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The Evolving Experience of Watching Television

By Cindy Davis | Think Pieces | January 31, 2013 | Comments ()


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An interesting phenomenon, or perhaps a side effect of the digital age, is the near instantaneous exchange of information going on between creators and their audiences. Writers, actors, directors and showrunners often have a continual dialogue going; and from their point of view, the direct feedback can mean more to them than ratings or statistics. Before we were all social networkers, those hungry for more (or "inside") information would hang out at the magazine section of a bookstore, grazing over the latest copy of Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter or even TV Guide. As our co-dependent relationships evolve, we now find ourselves getting the scoop without having to lift a finger--episodes are often live-tweeted by showrunners and actors. Take, for instance, "American Horror Story: Asylum, one of my favorite shows. For some people, creator and showrunner, Ryan Murphy's tweets and interviews have become an integral part of the series. Leading up to many episodes, he'd tweet little teases or photos, and sometimes hold brief Q and A sessions where he'd cherry pick answering a question or two. But the most important thing he did was to give interviews, published the morning after each episode aired. This is where he'd often lay out what his intentions or inspirations for the episode were, or give specifics on scenes that may have been open to interpretation, and clues about upcoming events. In this manner, he often cleared up what his audience may have had questions about, or found confusing. Because of the communication flow, we knew his plan as it was laid out from the beginning; Murphy even told us when he deviated from his original ideas (the last episode was intended to be Lana's documentary, entirely). This raises a few questions. Do we consider the show a success on its own, or was it a success because it was combined with Murphy's input? Do we want or need all the additional information, or do we love such a show because it lets us work our minds, deciphering the goings on, figuring out what is intended to be real? Are we watching smarter, or are we being spoon fed our television? And how neatly wrapped do we want our shows, anyway?

The last can be a complicated question, and certainly dependent upon a particular show. When this season wrapped with "Madness Ends," I felt satisfied--plenty of other people did not. Every question wasn't completely or unequivocally addressed, but the fates of major characters were answered; their stories resolved. The finale issue I've seen most people complain about was the same thing they'd been complaining about throughout the series: aliens. (We'll get back to that...) By the time the show wound down to its final two episodes, the big baddies--Dr. Arden and That Devil--had gotten their comeuppance, Kit and Lana had been released from the hell that had kidnapped them, and we were ready to see how their storylines would conclude. Some things were clear--Lana survived on her own, built a new life for herself, found a new love and took care of her last remaining threat (Johnnycake). Kit survived under questionable circumstances (aliens!), with questionable wives (aliens?) and questionable children (half-aliens?); Grace died (again), Alma went to Briarcliff, and ended up dying there. Jude was never able to fully recover from her extra-juicy brain zap, but dear-hearted Kit took her in, and she turned out to be a decent nanny...until she wasn't. The sketchy part was the kids taking Jude into the woods; when they brought her back, she appeared *fixed* and lived out her days until Angel Frances came for the last time. The kids grew up to have decent (but apparently sub-par for aliens) careers; Kit got cancer, then disappeared--presumably taken to his new home with the aliens where he was either tortured to death or lived happily ever after, depending upon how you see things.

At times throughout this season of "American Horror Story: Asylum," strange though it felt, I found myself brazenly tweeting right at Ryan Murphy. (Everybody's doing it!) He must want the feedback though, mustn't he? By tweeting taunting tidbits at us; putting himself out there personally, isn't he inviting our thoughts? (That's probably a whole other discussion...) After the season finale aired, I found myself on the opposite side of the "Lost" fence, supporting Murphy's ambiguity. To be fair (and I'm not just idly throwing dirt at "Lost" here), one of the things that separates these two shows is the amount of ambiguity and unanswered questions. There's a difference between the way the "Lost" writers/showrunners (and the show voiceover guy) kept saying, "Questions will be answered," while not really answering anything so much as adding ten more questions, and Ryan Murphy saying, "You will find out who Bloody Face is the next episode," and us actually finding out who Bloody Face was--the next episode. Even when he left something open to interpretation--the aliens--Murphy clearly laid out his intentions.

"Right around the time of the space program is when a lot of people claimed alien abduction theories. I've always been obsessed with alien abduction theories because one of my best friends tells me over and over again that she was abducted and experimented on. So it's a fascinating thing to write about." (RM October 18, 2012) "It's one of the things we were talking about when we were researching all these insane alien abduction stories. Many people who claim that that happened claim that they were returned with either additional skills, some weird sort of enlightened creativity or heightened intelligence. So that's sort of the idea with Pepper. She started off as a pinhead and came back as Gandhi....What I was interested in was the idea of eugenics. That's another crazy f--ing thing when you research these people who were abducted in the '50s and '60s. Some of the women who say they were pregnant claim that they came back and their pregnancy had been moved along a couple months as if they were in some weird time continuum." (RM December 13, 2012) "It's always a weird thing when you write about that alien thing because there's no rhyme or reason to it. Most of the people that you read who write about this experience say there is something about them that other life forces are interested in. And to me it always came down to empathy. There's a very famous case about a mixed marriage couple that were kidnapped and they believed they were studied because they were very forward figures. But why do aliens kidnap people? Who knows?
"I find a lot of people who love the alien stuff this year and a lot who don't. It's very polarizing and I think the reason it's polarizing is it's not nor is it ever intended to be cut or dry. I think with a show like this all of the other things we write about are very close-ended. I was always drawn to this field because I didn't think there was a conclusion other than a point of view. I also think the alien thing and how it started to be reported in the media and the UFO sightings to me was a very '60s/social progression thing. I thought it was interesting that flurry of activity really came out around the time of civil rights and it is a weird metaphor for a lot of that stuff..."
(RM January 10, 2013) "I think Kit got a very strange happy ending. That was very influenced by the last scene in Close Encounters where Richard Dreyfuss goes off and will probably live forever. I always imagined that as a happy ending. " (RM January 23, 2013)

If Twitter had been better employed (Cuse joined 2008, Lindelof, 2009) during "Lost's" reign, might it have been another show? How much should we affect our shows; how much inside information should we be fed? If we have an open relationship with writers and showrunners, they can clearly affect our understanding and comprehension--is that a good thing or bad? Is it still a good show if we need that extra information? ("The Walking Dead" has its own epilogue after each episode ["Talking Dead"]; "Breaking Bad" is contemplating doing the same ["Talking Dead"], and the premium cable networks offer companion apps for some of their most popular shows ["Dexter, Game of Thrones"]). Are those who never seek out the extra information having a completely different experience from those who do? While I find shows whose every loose end is tied and nothing left to the imagination the least satisfying, I do want some solid answers. You might be exactly the opposite; maybe you work hard all day and you don't want to have to tax your brain to comprehend what the hell's going on. The line we each draw in our sandboxes falls differently. It will be interesting to see how our television experience evolves.


Cindy Davis, (Twitter)


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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • Don't even try it with Alan Ball and his gang of reprobates at True Blood. Those people lie like dogs, even in BR commentaries. It's infuriating.

  • DarthCorleone

    Nice piece.

    I do think it depends largely upon the show. I didn't follow Murphy's discourse, but based on this it seems like he walked the line effectively. I don't know if feedback from the LOST guys would have made much of a difference; by that point we had dissected everything so thoroughly on the Internet with our speculations that their input wouldn't have provided much additional insight, except to indicate who was on the right track and who wasn't.

    I reflect on the old days sometimes - not just with regard to television, but also with regard to movies. Back then you caught whispers of upcoming things in newsletters or magazines, and then you ruminated over those tidbits for months before they came to fruition. It left a lot more room for your own imagination while you were waiting, which could be fun.

    Anyway, I can take or leave the input from the creators in general. I'm just glad we have the forum of the Internet as a reference now. Being able to instantly look up the synopsis of episode 7 from season 3 of Breaking Bad or The Wire and finding a recap with a comment section that has exhaustive discussion of the episode's many developments makes these shows more into living, breathing artwork for me.

    That probably sums up where I come down. I can leave the spoilers ahead of time, but I can take and enjoy the analyses afterward. And if the creators are having fun interacting with the viewers, then that's probably all the better, because I bet recognizing their creations as vibrant and inspiring of enthusiasm as they are making the shows for us enhances their enjoyment. In turn, they'll probably aim even higher in creating quality programming.

  • dagnabbit

    American Horror Story definitely bit off more than it could chew this season. Neither the mad scientist nor the alien storyline had a satisfactory conclusion, but in a way I think that was kind of the point. Amid all the horror tropes: the killer Santas, possessed nuns, aliens, Nazi mad scientists and their monsters; the most horrifying things were all real things: people thrown away and treated like human garbage with no hope of healing or progress, people persecuted for racial or sexual differences, people railroaded into confessions of murder or into commiting loved ones to institutions, bad people taking advantage of their positions to further their sadistic urges, the use of shock therapy and so-called reparation therapy. This is the truly horrifying stuff. I think that is why all that wild stuff got thrown in with no real intent of resolving it: to show that all these weird horrifying things can't hold a candle to the real evil and misguidedness man is capable of.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Again, great piece.

    I think this is interaction is already becoming par for the course for successful shows. It makes sense, give the people what they want, they watch, your show doesn't get shit-canned. Compare AHS with the story Joanna linked to about SMASH. Completely different approaches to writing on the shows, and from the sound of it SMASH suffered greatly as a result of this approach.

    UPROXX and Warming Glow (I really love warming glow) often get writers for shows like Justified and Archer to participate in live Q&A's. This is just a genius way to interact with the public and get quality feedback IMO.

  • Hmmmm. I am perplexed and troubled by this. I believe one of my past favorite shows - Heroes - was killed by audience interaction with the show runner. The first season was awesome, and the writer's strike kind of butchered season 2, but as things moved on I felt like there was too much audience input. Skylar should have been the boogeyman, not a focal point. Remember MacGyver's arch-nemesis, his Moriarty? it was special when he showed up. Yeah, we all wanted to see those episodes and loved when he showed up, but if he was in every episode it would have cheapened things, and that, to me, is part of what happened to Heroes. Skylar showing up should have been the event of the season, not just whats happening in plot line #2. I am all for directors, creators, writers and such explaining themselves, I love to watch the special features on Buffy and hear what Joss was trying for, but I don't want to see show runners altering the story to grab audience attention or to serve the audience what it thinks it wants. I think Lost suffered from this too. I think they knew where they were going at some point on both Heroes and Lost, but as they got audience feedback they began tailoring the tales to meet the audience' wants. What the audience thinks it wants isn't necessarily what the audience needs, or what will best advance the story.

  • pcloadletter

    You make a good point - but how do you know that keeping Sylar around was a choice made because of audience response? I mean, clearly he was a hit villain with viewers, but Heroes' unwillingness to kill him off - or kill any characters off - feels more like a network note than a response to viewers.

  • Heroes was one of your favorite shows, yet you refer to Sylar as Skylar?

  • KatSings

    I feel like with the example she gave, however, it was a matter of sharing, not having your show choices dictated by audience response. Murphy had a LOT of haters on the alien thing and he stuck to his guns about it. I think the dialogue can be beneficial if it's implemented in the same way you are supposed to give advice - say what you think, and then let it go. And there are plenty of cases where shows could have been more successful if they had taken even a small part of their audiences reactions into account - many a program is abandoned by their fanbase and doesn't have to be. That doesn't mean cater exclusively to fanboys/girls, of course. But I think there is room for a little give and take.

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