Wild Palms and default genres

20.29, Monday 18 Oct 2021

I’m halfway through my twice-a-decade rewatch of Wild Palms and it’s striking how much it uses melodrama, and actually the overall feel is that of a daytime serial.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s the single para overview:

Wild Palms is a 1993 Oliver Stone sci-fi miniseries, based on Bruce Wagner’s comics of the same. Based in 2007 Los Angeles (everyone wears Victorian shirts) it’s about virtual reality but through the lens of the TV company that introduces the first show with at-home holograms. There are drugs that, when you overdose, cause you to see cathedrals. The boss is a senator who has founded a Scientology-like religion about synthetic reality, the protagonist is a patent attorney, and the entire thing turns out to be a political feud. But it’s barely science fiction at all – it’s super domestic, the story of upper middle class families in LA. The cast list is insane. There’s a William Gibson cameo 26 minutes into the first episode, and beyond the TV show there’s a book called the Wild Palms Reader, a compilation from Brenda Laurel (who was also wetware consultant), Hans Moravec, Genesis P-Orridge, William Gibson again, and Bruce Sterling. The book is half fictional world-building and half factual speculation about our actual futures, and the entire thing is a genre-bending high-water mark for what fiction can be.

Ok! So.

Wagner’s comics went hard on the punning and bombastic statements so they really lent themselves to melodrama. But if Wild Palms were being made today it would be a superhero flick or a pompous futuristic epic (I love Apple’s Foundation but oof it takes itself so seriously) – we don’t have any other ways to access that kind of narrative. Back in the 1990s it was possible to do something that I can only describe as “Dynasty with smart glasses”. (As much as the TV networks tried to frame Wild Palms as being like Twin Peaks, it really wasn’t – barely any symbolism, no mystery to pull in the audience, and not at all arch.)

What gets me thinking is how obvious it is today that Wild Palms uses the genre tropes of a daytime serial - domesticity, hopping between characters, linear time, melodrama and cliffhangers - but in my previous watches, it hasn’t stood out to me so much.

My guess is that daytime serials were “in the air” in the 90s, to the point that it may not have even been a decision much thought about – it was just the default mode of storytelling. Just as the default mode in the 00s was crime procedurals, and the 20s are all about season arcs and world-building.

This idea of default genres for storytelling is from a (sci-fi author) Neal Stephenson talk that I saw many years ag and which stuck with me.

He sums up genres like this: Romance fused with the film industry and Crime fused with the television industry.

You can make a lot of money on films that consist entirely of action, but there are only so many young males in the world. Romance appeals to more people. Romance is versatile. All by itself, it is enough to make a successful movie. Added to a screenplay, it works like monosodium glutamate in food, which is to say it does not matter whether the underlying material is poor or excellent to begin with, adding some of this wonder ingredient always makes it better.

What Romance became to the film industry, Mystery/Crime became to the television industry. They are made for each other. A television series needs to tell a fresh story each episode. Romance is not a good fit. You cannot have your lead character fall in love with a different person each week. Westerns worked okay for a while, but eventually, the writers ran out of things that could possibly happen on ranches and began to mix things up with ideas like the ‘Wild Wild West’. By comparison, TV shows about detectives have it easy.

So there’s this symbiosis of genre and medium.

But it turns out the hybrid wasn’t police procedurals and television – it was police procedurals and syndicated television.

Streaming TV needs another genre entirely, and that’s where we get into this season arc and world-building thing. Worlds give you infinite texture to spread out over hours and hours, and character is the way this world is raytraced. Watching characters interact is like the title-sequence clockwork of Game of Thrones: watching TV in the 2020s is watching a pachinko machine. Half the joy is just the captivating quality of seeing the utterly predictable-in-bulk and complicated thing happen; the other half is the joy of unpredictable-in-specifics surprise.

(The equivalent stickiness in film is not season arcs but cinematic universes; you can’t binge watch on the big screen so it’s not linear but mycelial.)

There should be more genre experimentation.

ALSO. It would be interesting to think about Stephenson’s perspective on genre re: the genre that has co-evolved with the Facebook newsfeed as a medium; or the genre for TikTok etc. What are those? The medium has fused with the recommendation algorithm, which I’m not sure if Marshall McLuhan ever anticipated but I would love to know.

Anyway, watch Wild Palms. Back in the day I would carry the AVIs around on a USB stick on my keyring to foist on people outside the pub but I’m sure nowadays you can find the rips on YouTube.

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