Question of the week: is genre important to you?

When it comes to TV viewing, lots of people live and die by genre. Maybe they’re a ‘soaps’ fan or a ‘comedy’ fan. Maybe they like historical dramas or sit in front of Alibi all day watching murder-mysteries and crime shows. Maybe they like action shows.

Not everyone’s like this, but many are. The question is: how important is genre to you, if you’re one of those people? 

The reason I’m asking is because of Fortitude, Sky Atlantic/Pivot’s new TV show. Now, when it started on its 10-episode run, it seemed to be a perfectly ordinary Nordic Noir-style murder mystery. Then, with the arrival of Stanley Tucci, it started to look a bit Twin Peaks-ish. So far, so ordinary, and I imagine that Twin Peaks is still sufficiently close in style to The Killing et al that anyone tuning in for the latter might not have been turned off by the arrival of the former. 

However, the latest couple of episodes have pretty much taken the show (as far as can I see) into territory a bit closer to horror movies and even (spoiler alert) The Strain/Helix. Which are very different genres again. Bold and daring on the one hand – the show has been very unusually ‘shaped’, revealing to everyone, not just the viewer, the identity of the killer midway through the series, for example.

But, on the other, is it too much for the genre addict? If something is a hybrid genre (action-romance, dramedy, horror-comedy from the outset, that’s one thing and fans of both genres can appreciate that show for what it is. But what if something changes genre midway through? Is that going to ostracise existing viewers, while failing to bring in fans of the new genre at this late stage? Or doesn’t it matter? Is genre completely unimportant?

How do you feel?

  • tassiekev .

    Genre is the first thing I look for. Quality is very important but we usually have to wait until we've seen a few eps to decide if it's worth continuing to commit the time. I had high hopes for Fortitude but am becoming more disgruntled as the weeks go by – what's it about? Have I lost the plot or wasn't there one to start with?

    Compare Fortitude to True Detective, Spiral etc and you see a vast difference in style. For some reason Fortitude reminds me of Lost and that program 'lost' me after a few weeks.

    I feel as if I've been conned into watching something that purported to be a cross between Nordic noir & True Detective – what I got was something vastly different.

    Sorry Sky, not for me.

  • Peter Moore

    I think there were plenty clues that this wasn't an ordinary detective story and that something “supernatural” might be going on, from the first episode.

    The kid climbing out of the window and wandering off, barefoot, in below-freezing temperatures. The ominous music with slow zooms towards the “mammoth” remains. Those off the top of my head, but it was enough to give a hint that the story wasn't going to be a standard procedural (which the Nordic Noirs and True Detective all are, despite stylistic standouts).

  • I think there were clues (I mentioned some in my review of the first two/three episodes), but they felt more 'quirky' than necessarily supernatural/science-fictiony. It's also not something highlighted in advertising, so I think most audience members would reasonably have believed the genre to be 'Nordic Noir'. Assuming they were looking for a specific genre, which goes back to the question.

  • “For some reason Fortitude reminds me of Lost”

    Is it the polar bears? But I do see what you mean.

  • Mark Carroll

    That's an interesting and difficult question. What really matter to me are plausible multi-dimensional characters (at least some of them somewhat likable), good scripts, and an arc that is actually going somewhere, or at least enough diversity in plots to occasionally explore new ideas. Icing on the cake is, giving me a window into another culture.

    Over different periods one gets more or less of these in various dramas. For instance, I liked a fair bit of early Law and Order and CSI and the like, but these days I usually avoid the regular American crime dramas: they're passable entertainment but at this point we've seen it all before. Historical setting can help if it's truly quite authentic, then there's interesting cultural stuff, as with Deadwood or True Detective, similarly with Nordic Noir half of what I'm getting out of it is simply a window into Scandinavia; this curiosity is a reason I'll get around to watching more of the recent Spiral and Hostages.

    Some thought suggests that, for me, “new ideas” may be quite broad: while shows like The Lost Room, Dead Like Me, or Ultraviolet's different take on the vampire genre, are certainly welcome, it might even just be a tone or feel, of the world being portrayed. For instance, the Alien movies, or the Dark Angel series, or whatever, had a definite unusual characteristic ambience, that for me gave them some mileage as something I was curious to experience, though had it not been cancelled I suspect I would have been considering tiring of Dark Angel by a fourth series or so. Or, for instance, with sitcoms, shows like earlier Community or, say, Flight of the Conchords or Greg the Bunny, often had something new to bring to an episode, rather than just milking the same old tropes. And, some intelligent wit in script-writing goes a long way, and can be seen in anything from The Simpsons or South Park to The Tick (live action) or House, MD, maybe even Life but my memory's hazier there.

    I do also like watching things that have observed and analyzed something rather better than I had, so that when I watch them I feel like I understand them better through the aware portrayal: this could apply to anything from The Royle Family to Watchmen.

    For some genres, my dislikes are more constant. For instance, with soaps, I don't care about the characters enough, and it's clearly interminable and made up as it goes along with little new in what unpleasant conflict is going to happen next, that I try to steer well clear. Some historical dramas fall for me rather into the category of simply being a soap opera set in a different time. (This is a reason I'm not about to give Poldark a try.) Or, with science fiction, I'll tend to give it a chance because there is plenty of scope for an interesting culture or ambience or new idea.

    I didn't get to tie the above quite as much into genres as I wanted, but dinner's about ready to come out of the oven so I'd better stop there. The short story is that I'd like to be entertained by wit, but mostly I'd like to explore a little something new that feels like it could be real, whether it be an idea, a look, a culture, whatever; in terms of genre prejudice, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to get any of that from watching Lewis.

  • GYAD

    Genre tends to dictate what I look at first, but I'm not exclusive. In truth, concept and actors are more likely to lure me to something…that said, I'm unusual and I know a lot of people for whom genre is everything.

  • tassiekev .

    Didn't stay long enough for the polar bears, when I heard about them it pleased me that I hadn't wasted my time.

    Because I'm old & a full-time carer, I don't get out a lot and watch more than my share of TV. I record almost everything that I'm interested in other than live sport. If I lose interest a couple of episodes in, the show gets wiped and I'm onto something else. Netflix & Prime really suit me because this – I don't even have to wipe it if I'm not interested.

  • I tend never to go back once I've dropped a show. Too much to watch, too little time. I generally stick to three episodes for the sake of the blog, though, to cater for the occasional second-episode blip

  • JustStark

    I've been thinking about this and as far as I can see there are several questions here; several ways in which genre can be 'important'.

    Firstly, genre could be important in deciding what to watch, or deciding whether to watch a given programme. Are there particular genres you just won't watch, even before you know anything else; the genre alone will stop you even giving it a try? For me, costume dramas fall into this category: I would rather do anything else than have to sit in front of a Downton Abbey, a Jamacia Inn or a Poldark. [NB: 'costume drama' is not the same as 'historical drama']

    Or, alternatively, are there genres which will positively affect your decision to watch; where, knowing nothing else other than that there's a new crime show / sci-fi / vampire drama / teen soap / teen soap where everybody's a vampire / etc, you'll make sure to give it a chance on that alone (you might not keep watching it if it's rubbish, but simply because of its genre you'll tune in to see what it's like)?

    Is genre important to me in this ways? Well, I've already pointed out that there is one genre I simply won't watch. And there are others which make me wary, because so much of them in the past has been so bad (fantasy, for example, falls into this category: I gave Game of Thrones a try despite my misgivings about the fantasy genre, and when it turned out to be utter bobbins my fears were reinforced and I would at this point have to hear very good things about any fantasy work to give it a try).

    In a positive sense? Well, I don't think there's any genre that would make me definitely watch something in the absence of other information, but there are some that would make me predisposed towards them: spy stuff, especially Cold War-based, for example.

    (As an example, I am not that interested in watching Agent Carter, from what I have heard. I mean, I might, if any of the free TV stations show it, but I won't seek it out. Whereas if I had heard it was more Cold-War-spy-y, which given its setting it could have been, I would probably have rented the disks when they came out).

    So there's that. Second, how important is genre in keeping you watching something? Say you tuned in thinking you were going to get a crime drama but instead you got a wacky, surreal small-town ensemble piece (must have happened to at least two people who started watching Twin Peaks)? would you switch off because it wasn't the genre you expected?

    Conversely would being the genre you wanted keep you watching even if the quality wasn't as good; do you apply lower standards, say, to sci-fi because it's sci-fi whereas a hospital drama would need to be really good to get you to watch?

    And then finally there's where you seemed to be going from the programme you describe, which is, what if something starts off being, to all appearances, a piece of one genre but then changes to be another?

    And on that I have to say… well… it depends. My favourite example for how this can be done badly is a film I saw years ago, called The Forgotten. Julianne Moore wakes up one morning to discover that she remembers having had children, but nobody else believes her, including her husband, who insists they were always childless. There follows a kind of standard conspiracy thriller thing in which she tries to find evidence that she is not in fact insane, while battling mysterious forces determined to stop her. the viewer wonders: who is behind this? How do they have the resources to pull this grand deceit off? Is her husband in on it, or has he just been brainwashed? And why are they doing it?

    And then at the end of the second act it turns out it's aliens and, at the end, it turns out they're just doing it for kicks, to see whether a mother could break through their mental conditioning to remember her children.

    So, incredibly disappointing because all the questions that were set up by the genre expectations of the conspiracy thriller were simply dropped as the genre suddenly switched. One is led to expect some clever resolution, or at least some resolution; instead, 'It's aliens.'

    'But what about—'

    'It's aliens.'

    'But then why—'

    'Aliens.'

    'No, hang on—'

    'Ay.'

    '— at the beginning…'

    'Lee.'

    'So when she went to—'

    'Ens.'

    Now that's how to do it badly. But that's not to say it can't be done well, if the genre-switch isn't used to drop the questions, or to provide unsatisfying answers, but is instead used to provide resolution (it would help, I suppose, if hints about the genre-switch had been seeded early on…)

    So, how important is this to me? Well, I wouldn't stop watching something just because it changed genre (unless it turned into a costume drama). But genre-changes are fraught with difficulty and can lead to very disappointing resolution, or rather lack of it (a problem with Lost, I hear).

    But personally, these days, what I mainly crave from TV is something I haven't seen before. Possibly that means I have watched altogether too much TV, but still, there it is. So if a programme can pull off a genre shift, then that is interesting and intriguing, because it is so rarely successfully done.

    I am, therefore, intrigued by this snow-bound programme in question, and I will be renting the disks whenever I can.

  • tassiekev .

    You've covered a fair bit of ground there so I just want to make a couple of points regarding the things you said,

    Totally agree on the costume dramas, I'll add in Romance and, now that I'm officially a GOM (nothing religious, just a Grumpy Old Man), I'm going to include what passes for Comedy these days, Comedies seem to involve contrived situations with lots of people shouting at one another. If I never see Steve Martin again, it'll be too soon. I DO have a laugh in progs like Orange ITNB, it's not too contrived and fits well in the plot but it's not trying to be funny for the sake of it – and not for the whole show.

    Obviously I'm not very Grumpy today because I'll also agree on the Spy stuff, really enjoy Tinker, Tailor etc, I even enjoy The Americans. I did read somewhere that they're going to remake Len Deighton's Samson series – roll on!

    I'm into Genre switching about as much as I'm into Gender Bending – not at all, thankyou.

    Look out for the Polar bears!!