“Inside a Killer Thriller Tonight”: Is Genre Television Born or Made?
In the opening of Jason Mittell’s reading for this week, he quotes Supreme Court Justice’s Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Mittell goes on in his introduction to establish, “Genres are cultural products, constituted by media practices and subject to ongoing change and redefinition” (Mittell 1). This reading, and the balance of the texts for this week, argue for the role of genre as a series of codes understood, interpreted and accepted within a given cultural space. A viewer recognizes, for example, the themes of corporation-as-family and the long-form serial tendencies of a show like Revenge and instantly classifies it as a soap opera. What is the role of the viewer in this process? Though cultural mores may establish genre codes, the implication of these readings, and of Justice Stewart’s claim, is that the individual spectator does the defining. After all, he, not a category in a Netflix cue or a standard programming choice, knows it when he sees it. This process is especially evident, perhaps, in metafictional and/or hybrid genre forms such as those discussed in Dr. McPherson’s article on 24 or in the viewer engagement with shows such as Lost described by Michael Kackman. The show’s self-conscious anti-(feminine) soapiness in this case has to consciously counteract a set of norms known to and engaged with by individual television viewers. Genre categorization, therefore, relies upon a subjective view: the viewer’s role in determining and identifying genre might suggest genre not so much as a set of fixed categories, but as a tapestry of contexts which build recognizable resonances for the individual.
Since the Mittell article is where this inquiry started, I feel it is appropriate that it is from this article that the example to explore this question should come. Mittell dwells fairly significantly on Michael Jackson’s 14-minute short-film cum music video “Thriller” (1983), which combines horror, musical, teen and noir genres to hyperstylized effect. The melodrama of the episode is established in the kinds of overdetermined scenery (dark shadows, standard horror set pieces of low-lit graveyards and transmogrifying corpses) described by Jane Feuer in discussion of roughly contemporaneous melodramas such as Dynasty. In “Thriller” these techniques are offset by the video’s conscious masculinity: a narratological forward motion (the episode has a clearly defined short film plot) blends with a curious circularity as the characters constantly loop back to the same theme, the “chorus” produced by the song itself (perhaps a soapy, feminine side, a la 24’s personal dramas). Amidst this complex and confusing mix of genres is a metafictional frame. Using now-infamous MTV cutting styles, the video vacillates between a horror plot (the “thriller”) and a narrative thread in which Jackson and his girlfriend are watching a horror film. They are both “inside” and “observing” an exemplification of genre – a “killer thriller tonight.” The subjectivity of the characters, especially Jackson who controls the narrative space (pulling his girlfriend out of the film, reminding her it’s only a “movie” but also integrating the figures from the film into his extended performances), is highlighted in Jackson’s constant awareness of genre. To his girlfriend, the sequence is horrific, she is integrated into the narrative logic of terror experienced by a horror film spectator (or participant). To him, the sequence is a performance, a music video allowing distance as he recognizes the constructions of this sequences artificial horror elements. Two different characters (and “spectators”) experience two different genres.
How does this reading relate to how an audience subjectively views televisual genre distinctions? If genre is gendered and a cultural product, how much are these categories pre-inscribed when we sit down to view (i.e. 24 is a masculine melodrama, no matter how we as viewers experience it)? Or might the drama be a soap for some, and an extended procedural for others? How does self-reflexivity within a text impact or alter these viewer subjectivities? Is genre not only cultural but also personal?
Feuer, Jane. “Melodrama, Serial Form and Television Today.” Screen. 1(1984).
Kackman, Michael. “Flow Favorites: Quality Television, Melodrama, and Cultural Complexity.” 5 Mar 2010. Flow. Special Issue: Flow Favorites, 2010. 11.9(2010). <http://flowtv.org/2010/03/flow-favorites-quality-television-melodrama-and-cultural-complexity-michael-kackman-university-of-texas-austin/>.
McPherson, Tara. “Techno-Soap: 24, Masculinity and Hybrid Form.” In Reading 24 Against the Clock (Reading Contemporary Television). Edited by Steven Peacock. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
“Michael Jackson: Thriller.” Dir. John Landis. Optimum Productions, 1983.
Mittell, Jason. “TV Genres as Cultural Categories.” In Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004.