With winter weather in full swing, it’s likely that many of us are curling up with a blanket and turning on our favorite show. Be it the newest hit series or a comfort show, television is a source many rely on to be entertained. But what if our favorite shows are doing so much more than just entertaining us? “Breaking Bad,” “Ted Lasso,” “Mad Men,” all great shows but what do they all really mean?
This is what Dr. Holly Holladay asks herself when she sits down to watch TV. We’ll call it “the lens.”
To the untrained eye, it might sound exhausting to constantly be searching for the “deeper meaning” behind witty dialogue or spectacular set pieces, but for Holladay it’s almost instinctual. Holladay has been looking at media through this lens since she was in graduate school. She sees TV as a cultural storyteller that says something greater about what’s happening in reality while we’re watching the screen.
“It’s about more than just this television show. This show is just the mechanism or lens to let us think about something bigger.”—Dr. Holly Holladay
This approach to media analysis has garnered a world of truths in the shows we consume today—from the role masculinity plays in “Ted Lasso,” to the reflection of American culture during the Obama Era when “Parks and Recreation” aired. Once you get past the cringe-humor and “that’s what she said” jokes, the series finale of “The Office” sparked the exploration into post-object-fandom, how we deal with shows once they’ve ended. Even seemingly innocuous comedies, like “What We Do in the Shadows,” aren’t without their deeper meanings. The character Guillermo is a subtle yet undeniable metaphor for the low wage worker and the desire to work toward something higher in a society built upon capitalism.
When Holladay isn’t discovering the secret truths of TV, she’s teaching others how to do it themselves. As a tenured associate professor of media, film, and journalism at Missouri State University, Holladay teaches courses in media theory, social media, and media analysis and criticism.
With six years of teaching at MSU under her belt, Holladay describes the experience her students go through of learning how to look through “the lens” as a bell curve.
“When you first start thinking about media critically,” Holladay explained, “you don’t get it. Everything is just entertainment and it’s fine. But once you really start thinking theoretically, you want to burn everything down and you hate everything you loved, and it sucks. Then eventually you get to a place where you come back down.”
Holladay talked about her own experience with the bell curve. She uses “Parks and Recreation” as an example, a show that got her through her doctorate program.
“Parks and Rec was so special to me and there’s a lot wrong with it,” Holladay admitted. “And yet, I’m gonna keep watching it for the rest of my life because part of the reason I love it is not the show itself, but how it makes me feel and how it propels me to a particular time in my life. It’s like a hug. Nobody can take that away from me. You can be critical of something and still love it.” In fact, the show even inspired her latest book “TV Milestones: Parks and Recreation” which is anticipated to be published in the spring of 2023.
Beyond teaching students how to love something while being critical of it, Holladay’s classes get to the heart of what critical media studies is really doing—showing us why something works the way it does.
Holladay likes to begin the semester with an exercise where students question certain assumptions they have about the world and the way it works. Who gets to make decisions? Where do those decisions come from? Why are there particular stories that we see over and over and who makes those decisions about those stories? This eases her students into the act of looking at media critically. And more often than not, the students are already doing it. “It’s really interesting because my students talk to me in really chill and conversational language. The things that they’re saying are media theories, they’re just saying it super plainly.” She believes her role as a teacher is to give them the academic language to articulate what they already know.
“This isn’t quantum physics. This is social behavioral sciences. Humanities. Very much focused on how we live our day-to-day lives.”—Dr. Holly Holladay
So the next time you sit down to watch the latest episode of “The Umbrella Academy,” look through “the lens” and see if you can find the bigger picture.