For my Evaluating Contemporary Television class I recently watched three Netflix original series. These series are Godless, Lost in Space, and Santa Clarita Diet. While I watched these shows, the concept of genre was hard not to think about, as all three of them (with one possible exception) defined themselves very clearly in that regard. To begin, Godless is a western, and does nothing to disguise this fact from the viewer. In just the first episode, many of the common themes of westerns are immidiately prevalent, from trains and outlaws to ranches and showdowns between gunslingers in a canyon. Heck, the very first scene of the show features a cowboy riding into a western town torn apart by violence. As Sophie Gilbert states in her article ‘What Godless says about America’, “Westerns have long played a part in building the lore of American history”, meaning that the western genre is deeply rooted in American values and traditions. However, that does not mean that the viewer needs to be a fan or even very familiar with westerns to enjoy the show. This is mostly because of the fact that westerns are often structured in regards to thematic binaries. In other words, a clear opposition between two organizations or idealogies like law versus chaos in the case of Godless.
I personally am neither a huge fan of the western genre nor a detractor, but I am fairly interested in science fiction, the genre of the next Netflix original I watched: Lost in Space. I have seen a few episodes of the original Lost in Space from 1965, and while I did enjoy it, I believe that the new re-imagining of the series manages to update its themes and tone to something that modern viewers may enjoy more while still maintaining the family friendly spirit of it’s predecessor. Science fiction, or sci-fi, has changed a lot over the past few decades. Gone, for the most part, are the campy dialogue and shiny spacesuits of the past, being replaced by more realistic depictions of space travel and explorations of the human condition. Lost in Space does a great job of toeing the line between these two methodologies. One of the biggest changes between the new Lost in Space and the old one regards one of it’s most iconic characters, the robot. The robot from the original series is a goofy, emotional character despite the fact that he is a machine. The newer design emphasizes his humanity more, giving him more of a humanoid shape that allows the audience to take him a little more seriously, which I think is a good idea, despite the fact that it may displease some diehard fans of the original. As Jeff Spry says in his article on SyfyWire, “fortifying the tonal middle ground was of primary concern in this project,” and the older design of the robot would have compromised that middle ground completely.
Finally, I also watched Santa Clarita Diet, my least favorite of the three shows. Santa Clarita Diet is a horror-comedy, a difficult combination of genres to have work well. This is because the intentions of the two genres are almost exact opposites of each other, with horror shows attempting to scare the viewer while comedies are trying to make them laugh. I believe that Santa Clarita Diet fails to find this delicate balance, instead leaning very heavily on the comedy while substituting excessive gore for actual scares. This doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t work in some truly disturbing and unsettling moments here and there (the scene where Sheila bites off a man’s fingers comes to mind), but I can’t help but wonder if the show would be better off abandoning it’s attempts at cheap horror entirely in favor of completely embracing the humor. Instead of the contrast between the gore and humor making for a “delightfully uncomfortable watch” as Jacob Oller states in his review for Paste Magazine, I believe that they both distract from each other, creating an imbalance that weakens the entire show.
I believe that genre can be a very useful tool to help guide creators in utilizing tropes that fit a theme properly. In other words, I believe that genres, when not perceived as unbreakable laws, help creators avoid conflicting tones and narrative devices that displease audiences. For audiences, genres help them realize their own preferences so that they may avoid watching shows that do not match their interests. It is a fact that some shows will not be to certain viewer’s tastes despite their quality. At times, an entire society’s taste in genre may shift based on real world events, breathing new life into styles of shows untouched for many years.