Friday, October 5, 2012

The Tami Taylor Paradox

The music used in TV and film can be split into two groups: Diegetic and non-diegetic. Music is "diegetic" if it originates within the action of the movie or show, and both we as viewers and the characters onscreen can hear it. (So, for instance, "Tiny Dancer" in Almost Famous = diegetic.) Non-diegetic music, on the other hand, originates outside the action onscreen, and is audible only to us as viewers. (So, for instance, the Jaws theme = non-diegetic.)*

*Actually, we could probably add a third category here: Partially diegetic music. This label applies when a song starts out diegetic but continues playing (usually increasing in volume) after the action switches to a new location. Check out this clip from Trainspotting and see how the song that begins at 1:00 changes at the 2:49 mark.

Interesting stuff. But, of course, music is not the only element of storytelling that can pass freely through a doorway in the fourth wall. Join me now as we explore another component of TV and film that comes in both diegetic and non-diegetic forms: SEXINESS.

Permit me to explain. Because the level of attractiveness among actors and actresses is generally higher than that of the public at large, the communities depicted in movies and TV shows tend to contain unusually large numbers of sexy individuals (or, "sexies"). As a result, it can be unclear sometimes whether a character's good looks are perceptible to the rest of the cast, or if -- in the fictional universe of the show or movie -- the character simply represents what "normal" looks like. In other words, is their appearance something other characters are aware of and can comment upon, or -- like the Jaws theme music -- does it exist solely at the level of audience appreciation?

Let's go through some examples from the world of television to illustrate what I'm talking about.

Jessica Brody, Homeland


References to the boneability of Sergeant Brody's wife Jessica are peppered throughout the first season of Homeland. It's established pretty clearly right from the start that people in the show find her attractive.

Just for the record though, I'm not sure if the level of enthusiasm on display does the situation complete justice. For instance, in one episode, a male friend of the Brody's fifteen year-old daughter casually notes -- like, yawning as he says it -- that her mom has "got this whole MILF thing going." Uh, alright. A fifteen year-old boy's penis would burst into flame if one of his friend's moms looked like this. Overall though, they play this one pretty straight.


Carrie Mathison, Homeland

No direct references to Carrie's prettiness as far as I can remember, but she's pursued aggressively enough by Brody, and that dude she picks up in the pilot seems pretty pumped about it. She also had an affair with Estes, and Estes is my man. This one's a close call, but ultimately her character is crazy and standoffish enough that I think we can allow for the lack of enthusiasm from the rest of the cast.


Tami Taylor, Friday Night Lights

Over the course of five seasons, the only suggestion we get that the cosmic foxiness of Tami Taylor is observable to the other characters on Friday Night Lights is in a fourth season episode where harmless and dorky coworker Glenn makes a drunken pass at her. The town of Dillon's Tami blind spot is one of the less realistic aspects of FNL, and keep in mind this is a show that featured eleven successfully-completed Hail Marys per season. We defer as always to this footage:


Oh helllllllll yes.


Coach Taylor, Friday Night Lights

What a dreamboat. Get clearer eyes, Dillon.


Jane Margolis, Breaking Bad

The only indication we get of Jane's attractiveness within the show is Jesse's (not all that challenging) pursuit of her. That she is hotter than Earth's mantle goes curiously unmentioned.


Joan Harris, Mad Men

The Mad Men universe holds Joan in appropriately high regard. Still can't believe Kinsey scored with her, though.


Don Draper, Mad Men

That eyebrow thing is tough to do.


Full Cast, The Wire

The majority of the Wire cast is fine-looking and treated as such. McNulty's level of stud mojo seems reasonable. Pearlman's looks are, if anything, over-emphasized. Every once in a while you get an unexpected peek at Daniels' frighteningly chiseled bod, but that sort of thing fits his character well enough, I suppose.

/can still see Daniels' butt when he shuts his eyes


Jerry's Girlfriends, Seinfeld

One of the more classic examples of the phenomenon. Fictional Jerry Seinfeld had game like no other. Strangely, no one ever seemed to notice or care, least of all Jerry.


Pam Beesly, The Office

I like how most people in the office generally seem to agree on Pam's cuteness. Don't get me wrong, it's hilarious when everyone treats Lindsay Bluth and Sweet Dee like they're disgusting. But that sort of thing is pretty familiar and predictable at this point. The Office's appreciation of Pam is a nice and interesting change of pace.


Those are just a few examples off the top of my head. Feel free to help me fill in the gaps of my TV knowledge; together I hope we can spearhead the study of this phenomenon. Could the cast of Friends see that Rachel was a babe? Were the other characters on Gilmore Girls aware that the daughter was the cutest thing that has ever existed? Oh yeah, and dudes, too. I sort of left them out. Post your examples below!


  1. Good stuff Tadhg. Can't think of a better way to wrap up a Friday in the cube.

    You've raised a really tough question here regarding the non-diegetic characters. First tho, how are we to understand the term sexy? Is it out and out desire to sleep with someone (look at that __ ) or is it that person's ability to get you to sleep with them (take me). The interplay between these differences is a huge source of plot and humor on Arrested. In contrast to Lindsay's inability to get in bed with anyone despite her decent looks you have GOB, who manages to seduce almost everyone despite being a hapless, receding-hairlined nuisance. Arrested might not be a good case study here because its preoccupation with American sexual norms sets it a bit apart from mainstream television.

    Also, can a character that has diegetic sexiness exist without having a certain sex appeal to the audience? Tony Soprano may be a huge disgusting monster, but wouldn't that sex appeal carry over if James Gandolfini walked into any bar in Jersey?

    1. Well in the post I use the term sexy to refer to physical appearance. But yeah, hopefully if the creatives are doing their jobs right, whatever sex appeal a character has within their world is being conveyed to the audience as well. If anyone involved with the Sopranos walked into a bar in Jersey the beginning of A Hard Day's Night would probably break out.

  2. Tadhg, I'm in the same boat. Those involuntary flash backs to the absolutely unnecessary Daniels nudity are the closest my life will ever get to PTSD.

    1. When you stare upon Daniels' butt you see a vision of how you are going to die.