January 21, 2013

Idiot Box? Think Again

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This break, I only finished one book on my reading list.

I did, however, watch a whole lot of television, catching up on some old shows and checking out some new ones that friends and family have raved about, including, Breaking Bad, Homeland and Dexter (What can I say? Apparently I like my violent anti-hero types). And you know what? For all of television’s reputation as a brainless, trashy entertainment medium, these programs are really, really good. And really, really addicting.

But why?

According to Alyssa Quart of The New York Times, it’s because these shows offer us a “welcome escape from a muddled, technology-addled existence” — a distraction from our many other distractions. Quart suggests that these “super-narrative” shows with their strong, continuous plots provide a sense of “narrative order” and coherence to lives otherwise fragmented and saturated by a media-dense landscape of endless tweets, texts and cat memes.

For years, though, we’ve been told just the opposite — that the Internet makes it harder for us to pay attention, to watch anything longer than a YouTube video or read anything more than a Tweet except. Back in 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote an op-ed piece for The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” As you might guess from the title, Carr argued that the Internet makes it harder for us to concentrate on long narratives that require sustained attention or deep thinking itself. Google, he said, is the chief culprit; its founders wanted to create a vast archive of information instantly accessible, an artificial intelligence of sorts to assist our own. An overabundance of content is especially valuable to corporations, who learn more about their target audiences the more distracted they are, the more links they click on. Carr worried that we will no longer be able to interpret or relate information, only skim it, only cram our minds with unending content. He found himself no longer able to read novels.

And yet, plenty of viewers will watch episode after episode of their favorite program. A friend told me he had no control when it came to watching these shows — he finished whole seasons in maybe two days, three days max. Even my grandparents stayed up until 1 a.m. watching Downton Abbey after my parents gave them the first two seasons on DVD. Nevermind that my grandmother probably had to wake up early for her water aerobics class the next morning — she had to keep watching.

In making her argument, Quart contrasts today’s hit shows with those of the 80s or 90s. Unlike today’s shows, these earlier shows were often formulaic. The principle conflict would be solved within the allotted time slot and rarely carried over to the next episode. A lot of cop dramas still follow this format. Law & Order always ends with a trial, CSI with the bad guy caught. Although some plot lines surrounding the main characters are carried over into the next episode, they are always peripheral to the main drama. Viewers can easily tune in and follow the action without knowing any backstory about the main characters. During the early 2000’s, Quart says TV shows began operating in a “hyperlink” fashion. In attempting to appeal to a Web-savvy audience, shows like Lost and Heroes offered nonlinear narratives with flashbacks and crisscrossing between characters.

In contrast, today’s hit shows offer complex narratives that span multiple episodes, even multiple seasons. As the narrative unfolds, the plot has more twists and turns. The conflicts become more complicated and the characters more richly developed. We are forced to make connections, to remember things from previous episodes. Everything is sequential and causal. Nothing is extraneous. Details from the first episode lay the foundation for the season finale, perhaps even the series finale.

Previously, we needed the formulaic shows, the shows with closure in the allotted time slot. If you tuned in halfway to Law & Order: SVU, you would still know the main plot points. If you only watched the show occasionally, you would still get a nice, neat conclusion at the end, not a cliffhanger. Today, however, more and more people stream whole seasons at a time, and writers are free to complicate their plots and characters and to give us long and winding narratives.

What this means is that the long narrative is not dead (and maybe I didn’t neglect my reading as much as I thought.) Contrary to what Carr feared, it may be as ripe a time as any to read novels.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg