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Lounge Critic - a couch potato’s guide to cult TV

Do you still watch repeats of Buffy with friends and agonise over her on-again, off-again relationship with Angel? Have you ever watched an entire series of The Sopranos on DVD in one day? Are you still convinced that someone else killed Laura Palmer? If you answered yes to any or all of the above, like me, you are a cult TV fan and Lounge Critic: The Couch Theorist's Companion is the book for you.

Edited by Annabel Rattigan and Terrie Waddell, and based on the Australian Centre for the Moving Image's Lounge Critic forums - which invited spectators to talk about their favourite TV shows - the book features well-known cultural commentators including Sophie Cunningham, Anna Dzenis, Chris Boyd and Debi Enker.

Generally the writings are geared towards the obsessive fan and this is one of the book's key pleasures. The writers presume you have an in-depth knowledge of the shows they are talking about and there are extra tidbits of trivia scattered throughout. The chapters cover topics like sexual tension between characters and what happens when it's over, the rise of queer TV, Oz talk shows, transformative TV from Big Brother to Extreme Makeover and future possibilities with the advent of digital television. My favourite chapters are highlighted below, and they're based on shows that have gripped me in the past and that I am still watching on DVD now.

Particularly insightful is Sue Turnbull's 'Not Just Another Buffy Paper: Towards an Aesthetics of Television' which highlights the hierarchy of attitudes towards subjects at universities, where studies of TV and popular culture are still seen as less valuable than cinema, and how this is even reflected in Buffy itself. Turnbull also looks into the psyche of series creator Joss Whedon, the contradictory elements in his own opinions on pop culture and how he entwines them into the show, recognising that fans will 'get' his references.

Buffy fans … don't watch Buffy as part of television's flow of images or segments, nor do they simply glance at the screen. It is far more likely they watch Buffy on a big screen TV … in the dark, either in silence or with trusted viewing companions … in a participatory viewing experience which is all about engagement with the text. Fans, whether they are scholar-fans or fan-scholars, interrogate the text and each other …
(page 9)

Anna Dzenis offers an in-depth analysis of The Sopranos, from a potted history of its production and critical responses to the riveting opening sequence - 'woke up this morning, got myself a gun' - to why the inner workings of Tony Soprano, as killer/lover/wiseguy/patient, are so fascinating to fans. Part of the joy of the series is its intertextuality. It constantly refers to other films in its genre - the Godfather trilogy, Raging Bull, Donnie Brasco - and others not so expected, like Gladiator and even ER: 'when a hospital staff member tries to stop Tony from abusing his mother, he calls him George Clooney' (page 82). The Sopranos mob are, like us, consumers of contemporary culture in all its forms.

Agent Cooper and his regular 'cup of Joe'. The enigmatic smile of Sherilyn Fenn as she tiptoes through the corridors of her father's hotel. Red drapes and dwarves speaking backwards. 'When is Leo coming home?' in hushed tones. Twin Peaks was the most exciting television I saw in my teens. I was frightened, exhilarated, intrigued and hooked. (And still am - I had to watch the first episodes on the weekend again after reading this book.) David Lynch changed the nature of what you could get away with in TV narrative with his surreal mystery, full of clues that seemed to lead nowhere and everywhere, and characters defined by their dreams as much as their actions. Martyn Pedler and Saige Walton, in 'Wrapped in Plastic: Surrealism, Soap Opera and Mystery in Twin Peaks', convey the auteurist nature of the show (even though Lynch only directed five of the 30 episodes) and the way Lynch played with his fans' expectations, often deviating wildly from the script, even in the series' final episode. Apparently the show itself had no idea until the very end who killed Laura Palmer. The writers also parallel Lynch's work with other surrealist texts - Luis Bunuel's L'Age d'Or, Paul Eduard's poetry - and reveal how the show was one of the first to generate feverish discussion on the internet, where anyone could become a detective like Cooper searching for clues.

The online fandom surrounding Twin Peaks grasped what this series was all about: the speculation of fans assumed a life of their own - quite separate to Lynch's show - and if anything 'net fans only wanted to see the enigmas expand … [prolonging] their pleasure in playing with textual puzzles'.
(page 123)

So, as the ponderous theme music to Twin Peaks drifts through my mind, I'm thinking there's something missing from this book. Where is Six Feet Under? It deserves a place here and it doesn't even get a mention. And I'd argue with Sue Turnbull's 'Look at moiye, Kimmie, look at moiye: Kath & Kim and the Australian comedy of taste' because I think she misses the point.

Watching the program … I felt I was being invited to laugh at Kath and Kim in ways which denigrated them while reinforcing the superiority of the viewer … The comedy depends on a type of cultural condescension which asks us to laugh at those who apparently don't know any better. Kath and Kim's failure to make the right choices places them in a culturally inferior position to that of the viewer.

I believe we laugh at Kath and Kim because we recognise there's a little bit of them in all of us (as with David Brent in The Office) - the desire to lose weight and squeeze into smaller clothing, to be a 'babe' after you hit 30, the tendency to mispronounce or mix up words at inopportune moments (why else would fans incorporate this usage into their everyday language with such fondness - 'bain marie of my life', 'I'm gropable', 'up my goat' to name a precious few), the aspiration to keep fit by buying the latest dodgy exercise equipment from Good Morning Australia with Bert Newton. It's not condescension, it's affection. At least in my case. Turnbull also fails to explore the male characters, Kel and Brett, which would have given her article more balance. But, then again, I am a fan and we tend to be one-eyed.

These are small quibbles. Lounge Critic is an entertaining, accessible book with a great selection of contemporary culture sifted and digested. It's a must-read if you're a cult TV fan.

Review by Kirsten Krauth, Editorial Coordinator at the Australian Film Commission

Lounge Critic - the couch theorist's companion is published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and supported by the Australian Film Commission. It is currently available in bookstores or email publishing@afc.gov.au to buy a copy ($29.95).

Lounge Critic: The Couch Theorist's Companion
This book, edited by Annabel Rattigan and Terrie Waddell, is published by ACMI