“Postmodernism” is probably the most abused term in the discussion of film and television.
Some define postmodernism as a timeframe, as anything created after the “modernism” phase of film.
Others describe postmodernism is actually a specific style, created by artists like Andy Warhol who used popular culture in order to create something new. Postmodernism as a style is described as a renewed appreciation for popular culture that often remixes other art works and pop culture in order to create something new. Camp and irony often arrive hand-in-hand with the postmodern style.
Postmodern films may play like a collage of tropes and stereotypes, and may mix different forms of media (such as animated sequences) and could integrate an element of melodrama played as camp.
Run Lola Run is a fantastic example of a postmodern film that integrates animated sequences and contains campy melodrama but still ends up being emotionally resonant and entertaining. It has that “collage” feel due to the interspersion of animated sequences and the way it intermixes melodrama into the action genre.
(500) Days of Summer is another great example of a postmodern film due to its nonlinear storyline, and the way it plays on to and subverts tropes of love stories. It serenades popular music culture through its musical number and the way it uses music to advance the plot — “You like the Smiths?” — although it plays the emotion straight instead of going for camp.
Television is a bit trickier to define since shows may dabble in postmodern style but not adhere to it throughout the whole season, but the epitome of postmodernism can be seen in the show Community. The show is about a group of college students, but upon further investigation, it’s not at all. Each episode of the show serenades a different pop culture phenomenon, and even dived into a completely-animated Christmas episode reminiscent of holiday animation classics. The characters embody different archetypes in the paintball war episodes, parodying genres and tropes throughout the episodes. Community is also known for playing up campy emotional moments that cement the themes of friendship and acceptance, but this melodrama and over-the-top serenades to pop culture are done so well they actually resonant with the audience.
Postmodernism and the Screenwriter
Yeah, okay, so knowing the definition of postmodernism is probably more relevant to those who wish to engage in a formal discourse of film analysis.
So what about the rest of us screenwriters? What does an understanding of postmodernism mean to us?
Studying the postmodern style is essentially a study in creativity. It’s a study in the antithesis of high art. It’s a kind of storytelling that proclaims, “there are no rules! Make whatever you want!”
It’s a revelation that tells TV writers that it’s okay to lock all of your characters in a study room for a whole episode because a purple pen is missing and they refuse to leave unless the thief is outed, and that if you subvert audience’s expectations by playing on those expectations, you’ll win their favor.