[24 August 2010]
There are wonderful scenes in movies and TV shows where some event happens that captivates the world and people everywhere are shown gathering around televisions to find out the latest news. An alien invasion, a politician resigning in disgrace, all witnessed by people as a community.
My favorite scenes like this are of people huddled around the display window of an appliance store watching a wall of televisions of all different sizes playing at the same time. The main character of the piece breaks through the crowd of onlookers to get a better look, and he or she stands there in front sharing in the terror or splendor of whatever drama is unfolding on the screen.
Maybe this happens in real life, or, more likely, it once did. Now, people stare at tiny devices in their hands, or just wait to watch the action on their DVRs later that evening. That way, they can fast-forward through the commercials.
We may no longer be cavemen standing around the fire, but that sense of community still thrives through the passion of fans and their devotion to their favorite shows.
In compiling The Cult TV Book, editor Stacey Abbot has created an intelligent, accessible guide to the worlds of cult television that neither panders to the hype machine of commercial television nor shuts out the average reader from the realm of academic discussion. Rather than an encyclopedic accounting of the minutiae of dead shows, the writers in this collection discuss the shift of cult television shows away from the margins toward the mainstream. Readers looking for numerological dissections of Lost or Biblical parallels to the ending of Battlestar Galactica will have to look elsewhere.
Before discussing the reasons for the shift, the definition of a cult show has to be established. In Roberta Pearson’s essay “Observations on Cult Television”, she argues the word “cult” when applied to television defines no shared characteristics but rather audience perception. She writes that, in the past, “scholars ... predicated their understanding of the cult television phenomenon upon marginality”. To an extent this was true, as most shows with small but rabid followings tended to be of sci-fi/horror/fantasy lineage, but Pearson argues that a show like Lost, which in its first season had up to 20 million viewers an episode, could hardly be called marginal.
Cult television, then, is about the experience rather than the specific show. To illustrate, Sergio Angelini and Miles Booy point to The Prisoner, writer/actor Patrick McGoohan’s weirdo spy drama from 1967. They write that the show “dramatizes the whole process of cult narrative by having the protagonist literally inhabit a world of stylized construction, odd props, and oblique meanings”. This experience applies as much to The Prisoner as it does America’s Next Top Model or Desperate Housewives. Each show has its own language, rules, and overarching narrative that may not be familiar to the casual viewer coming across it at random.
This view of any show as a potential cult favorite at first seems to water down the very notion of specialness that is attached to shows that were once thought of as perpetually under appreciated. However, in “Television and the Cult Audience: A Primer”, Hillary Robson notes that a defining characteristic of a fan is his or her habit of extending the narrative into their consumer lives. Fans buy DVDs, video games, magazines, novel tie-ins, toys, and any other product with a show’s logo on it. Angelini and Booy call this “reception” rather than “consumption” because “[t]he cult text is never consumed (i.e. destroyed or used up) ... It is always available, complete and undiminished, bristling with new moments to be activated”. If you’ve ever bought a magazine you would otherwise never buy just because it has a long article on your favorite show then you know what they’re talking about.
The audience for cult television is changing because all television audience are changing. Everything is splintered, with a broad range of content to choose from and a variety of methods of delivery. Maybe you watch Mad Men on your laptop, or The Daily Show on your iPhone. No matter where you watch it television is arguably better now than it ever has been. That’s easy to overlook because there’s so much out there, with channels devoted to niche markets (my parents, for example, have a channel that’s just a satellite image of Earth spinning in its lonely orbit).
In her introduction, Stacey Abbot notes that the creators of many of today’s cult television shows are fans of the shows of the past. In her article “Playing Hard to ‘Get’—How to Write Cult TV”, Jane Espenson, writer for Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, breaks down the wall for the viewer and gives us a peak inside the laboratory at what makes not just good cult television, but good television period. Her article is the most accessible, but it’s no less insightful than the rest. It’s a thoughtful assessment of what makes a good story from both the writer and viewer’s point of view. The best shows, she writes, resemble the real world, but with a marked difference. In those other worlds, maybe people still stand around and stare in wonder at events unfolding on that glowing magic box in the window.