal level — that of narrative construction — where the analogical appeal to the cinematic breaks down.

But cinematic television as a concept is also criticized at a more polemical and politicized level from within television studies. In this argument, to call television cinematic is to invoke a cultural hierarchy of distinction, in which the "good object" of cinema is appealed to in order to redeem television as a "debased object" mired in banality and bad taste. In other words, the appeal to the cinema reinvokes the high-low distinction that by necessity had to be challenged in order to establish television studies as a discipline in the first place. When HBO adopted its advertising slogan "It's Not TV, It's HBO," it was mobilizing this high-low distinction — the notion, at least among a certain demographic of viewers, that television was, if not a "vast wasteland," at least an unexciting sea of uniformity — in order to convince subscribers that they were paying for something that they could not get elsewhere free. Clearly, this appeal to the empty signifier "not-television" (which generally ends up being filled in by some notion derived from the cinema) was a clever attempt at product differentiation by creating a paradox in which television ends up delivering itself from itself.

It is worth recalling that the current wave of quality television is not the first case in which the term "cinematic" has been used to describe aesthetic developments in television, and that in fact the appeal to the cinematic has been a recurring strategy in attempts to explain or understand stylistic innovations within the medium. Thus, for example, when the Steven Bochco/MTM series Hill Street Blues rethought the cops/procedural genre by — among other things — adopting handheld camerawork and other aesthetic strategies of verité, the series was seen as breaking long-standing televisual conventions in a cinematic way. Interestingly, in 1984, just a few years after the premiere of Hill Street, another police procedural with a completely different visual style, Miami Vice, was also described as cinematic, at the very same time that it styled itself after the quintessentially televisual form of the music videos then dominating the programming of MTV. Certainly, "cinematic" was a capacious enough term to handle both of these styles: after all, there is a long-standing tradition in film studies that characterizes the cinema via two "tendencies" that can be traced back to the earliest work of the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès, one tendency toward the documentary recording of everyday events and another toward the play of composition and montage. And in the case of Miami Vice, the sun-drenched pastels and deep blacks of its color palette were only possible through the use of the new Kodak 5290 line of ultrafast, fine-grained film stock.

It is in relation to the television production of the 1980s that John Caldwell developed the notion of "televisuality" to describe what he calls a major paradigm shift in how television presented itself: it moved, he argues, toward modes of presentation in which the television image, far from being the pared-down, stunted "delivery system" for narrative, dialogue, and information (as scholars like John Ellis had argued), instead became invested in all manner of stylistic excess or extravagance. Caldwell's concept has the advantage of not being tied to any specific look: televisuality can manifest itself in various forms, as it simply marks the fact that style is now exhibiting itself. For example, the development of digital effects and nonlinear video editing systems allowed for stylistic exhibitionism in the graphic elements of the television image — spinning logos, resizeable rectangles, and so forth — that were by and large confined to news broadcasting, some music video, and network branding. This contrasts with the stylistic exhibitionism of shows like Hill Street or Miami Vice, which relied on technologies and conventions from the cinema for the creation of surplus value in the images. Caldwell thus constructs a gradient in which the cinematic and the videographic lie at two poles of an axis, so that across the decade, one can position each series or television event at some point along this axis, with Miami Vice falling very far on the cinematic side, while an unfolding and partly live news story like that surrounding the Rodney King beating would fall very far on the videographic side.

As useful as this schematic is for understanding television style in the 1980s, the nature of the term "cinematic" remains a problem. Caldwell's definition of the term is still analogical (if not tautological): "The cinematic refers, obviously, to a film look in television." He then notes that this means more than just shooting on film, since that practice dates back to the 1950s; it means the importation of other characteristics of the cinema, here singled out as "spectacle, high production values, and feature-style cinematography." The problem here is that yet again, an analogical relation is being constructed around a set of arbitrarily chosen (and vaguely defined) features: in this particular case, the cinematic seems to emerge out of a kind of "self-positing," in which is reified a certain view of the cinema held by the industry and popular audiences. Certainly, it isn't difficult to come up with examples of films with low production values that one would call highly cinematic: much of classical Hollywood's B-picture output might be so described. But this suggests that there is another way to think of the term "cinematic," one that is less analogical than it is conceptual.

Historically, the term "cinematic" achieved critical traction in the 1960s (in the United States), in the heyday of auteurism and the construction of a film canon, and was closely connected to those two projects. Perhaps the quickest way to illustrate the conceptual valences of the term — that is, what makes it more complex than the descriptive uses just outlined allow for — is to consider such claims as "Not all films are cinematic," or even more radically, "A large number of films made are not cinematic." These statements encapsulate very well the ethos surrounding the deployment of the term "cinematic" during the early institutionalization of film studies: no particular film is automatically cinematic; whether or not a film can be called cinematic is the result of an aesthetic judgment concerning how its images and sounds are recorded, manipulated, and organized. In other words, the cinematic had to do with the possibilities of the medium, with what the cinema could, potentially, do.

At a time when film studies was still struggling for a place in the university curriculum, the concept of the cinematic served to specify an object and a method of study: instead of reducing film to a "simple" medium of visual translation for art that already existed in literary or dramatic form — a position that legitimated film only insofar as it performed adaptations of the art of "dead white males" — one needed to attend methodologically to the specific ways the images were constructed and orchestrated, to the film's mise-enscène and editing, in order to understand what the film was doing and to assess its aesthetic value. Thus, the cinematic worked precisely to overturn the cultural hierarchies and high-low distinctions of an institutional elite, insofar as it allowed us to valorize a popular film adapted from a pulp novel over and above a pedestrian adaptation of a Shakespeare play, for example.

It is thus something of an irony that when the cinematic migrates to television, it is criticized for being hopelessly enmeshed in the taste culture of an elite. On one level, this might be seen as a sign of the successful integration of film studies into the academic institution, so that whereas film studies fought against the entrenched taste cultures established by literature departments, television studies had to stake its claim to legitimacy largely from within established film departments. This is to adopt a familiar "oedipal narrative" to explain historical change. On another level, though, there is a dissymmetry involved in the narratives of the establishment of the two disciplines. While film studies rejected the categories through which literary studies understood film texts and replaced them with others — like mise-en-scène and editing — more suitable to the objects of study, it didn't (yet) abandon aesthetics as the fundamental framework through which to understand its objects. Because of the nature of television — that is, as "technology and cultural form," to use Raymond Williams's phrase — television studies had to seek its methodological discourses from the emerging field of cultural studies, where aesthetic judgments tended to be bracketed out.

That cultural studies has generally had trouble with questions of the aesthetic is not news. But from the point of view of debates surrounding the legitimacy of the term "cinematic" when applied to television, the solution to the problem will hinge on whether, and to what extent, aesthetic judgment can find a place within television studies. What would such an aesthetics look like? And could it be something that is not a "throwback" but rather that genuinely builds on and adds to the already rich tradition of television studies? The wager of this book is that "the cinematic" as an aesthetic concept will allow us to answer these questions. As I explained in the introduction, my conception of the cinematic has much in common with the way Kara Keeling develops the term — through a reading of Gilles Deleuze — in her book The Witch's Flight. Insofar as we see the cinematic as a kind of relay between "a complicated aggregate of capitalist social relations, sensory-motor arrangements, and cognitive processes" accomplished through the manipulation and arrangement of images, there is no reason to insist that such image relays can exist only in the cinema. In relation to Breaking Bad — and to contemporary serial television more generally — we can simply note that dramatic changes in technology and industrial norms have given these images increased importance.

But there remains one obstacle to be cleared away before the argument can move forward: the notion of the auteur, which is, historically, inextricably connected to the development of the term "cinematic." Methodologically, the cinematic required us to look to visual organization in order to understand the cinema. But as recurring patterns of visual organization were discovered, these stylistic traits became associated with the name of an auteur, became marks of an authorial "signature." Alfred Hitchcock, for example, orchestrates the system of looks (via framing, editing, camera movement) in such a way as to produce an uneven distribution of knowledge among the various characters and the spectator. Not only does this create Hitchcock's trademark suspense, but it also produces a cinematic world in which every action is potentially deceptive or revelatory and thus must always be interpreted. This move toward infinite interpretation ("terminable or interminable") is what aligns Hitchcock's work so neatly with psychoanalysis as a practice or, indeed, with the espionage narratives to which Hitchcock was so drawn.

What is important to note in this procedure — and what is sometimes misunderstood — is that one does not begin with the thematic material in reconstructing the world of any given auteur: thematic material arises insofar as it is an expression of a visual style. This is the only way we can resolve what might seem like a fatal contradiction at the heart of the auteur policy, which becomes apparent whenever a director's work is characterized at the outset by the thematic materials she or he favors. For clearly, narrative structures and genre conventions can be central to the creation of thematic material, and these are arguably outside the agency of the director (or at the very least arrived at collectively among key creative personnel). But it is not far-fetched to presume that the film director at least has the potential to be in charge of the elements of the visual organization of the shots.

A similar problem arises from the other direction, if you will, at the level of visual style, when one considers that at any given time, a particular set of best practices is upheld within the various crafts that make up the industry; these practices can thus be seen as the underpinning for what David Bordwell identifies as the "norms" of the system. It is only when directors push against or orchestrate these norms in creative and meaningful ways that they achieve the status of auteurs; and it is only insofar as the resulting style is expressive of ideas that we can then talk about the thematic preoccupations of the various auteurs, or of the "worlds" that they create. Given all this, the term "cinematic" is less a designation of medium specificity than it is a fundamentally aesthetic judgment about newness or originality against the backdrop of the conventionality endemic to mass-produced art.

It might be argued that none of the above can hold traction when one is thinking about television, insofar as its mode of production is so different. The "product" is not a discrete, self-contained, time-limited work but a series, often of indeterminate duration. Whereas in film, the script can be the anchor for directorial exploration, in the television series the story line is not fixed in advance, but evolves in group meetings among the series' writers; the quick production schedules of television require that such elements of mise-en-scène as lighting schemes and sets be developed by creative teams for the series as a whole (much as the studios of Hollywood's classical era developed house styles for lighting, etc.). This means that it is more often the producer (or, in the postnetwork era, the showrunner) who is thought of as the key figure behind the television series, with the direction of individual episodes being assigned to a whole roster of directors. But my earlier discussion of the cinematic shows that — for many film scholars, at least — the auteur has become more than anything a heuristic device for categorizing the many ways in which the cinema has in its history orchestrated bodies in space (which is one quick and simple way to define mise-en-scène). Thus, we value the 1950s melodramas of Nicholas Ray because of the ways in which they orchestrate bodies and their actions within the spatial regimes of the new suburban housing developments, regardless of what intentions Ray may have had as director of the films. "Mise-en-scène," then, is the term that describes the potentially infinite ways that the cinematic manifests itself; the criteria by which we assess the success or failure of a particular film has to do with whether its orchestration of bodies and spaces opens up new avenues for seeing our world. Thus, to talk about cinematic television is to talk about mise-en-scène and not about authorship, in precisely the ways sketched out here.


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Table of Contents

Note to the Reader  ix
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction  1
1. The Cinematic  25
2. The House  54
3. The Puzzle  81
4. Just Gaming  116
5. Immanence: A Life  137
Notes  159
Bibliography  171
Index  179

What People are Saying About This

The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense - Kara Keeling

"Angelo Restivo's engaging and lively analysis gestures beyond one television program, speaking to a broader set of concerns about television, aesthetics, and our shared experience of life. This lovely and perceptive study of Breaking Bad, the cinematic, and the entanglements of contemporary American life will invigorate film theory and make an important contribution to television studies.”

Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire - Amy Villarejo

“Angelo Restivo's wonderful book brings a theoretical perspective to television studies in general and to contemporary serial television in particular that illuminates the aesthetic possibilities of the medium and its fundamental connections to neoliberalism and biopolitics. His timely, rigorous, and brilliant contribution will transform television studies.”

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