Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cult TV

From the dark and surreal to the comedic and campy, cult television shows have entranced millions of hardcore fans for decades. No matter how long a cult show has been canceled, obsessive viewers will devote plenty of their time and money to keep it alive. Untold hours have been spent watching, re-watching, analyzing, and arguing over series, and untold amounts of money have been spent on merchandise and at conventions.

Why do people like these shows so much? “Cult” is a diverse category, from sitcoms like The Simpsons and Seinfeld to classic sci-fi like The Prisoner and Star Trek: TOS to modern cultural leviathans like The X-Files and Lost. What strange force draws people to both shows like Spaced and those like Lost in Space, despite the multitude of differences between the two?

Most cult TV shows are not particularly appealing to the central, majority portion of the viewer bell curve, at least during the time of their airing. I'm not trying to imply that viewers of weird canceled shows are necessarily more astute or intelligent than anyone else. Even the most diehard fan must admit that shows like Twin Peaks can descend into incredibly dark morbidity, unforgivingly pretentious nonsense, or incomprehensibly surreal weirdness at any moment. It takes the sort of patience that someone flipping channels out of curiosity shouldn't be expected to have to stick with these shows, and that doesn't exactly lead to a tremendous viewership.

How do these shows get made, then, and how do they last? Television executives want hit shows. Television, not unlike the film industry, is about people with money investing in something and hoping to make more money. Higher viewership leads to higher Nielsen ratings, meaning more revenue from advertisers due to more people seeing their advertisements. The more money made from this (and DVD sales and whatever else), the happier those who invested in the show will be. In the eyes of the investors, every program is a gamble and a hope for a return on an investment. If a show tanks, no matter how many critics rave or how many online petitions are desperately signed, the people in charge are going to cut their losses. If a show succeeds, though, it will be milked until nothing but a dry husk remains. While from a viewer's perspective some business decisions may seem like incredible blunders and some cancellations like cruel crimes against humanity, it is rarely anything personal.

It's show business.

This means that while some cult shows are cut down before fans feel any sort of closure, others pathetically peter out, past their prime on the artificial life support of ad and merchandise revenue. Firefly and Arrested Development fans may rage at their own beloved show's respective cancellations (Where is the movie??) but they didn't have to go through the indignities of seeing their favorite property worn thin. Lost fans may have had to endure lagging filler around season three while producers held out for an end date, but they they went through nothing compared to Simpsons fans watching a once clever, heartwarming, and creative show become a dead horse so beaten that it's barely recognizable.
Other shows, like Doctor Who and Star Trek, are constantly retooled and reinvented over the years, becoming incredibly profitable franchises unlikely to ever die off. Execs will try again and again to revive a property based solely on name recognition, too. In 2009, AMC heavily promoted a remake of The Prisoner in the form of a miniseries that failed critically. Despite this, Christopher Nolan may still be producing a film version.

Please stick to Batman, Nolan.

Sometimes you can sense stations grasping at the “cult” demographic, making sad-looking try-hard shows like Happy Town. I have not seen a single episode of Happy Town, ABC's post-Lost drama program that was canceled after eight episodes. Their tagline? “Don't let the name fool you”. How ominous, how clever! How sad of an attempt to ape Twin Peaks and Lost in the category of “mysterious weirdo stuff nerds like.”

Mysterious disappearances? A strange Midwestern town 
that is darker than it seems? Heavens!

I'll probably try to see Happy Town once I get over the name, even if it's just because of how much I love Twin Peaks.

While every few years a new quirky and weird show captures a generation, it's interesting to note the legacy of some of the more influential ones. For example, without The Prisoner, there would be no X-Files or Twin Peaks. Without The Prisoner, The X-Files, and Twin Peaks, there would be no Lost. Some shows that seem to break new ground only feel that way because concepts that seem fresh. Number Six was trying to escape a The Village while being chased by Rover around forty years before Jack and Kate tried to escape The Island while being chased by the smoke monster. You could be a cynic and say that this or that show ripped off an older one, but it's more about the cyclical nature of these things. I'm sure something else I haven't seen inspired The Prisoner, though I know Rover's creation was a happy accident (you can read about it here, under “The Rover Syndrome”).

Weather balloon and horrific monster

Just how influential these shows are outside of their own little sphere is also noteworthy in a “fun trivia” kind of way. Twin Peaks also heavily influenced the big name 360 game Alan Wake and the lesser known, more polarizing game Deadly Premonition that I would kill someone to be able to play. I also considered writing an article on how many of these shows The Simpsons parodied. Twin Peaks here and here, an entire Prisoner episode (“The Computer Wore Menace Shoes”), an entire X-Files episode (“The Springfield Files”), and countless other references, including that one time an entire Futurama episode was devoted to Star Trek: TOS (“Where No Fan Has Gone Before”, one of my personal favorites).

Twin Peaks started the year I was born and is a mature show, so I didn't have a chance to see it until years and years after it had been canceled. I had that experience with a lot of series. Lost, however, caught my attention just before its season two premiere, so I was there along with everyone else as (most of) it unfolded. I got to be a part of the experience, and got to watch every heartwarming scene and every creepy plot twist up until the end. Catching up via DVD or Netflix streaming is quick and simple, but it doesn't really beat the allure of obsessively tuning in each week with people who love something as much as you do then arguing about it the next day with friends at school and strangers online. I hope I can experience it again sometime soon.

I tried Heroes, but everything past season one is excruciating

I'm curious as to what the future of offbeat and overlooked television holds. Will surreal and subversive new ground be broken, or will the same tropes and themes indefinitely repeat themselves? What do you think?


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