Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Implied Contract

So anyway, I'm not, comparatively speaking, a big TV viewer, but I am - like most of us - an experienced one. And Damon loves TV. Whereas my preferred narrative format is text, his is video - we meet in the middle on games. He'll keep watching shows long after I've given up on them, for the same reason I'm more likely to finish a book that doesn't reward me in the first chapter than he is. He's willing to give the shows time to develop and prove themselves, and I'm more cynical about the whole TV production process. I think that the way TV shows are created, produced, marketed, and maintained actively discourages the creation of a satisfactory viewing experience, and that the people who call the shots are the people who least understand how the audience satisfaction process works.

I'm a little behind the curve talking about this, because it's now been a week since my thinking about it was prompted by viewing the season finale of Ringer. This was a show with a spectacularly improbable premise, involving a woman (Bridget) trying to escape from a mob hit by impersonating her twin sister (Siobhan), who has faked her own death in order to set Bridget up to be killed by the unknown person trying to kill Siobhan. After that it gets complicated.

There's all kinds of flaws in this show, and Damon and I were not shy about discussing them with each other as they happened, but I didn't get bored with it for an entire season and sitting on the couch with your husband picking TV shows apart is an important source of pair-bonding in the modern American marriage, so there you go. But I sat down to the finale fully expecting to get up resolved not to watch again if it's renewed for a second season, because experience has taught me that a show like this will try to make you come back by ending with a cliffhanger.

I hate cliffhangers.

But Ringer did it right. Every single major hook had a payoff, every big question posed was answered, and the two central characters had resolved the situations that had most preoccupied them throughout the series. Which left them face-to-face with the consequences of the (sometimes monumentally stupid) decisions they'd made during the course of the show, in "What now?" mode. One secondary character had even undergone some major personal growth that didn't get washed out at the last minute! If the show doesn't come back, viewers can feel satisfied. If it does, the hole each sister has dug for herself is sufficiently deep as to offer plenty of scope for new plots, dilemmas, and really bad decision-making. I still don't trust them not to lose me - but if they renew it, I'll watch it. At least for awhile.

As we discussed this miracle of modern TV production afterward, Damon mentioned another show, called The Killing, which was drawing a lot of flack that week for having the wrong kind of finale. The worst kind, in fact. I never watched it and I don't think he did, either, but apparently it's a murder mystery show, and in the season finale the audience does not find out Whodunnit.

This is particularly a kick in the head for the invested viewer because the show was based on a foreign series, which did solve the mystery in the final episode, so in addition to the usual contract with the audience a storyteller makes, the implication of a guarantee was hanging in the air - they thought they could trust the script, because they knew it had already been done right once.

The main point I'm considering here is that, as an experienced viewer, I have grown resigned to the fact that the bad finales will outnumber the good ones. It's a big part of why I don't watch TV much. When I pick up a book, the odds of my coming to the end of a story, and finding that it is the end, are pretty good. When I don't reach the end of a story with that first book, I often as not don't pick up the second in the series. When I start watching a TV series, I have every reason to expect to be jerked around, and I'm constantly watching for the bailout point which will maximize my chance of an enjoyable experience for the least investment of time and emotional capital.

I don't think the majority of the people who make the decisions governing what gets on the air understand the nature of the contract between storyteller and audience. They may not even know it exists. They certainly don't understand where the satisfaction of narrative lies.

It is the nature of real life that our suspense is never-ending. Our lives have no plots; and therefore, no resolutions. Even after the major events that, in fiction, either set up a coherent problem or resolve it - death, divorce, devastating illness, bankruptcy - there isn't any sense of completion. We have to get up and deal with the next meal, the next phone solicitor, the next epic household crisis, willy-nilly, with no narrative order. So we latch onto whatever we can that presents us gives us the satisfaction we can't draw from real life. An election. A sports championship. A story.

We want the payoff. We need it. We will care about the most ridiculous things in order to get it.

And if we do not get it, we have a legitimate grievance against the entity that offered it to us, and then denied it.

This is why I never start a story until I know how it ends.

1 comment:

  1. Ending a season in a cliff hanger seems to be the trend these days but it can get a little tiresome. If you like the series you'll be back for the next season to see what happens next.

    We don't have cable t.v. but we've recently gotten a new station as part of our digital t.v. station menus. It's from Chicago, I think, and it's called MeT.V. It's lineup is composed of old t.v. shows from the fifties to the eighties.

    One thing my wife and I have noticed is that the writing for an episode is structured in a simpler, leaner manner. Whereas episodes these days have at least two storylines or more per episode shows back then stuck to just one. That can be a plus depending on how good the story is to begin with and perhaps allows the writer more room to explore the lives of the characters during one event rather than trying to juggle several in the course of one episode.

    I'm not suggesting one way is better than the other but sometimes it's just nice to keep it simple. I rambling so I think I'll stop now.

    Alberto Ramirez Jr.