We’re deep into the television series era and our lives have become a logistical jumble as we try to figure out how to make time for the series we follow and the ones that are recommended to us. It’s a constant jive between binge-watching one series and catching another once a week.
I’m an enthusiastic viewer when I happen upon a series that appeals.From a dramaturgical point of view, however, binging on tv series is something that we’re not used to and even something that we’re not designed to do. I’ve noticed a physical reaction in myself when I start to watch a series. A sense of uneasiness and, on occasion, irritation. I finally realised why.
Storytelling and dramaturgy are an integral part of homo sapiens. We seem to possess what I call a Drama Gene in our minds. The three basic needs for homo sapiens to survive have always been food, water and shelter. When I used to teach screenwriting and storytelling, I would highlight that storytelling is the fourth basic need, ranking higher than sex. Simply because in order to have sex, we need to tell or hear stories. From a pick-up line to a charming, intelligent conversation, it is our stories that often seal the sexual deal.
The dramaturgy of our storytelling has remained constant for a few hundred thousand years. We have normally known what we were getting into. When a story began around a campfire with our hunter/gatherer homies in the neolithic evening, we had an inherent sense of the length and dramaturgy that was heading our way as we stared into the flames.
In ancient Greece, as we filed into the amphitheatre for a entire day of epic tragedy, we knew that it would be divided up into two hour slots with breaks in between. Aristotles nailed down the rules for dramaturgy in his book, Poetics. Basically defining what all homo sapiens before him knew in their sub-consciousness, as well as setting the stage for the Hollywood screenwriting factory that would show up a couple of millennia later.
Pre-war films were shorter than they are today and longer than in the silent era. It was Orson Welles, a well-read and researched man, who adopted Aristotle’s’ work into what became a modern cinema format. Around 120 minutes with clearly defined dramaturgy built in.
Hollywood made it into a system after that. No matter what film you are watching, you’ll be dragged unwittingly through the following: set-up, hook, first plot point, mid-point / point of no return, second plot point, climax, and resolution.
Not to mention the sub-plots, the beats in every scene, the development metaphor and the moment of grace. While Hollywood made it into a factory, it’s the same basic structure as every good story in human history.
“In the first act, you hang a man up in a tree. In the second act, you throw stones at him. In the third act, he falls out of the tree. If he’s alive, it’s a comedy. If he’s dead, it’s a drama.”
Binging on tv series — or being old school and watching them weekly — is changing our ancestral expectations of storytelling. Sure, every episode of House of Cards or Game of Thrones consists of the same dramaturgy as ever, but the length and scope of tv series is forcing us to recalibrate ever so slightly.
Change is fine. French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriérè, in his fantastic book The Secret Language of Film, describes how people had to “learn” to watch cinema films after generations of theatre plays.
Television readjusted our storytelling considerably, as well. Trying to grab our attention quickly before we zap away, as opposed to twenty minutes of character development that we sat through in the cinema. MTV came along and forced us to follow entire narratives in only three and a half minutes — and in flashing images lasting only one or two seconds. We learned it quick.
We have to learn quick. It is said that for every hour we are alive, ten thousand hours of moving images are produced. If knowing that doesn’t make you jittery about getting through your bucket list of series, I don’t know what will.
But what of this sense of irritation and anxiety that I experience when I start a series? The best piece of advice I have received about starting a series is that you have to give it three episodes before you bail. I find this to be true about most series I watch.
Last week I started The Sopranos. A late, late bloomer, I know, but I’m in an awkward spot between having finished House of Cards, waiting for Game of Thrones and being forced to wait a week for the next episode of Vikings.
All the positive reviews from friends and the expectations couldn’t help me shake off my irritation as the characters and plot of the first episode came to life. It continued into the second and third episode. I was unfocused. Checking my phone or my laptop. Somehow unwilling to engage. Restless.
By the fourth episode, I noticed, my anxiety eased. I could settle in to watch — and enjoy — each episode without acting like a skittish pigeon.
My dramaturgical expectations need to calibrate to the new characters and storyline. It basically feels like starting a new job in an office with a bunch of new colleagues. Or, in a shorter time-frame, walking into a party where I don’t know anyone.
I am embarking on a journey with these characters. They will be occupying a great deal of my valuable time and part of the irritation is the fact that I am letting them into my calendar. I am acutely aware that I will have to spend time with these people. I will have to feel sympathy for the protagonist and share his or her animosity with their antagonists. I am going to have to invest emotions in them and their travails.
I’m a free individual, so I can certainly decide for myself who to like or dislike or who to invest my emotions in. I don’t NEED to watch a series like The Sopranos or any other. I can turn off the TV whenever I want. But my Drama Gene insists on vetting the content.
I WANT to engage emotionally with the characters in a new series. I desire to follow their story. I hope the series is well-written and directed competently.
But I feel like these characters (the people who made the series are responsible, as well, but my anxiety is directed at fictional characters, it seems) are forcing themselves upon me. Forcing me to feel for them and to interact with them, like those colleagues at that new job or the chattering partygoers at the bar. Who the hell do you think you ARE, Tony Soprano?
On occasion, when a series falls short, I stop after the first three episodes. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get to three but I battle it out. It is rarely with a shrug and a muttered “whatever” that I stop watching. It is often with a sense of disgust and frustration. They stole my time and now it is wasted, those wankers. Like three Tinder dates with the same person at expensive restaurants, but without any spark or decent conversation, let alone fooling around.
It is an emotional effort to allow these characters under my skin. Just embarking on a journey with them requires effort. I always want to like them and feel for them. The fear of that not happening, with the result of having wasted my time, is manifested physically on my person.
I like it. I like that my inherent desire for stories is strong — like every other homo sapien. I like this new era of entertainment that is upon us. Even after many months, I still want to see if that hot dragon mamma is going to sit on the iron throne or whether Ragnar will keep kicking ass around Europe.
But my brain — and my heart — will need to readjust and recallibrate every time.