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Thinking pop culture

Pop Culture’s Apples and Oranges

Sunshine Cleaning (2008)

A standard text message came in from my brother earlier today. That he’d just seen Sunshine Cleaning. That he enjoyed it.

Standard because he pretty much enjoys everything he sees. Standard because he’s on a mission to only watch films that everyone else has forgotten.

In reply to my predictable sarcasm, he made the curious claim that Sunshine Cleaning was better than Little Miss Sunshine.

I don’t know if there’s a more complicated rationale for his linking of the two films beyond the S-word. Perhaps it centred on the excellent Alan Arkin. Maybe it was the vans. Xocoyotzin Herrera on both soundtracks might have had a role too.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

He’s wrong on this occasion of course - Little Miss Sunshine was the far superior film - but it does raise the question about fitting comparisons; about what constitutes an apples and apples comparison in the context of pop culture.

I teach public policy. The simplest way we evaluate “good” is examining whether a policy achieved its objectives. The aim of pop culture however, is contentious. Is the objective financial? Entertainment? Distraction? An evaluation, therefore, becomes substantially more complicated.

“Good” in the context of pop culture, can only be assessed in comparison to like products. Sure, there’s a sense in calling something “good” if we simply enjoyed it, but even then, enjoyed it as compared to what? Did we enjoy it as much as we thought we would? Did it move us? Change us? Did we enjoy it enough to justify the ticket price? Did we enjoy it compared to other alternatives for our time?

There’s an obvious temporal comparison: does this film stack up against the others we’ve seen that week, that month, that year. Certainly this is how the shiny trophies are all doled out.

Then there are the more nuanced comparisons. How does this one compare to others in its genre? Others of a similar budget? Is it a good example of the filmmaker’s oeuvre? Of a star’s filmography? How does it rank amongst our own best beloveds?

Was this film/TV series as good as the Scandinavian version? As the French? How did it compare to the book?

Which leads me to a discussion of Channel 10’s Secrets and Lies.

Unlike most people, apparently, I stuck it out. All six episodes. Sure, I may have been doing so through Channel 10’s catch-up service Play, and I may have been blow-drying my hair and playing online Scrabble at the same time, but I put in the hard yards.

Let my commitment to Australia’s non-game show output remain uncontested!


Aside from the obvious fact that it wasn’t a particularly engaging series, the central problem lay in it airing scarcely months after the UK’s brilliant Broadchurch.

The same premise – small town, dead child, parents’ marriage-on-the-rocks, infidelity, yadda yadda – only, whereas Broadchurch was completely riveting, Secrets and Lies felt like an Australian take. Australian take, in this context, defined as cheaper, with liberal use of slang and foliage.

It’s a template, alas, replete throughout the mediascape. If a superhero/sexy zombie/kidnapped child production gets an audience - gets acclaim - then it serves as proof to producers that this concept can sell. Copycats and sequels thus abound.

And sometimes they work, sometimes they are laughable, sometimes they feel like complete and udder cash cows. And by the third or fourth incarnation, audiences will have redirected their dollars to a newer and shiner fetish and period dramas/sexy werewolves/fairytales will get put on the back-burner. And so the cycle repeats.

It’s natural to compare, even if completely bloody grim. But I’ve yet to stumble across a better way of evaluating film and television.

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