Class Teaches Students to Look at Programs More Critically

Glee posterWhether you are a Gleek, a Dwight Shrute fan or vampire fanatic, there is a perfect television show for you. Now more than ever, television series are attracting new viewers by genre busting, or mixing television themes. The popular “Glee” series is a prime example of a genre buster, combining elements of a high school drama with musicals and comedy.

During January Term, students got the chance to learn about these television series in Ellen Rigsby’s course “Television Genre Busters: Genres, Conventions and the Shows That Cross Them.” The course offered students the terminology and context to think about their favorite shows critically and become conscious consumers of popular media. By studying and often watching shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Amazing Race,” “The Office,” “The Simpsons” and “I Love Lucy,” students learned how television both influences and mirrors popular culture.

Students identified the various methods of filming shows, using one camera or multiple cameras, and how the different methods form unique television experiences for viewers. In recent years, the pseudo-documentary, which mixes the reality genre with documentary-style production, has become popular, and the success of “The Office” has created a demand for similar series, such as “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation.”

As members of a culture that has grown up as avid television consumers, we often don’t think about how shows can shape our reality. Rigsby says she wanted to get students “to look at TV from different perspectives – how they’re made as well as how we would think of shows in relation to popular culture.”

The behind-the-scenes world of television is difficult to grasp, but becoming aware of what is on screen can also be a challenge. Rigsby acknowledged that even in our postmodern world, we are still susceptible to gender and racial stereotypes that are reinforced by what we see on TV, so the class also included the study of culture, class and gender so students could develop “critical eyes” to understand how their reality is either confronted or validated through television. 

Natalie Silacci said the course has completely altered the way she watches television. She realized how genre-busting television programs “broaden the audience demographic by having the show appeal to many different people with many different tastes.” And now she understands why “Grey’s Anatomy” appeals to her generation with its romantic comedy component and also fulfills an older generation’s appetite for medical dramas. 

As a follower of popular culture and television, Rigsby understands the intimate relationship viewers have with their favorite series. Watching television is an “intense thing to do,” she says, since we connect with characters and “allow them into our homes.” And it’s because of this that understanding why we come to love what’s on our screens is so important. As she tells her students, “Some things are worth criticizing and worth thinking about.”

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