A fantastic day at the Box Set Mind Set – The Forensics of Popular Culture

This Saturday Andreas Vossler and I, two of the academics from the DD310 module team, and Barney Savage, an audio producer here at the OU, all went to London for the day to attend a fascinating one day seminar called The Box Set Mindset – The Forensic of Popular Culture. The seminar was organised by the International Association of Forensic Psychotherapy (IAFP) and Media and Inner World, in association with Bournemouth University and the University of Roehampton. The seminar brought together both academics and forensic psychotherapists to discuss well known television series and the themes of murder and violence. We thought attending would be really useful for the module section on media representations of crime and therapy, and we hoped that some of the speakers might be willing to do interviews with us that we could use as audios on the DD310 website. We were very fortunate as the organisers Richard Curen and Professor Candida Yates allowed us to come along and bring some recording equipment too.

The talks were based on popular TV shows that have all become box sets and throughout the day there was the underlying theme that watching these shows, whether through a box set DVD, or an online streaming service, is different than watching live television drama, where you have to wait each week for the next episode. The first talk focused on the series The Killing and was presented by Dr Andrea Esser, a Principle Lecturer in Media and Communication from University of Roehampton, and Dr Sandra Grant OBE, a Consultant Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist. For anyone who is unfamiliar with The Killing, it is a Danish TV drama that investigates the killing of a young woman, with a female detective (Sarah Lund) in the lead role, with fantastic acting and scenery, and very unlike the usual American crime dramas that pervade the TV channels.  Both presenters gave fascinating insights in to the TV series, from a media and psychoanalytic perspective. As part of her presentation, Sandra explored the killer’s motivations from a psychoanalytic perspective, she described how the killer viewed the victim as a possession and felt rejected, and also committed the murder as an act of revenge. Taking a slightly different approach, Andrea conducted focus groups to ask viewers why the show was so appealing and she found that people liked the fact it was different from the usual crime dramas, and they felt the characters and the relationships between them were believable. Respondents also said that the acting was so good that the felt the characters were real people, with real flaws. Andrea was also kind enough to let Andreas interview her about her research, so hopefully we will be able to incorporate this audio into our online module materials. One last point made by Andrea that I thought that was really interesting, was that one of the big differences between crime dramas and real investigations is that in TV series there is always a hero, and the series often focus on that lead detective, whereas in real life we often know very little about real police detectives who have solved crimes, and this made me wonder how the police feel about this.

The second talk was on the TV show Breaking Bad and it was presented by Dr Estela Welldon a Psychiatrist and Forensic Psychotherapist and found of the IAFP, and Dr Bradley Hillier Specialist Registrar Forensic Psychiatrist and Treasurer of the IAFP. For anyone not familiar with the series Breaking Bad, the story is set in the USA and follows a chemistry teacher (Walter White) who has terminal cancer and teams up with a former pupil (Jesse Pinkman) to make the drug crystal meth in an attempt to ensure his family will have financial security once he dies. The series is very violent and over the course of 5 series the characters change and develop in various ways. Estela analysed Walter White from a psychoanalyst perspective looking at his motivations, emotions, personality and interactions with other characters and how they change over the series, as both characters become more deeply entrenched in a life of crime.  Whilst Bradley took a case study approach to the character Jesse Pinkman and described him as though he was one of his patients in psychiatric hospital or prison.  After the presentation, Bradly was also kind enough to let me interview him about his work with offenders and his views on how realistic the media represents offenders with mental health problems, and how realistic the character of Jess Pinkman is compared to real offenders. Bradley’s interview will be incorporated into the online module materials for DD310.

The third and final presentation of the day was on the series House of Cards and was given by Professor Candida Yates, Professor of Communication and Culture at Bournemouth University, and Professor Brett Kahr, Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Psychotherapy and Mental Health at the Centre for Child Mental Health. For anyone not familiar with House of Cards, it is a drama series that follows an American Politician (Frank Underwood) and all the intricacies of his elaborate plan to get himself into a greater position of power, aided by his wife (Claire Underwood). Candida described Frank Underwood as a machiavellian anti-hero with many motivations, such as revenge, murder, deception and linked the character to Shakespeare’s Richard III. Brett, described how the character of Frank Underwood met the criteria of most psychiatric diagnoses including, psychopathy and psychosis. Brett also described why we are so fascinated by psychopaths and that in his research he had found that many people (when interviewed confidentially) have fantasies about killing people, although the majority of us obviously don’t act out on this! After the presentation I was fortunate enough to interview Brett about his research on sex and violent fantasy, and this will also be used as online module materials for DD310.

The last parts of the seminar involved discussions of all the three TV shows and peoples’ reflections on them and box set series in general. One of the discussion points involved the addictive nature of having a box set where you can ‘binge’ watch a series and how that differs from watching live TV. Also how the addictive nature of watching TV differs from other forms of entertainment or art, such as reading a gripping novel, or even viewing work of art. Dr Estela Welldon made a great comment and said that in many cases we tell people not to watch too much TV, but we never say ‘you’ve looked too long at that painting’.  All in all, it was a fantastic day and it really opened my eyes into the another side of crime drama, and also made me think about how we watch TV, or consume box sets and how we can passively become addicted to watching these types of TV shows. Finally the conference also made me consider about how the media represents crime and mental health, which is one of the topic we cover DD310, and how we can teach this to our students.

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