At the start of the 2011-2012 television season, the networks were catering to a demand for fairytales. Four months later, they’re rolling out two shows with a strong horror lean, bent on creeping out viewers and keeping them coming back for more, competing with The Walking Dead, which has become an unexpected fan favourite. Networks are nothing if not attentive to the perceived needs of their viewers, and this shift has some interesting social parallels as well as television ones.
ABC, still casting about for a replacement for Lost, is running The River, a horror-drama about an adventurer gone missing in the Amazon. Former colleagues and family members go on the hunt, and find themselves in a terrifying and creepy world; naturally, of course, ABC needs to set this in the ‘exotic jungle’ to keep viewers in the mood. Filmmaker Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) has made the jump to the small screen with The River, and the previews make it clear that the network’s goal is to get viewers thoroughly creeped out on Tuesday nights.
J.J. Abrams is joining Fox with Alcatraz, a straight crime drama with a horror twist. Ostensibly about a detective in search of the solution to a murder, the show quickly transforms into something more complex when the prime suspect appears to be a dead Alcatraz inmate who is not only alive, but unaged. As if the characters don’t have enough on their hands, he’s not the only one.
Stage set for horror, and a radical shift from fairytales, although both Grimm and Once Upon A Time are still slogging dutifully along. What’s perhaps most interesting about this change in what the networks think viewers want is the naked symbolism behind the genre shift.
Fairytales are fundamentally about heroes and saviours who arrive to rescue everyone, solve a problem, and end the day happily with cake and tea for everyone. There is a certain passivity to the mythology; either you are a hero, or you are a victim who is waiting for someone to come help you. Many viewers want to identify with the main protagonist and are encouraged to do so, but the myth of the princess waiting for rescue endures nonetheless. Waiting for outside influences to save them, fairytale characters are trapped in an inert state until they can be awakened.
Horror is a far more egalitarian genre that demands cooperation and teamwork from the characters. As memorably noted on Lost, ‘live together, die alone.’ Private squabbles and ideology must be set aside in the interest of the group as a whole, and everyone has skills to bring to the table. In horror, people work together to defeat something larger and more complex than themselves that they cannot hope to best on their own. People who identify with the characters must, perforce, cast themselves as actors in the drama rather than passive parties waiting for something to happen.
Politically, 2011 marked a dramatic shift in social consciousness about the rules of order and political action. Starting with the Arab Spring, people took to the streets in outrage and anger; rather than hanging out the windows of their castles and surveying the horizon for a prince, they took up pitchforks and banded together to defeat the monster. Whether that monster was government, in the Middle East, or banks, in the West, people realized that passivity was no longer an option and action was their only choice.
Television must naturally lag slightly behind political consciousness because it takes time to move shows through development and into production. These shows were in development as the Arab Spring was flowering, and it shows—they are about the work that groups can accomplish by working together, rather than about the actions of individual saviours. They are about people who create their own rescue plans because there is no one left, and they’re responsible for protecting each other.
The Walking Dead may be so popular because it is about a band of ordinary people who survive something catastrophic as a team and recognize that working together is their only chance of survival. There is something deliciously, appealingly democratic about that, and the way people who imagine themselves in that world also have to imagine themselves doing something, taking action, being the movement instead of waiting to be moved.
Cooperation to take down a vast enemy seems to be the message appearing in these two 2012 midseason shows, and it will be interesting to see if either has staying power. Alcatraz has the benefit of a naturally built-in audience in the form of Abrams fans who will at least want to see the first few episodes to get a look at his new project. Meanwhile, The River, like ABC’s other attempts at being edgy, may flail through a few episodes before being quietly dropped from the schedule.
Certainly neither can compete with The Walking Dead for sheer gore and grossout factor, which means they will be going for a deeper and more subtle creepiness. As viewers watch, will they be reminded of the deep creepiness emerging in international governments and the financial system, and rise with new vigor to team up with fellow citizens? Or would they prefer to view television solely as a source of amusement, rather than an inspiration for radical action?