How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

31
The Prisoner

Cult TV Remakes

MATT HILLS

Abstract: Two television trends that have grown more prominent in recent years are
American remakes of foreign series and the popularity of cult TV. Matt Hills ex-
amines an example of both, the American remake of 1960s British “cult classic” The Prisoner, and suggests why such “neocult” programs can fail to capture the appeal
of the original and alienate cult fandoms.

How should we analyse TV shows that have taken on cult status? Often science fiction/fantasy, these programs typically have devoted fan followings. Perhaps, then, it is important to consider not only the textual qualities that may have incited a cult following, but also the activities of dedicated fans. However, viewed from a contemporary perspective, cult television is not something created by audience activity alone. It is a label, and a phenomenon, with a televisual history stretching back at least to the 1960s. For example, Sue Short has suggested that British series The Prisoner (ITC, 1967–1968) “serves as a … precursor to the cult telefantasy shows we see today, by dint of its visual detail and narrative intricacy, [and] its ongoing mysteries,” which were “pioneering strategies that would find their way into many subsequent shows.”1

Over time, “cult” has therefore become an identifiable grouping of TV series with a number of shared textual attributes, meaning that programs can be designed to generate cults. Since the 1980s, cult audiences have become an identifiable group, in turn meaning that generations of fans can now be targeted by TV professionals. Far from being accidental successes triggered by challenging, innovative programming, by the 2000s, cult TV had become one industrial strategy for reaching audiences.

Contemporary cult TV is therefore dialogic: producers can use storytelling techniques and genres to target fans, whilst fans can evaluate shows and share their views via social media, either assenting to their industrial targeting or

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