Tween TV and Self-Reference

Jet Airways has very few domestic planes equipped for inflight entertainment; but it’s inflight entertainment systems completely pwns Kingfisher’s inflight TV (which shows some shady Zee network channels, and horrors of horrors, Kambakht Ishq). You get touch screens, video and music on demand, the flight path interface is nicer; and quite a selection of movies and TV episodes. My dad, who travels Delhi-Chennai and back twice a month these days complains that they haven’t updated the selection in two months, but this was the first time I was traveling on a Jet flight with the entertainment system, so it was all new to me.

I wasn’t interested in either the Hindi or English movies they had, so I went through the TV section. They had an episode of Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, which I liked, but somehow Ravikiran‘s raving about it had led me to expect more. Perhaps it was one of the weaker episodes, or perhaps the humour only comes through with multiple episodes. Anyhow. Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai was good, but what was really brilliant was that this flight got me on to Disney Channel shows – notably Sonny With A Chance. I loved Sonny With A Chance. It sent up soap operas, has a nerd-girl who builds catapults, and despite being a kid’s show, the writers sneaked in enough innuendo for a couple of That’s What She Said moments (“Stop blowing. Start talking.”). And they also did something I’m very fond of – setting up a joke in one segment, and then delivering the punchline much later1 (the setup involves the catapult mentioned earlier). Oh, and this is for Rahul Raguram – according to Wikipedia, Demi Lovato is a fan of symphonic black metal band Dimmu Borgir. All in all, brilliant stuff, and I think I shall thulp the whole season soon.

I also saw The Suite Life on Deck, which was funny in parts (London Tipton! Bwahahhahah!), but not extraordinary; and Hannah Montana, which brings us to the second part of this post.

So… Hannah Montana. In case you don’t already know this, in Hannah Montana Billy Ray Cyrus and his daughter Miley Cyrus play the country singer Robbie Ray Stewart and his daughter Miley Stewart. And Miley Stewart’s secret identity is Hannah Montana, teen pop-star. And frankly, the whole layers and layers of self-reference (or as the darling girlfriend puts it, “self-referencing her ass like yeah“) are a pain to sort out. The only thing worse is reading the Wikipedia entries of professional wrestlers, where trying to work out what the wrestler did as part of kayfabe, what the wrestler did as a side project, and what the wrestler got up to by accident, and what the wrestler does while he (or she) is at home leaves you dizzy.

But of course, Miley Stewart self-referencing Miley Cyrus and then the whole thing becoming a recursive joke through Hannah Montana is no more self-referential than all of Bollywood, especially the Bachchan family and Shah Rukh Khan. Shah Rukh Khan plays Shah Rukh Khan in Billu and Om Shanti Om, all the My Name is Khan promos try to be cute by having them man say that his name is Khan, and so on and so forth. And the father-son in-jokes every time Abhishek and Amitabh Bachchan are in the same movie got tiresome about five minutes after they started. (Here’s an old Jabberwock post on the subject.)

Which actually makes Miley Cyrus not as bad as Bollywood. In her case, one can at least blame the self-referencing on her faceless2 corporate handlers at Disney. In Bollywood, there are no such corporate handlers, and the blame is all on the stars and the writers themselves.

The only thing that comes close is how almost every Colin Firth movie contains a reference to his Pride and Prejudice role, and even then, they’re only one off jokes and Colin Firth does not actually play Colin Firth. Except in Bridget Jones’ Diary, but every dog is allowed one bite.

Summing up: Referencing is sexy. Self-referencing is intellectual masturbation. In Bollywood’s case, though, it’s not even intellectual3.

1: Terry Pratchett is the master of this. In Thief of Time, he sets up the joke by describing the abbot of a monastery having re-incarnated as a fully sentient baby; and then about eighty pages later delivers a punchline about him being in touch with his inner child. And though it’s implausible that he planned it that way, you could argue that he sets up a joke in The Light Fantastic by magically transforming the Librarian into an orang-utan; and then eight books later, in Moving Pictures, he delivers the punchline of having a screaming ape being carried up a tower by a giant woman being pure cinema. Eight books between setup and punchline is hardcore wait-for-it.
2:OK, not actually faceless in the metaphorical sense since Disney has an active brand (many active brands, in fact); and not faceless in the literal sense since it’s very unlikely that people working at Disney don’t have faces. Though the thought of Disney employing an army of featureless golems to manage Miley Cyrus’s career is sort of awesome.
3: Similar to how Professor Ramnath Narayanswamy once told my batch “The majority of you have indulged in creative bullshitting, most of it not even creative.”

2 Replies to “Tween TV and Self-Reference”

  1. I’m glad to see someone else who likes Sonny with a chance as much as I do, Sonny is my favorite character on the show. Thanks for this post, I enjoyed reading it!

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