Chronicle of Cancellations Foretold

Spurred by Jason Mittell (and just about every other television critic in existence) we watched Pushing Daisies last night.

We, too, fell in love with it. My daughter was briefly upset at the way death entered the story, but the fairy-tale whimsy kept it from ever feeling either morbid or tragic, and so she ended up liking it. My wife and I both loved it, though like all the critics, I was left wondering how sustainable it was. Everything about the show is intensely fragile, a soap-bubble. A single wrong step and the whole thing could go horribly wrong. It can’t even hint at a tragic subtext that goes any deeper than Ned’s regret about Chuck’s father. You can’t have coarse jokes about the unconsummated love between the principals. The whimsy could cloy or become precious (the aunts got a bit close to that).

Still, considering that the creators got the pilot so right, it’s thrilling to see if they can keep it up. However, the other thing I’m thinking about is that I find it harder and harder to fall in love with the pop-culture equivalent of a beautiful, dying consumptive whose tubercular fate seems almost inevitable.

Jason begs for Nielsen families to watch the show, which makes me long for our Nielsen box to return. Yes, my wife and I were one of those mythic families. We were selected, they put the hardware inside our TVs, everything we watched was recorded. After about three years, they came and took it away again. I had more power then over popular culture than I had ever had before or will ever have again, no matter what I write or where I write it, no matter how much I buy of something. Though even that was limited power. Each Nielsen family stands in for hundreds of thousands of viewers. Well, we were the only hundreds of thousands who were watching certain shows, apparently.

Some of the shows and book series and comic books you come to love, you know that they’re only going to be around for a little while, and that’s hard. Other things you come to love and you know that before they die, their owners are going to call in a squad of hired butchers to hack them up in a vain attempt to make them more appealing. For example, for nineteen issues, the comic book Blue Beetle (co-written by John Rogers) has been almost uniformly great, almost everything that other titles by DC and Marvel are not. It’s both fun and funny, but it also has extremely well-realized characterization and smart done-in-one plots. It’s got great “fan-service” dialog that both plays off and makes sly fun of comic-book tropes, but also some really clever reworking and defiance of a lot of comic-book cliches. A recent issue had a moving scene where the teenage title character is consoled by his father after he failed to save some civilians. It was a subtle, underplayed scene, but it made me realize just how few characters in this medium have any emotional depth in their family lives.

When I read Blue Beetle, I can’t decide what scares me more: the possibility of its cancellation (I don’t think its sales are very strong) or the prospect of some kind of hack editorial dictate aimed at boosting sales through bogus “drama” (e.g., killing off family members, darkening the mood of the series in some fashion, and so on).

I don’t think the producers of popular culture should hesitate to pull the plug on a generic program or publication that isn’t hitting the projected numbers. (Though I’m sure that for everything I view as generic, there is a devoted fan who wants to save it.) But I do think there’s ample, demonstrated reasons in many popular media to stick by something that’s highly distinctive or unusual, to give it time to build its audience. There are a number of financially successful programs, novels, comics and so on that needed that kind of extra time and support. However, this is what casual cultural studies talk about the “culture industry” conceals. If it’s an industry, it’s a very weird and feudal one. The maximization of profit is not what the major pop-culture producers do, or at least, not what they do very well.

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2 Responses to Chronicle of Cancellations Foretold

  1. Wow – I am in awe of your former power! We were a Nielsen diary family once for a sweeps period, but that’s nothing compared to the PeopleMeter Power…

    Glad to see that your former Nielsen peers tuned in for Daisies in fairly strong numbers, winning its timeslot definitively. And I agree that sustaining the show’s tone and narrative energy will be challenging. But as long as they keep showing Anna Friel smiling, I’ll keep watching, for I am smitten.

  2. However, this is what casual cultural studies talk about the “culture industry” conceals. If it’s an industry, it’s a very weird and feudal one. The maximization of profit is not what the major pop-culture producers do, or at least, not what they do very well.

    I keep mentioning De Vany’s book on Hollywood Economics in this kind of context because he’s got the numbers. Try as they might, the Capitalist Fat Cats who run the movie biz simply can’t manipulate it so as to completely snooker the poor rubes (that is, us) who buy the tickets. They may wish they could, but they can’t. The only reliable way they’ve got of determining whether or not a movie will make a profit is to make the movie and put it into theatres. Six months after that, they’ll know.

    The “culture industry” is crazy. It’s crazy because the niches into which it sells are idiosyncratically complex, as are the products it sells.

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