Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Idiot Box - maybe not so dumb

Jack Dikian
October 2011

Television is often referred to as the Idiot box - and I suppose a lot of television, particularly reality television, caters for and attempts to attracting as many people as possible with the sole purpose of selling ads. Movies on the other hand attract those prepared to pay to see them. You could argue that movies are a form of art, similar to a painting, a play or a concert.

There may be, however, another emerging trend involving television shows. This is the opposite scenario to the idiot box. That is, television becoming more cognitively demanding. Episodes of well-known series such as Dexter, The Sopranos, and The West Wing, for example, require us to integrate far more information than we would have a few decades ago in order to make sense of the plot. As in reading, we invest in attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads.

It seems that in order to follow the story line of these shows we need to do more than just pay attention – we have to also make inferences, track shifting social relationships and debate even when a character behaves in a way inconsistent with the developing personality.

The episode often connects the lives of many distinct characters, each with a defined personality with motivations and obstacles and specific relationships with other characters. Growing complexity involves more than just multi-threading. Often flashing arrows and social networks are incorporated. Let’s look at multithreading.

Earlier television shows typically followed one or two lead characters, adhere to a single dominant plot and reach a decisive conclusion at the end of the episode. This is compared with say The Sopranos where the narrative weaves together numerous distinct strands -- sometimes as many as 12, though some of the threads involve only a few quick scenes scattered through the episode.

The number of primary characters, more than 20 recurring characters -- swells significantly. And the episodes have ambiguous borders: picking up one or two threads from previous episodes at the outset and leaving one or two threads open at the end. Not only that, often a scene in 'The Sopranos will connect to two or three different threads at the same time, layering one plot atop another.

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