A new type of hyper-aware genre entertainment seems to be emerging of late. Call it “meta-genre,” or “meta-cine”: films, as well as television shows, that self-consciously invite us to reflect on the conventions of genre itself. Is it parody, or is it more? Paul Popescu and Dayton Martindale examine why it might be good to take our new meta-cine.
Paul: One of my favorite films in the longer tradition of meta-generic entertainment is Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), a film written, directed, and performed by a group of comedians who also happened to be very knowledgeable about British history and the English literary tradition. Many of the quirks and jokes that make the film so great are actually references to some event or character from British history and literature. When you’re watching the film and all of a sudden you understand the literary history behind the rude Franglais of the French soldiers, or the historical inspiration for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, the comedic impact of the joke is amplified by contextual understanding.
Holy Grail is a film grounded in very well known traditions, at least for Anglophone cultures, so it has gained a cult following because there are enough people who understand the references of the film and can be “in on the joke.” In today’s culture with the unprecedented amount of information available to every person on just about any topic, films and television shows can tap into the same kind of meta-generic style that Holy Grail utilizes in order to enrich their content. There have been a lot of shows and films exploring meta-genre recently, so let’s focus in on a couple of them.
Dayton: I want to talk about The Cabin in the Woods from last year, which I can only describe as a horror film about horror films, and Community, which on the surface is a major network primetime sitcom about a study group at a community college, but underneath is a bold study of the narrative conventions associated with TV and film. Abed, one of the leads, openly talks about his life and his friend’s lives as if they’re TV characters, which his friends sometimes find offensive.
Paul: So what I’m curious about is whether these kinds of films and TV shows that rely on meta-genre in a non-parody way are really that different from earlier examples of meta-genre in film. The Cabin in the Woods for instance, strikes me as a movie that was very much a parody of horror convention, but presented in a totally unique way. For those who haven’t seen it, Cabin follows a group of college kids on a weekend getaway to a cabin that is actually a staging ground for a secretive organization that orchestrates and records horror-movie style massacres of college kids on weekend getaways to cabins. Talk about meta.
Then you have Community, and it feels like almost every episode is in some way a parody of a certain television or pop-cultural type. Episode 17 of Season 3 is a perfect example of this—the gang’s biology experiment is maliciously smashed and the episode becomes a full-fledged Law and Order parody.
Are these any different from other uses of meta-genre in film or television? I think Community definitely is, but it’s difficult to define exactly how. It’s a form of entertainment via meta-genre geared towards the culturally savvy.
Dayton: You are right about the presentation of Cabin. By making it partially about the making of horror movies, writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard go one step further down the meta-rabbit hole. But the other thing that’s different is that lots of Cabin is actually scary, especially compared to, say, Young Frankenstein. And the last half hour, which I don’t want to spoil because it is absolutely nuts, is genuinely exciting yet thought-provoking. Some parts are funny as hell, of course, and there are countless moments of superb parody, but comedy isn’t the only prime goal.
Whedon himself, in an interview with Total Film, called it a “very loving hate letter” to the horror genre: “On some level it was completely a lark, me and Drew trying to figure out what the most fun we could have would be. On another level it’s a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies.” So it does have the standard parody element, but there’s also a more serious analysis of the genre as a whole going on that I personally had never seen before.
With regards to Community, I loved the Law and Order episode, despite the fact that never in my life have I sat down and watched Law and Order. It’s as if somehow the conventions of the television legal drama have become part of the cultural consciousness; I don’t need to even watch them to know what they’re like. To be honest, I probably would have gotten even more out of the episode if I’d actually seen some Law and Order, much like how some of the references to John Hughes’ 1980s teen movies in season 1 went over my head. They definitely do expect you to have seen everything. This is probably an unreasonable expectation, but in the Netflix age perhaps slightly less so.
But here’s what makes Community different: it’s a comedy, but when it parodies things it doesn’t just try to exploit them for laughs. I’m thinking of season 2’s Christmas episode, which was primarily in Claymation. Yes, this is intrinsically funny, and they parodied many aspects of the standard Christmas special (the musical numbers, the candy-themed locales). But by making the characters aware of the silliness, they also explore why Christmas specials have the generic conventions that they do. This ended up being my favorite episode.
Another standout is the bottle episode. It begins with Abed describing the concept of a bottle episode (a TV episode that takes place entirely in one place with the same characters, no one leaving or entering), but then, when someone’s pen mysteriously goes missing, the group decides not to leave the room until either they find it or someone confesses to stealing. I believe another character actually proclaims, “This is our bottle episode!” And it’s funny, but it also discusses the dramatic uses of bottle episodes and why so many shows have found them beneficial.
So I agree: meta-genre is certainly entertainment, but it’s not strictly entertainment anymore. The new meta-cine really tries to make you think.
Paul: Very good point about Cabin. Thinking back on it now, it really was a scary movie in spite of the fact that Whedon eviscerated the most dearly cherished tropes of the horror genre at every turn. The interesting thing about Cabin is that it wasn’t only scary in the way any thriller or violent film can be—though the monsters certainly did add to the scariness—but the analysis of genre that you refer to actually makes the film a more psychologically frightening experience.
Consider this: the scenes featuring Gary and Steve, the two principal Facility technicians, delve pretty deep into the audience’s infatuation with viewing ritual human sacrifice. In Cabin that audience is “the Ancient Ones,” a collection of mysterious, bloodthirsty deities who are appeased by ritual human sacrifices. In real life though, regular people play the part of the Ancient Ones, as audiences demand ever more violent, realistic, and depraved depictions of human death in their horror movies. In this respect, Whedon’s meta-generic narrative doesn’t just poke fun at the horror genre, but actually reveals the underlying scariness of that genre’s popularity.
Community has some of this generic analysis going on as well, and while each episode does parody the types of the television medium as a whole, analyzing those types results in more profound, or at least more cerebral, episodes than your standard sitcom. Community is nothing if not smart, and that smartness is a large part of what makes it stand out for its fans. By creating storylines that depend on prior knowledge of a character type or plot device, audiences are rewarded for putting together the puzzle and having the context of why something is funny. In this way, audiences of a show like Community are more active participants in the comedy than viewers of a show that presents humor as something that just is.
I think this kind of formula for a show has been really successful not just because Community has great writers and show-runners, but also because the audience is ready for entertainment that demands more of its audience. For instance, you say that you’ve never seen an episode of Law and Order, yet the episode of Community that parodies that show still made perfect sense to you. The conventions of the crime drama have been so ingrained in the cultural consciousness that even someone who isn’t familiar with the source material can still understand the intention behind the on-screen actions. Combine that with the unprecedented amount of information Americans process every day and you have the formula for an audience that can digest all of the minute references and meta-commentaries that a show like Community or a film like The Cabin in the Woods will throw at its audience.
Do you think this is the beginning of a trend, or just two unique outliers?
Dayton: All of those things you mentioned make it sound like it could be the start of something. This is the information age and pop culture is impossible to escape, so you’d think filmmakers would capitalize on that. That being said, it does require a certain level of smarts on behalf of the creators. Guillermo del Toro, who is usually a wonderful filmmaker, had an opportunity to do something similar with Pacific Rim this summer but failed. He filled the film with homages to action movie tropes and Japanese monster movies, but there didn’t always seem to be a point. There was some success with a “mad scientist” subplot—a subplot that verged on parody—but overall much of the movie came across as simplistic. Don’t get me wrong, I was wildly entertained, but I was disappointed that del Toro showed off his impressive genre awareness without actually doing anything constructive with it.
Cabin and Community are showing what this meta-genre style is capable of, and I hope that others are willing to follow in their footsteps.
So is meta-genre simply a form of comedy or is it something more? Up until now, most meta-entertainment has been just parody. But today’s meta-genre entertainment—what we have called meta-cine—seems different to us, and maybe even better for us. Meta-cine is not just for laughs. It also has a more serious purpose: smart cultural or social commentary. Cabin in the Woods and Community offer more than parody for parody’s sake, actively trying to improve their respective genres. Whether or not you’ve got a spoonful of sugar, this meta-cine goes down smooth.