‘Brigsby Bear’ is this Year’s Sharpest Critique of Mass Media

Unpacking the media theory behind one of this year’s most delightful (and surprisingly pointed) films.
Brigsby Bear
Sony Pictures Releasing
By  · Published on August 29th, 2017

Everyone has that one TV show that taught them everything about life. You grew up with it, and it informs more of your life choices than you’d like to admit. For me, it’s The Office. For others, it may be Friends, or Seinfeld, or whatever. The point is, these shows have made an impact on you, and they’ve shaped how you want your life to be. You want a romance like Pam and Jim (there’s a reason why every other person on your dating app has, “Just a Pam Beesly looking for her Jim Halpert,” or vice versa, as their bio). You want a kooky neighbor like Kramer. You want a group of friends to hang out with at a coffee shop and lament the woes of early adulthood. These shows have a lasting impact on you because odds are you found them around puberty. The old adage that your favorite Saturday Night Live cast is the one you watched in middle school can be applied in a broader sense: the shows you watched in middle school and high school helped shape your worldview growing up.

Going back further in your life you probably watched whatever your parents allowed you to watch. Shows like Arthur, Barney & Friends, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood come to mind for my generation, but each generation has its own sampling of kids shows. And though the fingerprint of these shows may be less distinguishable on your life, they were just as influential as the shows you watched around puberty.

Brigsby Bear plays with this idea by simplifying the formula. What if the influential shows you watched growing up were all rolled into one: a show that you watched as a child but grew up with you, teaching you about life through a warped lens. Through this conceit, the film utilizes the work of media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, Nicholas Mirzoeff, and Dafna Lemish.

Co-writers Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello may have been aware of the wide swath of theories they were stuffing into their film, but I’d venture a guess that many of these structures simply are ingrained in their psyches and naturally manifested themselves in their work.

We first meet James (Kyle Mooney) as a 25-year-old super fan of a children’s show called Brigsby Bear Adventures. He lives in an isolated bunker, akin to The Hatch from Lost, with his mom and dad—that is, until it’s revealed they are not his real parents. They have kidnapped James, and James’s false father Ted (Mark Hamill) has created Brigsby Bear Adventures to brainwash the young man into willingly submitting to his captors. Though the film only spends the first ten minutes inside the bunker, this sequence utilizes a ton of media theory mixed with cold war motifs to set up James’s character.

Any justification for why James, an adult man, doesn’t question why his parents keep him locked in a bunker would at a glance seem far fetched. However, visual cultural theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff explains why this phenomenon is not so far fetched in his book How We See the World. “Seeing the world is not about how we see, but about what we make of what we see. We put together an understanding of the world that makes sense from what we already know or what we think we know.” So, when James and Ted look out at the desert landscape and see animatronic “gunner foxes” and “grazer bugs” (bogus-looking inventions of Ted’s to reinforce James’s warped worldview), these things conform to James’s altered perception of the world.

This view of the world is further backed up by Mirzoeff’s delineation between biological sight and cultural judgment, which is the difference between what we see and how we make sense of it. The animatronic animals’ overt fakeness that we can see as viewers is lost on James. In his mind these animals are real. Through this detail, we catch a glimpse of how real Brigsby is to James. The gunner fox and Brigsby are of similar production value, so you can assume that James sees Brigsby in a similar light to the fake animals in the real world—that is to say, Brigsby is very real.

The final beat in the bunker sequence is James’s realization that the air outside is not poisoned. Again, this lie has been perpetuated through visuals. Ted, when he leaves the bunker, puts on a gas mask. Because James witnesses this ritual every day, he believes that the air is toxic. Ted’s unwavering repetition teaches James to fear the world outside the bunker. In the words of the father of media theory Marshall McLuhan, “Environments are invisible. Their ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception.” The world Ted created for his pseudo-son is unbreakable because James knows no other environment until he is forced into the real world.

The bunker itself is evocative of a Cold War mindset. Inside the bunker, the closed world ideology is carried to the extreme, especially in the realm of TV. Brigsby Bear Adventures mimics the grand good versus evil storyline of the Cold War era, with the bunker itself echoing the closed-off settings of many Cold War era films. Mirzoeff pinpoints the constricted location of a train as a recurring theme in Cold War era films. The bunker in which James lives is similarly restrictive. The location of the bunker acts as a Meta comment on the locational trope of the Cold War period.

Another Cold War media theory we find echoed in Brigsby Bear is Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the Global Village. McLuhan describes the media as a force that knits the world together into one community. While the world seemed to be split into two halves between the capitalists and the communists during McLuhan’s day, he believed media to be the common ground for all people. Ted and his wife April (Jane Adams) appeal to this theory to make James feel less alone. Ted tells James that there are other families beyond their bunker that are watching Brigsby Bear Adventures just like James. This idea is further driven home with the exchanges in the chat rooms frequented by James where he discusses the latest episodes of the TV show (even though it’s revealed that the other members are just his parents under multiple aliases). Nonetheless, James finds solace in this idea of the global village. However, it’s not until Spencer, James’s friend from life outside the bunker, posts episodes of Brigsby Bear Adventures on YouTube that a true global village springs up around James.

This newfound, true global village helps James adjust to life outside the bunker. Media researcher Dafna Lemish describes the use of media, such as TV, outside the home as, “A symbolic umbilical cord.” This is the case with James when he leaves the “safety” of the bunker and enters the real world. In virtually every shot, James has a piece of Brigsby paraphernalia on his person. The symbolism of Brigsby Bear serves as James’s identity, much like when a college freshman moves into the dorms and immediately puts up his Pulp Fiction (or whatever cultural touchstone) poster. He’s going into uncharted territory, and he needs an exterior piece of media to help define whom he is. It’s a community-building tactic, but in James’s case, no one has ever heard of Brigsby.

In the close study of this film, the question arises: why did Ted and April feel the necessity to create this show for their surrogate son in the first place? Lemish proposes two reasons. First, Brigsby was invented to provide structure for their young son. The structural use of media in the bunker (and in most households) is to give incentives for James to complete other tasks such as homework and chores. April goes as far as forbidding James from watching any Brigsby Bear Adventures until after his homework is finished. Sound familiar? Most parents who allow media in the house use it in this way. The big difference is that Ted and April cannot use conventional media to teach James because of the questions about the outside world it will eventually create. Not to mention, making his own TV show gives Ted the freedom to lean into the brainwashing capabilities of the medium.

The second way in which media can be useful to family dynamics is through relational channels. This facet of media pulls situations or characters from TV to start discussions between family members. In this way, James learns that “curiosity is an unnatural emotion.” The life lessons folded into the dialogue of Brigsby Bear Adventures allow James’s parents to easily guide the conversation to topics they want to talk about and more importantly away from topics about which they do not want to talk.

Finally, James’s mission to complete a Brigsby Bear feature film has a deeper meaning than just completing a fan fiction film. The shift from Ted’s Brigsby Bear Adventures episodic TV show to James’s Brigsby Bear movie means that the Brigsby narrative is changing from a “cool” medium (TV) to a “hot” medium (film). These categories were created by Marshall McLuhan to differentiate between media that require the concentration of one particular human sense (film) versus media that use multiple senses (TV). When watching TV, the viewer is required to fill in gaps in the narrative because of episodic schedules and even budget restrictions. In the case of Brigsby Bear Adventures, the show was limited to a sound stage. In James’s Brigsby Bear movie, the narrative is not restricted to a sound stage and could take place in real locations, mirroring James’s journey from a soundstage (bunker) to real locations (an actual house, the mountains, etc.).

The “cool” medium of film allows James to tell the exact story he wants to, communicating his struggle to adjust to his new surroundings without dilution. McLuhan wrote, “We look at the present through a rearview mirror. We march backward into the future.” James is marching backward into the future by dealing with his life narrative through the only lens he has, Brigsby Bear. The final shot in which an imagined Brigsby gives a knowing nod to James from across the room and disappears is the culmination of this journey from “hot” to “cool” medium. James has now filled in the gaps in his perception of the world with the reality of his new life.

Another media theorist, Terrence McKenna, once stated, “Culture is not your friend.” With this statement, he summed up what every other media theorist that is mentioned in this article was trying to say. Culture (in the case of Brigsby Bear, TV shows) works on the mind of the viewer to impart values and ideas that may not be in the viewer’s best interest. Douglas Rushkoff states in his book Coercion that, “In the best of circumstances [experts] can make us feel safe, the way parents do.” He goes on to say that these so-called experts don’t necessarily care about you, and in many cases, they simply want to extort you. Ted and April are the experts in James’s life, giving him the safe feeling that parents give their children while coercing him into staying inside of the prison they have created for him.

This may sound out there, but James’s scenario is just a scaled-down version of our own society. Those shows that you can quote back to front were selling you something—an idea, a lifestyle, or a worldview. Not all of the things you learned from these shows are inherently bad, but not examining what these shows were teaching you may be.

Currently on the lam from three California public library systems.