This week the television program NCIS: LA aired its most recent episode, entitled “Random On Purpose,” which had been touted as containing depictions of the steampunk subculture during the lead up to the show’s airing. Steampunk enthusiasts have been looking forward to this episode in the hopes that it would represent a positive, accurate and enjoyable example of the subculture on mainstream television. One assumes that the show’s producers had similar hopes: that their inclusion of steampunk would attract the viewership of steampunk fans and allow NCIS: LA to plant its flag as perhaps the first fictional depiction of the steampunk subculture on a mainstream TV show. Unfortunately, the steampunk community has been terribly disappointed.
At the outset it should be acknowledged that the steampunk subculture plays an extremely small, extraneous role in the show. It is practically a non-entity. The depiction of steampunk is unrelated to the major events of the episode and it is simply used as a backdrop for a bar scene which could have taken place anywhere. This is not a point that needs to be criticized: while steampunk fans would probably have enjoyed a positive, accurate depiction of their subculture as a major aspect of the episode, a positive, accurate depiction of it in a five to ten minute side scene would still be a welcome way to introduce steampunk to the public. However, the depiction was neither accurate nor positive, and it succeeded in offering an insult to the Goth subculture as well.
In the episode, the NCIS character Abby makes a crossover appearance to assist the NCIS: LA team with one of their investigations. Abby is a forensics specialist and is also a Goth. During a break in the episode’s investigation, Abby is invited on a date by the local tech expert, Eric, and they visit an exciting LA Goth bar named, inexplicably, “SteamPunk”. The bar itself looks like any generic upscale bar (fair is fair, it was a nice-looking place), but there is nothing even remotely “steampunk” about it; I’m actually surprised that show did not try to film at The Edison (www.edisondowntown.com). The background music is extremely generic, begging the question why they didn’t think to include something from Gilded Age Records (www.gildedagerecords.com). Indeed the only clear “subculture” aspects of the scene are the extras, most of whom are dressed in Goth club clothes. There are also a smattering of steampunk accessories (top hats, aviator caps, etc), which supports the image of the bar as a Goth locale as it is not unusual to find people adding steampunk aspects to their outfits at Goth nights these days. However, tacking on the name “SteamPunk” to a Goth bar not only makes no sense (even Goth events and clubs that incorporate steampunk still have Goth names, and are proud of it) but it demonstrates an attempt on the part of the show’s writers to lump Goth and steampunk into one subject.
There are two problems here. First of all, this is simply wrong. Steampunk is fundamentally different from Goth. The two have entirely different aesthetics and backgrounds, and while many Goths are also fans of steampunk it is ridiculous to suggest that they are the same or even similar (the lesson to be learned from Goth steampunk enthusiasts is that people are, shockingly enough, capable of enjoying a variety of different things at one time). Second, it is insulting. By denying the distinction between Goth and steampunk, NCIS: LA is dismissively lumping them together presumably on the grounds that they’re both “alternative” and therefore are the same. One finds it difficult to imagine the show making the same sort of dismissive link between two mainstream subcultures such as football fans and golfers on the grounds that both “enjoy sports.” While a person can be a fan of both football and golf, I believe most people will agree that the two sports and the ways they are enjoyed are fundamentally different. This is a good thing: it’s called “variety” and it’s perfectly healthy.
Soon after getting to the bar, Abby is kidnapped (a plot twist of sufficiently low secrecy that it can be found listed on the show’s website). When two of the investigators (Callen and Sam) show up to find out if anyone has seen anything, the locals are strangely silent, even hostile. While not a Goth myself I have friends who are Goth or have worked in the Goth scene. From them I have gained the distinct impression that most Goths are very polite, decent and respectful people who would be as likely or even more likely to assist in finding an abducted person than the average man or woman on the street; this is equally true about steampunk enthusiasts. Even more ridiculously, one of the bartenders (who, I would assume, has a vested interest in the bar staying on the good side of the Law so that he can keep his job) refuses to help and tells Callen and Sam “I don’t care.” I have yet to meet a bartender or any employee of a bar or club who would behave in this manner. Even more ludicrously, the other bartender confesses that she was asked by “a guy” to text him if a woman matching Abby’s description came to the bar, in exchange for some money; again, while I’m certain some people would be that irresponsible, it still does not mesh with my understanding of employees at nightclubs. Most unbelievable of all, the second bartender cannot remember any details about the man who paid her and tells Callen that he looked “like you” and “like the blond guy she was here with” (meaning the character Eric). In fact, while this might be a valid mistake for Callen and Eric, both of whom have fair hair, strong jaws and square faces, when the kidnapper is revealed he clearly looks nothing like them. The explanation for the bartender’s inability to give a description is that “all muggles look the same,” which implies that Goths, steampunk enthusiasts or perhaps bartenders are incapable of telling the difference between two people who are not Goths, steampunk enthusiasts or bartenders.
For those of you who are not aware, “muggle” is a word best known for its associations with the Harry Potter books (where it means a non-wizard). I have been led to understand that it predates Harry Potter and references anyone lacking a certain skill (such as non-hackers in computer culture); however, as neither I nor anyone I know uses this term, I cannot substantiate this. What is important here is that the term “muggle” is not some sort of in-scene slang used by the steampunk subculture, nor am I familiar with it being used by anyone in the Goth subculture. Clearly, the show’s writers decided to throw the word in just for the fun of it, even though it is not in any way an authentic depiction of the subcultures they are allegedly portraying. If NCIS: LA was intending to present an accurate (and therefore viewer-winning) picture of steampunk to keep its show trendy and edgy, it has clearly failed. This is the sort of thing that will inevitably alienate members of the subculture (who are already having a great time mocking and criticizing the episode) and will confuse the mainstream audience by a lack of any explanation as to what “steampunk” is and why a character would be interested in going to a bar of that name.
Now, it may be argued that mainstream television programs will inevitably get their depictions of subculture communities wrong (though how they confused steampunk and Goth is utterly beyond me). To this, I would like to reply by referencing a second season episode of the show Castle; an episode entitled “Vampire Weekend.” In this episode, the Castle writers successfully developed a plot that not only references but interacts with the vampire subculture in a respectful and complex manner. While I cannot speak to the accuracy of the material (I am not a member of that subculture myself), it seems realistic and the episode is filled with brief but succinct statements and conversations that help explain aspects of the subculture to a mainstream audience and draw parallels to things familiar to the viewers (vampire “covens” are explained as being like social clubs; an interest in vampires and the macabre may be inspired by childhood experiences, but this is no different than the experiences that might drive people to become cops or mystery writers). In short, it is possible to present subcultures in mainstream television in a respectful and accurate manner, and without reducing them to caricatures.
NCIS: LA‘s depiction of steampunk displays a distinct lack of familiarity with the subject, which in turn implies that either no research was done on the steampunk subculture or it was simply dismissed in favor of a fabricated (and negative) image that the show wanted to present to its audience. Given that there is already a wealth of information about steampunk available to the public (including several fine examples of media coverage including articles in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle) the end result in NCIS: LA is mind-boggling. However, perhaps more than that, it is very disappointing. While I am not particularly concerned about how one television show decides to depict a subculture, there is a principle here: things like this can confuse people new to the subject, and that sort of confusion has been known to snowball into increasingly inaccurate, unrealistic and even hostile views of a distinctly benign genre and subculture. Besides which, NCIS: LA had a chance to make a mark as being the first show to include steampunk, which would keep it fresh and in touch with the youth; instead, it has displayed just how out of touch it is. It could have been really “cool”, for lack of a better word, but it dropped the ball. Clearly we are still waiting for steampunk’s first real portrayal in a mainstream television show. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to see it on Castle.
G. D. Falksen is an author and student of history who has written articles and given lectures on the steampunk genre and the related subculture. He is also recovering from a recent car accident. More information on him can be found at his website, www.gdfalksen.com, and on his Twitter, twitter.com/gdfalksen