On Ignoring Trends in Culture

I have a long-standing and often-mocked rule that once a particular cultural property becomes too popular, or too buzzed about, that popularity constitutes a prima facie reason to ignore it, or at least put it off. The rule has its origins in a kind of punk sentiment: "the only way to fill Madison Square Garden is with mediocrity." If 80% of cultural productions are middling-or-worse, and 90% only good, then increasing popularity is a sign that its qualities may have been misperceived, or may be nonexistent.

After all:
The fact is, you can complain as much as you like about unnecessarily dark and male-dominated prestige drama, but the number one drama on TV has no prestige whatsoever: It’s NCIS, a twelve-year-old crime procedural, which is a rip-off of a rip-off of a rip-off of Law and Order, and which, as a procedural, is explicitly dedicated to working through the same beats in the same order in every episode. (By my count, there are eight crime procedurals on TV Guide’s list of the top 50 shows; I wasn’t sure whether Castle or Hawaii Five-O qualified, not having really seen them, so the number may be closer to ten.) The number one comedy is The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom so carefully observant of formal conventions — the three-camera set-up, the laugh track — it feels like slipping through a time portal to 1987, and which is explicitly predicated on the idea that intelligent people are funny because they are strange. Speaking of intelligence, the only news program on the list is Sixty Minutes. It comes in at #24, one slot below The Mentalist, and ten slots below The Voice.

This also repeats itself at the top end: debut novels, films, television shows, and albums can all be extremely misleading about the merits of the people involved in creating them (see most first novelist's second novels, The Sixth Sense, Homeland, Turn on the Bright Lights). Sometimes the end result is a genuinely good first product that cannot be matched by subsequent output; sometimes popularity and critical success lead to re-tooling around purported strengths (TV shows with long runs tend to have radically different first and second seasons) that enable continued production but at a cost of some originality; sometimes extended runs reveal that there was only ever one idea in the first place and the creators' inability to develop something new actively tarnishes what came before.

Waiting--six months, a year, five years--is a pretty good way to avoid falling into these traps, and a good way to never feel burdened by the forces of culture: I'm in no rush to catch up on something, or avoid spoilers (another rule: anything where knowing how it resolves ruins the enjoyment of it is probably not worth one's time in the first place). It also more accurately replicates how we approach culture the rest of the time: no one particularly cares when I get around to reading Jane Eyre; I couldn't have supported Luis Buñuel in any form by the time I got to see The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or The Exterminating Angel, no matter how much I liked them; I didn't know about Javier Márias before 2011, and then went and worked through all his books in the usual way.

All of which is to say: you can have your Serial and your True Detective. Maybe I'll see y'all in another year or two.

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