Monday, May 05, 2003

Media in Transition 3: Television in Transition III

Michele Malach: "Behind Bars: Guilt, Redemption, and Oz Fans"

Michele Malach is professor of media studies in the Department of English at Fort Lewis College. Here is a rough transcript of the paper Malach presented at MiT3:

I'm going to be talking about a show that has no video game and no role-playing games. A comic would be great. There's lots and lots of fan fiction though. And lots and lots of discussion. Kurt and I had been talking about fandom and mythology and how people incorporate that into their every day lives. Another colleague came to me and talked about how our favorite stories tend to frame our lives. She suggested that the stories that we tend to care about choose us based on something about us. I think it's the other way around.

What does that say about fans of a prison show? The show was created by Tom Fontana, who was probably best known for his early work on St. Elsewhere. It started in 1997 and ran for six seasons. They only made eight episodes for each season, except one season in which they made 16. It was also HBO's first original, hour-long dramatic series. It was pretty groundbreaking even though It hasn't gotten as much attention.

Unlike a lot of more well-known fandoms, this one is built around a show that was never really commercially popular. But it was critically acclaimed. Most people don’t think about the show at all, but if they do its as a prison-based soap opera featuring graphic violence and male nudity. The demographics of the fans who watched it were really broad. There were clusters, but it covered a broad range. The fandom is dominated by mostly straight, educated, white women.

The people who I communicated for this particular project were all active fans online and mostly fanfic authors. I've been active in a number of Oz-related groups for a number of years, so I had relatively easy access to these people.

The character who spoke the final narrative, Augustus Hill, was basically a Greek chorus for the show. He would directly address the camera and express what the creator wanted us to take away. But of course, economies of desire are not so easily controlled, even if parts of the monologue did overlap with what the fans got out of it.

I had always thought of Oz as a Catholic kind of show. Largely because Fontana is Catholic, Homicide had a lot of Catholic themes, and there are a lot of Catholic characters in Oz. Most of the fans didn't perceive it as particularly Catholic. But the issues of guilt and redemption, at least as they're portrayed in the show, are particularly Catholic.

Religion doesn't work too well as a mythology for fandom because it's too literal. Roman Catholicism is much closer to that relationship -- not a literal belief but a contextual mythological belief. Like Umberto Eco's Macintosh, fandom is Catholic in a sense.

One woman in the group was a Quaker. Some had pagan beliefs. But they did feel drawn to the themes that came up in the show, which include the interconnection of good and evil, particularly within the individual, the possibility of redemption, and inherent humanity. The prisoners that are not religious often seem to try and find god or a meaning behind their actions and sins. Most of the people don't espouse a particular religion belief, but they still try to find a balance.

Perhaps the most consistent themes that arose in the Ozverse were guilt and redemption. These are not new themes for a prison show, but the depth that these themes were explored is new. Characters feel guilt over things that they don't do as well as things that they do do.

Most of us have guilt over something. Most of us want redemption. Redemption isn't something that you just get. Redemption is something that you work at every day You may get little bits and pieces of it, but it can also be taken away. Characters in the show are never completely redeemed. We're left with a really hopeless situation for one particular character, which is offset by more hopeful endings for other characters.

You end up feeling a great deal of empathy. I felt the same thing watching Homicide. You’ve got characters who are unquestionably evil but also quite human. Finally, there's the idea of personal responsibility in an extreme environment. Humanizing prisoners is a critique of the prison industry. When you have that extremity, you can’t always predict the kinds of choices you would make. You do have to take responsibility.

Nearly everyone who responded to the questions I was asking talked about lessons they'd learned that they could apply to their own lives. Part of what fans got was what the creator wanted. The values reflected in the show don’t necessarily reflect the values that we all hold, but the values still get taken out, twisted around, and reconstructed.

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