Paratexts in TV: Glee and The Walking Dead

I’m currently reading Jonathan Grey‘s Show Sold Seperately, a book exploring the effect of paratexts on, particularly, media productions like television shows and movies. Over the course of the introduction, I was reminded deeply of a number of recent situations I’ve encountered that many of you should be familiar with, which took place after the book’s publication. Below, I’m going to explore (in shallow detail) two recent examples of paratexts and how they effect the text: song previews (as well as a handful of other issues) for Glee and the fan-made credits for The Walking Dead created by Daniel M. Kanemoto. All of this after the jump…

First off, what are paratexts? As Gray explains, they’re supplementary pieces of the text that exist around it, and become an intrinsic part of it in how they effect an audience’s experience of the text. The text, in this case, meaning the television show or movie you’re watching. Paratexts can include fan-based endeavours such as fanfiction, fanvids or even blog posts, but also include advertisements, DVD special features, alternate reality games, and other connected texts that frame how the focus text is viewed.

A great example of how a paratext can frame the anticipation of a text comes from the fan-made opening credits created by Daniel M. Kanemoto. The credits, based on the parent comic of the show and set to The Eels‘ “Fresh Blood”, here:

The credits blew through the internet community, being reported on by The AV Club, Topless Robot, and a number of other sites. When the official credits were released, they were widely compared, and not favourably, to Kanemoto‘s.

So what effects did these credits have on The Walking Dead, particularly for its potential audience?

The credits spoke to a more action-packed adaptation that doesn’t exist, reframing their reaction to the official opening credits and, very possibly, to the approach taken to the adaptation itself. Grey talks about how credit sequences are often designed to prepare an audience for the show while summing up the basic genre, tone and relationships with in. He also talks about how fan-made credit sequences are a reflection of how a viewer wants to see the series reflected, and comparing them to the original can allow someone studying audience reactions to nail down potential subsects of fandom.

Viewer-end paratexts can repurpose the “proper” interpretation, posting their own frames for viewers, and shrugging off the official frames.
Jonathan Grey, “Show Sold Separately”, p. 78

Now, Gray talks about fan-made credits being a reflection of, and a reaction to, a show’s official credits. However, these pre-date the official credits, making them more of a fan reflection of the ideas of the original comic. This means that contrasting the two credits might give a sense of what the critics who prefer Kanemoto‘s work are looking for as opposed to the creative team who commissioned the original credits. Those who stand behind Kanemoto‘s credits tend to be looking for more pace, more action, and more excitement, while those defending the original credits often speak to the contemplative, interpersonal elements of the series that the official set inhabit.It’s an interesting case, especially when you consider those who outright reject the official titled, claiming that, as AV Club writer Chris Cummins noted, “Every time I watch this show I’m going to have a hard time not getting aggravated when the credits roll.”

As the fan-made credits’ release predates the official credits, that makes them a frame through with the official credits are viewed, rather than a subsidiary fanwork. Thus, a paratext (fan-made credits) framing a paratext (the official credits), which provides a frame for the series itself. I’d love to see Jonathan Grey ruminate on this situation.

Meanwhile, the other case of a paratext significantly effecting a work is Glee, which I’ve been watching faithfully since the pilot in May of last year. I have a long history of paratexts effecting my view of Glee: my first experience with the show was reading the pilot script, and when I first fell in love with the show, it was due to a Director’s Cut that leaked onto the Internet. The contrast between them impressed me (the script as frame for the pilot), as certain characters were much more likeable once performed than in the script. Alternately, I later watched the cut of the pilot that actually aired after American Idol and was shocked at how badly it compared to the pilot I’d watched; both my mother and I exclaimed that this version of the pilot would not have earned a second look from either of us. This, however, was the version of the pilot that actually introduced the bulk of Glee‘s audience to the show.

Labeling that airing the official pilot is also somewhat problematic, because it was billed as a ‘preview’, and the Director’s Cut I watched was actually the episode that opened the fall run – despite being billed as a ‘rerun’. So, there’s actually confusion between the actual series premiere and the supplementary cut – is it the premiere and then a separate Director’s Cut, or is it a cut-down preview and then the series premiere?

This question actually confuses some things, as well. A key scene that was cut from the preview pilot involved a side character harassing another character, which completely reframes their later romantic relationship in the season proper. Other cuts also reframed who the protagonists of Glee were – the Director’s Cut treated Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) as the lead, while the recut version elevated Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) and Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) to the lead roles, mostly by cutting out the bulk of Schuester’s backstory. As it would turn out, this would have a major effect on the show, which would struggle throughout season one to figure out which of the three were its leads and how often to service them at the expense of the others. As of season two, all three have largely become players in a wider ensemble.

This is a show whose very beginnings start with paratexts confusing things for the viewers, so its not surprising that they eventually continued to. Glee is a show that is heavily involved in the world of spoilers, with fans eagerly soaking up new information about upcoming episodes and the talent constantly prodded to reveal what’s coming up soon. This often leads to moments where things promised by the creative team fail to live up to expectations. For example, from my own Glee reviews at , talking about the episodes “Home” (1.16) and “Bad Reputation” (1.17):

“This show, despite being worth an hour every week, is far too disappointing for the spoiled. The music of “Home” when sneak-peeked a week early was a fantastic, but in-episode often felt awkward or oddly-placed, and Kristin Chenoweth’s much-anticipated return was largely wasted; meanwhile, the hyped Puck/Rachel reunion in “Bad Reputation” turned out to be largely a tease and nothing more.”

Spoilers: The creative team are always happy to talk about what’s coming up, when they have something to offer, and entertainment media are always happy to cover every small potentiality within them. Glee‘s strong fanbase eats up spoilers, which means that comments that otherwise might go unnoted are widely distributed. For example, in the case above: Ryan Murphy spoke to Michael Ausiello regarding a storyline involving Lea Michele‘s Rachel, and Mark Salling‘s Puck. The two had a flirtation the previous year, and there were very vocal fans interested in seeing a reunion.

“I thought people would find her to be far too irritating for him. But by the time [we heard that feedback], we had already shot the first 13 [episodes]. But because I read that — in your column, actually, so you get the blame — I was like, ‘I’m going to get them together in some way.’ So we just finished [writing] a special episode where they are together, and they have two numbers together. It’s episode 4, ‘Bad Reputation.’”
– Ryan Murphy, “Exclusive: ‘Glee’ boss on Rachel/Puck, Kurt’s new BF, and Madonna!

In the fan community, speculation surrounded this comment for weeks before the episode finally aired – to have the two character sharing parts in two songs, to one of which Salling contributed a single line. Thus, a comment led to a reframing of the episode as a “Puck/Rachel reunion”, which led to a number of viewers being disappointed at the final product.

Glee‘s had a lot of issues with the disparity between the things said by the creative team and what eventuates on-screen. For example, comments from Ryan Murphy over a boyfriend character for Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) have led to widespread confusion over the purpose of Chord Overstreet‘s new character Sam. Since midseason in the show’s first year, Murphy has professed his interest in hooking Kurt up with a popular football player. As casting calls for Sam came out, more and more viewers, and entertainment journalists, were convinced the character was being bred as a love interest for Kurt. But the show veered into a completely different direction, pairing the new character with cheerleader Quinn.

This has led to a lot of focus on Sam, and some backlash from fans who felt blindsided when the new character didn’t exactly follow what Murphy had said about his plans for Kurt. Though Murphy never made an explicit connection between the speculative ‘popular football boyfriend’ for Kurt and the new quarterback character, a portion of the fanbase (and a large portion compared to the typical readers of spoilers, as the ‘Kurts boyfriend’ issue got plenty of press from people like Kristin dos Santos at E! and Michael Ausiello at Entertainment Weekly) had varying degrees of reaction to the creative team not going where it was implied they would. It has reframed the show, and specifically reaction to the stories of Kurt, Sam, Quinn and other characters involved in Kurt’s plotline.

Song Previews: The more ongoing and important effect of paratexts on the show, for me, has been the leaking of song previews before every episode since late season one.  This has had a major effect on my approach to each week’s episode, as enjoyment of these numbers is part of a few key reasons why I watch the show every week. It’s removed a sense of surprise from the numbers, as I typically know which numbers will be in which episode, and often have heard a 15-30 second clip of the song already. The song previews are typically like the below:

As I noted in the above review, having heard the clips sometimes effects our anticipation of the episode, leading to speculation as to the songs’ purpose and meaning in the episode. I think its also effected my enjoyment of the series, as very rarely do I get that pleased feeling when a song I love appears, or when a performance is unexpectedly excellent.

All in all, I’m constantly intrigued by how media is consumed and the effect it has on folks. This was an excellent exercise in taking a theory and applying it to things I’ve noticed. Anyone else have any thoughts?

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