The Social Acceptability of Cult Television: The Dark Nerd Rises

I had a rather curious incident the other day. I was watching a programme on television in the living room, when I heard the unmistakable sound of a family member entering the house. Instinctively, I switched the channel so that they would not see what I was watching. What was it, you ask? What could have been so embarrassing that I would think pretending to watch AFL would be the answer? (No, it wasn’t THAT. Get your minds out of the gutter, people.)

I feel no shame. Okay, some shame. Some.
I feel no shame. Okay, some shame. Some.

The Big Bang Theory.

TBBT is not a good show. In my view, it is actually insulting to most of my inherent values. However, this was the show that had Leonard Nimoy, so all is forgiven. There is, though, nothing terrible embarrassing about watching it. There is no explicit sex or violence, so I’m never going to fall into that awkward trap of accidentally watching a love scene with family in the room. (Top tip: if this ever happens, don’t try and laugh it off or conspicuously change the channel, just run. RUN.) I still switched over to AFL before they even entered the room. What I think is happening is a shift in what society terms ‘embarrassing television’ or a ‘guilty pleasure’, all down to the valorisation of cult audiences.

Many people have confessed to me that there were many programs they loved to watch, but often feel too embarrassed to tell their family and friends about. The regulars came up: TBBT, How I Met Your Mother, Da Vinci’s Demons and Two and a Half Men were amongst the most popular.

I AM THE GOAL...ATTACK! (Netball joke.)
I AM THE GOAL…ATTACK! (Netball joke.)

However, one particular title threw me for a loop. Roswell was one of the power three sci-fi programs of the late 1990s, along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. On the fantasy/sci-fi hierarchy, it stands below Game of Thrones but above Xena and Hercules in terms of quality writing and special effects. (Although Xena is first in both my heart and in number of women kicking ass in leather netball skirts.) Roswell’s inclusion was a surprise to me, but to begin with I was not sure why.

The program was middle-of –the-road, often privileging 90210 style angst instead of good old alien invasion/probing. It didn’t have a satisfactory ending, and was constantly overshadowed by its two bigger (and better) siblings. As far as I am concerned though, being a fan was nothing to be ashamed of. I certainly wouldn’t change the channel to avoid my family seeing me watch it. However, I happened to catch a trailer for the final episode of Game of Thrones, that was when it hit me. The major difference between Roswell and TBBT is while both are ‘guilty pleasures’, only the former is ‘cult television’.

Keep Calm and Stop Using This Quotation For Evil.
Keep Calm and Stop Using This Quotation For Evil.

TBBT has a large audience, no argument. There are hundreds of retailers that sell ‘BAZINGA’ t-shirts online and in store, so there is definitely a market interested in showing off that they watch the show. A key difference though, is the type of audience they are marketed to. TBBT is aimed at a generalised demographic, even though it claims to be the sole purview of the ‘nerds’ of society. Here’s my issue: the ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’ that the show is aimed at are actually watching Roswell, Game of Thrones, Buffy and the like. In addition, it is precisely the type of adoration exuded by true geeks and nerds (like myself) that takes a program outside of the cold, dark zone of the embarrassing and into the warm, comforting realm of the cult program (where people stand a little too close to you, but you endure it because they have an inhaler and you forgot yours. True story).

Think about it- is Buffy really a quality show? The first seasons show a teenager staking various vampires, all of whom look curiously like extras in a Star Trek fan video. This being said, I wouldn’t change the channel. Buffy, like Roswell, is glorified by fans to such an extent that it becomes quality by virtue of sheer force of will. These same audiences are in actuality made up of a huge cross section of humanity, from young hipster bloggers to CEO’s of major corporations. However, there is still a widespread perception that cult audiences are predominantly comprised of stereotypical nerds: socially awkward, very into information technology, and most importantly, extremely intelligent. The generalised audiences of TBBT and Two and a Half Men don’t have that same claim to genius. I can ‘get away’ with Roswell, or Buffy, because I know that I can justify my enjoyment through the collective intelligence of cult audiences. A bunch of really smart people like this show. That means it must be really smart. Thus, the show is socially acceptable because of its focused fan base.

This picture haunts my dreams in the best of ways.
This picture haunts my dreams in the best of ways.

I hear what you are thinking. (Well, not really. It’d be cool though.) Since when do people accept the opinion of nerds on what is a good program? My answer: since the 1990s. It’s not hard to see how the characterisation of the stereotypical nerd has come a long way from Urkel and Duckie. Gone are the high pants and pocket protectors, replaced by YSL glasses and floppy hair. A great example not from television is Ben Whishaw’s recent performance as Q in Skyfall. In addition, each of the three recent incarnations of The Doctor (David Tennant especially) have privileged the intelligence and stereotypically ‘geeky’ aspects over any physical prowess. Naturally this is the case with all Doctors, but it is particularly evident with Ten and his ‘brainy specs’. Whether you like it or not, media has embraced and transformed the geek into a powerful figure; people love an underdog, and nerds have occupied that place for a very long time. No more.

With the ascendance of social media and fan conventions across the world, audiences have enjoyed a massive rise in power. Cult audiences are amongst the most visible of all, and it is their response to adaptations that can make or break a film or television program. (For example, the reception for Superman Returns. If you haven’t seen the film, just slowly rip apart a beloved childhood toy. You will know how the fans felt.) The guarantee of a cult fan base can also allow for programs to be put into production despite all odds; Game of Thrones, with its huge cast of characters and variety of geographical locations (also, dragons), would never have been adapted had it not already amassed a large and dedicated following. Therefore, in an age when the audience being given more and more power over production (whether this is a positive or not), nerds, geeks and losers are in the ascendant.

This is why we aren’t afraid to love Buffy. This is why I can talk about Charmed to my friends and emerge unscathed. I can wear my TARDIS t-shirt and wave my replica sonic screwdriver (Tenth version, of course) with pride, because the power of the cult fan base has made these shows socially acceptable. Just as a final note though; even if society was going to come up against me for it, I’d still watch Doctor Who- and I bet the other fans would do the same. This is why we have power; loyalty, dedication, and (since we have no partners) disposable income. Allons-y!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Bernardina

    I thought Roswell was a really good show. The acting and the writing. I started watching it in 1999 and i rarely got a chance to watch it because i didn’t have the time to watch much TV. Now 8 years later i realize what a good show it was. I tried watching it on TV when it was still running but i could never seem to find it. When i did finally find it on TV i was so lost because i had missed so much. I wish they would have kept it on but TV shows don’t last forever, although this one could have done more than 3 seasons.

    • Early cancellation is a terrible evil. The worst feeling is when I know I would really enjoy a show, but it has been cancelled early without any resolution. Do you watch it? Ignore it? Arg.

  2. Amanda Gostomski

    Cult television creates a community and a common language for people.

  3. Taylor Ramsey

    A lot of what I watch would fall under this category, but as with most things that create an emotional attachment, time does not make it better.
    I have found that cult shows I loved as little as a few years ago, do not hold up as well with new viewings now. And it is not like it is Thunder-birds or other obvious schlock, it is early revived Doctor Who or even Babylon 5!!
    That said, they are still the comfort food of my TV habit.
    Nice, fun article.

    • I completely get where you are coming from. I haven’t QUITE for there with DW, but early episodes of Buffy make me uncomfortable sometimes. But, even with that added ick, i’d still rather watch it than whatever is on network tv atm.

  4. Andrew Couzens

    You talk about production values as though they are the only thing relevant to whether a show is quality. What about the script? Things like Babylon 5, Buffy and Doctor Who regularly (well… occasionally) have stellar scripts that transcend anything else it is possible to see on TV. Except The Wire or The Sopranos, but they clearly don’t come into the idea of ‘cult’ television.

    I watch Doctor Who because I know that for every episode about a giant wasp killing people Agatha Christie style, there is a Blink, or a Genesis of the Daleks to make things better. THAT is what makes cult television – a series that might not always be worthwhile – in fact, it is often painful – but those moments where it is worthwhile you wouldn’t miss for the world.

    • Hmm, I didn’t think I came off as saying that production values were the only element relevant to an assessment of quality. The term ‘quality television’ has a number of definitions. IT is clear though, that a high number of people equate high production values with quality, though. It seems like you are the one equating low production values with low quality in regards to Doctor Who. Was The Unicorn and the Wasp of lower quality than blink because of the wasp then? Something to think about.

      And actually, I would argue that The Wire is a kind of cult television. CT is often relegated to the realm of sci-fi and conventions, but The Wire could have a claim to the term if one were to make an impassioned argument based on audience interaction.

      On your comment as a whole, however, it does feed into my point. You rarely get this sort of discussion revolving generic sitcoms, and it is this lack of audience interaction that makes them appear to be less ‘quality’, and vice versa for cult programs. (Note I said appear)

      Cheers for reading.

  5. Interesting article, but it’s very difficult to use terms like ‘quality television’ without seeming to pass judgement, which I’m sure wasn’t your intention. It’s a very subjective topic – I dislike almost all the shows you have discussed, but I still respect them for their individual achievements. I think all productions should be celebrated for whatever they bring to the entertainment industry – even Duck Dynasty has a place!

  6. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi

    An interesting article on a relevant subject. I do think, however, that it could use some support of outside sources, even for the purposes of this post. Basically I think it is difficult to say what shows are marketed to which people and who is actually watching in today’s culture without doing some sort of research on this. Even those who do research on this can’t quite figure it out. It’s a complicated area to study. I understand that you’re speaking from your personal perspective, but to make generalizations based on that I think stretches the argument a bit too far. Nevertheless, well-written piece.

  7. I think “social acceptability” of nerd television simply means money and ratings stability.

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