- Discuss how Hill’s three characteristics of Cult TV can be applied to a recent TV series.
When the millions of fans of HBO show Game of Thrones air the final episode on May19th, 2019, the internet collectively let out a resounding scream of frustration. Within a week, an online petition to remake the last season with competent writers had reached over one million signatures (Chatterjee, 2019). The immensely popular show, a fresh take on a tired old genre, meticulously crafted, narrative subverting, darling of cult TV threw away all its themes, all its clever dialogue, all its intrigue and in the process it’s definition as a cult show. Let me explain. In Defining Cult TV (2004), Matt Hills specifies three characteristics of Cult TV: specific qualities like genre; wide ranges of secondary texts that lend to the primary; and a strong liege of fan practices and activities. Today that means fantasy and sci fi shows, subreddit pages and wikis, video essays and comment threads on lore, world-building and theorising. Game of Thrones fit perfectly into these definitions, until season eight was released, and the endless dissection of world-theory turned into an autopsy of the legend that almost was. (Cole, 2019).
Hills used the term Hyperdiegesis (2004) to describe a narrative world that is never fully explored; the audience gets hints of a vast world that goes on beyond the line of sight of the characters. Game of Thrones does this in droves, using primary text, secondary texts, fan theories and so on. The story begins thirteen years after the overthrowing of the MadKing Aerys Targaraen, who belonged to a wide family tree with thousands of years of history. The map of Westeros reaches far beyond the audiences experience (The shadow lands beyond Assaii, The Free cities etc.) and has entire languages and cultures that are created in the background, to stand as assistance for the main plot lines. The show writers even pay homage to fan theories and online memes in the primary text- at one point in season seven, Gendry Baratheon shows up again to the quip “thought you might still be rowing,” reflecting a meme thread (Urquhart-White, 2017), because it was the last thing the character had been seen doing since his leaving in season three.
The kinds of genres that tend to become “cult” TV are generally fantasy and science fiction, which have the capacity for vast world-building possibilities, and therefore endless fan theories (Pearson, 2003.) In such worlds, Hill (2004) says, the rules of the world must maintain a delicate balancing act between maintaining believable continuity and surprising the audience. GoT did that – until season eight. If you haven’t watched the show, it is hard to explain just how vast the world is- suffice to say that named characters reach from between 109 to 503 depending on your interpretation of the word “relevant” (Muoio & Renfro, 2016). In season eight, the characters with dialogue have been whittled down to twenty odd, and the discussion of in-world lore has drastically dropped- in fact dialogue itself has dropped, with the final episode reaching a whopping 70% of runtime as dialogue-free (Nguyen, 2019). I won’t get too deep into the why of it- that has been done countless times online on reddit, YouTube and every blog site in the world. (See Ellis, L, 2019). However, here’s a basic outline: the TV show is based on the book series A Song Of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, who hasn’t finished the books as yet, promising the last two books sometime in the future. In season five, the TV show had largely deviated from the books in many ways both minor and major, and in season six, the story was entirely up to the show’s producers – who still had enough of a universe built to make that season and season seven on top of that. The main problem cited for the overwhelming disappointment of season eight was producers’ D.B. Wiess and David Benioff (or D&D, as they are called online)( Nguyen, 2019) pushing for a fast track to end the show at eight seasons, because they both wanted to move on to work on Disney’s next Star Wars film. That’s the short version – the long version would have us here for days. Anyway, the reason I mention all this is simply to give a basic explanation as to the why of the whole mess – but the reaction of fans to the butchering of their story has resulted in a particularly idiosyncratic result: the importance of the Hyperdiegesis of the Game of Thrones universe has been registered null in void. Online there are now blogs dedicated to finding dropped storytelling threads or narrative cul-de-sacs that have turned out to have no point to the overall plot or theme of the universe (Hein, 2019). One blogger said that on re-watching, there is none of the original joy she experienced, because now that she knows the ending, she knows that it is meaningless (Ellis, 2019.)
The world of Game of Thrones was arguably as popular as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, and has plenty of secondary texts to add to it. Plenty of fandom sites, articles and the like that discuss at length details as minute as the meaning of a single word or the colour of the grass in a different part of Westeros (Ellis, 2019). For the GoT TV series, almost all those conversations ended after the finale of season eight. The response of fans turned from discussion over the politics of the world into a discussion of the politics of the people writing the story. I would like to add a side note- the discussion of theory over the books is still going strong- some could even argue stronger- despite the show’s shortcomings (Cole, 2019). This is the point, though, that the fourth wall has been well and truly broken. The fans who had invested so much emotion into their characters felt short-changed, and re-watching’s, lore discussion and the like have stopped. Game of Thrones had a cult following, but, for whatever reason, the show turned into something different and that cult just… stopped following.
Chatterjee, P. (May, 2019) Sophie Turner Responds To Petition For ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8 Remake Like A Queen. Retrieved September 11, 2019 from https://in.mashable.com/entertainment/3561/sophie-turner-responds-to-petition-for-game-of-thrones-season-8-remake-like-a-queen
Pearson, R. (2003) Kings of Infinite Space: Cult Television Characters and Narrative Possibilities. Retrieved September 11, 2019 from https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/scope/documents/2003/november-2003/pearson.pdf
Hills, M. (2004). Defining cult TV; Texts, inter-texts and fan audiences, in R. C. Allen & A. Hill (eds) The Television Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.
Cole, V. (May, 2019) Game of Thrones Post-Mortem of “The Iron Throne” Retrieved September 11, 2019 from http://watchersonthewall.com/game-thrones-post-mortem-iron-throne/
Urquhart-White, A. (August, 2017) ‘Game Of Thrones’ Made A Gendry Rowing Joke, Breaking The Fourth Wall In A Big Way. Retrieved September 11, 2019 from https://www.bustle.com/p/game-of-thrones-made-a-gendry-rowing-joke-breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-a-big-way-76319
Muoio, D. and Renfro, K. (April, 2016) It’s crazy how many more characters are in the ‘Game of Thrones’ books than shows. Retrieved September 11, 2019 from https://www.businessinsider.com/number-of-characters-in-game-of-thrones-outweighs-those-in-shows-2016-4/?r=AU&IR=T
Ellis, L. (June, 2019) We Need to Talk About Game of Thrones I Guess Retrieved September 11, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hys_m3BPTS8
Nguyen, H. (May, 2019) ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8 Marks All-Time Low for Amount of Dialogue Spoken in the Series. Retrieved September 11, 2019 from https://www.indiewire.com/2019/05/game-of-thrones-season-8-least-dialogue-hbo-1202145027/
Hein, M. (May, 2019) ‘Game of Thrones’: Story Loose Ends Left After Series Finale. Retrieved September 11, 2019 from https://popculture.com/tv-shows/2019/05/20/game-of-thrones-loose-ends/