Nothing is produced in a cultural or social vacuum. All forms of representation intersect and interact with our contemporary world, whether we like it or not. This includes recently acclaimed television programs such as True Detective, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Game of Thrones.
The fantasy elements of Game of Thrones enhance its images of a brutal world driven by the will to control. This is highly relevant when conflicts in pursuit of power – often underpinned by violence – continue to take place across the globe.
Medieval costuming, settings and magic may seem distant. Yet even Julia Gillard, a fan of the series, linked Game of Thrones to her impending doom as prime minister and the Rudd sword that would eventually slay her.
It is surprising, then, that Jason Jacobs’s recent Conversation article on Game of Thrones claims that social and political context has little if any bearing on its success. Instead, the show is elevated for resisting what he calls the tendency to exhibit “boutique contemporary issues”.
Gender inequality is offered as one example of an issue commonly woven into cultural narratives in a didactic manner. Setting aside his unsettling broad-brush treatment of contemporary feminism it is unfortunate that Jacobs conceives of discrimination as a “boutique” matter.
On the contrary, such collective problems demand critical inspection in cultural settings. Social content is something neither authors nor viewers can avoid. In the words of Duke University academic Fredric Jameson, we are each “condemned to history” in the inherent sociability of our lives.
Jacobs goes on to argue that Game of Thrones is the best form of entertainment chiefly because it avoids complexity. Such complexity – lauded in an earlier Conversation piece by Jason Mittell – is instead seen as largely negative in the programs Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
But complexity is not the same as complication. Narrative power is produced through sophisticated storytelling. This enables many perspectives to emerge and audience pleasure to be heightened. Moreover, without complexity there is no simplicity: each relies on the other for meaning.
In the same way as other aesthetic forms such as literature and painting, a quality television series can ask important ethical questions. This involves making compromising and morally messy decisions, because the world we live in is difficult and complex. Television that responds to the urgent need for self-questioning cannot be so easily written off as convoluted.
The myth of the cultural divide
Well written and produced programs such as House of Cards and The Wire provide levels of meaning accessible to some, though not necessarily to all. That does not mean that they are less worthy. On the contrary, what is revealed is a wide assortment of narratives that respond to a diversity of viewers.
Audiences are not a uniform mass of receivers interpreting televisual texts in the same way. We are a varied lot, an unpredictable array of individual consumers. Appeals to “entertainment” value may seem to renew the division between purportedly complex cultural artifacts of limited audience reach, and the allegedly modest, accessible-to-all variety – the old “high versus popular” debate.
That argument is long dead. When Man Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton speaks of being influenced by the The Wire and Breaking Bad in writing The Luminaries (2013), this only helps confirm the waning of any boundary between high and low culture. Reception can also change over time, with “difficult” art evolving into popular.
Television, once considered by many as the exclusive location of mostly worthless diversion, is home to much that may be seen as important art. Jacobs reasonably calls for judgements of taste to be a part of the academic’s critical arsenal. Yet his evident distaste for all matters contextual (social and historical) risks reviving a culture war that is a relic of the 20th century.
Further, raising a single television program above “most other contemporary cultural output” takes the process of cultural evaluation to an unhealthy level of precision. The almost infinite vista of cultural forms available to audiences in the 21st century – in television, film, music, literature, and elsewhere – surely demands more cautious language on the part of scholars and critics.
There is no such thing as generic or aesthetic purity. Breaking Bad’s sharp indictment of US health care does not prevent moments of experimental fantasy. A cinematographic style that might at first appear incongruous can in fact tap into questions fundamental to our existence.
True Detective, arguably the most literary series of all, depicts an astonishingly dark realm of violence and despair. Its film noir elements, including ghostly crime scenes, exposes audiences to nightmarish gothic moments where the divisions between reality and fantasy begin to blur.
Genres are almost always intertwined, which means that all kinds of narratives adopt different styles of storytelling. These can be both escapist but also strangely familiar. What makes these contemporary television programs particularly successful is their ability to skirt the boundaries between simplicity and complexity, fantasy and reality.