Two great writers
Wednesday, April 27th, 2005
Steven Berlin Johnson, one of my favorite writers, has a new contrarian book coming out about how television shows, and their watchers, are actually becoming smarter.
All of what Johnson says about TV has to be learned by advertisers too. I can’t summarize his arguments well enough, but here are some hints from an article in the Sunday NYTimes magazine.
“Since the early 80’s, however, there has been a noticeable increase in narrative complexity in these dramas. The most ambitious show on TV to date, ‘The Sopranos,’ routinely follows up to a dozen distinct threads over the course of an episode, with more than 20 recurring characters. An episode from late in the first season looks like this.”
“The deliberate lack of hand-holding extends down to the microlevel of dialogue as well.”
“If early television took its cues from the stage, today’s reality programming is reliably structured like a video game: a series of competitive tests, growing more challenging over time. Many reality shows borrow a subtler device from gaming culture as well: the rules aren’t fully established at the outset. You learn as you play.”
“You have to focus to follow the plot, and in focusing you’re exercising the parts of your brain that map social networks, that fill in missing information, that connect multiple narrative threads.”
And, in the same issue Michael Lewis writes a wonderful portrait of the battle between other people’s expectations and your own identity, between being perceived “in” and struggling for recognition. He closes:
In Anaheim that afternoon, Brendan Donnelly quickly got ahead of Teahen, 0-2, and then tried to put him away with a pitch on the outside corner. Teahen reached out — and when he reached he traveled backward in time . . . he was reaching not for Brendan Donnelly’s fastball, he was reaching for . . . a Wiffle ball and trying to flick it over the left-field wall. He was reaching out as a small, fast high-school middle infielder who was not designed to hit home runs . . . he was reaching the way a small boy who doesn’t know he will grow into a big man reaches, just hoping to poke the ball into the hole between third and short and beat it out. He was reaching out the way he had always reached out. They had tried to stop him from reaching out. To teach him power. They had tried to sever his game from its roots. And he didn’t let them. And that was why his bat made hard contact with Brendan Donnelly’s sinking fastball. That’s why he was here now. In the big leagues. Standing on first base. Safe.