How lazy scriptwriting and audience lethargy rob us of meaning
It’s a cliché that today we live in a world of entertainment abundance: we can gawp for hours thanks to streamed content. As best as I can tell it would literally be impossible for any one person to consume all the entertainment available today, even if we restrict the domain to own-language output.
Unfortunately this doesn’t imply anything about the value of that content. In fact, when we step back a moment and consider the question of quality rather than quantity, we get a rather bleak picture.
US content has always been excessively formulaic, pandering to lowest-common-denominator audiences with highly predictable plot lines and characters. We’ve had the endless procedurals, the endless telenovela daytime soaps, and the endless brain-dead “comedies.” The seven-series story-arc and character-arcs are taught rote fashion in scriptwriting school and the end-of-season cliffhanger finalé is de rigueur.
Audiences don’t want originality, so the same themes are endlessly recycled. And if that wasn’t making life easy enough for everyone concerned, we can always rely on the two stock elements beloved of lazy scriptwriters everywhere: the supernatural, and guns.
Need to add some mindless drama? Pull out a gun!
Written yourself into a bit of a corner? Pull out a supernatural element!
Once we become aware of these tedious tropes it can be astonishing to see how very many shows and movies rely on them. In fact, it’s quite difficult to identify a US show or movie that doesn’t fall back on the stock elements as a matter of course, and now that the Brits are desperately attempting to generate more revenues from their shows the same is increasingly true of BBC and commercial channel co-productions with US and Canadian partners.
While a non-realistic element can occasionally create a new perspective on something we usually take for granted, (just as sci-fi done well can illuminate a contemporary issue in a new way) the sad fact is that most of the shows and movies that rely so heavily on spirits and guns are shallow and trite and are churned out mechanically to satisfy uncritical viewers who merely want to gawp for a few hours between dinner and bedtime. Intellectual pablum for the masses. My personal shorthand for this phenomenon is Angels with AKs.
With the enormous sums now being spent by the likes of Netflix and Amazon in addition to the traditional players, it would be nice to think that we’ve entered an entertainment renaissance in which works of real merit will surface. Sure, it would be too much to expect latter-day Shakespeares and Goethes and Hugos, but we ought at least to be seeing works by today’s equivalents of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. Instead we’re getting Game of Thrones and a hundred other “must see” productions churned out by teams dedicated to empty spectacle and pseudo-relevance. Big budgets, plenty of CGI, but utterly empty of anything that can help us better know who and what we truly are.
In written form, our drama goes back more than two and a half thousand years, to Greek theatre. But for millennia we humans have been telling stories around campfires and wherever more than a handful of people can gather for an hour or two of leisure. Many of those stories were simple-minded babblings about gods and goblins, but some rose above the fog of ignorance and wrestled with important issues that still have relevance to us today. As the human brain fares badly with abstract data, stories are the way we frame our existence. This means that the stories we pay attention to have an important impact on the way we live.
Stories that enlighten us and enable us to see more clearly the elements that shape our lives can enable us to gain self-awareness, understanding, and a more adequate grasp of reality. This is why the Oresteia still moves us and why King Lear retains its power more than four hundred years after it was written.
Conversely stories that merely recycle old tropes and exploit empty sensation dull us and help us understand nothing at all.
Today, as our civilization collapses under the tsunami of mindless populism, it’s probably too late to do anything positive about our situation. But for those who may survive the authoritarian horrors to come, a more adequate view of storytelling will be of great importance. No one needs empty-headed nonsense; we all need stories that leave us a little better than we were the moment before the first line is spoken.