Why is today’s TV overtaking the film industry in budget, viewers and acclaim?
Daily routine: hear my alarm, reach for iPhone, hit snooze, check Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, doze… Wake up nine minutes later, repeat above, roll out of bed, shower, eat, brush teeth, leave apartment.
By the time I get to the cafe where I write, I’ve already engaged with 25 to 50 people, and that’s without even opening my mouth. Not counting, that is, the grunt acknowledgement to my dopey roommate in his boxer shorts, prepping for ‘hangover day’ on the couch.
Everyone thinks they’re the protagonist in their own story, but the fact is, it’s more like we’re all protagonists in everyone’s story — straddling the gap between entirely alone and eternally connected. Digital media changed the way we communicate, expanding the definition of a conversation from one-one-one or a few people ’round a table, to a literally infinite stream of shared knowledge and ideas. You can’t move while opinions present themselves at every cyberstep. First there was the stone tablet, then there was the printing press, and now there’s the Twitter feed. With every advancement of technology, the scope of our lives is widened to include more people and information. Like, share or follow, the guardian angel of 24-hour digital space shadows and anticipates our every move.
Where the film industry responded to globalization, TV responds to the digital revolution.
Whether you’re the type to Snapchat brushing your teeth or to just check what Kim K’s bathroom (ahem) looks like, the form is the same: we experience the world as multiple events happening simultaneously. Where once you might have quite happily gone sunrise to sunset without encountering a soul, bar the odd donkey, now you’re lucky if you can blow your nose without some ass trying to sell you something or update you on the status of the broken vending machine in their office.
courtesy of Home Box Office
Television adapts to changes in how we live. Series are produced over long periods of time, with multiple seasons, so they can hold viewers captive with complex narratives. Where the film industry responded to globalization, TV responds to the digital revolution. Things are already globalized; it’s just now they’re instantaneous too. Where the radio and telephone made communication across continents possible, the internet and smartphone made it as casual as waving to someone across the room. The golden greats — King Kong, Star Wars, Titanic, you name it — were all about breaking through to the modern moment. Yet they still followed, more or less, single protagonists and single events. TV throws out the subplot and supporting actor for the simultaneous story and the costar — the antiheroes stand alongside the heroes. As much as we may love Joey most, Friends was always about the whole gang, each of their lives unfolding alongside the others equally. Boardwalk Empire is about Al Capone and Margaret as much as it’s about Nucky, and House of Cards is Frank and Claire, not Frank with Claire on the side, right? So even though you may say, “But there was still a Han Solo to every Luke Skywalker,” try looking at the front cover of A New Hope and tell me what you notice about the layout of the cast. Young Jedi over here is standing at the front of a triangle, isn’t he? It’s basically his film. Now look at the House of Cards branding and you’ll see Frank and Claire next to one another. Throw out Damsel in Distress; welcome in Puppet Master First Lady. Nowadays, we go ahead together, one campaign or like / share / repost at a time.
The number of times I’ve stood up from the couch with the unpleasant unsticking noise and butt marks left on the leather, well, it’s high.
Today’s TV is replacing films in budget, viewers and acclaim and even stealing its actors (as with Spacey and Buscemi), because it maps more directly to the logic of our contemporary moment. People no longer live in closed, terminal narratives. They’re endless and without bound. Or rather, they’re as long and encompassing as we choose them to be. Even if a series finishes, there’s always the spin-off. Take Better Call Saul as one example. So you made your way through five years and all five seasons of Breaking Bad, and now your life has no meaning? Never fear: the show, indeed, goes on…
But does this mean that today’s TV is simply a superior format? Like the equivalent to upgrading from dial-up to fiber-optic?
No. It’s more complex than that. It’s not that film is passé (suffice to check the box office numbers for The Force Awakens); it’s just that today’s TV is characterized by a vastness of scope that the film industry can’t compare to.
There are pitfalls, of course, to this “everything all of the time” culture. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between when a series is giving me what I want and when it’s telling me what to want. The number of times I’ve stood up from the couch with the unpleasant unsticking noise and butt marks left on the leather, well, it’s high. Today’s TV abides by the principle of the perpetual cliff-hanger — keeping viewers glued is the measure of value. Of course, a good story is a good story (let’s not get dragged into a “kids these days” rant), but you’ve gotta ask yourself how it’s become so embedded in our popular consciousness that we even have euphemisms like “Netflix and chill.”
courtesy of Media Rights Capital
In part, our obsession stems from the way series have adopted the excesses of fast-food 24/7 stimulation. We’re bored by singularity — there’s no longer such a thing as just one thing, and today’s TV feeds this attention deficit. If I’m brushing my teeth, as I said earlier, you probably know about it, and TV knows about it — and, boy, does it capitalize on this. Every three minutes of House of Cards there’s the eerie music that means a scheme is under way, and every episode ends with some wink to the fourth wall, as if to say, “Come back and I’ll tell you…” Where a film has an arc and a linear development of tension, TV is one moment here, one moment there, one moment Frank, one moment Claire. Today’s TV feeds our dependence on constant information.
You could definitely go down the “it’s a profit-motivated, brainwashing, advertising revenue–oriented industry,” where the format simply taps into our Pringles Syndrome for more and more, but that would be a gross oversimplification. Obviously, a company like Netflix doesn’t grow by a factor of 10 in 10 years without thought to cash flow, but ultimately it’s a chicken-and-the-egg question: Does the investment overshadow the art, or does the art shine, indeed, because of the investment?
Certainly, there are shows with dollar bills in their eyes for Biebs cameo opportunities, but then there are still the team players. I’d argue that House of Cards actually boasts more gloss than substance, but Boardwalk Empire, for example, does an excellent job of entertaining us whilst still preserving the complexity of life. Bottom line: Does it get you thinking? Are we left brain-fried, or riled up in a conversation on Facebook about the glass ceiling? If a show propels you from the couch to the podium of social media, I say let the timer run down.
In any case, regardless, please just someone somehow have it be that Kanye is Obama in the Netflix series, whenever it may be.
I’d pay $7.99 a month for that with or without calling Saul.