traci's lists of ten

Traci's 22nd List of Ten:
Ten Television Analysis Writing Projects

Posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TEACH on 4/4/99.

Amy Scherer, of University of South Dakota's English Department, wrote and asked me to tackle writing projects the focused on television shows. Her students will be working with movies or TV shows. If they watch TV, they'll watch several episodes of one show or analyze similar shows (such as News Radio and Don't Shoot Me).

I'm focusing on TV shows here. Some of the assignments will work for either scenario that Amy's students describe, some are clearly for students who are comparing two shows, and some invite comparisons among several shows. You can adjust them all so that they fit your students — cutting down the number of shows to be compared, for instance, if you don't think that your students can manage a larger number of parameters.

  1. [Gender] Look at the characters in the shows that you've watched closely for this assignment, specifically focusing on the gender of the characters. How is their gender important to the roles that they play (or is it)? To what extent, are the characters in roles that could not have been played by an actor of the opposite gender? Are the shows playing with gender? Write a paper that explores the ways that gender enhances or detracts from the shows that you're examining — consider all the major characters of the program, looking particularly at any stereotypes and any roles that break with more traditional gender roles.

    Alternately, you might focus on a very specific character and write an analysis of how the program would be different if that character were the opposite gender. Here's an interesting example: originally, the creators of The Practice were looking for another male actor to add as a lawyer for the show. Instead, they found Camryn Manheim, who plays Ellenor Frutt. Once she was chosen, they wrote the script for her....but what if that character weren't in the program? How would it be different?

  2. [Realism or Stereotype?] Consider the characters in the programs that you've watched. In what ways are the characters real, and in what ways do they seem to be stereotypes or caricatures? Do the characters have real emotions — and a full range of emotions? Or do they just have the emotions that seem politically correct for the time and place that the programs consider? Are their emotions predictable? Do they look like real people, or like models and pin-ups? Is their hair every mussed? Do they get dirty? Does anyone ever go to the bathroom? Do they every get sick? Do they grow at a normal rate? Write a paper that explores the degree of realism that the programs that you're examining for your paper.

    Alternately, write a two-part paper. For part one, rewrite one of the episodes that you watched from a more realistic perspective — you can write a short story rather than a script. For part two, explain the decisions that you made to make the show more realistic, giving details both on the changes that you made and why you made them.

  3. [Commercials] In addition to watching the television shows, pay careful attention to the commercials that come on. What products are advertised? What commercials are used? As you watch, make a complete list of the commercials and the order in which they appear — if there are repeats, be sure to note them. Once you have a list, look for connections. Just who is the audience for all those commercials — who would buy the products or services? Would the characters on the program be likely to buy the products or services? After you've gathered all the details on the audience for the commercials, apply that information to the television show. How does the audience for the commercials fit the programs? Based on the commercials that you see, who would you think that the television programs are aimed at? In your paper, explore the relationship between commercials and television program, focusing on what you can tell about the audience for the program and their interests and desires.

    Alternately, you are an advertising executive. Choose a product or service that is not advertised during the program that you've watched. Write a proposal that convinces your client (the decision maker at the company that makes the product or provides the service) to buy airtime during the program. To make your proposal convincing, you'll need to identify connections between the audience for the program, the audience for the kinds of commercials that are now being advertised during the program, and the people who buy your client's product or service.

  4. [Predictability] To what degree are the shows that you are examining predictable? For example, most folks know the show Gilligan's Island. Do you remember the episode where Gilligan accidentally caused some trouble for everyone on the island? Who doesn't? All the episodes had that plot. What predictable things that happen in the shows that you're watching, and how do these things help the program? (or do they hurt it?) For your paper, explore the predictability of the programs that you've watched and the writers' and directors' goals in relying on predictable devices.

    Variation: brainstorm alternatives to the predictable devices that you've seen in the program you're examining. Choose two or three that are reasonable options, and write a paper that explores how the program would be different if these options were chosen instead and that accounts for the choice that the program's writers have made (an example: it's not reasonable to suggest that a giant meteor will wipe out the castaways on Gilligan's Island before the Professor can find a solution to whatever trouble Gilligan has caused.)

  5. [Clothes] How do clothes and costumes play a role in the programs that you've watched? For each major character, record the clothes and accessories that they wear in each show. Once you've assembled your list, look for patterns for each character — and among and between characters. To what extent does the show use clothing, jewelry, and the like to communicate information about the characters, their lives, and their interests? Consider how the program would be different if everyone wore a school uniform — or for that matter, what if they all had on jeans and t-shirts (and not skin-tight either!). Write a paper that explores the function that costumes play in the programs that you've watched.

  6. [Ratings] Many television programs now use a ratings system to help adults decide whether programs appropriate for children whom they are caring for. The scale ranges from a Y for young children to an M for shows that are suitable for adults only. You can check out the details on the scale at the PTA web site — For your paper, pay attention to the rating for the programs that you watched and consider whether the ratings were accurately applied. Your paper should pay attention to the details that are included in the definitions of the different ranks on the rating scale. Once you've analyzed the application of the ratings to your show and indicated whether the application was appropriate, you should go on to consider whether the scale itself is adequate.

  7. [Same Subject, Different Shows] Choose television programs that consider the same subject or the same issue, but from different perspectives. For instance, if you wanted to think about lawyers and legal issues, you might choose Ally McBeal, The Practice, reruns of LA Law, and Judge Mills Lane. While these shows all consider similar issues and all focus on lawyers, they go about it in different ways and with different attitudes. You could choose different issues of course — shows on medicine and doctors, shows on police, and so on. For your paper, compare the ways that the issues are dealt with — which things remain unchanged regardless of the show you're considering, and which things change? In addition to thinking about the similarities and differences, be sure to consider the reasons for the changes.

  8. [Time Capsule] Imagine that the programs that you've watched are all that have survived to tell future generations about our life and times. Imagine that a video recording of these programs has been discovered 500 years from now. Miraculously, the discoverers have found a way to watch the programs. What would they think of us and our world? Take on the role of one of the discoverers, and write a report to your home office explaining what you've learned about your ancestors based on the programs. Be sure that your report draws clear connections between the details of the program and the conclusions about your ancestors.

  9. [Role of Television] Edward R. Murrow said, "Television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us." In light of Murrow's quotation, what role would you say that the programs that you're examining play? Do they distract? If so, from what, and how? Or do they delude? Who are they deluding? What methods do they use? If they amuse, whom do they amuse, and what techniques do they use? If they're insulating us, what are they insulating us from, and how do they go about it? Do they fill several of those roles? Or do you seem them as filling roles that Murrow has not allowed for? In your paper, explain the roles that your television programs fill, providing examples and explanations from the shows that support your analysis.

  10. [Music & Sound Effects] What roles do music and sound effects play in the programs that you watched? Are certain sounds associated with particular characters or themes? Are sounds matched to the mood of a character (or characters)? What do the sound effects add to the program — are they an integral part of the show, or just extra noise? In your paper, create a system for identifying the kinds of music and/or sound effects. Your system should account for the characteristics of the music or sound effects as well as when and how the music or sound effects are used. If certain pieces of music and sound effects are a regular part of the show, how are they used? And in what circumstances are additional pieces added?
Originally Posted April 7, 1999 on the Daedalus Website.