thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Engaging Television: An Interview with Writer Jacob Clifton

In gender, girl culture, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars on March 7, 2012 at 9:59 am

Sarah Todd

“Why bother watching the show when the recaps are so amazing?” my friend Ali emailed me in 2008. We were talking about the Television Without Pity recaps of Gossip Girl, a show then in its headband-wearing, Met-steps-lunching glory days. The in-depth recaps, written by Jacob Clifton with a killer combination of fiery passion, arch humor, and wide-ranging cultural references, were an essential part of the Gossip Girl experience.

Jacob’s recaps didn’t just help us see things about the show that we might not have spotted otherwise. They also influenced the way we thought about friendships and power dynamics and teenagers and surveillance—and, of course, how we thought about television.

I’ve looked forward to Jacob’s weekly Gossip Girl recaps ever since, along with his writing on True Blood and Pretty Little Liars. He’s one of the few writers I’ve followed quite so faithfully. The author of novels The Urges and Mondegreen, he currently recaps American IdolThe Good Wife, and more for Television Without Pity.

Jacob graciously agreed to talk with Girls Like Giants about recapping, teen dramas, feminism, the power of stories, and why Elena from The Vampire Diaries is way under-rated. Come join the conversation in the comments.

How did you start writing for Television Without Pity?

The internet, in 2001, was a very different place! TWoP (MightyBigTV, back then) was a small enough concern that I was able to lobby for some small, one-off assignments that, over a few years, turned into regular assignments. It was a very empowering, very encouraging chance to be given, and I’m still very grateful to the editors at that time for giving me a shot.

You have a very distinctive and dynamic recapping style. A recap of Pretty Little Liars might have made-up dialogue that highlights Aria’s crazy pants (and the fact that she is crazypants), followed by a Jungian analysis of how the four main characters’ personalities complement each other, followed by a mini-treatise on bullying. How do you approach writing your recaps? What do you want them to be, and how has that developed over the course of your career?

I think that, for me, it’s about capturing the sort of tangents and thoughts and jokes that you might go through on the couch, just watching anything. For shows like PLL, that obviously brings up a lot of stuff and thoughts that I feel like are worth representing on the page: This is what it was like for me watching this show, what was it like for you?

I mean, obviously I have my preoccupations — critical, philosophical, political, feminist — and I don’t really hesitate to bring those to bear on whatever’s actually happening on the show, but I trust myself to know the line as far as what’s worth saying and what’s just blabber or personal axe-grinding. (I also cross it regularly, of course.) But that’s what it means to me: A sort of taking shorthand minutes on where the show takes me as a particular person.

However, I do think there’s a certain amount of workshopping that goes on when you’re forced to pay such close attention to a show over such a long period of time. I don’t know if my writing has improved, but I definitely understand television and storytelling a lot more than I did ten years ago — and part of my mission is to bring that into it as well. The opportunity to turn our brains off, or to reject a show or episode for false reasons, is always there. So by bringing out the storytelling qualities, or the writing tricks, or the production values, the hope is that readers can find new ways to enjoy their television shows in a more interactive way.

I believe very strongly that any intellectual activity rewards the level of engagement that you bring to it. I think you can learn as much about wartime strategy from an episode of THE HILLS or BIG BROTHER than you can from watching the History Channel. If you follow the literary leads in old episodes of GOSSIP GIRL, you can learn a lot about classical romance literature. Follow the threads of clothing color or design, set dressing, or musical choices in a show like PLL or GG, and you can figure out a lot more about what’s subconsciously affecting you as you watch. And the more attention you’re paying, the more you get out of the exercise.

As far as how that’s changed, I would say I’ve stepped back a little bit and tried to be funnier and more brief, over the last couple years. I try to make those tangents count more and punch more than I used to. Not in terms of being less engaged, but just in terms of the medium itself. I did a lot of experimenting with our format over the years before ending where I am now, with the false dialogue and occasional breaks for ranting and raving, but that sensibility could and probably will change again before I’m done.

TV recapping seems like a form that’s very distinctive to the internet—in the pre-digital ages there wasn’t really this level of in-depth analysis and coverage. What do you think recaps do for readers and for cultural conversations about television—both recaps generally and yours specifically?

I think anything that brings a social dimension to a solitary activity like watching a screen automatically engages the mind in a new way. Watching TV with a group can make things more enjoyable (or sometimes unbearable), and I think that’s part of the appeal of online recaps. The person makes a joke you made to yourself, and that’s enjoyable in one way, or they make a joke you didn’t think of, and that’s enjoyable in a different way. Either way, you’re adding their experience to yours in a way that even a water-cooler conversation can’t really do, because you’re not following the entire train of thought the way you do with a recap.

For me specifically, it’s a mission. Your next question is about teen soaps, for example: It’s my job, in a way, to give my readers a convincing reason to think about things, about shows and stories. Not “permission,” exactly, but I think especially with teen soaps and female-centered shows there’s sometimes a fear of “reading too much into things,” and part of my express mission is to shut that fear down. First, by being the one to read so much into things that it breaks the system… But secondly, by backing up the impulse to have a conversation about meanings and references with actual facts and proofs. I think it’s easy to get stuck on the shipper level when you’re talking about dramas, for example, and so I like to talk about characters one-on-one rather than in terms of relationships. That kind of thing.

You’ve recapped a fair number of teen soaps for Television Without Pity—notably Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl, as well as The O.C. What do you think is unique about this genre? What possibilities get opened up in shows that dramatize the lives of teenagers, particularly teenage girls?

Teen dramas are important for a lot of reasons: They (at least attempt to) tell stories about younger people in an authentic way, which means their world is closer to ours than the world of adult stories. Technology, sexual politics, and the interests that permeate a teen world are much closer to the way things actually work.

Then, too, they’re more willing to expand upon the inner life of the two groups most likely to go overlooked in older-centered media: Women and young people, who are invisible a lot of the time for different reasons, are treated like humans on teen soaps as a matter of course.

But rather than limiting the audience’s experience, any savvy soap watcher knows that the opposite is actually true: You can identify with these girls no matter who you are, in an unexpected way sometimes, which exposes the parts of our lives and culture that often go unspoken. I think that’s the most important part, both for viewers who are themselves young women and for those that aren’t: We have more in common than we don’t have in common, each and every one of us, and teen dramas are a good way to remind each other of that.

Both Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars have storylines that involve a gay teenage character’s experience of coming out to friends and family. How do you think those shows handled that plot, and the aftermath of Eric’s and Emily’s romantic relationships and evolving identities?

Those are some of the best examples I can think of, often beautifully written in their own right, but I think it’s still a time in our culture where visibility is more important than groundbreaking, because visibility is still itself groundbreaking. I think this is another area where teen shows come out ahead, because teen shows are about establishing your identity as a person, whereas adult shows are more about the relationships itself.

You have to remember that on every show, gay writers and directors and actors are fighting these things out. So you can have a greater focus on balancing romance with the more inward journey of becoming an adult, as a gay person. Teen shows are better at that, because it’s the point — and the two examples you’ve named are excellent examples of gay characters who are also whole characters.

Which I think is a more progressive way of bringing these things into consciousness. Plus again, you have the fact that queer concerns are more present and a bigger part of our world as younger people, so it becomes less about diversity, or token gay characters, than it is simply a realistic part of the universe to worry and stress and talk about these things.

Historically TV has had a low-culture reputation, but that’s been shifting over the course of the past decade (at least). What do you think about high and low culture when it comes to different TV shows—is it all b.s., or are there real distinctions?

I think that you have to judge anything you watch on the merits, which is to say first you separate “I like this” from “it is good,” because only the former thing matters. Then you can see for yourself what the show was trying to do, and whether or not it succeeded at what it was trying to do, rather than whether it succeeded in meeting your personal expectations. At that point, it’s less about high/low culture and more about how much of yourself you’re willing to bring to the experience.

If anything, I think that distinction harms us these days, because a lot of critically acclaimed stuff seems to be about sternly forcing yourself to watch it so that you feel smart, rather than bringing your smartness to whatever you watch. If you are just following the buzz blindly to take part in the conversation, you’re going to end up resenting the thing, and then you end up taking part in the backlash — all of which is about labelling yourself, rather than about your personal experience of watching the show and what you could be getting out of it.

One of the major themes in your writing is how the stories people tell themselves about themselves end up wielding enormous power over their lives. And clearly the stories people tell themselves about others have a lot of power, too.  Can you talk a bit about what this idea means to you?

The shows that I’m most drawn to are those that represent this idea through technology and media. GG, PLL and THE GOOD WIFE are all three about establishing your identity directly against the identity that you’re being sold. They are inherently feminist in this regard, and they use technology and the idea of being constantly looked at to explore ways that we can create our own identities, rather than the ones we’re being told to follow.

So you have your personal ideas about yourself and your story, and then you have technology and media pushing on you, and then there’s the social realm, gossip and sexism and all the different ways we get objectified. Three different ways of looking at the same thing, and seeing how much of it is lies that we accept as true. But what makes these particular shows exciting, to me, is the fact that they’re about the very people that are watching them: Shows for intelligent women that are about intelligent women. So you have a better model for taking apart the images you’re being sold and seeing what works and what doesn’t, because it’s not a fantasy — it’s an often brutal reality we’re seeing — but it’s still subjectively told.

But you also have reminders that you’re the one telling the story, ultimately, and that this can be a positive or a negative experience. You can have ugly ideas about yourself that aren’t necessarily true, just as you can have unrealistic ideas about yourself that get you into trouble. So a universe in which the characters are constantly under surveillance is a reminder that you’re also being observed and judged and messed with, often in ways that you take on for yourself.

You have to understand your relationship with being looked at before you can change the way you’re looked at, and seeing these as factors of your larger, personal story is a great way of telling truth from lies: As you say, those stories wield enormous power, so taking control of the story means YOU wield enormous power.

In your recaps, the Arias and Vanessas of the world seem to take some lumps. What is it about those particular characters that rankles?

It’s exactly that, mostly: The personal propaganda that you’re selling yourself that says you’re above it, you’re special, you’re the artistic one, that you couldn’t possibly be fooled by the big spectacle. It rankles me not because they’re pretentious and annoying — I myself am both of those things — but because these are characters that are shooting themselves in the foot. The only thing that really makes me angry, in real life or with television, is when people get in their own way or hurt themselves because they can’t accept what is. Because I believe strongly that you can’t change what is, until you accept and understand what is. And overvaluing your own intelligence is a great way to insulate yourself from changing or growing at all: Being smart is something that is handed to us, but integrity and self-love and becoming a force in the world are all much, much harder. Especially if you’re too busy being better than the work.

Conversely, who are a few television characters you really love? Do they overlap with the characters you most identify with?

Ha! I identify most with the Arias and Vanessas of the world… Although anybody that knows me would probably call me a Spencer. My favorite TV characters are generally precise, judgmental and very often spiritual or at least very strong Believers in something: I love the surgeons on GREY’S ANATOMY, Caprica Six from BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, Leslie Knope, Brenda Chenowith from SIX FEET UNDER, Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H, and Mary and Matthew Crawley. Kindness isn’t necessary, but integrity is.

Caroline from VAMPIRE DIARIES is a big one, and Betty Draper. Since I was a kid I’ve really identified with the cold or hardcore blonde, for some reason, and with soldiers and priests. I think it has to do with feeling looked at and judged on appearances as a gay man. Not in terms of physical beauty necessarily, but anybody getting pushed into the little-girl box — so, any character that is judged on beauty or gets infantilized or denied a voice, which is usually women — is something I strongly identify with, because when you’re growing up gay you quickly learn that acting like a little girl is the safest way to do things, because nobody has to take you seriously or be afraid of you. Gay men and straight women have that in common, the whole “be nice and constantly apologize” thing.

I am also a sucker for compassion: Hanna Marin from PLL, and Olivia on FRINGE. Oh, you know who I really love? She gets no credit at all, but I absolutely love Elena from VAMPIRE DIARIES. She might actually be my favorite at the moment, besides Leslie Knope, because her entire superpower is about compassion. I am continually delighted at the ways she uses her vulnerability and strength the way Buffy used her kick-ass physicality and integrity to solve problems: They both do whatever they can to make sure that everybody gets out alive. If you start following the pattern of Elena’s compassion — toward every single person, no matter how crummy — it opens up a whole new level of appreciation for that show, because she really will just lay her body down to stop whatever’s going on without ever seeming weak or dumb to me. So that’s a big one right now.

What other writing projects are you working on now, and where can fans seek out more of your work?

I’m always cooking up some fiction project or another, although lately that’s been on the back burner. Most of the writing is available at my blog/site, www.jacobclifton.com. Your readers might particularly enjoy a novel-length story I wrote a while back called THE URGES, which is about a lot of the stuff above.

And can I just say that I love your blog? I love what you’re doing, and I’m really honored that you approached me for this. I hope I did okay!

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  1. Thank you so much for doing this interview. Jacob Clifton is one of the most amazing writers I’ve read in my lifetime, and it is wonderful to see such a thoughtful interview with him. Great questions. Thanks again for the added insight into someone who on one page consistently brings LOLing, tears, deep thoughts, and inspiration — sometimes all in one SENTENCE.

    Happy to find your blog; I’ll be following now! :)

  2. Love this, LOVE Jacob’s recaps, love your blog. Thanks for posting this great interview, I’ll be following you. I’ve got a li’l sapling blog myself about women’s culture (The Oeditrix) where I interview Emily Matchar (of newdomesticity.com) about the gender politics of crafting culture. Hope you can check it out sometime, I think you’d like it. :)

    Keep up the awesome, and sorry about the plug – just trying to find more like-minded blogs to follow and link to, and very happy to have found you.

  3. I am not a fan of the genre my good friend Jacob reviews, but I find his critiques fair with a splash of genius and his created dialogue spot-on enough that I faithfully read his work with a relative understanding of the fundamentals of the series (even if the actors and writers don’t). So I don’t watch much TV, don’t like any kind of situation dramas but find Jacob’s reviews to be time well spent? I’d read one.

  4. Yay! I love that someone else loves VD’s Caroline!

  5. This is so great! I especially love the way that you talk about Elena, Jacob. I think you’re spot-on about what is so compelling about her character and the way she wields power.

  6. Have always LOVED Jacob’s recaps. I miss the pages long explorations of the old days! I totally hear what he’s saying about being more brief, but those essays were magnificent. I’d say the recap for GG’s season 1 episode “Victor Victrola,” was a particular favorite.

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