Family, Feminism, and Fun in Genre Television

It is well-known amongst those within my social circles that I am no stranger to science fiction. You may have read my critically acclaimed essay “Coming of Age and Gender Roles in Ender’s Game”. I also like Star Wars. After having watched the first episode of the Netflix original series Lost in Space, I will say this; the show is pretty good. It follows the time-honored story tropes of the genre; the chief catastrophe is a spaceship crash, as frequent an occurrence in sci-fi as space flights. The family of protagonists is so absurdly calculating and scientific it makes the family harder to empathize with. Luckily for Lost in Space, the acting and the solid family writing overcomes that and makes their dynamic the most gratifying part of the show. As GameSpot writer Michael Rougeau says in his review of the show, “What makes Lost in Space a true binge is not the moment-to-moment drama. It’s the characters and the talented actors who portray them.” And he’s right; every time begins to veer into the off-putting child genius a la Charles Wallace in spring’s A Wrinkle in Time, actor Max Jenkins gives his character Will Robinson new depth as he wrestles with his place on the crew and his struggles with fear in high-pressure situations.

The family dynamics also tend to buck the conventions of the genre. As I mentioned before, the family is absurdly calculating and scientific, as sci-fi protagonists often are. But they do an excellent job of adding more mundane, believable interactions between the members that help to ground them firmly in our world; we can see our own spats with our siblings as Mina Sundwall’s Penny and Taylor Russell’s Judy argue over comms as Judy is stuck in an icy lake. Rougeau puts it best; “The Robinsons aren’t the vanilla nuclear family you remember from the original…Their bonds are messy and complex, which is much more interesting.”

One show that does less to buck conventions is the Netflix original Godless. While it is no doubt an excellent example of the Western genre the film seems mostly content to stick to the conventions of the genre; tiny, dusty towns dot the sweeping desert landscape; bad man in black hats terrorize these towns, resisted by men in white hats. There is a bit of revisionism however; women are granted far more agency in Godless than they did in old west classics like Stagecoach. The show is often billed as a “feminist western” (although the show’s creator denies that, saying that as he is a man, he cannot be a feminist spokesperson and can only honor the women he had read about). Scott Frank writes for Rolling Stone that “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.” He further points out that this female-run town hearkens back to revisionist westerns like the fantastic McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

But such a setting can do only so much for the show; the protagonists are still supported by a benevolent Native American stereotype, and nearly all the male characters in the show seem to be doing some version of either John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn or Clint Eastwood’s man with no name. They’re gruff, hyper-masculine outlaws and lawmen, and while Sophie Gilbert says for The Atlantic that “rather than endorse these motifs, Godless leads viewers to interrogate them,” they are present nonetheless and do little more to challenge what has already been challenged in the western by the likes of seminal classics like Unforgiven.

One show that is less a subversion of genre and more a hybridization of genre is the horror-comedy Santa Clarita Diet. While mashing up horror and comedy is nothing new (Young Frankenstein came out almost 45 years ago, do you feel old yet?) this show does an excellent job of maintaining the humdrum of everyday life down to the banal office conversations with one minor exception; Drew Barrymore is a zombie. Or rather her character is, but in all honesty the effect is the same; Barrymore capably plays the silly, airheaded ditz we frequently see her as in her Adam Sandler rom-coms. While the show is billed as a horror-comedy, the first episode at least remains quite firmly in the comedy realm; except for two disgusting scenes, one of Barrymore chewing off Nathan Fillion’s fingers and the surprisingly worse one being Barrymore projectile vomiting all over a house she is supposed to be selling, the film holds a very lighthearted, fun tone about a woman learning to love life and connect with her daughter in new and meaningful ways like buying a Land Rover. Jacob Oller in his review for Past Magazine likens it to another show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, that it follows the latter’s “method of surrounding its dark, psychologically- or physically-upsetting narrative turns with hyper-sunny aesthetics, saturating each shot with catalogue color even when the gore flies. It’s as if the traffic-discussing members of the Saturday Night Live skit ‘The Californians’ were in a Saw movie.” And it is funny; my favorite funny scene was the Super Troopers-esque spat between a member of the sheriff’s department and the local police officer that Barrymore and crew get caught between near the beginning of the show. It’s stupid silly banter that perfectly contrasts the stupid silly murder that ends the episode.

Addiction, House of Cards, and You

Doing anything that isn’t sleeping for 6 hours is tough. Watching Kevin Spacey systematically destroy other people’s lives for 6 hours is even tougher. Spacey’s Representative Francis Underwood fills the screen with a dark, menacing presence that always seems to be one step ahead of his opponents. From seducing Zoe Barnes with the promise of power to tricking Marty Spinella into punching him in order to break the teacher’s strike, Underwood’s calm, exacting mannerisms simultaneously draws the viewer in and repulses them in equal measure. Watching him perform for 6 episodes back-to-back is akin to riding a dizzying emotional rollercoaster. In his essay “Forward is the Battle Cry”, The Netflix Effect contributor Casey McCormick says that “binge-viewing changes the stakes of narrative engagement by reframing the temporality of viewing experiences to optimize emotional intensity and story immersion.” (McCormick)

The stakes are raised immensely when binge-watching; the viewer is completely invested in the story for far longer periods of time than when watching a network television show (or even a feature film) and so the emotions from the previous episode are carried forward into the subsequent ones. I found this to be painfully true while watching House of Cards. I watched the episodes with my roommate and the emotional toll on him was so great that he gave up halfway through episode 5 and went to go play video games. For him it was watching Peter Russo, Corey Stoll’s tortured Philadelphia congressman, wither and die under Underwood’s iron fist that became too much to bear. Despite the fact that Russo is a sleazy politician who engages in all manners of illegal vice, McCormick says Russo is presented as “a regular guy” (McCormick), a kind of everyman that viewers naturally sympathize with.

Russo acts as one of the more significant spectatorial “surrogates” throughout the show. McCormick says that Russo’s battle with addiction parrots the viewer’s desire to binge watch the show itself, a kind of meta-commentary on the addictiveness of the Netflix TV model. He says that Russo is one of many addict surrogate characters who “present a spectrum of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ addictive behaviors. This spectrum serves as a kind of instruction manual on how to be a good binge-viewer.” (McCormick) Russo lands on the ‘bad’ side of the binging spectrum. He allows his addiction to control him, taking from him his girlfriend, his chance to be governor, and at the end of the season, his life. It is truly heart wrenching to watch Russo desperately try to save his 12,000-man shipping yard only to realize that Underwood has far too much dirt on him to let that happen.

So what are we left with from this emotional turmoil brought on by binging? Zachary Snider (no relation to the beleaguered Hollywood director of near-identical name) says in his chapter, “The Cognitive Psychological Effects of Binge-Watching”, that binge-viewers “tend to react to the events in the narrative as if they were real, increasing the likelihood of an emotional response.” (Snider) In fact, the psychological effects on viewers can be so strong “by increasing their rate of empathy for shows’ characters, and [creating] confusion when viewers process these narratives too quickly, which ultimately hinders viewers’ real-world judgements and interpersonal relationships.” (Snider) Binge-viewing shows like House of Cards can be so damaging that viewers have a hard time adjusting their real life after binging. So perhaps at the end of the day, my roommate fell on the ‘good’ side of the spectrum of binge viewing, knowing when he had had enough. I fell on the bad side, ending alone in the dark, feeling depressed after all the ruthless actions I had seen Frank Underwood commit. Here’s hoping I don’t end up like Peter Russo.

Blockbuster Spies Hard and Dies Harder

Streaming service Netflix is a cultural icon. It has at least 104 million subscribers and countless more leechers (like myself) who use their friends and family members’ accounts. But despite its complete dominance in the online video streaming marketplace, less than 20 years ago it was locked in a heated battle with the company Blockbuster. A company now well on its way towards fading into obscurity, Blockbuster used to be the premier way for people to watch movies at home. They had thousands of locations across the country where people could go and rent movies, watch at home, and then return them to the store. However, in the early 2000s Netflix started cutting deep into their business with a far more convenient solution wherein DVDs would be mailed to users and then they could just mail it back when they were finished. Plus, no late fees! You could keep the disc as long as you wanted but you wouldn’t receive a new one until you had returned your last one. What was Blockbuster to do?

Netflix Evangilist

Their answer was to commit corporate espionage against Netflix, learn the secrets to their success, and then create a cheap knockoff of the company and win their business back. The problem was the man tasked with pulling off this operation was a pure businessman; Shane Evangelist. While Evangelist was capable of doing a standing backflip, he was incapable of understanding why Netflix was so successful even up against a titan company like Blockbuster. He attributed it to their distribution centers and fancy website, so he tasked some innocuous looking associates with pretending to be Netflix fans and getting tours of their facilities, all the while taking pictures and asking questions about their inner workings. He also hired software developers to tear the Netflix website apart bit-by-bit and replicate it with the Blockbuster theme painted over it. But like Leslie Nielsen’s bumbling Agent WD40 in Spy Hard (a movie you can watch right now on Netflix), he didn’t have a clue of the big picture; websites and distribution isn’t what made Netflix so successful; its understanding of its customers was.

Data analytics was what really made the Netflix machine tick. Netflix could track how long people kept movies, what kind of movies specific people liked, and would remind people if they didn’t have movies in their queue to watch. Netflix’s selection quality also far outstripped Blockbuster Online’s collection; they offered a wide array of quality movies to their viewers (much higher quality than the videos of fires burning in a fireplace or fish in an aquarium that Blockbuster offered to surpass the numbers of Netflix) and were even giving independent filmmakers a platform to launch their movies, appealing to a wider audience who didn’t otherwise have easy access to indie fare. So, despite the fact that Blockbuster Online understood their usurper’s distribution centers and their website, they didn’t understand the intangibles, the backend magic that made the company work.

Netflix Blockbuster dead

The final nail in the coffin was Blockbuster’s inability to see that it would be the online streaming market, not Netflix’s original DVD mailing system, that would truly revolutionize the market. Gerald Sim notes that “[Netflix CEO Reed] Hastings’ nous and foresight regarding online streaming as the catalysts in a zero-sum game between the companies” (Sim 2016) was necessary both for him to have and Blockbuster execs to lack. This streaming service allowed for near-infinite expansion of the programs offered to subscribers (they were limited only by their free time, not number of channels, DVD mail time, or checkout limit). The freedom offered by online streaming also gave way to a “Golden Age of Television” where extremely high-quality shows directed at specific audiences could flourish, not having to battle for airtime against broadcast shows aimed at the widest possible audience. However, Netflix is still not alone in offering these services. After vanquishing the stagnant beast that was Blockbuster, Netflix now faces new adversaries like Hulu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube, all vying for the biggest piece of the vast online video streaming market.