(Full disclosure: I have not watched The Walking Dead since season 5 and have only seen the first two episodes of Westworld)
When I first saw Green Room, I remember two words constantly coursing through my mind: brutally efficient. At the time, it felt like praise, and it still is for Jeremy Saulnier’s second film (and second great film). Now, in the era of Westworld and Negan, not so much.
In Zack Handlen’s review of The Walking Dead‘s season 7 premiere, he voices a frustration many of us have felt before with “prestige” television: “It’s not organic writing, or a slow-building tragedy, or even an attempt to mimic the painful suddenness of real life catastrophe. It’s math.” The show has lost all emotional resonance it had, and now just feels like it belongs on James Woods’ Videodrome character’s underground cable channel. To paraphrase a description of that channel from the film, it has no philosophy to offer anymore, just, as Handlen puts it, a “numbers game.”
It’s the game that so many Redditors and other internet dwellers play, answering the questions of who will die next and what huge plot twist is coming, with every Twitter account spouting out a theory after every episode of every over-hyped show that made it on a big network because it has a lot of gruesome deaths and horrific rape scenes. The sad part is that the Redditors are on a bit of a hot streak; they sort of predicted Negan’s victims, nailed Mr. Robot‘s big season 2 twist, and had Westworld figured out from the start. The fact that there are probably people out there collecting on bets on who was gonna bite it in TWD’s premiere sickens me.
What’s the point? Is this all viewers want anymore, to be tricked? Why the need to “figure it out” then? While this may be fun for some, for those of us that are more interested in formalist and narrativist criticism, we can’t allow television to become like this. It’s vapid and meaningless, hiding lazy plotting under a layer of murder and rape to make it seem somehow meaningful, which is equally problematic, especially considering the unnecessarily high amount of rape present in a television field still struggling to even represent women, let alone give them decent stories. But again, why is this trope so ever-present now?
Sam Esmail and Jonathan Nolan, of Mr. Robot and Westworld respectively, have both said that the twists don’t matter to the actual narrative meaning of their shows, but is that true? Or are they just covering their asses because the audience wasn’t as surprised as they should have been? I’m starting to think the latter is true, after Westworld‘s confused and frankly boring first season. I put it down after the first two episodes, but have been reading pieces about it to keep up just so I could see if my hunch about it turned out to be true, and it was: it’s just another meaningless high-profile cable show that gives white men an excuse to, as Adorno would say, “work through” their social anxiety through rape and murder.
The real problem here is not that there are twists and unexpected brutality, the problem is that this is now the only narrative that seems to get a response. Smack some genre trappings on exploitation and “twists” and you’ve got yourself HBO’s next big hit, to be adored by pretentious millenials and overrated critics like Devin Faraci for sites like Collider. This even extends to the repetitive power games played on House of Cards and Game of Thrones. The only goal the writers seem to have is to surprise the audience and say some vague bullshit about humanity’s inherent selfishness. This is not necessarily a widespread problem, just one exceedingly present in the most popular shows, which is why I’m choosing to address it.
This narrative formula can work, however, just not in the way most TV writers think it can. In fact, it works best in horror, the genre built on exploitation and fear. Green Room is just this year’s best example of this gruesome efficiency, knocking out characters before we even have a chance to care about them. By focusing purely on unpredictability and the predatory nature of the everyday routine of the drug market (and, notably, white supremacy), director Jeremy Saulnier is far more successful in tapping into that classic, primal fear of being killed and consumed by an uncontrollable monster. Green Room‘s best source of this comes from the blue collar work ethic of the drug dealers/skinheads, simply doing their best to keep their livelihood afloat with no care for who gets hurt in the process. By avoiding pretentious commentary and overt symbolism, Saulnier keeps the viewer truly on the edge of his/her seat.
By contrast, TWD and Westworld want to be something “greater”, but can’t escape their exploitation trappings. The latter is the “exploitation series about exploitation” – a mind-numbingly stupid take to begin with, though credit to Emily Nussbaum for at least attempting to formulate a critique of the show. But really, it just can’t decide which characters’ naked bodies get violated and whose brains the viewer gets to see in close-up. Writers still haven’t realized that if they want to comment on or even satirize our modern view of violence, they need to find a radical new way to depict it.
This is the downfall of the golden age of television: we’ve fetishized and desensitized ourselves to violence, gendered and otherwise, to the point of addiction. We can no longer handle a need-to-watch cable show without some nice shootouts and sexual trauma to wash down the timid, milquetoast “social commentary.” Violence and nudity are now badges of honor to be brandished in the face of oncoming mediocrity and narrative wheel-spinning. Granted, there is hope in inventive standouts like Mr. Robot, The Americans, True Detective, and Fargo, but our only hope at this point seems to be that a real Videodrome will come along (and it is possible, if narcissistic children like Sam Hyde can get TV contracts), go where Westworld is too afraid to go, and remind us of the dangers of the hypocritical normalization of depravity used to disguise lazy writing. We can only kill Videodrome once it actually presents itself.