Tag Archives: television

Describing a Certain TV Show (Or Two)

I’m going to describe a TV show that aired when I was in college. I won’t say the name of the show, but you should know that this post has MASSIVE SPOILERS for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias (up through the first few episodes of all of Season 3, which is as far as I’ve gotten). Hint hint and such.

Photo of a doll of Buffy

“This is obviously about me.”

In this show, Female Lead is an attractive young woman who can kick anyone’s butt. She’s adept at using any weapon that comes her way, but she’s especially impressive at hand-to-hand combat, using lots of kicks and flips. She’s the subject of a prophecy, and sometimes has nightmares involving religious iconography and blood. Perhaps the hardest thing about her life is the hidden nature of it: some of the closest people to her don’t know anything about the butt-kicking, evil-fighting part of her life. She dies at one point, yet when she returns she has a sort of shadow around her, a new sort of dark seriousness and fierceness that wasn’t there quite as much before. She would gladly sacrifice herself to save the people she loves. (While I won’t tell you her name, it has two syllables, emphasis on the first, ending with an -ee sound.)

Female Lead has two best friends. Female Best Friend is usually whimsical and fun, except for that time that her boyfriend ran away from her, which crushed her. And there was also that time that she turned evil and tried to fight Female Lead–long story. Male Best Friend often gets the show’s best humorous lines, but he senses that he’s often seen as merely the jokester: he feels left out of all the awesome evil-fighting that Female Lead does, wondering what he can offer. At the beginning of the show, he has a secret crush on Female Lead, but that kind of evaporates. At one point, Female Best Friend and Male Best Friend even get together for a while. (It ends badly.)

Female Lead’s fight against evil is helped tremendously by a father figure, a fellow who has a lot more experience in this kind of fight than she does. Sometimes he seems cold and distant, but deep down he really loves her and trusts her abilities.

Photo of Sydney Bristow from Alias

“Who is that other girl up there? Is she trying to take my story or something?”

Female Lead’s main Romantic Interest is a man who hangs out in all those secret places in Los Angeles that most people don’t know about. He looks great in a trench coat and gets beat up a lot. Once, for the greater good, Female Lead even stabs him, despite her love for him–but it’s okay, he doesn’t die. And even though he has flings with other women (most notoriously a blonde woman with a nasty side), we all kind of know that Romantic Interest and Female Lead are destined to be together.

Female Lead puts up with some flirting from Young, Blonde, British Bad Guy (YBBBG), a man who has led a successful life of crime over the years. Even though he fights with Female Lead a lot, he still proposes they work together at one point. He’s a fan favorite, a cool guy with a soft spot for a certain red liquid. (His British accent is faked for the show.)

Gina Torres doesn’t enter this fictional universe often, but when she does, bad things happen.

One trademark of the show is its heavy use of pop music–especially moody, female singers singing sad songs, often heard toward the end of an episode over a montage of events. Besides that, the orchestrated music accompanying other action and emotional scenes is notably good.

The man who created this series wasn’t nearly as popular and well known when it began as he is now. He’s gone on to direct major stars in big-budget action flicks, but some of his directing roles have shown that he still has a nostalgic memory for older styles of filmmaking. He’s pretty much required to be at Comic-Con from now until he dies.

(What have I missed? There must be more parallels.)


Two more for you, and they’re good:

  • Lindsay Crouse guest stars on this show as someone who investigates secrets that the general public doesn’t know about.
  • In the second half of this show, Female Lead discovers that she has a sister (and in a way has kind of had a sister all along, but it’s complicated). This sister’s name is short, with three prominent sounds: the consonants and and the vowel-sound AH.

Images: quichisinsane, “Sydney Bristow” and Scorpions and Centaurs, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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The Rhetoric of the Background Hum

Click play on this sound and let it play while reading:

[audio http://trekcore.com/audio/background/tng_engineering_hum.mp3]

It’s the sound that plays in the background during scenes from Star Trek: The Next Generation that are set in Main Engineering. The sound is hosted over on the remarkably complete page for “Star Trek Iconic Sounds” at TrekCore.com.

Here’s what got me thinking about that innocuous little background hum: a line from the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, which a friend dropped off over here the other day after cleaning his house:

Most privileged visitors to our main engine room set are duly impressed with the sense of “really being on the Enterprise.” Even so, there is still something missing. That “something” is the almost subliminal ambience added through background sound effects. The viewer is rarely consciously aware of it, but the characteristic low thrumming sound of the engine room or the instrument sounds of the bridge are a powerful part of “being there.” (87)

I was struck by the passage for a couple of reasons:

1) First, it jumped out because I’ve always been a watcher of DVD special features and a listener to commentaries. Yesterday while doing the dishes I was listening to Joss Whedon’s commentary of the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and he used language similar to the Technical Manual‘s when describing the effects he was trying to have on the audience: things like immediacy, emotional power, and the sense of being there all speak to what must be part of the fundamental task of the television creator, or of the composer of any audio-visual text.

That’s right: we’re solidly in the category of rhetoric here. Ambient sounds are purposefully crafted to bring about a desired effect in audiences who will read/hear the cues and respond accordingly, whether they realize they’re being driven that way or not. Obvious, I know–but it’s still wild to me to think about, how subtly and multimodal our communication is. Unwittingly, this passage in the Technical Manual hints at the different rhetorical situation when touring a set and watching a show, how the identifications you’re asked to make are in a fundamentally different realm.

2) The passage also struck me because I’ve been thinking so much lately about ambient sounds and music that is purposefully designed to be either in the background or foreground of our attention. I wrote about this a bit the other day when discussing Thomas Rickert’s brilliant Music@Microsoft.Windows: Composing Ambience. But it’s a topic I’m rather obsessed with these days, as it keeps popping up everywhere I go:

  • In one book, I read Stravinsky’s claims that the radio would bring listeners to a point of lousy, inattentive listening (and wrote about that, too).
  • Then in another book (Andy Hamilton’s Aesthetics and Music) I read that “Muzak is an evil because it is ubiquitous and so erodes people’s aesthetic capacities–their ability to listen actively to anything–and degrades their response to music. . . . Muzak . . . belongs under the heading of sound-design, and while sound design can have an aesthetic purpose, muzak does not” (54). That is, music’s very classification as aesthetic or not has something to do with how it’s deployed, how much attention it’s designed to be given–and perhaps even how lousy it is.
  • Then there’s R. Murray Schafer, who insists on spelling it “Moozak,” presumably to distance it from any phonetic (wrong word?) similarity to the word music. In his discussion, he takes Stravinsky’s tack and claims that “Moozak resulted from the abuse of the radio” (98), as another instance of our filling the world with ambient noises that we don’t like or want or need. And one way to take the offensive, according to Schafer, is through our power of attentiveness: “By creating a fuss about sounds we snap them back into focus as figures. The way to defeat Moozak is, therefore, quite simple: listen to it” (98).

There’s something simmering here that I want to think more about. In what ways are rhetorically created soundscapes different than other rhetorical situations, when it comes to the amount of attention that may or may not be given to them? Do we have theories of attentiveness in rhetoric? Is this really the same thing as when a speech-listener drifts off to sleep to the rhythms of the speech, or when an essay reader starts thinking about something else while skimming a piece of written rhetoric, or–this is the best parallel–when the visual design of an advertisement affect us in ways that we don’t even realize?

In the end, I think the Technical Manual, however ridiculously geeky it is for me to be talking about so cavalierly, makes a good point. There’s a lot of ambient sound that goes into a show set on a spaceship. Listen to how much sound there is in this computerized walkthrough of the Enterprise:

Even a show like Firefly, which makes such a point during its outdoor effects shots to emphasize that there is no sound in the vacuum of space, uses the ever-present engine “low thrumming” when inside. Listen to all the effects in this clip:

As Schafer writes, “there is authority in the magic of captured sound” (90). By attending to it and wielding it, even when it’s as subtle as a background engine hum, we take hold of a magic that not everyone knows how to use rhetorically, like Harry Potter walking around London with a magic wand in his back pocket that no one suspects can do the things it can do. (That’s right: I found a way to insert one more geeky reference into this post. Sheesh.)

Or, to return to the Technical Manual: “The technical ability to exchange data is not in itself sufficient to permit communication. A common set of symbols and concepts–a language–is equally important before communications can occur” (101). Indeed. And sound effects comprise a crucial aspect of the languages we inhabit in our aural soundscapes.

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