I must confess that I have found researching my planned new book about midcentury moral panics to be surprisingly amusing. Typically, when I research a topic, the people involved turn out to be somewhere on the spectrum between unpleasant and evil. Many are wildly racist, and most have all the color and excitement of the sepia-toned photos in which they now exist. For the most part, the people I learn about don’t really do things so much as write about them, and many of the people are known only as names (cough, Annianus and Panodorus, cough), and that makes most of the research an exercise in textual analysis.
As most of you know, I am doing some preliminary research for a book I am thinking about writing which would revolve around the various moral panics that began in the summer of 1947 and continued through the 1950s. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m not interested in writing a textbook (nor do I have the ambition for the kind of granular research it would require), so I want to tell the story in a more impressionistic format, using the lives of real people to illustrate broader themes. I settled on making the life and afterlife of James Dean the central thread providing unity to the project. That, of course, involved learning about my subject to see how feasible that plan would be.
Day 13 is a middling thriller that takes the basic story of the 1989 Tom Hanks comedy The Burbs and plays it completely straight, adding a large dash of Hitchcock’s Rear Window without any of Hitchcock’s archness. In fact, the movie plays the story so straight that it becomes stiff and wooden, right up to its bizarre climactic effort to transform a classic Twilight Zone episode into a crass, vulgar five minutes of exploitation. At the same time, it manages to fail at failing, never descending so far into sheer incompetence that it becomes interesting on its own. Instead, it’s a technical exercise in making a movie without passion or purpose, in which it seems that nobody is having any fun but everybody is pretty sure the film will make back its money once it ends up in some streaming service’s back catalog next year.
The high school drama is a staple of modern American television and movies, but the genre’s audience understands that its stories cannot be taken literally. To do so would invite troubling, dangerous thoughts. And so, the high school drama exists in two superimposed states. The surface level tells stories about teenagers barely into puberty navigating the trials and tribulations of adolescence. But the high school drama as a genre demands its audience look beyond the surface. It uses attractive actors of college age or older and asks the viewer to lust after them as they move through stories more appropriate to adults and reach levels of romantic ecstasy and agony that are on the surface absurd. Anyone who has had to look up the age of an actor on one of these shows to determine how guilty to feel about the sexualization of high schoolers recognizes that tension. Viewers understand, however, that the high school drama isn’t really an exercise in training potential pedophiles. Instead, we are supposed to look past the surface level to a mythic representation of archetypical ideals.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a seminal series in the history of supernatural television. Not only did the show mark the transition from the episodic adventure series of past decades toward the serialized storytelling of today, with the requisite end-of-season battle with the “Big Bad,” it also redefined what a female hero could be in a genre better known for “final girls” and victims than for female empowerment. The massive influence of Buffy can still be felt today, and rarely more directly than in the new Netflix series Warrior Nun, which comes closer to ripping off Buffy wholesale than nearly any series before it, but somehow fails at the task of plagiarism so badly that it instantly seems more dated than its predecessor, which debuted in 1997.
How did they not see it? The question haunted me. The answer was equally disturbing.
In popular memory, the 1950s were a placid period of gray flannel suits, conformity, and prosperity. That image is more a product of the era’s sitcoms and movies than it ever was a reality. Underneath the glossy surface, the modern world was struggling to be born, erupting in full force a decade later. Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about the classic 1955 film Rebel without a Cause and what the bifurcated reaction to it can tell us about the way culture shapes our perception of the world around us. Above all, I became interested in a key question: How can people look at the same movie and see incompatibly different things? This has lessons for understanding, of all things, the development of another classic product of the postwar years, the flying saucer, when we look at the intertwined cultures of paranoia and secrecy created by the Lavender Scare, the Red Scare, and the UFO panic of those years.
Rod Serling has always been a bit of a ghost hovering over my life. I grew up in Central New York, where Serling once lived, amidst the places whose names littered The Twilight Zone. When I was a young teenager, I watched the entire run of the The Twilight Zone in order and then the Night Gallery after that. Although I was born years after Serling died, my parents knew some of his friends, and I heard many stories about his life, particularly times spent boating with him on the Finger Lakes. I went to the college where Serling taught in his final years and took classes in the classroom where he once held court. For many years after I graduated, my picture hung in the hall of the Roy H. Park School of Communications next to Serling’s Emmy awards. Discovering that Serling had helped to shepherd the ancient astronaut theory from the fringes of science to mainstream media success shaped my research and formed one of the lynchpins for my first book.
Note: As we continue to see a lull in material related to pseudo-archaeology due to current events and the widespread shutdown in TV production and the slowdown in publishing, and I continue to be holed up at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ll be treated to more TV reviews. Please note that my posts will be irregular this week as I take some time off to work on book-related projects.
It’s been a disappointing month for returning Netflix shows. First, 13 Reasons Why gave us many more reasons that it was and would always be a trash fire. Then The Order revealed that the true secret of its titular order was a neo-fascist agenda. Now The Politician has returned with a bonkers cartoon of a second season that undercuts any justification the flawed first season offered for the show’s existence. I am especially disappointed that I wasted so much time and effort finding redeeming value in these imperfect shows only to have them betray my optimism and my faith that there is something worth keeping in disposable pop products. The Politician was the show I most expected to collapse into incoherence, but I didn’t expect that it would choose this particular path toward self-annihilation.
The Order was never a good show. It also didn’t try to be one. When the Netflix occult thriller debuted in early 2019, it looked and felt like a throwback to the kind of knockoffs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that littered the airwaves in the early 2000s. I reviewed the first season of the show, and I kind of liked it despite some problematic narrative choices. Now that the second season has debuted this week on Netflix, I am a little annoyed that I wasted so much time and trouble looking for something redeeming in a pointless garbage fire that seems to see Sharknado as an aspirational high to strive toward. The new season also has a troublingly conservative bent that seems out of step with the subject matter and the times. The Order has gone from entertaining b-movie storytelling to actively awful trash.
This week, a post on James Eldred’s Mostly Retro blog discovered that for the past year onetime Mystery Science Theater 3000 host and current Rifftrax star Mike Nelson had a podcast with cartoonist Doug TenNapel, who has come under fire repeatedly for his offensive comments about LGBTQ+ people and other minorities. Eldred listened to several of the podcasts and chronicled the show’s reliance on vulgar, offensive descriptions to craft “humor” from a strident advocacy of conservative and MAGA positions. For example, Eldred noted that Nelson used vulgar language to describe abortion clinics. The majority of his post, however, outlined TenNapel’s repeated use of anti-gay slurs and TenNapel’s dismissal of concerns over his anti-gay language as politically correct language policing. Nelson did not appear on the podcast episodes where TenNapel used anti-gay slurs, but he also did not take issue with such language over the past year.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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