Cult Innovation

In 2011 some of the highest rated programs included reality shows like American Idol, Biggest Loser, Survivor and Dancing with the Stars. Other top rated shows include CSI, Law & Order and NCIS spinoffs. Finally, rounding out the top watched shows of the 2010-2011 television season are the sitcoms Two and Half Men and Mike and Molly, topped off with Hawaii Five-O, a remake of the popular 1970s franchise (Seidman).

Looking at some of these titles there appears to be nothing new and exciting. If it is not the same old procedural police drama or celebrities embarrassing themselves on television, then it appears as if the networks will not air it. It is nothing new or controversial to say reality TV has taken over the channels of mainstream television. The world of mainstream television is bland, boring, and, most offensively, predictable.
Does exciting, innovative original programming even exist? If so, what is quality television? It is oftentimes defined as cult television. Some of the best television ever created is cult television. Even though cult television shows lack the strength to hold out in the ratings race, cult television is quality television and is composed of textual thickness because it is innovative, smart, and deals with controversial subject matters. The basis of cult television rests in the hands of the fans who are now able to incorporate these cult texts into their lives through new technologies. Thus a band of dedicated and loyal fans are created worldwide.
To define cult television is a tricky path. It is not necessarily about defining a genre as much as what it provokes from its audience through intellectual narrative. “…a show’s ‘textual thickness’ and its ‘endlessly interpretable text’, attributes often seen as characteristic of quality” (McCabe 32). Cult television is not one specific genre and does not encompass a defining characteristic. It can be any numerous genre like comedy, science fiction, crime, drama, and horror. It can include any of the following ideals: being offbeat, being edgy, draws a niche audience, has a nostalgic appeal, or be considered symbolic of a particular subculture (Abbott 1 9 ).
In essence this is the definition of cult television:  There is no single quality that characterizes a cult text; rather, cult texts are defined through a process in which shows are positioned in opposition to the mainstream, a classification that is no more coherent as an object than the cult and is also a product of the same process of distinction that creates the opposed couplet mainstream/cult. (Abbott 8 )
In essence cult television attracts a cult. Cult television writer Jane Espenson sums up perfectly how to create a cult TV show. “Don’t stuff a cookie in their mouth. Make them walk across the room for it. Make them look under the rug for it. Them might even have to lift a floorboard. When they do that, they’re a cult” (45). Innovation, controversy, and fans are the perfect ingredients for making quality television or cult television. Since cult television spans over so many genres and definitions it is only appropriate to use multiple television shows to represent these three qualities. For the purpose of this text television shows such as Twin Peaks, My So-Called Life, and Doctor Who will be used to exhibit these qualities respectively.
Cult television in recent years is known for its high production quality. “… a sense of visual style created through careful, even innovative, camerawork and editing… aural style created through the judicious use of appropriate, even original music” (McCabe 50). A prime example of visual innovation in cult television is David Lynch’s small screen masterpiece, Twin Peaks. Lynch, a notable film director, co-created the series with Mark Frost. The story centers around the mystery of murdered high school girl, Laura Palmer. The show started with strong ratings, but soon declined and the program was canceled after the second season.
Twin Peaks was highly stylized visually. An example of this is seen in Agent Dale Cooper’s detective techniques in investigating a murder through the reflection in a videotape eye (Abbott 34). The show changed television in ways of visual storytelling and offered high-profile exposure to independent directors. “Once more, the visual elements of these series are particularly dense with meaning, and makers can build the potential for self-reference over the years…” (36).
Along with visual innovation, cult television also promises to be unconventional with storytelling techniques. Viewers of cult television want playfulness and cult television welcomes just that. “ [writers] have been able to provide attentive viewers with the pleasures of foreshadowing as well as long-term character growth…it has allowed richer development of both character and narrative” (37).
In narrative theory, the narrative structure has a tendency to fall into predictable patterns or formulas. Mainstream television craves formulas and conventions that viewers will recognize with the purpose that it will attract them each week and keep them watching (O’Donnell 70). “Formulas that were successful in previous shows are repeated in new shows…It is impossible to separate art from the business of television” (77). Mainstream television will continue to spew forth the same thing over and over again as long as it attracts viewers. In terms of cult television it will push the boundaries of “narrative elasticity” (Abbott 89 ).
In the case of Twin Peaks a new genre was created: soap noir (Abbott 29). One part mystery, detective thriller combined with elements similar to those seen in soap operas. “Their soap model prioritizes knowledge that isn’t neutrally produced by deductive reasoning, but that which is derived from emotional involvement and personal experience” (29). This detective series with hints of melodrama paved the way for shows like The X-Files and Northern Exposure in terms of strangeness and bold storytelling.
Secondly, mainstream television will always be afraid to take chances. Its goal is to create the least offensive programming to keep those viewers happy and returning to the series week after week. A cult audience is more willing to embrace challenging topics. Cult television allows for genre blending which is the perfect vehicle to launch into controversial topics. Shows including Soap, The X-Files, The Wire, Dexter, and even I Love Lucy all have dealt with controversial topics and have pushed the envelope on where its boundaries lie. In the case of I Love Lucy, it was the first show to feature an interracial couple, a pregnancy, and a dissatisfied housewife (McCabe 102).
One way to gain cult status is to debut as something that must or should be canceled because of risky content only to be picked up and loved unexpectedly by fans. A prime example of this is seen in the television drama My So-Called Life. A television show that rested solely on the narrative of a confused teenage girl. “…the overlap between cult and some ‘quality’ television, its audience may be more willing to embrace challenging representation as part of contemporary television drama” (105).
My So-Called Life dealt with numerous intense issues that made prime-time viewers in the mid 90s very uncomfortable. Issues dealt with on the show included homophobia, child abuse, adultery, divorce, drug use, teenage alcoholism, and school violence (Abbott 81). All of this was part of a continuing story line that attempted to depict the realism of teenage life through the theme of meaningless, which so many teenagers can relate to.
Before My So-Called Life broke boundaries for teen drama, shows depicted high school life as fun and full of jokes. Shows such as Saved By the Bell come to mind first (101). “My So-Called Life has an arguable cult status while existing in an ordinary (but very specific world- but one that occurs frequently)” (McCabe 105). The show was also the first of its kind to feature a main character who was homosexual and of mixed race. Rickie Vasquez, 15, becomes friends with Angela (the principle character) and the viewer gets to experience his emotional, controversial story line.
Ricky was raised by his uncle who abuses him. During the course of the first, and only, season Rickie is kicked out his uncle’s house. His English teacher, Richard Katimski, who is also gay fosters him. Mr. Katimski ends up becoming a mentor to Rickie (Abbott 85 ).
Finally, one of the biggest attributes of cult television is its ability to attract a strong, dedicated audience. Small the audience might be, at least small enough to not make the ratings cut, it is a mighty, determined group. Cult television strives more dedication from its audience than any other genre or category of television. “‘Cult’ suggests something that is outside of the mainstream, an organized group of abnormal rebels chafing against the norm, and invariably has a religious connotation, one that suggests a certain prescribed ritual, a degree of ceremony, and a process of initiation” (McCabe 12).
As the medium of television develops, its audience is also growing and changing along with it. Since the dawn of television, with each new decade we have seen television develop and invent. Generations before have seen the invention of color television, cable television, and the VCR. For this generation television has invented itself over the internet. This collision of two of the most used technologies around the world has fans everywhere becoming more involved with shows and interacting more with other fans.
One phenomenon taking shape on the internet through the cult television audience is fan fiction. “Fan fiction writing operates as a means of fan activity which allows the individual to explore his or her own interpretations…” (Hansen 333). Fan fiction allows the audience to manipulate the plot and characters of the text in ways that are pleasing to them. “Fan fiction is often a way we comment on the shows and films that they relate to express our dissent from particular directions that they took” (333). This postmodern form of fan interaction is just another way a television show can garner a cult audience.
Before we take a look at some of the examples of fan interactions through the hit BBC show Doctor Who, we must explore the theory of postmodernism and how it relates to television.
Postmodernism is a term that not only can be used to describe art, architecture, and fashion, but it can be used to describe television. Postmodernism suggests that culture has been changed due in part to developments in technology. It is a controversial term that has been debated for some time now. People argue whether if it is as important as so many writers suggest it is. Now in the 21st century we have seen rapid developments in our technology. Cell phones, cameras, television, computers, and the Internet have all changed dramatically in only the past few years. “These emerging systems of communication have created virtual communities, new identities and interactions, and new vocabulary…postmodern theorists believe that the inundation of new technologies has influenced a postmodern society” (O’Donnell 183). Take for example the weblog or simply blog. Everyone has one and they are basically a personal narrative that people share over the internet with other people they will probably never meet in real life.
One trait of postmodern television includes mixing genres. Hybrid genres such as docudrama and dramedy are the result of postmodernism. These genres have become common in television. Another trait is intertextuality. “…references to other texts, genres, discourses, themes, or other media…it is the interconnection of meanings across different media texts as well as connections between meanings” (O’Donnell 186). Words such as ephemeral, ambiguity, irony, and intertextuality have been used to describe postmodernism. These intertextual references allow the audience to play with their television. It gives the audience pleasure to recognize references in television shows. Some people when watch television take it for face value, while others will analyze characterization, narrative, and intertextuality to get more enjoyment from the program. “[Postmodernism] creates an opportunity for play between and among different texts. This has the potential to give the viewer pleasure…and allows the viewer to negotiate or construct various meanings” (187).
Basically, at the core of postmodernism is nonlinear, playfulness combined with several other forms. The way in which we watch television has changed according to the changes in technology. We use technology more frequently and communicate more with each other. “Not only is postmodernism in television programs, but is also manifests itself in the way viewers watch television…” (O’Donnell 195)
You cannot come across a television program more postmodern than Doctor Who. A major hit for the BBC in the United Kingdom, the program began in 1963 and continued on for twenty-six years until its cancelation in 1989 but was resurrected in 2005 (Hansen 239). The show garners the largest cult fan base that spans over the internet littering it with fan videos, blogs, fan fiction, fan magazines, and fan sites. The Internet has created a global forum for narrative exploration. Anyone can contribute, create, view, or comment on fan generated works. (249)
One of the largest and most active online communities for Doctor Who was It attracted viewers from all across the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, and Australia. Members can range in age from teens to people in their fifties. However since 2009, the website has decided to cater information relatable to their yearly North American science fiction convention. This convention, which mainly concentrates on Doctor Who, attracts more than 2,000 attendees. Before the website changed direction it still had some mighty impressive statistics.
“When Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005, a large proportion of the members (82%) were posting frequently, regularly, or occasionally. This is high in comparison with other discussion sites across the Internet, but the proportion has fallen considerably (to 38% in 2008 when membership had more than doubled)” (Hansen 212).
In terms of Doctor Who fan fiction it provides a way for fans to express their creative freedoms using plot and character. A visit to the ever popular allows you to experience how diehard the program’s fan truly are. On the website there exists 26, 525 works of Doctor Who fan fiction, quite a few of them expanding on twenty plus chapters (“Doctor Who Stories”). “…much fan fiction is execrably bad. Quite a lot is not, and the community of interest and dedication…that produces the best and the worst is one to which it is stimulating to belong “ (Abbott 247). Cult programming will continue to change as technology progresses and will continue to experiment with the changing technology.
The goal of television is escapism. People want to watch what content that takes them away from their day and makes them happy. For some viewers, they attain that through boring sitcoms and reality television. However, there are some television fans that do not. Television should not always be afraid to take chances and let a new concept sit with viewers first. It is understandable that television exists to create revenue, and that is the heart of it. Although, sometimes it does feel as if television would sell its integrity to make a quick buck.
Television is currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts and starting to show signs that it is not a vast wasteland. New and exciting programming has begun to garner attention through the Internet and mobile television. Television artists should always aim to create something that makes people think, and not dumb it down for the audience. People want to be challenged. People crave to think outside the box.
Works Cited
Abbott, Stacey, ed. The Cult TV Book: From Star Trek to Dexter, New Approaches to TV Outside the Box. New York: Soft Skull, 2010. Print.
“Doctor Who Stories.” Unleash Your Imagination – FanFiction.Net. Xing Li, 11 May 2011. Web. 11 May 2011. <http://>.
Gwenllian-Jones, Sara, and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Cult Television. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2004. Print.
Hansen, Christopher J., ed. Ruminations, Peregrinations, and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010. Print.
McCabe, Janet, and Kim Akass, eds. Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007. Print.
O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007. Print.
Seidman, Robert. “TV Ratings Broadcast Top 25: ‘American Idol,’ ‘The Voice,’ ‘Modern Family,’ ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ ‘NCIS’ Top Week 33 Viewing.” TV Ratings, TV Nielsen Ratings, Television Show Ratings | Tribune Company, 10 May 2011. Web. 11 May 2011.

1 thought on “Cult Innovation

  1. *Mon Critical

    A very great article! I agree that in the U.S. mainstream cult t.v. shows are hard to come by, and when I compare to what shows are shown on the big networks like ABC, NBC or CBS with the BBC content I grew up with, I find it strange that the U.S. networks are still not willing to step of their ‘broadcast comfort zone’ and put out innovative, smart shows. Serious views and casual viewers I think play a big role in making a cult show, if you care about the characters then you’ll be dedicated to the show, where as if you’re casually viewing you’re less likely to want to write fan fiction.

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