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"The Avengers" illuminates the pomo zeitgeist with a cathode glow.

By James DiGiovanna

APRIL 13, 1998: 

The Avengers, by Toby Miller (BFI Publishing). Paper, $19.95.

TOBY MILLER'S deceptive study of The Avengers is one of the best and clearest books on the confluence of post-modern academic theorizing and popular culture.

Ostensibly about the sexy-mod British television series of the 1960s, The Avengers is really a primer in all things pomo, a look at the way contemporary culture theory can use something as mundane as a show about a woman in a leather catsuit to illuminate a moment in the modern zeitgeist.

For fans of the series, there is indeed a history of its production, stories of the ups-and-downs of filming a British show for an increasingly global audience, and inside information on the vagaries of casting that led from one sidekick to another for the quaintly upper-crust John Steed. However, Miller, who teaches film at NYU (where they still prefer to call it "cinema"), is well armed with a knowledge of French post-structuralism and American media studies. He never succumbs to the temptations of jargon, though, so this book could fool the fans of sci-fi and super-thrillers into believing they're just getting the straight dope on why Emma Peel dressed so cool, and what was up with all those hot cars.

For example, a chapter entitled "Genre" begins with the Latin roots of the term, follows the history of genre literature, notes where its boundaries blur with potentially canonical literature, examines the interplay of such genres as science-fiction, spy thrillers, horror, and soap operas, and picks out salient genre themes and modes without ever traveling more than a few paragraphs from the adventures of Steed and Peel.

A chapter on pop draws from Susan Sontag's famous 1958 essay, and Ayn Rand's defense of romanticism, to show how pop became a high-art concept. Tracing the adoption of romantic themes into mass culture commodities, Miller points out that The Avengers television series contained all of these basic notions, plus an ironic wit that made them more palatable to the less conservative viewers. Identifying pop with this confluence of romanticism, irony, and certain key characteristics: "transient, expendable, low in cost, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big-business like," Miller sets forth a novel and powerful definition by grounding his analysis in the realities and fantasies of a specific television production.

The chapter entitled "The Post-Modern," though not terribly original, does a smashing job of summing up this amorphous and slippery concept. While this section would make a fine addition to an academic reading list, or perhaps serve as the primary text for a course on postmodernism, it's also delightfully fun to read, riven with references to television and popular music while commenting on what passes for culture in the aeries of art.

Somehow, Miller manages to catalogue and connect all the things that have passed for pomo in recent years--from identity politics to melange, from the discourse of deconstruction (amply de-jargonized and explained) to the capitalism of world markets, from the decline of the unifying narratives of religion and ideology to the rise of the service based industries--and shows how each informs the other and finds a template in his favorite television series.

This is no mean feat, especially if one wants to avoid sounding facile or reading too much in, and Miller is aware of these difficulties and manages to avoid them. One could quickly be convinced by this volume that The Avengers was the perfect mirror of the anti-modern mood of the '60s, and insofar as it underwent so many changes in form and cast, perhaps it was. By changing itself so often, the series was able to present more than one identity and explore a variety of styles, often at disparate extremes. Thus, it does serve well for the kind of analysis Miller is after here. Nonetheless, he knows when to depart from his beloved, and when it serves as mere counterpoint to the ideas he wishes to address.

The oddity is that he is able to do all this without becoming boring or pedantic, so that he produces a satisfying book for the fan while never betraying his academic rigor.


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