Amherst Magazine

What They Are Watching

We asked Amelie Hastie, associate professor of English and chair of the new film and media studies major, what she’s been watching lately. Here’s what she told us:

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As I’m teaching a new course called “Knowing Television” and working on a book on the series Columbo, what I’ve been watching lately is a lot of television. But in thinking about what I’ve been watching, I also have to consider how and when I am watching it.

Certain shows over the summer demanded to be seen as “appointment television,” either because they were the stuff of cultural “events” or because I could not live another week without knowing what happened. The latter case describes my relationship with the HBO series True Blood. Based on the Sookie Stackhouse book series, by Charlaine Harris, it follows the otherworldly mind-reading human Sookie, her friends and family and her vampire lover, Bill, in the Louisiana countryside. Vampires are fighting for their civil rights (with issues that directly parallel gay/lesbian legal and social struggles in the United States), and mortal humans are negotiating their co-existence not only with vampires and other nonhuman beings but also with their own desires and fears. Being neither a fan of the contemporary vampire phenomenon nor entirely impressed by the manner in which the series transparently trafficked in metaphor, I eschewed this show during its first season in 2008. But the following summer, when I was without U.S. cable in Paris and then without HBO in New York, I became addicted to the summaries published on the website Television Without Pity. The writer Jacob Clifton’s ability to enter into eloquent and philosophical paroxysms of pleasure and pain about the series’ characters forced me to take a second look. And this summer I have become transfixed all on my own by True Blood’s weekly narrative implosions. Not only do I watch it as close to its Sunday night premiere as possible, I tend to watch it over again, on either my own DVR or my cable “on demand” option.

Mad Men, too, has become appointment television de rigueur. But it’s also been an appointment with friends: I watch it with Mead Art Museum Director Lizzie Barker, our respective dogs at our side. It’s our ritual to tune into Henry Bromell ’70’s mesmerizing new conspiracy thriller Rubicon at 9, with Mad Men immediately following. As a subcultural phenomenon, at least amongst a rather mainstream set of viewers, Mad Men demands to be watched in groups—this allows for constant repartee on wardrobes and sets (arguably the real characters of the series), and it also takes the sting out of the weekly emotionally wrought scenes. 

I’ve also had the great pleasure of dipping into the television archives at the Paley Center for Media Study in New York, where I’ve been looking at the forebears of Columbo and the series’ guest stars: Peter Falk’s earlier series The Trials of O’Brien, John Cassavettes in Johnny Staccato and Patrick McGoohan in Danger Man and Secret Agent. This is a very different kind of TV viewing—solitary, almost furtive, communing with the past more than with the present.