Thursday, April 4, 2019

A Life without Wires

Want to know what the future of television might look like? It’s streaming right now.  ♦ 
For me personally, the realization that I was living in a futuristic world did not hit until I watched Netflix’s Bandersnatch. For readers who may live under some sort of rock, Bandersnatch is a choose-your-own-adventure movie where the watcher has ten seconds to control the actions of the movie’s protagonist at certain points, creating a branching storyline unlike anything that's previously been seen in the medium. Every screening/playing of this movie leads to another alternate ending that keeps the viewer intrigued and engaged. Upon my initial viewing, I felt that as I was in complete control of the protagonist in this title, and in a way the same could be said about all of my streaming media: I choose what I watch, when I want to watch it, and for how long. Bandersnatch opened my eyes to how the platform of streaming media has affected what's currently being produced, from content to dialogue to genre to how many shows are getting made. Without a platform like Netflix, a movie like Bandersnatch would be impossible to create; a movie theatre couldn’t possibly hope to have all its patrons control the movie in an orderly manner and spend the next several hours going back to explore different plot branches.

Risk-taking, in fact, is one of the prime advantages streaming has over traditional old-media models of television and film. For example, within the seemingly sporadic line-up of streaming service Hulu lies a hidden gem courtesy of the Great White North called Letterkenny, an offbeat Canadian comedy that tells of the goings-on (or lack thereof, in most cases) of a rural Canadian town, with the main characters being a farmer and his friends. While the narrative of Letterkenny may seem slow and the characters highly stereotypical, the dialogue of the show is firmly within the highest echelon of comedy. I stumbled upon this show with my roommate, and we were immediately caught off guard by the hilarity of the banter between the show’s hicks and hockey players, verbal duels so esoteric that subtitles were a must and Google was never out of reach (A quick example: Daryl: “Pump the brakes; you take your shirt off but leave your sunglasses on?” Wayne: “What sort of backwards f***ing pageantry is that?” Daryl: “You going to fight with those shades or play”) But after the initial shock of being dropped into a completely foreign culture, homeostasis was achieved, and I found myself laughing at conversations that were systematic and pointless in the vein of those made famous by Seinfeld, albeit filled with creative profanity. Pitching a series such as Letterkenny—one that has very little driving force, contains almost no drama, and relies solely on a niche demographic of comedy-lovers—to a cable network would not go so well, but streaming service Crave and eventually Hulu gave this show a shot at becoming a cult hit, popularized on internet message boards and spreading by word of mouth to other subscribers.

Another pie that streaming services have a finger in is the reinvigorating, rebooting, and reimagining of older franchises that would not have seen the light of day if the decision was left up to the cable networks. Netflix is currently producing several shows that are creating a lot of buzz among binge watchers, two of the highest rated being The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Black Mirror. Sabrina is based on the Archie Comics of the same name and is a reboot of the mid-90s to early-aughts Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Many viewers have noted the sizeable shift in tone among the two series, with the first show being primarily light-hearted and comedic and the Netflix adaptation being darker and dramatic. Despite the tonal differences, the Netflix show has received a substantial amount of views and positive reviews. As for Black Mirror, it originally aired for two seasons solely on British television but was later picked up by Netflix and pumped up by the streaming service’s coffer, producing not only two new seasons but also the aforementioned Bandersnatch film. The show is an anthology of science-fiction horror similar to the precedent set by Twilight Zone—which itself has just been given a revival through the CBS’s All Access streaming service—though with a grimmer outlook on the use of technology and its interaction with humanity. In what could be perceived as an ironic comment on the subject matter of Black Mirror, Bandersnatch even has a moment where the main character is directly told that he is being controlled through the streaming service Netflix (much to his confusion as to what a streaming platform is) for the entertainment of others. Both rebooted shows are highly rated by viewers, even with the shift to darker tones. To many the world right now is certainly a scary place to be, and the tonal shift in their lives is reflected in this new form of media and its timely offerings, whereas the cable networks, very slow to adapt and reflect this line of thinking, have struggled to keep viewers.

An often-overlooked effect of streaming on show production is that series that were once meant to be consumed slowly over the span of months are now created to be watched all in one go. Serialized shows that air week-to-week on cable or network television still have to fit within certain constraints—commercials have to be accounted for, as well as the rigid runtime, and each episode has to be a standalone piece that adds to a whole. With streaming, however, the writing seems to be more designed for episodes to be watched back to back, seamlessly leading one into the next with the only delay being possible loading. As a result, season-long arcs have become the base unit for a show’s story, rather than the episodes that make up said season. Likewise, episodes have become simultaneously expanded in some areas and truncated in others: the new format does not have to account for providing a transition into next week’s episode or even always fully wrapping up the current episode, though this sometimes leads to rather jagged endings whose bitterness can easily be medicated by selecting the next episode (in most cases, this is done for you automatically).

In my own life, I realize I have almost no interactions with cable networks: my apartment of two years offers free cable, and I have never even given serious thought into hooking it up. My internet works tremendously well, and I instead indulge in Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube as my sources of media. The programs that I can find through streaming are much more suited to my viewing, both in content and viewing habit, because the programs made for streaming are formed by the format itself. Programs are allowed to be wildly unorthodox in format, are created to target niche interests that would be left otherwise unfulfilled, and are modernized to fit shifting tonal attitudes via a medium that can easily accommodate situations that would bring cable television to a grinding halt.

  • About the Author
    Carlin Elder is a senior at Miami University majoring in Biochemistry. He likes to spend free time playing video games, hanging out with friends, and sleeping. He does not currently own a cat but loves any and every cat he can find.

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