Geekifying the “Vast Wasteland”

In an article titled “Sci-Fi, Freaks and Supergeeks Take Over TV Screens,” Wired notes:

A memo saying “geek chic is going mainstream” must have circulated among network TV execs as they concocted this fall’s prime-time lineup.

Hoping to woo coveted geek eyeballs, they’ve put their money on nine new shows focusing on — or catering to — nerds, freaks and outsiders of every type.

“Geeks are the new cool,” said Teri Weinberg, NBC Entertainment’s executive vice president. “We are all gravitating towards the underdog.”

Geek TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, The Sarah Connor Chronicles and a retooled Bionic Woman make up roughly 20 percent of the major networks’ new prime-time programming for the 2007-08 season. They join returning geek favorites that include ABC’s Ugly Betty, NBC’s Heroes and the SciFi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica, which blasts back with a two-hour made-for-TV movie later in the year and a fourth season beginning in ’08.

It goes on to quote McG, director of the Chuck pilot (and Charlie’s Angels, among others), as saying that geeks are cool thanks to Bill Gates, and that we’re “living in a Judd Apatow universe” (referring to the Freaks and Geeks creator and Knocked Up director). It also name checks Pushing Daisies, Reaper, and The IT Crowd, all of which I’d agree are indeed geek shows.

This link came to me from Dan, who noticed it on Slashdot. The Slashdot commenters get kind of sidetracked discussing what the heck Bill Gates has to do with any of this, but that conversation pretty much could’ve started and ended with a comment by “Apple Acolyte”: “Gates didn’t change the face of the geek. He reaffirmed it. The only thing Gates did was make people more conscious and envious of geek achievement.” It’s worth noting that this Wired article isn’t the first to credit Gates with this, too; it comes up constantly in my interviews (even among non-computer geeks), and several academic articles have noted the same.

Getting back to the matter at hand here, this is a pretty clear sign that people in money-slinging, decision-making positions are realizing that geeks could represent an actual market in themselves (in addition to a category of useful stock characters). And this is, of course, pretty obviously an extension of what’s been going on in film for the last several years. In the late ’90s, Hollywood discovered comic books and started getting more involved with fan culture through an increasingly large San Diego Comic Con. More recently, we’ve see comedy finding success with movies like 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. In terms of actually intelligent fiction, I’ve heard a lot of people giving more credit to TV producers than movie producers in recent years, but this looks to me like the TV executives trying to catch up with the next “it” thing in movies.

Chatting with one of my professors, though, we came to the agreement that some shows, like Big Bang Theory and Chuck, probably won’t last long. The driving premise (“nerds are funny losers”) is kind of thin and bound to seem pretty repetitive after this season. I think that the cultural categories of geeks and nerds will remain relevant for a while yet, but something can only stay “the new cool” for so long. What will be more interesting to see, I think, will be whether those well-written shows placed in stereotypically geeky genres (e.g., science-fiction) can garner enough critical and commercial success to make such genres a more permanent fixture in the television landscape.

2 thoughts on “Geekifying the “Vast Wasteland”

  1. Well said. This newfound fascination with nerds, or rather with the nerd dollar, is only as viable as A) media’s understanding of nerd culture and B) the ability of these shows to appeal to both nerds and non-nerds alike. Big Bang Theory was horribly written and mis-characterized; it simply painted all the “nerdy” characters with the same broad strokes and all the non-nerds as either abusive and condescending or vapid and shallow. Reaper, on the other hand, managed to work nerd archetypes into a grander mythos. The writing was top-notch and the casting was impeccable. It was a perfect blend of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The 40 Year Old Virgin that I truly believe has some potential.

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