Is Buffy the new Hamlet?
Historical perspective is an interesting phenomenon. When I was a kid I thought Ultraman was the coolest show going, but now it seems awfully cheesy, even by today's Power Rangers' standards. The simple passage of time allows us to see things in a new light. Popular culture certainly represents this phenomenon. It is often mentioned how Shakespeare was considered something of a populist and not all that well-received by the cultural elite of his time.
While reading a biography of C. S. Lewis (The Narnian), I came across a passage that got me thinking. The author, Alan Jacobs, discusses how the modern novel as a literary genre is a relative newcomer on the literary scene (about 300 years old) and has, consequently, had to struggle for acceptance. He says that for the first hundred years of the novel's existence, people viewed it as a lightweight and inconsequential piece of popular culture that paled in comparison with epic poetry. As such, the works of people like Charles Dickens were held to be mere entertainment and not real artistry. Of course, eventually perspective shifted and the novel is now credited with contributing numerous examples of classic literature.
I can't help but wonder if we are in the midst of a similar cultural shift with respect to film and television. How much of the negative evaluation of film and particularly television is due to objective analysis as opposed to culturally constructed biases? In fact, the historical perspective appears to be shifting already . Whereas film and television was long denigrated by academics as nothing more than lightweight entertainment, now numerous academics are treating film and television as pieces of art requiring academic study. A small group of academics are even suggesting the creation of a canon of classic television, in which select television shows would be treated with the same reverence and academic interest as classic literature. Many of these same academics argue that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the new Shakespeare. I am not willing to go quite that far, but I don't deny their point.
Steven Johnson is a science writer who looks to have written an intriguing book (thanks to Emily Dial-Driver for turning me on to it). The title says it all: Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. He suggests that film, television, and, yes, even reality shows are engaging us in beneficial ways. I hope to read the book over the summer and offer a series of reflections on it as I go. But for now, I leave this thought behind: Two hundred years from now, will people be looking back at shows like Lost, Gilmore Girls, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the same reverence that we study Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dickens, and Poe?