Why did you pick Gilligans
Island and Star Trek as the representative
shows of the '60s?
To back up, I kind of backed
into writing this book. Ever since the late '80s I have
been giving lectures on TV shows. It started out as a
bit of a joke, a bit of comic relief during the year,
and I worked up a kind of comic lecture on Gilligans
Island, and then people asked me to do Star Trek.
When I came to write the book, I was originally just going
to collect a bunch of these essaysI had about 15
of them. It wasnt going to be a well-organized book,
but it happened that my editor wanted an essay on the
The X-Filesthat was the only condition of
the book. And I was very excited about that because I
loved The X-Files and I wanted to write about it.
Well, when I sat down to
write about the The X-Files, the next thing I knew
I had 140 pages of manuscript, and I suddenly thought,
"this book is getting too long." I will have to cut some
of the material out, and then as I looked at the X-Files
essayit was clearly about globalizationI began
to see that a good bit of the material I was really interested
in had at least some bearing on the issue of globalization.
And then I made the decision to cut out half the essays
and focus the book on globalization. And it was at that
point that I began to realize that there was a pattern
in what I had: Gilligans Island and Star
Trek on one side and The Simpsons and
The X-Files on the other. I really had an interesting
contrast between the '60s and the '90s. So I didnt
set out to find what will represent the '60s and chose
Gilligans Island and Star Trek. I
just basically found a pattern in the material I had been
dealt with similar themes.
Right. CBS at that time
really was very much into a kind of nostalgia and defense
of an older America. Thats what Beverly Hillbillies
was. In some ways it is what Green Acres was. The
values projected on CBS were very much the 1950's Eisenhower-era
values of family and small-town, tight-knit community,
very suspicious of strangers, especially Hollywood and
Beverly Hillbillies was the whole joke of that,
a celebration of these older American values. And so,
this book could have been endless; all sorts of things
could have illustrated my thesis or complicated or challenged
this thesis. But I was happy with my choice in the sense
that these were two clearly important shows of the time.
Gilligans Island was actually more successful
than Star Trek. But the interesting thing
about them for me was how well they both lasted. It is
certainly what puzzled me about Gilligans Island
(laughs). How I tried to think about it is, "Why did this
show become so popular in syndication?" These certainly
were not the only shows I could have done and may be in
some sense not the most representative shows, but theyre
in the ballpark. I think they're fair enough to choose
about your discussion of Francis Fukuyama and what he
calls the "end of the nation state" is that with shows
like Gilligans Island and Star Trek
there are still large pockets of America that don't even
regard these shows in a nostalgic sense but actually still
feel the same way.
Yes, I think that is true.
Again, one of the points about the television audience
is that it is very complex and has different layers. People
understand the shows on different levels. And yes, I think
that the enduring popularity of these shows reveals an
enduring American sense of patriotism. It doesnt
take much for it to surface. Obviously the events of September
11th have tapped into a deep-seated patriotism
in the American people. And were seeing some change
in the popular culture as a result but, you know, patriotism
surfaces even in The Simpsons. Thats why
they never carry their cynical observations about politics
Can you see us
reverting back to a nation state in some sensesjust
because of the patriotic fervor now?
It really depends upon
how things go. I can see a certain series of events that
would lead into a resurgence of patriotism, and I can
see other events that would follow a different course,
a course that just might take us back to where we were
in the '90s, and this is particularly difficult to predict.
I think long term the trends that I talk about against
the nation state are still in place. If anything, I feel
that in many ways the The X-Files predicted the
world we live in. And the fact is that terrorism does
not fit into the world of the nation state. It is one
of the reasons we are having a hard time dealing with
it and why this war we are in looks so different to people
and is in fact difficult to conceptualize, because our
notion of war is very much tied up with our notion of
the nation state. And terrorism, despite all the talk
about state-sponsored terrorism, is not a nation-state
phenomena. And it may well be that dealing with terrorism
will end up undermining the nation-state further. But
again, that is unpredictable.
With the end of
the nation state, we are moving continually towards democracy.
But in some Islamic countires there is still a theocracy.
Yeah, that is the way we
characterize Islamic fundamentalism, and a number of the
Islamic states have elements of theocracy. The fact that
these Taliban leaders were at one time religious leaders
Theocracy is having problems, too. It is interesting to
seeas far as we can tell the Afghani people appear
to be happy to have been liberated from Taliban rule precisely
because they didnt feel comfortable with theocratic
rule, with the suppression of music, dance, and so on.
But we really are seeing a clash between democratic, modern
ways of thinking and theocratic, more traditional ways
of thinking. Essentially the theme of The X-Files is
the conflict between a rationalized modernity and more
traditional ways of life, which it continually associates
with the Third World or with foreigners.
The WTC attack was tied
into our culture and our entertainment industry.
In a sense, we are experiencing a real backlash against
our entertainment, which is certainly related to TV
Absolutely. I think you
could almost say TV was the issue that provoked this.
Early on, someone wrote a piece called "Gilligans
Island vs. the Taliban" that was sparked by her having
read my book, and she basically was trying to answer the
question everyone was asking in October, you know, "Why
do they hate us?" And she said because of Gilligans
Island. I was very flattered actually that she had
picked up on my book. Her name was Catherine Seipp, and
her argument was that people see the show around the world
and they both envy and resent us. It was a very clever
and very humorous piece. But yes, I think that a lot of
the resentment that is fueling terrorists is a sense that
their way of life is being undermined by these encroachments
of western modernity, and thats deeply embodied
in the power of Hollywoodthe films, video tapes,
radio broadcasts, and television shows.
continues to pick up steam as our entertainment leads
Oh, it is extraordinary.
The most remote place I have ever been was the so-called
Red Centre of Australia, absolutely the middle of nowhere.
I was there to see the famous Ayers RockI being
the intrepid explorerand booked this special cheap
tour to go to something called Mount Connor and part of
the deal was to go and have dinner in an authentic Australian
roadhouse and the guide got lost
. We finally found
the place, we get in, and they were watching Seinfeld.
And laughing at it. Which, I am from Brooklyn, from New
York, I have always understood Seinfeld and never
understood why the rest of the world likes it. In the
middle of nowhere in Australia they were watching it.
You discuss Gilligan
as the archetypal democratic hero. Was the key to Gilligan's
success that the creator set up the archetypal hero as
such a blank buffoon?
In a certain sense, democracy
rests on the idea that anybody can rule and therefore
every man can rule. It is one of the great tensions within
democracy that somehow it asks for greatness in rulers
and on the other hand it wants to claim you dont
have to be anything special to rule. And I think that
the logic of the show really turned on that kind of issue.
You see all of these various traditional claims to rule,
the skippers military experience, the professors
wisdom, Mr. Howells wealth, and in a sense the show
devalues all those things even though in another sense
it does celebrate them. But the point about Gilligan is
he is the perfect man of the streethe really is
your average Joe. And the point was that he somehow is
the fundamental spirit of that island; thats why
it is named after him.
I see the three
other shows you discuss as having a brilliant mind behind
them, putting a lot of thought into themyou would
call them very intelligently structured shows. Gilligans
Island is so stupid, but it has endured and been so
Now let me say a word in
defense of Gilligans Island because the only
person I have heard from to discuss the book is [the show's
creator] Sherwood Schwartz. He heard about the book actually
reading that syndicated article on "Gilligan's Island
vs. the Taliban," and wrote me a letter asking about
the book. I sent him a copy of it, and weve spoken
on the phone. He was very excited when the book was reviewed
in the LA Times. The interesting thing is he basically
has put in writing that I figured out what he wanted to
do with the show. Before he read the book, when he wrote
me the first letter asking him to send him a copy, he
outlined "this is what I was doing in the show" and he
actually was discussing many of the same episodes that
I discussed. He said, "My favorite episode was 'The Little
Dictator,'" and talked about the one where Gilligan is
elected president. I jokingly wrote back to him, "I wrote
all these books about Shakespeare and I never so much
as got a note from him and here you were kind enough to
send me this letter."
And indeed it was kind
of a strange moment in my career. You spend your whole
life as an English professor interpreting things and nobody
ever tells you that you were right, and here the creator
of Gilligans Island sent me a note saying,
"This is what I had in mind." And in talking to him and
corresponding with him he really is quite intelligent
and well read. I noticed this just in reading his book
about Gilligans Island that he talks about
Aristophanes and Commedia del Arte, and he is obviously
well educated. You go back to Gilligans Island
now, its almost embarrassing because there are references
to Diogenes in it. You would not expect to find that in
a television show. And so I give Sherwood Schwartz a lot
of credit. We shouldnt underestimate what was going
on in that show.
I guess if I can
rephrase: if history looks on it, you will see Star
Trek, The Simpsons, and The X-Files
probably placed on the high end of television culture
and Gilligans Island would not be there.
I might say its ironic
in a way, in that the show that I say the nastiest things
about in the book is the one that provoked the one kind
letter Ive got. But no, I know exactly what you
are saying. One of the reasons I included Gilligans
Island in the book was to make the point that it doesnt
have to be the high end of pop culture for us to learn
something from it. And in a way I offer it as a kind of
test case: if you can find something interesting in Gilligans
Island you can probably find something interesting
in anything on TV.
you write about Star Trek, you raise the question,
"Does the end of history mean the end of Shakespeare?"
Really what drew me into
that Star Trek topic was the movie Star Trek
VI: The Undiscovered Country. I was really struck
by the use of Shakespeare in it but above all the fact
that they associate Shakespeare with the Klingons. Now
part of it was a joke. The Klingons generally function
as the Russians in the Cold War mythology of Star Trek,
and when the Klingons claim that Shakespeare was originally
written in Klingon it's like those old Soviet claims that
a Russian invented television and so on. But as I began
to think about it, it got deeper than that, because the
reason that the Klingon General Chang quoted Shakespeare
was that he was an old-style aristocratic warrior. And
it did seem to me that the movie raised that issue: whether
a galactic peace would somehow be enervating. There is
a sense of something coming to the end in that film, and
in some ways its positive because it means bringing
peace to the galaxy, but there is some sense that the
whole mission of the Enterprise was premised precisely
on this Cold War spacethat people like Kirk can
show their heroism only because they had enemies to fight.
You see a lot of concern about that in the 1990s.
Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man
dealt with that, and clearly the film had that
debate in mind because the end of history comes up in
it. I doubt that the writers of the film were familiar
with Fukuyama's work directly, but they knew about that
issue and I think the film turns on that.
about the fighting that is going on now is how it brings
us back to the Cold War in that both America and Russia
were involved in Afghanistan during the last stage of
the Cold War. I wonder if it brings some of those issues
to the surface, even
just some of that Cold War sentiment.
Many people have welcomed
the resurgence of patriotism and the sense that America
now has a purpose again in the world, and I think it reflects
that kind of post-Cold War emotional depression of the
1990's that you often see reflected in The Simpsons
and the The X-Files. The question though is whether
it really is a return to an old style of warfare or something
really quite new and whether we really can identify our
enemies any more or identify them in national terms specifically.
Surely one of the ironies of the situation now is that
we find ourselves allied with the Russians, and the Russians
are helping us, and we are staging our operations in Afghanistan
from states that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
It really is confusing in that sense.
You also touch
on how The X-Files tied in so much to the Internet,
and how its success was related to that.
I think thats a fascinating
subject. It clearly is the first show that really made
a great deal of the Internet and, in general, of communications
technology. Its actually funny now to go back to
the first season and see that Scully and Mulder often
miss each other on their regular phones, and answering
machines have to kick in, and sometimes the plots turn
on the fact that they cant reach each other by phone.
And then pretty soon the cell phone is therean inescapable
companion. They were one of the first shows to have plots
turn on the issue of the Internet. There is that episode
about Internet dating and its perils called "Too Shy."
And I point out how the success of the show heavily depended
on the Internetthat at points its ratings were not
over the top in the first season, and at points where
Fox were nervous about the future of the show they monitored
the Internet traffic. They could see the depth of interest
in the show. They saw that the website they set up for
the show was getting more hits than anything else on television,
and I think Fox was clever to see the new issue of the
Indeed, I think television
is still relatively young, and I think the major transformation
of television in this coming century is going to be the
integration of television programming and the Internet.
You see a foretaste of that in the The X-Files;
Chris Carter has admitted that he monitors the The
X-Files website. They have gotten some ideas for shows
from the Internet. They often make compliments to the
biggest Internet fans by using their names for minor characters
in episodes. I think the Internet is going to be a very
powerful tool for television and were only just
beginning to see what its impact is going to be. But the
Lone Gunmen were clearly the first major Internet characters
on television and they got their own show even though
it didnt succeed. And I think its one of the
things that shows how clever the people on the The
X-Files were, that they really saw the major change
that was coming along in the 1990's with the Internet.
They took advantage of it in promoting the show, incorporated
it into scripts. It probably will be remembered as the
beginning of the Internet Revolution in television.
Do you ever watch
Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
Yes, I just have started
to get into Buffy through the reruns. I have had
students and friends tell me, "Youve gotta get into
Buffy" and I just saw their Internet dating episode
where a demon gets into the Internet. It was a very interesting
way of representing the fears that go along with this
new technological possibility. I cant say Im
a committed Buffy fan yet; Im working on it.