21
Jan
15

๐Ÿ”ด “Dramatus Interruptus”

 

๐Ÿ”ด Social Media, “Dramatus Interruptus”

ยค and The Blacklist

 
Feb 1, 2015
 
๐Ÿ”ด 1. Art and customer service
๐Ÿ”ด 2. There’s no escaping social context
๐Ÿ”ด 3. There’s no escaping social media
๐Ÿ”ด 4.’Scandal’ and ‘The Blacklist’
๐Ÿ”ด 5.’The Blacklist’s use of social media
๐Ÿ”ด 6. Are TV serials visual novels?
๐Ÿ”ด 7. Where the cool kids are
๐Ÿ”ด 8. Golden Age / Biomimesis
๐Ÿ”ด 9. ‘Dramatus Interruptus’ ๐Ÿ”‘
๐Ÿ”ด 10. Social Media Engagement: Not Optional

 
๐Ÿ”ด BIBLIOGRAPHY: Social Media, Biomimesis
 
โ™คโ™คโ™ค A. Poetics
โ™คโ™คโ™ค B. Politics
โ™คโ™คโ™ค C. Neurobiology
โ™คโ™คโ™ค D. Social Media and the Arts
โ™คโ™คโ™ค E. Social Media and Co-Creation

 
Customer service at the DMV…
 
DMV guy: I found your girl. The picture you gave me, the one of the girl I had it aged up in the system and marked as an FBI inquiry five weeks ago.
Red: The vending machine is still not working…
DMV guy: Then Dolly goes in for hair plugs. She’s the only one in the Southwest Service Center with access, so I’m frozen out.
Red: …The woman grading the written tests needs to shower.
DMV guy: But this morning, Dolly comes back, and guess what. Old Dolly got a hit A 97% match on your girl…. As I said, these things take time. What the hell is that?โ—

Red: … It’s a new vending machine. Yours is broken. Consider it a bonus.
(2:5 The Front)
 
image
 
เผบโœฆโŒ˜โœฆเผป

 
art
 

๐Ÿ”ด 1. Art and customer service

Everyone knows that good customer service is essential to selling anything and letting customers know they’re being heard, but how does this work where art is concerned? Is television art? Does social media count as a form of customer feedback? And how much influence should social media have over the content of a medium like television?

Amazon reviews are perhaps the most familiar way of turning customer feedback into something tangible that impacts not only the decisions of other customers but potentially the future development of the product. Negative reviews in particular can help identify problems with products. This is free feedback and many companies are using it to improve their products and even launch new ones. In industry, this process has been dubbed “co-creation,” in which suggestions from consumers are woven at various points into the product development cycle.
Brief Bibliography: Social Media and Co-Creation

But Art (which I will capitalize; it’s a short word โ€“ otherwise you might miss it) โ€“ Art? This begs the question of what ‘Art’ is, what its “function” is and whether television even qualifies.

There are (still) those who hold out for the idea that Art inhabits a sphere outside the concerns of daily life (most certainly outside the concerns of the crass activities of the marketplace), that its function is to challenge that world (so how can it be sponsored by it?), and โ€“ only slightly more practically, โ€“ that it cannot be truly mimetic if it is tethered in any way the commercialized world. I had thought we were past this, but apparently not:

Art and literature need to become public events completely outside of social networks. Just as the Romantic poets looked back to nature at the beginning of the 19th century for wisdom, we must use physical space to host physical works of art. Similarly, we must continue to promote events that allow for intimate conversation with authors, poets and other speakers.” [emphasis added]

โ‹™ Qwiklit, Phil James: 8 Reasons Why Social Media Is Decimating Art and Literature http://bit.ly/1B3NhiB 3/8/2014

Something tells me there will be more such “events” taking place in Boston and LA than in Wabasha MN. but, fortunately, that particular ship sailed long ago.
 

social
 

๐Ÿ”ด 2. There’s no escaping social context

Garrison Keillor (who visits SE Minnesota annually to go to the Mayo Clinic and presents his show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” at the Rochester Civic Theatre) spoke to this matter recently:

[Very rough transcription from unpausable audio:] History is local. In any effort to capture the great broad sweep of history, about half of it is fiction. You probably learned that the 1920s was the Jazz Age โ€“ and it was, in parts of Manhattan and Chicago, โ€“ but not in most places. In the 1950s, for every Beat poet, there were 10,000 people who for the first time had access to higher education. You may learn that Elvis & Jack Kerouac personified the 50s or that the 60s were an age of protest โ€“ which they may have been, โ€“ but not for most people. My parents were the first in their families to go to college and they liked what they found. Elvis and Kerouac didn’t have much to say to them. They didn’t want to drop out. They had just arrived.

โ‹™ MPRNews: Garrison Keillor keynote address on local and family history http://bit.ly/14B7AHe. 1/1/2015

What was more important? โ€“ the fact that early TV programming was formulaic and often based on the left-over talents of a decidedly low-brow form of entertainment known as Vaudeville? โ€“ or the availability to television to millions of household. Vaudeville was scarcely the point. We found out what “the point” was when JFK was assassinated and all America โ€“ and the world โ€“ clicked their sets on to one event and the Globe became a Village for the first time.

 
media
 

๐Ÿ”ด 3. There’s no escaping social media

We live in the age we live in. Separating Art from its social context has never been possible except in the imagination, which is where it belongs (and where Aristotle firmly placed it, by the way). Art always exists in its social, economic and historical context. We just tacitly decide to overlook that to take it in (“the willing suspension of disbelief”). Is the British Museum, funded by Great Britain to celebrate the British Empire (and housing many treasures taken from its colonies), really that different from Mercedes product placement in The Blacklist? Are we corrupted by that somehow, or should we simply try to sort that all out? Well, let’s try.

John Bokenkamp, creator and producer of The Blacklist, recently responded to an online question about the “end-game” of The Blacklist this way “yes, but only if Sony and NBC let us.” This, of course, is troubling. Shouldn’t the artist’s (or artists’) vision be the most important factor? Clearly, the sponsoring corporations of The Blacklist have an interest in and deserve a legitimate say in the creative content of this โ€“ and any โ€“ show. Not only are industry guidelines at play (little obscenity and dialed back sexuality) for network TV (depending, of course, on the time of day), but the driver for profitability โ€“ ratings โ€“ is the sine quo non as to whether a show gets on the air and how long it stays there. For that, bread and circuses are the ticket, so all for the Glory of Rome.

But ratings of course are a reflection of viewership, and nowhere more decisively than on network TV. Engagement of viewers to catalyze interest and gain feedback on a show is something social media can do very well. As direct insight into the minds of the viewers, social media can be useful as:

1) an immediate source of real-time feedback (eg tweets or likes on special forums),
2) in direct real-time participation (such as voting for a TV contestant or responding to a poll),
3) to provide ideas or weigh in on plot and character development, and finally,
4) to provide feedback on whether a show is working and delivering on its promises.

A recent article in MediaLife described the impact social media has on ratings: http://bit.ly/12bK02G
The most social programs see bigger gains in L+7 ratings
// 11/10/2014

โ€œIn these days of telecommuting and social networking, Twitter has become a virtual watercooler, where people go to talk about the dayโ€™s events, and thatโ€™s especially true when it comes to television.”

โ— โ€œA new Nielsen study on Twitter and television โ€ฆ found that a 10 percent increase in Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings, which measure which shows are being tweeted about the most, results in an average 1.8 percent increase in live-plus-seven-day-DVR viewership (L+7). โ€œ

โ— โ€œWe know that the number of people who see tweets about programs can be 50 times larger than the number of people who Tweet. We know from prior Nielsen research that some people choose to view TV programs live specifically because they enjoy the added engagement around social TV.โ€

โ— โ€œOn one level, you can think of social media as providing insights to help network departments make better decisions, including research, ad sales, marketing, promotions, etc.โ€

โ— โ€œAt a broader level, social media changes the relationship that networks have with their audiences. It for the first time enables networks to create one-to-one relationship with fans, creating new approaches for building loyalty, engagement and enthusiasm.โ€

 
two shows
 

๐Ÿ”ด 4. ‘Scandal’ and ‘The Blacklist’

Scandal, The Blacklist’s main competition in its new Thursday spot, has leveraged social media very successfully. One of the actors on the show, Jeff Perry, has credited Twitter participation for keeping the show on the air, writing:

From the seven episodes of the first season to where we are now, [Twitter] allowed a core audience to begin their viewership rituals and adorations [sic] that led to a larger word-of-mouth experience that led to bigger viewership that led to staying on the airโ€”and, in fact, thriving. So itโ€™s been kind of a change that way, and really beautiful that way.

You can connect with a passionate fan base that is literally much smaller than it needed to be for the economy to work in television years ago, and you can connect in kind of a direct way. It reminds me of a subscription audience in the theater, with talkbacks and getting to know the people who came to your shows month after month. Itโ€™s like a version of that in television now. Itโ€™s very sweet.

โ‹™ Slate, Jeff Perry (actor, Scandal): How Has Social Media Impacted Scandal? http://slate.me/1tk3ie3 // 6/11/2014

In this case, Twitter and Instagram (and I assume Tumblr) have become very close to the “events that allow for intimate conversation with authors, poets and other speakers” that Mr James (citied earlier) was looking for โ€“ only in an online environment.

However, in the case of Scandal, this has not been all viewer-originated or “organic,” as Jeff Perry suggests. According to the Toronto Star, there’s a bit of pump-priming involved:

Ben Blatt, ABCโ€™s executive director of digital strategy, said the show encourages actors to live-tweet and many do so every week…. They also shoot a lot of video and photos during production and embargo those moments until the episode airs; then they show up on places such as Instagram. โ€œFans love that inside access,โ€ Blatt said. โ€œAnd we make sure they are more like smartphone photos than professional. It feels more authentic.โ€ [emphasis added]

TorontoStar: Scandal and other shows fuelled by social media hype http://on.thestar.com/1D5iNwe // 9/25/2014 [emphasis added]

The Blacklist writers, producers and actors also live-tweet during the show, with the exception of James Spader. Personally, I think that’s fine as the character Red is an intentional Luddite and Spader himself prefers live jazz and a good book to going online. (There’s also that “air of mystery” thing.) Megan Boone, who stars in The Blacklist said in a recent interview that the show’s writers are very atuned to social media:

I really think that social media has changed the medium of television in a huge way. We are in the golden age of television. The interesting thing about network TV is that we are developing and shooting episodes at a much faster rate [than cable or streaming], so that means our air date and our wrap date are very close. When we get a response from our fans, weโ€™re able to almost instantly respond to that within our story. Within a couple of episodes, fans will see something play out that they wished for, or something that they noticed will be somehow woven into the story.โ€

โ‹™ CapitolFile: Megan Boone Opens Up About โ€˜TheBlacklist,โ€™ Dating, and Twitter http://bit.ly/11EenzD // Nov 2014

This doesn’t sound exactly like what Scandal does, although Joe Carnahan (one of the directors) and others regularly provide informal snaps and gifs appear from upcoming shows. (Avoiding spoilers in fact is nearly impossible). But Megan is clearly referring not only to channeling “adoration” of the show, but to directly responding to content issues, for a degree of audience “co-creation.” For instance, despite EP Jon Bokenkamp having declared in the commentary tracks for Season 1 that Red truly is not Liz’s father and that Tom really is dead, Tom turned out to be definitely alive and the Daddy question was walked back a bit as well.

Unfortunately, I’m not equipped to discuss Scandal with any authority, as the first season still sits on a shelf unopened. It seems I can only have a relationship with one TV show at a time… Just so you know.

 
blacklist
 

๐Ÿ”ด 5. The Blacklist’s use of social media

A recent example might be the effort in the last episode before its three-month “hiatus” from Nov 2014 to Feb 2015 to clear up issues regarding the timeline having to do with the age of Red’s enemy Berlin’s daughter. These timeline issues had her being a “political dissident” at the implausible age of about 12. (It’s still not a convincing timeline, but at least the issue was acknowledged and an explanation of sorts provided.) Such acknowledgement of issues and attempt to rectify them could be compared to a company’s reacting to complaints about a faulty part in a spate of Amazon reviews.

But to what extent should viewer feedback drive what viewers want to see happen? In terms of traditional products, this is becoming increasingly common. But artistic forms are expected to have an internal integrity and coherence that works independently of a consensus on what viewers “want to see,” what is often referred to, disparagingly, as “the lowest common denominator.” Arrow’s creator and Executive Producer Marc Guggenhein explains how he uses social media:

โ€œI sort of treat it as market research. ‘This is playing’, this character is resonating’, ‘this moment wasnโ€™t so successful.’ I call (fans) the extra writer in the writers’ room. Not always the writer we listen to, but certainly a voice.’ says Guggenheim.

While that engagement and feedback can provide a helpful voice for writers to listen to, it doesnโ€™t mean fans are writing their own choose-your-own adventure stories via Twitter. [No: they’re doing that in fan fiction stories!]

Variety: ‘Arrow,โ€™ โ€˜Awkwardโ€™ Exec Producers, YouTubers Talk the Impact of Social Media http://bit.ly/1AFGPj9
// 10/20/2014

The Blacklist actually goes out of its way to defy viewer expectations. As James Spader has said,

โ€œI think you will discover that your feelings about who [Red] is and what heโ€™s up to will change directions and change directions again,โ€ he said. โ€œThatโ€™s one of the great surprises of the show. Just when you feel you might be getting comfortable, you havenโ€™t. Just when you think you can get cozy with him, he does something to make you realize heโ€™s not someone to be cozy with.โ€

Today: James Spader strikes gold again on ‘The Blacklist’ http://on.today.com/ZAflf5 // 10/14/2013

And Jon Bokenkamp’s statement that a tactic (if not a goal) of the show is to “think of ways to continually surprise the viewers and “continually flip the story on its head” http://bit.ly/1J51P2m:. Personally, I have no problem with being continually surprised, but I do have concern with this being a “feature” on its own, without connection with character or plot. In fact, here we see viewers’ expectations of coherence appearing to come into direct conflict with NBC/Sony’s โ€“ and Bokenkamp’s โ€“ need to keep viewers interested throughout the long hiatus. Bokenkamp stated:

โ€œFor me, the only [sic] thing that matters is trying to surprise yourself,โ€ he said. โ€œWhat am I not expecting? For writers, thatโ€™s our job [sic]; to continually flip the story on its head. Once you think you know where itโ€™s going, then itโ€™s our job to flip that and subvert your expectations. Itโ€™s hard to do that, but thatโ€™s our job [sic].โ€

If we look back at the high point of serialized fiction in the 19th Century, we see a certain problem with too much focus on cliff-hangers and surprises: they are very dependent on the idea that viewers are watching the show from episode-to-episode. But that is changing and part of the reason may be that viewers don’t like the wait. The Blacklist is the first show I’ve watched episode-to-episode since I was in college and I’m not planning to start with any new shows.

If we look back to serialised Victorian novels, we might have a predictor of how the TV series could evolve. Sensation fiction, in particular, aimed to grip readers with ever more shocking partial revelations at the conclusion of each installment just like True Blood.

When a story had finished its run in a newspaper or magazine, it was usually published in a novel edition that made alterations to the serialised version. Once a story was going to be consumed at the pace of the reader, who held the complete novel in her hands, the need for contrived cliffhangers at the end of every chapter was reduced.

Some of these cliffhangers, which were essential in the serial versions, were removed in novel editions.

We can only speculate on the future of television now that traditional methods of broadcast have shifted so dramatically. Yet it is likely that these changes in how we consume television will have some affect on the content we watch in the same way as shifting patterns of print publication altered the very nature of popular fiction in the 19th century.

โ‹™ TheConversation [AUSL]: Will TV series go the way of Charles Dickens? http://bit.ly/14aOPu3
// 12/30/2013

There are benefits to watching series in real-time, especially in the opportunity to discuss the shows “around the water-cooler,” including the social media water cooler. But if “the only thing that matters is trying to surprise yourself,” what is left after that one-time experience? Clearly, in the case of Dickens there was a lot left. Being surprised a second time is like trying to tickle yourself. In short, there has to be more to the story than a series of shocks.
 

Tom and Red exchange threats. (2:8 The Decembrist)

Tom and Red exchange threats. (2:8 The Decembrist)


 
An example of a real shocker: In the last few seconds of the concluding scene of The Decembrist (2:8)’ the last show before the hiatus, Tom’s said to Red that during the period in which Liz had kept him locked up, he had not told her “about us.” Presumably Tom was referring to some relationship he and Red had of which Liz โ€“ and the viewers โ€“ were unaware. Chatter about what this relationship did indeed go on on the WSJ Speakeasy Blacklist blog until almost Christmas http://on.wsj.com/1uWqxju.

Viewer Response

What may be interesting was what much of this chatter was about. Though there was a lot of discussion about what this possible relationship between Tom and Red might be, another part of the discussion had to do with whether the showrunners knew what they were doing. Since this occurred on the same episode that gave us the patching together of the timeline regarding Berlin’s daughter, the question became whether this be another case in which the producers would not be able to deliver a believable resolution which could work with what had gone before, whether it was consistent with the character of Red, and whether Liz was going to continue to be portrayed as a “weak” female without “agency” (pun not intended!).

Even more nervous-making was this observation by Peter Stormare, the guest star who played Berlin:

โ€œ[The writers] have six or seven different scenarios, and I donโ€™t know what direction they will go in. I do not envy the writers because they are really kicked from both sides all the time. They try to come up with the best solution, and sometimes they have to do rewrites over night. TV is a gruesome business. But there is a great revolution that has happened on TV. A lot of talent is moving inโ€ฆโ€

IAmRogue: Peter Stormare Talks โ€˜Autumn Blood,โ€™ โ€˜The BIg Lebowski 2โ€ฒ and โ€˜The Blacklistโ€™ http://bit.ly/13oWEMW // 10/22/2014

 
image

 
This doesn’t exactly sound like a show “under control.”

For instance, when the “Keeper” of the best Blacklist timeline I could find on the web throws up her hands in dismay and abandons the project (even if temporarily), this is something the showrunners might want to take notice of:

ASundayInAugust/Salinbln: This timeline hasnโ€™t been updated for any information given after S2E7. The way the Stewmaker!clue/Berlinโ€™s daughterโ€™s plotline was handled convinced me that keeping any detailed information about timeline/clues etc. on the show is fruitless as things will get bent and redefined by TPTB [The Powers That Be] to their immediate needs to tell a story, regardless of the clues/information that have been given episodes or seasons before.” http://bit.ly/1yB5aDu

Similarly, when you have people swearing that a long-term relationship between Red and Tom would make certain past dialogue tinny or previous plot developments implausible, it’s the show itself that’s being questioned โ€“ the context of the story-telling, not the content of the story. And this isn’t to say the show cannot deliver, but it better be darn convincing.

Super-Viewers

Viewers who invest time and effort in getting to know a show well are like “super-users” in IT. For TV shows, this is a core group of people who discuss the show as a co-creator might. They worry about how well the plot is developing, whether the timeline works, if characters are coherent, whether inconsistencies are resolved in a believable way.

These viewers speak in terms of canon, mythology, timeline and serial versus procedural elements. Is the Red character Odysseus, Prometheus, the Ancient Mariner, Marco Polo, Ivan Karamazov? Ultron? This may be a small number of viewers, but one study http://bit.ly/12bK02G has shown that (like IT super-users), they tend to have outsized influence, be thought-leaders and opinion-creators. These are not professional critics, who often can be snarky and seem to value their own cleverness over getting to know a show well. (Flame wars can even break out between these critics and fans of the show in the comment sections.) They are fans and when they make criticisms it’s because they are disappointed or concerned.

Other industries have been developing ways to reach out to such people. Hopefully, media companies will consider doing the same.
โ‹™ HarvardBusinessReview, Eddie Yoon (The Cambridge,Group): Make Your Best Customers Even Better http://bit.ly/1AHlmRU
// Mar 2014

 
serials
 

๐Ÿ”ด 6. Are TV serials visual novels?

Some VSPs (“Very Serious People”) are saying that the new serialized TV shows will supplant the novel as our principal way of story-telling. For instance, here is Mohsin Hamid, writing for the New York Times,:

Television was so bad for so long, itโ€™s no surprise that the arrival of good television has caused the culture to lose its head a bit. Since the debut of ‘The Sopranos’ in 1999, we have been living, so we are regularly informed, in a ‘golden age’ of television. And over the last few years, itโ€™s become common to hear variations on the idea that quality cable TV shows are the new novels. Thomas Doherty, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, called the new genre ‘Arc TV’ โ€” because its stories follow long, complex arcs of development โ€” and insisted that ‘at its best, the world of Arc TV is as exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel.'”

Bill Moyers was echoing what has become conventional wisdom when he said that “what Dickens was ‘to the smoky mean streets of Victorian London, David Simon [Executive Producer of The Wire] is to America today.”

“In its near limitlessness, TV rivals the novel.” and “television has made enormous leaps in the last decade or so.”

โ‹™ NYT Bookends, (Adam Hirsh)/Mohsin Hamid: Are the New โ€˜Golden Ageโ€™ TV Shows the New Novels? http://nyti.ms/1tzTYIC eg The Wire, The Sopranos

There’s also been a recent revolution in the way TV shows are developed, written and produced. In particular, the writers have gained something of an upper hand. These are the creators; in other words: the Artists. In fact, a new role has emerged, that of writer-producer, often called the “showrunner.” According to Wikipedia:

A showrunner’s duties often combine those traditionally assigned to the writer, executive producer and script editor. Unlike films, where directors are in creative control of a production, in episodic television, the showrunner outranks the director.

Traditionally, the executive producer of a television program was the chief executive, responsible for the show’s production. Over time, the title of executive producer became applied to a wider range of roles, from those responsible for arranging financing to an honorific without any management duties. The term showrunner was created to identify the producer who held ultimate management and creative authority for the program…. The boss. Usually a writer. [emphasis added]

โ‹™ Wikipedia: Showrunner http://bit.ly/1J3sR

 

Then: Loneliness of the long form novelist, Frederick Hemstead

Then: Loneliness of the long form novelist, Frederick Hemstead


 

For HuffPo, John Branch writes:

The [early] serial forms of the 20th century, in particular the TV series, were for the most part simple, morally unambiguous, and open-ended.” [eg The Fugitive, Star Trek].

Eventually, the idea of doing more and better dawned on the creators of TV shows. Since sometime in the ’90s, the most ambitious of these men and women have been charting the path of characters, situations, and themes across multiple story arcs (episode, season, entire run) and employing what writer Steven Berlin Johnson concisely called ‘complex, multithreaded storytelling.

Writing in the mid-naughts, Johnson was describing sophisticated and elaborate TV programs such as The Sopranos and Lost. These shows get serious attention in academia. Mad Men, for instance, inspired an excellent book of critical essays, and also a blog from the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They’re among the popular entertainments that Johnson wrote about in his 2005 book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, which argued that the best TV series and video games don’t dull your mind but cultivate it. In a way, these shows are the new novels.

โ‹™ HuffPo, John Branch: Reading the New TV http://huff.to/1xYAWgw // 8/27/2013,

 

The "joie de vivre" of The Blacklist writers

The “joie de vivre” of The Blacklist writers


 
Another development has been the organization of writers into teams, with some writers working on the overall mythology, timeline and canon (a set of guidelines for internal consistency), others (sometimes outside scriptwriters) working on individual episodes, and still others responsible for character development. Organizing this way makes it possible to employ the best talent, allowing writers to focus on where their strengths are. But it is more complicated and can create its own continuity problems.

If the success of some of its products is a guide, it’s actually a more efficient division of creative labor. One person has an idea, guides the ship and worries about the big picture. Others fire off individual sections of the plot, or focus on dialogue or little touches of character.

Of course, teams long have shown up in dramatic writing. Plenty of ghostwriters have saved Hollywood movies. Plenty of evidence shows that William Shakespeare had his writers’ room, too; it’s just that his friends didn’t get any credit in the First Folio.

โ‹™ ChicagoTrib, Chris Jones: TV storytelling could change our stories for good http://trib.in/1wHPkno
// 3/20/2014

What does this mean for the novel? Mohsin Hamid once more:

“Ask novelists today whether they spend more time watching TV or reading fiction and prepare yourself, at least occasionally, to hear them say the unsayable.”

“In the words of the Canadian writer Sheila Heti: โ€œNow that there are these impeccable serial dramas, writers of fiction should feel let off the hook more โ€” not feel obliged to worry so much about plot or character, since audiences can get their fill of plot and character and story there, so novelists can take off in other directions, like what happened with painting when photography came into being more than a hundred years ago.”
“Television is not the new novel. Television is the old novel.”

“Television gives us something that looks like a small world, made by a group of people who are themselves a small world. The novel gives us sounds pinned down by hieroglyphs, refracted flickerings inside an individual.

“Sufis tell of two paths to transcendence: One is to look out at the universe and see yourself, the other is to look within yourself and see the universe. Their destinations may converge, but television and the novel travel in opposite directions.”

There is no question that novels will continue to offer accounts of the inner workings of the mind, that world we experience that is not apparent from our actions. Drama, in turn, is the presentation of action, always ambiguous (unless it’s Richard III or Frank Underwood explaining their actions to us). Drama better represents action than thought.

 
cool kids
 

๐Ÿ”ด 7. Where the cool kids are

In an excellent article in the Chicago Tribune titled "TV storytelling could change our stories for good" http://trib.in/1wHPkno, Chris Jones wrote:

“These are, people like to say, the golden days of television, which really means we are seeing a renaissance of serialized, long-form drama: “House of Cards,” “True Detective,” “Mad Men,” “Girls” and on and on. This form is hardly new โ€” you can trace the origins of serialized drama back to at least the 17th century โ€” but its renewed impact on creativity in general, and top-tier dramatic writing in particular, is only just beginning to be felt.

“I even sense a new frustration among audiences with single movies or plays, which have to start their storytelling from scratch and that complete their narrative arc in one fell swoop, offering only an act of viewership that does not require the thrill of the binge. Single stories are starting to feel minor. These days, all the cool kids are penning, and watching, long-form serials.

“The last time this happened โ€” in 19th century England, after Charles Dickens figured out the lucrative pull of narrative serialization โ€” the novel changed for good.
// 3/2014

Dickens’ serialized novels not only raised awareness of social issues, according to Jones. They acquainted readers with the new era of rail transportation, which greatly increased “social networking” of those times. The world become smaller, the class divide more translucent and more traversable. Did you know War and Peace was first published in serial installments over five years? http://bit.ly/14gw9cr

 
golden age
 

๐Ÿ”ด 8. Golden Age / Biomimesis

Moreover, TV drama finds itself entering a new “golden age” right at the moment when science is discovering how central “mimesis” (roughly, “imitation”) is to human nature. Apparently, the use of mimicry and teaching by example greatly expanded beginning about 100,000 years ago. Some monkeys, birds and even fish can learn by example, but humans took this much farther. The emergence of “homo mimesis” (my term) has been associated with the emergence of language, culture-based learning, empathy and even self-consciousness. It is only a small step from demonstrating to another person how to perform an action to enacting a story of how a fearsome beast was slaughtered. Drama likely evolved as an early form of story-telling to members of a tribe or kinship group who were not present when it happened.

The biological foundation for mimesis appears to a type of neuron called a mirror cell or mirror neuron. These neurons fire both when an individual is performing an action and when s/he sees someone else performing the same action. Mirror cells that fire when others perform an act are about 20-20% of those that fire when we perform the act. Research money has flown into studies to test this theory and universities are scrambling to put in place programs and conferences dedicated to it. No one has embraced this theory with more enthusiasm than the humanities, whose budgets are always slashed at times of recession http://nyti.ms/1Cbcybq http://nyti.ms/159CMOl (NYT 2010)

In 2011, Deborah Jenson from Duke has used the term “biomimesis” to describe the confluence of neuroscience and the humanities, although she indicates the first use of the term dates back to the 1960s. Her paper, titled “Literary Biomimesis: Mirror Neurons and the Ontological Priority of Representation” http://bit.ly/1y6T9a6 is full of philosophical and neurological terms and concepts and may difficult to understand, but I recommend it, in part for her consideration of the implications of biomimesis for postmodernism, the prevailing philosophy of our day. In short, she believes the discovery of biomimesis may spell the end of the postmodern age and possibly the emergence of a new empirical age (separated from the Western “canon”) which is centered on the view of humans as mimetic creatures.

[Note: I am also working on a separate post examining the research on mirror cells, looking more closely at their relation to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in The Poetics.]

 
interruptus
 

๐Ÿ”ด 9. ‘Dramatus Interruptus’

So, how does the consideration of biomimesis โ€“ the idea that humans are essentially (or ontologically) mimetic creatures โ€“ relate to social media, and to The Blacklist? I would like to suggest that attentive or savvy people have a fundamental understanding of “what works” in a drama. “What works” is close to how Aristotle defined it in The Poetics. He was not inventing tragedy, after all. He was describing it:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; โ€ฆ in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its [c]atharsis of such emotions. . .

To enter that world we suspend the real one, and through the experiences of the players, vicariously, translate feelings to understanding: re-cognize, internalize, and gain insight. There is a reason Hamlet called for a play to force the King to recognize what he had done, what he had become, through fratricide. Embroiled in passion, he had not realized (conceptualiized) it before.

Susanne Langer wrote in 1957 that:

“‘A work of art presents feeling (…everything that can be felt) for our contemplation, making it visible or audible or in some way perceivable through a symbol, not inferable from a symptom.

Artistic form is congruent with the dynamic forms of our direct sensuous, mental, and emotional life; works of art . . . are images of feeling, that formulate it for our cognition. โ‹™ What is artistically good is whatever articulates and presents feeling for our understanding. (661-62)’

Susanne Langer: โ€œExpressiveness in Art,โ€ Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures http://bit.ly/1KR8jph
// 1957, Scribner NY

It is this process of transforming emotions into understanding that results in the classical experience of catharsis, or release of emotion accompanied by understanding or insight. In a drama, our concerns are caught up with those of the characters (we often have one or more favorites, similar to an avatar).

The biological foundation of this appears to be through mirror cells, neurons in our brains that fire when we observe another person experiencing joy or pain. In tragedy, it is pain. According to AJ Ramachandran, we also also have sensory cells that let us know we are not in actual pain but our experience is none-the-less bound to the character’s through the firing of our mirror cells. This reaction is unmitigated by any cognitive translation; it is intrinsic and immediate http://bit.ly/1ITiK81. To the extent we feel “pity” and “fear” for a character with whom we are bound by our mirror neurons’ reaction, we experience “catharsis” a release of emotion (tears, anger, sorrow).

Assuming both that Aristotle was right about tragedy and that the researchers are right about mirror neurons, it stands to reason that pulling too hard at the Aristotelian formula for drama/tragedy will result in pushback from the savvy enthusiasts I have called “super-viewers.” Blogs I know where these people participate include WSJ Speakeasy, Blacklist Support Group, IMDb, EntertainmentWeekly, and in the comment sections of various reviewers. Even some of the TUMBLR fan sites have good insights. I’m sure there are others.

Viewers want to be worrying about whether the characters have it together, not whether the showrunners do.

If Suzanne Langer is right and “what is artistically good is whatever articulates and presents feeling for our understanding” it is likely only our physical separateness from the character which allows us this benefit: our mirror cells respond but we do not experience literal pain. But, release without benefit of understanding is surprise, merely. Ideally, understanding should come from the pieces of the puzzle falling into place in our minds. If we do not have all the pieces, we are left suspended until we get more information. In the case of a movie or play, that should all come in the course of the single production/presentation. For a dramatic TV series, this may be played out for weeks, months or years. Very frustrating, as James Spader indicates in this hilarious YouTube video:

 

 

เผบโœฆโŒ˜โœฆเผป

Commercialization

An unfortunate part of American TV has been the commercialization of this postponement, as compared, say, to a BBC miniseries. Worse, the irregularity of media companies’ commitment to the dramatic resolution means these endings often never deliver. James Spader described Comic Con as ‘three days of foreplay without a climax’ http://bit.ly/1yGZLwj. It’s a lot like that. I recommend David Auerbach’s The Cosmology of Serialized Television http://bit.ly/1FEDhkq in TheAmericanReader for his insightful discussion of this problem with US television, but be forewarned, he does not pull any punches.

“[T]he problem of mythology entirely relates to ends. As long as there is no imagined or projected end to a work, then any aspect of that work devoted only to advancing toward that end is artistically worthless, since it is intrinsically in bad faith…. The problem is that the … model doesnโ€™t account for the changing commercial agenda of a show.”

TheAmericanReader, David Auerbach: The Cosmology of Serialized Television http://bit.ly/1FEDhkq

This stringing-out of the viewer, in fact, may account for the increase in binge watching, whereby the viewer can experience a series more like a novel. Binge-watching, however, will not not rescue a series that fails to deliver on its promises in terms of its overall plot and character development and resolution, resulting in what might be termed “Dramatus Interruptus.”

David Auerbach’s รผber-review of serialized dramas focuses especially on the difficulties of delivering satisfying shows in cases in which networks may either draw a series out beyond its natural life or cut it off short before it has had a chance to resolve character arcs, and, especially deliver on all the plot bread crumbs that have been dropped throughout the series. He finds only two instances in which the series’ ends delivered successfully on their promises โ€“ The Wire and Babylon 5 โ€“ each thanks to the insistence of an assertive creator/producer: David Simon and J. Michael Straczynski. Auerbach performs autopsies on many that he feels ended poorly.
 

Source: TheAmericanReader, David Auerbach: The Cosmology of Serialized Television http://bit.ly/1FEDhkq

Source: TheAmericanReader, David Auerbach: The Cosmology of Serialized Television http://bit.ly/1FEDhkq

“Perhaps the most dangerous effect … has been to make television creators think of themselves as auteurs, to convince them that in spite of the massive [commercial] interference with their work, they can somehow create a work of aesthetic integrity and sociological insight even if they donโ€™t know where itโ€™s going. Well, sometimes you get lucky, but more often, the result is disaster, and the effort spent toward that failure is redirected from where it would be better put….”

Auerbach also hints that historical dramas have an advantage in that history provides its own arc, against which the arc of the story can be plotted.

The best ending I have seen was for a little noticed series on The History Channel called ‘Titanic, Blood and Steel,’ http://amzn.to/1DZtDHe about the people who actually built the Titanic (focusing on a young quality engineer who identifies in advance some of the structural flaws that James Cameron and others have recently identified in the ship’s design, materials and construction processes). The show ends with a large number of main characters, from all walks of life and social classes, boarding the ship for its maiden voyage. Many of these characters end up on the ship only by happenstance at the last minute. Since everyone knows the history of what happened to the ship, the viewer is left guessing which of the characters will survive and, if so, how? And because the character development is so good and the social context so well developed, mapping out various scenarios is a natural thing to do. The viewer becomes viewer-screenwriter: you script your own goodbyes or reunions. I was obsessed with this for at least a week. This can be compared to the ending of The Sopranos which offered nothing but a blank screen. Just *poof!*

The Blacklist

The Blacklist has the most ambitious agenda imaginable, taking on politics, science, economics and international intrigue in real time, (meaning it has neither the structure of historical context or the freedom of pure fiction). Doing this at a time of great confusion and little national dialogue on these topics in the press at least gives the show the advantage of being able to investigate various themes without taking political sides (because the political sides have not yet fully developed). Climate may be the exception. The Republicans are even acknowledging wage stagnation and inequality. How did that happen?

This offers a rare opportunity for The Blacklist. I have not shied away from saying I’d like to see the show take on international issues like Boston Legal wrestled with national issues. Boston Legal was prescient in its addressing issues like homosexuality, government spying, torture, end-of-life care and other issues which in the mid-aughts were also amorphous and overlooked http://bit.ly/1yHXgtM. The lack of clarity now over human rights, state capitalism, freedom of speech, the relationship between church and state, torture (still), government spying (still), oil prices, trade deals, net neutrality, euthanasia and the use of genomic data and other questions relating to medicine (just a few that just pop into my head) are just begging for exploration. If you’re going to wrestle with an angel, might as well make it Lucifer.

 
engagement
 

๐Ÿ”ด 10. Not Optional: Social Media Engagement

Going back to how social media can expand the horizons of serialized dramas, I will refer to the list at the beginning of this article:

1) an immediate source of real-time feedback (eg tweets or likes on special forums),
2) in direct real-time participation (such as voting for a TV contestant or responding to a poll),
3) to provide ideas or weigh in on plot and character development, and finally,
4) to provide feedback on whether a show is working and delivering on its promises.

The best way to get a sense of overall response to the show probably remains ratings and polling, rather than the number of tweets or likes, etc, though the degree to which people are engaged relative to other shows can be instructive. In industry, social media is being used to supplement focus groups. What it may do best is to point out apparent inconsistencies or errors (especially regarding contextual matters) the writers may have missed. The third way, by influencing the plot or character development (such as who “ships”, eg Lizzington shippers http://bit.ly/1Bc98mY) can be tricky. The writers and showrunners may be interested in what viewers want, but they should be careful in how they interpret these preferences and more careful in how/if they accommodate them. The greatest danger may come from network and advertising execs pressuring the writers to “give the customers what they want.” Such pressure could have led, in Athenian times, to baby Oedipus having been switched at birth so he can marry Jocasta and live happily ever after. Fandom: Oedicasters? Jocastapusers?

Mostly, though, there is a great opportunity to review the concerns of super-viewers, not so much on plot and character preferences (often this group fails to even declare what theirs are โ€“ that’s not their focus), but on matters dealing with the artistic coherence of the story. With our understanding of the biological foundations of the Arts increasing every day day (eg http://bit.ly/181Bgja), the responses of these engaged viewers to plot and character development, and the success of individual episodes in fleshing out relevant issues can be invaluable. Savvy viewers have an innate sense of what is working artistically. This is as much a biological phenomenon as a cultural one. ‘We may not know what a successful plot line might be, but we certainly know what an unsuccessful one is,’ to paraphrase Red Reddington (1:16). Too many cliff-hangers, artificially extended teases, unresolved dialectics โ€“ iow, too much “Dramatus Interruptus” โ€“ can leave fans wanting and frustrated. The writers should also move beyond surprise to catharsis, and from spectacle to principled or existential conflicts. #FAILure to deliver meaningful catharsis to viewers on a regular basis can potentially result in people abandoning the live feed for the DVR, or altogether. Finally, the producers and writers should not underestimate the degree to which people watch the show solely to watch James Spader. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that.

That all said, I am counting the days until The Blacklist returns. “Save the World before
Bedtime.*” โž” That’s all we ask.
*Power Puff Rangers

Note: I have also posted the bibliography for this and my next couple of posts on related topics. Here is that link http://bit.ly/1yMBWER. The value of this resource is most likely in the excerpts of key points that are included for most articles. โ€“ @Auriandra



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