Toward a phenomenology of television

I admit that I’ve lost anything but a passing interest in contemporary film and television. I’m not entirely in the dark on such matters; I browse Youtube occasionally, and I have a store nearby where I can find used DVDs for as little as a buck. A year ago, I got into a jag there, buying and binge watching police procedural from the the first decade of the present century. But in general, I don’t watch telvision and stay away from special effects spectaculars. (Although the last film I actually went to a theater to see was Godzilla 2014; but then I have a soft spot for Big Greeny from my childhood, and just wanted to make sure they treated him with respect. I doubt I’ll go to any of the proposed sequels, though.) And 3-D doesn’t interest me. Harpo Marx was once asked about Lenny Bruce who was achieving notoriety at the time; he replied “I have nothing against the comedy of today; it is just not my comedy.”

However, having had to study the phenomenon of television in grad school, and having invested considerable time in thinking, talking about, watching, and even, in my youth, making film, I do have some general remarks that may be useful here.

First, never lose sight of the economic background here. Both commercial cinema and television are primarily business enterprises. The purpose of film production is to provide entertainment enough to attract audiences willing to spend money on it. This has caused considerable friction between those who provide capital for production and those who come to filmmaking with a particular vision that they are hoping to realize.

The purpose of a television show is to produce enough of an audience to sell to advertisers. (This is obviously less true of the secondary markets, DVDs and on-demand viewing; technology has changed that dynamic, although it is still in effect on most of cable.) This is actually quite a lower bar than selling tickets to the theater, since the audience only needs enough incentive as necessary to get them to watch at a particular time for possible advertises. A show only needs to be less uninteresting than competing programs at the same time in order to achieve this.

With these concrete notices, we can get into the phenomenology of the two media. The most important thing to grasp here – both easily recognized and yet easily forgotten – is that what distinguishes these media from all others, and differentiates them from each other, is their relationships to time, and how the makers of these media handle those relationships. Of course every medium establishes a relationship to time, and this relationship effectively defines the medium to a large extent. But each medium does this in a unique way, as opposed to all other media. * Yet one of the problems we have in distinguishing film and television as each a distinct medium is that fictional television seems to have a relationship to time similar to that of theatrical drama or at least of film. This is not the case.
The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

Now it sounds like I’m painting a bleak portrait of the average television viewer. But such a viewer is what television is all about. And we should note that this says nothing against such viewers. They are presented with an existential dilemma: What to do with free time in a culture with little social cohesion and diminishing institutions that once provided that cohesion?

So, whereas film is about how to manage visuals and audio and story and acting in the compacted period of a couple hours, television is about how to provide endless hours of possible viewing. It is not about this or that particular show – trends are more telling at any given moment.That CSI and NCIS and The Closer and The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, etc., etc., all appear in the same decade tells us more of what people found interesting on television that decade than any one of these shows, and certainly more than any one episode.

Which brings me to my real point. Although there are still some decent films being made on the margins and in other countries, the history of the cinema I knew and loved is at an end. Despite the fact that the basic premise of both movies is that a group of talented warrior gather to defend the good against overwhelming force there is no way to get from The Seven Samurai to The Avengers. That there is a core narrative conflict they share only means that there are core narratives shared across cultures, and we’ve known that for a long time.

But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, there is certainly an aesthetic at work in it. I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. We can certainly discuss how aesthetic values are deployed in individual shows and individual episodes. But these are almost always borrowed from other media, primarily film. Television, just as television has no aesthetic value. And that cannot be said for film.

One way to note this is admitting that the ‘talking heads’ television is what television does best. That and talk-overs (as in sports) or banter, playful or violent, as on reality TV shows. Fictional shows can deploy aesthetic values, true; but only to get the viewer to the talk show, the next commercial, the next episode. Anything that accomplishes that.

Of course, what we end up discussing is the individual show, or the individual episode. and because television lacks aesthetic value of its own, it can fill endless hours deploying a multitude of aesthetic values from other media – poetry recitals, staged plays, documentaries, thrillers, old films, old television, various sports, news and commentary – perhaps ad infinitum. That’s what makes commenting on individual shows so interesting – and yet undercuts any conclusion reached in such discussion. All the shows we find interesting today, will be forgotten in the wave of the next trend tomorrow. But don’t worry – there will always be reruns and DVDs. As long as there is a market for them, that is.
My general point here is such that it cannot be disconfirmed by any show, or group of shows, or discussion of these – such would only confirm part of my point, television’s dependence on our attention to particulars.

One way to see think of the general problem is to imagine rowing a boat in a river; upstream someone has tossed in a flower – perhaps it is even a paper flower, and we’ll allow it to be quite lovely. So it drifts by us, and we remark its loveliness, while not addressing the many rotten pine cones that surround it. Now do either the flower or the pinecones get us an aesthetic of the river? No. So ‘bad’ television tells us no more about the aesthetics of television than does ‘good’ television.

And the river trope has another use for us here. We know the flower was tossed into the river only recently; but the pine cones have been floating about us for some time. Yet to us, now rowing past these, the pine cones are contemporary with the flower.

We think of an old TV show, say Seinfeld as if it is a phenomenon of the past; it isn’t. Reruns are still playing in major markets, making it a viable competitor to Mad Men or even Game of Thrones. It is still contemporary television. (Television does not develop a-historically, but the history of its development has been somewhat different than for media where individual works are the primary product.) So an ‘aesthetics of television’ would need to account for that phenomenon as well – not just the aesthetics of Seinfeld or of Game of Thrones, but why it is these aesthetics are received by their differing audiences at the same moment in history – and allowing even that many will watch both. And I suggest it would also have to address the aesthetics deployed in ‘non-fiction’ television (scare-quotes because I’m not sure there is any such thing). I suggest this cannot be done. What television as television presents us is grist for the mills of sociology, semiotics, cultural history; but an aesthetics?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have criticism of individual episodes or discussion of favorite programs. In fact most of us having watched television or still watching it are doomed to this. But we should be aware that, reaching for the flower, we may end up with a rotten pine cone – or, what is most likely, simply a handful of water, slipping through our fingers. returning to a river we merely float along.


* On the time issue: The art of cinema – that is, the cinema I know, which I admit is no longer of interest, except on the margins – is defined by the control of time. This is also true of music and drama, but in a different way, since the filmmaker has a tool neither of the other two have: editing. Films were made on the editing boards.

But this technique could be accomplished – at least to some extent – in the camera itself. Thus even amateur filmmakers, making home movies, deployed the aesthetic of the medium – a particular control of time that photography could not emulate. Thus, picking up a movie camera and operating it immediately engages an aesthetic, however poorly realized and however unrecognized, even by the one using the camera.

Stories are inevuitable in every media; exactly becasue of this, each medium must define itself in terms of its approach to and presentation of stories, not the stories themselves, since stories will occur inevitably – and when they do not, the audience will invent and impose one.

To be less elliptical then, film’s dominant concern was – and still is, although in a way I no longer recognize – vision, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, as we experience it through time.

While such considerations are understood by producers of television, that’s not what television is about. Television is about filling time with whatever, and getting the viewer to the next block of time (as defined by producers and advertisers). If a talking head can do this, there’s your television.

Again: We viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

That changes everything.

A reply to

“Medium, Message, and Effect” by David Ottlinger:


Really stupid television

Given the nature of television today one could write several volumes – nay, an entire library – of criticism of real stupid television.Stupid reality TV, really stupid game shows, really stupid ‘news’ shows, really stupid sit-coms… but to get started, one has to focus on one or two shows and then follow the implications to encompass the whole of the medium.

Today, I want to start on one recent (and recently cancelled) sci-fi/ thriller series, Flash Forward. But my discussion hinges on how much we are willing to accept the given premises of a television show – provided we know what those premises actually are. So we’ll begin with a classic example from the ‘Golden Age’ of television… stupidity.

Everyone – well, everyone above the age of 30 – knows the purported premise of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was repeated week after week in the song used to open the show – “let me tell ya the story of a man named Jed” – Jed being Jed Clampett, a mid-south hillbilly (a backwoodsman on a small farm, living below the poverty line, usually uneducated, unsophisticated, and suspicious of anyone outside his community). And Jed notoriously shoots at game, misses, and his shot burrows a well of oil that turns magically into a gusher. and suddenly he’s a millionaire. He decides to use the money to live the high-life in a mansion in the wealthy suburb of Beverly Hills, CA. However, he and his family can’t quite get what living in the 1960s is all about, nor can they give up their 19th century ‘down-home’ back-woods lifestyle. So every week we share their struggle to use modern appliances as if they were 19th century conveniences – like trying to burn wood in the electric range, so Granny can use the fire to heat the electric iron she doesn’t know how to turn on. (Ha ha.)

I say that’s the purported premise of the show – but it doesn’t help explain why anybody would watch it. This is the real premise of the show: “white trash hicks are so stupid, they can’t learn how to live in a new environment even after nine years’ (the length of original series broadcast). And this helps explain quite a bit of the psychology of the viewers who faithfully watched the program. Who wouldn’t feel superior to the Clampett family? Even those we might disparagingly refer to as ‘white trash hicks’ would feel themselves safe from class identification from those dolts! And they would have an added incentive – the Clampetts were morally pure as the fresh-fallen snow. (Jed’s two children remain virginally asexual many years beyond puberty.) So if any audience members approached self-recognition watching the Clampetts, they could ease their conscience by reminding themselves that, though intellectually inferior, they remained morally superior to the corrupt world dominated by those better off. Hadn’t the Lord promised that the meek – and the ignorant, the hopelessly blind to reality – would inherit the Earth? The premise also had the benefit (to the producers) of linking into an Old World bias many in the middle class still held back then, that supposed that class was largely a matter of character-inheritance, and that character was pretty much set for life – if one were born to the hardworking and uneducated parents, one would remain largely hardworking throughout life, and education could only have limited value. (And if one were born to lazy, ‘shiftless’ parents, one would remain lazy and shiftless throughout life – and where have heard that suggested before? Rhetoric concerning ethnicity, concerning welfare, concerning the financing of education.)

But how believable is this premise, really? Not at all. Humans are animals. As such they adapt to their environment – indeed, human intelligence is largely an adaptation device – an adaptation for the purpose of further adaptation – with far greater capacity for it than any other animal has ever exhibited. (Whales may have some form of intelligence greater than our own, as some suggest; but a beached whale is a fish out of water. We can not only walk, drive, fly planes and ski, but easily learn to swim – something computers can’t do, BTW.)

When people are transposed from one liveable environment to another, they do change – not only because they must, but because they can. (Indeed, when they find themselves in an unlivable environment, they immediately set out making it livable, and are frequently successful doing so.) Now, the exact nature of the adaptive behavior we find is not wholly predictable; it occurs within a range of alternatives, rather than following a set path. So, take a poor family and introduce them to sudden wealth, they may simply squander it all; or they seek advice and learn to invest that wealth; or they may decide that the wealth gives them the opportunity to educate their children and direct them to higher aspirations in life. And so on. The alternatives are not infinite, dependent on prior social acculturation – but they are varied.

The Clampetts are utterly incapable of adapting to their new cultural environs in any way whatsoever. This is supposed to give them their ‘charm.’ For me, it just means they are impossibly stupid – ‘impossibly,’ because, in fact, a person this lacking in basic intelligence would not be ‘stupid,’ he or she would be diagnostically mentally retarded. Which makes laughing at their antics borderline cruel; except of course the Clampetts are fictional characters – in which case the last laugh is on the audience.

So what does that make the premise of the series? It means the premise is itself stupid – it is almost as stupid as it wants us to believe the Clampetts are. Yet it survived for nine years of broadcasting. Oh, the humanity!

So have American viewing audiences improved their taste since the 1960s? Maybe. Let’s consider this issue in terms of a much more recent television series, that, fortunately for the sanity of the Universal Mind, was cancelled after one season, the sci-fi thriller, Flash Forward. The fact that it was cancelled, after its ratings had dropped by nearly half over its broadcast season, suggests that at least some audiences have gotten a little sharper over the decades. Or maybe not.

But, like many television series today, time requires that we pause on a cliff-hanger – so: To Be Continued.


More on the Beverly Hillbillies:

Nostalgia and Doctor Who



For those not in the know:
“Doctor Who follows the adventures of the primary character, a rogue Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who simply goes by the name “Doctor”. He fled from Gallifrey in a stolen Type 40 TARDIS time machine – “Time and Relative Dimension in Space” – which allows him to travel across time and space. Due to a malfunction of the TARDIS’ “chameleon circuit”, which normally allows the TARDIS to take on the appearance of local objects to disguise it from others, the Doctor’s TARDIS remains fixed as a blue British Police box. The Doctor rarely travels alone, and often brings one or more companions to share these adventures with, typically humans as he has found a fascination with the planet Earth. He often finds events that pique his curiosity while trying to prevent evil forces from harming innocent people or changing history, using only his ingenuity and minimal resources, such as his versatile sonic screwdriver.”


1. The Doctor Is A Victorian Scientist

By 1963, science fiction had already passed through three distinct eras. The First, beginning in the 19th Century, was dominated by scientist heroes engaged in adventures of discovery and invention; the primary writers were Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The horrors of WWI, inflicted partly through the efficacy of industrial weaponry, largely put an end to this era. The Second Era appeared in the 1920s, and with the genre becoming little more than fantasy in rocket-ships. Important authors include Edgar Rice Burroughs and Flash Gordon creator Alex Raymond, but it was most memorable for its media of presentation: comic strips, serials, pulp magazines. By the end of the 1930s, however, the pulps were publishing the early work of the writers who, after the war, would bring in the Third Era of science fiction – such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke – an era that would explore the scientific, social and political implications of the concepts embedded in the new technologies developed during WWII. Rockets now really could put humans into space, or deliver nuclear weapons to their targets with precision, while the viewing of images over long distances was becoming a commonplace. The Third Era sci-fi writers no longer needed to limit themselves to exploring a ‘brave new world’; i.e., a future earth – they could now create and explore many new worlds, some brave, some disappointing….

But the 1950s also saw the rise of a vigorous nostalgia for the fiction of the First Era. For more than a decade, from the early ’50s to the early ’60s, international film industries (dominated, of course, by Hollywood) produced a plethora of films based on the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. With one major exception (George Pal’s War of the Worlds), these films were set in the late 19th Century – or the Victorian period, as English speakers would have it – and they were again dominated by scientist discoverers as heroes – despite the fact that the world they were discovering had already been discovered. (By 1954, when Disney produced Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, thousands of men had already fought two major wars in submarines.) Thus the nostalgia: the audiences of these films well knew of contemporary explorations of the oceans and of outer space; they delighted at looking back at a ‘more innocent’ time when such explorations could only be accomplished through the imaginations of great writers. It is notable that the most popular of all these movies was Michael Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days, a film that contained no elements of science fiction, but instead explored Victorian industrial advances in transportation, most of which had gone the way of the dinosaur by the time of the film’s production. It cannot be overemphasized how popular these movies were; the most expensively made film of its day, Todd’s Eighty Days earned back seven times its cost at the box office.

When, in 1963, Sydney Newman first put together a creative team to develop what would become Doctor Who for the BBC, they couldn’t have avoided the influence of this cultural trend – because something had already been produced partly in response to it, which they couldn’t have ignored. Although the BBC Quatermass serials of the ’50s were set in the near future, the character of Bernard Quartermass is a clear throwback to the the scientist heroes of H. G. Wells, perhaps with a touch of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger thrown in to give him an edge of toughness that Wells’ heroes often lacked. Author Nigel Kneale was certainly a Third Era sci-fi writer, but the Quartermass character is just as clearly engaged in First Era scientist-heroics. (To me, it is not at all surprising that the Quartermass serials would be brought to theaters by Hammer Films, whose stock in trade was nostalgia for Victorian gothic.)

My point is not that the character of the Doctor was mere regurgitation of Bernard Quartermass; that is clearly not the case. My point is that Quatermass and the Doctor share the same literary and dramatic genealogy and that at the core of both is a nostalgia for the Victorian scientist hero of First Era science fiction.

Anyone who can watch the William Hartnell Doctor and not see in his personality the irascibility of Professor Lidenbrock (1), the curiosity of Professor Aronnax (2), the over-the-cliff risk-taking of Wells’ nameless Time Traveler (3), the bullheaded arrogance of Professor Challenger (4) – well, clearly one would have to know nothing of either literature or film to miss this.

I think most fans of the Doctor are aware of it; but they seem to treat the matter lightly, as a kind of amusing subtext. That assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am trying to point out that this nostalgia is at the very core of the Doctor, this is his personality, this is what he is: a Victorian scientist who happens to come from another planet from the far-off future.

This seems to be a contradiction, but the inference that resolves it is near enough to hand – and is actually subtly implied by Robert Holmes (the scriptwriter most aware of the Doctor’s genealogy) in The Deadly Assassin (where most of the dangers found in Gallifrey’s ‘Matrix’ super-computer are lifted from the period of WWI – the moment when the First Era of sci-fi came to a close). Isn’t it obvious that, although we meet the Gallifreyans when they have developed superior technology and have evolved superior intellects and physiology, that Gallifrey clearly underwent a history quite similar to our own (in their ‘ancient past’)? The Doctor can have the personality of a Victorian scientist because Gallifrey once underwent an age of scientific discover similar to that of our own late 19th Century.

Of course, I admit that’s just a fan’s speculation – an explanation, if one is needed. But, really, it’s not needed. The character of the Doctor is fictional and specific to the many stories in which he appears. If his personality is that of Victorian scientist, and if that appeals to us for any reason, including and especially nostalgia, than so be it.

2. The Use and Abuse of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Once it kicks in, it begins to multiply many layers over time, since its principle concern is time and memory. All serial entertainments rely on some degree of nostalgia; we go to the next episode of the serial partly because we have such warm memories of the previous episode we enjoyed. The longer the serial goes on, the more complicated the complex of nostalgia that envelopes it. One develops a nostalgia, not only for previous episodes, for previous storytelling styles used in older episodes of the serial but for the era in which the older episodes appeared. Nostalgia for the Jon Pertwee and the Tom Baker Doctor Who stories is certainly in part nostalgia for the 1970s. And with good reason; their stories encapsulate many of the cultural changes of that decade.

And as a serial goes on, over succeeding generations, each new generation of fans develops its own layers of nostalgia. There is a whole (quite vocal) sector of the fan base for the current  New Series of Doctor Who (as helmed by Steven Moffatt) that is nostalgic, not for the Classic era, not for the Virgin New Adventures (published after the original series had folded), but for the original reboot by Russell T. Davies, as it came to star David Tennant.

Of course, there other fans nostalgic for the Classic era, many of whom were born well after the original series ended, who first came to Doctor Who through their parents’ old VHS tapes of the series. Fans who follow the Big Finish audios (still in production) are pretty honest about being nostalgic for the original series; or for the Doctor Who TV Movie (1996); or for the Virgin NAs. These audios, concerning older Doctors set in their original time-lines, are nostalgic by definition.

Let’s face it – Whatever it is that first made you feel good, you will always be nostalgic for it.

I’m not saying that nostalgia explains the whole of the Doctor Who phenomenon; that’s silly. Obviously, many of us come to any Doctor story in any medium looking for a good story well told. If we had no interest in the stories, just as stories, we would soon lose interest in the series as a whole. We might nostalgically look at our DVD collection, our Target books collection, our Big Finish CDs, and remember the enjoyment they first provided us, but we would not listen to them or read them or watch them anymore; we would recognize them as artifacts of the past, rather like photographs of loved ones who had passed away.

We all know that nostalgia can be dangerous to our memories and to our perceptions of reality. Nostalgia for an era frequently hides the truth of the era; the 1950s were the era of the young Elvis Presley and his blue suede shoes; it was also the era of McCarthyism and anti-integration violence.

However, denial of nostalgia, of its importance to our enjoyment of any entertainment, can be equally dangerous. It creates monsters of the mind. A friend of mine who insists that he listens to classic music compositions of the 19th Century simply because they are great works of music, needing no nostalgia at all, will sometimes also slip and reveal that he believes 19th Century Germany to represent the height of Western Civilization, when “giants walked the Earth”. Yes, but such giants composed while German workers virtually slaved in mines and factories, and politicians prepared the way for total world war in the century to follow. I really believe that if my friend would simply admit that his enjoyment of the works of Beethoven and Wagner included a big dose of nostalgia, that he could both enjoy those works more freely and come to grips with the fact that his image of 19th Century Germany is really pretty much a fantasy.

There is another denial of nostalgia that can be dangerous, that to be found among younger writers and producers of the very entertainments that largely depend on the sentiment. I’m not referring to a certain blindness to the nostalgic element one frequently finds among contributors to serial entertainments – say, those who write a Doctor Who story and assume that is all they are doing, and not engaging in tweaking the nostalgia nerve of their audience. These writers can create oddities, but no more so than those who intentionally tweak nostalgia for the sake of irony and humor.

No, I’m referring to those who decide that they will assault the nostalgia surrounding their serial heroes and somehow strip the serial of its nostalgic value, under the misguided presumption that they are ‘updating’ these heroes for a new generation and a new era. This is misguided largely because, as I’ve noted, nostalgia is rather built into the gestalt of any serial entertainment. Amusingly, several authors of the Virgin NAs were quite obviously trashing the format of the original series in order to accomplish this, and all they did was develop an audience that became nostalgic for the Virgin NAs. Russell Davies produced a number of episodes rather unkind to our nostalgic reading of the Doctor’s personality; e.g., Tooth and Claw, wherein the Doctor arrogantly insults Queen Victoria. But now, as noted, we have fans nostalgic for the Davies era of the New Series. Nostalgia is an integral part of a serial entertainment phenomenon, and when a writer attacks it, he or she may indeed generate an audience, but that audience will evidence the same level of nostalgia, albeit in different ways. And there are other dangers here; one, obviously is that the writer will alienate large sectors of the serial hero’s fan base, and this in turn will certainly create divisions among fans, thus eroding any sense of community among them.

Throughout the many fan debates, one topic causes such dissension that it has come to be avoided: what constitutes ‘proper’ Doctor Who? And it has been my feeling that, really, the Doctor’s history and previous adventures are such that so much leeway can be given to the many imaginations that produce Doctor Who stories in various media that the question became irrelevant long ago.

Currently, under Moffatt, Doctor Who seems treating much of its nostalgia in borderline parody.  But if the nostalgic element of the Doctor’s character is completely lost, then he is of no further use to many of us. If he can no longer enjoy some element, however slight, of being a Victorian scientist from another age, another planet, and having lived through all the stories and experiences we already know him from, then the series will no longer be Doctor Who.


1. Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

2. Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

3. Wells, The Time Machine.

4. Conan Doyle, The Lost World.

Re-edited from my article first posted at: The Doctor Who Ratings Guide,

Scooby Doo and the mystery of Scooby Doo (2)

Part 2:

This discussion will consider the Scooby Doo phenomenon in terms of its original appearance in the series Scooby Doo! Where Are You?

The first problem that confronts us when considering Scooby Doo and his gang is – who the heck are these guys? They’re always referred to as ‘meddling kids,’ so apparently they are still adolescents. But that can’t be right, unless they are very rich and have no need for further education. Unlike adolescent amateur detectives of the past – like the Hardy Boys – they don’t remain rooted to any locality, nor have very strong ties to their families. They drive around the country – literally, stories take place practically everywhere in the US, and sometimes in South America and Africa as well – quite aimlessly. I mean, it would be understandable if indeed they were professional problem solvers, getting called in on some mysterious robbery or other crime, but that is not what happens. Instead, the gang is always going out to some vacation spot or tourist trap, or sometimes they are just, well – driving around. Then they just happen to be in the right location at the right time when the mystery begins….

Whoa, hold on there. Clearly, an important function of the mystery is exactly to distract us from confronting the utterly empty lives these teen-agers lead. ALL they have to do is drive around; if there were no mysteries, they would simply, oh, go skiing, surfing, hiking in the parks, attend street festivals; go back to their van and drive away. Doesn’t sound like a bad life, until we begin asking whether any of these characters might enjoy such a life. Because, just as it happens, we know that at least two of them – Shaggy and Scooby – don’t. They don’t like any excitement, so activities like skiing and surfing are out. They don’t like anything that smacks of physical exertion, so there goes hiking. They might attend festivals, but only for one reason – to eat whatever food they can steal there (and one of the odd aspects to their characters is that, when it comes to food, they have no moral scruples about taking what they can when they can, without asking).

Let’s deal with that a little here – Scooby and Shaggy love to eat. Well, actually, that’s imprecise. Scooby and Shaggy love to shovel food-stuffs down their gullet just as fast as they can. Although they often smack their lips after gorging themselves, they cannot possibly be tasting the foods they ingest. Their bodies are simply sacks into which food is poured. Their only enjoyment would the kind of warm dull slow enervation that comes from eating beyond satiety. They are, to put it bluntly – gluttons. Yet these are the characters supposedly identified with, by the prepubescent audience that their adventures have largely been targeted at.

So, for them, the aimless wandering amounts to nothing more beyond clocking time between one binge and another. Pretty empty, I would say. What about the other ‘kids?’

Velma is of course the smart one of the group – something of a nerd and a book-worm. Originally, that was her definition. It’s very hard to see her enjoying anything like sports or exploring tourist attractions. Later – much later, say in the past ten or so years, they’ve tried to give Velma something of a personality. She likes hockey, admires certain television stars, develops a wry sense of humor. But largely, in the beginning, Velma was a kind of place-holder – ‘insert exposition here.’ Now granted, it went against the grain of the times to have a female do all the revelatory explaining, solving the mystery. Nonetheless, it is disappointing to find that they can only do that with a female that is not only two-dimensional, but homely to boot.

This is emphasize by comparing Velma with Daphne, the other female of the gang. Daphne is well-shaped (according to cultural standards), fashion-conscious, rich – and basically a ‘dumb blond’ (albeit with red hair) – who’s primary functions seem to be to ask directions from Fred, and to get kidnapped by the villains. It is easy to see her skiing and surfing (and in fact she does perform quite well at such sports), but it’s also easy to see that what she gets from such pass-times is essentially mere distraction – that is, momentary distraction from her evident narcissism.

Finally there’s Fred. He functions in the role of unofficial leader of the gang, really a kind of ‘big brother’ type, so it’s easy to see why some kids would identify with him. Although he’s not clever enough to solve the mysteries alone, he is clever enough to set traps for the villains. He’s something of a jock – he discusses sports with enthusiasm – but beyond that, his interest in the world is sadly lacking. He’s the sort who could look at a magnificent painting of Japan’s Mount Fuji, and remark, ‘ok. mountain. What’s next?’

So, without their good fortune in stumbling onto mysteries everywhere they go, Scooby and the gang would effectively end up sitting by their van some Saturday afternoon, looking at one another and going:

‘What do you wanna do?
‘I dunno, what do you wanna do?’
I dunno. What do you wanna do?’
‘How about -‘
‘Nah, did that.’
‘I’m hungry.’
‘Just ate. So: what do you wanna do?’

If this sounds familiar, you probably engaged in some similar discussion with your friends toward the end of summer vacation, when you were around the age of twelve. Certainly in the early 1970s, young people in middle class neighborhoods, generally found the end of their seasonal release from school getting rather dull by late August – the summer fun had all been used up: There were no more Little League games, the family had made the rounds of the beaches and amusement parks, summer camp had ended all too quickly (or not quickly enough, depending on which one you got sent to), and the big block buster movie releases had come and gone. So groups of friends frequently found themselves sitting on porch steps, trying to decided if there were any further distractions to be found to amuse themselves with.

No wonder this audience group found the adventures of Scooby Doo and his gang so much vicarious fun. The Scooby is on permanent vacation from school; but they are old enough to drive, and have enough funds (thanks to Daphne’s family), that they can extend their vacation indefinitely, both temporally and spatially. But they also enjoy one other good fortune – they are ‘mystery prone.’ That is, just when they are threatened with the late vacation blues their audiences knew too well, they stumble on a mystery to make vacation exciting again.

It should be obvious that the fact that the characters of the Scooby gang suffer from being dull and irreducibly banal in their backgrounds, interests and character traits, rather than being an irritation, as it would be if we met them at a party – this fact is actually what made them most attractive to its target audience. The Scooby gang risks the same bouts of boredom and mild depression we all do, especially when young, and probably considerably more, given their evident 2-dimensionality; but the mysteries keep on coming, whisking them away from the threat of ever confronting their personal flaws and weaknesses. This means that the audience could identify with them (and vicariously escape their own boredom and mild depression), and yet feel somewhat superior to them. The audience led real lives with real problems – and usually found real solutions to these, in the process of ‘growing up.’

(By the way, this indirectly answers the questions concerning the sexuality of the members of Scooby’s gang – they haven’t any, they only have gender. We know this, because they are not growing up, and their producers and target audience all know that they are not growing up. Sexuality is an issue one confronts only beginning with having to deal with hormonal changes at the onset of puberty. Despite the fact that they are old enough to drive and travel unchaperoned, Scooby’s ‘kids’ remain permanently pre-pubescent.)

Well, but what about Scooby himself? Unlike his gang, Scooby is a fully adult dog, he isn’t growing up. Who is he, anyway?

Scooby is actually something of an enigma. To some extent he’s a pawn in the narrative game, changing personality as the needs of the plot call for. Thus his primary characteristic, beyond gluttony, is supposedly cowardice, a quality he shares with Shaggy. But in episode after episode, he will suddenly show courageous behavior to help one of his friends; he’s much more likely to do so than Shaggy (because, after all, he’s the titular star of the show).

Throughout the show, Scooby exhibits behavior that is either vain, gluttonous or cowardly; but he seems to be aware of this and giggles guiltily every time he acts so. He is highly opinionated (especially about his gang), and expresses these opinions sometimes quite impulsively. (He is a dog, after all, and that would give him an excuse for such behavior, at least for his producers and his audience.)

Scooby is something of a comic impersonator (of people, ghosts, and other animals). He also knows how to dance; fortunately, given his speech impediment (almost every word starts with an ‘r’) and gravelly voice, he cannot sing. His other skills are undefined until they need to be exhibited (as pawn of the narrative). Like other cartoon dogs, he is able to use his body in ways not to be expected from a physical dog – for instance, he can use tail as a propeller. And like other cartoon animals, he can work a kind of comic magic, reaching off screen to bring forth objects that should not be present in the immediate location – such as dragging out a piano to play a melody in the middle of the woods.

Occasionally Scooby evidences savvy concerning the world beyond that of the show’s fictional world – that is, concerning the world of the audience, which he acknowledges by breaking television’s ‘fourth wall’ (the camera’s position) with a glance or a wink. Later series would take advantage of this by slipping ‘in-jokes,’ and even the occasional risque double entendre, into the dialogue.

We are beginning to get a sense of what Scooby represents to his audience. He is more mature than his gang, and yet acts younger. He is magician, clown, showman, hero. He is not of this world, yet appears to know it better than his audience does, certainly better than his cohorts. He can get away with all kinds of ‘naughtiness,’ because he has convinced us of his irreproachable innocence. He is yet another incarnation of Coyote – the prankster god of Native American mythology.

Obviously, the producers were not thinking along these lines when they invented the program. But they did have a pretty good understanding of what made their audiences tick. They well understood the culture they were marketing their product in.

Top Cat, Jonny Quest, Archie and his Gang, other successful cartoons, suggested the possibility of merging their more appealing qualities, qualities we now find in Scooby Doo and his gang. So such trends in successful television cartoon programing had been converging towards generating such characters for the previous ten years.

All that was needed was the ‘celebration of youth’ one found in the counter-culture of the 1960s, to begin bringing these trends together. Scooby and his gang are much too straight-edged to be hippies; but they share with hippies a tendency to self-indulgence, abhorrence of routine labor, and difficulties accepting the responsibilities that are inevitable with the process of growing up. Naturally they would appeal to a child who felt like an outsider – or who wanted to be.


“Coyote is a mythological character common to many cultures of the Indigenous peoples of North America, based on the coyote (Canis latrans) animal. This character is usually male and is generally anthropomorphic although he may have some coyote-like physical features such as fur, pointed ears, yellow eyes, a tail and claws. The myths and legends which include Coyote vary widely from culture to culture.”