There’s a lot of talk lately about how uncanny Tina Fey’s impression of VP hopeful Sarah Palin really is, and with the next season of her Emmy-award winning TV show, 30 Rock, getting ready to launch at the end of the month, I thought the timing was right to post a consideration about this very self-conscious — and hilarious — program, which directly referred to “uncanny valley” theory last season, helping bring the issue to light in the popular imagination.
Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley” theory is gaining notoriety in popular culture already, generally. Mori argued that as non-human entities (monsters, robots, androids, etc.) evolve to appear and move more and more like actual human beings, the more repulsive we find them. The “valley” refers to the negative emotional response we feel in response to an encounter with these entities, as represented in this chart (c/o Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato at the journal, Android Science):
Conversations about the “uncanny valley” have been taking place in numerous communities recently, from researchers in android science to digital animators to performance artists. Artists and designers have been chatting, for example, about the differences between the success of Pixar’s Incredibles or Wall-E and the failure of shows like The Polar Express, suggesting that the latter comes too close to the valley while the former avoids it altogether. (Ward Jenkins elaborates in depth). Gamers especially are getting into the concept; fans of PS3’s upcoming game, Heavy Rain are talking about its uncanny realism, and fans of the Wii are talking about how the design of the games on that platform avoid the valley altogether. But these conversations and experiments have been on the margins of media culture for the most part… until a popular television sitcom this year employed the theory in an overt and hilarious way.
On April 24, 2008, the NBC television comedy 30 Rock aired its 13th episode of its second season, called “Succession.” The theory is actually debated overtly during the show when the two most radically off-kilter characters, variety show headliner Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and staff writer Frank (Judah Friedlander), become obsessed with designing “Grand Theft Pornography” — the “world’s greatest pornographic video game” — and this ludicrous plot arc unfolds with wacky and surprising results as the characters become more and more obsessed with perfecting their game.
On Television Without Pity, Michael Neal summarizes the way the theory of the Uncanny Valley is delivered in the show, which employs a parody of the above chart:
Frank is attempting to explain to Tracy why his porn video game idea won’t work. It’s because of something called “the uncanny valley.” As artificial representations of humans become more and more realistic they reach a point where they stop being endearing and become creepy. Frank whips out a chart to prove his theory exists and when Tracy asks him to break it down in Star Wars he does just that: On one side of the scale are R2D2 and C3P0. “Nice,” remarks Tracy. On the other side is a real human like Han Solo. “He acts like he doesn’t care but he does,” again says Tracy stating the obvious to usual comedic perfection. But the lowest point on the scale is “a CGI storm trooper or Tom Hanks in Polar Express.” Paying careful attention I notice that only slightly above that low point is “wax figure of Nicole Kidman.”
What’s funny about this to me is that the theory is employed in such a serious fashion about a ludicrous and juvenile gamer fantasy. Highbrow and lowbrow elements are thereby swapped in a topsy-turvy fashion, transgressing unspoken cultural boundaries and thereby revealing them. The least intellectual characters on the show — empowered by their silly quest for porno perfection — suddenly become studious and drop their slacker routines to engage in more serious work than they ever have on the show before. Naturally, all of this juvenalia “works” so well because it ostensibly shows fans a “new” side of the characters, suggesting that they’ve really just been slacker heroes all along: given incentive, they could be geniuses who create masterpieces…it’s just that the world they live in rarely gives them “incentive” enough on their own terms.
Is 30 Rock mocking Uncanny Valley theory as a geek fetishism, or is something more at play here than just mockery that theories of the uncanny might explain? I’m not entirely sure, but when I consider the program in terms of uncanny “doubling,” I find its clever allusions to popular culture at work here very interesting. As serious and studious as Tracy and Frank become in their creative act, there worldviews are entirely delimited by references to other forms of popular culture (Star Wars, Polar Express, etc.). One could read these “slacker heroes” as engaged in active “play”, poaching from culture high and low, manipulating its tropes to their own creative ends, breaking out of their passive role as consumers of media. They are, like dedicated fans, “scholars” of their genre, capable of theorizing and applying scholarship to their productive work. But the problem here is that they already ARE media tropes in and of themselves. Thus, everything can only be understood self-reflexively. The comedy becomes a parody not simply of intellectualism, or of game fandom, but also of itself.
Tracy: “My genius has come alive, like toys when your back is turned. I see potential for erotica in everything around me. This cup. This table. Even you Kenneth.”
Kenneth: “Well, I am wearing a cuffed trouser today.”
Kenneth’s deadpan response to Tracy’s crazy mixture of references to the uncanny is apt because it suggests that, just like any given object in the room (cup, table), a character is ultimately always a non-human object, operating as a “stand in” for real human relations that nevertheless is alive and seemingly autonomous…just like Tracy’s “genius” which “comes alive”.
The show constantly turns inward, nods at — and more often mocks — itself, before deflecting back out to the culture at large. And this episode’s treatment of the uncanny raises the status of the show as a work of popular culture itself to the foreground. The metafiction of the whole “uncanny valley” plot arc ruptures the seamless fantasy of the already metafictional sitcom, because 30 Rock is already a show about the making of a show: in the narrative proper, Tracy and Frank are an actor and a writer on a fictional TV show called “TGS” — which is already a sort of “doppelganger” in its own right, since the familiar actors from “SNL” (Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan — and Alec Baldwin, who has appeared on SNL so often he might as well have been a cast member) are playing actors/writers on the fictional set of a fictional variety show very much like SNL, which is run on the same network as SNL, and produced by the same producer as SNL. This chain of intertextuality is difficult to follow because of the parallels that it incessantly solicits, the constant cloning of cultural semes, the textual reproduction of other texts at a rate of near-panic. All of these levels of plot and intertextual references bounce off each other in an echo chamber of meaning that is not unlike a “hall of mirrors” narrative about popular narrative itself.
Thus, when “Succession” depicts these characters creating yet another fictional plot (for the game) inside of an already many-chambered plot, it becomes a metacommentary that threatens to reveal how flat their characterization really is, how constructed the storyline is from the thin tissue of other texts, and therefore shatter our suspension of disbelief. This may very well be why the creation of the video game storyline becomes like a parody of the film Amadeus when it mocks Jordan’s lowbrow quest for a “masterpiece.” Often the show will spin plot lines more reminiscent of SNL sketches than they are of genuine character conflicts, since the introduction of yet another “text-in-production” threatens to topple the metafictional coherency of the show. There are moments so hyperreal that the writers are driven to seek an intertextual touchstone elsewhere in pop culture, suggesting that the characters in THOSE shows are the flat ones, that THESE characters know better and are just acting. But it can never quite evade the control of the media. These media characters — who are media consumers themselves — are also, uncannily, autonomously, themselves creations of the consumerist media. Thus, while the “porno video game masterpiece” quest narrative is perhaps the most ludicrous and unbelievable of all the plot lines of 30 Rock, it somehow transcends mere mockery and opens a doorway into intellectual uncertainty that probably hasn’t been as successfully tried since Seinfeld boldly told the imaginary story of its own show as a show about “nothing.”
This is the genius of the structure of 30 Rock (and perhaps why it survives while similar shows such as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip die off) — as an ongoing metafictional series, it can refer to other texts — even those from cultural theory and android science — indefinitely, while at the same time parodying itself. This is not merely self-deprecating humor; the show works so well because it is itself a reflection of another text, a “looking glass world” of SNL’s variety show format — while remaining just different enough from that show to avoid any “valley” of repulsion that audiences familiar with Saturday Night Live might feel. It successfully avoids the status of Saturday Night Living Dead by being more than SNL’s other.