Many of us remember our frustrated parents instructing us to “turn off that idiot box and read a book!” as we, glassy-eyed, took in some doltish episode of Gilligan’s Island for the umpteenth time. But TV has evolved into a prestige medium—Lee Sung Jin’s Netflix series Beef finds new levels of absurdist existential despair and razor-sharp social satire that would make Joan Didion green with envy. So, the line between page and screen has blurred; in Indieland, some recent titles have taken the erstwhile Vast Wasteland as their subject, exploiting the tropes and ubiquity of that most populist of mediums to illuminate both the cultural moment and the human condition. The results aren’t always pretty, but, as with the latest reality-show provocation, we can’t look away.

In Pip Paisley’s Always Carry Your Scythe (2024), Trixie, whose mother is the Grim Reaper herself, must intervene when her best friend, Zuzi, appears on the game show To the Wheel, which sends recently deceased contestants to their Heavenly reward…or to eternal damnation (without so much as a year’s supply of Turtle Wax). When Zuzi loses the game, Trixie must brave the horrors of Hell to save her—and, worse still, ask Mom for help. Our reviewer observes, “The mixture of surreal comedy, mythology, and memorable characters makes for a winning combination that will surely have fans eagerly awaiting a sequel.” In the meantime, there are always reruns.

You’ve Been Cancelled (2023), a graphic novel written by Curt Pires and illustrated by Kevin Castaniero, gets even nastier. In the near future, a game show called Cancelled allows viewers to choose people to be hunted and killed for their amusement (game shows really seem to bring out the sadism in novelists). When a hacker orchestrates the selection of Roland, one of the show’s heavily armed assassins, for cancellation, the hunter becomes the prey. Per our review, “Castaniero’s stylized, full-color illustrations showcase Roland in battle mode as he floors opponents with fists, cookware, and what looks suspiciously like a lightsaber.”

The violence in TeleShop USA is emotional; Stash Cairo’s 2023 novel details behind-the-scenes skullduggery at a home shopping cable network that harbors a colorful cast of desperate hucksters, cold-eyed corporate bean counters, and damaged souls eager for redemption. Our review raves, “In addition to its sudsy melodramatic office dynamics, Cairo’s book entertainingly taps into the beginnings of a market that would explode in popularity and profitability on multiple media platforms in the ensuing decades.” Act fast—supplies are limited and operators are standing by.

And for readers more interested in real life, television director Don Mischer’s 2023 memoir, :10 Seconds to Air (co-written with Sara Lukinson), recounts his six decades in the industry, from helping to develop programming for Saudi Arabia in the 1960s to directing President Obama’s Inaugural Concert in 2009. Chock-full of engaging anecdotes (including Mischer’s interactions with celebrities like Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali), the book also makes space for philosophical ruminations on the nature of the medium and its role in society. Our review praises the memoir’s “atmosphere of candor and intimacy”: no lightsabers or death squads, but much food for thought.

Arthur Smith is an Indie editor.