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Genre in Television

Meghna Dholakia talks about the success of genre in television.

This podcast incorrectly states that The Tudors is an HBO show. In fact, it airs on Showtime. The Daily Californian regrets this error.






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Writing this article was difficult. It took about four drafts, three cups of coffee and several hours of random Googling (seriously, the mating rituals of the blue sunfish are fascinating), before I realized that I had wasted two days dancing around the point of my argument.

So readers, there are couple things I need to confess. I like fantasy. I read science fiction. I love Cold War spy novels, and I think a couple of murders really adds that certain je ne sais quoi.

The fact that I felt uncomfortable about admitting this is exactly what I wanted to write about. Genre, both cinematic and literary, is severely underrated in our culture. Its authors are mocked and their large fan-bases described as "uncultured." My English major friend, who possesses a near perfect literary pedigree, has threatened to disown me on finding spy novels next to my copy of "The Great Gatsby." There is something ... not quite proper about liking books about witches or kings or space ships at the ripe old age of 19. That's kid's stuff.

When we were younger, though, the world was allowed to have magic in it. It came to us from a distant place, from where the wild things were, through a wrinkle in time, out of the wardrobe - its influence subtle as a knife.

Children's books are filled with witches, warlocks, talking animals, foreign lands and flying carpets. Their colors are bright and vivid, the sights strange and fascinating. Good children's books are about the smells of spices and the feeling of flying. Yet, when we grow up, tales of a supernatural world become less respectable. Admitting a secret love for fantasy novels is a pretty good way to kill a burgeoning romance.

The assumption is that most of genre fiction is pretty terrible, and honestly, quite a lot of it is. Certainly, the fact that most sci-fi book covers look like they were designed in the 1970s doesn't help.

Neither does the legacy of Star Wars - which, despite being a huge cultural phenomenon, helped establish the "space opera" trope. But for every story with alien overlords and erroneous physics, there is a serious, well-thought out novel with themes as deep as "The Sound and the Fury." Not to mention that, with the acceleration of technological advancement, science fiction is rapidly becoming a way to tackle moral conundrums of technologies most of us cannot even imagine.

"Never Let Me Go," by Kazuo Ishiguro is a prime example, not only of a book that escaped the enclosures of its genre (it is now a movie starring Keira Knightley), but of a book that tackles a serious subject that the coming years could very well force us to confront.

In an article in The Guardian, novelist Edward Docx argues that genre fiction is inherently limiting because it is formulaic: the space opera, the locked-room mystery, the ancient prophesy foretelling the doom of a civilization and the coming of a bright savior. But, the constraints of real life are so much more limiting. What a dull world, when a door is a door, and we know exactly what lies behind it.

Docx passes over the fact that many of the best novels are cross-genre tales that we have stripped of their original tags. For proper "literary" novels with a fantastic element, we invented an entirely new classification - just so they could be taught in university English departments. Kafka, Marquez, Rushdie, and Murakami are not "fantastists," though their novels all contain the fantastic. They are "magical realists."

As quasi-adults, we are restricted to those rarefied novels deemed as "literature," a lot of which boils down to stories of disaffected surburbanites in search of meaning, disaffected twenty-somethings in post-collegiate depression, or the mid-life crisis of a disaffected business executive with an overbearing spouse. Spare me. I loved Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" and Zadie Smith's "On Beauty."

I like Chuck Palahniuk and "High Fidelity" - but read too many stories of man's struggle for meaning in suburbia and all that's left is the self-absorbed pettiness of it.

Most modern literature operates under the assumption that in order to relate to the lives of others, we need to be presented with lives identical to our own. I disagree. I am not a man. I don't think like a man, and I couldn't have a prostate if I tried. But, many of my favorite protagonists are male. I've never been married, neither have I been a parent or had a life-threatening disease. But, I can relate, understand and sympathize with those experiences, because they are human experiences.

The dilemmas of humanity do not change if the humans who deal with them are on a spaceship, but a fantastic premise can help amplify and connect them.

As we say in the theatre, up the stakes. What if there were more to worry about than whether to cheat on your significant other? Or what to bring to the neighborhood potluck?

What if the stakes were as high as they could be? Playing for lives, for survival, for humanity. Out of tales of struggle come the concepts of honor, dignity and valor - archaic sounding words, but important all the same. That is why I like genre, because the characters are always playing for the highest stakes imaginable - for the fate of nations, kingdoms and galaxies; for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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Open a door to another wold with Meghna at [email protected]



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