The nine defining characteristics that are thought to make up Cult TV, Quality pedigree, noble struggle, large ensemble cast, memory, new genre by mixing old, script based, self conscious, controversial, and aspirations to realism (Wilcox & Lavery, 2002) can be applied to a number of new shows, some of which can be found on Netflix. One of those shows that encapsulate nearly all of the qualities of Cult TV is the Peaky Blinders, written by Steven Knight. As a brief synopsis , the Peaky blinders is a show set in the 1920’s/30’s that follows the gang, the Peaky Blinders and their rise to power on the streets of Birmingham, England. The fifth season begins on August the 25 and since its creation it has seen a huge rise in popularity to what I would now call Cult status. From the nine qualities listed above, I have chosen three to use as evidence of Steven Knights, The Peaky blinders, being regarded as a modern example of Cult TV.
A noble struggle
- The Peak blinders was not an overnight success and when it first launched on Netflix in 2013. it was pulled apart by critics and failed to reach the American audience. In her article, Raeside (2013) calls the show nothing more than a steampunk beer commercial and just rehashed gangster cliches. Her criticisms continue throughout the first season, noting that while the show does improve, it certainly isn’t worth watching. The New York Times was equally scolding of the show. Despite this, viewership was strong.
- Surviving to return for a second season, Mejia (2016) comments that the show was really made into what it is today, not by a change in opinion by critics or even the show becoming more complicated and noteworthy, but organically, it was the fans of the first season who spread the word and created the fan base which we see today. All of sudden England was full of men getting their heads shaved like the Shelbys and the charismatic Thomas Shelby, found himself as a poster child for the new cool. Even the likes of David Bowie a fan of the show from the start, before his passing allowed some of the tracks from his final album, Lazarus, to be used in the third season. This and other genuine celebrity endorsements launched the show from critical poverty to the renowned masterpiece it is today. Both the Guardian and the New York Times now praise the show and have written recent articles lauding its success. “Not only is this series providing one of the most exquisitely daft and thrilling hours of the TV week, but it’s now given me three previous series to catch up on over Christmas” (Rebecca Nichalson 2017) “Peaky Blinders,” the gritty-chic crime drama with a cultural imprint that is more modest in scale, though perhaps not in intensity (Jeremy Egner 2017)
Large ensemble cast
- The cast of the show is enormous. In the main family are the Shelbys, Thomas, Arthur, John, Polly and Ida. With the inclusion of another John later on and Finn, who becomes more a character as he grows up.
- Then you have the gang and their crew of henchmen, who are never background noise but play respectively important parts of the story narrative. For instance, Curly, the slow, dim witted stable hand, is vital to the one of the stories key themes, that of escape and changing who you are. The show is set during the industrial period and the backdrop of smoke and metal creates a sense that everything is becoming mechanical. However Curly, who remains simple and innocent throughout all the blood and carnage,reminds us that while things can change some things stay the same. Therefore, you can escape an external situation however, perhaps you can’t change internally who you really are.
- Of course then there are the numerous enemies of the Shelby family, some of who play both the role of ally and enemy depending on what’s happening in the story. Alf Solomon, played by Tom Hardy, is one of the most memorable characters. A Jewish gangster who at times works and fights against the Shelbys. Another thematic reminder of change and permanence. The reason why I mention this, is that maybe the purpose of having a large ensemble cast is that the more characters there are, the most access we have the stories themes and purposes. In the case of the Peaky Blinders, we have numerous characters which help convey the stories messages.
New Genre Mixing
- The Peaky Blinders is a show that combines elements of western gun-slinging classics, gangster cliches, anti-war story lines and family dramas, all the while using new age music, typically rock music, from artists such as the Black Keys and Royal blood, to give the show a more modern, 21st century feel. These styles all mix together to tell the story and this is one of the key aspects of what creates Cult TV Egner (2017) describes the show as an amalgam of interesting parts which make up a captivating story. Perhaps, and this is my own thinking, the fact that these shows have so many genres is why they attract such a devoted and wide audience. Because they can be enjoyed in so many different ways?
- Individual Characters, such as Polly, also add a new element to the show as the way in which certain characters are portrayed is very modern and gives the audience a fresh perspective. Polly is the matriarch of the story and is given roles of power and importance and despite her age is still a sexual character who has a number of affairs throughout the show. This re branding of female characters is another way the show mixes with the formula of regular storytelling. Ada, the other central female lead is also allowed to explore non traditional roles and we see her use the Slelby name as a way of giving her access to parts of 20th century English society that would not have been available to her in real life. Such as, her taking control of the Communist party in Birmingham and drinking at bars without a male escort. While the last may not seem important, it shows how much power a family of cut throats like the Shelbys can have over society. They can challenge the rules and norms to such an extent that they basically don’t end up applying to them. Though this is not a new idea, it’s the way the show uses that power to explore themes of feminism, patriarchy, religion and spirituality. Making the show a collective experience of various genres.
Raeside, J (2013) Peaky Blinders recap:episode one Retrieved from. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2013/sep/12/peaky-blinders-recap-episode-one
Mejia, P (2016) How ‘Peaky Blinders’ became a binge worthy hit. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-news/how-peaky-blinders-became-a-binge-worthy-hit-193505/
Egner, J. (2017) ‘Peaky Blinders’: The Disparate Ingredients of a Cult Hit. retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/21/arts/television/peaky-blinders-netflix-bbc-cillian-murphy.html
Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield
Nicholson, R (2017) Peaky Blinders review:one of the most daft and thrilling hours of the TV week https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/dec/07/peaky-blinders-review-exquisitely-daft-and-utterly-brilliant