Savant of Screens
Virginia Heffernan's literary-critical approach to TV and on-line video
Not long ago, Virginia Heffernan, Ph.D. ’02, who writes about television and on-line media for the New York Times, got an e-mail from her boss, culture editor Sam Sifton ’88. Heffernan had submitted a draft that contained the word chthonic, a term from classical mythology that refers to deities and other spirits living in the underworld. As a smiling Heffernan recalls, Sifton reminded her that “you can’t use words that would stop a reader on the A train.”
Heffernan is no lightweight: her hip, funny pieces bristle with fresh ideas. In the fall of 2004, for example, she began her review of the hit nighttime soap opera Desperate Housewives with a synopsis of a 1958 John Cheever short story, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” a dark tale about a suburbanite who loses his job and eventually turns to burglarizing his neighbors’ homes. Heffernan then segued into Housewives, which had “boldly flung off prime-time’s imperative to topicality, and embraced an overtly literary mode. It is not an innovation, but a clever throwback, a work of thoroughgoing nostalgia and a tribute to Cheever’s war horse, the suburban gothic.” Later, she noted that “Desperate Housewives has succeeded because, like the best of reality television, it derives suspense by threatening its characters with banishment. All of the characters look as though they belong—but only for now.”
Heffernan says her doctoral training in English literature definitely affects her analyses of the video realm. “In the 1990s, we were taught that all texts—from self-help books to Tolstoy—are susceptible to critical methodology,” she says. “That became an article of faith with me. I bring everything I learned from [Harvard professors] Helen Vendler, Philip Fisher, and Marc Shell to television.” The gossipy, celebrity-tracking Manhattan-based website Gawker has labeled Heffernan’s columns “pretentious,” but she remains undeterred. “Sometimes I hesitate over a word or a reference because I know it contributes to that effect,” she admits. “But I can’t help myself.”
Along with Alessandra Stanley ’77, who also reviews television for the Times, Heffernan tackles mainstream broadcast fare like American Idol, which, she wrote, “zigged at just the right time in pop-culture history, revived the square spirit of Lawrence Welk, and discovered that we still have a hymnal of Top 40 hits that we might open in unison.” But what excites Heffernan most is Screens, a column and blog she invented in June 2006 to track the latest content developments in the non-televised realm and to analyze the sociocultural fallout of various emerging—and converging—media. “There’s widespread visual literacy,” she says. Screens, which will accompany Heffernan this fall at she takes her column to the Times Magazine, is peppered with phrases like “third-screen viewing” (i.e., watching video on handheld devices like BlackBerrys and cell phones; the “first” and “second” screens are TVs and computer monitors). “Almost all TV shows have an on-line component now,” she explains. “I’m so excited about how the Internet and TV are coming together.”
The most enthralling case of that convergence might be YouTube, the populist video-clip website, for which Heffernan confesses “almost evangelical” feelings. “Forget TV—forget TV—forget it!” she declares. “YouTube shows 150 million to 200 million videos every day, all over the world. Much of the audience doesn’t speak English and lots of videos don’t need language: dance, opera, sports. Lonelygirl15 [a series of popular YouTube videos] has not caught on internationally because it’s too talky. You can see Marcel Marceau, or [Brazilian soccer star] Ronaldinho scoring this soccer goal in an incredible display of virtuosity. Forget Diana; on YouTube you can watch the coronation of the meek little Queen Elizabeth in 1953.”
Heffernan’s own tastes run to “very arcane and esoteric stuff,” she says. “And I like offbeat things like Christian and religious programming, and sci-fi.” But regarding YouTube, she is quick to emphasize that it “isn’t just something for hipsters and teens, or people with exotic interests—pursue your existing interests. Like jazz? Try John Coltrane playing with the Miles Davis Quintet in Düsseldorf in 1960. Check out Yoko Ono’s performance art. Scary tricks with knives and archery, or babies laughing. There’s film of Ernest Hemingway catching a man-size marlin. Interviews, in English, with Sigmund Freud. The second-most-viewed video on YouTube not too long ago was geriatric1927, a British World War II radar technician telling his life story in pieces. Such good oral history.”
Four days out of five, Heffernan works from home, where she says she watches the “national average” of five hours of television per day: “I sit on my couch like everyone else, and I try not to meet television stars or producers.” Her video iPod can download TV shows or on-line content, and she also digitally records programs. Recordings, not real-time viewing, are essential for doing “close readings”—a habit carried over from grad school—which require Heffernan to pause the video repeatedly to make notes. One window on her MacBook computer runs the video, while another has Word open for note-taking. “It’s like doing literary analysis,” she explains, “with the added challenge that I get to use my eyes and ears.”
Born in Hanover, New Hampshire (her father is an emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth), Heffernan recalls that when her parents limited their children’s television viewing to one hour per day, “My brother and I wailed like The Passion of the Christ.” She took her undergraduate degree in English and philosophy at the University of Virginia in 1991 and then enrolled at Harvard. But a succession of media jobs in New York City interrupted her graduate education: fact-checking at the New Yorker, writing patter for hosts on MTV and VH-1, editing at Talk magazine and Harper’s, discussing television for Slate and the New Yorker. “Logistically, it was agonizing,” she says. “I was trying to build a career [in New York] and finish a Ph.D. at Harvard. There was a lot of Amtrak involved.” Yet she also found time to write stage plays and to collaborate with her friend Mike Albo on a 2005 comic novel, The Underminer. Heffernan had never worked for a daily paper when the Times hired her in 2003, “but the assumption was that having worked for Slate, with very quick turnaround, I could handle daily deadlines.”
Handle them she has. In one Screens column, after commenting on YouTube’s “slacker aesthetic,” its “mush politics (the Free Hugs Campaign),” and its “chronic oscillation between absurdism (‘Ask a Ninja’) and emo (‘Say It’s Possible’),” she wrote, “This value system is not intrinsically worse than the one that determines prime-time television’s crisp, white-collar aesthetic; its mainstream politics; and its chronic oscillation between punchy and sappy”—probably as cogent a summary of network TV’s worldview as you’re likely to find in one place.
Part of that worldview, of course, is the truism that only one television critic really matters: the A.C. Nielsen Company, which generates the national ratings. Heffernan writes a different brand of critique. Her columns instruct readers not so much on what to watch or avoid, but on new ways of perceiving what they have already chosen to bring up on their screens. And Heffernan contributes something that many critics lack: a willingness to give the subjects of her reviews the benefit of the doubt. “If I can’t rise to understand why something is interesting,” she says, “it’s my failing.”
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