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‘Unauthorized,’ irony and Twitter on television

| Sunday, September 7, 2014

web_unauthorizedSARA SHOEMAKE | The Observer
When recapping some of the biggest pop culture moments of this summer in Scene for this semester’s first issue, I couldn’t resist putting the laughably bad made-for-TV movie “Sharknado 2” on the list. Sure, it wasn’t quality programming in the traditional sense, but it didn’t claim to be — the SyFy network made the low-budget, self-aware mess of a movie not to improve its repertoire, but as a collective inside joke with a group of celebrities and their fans.

With a slew of cameos and a cast of has-beens, “Sharknado 2” reveled in its terrible plot and writing. The creators of the shark-meets-tornado sequel employed the same formula used in the original “Sharknado,” when they had struck gold as viewers live-tweeted the film, raking in millions more viewers who then live-tweeted in turn. By the “Sharknado 2” premiere, more people mentioned the movie than had tweeted about Miley Cyrus at the 2013 VMAs, according to SyFy.

SyFy wasn’t always creating tongue-in-check original programming. Back when the channel was called SciFi, the network was more focused on true science-fiction shows and movies — some not of the highest quality — but as monster-horror films began to get more and more attention, the channel evolved from being laughed at to laughing with its audience. Movies got more absurd, and SyFy went from sincerely mediocre to deliberately ridiculous.

Other shows have certainly been keen on this style of ironically bad television, such as History Network’s “Ancient Aliens” or Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures.” These shows and this style, of course, are also inextricably linked to Internet culture, with memes and satires of the shows scattered throughout the web, but no network appeared to take advantage of irony-loving social media users and awful, low-budget programming the way SyFy did. That was until Lifetime Network premiered “The Unauthorized Saved By The Bell Story,” which, along with its accompanying hashtag on the bottom of the screen, debuted last Monday.

Just like the “Sharknado” franchise, “Unauthorized” was low-budget and pulled no terrible punches in its acting, costumes and subject matter, which gave a dramatized behind-the-scenes history of the 90s series “Saved By the Bell.” While the movie’s narrator, a fictional Dustin Diamond, insisted that “Saved by the Bell” was an iconic television show, there is little doubt that the movie’s bottom line was to get watchers to talk about just how bad the film was.

Here’s the thing about this self-aware, half-baked programming: While it certainly works at gaining attention (my Twitter timeline was saturated with #Unauthorized tweets), ironically bad movies and television shows are still, well, bad. Even worse, they’re bad on purpose, banking on the fact that we, the audience, will revel in their poor quality. And while it certainly could be that movies like “Sharknado” and “Unauthorized” are so-bad-they’re-good, achieving some sort of post-ironic nirvana in the style of comedians like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim on Adult Swim, there’s no guarantee that awful filmmaking will somehow be entertaining.

It seems that SyFy and the History Network have, in some way, made this realization. The two networks have started to return to more genuine programming, like History’s new mini-series, “Houdini.” But Lifetime is both bad at and late to the game, and “Unauthorized” and the upcoming, horrendous-looking “Brittany Murphy Story” show it.

It could be that ironically-bad dramas don’t work simply due to their genre — it’s much easier to create a farce out of a disaster movie than it is an ensemble drama full of teen actors — but Lifetime is also revealing just how cheap bad filmmaking and fishing for a Twitter trend really is. “Unauthorized” knew it was comically bad, and maybe it was entertaining to collectively make fun of it on the Internet, but when considering just how little thought, time or substance went into something like “Unauthorized,” that enjoyment is significantly dampened. When you realize that something is poorly done not to enhance a joke, tell a story or make a point, but only to get its hashtag trending — which happens to be some seriously cost-effective advertising —  you see networks like Lifetime are really getting the last laugh.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Allie Tollaksen

Scene Editor. Senior studying Psychology and dabbling in everything else.

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