Genre and Television

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Jason Mittell’s Genre and Television is a collection of case studies that tries to understand a question plaguing media studies, in particular television scholars about genre theory. The question of genre and generic studies is a topic heavily contested because in the field of television it is difficult to narrowly define a genre with a core example or multiple examples. This is a problem distinct to television and not so much film or literature studies. This is because television programs have the unique ability to blend or even reshape genres in ways that were not previously conceivable.

Mittell explores these issues of genre through cop shows, quiz shows, and Saturday morning cartoons. There is a commonality that can be found in all of the examples he uses. Mittell believes that each program at their core has aspects that qualify them to be termed a specific genre. However, there are programs that can claim to be of one genre and use conventions that are tightly tied to another genre. This creates a hybrid program that showcases elements of both genres and yet cannot claim to be distinct of one genre.

Mittell uses Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding and Foucault’s discursive formations as the basis for his case work. His rationale for his methodological framework helps explain that television programs cannot work in isolation, but in the context of their time and cultural ramifications. In other words, the audience as a whole may have preconceived notions of how a television show is going to operate. Programs that contrast this notion can do one of three things: fail miserably, create controversy, or become a television phenomenon. Encoding/Decoding comes quickly into play here as a program that is embraced by the audience garners attention from other networks and numerous concept clones come to the surface. A prime example that Mittell uses is The Simpsons. The show created controversy because it was a hybrid of sitcom and animation. It highlighted working class issues, a practice that was not the norm when the show first aired. It was criticized for luring children in with animation because cartoons were still considered children’s entertainment. It was critically acclaimed for highlighting family issues in a new way and laid the groundwork for future animated programs like Family Guy and American Dad. All of these aspects confronted audience expectations and changed the way that audiences perceive the cartoon genre.

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