A race to the finish in the age of edge

Writer Neal Gabler examines the pervasive pursuit of edginess across our culture in LA Times' Sunday Calendar

We live in the age of edge, an age in which edginess is the grail for almost everything: popular literature, visual arts, music, sports (think Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman), journalism and especially television. In fact, just about the only medium in which it isn't the standard is the movies, at least non-indie movies, where the risk of being too edgy, at $100 million a pop, apparently risks alienating a large and diverse audience.

Everywhere else, that isn't a risk; it is an obligation. When Kevin Reilly, who had been a proponent of edge during his stint at FX, recently took the reins of TNT and TBS, he immediately announced, "We are going to get edgier." He could have been speaking for the entire industry. Edge is the hot aesthetic of the day. You could even call it a genre unto itself.

Of course, there is nothing new to the pursuit of edginess. Edge has always been the prow that cuts through the culture, and without a forward edge to define them, our entertainments and arts wouldn't have any shape or direction at all. They would be a middle without sides. Most major artists began working at the edge, daring, innovating, busting conventions: Elvis and the Beatles, Pollock and Warhol, Nabokov and Pynchon, Scorsese and Lynch, to name just a few. Typically, over time the edge becomes the middle, while new artists provide a new edge, and so it goes.

But when people use the word "edge" now, they don't mean just innovating or doing something surprising and outrageous. They mean something more specific. They mean a certain attitude. That attitude is invariably dark, moody, anomic, unsettling, disturbing, often violent and perverse — something that is likely to be far beyond our ordinary experience or ordinary entertainment. Edge means "out there" or, more accurately, "down there."

"Gone Girl" is edgy. Most hip-hop is edgy. Most graphic novels are edgy. Magazine articles about crime, drugs and rape, which are standard fare at periodicals like Rolling Stone, GQ and Esquire, are edgy. And cable television is just about all edge. HBO's "True Detective," arguably the most downbeat program in TV history, may even be the Poetics of edge. In this age of edge, it could wind up being the most imitated program in the last 25 years.

That cable television is the primary arena for edge shouldn't be too surprising. It is largely a matter of economics. Edge is the one thing that broadcast television, with all its restrictions on sex and violence, not to mention its commitment to the broadest possible audience and dependence on advertising, cannot do well. It is center, not edge. That gave cable TV a huge opportunity.

Early edgy cable shows like "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "The Shield" and more recent ones like "Breaking Bad," "American Horror Story," "Walking Dead," "Game of Thrones," "The Replacements," "The Killing," "The Bridge" and, yes, "True Detective," are the sort of dark explorations that network television couldn't possibly essay, and if these shows came to define edge, they also, not incidentally, have come to define cable itself — though network TV is trying hard to make its own edgy forays like "The Blacklist" and "Resurrection."

Nowadays, no cable network can afford to be behind the edge because edge is what they are selling. It is what creates buzz, what gets awards and what critics celebrate — all of which drives traffic to cable. These cable disrupters are shows you pay to see because they exist in a sunless, gloomy entertainment netherworld that holds the promise of something both different and profound. Another way to put it is that broadcast television has focused on well-adjusted families while cable has focused on maladjusted ones, and the well-adjusted ones you can see without paying.

But edge is not just the product of economics. It is also the product of self-gratification. Never underestimate the role of our media executives' personal agenda, especially their desire to be considered cool, in creating our cultural agenda. Edginess is cool. So there is a propulsion behind finding things that are not only different but that are very dark, since that is where edginess allegedly lives.

And this is true not only of television executives but of media executives everywhere. I wrote a profile for a major magazine of a figure I found admirable and then was asked by the editor if I would make him villainous, find his dark side, though there was no reason to do so other than the apparent one that the piece would then be edgy, which is where the editor wanted to position his magazine.

But if edge is part economics and part emblem of personal coolness, it also has an undeniable cultural appeal. The artistic definition of edge may be "daring" or "innovative," as in "cutting edge," but there is also the psychological definition — nervousness, anxiety, uncertainty, as in "being edgy" — and the definitions are connected. Those psychological components of edginess pretty much describe the country's post-recession mentality: that we live within a nimbus of edginess, of darkness and defeat, and that the cultural edginess is a powerful correlative for what many Americans are feeling.

The closest antecedent to edge may be noir, the movement in literature, especially detective literature, and film that was ascendant after World War II — movies like "The Big Sleep," "Double Indemnity" and "Kiss of Death." These works were also dark (literally so) and downbeat, full of duplicity and cynicism and hopelessness. Understandably. Noir arose, say some analysts, as a reaction to the horrors of the war and the peril of an atomic postwar world when there was a sense that we had reached the end of days. We were effectively morally spent. Noir captured that exhaustion. It was the genre of disillusion.

Edge is both more pervasive than noir and more elastic. It can even permeate comedies like "Transparent" and "Orange Is the New Black." That's because edge, while an aesthetic and a genre and a correlative like noir, is also a metaphor for the world in which many Americans feel they live. Edge is where there is no center for a nation that seems to have lost its center. It thrives in our atomized, traumatized, post-connected society that often seems to be spinning in a cultural downward spiral. Or, as Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) puts it in "True Detective": "I believe we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are programmed to think we are somebody when in fact we are nobody."

That is the voice of today's latest edge, which forswears normality and happiness for the inevitable doom.

Gabler, a senior fellow at the Lear Center at USC, is working on a biography of Edward Kennedy.

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