The Sweetness of Good Camp

I have a huge, deep, intense fondness for campy television. It’s one of my things. Look at Buffy. This is camp to the max, complete with cheesy sets and fake-looking blood and dim lighting to cut stunt costs. Or Grimm, which is borrowing a similar style and aesthetic. As a viewer, you understand that it is not real, even as you also get pulled into the storylines and events. The camp becomes part of the experience, what holds you, what makes it purely fun in a visceral way that more serious television is not.

And it’s really, really hard to do. There’s a sweet spot with camp that television really seems to be struggling with these days. A combination of factors is pulling together to make it challenging to do camp well, and I dearly hope we’re not about to face the end of an era, because camp is not something that should be allowed to fade quietly into the shadows, never to be seen again. It’s such an important part of our pop culture heritage, and critically, it’s something that the next generation shouldn’t be deprived of. Everyone needs a cult television show, because the alternative simply isn’t fair.

Viewers seem to have an increasing expectation of reality in their television, especially with the rise of high definition. They want detail and authenticity and good special effects. And you don’t really do that, with camp. Camp is seeing the boom mike in the corner of the frame sometimes and being fully aware that the werewolves are people dressed in furry suits and noticing that the blood really doesn’t have the right viscosity and wondering if they used ketchup from craft services. There’s an honest lack of authenticity that goes with good camp, that’s also hard to hit well. If it’s too fake and cheesy, it’s not going to work, you’re going to be pulled out of the narrative. If it’s too realistic, your perception of the show changes and you expect more.

Acting, too, is different in camp. You see people on Grimm and they look like they are having fun. They’re enjoying themselves immensely and being silly on set and really working into the roles, with an awareness that it’s also meant to be fun, with a note of silliness, with low expectations. Contrast that with Once Upon A Time, where everyone is trying to be earnest and serious, but doesn’t pull it off well. It doesn’t work for viewers and it makes the show jarring, especially when you feel like the actors, far from getting into character or just having fun, are actually embarrassed by what they are having to say. It’s a grim slog, rather than a smirking romp.

The setting of good camp is also about the right sound, light, production values. Finding that elegant balance between being too realistic and too high quality, and just feeling cheap and shoddy. It’s a production that is pulled together both by the accessories and by the actors, who relish their roles and aren’t afraid to act like it. I get the sense, watching camp, that the actors headed to the pub for pints afterward, that they had fun together on the set, that there was goofing around. Pranks may have occurred. Crew stuck with the show through multiple seasons. It’s about the creation of a family making something fun together and sharing with you.

Contrast with the efficiency, the crispness, the desire to be earnest and serious. That works really well for some shows, but especially for science fiction and fantasy, you either need to go full camp, or full realism. Battlestar Galactica didn’t mess around when it came to being serious, to being big, to going bold and aggressive, to pulling viewers in. It worked. It worked really, really well. Contrast with Star Trek, which was very campy and attracted loyal and loving fans who got deeply into the show. Versus, say, Terra Nova, which is just mediocre and boring, and does absolutely nothing for viewers. It’s not a show that will be spawning conferences and cosplay and academic papers 10 years, 20 years into the future, because it doesn’t have that drive that underlays either really high concept hard science fiction, or really campy fun pieces.

I worry that the aesthetic of camp is poorly understood by creators right now, who seem to think it’s a mishmash of elements that can be loosely pulled together to get the desired effect, when it really goes much deeper than that. It’s about the creation, from the start, of a solid family that works together on a production to achieve great, fantastic, funny, and fun things. Not every show has it and it’s hard to predict when a show will be able to cultivate it. Buffy might have been dead in the water halfway through the first season, but something, some spark, some ingredient you can’t just add, made it work.

The harder creators try, the less likely they’re going to be able to hit that spot, I think. Good camp is something that has to be born, not made, gently allowed to flower instead of being forced. It’s a fragile thing that only emerges when you look casually out of the corner of your eye, avoiding any kind of head-on confrontation, because if you look at it, it will disappear again. This requires a certain patience and faith that a project is going to come together, which is hard to maintain when you’re working in an era when networks demand results sooner rather than later and expect creators to create hits right out of the gate.

Camp needs time to swell, to build, to acquire a following, and this is something that few networks seem to have the patience for, these days.