What’s in a name?
Not enough, apparently, to judge by the streaming services that have proliferated like cicadas, many of them bearing self-important plus signs: Paramount+, Disney+, Discovery+, Apple TV+, BET+, ESPN+, Hulu+ . . .
I’m trying to enjoy the Second Golden Age of Television here. Why must you bring arithmetic into the equation?
Now, on one level, this kind of reflexive hype isn’t surprising. If TV executives were in charge of marketing salvation to sinners, they’d be promising Paradise+, in the belief that regular old Paradise just wouldn’t generate enough buzz.
Obviously the strategic goal is to stand out in a very crowded marketplace. The geniuses in charge at Disney+ and the rest are no doubt high-fiving one another for their skill at enhancing “brand awareness.” But isn’t it possible, even likely, that this collective scramble for that “plus” quotient could backfire by creating a mishmash of lookalike brands, a kind of dilution through overkill, a case of subtraction by addition?
Nonetheless, there’s probably no stopping this plague of pluses, which are part of a broader arms race for grandiose titles that will convince customers they’re getting more for their buck and also joining an exclusive club. (Even OPEC, I kid you not, has gotten into the game, with a consortium called OPEC Plus.) We’re in an era of exaggeration, when the guiding maxim is: “More is more.” It’s no longer enough to just gild the lily; the lily must now be ballyhooed as a veritable garden, in full bloom.
Stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan has captured the absurdity of this tendency toward excessive nomenclature with a story about his favorite topic: food. “I bought some peanut butter recently. There was creamy, chunky, extra-chunky, and now, extreme chunky peanut butter,” he told his audience. “I bought the extreme chunky, I open it up — it was just peanuts!”
Added Gaffigan: “All these ‘extreme’ products, you feel like a coward eating the regular stuff: ‘Hey, check out that [weakling], eating the regular Doritos. Can’t handle the extreme ones.’”
It is both paradoxical and inevitable that within the entertainment industry, the effect of title inflation is to devalue the very designations it’s meant to aggrandize. Consider the once-lofty job of executive producer on a TV series. Viewers these days are in danger of nodding off as they wait — and wait — while opening credits identify the legions who’ve been given the EP credit.
For instance, the much-talked-about season-two finale of HBO’s “Succession’' listed no fewer than nine executive producers, along with two co-executive producers. On the series finale of Amazon Prime’s “Bosch,” six people were named as EPs (including star Titus Welliver). There have only been nine episodes of “WandaVision” on Disney+, but the show has required the services of five executive producers, plus two co-executive producers. The single season of HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant” was kept aloft by the presumably heroic efforts of seven executive producers (including star Kaley Cuoco) and two co-executive producers.
In theater, title inflation has taken a quite literal form in recent years. Some marquees have sagged under the weight of excess verbiage, thanks to the addition of authors’ names to play or musical titles that are perfectly capable of standing on their own. Take “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” — yes, with a plus sign — which opened on Broadway in 2013 and came to Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre in 2018.
When Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater staged a revival of “Porgy and Bess,” it was titled “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” prompting this biting observation from legendary composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim in a letter to The New York Times: “I assume that’s in case anyone was worried it was the Rodgers and Hart ‘Porgy and Bess’ that was coming to town.”
The ART production opened on Broadway shortly before the equally clunkily titled “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man,” a revival of Vidal’s 1960 political drama.
We’ll be seeing more top-heavy titles as live performances resume again. In April, Boston’s Citizens Bank Opera House will play host to the cumbersomely named “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,” a stage adaptation of one of the best-known novels in American literature. The stage adaptation of another renowned novel, “Parable of the Sower,” will carry the title “Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower,” when it premieres at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in February.
Product names aim for profundity only to land on pretentiousness, from pharmaceuticals that sound like characters out of Greek mythology (Crestor, Xgeva, Adcetris, Zytiga) to automobiles clearly aiming for a little highbrow gloss (Scion, Proton, Genesis).
All this title inflation goes hand-in-hand with an epidemic of rhetorical inflation. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen “iconic” used to describe a performer who is no such thing, I’d be lounging in a seaside villa somewhere rather than writing this diatribe.
Please, can we all agree on a moratorium on the use of iconic? And can we also press pause on “existential,” which gets tossed around so freely these days that Camus and Sartre would scarcely recognize it? And while we’re at it, maybe try to restore the luster to “masterpiece,” “classic,” “blockbuster,” “revelatory,” “groundbreaking,” and other once-special words cheapened through misuse and overuse? (I am not blameless myself in this regard.) Lastly, perhaps we could all reserve the word “hero” for genuinely heroic figures? (Looking at you, TV sportscasters.)
The economists are currently slugging it out over whether monetary inflation will impede the economic recovery. But what’s abundantly clear is that title inflation and rhetorical inflation are hindering the cause of clarity — and getting them both under control has a lot more pluses than minuses.