Metamodern Television: Professor Baylock’s take on the significance of The X-Files episode “Jose Chung From Outerspace,” and our thoughts on the matter

Here at What Is Metamodern, we were delighted to hear from a fellow inquirer, Professor (John) Baylock, who has created a provocative and enjoyable video lecture analyzing an episode of TV’s The X-Files: “Jose Chung From Outerspace” that he considers pivotal in the transition from postmodern television to metamodern television. We submit this review of Baylock’s piece and our off-the-cuff take on the matter of post- and metamodern television,  aware that ours is just one voice among many offering definitions of this post-postmodern cultural sensibility. Baylock’s video lecture, in addition to being a jumping-off point for more discussion of metamodernism, is a well-executed close reading and annotation of a brilliant episode of television, worthy of watching for all of the gifts that it offers.

“Jose Chung From Outerspace,” written by Darren Morgan, aired to sixteen million viewers on April 12, 1996 in The X-Files’ third season. In his lecture, Baylock explains that while The X-Files is an example par excellence of postmodern TV, this episode in particular stands out as starkly metamodern in its approach to story-telling, and in fact sets the stage for an expansion of metamodernism in TV that blossomed many years later.

Baylock lays out an epistemic progression for * television * that goes something like this:

Modernist TV, in the era from the advent of television up to the 1980s or early 90s, emphasized storytelling and production that was universally accessible. Meaning, a) every episode was self-contained and did not rely upon the viewer having previous experience with the show; b) Narratives were linear, with one storyline per episode; c) important plot developments were highlighted with visual cues to make sure everyone got them; and perhaps most importantly, d) shows sought to create and maintain a suspension of disbelief in the viewers, encapsulating them in a world that denied any recognition of the “real world” that the viewers lived in. Overall, episodes of any given series tended to adhere to very predictable structures. Baylock cites I Love Lucy as a prime example of the modernist era of television.

Postmodern TV, according to Baylock, is exemplified, again, by The X-Files (other than  the “Jose Chung” episode), and features increasingly complex structures with multiple storylines, flashbacks and flashforwards, and, to viewers who could catch them, subtextual elements that add meaning but are not essential to understanding the main plots. Postmodern television allows for suspicion about the truth of the narrative, sometimes looking back on itself and casting doubt about its own point of view.

For Baylock, it seems that postmodern TV is primarily transitional – that is, all of its hallmarks became more fully realized in metamodern television. In metamodern TV, as he lays it out, subtext is no longer just “extra” but central to the enjoyment of shows, and in fact text is supersaturated with meaning, imbued with fractal complexity – i.e. the closer you look the more complexities emerge. Intertextuality becomes important — with shows referencing other TV shows, as well as film and other kinds of narratives. All of this complexity is enabled by technologies, from VCRs to DVDs to online viewing, all of which allow unlimited pausing and rewinding. Moreover, online forums allow viewers to collaboratively investigate work.

In his video lecture, Baylock shows how the “Jose Chung” episode utilized all of these attributes and led to more recent shows such as Community, 30 Rock and Lost, that Baylock feels represent the currently more prevalent metamodern era in television.

What we would add to Baylock’s analysis is this: Postmodern era television is not merely a less realized version of metamodern television; rather, we feel it is fully realized in itself as an expression of a postmodern perspectiveemphasizing uncertainty above meaning. That is, the narrative and technical methods of postmodern TV serve a characteristically postmodern agenda:  to undermine certainty (about anything), and to reveal what, in modernist television, would be unexamined contextual assumptions.

Moreover, metamodern television is its own thing; it’s not just an intensification of postmodern television. While it does borrow from the technical grab bag of its predecessor, it then takes these tools and tactics further in order to express what we consider to be a central metamodern sentiment — that the conflict between modernist unitary certainty and postmodern suspicion are not stopping points, but can be fruitfully engaged with the inclusion of felt experience.  

Though difficult to summarize in short form, our general position on metamodern television is that it uses things like intertextuality, shows-inside-shows, and fractal complexity in order to represent what life is actually like these days: that people (including television characters), are concomitantly observers of the stories of others and generators of their own; actors, directors and viewers. In contrast, postmodern television uses the same techniques, one might say, more reactively than creatively: for the purpose of shaking viewers out of a constructed and arguably false sense of narrative “truthfulness.”

As we often remark, metamodernism is a relatively new term/concept and just how to characterize it is far from settled. The only thing that most people adopting the term seem to agree on is that it is an attempt to understand what is emerging, culturally, after postmodernism.  For Baylock, it seems perhaps that the “meta” in metamodernism indicates a focus on work that is about aboutness. Thus his discussion of metamodern television largely explores facets such as the aforementioned intertextuality, nested narratives, and fractal complexity. For us, the “meta” in metamodernism is indicative of a stance towards modernism: One that neither retreats into neo-traditionalism, nor settles for scoffing (like postmodernism does), but embraces modernism and all of the reactions to it.

We feel metamodern television includes all of what Baylock discusses, but also, and importantly, things like an irony-aware re-embrace of earnestness, the celebration of the quirky, a move towards the relational, and most importantly, as we mentioned earlier, an emphasis on felt experience. We find all of this abundant in other arguably metamodern TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire SlayerCommunity, New Girl, and Modern Family. (See our post on “Manic Pixie Dream Girls,” which mentions metamodern poster-child Zooey Deschanel and her show New Girl.)

Near the end of his video, Baylock shares a very touching revelation about the impact “Jose Chung” had on him as an isolated teenager. He talks about feeling acutely alone spending his high-school Friday nights watching The X-Files.In a climactic scene from the “Jose Chung” episode, the title character says, “For although we are not alone in the universe, on this planet, in our separate ways, we are all alone.” Baylock relates how the power of this scene led him to his own realization that in his aloneness he was actually connected to not only the other misfits at home watching The X-Files across the country, but really to all people, all of us together in our separateness. Inadvertently (or possibly intentionally?), then, Baylock has concluded his piece by spotlighting the affective dimension of metamodernism, one that we are especially preoccupied with in our examinations of popular culture.

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