The Vocabulary of TV Criticism
Whenever you embed yourself into a new environment, inevitably you start to pick up on new phrases, slang, and new definitions for old words. Studying International Relations and Conflict Resolution introduced me to a bevy vocabulary that I needed to assimilate into my own in order to talk the talk. Talking about television is a bit easier; as America’s true favorite pastime, most of us have enough experience to engage in the conversation. But when you start to look at TV a little more critically and analytically, you get immersed in a new set of terms. Being a novice, I am slowly accumulating this new language, both official and newly coined. Here are but a few of the terms I often see swirling around (and some I’ve used myself):
Agency: This term is likely to come up in a variety of disciplines but in the television world it usually refers to a character’s agency. Can a character think and act themselves, like a real person? Or does it seem like they are simply going through the motions of what the plot requires? Characters can be complex or a series of stereotypes. One of the most frustrating things that can happen on a show is when a character obviously performs an action that goes against their established personality. For instance, I’d argue that Lane Pryce’s arc in the last season of Mad Men displayed him performing a number of actions that went against his personality just to get him to a predetermined point by the end of the season.
Anvils dropping/clanging/etc: Typically when a show writer uses a character’s dialogue to sharply underline the story’s significance and/lesson. This indicates the story was not strong enough to portray this itself and that the writers felt a need to handhold the audience. However, when they under-estimate this, the result is a metaphorical thud as these character pronouncements make their way to your ears.
Bottle episode: An episode carried out entirely on pre-existing sets to cut down on costs and increase the availability of funds for future episodes requiring a bigger budget (like sweeps week or finales). For instance, a Community episode where the action takes place solely in the study room (like when Annie loses her pen in “Cooperative Calligraphy” ). Or, the episode I often think of as the quintessential bottle episode, Breaking Bad’s “Fly,” where the action takes place in the lab. I would argue that Breaking Bad is one of the most success shows to take the idea of bottle episode and turns it into an opportunity to tell some of its best storytelling.
Chekhov’s [insert object here]: The gold standard of tropes, Chekhov’s gun states that a loaded gun introduced in the first act will be fired in the last act. While I completely understand where this is coming from (events happening from an object the audience had no idea existed is problematic), some shows don’t have the finesse to pull it off without being super obvious at the same time. But, again, Breaking Bad takes Chekhov’s ricin and leaves the audience constantly on edge as the poisonous stuff is moved in and out of sight for seasons at a time.
Course correct: The potential ability for a show to steer away from storylines that aren’t working and get back on track with a narrative that works.
MacGuffin: A plot device that uses an object (usually important to a main character) as the impetus for the entire narrative. The importance of this device to the character prompts the events of the show or the episode, but is irrelevant by the conclusion. To use the same example, Annie’s pen in “Cooperative Calligraphy” is a MacGuffin.
Multi-cam vs. single cam: Multi-cam shows are typically those also sporting a laugh track, like The Big Bang Theory and Friends. They are cheaper to make, thus the heavy reliance on them even as the whole laugh track sitcom seems increasingly outdated. A single cam is more expensive and usually involves the incorporation of many more sets than a multi-cam.
Phoning it in: Criticizing an actor or personality for disengaging their talent and merely performing the minimum of what is required, nothing more.
Puppet strings/pulling strings: Perhaps one of my biggest complaints, the puppet strings criticism usually comes into play when you can see the plot moving in ways to get from Point A to designated Point B. The developments do not ring true for the situation and its as if the showrunner leaps down from on high and rearranges the scene to shift the direction. Seeing the puppet strings is like seeing the man behind the curtain, it ruins our suspension of disbelief and sucks us back into reality.
Speechifying: Typically the opportunity for a character to command attention and ascend their pedestal while they dole out their views and their accumulated wisdom on other characters. Often, but not always, this is an opportunity for a showrunner to directly address their audience with their own views. The Newsroom is the ideal format for continuous speechifying from Aaron Sorkin via Jeff Daniels.
Spinning wheels: The tendency for forward plot momentum to halt in favor of just hanging out with characters, performing insignificant actions to the overall plot. This happens a lot in a 22-episode season, and with well-established characters it doesn’t really matter. Seeing them perform even the most mundane of actions should be entertaining. But if it is clear that we are just running in place to let the clock run out, then there is a problem.
Talking heads: The interview portions of “mockumentary” style shows like Modern Family, The Office, and Parks and Recreation. The success of shows utilizing this method are partially based on how well they can balance the action with the talking heads in each episode.
Telegraphing: When a show’s plot continuously underlines where it is going and what you, as the viewer, are expected to think about the action. Telegraphing ruins the impact of the story being told. A bit of foreshadowing can be effective, but telegraphing removes the guesswork and the subtlety. And I don’t want to watch a show where I can determine the ending in the first five minutes.