My college roommate Neil used to mute the TV during commercial breaks, and it nearly drove me to violence. Neil was from California. He bought peanut butter that needed to be stirred. He refused to eat Taco Bell or drink PBR — FINE. But muting the TV? I was from small town Illinois, and that struck me as some serious, highfalutin bullshit.
He claimed it would “mitigate the influence of advertisers.”
“Fine,” I said. “But if I miss even a second of sound from the show — I’m talking intro music, background noise, a single syllable of dialogue — I get to punch you in the arm and take the remote for the rest of the night.” And so Neil and I would stare, transfixed, at the frantic, jump-cutting pantomime of television ads, his finger perched on the mute button, my white-knuckled fist poised to strike.
I did a little growing up.
I moved away from the Midwest, traveled, then relocated to the Pacific Northwest where I now buy must-stir peanut butter, eat things like kale and chard, and (mostly) drink better beer than PBR. But with the TV, Neil and I differ. I don’t mute the TV — I don’t own one. To go a step further, I don’t watch TV all. Not even the episodes available on Netflix or Hulu without commercials. Why?
Maybe I ate too much kale. Maybe it’s the excessive hops in Eugene beer. But sometime within the last ten years, I came to the conclusion that TV is a fundamentally flawed storytelling medium. At least for the kinds of stories I like.
Yeah, I said it. Go on. Bring the hate. Pile on your Sopranos, your Breaking Bads, your Six Feet Unders and the The Wires and whatever other pieces of intellectual television achievement you want to hold up to the light. It won’t (or hasn’t, up to this point) change my basic issue with television. Namely — television programs can’t focus on bringing you a good story because their first priority is to keep you COMING BACK FOR MORE.
And that was my realization — why Neil’s muting the commercials wasn’t enough. With TV, the program is a clever advertisement for itself. Each show is an ad for the next episode or next season. And it’s never enough. TV is insecure. It’s desperate. It lacks boundaries. TV believes that it really could last forever if it just tries hard enough. It needs to sell, not one product, but a product every week. If it does a good enough job, it will string you along on a nine year stretch before giving you a sense of resolution (maybe). If the series fails, it may well ride the top of an incomplete story arc into a brick wall and shatter into a million cancelled little pieces.
Can a book series do the same thing? Sure. How about a movie trilogy? Absolutely. This phenomenon isn’t unique to TV. But with TV, it’s inescapable. And I hate it.
I want to pay my admission at the ticket counter or the book store and be done with transactional phase of the artist/consumer relationship. I don’t want to keep pumping in more quarters to make the thing run — and I don’t want writers to be concerned about whether or not I’ll keep shoving in coins, because if they’re thinking about me, they’re not thinking about characters or themes or the most authentic way to tell their story.
This week’s topic was supposed to be about how pop culture influences our writing, so here it is: I don’t want my writing to be like TV. I don’t want to end every chapter with a cliffhanger or tease out a piece of romantic tension beyond all conceivable reality just to keep you engaged. I want you to love my story and its characters enough to not need the car dangling over the edge of the cliff or the unexpected knock on the door at the end of every chapter. I want to use devices as they serve the story, not because I need to hook you over, and over, and over again. It feels cheap to me. Disingenuous. I just don’t want to be a full-time hooker. Part-time is exhausting enough.
You probably own a TV and can mount a reasonable defense as to why I’m so terribly, terribly wrong. But don’t worry. This mess will all be cleared up by Wednesday. Bryan’s post will, undoubtedly, tie up the loose ends I’ve left danging and be the best Boys Don’t Read blog yet. Until the next one. And the one after that. So, yeah — don’t touch that dial.