Television's Tortured Misfits: Authenticity, Method Acting, and Americanness in the Midcentury "Slice-of-Life" Anthology Drama

By Schneider, Molly A. | Journal of Film and Video, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Television's Tortured Misfits: Authenticity, Method Acting, and Americanness in the Midcentury "Slice-of-Life" Anthology Drama


Schneider, Molly A., Journal of Film and Video


from the beginnings of american network television in the 1940s, the anthology drama and Method acting shared a kindred space. The anthology format-which consisted of individual, self-contained television plays under a single series title-enjoyed a heyday in the midcentury period and frequently focused on the intimate study of troubled characters from "ordinary" backgrounds. This focus provided an apt vehicle for countless practicing Method actors, whose training and techniques emphasized the authentic portrayal of realistic characters and problems. Method actors' ability and/or willingness to vigorously explore the depths of everyday characters fit the concerns of a certain kind of "slice-of-life" television drama, one that purported to eschew glamour in favor of existential grit. Stemming from this association, Method acting and the anthology drama are also interconnected by the very similar ways in which they were discussed in the midcentury press, often prompting debates about their actual value for representing "real" people. Notably, the volatility of this space very often points toward a complex struggle to define a specifically American reality, a sense of true American experience. I argue, then, that intertwined critical debates about the value of both Method acting and the realist anthology drama have ideological threads leading all the way to the national and that the Methodinflected teleplay is one critical arena in which Americanness itself is negotiated.

In service of this exploration of Americanness in the intersection of the anthology series and Method acting, I will focus on two especially useful dramas. The first, Paddy Chayefsky's famous teleplay Marty, was broadcast live by Goodyear Television Playhouse (1951- 57)1 in 1953. The second is much less known today but nonetheless represents a significant televisual moment: Journey to the Day, written by Roger O. Hirson and broadcast by Playhouse 90 (1956-60) in 1960. Both prominently feature Method actors, and both focus on what I will call the "tortured misfit," a character who struggles to fit into prescribed cultural norms. Specifically, these two teleplays delve into the alienating effects of the familial and lifestyle imperatives associated with being a "true" American. They are representative of the slice-of-life drama, a realist tradition within the television anthology that examines the everyday lives of unglamorous or even maladjusted people, often in order to raise the question of what constitutes authentic Americanness. Of course, defining Americanness is a highly charged political debate, and these teleplays vividly demonstrate the ways that television, as a rapidly expanding national medium and object of vigorous cultural discussion, became deeply involved in the struggle to determine a sense of American identity.

Intimacy, Authenticity, and Television

For many midcentury critics and audiences, television itself was ontologically associated with intimacy and authenticity. As Rhona J. Berenstein explains, television "was assumed to offer to the viewer a particular temporal and spatial experience, an experience marked by a sense of nowness and hereness and inflected by presumed access to the real" (25). The technical and industrial conditions of early television, it was said, situated the medium as a prime venue for the display of a realist vision, one associated with liveness, truth, and inthe- momentness. The realist anthology drama especially thrived under this critical consensus. Because of the constraints of time, budget, and studio space, early television productions were often small in scale and narrative scope. This centered the form on a limited number of sets and actors, as well as on the design of oftenmodest locations and costumes. As Judith E. Smith explains, these conditions often "encouraged the writing of interior, intimate drama" (257). Anthology series such as Goodyear Television Playhouse became associated with, or perhaps notorious for, the presentation of conflicted and alienated subjects in the struggle of everyday life. …

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