In Praise of Genre Television

Here’s the thing. I don’t like the dark, gritty Batman. I like the pun-slinging, shark repellent-spraying, wham-pow Batman of Adam West and the Lego movies. Similarly, when The CW premiered iZombie, a silly procedural about a zombie who also solves crimes, I was on board. Sometimes I get frustrated when pop culture forgets to be fun and instead turns serious. One thing I’ve come to respect about The CW is the network’s support of genre television, shows that try to elevate the material by doing the genre they are in precisely and enthusiastically, rather than transforming it into something else.

Take another example: Jane the Virgin. The show started out with a telenovela premise: a virgin becomes pregnant due to accidental artificial insemination. From there, it has continued to spin soap operaish, telenovela tropes. There is always at least one love triangle, alongside surprise evil twins, mysterious parentage, and suspicious deaths (sometimes faked). Even as the show sometimes takes on serious themes, like immigration, it uses the elements of its genre to do something interesting and compelling.

Less acclaimed but also fun properties like Supergirl, The Flash, and The Vampire Diaries similarly seem to enjoy their genre natures—improbable plot twists, heavy-handed metaphors, and all. These aren’t prestige shows, but they win loyalty from fans and even some critics by unapologetically being themselves.

When I was thinking about how these kinds of shows fill a particular role in the media landscape, and how that role is absent when genre tries to be gritty, it reminded me of the discussion we had in my Comm Ethics class recently about Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion & Embrace. Volf turns to Paul’s idea of the body of Christ to help us understand how to balance particularity and universality. Specifically, he addresses the dilemma that Jesus came for everyone but to a specific time and place—first-century Palestine. This leads Volf to an ethic that asks us to value our own particular identities, but with enough distance to also appreciate the gifts of the diverse traditions and experiences of others in the body of Christ. Paul asks, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?” and Volf extends that to church practice, suggesting that different individuals and communities fill different roles, while also being part of a unified body. We can enjoy and embrace what makes our own tradition unique, but only if we also value the contributions of others.

If we think about popular culture similarly, we might celebrate all kinds of work that gleefully fulfills its own role. Art can use different narrative forms, different archetypes, and different emotional notes to inspire thought, empathy, and human connection. If we fault media intended to be silly and broad for not being serious and realistic, we miss what it does for us, and we maybe miss what it has to offer.

Not that there isn’t a place for critique. With the abundance of superhero narratives, for instance, there is certainly room for raves and pans and plenty in between. What I’m advocating for instead is that we expand our notions of what makes something “good,” and maybe bring the same open-mindedness to Christian tradition. Lots of things can be good in different ways, and we are only enriched when we start to see more variety. I, for one, can’t wait to have that lesson reinforced with a new season of my favorite genre TV.

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