Conspiracy theories in television

Last week Oliver Stone announced his latest project. It’s a ten-part documentary series called the Secret History of America.

Stone is the king of creative conspiracy theorists. This series is apparently going to include newly discovered facts from the Kennedy administration and the Vietnam War amongst other things.

So I think it’s important to note how television has shaped the landscape of conspiracy theories.

Of course we can spend hours talking about the X-Files and its Lone Gunmen characters who subsequently had their own spin-off series that didn’t last very long. We could subsequently disappear up our own arses trying to work out why it didn’t last very long and who gave the order to pull it from air.

We can talk about the first moon landing being the first televised event to be derided as a hoax by conspiracy theorists who believe that the whole thing was shot on a soundstage in Burbank.

We can talk about programmes like 24, Prison Break, Heroes and even my beloved Lost, that base their entire story-lines around international conspiracy theories.

But we won’t, and I think you know why.

Conspiracy theories are a simple way to create intrigue in a series. They give the audience a chance to be part of the story-telling. Every reveal escalates the conspiracy up some chain of command that feeds on our fears of lack of freedom. They raise a question of the control we have over our own lives but, more importantly, how much trust do we put in the medium that is giving us information.

While these shows impel us to question everything that we see on television, they also serve as a warning. When we see the protagonist who has been following a conspiracy-chain for several episodes or several seasons, they always end up as loners, obsessed with finding the truth, often wearing the same clothes day after day.

So do these shows want us to actually know the truth or are they trying to stop us from finding the truth? And who’s in charge of trying to keep us confused like this?

Would you believe me if I told you it was an international federation of school teachers? I’m not crazy. This is the truth, people. They control the information. We are all their puppets.

Or maybe not.

This first appeared as an audible segment on John Richards’s excellent Outland Institute radio programme.

3 Comments

  1. dalekboy says:

    I remember watching X-Files right from season one. And as it went on, watching the conspiracy episodes started to feel more and more like a slow-motion train wreck. The black oil does this! No, it does that! No, it's actually a breakfast cereal! The bounty-hunter will kill you! Or save you! Oh look, he's a figure of sympathy!

    For a show that used to proudly proclaim that it had no writer's bible, the conspiracy stuff was a prime example of why it's best to plan some things.

  2. Rob Boxcutter says:

    I have to post my comment on ep 194(a) here because the episode isn't up yet, but I just want to say we really enjoy Nurse Jackie at our place.

    Keep dancing, John! Earn those extra pennies.

  3. Rob Boxcutter says:

    Oops. Spoke too soon. Gotta go – Granola!

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