The Wild, the Whimsical, and the Weirdo

This week we watched Godless, Lost in Space, and The Santa Clarita Diet, and all three of them reflected their respected genres (Western, Sci-fi, and Horror-Comedy) while also twisting how we see each genre in stereotypical tropes. Godless is a clear Western genre television show and we are met with it right from the beginning with Marshall Cook riding a horse into an abandoned town called Creede. We see the emptiness of the Wild, we see man creeping into nature with the derailed train. We see the fear of God as well as the fear of bandits and gangs. Lost in Space is similar in fitting in with its genre; science fiction. A theme with science fiction is the is looking towards the future and we see this with flashbacks of living on Earth come to an end, as well as the advanced technology that is incorporated into everyday life. With science fiction there is also a theme of the protagonist having to face huge obstacles that are out of control such as powerful technology or natural phenomenon and in Lost in Space we get both of those such as Judy getting stuck from the freezing point of the planet as well as a robot of some kind that has the ability to murder and think.

While watching both Godless and Lost in Space I did notice that if you are not familiar with the genres such as Westerns or you aren’t familiar with the content beforehand such as the previous Lost in Space movie; it is easy to not notice specific themes or tropes that are associated with each genre. I am familiar with the Western genre and when watching Godless I noticed tropes like the “mystical” use of Native American medicine/religion as well as there being an evil gang of bandits such as Griffin. However, there were things that fell out of the typical themes of Westerns and that was La Belle being a functioning town without any men.  In Scott Tobias’ RollingStone article he mentions how the writers of the show wanted to push the boundaries of the Western genre saying that they used a “more optimistic truth about the Old West as a land of possibility and reinvention. Much of the action takes place in the literal no-man’s-land of La Belle, a town run almost entirely by women courtesy of a silver-mine collapse that killed off their husbands” (Tobias). Western is a typically hypermasculine genre and while the creators still stuck to a trope of “possibility and reinvention” they put it in a way that reinvent the genre by having women take the lead. Not only having a predominantly female town named La Belle, but as well as having protagonists like Alice who assume the role of leader of the house rather than a man. If you are not familiar with the already established themes and tropes of the Western genre, then it will be difficult to notice the recreations and creativity that make Godless stand apart from other Westerns.

I am a big fan of the sci-fi genre, more so than comedy or Westerns. However, I found myself not to like Lost in Space . as much as I was going to. I think a big reason for this is because this Netflix series is based on an older series of this story. I didn’t realize this until after I had watched the pilot and read Jeff Spry’s article about the show where he discusses the differences between the older Lost in Space versus the new one. He explains that the writers of the new show wanted to take from the original content, but not copy it. For instance he explains that the older version was more lighthearted and silly while the new one has a much more serious tone and you are transported into another world: “Spielbergian-style emotions and sparkling special effects to hook you into joining the Robinsons in their quest to discover a habitable new home” (Spry).  If I had known about this older series from the 1960s I think it would have been more enjoyable and for me, picking out the themes and tropes of sci-fi is a lot more difficult than Westerns.

I think two of the shows that deviated most from their genres are Godless and Santa Clarita Diet. For Godless I mentioned before that there is more of an emphasis on women and them leading instead of the men which is a huge deviation. However, there was also the interesting way that Frank Griffin was portrayed in the pilot that deviates from the genre. He has humanity to him which makes him all the more unsettling, but it shows that he isn’t after just gold and fame like stereotypical Western antagonists. He seeks to instill God into this godless landscape by becoming a god himself. He preaches what he thinks is right, and “purifies with blood” innocent people. He also takes nobodies into his group and spares certain people; showing compassion. Sophie Gilbert explains this in her The Atlantic article while also noting, “These moments of kindness from a brutal murderer add complexity to a fascinating character, but they also indict the idea that the culture of the Old West should ever be lionized.”

The Santa Clarita Diet also deviates from two genres, forming itself into a subgenre of horror-comedy. It follows the tropes of zombie horror by having Sheila crave meat, show no remorse or restraint, and she doesn’t have any vital signs. There is murder committed at the end that is horribly graphic and an underlying tension of what is happening in this suburban neighborhood is not normal. Meanwhile there is the comedy aspect where they live between two cops and the conflicts that ensue with that, there is the ridiculousness of Joel losing it over a toaster-oven as well as having the habit of staring at things in stores for a long time. There is also Drew Barrymore trying so hard to be funny, but completely fails every time with her monotone voice and her over-the-top acting when she’s trying to emote energy (shots fired!). This show doesn’t fit neatly into one genre, but shows themes and tropes of each genre enough for them to be blended together into the subgenre of horror-comedy that is more successfully done in movies such as Adventureland.

My dislike of the comedy aspect is the reason why I think this show is leaning more towards the horror because the comment on having paranormal horror in the middle of a clean-cut, American Dream, suburban neighborhood is a little unsettling in its own right. I also think that the concept of having the show lit the way it was where it felt warm and Modern Family-eque was a really interesting spin on the traditional horror themes where there is shadows and darkness. Jacob Oller in his article describes the real horror of the show in relation to the light saying: “The series itself is neither dark nor gritty. It’s upsettingly perfect, which is worse. There’s something extra fucked-up about seeing a picturesque home interior that wouldn’t look out-of-place on Queer Eye or Property Brothers coated in Evil Dead levels of goopy blood” (Oller). I think that this allows the comedy skills of the actors/writer of this show to slip a little because they rely on the ‘unsettling’ quality of the entire show’s design. This leads up to the climax at the end of the first episode where Sheila murdered Gary and began to devour his guts which is horrifying, suprising, and terribly disturbing, especially when Sheila waves excitedly at Joel.

 

Binge Watching and the Consequences

House of Cards has never been something on my “to-watch” list, I knew it was about politics and there was an intense web of lies and sub-plots that it seemed too difficult to watch. It didn’t seem like a show I could watch to wind down. So when assigned this show, I was hesitant on whether I would like it and if I could make it through six episodes easily. To my surprise I found it extremely entertaining to watch, I got the six episodes assigned watched in one whole afternoon. Something that I noticed about the characters right away was that there wasn’t a single likable person. They all had something about their personality that was vile, and a lot of them were the addictions that Casey McCormack mentions the surrogate characters tend to have. However, even though these characters were so awful, I still found myself sympathizing with them such as when Peter was offered a razor by Frank, or when Frank flops during the CNN debate with Marty.

McCormack discusses that House of Cards was designed to be viewed as a binge watching show and themes, motifs, and characters are designed to reflect the binge viewer and keep them engaged. Going back to the surrogate characters, McCormack says, “[They] serve as a kind of instruction manual on how to be a good binge-viewer. As new surrogates are introduced and then killed off, we come to see their failures as warnings, or at least as gestures to the viewer’s experience. So while Netflix wants the audience to be binging the show, they warn that if you take addictions to extremes such as in House of Cards there can be negative consequences.

Addiction with the surrogate characters is heavily integrated into the show. Because each surrogate character has an addiction, it is therefore representing the viewer who could have the potentiality of treating binge-watching as an addiction. As mentioned before, the addicts are in place to show the viewer what it is like to be a good and bad behaviors. If you succumb to bad behaviors such as Peter with his alcoholism and drug use, you will be punished. If you use your addictions in reasonable purposes, then you will be rewarded such as Frank with his addictions to nicotine as well as power.

Something else I noticed in my viewing experience of House of Cards was the motif that was also mentioned by McCormack and that was the repeated scenes of Claire and Frank Underwood sitting by the window, smoking a cigarette. Because it happened repeatedly, I noted that this motif had to be important, perhaps trying to convey the end of the day or as a way of releasing the stress from their non-stop jobs. McCormack agrees and in a more fluid way states, “this scene implicates Frank and Claire in a grueling process analogous to binging and acts as a call for psychological (and physical) preparation. The scene also reveals one of their addictions—nicotine—  which will become an ongoing motif throughout the series” (106). This was one of the most enjoyable themes that I noticed because it showed a certain intimacy of the characters that were masked when they are put in the public sphere.

Instead of each episode of House of Cards being called “episodes” they are called “chapters” instead. This is because the show wants to associate itself with the term “quality TV” because chapters are associated with books. This makes the show seem like it is a piece of literature rather than just a TV show. McCormack also references the fact that it remains continuous throughout the seasons, indicating to the viewer that this is a continuous plot and doesn’t leave as much of a gap.

Personally I do agree with McCormack’s claim of binge watching, “is a productive, often deliberate, and potentially transformative mode of viewing” because of how efficient it can be. Instead of watching a show for weeks at a time on a TV network, you can experience a whole world in a short amount of time. I look at this on the terms of efficiency because you are able to experience so many more worlds and plots than you would otherwise. While I do note the danger of information overload, I think that it is human nature to want to absorb as much as we can, and binge watching is a great way to view “quality TV” at a faster rate. You also experience the characters feelings in a real sense of time such as with House of Cards where if you binged watched when it was first released, it follows a similar flow of time. While watching the show, I did feel the exhaustion that is a prominent theme. Every time a character slumped into their seat or were awake at ridiculous hours of the night, I also felt that tiredness.

I do understand where Zachary Snider’s opinions come into play as well. He claims that binge-watching does more harm than good and rather than just absorbing information, binging causes loneliness and depression amongst viewers, and I did relate to that as well because I felt anxiety and loneliness while watching only six episodes because I watched them by myself and I was engulfed in the political world of intense stakes that I felt I was part of myself. However, I stand my McCormack’s point more strongly because of the immersion that we as viewers feel is more productive in the long run because we are able to go through more content more quickly, and through different shows we develop empathy with people in certain situations we might not have in the past. Instead of isolating us from the world, binge watching also has the power to have us understand the world and people around us better. Using my own experience as an example, I was alone while watching House of Cards and whenever Frank started talking to me directly, there was some intimacy, and he also demonstrated the corrupt and manipulative side of politics that I was not as aware of until now. His demonstrations of his real thinking being towards me shows how natural politics can lie and be hidden from the public, and at the same time, I felt like I was in on Frank’s plots because of his undivided attention towards me.

-Alison Baunoch

Netflix and the No Wait Media

When it comes to traditional television we have networks such as ABC’s and NBS that rely on the “live” audience when it comes to having some of their shows viewed. Late night talk shows rely on this as well as the obvious, Saturday Night Live. Traditional television also has the challenge of keeping their audience with them as a one hour show will have twenty minutes work of commercials. With Netflix it doesn’t have to deal with these hassles. There are no commercials, Netflix is able to get their revenue off of subscriptions to their streaming services. Since there is no live audience to keep engaged week after week, Netflix can give out the entire season instantly and “binge-watching” takes place. It allows the audience to not have to wait for new content week after week and they do not have to sit through endless advertisements. They do not need to worry about advertising revenue since they get it from subscriptions and placed ad’s in the content. This makes Netflix a powerhouse when it comes to media companies because there is an understanding that today’s modern audience does not have time or patience to sit around waiting for more content. They have options to skip the ad’s with technologies such as TiVo or they can save it and watch it later which is known as time-shifting, and Netflix is a key source for this time shifting because they can go back to the show and watch it at their own pace.

Some of the competitors that have fought with Netflix for audiences and subscriptions are big names such as Blockbuster and HBO. Blockbuster was always following Netflix from moving on from walk-in stores to going online. However, they were just copycats and did not have the support to compete with Netflix in a meaningful way. HBO was a competitor as well. From Cameron Lindsey’s article, Reed Hastings, one of the creators of Netflix called the rivalry between HBO and Netflix to be “like the Yankees and the Red Sox” (Lindsey, 176). Netflix streams multiple shows and movies from other companies, however they do not have any from HBO because they have their own streaming service of their own original content as well as shows and movies from other companies. What makes Netflix stand out in the end however is the accessibility that Netflix has. It can be streamed from almost any technological device, and when you even buy new computers, sometimes Netflix already has a shortcut on their desktop.

Some advantages that Netflix has over it’s competitors have been listed already such as no advertisements, easy access, a “no wait” availability for the audience, however there could be some reasons as to why Netflix could come crashing down. One example is the idea that Netflix will be co-opted by it’s competitors and they can use their own power to beat Netflix “at it’s own game” (Lindsey, 178). Another problem that can lay ahead is the expansion of the company means that the expenses are also going to be larger, and the subscriptions might not be able to be one of the main sources of revenue for Netflix. They could go for the option of raising the subscription price, however it will come to a point where the price will be too much and consumers will look to other media distribution sites.

One of the biggest eye openers is the idea that Netflix claims that it allows democracy when it comes to creating content because there is less stress than being on a live programming station where certain values have to be adhered and certain ideas and words cannot be said or mentioned. So while there is more freedom in that aspect for Netflix, it is not as democratic or autonomous as it appears to be and I will use the example that Gerald Sim highlights in his own article. House of Cards was based off of a BBC drama that featured Kevin Spacey. Netflix analysts looked at the subscriber behavior and the connections between different shows and genres to come up with what would be a big hit show. House of Cards is then based off of the BBC drama with the use of the actor Kevin Spacey because of consumer habits on Netflix. Nothing that is recommended to you was recommended by accident because there is an algorithm that tracks what you like and what you will likely enjoy next. This keeps you grounded in the site as well because you are continuously offered content that you enjoy.

-Alison Baunoch