Geek Goes Mainstream

I was unfortunate enough to watch CBS’ first episode of The Class, and struck by a scene in which a man in his mid-20s by the name of Duncan answers the telephone while playing a videogame. Because The Class is about as formulaic as possible, I immediately guessed what this meant: Duncan was still living at home with his harpy of a mother. In the world of pop culture, playing videogames into your mid-20s is shorthand for arrested development.

Despite this stereotype, 2006 saw many examples of so-called geeks breaking into the mainstream. And they formed the basis of some great entertainments, thanks in part to artists like J.J. Abrams or Ronald D. Moore, who see fantasy and science fiction as worthy genres. It’s also a function of our speedy, internet-obsessed culture, where everybody can make his voice heard. At last, it’s the geeks’ turn to have the spotlight.

One of the TV season’s few breakout hits thus far has been NBC’s Heroes, a serialized epic about ordinary people who discover they have superpowers and, possibly, a destiny to save the world. Battlestar Galactica may not be its equal in popularity, but it has received critical respect that would have been unheard of even five years ago for a show that takes place on a spaceship. Even Lost, which has shed some of its white-hot luster, remains a water cooler show. And — it turns out that this brilliant character-driven drama is revealing itself to have been science fiction after all.

The November release of Borat indicates another sort of appreciation for the geek. Consider that the film’s premise, humiliating ordinary people, is essentially the same as that of the show that granted Tom Green his 15 minutes of fame in the ’90s. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two: Cohen’s comedic genius lies in investigating the group-think that allows racism and other cultural phobias to thrive in a supposedly “enlightened” society. By contrast, Green’s only theme was annoying the piss out of people by acting like an insufferable jackass.

But even if the quality of Cohen’s satire can explain the massive success of an R-rated film with no major stars and no obvious marketing campaign, it’s noteworthy that the critics have hailed the movie as a masterpiece and Cohen has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance. Not bad, considering that 20th Century-Fox cut back Borat’s theater count its first week of release on the grounds that it had no “buzz” outside of fans of Da Ali G Show.

There are other examples of geek films crossing over to wider audiences. X-Men: The Last Stand had a $122 million opening weekend, if only showing affection for the characters. Although Brett Ratner’s film earned mixed reviews, Roger Ebert noted its use of mutant superpowers as an allegory for just about every hot button issue in our culture, from gay rights to the pro-life/pro-choice debate.

Perhaps the year’s most mainstream geek product — the one generating the greatest level of frenzy — is the PlayStation 3. Just hours after the stores sold out of their stock, eBay was flooded with auctions. When the price for a videogame system reaches $3,000, the audience consists of more than teenagers in their parents’ basements. The game system has become a status symbol in a culture where the lavishness of your home entertainment system directly correlates to your income level.

And though it didn’t cause any near riots on its release, the Nintendo Wii also points the way towards a future when everyone in the family gathers around the videogame console to play. The system utilizes a vastly different type of controller, resembling a television remote, that can be used to mime actions happening in the game such as swinging a tennis racket or slashing with a sword. The commercials for the system are brightly lit and depict people friends, families, and couples eager to play.

Entertainments that only a few years ago would have been marketed exclusively to niche audiences are now targeting everyone. Now the masses can see what they’ve been missing.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.