As much as we love science fiction and fantasy here, we have to admit they have a limited range. Or do they? Mainstream shows don’t have aliens or gnomes, but sometimes they capture the feelings of otherworldliness and outrageousness better than scifi and fantasy. What are your favorite stealth genre shows?
It’s a good time to be a genre fan. Look at all the media that is out there to cater to us. Even if we limit ourselves to tv, we have everything from big-budget epics to family-oriented fare to funny sitcoms. If we widen our gaze a little, we have even more than that. There are a few mainstream shows that wouldn’t be out of place as science fiction or fantasy series.
The first one, and arguably the most popular, is Mad Men. It’s no surprise that it embraces the most popular of the genres, the vampire fantasy – there’s an entire season of the show that heavily references the sixties vampire show Dark Shadows. The main character, Don Draper, is quickly revealed as the vampire of the series. His backstory shows that he died and came back to life as something new. He subsequently used his hypnotic powers to acquire fortune and worldly possessions, and collected quite a harem of idealistic young wives or girlfriends that he proceeded to suck the life out of. There are plenty of vamps that stalk the halls of his ad agency, plus there’s Pete Campbell – who anyone that watches the show has to know is basically a goblin.
In fact, despite the association with Dark Shadows, Mad Men has a spiritual twin in True Blood. They both trade heavily in pretty people experiencing a heady mix of sex n’ death on screen. They both stand back and watch as values from different eras clash heavily with the modern world. Most importantly, they’re not just about themselves, but about the American subcultures they inhabit. Mad Men takes us temporally away from the mainstream, letting us see the sixties as not just the birth of hippies, but as a place where everyone gets drunk at lunch, landing a contract with a ketchup manufacturer means the ultimate prestige, and pulling up a secretary’s skirt is an accepted game at holiday parties. True Blood takes us to small-town southern America, where people keep massive books full of ancestral records and the first thing you ask a vampire is if he’ll speak at a local civil war historical society called, “The Descendants of our Glorious Dead.”
And then there’s the scifi tv. Although there are a lot of shows that make the most of a post-apocalyptic anarchy stalked by zombies and crime bosses, like Breaking Bad, and superhero shows like The Mentalist and House, I prefer the show that’s a truly immersive work of alien encounters and strange worlds - Girls. Most soft science fiction is about the encounters that would happen if someone turned the normal rules of behavior just slightly to the left. Girls explores a world in which exactly this happens every week. People have to deal with others who have a totally other set of values, and end up in situations of extreme weirdness – like a person who explains why it’s normal to expect sex in exchange for a spilling red wine on a carpet, or someone who would never volunteer vital information unless specifically asked and is blown away that, to everyone else's mind, that counts as lying, or an employer that would blithely expect their employee to prostitute themselves or do drugs just for “material” to write about and who spouts unintelligible motivational phrases when questioned.
Even the familiar aspects of Girls work as science fiction. Many books and movies explore the idea of an alien race that seems perfect until humans come to know it better and have their “To Serve Man,” moment, or a race that seems like evil invaders until they are revealed to be, in a way, justified and noble. Girls presents familiar types of people and reveals the alien sides of them – both desirable and undesirable. There’s the blonde, thin bohemian Jessa, who looks like the sexy and uninhibited type, until it’s revealed that she’s just as uninhibited about bodily fluids as she is about everything else. And through the main character, Hannah, we learn that quirkiness isn’t a double-edged sword so much as a spiked mace – efficient when correctly deployed but able to cause a lot of damage. The series is about when vastly different cultures are put into close quarters and the strange situations that people get into when they explore an alien world. There are few sci-fi shows as creative.
Television has always been about creating little worlds that are separate from our own. Sometimes they appear to be about reality, but clearly aren’t. Are there shows out there that you see as more fantastic than realistic? Are there shows that spin science fact so far that they become science fiction? Let us know about the shows that you think have turned everyday reality into genre fiction.