Pop culture lifts off?

House is a new drama from Fox.  Hugh Laurie (sporting a new American accent) plays a doctor.  His character falls somewhere between Monk and Becker.  He’’s eccentric.  He’’s irascible.  He’’s gifted.


But the interesting thing is the dialog.  There is lots of talk that is actually quite hard to follow.  We are treated a great rush of medical lingo and diagnostic contemplation.   Rarely, do we get an appearance from "Dr. Exposition"” (thank you, Mike Myers) to clear things up.  In the place of a detailed understanding, we are left with a mere gist and a general understanding: it’’s complicated, they’’re smart, this is urgent, go figure.

In The Wire (HBO), there are long moments when I can’’t understand the dialog, and several moments when I can’’t follow the plot.  The former is "straight out of Compton"” or in this case Baltimore.  The latter is so fiendishly complicated that the viewer is obliged to just sit back and hope it all comes out in the wash. 

There is a fundamental contract in pop culture between producers and consumers: that the latter shall always understand what actors are saying and where the plot is going. 

This contract reflects several things: first, that the American cinema has always been attended by people who have English as a second language, second, that people are often deeply distracted by other things: eating, day dreaming, necking, wondering whether they turned off the stove.  Good writing always finds a way of sending back a rescue party for anyone who might have lost their way.  Enter the trope of repetition and of course, Dr. Exposition.  ("So you’’re saying is the butler did it!”)

Most of all, the contract of pop culture is driven by the fact that the Hollywood and Burbank are commercially driven.  You can’’t baffle the consumer and expect to make your numbers.  (It is precisely because the American cinema respected or at least enforced this contract that it has world wide reach, while the more sophisticated French cinema so infrequently escapes the art house.)

The pop culture contract has never sat well with writers and directors.  They yearned to create stories with nuance and intricacy to satisfy their "art."”  But someone on the production team then must intervene with a brusque instruction: "keep it simple, stupid.”"  This tells us that there has always been an internal pressure in the industry to break the contract, and how assiduously it was enforced.

Hollywood has been attempting to rework the contract for some time.  In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman was happy to give us dialog we couldn’’t quite hear and plot points we couldn’’t quite follow.  I worked on this film as a chauffeur.  I heard the shouting when Warren Beatty got his glimpse of the first rushes.  He was not happy.  He didn’’t quite say to Altman, "you have broken the fundamental contract of pop culture,”" but we got the idea.

Of course there has always been a community of film goers who don’’t mind plot and dialog indeterminacy.  The art house crowd expects this sort of thing.  It was proof that they were unmoored, man, that they were brave enough to space walk without a harness, that they take their leave of the culture capsule.  Bangin!  Plot indeterminacy was proof of citizenship in hipster city. (Even as it was, to be fair, the very condition of certain kinds of artistic illumination.)

Those of us who have done hard time at art house, welcome the developments that House and The Wire represent.  We are well prepared and grateful, even when confused.

But what about the poor souls who bought the bargain, the ones who believe that it is Hollywood’’s job to keep things simple?  These people must be very unhappy indeed.  They can always turn the channel, and I don’’t doubt that that’’s exactly what they do.  But now there are enough viewers to sustain shows like House and The Wire, we can be certain that there will be an upward pressure on all the other shows to embrace plot indeterminacy too.  The artistic credentials of writers and directors will see to this. 

If the plot indeterminacy of House and The Wire is the coming thing, we are watching pop culture cut away one of the conditions that made it converge, hew to the middle, keep it’s finger on the pulse, and otherwise stay to the mainstream.  If pop culture is lifting off, we can expect it to fragment and innovate ever more fiercely.  Without the pop culture contact, it is unmoored, and, yes, I do mean Michael. 


website for House here

13 thoughts on “Pop culture lifts off?

  1. NigelMellish

    Hugh Laurie’s American accent really threw me off. My mind registered “Bertie Wooster” and my ears registered “Trapper John, MD”.

  2. Jason Ligon

    “The Wire” is the best program currently produced in any format, on cable or network.

    It has black American characters who are fully developed people. It is very smart, and it is researched meticulously. A friend of mine who used to be an officer points out dozens of little bits here and there that the show just ‘gets right’.

    Gang members blow each other away as a rule, and run from the cops as a rule. Gun fights with officers are very rare. Most dramas get this wrong. The reclassifying of one type of crime so that it is no longer reflected in a scrutinized category (i.e. “We have achieved a 10% drop in assault under my watch.”) struck my friend as especially familiar.

    Watch this series from start to finish; use on demand cable if you have it.

  3. slimedog

    Plot indeterminacy. Yeah, that’s what’s gonna get me to spend my free time watching the tube: more aimless crap. “Quick, honey, turn on Slackers. I can’t wait to see what doesn’t happen!”

  4. Joe

    I also do not see the great social implications of people muttering under their breaths and using cutting-edge slang on television. But I think it is a good thing that viewers have more and more varied choices now. Of course, you have to have cable.

    Wasn’t “reality television” supposed to fill this void? I generally understand what people are saying on an episode of “Cops”. I understand real real people better than fake real people, go figure.

    But the other part, where plots leave more to the imagination and require more thought, that is very welcome to me. People might even talk to each other about television programs more.

  5. Sean

    When I first saw the ads for House I though “oh great, another doctor and/or lawyer worship program.” I mean how many more CSIs can one possibly withstand? We know doctors have important jobs. We know they are a detriment to society. But I also reallized that Brian Singer was producing the show and being a fan of the X-Men movies I thought why not give it a chance. I must say I have been very impressed thus far. The dialogue is indeed biting, but naturally the medical lingo is going to go over most of our heads.

    But the shows success probably rests more on the depth, or in this case,lack of depth of Laurie’s character. This shallowness, this selfish attitude in Laurie’s character I think is the real cultural trend. American culture thrives on the opportunity to be cruel or to belittle others. It’s also a reflection of many of the character types that have entered the medical field–those fed up with the tediousness of day to day diagnosis and thirsting for more high profile cases that will advance their careers (not to generalize all doctors as I think there is an initial interest in wanting to help others). We can’t help but be drawn in to Lauries sarcastic quips and his boredom with the day to day because I’m sure its how many of us want to act in our own work settings but can’t muster up the strength. So I appreciate the show’s ability to showcase a character that reflects our inner behavio, the way many of us really want to behave–an essense that most overproduced shows tends to overlook.


  6. Brian Hawkins

    Huh. I just got the joke in Basil Exposition’s name in Austin Powers.

    That only took, what, 8 years? With help. Thanks. Back to my coffee…

    Oh, and yes…The Wire is my new favorite show. I started renting season 1 on DVD Sunday and I haven’t had a productive evening since. I will definitely check out House

  7. Brian Hawkins


    I guess I can get away with this, since I just owned up to being slow on the uptake myself…

    Basil is the guy in the movie that briefs Austin on his mission, thereby bringing him (and the audience) up to speed.

  8. Scott McArthur

    Even the “low” end will become more self contained and obscure. Witness Jeff Foxworthy’s Blue Collar TV.

  9. cm

    Another thing with House is that nobody dies. (At least not on the three episodes I’ve seen.)

  10. Pingback: Kristiws Kinista

Comments are closed.