Forgiving vs. belittling satires
In falling-crime times, a less threatened populace begins to withdraw more into their own little worlds, and so don't feel as attached to others. Naturally satire assumes a central place in their culture, particularly of the more snarky kind. Suddenly everyone thinks they're so witty, and begins to lambast the superstition, exuberance, and balls-to-the-walls atmosphere of an earlier phase in their history (typically a rising-crime period, when things were the other way around).
Still, while satire may not come as naturally to the supporting and fun-loving people of rising-crime times, they continue to be made, albeit in a more forgiving and sympathetic way that fits better with the zeitgeist. Unlike a snarky satire, that only aims to blast The Other, these forgiving satires work on their own as an example of the very thing they're poking fun at. They walk a thin line between being an unabashed example of the genre and an overly self-conscious parody.
This stylistic ambiguity is typical of the culture of rising-crime times, in contrast to the more fanboyish and "fisking" works put out in falling-crime times. It allows the audience to both enjoy the work as an example of a guilty pleasure genre, while also gently reminding them that they shouldn't take it too far -- that there is a certain silliness in it, but that it's OK as long as you're subliminally aware of it.
Just considering the most recent rising and falling-crime periods, the only exception to the snarky kind of satire of the past 20 years is the running series of posts at the website Stuff White People Like. You can tell he (and the readers) really do like a lot of that stuff, so it works as a fan site for yuppie trends. At the same time, he does continue to rib the audience for its bogus claims of inclusiveness and diversity, which everyone realizes are not as big of a priority as showing off your Mac toys and hiking gear.
In contrast, all those Scary Movie kind of movies are satirical, but they don't actually work as horror movies, epic movies, and so on. Family Guy lays the sarcasm on real thick for everyone but their own lazy Harvard mafia approach to writing sit-coms.
Toward the end of the last rising-crime period, though, people felt free enough to make and watch movies or TV shows that were forgiving satires. It began with one of the funniest movies ever, Vacation, which parodied the road trip and family bonding movies by reminding us how much the open road wants to fuck you, and how easy it can be to blow your cool around your family. In spite of that, though, we really do feel the Griswold family growing closer over the course of their odyssey, and it makes a terrific road trip movie. Tell me you don't feel the wind blowing through you hair each time they play "Holiday Ro-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oad."
This Is Spinal Tap not only worked great as a (fake) documentary of a metal band -- near the height of metal's popularity -- but also as a parody of the genre's more out-there tendencies: Medieval imagery, all-black album covers, turning it up to 11, etc. In comparison, Airheads from 1994 was pretty weak, although it was at least watchable, unlike satires from further on into the falling-crime period.
The writer of Heathers, Daniel Waters, says his goal was to make the teen movie to end all teen movies. It not only works great as another entry in the genre, but pokes fun at some of its hyperbolic features -- the star-crossed romance, where the bad boy turns out to be a full-blown psychopath; the urge to get back at your frenemies, which ends in serial murder; the orgy of emotion about saving the youth generation; and the one-dimensional portrayal of parents ("Kurt buddy, I don't care that you really were some... pansy." "Will someone tell me why I smoke these damn things? -- Because you're an idiot -- Oh yeah, that's it.")
After a deluge of buddy cop movies, The Hard Way allowed itself to lovingly mock the genre's conventions -- stupefyingly mismatched partners, one of whom is on the brink of a meltdown, the moment when one apparently falls from grace and has to be supported by the other, etc. The self-awareness is emphasized by the central plot device, where a tree-hugging Hollywood actor wants to pretend to be a detective in preparation for an upcoming role, while working alongside and learning from a real-life loose cannon. At the same time, it's an awesome action flick where we actually connect with the two detectives as they search for a serial killer running amok in the big city. This is definitely one of the most under-rated movies; if you haven't seen it yet, make it next on your list. It's almost up there with Beverly Hills Cop.
The generally saccharine nature of romantic comedies -- aka chick flicks -- keeps them from taking even a somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach. It has to be the perfect story for the perfect princesses in the audience. But L.A. Story was about as close as we're going to get to one that satirizes while still fulfilling the basic goals of the genre. It gets a bit too self-aware at times, but usually not in a way that wakes you up from your absorption in the story. Also caringly parodied here is the "let's pack up and head out to California" genre, which since the '90s has died out as the state has held less and less appeal as America's own paradise.
And then there was the slasher film. I'm not talking about the self-consciously campy ones. It's hard to both satirize the genre and still pull off the aims of such a movie, which require a suspension of disbelief -- that something so out of the ordinary is threatening you, a feeling that evaporates once you're aware of how formulaic the story can be. I'll give honorable mentions to Candyman and the very late entry of Urban Legend, while passing over Scream as too unrelentingly self-aware to fit with the rest of the movies in this post.
However, the one that stands out the most is Wes Craven's New Nightmare, also a late entry from 1994, which is a lot like Scream but with almost no interruptions of the "hey guys, you get it?!" variety. It's a great slasher flick on its own, and it retains the supernatural tone of the original Nightmare on Elm Street, which sets up a clever blurring of the barriers between the real world and the world created by the screenplay of the earlier Nightmare movies.
The most prolific director in this style of film-making by far was Paul Verhoeven. RoboCop was not only a kickass sci-fi action movie by itself, it commented on several of the genre's traits that, if indulged, would lead us off into wacko territory. For example, putting too much faith in the police (or vigilantes) instead of neighbors watching out for neighbors, or feeling an emotional connection with a robotic savior that can feel nothing for us in return.
Total Recall was an even greater badass sci-fi action flick, with even greater comic relief than "I'd buy that for a dollar!" -- the chatty too-friendly robot driver of the Johnny Cab. Like RoboCop, it was also a hilarious send-up of the genre, especially the utterly careless attitude toward human carnage. How can you forget the perfect black humor in the shoot-out scene on the escalator?
Finally, Basic Instinct took a pretty good stab at parodying the erotic thriller, although a few too many lines of dialogue are meta-aware, and it keeps us from fully getting into it as a plausible erotic thriller movie itself. It's not so much Sharon Stone's delivery, which is always straight-faced, but the content of the lines themselves -- "Have you ever fucked on cocaine, Nick? It's nice." "You know I don't like to wear any underwear, don't you Nick?" Etc. Verhoeven's over-the-top approach is better suited to both satirizing and excelling in the action genre, but for something that's supposed to be more subtle like a thriller, the exaggeration prevents it from being a great example of the genre itself. It's an entertaining movie, just not as great as RoboCop or Total Recall.
Now, what popular genres did Twin Peaks not parody to perfection? The soap opera, the teen melodrama, the slasher / horror movie, the Happy Days nostalgia for the pre-'60s era in a smaller town, the rebirth of Gothic novels, the rebirth of film noir, the detective procedural, the buddy cop movie... shit, that's just off the top of my head. And yet it excelled in all those styles as well. Given its serial format, drawn out over several TV episodes, I think it was easier to find the right mix of satire and affection during a certain scene. They could go more in one direction for awhile, and come back toward the other direction in a future episode. It doesn't matter if it ultimately flew off the rails and devolved into camp. For a good run, from the pilot through the solving of Laura Palmer's murder, it achieved a fusion of parody and tenderness that I haven't felt from anything else.
I could be missing a few other examples, but that sums it up pretty well. I'll follow up sometime soon with case studies from earlier periods.