In thinking about pop culture, it’s hard not to spend some time looking at genre. So much of what ends up being seen by a large audience is genre-driven: Comic-Book Movies, Detective Shows, Sit-Coms, Sports Movies, Fantasy, etc.
And it’s true for books too, although our national discourse on books is skewed toward literary fiction. Still, the Dan Browns and James Pattersons of the world fare pretty well…
Only the rare popular hit finds an audience without also fitting a genre category.
One of the subtle yet fundamental differences between genre products and literary or indie works is a difference in scope and scale.
Generally speaking, genre output (like detective fiction, horror movies, spy shows, etc.) presents us with relatively generic protagonists who face issues far bigger than themselves, often the very social and political issues that we grapple with as communities and nations.
This has been true since the classic prototypically-generic private eye, Phillip Marlowe, came face to face with the fact that money was corrupting local politics and undermining community integrity in The Big Sleep (1939).
Literary and indie works tend to focus on the individual experience, probing ideas of psychology, resilience, and, above all, personal identity. (See The Sound and the Fury, For Whom the Bell Tolls or Braveheart.)
So, we could say these two branches of cultural products present a set of divergent approaches to examining the human condition. One branch is societal (genre) and the other is individual (literary/indie).
Think about it. It’s true.
Prestige television follows both of these general trends in an interesting way.
Although some of the biggest successes in this media area could initially appear to exist outside of the bounds of genre constraints, a second look makes it clear that The Walking Dead, Dexter, and Sherlock et al. each have their origin in one genre framework or another.
And this is what is interesting – there seems to be a truly productive fusion going on here, a blending of the literary/indie sensibility with genre scale and scope. Shows are meshing unique and highly individualized characters with traditional genre norms to investigate an intersection between the personal and the social.
The two cultural branches have merged, it seems.
The societal focus and the individual focus are each featured centrally in The Walking Dead and, in less balanced ways, we see can the same thing in Sherlock, Luther, Wallander, Border Town, The Americans…
Why is this happening?
The initial question for me here is this: What region of popular culture most consistently and directly attempts to grapple with the issues we face as a society? If I want to understand the world I live in, should I watch Moonlight and all the films like it or should I watch Hawaii Five-0?
It’s not the world’s greatest question, sure, but it leads to an interesting perspective on the social function of pop culture, which in the end is not just entertainment. Pop culture, like all art, provides a means of processing the data-stream that is Life. Movies and books are one way that the complexity-riddled fabric of our lives is made visible to us in all its stained and wrinkled glory.
In Mythologies (1957), Roland Barthes pointed out a hundred ways that cultural products, from pro wrestling to steak-frite, can serve as ideological inflection points. In that famous book, Barthes sets out to “critique the language of so-called mass culture” by taking aim at “collective representations.”
He argues that in the squared-circle of the pro-wrestling ring we see an active promotion of cultural norms and values on the one hand (with definitions of masculinity, patriotism, and even justice) and we see these notions being parsed and processed in ways that help us to understand what “masculinity” and “patriotism” mean.
“Wrestling is a sort of diacritical writing,” Barthes says.
The show is the veil and it’s the unveiling.
The world we live in is largely invisible to us.
In truth, we probably can’t really see the social and political issues that swirl around us for what they are until we watch a few episodes of Home Land or Wallander.
And even then we have to carefully pick apart what we have seen to recognize that Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is a stand-in for the average American: beset by a (necessary) paranoia, dependent on medication and sex because she is unable to see herself as a whole and healthy human being, ever-watchful for a chance to achieve a final personal-professional revelation that will lift her, scars-and-all, into a position of absolute power over the darkness that surrounds her.
We have to look hard to see Kurt Wallander (Krister Henriksson) as an avatar for the global citizen, standing on a thin line between personal dissolution and cultural dissolution, risking one to avoid the other.
We have to go out of our way to see these things.
We have to “read” these shows like cultural critics. When we do, we are rewarded with some compelling insights into how modern society sees itself.
Could it be the case that neither traditional genre methods nor literary/indie approaches were enough in themselves to produce a satisfying image of the world we live in – with its specific pressures, its fraught economic status quo and equally fraught political landscape?
Maybe prestige television is the best place to look if we want help in understanding the world we live in – somewhere in between Moonlight and Hawaii Five-0. The next question is – what is it telling us?