Captivating Aspirations: Re-mediating the Era of Mass Incarceration in the New Golden Age of Television (1997-2017)
Dissertation in Kultur
First supervisor: Prof. Frank Kelleter
Second supervisor: Prof. Martin Lüthe
Third supervisor: Prof. Markus Kienscherf
Since the 1970s the United States has witnessed a drastic rise in its incarceration rate. With under 5% of the world’s population, the USA currently holds nearly 25% of its prisoners. Colored by an over-representation of poor urban minorities, and particularly African-Americans, mass incarceration has been facilitated by the punitive turn in American criminal justice, illiberal tough-on-crime legislation, the structural and institutional legacies of slavery, the shifting sands of the post-industrial economy, the neoliberalization of the welfare state, and an increasingly futile war on drugs. With few exceptions, the American media largely elided critical coverage of mass incarceration until well into the first decade of the 21st century.
Long a much-maligned medium, dominated by a few large broadcast networks and a spattering of niche cable offerings, TV was widely associated with low production values, unsophisticated mass appeal, and ideological complicity. In contrast, it is now increasingly common to speak of a so-called “new golden age” of “quality” television. Many TV critics trace the inauguration of this post-network era of “quality” television back to the premiere of HBO’s first original series, Oz. Produced at the height of the upsurge in American imprisonment and set entirely in a maximum security prison, Oz was the first fictional American TV drama to explore the opaque back-stages of the criminal justice system and has been celebrated as the forerunner for a new generation of critically acclaimed “prestige” series which venture into the dark, forgotten corners of American society by inflecting recognizable genres with more challenging, edgier, “socially relevant” postures. Searching for a vocabulary to describe these programs without naively reproducing their self-celebratory bravura, media scholars have adopted the term with which Jason Mittell christens his study of recent TV cultures: Complex TV (2015).
A variety of these “Complex TV” series have explicitly tackled subjects related to American mass incarceration, causing sociologists and cultural critics, perennially anxious about television’s ostensibly corrupting influence, to worry over the potential of these series to distort public perceptions. In the popular press and academic journals alike, scholars, commentators, and fans argue vehemently over the “realism” of The Wire, the “post-feminist” ideological implications of Orange is the New Black, and the commercial complicity of documentaries such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Animating these debates are deep-seated assumptions about the political potentialities and perils of our contemporary media ecology.
This dissertation explores these issues by analyzing the mutual entanglements of sociopolitical discourses and Complex TV in the age of mass incarceration. While it touches on a variety of media contexts, it gives pride of place to TV series such as Orange is the New Black, Oz, The Wire, and documentaries such as Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed 13th. It asks: what and how does contemporary TV know about mass incarceration? How is this knowledge shaped, serialized, circulated and put to work? What is its relation to other epistemological domains? What role do they play in the construction of American culture and society? And finally, what opportunities to re-describe, reimagine, and reshape American society in the age of mass incarceration are afforded by evolutions in our media ecology?