Thursday, 21 August 2014

Are the best TV shows the ones that demand we do more than just watch?

We are very excited that one of the biggest voices in television, The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, is joining us at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on Sunday. She has a busy schedule in Australia: presenting at the SJWF, the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House.

She'll speak on Sunday 24 August @Shalom College, UNSW in two sessions:
·         12:30pm - 1:30pm in conversation with Lexi Landsman about why TV turns me on.
·         5:45pm – 6:45pm she will be joined by ABC head of comedy Rick Kalowksi and SMH TV critic Ruth Ritchie to discuss Highbrow/Lowbrow television – Are we what we watch?

You may not have had a chance to read her work in The New Yorker.  To get a taste of her insight and understanding, below are some excerpts from an article she wrote titled The Great Divide: Norman Lear, Archie Bunker and the rise of the bad fan.
She explores the politics and power of television through the hit 70s American sitcom “All in the Family” and its right-wing icon Archie Bunker. It was the No. 1 TV show for five years. At its peak, more than fifty million viewers nationwide watched weekly. But it didn't quite turn out as the writer planned ...

A proud liberal, Norman Lear, had clear ideological aims for his creations: he wanted his shows to be funny, and he certainly wanted them to be hits, but he also wanted to purge prejudice by exposing it. By giving bigotry a human face, Lear believed, his show could help liberate American TV viewers. He hoped that audiences would embrace Archie but reject his beliefs.

… However, “A funny thing happened on the way to TV immortality: audiences liked Archie,” author Saul Austerlitz writes. “Not in an ironic way, not in a so-racist-he’s-funny way; Archie was TV royalty because fans saw him as one of their own.”

Archie Bunker
... Archie represented the danger and the potential of television itself, its ability to influence viewers rather than merely help them kill time. Ironically, for a character so desperate to return to the past, he ended up steering the medium toward the future.

… As the show’s ratings rose, it began to saturate American culture, high and low. In 1971, the Saturday Review reported that teachers were requesting study guides, to use the show to teach their students lessons about bigotry…In 1973, a poll found that Archie Bunker’s was the most recognized face in America, and for a while there was a craze for bumper stickers reading “Archie Bunker for President.” At the 1972 Democratic Convention, in Miami, the character got a vote for Vice-President.

... To critics, the show wasn’t the real problem: its audience was. In 1974, the social psychologists Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach offered some evidence for this argument in a study published in the Journal of Communication, using two samples, one of teen-agers, the other of adults. Subjects, whether bigoted or not, found the show funny, but most bigoted viewers didn’t perceive the program as satirical. They identified with Archie’s perspective, saw him as winning arguments, and, “perhaps most disturbing, saw nothing wrong with Archie’s use of racial and ethnic slurs.” Lear’s series seemed to be even more appealing to those who shared Archie’s frustrations with the culture around him, a “silent majority” who got off on hearing taboo thoughts said aloud.

… No critic could support that approach, least of all those who see TV as an art form, and want to free it from anxious comparisons to novels and movies—to celebrate TV as TV. During a recent visit to a university, I bridled when an ethicist praised me for taking a moral stance. (I’d called a network show “odious torture porn.”) I told her that I wanted originality, even if it was ugly, and that I’d rather watch a show that unsettled me than something that was merely “good.”

Iconic All in the Family cast
That’s true. And yet, like Archie himself, I have to admit to my own fascination with the good old days—in particular, that spiky, surreal moment when people found television so dangerous that they slapped warning stickers on it. Lear and his critics disagreed about how his show affected people, but they agreed that it should affect people. Every day marked a fresh skirmish: Should there be a “family hour”? Were Starsky and Hutch making viewers violent? Back when television was a mass phenomenon, controlled by three networks, watched live by the whole family, it was no wonder that observers wrung their hands over whether it might turn its viewers into monsters. (These days, we reserve those concerns for the Internet.)

... Decades later, television has a different relationship with its audience. We collect and record it; we recap it with strangers; it pours through hundreds of narrow channels.

... There is no way—and maybe no reason—to unite TV’s divided audience. If television creators began by trying desperately not to offend, they clearly learned that the opposite approach can work just as well: a show that speaks to multiple audiences can get ratings by offering many ways to be a fan. …Perhaps there’s another way to look at it, which is to imagine an ethical quality that is embedded in real originality. The best series rattle us and wake us up; the worst are numbing agents. Sometimes, a divided audience is a result of mixed messages, an incoherent text; sometimes, it’s a sign of a bold experiment that we are still learning how to watch. But there’s a lot to be said for a show that is potent without being perfect, or maybe simply perfect for its moment: storytelling that alters the audience by demanding that viewers do more than just watch.

The SJWF starts this Thursday night -  21 August – we can’t wait!

This year we have a great line up of speakers and sessions. 

Our top picks, (besides Emily's sessions), are Emile Sherman in Big screen storytelling, A Singular Vision: Harry Seidler and the skyline of modern Australia,  and Monday Morning Cooking Club's Taste the stories (literally) where not only do you get to hear about their recipes but you also get to taste some of them. Throughout Sunday there are two simultaneous sessions to choose from, so there will be something for everyone. 

Books will be sold on the day by our favourite bookseller Scott Whitmont from Lindfield bookshop with thanks to Booktopia for sponsoring the festival.

Join in the conversation using the hashtag #SJWF2014 on Twitter -, Facebook -, and on our Instagram account - – we would love to hear from you all and see your pics and Tweets over the 3 days!

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Book now - Tickets can also be bought at the door. 

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