The Real Mystery of Bates Motel

I am watching Bates Motel (Monday nights, A&E).  It’s engaging and scary.  Tune in if only for the performance by Vera Farmiga which really is astoundingly good.

I came away from last night’s episode thinking there are two kinds of drama on TV right now.  (Yes, there are more than two but indulge me.)  

ONE:

There’s the police procedural, that work horse of network TV. Law and Order, if you count all 6 versions, now has over 1000 episodes to its credit.  Then there’s CSI, NCIS and Criminal Minds

In all of these, we open with a crime and we close with some kind of resolution.  Chaos breaks into the world and then gets routed out of it. 

TWO:

Then there’s the another category that forgoes that this narrative and moral clarity.  I am thinking of Bates Motel which is shot through with menace and a mystery never goes away. 

You will say this is the nature of horror.  But this “dreadful indeterminacy” can be seen also in shows like Fringe, Lost, Orphan Black and Dolls. Something is out of kilter, the world no longer spins on its axis, the forces of disorder are building, and we are done for.  

SOME QUESTIONS

1. Is this a fair contrast?

2. Is the police procedural category diminishing?

3. Is there a second category of the kind proposed here?  (I am perfectly happy to hear everyone say “no.”  This is an open question.)  

4. If there is a second category, what should we call it?

5. Is it growing?

6. Why is it growing?

This is a question for those masters of popular culture, Sarah Zupko, Matthew Belinki, Tara Ariano or Sarah Bunting, and anyone else who wants to prove they are in their league.   

11 thoughts on “The Real Mystery of Bates Motel”

  1. This is an intriguing consideration and is something that my pop culture class is looking at this week. Perhaps this is a growing second category of media drama, but one thought I had was whether we analyze the contexts of these dramas as being generated by the conventions of production (economics, secondary markets, etc.) or as being generated by the cultural codes, norms, and values of the day (or, likely both!) In terms of the first area I am thinking of genre and the serial drama (vs. the stand-alone drama made for syndication). Fringe and Lost present clear challenges for syndication because of non-linearity, flashbacks and flashforwards, and the requirement of the viewer to carefully follow the drama (sometimes sequentially) as it unfolds whereas Law & Order & CSI allow for self-contained narratives. In considering these new, less linear drama narratives through the second area of cultural meaning, we might look at the possibilities of fan extensions of the narratives, the senses of discovery in cultural meaning, and forms of cultural and media convergence. Clearly, this is an exciting area and, as you state, suggests an opening up of cultural meaning, a challenging of its essential genres and conventions. We’ve seen new narratives of the anti-hero, the blurring of good & evil, and the dystopian society in video games and in media drama, so perhaps audiences are hungry for new takes on the Manichean stories of old. For me, the intrigue is looking at whether we are seeing a cultural shift in terms of how we (audiences) relate to media worlds (are we in the process of co-creating new narratives?) or whether the media industries are tapping into new marketing opportunities and reflecting, much less dramatically perhaps, some of the desires of new audiences.

    1. Scott, fantastic, thanks! are you writing something on this theme (“possibilities of fan extensions of the narratives, the senses of discovery in cultural meaning, and forms of cultural and media convergence”) and what’s the name of the course you are teaching it? Thanks again, Grant

      1. Grant, thanks, it’s SOC 111 Sociology of Pop Culture. My thoughts on this relate to a course that I will be teaching this summer in Mainz, called Cultures of Remaking. Generally interested in the dyanmics of these questions as they emerge in contexts of cultural remaking. Remaking is where the tension, and possibility, lies.

        1. I hope you will consider putting this course on line. What’s the program in Mainz? Best, Grant

          1. Here is the information on the seminar on remaking:
            http://www.zis.uni-mainz.de/1977.php
            http://tinyurl.com/d9c5ymy
            Had some new thoughts on your original post, especially in the context of anti-heroes and shows like Fringe. With Fringe, we find an interesting instance of remaking in terms of the self. The multiple timelines and parallel universes suggest different versions of the self—perhaps not unlike Gergen’s Saturated Self of years back—but more so the testing out of alternative identities and alternative interpersonal relationships. So, I suppose we might say that these new identities are reflections of a sort of “postmodernization” of the self. I then, I wonder, how are new constructions of the self connected to other instances of postmodernism in pop culture, such as the brand? It’s interesting that in the past certain moments of postmodernism in pop culture were seen as aesthetic-only moments—curiosities to ponder in the avant-garde sense. Today, with shows like these and their problematized versions of identity we might say that postmodernism—quite ironically—results in a more “accurate” realism of the times. In terms of identity and the self, Fringe’s multiplicities illustrate how people (audience members and consumers) may indeed view their lives in the real world.

          2. Scott, thanks for the links, looks like a great course, the theme of multiplicity is dear to my heart (Transformations) and yes that would be a nice irony! Best, Grant

  2. I guess one of the earliest sightings of category two was Twin Peaks (which my kids have just “discovered” – thanks Netflix!)

    What it reminds me of is what Doug Rushkoff is saying about Present Shock and the collapse of narrative.

    I think these are two reactions to that collapse – category one celebrates the idea that there are still some parts of society that can be dealt with by methodical step-by-step procedures and reassures the viewer that despite the uncertainties in her life, there is still such a thing as closure and resolution. On the other hand, category two says “There are no answers, only more questions. No destination, just the journey, get used to it” – it’s OccupyTV

    1. Lloyd, yes, we could be bifurcating just this way. And that would be v. interesting! Thanks, Grant

  3. I am certainly no “master of popular culture”, but hasn’t there been a category two for a long, long time now? I think it’s name is Fantasy.
    As Scott Lukas commented, the media industry has to choose what to produce based on two factors. What sells and what is available. My contention is that fantasy is selling big right now and the amount of material in this genre is hugh and mostly untapped.

    As to the why of it, I believe that the growth of horror, occult, sci-fi and fantasy are a direct result of our thinking that we are done with exploration! When I go to Barnes and Nobel I am amazed at the growth of the Sci-fi and horror sections. When combined they now rival the literature section. I remember 30 years ago it was just one small section.

    Except for the hard science’s, which belong to the realm of scientists, “we” know everything there is to know about our world. There aren’t any new frontiers. If there is no real unknown we must create our own. I suspect this is the driving force behind the new audience’s needs. The young, “target audiences” have this need.

    We now have scientific proof that worlds exist around other stars and postulate the existence of life on other worlds with increasing certainty. But, we also know that, to any one of us, the chance of contact in our lifetime is zero because they are too far to reach. No exploration opportunities there.

    So we are stuck here with nothing new to be found, so we make up our own:
    “Something is out of kilter, the world no longer spins on its axis, the forces of disorder are building, and we are done for.”

    We are so frustrated by “nothing new under the sun”! I guess we need these fantasies to keep our “fight or flight” instinct active.

    To me thinking this through creates more questions:

    Why are so many of us feeling like this so quickly, I don’t hear young people talking about this need. Is this proof that Jung is correct about the collective unconscious mind ?

    …and more importantly, in 2010, Craig Venter and his group announced that they created a new lifeform in a lab. Why is this not news? This is more scary than any tv show!

    1. Tom, great observations, doesn’t it feel like we are seeing MORE fantasy, especially if you chart popular culture from World War II. It feels like fantasy doesn’t really get rolling til the 1990s. That could be wrong. And if we have more life forms coming, art and life are now competing with one another. Thanks, Grant

  4. Except for the hard science’s, which belong to the realm of scientists, “we” know everything there is to know about our world. There aren’t any new frontiers. If there is no real unknown we must create our own. I suspect this is the driving force behind the new audience’s needs. The young, “target audiences” have this need.

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