Body horror is a genre characterised by what Ronald Cruz calls the “manipulation and warping of the normal site of bodily form and function”. It is a genre which unsettles us through its disregard for the human body as it assaults audiences with distortions of the familiar sights, sounds, movements, and functions of the body. Throughout the eight episodes of HBO’s gothic thriller Sharp Objects (2018), there is a growing unease regarding the body which erupts in moments of supreme shock and disgust. The three central characters – Camille Preaker, her mother Adora and sister Amma – all display the genre’s “gruesome disregard for the human body” in various ways as they exist within the narrow confines of femininity permitted in the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri. The female body in Sharp Objects is the site of the series’ most shocking moments of horror and the driving force of the entire mystery plot: the horror it endures and produces is the horror of the series.
It all started with George Lucas.
The man who once wrote that “people who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians” released the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS in 1997, using new digital technologies to alter these works of art with bafflingly hideous changes like making Han Solo’s neck jerk awkwardly to dodge a clumsily-inserted blaster shot from Greedo. He altered them again for the 2004 DVD release, the 2011 Blu-Ray release and the 2019 4K release on Disney+, in which Greedo now says “Maclunkey” as he shoots. (Lucas apparently made that change before selling the copyright to Disney.) Obviously, directors had been releasing new cuts of their movies for some time when Lucas decided that, actually, being a profiteering, power-hungry barbarian sounded pretty good, but no one else in the era of home media had ever decided to make the original cuts totally unavailable by legal means and keep them that way seemingly forever. (The original trilogy will enter the public domain at some point, assuming we don’t turn the planet into a charred lifeless husk, but that won’t be for another seventy-something years at minimum.)
In the years since, few others have made the original versions of popular works of art unavailable in quite so calculated and malicious a manner. But in a world where art is increasingly available only in digital formats – and especially one where such art is increasingly stored on faraway servers and streamed to our computers rather than stored on them – the ability of copyright holders to alter or destroy works of art has grown exponentially. There’s Kanye West repeatedly “updating” his 2017 album The Life of Pablo on streaming services after release and Netflix letting Mitch Hurwitz recut the Rashomon-like fourth season of Arrested Development into a chronological order with shorter episodes (the original cut is still available on Netflix, but buried with the trailers). It’s not necessarily a power they frequently flex in obvious ways, at least outside the video game industry. But it’s still a power they have, and it should worry us.
No matter how painful it can be, these shows make me grateful to love television and excited to be a superhero fan.
I can’t wait for the next five years.
When I last set out to survey the landscape of superhero television, figuring out where to start was easy. Arrow debuted in October 2012 and kicked off a boom in superhero shows that continues to this day. Where else could you possibly begin the story of the superhero TV boom? Just three years later, I have no idea where to start. The last piece ended with some thoughts on ten then-upcoming superhero shows. Just two of those ten are still airing. Seven were cancelled and one never made it to air in the first place.
The landscape of superhero television no longer has an epicentre. It’s not really a boom anymore, it’s a bubble: a big wobbly one that keeps growing and growing and growing and never bursts no matter the ludicrous shapes it takes. Last time I wrote about it, the superhero television market had at least three large competitors in Disney, Warner and Fox. But Disney ate Fox and AT&T bought out Warner so now it’s just two colossal conglomerates producing virtually all superhero TV shows. Both conglomerates have also launched their own bespoke streaming services, Disney+ and HBO Max, full of all the content they pulled from the original streaming giants who’d previously licensed it like Netflix and Amazon. Disney+ and HBO Max need to produce exclusive content on top of their deep libraries if they want to come out on top in the next phase of the streaming wars. Why not pump out a bunch of superhero shows? It doesn’t even matter that DC’s superhero shows are supposed to go on their dedicated streaming service, DC Universe: let’s release them simultaneously on both. Meanwhile, Disney is doubling down on the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet again by throwing mountains of cash at TV spin-offs for Disney+. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. WandaVision. Loki. Naturally, the bigwigs over at Netflix and Amazon see they’re in an arms race and have ordered their own shows like The Umbrella Academy and The Boys. And on and on and on it goes.
It’s hard to look at something that used to give you such joy and just feel tired. There’s nothing left of what used to excite you, just the same bland homogeneity repeated again and again into forever and beyond. I’ve loved superheroes all my life and I guess I still do deep down, but most superhero stories barely make an impression nowadays. Just an endless sea of pure content washing over me like a rock and slowly grinding me down to sand.
Three shows of the superhero boom that I watched to the end – Arrow, Gotham and Legion – each deserve their own retrospective. But, in lieu of anywhere else to start, I’ll still have to begin my eulogy to the genre with its last gasp.
The sixth annual Arrowverse crossover event – bringing together characters from The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl and Batwoman – was called “Crisis on Infinite Earths” and I did not enjoy it.
Another year has gone more or less (it’s less, but it feels like more), so it felt like a good time to look back on the past several months and go “yeah, fair enough, good job to us” and encourage you to read some of the best stuff we wrote so you can go “yeah, fair enough, good job to ye”. We’ve written about good movies and bad movies, good bands that became bad solo acts, excellent television, extremely bad people and one of the most evil corporations in the entire entertainment industry.
For our long-time readers, take a walk down memory lane. For newer readers, catch up on some of our best work. And if this is your first time here, there’s hardly a better place to find out what we’re all about. Except the previous three times we’ve done this, maybe.
Here’s the best of The Sundae so far (again again)2.
Gradually during the opening scenes of “Joe Versus the Volcano,” my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before. Most movies, you have seen before. Most movies are constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not “Joe Versus the Volcano.”
I’ve watched a frankly absurd and unhealthy amount of television over the last decade, and while a lot of it has been quite strange, there’s not a lot I can say was truly unlike anything else I’d ever seen. Most of the best pulled off a very recognisable formula at an unusual level of excellence and a clear creative voice, like Top of the Lake with “small town with a dark secret” shows or Review with fake reality shows. The list of sincerely original shows I’ve seen is quite short, but I think about those that make the cut – Twin Peaks: The Return, Sense8 and The Young Pope, for example — probably every day. It’s not only that I love those shows, though I do, or that they changed my notions of what was possible on television and in storytelling generally, though they did. It’s that the thrill of watching them for the first time and slowly realising I was watching something that really felt like the first of its kind gave me such a rush of excitement, it practically tattooed them onto my brain. I have yet to rewatch any of those shows, but I could tell you a hundred scenes from any of them at the drop of a hat.
Lodge 49 was just such a show.
If there’s one thing I love on this earth, it’s game shows. I’m kind of a connoisseur.
A great game show combines luck, risk-taking and some kind of skill or knowledge. Deal or No Deal was just luck and risk-taking, but they always pretended as if there was all this strategy where none could exist, it was bizarre. Winning Streak is the worst because it doesn’t even test risk-taking, just luck, so it effectively just throws money at people with the only variant being how much. Shows that have the potential to lapse into being just a dry test of skill usually have a time constraint to force the risk-taking element. But my favourites combine genuine difficulty with being a ton of fun to watch. Way too many shows are stupidly dramatic: every time someone gives an answer on Tenable, there’s probably a full thirty seconds of dramatic reaction shots and lights going up the answer board. It tries to be “fun” by having Warwick Davis deliver terrible pun after terrible pun, instead of striving towards a fun tone overall.
My favourite has long been Pointless: its reverse Family Fortunes format that rewards the most obscure correct answer makes it incredibly fun to play along with, whether you know a lot or very little about the category. The banter between its hosts, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, is charming and makes the tone of the whole thing light and fun, in sharp contrast with the most self-serious quiz shows (Mastermind, mostly). I love Only Connect, the hardest show in the world, both because host Victoria Coren-Mitchell is delightful and because I feel elated if I get an answer right. I am kind of obsessed with Richard Osman’s House of Games, and love following the throughline of each week, rooting for my favourite contestants and waiting with bated breath for the day someone wins all five shows.
But there is one game show that is more fun to watch than basically anything on television, and that’s Taskmaster. Pitched perfectly between a light-hearted “normal” game show and Shooting Stars surrealism, it’s both one of the best game shows I’ve ever seen and such a weird, inventive thing that to even classify it by genre feels wrong. It’s glorious.
Wrestling is in a weird place right now. In some ways, it’s going through a bit of a golden age, with a massive international independent scene that’s no longer dependent purely on local interest for support. I’ve never been to Germany – apart from a nightmarish layover in Munich Airport – but I’ve enjoyed dozens of matches from the German Wrestling Federation thanks to their availability online. I know lots of people with video-on-demand and streaming subscriptions for companies all over the world, from Mexico’s Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre to Japan’s DDT Pro-Wrestling to my home promotion, Ireland’s Over the Top Wrestling. You can watch high-quality wrestling with solid production values every week on YouTube for free from NWA Powerrr and China’s Oriental Wrestling Entertainment. WWE, the largest wrestling company in the world, is facing serious competition from a rival for the first time in years courtesy of All Elite Wrestling and its weekly TV show, Dynamite. There’s even a pretty good women’s wrestling show from GLOW founder David McLane called WOW that I’ve reviewed over at Bell to Belles. More great wrestlers are working today than you could ever imagine and with so much variety, there really is something for everyone.
But, in other ways, it’s a scary time for wrestling fans. WWE might have a new rival, but it’s not a rival really capable of breaking their effective monopoly on wrestling in the US. AEW is showing WWE up regularly in terms of the quality of its programming, but WWE is such a big company, and has such deep pockets, that its mere existence distorts the entire industry. It can outbid any competitor when offering contracts and constantly signs new wrestlers while rarely releasing anyone or doing anything to encourage retirement, which shrinks the pool of talent available to other companies. Unlike most companies, it demands complete exclusivity from most of its employees (sorry, “independent contractors”) and even the rare few on its British brand, NXT UK, who are allowed to perform in other companies do so under heavy restrictions and with the constant risk of being pulled from shows at the last minute. The vast majority of independent wrestling companies run on very thin margins, supported entirely by ticket and merch sales, with virtually no cushion if financial disaster strikes. There may be more companies than ever before, reaching more people than ever before, but it’s not clear whether the wrestling audience is actually expanding or if fans are just spending more and more on wrestling. I kind of suspect it’s the latter and that most of the industry is built on a foundation of fan support and audience goodwill that’s not sustainable unless more people get into wrestling. When the next big financial crisis hits and pocketbooks shrink, it’s likely it will be the end of many independent companies, not to mention the careers of the wrestlers they employ.
I’m not writing this article to save wrestling or anything, though if I did, that’d be neat. But as someone who got into wrestling in just the last couple of years, I understand a lot of what the wrestling-sceptical and even the wrestling-curious can find off-putting about it. I want to talk about some of these issues and point those who are open to wrestling, but not yet convinced, in the direction of some matches that represent the various shades of what wrestling has to offer right now. It’s not at all exhaustive. I’ve left some really weird shit on the drawing board, and it’s limited to a handful of mostly English-language companies, but, with a little help from my friends, I’ve put together a list of matches that, in my personal opinion, (1) slap hard and (2) can and should be enjoyed by people coming to wrestling with fresh eyes, whether you’re interested in hard-hitting technical wrestling, operatic emotional storytelling or silly nonsense (the three things that make wrestling great).
I’m not much given to ranking such things, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to rank my favourite sitcoms, The Likely Lads would easily make the top tier. It aired three seasons on BBC between 1964 and 1966—which, because it’s British television, means twenty episodes and a Christmas sketch—following Terry and Bob, two young men working in a factory in the north-east of England. It was commissioned because The Beatles were big and that made someone at the BBC want a show about young northerners, even if they ended up in Newcastle instead of Liverpool.
Terry and Bob are instantly, vividly realized: they are united in their shared ambitions of getting drunk, picking up girls, and watching football, but there is always a tension between Terry’s pride in being working-class and Bob’s ambitions for social mobility. Bob will always blame Terry for his bad behavior, but the phrase “pushing an open door” was invented specifically to describe Bob. While many 1960s sitcoms are warm, wholesome and full of wacky misunderstandings, The Likely Lads is vulgar, realistic and incredibly modern. Season one’s “Older Women Are More Experienced”—in which Terry dates an older woman and Bob dates a younger one—ends on a punchline that wouldn’t feel out of place in Peep Show. It’s a show I adore, that I will evangelise for any chance I get.
Of the twenty episodes produced, only ten survive.
I wrote an essay for the new issue of Current Affairs. It’s about TV wiping, the inaccessibility of popular art and the precarious archival implications of streaming. You can subscribe to read it here, or buy a copy of the issue here.
UPDATE: You can now read this piece online here!
Debates about the relative merits and pitfalls of the rise of streaming services are among the most frustrating cyclical discourses in the world of film and TV critics, entertainment journalists and other people who just like to argue about pop culture. It’s right up there with the annual “pick one film in the Oscar race and arbitrarily designate it the evil one” discourse, the quarterly attempts to cancel Martin Scorsese, and the monthly skirmishes over “letting people enjoy things”. Yet, as with those tangles of bullshit, I am drawn inexorably toward streaming debates like a shrimp to an anglerfish’s luminescent head frond. I just don’t see how you can care deeply about film or television and not care about the material conditions under which they’re produced, distributed and exhibited.
There are lots of interesting ways to think about streaming: whether it offers more creative freedom to artists (kinda), whether it’s more democratic than theatrical distribution (no), whether it’s all just gonna implode one day and thousands of original movies, television series and stand-up specials will just kind of vanish from any legal distribution channels (probably). I’m glad to see more of a sceptical eye turned to immoral business practices in the industry lately, from Disney’s attempts to destroy independent cinemas to talent agencies selling out their clients for their own benefit to the obvious moves towards monopoly by the major media conglomerates. (Not how exploitative record deals are, though. I guess I’ll have to dust that one off sometime.) It’s important these issues are not just highlighted but explored thoroughly, so we don’t end up with situations like the California law ostensibly designed to stop Uber and similar companies misclassifying employees as independent contracts, which has (1) not stopped Uber et al. doing anything and (2) ruined the lives of basically every freelance journalist in the state.
But I also think a robust engagement with streaming requires looking at narrower issues with user experience. I kind of hate talking about topics like this, because you end up using terms like “user experience”. Materialist analysis is a useful and important way to look at art as a function of the economy, but it still makes my skin crawl to hear works of art described as “products” or, worse still, “properties”. I would rather never have to think about the minutiae of how movies and TV shows are presented to me, but since they are both literally and figuratively embedded in the mediums they’re distributed in, it must be done. Especially because there’s an issue in the debate over streaming vs physical home media that I’ve never seen anyone else really articulate.
DVDs don’t buffer.
I despise The Big Bang Theory to an almost pathological degree. According to Netflix, The Big Bang Theory is an 88% match to my interests. By contrast, Blackadder is just a 71% match, even though it’s a show I’ve watched and loved my entire life. Breaking Bad, which I’ve watched from start to finish multiple times on Netflix, has a healthy 96% rating. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I used to watch on Netflix until it got crap and I stopped three and a half years ago, has an even healthier 97%. Hannibal, another show I’ve watched from start to finish on Netflix, clocks in at 84%, narrowly ahead of Peppa Pig at 82%. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a show I would only watch if paid a princely sum to review, is a 90% match to my interests. Only Fools and Horses, a show I watch all the time, is rated too low for Netflix to even bother giving me a number. My recommendations are full of anime, even though I haven’t watched any anime since I was a child. Netflix thinks I’d like every single Louis Theroux series it has, even though I have never, ever watched any documentary TV series in my life.
Netflix’s recommendation algorithm seems like it’s broken. But it’s not, it’s working just fine, at least for now. The problem is the algorithm’s job isn’t to help users find TV shows and movies they would enjoy. It’s to trick Netflix’s investors into thinking the company is worth more than it is.