Darkplace: The Gods Have Spoken
October 22, 2013 § 4 Comments
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love television (and films viewed on television, which also includes computers because it’s 2013 and what do those distinctions even mean anymore), particularly awesomely bad/weird/creepy television. Shows that make you go WAT, if you will. Television is, hands down, my absolute favorite expressive medium; if someone were ever to write an epic poem about my life and legacy, the opening line would most likely read “All she ever wanted to do/was watch television.” At least, it had better.
So when I say that I have a new favorite show (category: lost classic, subcategory: spoof), you know it’s serious. And with that I give you Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, one of the strangest and most glorious television programs in all of Christendom. The premise of the show, which premiered on Britain’s Chanel 4 in 2004, is as follows: Set in the 80s, Darkplace –the eponymous hospital in which the action unfolds– was written, directed and presumably edited by horror writer Garth Marenghi, who opens each episode with a snippet of his own purple prose. (From Episode 5: “Nina’s eyes popped out of what was left of her back. Why oh why had she opened that tomb? The sand turned red. This was because she was bleeding on it. Blood. Ruby red blood. Her blood. Blood. And piss and shit. This was the worst day of her life”; from Episode 6: “He whisked off her shoes and panties in one movement. Wild like an enraged shark, his bulky totem beating a seductive riddle. Mary’s body felt like it was burning, even though the room was properly air conditioned. They tried all the positions: on top, doggie, and normal. Exhausted, they collapsed onto the recently-extended sofabed. Then, a hellbeast ate them.”)
CUE INTRO (starts at 2:14):
According to Marenghi (who is a fictional character, although not according to the title credits), the show was ahead of its time, so much so that Chanel 4 locked away the first season, never to be seen — until now, establishing a fantastically improbable show-within-a-show frame in which Marenghi and his publisher Dean Learner provide present-day commentary on their roles as Dr. Rick Dagless (Marenghi; played by the real life Matthew Holness) and Thornton Reed (Learner; played by the real life Richard Ayoade). The entire series is, in a word, bonkers, and relies on horrendous writing, acting, and production values, including an absolutely pitch-perfect score (complete with Davis Lynchian atmospheric pads) to capture the melodramatic excesses of shitty early-mid 80s and very early 90s television. It is perfect, and has my highest possible recommendation.
Of course, the show isn’t for everyone — and not just because it’s weird as hell. It’s also a winking (if somewhat antagonistic) love letter to a very particular style of television at a particular moment in history. Nearly all the jokes hinge, or at least gesture towards, television done badly. Without understanding –or more importantly, having an opinion about– the components of “good” television (characterized by a specific, historically contingent understanding of what constitutes good writing and acting, proper lighting and sound engineering, and general production values), a person would be unlikely to derive much amusement from the constant, deliberate, and actually quite masterful failures of Darkplace (this show was clearly made by people who know their craft). Rather, they’d likely just see a poorly-made tv show, which in itself isn’t funny. The only people who have any reason to find these sorts of failures funny are the people who know and care about the rules of television so much that their subversion takes on the mantle of joke. I wrote about this phenomenon in my kuso article, and will be revisiting the issue in the below panel proposal for this year’s International Communication Association (ICA) meeting (the conference where I presented this talk in 2012):
This talk will examine ambiguous fan engagement with media content that is, as the saying goes, “so bad it’s good.” Although these behaviors may appear to subvert the hegemonic meaning of a particular text by imposing some new or wholly unintended meaning (Hall 1973), they ultimately adhere to larger and more pervasive cultural conventions, putting a conservative spin on an ostensibly subversive cultural practice. The talk will focus specifically on enthusiastic online engagement with broken memes (that is, variations of a popular meme that get all the details laughably wrong) and the online obsession with failure generally, which worships at the altar of ineptitude and technological incompetence. It will conclude by arguing that appreciation for and engagement with “bad” content is predicated on a high degree of cultural literacy, which itself can only be accomplished via educational and technological access. Put simply, ambiguous engagement with content that is “so bad it’s good” is actually, and ultimately, an expression of privilege.
I’m not sure how or if I’ll be addressing Darkplace in my talk — but will definitely be revisiting the subject in the months to come, as I thrash around to find my next big research project. In conclusion, son of a bitch (I tried cueing it up but YouTube is being annoying; see 3:01):