I knew a woman once, mother of a friend, who was almost incapable of watching movies and television. When something dramatic was about to happen on screen, she’d squeal, and then either go into the kitchen or the bathroom, shouting back to let her know when it was past this part so she could come back. Every single time when something dramatic was happening, the thing that scrunches your insides up and widens your eyes in anticipation, she’d be out the door, hands over ears.
It wasn’t just suspense either. Not just when the ingénue opened the creaky door against every dictate of common sense and the warning of the background music. No, even when it came to the simple dramatic moments: the moment of tension as the elaborate plot is realized, the emotional swelling as the delivery room pauses before the baby’s first cry, the slow burn anticipation as two lean ever so gradually in for the long awaited kiss. All those things were just out for her. That dramatic tension before events happen drove her from the room like a vegan from a sausage factory.
We all do it, though perhaps not to such a point of dysfunction. We flip channels, watch something for a while, then flip at the cliffhanger that makes us roll our eyes at the commercial break, because the characters or plot irritate us such that we don’t want to go through the discomfort of dramatic tension on their behalf. When we don’t trust the storyteller, we aren’t willing to sit through the discomfort generated by his story. Good drama or comedy discomforts us by its nature. Sometimes, it lands wrong, I couldn’t watch The Office for its first few years because at the time it hit so close to my everyday existence that there was no humor to it.
Good drama and comedy causes discomfort in order to pay off in the end. We can’t care if the sheriff survives the shootout if we don’t cringe with him as he cries out of character in the chapel the night before. When we trust storytellers, we’re willing to stomach the discomfort in order to have the relief on the other side. In a lot of ways, a good story is like beating your head against a wall, feeling so good once it’s done. Stories without that discomfort are terrible stories, whether they are dramas or comedies. They’re emotionally toothless. That’s not to say that every story has to put you through a ringer, but the great ones, and even the good ones, should feel like your psyche just went ten rounds with Mike Tyson, if only because they make you double check that your ears weren’t bitten off.
But there’s a threshold problem here. See, we might be willing to walk through fire for certain storytellers. We’d probably watch at least three episodes of our families being tortured before we gave up on a new Vince Gilligan series. But those from unknowns, or those stories we just hear from the rumors and Internet are worth watching? There’s less of a threshold before we just turn the channel instead of enduring the discomfort long enough to get to the payoff.
And here’s the dark side of Netflix, and infinite on demand entertainment. Twenty years ago, if you rented a movie, and popped that old black tape into the grinding gears of the VCR? You were going to watch that movie until the end. It’s not like you were going to bother stopping it, rewinding it, and finding another tape. It’s not much of a barrier to change, really, nothing compared to a generation before that with only three stations plus the radio. But it was just enough to make you suck it up and watch, or at the very least to not pause it while you go preheat the oven.
But with an infinite amount of entertainment available at your fingertips, there’s no barrier of change any longer. Uncomfortable part of the fifth episode dragging on? Well you can have the pilot of the next show on your list playing before you can alt-tab over to Facebook while it loads.
The consequence of this is that it our threshold has dropped, it’s easier to ditch the discomfort for something of a known quantity, or just for the entertainment equivalent of junk food. I’ve been ever so slowly working my way through Breaking Bad on Netflix. I started over the summer and manage to watch an episode every couple of weeks or so. It’s that dense of a show, it’s that much work, that no matter how good it is, it’s just too easy to go watch some Parks and Rec or Community for the third time instead.
I don’t know if this is a bad thing, or if it has even become a common enough phenomenon that it’s going to cause adjustments to the creative decisions behind television series and movies any time soon. But I do know that I’ve got a half dozen different series that I have every intent of watching, but have been stopped and not picked up again in the middle of episodes, invariably at points where the discomfort is peaking, the dramatic tension building, and there’s been something shiny in another window that pulled my attention away for weeks or months.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.