Sunday, 10 August 2008

anxiogenic tv


There is a lot on how the Google Generation (which is actually a very misleading idea) is full of a bunch of cognitively myopic and depthless individuals just skimming from one digital distraction to another. And somewhere in that there is probably some truth for some people.

But the assumption that the endpoint of all these new web behaviours is neuromush for everyone is wrong. That's why it's nice when you hear something that says, actually all this new media causes more cognitive sweat than the media before it. It might even be making some of us a bit smarter.

It's the same with TV shows. They are getting more complicated and we are having to be better decoders to understand them. Even 'rubbish' like Big Brother forces us to track a large number of relationships, which have to be continually updated. If this example is fatuous, shows like The Sopranos, The West Wing, The Wire, Prison Break, 24, Lost and so on are most certainly feistier than their antecedents.

As usual, someone else has thought about this a lot more and got it down on paper. Everything Bad is Good for You by Stephen Johnson argues that "that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years" (xv). I agree.

But there's something else that I have been feeling in the last five years when I watch television, which is increased anxiety. The reason for this is that I can no longer trust writers.

Somewhere things changed.

For me, this point came with Season 1 of 24. With everything I had watched up to that point it was a fairly good assumption that by the end of a film or season everything would be nicely tied up - the baddies dispensed, the objective achieved, the romance consummated. More than anything, writers brought their characters close to death but pulled them back again at the last moment.

Then audiences got bored of this, the assumption was so strong that it started to dilute the experience because the outcome could be predicted. The reaction was for writers to start being ruthless and, to a certain extent, inconsistent when it came to dispensing with characters.

Now audiences were never really sure who was going to live or not because instead of pulling all major characters back from death they started popping them off left, right and centre.

I believe Keifer Sutherland is the only major cast member remaining on the television show 24 after its 7 seasons. Prison Break in its third season is considerably thinner on characters than when it started.

This has the effect of pulling you deeper into shows, because you face the confusion and uncertainly the characters feels instead of being able to watch the show with the saftey net below you.

As Johnson has noted, things like multiple-threading in TV shows have forced us to sharpen up cognitively. But, increasingly this and other devices are coupled with wanton disregard for nearly all of a show's major characters, which has sharpened our anxiety.

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