Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is ‘Sharknado 2’ the Future of Television?

Last week was the premiere of Sharknado 2: The Second One, the much-anticipated sequel to last summer’s campy hit TV movie Sharknado about a freak tornado sucking sharks out of the ocean and dropping them like kamikazes into Los Angeles. For those who found the popularity of both Syfy channel schlockfests to be a sign of the impending collapse of Western civilization, Brian Moylan at The Guardian poses an unsettling scenario: Sharknado is the future of television, and “we all better get used to it.”

Curiously, considering what a cult favorite it has become, Sharknado’s 2013 premiere was seen by even fewer viewers than is typical of a Syfy original movie, which usually consists of mega-creatures of one sort or another wreaking havoc or battling each other. But the movie’s popularity quickly developed as a trend on Twitter, so when Syfy aired another showing a week later, its viewership increased by 38%. A third airing a week after that garnered even more viewers and set a record for the most-watched original film encore in the network’s history, and so a sequel was born.

Sharknado 2: The Second One, what Brian Moylan calls “the schlocktacular sequal [sic] to the social media phenomenon” of its predecessor, has “an utter pop culture craziness that has fans snickering all the way to heaven with non-stop action and a plot that only makes a whiff of sense.” With a hyper-awareness of its own ridiculousness, the movie almost constantly winks at the audience; for example, it features prominent cameos by former pop culture stars (MTV’s Downtown Julie Brown, Miley Cyrus’s achy breaky dad Billy Ray, and Taxi’s Judd Hirsch, here playing a taxi driver) and current pop culture figures like Perez Hilton, Jared the Subway guy, and Kelly Osbourne. It is all designed to get viewers reacting on social media.

And it worked. Not only did this sequel become the channel’s most watched original movie ever, at one point it held all top 10 trending topics in the United States. There were more mentions of the sequel on Twitter than #MileyCyrus on the day of MTV’s 2013 VMAs, #kimye on Kim and Kanye’s wedding day and #transformers4, #thelegomovie, #godzillamovie and #22jumpstreet on each of those movies worldwide premiere days. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared it “the most social movie on TV ever,” more so than any episode of Game of Thrones, The Bachelorette or Survivor.

And therein lies its significance for the future of TV entertainment, according to Moylan: it’s enormously popular “not because it’s any good or anyone really likes it,” as he points out, “but because people will watch it live, along with all the commercials, to have the privilege of snarking about it in real time on their handheld device or laptop.”

Moylan notes that it is so much easier to get a 140-character rise out of people over bad TV like Sharknado than it is to ruminate at length about something of superior quality like Mad Men. “Just look at Scandal,” he writes. “It’s ridden people OMG-ing about presidential assassination attempts all the way to being one of TV’s biggest dramas.” I’m not sure Scandal proves his point; the same thing could be said of people OMG-ing on Twitter over which major characters get killed off each week on Game of Thrones, but neither show is of poor quality, much less Sharknado-caliber poor.

Yes, people enjoy the interactivity of tweeting about bad (and good) TV, just as they enjoy the interactivity of video games or voting for an American Idol; but is Sharknado really what television’s future looks like? I think not. Social media certainly help drive the success of a TV series or movie, but what people prefer even more than the social interactivity is variety. That has been the lesson of cable TV success.

Special “events” like Sharknado may create a record ratings spike here and there, but they are ultimately just temporary frenzies that aren’t going to replace Mad Men or Scandal or game shows or sitcoms or reality TV or any other genre. Besides, they are very difficult to duplicate; it’s rare to find a concept as brilliantly laughable as Sharknado’s.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/8/14