Books

'The Cult TV Book': Join Us

The Simpsons & Friends watching... The Simpsons?

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.


The Cult TV Book: From Star Trek to Dexter, New Approaches to TV Outside the Box

Price: $15.95
Publisher: Soft Skull
Length: 288 pages
Editor: Stacey Abbott
Format: Softcover
Publication date: 2010-06
Amazon

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image