Genre BOOM

Word has reached my ear by raven that the venerable Beard himself, George R.R. Martin, has signed a development deal with HBO independent from all those thrones and their games. Let’s get the knee-jerk reactions out of the way:

  • I never thought I’d see the day HBO pulls a Starz.

What’s really and truly interesting about this is that, knowing GRRM, two years is just enough time for him to develop a concept. I don’t see him showrunning anything (at all ever) because the inexorable tractor beam of television is the generation of content. While deadlines may elude him, what Martin is good at is layers. Complex, byzantine, propulsive layers of story is something that he does well, and that HBO likes doing. I think it’s probable Martin might be charged with offering up another genre piece to the premium giant, with Game of Thrones now firmly established and True Blood entering its, ahem, twilight years. I know nothing about his other major series of novels, Wild Cards, which is apparently superhero oriented, but I kind of hope he’s being asked to develop HBO’s first Sci-Fi effort, although I pray they get someone else to run it.

television studies

Here’s why. Although they always get paired together in Barnes and Noble, fantasy and science fiction have fundamentally different points of view as genres. Fantasy is a warping of familiar historical and mythological concepts. It takes an ancient milieu, by which I just mean the stage setting of a pseuo-Medieval Europe, and breaks it down and changes it so that there’s dragons and wizards and High Kings and Dark Lords and stuff. But it’s composed of a backwards-looking, very ideologically-charged set of traits which inform the kinds of stories you can tell. If the release of The Lord of Rings films in the early ‘aughts found a way to successfully take serious concerns about morality, recognizable struggle between good and evil, and the heroic agency of helpless people and present them in a fantasy universe, Game of Thrones has jumped the teens into what some academic types might call a reconsideration of generic concerns. GoT is a dark, inherently unheroic, muddied universe that still contains the recognizable character tropes of high Tolkienesque fantasy.

genre studies

That it’s done this on HBO is no surprise. The network’s brand identity is all about a level of sophistication apart, in its taste perspective, from the troglodytic offerings of ordinary television. What makes GoT a successful HBO show is its rejection of classical fantasy norms in its embrace of intensely serialized continuity with unremitting consequences for the kind of altruistic nobility the fantasy genre so celebrates. So it’s still tapping the same melodramatic tendencies as The Sopranos or even, hell, as Xena, but it does so in a gloriously escapist, generic yet complex, heavily serialized way. That’s fantasy on a subscriber network which has the budget and the taste culture to do it seriously, and builds a devoted viewership, all of whom want some sort of perceived difference, or extra emphasis, in their relationship to the TV shows they watch, whether that means more sex and violence, more complex plot threads, more British actors, whatever.

Sci-Fi is different. Sci-Fi is, by its nature, speculative fiction. It’s concerned with science, technology, the future evolution of the human race. It is forward looking. This isn’t to say one is “better” than the other, but sci-fi is the more flexible genre in film and television. Think about how many ways you can mash something up with space: space-western, space-noir, space-opera/epic – I’d personally love to see some space-women’s films, but you get the idea. Sci-fi is a stable, well, staple: Babylon 5, Farscape, X-Files, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, everything “thing from another world” Syfy special, and, oh yeah, Star Trek. It’s met with more success, monetary and critical. And part of that has to do with just the basics of visual storytelling. Sci-fi plays with space and time in a controlling way similar to what visual media does. It jibes well with omission (think about Blade Runner or Alien) even as it realizes a complex, distinct universe that is an alternate to our own but compelling because it could turn into our own.

television theory

Generic baggage is there, of course, but like the Western’s primary condition is an evocation of the American West – a gunfight, a hat, cowboys and indians – Sci-Fi’s primary condition is a simple one that doesn’t demand much detail. It’s a setting in future/alternate time to us. The oft-considered (but not required) setting of space itself is not so different from that of a movie theater: darkness pricked in places by motes of light. It’s a stage which can be dressed as simply or as ornately as the artist’s means/ambition. This is a fabulous place for TV to locate itself, because it creates a distance between the viewer and the show such that the viewer is often compelled to make the leap between our time and the show’s time, to want to bridge that distance by returning to the story again and again. An easy example of this is the many sci-fi shows with a big mystery – What is the Island? Who are the Syndecate? Where is Earth? Why did the Alliance experiment on River Tam? – as key or central components of their design. These are the goal posts towards which that forward progress is bent. The trick, as in all things, is balancing that mystery or question element with stories that serve other masters: the characters, the reality of the setting, immediate gratification, what have you.

film studies

It works for television in general because while fantasy can be just as expansive, sci-fi is unconstrained in a way that works really well with the variety of settings, characters, plots, and tones that a television series cultivates to make each episode interesting enough for the viewer to return. With TV even more than film, part of the viewer contract is really the act of sincerely connecting to whatever the characters stand for – be it funny gags or traits, the pleasure of exaggerated acting or an appreciation of performance, or genuine emotional relationships – while at the same time accepting the altered, false world in which these characters are placed. Both sci-fi and fantasy present very altered worlds, but one navigates the mists of the past, an ur-world of melodramatic conflict, and one leaps blindly among the stars, trailing at best an ambiguous reflection of our own world, showing us exactly what we put into it.

This brings us, 900 words later, back to George R.R. Martin, who understands, (if nothing else besides food) how to create a heartbreakingly ambivalent world, full of bitter contradictions, with a gravity no one character or deed or intention can transcend. The redeeming grace of Martin’s writing is his, like, pointedly (and poignantly)  Wagnerian lietmotifs – “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” – which bind up this very intricate world and very bare emotions into his Ring of Prose Power. Imagine if this guy – the consequences guy, the gravity guy, the real politik corrupted power guy – got clearance to do all of that in space, with the expansive, very visual possibilities built into that genre.

american television

Just please get someone who can write more than 100 pages a year to run it. Thanks, HBO.

This entry was posted in Cable TV, Essays, TV, TV Form And Style, TV Theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Genre BOOM

  1. ladygilraen says:

    This is terrific. You write insanely well, and it’s a real pleasure to read something by someone who actually knows how to structure an argument. (and I agree – GRRM running…well, anything, sounds like a catastrophe waiting to happen).

  2. Kim says:

    well, he did write on beauty and the beast. man’s done TV before.

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