Cult Television

April 9, 2013

I recently came across a list of the top 25ish cult television shows of all time. (Of course, for lists on the Internet, “of all time” has to be interpreted as meaning “of the last fifteen years, plus one or two older examples.” The oldest show on the list was Doctor Who, which it did acknowledge went all the way back to the 1960s, but the second-oldest was Twin Peaks. The Prisoner didn’t even merit a mention.) I was struck by how odd and inconsistent the criteria for inclusion seemed to be.

For example, the list included LOST, which was a hugely successful network juggernaut. The list authors attempted to justify its insertion with the note that the viewership fell off a lot by the later seasons. The basic criterion for a “cult” show (or movie, or whatever) is supposed to be its building of a key group with which it is very popular and successful. The two conditions, which can be characterized as limited viewership and viewer loyalty, need to go together. Shows like LOST or Twin Peaks don’t belong; they were extremely successful in their opening seasons, when they could afford to make everything mysterious and not explain anything. It’s much easier to construct a compelling-seeming mystery than to resolve it. Watching the early episodes of these shows, the viewer asks, “How can this all fit together and make sense?” Well, dear viewer, it can’t. The producers are just making things up, and for a while this can be very interesting, but eventually it tends to crash and burn, when it’s revealed that nobody has any clue where it’s going. The X Files was on the list too, and it falls into the same general category, although there are few key differences: I don’t think that show was ever really that interesting; and the over-arching plot was a part of only a very small fraction of the episodes.

I don’t think the shows of this type shows are really that good, in the final reckoning. Quality narrative art needs to have a good ending, which LOST, Twin Peaks, The X Files, and even The Prisoner do not. Of course, the incentives in Hollywood do not encourage people to make carefully reasoned-out shows with strictly coherent plots. If the producers can capture one or two seasons of top viewing numbers, they can make enough dough to retire. It’s also much easier for them to get subsequent projects through development and production. Even though Twin Peaks was canceled in the second season, the creator David Lynch managed to get funding for a pilot for a show that was originally envisioned as as Twin Peaks spin-off (although it was ultimately made with all new actors and no explicit connection to Peaks). That didn’t get picked up, but Lynch still managed to get some extra money to make the pilot longer for a theatrical release (even though all the sets had already been demolished, forcing Lynch to resort to an, “It was all a dream,” resolution).

This list also included shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which “cult” apparently means no more or less than “mainstream success.” I remember recently reading some other blogger excoriating The Big Bang Theory for not respecting its audience. This was a man who unironically named Buffy as his all-time favorite show. Now that was a work that had no respect for its audience. More specifically, it appeared to operate under the assumption that its viewers had been watching for three years at the most; any facts from more than a few seasons back could be freely ignored if it happened to suit the writers. They could get away with this at the time, since the heyday of Buffy was just before full-season DVD sets became a common commodity. What I don’t understand is how people who go back and what the whole show from beginning to end without bridling.

The top show of the “cult” list was Doctor Who, which really can be considered a cult phenomenon, at least in America. In its native Britain, the show is about as mainstream as the legendary soap opera Coronation Street. In contrast, The Prisoner or Monty Python’s Flying Circus were cult phenomena on both sides of the Atlantic. I have a soft spot for Doctor Who, having watched it during the first big wave of American interest in the program, in the 1980s. Yet I have to admit that the show has always been very uneven, whether we’re talking about the original run, from 1963-1989, or the recent revival. (The American made-for-TV movie in between was not uneven; it was just bad.) The problem is that the show, like The X Files, has a strictly episodic format, with new writers, directors, and designers for each new story. Sometimes their ideas are good; sometimes they are woefully bad. Moreover, the traditional BBC production schedule was extremely tight, which meant that if a script turned out to be a total disaster, there was really no time to get another one to replace it; only a complete nervous breakdown on the part of the writer would be enough to get the BBC to commission a hasty-drafted replacement story.

Since the late 1970s, the show maintained the pretense that there was some sort of ongoing storyline, but (with a few exceptions), the details of the broader story arc were simply tacked onto existing scripts. This doesn’t seem to have changed in any substantive way with the new show; as one Internet commenter put it, “Tossing ‘Bad Wolf’ or ‘Torchwood’ into each episode of the season doesn’t make a story arc.” (Actually, “each episode of the season” is already a huge overstatement of how often “Bad Wolf” appeared noticeable in the first season of the revived series.) This policy ultimately prevents the story from ever really developing enough narrative momentum to make it feel like there is something consistent going on from one week to the next.


5 Responses to “Cult Television”

  1. ‘Buffy’ was/is most definitely a cult TV phenomenon. Not only did people care enough to write papers about it, the continuity for all 6.5 seasons was broadly planned from the beginning, and it had an exceptionally devoted core audience (as did ‘Firefly’) that still attends conventions and dotes on its creator, Whedon. Retconning is rare, and it just happened to enjoy enough successs to have mainstream influence also.

    • Buzz seems to have an irrational dislike of Buffy, I’ve noticed; I agree with my chilled ursine friend here that the show is deserving of cult status. I certainly wouldn’t lump it in with Lost or Twin Peaks.

    • Buzz Says:

      I don’t find this argument especially convincing. Yes, the show had a fanatically loyal subset of its fan base, but that isn’t enough (in my opinion) to make it cult. Lots of fandoms have cores of really hardcore fans, who do things like write academic articles about the favorite shows. All My Children is known for having been the subject of a number of academic papers, including at least one that focused on the famous incident where Erica Kane was attacked by a bear. (And when I say she was “attacked by a bear,” I really mean that shots of Susan Lucci yelling were intercut with footage of a bear ambling around.)

  2. Diapadion Says:

    The Prisoner can’t honestly be described a cult show in the UK, at least under your guidelines. The show was immensely popular, as demonstrated by the fact that McGoohan was hounded by heaps of random people after the finale aired because they deservedly wanted to know “what the hell?” At the time there were only a few public channels in Britain, and McGoohan had already established a strong fan base with Danger Man, so of course The Prisoner was popular.
    In the States, yeah, it was and still is a cult show.

    • Buzz Says:

      I’ve heard very different stories about how popular The Prisoner was during its first run in Britain. Maybe it wasn’t really a cult phenomenon there, although I suspect the stories about McGoohan being mobbed by confused and angry fans are greatly exaggerated.

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