(Curiosity) Why is there nothing to watch?

Most of us have had the experience, probably quite recently, of scrolling through literally hundreds of movies on Netflix and not being able to find a single thing. Last night I ended up switching to my cable company’s On Demand section and still came up empty.

But then something interesting happened. On social media, a friend posted about an old B-movie he was watching, a real incoherent disaster of an 80s sci-horror, and I realized I had way more interest in that than any of the “legitimate” films I had just forsaken.

Now, ratings are subjective, of course. As an author, I see it all the time. I remember one guy who — it was obvious — only rated books that he enjoyed, meaning in his world even a one-star book wasn’t bad. Bad books simply didn’t rate at all. It seemed a little wonky to me at first, but then I realized it’s a bit like Michelin’s system of rating restaurants. There are only three stars available, only the very best restaurants in the world are even considered, and a Michelin one-star restaurant is a damned fine meal. In fact, out of all the chefs in the world, only a handful ever get a three-star rating, which is like the gold medal of chefery.

Okay, fair enough. But there does seem to be a generally implied continuum that puts romance below contemporary lit, or superheroes below art house films. Only the taco truck on the corner isn’t trying to be Noma, or (the now-closed) El Bulli. Tastes are not just subjective, as in variable across individuals. They also vary across time within the same individual. You wouldn’t eat at Chez Francois every day even if you could. Sometimes you just want a damned good burger. Or a taco.

So it is with narrative fiction. A trashy romance novel isn’t trying to win the National Book Award. Comparing them on the same scale is kind of ridiculous. But there are bad trashy romances and good trashy romances, same as anything, and when you’re in the mood for a trashy romance — and who isn’t from time to time? — then you want to read a good one, not a National Book Award winner.

You can see this clearly with hotels, which can be rated on more or less objective grounds — on the presence or absence of certain amenities, for example, along with location, price, and so on. Hotels have both a star rating and a customer rating. A three-and-a-half star chain hotel on the interstate isn’t trying to be a five star resort, and when customers give it five stars, it’s not because they’re deluded about what a five-star hotel should be. It’s because they understand intuitively the genre of a three-and-a-half star hotel and are telling you it’s a great version of that.

Taco trucks, three-and-a-half-star hotels, and trashy romances operate inside an intelligible structure that you learn but are never taught, a whole system of signs and signifiers in your head that you can read instantly but whose rules you could never articulate (at least not without training and effort). But sitting on top of it all, like a schoolyard bully, is that damned continuum of “quality.”

I think my first book, FANTASMAGORIA, is a three-star book in the sense that it’s not trying to be any more than a grotesque, if also thoughtful, romp full of pulpy characters and pop culture references, but I would argue it’s a five-star three-star book. And in fact, one of the best reviews I’ve gotten — articulate, fair, thoughtful, and positive — gave the book three stars for reasons that totally made sense to me.

This is the problem with so many of the books and movies I abandon. Call it the Sharknado phenomenon, where a bad movie can be perfectly enjoyable if it’s a good bad movie, which is exactly what we mean when we say we want to watch something good. We’re not saying we want Birdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel (neither of which I’ve seen). We’re saying we want a movie that does an excellent job of achieving what it set out to, even where that is not very grand.

The other week I watched the original Conan the Barbarian, which seems a perfect example of this. On its merits, it’s an excellent film and I enjoyed it far more than the recent remake because it exists in perfect balance with its aims. Same for Bridge of Spies, which seems to have gone largely unnoticed despite being one of Spielberg’s better movies. It’s not high cinema, but then it never once falls short of its ambition, like A.I. did.

Soap operas and professional wrestling persist forever by self-consciously exploiting this structure. When you tune into soap opera or wrestling, you’re expecting two-star melodrama, and the more ridiculous twists and dramatic zooms it unabashedly packs into an hour, the better you feel.

As standard TV shows reach their third and fourth seasons, they often resort to the same bag of plot devices as the soap opera, or any serial fiction: false deaths, evil doppelgängers, long lost children, miraculous recoveries, and so on. Where those devices appeal to us in soap operas and comic books, they immediately feel tired on prime time, which is otherwise full of self-consciously four- and five-star properties.

Incidentally, this is also why, if you’re going to fail, it’s better to fail spectacularly. A mediocre book or movie is merely forgettable, but those that misjudge themselves so completely that they fall off the scale entirely become excellently awful, the paradigmatic example of getting it wrong. The Eye of Argon comes to mind, or Plan 9 From Outer Space.

the reason there’s nothing on is not that authors and filmmakers are aiming too high. The fact is, excellence is hard at any level, and just because someone can write very good contemporary literature doesn’t mean they could write an excellent trashy romance. I suspect a Wes Anderson action movie would be about as good as Ang Lee’s Hulk.

The scale itself is wrong — the supposed continuum of quality, from comedy at the bottom to tragedy at the top. A “five-star two-star” film, like Big Trouble in Little China, will always be more excellent than a “three-star four-star” film, like all those wannabe tear-jerkers you scroll through endlessly on Netflix.


cover image by Shintaro Kago