Thursday, July 15, 2010

Culture Shock 07.15.10: It's not just TV; it's cult TV

The distinction between "cult TV" and ordinary, run-of-the-mill, mainstream television is rapidly becoming hard to make.

Fan behavior once reserved for unabashedly cult programs like "Star Trek" now pops up even for what seem like decidedly mainstream shows. Ardent "Sex and the City" fans hold viewing parties, memorize trivia and learn to love cosmopolitans because they're Carrie Bradshaw's signature drink. Most of them do, however, draw the line at dressing like Carrie, whose unintentionally ironic lack of fashion sense makes even a typical Starfleet officer seem like a runway model.

On the other side of the ledger, cult TV shows are gaining followings that now extend well beyond their historic core audience of sci-fi geeks, animation fans and Britcom aficionados. (For you newbies, "Britcom" means "British comedy.")

"Lost," for example, dealt with such cult-TV subjects as time travel and parallel universes. Yet it garnered huge audiences for ABC, and its series finale provided heated water-cooler talk for the entire nation. The same goes for "Heroes" — at least during the first season, when it was still good. Before bad writing drove its audience away, "Heroes," a show all about comic-book iconography and characters with superpowers, was a mainstream hit.

Last year, I was in a local shopping center, minding my own business, when two teenage girls told me my "Doctor Who"-themed T-shirt was cool. That never would have happened 20 years ago. But now "Doctor Who," the dictionary definition of a cult show, is identifiable enough in America that it doesn't demand an explanation.

So, there are shows that are mainstream yet develop cult followings, and there are shows that are filled with cult-TV themes while still attracting millions of viewers. That makes it really difficult to determine what exactly is — and what isn't — cult TV nowadays.

That dilemma informs one chapter, titled "Mainstream Cult," of "The Cult TV Book: From ‘Star Trek' to ‘Dexter,' New Approaches to TV Outside of the Box." Edited by Stacey Abbott, the book is comprised of 26 chapters by different authors, writing about every facet of "cult television," plus case studies of various shows, from "Twin Peaks" and "The Prisoner" to "The Sopranos" and "South Park."

"The Cult TV Book" is good reading for fans of cult TV, as well as for anyone interested in where American pop culture now stands. But I won't try to recycle its conclusions here because I already have my own, which are deserving of their own cult following.

What makes a TV show a cult TV show? Is it the subject matter? Is it fan reaction? Is it having a small audience? Can a cult show have a large audience, just so long as a small portion of it is enthusiastic to the point of obsessive displays of devotion? Can I cram one more question into this paragraph?

Basically, any show, no matter how popular and regardless of its subject matter, can be a cult show if it has among its viewership a small, obsessive fan base. And there are more cult TV shows now than ever before simply because, between broadcast and cable, there are more shows than ever before. The only programs that can't be "cult" are popular reality and talent shows like "American Idol," because apparently everyone who watches them becomes obsessive.

Even the news can be cult TV, as anyone who has ever met deranged partisans of either Keith Olbermann or Glen Beck could tell you.

If a small group of people went to conventions dressed like Archie and Edith Bunker and traded tips about how to make scale replicas of Archie's easy chair, would "All in the Family" be cult TV? You know, it probably would.

But I'm not betting on any "All in the Family" conventions being held any time soon.

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