by Tami Katzoff (@tvtamijo)
The cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly (on sale now) has gone where no EW cover has gone before - the universe of "Doctor Who," the epitome of cult television. The magazine also presents its list of The 25 Best Cult TV Shows From The Past 25 Years, and it’s really no surprise that our man Joss Whedon is well-represented there. At the top of the list is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Firefly” comes in at a very respectable #11.
The list was a joint effort of the TV staff of EW, says senior writer Jeff Jensen; that staff is “comprised almost exclusively of people whose defining television experiences are what we might call cult TV.”
And what exactly is cult TV? It’s certainly different from what it used to be. “Initially, when we started talking about this genre, it felt like shows that had passionate followings but were more on the fringes of the TV universe,” Jensen explains. But now, it’s less about the where and more about the what.
“I think it begins with a very distinctive storytelling sensibility,” says Jensen. And like the good Doctor, the characters that populate cult television aren’t exactly mainstream.
“A lot – but not all – of cult TV has an interest in characters that live slightly on the fringes of society, or misfits, or outcasts, or the alienated, whether they’re in real-world settings or extraordinary settings,” Jensen says. “They end up finding meaning and identity and comfort by creating communities of similarly alienated people that could be wildly different from each other.” Any of this sound familiar?
First, Captain Mal & Company: “Joss Whedon created a very defined, specific universe with a group of people that you could identify with, and want to spend time with, and you could identify with their community and their bond,” says Jensen. And the fact that “Firefly” was only with us for a short time adds to its cult appeal. “Martyrdom seems to be a quality that a lot of cult TV has.”
Of course a show can be around for a while and still achieve cult status - “Lost” and “The X-Files” are both on the EW list’s top ten. “These were shows that had long lives but in many vibrant, huge ways expressed the cult sensibility,” Jensen says. “They’re just cult shows that happen to have very large followings.”
Which brings us to “Buffy.” In Jensen’s opinion, it was “the best realized serialized television show in history.” It did everything that a cult TV show needed to do, and so much more. Jensen cites episodes such as “Conversations with Dead People,” “The Body,” and “Hush” as being prime examples of how Joss Whedon took chances with storytelling, with great success.
But “Buffy” was also notable for another quality that made it unique among its contemporaries. “We live in this niche demographic world now, where shows are no longer created for a broad audience. They’re created for one audience. And ‘Buffy’ was at the forefront of that media revolution,” Jensen explains. “One of the legacies of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ was showing us that cult TV is big business.”
Previously on The Weekly Whedon:
MTV News producer Tami Katzoff presents The Weekly Whedon, a column exploring all corners of the Whedonverse from "Marvel's The Avengers" to "Buffy" and beyond. Assemble your reactions in the comments section!