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.
When I wrote my 2008 study of the horror genre, Knowing Fear, I remarked that horror is essentially conservative since it revolves around disruptions to the status quo and efforts, successful or not, to restore that status quo. At a macro level, the inherent conservatism of horror also tends to limit the originality of its stories, with new innovations being few and far between. Two new international Netflix horror series released last week illustrate these two points but do so in ways that vary greatly in their success as they work to add something new to two very familiar stories.
The Two Faces of Columbus: How a Genocidal Tyrant Became an Anti-Discrimination Icon for Italian-Americans
On Thursday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said that he was not ready to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from New York City because of what it means to Italian-Americans, specifically the role the figure played in helping to usher Italian-Americans into the America’s social mainstream. His comments, along with the destruction and removal of several Columbus statues across the United States, sparked a discussion about the role of Columbus in American life, but missing from the discussion was an acknowledgement of the role that the flawed symbol of Columbus played in standing against exactly the kind of racism and oppression that the vile real-life figure of Columbus perpetuated. The dual nature of Columbus as evil man and hopeful symbol needs unpacking to fully understand how the same statues can represent completely opposite ideas to different groups with shared antipathy to white supremacy.
For each of the past two years, I have reviewed the new season of the controversial Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why. Now that the series debuted its fourth and final season on Friday, it seems like I should complete the circle. Given the quality of what they produced this year, I retroactively regret having tried to make the case against critical consensus that the prior seasons had something worthy to say, even if they didn’t always seem to be thematically appropriate successors to the complex and uncomfortably bleak first season. I don’t think I have ever seen a show switch genres and go so wildly off the rails by betraying its own purpose as it did in this final season. I would even argue that this garbage fire of a final batch of episodes only reinforced the original critics’ view that 13 Reasons Why was never anything more than exploitation masquerading as seriousness.
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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