Fast forward

When I was growing up, a TV show was something you watched gradually. Each week you would wait patiently for a particular time slot, and only then would you get to see the further adventures of your favorite fictional characters.

The arc of any given make-believe universe could take five or even seven years to run its course, during which everyone on the show would slowly get older. For example, actors who started as children would gradually grow up, week after month after year, and end up playing the young adult version of their character.

Eventually producers came up with the brilliant “something for everyone” concept in shows like “The Brady Bunch” and “The Waltons”, casting a boy and a girl on screen for each age range among the audience. This made it much nicer for entire families to watch together. For every child in your family, at least one character in the show was their own (gradually changing) age.

Now, with such a plethora of TV shows available instantly on the Internet, I know almost nobody anymore who watches TV this way. We all find a show we like on sites like NetFlix — often a show that was cancelled some years earlier — and do triage on the entire series. Children become grown-ups, while grown-ups age, right before our eyes. In the course of perhaps several weeks we can watch an entire series of four or five seasons or more.

A representation of life is being played out before our eyes in extreme fast forward. In the long run, I wonder what this will do to our sense of reality.

5 Responses to “Fast forward”

  1. eli b. says:

    It’s a good question. Binging television series – treating it like a visual novel rather than pacing things – is something I’ve found to be emotionally taxing, and, er, temporally disorienting. The easiest way to notice this is akin to what you said about watching child actors grow up: even if you restrict yourself to just one season of television, the time jumps unevenly between and within episodes even on well-written series. In novels, this is usually smoothed over somehow; it’s much more important to get the flow just right. TV can’t be written that way because of time pressures and the reality of the business outside of cable. Paradoxically, then, I’ve found it easier to binge monster-of-the-week type shows (Star Trek except DS9, The X-Files, most sitcoms) than serials, whose plotpoints are by their very nature less self-contained. There are exceptions -in the last year, the second half of DS9 comes to mind; and ‘The Wire’ is a show that absolutely destroys the distinction I’m trying to draw because it is so unconventional – but they are few.
    Weird, eh?
    In any case, I’m glad to have an ereader again (after having it stolen). This means: back to binging books more often than television, juts as God intended! :)

  2. eli b. says:

    There are other ill-effects. If for some reason an frequent guest-actor or main cast-member gets cut or has a scheduling conflict and gets replaced, the shock and disappointment of having to get used to a different actor is much more acute.
    Hmm. So maybe, if anything, because the artificiality of these shows can be so much more pronounced, rather than detracting from our sense of reality, it emphasizes it?

  3. Sharon says:

    Watching a multi-year series over a short period of time (much shorter than its original airing schedule) feels to me a lot like reading a novel. You get to decide how quickly you want to progress through the story. When you have one of those afternoons or evenings when you can immerse yourself in it for hours you can indulge if you like. I think this works especially well for something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (to take a *ahem* random example) where there is an overarching plot line with long-term character development, in addition to the somewhat self-contained story of each episode. I haven’t found it disconcerting. I guess I think about it as a story of what happened, as opposed to what is happening, if you see what I mean. The actors in Buffy are all now 9-16 years older now than they were in the episodes, and they are playing other characters on current TV shows. And yet they will forever be the characters they were and the ages they were for that story. Maybe it is a little like watching old family movies—well, if your family happens to have vampires and demons and much more “interesting” lives than mine :-)

  4. admin says:

    I wonder where the analogy with a novel holds, and where it breaks down. The difference in pacing and sensory experience between words on a page and actors in a cinematic work can make for two distinct kinds of “real unreality”.

  5. sharon says:

    It probably depends a lot on the show and how it is written. Some series are much more novel-like than others. In terms of pacing, it might be interesting to compare TV series to serialized novels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_(literature)).

    It occurs to me that another significant difference between watching a show over 6-7 years vs. watching it over a short time is the aging of the viewer. Its not just a matter of whether you grow with the characters, but that you might be at very different points in your life at the beginning and end, with different interests, desires, opinions. That may change your experience of the story even more than the aging of the characters.

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