american culture

The Trouble with TV Consumption: When Will “The Shocker” Flatline?

the walking dead season 4 part 2 michonneI don’t watch Game of Thrones, but I feel like I know every inch of its body like it’s a ghostly lover I’ve only dreamt of courting.

The allure is real and tangible everywhere I turn. HBO’s healthy marketing budget has made it so that I can’t wait for a bus or click on to my favorite site without seeing an ad plastered on some physical or digital space.

I don’t have a problem with marketers doing their job. What I detest, however, is the devolution of A&E journalism from being the stimulant to the easily-stimulated.

Sunday evening through Monday morning, the headlines are inescapable: “Game of Thrones Shocker!” or “The Walking Dead Spoiler: Discuss the Season Finale Shocker!” I know we’re living in the era of the resurgence of event television, but I  don’t appreciate it when I’m bombarded with an array of  headlines aimed at shaming me for casual disinterest.

“Shockers” don’t impress me much anymore.

I guess the headlines are a preferable alternative to the quick-fire “OMG SERIOUSLY? #GameOfThrones” that fills my Twitter timeline when any given buzz show airs, but the fact remains that you can’t simply exist as a casual consumer (of the fan or non-fan persuasion) any more. You’re either part of the in-crowd or the outcast. There’s no middle ground in the world of quick-fix television.

I’m forced to indulge in the cultures of these shows, though watching rabid fans salivate over something they fail to realize–in their fits of, well, “shocked” outpouring of digital discourse on social media–was constructed specifically to send them off their rockers is entertaining in itself.

How easily we, as a collective audience, have relinquished control.

I’m supposed to form a relationship with a show. I’m supposed to curl up in its embrace—by myself (who needs people?)—and drift off into the sweet nothings it whispers into my ear. It has to be consensual. A show hinging itself upon shocking me fosters a souped-up, manic consumption that leaves no room to explore new routes. It conditions expectations of topping itself, and makes it impossible for its writers to explore even terrain. 

Still, I feel like the industry wants me to feel like I’m missing out on an irresistible fuck-fest to draw me in. They want me to feel like the outsider. They want me to submit to their show’s ability to travel so long right around a circle that the only way to keep things interesting is to yank the wheel to the left.

I miss the days of connecting with fans on the basis of quality versus surprise. LOST, while inspiring a fan culture all its own, propelled itself forward on the grounds of dramatic resonance. Each bit of absurdity fueled the show’s personality. It became a character drama with an affinity for the absurd. The show was never defined by its insanity, and its twists and turns inspired crescendoed momentum instead of reaching a peak, diving off the side, and climbing back up only to repeat the same suicidal event two weeks later.

Plot twists used to serve purpose, but now they’re used as buzz topics for tomorrow’s articles that tap into everyone’s innate desire for inclusivity. We all want to be a part of something, but this shocker business feels too constructed.

I admit that I watch event shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. Of all the buzz shows, The Walking Dead most justifiably earned its right to assert dominance over the pop culture discussion at large. It’s a huge cable production that trumps nearly every scripted network show in terms of revenue, ratings, and response from the key demographic. But, the show evolved from a quiet, subdued drama that it was in its first two seasons. It has adapted to fit within a culture that demands spectacular stimuli–including the shocker. Its ever-bloated cast list grows by the season only to be cut down without warning in an inevitable, unmotivated bloodbath. It’s a show that was once defined by a singular character’s will to survive, but now rides from high to high on the fumes of its audience speculating who will die next.

And everyone eats it up.

In a sense, it’s impossible for us to fairly gauge a show’s quality when it follows the shocker format. What this does is allow an otherwise brilliant show to become predicated by superficial elements; character deaths, tonal shifts, plot twists—moments whose foremost purpose isn’t to advance the story, but to get you on your phone tweeting about it whether such elements work or not.

We don’t challenge ourselves to accept what’s happening and if it works with the ideology of the show. It’s simply golden if it’s unexpected, and I’m sick of it.

It’s easy to see how the passively-accepting, actively-responding, binge-watching culture has adopted other more subtle series as posterchildren for buzz-crazed consumption before they had a chance to hit their stride. That’s why Homeland sputtered out so fast: It was a show that was genuinely compelling in its first season, fueled by intricately-woven character dynamics and twists & turns that served a purpose in context. The media ate it up. It became the show to watch, picking up steam long after its premiere, and the show adapted to this too-soon ejaculation accordingly. It became a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. The solid shell of season one is now haunted with the extravaganza of the (literally) explosive season two finale and melodramatics of season 3. It’s a show that needed to be caught up with, not a show that needs to play catch-up itself. Now, all we care about is the spectacle; all we care about is if a show can sustain the demographic’s boner.

The fact that everyone is so hung up on the shocker has even managed to tarnish the reputations of brilliant minimalist shows like True Detective and Looking.

True Detective’s first season was a character drama disguised and marketed as a crime/detective thriller. Its stars, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, played two characters that were infinitely more interesting than the murder case they tried to solve, and the show unfolded accordingly. People expecting a procedural were intensely disappointed to learn that the focal characters brought far too much weight to the table; Their stories—and how they reacted to the crimes and each other—were too complex to ignore. 

Because True Detective dared to make its central mystery of uncovering the murders the least important part of its identity pissed people off once the finale aired. They were unable to appreciate the philosophical gravitas or the beautiful intricacies of its characters and their connection to the world around them. People don’t see characters anymore, they see play pieces atop a board game; but, who wins in that situation?

Screen-Shot-2014-01-12-at-11.38.10-AMBecause Looking, a drama revolving around a group of gay friends in San Francisco, didn’t follow a traditional structure and because it dared to linger in silence where any other show would try to cram in flesh, blood, and bone, it became a detractor to the gay community in the eyes of the Internet Court. Twitter ripped it apart every week. According to them, it either probed too little into gay culture or became a stereotypical representation of the gay fantasy. It was never good enough for the contemporary audience. It was held to an unrealistic standard of upholding the image of the gay community when all it aimed to do was explore its characters without their sexuality as a defining factor. It never asked to be a champion of the gay community, nor did it beg for people to look upon it as a trailblazer for the queer identity. It was a show about people, but “real” people wanted it to be something traditional, but still expected it to be something different when it bored them. People looked for something to latch on to; the gay factor must define this show because people are too impatient to dig anywhere under the surface. It’s a dynamic show that defies classification, and that frustrates the casual audience to the point of not simply disinterest, but violent backlash.

What does this say about us? Can we no longer handle simplicity? Are our minds descending so deep into the quick-fix abyss that the only time we allow ourselves to come up for air is to take another hit from the shocker to carry us through to next week’s episode?

Networks are not the problem. They have to make money somehow. I’m troubled by rabid audiences consuming television like a drug, moving from high to high, plot twist to plot twist, shocker to shocker. It’s empty consumption, and it’s clear to see that TV shows like The Walking Dead and Homeland are evolving to fit this mold when they started out as completely different shows than what they are now. People live for the inclusivity versus the art of the show.

Sooner or later, you’ll come to expect it, and that’s when the shock will flatline. The high will fade, and Twitter will go silent. We can only hope it comes sooner rather than later, but where do you go from there once it happens?

Make no mistake: I cannot judge a show I’ve never seen. I can only react to the coverage a show receives and how that coverage reflects a much greater shift in the way TV is consumed and produced for our quick-fix culture to the point where I must endure a barrage of industry “coverage” that’s only bent on making me feel like an outsider for not stepping inside the loop.

That’s not something I can warm up to any time soon.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Oscar Season Diary #9: ’12 Years a Slave,’ the PGA Awards, and the Dangers of Expectation

PGA-tie-618x400So much of the film industry is driven by expectation.

Studios expect box-office returns. Audiences expect to be entertained. Critics expect to be impressed.

Most Oscar bloggers and awards season pundits place themselves outside of these categories. Most of us have no interest in the business side of the industry, nor do we elect to be as willingly passive as those who think going to the multiplex on a Saturday night is an excuse to switch your brain into idle mode.

We chug along on the perimeter of the industry, poking and prodding at the seams of awards season, championing our favorite films of the year and (sometimes) throwing the others under the bus, because we expect the Academy’s taste to coincide with quality, not whichever film happens to press the least amount of buttons to fall in line with a safe consensus.

The most dangerous thing about awards season, however, is the baggage that expectations can place on prognostication. It’s not a particularly important part of the actual awards, but predictions and expectations are often the push that gets the ball rolling.

Usually, by mid-January, all of the guilds and critics circles have announced their annual set of winners, and the consensus generally tends to funnel into a single lane. By this time last year, Argo was set firmly ahead of the pack, and a year before that The Artist was sitting pretty in a similar position.

If this weekend’s Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild ceremonies proved anything, it’s that the immense quality of the films released in the calendar year have interfered with the industry’s ability to come to that dreaded (but necessary) consensus.

The SAG (the largest voting base of any industry guild, with about 120,000 eligible voters) often aligns with the film with the broadest appeal (in essence, the film that’s easiest for its members to come to a consensus on), which, for 2013, is unmistakably American Hustle (Lupita Nyong’o, however, was able to notch a win over Jennifer Lawrence, plunging the predictability of that race further into oblivion once again).

As all prepared to stick a fork in 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the seemingly-impossible happened: the PGA announced its first-ever tie, awarding top honors to both films at its awards ceremony last night. Not only were Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron’s respective films kept alive in a race they’d otherwise fallen behind in, they were actually catapulted ahead of American Hustle just as it was gaining the upper hand.

We’ve got the Directors Guild of America left, and their top honor will likely go to Alfonso Cuaron for his work on Gravity. That would, effectively, place Sandra Bullock’s one-woman show in prime position.

Alas, what have we learned? Expectations are limiting and evil, especially in such an unpredictable Oscar year. Just take a look at the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, two films largely expected to dominate this year’s race, but only mustered a paltry three Oscar nominations between the two of them–not a single one in a major category. Again, this goes against what our expectations would tell us. Both Emma Thompson and the Coen brothers have excellent Oscar track records–both are winners–and worked on films that were immense critical successes. 2013 taught us not to listen to history, generally a fail-safe way to predict the Oscar mentality.

The tide could very easily shift toward 12 Years a Slave, bringing the narrative of the season back full-circle onto itself. When you think about it, the path is always uncharted, it’s just the critics, guilds, audience wallets, and pundits that determine who lives and who dies in the race. After all, the hype machine is to blame for building up most of our expectations and then violently shooting them down. It happened with Silver Linings Playbook last year, nearly happened to 12 Years a Slave this year, and is (most likely) currently unraveling American Hustle‘s late-race dash for Best Picture.

rs_560x415-140118172006-1024.Lupita-Nyongo-SAG-011814_copyIt’s a constant circle of self-made praise. Each publication–from Variety to Entertainment Weekly to Awards Daily–wants to be there at the start of glory. They want to champion the buzzy film-that-could that comes out of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride. They want to advance the narrative, and gain traction for pin-pointing excellence.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but this essentially kills any genuine reaction from general critics (the “legitimate” ones are usually already at these festivals, and are doing their fair share of feeding the hype monster) and audiences, as they’re either over-hyped to the point where it’s impossible to be impressed, or they’re unable to think for themselves and merely pile on the praise to fit in with the tide that’s been crafted around them. It’s a self-starting, self-destructive bubble.

12 Years a Slave is, on paper, a film that seems a fitting Best Picture for the 2013 calendar year. The Academy appointed its first female black president and made numerous efforts to diversify its voting base by inviting more women and people of color than ever before.

It only makes sense, then, that a film like 12 Years a Slave would be championed as a harbinger of change, as the perfect vessel to carry us through this monumental year for change.

As evidenced yesterday on Twitter as the film was announced as one of two PGA winners, many champion the film because they say it’s a symbol of hope for minorities in the United States. I’ve always had a problem with this, seeing as the film is a triumph in its mere existence, and doesn’t need what is essentially a majority award to justify its presence.

According to the LA Times, the Oscar voting base is overwhelmingly white and male (90% white, 75% male). If 12 Years a Slave were to win with these voters, the only thing it proves is that the film is playing into the majority’s taste, and isn’t really triumphing over the majority, then, anyway. Do not let the film be a symbol of “hope,” as that is a false appropriation of credit. All this means is that the film received the white majority’s approval, and played to their tastes. If it wins, the film will win as a great film, and should not be used as a tool for validation of race or presence. If hope lies in the hands of playing to the majority’s fancy, freedom for the minority voice is a missing part of the equation, as objectification then becomes the issue.

Again, people’s expectations for the film are that it must be the harbinger of hope simply because it was crafted by black hands, stars black actors, and is adapted from a book written by a prominent figure in African-American history. It is a marvelous film that should be championed because it does represent the minority voice, and represents it extremely well.

12 Years a Slave is a moving, powerful work of art that both challenges the majority stylistically and thematically, but to demean its value by validating its greatness at the hands of a white male-dominated is an insult to what it stands for.

The seething, lurking, ever-present tentacles of expectation have no right to impede 12 Years a Slave‘s existence as a cinematic landmark.