The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Posted by Matt on May 22, 2011

…and while I’m complaining about television, I got another issue.

Despite being heavily based in genre fiction, in books, comics, games, and movies, I have a hard time getting into most genre television. Most of it is because of the length issues I talked about the other day (and although many are not so heavily plot-based, most series since X-Files have story arcs). There’s something else, though, something that I think is far more ingrained in today’s genre TV conventions.

I have never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer for an extended period of time. I may have seen a few episodes here and there; in fact, the only season I have any real exposure to is the first one, which contained episodes about giant praying mantises and hyena people that I’m sure most fans are wont to forget (the only other episode I can remember watching? One that featured John Ritter as an evil robot. As far as I’m concerned, this is what Buffy is, a show about giant praying mantises and evil John Ritterbots). I do know many people who have seen all of it, and love it, and evangelize it. This audience kept a cult show on for seven seasons and a spin-off, and it has acquired a bit more cultural cache because of that. It has, really, become an influential force on the world of genre fiction. That’s where my problem begins.

Now, I’m not going to dismiss Buffy or its fans; I have no reason to, as I have not been presented with anything that says the show was particularly bad. But I have become quite aware of the show’s, and Joss Whedon’s, storytelling tics from exposure to fans and critics online. Since that awareness came, I have begun to see them everywhere. The show may not have been a cultural force, but it was a nerd cultural force, and so the nerds with a creative drive start getting their work out there, it’s influence spreads like a plague.

But what is this influence that haunts me? I think it boils down to the following recurring qualities:

1) General cheapness, with little or no desire to make up for it visually
2) Snarky dialog coming from all characters
3) A strong sense of ironic detachment

The first is more or less out of the creator’s hands; TV budgets are notoriously minuscule. Which is generally no excuse for lame direction, which is an epidemic among genre TV. Budget or no, bad action is bad action, and it’s not like its impossible to make something LOOK good on a small budget.

The second and the third are tied together, and this is what really gets me. It’s a nerd thing; they want to like the things they like, but they can’t look like they take that shit too seriously (even when they do), because well…it’s silly stuff. I know it’s odd to think of nerds having any sense of social awareness, but it’s there, every once in a while. What it does is when these types get a hold of entertainment, however, is make a contradiction.

Now, having an ironic, or less-than-deadly-serious take on genre conventions is not in itself a terrible thing. It can be done right, and has. The problem is that…everybody’s doing it now. You can’t have wizards or vampires or aliens in anything without at least one character who thinks the whole thing is a joke. But then the story plays it mostly straight otherwise, so any sort of commentary or comedic value is removed. It’s having your cake and etc., is what it is. These writers really do love stories with vampires and wizards and stuff like that, but they know that most people think that shit is stupid. So, they make this show that basically says “Here’s a monster, but just between you and me, this is really pretty dumb! Keep watching anyway” It feels a bit dishonest to me.

I think a lot of this comes from comics culture. I’m sure most of the people who write genre television was, at one point, a Marvel or DC reader. By the mid-90s, all the kids and teenage comic readers had vacated superheroes, leaving the long-time readers to hold the fort. Being adults, they knew that if other people found out they still loved stories about men in gaudy costumes punching each other, they would be ostracized…moreso. So they started that ironic detachment, mocking most of what had built the superhero comics up until that point: the silly adventure stuff, the world domination plots, the super pets. Then these same guys went on to be the writers of the comics, and they brought that sensibility to the books themselves. Superhero comics have yet to recover from that incursion of irony, and even the movies have yet to really capture the kind of grand cosmic weirdness that they were capable of 25 years ago (both Thor and Green Lantern seem to be getting closer, though).

In fact, it really seems that in the last decade, all the mainstream comics have essentially become genre television in ink form. All above features I listed above are there, in addition to things like a focus on ongoing story arcs, and even the contradictory desire to be both shocking (usually via character deaths) while maintaining the status quo (because change makes people feel scared). As I mentioned, some of this stuff originated in comics and comic readers, so it’s all full circle. It’s worth mentioning that many comics writers in the mainstream today either moonlight as television writers, or seem to desperately want to be (I don’t remember where exactly I read this, but I remember someone saying that Brian Michael Bendis, for example, seems to want to write crime or espionage thrillers, but life dealt him superheroes instead). So there really is no mystery to why all this is going on.

I just don’t really like it. It’s not the type of writing I can really enjoy very often. It gets tiring. You just want them to commit to an idea; either be a full-on comedy making fun of genre tropes, or just write a story using those tropes (hopefully in a creative way). The closest thing to it on my regular viewing plate is Doctor Who, which while not completely serious, is still pretty devoted to its sci-fi ideas, which I find enjoyable more often than not. The funny thing is, the original run of the show is one of the things that I think a lot of genre writers aspire to, but are forced to distance themselves from because of its (perceived or real) cheesiness. The new show embraces its past, but has still taken in what has changed within the world of genre TV within the past two decades, so it ends up avoiding the major shortfalls of both eras. It’s a nice balance, one that I hope to see more of.

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