Category Archives: Screen/Ethics American Crime TV Drama

Two BBC Crime Dramas – Broadchurch and River

One of the pleasures of my research topic is that I get to watch Crime Dramas. A lot. While many of them can be quite predictable and poorly written, some shows have the capacity to stun you in their brilliance. Though I am a big fan, I would be the first to agree that even the best among American Crime dramas prioritize the crime factor more than the drama. Some of the more deliberate narratives like the first season of True Detective and the brilliant TV adaptation of Fargo (both are season-long anthologies), tend to linger on the characters rather than focus on the action. And yet, they too look at the stories for the length of the crime and the aftermath has little bearing on the viewers’ perception of the characters’ lives. It is as if the challenges faced by the characters simply cease to exist at the end of the season. This is one of the places where European shows fare better, with their intricate plotting never over-taking the depth of characterization. I would like to discuss this ability to build on past events and crimes in two recent shows from the UK, Broadchurch and River.

While I usually avoid spoilers, the following post may give away some broad strokes outline of the character arc – but you may read ahead without being robbed of the meaning and actions of the plot as I try to only reference to its method.

Broadchurch balances between the two genre modifiers of crime and drama the best among contemporary television shows. Set in a fictional coastal town in England, the first series features David Tennant and Olivia Coleman in leading roles as they try to solve the mysterious death of a ten-year old boy. This is the perfect setup for a whodunit with its finite set of characters each with their own dark secret that they want to hide. It is not to say that the show avoids that aspect, but it also transcends the simplicity of crime as a puzzle-solving that dominates many TV shows. Instead we are allowed to take a harrowing peek into the complex entanglements between the characters who are involved in the aftermath of the tragedy. It looks at the devastation of a single death and the implication of a killer to its ultimate conclusion. By resisting the tropes of inventive criminality and mind-numbingly escalating body-count other shows seem so easily susceptible to, Broadchurch seeks a crushing humanity as the basis of the viewers’ relationship with the characters. The solving of the crime is as devastating as the crime itself, as the consequences change the world of the characters permanently. In eight short episodes, Broadchurch showed how unique crime drama on TV could be.

And then the second series happened. It abandoned the format of the first series that most TV shows try and repeat. Instead, it examined a trial and its crucial elements by extending the case from the first series. This led to mixed results because the sense of closure provided in the first series seemed to be completely undone by the second. It felt like a cheap trick from a 90s Hollywood movie where an unplanned sequel forces the producers to remove the happy conclusion they had achieved. Although the second series was inarguably a natural extension of the first, it was undeniably inconsistent in quality. Like many other fans, I was not very impressed with the outcomes of the court proceedings. In my opinion, the near-perfect first series was ruined by an attempt to extend a show that should have been a limited series. Even at that stage, I would have been happy for the show to end on that note – with one remarkable series followed by a slightly underwhelming series, which was still better than many shows on air. And then the third series came, changing the way I think of a crime drama. I was never more delighted to be shown wrong when it rescued the flailing second series retroactively by presenting the greatest bit of character development between the second and third series. The characters who had suffered twice – first with the death of a child and second the failure of a justice-system – are used to make a more important point about trauma – recovery. Instead of using their tragedy as a plot point that leads them to irredeemable suffering, the show allows its characters to cope with the loss over time and return to their lives. Not only did Broadchurch provide one of the most satisfying conclusions in crime drama TV history, but it legitimized the need for the suffering inflicted by the second series. It explained why the events in the second series were important for the characters to explore their experiences.

Another show that blends a bleak aesthetic with a soul-searching character centrality is BBC’s 2015 crime drama River. Featuring Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker, critics often acknowledge the faux-Scandinavian look and feel of the show with its grey London-scapes and lingering sense of narrative development. I believe that beyond the appearance, the show borrows something far deeper from its Scandinavian counterpart – it values the feelings and thoughts of its characters and reflects the significance on the plot.

River begins with almost an eye-rolling conceit typical of any of the leading crime-solvers on mainstream TV— a special ability that allows the protagonist to see the case in a way that others simply cannot. Skarsgård’s titular hero can literally see the ghosts of his cases, allowing him to externalize his thoughts and grasp at the heart of the case, eventually solving it. This feels giddily like an overused generic trope at the beginning of the show, but within the first episode it goes off on a course that is surprising and refreshing. The important distinction between this show and others like it is in its treatment of this special ability. The protagonist is slowly revealed to be less gifted, and more burdened with persistently painful and difficult life. While it has its episodic procedural moments (especially in the first three episodes), the overarching plot takes over in the latter part of the series as the inspector is trying to solve the mystery of his partner’s death – leading to a whirlwind finish where there are real emotional and personal stakes for the protagonist in solving the case.

Unlike other crime shows, River earns its twists painstakingly and makes the characters pay dearly for each truth they wrestle out of the narrative. The audience are compelled to weigh the importance of those twists – each one with its palpable and lasting consequence make us ache for the characters who live with the outcomes they choose. The show’s protagonist is deeply involved in the thick of the plot in the most organic way – as the characters’ entanglements are used to examine the dangerous profession that they are in. Usually crime shows offer a degree of invulnerability to their protagonists, especially if they are cops – some of the most famous cop-shows have insular protagonists who are never under mortal threat simply because they must exist and be in an active relationship with the plot. This is where River reaches for a level above its contemporaries. The six episodes are concluded with a finality that scoffs at the idea of returning for a second series that would cash in on a well-built world of characters and relationships. Although the production details are ominously left dangling for a possible return, actors Stellan Skarsgård considers the show “a one-off piece” and hopefully that resolve remains.

To conclude, I find this impulse that desires for River’s finality a bit conflicting, because a show like Broadchurch proves that a one-off concept could be masterfully extended and redeemed even if it is botched in the process. We may never know if a second series of a show could exceed expectations if it is never made. And yet, the fans of a show are pulled in two opposing directions, hoping for an untouched legacy and a perfect memory as well as a hope to return to characters we have become acquainted with and deeply care for. TV history is full of shows that got better in a returning season, and there are just as many examples of near-perfect mini-series events. These two traditions bear their own modes of reception in the way they prepare the audience and the buzz they generate about their content. Ultimately, long-term seriality remains one of the most intriguing points of engagements with TV shows. The tension between our desire for more episodes and the dread for them being bad is the site where TV shows- both great and terrible- are made, remembered and forgotten.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Rodney King Retrospective – Legacy in Film

In this concluding section of the Rodney King Retrospective, we will discuss the legacy of the Rodney King video as transmitted through film and Television.

“…we don’t see the American Dream. We have experienced only the American nightmare.”

– Malcolm X, (dir. Spike Lee, 1992)

Straight Outta Compton

139-straight_outta_compton_ver8The 2015 biopic Straight Outta Compton (dir. F. Gary Gary), captured the ways in which the rise of the gangsta rap group N.W.A. was inextricably linked with the suffering of the African-American community. Los Angeles in the late 80s serves as a crucible where the defiant and powerful rhetoric of an otherwise voiceless community emerges against a society that regards them with prejudice as unlawful elements. The film also incorporates the Rodney King beating video and the subsequent trial and riots, not just as a part of the historical milieu but as a necessary thematic counterpoint to the fragile position that the rappers occupy in the music industry. The film depicts scenes where the rappers witness the trial and verdict on TV, expressing their pain about a result that they see as unfair.

Screenshot depicting Bloods & Crips truce
Screenshot depicting Bloods & Crips truce

In one of the most powerful moments of blending historical context with the narrative focus on, the film follows its main characters as the rappers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre ride through the rioting neighborhoods during the 1992 LA riots. They helplessly watch as the simmering anger against police brutality boils over into violence. The riots are captured here as a response to the verdict from the trial of the four police officers indicted in the Rodney King incident. At the climactic point of that scene, two men walk towards the police with their arms raised high and holding two bandanas tied together, one in red and the other blue representing rival gangs Blood and Crips. The unified stand of two long-standing opposing gangs underscores the overwhelming weight of the issue that has brought them together. The audience’s familiarity with cinematic codes alerts them to the significance of this crucial moment. However, this image remains obscure to those who do not know the historical context of gang-rivalries in LA. The moment is left unexplained—ambiguous and opaque to a wider-audience—who have nevertheless participated in the recording, recognizing and reclaiming of an important moment in black-history. The violence presented on the screen is not explained or justified – but simply juxtaposed with the police encounters that preceded them. Throughout the film, the Rodney King video exists as an inter-textual specter that informs our viewing of the narrative.

Video begets Video

Spike Lee’s films often deal with representations of black identity and the many conflicts that are exclusive to the black community. The use of the Rodney King video in 1992’s Malcolm X is a direct commentary about the extreme message of the titular protagonist who wanted to hold the white people accountable for historical atrocities committed against black people. However, it is his 1989 debut, Do the Right Thing that shows an eerie, prescient view of police brutality as a character is choked to death when the police come to break up a neighborhood scuffle. Radio Raheem, the character who is killed, is surreptitiously put in the patrol car by the police and driven away, clearly hinting at a possible cover up. In this sense, the history of the Rodney King video can be traced back to the past even before its existence, and the archival limits distinguishing one event from the other slowly fade away as the viewer is left with a residual horror about an event that has existed continually, even if it was not recorded on tape.

Do The Right Thing
Do The Right Thing

The 1994 OJ Simpson trial was another highly polarizing television event that was often evoked comparisons with the Rodney King video. For many people, OJ represented the backlash of the Rodney King video – someone who escaped lawful punishment due to the social climate and racial tension. Such a claim veers dangerously close to suggesting that the viewing audience cannot separate between the two different black men and their experiences with law enforcement. The transmission of the Rodney King video continues in both fictional and documentary forms of the OJ Simpson case. The critically acclaimed TV drama, American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson (FX, 2016) showed characters, especially the police, behaving in a way that revealed a very careful awareness of the fresh wounds of the recent past. Added to this was the layer of class and celebrity that led to OJ Simpson being treated in a way very different from Rodney King.

139-oj-made-in-americaThe ESPN 30 for 30 documentary entitled OJ: Made in America (2016) addressed this issue more directly by interviews with jurors expressing their sentiments that the “not-guilty verdict was ‘Payback’ for Rodney King” (Molloy 2016). The second episode of the documentary particularly focused on the Rodney King video and the LA Riots as a way of understanding the race-relationship between the LAPD and the black community. The documentary unearths other incidents from LAPD history, such as the 1979 shooting of Eula Love, to consider the general attitudes that were prevalent even before the Rodney King beating.

Other video encounters

There are many other TV programs and films that allude or reference to the events surrounding the Rodney King video tapes, ranging from comedies like Black-ish, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters and Boondocks to dramas like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Scandal (See, The Guardian article for a more complete list). However, the degree to which they successfully portray the complex threads of race relations vary drastically. The analysis of these particular videos in light of the Rodney King incident is still very limited, as many archival websites focus on a more overtly political message (such as this police brutality watch). Perhaps it is difficult try and access a painful cultural memory for a fictional, and often naïve, treatment of the same. However, the latitude that art presents to explore various dimensions of the problem should not be quickly overlooked.

This piece was originally written for an assignment in a graduate course, TV Studies, offered by Prof. Liew Kai Khiun,  WKWSCI, NTU.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Rodney King Retrospective – A Reluctant Hero

In the last two parts of the Rodney King Retrospective, we will discuss the legacy of the Rodney King video in other cultural forms that have been transmitted and used in powerful acts of resistance.

The Rodney King incident has left an indelible impression through its transmission and circulation in other cultural texts, and bears significance about issues of police excess and race relationships even today. This essay expands the previous discussion on the Rodney King video by expanding the scope to texts across different genres from hip hop music to film and television, and examine its legacy of transmission through cultural and technological memories. The following video was edited to highlight the artistic responses to the beating, especially focusing on hip hop musician Ice Cube and filmmaker Spike Lee. While the Rodney King video holds significance to many artists  in many works, the historical proximity and immediacy of these two works invite a more detailed analysis.

Ice Cube’s 1992 album Predator was a direct response to the Rodney King incident, and Spike Lee uses the Rodney King beating footage in the opening credits of the biopic Malcolm X (1992). Both of them have discussed the issue of police brutality in their earlier works, Cube’s song “Fuck the Police” from the album Straight Outta Compton (by the rap group N.W.A. in 1988) and Lee’s film Do The Right Thing in 1989 both examine the problems that the black community faces in their encounters with law enforcement. This mashup juxtaposes these elements by using video and audio clips from the original Rodney King incident and other sources.

Trial by video

The impact of the Rodney King Beatings Video was unprecedented. While a trial by media is common today, the video and the media coverage was a novelty in 1991—albeit one that had not yet reached the kind of 24-hour media coverage that the OJ Simpson case would get in a couple of years, but certainly capturing the popular imagination of the people and reinforcing some of the darkest fears about police prejudices against minorities. The LAPD chief, Daryl Gates called the beating an aberration and rejected the notion that it was routine practice to manhandle minorities, was criticized for his handling of the videotaped beating and the aftermath. The acquittal of all the four police officers reveals a gap in the way the video text is received by different groups of people.  Another important outcome of the video evidence was the surprising effect it had on the jury that was almost exactly the opposite effect it had on the Television audience. Judith Butler expresses her incredulity at the outcome by asking, “How could this video be used as evidence that the body being beaten was itself the source of danger, threat of violence, and further, that the beaten body of Rodney King bore an intention to injure, to injure precisely those police who either wielded the baton against him or stood encircling him?” (1993: 15). During the trial, the video was deconstructed to a frame by frame analysis to support the case of the defendants—the police officers. Later critics suggest that the extremely technological analysis of the video encouraged the jury to focus on the visual cues as if it were a puzzle that they were trying to comprehend. The emphasis on comprehension and analysis disconnected the affective response that the viewers originally had with the video. Butler attributes this reversal to a “crisis in the certainty of what is visible” (16). And this tension between the visual and the visible reorders the events to be interpreted in a way that perpetuates existing biases about race and allows for exceptional circumstances of violence.

This divided perceptions of the Endangered/Endangering becomes a central point in many later discussions of police-civilian interactions. The claim that police felt their lives were under threat is an oft-invoked defense in cases of accusations of police excess. A writer for The New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells argues that although the dangerous environment in which the police operate justifies the claim, it could also feel like a euphemism at best, or a cover-up at worst (“Police Shootings, Race, and The Fear Defense” 2016). Particularly drawing attention to a study by Harvard Economist Roland Fryer, Wallace-Wells contends that the fear defense demonizes the victim of the shooting and deflects from the underlying problem of police bias against minorities. These observations resonate with the defense argument in the first Rodney King trial. The verdict was shocking only to those who did not anticipate police bias against Rodney King. The verdict and the ensuing conflict brings to mind Susan Sontag’s thoughts on the photographic image in her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of the Others: “The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it” (39). As such, the Rodney King video had a career of its own, accomplishing at times, the opposite of what its author—amateur videographer George Holliday—had intended.

Hip Hop and Rodney King

Gangsta rap has often served as a medium that expressed the anger about lopsided race relationships arising from blanket mistreatment of minorities by the police. Arguably the most influential gangsta rap group, the N.W.A. repeatedly came into conflict with law enforcement due to the incendiary lyrics that seemingly condoned violence against the police.

The Predator, 1992.
The Predator, 1992.

Ice Cube’s The Predator was released in 1992 serving as a commentary to the riots that ensued the verdict of the Rodney King trial. The following lines from the song “Who got the camera?” directly allude to the Rodney King incident and presenting video technology as a site of resistance against police violence:

If the crowd wasn’t around, they would’ve shot me
Tried to play me out like my name was Rodney
Fuckin police gettin badder
Cause if I had a camera, the shit wouldn’t matter…

The media too used the vocabulary generated by gansta rap in discussing the backlash against police excess. An article by Haya El Nasser published in USA Today on the day of the Rodney King beating verdict is titled “In fear of AmeriKKKan justice”, referencing a protest signage that equates the American government with the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. The reference also signifies rapper Ice Cube’s debut album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted released in 1990, which in-turn is a wordplay on the TV program America’s Most Wanted—a crime reenactment show which sought information from the audience to contribute in the crime-solving process. The ironic usage of the title by Nasser criticizes the jury, who had just witnessed a video of a real crime (rather than a reenactment) and yet had refrained from punishing the excessive use of force due to their blind faith in the police authority.

Newspaper clipping: "In Fear of AmeriKKKan Justice" USA Today.
Newspaper clipping: “In Fear of AmeriKKKan Justice” USA Today, 30 April 1992.

Besides music, film also played a significant role in transmitting the legacy of the Rodney King video. We will discuss more about that in the concluding part of this retrospective series.

This piece was originally written for an assignment in a graduate course, TV Studies, offered by Prof. Liew Kai Khiun,  WKWSCI, NTU.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Rodney King Retrospective – Perception and History in Media

In the previous post, we discussed the significance of the Rodney King video tape as a historical and media event. In this part of the Rodney King Retrospective, we will look at the perception of the  video in the media with respect to questions of authenticity and power.

Perception and History

In the 20-year anniversary documentary, CNN Presents: Race & Rage, The Beating of Rodney King (March 2011), Rodney King’s lawyer, Milton C. Grimes says that “This (video) is history. We finally caught the Lochness monster with a camcorder.” The invocation of the legendary monster points to the elusive nature of the systemic police violence that targets minorities in general, and the black community in particular. However, the phrase “Lochness monster” is also an inadvertent admission of the essentially mysterious, if not illusory nature of the issue— something that evokes dread, and begs confirmation through its very suggestion. And to extend Grimes’ analogy of the Lochness monster being taped; unfortunately, you could not hear its cry. The absence of audio also played a big part in the transmission of the text. The authenticity of the event is challeneged despite the prominence of what ought to be indisputable proof—video evidence. It is not to say that the police do not use excessive force on minorities (See BBC’s article “Why do US police keep killing unarmed black men?” (26 May 2015) for a statistical analysis and critique of police methods). However, the allusion helps us frame this issue as a matter of perception.


A gruesome footage, caught by chance.
A gruesome footage, caught by chance.

It is only apt that a video footage, captured through the camera-eye, is discussed in the light of its suggestive power rather than its absolute contents. Rudolf Arnheim in his essay, ‘The Two Authenticities of the Photographic Media’ (1997), remarks that an image does not only perform a photo-realistic representative authenticity, but also an expressive authenticity, whose intention is to communicate a certain message, and hence, is not obliged to represent the image as it is. In this sense, the George Holliday video captures the angst and grief of an entire community about police brutality. The video triggered many socially and politically engaged debates about race and police violence on one side, and also had the scarring impact of the 1992 LA Riots.

Time Magazine Cover May 1992.
Time Magazine Cover juxtaposes King’s reconciliatory plea with the violence

Citizen Journalism

The video became a precursor to the elevation of guerilla or ‘citizen’ journalism as a viral phenomenon that would become more established in the internet era. Rodney King’s life is subjected to critical scrutiny because of the existence of George Holliday’s video. In turn, the symbolic power of witnessing enabled by this video significantly altered police practices to incorporate video recording as a part of their job. Holliday’s legacy as a pioneering citizen journalist is presented in his website that claims that the Rodney King video was the “First ever viral video.” The page is also peppered with the phrase “All Images are Copyrighted”—a lesson that Holliday learnt from the meagre payday he received when the video first went viral. Interestingly, many of Holliday’s interviews present him defensively justifying his sharing of the video with a news outlet. Despite the serious repercussions that the telecast of the video has had on his life, Holliday champions the role of citizen journalists by saying, “Don’t be afraid to share the video… if it is something important.” But he also cautiously adds, “Don’t abuse the tape.

Framing police excess in American Television

Representations of police excesses in American TV have incited polarized reactions of admiration and legitimacy as well as condemnation and critique from the American audience, as if to demonstrate the inherently irreconcilable response to police sovereignty. We see this divide sharply especially in the case of fictional programs, where the narrative of the police force is defined through its use of force. Popular cop shows have always used extrajudicial methods as an inevitable tool in fighting crime by invoking exceptional circumstances. Giorgio Agamben describes this lopsided power relationship in ‘Sovereign Police’ in Means without End (2000) as follows:

If the sovereign, in fact, is the one who marks the point of indistinction between violence and right by proclaiming the state of exception and suspending the validity of the law, the police are always operating within a similar state of exception. (103)

Interestingly, audience seem to respond with outrage when the same equation is applied to non-fictional programs, as was the case in 2015’s Netflix docuseries, Making a Murderer (See Amelia McDonell-Parry’s “Making A Murderer, “Biased” Journalism & Necessary OutrageThe Frisky, 25 January 2016, for a discussion of journalistic ethics and questioning police excess). This seemingly contradictory response in the audience reveals a certain ambiguity while encountering police excess across different forms. Rodney King’s video evoked an emotional response based on identifying the rights of the victim as inviolable, regardless of the circumstance of the arrest. This sentiment echoes through minority rights movement even today, as groups like Black Lives Matter have “hands up, don’t shoot!” as one of their slogans. The image transcends its specific meaning to become a meme that remains controversial when used by public personalities such as NFL players and CNN hosts.

St. Louis Rams protesting Ferguson incident
St. Louis Rams protesting Ferguson incident

However, not every question about the video can be easily answered due to the challenges of authenticity of the transmission. Unquestionably, the framing of the story by various news outlets and the influence of editorial policy on the event’s reception are very important in discussing the importance of the Rodney King video (See the report “Trial By Media” by the media watchdog Accuracy in Media (AIM), for a thorough analysis of reportage on the Rodney King case Vol. XXI – No. 9, May 1992).

Incorporating Video in Police Practices

It must be noted that police departments have come a long way in adopting video technologies to their day to day policing. An evaluative report on the value and impact of the in-car camera featured in The Police Chief magazine insists that “the benefits of the in-car video camera far exceeded the original goals” (Westphal 2016). It has become common practice for many police departments to release the videos of conflict and confrontation between police and civilians due to their own best practices of promoting transparency as well as the influence of the freedom of information act. In fact, the videos from the Terence Crutcher shooting were from police cameras, and were released a few days after the event. While the presence of the camera does not automatically render a safer environment for civilians, Westphal observes that it does play a significant role in sensitizing the police to their own actions through evaluative and reflective practices in the aftermath. But this state of access to information may not remain consistent due to differing policing attitudes – as North Carolina passed a law in the wake of a police shooting, by which police footage will no longer be considered part of the public record. So while policies about video technology remains precarious right now, they have clearly become an important element to be negotiated in the course of police enforcement; and that could very well be the legacy of the Rodney King videotape.

This piece was originally written for an assignment in a graduate course, TV Studies, offered by Prof. Liew Kai Khiun,  WKWSCI, NTU.

Share your comments and views with through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Rodney King Retrospective – Going Viral in the 90s

On 16 September 2016, Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old unarmed black man, was shot dead by Officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he had a vehicle break-down and blocked a road. The New York Times reports that the event was captured on two cameras, one from the police patrol car’s dashboard-camera and another from a police helicopter. The videos show Crutcher walking with his hands raised and walking slowly away from the police car and approaching his vehicle. One of the police officers use a Taser to stun him while a second officer fatally shoots him. The audio of someone shouting “Shots fired!” is heard and a more police officers surround Crutcher’s body. Crutcher’s shooting is just the most recent in a string of cases of black men getting shot by the police. However, there is a marked difference in these cases from similar encounters of the past— now, these encounters are documented on video and shared for the world to see.

Terence Crutcher and the police officers. Courtesy: ABC News
Terence Crutcher and the police officers. Courtesy: ABC News

The videos of Crutcher’s shooting are available on various media outlines online for people to respond, analyze and critique. The video exposure of police excesses has become commonplace today due to the ubiquity of video recording devices as well as the ability to globally distribute them. The easy access to video technology significantly alters the imbalance of police power in encounters with civilians. Now, civilians have a means by which their interaction is documented, even if it is done partially, or poorly. While police dashcam videos have been shown to the public in TV shows like COPS (Fox, 1989-present), they were used to showcase effective police work and offer a vicarious experience of law enforcement to the audience. However, the first major case of a video becoming a site of resistance against police brutality could be traced to a video from 1991 that caused had major repercussions in LA and the American popular imagination in general, about race relationships. The Rodney King beatings from 3 March 1991 was videotaped by George Holliday on a Sony camcorder at a time when access to video technology was still uncommon. This video would become one of the first viral videos in the pre-internet era, shaping public opinion about police interactions with minorities. This essay situates the Rodney King video as the beginning of the critical examination of police attitudes towards race relationships through the analysis of video evidence.

Tale of the Tape

One late Sunday evening, George Holliday heard a noise in the streets and went out to see four police officers surrounding a young black man and trying to subdue him. Holliday used his new camcorder to tape the scene. The footage shows Rodney King, the suspect who was already Tasered, getting up with his hands raised and rushing towards one of the officers, who knocks him to the ground. Following that, King was struck 53 to 56 times with batons and kicked 6 times by four police officers over a period of 90 seconds. King was taken into custody by the police and was later released without being charged.

You can watch the full 9 minute clip below, now archived at the FBI vault.

The video was first telecast on KTLA-TV, an LA-based TV station which presented the first 81 seconds of the nine-minute video largely unaltered. The first 10 seconds of the video was cut as the footage was blurry. The video was later picked up by 24/7 news networks like CNN and played multiple times a day on news networks. The video became a source of collective outrage as well as provoking very direct action from the public to the event. In fact, KTLA-TV offices became the first line of reception to the public response as they received 8,426 phone calls, many of them demanding the resignation of the LA police chief, Daryl Gates  The brevity and brutality of the video emphasized King’s helplessness, sending shockwaves across America. It was not just an issue that was important to the African-American community, but something that provoked introspection about racial attitudes in general.

Photo of Rodney King, taken three days after his videotaped beating (AP Photo)
Photo of Rodney King, taken three days after his videotaped beating (AP Photo)

The video became the basis of the police officers involved being indicted and brought to trial. The University of Missouri’s archive of Famous American Trials’ testifies to the power of the video by saying that the videotape “turned what would otherwise have been a violent, but soon forgotten, encounter… into one of the most widely watched and discussed incidents of its kind.” The video became a central piece of evidence on both sides of the case, leading to the four officers being acquitted in the first trial and two of them convicted in the second.

March 14, 1991. From left: Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, Officer Theodore J. Briseno, Officer Timothy E. Wind and Officer Laurence Powell. (AP Photo)
March 14, 1991. From left: Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, Officer Theodore J. Briseno, Officer Timothy E. Wind and Officer Laurence Powell. (AP Photo)

Of course, it is important to note that the visual medium hides as much as it reveals. Two of the most contented and inflammatory moments from the event covered in the video clip are forever obscured for the audience due to technological limitations. First, a crucial moment in the ensuing trial is Rodney King’s allegation that when he lay flat on the ground, the officer spoke threateningly that “we’re [the police] are going to kill you [King], nigger.” This utterance plays a central part in the reception of the video and the significance it bears for the audience, and yet it is something that the audience cannot hear from the video itself. The uncertainty about the audio controls the reception of another key moment that takes places immediately after the alleged utterance — King’s action of getting up with his hands raised in the air, and rushing away from the police. King’s action served as the basis of the police being acquitted in the first trial, for that moment distinguished for the defense and the jury between ‘necessary’ and ‘excessive’ force. Others, however, perceive that gesture as demonstration of King’s fear and the raised hands as proof of his surrender. Like the obscure audio, the distance of the camera and the low lighting makes it impossible for the viewer to actually see if King was acting in self-defense or if he was attempting to attack the police. In the essay Whiter Shades of Pale: Media-Hybridities of Rodney King, Joost Van Loon argues that inherent racial bias was so strong that the video did not hold weight in the first trial as “it was at odds with the ‘reality’ of policing as doing a job” (1999: 126). Oren Harari proposes that the intellectualized analysis of the tapes and the frame-by-frame repetition of the tape desensitized the jury and the audience to the effect of the tape (1993: 21). The video is a powerful artefact, but its legitimacy is always constructed by the discourses surrounding it.

It has been 25 years since that fateful night when Rodney King was arrested and there have been many narratives and counter-narratives about the actions of both the police officers and Rodney King. While discussions of police brutality and state-sponsored violence have always remained an important issue, the rise of technological affordances that enabled civilians to record and distribute video footage of such events escalated the immediacy of the brutality. Critics, politicians and the police have spoken for and against the value of recorded police actions. But it cannot be denied that videos of police excesses evoke an emotional response, and instantly become a rallying cry for justice and human rights. Of course, videos still do not translate into convictions, but they raise consciousness and prompt a serious debate about the reality of police excess. And that important step would not have happened if not for the Rodney King video.

This piece was originally written for an assignment in a graduate course, TV Studies, offered by Prof. Liew Kai Khiun,  WKWSCI, NTU.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Previously on American TV… 4. TV Studies 3.0

In the previous post, we discussed the problems of a standardized TV that has become the norm in mainstream popular culture. TV is more of a fixture in the household rather than an event, like going to the theatre or even the cinema. The critical response to TV has similarly responded to it within the social context, focusing on the general viewership patters and their significance to the family rather than deal with its specific content. The rise of digital and Over-the-Top internet distribution has seen a rise in niche market programs that defy the usual assumptions about standard TV. Theorists are sensitive to the changes in content and call for a new kind of TV studies that evaluates the form as well as the content in a more situated and direct manner. New TV studies would focus on the hybridity of the technological innovation as well as the social relationships that they constitute. If TV studies 1.0 positioned the viewer as a passive observer who had very little agency in responding to the technology, TV studies 2.0 exalts the virtues of TV as the height of modernity, repositioning the viewers with absolute (active and critical) agency, claiming that by presenting the social classes and disparity, TV is breaking down these boundaries. However, as it is with most cases, a more meaningful approach would be somewhere in the middle between these two extremes of social and technological conceptions of the uses of TV.

304 TV studies the basics

Toby Miller discusses this fundamental shift in TV studies in his book, Television Studies: the Basics as follows:

TV studies 1.0 & 2.0 privileged TV because “it spoke about us” (145). 146: Studying TV today requires interrogating the commodification of textuality, the global exchange of cultural and communications infrastructure and content, the suburbanization of First-World politics, and the interplay between physical and visual power (Hartley 1999: 13). A new formation, a hybrid, critical Television studies 3.0, cannot accept the old shibboleths that separate political economy and cultural studies. Television texts and institutions are not signs to be read, they are not just coefficients of political and economic power; they are not just innovations – they are all these things.

Miller’s comments reflect a very important trajectory in the development of TV studies, as the field’s attention now seems to self-reflexively look at itself – at the privileges and blindspots that have become part of the framework applied in the field. Miller sees the problems of looking at TV studies as just ethnography, content analysis, experimentation and psychological testing or deploy political economy and historiographic methods, because TV studies has to be situated with an awareness to all these fields. For instance, the project of reading philosophy in TV has been done in a completely different tradition that ignores TV as an apparatus and the context of its technological evolution. While that is TV studies in the descriptive idea of studying the TV, it ignores many of the fundamental questions about what makes TV viewing different from reading/viewing any other kind of text.

We can see that TV studies has always been interested in the ethics of production and distribution. However, its ethics is limited to questions of ownership, right conduct, and on the side of content, questions of morality and representation. But an ethics of radical passivity that owes its existence to the other is an interesting aspect in the context of TV, which has always been criticized of making people passive. The relationship that springs from passivity does not have to be passive itself. Its effects and significance could carry a deeper significance about our relationship with the world, justice and social conditions.

Miller calls for a radical contextualization “that acknowledges the shifts and shocks that characterize the existence of institutions and programs” (147). He calls for an adaptation of Roger Chartier’s tripartite historicizatoin of books: to focus on ‘the text itself, the object that conveys it, and the act that grasps it.’ In short, it can be said that while TV studies 1.0 looked at TV as a social malady that need to be studied to make moral claims, and TV studies 2.0 considered TV to be an artistic achievement simply by its virtue of being TV, TV studies 3.0 is an interstitial study that allows for a situated reading of TV content as well as its structures of production and distribution.

Miller focuses on some core resources that facilitate the undertaking of TV studies 3.0 as follows: POLICY (public bureaucracies, private bureaucracies), DEBATES (press, congressional/parliamentary, lobby-group, activist, academic), BUDGETS, LAWS (labor, copyright, environmental impact, censorship), HISTORY, PLACES, PEOPLE (148). We will see the exact ways in which these instruments could be used to study TV in the next post. You can read further about Miller’s thoughts on Media studies 3.0 here.

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profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Previously on American TV… 3. Emergence of TV Studies

During the course of this series, we will see how the changes in the 80s cause major repercussions for TV as we see and interact with today. In the previous posts (1, Defining Quality TV & 2, Context of Quality TV) we considered the significant but subtle shifts in the TV production culture in the 80s. New innovative practices were fast becoming industry standards to a point where the definition of a ‘Quality TV’ could not pinned down to one specific form. However, the emergence of quality TV has to be contextualized within the general critical reception of TV itself. This post will now look at the other side of this equation, that is, the reception of TV not only among the popular audience, but also within an academic context. The foremost, and perhaps the most influential of those who started looking at TV in a critical and engaged manner was the Frankfurt School, especially Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

Cultural Studies & TV

From its very beginning, television has been an object of immense interest for cultural studies, as it represented the worst case of modern technology that generates a standardized, mass-produced content and debase cultural value. At a time of enormous technological upheaval, TV represented the appeasement of art to the lowest common denominator to theorists like Adorno and Horkheimer. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, they mount an attack on Television that has come to be the main argument for Television eroding aesthetic value. In the chapter ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, they critique the ‘sameness’ in art that is compounded by mechanically reproducible forms like cinema, radio and television (120). In fact, they view cinema and radio and all popular culture as tools of capitalist monopoly, rather than real art (121). Their critique may sound technophobic to a contemporary reader, but their concerns are rooted in first-hand experience of the Nazi’s use of mass culture to inculcate adherence to fascist ideology. They view Television as a fascist dream where all art forms are melded into one, as it is:

a synthesis [of radio and film whose]… consequences will be enormous and promise to intensify the impoverishment of the aesthetic matter so drastically that by tomorrow the thinly veiled identity of all industrial cultural products can come out into the open, derisively fulfilling the Wagnerian dream of Gesamtkunstwerk—the fusion of all the arts in one work” (1979: 124).

Their critique of synthesis of many forms is an articulation of their concern for the loss of ‘serious art’ that requires concentration and education. The ubiquitous nature of Television that was quickly becoming a part of every American household posed a threat of homogeneity and the commodification of the viewer, infiltrating under the guise of democracy. Adorno in particular is very suspicious of the duplicity that TV presents, as it masquerades as a unifying and liberating experience while its true motives are capital-centric and hegemonic. At the time of their observation, Television was limited to network broadcasts, which produced programs within strict guidelines in response to market forces (see least offensive programming from the previous post: Context of quality). While the emergence of ‘art cinema’ that ran parallel to the mainstream allowed cinema to shake off similar accusations, Television still depends on the broadcast and network apparatus and hence, is designed to cater to those with most perceived power in the audience (the fabled 18-39 white male demographic). It is not to say that there were no products of artistic quality in that era, but they were merely incidental to the main objective of targeting advertisements and selling products to the viewers.

In the 1954 article ‘How to look at Television’, Adorno builds on his argument against Television by close analysis of the different kinds of programs that dominated TV in his time. One of the main problems with Television is its perpetuation of a “fake realism” (213) that is used to reinforce institutional values of conformity and “integration” (220). Adorno analyses 1950s Television programmes and concludes that they latently encourage an abandonment of romantic values in favour of accepting a standardized existence (225). Crucially, Adorno positions this tendency in Television as unconscious, and hence more dangerous, as the perpetrators are merely mimicking existing tropes without critical thought. Adorno argues that the problems of predictable plots and stereotypical characters are inevitable in Television due to its rushed production style that demands a large volume of content within a short period of time (229). Stereotypy in Television also affects the society by over-simplifying social and ethical issues, such as gender, sexuality, geopolitics and crime and punishment to conform to the established values (232).

Sadly, many of their accusations still hold true in the context of many TV programs. The industry is completely engrossed in its pursuit of replicating past successes, that most newer programs are merely specters of other programs: evidenced by the many regional variations of reality TV and other standard format programming. Most importantly, the problem of Television as reiterating the dominant paradigms and becoming inadvertent modes of hegemonic narratives still persists in a growingly globalized world of culture. Even the most innovative approach or narrative design always treads a line where it could be simply modified into a ‘typical’ and reproducible format. We only have to take a look at shows like Dexter (Showtime, 2006-13), which despite an explosive first season started repeating its storylines in order to stick to its familiar style.

Dexter: High Art/Recycled Rubbish: or Both?
Dexter: High Art/Recycled Rubbish: or Both?

However, not all of Adorno and Horkheimer’s criticism are relevant in our setting, especially their privilege the production of culture over its reception. Their insistence that the apparatus entirely controls the content, seems out of step with a pluralistic reception model – such as cable, internet and OTT services. The notion that mass media turns subjects into listeners and prevents private broadcasters from having “any freedom” (122) is growingly less significant in the era of internet connectivity. They lament the loss of spontaneity (122) due to the professionalization and systematisation of art production, but overlook the possibility of high cultural products emerging through this system. Remix cultures, for instance, have transcended the narrow limits of mass produced cultural products, and have come to signify icons of mass resistance. In the light of newer technological development as well as change in industry practices, the accusations no longer remain relevant against all Television content.

Especially, the emergence of a counter-programming in ‘Quality TV’ could be positioned against the early criticism of cultural studies, as the industry and its practitioners’ response to the serious and legitimate critique against the way TV was produced. However, even Quality TV comes with an inherent vulnerability of being co-opted into the mainstream— which compels us think about the potential of TV as an artistic medium. Only by grounding our study in the harsh and sobering condemnation of cultural studies, we can venture to explore issues like— can the TV be truly beautiful? Can a televised image, in its construction as a mass device, truly achieve a transcendental or sublime affect?

In the next post, we will continue looking at the emergence of TV studies, and the different positions it occupies in regarding the TV. Do you think that TV can be used for art, and more importantly, for good? Share your comments and views with through facebook or twitter.

Works Cited:
Adorno, Theodor W, Max Horkheimer, and John Cumming. Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso Editions, 1979. Print.
Adorno, Theodor W. “How to look at Television.” The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television. 8.3 (1954): 213-235. JSTOR.

profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Previously on American TV… 2. The Context of Quality

If Quality TV is a trend and not just a perception attributed after the fact, can we identify its historical origin or the context of its development?

In the previous post (read here), we discussed the problem of defining “Quality TV” in the American context, by looking at Robert J Thompson’s Television’s Second Golden Age. Along with overall improvement in production of TV due to technological advancements, Thompson identifies ‘series memory’ and writer-driven programing as the markers of Quality TV. We also briefly discussed the problem with Thompson’s insistence on ‘realism’ as a feature that is central to this new kind of TV.

How do we measure quality? CSI (2000-2015), Fargo (2014-)
How do we measure quality? CSI (2000-2015), Fargo (2014-)

While there is a lot of truth in positioning the emergence of Quality TV as a result of an audience desire for something “more sophisticated and more artistic than the usual network fare” (12), our historical perspective shows that the changes that Thompson points to have become the industry standard today. Shows like CSI (CBS 2000-2015), Bones (Fox 2005-), Blacklist (NBC 2013-) and Castle (ABC 2009-) further complicate this discussion, by serving as breakthroughs in terms of quality of production and the name-value recognition of the cast and programing, and yet producing fairly straightforward and template driven programs. TV shows have become more sophisticated, simply because everything else around them have also evolved and matured to something more complex. In this sense, the idea of Quality alone cannot be used to distinguish the recent crop of TV shows that are recognized as outstanding achievements in the enterprise of TV art. Merely focusing on quality of production and series memory does not suffice to talk about these new programs, because such aspects have become the industry standard. You can read more about this reassessment of the idea of quality in Jane McCabe and Kim Akass’ Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond (I.B. Tauris, 2007).

Quality TV (McCabe & Akass 2007)
Quality TV (McCabe & Akass 2007)

Context of Quality TV

Thompson’s book still has a lot to offer regarding the emergence of Quality TV, especially through his analysis of the context in which it emerged. He attributes this rise in more experimental and ‘quality’ programs to the changes in the industry, such as the arrival of cable and the fragmentation of the traditional network audience as well as the audience growing tired of the dull and ‘least offensive programming’ style of network content. No longer were the networks guaranteed a distracted, but regular viewership, as they sought ‘better’ and more compelling television programs. Cable attacked the premise that TV is a passive medium where the audience has little choice between the indistinguishable network content. TV was not an inevitable white noise in a drawing room. People paid for the cable service precisely for the content that interested them. On the production side, cable also desired to distinguish itself from ‘regular’ network TV by changing the kind of programs it produced. The arrival of cable also dispelled the industry fear of a smaller audience. Just as the arrival of TV was initially seen as a threat by Hollywood and cinema due to the smaller footfall, cable TV was regarded with caution. But similar to Hollywood, TV industry realized that there are different kind of opportunities when catering to a smaller, but more passionate audience. The rise of TV coincides with the dropping of the Hayes code, the self-restricting set of rules about ‘risky’ content. In the same sense, the rise of cable coincides with the fall of the TV dictum of ‘least objectionable content’.

TV broadcast is no longer dominated just by advertising priorities, and the greater segmentation in the kind of programs, the need to create a TV program that appeals to ‘everyone’, or more importantly does not offend anyone is no longer relevant. The least objectionable TV model was based on the premise that all the networks had an equal audience share. But the rise of cable, and later the rise of premium cable and OTT services (like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) have shifted this equilibrium greatly. Besides these reasons that were conducive for quality TV to emerge, I also think that by the 90s, the critical mass required for TV to evolve to a more diverse audience had been achieved, encouraging the industry to move more aggressively to distinguish itself from the idea of a ‘populist’, and inherently ‘low’ form of entertainment.

Thompson also explains the sudden critical interest in the need to identify a ‘higher quality’ of TV due to the popularity of Television itself. He comments that the audience have a need “to justify the time they log in front of the set” (19). This view, in the context of a long tradition of apologizing for our interest in TV is precisely the kind of thing that modern TV studies seeks to break away from. McCabe and Akass are interested in shifting the conversation about TV as not just as “‘artefacts of popular culture’ but also ‘rich, complex artworks’” (4). We see this dream as within grasp, as a slew of high profile talent from Martin Scorsese to Steven Soderbergh to actors like Martin Freeman and Mathew Mcconaughey working in the TV format. TV is no longer a downgrade from cinema, as it is its own thing.

In the next post, we will see how these changes in the field of TV affects the changes in the study of the reception of TV. How has TV studies evolved to regard TV differently?

profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Previously on American TV… 1. Defining Quality

In the Beginning…

The story of American Crime TV is the easiest story to tell, and at the same time, one of the most complex and diverse ones. We could simply start with the historical intersection in the early 1950s and outlining the detective and cop-show genre from Dragnet (Various, 1951-2004). Andrew Sargent offers an excellent overview of such a historical approach in his concise and handy entry titled ‘Police in Television’ (Full text available at his profile on the West Chester University, PA website) from The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia (A massive five volume edition, Ed. Wilbur Miller, Sage Pub, 2012). Pamela Donovan’s chapter on Television Crime Dramas in the book Criminal Justice is another good outline that positions the TV drama against questions of the reality of law enforcement. These interesting and useful reads give us a rich and interesting tradition to consider. My current project is to build on their approaches to look at the development of the serialized Crime drama that is increasingly associated with the idea of a prestige drama. In this effort, we need to go after every word in the phrase American Crime TV Drama and their combination to stitch together a narrative about narratives, characterization, spectatorship and most of all, the ethics of this genre.

Quality TV

Book Cover: Television's Second Golden Age, Robert J Thompson
Book Cover: Television’s Second Golden Age, Robert J Thompson

Although my selection of texts identify the 2000s as the height of achievement in serialized story-telling, the rich vein of serialized TV programs we are used to now, began in the 90s. Robert J Thompson outlines this development of serial TV as ‘quality TV’ in his book Television’s Second Golden Age (Syracuse University Press, 1997). Thompson sees the quality television as a result of the critical success of TV programs from the 70s (M*A*S*H) and 80s (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere) that offered character development and a ‘series memory’ that went beyond the closed structure of an episode. Thompson tries to describe the markers of quality TV (13-16) with features such as pedigree of the production, social and economic influence of the viewership, ensemble drama, and a threat of discontinuation by the networks due to a small viewership. These attributes about production and reception are retrospective patterns rather than a necessary condition for a quality program, as notions of pedigree evolve much after the fact of the perceived auteur’s success. Also, such a question of pedigree also assumes a central auteur figure whose genius the show’s success is contingent upon. However, some of the features he describes, such as the ability to mixing genres, a literary tradition, and contemporary themes and issues are definitely more resonant with a contemporary understanding of quality television. A rich TV show does not follow the typical ‘beats’ and struggle to ‘fit’ a conclusion in every episode. It trusts its audience to return and forms a contract to offer a well-developed and a fulfilling story in return for patience and loyalty.

Perhaps, the biggest contention I have with Thompson’s list of attributes is his insistence of ‘realism’ as a necessary condition for ‘Quality TV’. Any discussion about this insistence of realism is already complex because most of the shows discussed as ‘quality TV’ are, either shows that deal with contemporary issues in a realist setting, or even if they present fantasy or magical elements, their primary mode of narration is still realism. Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-) and The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-) are perhaps the two best known shows with a fantasy premise, and yet they move towards a grounded and more ‘authentic’ representation of a world that does not exist in the first place, simply due to our fascination with realism. So it is not that I am denying the dominance that the realist mode has in the industry, but questioning its positioning as a necessary condition, rather than just an attribute.

The umbrella of realism is flexible enough to accommodates many relative shifts within its spectrum, that any show that goes beyond these markers are discounted from a discussion of quality. Shows like House of Cards (Netflix, 2013-) and the short-lived Hannibal (NBC, 2013-15) are often criticized for their fantastic deviations in the realm of visual poetry. In this regard, comedies such as Community (NBC, 2009-15), Louie (FX, 2010-) Veep (HBO, 2012-) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000-) have had greater luck in their ability to reject realist interpretations in their production. And yet, ‘serious’ drama is expected to play within the strictures of realism. Slowly, this trend seems to be changing as some very recent shows have been able to move away from the burden of realism. Notable among them are Fargo (FX, 2014-), True Detective (HBO, 2014-) and American Horror Story (FX, 2011-). I just realized that all of the above are anthology series that bridge the serialized and episodic story-telling without going the way of genre shows or soap-operas. And just like that, TV continues to push at expectations and industry-standards to further itself as something different.

In an era where the struggle for audience has become more multi-faceted with the entry online Over-The-Top (OTT) video content providers like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and YouTube, TV cannot continue being just TV. Perhaps HBO’s redefinition by rejection, “It’s not TV. It is HBO.” is not just an aspiration, but a necessary condition for survival for all TV content providers, and we, the audience are only the richer for it.

In the next post, we will examine more factors that influence notions of quality in American TV drama.

-Mani, 30 April 2016.

profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.