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Book Review: The Cult TV Book: From Star Trek to Dexter, New Approaches to TV Outside the Box, Edited by Stacey Abbott

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As someone with an undergraduate degree in media studies, and who focused on fan culture for her undergraduate thesis, I was particularly excited to have a look at this book.

The Cult TV Book is a collection of essays on (you may have guessed) cult television shows. The various authors pose all the usual questions: what is “cult”? Why do some shows achieve cult status while others do not? Can cult television be manufactured by writers, producers, networks? Even the details matter; Janet K. Halfyard’s contribution focuses solely on the use of music in cult TV. Since cult television fans are known for their attention to detail, the fact that the authors of these essays also gave it their full attention shows commitment to the topic(s) at hand. In my nerdy, academic excitement, I could delve into the any these topics here, but that would hardly serve to review the book — although it does reflect the level of interest the book is able to encourage and sustain.

While some of the content is repetitive — how many people can cite the Angel episode “Smile Time”? — that is unavoidable in a collection of essays bent on the same set of ideas. More interesting are the differences of opinion amongst the authors; indeed, they did not all agree even on a simple definition for “cult.” While some may find such a thing confusing, I found it refreshing. It was rather like looking at many facets of a large gemstone, and it also gives the reader a say in the matter. With so many potential definitions, the reader may pick one that suits him, or develop his own. Thus, the reader is part of the conversation, not a mere listener.

Anyone with an honest interest in television should certainly be versed in cult television and fandom. After all, in today’s media climate, every TV executive wants a popular show, but they also want that cult audience. Cult TV fans are the loyal ones, the ones that get the word out, the ones that buy all the ancillary merchandise (shirts, posters, soundtracks, special collector DVDs). Jane Espenson’s essay on how, exactly, to write a cult show was especially interesting, though the debate as to whether you can knowingly create a cult phenomenon rages on. After all, the cult fan prides himself on being able to see through the machinations of the industry. Indeed, he spurns the mainstream — or so most of the authors posit, making a cult fan seem somewhat insufferable. As a fan fiction author (one who has been asked to be the guest fan author at conventions), I grimace at this portrait of the fan, but that is another discussion for another day, just one of many talking points The Cult TV Book offers up for discussion. It has a lot to say for such a small volume, packing interest into each paragraph.

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