How Is Technology Changing TV Narrative?

There is a joke that started a month or two ago about how HBO subscriptions were going to cease once Game of Thrones concluded. The implication is that despite a long history of high-quality TV shows – Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Flight of the Concords, Banshee*, and Strikeback** – the station will suddenly have nothing to offer audiences.

This argument reminded me of a PBS Ideas Channel video I shared on how technology is changing TV shows.

It raises an interesting point about how there appear to be more complex narratives in TV shows now. And in light of the conclusion of Game of Thrones, audiences are expecting more from networks that they doubt can be provided.

Of course, there are several problems with this idea. The first is perception. For every Breaking Bad and Justified we have CSI Whatever and the banality of reality TV. So without some hard data on the number of shows and relative audiences, it is really hard to say how real that perception is.

The second problem is that TV shows run a continuum from pure episodic shows, where everything is wrapped up in an episode and the next episode has little to no changes evident to the characters or larger show, through to serials, which have more complex plot lines that often take at least a season to develop and resolve with character arcs building over the course of the entire series. The key word is continuum, as most shows have some aspects of the serial and episodic about them. Again, without breaking down each show on this continuum, and then comparing shows now versus the past, we don’t have any idea of what has changed, if anything has changed.

The third problem is the good old sample or selection bias, especially as it relates to our favourite shows and the shows we remember. E.g. Survivor has been running since 2000 (or 1997 if you are in the UK), yet without looking that up I’d have had no idea when the show started, let alone whether it is still running. I don’t remember it because I’m not a fan. But I will still complain bitterly about the cancellation of Firefly. My frame of reference is biased, so I’m going to remember some shows more than others and think more favourably of some of the ones I remember than others.

The final problem I see is assigning time shift technologies and marathon watching as the driver of a change in our demands for more complex narratives. The idea itself is sound, as I can’t think of thing less interesting than watching the same episode with minor changes in a marathon. That would be like watching 9 hours of hobbits walking. The recording, DVD buying, streaming and subsequent marathon TV show watching would indeed favour shows that have more to them, that more complex narrative that will keep you pressing play on the next episode.

I don’t know that the time shifting, or recording, or DVD buying, or other methods of marathon watching, is driving demand for more complex narratives. As I said above, I think the more complex shows lend themselves more to the marathon than other shows. But if we assume there are more of these shows worth grabbing a blanket and a couch dent, then I still think there are other things at play. I think we’ve seen more avenues for creativity come to the fore, such as Youtube channels, computer games, and the like that didn’t exist a decade ago as they do now. As a result, entertainment such as TV shows has a need to engage the audience on a deeper level. So while episodic shows like CSI Whatever are still huge, they don’t attract the same devotion and fan adoration as a good serialised show. Plus, the advantage of the more complex narratives is that it allows for more interesting characters, plot lines, etc, which in turn allows for better acting, direction, writing, etc, which creates a feedback loop that may one day cause fandom to implode due to awesome achieving gravitational singularity. I’m assuming this will happen when Netflix reboots Firefly.

NB: I hate the term binge-watching and as such haven’t used it in this article. Binge implies that there is something wrong with what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with watching a TV show or movie series you enjoy, so we should stop implying there is something wrong.

* Banshee is criminally underappreciated.

** I stand by including this on the list. Show me another TV show that managed to do more in one episode than most entire action movies with 10x the budget.

How Is Technology Changing TV Narrative?

This latest video from the Ideas Channel raises an interesting point about how there appears to be more complex narratives in TV shows now.

Of course, there are several problems with this idea. The first is perception. For every Breaking Bad and Justified we have CSI Whatever and the banality of reality TV. So without some hard data on the number of shows and relative audiences, it is really hard to say how real that perception is.

The second problem is that TV shows run a continuum from pure episodic shows, where everything is wrapped up in an episode and the next episode has little to no changes evident to the characters or larger show, through to serials, which have more complex plot lines that often take at least a season to develop and resolve with character arcs building over the course of the entire series. The key word is continuum, as most shows have some aspects of the serial and episodic about them. Again, without breaking down each show on this continuum, and then comparing shows now versus the past, we don’t have any idea of what has changed, if anything has changed.

The third problem is the good old sample or selection bias, especially as it relates to our favourite shows and the shows we remember. E.g. Survivor has been running since 2000 (or 1997 if you are in the UK), yet without looking that up I’d have had no idea when the show started, let alone whether it is still running. I don’t remember it because I’m not a fan. But I will still complain bitterly about the cancellation of Firefly. My frame of reference is biased, so I’m going to remember some shows more than others and think more favourably of some of the ones I remember than others.

The final problem I see is assigning time shift technologies and marathon watching as the driver of a change in our demands for more complex narratives. The idea itself is sound, as I can’t think of thing less interesting than watching the same episode with minor changes in a marathon. That would be like watching 9 hours of hobbits walking. The recording, DVD buying, streaming and subsequent marathon TV show watching would indeed favour shows that have more to them, that more complex narrative that will keep you pressing play on the next episode.

I don’t know that the time shifting, or recording, or DVD buying, or other methods of marathon watching, is driving a demand for more complex narratives. As I said above, I think the more complex shows lend themselves more to the marathon than other shows. But if we assume there are more of these shows worth grabbing a blanket and a couch dent, then I still think there are other things at play. I think we’ve seen more avenues for creativity come to the fore, such as Youtube channels, computer games, and the like that didn’t exist a decade ago as they do now. As a result, entertainment such as TV shows have a need to engage the audience on a deeper level. So while episodic shows like CSI Whatever are still huge, they don’t attract the same devotion and fan adoration as a good serialised show. Plus, the advantage of the more complex narratives is that it allows for more interesting characters, plot lines, etc, which is turn allows for better acting, direction, writing, etc, which creates a feedback loop that may one day cause fandom to implode due to awesome achieving gravitational singularity. I’m assuming this will happen when Netflix reboots Firefly.

NB: I hate the term binge watching and as such haven’t used it in this article. Binge implies that there is something wrong with what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with watching a TV show or movie series you enjoy, so we should stop implying there is something wrong.

Entertaining TV of 2013

With many of my favourite shows now back on air for 2014, except the ones that were cancelled, I thought it was a good time to recap what kept me entertained on the small screen in 2013.

Many people have noted the rise of decent TV, leaving behind the days of formulaic plots (e.g. CSI whatever), sit coms that lack the comedy (e.g. Two and A Half Men), dramas that lack plot (e.g. Lost), lame reality TV shows (e.g. Duck Dynasty), and the cancellation of a Joss Whedon show before it got a chance to be awesome (e.g. every show he’s ever made). This is at the same time as movies have failed to produce anything particularly memorable or interesting in quite some time.

I actually have a theory (by theory I mean hypothesis) about why there are fewer and fewer decent movies. It comes down to this little figure:
gender-inequality-in-filmLet’s leave aside the gross disparity between the highest paid actor vs. actress discussion, instead let’s focus on those paychecks. You stick just one of those stars in a movie, just one, and you are going to have a really expensive movie that is going to battle make its money back at the box office. Movie studios know this, so they spend up big on special effects, production values, promotion, etc, to lure people into the cinema. But in an effort to attract as large an audience as possible to make up for this huge spend, they make the movies as bland as possible in order to accommodate a wide audience from around the world. The reason that movie sucks isn’t because it is aimed at 12 year olds, its aimed at 12 year olds who probably don’t understand idioms due to being in a different country/culture.

And this is why we get a list of gems on the small screen, because the writers, directors, and quite a few actors, have realised that in order to tell good stories, they can’t spend huge dollars (unless it is on prime time crap).

Justified

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Possibly my favourite show of the past few years. This is not only well written, the entire cast and crew seem to have this knack for creating great TV. Plus, last season featured Patton Oswalt.

Sherlock

I love this show for its wit, humour, modernising of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories, and the casting. Some have accused it of being smug, but I see that as central to Sherlock’s character, thus welcome in the show.

Luther

I read the prequel novel by series writer Neil Cross and it was every bit as good as the TV show. Idris Elba took a break from fighting monsters in giant robot suits in order to make another season of this fantastic crime drama.

Banshee

When I describe this show to friends, they always come away thinking that I’ve described a violent, b-grade, action movie with plenty of nudity. Just another throw back to the pulp novel trash that I also have occasion to read. Well, yes. The problem being? The best new show on TV in 2013, hands down!

Person of Interest

I really enjoyed the first season of Person of Interest. The second season was more of the same but brought more of the very interesting character portrayed by Amy Acker. Season 3 was off to a good start before the non-ratings break. Now that I’ve raised that point, why do we even have a non-ratings period any more? TV watching habits have changed, the networks better change with the times or lose out to the internet… oh wait, they are.

Continuum

I discovered this sci-fi gem by accident. One of the problems I’ve always had with time travel in books, TV and movies is that they don’t deal with the paradox very well. Even in Back to the Future it is almost played for a joke. This series is well written and actually has the paradox central to its story structure. It also helps that Rachel Nichols does a good job of holding the series together.

Revolution

Another post-apocalyptic story, ho-hum. This series has an interesting take on what would be society’s downfall and what would subsequently happen. There is a lot to like about this show, especially Billy Burke as a bad-ass. Although, after the first season, I didn’t see much point in having a second season and won’t be following it.

Arrow

This is one of the few mainstream shows I find watchable. It is pretty much down to the fact that they have some good fights, an interesting premise culled from the source material, and that the actors have done the hard yards physically for the show (especially Stephen Amell and Manu Bennett). Makes me want to build a salmon ladder in my backyard.

H+

Not often that a web series could attract a big name director like Bryan Singer (of the decent X-Men movies fame) to make a series of short scene sci-fi. I’d characterise the series as essentially 48 vignettes with overlapped characters and story, as most episodes can stand alone to some extent, despite being part of a larger narrative.

Archer

Quite simply, this show is the funniest thing on TV. In the proud tradition of cartoon comedies, it is able to do things that other TV shows and comedies can’t, due to financial, legal or ethical constraints. This series is also one of the few with DVD extras that you would actually want to watch. One of the best is when Archer has an accident and is transformed into a character much more like his voice actor, with ensuing gags around this.

Rake

This Aussie comedy-drama has been a consistently witty and interesting tale about a self-destructive Sydney barrister. Normally Aussie humour doesn’t translate well to other parts of the world, but Rake has been adapted for the USA, with Greg Kinnear replacing Richard Roxburgh.

Tried but lost interest:

Almost Human – promising sci-fi that didn’t really capture my attention

The Walking Dead – so sick of that fucking farm!

Marvel’s Agents of Shield – this should have been good, but was meh.

The Booth At The End – interesting premise but didn’t grab me.

The Following – I can honestly say that this series squandered such a great premise with derivative and clichéd story.

The Blacklist – this was interesting only because of James Spader. Needed more than that.

Vikings – interesting but too slow moving.

Hannibal – this was fantastic. I don’t know why I haven’t watched more, but I just haven’t.

What!?! You don’t watch….

The Game of Thrones – after watching the first season I had had enough. You only have to watch this far to see Sean Bean die, so game over.

Breaking Bad – I’ve dropped in and out on this series, watching episodes throughout. I’ve really enjoyed it, but not something I’ve made time to watch all of.

Arrested Development – yeah, I know. I should be a rabid fan.

The Killing – both the US and the Danish Forbrydelsen are slow boil crime shows that I’ve started watching and not continued. No particular reason for stopping, just haven’t gotten to the rest of the episodes yet.

Borgen – have heard great things, but just haven’t gotten to it yet.

Breaking Bad: Only in the USA

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It’s quite interesting to see how the premise for any book, movie or TV show is endemic. The above example of Breaking Bad is a classic, and especially funny given the current furore over affordable health care in the USA. But there are plenty of others.

Sherlock Holmes is a classic example. Imagine a drug addicted, genius, arsehole detective in the modern age where drugs are illegal. Yep: Sherlock and the Hounds of B-Block. Also, before anyone says House, think about how long House would have spent in malpractice suits.

Robinson Crusoe would be pretty difficult to see happening in this day and age. Sure, Tom Hanks tried to convince us that modern people could be lost on an island and survive by their wits and a bunch of FedEx packages. But with modern tracking methods, mapping and the fact that no-one travels by boat now-a-days, Robinson Crusoe would be Bear Grylls or Survivor.

Huckleberry Finn is the tale of a young boy running away with his adult slave. That just wouldn’t happen these days. Now it isn’t that slaves don’t exist anymore (they do), nor the idea of run-aways. A young boy going missing in the USA with a grown man, sounds like an episode of Without a Trace.

The test of a premise really is to see if it would work anywhere else, any-time else. If it doesn’t work anywhere or any-when else, then it is interesting. If it can be transposed, how interesting was the premise to begin with?