Genre TV: Why Bother?

Ricky + Wolesh
Singing the praises of genre TV: The author (left) harmonizes with a Scarran named Wolesh (right).

“Genre” television — science fiction, fantasy, and other so-called “non-mainstream” shows — is expensive, tough to produce, and tougher to produce well.

The occasional breakout hit notwithstanding, it’s also a niche product, constantly struggling to corral enough viewers to survive. And it’s next to invisible at the Emmys or BAFTAs.

In short, it gets no respect.

So why do we make it?

Two simple reasons: money and groupies.

All right, I confess: there’s a third reason…

Director Orson Welles said that a film studio was “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.”

Well, making a genre TV series is like playing with a train set and a squadron of radio-controlled model airplanes and a Build-Your-Own-Robot Kit and a HyperGameStationPlayCubeXii2 all at once . . .

It’s fun.

Now it’s true that by the ninth week of production, we bleary-eyed producers will be swearing that the next series we work on will be Forty-Four Minutes of Two Actors Sitting Around Talking. No aliens, no spaceships, no CGI, no prosthetics, no pyrotechnics, no animatronics, no weird costumes, sets, makeup, or props . . . no weird anything.

Don’t you believe it. We’d be bored out of our skulls in two acts flat.

You haven’t lived until you’ve spent eight hours in a writers’ room with six madmen and madwomen having a violent argument about the logic of time paradoxes.

Or pondered, in a production meeting, what color(s) the Alien of the Week’s bodily fluid(s) should be. (“No, we did lime green two episodes ago on the Tavloids, remember? How about red-orange?” “Naah, it won’t show up well ’cause the creature’s scales are gonna be orange. Maybe purple?”)

Or sat in a screening room during a final sound mix and been blown away by an episode that’s finally all put together — with astonishing computer graphics, thundering sound effects, and a stunning musical score.

What’s more, this stuff’s also fun to write. Where else can you tell stories like these?

  • A planet of primitive aliens mistakes a visiting human for a god — and prepares a human sacrifice.
  • A living spaceship gives birth to a dangerous, weapons-laden offspring with a bad attitude.
  • A person links minds with a wolf — and gets a rush from commanding it to kill.
  • A lost human traveler finally returns to Earth, only to find that: (1) this Earth is just a gigantic alien simulation; (2) he never left and it was merely a weird dream, or; (3) Earth’s real, but it ain’t home no more.

Really, there’s not much one can’t write in a genre show. A musical? Joss did it on Buffy. A Looney-Tunes-style cartoon? DK did it on Farscape. Horror movie? Fifties perfect-world sitcom? Existential surrealism? Cops? Bug-eyed monsters? Western with ray guns? Been there, done those, had a blast.

Oh, I suppose this is where I ought to blather on about speculative fiction speaking to the human condition as no other genre can, presenting societal analogies and archetypal myths and bla bla bla.

And, you know, all that term-paper talk is true enough. The genre can pack a mean allegorical punch at times. There is actual nutritive value to be found now and again.

But that’s part of what makes it fun: the ability to say Darned Near Anything. To poke taboos with a sharp stick. To extrapolate where no television has extrapolated before. To dream the impossible dream — sorry, didn’t mean to turn this blog into a musical.

Okay, now that you’ve decided (correctly) that some (if not all) TV writer/producers are raving lunatics, let’s talk about you.

Why do you watch this stuff?

(Assuming you do, of course. And other than the obvious reason that you possess above-average taste and intelligence, of course.)

I mean, folks, you’re definitely in the minority. Far more people have seen Law & Order or American Idol than have ever seen Smallville or Pushing Daisies.

And watchers of The Office don’t get stigmatized as “geeks” or “nerds.” NCIS fans aren’t generally advised to get a life. Show up for jury duty in a dress Susan wore on Desperate Housewives, nobody blinks twice. (Well, unless you’re male.) But show up in a Starfleet uniform — and it makes it onto CNN.

Granted, some of you are almost as loony as we are. But having met a fair number of you online, in print, or in person, something else is clear to me:

Compared to the Vast Television Audience, you Genre Fans may be relatively low in number — but you’re unbeatably high in passion.

You don’t just watch, you participate. You discuss episodes online as you watch them. You create websites, fanfic, and vids. You attend conventions for your favorite shows, long after they’re off the air. And you organize sustained, elaborate, and heartfelt campaigns to get your favorite shows back on the air.

Why? Why such intense devotion?

I suspect that you could now blather about Futurism and Optimism and Romanticism and Escapism and Lotsofotherisms . . . but I suspect it would also boil down to this:

Sure, genre television can be challenging and inspiring and mind-expanding and all that, but first and foremost —

It’s fun.

And, hey, that’s a perfectly good enough answer for me.

17 thoughts on “Genre TV: Why Bother?”

  1. Why do I watch? As you said it’s fun. It’s also full of all that other stuff you rambled on about. I grew up on Original Trek and love that in science fiction and fantasy the worlds are as large or small as one’s imagination. I also love that each person’s perspective on life colors the way they see the show and I learn something new about the show in talking with other fans about it that I hadn’t seen or known before.

    Specifically with say Farscape, I loved that the sadistic producers didn’t treat the fans like idiots. We were treated like the intelligent beings we are. We didn’t get smacked in the head with the facts repeatedly. You and DK and the others knew we were smart and didn’t really bother (or felt the need) filling in all the small pieces. Fans figured it out on our own and it worked. Surprise! Fans who actually THINK and participate in the show, scary prospect isn’t it?

    Usually in scifi/fantasy shows, the plots might all seem very similar, but usually they’re twisted in such a way that it’s hard to tell. Law & Order, geez, how many more incarnations do we really need of it? *yawn* Boring! Give me Pushing Daisies, Farscape, Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me and just about any other scifi/fantasy based show and I’m a happy camper.

    Oh and the sarcasm, I LOVE the sarcasm in scifi/fantasy shows. 😀

    1. Sarcasm? What sarcasm?!

      I grew up on Original Trek as well (sheesh, on its very first network run, when it was prefaced by an animated NBC peacock logo and a stentorian voice-over: “The following program is brought to you in LIVING COLOR, on NBC”) as did Rock, DK, and of course John Crichton. I still admire the show’s energy and boldness. The good guys didn’t always win; the American Way (okay, the Federation Way) didn’t invariably prevail. One of my favorite moments of the series is in Gene L. Coon’s “Errand of Mercy” — where Kirk and his Klingon enemy Kor wind up standing shoulder to shoulder, furiously berating a Godlike alien who’s just put a stop to not only their fight but also an interstellar war, arguing that the alien ought to mind its own business!

      1. Whatever man. While I enjoyed Original Trek and ST:NG they always (to me anyway) wrapped up the eps with a nice neat little bow. No one was mad at anyone any more. Farscape didn’t do that. If D’Argo was mad at John, he stayed mad for a couple of eps. I loved that. That to me is more human like than making everyone all happy and Pollyannaish at the end of every eps.

        1. On ST:NG, people rarely got very mad at anyone EVER! Those people were darn near Perfect, which made ’em reallllly tough to write for. Farscape was a breath of fresh air in that regard — everybody was at everybody else’s throat, and nothing was easily resolved. Much more fun.

          1. Farscape was infinitely more fun to watch as a result. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed ST:NG, but I LOVE FS. 😀

            And as good Froon groupie, I posted your lovely email on my lj with the links and all. 😀 Pimpin’ Fusion like you asked.

            1. Excellent. You get the Groupie of the Month Medal plus a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant in Froon’s Loons.

              Now if I could ask One More Small Favor? The community forums are (frelling FINALLY) up and running at and there’s a virgin “Fan Art” forum just begging for contributions… like, say, those lovely Fusion icons you made a little while back…

              1. Now that was frillin’ funny, what else do you have for us-see commeny on fusion site. Sheryl

  2. It’s what smart television really is supposed to be!

    Another thing that I loved about Farscape was the fact the storylines moved. You had to tune in each week to see how the overarching storylines progressed. A person didn’t just have a fight with someone and then be best friends in the next episode. Each episode didn’t have all conflicts resolved by the end to start anew in the next episode. I like that there weren’t that many stand-alone episodes in which nothing really happened.

    I love the way that it drew the audience in, made us fall in love with it, only to completely change our original perspectives about plot and character development. It was utterly, hands-down, brilliant writing and an exciting journey for all involved.

    I hope you had a good Christmas! Happy New Year! =)

    1. Re changing original perspectives: It was Rock’s genius when creating Farscape to deliberately populate it with recognizable sci-fi archetypes — the duty-bound professional soldier, the pacifist spiritual priest, the tough and taciturn samurai-like warrior — so that the audience wouldn’t be overwhelmed at first with a confusing assortment of aliens. But it was always Rock’s intention merely to begin with familiar types and add complexity as we went along; right from the start, Rock and DK encouraged their writers to add traits and quirks and new levels to the characters. (So in my very first script as a fresh-faced freelancer, I gave Zhaan not only a bit of a temper but the ability to kick butt. DK and Rock liked it, so it stayed… as did I.)

      And Happy New Year back atcha! Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu!

  3. Why do I watch? For one thing, its obvious that it takes effort to creat quality. Its not some mindless reality based show that the network picked up because its production costs are low. While I do view some “mainstream” shows, they tend to be shows that can be just a little off kilter. These are the shows that mostly don’t last because the networks underestimate their viewers. Sci-fi sometimes makes me reflect, ALWAYS entertains me, and give me a much needed alternative to the mindless tripe that the mainstream tries to force feed me. Seriously, if I want to hear about horrible crime, I’ll watch the news. If I want to hear marginal singing,I’ll go to a Karaoke bar.
    Characters in Sci-fi tend to be more tue to life. The good guys don’t always win. The good guy sometimes doesn’t do the right thing. The good guy tries to do the right thing, but it backfires. Hell, sometimes the good guy is actually the BAD guy!
    And Sci-fi introduced me to MAMBO shirts.

    1. Interesting that you say that sci-fi characters tend to be more true to life; one of the traditional mainstream knocks against sci-fi is that its characters are too frequently one-dimensional and unreal. Me, I don’t think any genre has a monopoly on stereotyped characters or cliched plotting or simplistic themes; lazy writing is lazy writing where’er it lives…

      Besides, any genre that introduces anyone to Mambo shirts is plainly SUPERIOR!

      1. Well, I think the mainstrean knocks are partly due to lazyness. Sci-fi has layers(Like onions, NOT parfaits!) You have to search out the layers. As a person who survived Catholic High school, I was exposed to Shakespeare. “Conscience of the King” was obviously a variation of “King Lear”, but I still run into some people who refuse to believe it because “its only Science Fiction…”

        1. And Forbidden Planet, of course, was a variation on The Tempest… and one of my Farscape scripts has a character who speaks entirely in iambic pentameter. TAKE THAT, MAINSTREAM SNOBS!

          (Okay, so the iambic pentameter didn’t magically elevate the ep to High Art, or even Medium Art, but it WAS a blast to write.)

  4. By the way , I would love more farscape!! And yes, my husband does call me a sci-fi geek! Sheryl

  5. Just so you know “A living spaceship gives birth to a dangerous, weapons-laden offspring with a bad attitude” made me grin like a complete idiot. Seriously? That was the best concept ever and was what made me fall in love with Farscape (that and the bad tempered offspring’s bad tempered pilot, but I digress…)

    Why do I watch sci fi? Because it’s all about imagination. You cannot tell stories in any other genre like you can sci fi. It’s convention-breaking. Mind-warping. Envelope-pushing. It’s frelling awesome and I love it.

  6. OK.. this thread brings me to the crux of the initial contact. I’m writing film and television scripts for a small, underfunded production company and for my Masters in Creative Writing in a program that is notorious for despising “genre writing.” My argument is that ALL writing is genre of some sort. One only has to step into Blockbuster or Barnes and Noble to realize just how compartmentalized writing has become. It’s not just “Fantasy/Science Fiction” anymore. It’s “Fantasy,” “Science Fiction,” “Vampires,” that Harry someone series, etc., etc., etc. Fortunately, my teachers have actually been praising the stories because, despite being “genre,” I’ve somehow managed to capture the “non-genre fiction” human condition in each storyline.

    I’m looking for a producer, Froon. Bottom line. And I have never forgotten the moment I learned that “You do know that FrooniumRicky is RIchard Manning, right?”

    Any assistance, even if it’s only moral support, would be greatly appreciated. I assume you can obtain my email address from this comment.

    Again, be awesome, sir!


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