Televisual Videography (A Response to Jason Mittell)

The online journal of videographic criticism, [in]Transition, published their third anniversary issue with a look back at their past three volumes; in it, Jason Mittell wrote eloquently in his essay, Videographic Telephilia, about the only two pieces in the journal devoted to television thus far. I won’t lie: he said some really complementary things about the piece I published in the last issue, and I’ve been riding on that for days now. But he also raised some questions that have stuck in my mind since I read it, which I’m taking a very preliminary stab at addressing here.

This is a “response,” but not in the contentious way the word is sometimes used. This is just my way of thinking through some of the questions Mittell raises, given that both my published video/essay and the other he discusses look at television texts through distinctly non-televisual lenses:

What would a video essay look like that embraced some of the core facets of television as a storytelling medium, such as seriality, domestic intimacy, and a highly delineated temporal structure? How might videographic criticism engage with distinctly televisual genres, like sports, reality TV, game shows, or soap operas? And if much of videographic criticism has been predicated on exploring experiences of cinephilia, how might we imagine videographic telephilia?

How MIGHT we imagine videographic telephilia?

In the case of Hannibal (which, no, I am not yet over), this question is complicated by the ways it seems to exceed a televisual frame. Although its first season and half of its second season largely hew to conventions of serial storytelling, once Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) has been released from jail, exonerated of the crimes Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) framed him for, the show slides into a different kind of storytelling altogether. By the third season, it’s become a story about storytelling. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz writes, Hannibal

can adopt different points of view and slip back and forth between past and present, not just from chapter to chapter, but within the context of a page, a paragraph, even a sentence. Hannibal makes almost every other TV series seem aesthetically impoverished in comparison because it takes these freedoms and actually plays with them, to make the story and its telling more surprising, confounding, and multilayered.

Seitz’s observation that Hannibal “is literary and cinematic at the same time” attests to the difficulty of thinking of it as television; yet not only is it television, it’s one of the very few contemporary ‘prestige’ series aired on broadcast television in the United States. I’d argue, against other fans, that the constraints placed on Hannibal by NBC ultimately helped fuel its creativity, but the markers of its televisuality – less the show itself than those commercials, credits, and warnings that bound it – offer reminders that the sometimes jarring shifts from story to real world and back again are part and parcel of broadcast televisuality.

This video is a first attempt to try and capture some of these thoughts – I do think there’s a more sophisticated study to be had. For now I’ve tried work within the formal requirement of the 30-second montage typical of Hannibal‘s “previously on” segments at the beginning of each episode (this is SO HARD OMG), sandwiched between warnings, commercials, and credits, as a way of seeing Hannibal‘s evolving story and, in particular, style as it bumps up against and even clashes with the different purposes and concerns of its paratexts.

Just a note: the Longhorn Steakhouse commercial was just me having fun, but Trojan actually was a sponsor of the show (although probably not this commercial).