The magic of television: Thinking through magical realism in recent TV

Lynne Joyrich

Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fantasy; Magical realism; Reality; Television

Joyrich, Lynne. 2009. The magic of television: Thinking through magical realism in recent TV. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.


[1] "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It is with great pleasure that I introduce you to the magic of television." It was with these words on August 26, 1936, that BBC announcer Leslie Mitchell inaugurated the first public television broadcast (Wheen 1985:1949) (note 1). Nearly three-quarters of a century later, that phrase, "the magic of television," is still with us, even as its connotations have changed, along with transformations in depictions and deployments of the televisual. After decades in which television has been marked as more banal than bewitching, recalling the magic of television is now more likely to evoke a sense of wonder for the perceived innocence of an earlier televisual audience than for television itself. At the time of Mitchell's statement, the magic of television consisted of its proclaimed power to transport viewers even as they remained set in front of a console—the ability to reveal other worlds, constructing TV itself as otherwordly. Its magic lay in its supposed transparent, objective nature (paradoxically, in its factual, not fantasmatic capacities), seemingly allowing viewers to see through it to a real happening elsewhere but still miraculously visible at home. Today, this belief in transparency has long been critiqued (as much by everyday viewers as by scholars), and the transportation of television is as evident in how TV has magically transported itself into other media realms as in how it transports its viewers. With TV offered on demand, captured with DVRs, downloaded or watched streaming on the Web, purchased as DVD sets, miniaturized for private screenings, jumbo-sized for public spectacles, monitored in closed circuits, and accessed for open forums, once-mysterious television flows have flowed to new media forms, giving TV an appearing/disappearing, now-you-see-it/now-you-don't magical act of its own. Has TV disappeared, or has it multiplied—redoubled each time it's sawed in half, replicating like rabbits pulled out of a hat? Is it still TV or something else when programs are screened (as if through a magic curtain) via today's delivery systems?

[2] Given its alchemical transmutations, there's a different kind of magic involved as television has transformed itself within our media reality. Likewise, this reality is itself transforming, requiring imaginative modes of thinking about television and the real within our mediaverse—creative ways of talking about these appearing/disappearing acts that can account for both their prosaic and perplexing aspects, their ordinary and extraordinary elements. This may seem to require entirely new terms and traditions, ones that can go beyond the binaries by which we typically categorize cultural texts. Yet there is a well-known creative tradition (or, more accurately, traditions) emphasizing exactly these kinds of transformations between levels of reality and mediation, fact and fantasy: the textual formations of magical realism.

[3] While suggestively signifying the mix of the mysterious and the mundane, the term magical realism has itself been mysteriously absent from most discussions of TV (at least of U.S., and other Western and/or global northern, TV formats). Despite the productivity of the phrase in art and literary criticism (where, interestingly, the term means quite different things, as it has been taken to indicate a new objectivity of extreme realism in art historical accounts of visual work, but a marvelous unreality in literary categorizations of written work), the term is not deployed often in regard to television. TV might be the ideal medium for thinking together logics of the real and the unreal, the "objective" and the "out of this world." Why then isn't the term used more—whether to name a particular genre on television, an available strategy of representation on which a variety of TV texts might rely, or, most intriguingly, the status of television as a whole?

[4] One possible aspect of this, as previously noted, has to do with the disappearing/reappearing act of TV in our multimediascape; another is tied to the visibility or invisibility of various traditions in our multinationalscape. Paradoxically (though with the kind of paradox that magical realism itself might relish), the visibility or realization of certain national traditions on the world stage—their real dominance in terms of global media traffic—may lead to an invisibility, a derealization, of their appeal to the unreal. That is, their very certainty in terms of cultural recognition may lead to a curious lack of recognition of the ways in which they register uncertainty. Thus, while magical realism has been associated with various national, regional, or diasporic traditions (obviously Latin American narrative, and also Yiddish, African, and Indian narrative, among others, that comment on the place of the marginalized), it has not been seen as having a prominent place in dominant Anglo-American culture—precisely because of that culture's prominence. In other words, magic realism has been theorized as a form that, in narrating the emergence of the mystical within the matter-of-fact, recognizes that matters of fact—particularly facts of power and dominance and of who has the dominance to mark certain things as fact—must be interrogated. In this way, it registers the presence of the other—not only the otherworldly literalized in the mysticism or magic, but also the worldly other, those who historically have been othered on the world stage. If magical realism has therefore been seen as a form that gives voice to the disempowered (by imbuing with power that which is not acknowledged as part of the rational—and economically rationalized—world), then it may make sense that it has been associated more with globally disadvantaged cultures than with globally hegemonic ones. But, of course, it is precisely the status of sense that magical realism (not to mention television) calls into question—which is exactly why TV may be an interesting place for (or displacement of) this form.

[5] In fact, there are a number of recent U.S. television programs that might usefully be claimed as magical realist, even though these are typically categorized, by both industry and audience, through other genre and marketing divisions. Consider, for example, premium TV's Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001), Carnivale (HBO, 2003), Dead Like Me (Showtime, 2003), and John From Cincinnati (HBO, 2007), and, from standard network television, Tru Calling (Fox, 2003), Wonderfalls (Fox, 2004), Lost (ABC, 2004), Heroes (NBC, 2006), Pushing Daisies (ABC, 2006), Journeyman (NBC, 2006), Eli Stone (ABC, 2007), and Life on Mars (ABC, 2008). There are many others that deploy magical moments: from soap operas that include stories of supernatural enchantment (not only soaps explicitly marketed as paranormal serials, like Passions [NBC, 1999], but apparently normal serials too, like Days of Our Lives [NBC, 1965] and One Life to Live [ABC, 1968]) to prime-time series (like parts of the biblically inspired Kings [NBC, 2009], the "satanically" inspired Reaper [CW, 2007)], and just the secularly inspired civic quirkiness of the cop show The Unusuals [ABC, 2009]). And, of course, there are aspects of magic across science fiction and fantasy programming. Given that latter association, it is tempting to read U.S. TV's turn to magical realism in terms of the attention paid to fantasy programs that have gained cult TV status and thus cult TV's fan base (note 2). Yet, while the connections to fantasy genres are telling in some ways, they don't tell the whole story; for rather than only focusing on the fantastic, it is equally important to read this in terms of the complex, shifting notions of the real in even the most prosaic everyday television.

[6] It is exactly in its movement between and across the fantastic and the realistic that magical realism (dis)locates itself, registering the determinate indeterminacy of interstitial cultures by its refusal to come down solely on one side or the other—just like television, in its own move between fantasy and reality. Both of these terms (fantasy and reality) designate TV genres—and not just any TV genres, but ones that are especially significant to commercial television's place (even continued survival) in today's multichannel, multimedia, multinational corporate universe. Faced with both increased competition for users from other media arenas and increased correlation in ownership across these arenas (and so with paradoxical pressures toward, on the one hand, unification and, on the other, fragmentation), television has come up with its own dual, if seemingly opposed, modes of response. This is evident in not only technological but also generic developments, as commercial TV has turned in one direction toward reality programming and, simultaneously, in the other direction of fantasy.

[7] Both might be seen as strategic choices for TV today. Reality programming is, of course, relatively cheap to produce, and, given the fill-in-the-blanks structure of many popular reality shows, such formats are easy to trade on the world market, gaining a desirable status in the transnational traffic in media/informational products. Further, the emphasis on reality might be seen (at least by the industry) as strategically desirable for television's status more specifically: reiterating announcements of the medium's privileged relation to liveness, collective immediacy, and eventfulness, reality programming can still try to stake a claim for television over and above other media forms. Conversely, fantasy TV operates not by trying to claim priority over other media but precisely by connecting and converging with them: television's fantastic programs depend on constructing—and, more significantly, spurring viewers to construct—expansive universes that encourage further exploration across a wide range of technological, textual, and performative options (through wikis, blogs, games, fan productions, conventions both live and virtual, and so on).

[8] With, then, the simultaneous development of both of these (at first glance polar) strategies—the real and the fantastic—the saliency of magical realism to TV (even, or maybe especially, to reality TV) becomes more apparent. After all, just as much as fantasy programs, reality TV too promises magic. It has productively been read in terms of its pedagogically realist function for neoliberal society (teaching us, as Laurie Ouellette [2004] and Anna McCarthy [2007] have demonstrated, to discipline and take responsibility for ourselves). But as part of this mystifying ideology, reality programming also encourages us to hope for the magic moment, the enchanted occurrence that exceeds rational, self-optimizing, disciplinary strategies. The enormous impact made by Britain's Got Talent's Susan Boyle might serve as an example here, described, as it was, as a case of the eruption of magic where enchantment was least expected, the extraordinary emerging from the most ordinary of both programming and persona.

[9] Such an example speaks to the very status of reality itself today—or, more accurately, to the status of realities, as it is precisely the coexistence of different levels of realness that marks our televisual universes (both the explicitly magical and the more seemingly mundane ones, not to mention both the televisual universes that appear on our media screens and the universe, partly constituted by media operations themselves, in which we live). But while we exist within and across these realities, we don't yet have a particularly effective language with which to discuss this, as attempts to analyze how the factual and the fantastical inform and intervene in one another tend to reiterate the very (il)logic of inadequate binaries—a reiteration that, as Justin Lewis has noted, defines "the epistemological contradictions already involved in watching television" (2004:289). Lewis makes this observation in his essay "The Meaning of Real Life," in which he considers the ways in which television depends on maintaining epistemological distinctions between real and unreal, authentic and inauthentic (allowing viewers to make sense and pleasure from these differences), even as it also disrupts those distinctions (equally then allowing viewers to play with TV's ironies). This yields a popular epistemology that is evident, for instance, in how viewers might shift between the materiality of TV production and the make-believe of TV diegeses in predicting program outcomes, how those outcomes might relate to interpretations of both the televisual and the real, how that "real televisual" might operate to produce meanings and communities, how those communities might revel in, say, the display of authentic pretense or pretend authenticity (as much as either option on its own), and so on.

[10] We all know cases like this…but what sort of mode of knowing, exactly, is it? In my own work on TV's epistemology, I too have been interested in television's existence on the border between what we typically think of opposite sides—the public and the private, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the normal and the strange—and in attempting to find ways of terming TV's epistemology that do not simply reproduce those binaries and so might allow us to come to terms with it most productively. Previously, I've considered this in relation to sexuality—focusing on the ways in which TV both expands and evacuates knowledge of sexuality, making it, like something slipped into a magician's trunk or closet, variously appear and disappear (Joyrich 2001). But, of course, constructions of sexuality are hardly the only cultural formations that materialize or vanish through televisual epistemology, and so other tricks for apprehension are likewise critical. This brings me again to the productions of magical realism and the suggestion that this form might help us better understand and negotiate categories of real/unreal, expected/unexpected, credible/incredible, self/other, us/them: categories central to the very operations of television (as it articulates the domestic with the social, the newsworthy with the humdrum) but ones that have been unsettled and reworked in a mass-mediated world that relies on these terms even as it destabilizes them.

[11] Moreover, considering television in terms of magical realism might unsettle and rework not only how we assess TV but also how we assess this representational modality. For, as noted above, in its expression of a different reality, magical realism has, most often, been linked to so-called different cultures: cultures seen as somehow embodying difference from the rationalized norms of Western capitalist modernity. It has thus not been seen as central to mainstream American society—despite, as I've been suggesting, its growing centrality to the United States' most mainstream medium, television. Even heightening that paradox is the fact that those U.S. TV programs that stand as perhaps the clearest examples of the genre emphasize not "minority traditions" but "Americana" itself: for instance, the 1930s Dust Bowl era that provides the setting for the miraculous occurrences in Carnivale; the surf-and-skateboard culture that draws the mysterious John from Cincinnati westward to California; the attachments to Mom and Pop, apple pie, and a boy's best friend (his dog) that define the characters in the enchanting Pushing Daisies. How should we evaluate the emergence of the spectacular within these most vernacular symbols and sites, the otherworldly within such ordinary worlds? What is the work of the magical for such overworked tropes?

[12] It is tempting, certainly, to read this as television domesticating the difference associated with magical realism. Yet it is perhaps more useful to see how magical realist TV might open up spaces for the marginal and the other within the normative everyday, allowing us then to rethink the binary of marginal versus mainstream as much as the other polarities previously mentioned. Indeed, within our current mediascape, that conceptual binary seems particularly inadequate, given the complex intermedial webs across texts, technologies, and communities (and thus across multidimensional realities) that make any such division impossible. It is this imbrication of the margin and the center, the normative and the strange, the existent and the emergent, the rational and the irrational (or, more precisely, the nonrationalized) that magical realism registers—and it is also precisely this imbrication that defines the televisual today.

[13] Let me end, then, with one final example: the U.S. TV show Chuck (NBC, 2007), about (as promotional materials describe it) an "average computer-whiz-next-door" who receives an encoded e-mail message that, with its burst of digitized video imagery, turns him into a kind of bio-DVR, a storehouse of information and images (a superflow of jumbled bits that span the archives of dramatic, comedic, and reality surveillance TV spy shows). At first glance, this program might not seem to fit the genre I'm attempting to map, as the wondrous things that befall our regular-guy protagonist aren't due to magic per se but to technology—specifically, to the intersect of multiple media modes within Chuck's brain. These make him not just a whiz but a literalized media wizard, embodying a cybermancy that, in the narrative of the program, both compares and contrasts to the more mundane reality of the big box electronics store in which Chuck works (the Buy More, which his quirky but ordinary cohorts have redubbed with the magical name of Buymoria to describe their adventures in the world of techno/media consumerism). Yet by narrating the ways in which one might be enchanted (literally) by media technologies, the program shares many features with the more obviously magical realist shows previously mentioned. Indeed, by intermixing televisual fantasies (through its parodic references to the improbabilities of TV spy, sci-fi, and superhero programs) with everyday realities (through its parodic references to the "buy more" ethos of consumer capitalism), Chuck illustrates that intersect of the mystical and the mundane, the real and the virtual, that defines not only magical realism, but television itself. It is at this intersection that we now all find ourselves, once again welcomed to the magic of television—even if, or especially because, it's now a fantastically enhanced TV. More so than making magical realism irrelevant to television, this makes that term even more suggestive, directing us not just toward the tricks of TV but to the importance of imaginatively conjuring a response.


1. And, of course, the phrase "the magic of television" is even more associated with early television marketing discourses than with early television broadcasts themselves—especially in the United States, which repeated the slogan to promote TV as a consumer object.

2. Or this may be less of a turn than a return, as one might make connections between some of today's magical realist programs and what Lynn Spigel has called the fantastic sitcoms of the 1960s (the zany comedies like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, My Mother the Car, Mr. Ed [Spigel 1991]) and/or with the more dramatic, classic anthology series Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. Such historical precedents are important to consider; yet they should not be taken to indicate that the recent spate of magical TV texts simply manifests an extension of the fantasy genre, since, I argue, there are other precedents (including those from reality forms) that are equally significant to TV's magical realist hybridity.

Works cited

Joyrich, Lynne. 2001. Epistemology of the console. Critical Inquiry 27:439–67. [doi:10.1086/449016]

Lewis, Justin. 2004. The meaning of real life. In Reality TV: Remaking television culture, ed. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette, 288–302. New York: NYU Press.

McCarthy, Anna. 2007. Reality television: A neoliberal theater of suffering. Social Text 25(4):17–41. [doi:10.1215/01642472-2007-010]

Ouellette, Laurie. 2004. "Take responsibility for yourself": Judge Judy and the neoliberal citizen. In Reality TV: Remaking television culture, ed. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette, 231–50. New York: NYU Press.

Spigel, Lynn. 1991. From domestic space to outer space: The 1960s fantastic family sit-com. In Close encounters: Film, feminism, and science fiction, ed. Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel, and Janet Bergstrom, 205–35. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Wheen, Francis. 1985. Television: A history. London: Century.

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