The public's been clamouring for some more intelligent television in the wake of Reality TV and Lowest Common DenominatorRecycled Scripts. So, you go and write a series loaded with difficult quantum mechanics, quoting obscure 17th-century philosophers, with characters who are philosophicalMagnificent Bastards who speak a dozen languages while conversing to each other by sending Shakespearean Zen koans hidden into chess move patterns, and packed with allusions to ancient Sumerian religion. You make sure all your Techno Babble is scientifically plausible and go to great lengths to make sure all your ancient Roman soldiers are wearing exact replicas of period equipment. Now it's True Art, right?
So you sit back and watch the ratings — which plummet faster than a rocket-propelled brick in a nosedive. What went wrong? In trying to avert making the classic mistake that Viewers Are Morons, you went too far and ended up assuming that they're geniuses instead. Of course, if you're working in a medium that doesn't need an audience of millions to be profitable, you may not care. While a lot less common than its more insulting opposite (any show without the "mass-market appeal" that the less high-brow stuff has will be Screwed by the Network without mercy), overestimating the audience can be more of a death knell than underestimating it, even without network sabotage. Remember that loading up your work with loads of obscure references solely for the sake of having them there is just pretentious. Just because your characters know who Derrida is does not make them interesting or your show any better than one that doesn't namedrop. Don't think your show/book/game is smart just because you're quoting smart people.
The opposite is also true: an intelligent, engaging work may lack any sort of references at all. There's also the trap of being so consumed with the complexities that you forget simpler things like plot and characterization.
However, in the eyes of artists and some fans, this is a Justified Trope. There are many instances where a film with dense references and information provide an Unconventional Learning Experience, introducing high concepts in a dramatic, entertaining fashion. This empowers readers and viewers and makes them interested and curious in exploring offbeat ideas that they otherwise might have felt they are not educated to understand and accept, since many of them have internalized the Viewers Are Morons ideas and reflexively feel some movies or books are not for them. For instance Joseph Campbell's Heroic Journey concept was fairly obscure and the province of literature students but come Star Wars which is patterned on the same, and its large fanbase and it's now mainstream. There's also Society Marches On to consider. The number of people with college educations are higher today than they were say, in the 60s, so what used to be obscure becomes mainstream in the passing of time and indeed new genres and new storytelling techniques are created because audiences have become too smart for old plots and hackneyed cliches. In the case of some artists, the dense play of text and subtext for them is the reason why they make art in the first place and they set out to fill it with Genius Bonus and Rewatch Bonus so that audiences can immerse themselves in understanding the work fully.
Ironically, the reverse is also true. Artforms that we regard today as High Art like opera, classical music, poetry, and even Greek or Shakespearean tragedy were popular and commercial work in the day. Audiences across the class and educational spectrum had no trouble understanding and following these works. And indeed they were all filled with topical and common references that audiences had no trouble following.
The most successful way to do this may be to provide a Genius Bonus. If a writer gives the more intellectual content a small dose at a time, viewers can still enjoy the work at their level, but those who get the Easter Egg will enjoy its hidden depths.
See also Faux Symbolism, Mind Screw, and Moon Logic Puzzle. Not mutually exclusive with Critical Research Failure - just because a show is crammed with obscure knowledge doesn't mean that said knowledge is correct, even when it comes from the show to begin with. This can be the result of too many in jokes being included in a work.
See also Viewers Are Morons, the opposite side of the coin. When this trope and the latter trope conflicts however, you can wind up with an Unpleasable Fanbase.
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Media in General
Bilingual Bonus is usually a Genius Bonus but overuse, often combined with having to "get" them in order to understand the plot, falls into this.
Byte Magazine used to run an ad every April advertising some form of "write-only memory", such as "erasable write-only memory" or "high-speed write-only memory". Every May they'd print some of the orders they had received.
Twelve years before the famous War of the Worlds broadcast a genial priest created a similar, although less extreme, panic with his Broadcasting the Barricades. People missed the fact that the rioters' ringleader was one Mr Popplebury, the Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues. As Evelyn Waugh (a great friend of Knox) wrote in his autobiography: “It was prefaced by an explicit statement that it was a work of humour and imagination, enlivened by realistic ‘sound effects’, which were still a novelty. Read today, it seems barely credible that it could have caused a tremor of alarm in the most timid listener. [Ronald] had no idea of imposing on anyone. The intention was broad parody.”
Any especially clever, layered, or subtle satire has a tendency to go right over people's heads. Things like The Onion or the aforementioned Brass Eye have had their material mistaken for real news on several occasions (the latter even counted on people not getting it and frequently made them an unwitting part of the joke). In fact, sometimes even when viewers are geniuses, they still can't pick out the satire due to Poe's Law.
There was a commercial that assumed people had more knowledge of what goes into their deli meats than they generally do. The commercial has two cows standing on a stage. One represents the advertiser while the other represents the competition, and from offstage someone throws a bucket of seaweed over the competition's cow. The cow representing the company, however, remains clean and "natural". They were trying to illustrate how their competition used filler materials (seaweed derivatives being very common as filler ingredients) in their meat products but that they didn't, and where thereby superior quality meats. Too bad the commercial never bothered to explain itself because most people didn't know about filler much less what the seaweed had to do with anything.
Denny's restaurants had a bacon-themed special called "Baconalia," a pun on "Bacchanalia," which were cult orgies in Ancient Greece and Rome. One wonders if Denny's wanted their patrons to get the esoteric reference or not.
While difficult enough at parts the comparatively lightweight anime series has a tendency to have characters spout plot points (often convoluted political situations) at an accelerated clip. It then rarely, if ever, repeats itself. Example: In 2nd Gig the full source of the title 'Individual Eleven' and its supposed contents are explained once. Despite coming in in multiple episodes before and after the explanation. The extent of the subtleties in these conversations are enough to quickly lose all but astute Political Science majors the first time through, much more so than the sociology and philosophy references.
Lain lacks a plot at all until you do the research. The plot only emerges at all once you get to the point where you're looking at the patent file for Microwave Audio Induction and trying to figure out if on Schuuman Resonance frequencies it can be used to trigger individual action potentials (nb: Schumann resonance is actually a massive frequency range — the number given in the show of 7.83Hz is actually the median).
Many anime series produced by the Bee Train studio (most famously, Noir and Madlax) require so much reading between the lines and background cultural knowledge that most viewers refuse to believe that something worthy was there in the first place. As a result, the rather small fan community deliberately positions itself as "intelligent fans", actively shunning whom they refer to as "fanboys" and "haterz".
Hellsing is positively dripping with Western symbolism. Only those familiar with Catholicism, Protestantism, the Reformation, and the cultural and religious conflicts between the two Christian branches will understand all of the references and subplots that litter the storyline. The same could also be said of the characters' backgrounds, which involve everything from the Ottoman Turks and collapse of the Byzantine Empire to the Nazis of World War II and the continued disputes about Northern Ireland. The plot literally requires viewers to possess at least a decent working knowledge of European history to grasp anywhere near all of the allusions that are made to real-life historical figures, their peoples, their religions, and their possible connection to supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, and other monsters.
Many of the characters' and agency's names give hints about their nationality and roles in the plot, but don't expect anyone aside from those who are well-acquainted with European culture, Judeo-Christian religions, and fictional works to correctly deduce or identify the reasons behind their significance.
Not to mention Schrödinger, who is based on a thought concept of quantum physics that baffles even those in the sciences from time to time. Many viewers may never have even heard of the concept, which the show doesn't explain in great detail, either.
Alucard's past is based on the events of Bram Stoker's original novel (and some of the Truer To The Text 1992 Bram Stoker's Dracula film) and the life, politics, and death of the historical Vlad III Dracula; NOT the distilled Hollywood Pop-Cultural OsmosisDracula. Best to have a passing knowledge of these for random flashbacks and mentions of obscure details of his life in said novel and history to make sense.
Ergo Proxy casually references Greek myth (Daedelus and Icarus, Theseus and the Minos maze), philosophy (Descartes, Nietszche, Turing, many others), film (The Battleship Potemkin, AKIRA, Blade Runner), gnostic religion, art (Michelangelo, Millais), history, and many other things, almost to the point of showing off to the audience how smart they are by cramming episodes with as many allusions as possible.
While you may not need an understanding of any of the references to appreciate the concrete plot, how many people caught the City Lights bookstore (real one located in San Francisco) and its importance to the beat poetry movement, or that Re-L's name was listed as "124C41+" in a computer database, referencing early sci-fi novel Ralph 124C 41+ published 1925. Even Red Shirt characters have names from obscure ancient religions.
Kinoko Nasu really, really loves winding philosophical debate, and he expects you to as well. The rules governing said 'verse can get pretty complex as well, with a huge amount of Mr. Exposition giving Instruction Dialogue regarding borderline game-breaking abilities. Fate/stay night is particularly guilty. For example, several sections will be dedicated to explaining the minute details as to why imagining swords into being real is a stupid, useless form of magic, and then later Shirou manages to summon every sword ever made at the same time. A point could be made that Nasu himself is sometimes baffled about all the stuff he crams into his works - at least that would explain why every single rule ever stated in his works gets consequently broken.
It feels weird sticking a fanservice manga/anime here, but Ikki Tousen, to some extent. The series seems to take for granted that all of its audience has some basic awareness of the historical characters it's portraying, which... for the most part, particularly in the West, they don't.
To put it lightly, Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno doesn't seem to care whether or not the audience grasps every minute detail of the anime's storyline. To put it more bluntly, Eva crosses the line between this trope and outright Mind Screw several times, with a considerable bit of vital information being All There in the Manual. On the other hand, the references to philosophy and psychology are fairly digestible, averting this trope.
You wouldn't believe how many of the show's fans had to familiarize themselves with everything from quantum physics to Kabbalism just to understand the parts of the show that do make sense...
Umineko no Naku Koro ni has Ryukishi07 go on about the basics of Schroedinger's Cat, Raven Paradox and Devil's Proof. He also makes lengthy articles about his philosophies of anti-mystery, cultural noise and chessboard logic. And to top it off, he makes numerous references to famous mystery writers. However, his critics accuse him of not knowing what he's talking about, even when it comes to his own inventions.
Counterargument: Shkanonyasutrice. The Second or, possibly, the Third.
Haruhi Suzumiya. The references to philosophy and advanced mathematics in the light novels start out as Genius Bonus, but eventually become pretty crucial to knowing what the hell is going on.
Played with Motohirou Katou's work, especially Q.E.D. and C.M.B. . The thing is, he always takes time to explains things that need explantion for most readers, but even with that, sometimes it still leaves us baffled (like Kana), especially things like mathematics and such.
Digimon Tamers, the darker and edgier third installment of the franchise, makes references to the history of Computing, the Internet and Programming, being considered by some fans, the most mature and well-written of the whole series.
Liar Game is happy to explain psychology and game theory to you, but it certainly helps if you're at least somewhat familiar with concepts (like Prisoner's Dilemma).
While perfectly enjoyable without any such knowledge, only the biggest history buffs will get anywhere near all of One Piece's references to real-life pirates, their crews, their ships, and nautical terms and techniques during the real-life Age of Piracy. An instance of such knowledge being beneficial to understanding the series is that any pirate named after a real seafarer will play an important role in the series.
One Far Side shows a kangaroo on a street amongst some humans, and one of the humans is dead and has a boomerang in his head, and the kangaroo is thinking, "That was meant for me!" The strip requires you to know that boomerangs were originally Australian hunting weapons.
Though simply knowing kangaroos and boomerangs to both be things from Australia (which most people do) would no doubt be sufficient to get the joke.
Jack: There's nothing wrong with being elite. Or another example. This one isn't about collectibles but it's the same kind of thing. I'm in a book store ... for new books. I've gone a little bit crazy and I'm about to spend a couple of hundred bucks. I murmur under my breath "money's too tight to mention". Now the guy behind the register, he hears this. He looks at me, nodding his head knowingly like we're in some "club of cool" together. He says, "Yeah, Simply Red" like it's a password, and now we do the secret handshake. And I'm thinking "Simply Red"? Lame English band. More soul at a polka convention. And the book store guy thinks he's on some kind of inside loop with that. Sadie: Jack, that's the smuggest thing I ever heard. A guy tries to be nice and you stand there hating him just because he hasn't heard of the Valentine Brothers. You're like my ex-boyfriend. He was that way about authors. He'd deliberately drop obscure quotes and references. He'd take over conversations at parties. But none of what he read was for the love of it. His knowledge was like a weapon. Don't tell me you're like that. I don't want another jerk. I've had... Hey, why are you smiling? Jack: Because you've heard of the Valentine Brothers. (Naturally, since Jack and Sadie both know that the Valentine Brothers are a soul duo who originally performed "Money's Too Tight To Mention" before Simply Red covered it, they have no reason to tell the readers this.)
Keith Giffen's Ambush Bug stories are very much like this, with damn near every page (and sometimes every panel) containing references to decades of comic book history, as well as famous people and trends in the industry. Combined with extreme Medium Awareness, the comics are truly incomprehensible to non-comic readers (and often a bit confusing to regular readers who just aren't up on their history lessons).
Pretty much anything Grant Morrison has ever made. The Invisibles gets special mention, since in order to fully follow it, you would need: a degree in history; a biography of Morrison; a complete and unabridged summary of British popular culture of the past 80 years with an emphasis on the 1960's; a reasonable understanding of the Voodoun, Aztec, and Native-Australian belief systems; an understanding of the underlying symbolism of the Egyptian tarot; books on metaphysics, homeopathy and the various theories of the holographic universes; a familiarity with the works of the Marquis de Sade; a copy of every single piece of conspiracy theory literature ever published from the 1940's to the present day; and a bucket full of enough psychoactive drugs to make Charlie Sheen run away screaming. Even then, you probably wouldn't get it all.
The Phantom. Not all the time, but a lot of the stories told about past Phantoms are more enjoyable if you know your world history.
In Joker, one doesn't need an intimate knowledge of Batman's relationship with the Joker to understand the whole story, but it does explain certain moments, and can create a bit of Dramatic Irony as you watch Jonny Frost (Joker's latest henchman) believe he's on top of the world with the Joker when nothing could be further from the truth. There are unexplained moments when Joker is looking around or asking others to look around for him, always commenting that ''someone'' is watching him. The very first time it happens, it appears as if he's staring back at Arkham Asylum as he is released. In reality, you can spot a hidden Batman among the gargoyles of Arkham, like much of his promotional art.◊ The second time is harder to spot, in the shadows on a rooftop while Joker and Jonny drive below him.
There's also a part where he shoots a man twice, and then starts talking to the sky about it not being bad enough before going on a shooting spree. The main character, Jonny, has no clue what he's talking about. He's wondering aloud why Batman hasn't confronted him yet, even though he's been watching him ever since he left Arkham.
A Death Note fanfic, apparently about random American civilians during Kira's reign, starts off with a Seinfeldian Conversation about how easy it is to do a feminist critique of classic literature, which further digresses into this exchange:
Character A: Y'know, if Sir Nigel does come up on the test, I'll thank my lucky stars it wasn't, say, Rodney Stone. Would've refused to read it on principle.
Character B: What? I've never even heard of Rodney – oh. (rolls eyes) I'm guessing it came out around the turn of the century?
Character A: So I'm predictable.
If you knew without Googling or proceeding to the next chapter that this is supposed to mean Character A is predisposed toward a particular side, well, I'm glad you came down from your terrifyingivory tower long enough to watch a cartoon, but... chances are you're the author.
This chapter of A Few Angry Words. There's a Shout-Out in there, but in the comments for the chapter, nobody gets the reference. One guy almost does, but then proceeds to cite the wrong story.
Prinz von Sommerhoffnung, my goodness. What's supposed to be, if the author can be believed, a Mai-HiME AU novelisation slaps you with a questionably correct piece of translation-wordplay from the title on. The various character names, ostensibly attempts at Captain Ersatz-ing, run on translations, transliterations and wordplay that need some amount of bizarre lateral thinking to decipher; not to mention that Shout Outs both to modern and older works are handled in a roundabout way. Perhaps the worst part, though? The author knows his stuff is undecipherable, and seems, well, blasé about it.
Kalash93 plays with this trope on occasion. To properly understand some of his stories, you have to understand Soviet and Russian military doctrine, firearms terminology, Pashtunwali, have a working knowledge of assymetric warfare, and an understanding of defense contracting.
S-Michael, being Brilliant, but Lazy as he is, will never, ever tell you anything you should already know. In Thicker than Water, that whole JD thing is based on real science! Better science than Blood+ is, in fact! (Assuming of course that certain facts of chiropteran biology are inherently similar to human biology, at any rate.)
Higurashi no Naku Koro ni fanfic Cicadas: Case of the Endless Dreamer. The entire story, due to often being told by a malicious Unreliable Narrator, relies on the reader managing to weave through the various red herrings present, pick up the small details, and determine exactly what is true and what is fiction. Otherwise, the reader has to deal with various inconsistencies with canon, contradictions, and will outright not have a clue what is going on in a good portion of the story.
The author is nice enough though to create a chapter in Sidestories that explains the major plotpoints that the readers would very likely not have caught otherwise. And most of the references are merely Easter eggs anyway, though there is apparently another layer to deepen the story that is only accessed through the same sort of references and a fair amount of Fridge Logic. An example of this is having to notice and keep track of the irony of a main character in Phoenix-fire mentioning that she would be thanked eventually by the people of Alagaësia for going to such lengths to kill Mercury, then abandoning it all near the end when all of her family and friends have been killed, only to then be thanked by Mercury right after she kills him.
Southland Tales is drenched in references to literature and politics that range from punishingly obvious to downright impenetrable. Everyone watching the film can tell that it's certainly supposed to be about something, but what the hell is actually going on or what it's all supposed to mean in the end generally baffles most audiences. Ultimately the director certainly had a lot of faith in the audience that they'd be able to follow his thought processes. Or he just intended to make a longer film with more explanation, or thought more people would read the prequel comic. Though the longer cut at Cannes got similar, if not even more negative responses than the final cut.
The movie Primer was written by a math graduate who studied physics intensively to produce one of the most plausible Time Travel movies ever. In the words of one reviewer, "Anybody who claims they fully understand what's going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar." Reportedly, writer-director Shane Carruth didn't think the movie would be too hard for the average viewer to figure out. Following the events that the audience (and main characters) can see happening is challenging, but possible. On the other hand, there's so much going on that either isn't shown directly or isn't what it seems that, by the end of the movie, even the two main characters end up completely baffled by the massive Gambit Pileup they've been playing against each other.
Hardly anyone understands all the vital plot points from The Descent first time 'round. Either they completely missed that Sarah went crazy or they didn't connect the dots and get that the crawlers were evolved from cavemen who stayed down in the cave or they would miss the subtext that Sarah possibly only imagined the crawlers or they would make a more simple mistake and forget the seemingly unimportant singular lines of dialogue which would explain things later on. To top it off, it's very difficult to tell who's who in the dark, and fans are still arguing over what the hell the ending means...
Spike Lee's 25th Hour has a deleted scene where a pair of gangsters explain the exact reasons why the protagonist has 24 hours of freedom. Pretty much every single review either couldn't figure out the reasons within the context of the film, or presumed that the 24 hours were notTruth in Television. They were, at least at the time.
The climax of Trading Places involves a surprisingly complex commodities market scheme. However, earlier in the film, the Duke brothers explain the basic concept of commodities trading in such simplistic turns that Billie Ray gives an Aside Glance to the audience.
Videodrome. A good understanding of Marshall McLuhan's media theory is required to really get it.
In the Director's Cut and the Final Cut, Blade Runner's world is a complicated one with little to no flat explanation, a slow pace, and a lot of rumination on human nature. It requires a certain type of viewer to understand and enjoy it to its fullest. The theatrical cut, however, includes narration in a Viewers Are Morons move by the studio.
Fantasia, Walt Disney's third animated film, was based mostly around the assumption that viewers liked and appreciated classical music and abstract imagery just as much as he did. Although the film has been Vindicated by History, at the time of its release it was a massive box office flop; even his brother/business partner Roy was skeptical of the film, claiming that there should have at least been some sequences in the film based on more popular forms of music. The studios next music anthology Make Mine Music would feature a mostly jazz-based soundtrack, while the sequences that were based on other forms of music like classical and opera (such as "Peter and the Wolf" and "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met") had narrators and full story lines.
In the film Stargate, the Egyptologist character figures out how to speak the language of the humans found beyond the stargate in about five minutes of dialog with the native girl he later has a romance with. When another character expresses amazement that he cracked the language so quickly, he observes modestly that he just had to get the vowels right. This is hilarious, but to catch the humor you need to know arcane details about how the vowels of Ancient Egyptian were reconstructed by modern scholars.
Inception. There's a lot to keep track of in this film, including dream rules and levels, and after the initial period of exposition and heist planning, Nolan expects you to figure it out for yourself. Differing opinions on just how difficult the film is to understand caused some Hype Backlash.
Ocean's Twelve makes a point of omitting details and forgoing explicit exposition. It assumes the viewer will fill in the gaps. Though it never gives you all of the details, it does explain how things happen at the end via flashbacks.
Much of Peter Greenaway's work fits this trope. For example, he commented in the DVD bonus features for The Draughtsman's Contract that he did not want to explain the plot and its ending within the film, feeling that the audience would understand what had happened. Many people disagree.
The Lost Bladesman (2011) assumes that viewers are already familiar with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, specifically the arc about Guan Yu's journey of "slaying six generals at five passes" along the way to returning to Liu Bei, despite the fact that the movie's actual plot is heavily divergent from that arc, with almost no attempt to explain the surrounding circumstances.
If you're not American, or even just a political apathetic American, you might have some difficulty understanding the basic plot in The Ides Of March as the way in US Presidential candidates are nominated is quite unique and unlike any other country's in the world. The basics of the process are largely glossed over and it's assumed the audience is already familiar.
Mr Nobody. The concept of Old Nemo's Memories, fractally nesting, equally possible subplots are easy to understand as concept, even while the film is jumping back and forth between them like hell. The fact that the scenes with the middle aged Nemo in this eyecancer pattern checkered vest within wierdly silent and hollow environments are littered amongst them does keeping track of the actual plot a little confusing at first. That they are in this exact wierd way to shout out that they did never take place in any possible lifespan is not apparent to say the least. Old Nemo has no actual backstory, so they are merely fillers in the little boys imagination, just like pretty much all of the Film. The same Effect occurs another time at the End, the Fact that all these possible lives are just Imagined is quite nicely to digest, even that post-dream decision does make sense if you think about it afterwards, but to keep track of that Metaphor with this whole Universe turnaround does only make sense if you're high or on your fifth run.
You need a pretty extensive knowledge of Russian literature and the ability to pay extremely close attention (the same actors play multiple characters in multiple timeframes; in the lead actor's case the two characters are even referred to by the same name to make it even more confusing) to make sense of Tarkovsky's The Mirror. It doesn't help that the subtitles on the Kino DVD don't translate or even mistranslate bits of dialogue.
In Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey story "The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question," understanding the vital clue requires a knowledge of French grammar. The grammar point in question is quite elementary, but the clue is hidden in half a page of untranslated French dialogue. While most of Sayer's original audience would have learned French in school, it's still quite a demand to make of the reader.
In "Murder on the Orient Express", the reported last words of the victim are in French. The characters talk about how important this phrase is but no one ever translates it to English for us poor saps in the 21st century that don't speak conversational French. In the end, it turns out that the actual words weren't important, and the killer[s] is/was was intentionally trying to have the other people on the train realize that the victim didn't speak French at all in a convoluted scheme for blame to fall elsewhere.
Not limited to English; Tolstoy and his contemporaries pulled this kind of thing all the time. Translations of Anna Karenina, especially, are famous for retaining the French lines without bothering to so much as footnote them, making it doubly confusing by readers already confused by awkward translations of Russian idiom. However, in Russia and Europe of the 19th Century French was a common second language among the aristocracy and educated Middle Class so these references would have been understood and not necessarily fly over people's heads then as they might today.
Poe parodies this in his essay "How to write a Blackwood Article" and the "Blackwood Article" that follows.
Authors using the Literary Agent Hypothesis sometimes have this happen whether it is their intent or not. For instance, some early reviewers of the first Flashman novel thought it was an actual memoir (despite the fact that the protagonist is a character from Victorian fiction). Oddly, one book, Dickens of the Mounted, is a Spiritual Successor/pastiche of the Flashman series and actually has a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo from Flashman was also interpreted as being the actual memoirs of the protagonist (who was in this case actually a real person, the n'er-do-well son of Charles Dickens).
Discworld definitely counts. While some stories may appear to be even simple children's stories, every single novel in the series contains a VAST amount of parodies, references and allusions to many equally vastly different things. This ranges from history to quantum mechanics, and from popular culture to religion. Be it mythology, geography, Shakespeare, physics, popular culture or anything else, nothing is left undiscussed or unparodied, and in order to understand all allusions one would be required to browse Wikipedia 24/7. However, the series is still easily accessible by those who do not have such knowledge, allowing the reader to enjoy it no matter how much he knows, but the more educated readers will still get a huge Genius Bonus. A guide to many of the references in Pratchett's books is here.
You can read all the way through Erskine Childers' The Riddle Of The Sands just for the gripping conspiracy that invented the modern espionage novel or the beautifully verbose and poetic descriptions of the sea... but having extensive knowledge of sailing in small boats certainly helps.
Most readers find Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles largely incomprehensible for the first 100 pages due to the untranslated Latin, Spanish, and French, the fact that most characters are referred to by multiple names, that much of the meaning comes from snippets of obscure medieval literary quotations that require knowledge of the (unprovided) full piece to understand, and the plot that assumes detailed knowledge of 16th century Scottish politics. There are two official guidebooks and multiple fan-made translations and literary-reference compilations to make up for this.
Michael Crichton is notorious for this; many people who read Jurassic Park right after seeing the movie were overwhelmed with Crichton's stifling detail of anthropological and palaeontologic minutiae.
Then in the second book there are extended sections of dialogue explaining how much of the exposition from the first book was wrong, many of them due to Science Marches On.
Think Jurassic Park is bad? Just try reading (or watching) The Andromeda Strain. A lot of technobabble (accurate, though) involving genetic mutations, diseases, and molecular level sciences.
The Name of the Rose includes monks arguing about classic Greek literature and philosophy, quarreling about medieval church dogma, and throwing untranslated Latin quotes at each other... yet all the discussions should be fully understood to get the whole book. Bonus points if you spot the deliberately anachronistic elements, such as the medieval narrator quoting Wittgenstein. The early line '"It was a beautiful morning at the end of November" is in homage to Snoopy's literary style in Peanuts.
T. S. Eliot's long poem The Waste Land is either an example of this, or of True Art Is Incomprehensible. For example, it contains quotes from various famous sources, still in their original language. If you're not reading an annotated version, it will make no sense.
The notes don't really help much; they were described by Louis Menand as "simply another riddle -- and not a separate one". Eliot himself wrote in The Frontiers of Criticism that he started out just citing his quotations "with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism", before realising he had to come up with more material if the poem was going to be released as a book "with the result that they became the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view to-day".
It also doesn't help that even Eliot seems to admit that some of the references make no sense without the notes. One of the cards during the Tarot reading represents the Fisher King, but not only is this not indicated in any way, Eliot claims to have no idea why he associates the two.
Though this depends on how you read it — some say Hemingway is simply championing understated Beige Prose as opposed to overwritten Purple Prose, therefore adopting a nice middle ground between Viewers Are Morons and Viewers are Geniuses, others say it is this trope.
'This is not the Berlitz School of Languages, Head of S. If you want to show off your knowledge of foreign jawbreakers, be good enough to provide a crib. Better still, write in English.'
While they can still be enjoyed on a superficial level, William Gibson's novels (Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Idoru, etc.) rely on complex and multilayered metaphors, both pop culture and "learned" allusions, and a blurring of traditional concepts of "human," "life," "technology" and "reality", among others. On the other hand, Gibson admits in interviews that readers shouldn't look too deep into the technical aspects of computer science and cyberspace in his works, because he didn't even own a computer until well after he'd written Neuromancer, and was profoundly disappointed with how mundane it was.
However, he did do the research; he's known to keep track of "the invisible literature" — scientific research papers.
Note that this story is set in the future. Even extrapolating from the time that Gibson was writing, it states specifically that the Tessier-Ashpool clan had been in orbit for an unspecified but significant length of time; long enough for the clan's progenitors to establish the satellite and die of old age, as well as the next generation going into cryogenic freeze for a mortal generation (Molly's lifespan at the time of the story), possibly having done so several times. The process of creating the Boston Atlanta Metropolitan Axis would require at least a full century, which in turn would allow solid-state (silent) desktop computers to become as common and inexpensive as their current real-world equivalents.
James Joyce's Ulysses requires intimate knowledge of the history of literature (especially English-language literature), geography of Dublin, history of Ireland and a genius ability at recognizing allusions. Finnegan's Wake requires ... surrendering the possibility of comprehension, which was perhaps the point.
Given that the title is the Roman name for Odysseus, understanding Homer's Odyssey is incredibly significant to the book. It also helps if you're familiar with Shakespeare's Hamlet
Although it must be pointed out that objections to Joyce's Ulysses in its day had to do with its straight forward look at sex and not the density of allusions per se. Even then a lot of his references were common reading material. Like The Odyssey may not have been widely read by the general public but its hardly an obscure poem, nor is Hamlet for that matter. The Irish political references are very local but It Makes Sense in Context.
The first half of William Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury is incomprehensible at first glance. Benjy, a 33-year-old with a profound mental disability, narrates the first section. He narrates all events in the present tense, even if it's a past memory. The second narrator is the incredibly intelligent and thoughtful Quentin Compson. The difficulty in his section stems from his narrative constantly shifting between what's actually happening, what he's thinking about, long sections of stream-of-consciousness narration without any punctuation, and even being able to tell what really does happen at some points. Case in point: Did Quentin just fantasize about having sex with his sister, or did it really happen?
And to make matters worse, Quentin is narrating his part of the story while having an extended mental breakdown. For the record, he didn't have sex with his sister, he only claimed to have done so because he felt it was better than the alternative.
Part of the confusion stems from Faulkner's intent to have different points of view and time periods made explicit by the use of a variety of text colours. Therefore, a section narrated by Benjy in the 'present' would be printed in one colour, past events in another, and a section narrated by another character in a whole different colour. Printing expenses prevented the multicolour approach from going forward but the story retains the unannounced jumping perspective, making it a uniquely challenging narrative.
The epic Shogun, featuring a fish-out-of-water Englishman in late feudal Japan, presents a challenge with imported Japanese words and phrases. Author James Clavell shows a tendency to introduce and translate Japanese phrases exactly once, before proceeding to use them for the next thousand pages. Unless you happen to speak Japanese, you'd best be taking notes.
Garry Kilworth's Welkin Weasels may suffer from this thanks to the rapid-fire Shout-Out rate. How many of the ten-year-old target audience will get references to Shelley, Coleridge, and Orwell, among others?
Stanislaw Lem's works are usually loaded with science and philosophy.
Most of his parodistic works, like The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines also require good knowledge of literature theory.
Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels feature an extraordinary level of use of complex physics and biology concepts considering that the books are mainly intended for children. However, it also qualifies as a Parental Bonus since they're mostly just used as plot devices and so the reader doesn't really have to understand how everything works and just accept that it does work.
A Series of Unfortunate Events falls firmly into this category, particularly for a children's series. While this is partially Lampshaded with the constant refrain of "a word which here means-" (which often is for words that are incredibly easy to understand), it still does not explain the constant references, particularly in character names (Esme Squalor, Nero the fiddle-playing principal, Frank and Earnest, Duncan and Isadora, Mr. Poe, etc.) or the convoluted plots and Mind Screw themes. While many nerdy 10-year-olds have enjoyed every minute of these books, they live and breathe this trope.
This actually tremendously increases 'family value' of the books, because they can be very entertaining to kids and parents alike.
His Border Trilogy (of which All the Pretty Horses is the first) has characters have whole conversations entirely in Spanish. There's a website where you can download a list of all of the translated dialogue, which you may need by your side during the reading.
Ezra Pound. Try reading his "Cantos" without a way of translating Chinese, ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, and Basque. Yes, Basque!
And when you find that way of translating Chinese, offer it to Pound. His Chinese is actually kind of awful.
Once you've done that, make sure to study 14th and 15th century Italian painting and political history. And the world of prewar Europe. And Greek mythology.
Even worse: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Even having the necessary knowledge in history, statistics, physics and linguistics to understand the background might not be enough to get through the Mind Screw it is. Though the Mind Screw might be the point since its about the unsolvable post-war industrial complex Cold War that is too big for a single plot to encompass it.
William Gaddis' JR is a 700-plus page novel with no chapter stops that is almost entirely composed of conversational dialogue that is sometimes packed with financial jargon.
Idlewild by Nick Sagan and its sequels, several times. For instance, the character of Fantasia averts The Schizophrenia Conspiracy, but you're assumed to know what hebephrenic schizophrenia is.
S.S. Van Dine was even worse than Arthur Conan Doyle. Philo Vance uses quotations not only from Latin, but also from French, German, and Italian. They usually are at least somewhat important, and they may be a paragraph, not just a sentence, long. He had one multi-paragraph footnote in German.
Paradise Lost is filled to the brim with allusions, intended to be read by an early modern Gentleman Snarker with an extensive library of contemporary and ancient works. Modern readers can substitute the library with Google and The Other Wiki.
Montague Rhodes James's classic horror story "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad" lampshades this trope: everything goes pear-shaped because the protagonist doesn't realize that the apparently unintelligible inscription on the whistle is in Latin, just like the intelligible inscription on the other side. To be fair, there's no agreement about how to translate it, but the general gist is that anyone blowing the whistle will be in for a nasty shock.
Most of the horror stories by M.R. James, for that matter. "Mr. Humphreys And His Inheritance" is the most blatant example by far, with a lot of religious, classical and antiquarian references thrown in and a few Latin phrases left untranslated — a succinct discussion of which produces enough materials for a full-blown literary article. A study guide is also helpful if the layman wishes to appreciate "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" fully.
One can only really understand Dan Simmons' Ilium and Olympos after studying The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Shakespeare's The Tempest; and be familiar with The Time Machine, the complete works of Marcel Proust, Shakespeare's sonnets, and Hans Moravec's writings; and should know a decent amount about quantum physics, the Voynich manuscript, terraforming, transhumanism, and biosphere theory. Then it might make sense. No guarantees.
Very little of the plot of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is actually stated outright. Douglas Adams expects readers to connect several clues by themselves, to remember minor details from early in the book that suddenly become major plot points towards the end, and to be familiar with the life and work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The ending, in which Dirk Gently saves humanity from being erased from existence, is completely incomprehensible unless you know the story of Kubla Khan and the person from Porlock.
Or you could have watched the Doctor Who episodes "The City of Death," and the un-produced "Shada," since Adams basically reused their plots - even copying some of the dialogue verbatim. He gets forgiven since he was script editor, writer, after all.
Any copy of the Divine Comedy that doesn't include extensive annotations becomes this within, quite literally, the first few stanzas.
In the original context, Divine Comedy was well, a hit, since it was the first major serious work of literature in vernacular language rather than Latin and indeed the poem entered the common everyday language with many phrases becoming Memetic Mutation.
Of course, for most of Inferno, you need mostly to understand the politics of Italy at the time. When it was written, it would be the equivalent of writing about Bush trotting through hell and seeing all the Democrats, Al Quaedans, and EU-eans being tortured. Though it might not have been obvious even to Dante's contemporaries who was who, since he often uses partial names, nicknames or descriptions. (The equivalent of writing "here's Nick, il Cavaliere and the boy from Eton" and letting your readers figure out that you mean Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi and David Cameron.)
The Aubrey-Maturin novels contain masses of unexplained early-nineteenth-century detail and language. There are now several companion books. On nautical matters, at least, the author has explanations addressed to Stephen Maturin as The Watson; but pay attention, because most things are explained only once, and will come up again in later books.
Greg Egan doesn't expect that the reader will already know sophisticated concepts in algebraic topology, computation theory, or whatever scientific concept he's interested in at time of writing, but many of his works are difficult to understand if you don't pick up enough of it from his in-universe layman's introductions.
Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges is known for including multiple references throughout his books, including and not limited to religion, philosophy, and the works of fellow writers. It is said that there is no one who has been able to decipher them all. Many claim that the references are so convoluted, they even speculate he just did it for the lulz. Sometimes the works they reference don't even exist, which means it's the reader's job to find out what's really obscure and what's just not real.
Blindsight, a hard science fiction novel by Peter Watts, is probably one of the worst offenders there are. No, you will not read "radio signals were picked up". You will read, I kid you not, "Fourier transforms appeared".
Note that Fourier transforms do not really "appear." They can take a radio signal and give the strength of each of a large number of small frequency bands in the larger band of frequencies to which the radio receiver is tuned. What you would see is something like this.
Pretty much anything by Roger Zelazny. From minor things like expecting you to know why Corwin "closed her eyes with kisses four" so as not to break the spell, to needing to have a pretty good understanding of Hindu-Buddhist myths to get the whole of "The Lord of Light," to simply needing a background in pulp fiction to know that one of the guys who tries to kill Red, is Sunlight and the guy Red hands him over to is Doc Savage.
John M. Ford often wrote stories so densely layered and plots so wheels-within-wheels that his own editors often didn't know where he was going. "Most normal people had the slight sense that something large and super-intelligent and trans-human had sort of flown over," said one.
The Suzumiya Haruhilight novels. What starts out as a healthy amount of Genius Bonuses later falls straight into this. There are as many throwaway references to astrophysics as there are to pop culture, a Time Travel incident reaches near-Primer levels of complexity, and one novel features an in-depth discussion of Euler's planar graph formula—which is necessary to resolve the current situation. There are diagrams.
Almost any fiction until the mid-19th century or later. Many specific examples appear upthread with individual entries, but until relatively recently it was a Genre Convention of most fiction to be filled with allusions to the classics, the Bible, major contemporary philosophers, and other languages.
Stephen King's The Dark Half has an in-universe example. The protagonist has written several highly intellectual novels with great reviews and poor sales. In the meantime he has also written under a pen name intentionally trashy books that engorge themselves on sex and violence which have gone on to become bestsellers. King wrote the book in part as a response to his pen name Richard Bachman becoming public knowledge. The stories he wrote under the pen name in turn tended to be less psychological than those with his own name on them.
This is probably part of the reason why the Intrigues of the Reflected Realm series by Robin Jarvis never progressed further than the first book — the complex backstory is only hinted at and requires multiple re-readings before it makes sense, plus in order to understand the plot you need to be familiar with the concept of genetic engineering, which is integral, but again, never fully explained. Being familiar with the Elizabethan idea of the four humours helps a lot as well. Bearing in mind that this is a kid's book, the result can be hopelessly confusing on first reading.
Gene Wolfe is well known for leaving large amounts of his background and story as puzzles for the reader — particularly in the Book of the New Sun series. Important details like which characters are the lead character's close relatives and where (on earth) the story is set are left as puzzles for the reader — as are many obscure (but real) words used in the series.
Wolfe has been quoted as saying it's insulting to tell the reader something more than once. Therefore, what seems a one-off aside may be an important key a multi-volume story.
Jasper Fforde's works are loaded with literary puns and in-jokes, and oftentimes he relies on the conventions and limitations of his medium to drive important plot points. It's wonderful reading, but try to keep up.
In The Pale King, Garrity's ghostly rants include references to Pascal, Marquise du Deffand, Latin, Greek, Metropolis, Kierkegaard, and philology.
Neal Stephenson has set up shop smack in the middle of this trope and lives quite well there, thanks much.
The Baroque Cycle books in particular go down much smoother if the reader has an undergraduate-level comprehension of economic theory, currency trading, securities investment, shipbuilding, counterfeiting, alchemy, high-seas piracy, and a graduate-level mastery European political machinations during the Renaissance era.
You'll get a lot more out of The Diamond Age if you are already conversant with advanced concepts in nanotechnology and Asian geography.
If you can't crack an output-feedback mode stream cipher before you read Cryptonomicon, you'll be able to by the time you finish (there's even a handy Appendix to show you how!)
In Snow Crash, Stephenson pauses about halfway through to ensure that the reader is brought up to speed on essential elements of ancient Sumerian mythology and human neurological development before continuing with the plot.
Anathem speaks learnedly about subjects many readers may not even be able to pronounce let alone describe, including epistemology, ontology, orbital mechanics and the (theoretical) quantum-multiverse. Sensing a pattern...?
The Silmarillion — Tolkien's epic history of Middle-Earth — needs the reader to have both a photographic memory and an understanding of pre-medieval Norse / Germanic naming conventions just to keep up with the characters that were introduced hundreds of pages previously but then turn out to have a child who married the child of the child of... okay, enough of that, I personally recommend sticky notes. Lots and lots of sticky notes.
Some books drop a term and never properly or adequately define it, assuming the reader will know. Of course younger readers who grew up with a smartphone on their hip may wonder why the reader can't simply look it up, but non-fiction books are written and read to be informative.
In Stephen Ambrose's D-Day, Ambrose rambles on and on about the difficulty the allies had in fighting through hedgerows. It talks about how the hedgerows in France were bigger than the short ones they trained with in England. It talks about how the hedgerows were HELL. What it doesn't do is explain right away what the heck a hedgerow is in any way that the standard city person would understand. We know they're made of plants, and they're big. They fought around them, paratroopers died on them, and gliders ran into them — but not what they are. Finally a description is dropped on page 452 of a 538 page book.
A book on fraternity alcohol poisoning and hazing called Wrongs of Passage drops the term "Kangaroo Court" many times without ever explaining what one is. Once you know what one is it's obvious, but some readers go "What do kangaroos have to do with anything?"
Charles Stross is an arch-geek, and The Laundry Series contains lots of references to Mandelbrot sets, P-complete and NP-complete equations, and a lot of other stuff that you have to have studied advanced math and the like to understand (thankfully, understanding the technobabble isn't required for enjoyment). Lampshaded early in The Atrocity Archive when Bob gives us an overview of computational demonology:
The [Turing] theorem is a hack on discrete number theory that simultaneously disproves the Church-Turing hypothesis (wave if you understood that)...
A Song of Ice and Fire — The show may be complex, but George R.R. Martin's series is comprised of compressed paper bricks of characters, conflicts, locations, plotlines, motives, implications, deaths, twists, and revelations. There have been 24 major POV characters so far, narrating about as many distinct plotlines over half as many distinct locations, including over a hundred secondary characters. Not for the faint of attention span.
They are bestsellers though and the plot and storyline isn't Mind Screw at all.
Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is quite possibly one of the most complex works of fantasy ever written. The main storylines of the series span four continents, every one of the ten Doorstopper books has a cast of hundreds, and the series's backstory covers hundreds of thousands of years. Viewpoint characters constantly change; there is extensive and deliberate use of Lost in Medias Res, obtuse in-world poetry used as chapter epigraphs, oblique dialogue, digressions as characters discuss or ponder philosophy, and complex prose. The first book Gardens of the Moon, is infamously difficult for new readers to get into.
Larry Niven expects his readers to be conversant in a basic level of physics. His character will occasionally mention some scientific principle, but will never explain that principle, or why its important to the story, because they (the characters) already know what it means. So when a character mentions it take six hours to get a message because of light-speed delay, or mentions the tidal differential of a ship in orbit around a neutron star, or starts talking about a thickened gas tourus in high gravity rotational environment and it confuses you, Niven expects you to do the research and keep up.
Horatio Hornblower is another Wooden Ships and Iron Men series, with extremely detailed descriptions of nautical work. Sometimes, C.S. Forester will explain a particular term or operation. But if you don't know what halyards or mizzenmasts or hawse-holes are... well, good luck. (Oh, and a working knowledge of the game of whist will help you too.)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, especially now that most of the matter that the book satirizes (particularly children's poems) are known to the vast majority of people solely through this book. The Annotated Alice, edited by Martin Gardner, is both useful and entertaining for modern readers.
Mexican poet and writer Amado Nervo. If not his poems or tales, every article writen by him included varying themes like theatre, opera, other writers' works, conflicts between other nations, travels and personal anecdotes lived in Paris and New York, among others. He also tended to use quotes in other languages, like English, French or even Latin, most of the time without giving a traduction of what he just said. Understandably, because back then (late 19th and early 20th century) he wrote for weekly newspapers and magazines aimed for upper-middle class cultured people, but now, when anyone can check his works, normal readers might feel this.
Melodie Crookshank of Tyrannosaur Canyon is a lab geek who only interacts with one other character. Her perspective is peppered with technical names for equipment and tests as well as her interpretations of this data, with very few laymen's explanations.
Pamela Dean's Secret Country books hold your attention even if you don't know Shakespeare, Chaucer et al., but if you do, you'll discover greater dimension to the storyline and the characters.
Parts of Greer Gilman's Moonwise and Cloud & Ashes may be almost incomprehensible unless you know a little about English folklore and ballads and can catch onto the ancient meanings of the words she's using: wood once meant crazy or eccentric, a crowd is a fiddle, and so on. Like Clavell, she tends to explain these things once. She writes in double and triple meanings and has lots of fun with puns and dialects. She talks about it here.
The Wire is one of the best examples of the past decade. You're expected to keep up with multiple plot lines, a dozen-plus characters and their sub-stories, and all their field terminology with no Expospeak provided. It's often cited as one of the reasons for the show's low ratings and being subject to Award Snub despite its enormous critical acclaim.
House, M.D. is a textbook case. It started out this way, collecting a small but highly intelligent and medically-savvy fanbase on the official site, tended to include lots of Freud Was Right and captured the overarching themes of "Everybody lies" and "No one is ever truly happy". Later on though, the writers began to appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator and skimp on the research.
Part of the fun of watching a Game Show is shouting out the answers from your couch. It can be difficult, however, when the answers are so unexpectedly obscure. Jeopardy!, which usually crams 61 clues into a single game, is probably one of the most demanding shows for those playing at home.
Brits have University Challenge. In a given episode, it's entirely possible for 80 questions to be asked and for a viewer to be able to correctly answer about nine. It's exactly this extreme difficulty that helps make it so popular, though.
The BBC also has Only Connect, a game show whose theme is spotting obscure links between brief clues. The website has some example questions from the hardest round of the show, which involves separating 16 clues into four groups of four and explaining the connection in each group. Against the clock, of course. The links could be anything from "fictional spacecraft" to "female British government ministers" to "words with vowels in alphabetical order" to ... well, just about anything you can think of.
QI turns it on its ear. Not only do the viewers generally not know the right answer, it's fairly rare than any of the "contestants" have any idea what's going on, even after the answer is explained. But that's kind of the point.
Alternative 3. A British documentary series decides to have a bit of fun for April Fool's day, and claim British scientists are being taken to a secret base on Mars to protect them from a terrible disaster. Twenty years later, the show is now a central part of a great many conspiracy theories by those who failed to get the joke.
Carnivàle had knights templar and tarot card mythology, obscure symbolism, cultural references from the 1930s, fabulous and expensive-looking recreations of the depression-era midwest, and refusal to provide helpful exposition to the audience. It got cancelled after two seasons.
Doctor Who is generally pretty straight-forward, but the Seventh Doctor story "Ghost Light" is an involved meditation on the concept of evolution that probably requires two or three viewings to understand. It also uses literary and scientific allusions as a time-saving substitute for exposition.
According to the DVD, Ghost Light had to be cut down from four episodes to three due to the show's run being cut. It's most likely that background and explanatory scenes were the first to suffer — something they might have got away with in some stories, but quite obviously didn't here.
The E-Space Trilogy was, according to the DVD specials on "Full Circle," partly written to start the show including science that "wouldn't be laughed at" by legitimate scientists. This is especially true in "Warriors' Gate," which takes place in a shrinking universe at coordinate 0 and has some connection to the I-Ching and the nature of randomness. Adric's frequent coin-flipping? Yeah, it means something.
Depending who you ask, Steven Moffat's major story arc involving River Song and the Silence is either this or just plain full of Plot Holes. There are fans who insist that everything you need to know about this storyline is obvious from the show, but get them discussing it in detail and it turns out they don't agree among themselves about anything but the broadest strokes of the plot, which isn't the part that confuses people.
Most of the 2nd half of series 7 in 2013 is this because of the show's 50th anniversary. To fully understand the plots of many of the episodes, the viewer has to relate the current arc (drawing materials from the Matt Smith years) to various plots/characters/montsters from previous doctors, which means the viewer has to know a few episodes.
Firefly, "Objects In Space". Most blatantly the opening, but the whole thing is a philosophical statement on (one kind of) existentialism. Joss Whedon's DVD Commentarymight help the viewer to get the point (that objects have the meaning that people choose to give them).
... Or the fact that in season five, the Island skipped around in time. Literally. LOST requires the utmost of attention, or else the viewer will be utterly confused. In fact, it's not uncommon for a viewer to miss an episode and be completely lost.
The finale has this in spades. In what can only be described as the exact opposite of Creator Provincialism, understanding it fully requires the viewer to have knowledge of obscure, mostly dead Eastern philosophies (Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Stoicism, Manichaeism) or concepts that don't crop up a lot in America. Case in point: everyone knows Karma, but how many Americans know that "dharma" means a divine duty that leads to the "moksha", or "letting go", one of the show's Arc Words and a super-critical concept in the final season?
The 1980s TV Series Max Headroom, of all things, was short-lived largely for this reason.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 jokes about everything, from obscure songs most people have forgotten to classical history and famous works of art. Of course the fun of the show is that the riffs are so frequent, you can miss one or two and still get the jokes. Their reference pool is so varied that they won a freakin' Peabody! However, they would also sometimes indulge in in-jokes that only the writers could possibly get.
The Prisoner. Considering that the show only lasted one season, they managed to cram in enough esoterica that to list them here would require a separate page. And most of them happen in the last two episodes.
Yes, Minister is a British comedy series about a Politician, an Obstructive Bureaucrat, and a 3rd underling who answers to the second one. Even an adult who isn't well-acquainted with the detailed workings of British government, let alone a non-Brit trying to watch the series, would find himself pausing the video to look up things like "quangos" and "marginal constituencies" on That Other Wiki.
It is virtually impossible for a single viewer to correctly identify all of the music and pop culture references made in Gilmore Girls without looking them up. The cast would spend the majority of their readings just trying to figure out what the hell their characters were talking about, and eventually a book of "Gilmorisms" was distributed with the DVD sets to help aid curious fans.
Some episodes of Red Dwarf, especially Series 5. Considering it's a comedy, a lot of people would probably just brush it off as Techno Babble.
Tony's series 2 episode of Skins makes a lot more sense if you have a very strong understanding of Jungian psychology.
The West Wing: If you're not pretty damn well up-to-date on the workings of the United States government, good luck keeping up with some of the storylines, not to mention the jokes.
Frasier definitely qualifies, and gets a special mention for being one of the shows that pulled it off well while still getting high ratings. Frasier, Niles, and some of their highbrow friends frequently make reference to all manner of obscure, highbrow things, often within the subcultural worlds of opera, wine appreciation, and psychology. They're particularly fun of clever puns or sassy insults that show off their knowledge, though these can be difficult to follow for the un-elite.
30 Rock plays with this a lot. A textbook example is when Cerie mentions how she's upset her fiancé wants a Greek Orthodox wedding because she disagrees with the church's stance on Cyprus. Only viewers who are of Greek heritage or who follow international politics closely will have a clue what she's referring to.
When the BBC first aired Rome they felt that British viewers already knew a lot of the Roman history and so much of the exposition was redundant. As such they edited the first three episodes down to just two by trimming a lot of the politics scenes (without telling the director of said episodes). This is the official reasoning, though the fact that this placed much greater focus on the sex and violence may suggest the true motives skewed the other way.
The best part is QI is also educational — you may not be a genius going into an episode but unless you've had your ears taped shut you should walk out of one with an extra fact or two.
Occasionally showed up in the End of Episode Silliness on Welcome Back, Kotter, such as the story of one of Kotter's innumerable uncles, a tailor who had a friend he hadn't seen in years named, improbably, Euripides Feldman. One day, the story went, a man who looked like his long lost friend walked into the uncle's shop carrying a torn pair of pants. Uncle Herbie studied him a moment, then asked, "Euripides?" The other man replied, "Yes. Eumenides?"
Through The Wormhole can easily slip right through people's heads like a neutrino if they don't already have a strong background on science. The experts on the show try to make the concepts understandable to normal people through analogy, but this usually confuses viewers further.
Ravages Of Time assumes the viewer is familiar with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the writings of Mencius, Confucian philosophy and so on. It also demands re-reading and a far amount of concentration to follow the plot due to the sheer amount of Chekhov's Gunman, CallBacksandCallForwards, such as Sun Quan's first appearance being a one-page background character as a child at the end of a chapter in Volume 6.
Bob Dylan's voice, music, and overall persona can be off-putting and/or bewildering if one lacks a basic knowledge and appreciation of the history of blues and folk music. Add to this the fact that many of his songs contain very obscure literary and cultural references.
The entire nerdcore genre is built around this, from Mc Hawking's "Entropy" to MC Lars reinterpreting Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" as a rap song obliquely referencing Vanilla Ice.
The Queen song '39. It is a very strange surreal-sounding story, unless you know the key to its interpretation, not spelled out in the song itself: relativistic time dilation at velocities near that of light (appropriately, band member Brian May is an astrophysicist). The protagonist of the song is an astronaut who has travelled across the "milky seas" (Milky Way — the galaxy) looking for habitable planets. In his own time only one year has passed, but simultaneously 100 years have gone by at home at Earth. All his friends and relatives have passed away, and only his daughter, who was an infant when he left, remains. The protagonist laments that he has his full life ahead, but nobody to share it with.
In order to find the classical music parodies of P.D.Q. Bach (a fictional composer "rediscovered" by Peter Schickele) funny, apart from the occasional slapstick bits, the listener needs an Encyclopaedic Knowledge of Baroque, Classical and Romantic music, as well as a grounding in music theory and scholarship. Conversely, listeners who only like classical and ignore popular music will miss many of the jazz, country and other non-classical elements Schickele sneaks in.
The classical quotations are far more prevalent, and often the non-classical touches are no more than jazzy cadences. Even so, there are many pieces which mix both, like one of the fugues in "The Short-Tempered Clavier" which quotes both "You Are My Sunshine" and "Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche."
It's not just obscure music he makes jokes about. In "Iphigenia in Brooklyn", Orestes appears "chased by the Amenities". Cheap laughs...except that the Eumenides were actual Greek mythological beings more commonly known today as the Furies.
In order to even begin to understand what the death metal band Atheist plays, one would need a working knowledge of thrash metal, jazz, progressive rock, funk, and latin music. Try listening to "Mother Man" from Unquestionable Presence if you don't believe me.
To say nothing of what Psyopus and Dysrhytmia do.
Indeed, this is by far one of Psyopus' most accessable songs, and it still sounds like complete aural insanity, in spite of being very much the opposite.
Meshuggah is another good example. Enjoyment of their music almost requires knowledge of death/thrash metal, free jazz, progressive rock, polyrhythmic song structures, polymeters, and syncopes. Since 1993, they have produced exactly one song that relies on a consistent 4/4 timing, and are regarded as one of the most influential bands in the underground, despite having virtually nil in the way of mainstream recognition.
The Dillinger Escape Plan's first record, Calculating Infinity, is definitely a good example of this, although there is a notable exception in the main riff of fan favorite, "43% Burnt", which was named by Decibel Magazine to be the 8th greatest riff of all time.
An explanation for Jethro Tull's most lyrically complex work, the 1973 Concept AlbumA Passion Play, can be found here.
Subverted by Iron Maiden, who often explain their literary and historical references in the lyrics or even the title alone. (Examples: "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", "Alexander the Great", "The Trooper")
This is more Genius Bonus: if you know what the Crimean War is or who Tennyson was, all the better, but if not, hey, they still have kickass melodies and you can sing along to "Woah oh oh oh oh oh oh oh!"
Many Dream Theater fans need to listen to their songs at least 3 times through to catch all the little details. Deciphering Scenes From A Memory could prove as a real challenge to those inexperienced to reading between the lines.
Modernist/Postmodernist composer Alfred Schnittke — in order to REALLY understand his work, you really need to know classical music history, understand his own personal philosophy on music, know music theory, and it would really help if you read Thomas Mann.
Rancid's Life Won't Wait requires you to be a near expert in both music and politics. After releasing ...And Out Come the Wolves, a largely straight ahead punk record with a little ska for good measure, Life Won't Wait spanned genres including reggae, dub, hip-hop, ska, rockabilly, calypso, and everything in-between. Lyrically, the band upped the prose level by about 50% and referenced everything from the minutia of the Kennedy Assassination, conflicts in Ireland, Jamaica, Poland, and makes numerous mentions of anarchism and other political theory, even splicing in audio readings of Mikhail Bakunin's essays on anarchism. Oh and the kicker? This is the only Rancid album not to include a lyrics sheet, so even if you know what they're singing about, you have to be used to Tim Armstrong's marble-mouthed vocals and Lars Frederiksen's snarl to get even half of it.
Possibly the worst example of this is Mohsen Namjoo, an Iranian singer-songwriter, often referred to as the Bob Dylan (read: Frank Zappa) of Iran. Western listeners would be baffled because he writes lyrics in Farsi, uses a traditional Iranian music ensemble, almost never writes in 4/4 and alludes constantly to years of Persian poetic and literary tradition. Iranian listeners are often baffled because he mixes traditional Iranian folk and classical music with Western instruments and jazz, rock, blues and flamenco influences, covers David Bowie and Nirvana, uses parodies, subversions and references to poets such as Hafez, Rumi and Ferdosi, makes fun of the Islamic regime and Khamenei constantly and occasionally throws in the odd song in Kurdish or some other regional Iranian language.
Electronic duo Coil filled their music with lyrical and sonic references to art, highbrow literature, pop culture, the occult, and everything in between, often in the form of highly intellectual puns and jokes (mainly Black Comedy and Surreal Humor). At its essence, their entire catalogue is one giant Genius Bonus.
Pretty much every Bad Religion album requires the use of a dictionary to understand the lyrics.
Lampshaded by the NOFX song "I'm a Huge Fan of Bad Religion" with the lyric "I bought Suffer then I bought a thesaurus"
Tom Lehrer was a math professor at Harvard during his musical career. Both his songs and his commentary dealt heavily with science, history and (then) current events. Occasionally it went over his audience's head.
"I recently read a heartwarming story about a young necrophiliac who finally achieved his boyhood ambition by becoming coroner."
"The rest of you can look it up when you get home."
The music of Pep Lab. Listing the references is left as an exercise.
The Divine Comedy's songs are about anything Neil Hannon is interested in. Which could be anything: Wordsworth's poems, 20th-century French cinema, stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, architecture and landscape gardening... all liberally bespattered with quotations from literature, mythological allusions and musical tips of the hat to Noël Coward and Scott Walker. Also, upbeat songs about hayfever, banking and travelling by long-distance coach.
Tool's music, while enjoyable to a casual listener, is often laden with polyrhythms, uncommon time signatures ("Schism," anybody?), and several songs deal with themes such as Transcendentalism, Jungian psychology, religion, abuse, and really run the whole gamut lyrically. Take a look at the guitar tabs; they might not sound impressive, but Adam Jones is a more "technical" musician.
And then you get into their "jigsaw arrangements". 10,000 Days contains a song that is made by constructing three different songs and Lateralus has an entirely different song order that completely changes the meaning of the album.
And to think that all that most people ever remember is "I'm tryin'..."
The third movement of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia takes a movement from a Mahler symphony and layers on top of it musical quotations from composers as diverse as Ravel, Beethoven, Bach, and Boulez. Some of them are very famous, some of them not so much. The piece is often cited as using the widest array of musical techniques of any piece of classical music. It would take an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music to understand all of them, but it's well worth it. Complicating matters is the fact that singers also sometimes recite passages from a Samuel Beckett novel, read graffiti from the May 1968 protests in France, or turn a musical allusion into an Incredibly Lame Pun, among other things.
Other movements continue the Mahler references and cut up sections of Claude Levi-Strauss's classic anthropological text The Raw and the Cooked.
To understand Schoenberg/Berg/Webern's 12-tone atonal serialism (where all 12 notes in the western chromatic scale have to be used in a composer-determined order before repeating), you pretty much have to study it, which in Western Music Theory, usually comes around the fourth semester. Complete with a 144 square matrix of all possible orders of notes. It's quite unsettling to the ear for many people, although others enjoy it.
It's also very difficult to play.
The Second Viennese School (the group started by Schoenberg most noted for 12-tone compositions) also liked to demonstrate the power of their system by creating some traditionally pleasant-sounding pieces. One of these was Berg's Violin Concerto, which includes a quotation from a Bach harmonization of a hymn and another from a Carinthian folk song.
To an even greater extent, Milton Babbitt took it to the extreme (serializing all notes, volume, length of note), to the point where EVERYTHING has a formula, and it would take about an hour just get around a 1-minute piece of his music.
So, you want to start deciphering the plots of Sound Horizon's Concept Albums and Rock Operas? Well, better learn six languages and start scrutinizing every. single. lyric. for a potential double meaning.
Most of Ian Dury's lyrics. Subverted in the sense that they appear intelligent (and for all intents and purposes ARE intelligent on more than a handful of levels) but Dury wrote for the common man so expected everyone to understand at least something. Don't expect The BBC to catch on though...
From Ice-T's "Radio Suckers": "If you can't take the heat, eject/But I know you can because you're an Ice-T fan"
Marilyn Manson might not be assumed to be someone who does obscure references, but yeah, he does. About five people will understand "Slo-Mo-Tion" without having things explained. Lyrics about dead audience applause and laughter and "teenage rape candidates" likely will be completely lost on anyone who doesn't know that the canned laughter and applause used nowadays was recorded in the 1950s or about casting couch accusations. Overneath The Path of Misery's chorus is a Greek mythology reference. The song "Lamb of God" contains references to the death of John Lennon, JFK and Jesus as well as a spoiler-reference to Network. The album "Mechanical Animals" is a huge shout out to David Bowie. There are references to the Waco, Texas incident in "Cruci-Fiction In Space". The song "My Monkey" has lyrics taken from a song on Charles Manson's album from the 1960s. Multiple songs, like "Kinderfeld" and "Lunchbox" are about his own life, and "Fuck Frankie" is directed at their old tour manager, Frankie, who stole tens of thousands of dollars from them. "s(AINT) contains references to the origin of the word "Ain't", which was British "dandy" slang originally. And after the release of the album The Golden Age Of Grotesque, he tried to do a film about Lewis Carroll. When a leaked trailer killed it, well, the Creator Breakdown is quite obvious, due to the Alice obsession oozing out of some parts of "Eat Me, Drink Me", not to mention the entirely different sound. Basically, half the stuff that makes no sense to most is references to other things, and rest was written by either one person on drugs (him) or two (him and Twiggy).
Jonathan Coulton's music is fully of computer/technology, math, physics, and pop-culture references. For example, how many people (even in New York City) knew that Soterios Johnson was a real (and ostensibly famous) person?
Patti Smith's entire career is based on this. You don't notice because she's also rocking your ass off at the same time. Her prose writing is the same way; beautifully accessible and stuffed to the gills with art, literary, mythological and musical references.
Vince Russo's entire run in WCW was based on the idea that Viewers Are Smarks; the whole thing was extremely hard to follow unless you already had a general idea of how the wrestling business works and the goings-on backstage. The problem was, even if you were able to figure out what was going on, it still wasn't very coherent or engaging.
One wrestling critic noted that Russo's problem was that he seemed to simultaneously believe that Viewers Are Morons and Viewers are Geniuses.
It gets worse. Russo is writing for TNA now, and Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Jeff Jarrett, Sting, and Eric Bischoff are all prominent talent. So, naturally, the focus of the current main event TNA storyline is the "shadow politics" that were going on in WCW. Meaning, not only do you have to be a smark to know what's going on, you have to have been a smark FOR OVER 10 YEARS. And even then, there are bound to be references you don't get, considering they're talking about everything up to and including private drunken phone calls from years ago. And no, none of this makes for halfway compelling, or even coherent, television.
Vince Russo believes that "all viewers are Smarks," and as far as his opinion goes, a smark is a moron who believes they're a genius. If you think of his logic this way, his entire career is basically spend in a massive attempt to outsmart the smarks. Unfortunately, the only real way to trick people in a story where they usually already know, at the very least, half of what's going to happen before it happens is to make the story incomprehensible with obscurities and inexplicable plot twists.
Of course, Russo likely believes he himself is a genius, even when almost everyone else thinks he's a moron.
WWE commentator Matt Striker slips a ton of obscure references into his commentary. Most are designed so that they are bonuses for the hardcore fans, such as referencing past names that wrestlers have used. Sometimes, though, he goes for extremely obscure comments such as saying that Ghanian wrestler Kofi Kingston will be bringing his title back home to Prince Nana (a Ring of Honor manager who is the ruler of Ghana in that promotion's Kayfabe).
Antonio Cesaro can speak English, German, French, Italian, and his native Swiss-German dialect. Naturally, the WWE was originally promoting him as a smarter than you, high coulter European. Eventually, they decided to put him in the Real Americans stable, which is led by Zeb Colter. Smart marks know that Zeb Colter is played by Dutch Mantel, which prompted JBL to say: "Antonio Cesaro speaks five languages. And now thanks to Zeb, he's learning Dutch."
Eyepiece, a play that recently debued in Iowa City. If you're familiar with Shakespearian plays, Greek comedies, Modernistic plays (Death of a Salesman), postmodern plays (Waiting for Godot), puns, metaphor, pataphor, medical terminology, Greek culture, theater culture, "disabled" culture, Christian culture/the Bible, and for one particular scene the origins of Fascism and the real meaning of the word "faggot" (A bundle of burnt sticks that had been used to burn an offering), and you're observant, then the play will seem perfectly straightforward and understandable. If not, well, certain scenes will seem rather obscure.
Tom Stoppard's play Hapgood initially flopped because so much of the plot exposition is contained within one character's metaphorical double-speak about Quantum Physics. The re-write makes the metaphors easier to understand even if you've never heard of quantum physics, and the plot significance is better signposted. Many people can treat it as a straightforward who's-the-defector spy mystery, missing the revelation (in the first act, in another rambling metaphorical monologue) of who the bad guy is and the idea that the rest of the play is about how they prove it, not about finding out.
In fact, Tom Stoppard continually walks the line on this trope, and most of his (theatrical) work can be argued to be either refreshingly intelligent and stimulating, or purposefully obscure and elitist.
Although he flips it around in Rock 'N Roll, which makes a lot more sense and has more emotional impact if the audience knows a good deal about '60s counterculture and rock music, specifically Pink Floyd.
Bertolt Brecht is perhaps the only playwright in history who considers a piece with a character named Swiss Cheese to be Serious Business. If an audience is unfamiliar with his Verfremdungseffekt, they're likely to be lost from the first line onward.
Many stage musicals with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim have this criticism levelled at them. Sondheim and his collaborators avoid pat sentimentality and create complex works of art — perhaps a setback when many audience members are expecting The Sound of Music. Just a few examples:
Company is an mediation on contemporary marriage. The show has no plot and reduces character empathy to an absolute minimum; instead, it explores different aspects of marriage through a series of non-linear vignettes and songs. There's an emotional and intellectual journey to be had, but it requires the audience to really invest themselves in the material and pay attention.
Pacific Overtures is a historical pageant detailing the opening of Japan to the West in the late 1800's. Again, personal involvement is kept to a minimum, and the events are viewed through a purposefully biased Japanese perspective. The score includes a 9-minute mini-opera detailing American, British, Dutch, Russian and French trading treaties with Japan, and a 7-minute Taoist meditation about observation and memory in which nothing happens.
Sunday In The Park With George, despite its minimalist, Britten-like score, can still be enjoyed as a classic tale of an artist (Georges Seurat) who alienates his lover for the sake of his art. Until the end of Act I, at which point the action fast-forwards a whole century to focus on contemporary instillation artist George, great-grandson of the original. Repeated viewings help tease out the direct, micro- and macrocosmic parallels between the two Acts to make the whole work serve as a treatise on art and posterity.
Metal Gear Solid 2 delves into meme theory so deeply that it is used to teach meme theory. Some parts of the plot were explained in later games, but those were the simple parts, not the parts involving Raiden as a deconstructive metaphor of the relationship between player and game, or the parts where the plot deconstructs itself to examine the game's nature as a sequel. Those were not explained at all.
Persona 3 and Persona 4 have a rather literal take on this in the form of various pop quizzes throughout the game. They tend to ask you random trivia facts about math, grammar, science, philosophy or Japanese history. Answering correctly gives you a permanent bonus to a particular out of combat stat. There is nothing in the game that tells you the answers, so you have to use your own real-world knowledge (or cheat). There are also midterms where you get a whole bunch of these in a row, but the midterms are composed entirely out of questions that they've already asked you so if you had been paying attention it should be simple to answer.
To clarify the original point that was being made, the first time you are asked the questions, when they aren't on the test, they don't give you the answers. It's when the test rolls around that you should already know the answer.
The social link's tarot classifications show a shade of this. This comes from the fact that the dev team has produced one of the few instances where they did do the research on the actual meaning behind the major arcana of the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Persona 3 eventually tells the player some of the definitions of the various Arcana about 2/3 of the way through the game, in a long speech many would speed through without reading. Even if a player read the whole speech, most of the given interpretations only scratch the topmost layer of each social link. All the social links become a lot more meaningful if you have any sort of in depth knowledge of the major arcana.
Most of the comments made about Neon Genesis Evangelion also apply to Xenogears, especially on the psychiatry and Kabbalah sides (with the multiple personalities, paradoxical split selves (see Lacan and Grahf), and overlapping selves that have postmodern and poststructuralist resonances). The plot is also impossibly convoluted.
Ditto with Xenosaga. It includes numerous references to Jungian psychology, Gnosticism, classic Christianity, Kabbalah, quantum mechanics, etc.
At least Xenosaga had the courtesy to include a massive in-game database (which they removed in Episode 2... for some bloody reason).
The Legacy of Kain series has an enormously dense storyline. Even after playing all five games, you may not have any idea what's going on.
The first Myst game is like this. You're given no instructions, backstory or reason why you're on a lush yet deserted island, or even what you're supposed to be doing. This actually adds to the immersion of the game, as it encourages you to behave as you would if you inexplicably found yourself on the island in Real Life, and figure it out for yourself. Later games assume that you've completed the first one and become friends with Atrus.
Valkyria Chronicles II: Has a fun scene with Zeri and Julianna discussing Galia's world equivalent of Centrism.
Similarly, Morrowind contains books which question in obscure and cryptic terms the nature of games, the role of the player, and the meaning of life. One of the most prominent series of books consists of 36 volumes which must be cross-referenced with one another and deciphered. Unfortunately, understanding the lore of Tamriel is likely to just raise more questions.
Shizune's route in Katawa Shoujo has a very subtle narrative style that requires a lot of reading between the lines in order to truly understand, especially when it comes to the dynamics of Shizune and Hisao's relationship. It also helps to have a working understanding of the subtleties of how sign language works as a medium of communication and how it differs from spoken language. Unless they are really paying attention, a lot of this will go over most players heads, leading to people complaining about the "lack of romance" in her route.
Rin's route is as much a mediation on the nature of genius, philosophy of art, and the question of whether or not it is truly possible for two people to understand one another (as well as whether it really matters), as it is an eroge love story.
La-Mulana doesn't just expect you to know how to solve its increasingly complex puzzles, but also to understand references to ancient history, and MSX games, in order to solve its puzzles.
Killer7 exists halfway between this and flat-out Mind Screw. Entire papers have been written analyzing every facet of the game and the underlying themes, such as a conflict between American and Japanese values.
Achewood. Full of obscure references to pop culture, music, history, and foreign languages.
Among The Chosen states this as part of its author's writing style. The basic introduction to the story may be read here.
Among The Chosen gets confusing in a hurry. The mil-speak, the Techno Babble, mythological references, and the tendency to mention important information exactly once all contributes to this.
Dresden Codak is very guilty of this, frequently covering subjects such as Jungian philosophy and transhumanism.
The Dungeons & Discoursecomics in particular make a lot more sense if you have a decent knowledge of philosophy. A "Kierkeguardian" shouting "My existential dread won't affect them if they have no sense of self!" is highly amusing. Trust me.
Nearly all xkcd strips make jokes about rather obscure topics. Fortunately, the xkcdfanbase does include plenty of geniuses, and they post explanations on the forums.
Lampshaded in the comic's disclaimer: "Warning: this comic occasionally contains advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)."
Freefall is a lot more understandable if you have a working knowledge on physics, cybernetics, mathematics and philosophy. Among other subjects.
Lackadaisy has so many historical references regarding not just the prohibition, but pop culture, advertising, slang, and politics during the 1920s (not to mention Rocky's ramblings on physics, mythology, and poetry) that the published first volume has an entire section in the back of the book explaining each and every one.
Hark! A Vagrant deals with fairly obscure western history on a pretty regular basis...much of it (shudder) Canadian history.
Gunnerkrigg Court. Being a story that plays on the dichotomy between magic and science, with an All Myths Are True premise, it focuses on obscure world mythology and... chemical elements. Having a working knowledge of both may help hugely in figuring out its inticrate plot. This led to a Crowning Moment Of Awesome for the fandom, which (using a bare minimum of information) figured out that the character Brinnie's "Old Man" is Odin, and shortly after, that Brinnie herself is the Valkyrie Brynhild. (The information they had? This page, and nothing more. There hadn't been a single mention of the Norse pantheon in the story so far.)
The caption for that comic, "mystery solved" was originally intended to be ironic because fans had been curious about a photo of this character for a long time, and this page explained so little about her. Turns out, if your fanbase is smart enough, a little information is enough. Mystery solved indeed.
I believe the reader is well prepared for every shift in the nature of the story's unfolding. There are primers on what to expect along the way. Very early, when we first met Dave, we began a humble exercise in non-linear pacing. Conversations he had with John and Rose, then revisited from an earlier timeframe from his perspective. Some nonlinear revisitations with Jade's story as well. It wasn't just messing around. It established that time was something to be tinkered with in this story, more intensively as we progress. The MC intermission was a primer on complicated time travel dynamics taking center stage in the story. It was a tangent, quite silly and convoluted, but very good preparation for the concepts to follow, which have dominated the story since. The troll arc was a very aggressive primer on completely off the rails nonlinear story progression, which has somewhat extended beyond it into the main story, and will continue to do so. All of these primer concepts are now firing on all cylinders at once. And the word primer is the title of a very complicated time travel movie, which I have not seen yet. I imagine watching it would serve as a decent primer for reading Homestuck.
During one off-hand flashback referencing something not all that memorable that did happen in a split second during a long, intense Flash presentation over 1500 pages back, the Lampshade Hanging could not be avoided:
Remember how that happened? That didn't stop being a thing that happened or anything.
The Order of the Stick half averts this, half plays it straight — you can understand all the happenings in the plot without having any knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons, but many of the non-punchline jokes will be completely nonsensical. In fact, they're used so often, and so consistently and savvily, that people who didn't have a knowledge of D&D when they started reading the comic can acquire an understanding of the vernacular over the course of 750+ strips without once searching for D&D information elsewhere, in the manner of the dialect in A Clockwork Orange.
Last Res0rt — the concepts don't require much outside knowledge, but the plot is just that involved (The start of Volume Two, for instance, is complicated by a Reality Warper whose presence is only figured out well after they're raiding a ship and being affected by it), and the Art Evolution gives the comic an experimental feel that makes a few scenes harder to follow than they should be because of the way the camera jumps. About half the readers get it, and the other half will need some help, most likely from the Cast page and New Readers' pages.
The Packrat is impossible to get without fundamental knowledge of synthesizers. Fortunately, it is targeted at and hence only known to synth geeks.
Schlock Mercenary invited readers to calculate the height of the "Hellavator" lunar space elevator on their own... only to find that sometimes, the viewers really are geniuses.
The Whateley Universe. Think about an 'ad' for a movie made based on Umberto Eco's Foucaults Pendulum (which see)... as directed by noted conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone. Or a classroom discussion of Lucan's Pharsalia when one of the people in the room is actually the avatar of Juno.
Those are pretty much all in the Phase stories, which can have all kinds of genius bonuses, down to the snarky humor and the longterm planning. It turns out that information about epics and Greek mythology in the fourth Ayla novel is important in saving the day in the seventh one.
A lot of memes. Just try asking (most) anyone who knows about a particular Internet meme what it means, or how it came to be.
Although most of the time they will simply tell you to "LURK MOAR".
In Season 1 of "Invention Pioneers of Note", Winston Whitworth declares, "As you already know, Plato once said..." Any idea of the viewers possessing intelligence is dropped for the later seasons.
The Global Guardians PBEM Universe was created by a man with two Ph Ds and an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia about an innumerable number of subjects (he was also the guy who wrote the original, non-copyrighted version of the Evil Overlord List). The players couldn't take two steps without stumbling over a reference to ancient history, the plays of Sophocles, Star Trek, golf, songs, mythology, medicine, politics, the space program, and of course, comic books.
Family Guy eventually degenerated into nothing but this trope, then degenerated even further to the point of parodying itself for having degenerated into nothing but this trope.
Peter: Yeah, that's what they said about Benjamin Disraeli! (Cut to Disraeli working in an office, when he suddenly looks up and glares at the camera) Disraeli: You don't even know who I am!
American Dad!! frequently relies on political history, much of which you would have to have studied the subject to know about.
Roger (and to a lesser extent Greg and Terry) will also drop some references that you have to be Genre Savvy of gay culture and icons to understand.
The Simpsons, particularly the first ten years or so, managed to do this from time to time while still managing to be hilarious to most people who didn't get the more obscure references.
It's debatable whether or not it's a "gross overestimation" of the viewers' intelligence given the Periphery Demographic, but Phineas and Ferb regularly references things like quantum theory and existentialism, throws words like sesquipedalian around and makes occasional (full) use of Layman's Terms. The creators once commented on this; it went along the lines of "We make the show for ourselves but don't exclude anybody from the enjoyment."
The Darker and Edgier (but still childish) sequel of the Ben 10 series, Ultimate Alien makes accurate statements about biological structures and Darwin's natural selection theory when talking about the alien's artificial evolution and their DNA database system. Psychological issues, such as Stockholm Syndrome and personality disorders,are also current, though in a much lighter way due to the TV ratings. The series also references characters and lines from Greek and Hebrew myths, H.P. Lovercraft's books, and Richard Lovelace's poems, alongside other pop culture elements, the most (in)famous being the character Will Harangue, a journalist whose show is a Frankenstein's Monster of various Fox News programs and a spoof of "Steven Colbert's Colbert Nation".
Avatar: The Last Airbender often assumes that its target audience is a lot more familiar with Asian languages, mythology and history than the average 9-years-old is likely to be. This is probably what makes it so popular with college kids.
Daria constantly made references to older literature and short stories, stuff that only someone who read a lot would know, and unlike most shows aimed at teenagers, it never assumed that the audience was stupid.
Full understanding of Animaniacs requires a game-show contestant's depth of knowledge in pop-cultural history, which many children at the time lacked.
Archer often turns on a dime between sex jokes and references to obscure historical figures.
Getting the most out of My Gym Partner's a Monkey requires knowing an encyclopedia's worth of animal physiology and behavior. Quite often, some character will behave in a certain way that doesn't make sense unless you already know the animal that character is based on really does act like that in similar circumstances. This may have been the reason the show was not as popular as it could have been. Luckily for its target audience, this was heavily toned down by the time the team did Littlest Pet Shop (2012).note Though it does happen from time to time—Pepper, a skunk, starts spraying recklessly and runs out within several seconds in "Books & Covers," which feels like an Ass Pull unless you know that skunks really CAN run out that quickly.
Many proprietary software end-user license agreements work under the assumption that the person installing the software is either a trained lawyer or can afford to engage the services of one every time they decide to install a piece of software. Though this is probably reasonable when the customer is a large company with lawyers on staff, it's definitely not when you're just selling to ordinary people. Alternatively, they are working under the assumption that nobody reads the dratted things anyway. They could probably include the line "You agree to give Satan the eternal rights to your immortal soul" in those exact words and most people wouldn't ever know. After the initial Google Chrome license fiasco, it was pretty obvious that a lot of companies that use them don't read the EULA's either. Or are just good liars.
In fact, actual quote from a EULA: Should you fail to register any of the evaluation software available through our web pages and continue to use it, be advised that a leather-winged demon of the night will tear itself, shrieking blood and fury, from the endless caverns of the nether world, hurl itself into the darkness with a thirst for blood on its slavering fangs and search the very threads of time for the throbbing of your heartbeat. Just thought you'd want to know that. Alchemy Mindworks accepts no responsibility for any loss, damage or expense caused by leather-winged demons of the night, either.
They treated their viewers as geniuses, but rightfully assumed that viewers are also lazy.
Completely averted by the (sadly uncommonly-used) WTFPL.
"Ignorantia juris non excusat". Every government on Earth (ironically enough) says you have to know what it means: "ignorance of the law does not excuse". You are required to know every single one of the thousands and thousands of laws, rules and regulations that apply to you. This includes the legalese of every contract you sign and every tax you have to declare. In reality, absolutely no one (including lawyers, politicians, presidents) knows all laws in their own country, let alone all countries. In practice, judges tend to grant a bit more leniency when it comes to the more obscure laws and regulations (though if one is in an occupation where they should know them, that is no defense), and the main practical application is to prevent people from pleading innocent because they didn't know that breaking into their neighbors house to swipe their TV was illegal.
It does mean that you are required to know all regulations that apply to you but simply that in case of doubt you should check the existing laws prior to taking any action that has legal ramifications.
Alternate Reality Games all assume the viewers, or at least some of them, are curious, bored, and in some cases masters of Bat Deduction. Valve's recent ARG involving Portal has some especially heavy shit going on. Strange data-like audio snippets appear in game. Forum members pick apart the game content files and extract audio files for these new snippets. In their analysis, someone has the bright idea of trying to run these sound clips through software that can decrypt digital images through analog ham radio transmissions, and come up with fully-rendered colored images which, themselves, contain clues to the phone number for an old fashioned BBS, calling which gives cryptic ASCII images — but only if you managed to find the other hidden code for the username/password in one of the radio transmission images!
Depending on your point of view this could actually overlap with Viewers Are Morons: much of the Portal ARG was ripped wholesale from Adam Foster's private ARG that he used to announce he was going over to Valve. Interpreting the sound clips as images was pretty much the first thing the fans tried.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails did something similar before the release of Year Zero. USB sticks were left at the toilets during/after shows, containing music/audio files (which were different on different USB sticks) then when run through a spectrogram, revealed images and, in one case, a phone number which you could call to hear a new song. Also, there were t-shirts where the highlighted letters formed the words "I am trying to believe", which turned out to be a registered domain name, while the rest of the sites were simply in the same IP range. So in order to find those, you'd have to know how to search domains by IP adresses.
Most Unix manual pages are confusing even to people who have doctorates in computer science. And the Unix system itself, where one mislaid command as root can hose your entire system.
Everything Bad is Good For You discusses the idea that popular culture has become more complex and that, in turn has made us smarter. This is why 80s TV shows seem simplistic by today's standards, and conversely many of today's shows would have been unwatchable 25 years ago. The author also hypothesises that this is connected to the Flynn Effect, where each generation scores slightly higher on IQ tests than the previous one.
On the topic of IQ Tests, these things are standardized in a way that the average human intelligence is a straight 100. Conversely, if they weren't standardized this way anymore, the average human intelligence would be measured much higher than 100 very quickly.
Dennis Miller's short stint as a commentator on Monday Night Football drew ire from fans who found his dry, academic wit hard to understand. Indeed, pretty much anything Dennis Miller says qualifies.
The Encyclopedia Britannica website actually had a feature where they attempted to explain his references every Tuesday.
He once hosted an episode of WWE Raw, where he had a brief monologue at the start of the show and several backstage segments. While most of the segments were passable, his monologue and one segment that turned into a Dennis Miller Live "I don't wanna get off on a rant here" rant (complete with dimmed lights) contained a series of references and witticisms so dense even by HIS standards, many were left believing he was making fun of himself.
Now disgraced BBC presenter Stuart Hall was a British counterpart of Denis Miller. His football commentaries on BBC radio were classics of literacy, fluency and verbal gymnastics, which deservedly won him many fans and admirers.
Wikipedia articles on even slightly technical topics tend towards assuming that the reader has at least a degree in the relevant field.
The MIT Mystery Hunt. According to The Other Wiki, puzzles have involved "arcane or esoteric topics like quantum computing, stereoisomers, ancient Greek, Klingon, Bach preludes, coinage of Africa, and Barbie dolls". And that's not even getting into the actual steps required to solve the puzzles.
The University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt, affectionately known as Scav is similar. To complete many of the items on the list you need to already have a working knowledge of odd subfields that can include physics, cooking, a particular website or even certain languages.
Comedian Daniel Tosh stated that one of his gimmicks is wearing a single joke on and on "until only six people have a clue what [he's] talking about."
Eddie Izzard mixes obscure history and references to science and philosophy into his stand-up, and goes so far as to conduct an entire 5 minute sketch in French, in front of American and British audiences.
Some aspects of TV Tropes aren't exactly newcomer friendly. For instance, some tropes, trope names, and even rules of this wiki can be confusing to some people. This is also the reason why several tropes have their names changed. As an example, the trope "Dropped A Bridget On Him" had its name changed to the (admittedly less creative) Unsettling Gender-Reveal, largely because people who have never heard of the meme or Guilty Gear, where said meme comes from, would possibly have no clue what that trope is about until they open it.
William F Buckley Jr's essays, and show, was loaded with this, along with several helpings of Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness. He tended to include Spanish, French, Latin, and wildly obscure English in his essays, which were generally high-minded "plane of ideas" type pieces about public policy and the theory thereof. Try watching his show Firing Line. If you drift off for a second or aren't well-versed in interventionism, the Federal Reserve, US education, and sexual morality, have fun figuring out what's happening.