My friends and I settled in to our AirBnB in the beach town of Destin, Florida – the white man’s answer to something less white. Destin is a more accurate portrait of what America would look like if the Nazis had won the war than even The Man in the High Castle.
We flipped on the TV and looked at the options; the place we rented seemed to have cable, so we scrolled through. Then we landed on Wipeout Australia, but something was strange about it. Then Wipeout Croatia was on next. And then Wipeout Argentina. It dawned on us more slowly than it should that this was… an entire Wipeout channel.
So we frantically scrolled through the rest of the channels. There were some recognizable faces: the good, the ugly, Babar the Elephant and the Young Turks. But the rest of the channels felt like the misidentification caused by the Capgras delusion, depicted so brilliantly by Rivka Galchen in her 2008 novel Atmospheric Disturbances, about a psychiatrist named Leo who wakes up one day to believe that his otherwise exactly-the-same-looking wife is an impostor.
It felt like a Mandela Effect version of cable TV – everything looks pretty familiar, such as the format of a scrolling guide menu. There were cooking shows, dating shows, sports shows, movies, cartoons, but all of them were just a little off, and unrecognizable. Had we entered into an alternate timeline?
It wasn’t the Mandela Effect. It was just the Roku Channel.
I remember clicking on Roku’s titular app when I first got the device a few years ago out of idle curiosity. It was puzzling; I didn’t know what I was looking at. It seemed to be a hallucinatory underworld of demolition derbies, motorbike movies, and indecipherable talk shows from another dimension.
Before long, I realized the truth – this is the stuff that is too cheap to charge people for, too obscure even to sell ads for, but which can be included as a default setting for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t spring for the astronomical cost of cable. This is the store-brand version of TV, the Winn-Dixie Frosted Corn Rectangles to Tony the Tiger’s Frosted Flakes. It’s the intellectual property that tech companies scrape off the studio floor, and that Hollywood powerhouses are willing to relinquish for an asymptotic price.
There’s an idea in economics called monopolistic competition. In so-called perfect competition, every seller is pushing their own version of an identical product, like rice or eggs. But in monopolistic competition, there can still be intense rivalries among firms even if they are producing unique goods that can’t be exactly copied or duplicated. Levi’s can’t make GAP jeans, and vice versa; even though many fast food places offer a cheeseburger, some people just want a Whopper and Wendy’s can’t give you one. A distinctive feature of entertainment industries has always been that their whole market is basically monopolistic competition: you could buy a recording of some guys very effectively mimicking the Beatles, but almost no one would. You want Let It Be. The whole point is to get the real thing.
It has been hard to turn art, music, or entertainment in general into a standardized or fungible commodity, where one Married… with Children could swap out for a The Middle the way one egg could be switched from one carton to another. But Roku has almost achieved such a feat. The material they host is just fodder, an input, and probably interchangeable with almost anything else. This is not The Sopranos or Stranger Things; it’s just x horror movie, y game show, z 70’s sitcom. It’s kind of arresting in its tacky honesty.
I can’t begin to explain how uncanny and random it is to watch the Roku Channel. You can catch a Filipino-American horror schlockfest like 1972’s The Twilight People, hilariously riffing on Dr. Moreau, on a channel called Midnight Pulp, or Brian Yuzna’s 1989 body-horror escapade Society on a channel called, yes, Bloody Disgusting. You can also watch all of Degrassi, Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown, The Johnny Carson Show, The Carol Burnett Show, plus a million insanely racist Westerns from the 1950s, and the whole epic story arc of Deal or No Deal.
For some reason, both Wired magazine and Rotten Tomatoes have channels. Family Feud has a channel. This Old House has a channel. I shudder to say it but even Divorce Court has an entire 24 hour loop devoted to it.
There are new oddities such as Electric Now, which seems to have been off-handedly programmed and edited by a freshman intern from Pace University, with lo-fi shows about Star Trek chit-chat that look worse than YouTube. It all feels like the minor-league underside of pop culture, even when it’s good – like unexpectedly finding John Cassavetes’s classic 1970 film Husbands on the Cinevault 70s channel. It’s all slapdash, afterthought, without intent, barely strung together with fish hooks and old bubble gum.
There’s one way to look at Roku Channel’s pageant of randomness: it might just be a streaming-box remediation of YouTube’s banal, trail-mix aesthetic. But placing it in the familiar form of a menu guide of cable channels feels surreal. It’s the ocean of online video captured in one weird gulp, filled to the gills with the detritus of pop culture, the abandoned, the forgotten, the embarrassing, and the just fantastically mediocre.
To me, it resembles more than anything the world of old-school public-access TV, which was not an ocean but a goldfish bag of pond water where you could find all sorts of weird grit floating around. New York’s fabled MNN, with its oddities like Mrs. Mouth and incomprehensible political tirades from hoteps and other typically abnormal New Yorkers, had the same rag-tag feel as the Roku Channel.
At a time when every new cultural trend gets hoovered up, formatted, smoothed out, memed, marketed and monetized in a highly professional manner, it’s kind of nice to see something that’s sloppy and misbegotten, and therefore unpredictable. The Roku Channel makes me glad I cancelled my cable. It’s a revealing example of how the power of constraints can be generative and compelling.