Understanding and Deconstructing Television
Critical Analysis One

The two critical analyses for this course will focus on a TV program you choose. They will require you to apply the analytical principles presented in class and in Television.

In specific, Critical Analysis One will cover chapters 1-4 in Television—including concepts such as flow, narrative structure, and polysemy.


Choose a fictional, scripted, narrative television program—one that is 30 or 60 minutes long (that is, not a series of online shorts). Your program does not have to have originated on a conventional, linear broadcast/cable network. That is, it may be a nonlinear production by Netflix, Amazon Video, and so on. However, it does have to be an on-going series or serial that consisted of several episodes.

Do not select an animated program (the second analysis won't work with animation) or a nonfiction, nonnarrative program such as a game show, sports program, or reality program (e.g., Storage Wars or The Bachelor). Also, you may not select a program discussed in detail in Television, in class or on the textbook's companion Website—including Schitt's Creek, The Andy Griffith Show, All My Children, Designing Women, Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Roseanne, The Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Two Guys, A Girl and A Pizza Place.

Before beginning the analysis, prepare the following:

  1. A scene-by-scene description of a single episode—with one- or two-sentence descriptions of each scene. If the show was originally presented with commercials, indicate where the commercial breaks occur. You may format your scene list however you like, but you might want to use The Big Bang Theory Rundown as a model. (This model won't work so well for 60-minute shows or shows without commercial breaks.)
  2. The episode's credits: producer, production company, director, writer, principal cast (actors' and characters' names). This must be the credits for the specific episode you're analyzing. Remember, The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) and TV.com contain most of this information.

The scene-by-scene description and credits will be turned in with your analysis and will be worth 5% of the analysis score.

Remember: Screenpedia.org contains the discussion questions we covered in class. Specific Screenpedia pages are linked to from the BUI 301 Outline of Topics: bit.ly/b301f20.


A. Polysemy

This is the core portion, the most important part, of your analysis. In this segment you should analyze the meanings or ideas that underpin your program—what John Fiske calls "discourses"—that make up its polysemy.

Be sure to address all of the questions below. You may structure your response by answering the numbered prompts one at a time, or you may construct an essay that flows from one prompt to another. In either case, you must cover these topics.

  1. What meanings, what discourses, are encoded on the text, presented for the viewer to decode? Outline the issues involved and then flesh out that skeleton with details from the program.
  2. Are some meanings emphasized over others? Are some presented positively and others negatively? How? In other words, what attitude or perspective toward those meanings does the show take? Does the program seem to have a "message"? For example, if it's a program telling a story about a woman getting an abortion, does it support or condemn her decision?
  3. What characterizes the preferred viewer of this program? That is, what sort of viewer does this program seem to be designed for? What potential does the program offer for alternative interpretations, for what might be called "against-the-grain readings"?

B. Program Structure

To effectively analyze a text's polysemy you must break down its overall structure and storytelling techniques. This is where you explain how a program takes a perspective toward a certain meaning or issue.

  1. Drawing specific examples from your episode's scene-by-scene description, describe the following elements in your episode and explain how they do or do not fit the generalizations about television series and serials that are discussed in the textbook.
    1. Protagonists
    2. Exposition
    3. Cause-effect chain
    4. Resolution (or lack thereof)
  2. What recurring dilemma underpins the narrative of every episode? That is, what general dilemma is repeated every week? What is the program's continuing narrative problematic?
  3. Using your scene-by-scene breakdown of an episode to illustrate your argument, explain how a specific enigma is played out in a single episode. How does this one individual episode illustrate the general dilemma of the program? How does the narrative in the episode come to an (inconclusive) conclusion?
  4. How is the program segmented? Can you discern specific acts into which the scenes are grouped (see The Big Bang Theory script)? Were there commercial breaks when it was originally presented? if so, how does the insertion of the commercials break the story into segments?


Copyright © 1994-2024 Jeremy G. Butler.
Email contact: jbutler@ua.edu
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Last revised: 27 August 2020 21:03:08

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