Understanding the rise of the uncanny in contemporary television isn’t so much an analysis of societal preferences, as it is one of the television industry. Filmmakers of the uncanny have spent entire careers trying to emulate a Freudian model of finding the unfamiliar and perverse inside the familiar, or as Stanley Kubrick puts it, finding the aesthetics of dread. But why are these aesthetics of dread so much more attractive to audiences now?
In a panel hosted by IFF at the Granoff Center, Richard Brown, the executive producer of True Detective, and Dougray Scott, a Scottish actor known for his role in the Netflix series, Hemlock Grove, told the audience what they thought made the uncanny so appealing. Both men agreed, the audiences haven’t changed at all, but the TV business has. According to Brown, it all started with House of Cards signing on for 22 episodes without a pilot on Netflix. From that point forward, the power of the industry was in the hands of the filmmakers, not the networks, and the quality started to improve dramatically. In other words, people don’t like the uncanny now more than ever. It just so happens that the uncanny is better now than ever before.
Brown credits the success of True Detective to the leverage the show had over HBO. The fact that it wasn’t shot episode by episode — the standard for television — but instead in the same style as an 8 hour film, made it a better final product. Furthermore, the style in which it was shot, and the choice of the cinematographer were included in the initial contract. HBO gave way to these terms, in fear that the makers of the show would run off with their idea to Netflix, Brown said. For the same reasons, the contract is signed before any episodes are made, meaning the makers don’t have to listen to the networks once they start working.
Scott agreed, saying that there is more room for risk given today’s model, adding that television is becoming more experimental and can therefore be further explored as an art form. This room for exploration leads contemporary filmmakers into an expansion of the unknown. If there’s more room for depth in character exploration, why not examine that depth in a werewolf or a vampire?
The bottom line is, “the ‘suits’ are self-destructive to the industry. The success is right in front of them, but they still try to fuck it up,” Scott said. And both men expressed fear that this “golden age” of television would end once networks figured out how to bring the power back into their own hands.
“Eventually there will be winners and losers and a new normal, which will give more power to the networks again,” Brown said.