Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Whose cultural references are you writing?

My wife and I have decided to give Cougar Town a try this fall. Like many people, we bristled at its unfortunate title when it premiered last fall, and only caught the first minute or so when our Modern Family recording would run long. But that first minute gave me reason to think I might like it, so I pushed for adding it to our schedule in its second season. The best I can say about the season premiere is that nothing offended us enough to cancel the series recording just yet.

But something I saw on the show did mildly offend my sensibilities, and I thought I'd write about it today. And yes, there's a tie-in with the movies.

From what we could glean (for some reason we didn't get the first minute of the show on our recording -- and no, it wasn't on the end of Modern Family either), the teenage character Travis (played by Dan Byrd) is about to go off to college. That's not important except for the fact that it establishes his age at around 18. He and another character named Laurie (Busy Phillips) are having a conversation in which Travis tells her that he and his friends are planning to watch a marathon of films starring Emilio Estevez, referring to it as the "Estevez Festivez."

This is sort of a clever joke, but it's also totally bogus. You see, Emilio Estevez is not a meaningful cultural entity for a kid born in 1992. (Dan Byrd was actually born in 1985, but that's beside the point.) Arguably the last high-profile movie Estevez appeared in was D3: The Mighty Ducks, which came out in 1996, when Travis was four. In fact, Mighty Ducks movies were really the only movies Estevez would have made during this character's lifetime, aside from a couple other throwaways nobody remembers. The kind of movies you'd probably actually choose for an "Estevez Festivez" all came out in the 1980s.

That would be the equivalent of me, who was born in 1973, choosing movies from the late 1960s for an ironic film festival. Rather than Estevez movies, which is what I would actually choose, because they were actually a part of my viewing rotation when I was a kid.

There's a reason for this, of course. Cougar Town's writers are writing their own cultural references, not the references their characters should actually have.

If Travis were written like a real teenager living in 2010, he'd probably be talking about "Van Der Beek Week" or "Heder Theater," not about some fossil like Emilio Estevez. Similarly, if Abed from Community (Danny Pudi), who is supposed to be only a couple years older than Travis, were really obsessed with film references that were logical to his own experience, he wouldn't be so concerned with John Hughes movies. Specifically, The Breakfast Club, on which the show is essentially based, and which is heavily referenced in last season's pilot. Instead, he'd probably be trying to shoehorn in some complicated reference from American Pie.

But it's a peculiar failure of television writers -- or, more generously, a crutch -- to pepper their writing with cultural references that 35- to 40-year-olds consider ironically relevant to them. Psych is another show that lives or dies (usually dies) by this same kind of pop culture laziness, though to be fair, the two characters in that show are supposed to be in at least their late 20s.

This wouldn't be tolerated in the movies. Movie characters are usually held to a higher standard of realism. The script is dissected and challenged to see if each line is something the character would "really say." Of course, the standard of realism varies from film to film -- some films are going for complete and utter fantasy and anachronism. But you still don't usually see such a cavalcade of references to 1980s pop culture, regardless of the film's intentions. (Okay, maybe in Hot Tub Time Machine.) Or at least, you don't see them as spoken dialogue by teenagers. You most often see them as winks to the audience, most frequently (and regrettably) in animated movies. And who knows what reference points a talking squirrel may or may not have.

It seems this probably has something to do with the quantity of jokes TV writers have to write. It's not just 90 minutes worth of jokes in a feature length comedy, but maybe 484 minutes of jokes over 22 22-minute episodes (give or take). When you're scraping the bottom of the barrel for anything you think might stick, it's hard enough to find something in your own brain, let alone trying to access the brain of a person half your age.

Then there's always the possibility that it's an intentional act, or that some TV writers would describe it that way. In other words, they know the references are to movies that came out a decade before their characters were born -- but they don't care. And the justification for that would be that movies from the 1980s transcend their moment in history, and are considered classics that even the next generation of young people gravitate toward. Of this I would be quite suspicious. It sounds like a tendency among writers to romanticize their own formative years with a kind of tunnel vision that's inexcusably vain.

Or, if today's young people really are familiar with The Breakfast Club, perhaps it's only because television writers have referenced it so relentlessly, they needed to see what all the fuss was about.


Anonymous said...

I watched only 1 episode of Cougar Town and I don't like it. They all act and talk like they are in their 20s, and they are not.

On another note, according to my memory Shawn and Gus graduated high school in 1995, so I look it up. According to the Wikipedia page on Shawn he was born in 1977 and graduated in 1995, making him only a year younger than me and I get all of his lame references.

I liked this post.

Vancetastic said...


Thanks for the compliment!

Yeah, we may not last much longer than one episode either. But we have this terrible inability to give up on shows before they have proven themselves unworthy beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I actually think Psych is okay from time to time -- I don't watch it, but my wife does, and it's pleasant enough to catch snippets in the background. However, I always roll my eyes at how hard they try with the pop culture references. A show has to be more than that -- thankfully, Psych seems like it sometimes actually is more than that.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

I can answer your question with a question: Who do you think the target audience age range is for the show?

Vancetastic said...

Yes, that's a good point with Cougar Town, DGB. I'm not sure if it's quite as good a point with Community, though.

But I do agree that I am likely to see teens make more contemporary teen references in shows on Nickelodeon, etc.