Is Television Sacrificing Its Golden Age to the Closed Loop of Pop Culture?


Let us begin with three seemingly unrelated entertainment news items.

1. Starz Television has announced a new, ten-episode series titled Ash vs. Evil Dead. Director/producer Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell will reunite for the series, which is a spin-off/continuation of their long-dormant original iteration of the Evil Dead movie series.

2. The Weinstein Company’s Dimension Films will re-team director Peter Berg with his Lone Survivor star Mark Wahlberg for a feature film adaptation of the ‘70s television series The Six Million Dollar Man — retitled The Six Billion Dollar Man, because inflation.

3. Showtime has ordered a nine-episode continuation of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s influential Twin Peaks, a full 25 years after the series finale aired on ABC.

Armed with these facts (and related forthcoming films and television shows, of which there are many), we can come to three increasingly alarming and generally depressing conclusions about film, television, and pop culture in general:

Conclusion #1: Pop culture is a closed loop.

Movies based on comic books. Movies based on other movies. Movies based on Broadway musicals. Broadway musicals based on movies. Movies based on television shows. Television shows based on movies. Television shows based on other television shows. Popular culture has always, to some extent, existed within its own echo chamber, but in the current climate, it’s hard to find anything that’s genuinely original, that’s not based, to some extent, on some other thing.

It’s particularly bad in movies; the list of the top ten highest-grossing movies of the year thus far includes one sequel, two new installments of long-running movie series, a film based on a fairy tale, a film based on a toy line, a sequel to a film based on a toy line, a movie based on a comic book, and three sequels to movies based on comic books.

Next year promises more of the same, with sequels to Taken, Hot Tub Time Machine, Divergent, Paranormal Activity, The Fast and the Furious, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, The Avengers, Pitch Perfect, Insidious, The Terminator, Ted, Magic Mike, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Maze Runner, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Hotel Transylvania, The Hunger Games, Sinister, Kung Fu Panda, Mission: Impossible, Bond, and (of course) Star Wars. There will be remake/reboots of The Jungle Book, Frankenstein, The Fantastic Four, Point Break, Poltergeist, Jurassic Park, and Mad Max.

And aside from the aforementioned Six Billion Dollar Man, we’ll have big-screen versions of television shows like Entourage, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Jem and the Holograms. But the loop also flows from film back to television, with the surprise success of Fargo, Hannibal, and About a Boy prompting a new rash of movie-based TV shows, including the Ash vs. Evil Dead, 12 Monkeys, Uncle Buck (again), Marley & Me (what?), and Big (noooooo).

Everything is based on another thing, in other words, which prompts the pessimist in me to wonder when we’ll reach “peak pop culture,” and simply run out of preexisting things to adapt and remake. I guess we’ll just have to start re-adapting and re-remaking.

So, how did we end up here?

Conclusion #2: Nostalgia and preexisting “brands” rule all.

“Earlier eras had their own obsessions with antiquity, of course, from the Renaissance’s veneration of Roman and Greek classicism to the Gothic movement’s invocations of the medieval,” Simon Reynolds writes in his 2011 book Retromania . “But there has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past. That is what distinguishes retro from antiquarianism or history: the fascination for fashions, fads, sounds and stars that occurred within living memory.“

There’s a natural tendency to look back fondly on the things we loved when we were much younger; hell, entire websites have been built on it. It’s a tendency rooted in the comfort of the familiar, coupled with an inclination to merge the present with the past (“Oh, wow, wonder who they’ll get to play Bodhi in this version of Point Break?”). There’s a giant chunk of the ticket-and-product-buying public — and your correspondent will admit occasional membership in said chunk — that’s more likely to partake of something new if it’s tinged with something familiar (see: Ghostbusters, but with ladies).

And the people who decide what television shows and movies and Broadway plays to sink money into are aware of that inclination, and playing to it — and frankly, at this point, it’s one of the few things they’ve got. The proliferation of free entertainment, legal and otherwise, has put “green light” granters into a mode of permanent panic; they’re going to play it as safe as possible, at least until they can puzzle through how to monetize the new ways people are watching things. (And make no mistake, they haven’t figured it out: watch, say, a show on NBC On Demand sometime, and marvel at how they haven’t figured out how to sell a single ad to anyone other than themselves.)

As long as the old models are crumbling, they’re going to hang on to what they know, to the franchises with name recognition, even if it means that every slightly beloved canceled television show must either get revived online or turned into a movie (as, don’t forget, Twin Peaks was), even if it means every iconic ‘80s movie must get adapted into a television show, even if it means that even the most marginal of comic-book supporting players are floated for movies of their own.

Conclusion #3: If television is replacing movies, it’s also making many of the same mistakes.

It’s no coincidence that the current Golden Age of Television has played out at the same time as a significant rough patch in mainstream moviegoing. One has fed off the other: with multiplexes infested by an overwhelming sense of blockbuster fatigue, the character and dialogue-driven pleasures of Good TV™ have drawn not only viewers, but filmmakers (like Lynch and Steven Soderbergh) frustrated by the increasingly narrow confines of what gets financed in Hollywood.

And to that end, the most exciting shows on television, the ones that sparked all this “Golden Age” talk and recap culture, share the common denominator of freshness and unfamiliarity. We hadn’t seen anything quite like Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Six Feet Under before, and even the shows that existed within preexisting tropes and genres — the crime drama (The Sopranos), the cop show (The Wire), the personality-driven comedy (Louie), the workplace sitcom (30 Rock), the Western (Deadwood) — shook those structures to their core, burning them to the ground and rebuilding them.

Alas, thanks to the infuriatingly outdated Nielsen model and the lack of workable measurements for people watching television like it’s not 1967, those aren’t the shows that get “ratings”; those are three-camera laugh-trackers and police procedurals, so the networks scramble for shows based on things you already like and people you already know, even though such seemingly “sure things” are failing left and right. And while it’d be nice to think that the premium services don’t have to pander like that, Starz is now the fourth such network to reanimate a corpse (after Netflix’s Arrested Development, HBO’s The Comeback, and Showtime’s Twin Peaks) in the hopes of nabbing new subscribers.

And it’ll probably work. Given enough time, television will surely manage to burn off the goodwill of its current climate with a glut of adaptations, reboots, and comic book “reimaginings.” Showtime’s return to Twin Peaks will be received with an Arrested Development-sized disappointment roughly proportional to its time off the air. Starz will get their watered-down Evil Dead Lite show. Meanwhile, somewhere in Burbank, someone will green-light the movie version of Starz’ last cult hit, Party Down. And we’ll all wait patiently for the Next Big Thing… or, at the very least, we’ll wonder how they’ll repackage the Last Big Thing.