For the last few years, I’ve surprised myself by mostly foregoing television dramas in favor of sports and reality television. I have had a three-season TV viewing schedule: Football in the fall, American Idol in winter and spring, and So You Think You Can Dance in the summer.
My affection for all of these things has been heartfelt and unironic—avid, you might say—if also a little bit shaped by the pleasure of being a professor type who is not too good for low-brow, cotton-candy, heart string pulling pleasures.
But if mostly I love watching these things because my fandom is so different from critical engagement, I also am fascinated by competition—and competition shows—precisely because of some of the same critical questions that occupy my nerdier life. Watching SYTYCD, for example, is seriously an excellent exercise in applied genre theory. Or maybe what competition offers is some new genre, some new thing, something that requires its own vocabulary. That’s what I want to begin to sort through here.
1: Genre Risk.
The most amazing thing about watching a competition is that the ending is not yet written, which still blows my mind sometimes.
The uncertainty of a competition’s conclusion is so startling, I think, because it contrasts so starkly with what casting armies and producers and broadcasters try to give us as viewers, which is a strong sense of story and genre. The job of those people, and many of them are extremely good at doing it, is to give their watchers some sense of conflict, of something on the line, with a particular sort of outcome more or less ordained by the laws of genre. Or maybe a conflict of genre, with competing laws. Will Tom Brady’s precision triumph over of the broken Falstaffian brilliance of Rex Ryan? Will Adam Lambert’s gay majesty win over a requisite number of Danny Gokey’s sentimentalized heart-cancer fans? These are serious questions, I can assure you, even if they are not yours, and what I see being worked out in the fan audiences of these shows is a fairly sophisticated debate about genre, WHICH IS WHY, and this a polemic for another time and place, I think more people who teach literary theory should WATCH THEM, because seriously nothing improved my classroom discussions about sentimentalism, aesthetics, and form, than being able to make reference to Danny Gokey, or, in different classes, Rex Ryan.
Anyway. As much as these competitions are set up as stories, as things, it is implied, that exist within the rules and logic of particular narrative structures, what is thrilling about the episode, the game, is precisely that it is not a story, it is not something bound to the rules we want genre to follow, because no producer or broadcaster, no matter how skilled, can actually know in advance how the story will end, or even if the story will be good.
I think when you watch an unscripted competition or show, what you are actually watching is the gap between genre and life, hoping that it is very small, hoping against hope that it might actually be erased. Hoping that the values binding us to the narratives we hold dear will be affirmed when dry, flat life miraculously fits the curve of story. Bliss.
2: Story of a Moment
Competitions, and competitions shows, don’t feature the same plot points as scripted stories. Their main narrative feature, to my mind, is a thing called a “moment.” This is what Simon Cowell calls it, and I think he should know.
“Moments” are to competition shows what Eliza’s tears are to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: they are the situation when the person you want to do their best (or maybe, the person you didn’t think could do their best) does their best, in a transformative way, and the audience is transformed and feels transformed, and then the competition changes, and that person moves closer to victory. They are narrative phenomena that Aristotle would be very interested in, if he were writing today (or maybe he did, and I’m just making a naive claim to originality–who knows!). They are a sign that, in its endless struggle with life, story is winning.
When Simon Cowell was on American Idol, he’d talk about this all the time: “you could have had a moment!” he’d chide, when the soul singer craps out on Motown week, or whatever. Simon Cowell was both a very good story-maker, and a very explicit discusser of stories, and he would be quite clear about trying to give the singers he liked moments, because he knows that moments are what make people win.
The thing about the “moment” is that it can’t exactly be faked. It can be set up and encouraged, by giving someone with appeal and potential good music, or a good partner, or the right play. If you are Simon Cowell and you want Adam Lambert to win, you can let him sing “One” and hope that the best singer and the best song will nail that shit down. But even Simon Cowell can’t make the muse comply at exactly the right moment. The more you set it up, sometimes, the less effective it is—moments are most likely to be moments when the take the audience, and even the producers, by surprise.
Sometimes, there are no moments, and life wins. I love that, too.
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Anyway, now that Game of Thrones is done, I’m hoping to talk a bit here about the push and pull of story on So You Think You Can Dance. I haven’t been doing this so far because I’m not totally interested in audition weeks, which are packaged for us retrospectively, with annoying music at the wrong times, and with very staged moments, that are frustrating because they are faked, only aping their more spontaneous cousins on live TV.
SYTYCD is often the most ham-handed of my true life stories, and many of the stories it tries to give its viewers are schlocky at best, troubling at worst. For instance, the genre conflict that SYTYCD is feeding its viewers so far is totally annoying to me, so much so that it’s almost killing my pleasure for the dancers themselves, who otherwise I quite like. On the one hand, we have this excellent dancer lady Alexa who seems to have problems expressing her feelings. Or so we were told ad nauseum during Vegas week. SYTYCD loves this plot line–one it similarly gave us in claiming that the precociously gifted Danny Tidwell needed to acess his feelings in order to be “beyond” (I can’t find a clip for Mia Michael’s famous BE BEYOND, DANNY speach, which is really a shame). But I hate this plot line because I come from a ballet background, in my own small way, and I think what most people on this show need is fewer feelings and more strong lines. Ahem. Anyway, the other person we’re set up to love is the self-trained popper Cedric who, unlike Alexa, has lots of feelings but not a lot of experience, sigh, and also the fact that this is a white lady vs a black dude is lost on no one. WHO WILL WIN?? You can bet good old Nigel is going to be working really hard to give Cedric some moments. Nigel is like the first chapter to Love and Theft, with a British accent on life tv.
Yet for all my frustrations, and I can’t say I really care. Dancers dance for love, not fortune, and rarely even for fame, so SYTYCD’s stories always seem to me the most avid, the most heart felt, the most momentous of all.