The 2005 South by Southwest arts & technology festival (SXSW) birthed a term for film & media that redefined what Hollywood had to offer: mumblecore. Characterized by independent, low-budget films and bare-bones natural sets, plots revolved more around the inner lives of characters than expensive action scenes or big names. Non-professional actors mixed with undiscovered ones for a cheap cast. Clever filmmakers relied on well-written dialogue skillful improvisation. Andrew Bujalski, Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg, and Lynn Shelton, made the genre popular in the ‘00s, through films like Funny Ha Ha, The Puffy Chair, LOL, and Your Sister’s Sister.
Following on the heels of mumblecore is a new genre of film and television that’s similar that I’ll call ‘bumblecore’. Using the same techniques of mumblecore, it is more likely to be on TV, and showcases the showrunner him/herself in the starring role of a semi-autobiographical dramedy, especially if they’re a comedian. Hapless and hopeless, we watch them stumble through one relationship after another, or one job after another, or one critical moment in adulthood after another. In Louie, Louis C.K. juggles th responsibility of being a divorced dad and a floundering career in comedy. Lena Dunham’s Girls gives her a vehicle to find her identity through being somehow both hyper-aware and completely oblivious at the same time. And in Master of None, Aziz Ansari stumbles through millennial life philosophically, highlighting the absurdities of the entertainment industry along the way. And in Emmy-award-winning Transparent, we watch a transgender man transition into his new life, as his adult children struggle to find their own sexual identities and morality.
From a business perspective, bumblecore has been one attempt at Hollywood reinventing itself. For years, the industry had needed an escape route from its own demise, wrongfully pinned on piracy and too-strong writers. Finally, creativity was profitably revived, even if it meant open-access for newcomers like Amazon and Netflix. Bumblecore shows are cheap to produce and easy to churn out, so even if they reach a small audience they’re profitable, and bolster the brand of the network (or platform, or streaming service).
Done well, bumblecore is hilarious and insightful. Done poorly (sorry, Casual) it’s meandering and self-obsessed.