There is much talk these days of the embarrassment of riches to be found on television these days; TV is the new cinema, as we are told by an endless succession of thinkpieces by TV critics eager to defend the importance of their jobs. This both is and is not true; certainly I believe there is a plenitude of high-quality comedy and drama on network and cable, and that, in general, the quality of today’s ‘prestige’ shows is far beyond that of even the best television of 20 or 30 years ago. The question is, how much does this matter in terms of the medium’s commercial appeal?
Even some of the most highly acclaimed shows of recent vintage never really got what could be called a mass audience. The Wire, famously, was so little watched that it was repeatedly in jeopardy of being prematurely canceled; Mad Men, which was one of the most talked-about shows of a generation, wasn’t much of an audience-grabber for all its influence, and consistently cost more to make than it brought in; and even Breaking Bad, by some accounts the most critically acclaimed television show of all time, did well by the standards of basic cable but would likely never have survived so long on a prime-time network.
To a certain extent, this no longer matters. Community, another critical darling, was always on shaky ratings ground, and ended up being a big money-loser for Yahoo!, but the very fact of its move to internet broadcasting proved that traditional notions of gaining big ratings are no longer the only way for a show to succeed, and that there are many other avenues open for cult shows. But it can still be useful to study what people — that is, lots of people, the majority of people, are watching, and while for the most part they’re watching the same things they’ve been watching for decades — lowest-common-denominator situation comedies, reality shows, and police procedurals — an old manifestation of pop culture is making itself known in a curious new manifestation
Camp has always been a difficult concept to codify. Despite literally hundreds of books and endless ink (and electrons) spilled, it’s still as slippery to pin down as pornography: you know it when you see it, unless you don’t. Something very like camp — something fairly far removed from kitsch and bearing some — but, critically, not all — the hallmarks of postmodernism, something that’s a little Grand Guignol and a lot artificial, but, crucially, almost entirely unironic — is dominating television ratings right now. It’s all over two of the highest-rated shows going, Empire and Scandal; it was a hallmark of the show that may have kicked off this entire current round, Glee; and it’s even been present on shows like House of Cards and Hannibal that didn’t becomes ratings blockbusters but got plenty of critical attention and influenced what came after.
It’s difficult to pin down what characterizes this new camp. It manifests itself in absurd plot points that stretch the definition of plausibility to the breaking point and beyond, forever upping the ante (although this is usually done outside the limitations of genre, and presented in a more or less ‘realistic’ setting), and it depends for its dramatic tension on the constant ramping up of consequences, as if its own premises were numbing the audience. It takes itself deadly serious even when its form, content, and tone are profoundly unserious. It is filled with artifice at every turn, and it aspires to a certain degree of elegance and ‘class’, although this is, at best, a low-bourgeoise conception of class that depends on gross signifiers of wealth and luxury drawn straight from music videos and soap operas. It is stylized and theatrical — some of the acting on Scandal, though it comes from talented and experienced performers, plays so strongly to the back row that it could be coming from an early 20th-century Broadway melodrama — and it revels in tackiness and tastelessness, while sublimating their qualities into the context of necessary dramatic movement.
One of the most urgent influences of the camp aesthetic is queerness, and it is manifested here in abundance. Creators are gay, actors are gay, characters are gay, plotlines are gay, and gayness — as sexual tendency, as lifestyle, as aspiration, as threat — is omnipresent; but this is not the evasive, coy queerness of past camp. It is the loud, out gayness of today. Here, though, it comes into close quarters with another tendency: while today’s camp is indisputably gay, it is also inescapably black, and increasingly female. It is no coincidence that big audiences have flocked to shows like this and away from traditionally white male middle-class concerns; it only reflects the way American demographics, and their preferences, have changed. But it must still pay tribute to its bourgeoise origins, hence the presence on Empire of the predatory lesbian and the home-wrecking, hyper-promiscuous gay man; and it must reconcile itself to 0ther currents in the stream. Tyler Perry’s work is absolutely saturated in this kind of camp, but it is also as opposed to gayness as both an act and a tendency.
What is especially shocking about this expression of camp is not the over-the-top, ensanguined plot points, or the cod psychology they apply to every situation (Freudianism is out of fashion almost everywhere but in the studios of Empire, the conference tables of The Newsroom and the meeting rooms of Scandal); it is the way they have abandoned the marginal and the frivolous. The creators of the new camp have transferred the style’s pretense, artifice, and commitment to subjects that were once almost entirely immune to the application of camp. Empire and Glee open up a camp critique to elements of show business normally thought either too serious (the world of music-industry mega-moguls) or too meaningless (high school show choirs) to be made campy; Scandal and House of Cards are as camp as Valley of the Dolls or Peyton Place, but they fully expect to be taken seriously as portrayals of Washington insider realpolitik.
None of this is to say that any of these shows are good; they are almost all bad, and in a fairly uniform way — that is to say, they are all bad in the same way, but what makes them special, and what makes them so compellingly watchable even if you hate them, is that the way in which they are bad is often outrageous and always unpredictable. It is this quality that makes the new camp so fascinating; what remains to be seen is if the shows that rely on it can sustain such hysterical heights while still keeping their audiences.