New Weird & TV

After spending some serious thought-time with Pynchon’s “Entropy” and David Foster Wallace’s essay on TV and American fiction writers, I have noticed (in my own 6-hrs/day) that television’s relationship with irony truly permeates every aspect of televisual programming and that that relationship has only deepened with time. Where DFW referenced St. Elsewhere’s meta-episode, Pepsi commercials, and the emergence of SNL as significant moments for irony on television, I’ve grown up around shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons, which are wildly popular with mainstream audiences. 30 Rock (the most meta TV show of all time, apparently) was never a ratings darling, but it’s taken home more than its fair share of awards. Flip to the Disney Channel, and you’ll see shows like Phineas and Ferb and So Random using that same self-referential humor. It’s everywhere because it is the language of television.

I’m curious to see whether the New Weird would be able to find any footing on TV (or in some similar format). The genre blends elements of genuine grotesque horror with the low-cultural references of ironic fiction, giving it a certain potential for mass appeal. But the key to the New Weird, at least according to Jeff Vandermeer, is the author’s complete surrender to the material, “without ironic distance” (The New Weird, xi). Knowing how immersed we as viewers are in irony when we watch television — knowing how we’ve come to expect and rely on it — I am inclined to say that New Weird fiction is as good as married to its textual medium, given the average television watcher of today.

I guess the real problem I’m getting at here is whether we, as viewers, are capable of suspending our expectations on a wide enough scale to accept something like New Weird on our TV screens. Shows like The Twilight Zone (referenced in Vandermeer’s essay as an example of ~Weird TV) are not consumed in 2013 with the same genuine kind of terror of the original audiences — they are MST3K‘d. They are loved, but ironically (and at  the very least nostalgically). I’m not questioning whether it’s possible to create a serial television show using the elements of New Weird fiction but whether New Weird via TV could ever be approached with the necessary suspension of ironic distance. Thoughts?

8 thoughts on “New Weird & TV

  1. I think this is a super cool/interesting question. I’m inclined to say “yes, it could,” mostly because I’m skeptical that TV will continue to be ironic forever and ever (there are super important facets of TV *now* but I don’t think irony actually formally defines the medium). And if TV (whether that’s in niches on cable or as a full movement within the medium) fully moves past irony, there’s pretty much only two reasons I can see that it wouldn’t be able to tell New Weird-type stories. First, seriality. Considering the effects the New Weird is supposed to have on readers, telling a story over a long period of time within the same world likely wouldn’t have the same result, even if the creators were capable of overcoming irony in the requisite ways.

    However, there are a bunch of shows on the air right now that have elements that suggest the way someone could go about making a New Weird show if they really wanted to do so. American Horror Story’s seasonal anthology approach seems both more commercially viable than an older Twilight Zone anthology structure (which probably couldn’t survive, ratings-wise) and limits the amount of time spent in any one world to something closer to a single novel. Elements of sincere horror have made themselves present on television as well – if not in American Horror Story, which is just straight campy most of the time, in things like the more horror-influenced elements of Breaking Bad (I’m thinking specifically of the end of “Crawl Space”).

    The second problem, which I can see being slightly more serious, is that it might be a bit difficult to achieve the same sort of total disorientation in visual storytelling divorced from words which can be totally suggestive. Maybe if David Lynch came back to TV or something like that, you’d be able to approximate the right visual aesthetic. But considering TV budgets and a present lack of the right kind of twistedness, it might be hard to put a show together that nails the look of the New Weird. For now, the closest I can imagine a New Weird TV show would be something that aped some of the more existentially horrifying parts of The X-Files with the visuals of the scarier, more demonic episodes of Angel or something.

  2. OK my total idiocy is pretty much on display here (I somehow missed the last sentence).

    That said, I think all of the same difficulties for *creating* a successful New Weird TV show are the same ones that would prevent audiences from embracing it. People were, for the most part I think, unironically into The X-Files (and are certainly unironically into Breaking Bad). Combining the right elements into a show that would work means, at least in theory, it could find an audience. Ratings success might be a bit of a crapshoot at some level, but I doubt that at least niche narrowcasted cable audiences wouldn’t be able to appreciate such a show – the bigger question is whether one would get made at all (I think).

  3. I agree that there could be a potential New Weird TV show that would be popular unironically. I think the dilemma would lie in perfecting the formula. There are certainly shows of all genres that are sincerely adored by many, that take older ideas and have reworked them to be more pertinent to our time (I’m thinking of the new Doctor Who, Sherlock, etc). I don’t think it would necessarily have to distance itself from meta references to be sincere– for instance, shows like Community seem to toe that line. I’m not exactly sure what a New Weird show would look like, but I feel that pieces of pop culture are moving from irony to sincerity, and it stands to reason that could potentially affect all genres.

  4. I would say yes. New weird via TV could be approached with the necessary suspension of ironic distance. There is little in the TV format that shall take away the ironic distance from the text. However, I agree with Eric that the problem here lies with the ‘weirdness’. The base pleasure that a weird world gives is that of its distortion. And this novelty in distortion, as I discuss in my blog-post, is something that wanes in affect over time, making it wholly unsuitable for a sustained TV theme.

  5. What about cartoons and animation? Here we have a relatively inexpensive way to address Eric’s concerns about the practicality of the visual aspect. The intended demographic is generally children, and as such infusing cartoons with an ironic spirit would be pointless. They are targeted primarily towards an audience that is too young to have built up the body of cultural knowledge to make meta self-reference worthwhile. Sure, there are double-entendres thrown in for the benefit of the parents forced into watching with, but the irony does not penetrate the core of the work. Therefore, cartoons do provide sincere weirdness.

    And I don’t think that this can simply be dismissed as having children as an isolated audience. Something like Adventure Time is enjoyed unironically by adults to an extent that goes beyond any Freudian regression to childhood in response to the stresses of college and life. Welcome to Night Vale reminds me of Courage the Cowardly Dog. While not television, what about movies like the work of Tim Burton? I would argue that the novelty in distortion that ranjondhd mentions may be a tougher cat to kill than we think.

    While we’re on the subject of animation, this video seems to have been floating around the internet today, and it’s been making me think about the elements in it regarding weirdness, nostalgia, unironic sincerity, and television as a cultural dominant. And video games, looking forward.

    • While I agree with your reasoning, I would like to dispute that cartoons provide enough weirdness. Sure, there is weirdness but the threshold is too low for the mature. Also, in my opinion, the fascination of kids and adults are held at different data points, atleast in concentration levels. I think we deserve a wider reaching discussion on the positioning of cartoon with respect to weird.

    • I think you might be downplaying the prominence of irony in cartoons. Yes, that irony is primarily present for the benefit of the adults, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a significant component of the style. The example that comes most immediately to mind is the newest Scooby Doo reboot, Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, which not only references the common tropes employed in its own source material (the gang splitting up, “meddling kids”, etc.) but a whole slew of pop culture icons: Paula Deen, The Terminator, even our good friend Lovecraft–and even more interestingly, the show specifically makes use of Cthulhu as a meme (e.g. referencing “the lucrative world of plushy monster toys”), engaging with the modern, semi-ironic resurgence of the mythos. Even the example you cited, Adventure Time, makes use of tropes from video games and anime, though admittedly very subtly.

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