Watching with the hive mind
Occasionally, when I’m sitting through an episode of Game of Thrones, it’ll cross my mind that I enjoy reading and thinking about this show more than the experience of actually watching it. This isn’t always true: when the series is at its best, as in the back half of this weekend’s season finale, it’s every bit as gripping and emotional as it once promised to be. Still, the past ten episodes have sometimes felt like a slog, with the show’s most compelling character confined to a prison cell for most of the season and endless minutes devoted to the weakest of subplots. As Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club has shrewdly pointed out, the show sometimes feels like a mix tape of big moments and climaxes interspersed at random between long stretches of inactivity, and as much as I admire showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for making such an unwieldy narrative work at all, I still feel that dividing the third book across two seasons was a mistake. There’s a reason why the second season, which had to make some hard cuts and choices to fit all of A Clash of Kings into ten hours, is by far the show’s finest, and I’d love to see a fan edit that compressed A Storm of Swords into a similar space.
Yet the fact that I’m talking about “fan edits” at all speaks to the degree to which the way we’ve watched television has changed over the past decade. It’s been pointed out more than once that the rise of the golden age of television coincided almost perfectly with the emergence of online fandoms and extended weekly reviews. As in many things, it’s hard to figure out which way the causal arrow runs—it’s possible that the abundance of great television fueled passionate online discussion, rather than the other way around—but there’s no question that the Internet has resulted in fundamental shifts in our viewing habits in at least three ways. It makes it possible for critics to post insanely detailed breakdowns episode by episode, with none of the physical constraints of printed media: it’s difficult to imagine a lovingly obsessive writeup like Tom and Lorenzo’s Mad Style, for instance, existing in any other form. The easy availability of streaming options allows us to regard a television series as one big unit of narrative, which opens up new forms of storytelling. And given all the venues where fans can read and post commentary in real time, what used to be a highly solitary activity is now a collective one, with each show eagerly consumed by something approaching a hive mind.
Ultimately, it’s a situation that nurtures and rewards ambitious narratives, both by keeping alive smaller shows that might not have survived ten years ago—even Community lasted longer than anyone could have expected—and by encouraging creators to take greater risks. There’s a sense in which someone like Matthew Weiner has been enabled and liberated by the level of scrutiny Mad Men receives to make the show ever more detailed and complex: it’s easier to drop in small touches and extended payoffs when you know that viewers are paying attention, or at least have recourse to power users who highlight the show’s choices for the benefit of others. I watch Mad Men with about as much care as any viewer can, but when I go online to read the recaps, I’m constantly alerted to tiny details and callbacks I missed the first time around. This doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t work in its own right: it functions, by design, on multiple levels, and there’s no question that it offers plenty to enjoy for viewers who are more concerned with surface pleasures. Yet the conversation and analysis that the show inspires has started to feel like an integral part of the experience, a chance to tap into the headspace of that perfect viewer on which nothing is lost.
And the fact that this perfect viewer exists, if only in the aggregate, is central to the renaissance in modern television. Of all art forms, television was the one best equipped to meet and fulfill a collective increase in narrative intelligence: unlike literature or film, it allows the story and its interpretation to unfold in parallel, and the combination results in levels of complexity that few other kinds of popular entertainment would be able to sustain. (In a strange way, the situation also serves as an unexpected argument for the importance of the weekly episode. Orange is the New Black is as rich as any show on the air today, but because we’re all watching it at different rates, there isn’t the same sense of collaborative viewing and appreciation that we get when a show parcels itself out over time.) Not every show needs to push the envelope, of course, and it’s important to meet the basic requirements of plot, character, and suspense on their broadest levels even as it becomes possible to drill ever deeper. But if every form of art naturally rises, or falls, to the level of its audience, it’s no surprise that television has evolved into such incredible forms. We may not be any smarter as individuals, but together, we’re more than worthy of the best that television can provide.