Is talking about SNL ever relevant anymore? Debatable — the show only seems to enter into the broader cultural conversation when they’ve added a new “first [BLANK] cast member” just in time for everyone to say, “Really? There never was one before?” or when they’ve offended somebody, but Nick Jonas’s recent Saturday Night Live appearance (with bonus Kevin cameo!) both was a pretty solid show as a whole and included a pretty incisive sketch about the state of the media landscape at this current moment in American culture.
I’m talking, of course, about the “Murder Show” sketch. It’s been creeping up on us for a while now, hasn’t it, the age of the murder show? First there were decades on decades of procedural copaganda which was ostensibly appealing for the formulaic, episodic structure necessary in a pre-streaming, pre-owning-or-renting-whole-seasons-of-TV world where if you just happened to turn on the TV when a show happened to be on, you had to be able to pick up everything you needed to know about it from the theme song and context clues. Then there was the understanding on the part of creators that it was the shock-and-awe value of the violent deaths themselves that were a large part of the appeal of these shows, and wave upon wave of true crime, and then there was the true crime renaissance in podcasts, drawing in a whole new audience, and now we’ve reached the point where purveyors of fine television products have figured out that they can get us by following the road map of those podcasts, but with video and higher production value.
So here we are in the age of the murder show, even if our momentary TV-boyfriend Nick Jonas is here with the good word about the slight variation on a theme that is the cult show, and there’s something here to be said for the catharsis of the creepy-crawly feeling of suddenly knowing a lot more about all the awful things that can happen in the world, but — and this is key — not to you. There’s something to be said about it, but I’m not going to say it, because I don’t think I’m qualified to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you why I think this Chloe Fineman sketch with a brief cameo by Nick Jonas and his fairly excellent comic timing has me thinking about Icelandic folk tales.
In the introduction to his 1970 translation of the collection of thirteenth century Icelandic folk tales Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Tales, Hermann Pálsson discusses the way these stories are a cultural signpost pointing medieval Iceland’s way out of a long period of heroic narratives where adventure, revenge, and other more cutthroat-romantic ideals were prized in the heroes of stories, and into an era where the values of popular protagonists reflected the more collective and collaborative virtues that the society of many barely-stitched-together, isolated farms needed in order to survive. In American media, we tend to treat narrative rules like “everyone loves an underdog,” and the less catchy but no less prevalent “everyone has to eventually value the assholish, enigmatic genius for their genius and then eventually become charmed by their assholishness by extension” as if they’re innate, immutable rules for appealing to an audience. They’re not, though — they’re narrative rules which reward success within the specific societal structure we inhabit.
Specifically, an industrial capitalist society relies on the acquiescence of the labor force based on the semi-fiction of social mobility, and narratives which speak to the possibility and virtue of the self-made man reinforce this acquiescence. Both stories of the triumph of the underdog and stories that are thinly-veiled Sherlock Holmes pastiches are a comfortable fit for reinforcing the myth of the supremacy of the self-made man under industrial capitalism because both of these types of stories place the burden of failure on the exploited rather than those who benefit from that exploitation because both of these types of stories are centered around the power of the individual rather than either the power of the collective or power of the structural obstacle.
This narrative pattern is analogous to the heroic period in medieval Icelandic literature where heroes were rugged individualists who were rewarded for decisive violence, for taking justified revenge, and for protecting individual notions of honor. This heroic period is, not coincidentally, the period of exploration, of settlement in a new land, and by extension, the heroism of conquest of a sort, although the fact that Iceland was not inhabited by humans before Norse settlement in the early Middle Ages means that we can’t make an exact analogy to imperialism here. Still, today in America, in a society attempting to reckon with our imperialist roots, and with the landscape of racial inequality left behind by slavery, it feels worthwhile to examine whether the narrative ideals of the heroic period are still useful for getting us where we want to go.
Murder shows flip the heroic narrative on its head. The focus isn’t, generally, on the investigator, or even the victim, so much as it is on the crime and the criminal — the actions of the individual are at the center, but they’re the focus and the fascination for the perversion of that romanticized image of the rebellious loner. Like Hrafnkel’s Saga in thirteenth century Iceland, there’s an element of argument for the greater good of more collective societal values via the awful warning of what the alternative might look like.
None of this is meant to be a complete summary of the appeal of these shows, and I’m not here to argue for or against them as a genre — in fact, if I have any agenda in typing up this column, it’s to argue that the Jonas Brothers should make another fictionalized-autobiographical sitcom, if they’re into that. I have this feeling that Joe and Sophie Turner’s influence would turn it into something really weird, and I, personally, think the world is ready to see exactly what that would be. In the meantime, good luck to all my other pandemic-isolated latter-day digital medieval crofters out there.
Slings and Arrows: The best show. Just the best show.
Snow White and the Hunstman: A shockingly fairytale adaptation of a fairytale. Good stuff, I love how
The Gun and the Pulpit: 1974 cowboy movie about a gunslinger who accidentally becomes a preacher. Reasonably great?
Stealing Harvard: Borderline unwatchable. I’m sorry, Megan Mullally — I really tried.
Hail Caesar: (the Anthony Michael Hall one, not the Coen brothers) Actually unwatchable, even despite being kind of aesthetically cool and having Samuel L. Jackson in it.
Sidney Dritz is currently reevaluating what to do with the rest of her life, which makes the angle to take in bios tricky. She finished her three-college tour of America at the University of Southern Maine, and her poetry has appeared in Glass Poetry Press’s #PoetsResist series, in Claw & Blossom, and in Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters.