Mocking Television

Some adaptations work on a short leash, loyally staying close to their originals, while others voyage farther from home, keen to explore the possibilities of the world more boldly. This much is common between film-to-television, television-to-film adaptations, and comic-to-either adaptations. However, we noticed a distinct trend, wherein many television-to-film adaptations enjoy making fun of television style, genres, and format, whereas even when film-to-television adaptations veered far from their originals, none actively mocked those originals or the medium from whence they came.

Winking at the camera happened far more often in filmic adaptations of television. Sometimes this took the form of gentle commentary or playing with the original’s rules; sometimes it lurched more decisively into camp and parody. 2/Jump Street, Baywatch, Charlie’s Angels, The Dukes of Hazzard, Get Smart, Land of the Lost, Scooby Doo, The Smurfs, and Starsky and Hutch all premise themselves, no less, on a playful ribbing of their originals’ supposed excesses. The abovenoted opening scene of Charlie’s Angels, for instance, is quite camp in being so overdone, from the bright red first-class cabin to the bawdy humor, the “angels” shaking their hair out in slow motion, and one “angel” wearing the skin and mask of a much larger African man: these all declare their overdoneness. We even hear a complaint from a passenger about the inflight movie, TJ Hooker: The Movie, suggesting television-to-film adaptations are bad ideas (echoed in Nick Offerman’s Deputy Chief Hardy complaining about “recycled programs from the eighties” in 21 Jump Street). Charlie’s Angels allows its televisual roots to show, and seems to want to get away with it because it’s “just parody,” the same way that Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) and its sequels allow themselves sexist jokes and other excesses because they’re “just parody” of a specific time and genre. This pattern repeats itself across the above-listed movies, to the point that one could note them forming a sub-genre of older television shows converted to films where part of the “fun” and play comes from camp exploitation of the supposed norms and values of the era, and of the implied crudeness of the medium. Several of these shows’ use of the male gaze, reliance on crude humor, and obvious plot holes and absurdities (like Drew Barrymore convincingly passing as an African man played by LL Cool J) aim to license themselves because they’re televisual. An interesting exception, The Man from UNCLE aims for a sleeker feel, but does so by becoming an homage to 1960s espionage films, not television.

By contrast, none of the film-to-television adaptations take the films to task for their or their medium’s shortcomings, and none hide behind their film-ness. By and large, these adaptations are more unequivocally loving toward their originals. Even when they veer in a different direction, as with Fargo, for instance, they still take great care to situate themselves within the “world” of the film. However, and notably, a few of these adaptations occasionally mock their new home of television. Clerks stands out here, as a film-to-television adaptation that often makes fun of the limits of the new medium. From the first frame, Randal announces “Clerks is filmed in front of a live studio audience” (even though it is animated), before offering a “previously on” segment that cuts to color bars, since as the first episode there was of course no previous episode. Its televisuality is thus triple underlined. Over-the-top and obvious cross-promotion for other ABC programs occur during the show, mocking television form, and the second episode is called a “clip show,” in a swipe at the creative exhaustion that leads to such episodes. Each episode, moreover, ends with a PSA from Jay, Silent Bob, and Charles Barkley, ribbing the medium for its clumsy use of such “special messages.”

Thus, the mockery of television is reasonably common in television-to-film adaptations, as is the use of television’s supposed value system as a shield behind which lazy writing, objectification of women’s bodies, and crude humor could stand. If film-to-television adaptations mock a medium, it too is television. Once again, though, there’s a paradox in play here: some of these movies would have us believe that objectification of women, bad plots, and rude jokes are the brick and mortar of television, even while they are banking on those elements themselves. This paradox is evident in Roger Ebert’s (2005) review of The Dukes of Hazzard, as he writes that

It’s a retread of a sitcom that ran from about 1979 to 1985, years during which I was able to find better ways to pass my time. Yes, it is still another TV program I have never ever seen. As this list grows, it provides more and more clues about why I am so smart and cheerful.

Ebert swipes at television’s alleged stupidity and pointlessness as a means of damning an adaptation that is far bawdier and sophomoric than its original was (even if only somewhat less racist), and whose key crimes as he sees them, then, stem from the film.

The Simpsons Movie deserves special discussion here, as a film that gently parodies and plays with the conventions of adaptation, delivering sex, nudity, action, and big stakes. In doing so, however, the satire is Horatian, and never truly attacks film as medium. This comes in spite of the franchise regularly mocking its host genre—The Simpsons Game that spawned from the movie, for instance, is rife with ribbing of video games, often offering a deconstruction and critique of game conventions. The movie’s most pointed comment on a medium, however, is directed at television. At one point, a crawl comes across the screen advertising a supposedly upcoming reality show, before admitting that, yes, “we” even advertise during movies now, complete with Fox network logo. The quick joke continues a long history of The Simpsons making fun of its host network; but here suggests that tawdry, inappropriate advertising is common for television, whereas movies should be free of such pitches. Thus, the movie’s most barbed medium-focused comment aims at television, not film, which escapes the 90 minutes of parody unscathed. The nearest the film comes to mocking film is when, early on, Homer (watching an Itchy and Scratchy movie) complains that he can’t believe “we” are paying to see something we usually see for free at home, saying “you’re all suckers,” both the diegetic audience and us. That comment, though, doesn’t take film to task, just the economics of adaptation.

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