On the Subject of Bingewatching…

dos equisThe Already & The Not Yet

The form of a narrative is always significant. Whether the narrative in question is historical or fictional, its brevity, complexity, closure or lack of closure function suggestively. That this is the case can be demonstrated from our responses to overly complex slapstick comedies, slow-paced action films, shallow documentaries, and overly simplistic historical films. To put the matter simply: In poorly crafted stories, there is a resounding discord between the form of the narrative and its content. In well crafted stories, however, there is harmony between all of its parts, especially its matter and form.[1] This is as true for tv shows and films as it is for books.

In the “New Golden Age of Television”[2] we have been introduced to many well crafted shows that gather cult followings. Viewers eagerly await each new episode, becoming entangled in the lives of fictional characters who are knowable only over the course of some time. Characters in these shows are typically being revealed from episode to episode, leaving the viewer in suspense not only about the outcome of a particular event or series of events occurring in the show, but also about how the characters will develop, for better or for worse.[3] Viewers are given temporal closure to particular events, but the entirety of the story is not closed. To give one example, the tv show Lost – a blatantly postmodern celebration of discontinuity, fragmentation, misinformation, red herrings, and intertextuality – locks viewers’ attention by providing viewer closure for narratives within the overall narrative which, on the contrary, is never closed. There is an already, a present time in which various dilemmas are encountered and solved. There is a not-yet, an eschatological goal which the viewer hopes to achieve and which are prefigured by the solved & solvable dilemmas faced by the shows’ characters.

The Underlying Worldview

The viewer is caught between the closure of individual events and the closure of the entire show. Tv shows, in other words, exploit the human desire to find closure. They do this by providing low-level closure, all the while pushing high-level closure farther and farther away from the viewer. The only real closure that some of these shows, e.g. Lost, provide their viewers is the shows’ gradual demise or sudden death (i.e. cancellation). And this is significant for anyone who understands that stories, shows, art is never a neutral production of neutral human minds. Whatever is produced by man is produced either for the glory of God or the glory of the creature; one’s product will reflect the reason for which it was produced (i.e. for God or for an idol).

Contemporary tv shows are built within the confines of certain presuppositional commitments, not the least of which is the presupposition that there is no metanarrative, no unifying Story which gives all individual stories significance, purpose, and final closure. The narrative structure is one, in other words, which reflects a general disbelief in the sovereignty of God over the course of all of created history. Some tv shows begin and continue to develop until they die, leaving viewers with no hope of answering the questions they (the shows) raised, even as evolutionary theorists claim species evolve, adapting in order to survive and, eventually, dying, leaving in their wake questions that cannot be answered. The narratives in these shows are the product of an evolutionary process which is not overseen by God but the exigencies of immediate circumstances. This purely material & solely temporal worldview stands in stark contradiction to the biblical worldview which openly teaches that God is the Sovereign creator of all things, the Omniscient Logos who rationally upholds and guides the course of all things, the Author of Life whose Story cannot be edited or amended. In this Story, all other stories cohere – even those stories that are seemingly incoherent.

Binging: The Goal of TV Shows

With the advent of streaming media services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, and Hulu has come the phenomenon known as binge-watching. Since entire series of tv shows are available to stream at any time, viewers often find themselves watching the totality of a show’s series in just a few days. There are many reasons for this, no doubt, but one that has already been discussed above is that tv shows are capitalizing off of man’s desire to find narratival closure, an end to the Story comprised of other stories which actually do find narratival closure. What these shows cannot do, however, is provide their viewers with closure – at least not yet. And in some instances, e.g. Lost and Heroes, the final episodes of the show’s last season purposefully raise more questions than they answer.

This kind of story-telling exploits our innate knowledge of our creaturehood, the problem of sin, and the need for a final solution to the pain, suffering, and death. What is not provided for us, however, is a Savior, one who ties together all of the loose ends of which are usually very aware. Binge-watching promises what it cannot provide, closure, finality, and the coherence of the parts and the whole. This exploitative story-telling, nevertheless, can be useful in demonstrating the innate knowledge of God and his law that is written upon all men’s hearts. It demonstrates that man is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. It demonstrates that man is a hypocrite who longs for closure, looking for closure in films and tv shows that, as a basic rule it seems, refuse to ever provide true closure. It demonstrates, moreover, that man does these things all the while rejecting the one Metanarrative that actually makes sense of every event, every detail of every event: the Christian faith. Scripture teaches that the Author of Life has not only written every detail of every event, but that he is omnipotently upholding the meaning, focus, and closure of his Story.

Soli Deo Gloria

-h.


[1] By all of its parts, I am referring to the constituent elements of a narrative’s form and matter, respectively. The constituent elements of form are things like diction, phraseology, literary devices, etc. The constituent elements of matter are things like ideology, philosophical commitments, religion, etc.

[2] French scholar Alexis Prichard in his work Le Nouvel Age d’or Des Séries Américaine has coined the phrase.

[3] Breaking Bad is an example of a tv series in which characters gradually undergo a significant change over the course of the show’s lifespan.

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