I’ve always had fairly eclectic tastes in entertainment. When picking a new book to start I have to take into consideration the genres of the last three I read so I don’t ignore one in favor of others. Ask me what my favorite show of all time is and I’ll ask you to specify if we’re talking comedy or drama or overall and you’ll walk away before hearing me give my top five in each category.
I can find something to like in any of the major genres, but what I really love are the obscure genres that no one talks about, the ones that can’t be summed up as just crime procedural or drama or workplace comedy. These always take place within the more general genres we’re all used to, but once you know the cues you’ll see them everywhere. Here are my five favorites.
1)Spectrum of Guilt
Examples: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, many episodes of Law and Order: Something Something, I’m guessing John Grisham novels, probably
These are stories that revolve around a crime (almost always a murder), but instead of asking “Whodunit?” the central question is “Whyhedunit?” The murderer is usually revealed in the first act or is never concealed at all, with the rest of the time devoted to the trial and trying to determine if it was self-defense, pre-meditated, who shot first, etc. There’s no question of if they’re guilty, only how guilty.
The reason this genre is enjoyable is because it is much more true to life, with most real-world trials boiling down to motivation and state of mind and pre-existing conditions. It isn’t about proving they’re guilty but determining whether they get the death penalty or life in a mental hospital. The irony, for me anyway, is that I can’t stand to watch the real trials. Like most people, I take a much more black and white view when it comes to murderers and hate seeing courtroom coverage of major trials. What was exciting and engaging with fictional characters becomes infuriating and hard to look at with real people. Good thing I’m starting off on such an upbeat note.
2)Cat and Equally Dangerous Mouse, like maybe he has a gun or something
Examples: Breaking Bad, The Wire
Like the previous entry, these are typically crime dramas and procedurals but with some sort of twist that complicates things. Sometimes that means they know who the criminals are and where they are but they can’t make a move without a strong enough case or permission from higher ups, as in The Wire. The cops and gang members interact in broad daylight frequently on the show, but the cops can’t do anything without a warrant or more evidence.
I’ve never wanted to be a criminal as bad as when I saw that scene for the first time. Idris Elba’s character is the #2 of a massive drug empire and he’s sitting in a courtroom we can assume is full of cops, across the aisle from the detective who has sworn to put him behind bars, and he just does not care. This would be like Darth Vader eating watermelon at the Rebel Alliance Annual Family Fun Day or Jaws doing laps in your pool. Right in the middle of the lion’s den, daring someone to do something about it. It’s so much more complicated and interesting than “Search for the guy, arrest/kill him when you find him.”
Another twist is where the rivals know each other but one or both don’t realize it. In Breaking Bad, main character/meth cooker/cancer haverer Walter White’s brother-in-law is also the DEA agent hot on his trail. This creates all sorts of awesome moments where Hank, the in-law, talks about the case with Walt, giving him details that help him get the upper hand. A similar things occurs in the first Spider-Man, where the main villain is also Peter Parker’s best friend’s dad and eventually figures out the hero’s identity.
Examples: Skinny Pete on Breaking Bad, Nick on Freaks and Geeks
This isn’t so much a genre as it is a character type, and I think this scenes sums it up perfectly:
That guy is your classic multitasker, being both a meth junkie and dealer, and nothing about the character before that scene hinted at any kind of hidden talent. In fact, that comes from the fifth season and before that Skinny Pete was just comic relief, an idiot who tried to act hard and play pretend gangster.
The basic description of the character type is “person who is really lazy and ambitionless but is secretly a prodigy.” Nick on Freaks and Geeks was a burn-out who couldn’t go a day without lighting up but was a star basketball player before discovering his new hobby. It’s always used for comedic effect and seems to draw its inspiration from the famous Einstein quote “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. Also, don’t smoke meth.” I’m not quite sure why this character type appeals to me so much, but I can guess.
Examples: King of the Hill, Parks and Rec, Friday Night Lights
Most sitcoms and dramas claim to take place in the real world, but it’s one full of beautiful people who have dream jobs they never have to go to. Their days are exciting and interesting and kind of exhausting if you had to actually live it. King of the Hill might be animated, but it’s probably the most realistic show ever. Whole episodes center around a trip to the hardware store or job troubles, not as a cupcake baker or travel writer, but as a substitute teacher. Friday Night Lights was so good at being normal that the one season that tried to be exciting is easily the worst. Parks makes bureaucratic government work seem fun.
They all still have elements that are slightly ridiculous or too convenient but much less than other shows. I actually have a weird kind of belief that these shows are good for people, that watching something that highlights the little joys and victories in everyday life is probably healthier than unobtainable wish-fulfillment. I might be wrong, but I know I would much rather be hardworking, honorable father of two Coach Taylor living in a one story house than some rich genius crime solver whose apartment is granite and marble everything from that one show. I don’t even have to name it, because it’s all of them.
5)Important Things Happen Off-Screen
Examples: The League, Game of Thrones, Friday Night Lights, The Road
Sometimes this applies to shows about a close-knit group of friends, like in The League. The important thing here would be the guys meeting and becoming friends, as well as the origins of their inside jokes. A lot of sitcoms introduce the characters in the pilot, whether because one of them moves next door or they start working together or whatever. I prefer jumping in with a group that is already well-established and doesn’t slow down for me. Many of the jokes the guys use on The League are never given any kind of context or explanation, they’re just used and everyone understands it, just like in a real group of friends. Friendships are just more interesting to examine when there’s a shared history and plenty of established back story to draw upon. My best friend and I have our back and forth down to a science and enough stories to tell for three days straight before repeating anything. I promise you’ll be entertained if you hang out with us. However, we’ve known each other our entire lives, setting up the most boring origin story ever.
Sometimes the important event is the most important thing to the story but better left to the imagination. The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel/movie that takes place years after the apocalypse that’s never identified. Battles in Game of Thrones are mostly talked about after the fact by characters who weren’t there and rarely experienced from a character’s first hand perspective. Friday Night Lights is, on the surface, about high school football, yet after the first season most games were given as little screen time as possible and some were only talked about afterwards. With the last two especially the focus away from the action serves the greater narrative, as FNL only uses football as a vehicle to explore characters and deeper themes and GoT is more about behind the scenes scheming and string pulling than swords and knights.
The first person to spot an example of one of these I didn’t note and leave a comment about it wins my diploma or something of equal or lesser value (my minor).