By Jesse Tadini Rybolt
Although the best of the last decade’s TV series can arguably reveal something about us, delivering their ideas to us in slow, measured doses – easy to devour narrative nibbles, trickling into our system week by week, day by day – the best and most incisive never seem to deliver the jaw-hanging wonderment, the scrape-your-eyes-out-of-your-sockets-in-sheer-joy ecstasy that our best contemporary and often relatively unwatched feature films do.
I’ve recently been devouring TV series, almost against my will – finding joy and sedative pleasure in the gradual unfolding – but all the while they’ve produced in me an overwhelming sense of guilt.
The feature-length film: like a symphony with its many movements it gives us something that does not promise the next episode, does not leave us in wait for next Sunday night; does not leave those of us watching a DVD in a state whereby we are prepared to cast aside relationships, jobs, our own creative endeavours, tax returns, children, and reduce us to running through the streets, screaming for more! “I need to know what side Sergeant Brody is on!”, “Who, tell me WHO killed Laura Palmer!?”, “Is Jack Bauer really dead…?” (of course not, he’ll never die).
I have difficulty sleeping, when I was eighteen my family pooled together to buy me a laptop as a birthday present ahead of skipping off to university. Previously, I’d had an .mp3 player and music to relax me at night, to stop my head tearing off in different directions as I lay in bed and lullaby me to sleep. Now, much to my girlfriends behest, I watch whatever inane TV show I can currently get my hands on and let the sounds, images and gently unravelling plot, lull me to sleep. The problem is the purpose of this is to send me to sleep – and it works. The problem comes when awaking the next day, having fallen asleep right in the middle of a gun fight the previous evening, I need closure. Over breakfast I’ll watch the concluding half, oh, and maybe just one more episode, maybe just ten minutes of the next one, maybe just the title sequence of the one after that. Suddenly it’s time to go work. That which has helped me sleep has simply turned into a waking nightmare, dragging me through the day in a stupefied half-slumber, my brain never having been given the opportunity to engage with anything worthwhile, and properly switch on.
I am myself a victim, but while the quality, spearheaded by popular programs such as Mad Men and The Wire keeps coming, our nights (for some our days) are filled with a fictional world, that while introducing us to sights unseen and taking us deep into lives that are not our own, take us away from the far more incisive, far more mind-altering offerings available to us. They require slightly more investment in one dosage, roughly: 90-120 minutes as opposed to the customary 45/60 minutes of a TV serials’ individual episode. But when these films end, unlike our beloved series, we find we have been offered a step into a singular world, a succinct idea, something to mull over. A moment at a film’s conclusion gives us time; time to stop, sit still, consider that which is around us, or that which is inside ourselves, without the next installment looming in front of us like some kind of gargantuan genetically modified carrot that keeps us lurching on, giving us an excuse to not think. The serial only offers us distraction, an opportunity to carry on blinkered, waiting for an ending we all know will never be fulfilling. After the tenth season, ratings will drop, the writers who were convinced by steady and equally narcotic pay-increases that they could carve out a real world, a real ending, a real sense of place, are rushed to conclude. To turn what they have spent so long creating into little more than a hyper-extended Hollywood thriller; to kill everything off with a final twist, so bizarre and nonsensical and devoid of resonance that not even the staunchest advocate of Homelands’ merit can defend. There is too much money in this new breed of TV; they need to perform a function; they need to keep you hooked, coming back for more, maintaining your high.
Whilst a quality feature film will get off your back after the credits roll, it may still stay firmly lodged within your mind, but at least something personal to the makers, something authored and passionately executed, will hopefully by the end have presented what it needs to, said what the makers feel they had to express.
With so many people now carrying smartphones in their pockets and laptops in their homes, we’re increasingly finding ways of putting a screen in front of our eyes everywhere we look. We no longer need to communicate with those we live with, don’t even have to sit down and watch a film together at the end of the day – we can all plug into our individual screens and follow the characters of separate worlds, forgetting about our own. Then, when we do have to walk out of the house, we just continue watching on our phones (that were originally designed to connect us?). I’ve seen people watching TV walking down the street, only pulling themselves out of these audio-visual bubbles when getting on/off the train, walking into the pub, stepping into work – again finding themselves amongst the living. These series help us to think of nothing and continue with us through our day, whilst we remain plugged in and switched off. Let us not become consumed by that which we devour.