TV Feature: Drinking the Kool-Aid

 
 

With shows like Twin Peaks and Arrested Development having a small but loyal audience and often being referred to as ‘cult’ shows, Laura Bell investigates what the term actually means

“What is a cult classic?” is the oft asked, argued and undeniably boring question that dominates the discussion around the subject. Some argue that to be ‘cult’, a show has to fail miserably before it succeeds marginally; while others claim that one need only combine one fan base with a singular passion for flogging a dead horse in order to whip up everlasting, if minor notoriety. Really, the true test of whether your favourite show is about to spawn a sect and a matching spot on the shelves at Forbidden Planet, is that of time.

Many critics named and shamed Lost as the greatest cult show “of all time” back when polar bears roamed the jungle-like wilds of ABC and the fat guy was still fat. While Lost is still popular in a shockingly marginalised way, it’s no classic, and trying to argue it will have Doctor Who and Star Trek fans aged 6-60 laughing into their striped scarves and red shirts. That’s the elusive thing about this type of media; these shows don’t have to be artistically good, critically acclaimed, or loathed by the mainstream audience. They just have to sit out their extended shelf lives as host to a rabid fan base who play out their devotion like it’s a new clean energy source.

There is a special place in the heart of cult for the unfinished series, that propels several shows whose endings are swathed in mystery into the limelight. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, which ran for two seasons over the year of 1990-91 is considered by Entertainment Weekly to be the “big bang of auteur TV”, and in January of this year, was rumoured to be the subject of discussions as to the viability of its modern day resurrection. Sadly, creator Frost brutally shattered the rumour along with the hopes and dreams of fans worldwide with a snarky tweet. Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a western set in space, was hit with a severe case of Network Meddling in which Fox aired 11 of the 14 episodes of the first season out of order, and forced Whedon to write a second pilot with more fighting and less talking.

Fans of the CW’s Veronica Mars, however, were not content to sit idly by and watch reruns of everyone’s favourite sassy teen detective. A fan group called the “Cloud Watchers” hired a plane trailing the banner “Renew Veronica Mars” to fly over the network office; papered major American cities with 30,000 fliers advertising the series; and sent more than 10,000 Mars Bars by post to CW executives. A kick starter to fund a feature film is currently underway, donations reaching $1,000,000 in four hours and 24 minutes, and as of March 25th of this year had passed $3.7 million. Warner Brothers have now tentatively agreed to market and distribute the film. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, fans don’t have to raise millions of dollars in order to persuade studios to give the public exactly what it wants. Such was the case with Friday Night Lights, the show based on the movie based on the book based on A True Story was such a fan favourite that when the show seemed doomed to be cancelled, fans raised $2,000 for charity and for Friday Night Lights DVD’s to be sent to US troops overseas. In addition, they also raised enough to send more than 13,000 mini footballs to NBC execs Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman.

Arrested Development, everybody’s favourite TV show that nobody actually bothered to watch when it was on the air, faces an actual confirmed resurrection. If the Veronica Mars incident hasn’t proved that not even paying studios to let us pay them will get them to put Transformers 19 aside, then the upcoming fourth season of Arrested Development, airing exclusively on Netflix is testament. Like Firefly, the sitcom had the displeasure of dealing with Fox, and is generally considered to have been doomed by their general ideology in favour of the bare minimum. A movie, slated for release in 2014, will follow.

The creators of cult are of an entirely different breed to the archetypal Hollywood hack, known to their fans by name, face, and twitter account. In the world of television, the name Joss Whedon as synonymous with Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Bill Gates is with Microsoft. The New Yorker defines these auteurs as “the sort of difficult obsessives who make original things and then get fired.” Usually, disposing of these creative liabilities also signifies the imminent and premature death of their brain children, moved first to the so-called “Friday Night Death Slot” between 8 and 11p.m., and then on to the television afterlife (Netflix). However, sometimes things get legally nasty, and big names get shafted from their own shows. Such was the case with Dan Harmon, the creator of NBC’s Community who was quietly phased out of the production process and the payroll. Harmon felt the network’s message to be clear: “We’re going to smother [Community] with a pillow very quietly”, he said.

Ultimately, regardless of content and creator, the cult of cult can be intoxicating, and even the best of us can sometimes fall prey to the ‘It’s really popular so now I hate it’ trope. Remember, the only thing worse than not enough people caring about your favourite show is too many. They can’t know your love.

Advertisements