Letters to Holly

Wednesday, August 1

Cult TV

The continuing good weather made Kempas practically meek. She even wanted to play fetch for the first time in weeks. I've also discovered that she's placated by roasted pig ears, a bag of which Your Parents kept near her food and treats.

I made fajitturitos last night and we ate ice cream while watching a PBS special on the Berlin Airlift. Yes, we're old and boring. What about it? We also caught a first-run episode of The Nine, a much-hyped ABC show they yanked after just two months. This was Your Sister's favorite new show. I suspect the producers were given the chance to end the series and wrap up the various subplots and the mystery of the bank-hostage situation. This was the best episode of the series so far, and I look forward to catching ti with Your Sis until its end.

Speaking of canceled shows, TV Guide has again cataloged what they consider the best and most lasting cult shows ever, and it serves its purposes: It makes me angry, happy, and content all at once. It's definitely flawed, and let me illustrate why.

If a cult show is hugely popular, does it lose the cult status? The Simpsons audience is definitely cult-like in devotion, but it made money almost from the get-go. It's never been an underdog or generally ignored. Is "cult" determined by the dictionary definition that its audience is loyal to a fault? Because if loyalty is the big determinant, then we have to include soap operas that have lasted since the radio-drama days. Guiding Light, a show I watched with my grandmother from ages 4-14, made its broadcast debut before World War II.

No, I think we have to say that cult shows attain the status by having the most singularly devoted audience, the folks who will mold their lives around that series to the point that they create a daily vocabulary rooted in the show's dialogue and keep themselves sequestered from the mainstream as a matter of pride. So, in this case, cult shows are the ones with the geekiest posse.

Now, I attend conventions, so I see the geek in his primal habitat. I also see the knick-knacks, bootlegs, costumes, and materials related to all hot franchises. So I can label these series with their fan-demanded con presence.

*Denotes newcomer to the list (this means someone got bumped from the previous listing to make room for this inclusion).

30) Strangers with Candy (1999-2000)*
Only if we consider that it starred Steven Colbert and Amy Sedaris. That makes it cool. It spawned a movie that fared as successfully as its namesake series. In other words, they both tanked. This show isn't held in such reverence as The Young Ones or The State or even the Upright Citizens Brigade.
I have spoken: Doesn't belong. Con presence: Absent.

29) Absolutely Fabulous (1994-2003)
Not sure how cult this is. It almost singlehandedly sparked BBCAmerica, and it had an American spin-off AND it was recreated in the later seasons of Roseanne. Instead of alluring geeks and nerds, it attracted the gay and postmenopausal.
I have spoken: Borderline inclusion.
Con presence: Absent.

28) Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)*
A show that survives cancellation because of fan activism is indeed a cult show. Doesn't mean it's worth the effort, however. It has none of the charm of the movie that inspired it, and it's powered almost solely by fanbase lust for the guy who played MacGuyver.
I have spoken: Yeah, definitely. Con presence: Growing steadily.

27) H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-1971)
The most bizarre of the Sid & Marty Kroft works that included Banana Splits and Land of the Lost. So many kids shows are alleged to have been inspired by drugs. This show absolutely was. There is no question those Krofts were high as space kites.
I have spoken: Yeah.
Con presence: Occasional.

26) Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975-1978)
Yes. Yes yes yes. A send-up of soaps that managed to be spooky and funny and enthralling. I'm proud of TV Guide for remembering this one.
I have spoken: As a blip on the cultural map, it defines "cult show." Con presence: Never.

25) Firefly (2002-2003)*
Considering its pedigree (Joss Whedon created Angel and Buffy), this sci-fi Western should have been greeted by loving throngs. But it didn't. It was yanked after about two months, but did spawn the big-screen movie.
I have spoken: If "cult" automatically equals "sci-fi," yeah, it belongs. Con presence: Impressive. Most impressive.

24) Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Only because the show (which started with giant ratings) lost its audience as it unfurled its mystic underpinnings. Also, once the network demanded the Laura Palmer murder be solved, the show lost direction and collapsed. But at its apex, it was maybe the coolest show ever on TV. It heralded the major trends of the '90s: serial killers, the revivals of lounge music and burlesque, "shows about nothing," and the Pacific Northwest fashions that grunge helped make popular.
I have spoken: Fuck yes. Con presence: Weak.

23) Dark Shadows (1966-1971)
A vampire daytime soap opera? That's cult with a capital CULT.
I have spoken: Good Lord, yes. Con presence: Only in bootleg DVDs.

22) Doctor Who (1963-present)
The British Star Trek, even though it predates the American show. A must-list series.
I have spoken: A no-brainer. Con presence: Fair.

21) Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
Only because its creators have proven so hot at the films. They made Knocked Up and 40 Year Old Virgin. But on its own, it's just My So Called Life for the social outcasts.
I have spoken: I say thee nay. Con presence: None whatsoever.

20) The Avengers (1966-1969)
Campy as hell and a blast to watch even today. Also, Diana Rigg's Emma Peel was the ur-cheesecake for geeks and nerds. Her smart sexiness eclipses any of the crumpets on then-contemporary American TV sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie or Gilligan's Island. Only Julie Newmar's Catwoman was as blatantly filthy and magnetic.
I have spoken: Yes. Con presence: Negligible.

19) Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
There were two shows that benefited from the burgeoning Internet: this and The Adventures of Lois and Clark. Those two ruled the chatrooms, listservs, and alt.net areas as TV cults drifted online to morph into larger clubhouses. This show ruled online fan-fiction for years before Buffy, Xena, and Star Wars/Trek took over.
I have spoken: Yes, but would this show exist if not for Back to the Future? Con presence: Mild.

18) Veronica Mars (2004-2007)*
The next-generation Buffy suffered on the small networks just as Buffy and Angel did. It's cancellation would cement it as cult, but a rumored spin-off would take advantage of the loyal viewers. I'm not sure if the show was popular because of the writing or the cheerleader cuteness of the lead.
I have spoken: I'd pass. Not all quick fizzing shows can be cult-worthy. Con presence: Absent.

17) Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990)
An inexplicable hit that reminded folks that fantasy reliant on romance can win a big following. While Vincent the Catman may have been the geek hunk, the romance was the obvious draw. Once Linda Hamilton's character died, so did the series.
I have spoken: Yeah, but now we're all embarrassed to admit we watched it. Con presence: Invisible.

16) Babylon 5 (1994-1998)
The most successful attempt to make a new Star Trek actually started off as a Star Trek spin-off. But creative disagreements lead to this show splitting from the still-developing Deep Space Nine, and so sci-fi fans had two similarly premised shows at one time. It took advantage of a singular creator vision and appreciative winks at its audience (for example: Star Trek's Chekov appears as a vaudeville-quality villain). The show is still sparking novels and DVD films, 10 years later.
I have spoken: Yeah. Con presence: Steady.

15) Family Guy (1999-present)
More than any show, it benefited from the series DVD experiment. Even though fans could watch this on Cartoon Network, they bought the DVDs with such fervor that FOX brought it back from cancellation and used it to linchpin Animation Domination on Sunday nights.
I have spoken: Not as good or as cultish as The Critic.
Con presence: Rare.

14) Battlestar Galactica (2003-present)*
It should have failed utterly, but it emerged smart and sleek. The more cerebral sci-fi fans found a great action show, and the action crowd were given plenty to munch on between the top-notch space battles.
I have spoken: If ratings and critical success disqualify a show from "cult" consideration, this shouldn't make the list. Con presence: Barely.

13) Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1999)
If they had more money and a larger production staff, this show would never had worked. Because it was powered by smartass, pop-culture-loving theatre nerds, it spoke our language from the start. And the change in leading characters created a debate crucial in the continuing conversation about a cult show.
I have spoken: Yes. Hugs all around. Con presence: Fading.

12) Pee-Wee's Playhouse (1986-1991)
The rare show that entertains everyone. Goofy and energetic and delirious.
I have spoken: That indecency arrest helped the show fade too soon and remain dear to so many. Con presence: Nil.

11) Jericho (2006-present)*
Much, much too soon to say, honestly. It was saved from cancellation by fan uproar, but really what else did CBS have to run, another CSI or reality game show?
I have spoken: No. Not yet. Con presence: None whatsoever.

10) Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001)
How many action shows can boast a lesbian-majority audience? How many bad girl TV characters softened their act while retaining their initial charms? How many people remember this was a spin-off of Hercules?
I have spoken: Yes. Con presence: Respectable.

9) Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
Even people who never saw the series know what it's about. So good that, despite the multiple VHS and DVD compilations, the SciFi Channel still runs marathons on major holidays because mainstream folks will tune away from football, parades, and celebrity concerts for spooky and humanizing stories of ethics and irony. The best show that proved sci-fi never had to be campy or goofy to be popular.
I have spoken: Honestly? No. It's too influential, too popular. Its status of "cult show" is an honorary degree from the adoring masses. Con presence: Virtually none.

8) The Simpsons (1989-present)
This isn't a cult. It's a force of nature. If this is on the list, why not I Love Lucy or Andy Griffith?
I have spoken: It's a cult show only because my parents would never watch it. But generation gaps don't make a cult series. Con presence: Mild. You can get Simpsons merchandise anywhere.

7) The Prisoner (1967-1968)
Maybe THE cult show. People still talk about it because they're trying to decipher it. Is it smart and surreal or slapdash and hollow?
I have spoken: Ask around. Most people have no idea this show existed. Con presence: Equally below-the-radar.

6) Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974)
Again, a generation gap made this show cool for high-school kids for 30 years. Memorizing the scripts is a rite of passage across the country. But if I hear it quoted on cooking shows, is it really "cult." Isn't it just fringe? No, it's much too influential. The original Saturday Night Live cast worshiped these guys.
I have spoken: Arguable.
Con presence: None.

5) Lost (2004-present)*
Too early to tell, but much like Twin Peaks, it got weirder and weired and lost more and more viewers. The season-series experiment almost makes the audience go online or see the DVDs to stay up-to-speed. The many, many mysteries keep the rabid fans talking on virtually a daily basis.
I have spoken: Maybe. maybe not.
Con presence: I've only ever seen two people dressed as characters, and that was me and the missus.

4) Farscape (1999-2003)
Not all failed sci-fi shows earn or deserve a cult following. This muppet-heavy series swiped its villain's design from the Borg and takes attention away from Red Dwarf or Lexx. There's no excuse for this to be so high on the list.
I have spoken: Fuck, no.
Con presence: Invisible.

3) Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
A show great in pathos, humor, emotion, and bad action scenes. And it never got its due from the TV award shows. Too good to stay around, really. But if you hate emo vampires, this show and Angel will drive you to drink.
I have spoken: Definitely.
Con presence: Colossal.

2) The X-Files (1993-2002)
It started as crap, became glorious sci-fi, and sank back into crap. It insulted the audience with extended illogical plotholes and a film that promised to change everything and ultimately altered nothing. It provided pin-up fodder for guys and gals, giving something for them to talk about when not discussing the awesomeness of Cancer Man or the depravity of the Peacock Brothers.
I have spoken: Yep.
Con presence: Spotty.

1) Star Trek (1966-1969)
The cult show. It bombed in the ratings and stayed alive solely through barely connected fanbases across the globe. The show wasn't a success; it's philosophy was. It sired a true cult of common humanity.
I have spoken: The definitive cult series once upon a time. Now it's a franchise. Con presence: Massive massive massive.

Gigantic Picture of the Day
The mysteries of Boba Fett's armor solved. Now THIS GUY is cult.

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