In my last post I talked about the power of fandom in television, and how every so often something hits the small screen that just strikes that perfect chemistry to ignite a passionate relationship between viewer and show. HBO’s Game of Thrones, the epically popular adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s still-continuing fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, is currently that show. It’s loved dearly by millions of devoted viewers worldwide, but after last night’s ‘shit-got-real’ episode: ‘The Rains of Castamere’ aired, that relationship hit upon some hard times. Some hard times indeed.
Game of Thrones is a unique beast. Fantasy was never everyone’s cup of mead, but Game of Thrones, like the Lord of the Rings before it, is proof that there is love for fantasy-lit, so long as it’s done well. Obviously there is a geek inside every man, and it stirs when you place a well-penned high-budget production before his eyes. Just look at George R.R – he’s either an old-timey fisherman or a medieval fantasy nerdlord. You wouldn’t pick him as the most loved/hated man in the world right now.
Spoilers ahead – what Mr Martin has here is two groups of fans of the same story finely balanced between two vastly different mediums, many years apart. When Robb, Catelyn, Talisa and doubly-unlucky Ned Stark were brutally slain by super jerk Walder and his traitorous buddy Roose ‘fuckhead’ Bolton – the reaction was huge. For the show watchers it was pure shock and for the book readers its was the culmination of long-held tense anticipation, for they knew this day would come, having had a 12-year heads-up on the story. And those courteous enough not to blurt out the titanic spoilers before it went to air were both eager to see the infamous scene played out and amused to see their non-book-reading friends’ reactions to the horror.
As is customary these days whenever something big on TV happens, Twitter nearly had a meltdown. For hours, Twitter’s birds became Westeros ravens, sending endless messages of exasperation, sorrow and rage from distraught viewers. It was no doubt the same tidal wave of emotions that would have engulfed the book-readers when they first read that particular scene; albeit a far more introspective and personal moment of grief. But the disbelief and betrayal felt by the Starks was mirrored by those of us watching them – those gut-piercing sharp, icy pangs you feel when any relationship that takes a unexpected and dramatic turn for the worse. You develop a love for the characters, endure with them their hardships and then as soon as things seem somewhat rosy – BAM! they all end up on the cold stone floor with blood oozing from their betrayal-wounds.
At my place, my roommate and I sat silent, eyes like dinnerplates, only able to grunt ‘c’oh’ and ‘shit’ back and forth. But for many it seems it was just too much to bear. Social media was flooded with: “That’s it, I’m done with Game of Thrones. That was too much! #Why?!” and “I can’t believe they’d do that – I hate you George RR Martin! I’m never watching again!!!1!1!! #devastated #RIPstarks” etc etc. There was such a glut of tweeted anguish that someone even found the time to create an account to document it all. It was like a natural disaster. Even Buzzfeed posted a bizarre set of loosely GoT-related memes “to help you get over your Game of Thrones depression” . [Personally, it was also a particularly bizarre case of déjà vu].
Tears and jeers aside, the other interesting aspect to this is the way Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire has taken engagement to a different level. I can’t think of any other literary trope that has ever offered such a diverse and unique range of experience for its followers, helped by a confluence of the internet, generation gaps and a genre defined by its fostering of fandom. The whole ‘the books are better’ is age-old, but the sheer quality, popularity and deft retuning of the HBO adaption has offered a special purpose for the book readers beyond simply comparing and critiquing the source material to the television adaptation. Billy Connolly once remarked that there is nothing more satisfying to some than knowing something that others don’t. It’s true – being more informed than someone else carries a certain smug gratification, and it seems to have played out here in interesting ways.
Videos sprang up alarmingly fast on Youtube: ‘Red Wedding reactions’ , hundreds of them, by book readers secretly filming their non-book reading friends watching the show – knowing that some heavy shit was about go down. The readers indulged in a second-hand thrill by watching others handle the revelation. Take for example this comment posted on Reddit.
“When they cut from Dany to the wedding my roommate (who hasn’t read the book) made a comment that nearly caused me to spoil it for him.
Why do they keep showing us the wedding? I want to see some blood.
I was tense the entire episode. Awaiting the inevitable. I managed to keep my cool and didn’t spoil anything. But that comment nearly did it for me…. I wanted to warn him…”
There were many similar accounts, readers feeling like they’ve been holding their breath for so long – trying not to smirk when their non-reader friends tried to make predictions or expressed their feelings of hope for the reunification of the Stark family. Oh the innocence of ignorance. No doubt there will be more of this (though there’s a sense that this particular plot twist was the most jarring of all so far as it is written), which only means more shell-shock and more reaction videos. It’s like the battle-hardened veterans of the book watching on as the green rookies taking hit after hit, just as they had done years ago – when the war was still young, though no less violent. The bloodied and bruised non-readers will look to those who have lived it before, desperate to know if there is hope after all… but the grizzled vets can only look down to them and say: ‘Don’t let go of your steel, soldier, you must learn this for yourself before we explore new lands together.’
I mean, seriously people this is Game of Thrones. Surely we learned our lesson when we saw Ned Stark’s body relieved of its head. Surely someone heeds the regular foreshadowing of sinister developments weaved in at every opportunity. This isn’t conventional storytelling and George R.R. Martin is brilliant at eschewing conventional storytelling for perpetual tension and unease. He’s actually bold enough to say that anything can happen and we’re the gullible fools who assume that spells victory for the good guy underdogs. Wired’s Erik Henriskson explains it well: “It’s in Game of Thrones‘ key moments–like Ned’s death, like the Red Wedding–that the series’ vicious and unsentimental pragmatism shines through with brutal, bloody clarity: This isn’t a story that’s going to end like its characters want it to. And it isn’t a story that’s going to end like the books’ readers or the show’s viewers want it to, either… All the characters–well, all the Starks–are basically Charlie Browns who are really excited to kick that football that Lucy’s got all set up for them. Which means all of us readers and viewers are Charlie Browns, too. George R.R. Martin is a really good Lucy.”
Ultimately, it should only be taken as the highest compliment by Martin and the GoT producers that when they throw in a gruesomely unexpected knife-twist, their fans vow to leave. Because it’s not that they’re bored of it, nor disinterested by it – but because they’re so emotionally invested that when something goes awry there’s nothing to do but flip out in a fit of impassioned desperation. If I were a fiction writer, that is exactly the reaction I’d hope for. If you can write so well that killing off a couple of characters leads to books being thrown, thousands of spite-filled messages and photos of shattered souls curled up in tear-flooded foetal positions on couches – then you’ve done it, and done it like a boss.
It all feeds into the fascinating world George R.R. Martin created, which exists beyond pages and screen and lives in the hearts and minds of all its followers. It helps too that the entire story is not over, so the ultimate resolution is still a tantalising prospect for everyone – even George himself. He has no idea yet how he plans to end it (so he says, anyway) – but says he imagines it to be ‘bittersweet’ – a Shakespearean prospect if I ever heard one. And who’s to say there will even be a resolution? Remember what this is again… if you thought this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.
… and go Stannis!
I had one of those surreal moments recently. Not surreal in the sense that I ate way over-left leftovers and the walls started melting. But surreal in that for once in my life, in fact the only time in my life, did a wish come true.* I sat down in front of my TV, surrounded myself with happysnacks (savoury on the left, sweet on the right) and watched brand freaking new episodes of Arrested Development. Yes, let that sink in like the floor of a shoddily built model home. As it was on May 26, thanks to Netflix, Arrested Development triumphantly beat Jesus’ record by seven years, three months and 13 days when it rolled the rock aside from its untimely tomb and was sensationally resurrected. It was such a momentous occasion that I’m afraid I just blue myself.
For those who haven’t heard of it, or haven’t seen it, do it. Do it now. Because it is the best comedy program ever. Arrested Development, the brainchild of producer Ron Howard and writer Mitch Hurwitz, was a brilliantly scripted, superbly acted and delightfully narrated breath of fresh air in a television schedule polluted with the likes of Two and a Half Men, According to Jim and god knows how many cancerous celebrity reality shows. It was not what audiences had come to expect from a weekly serialised 30-minute comedy series on Fox. The narrative was complex and at times intentionally confusing, there was no laugh track, the characters were completely unrelatable and ridiculous, the attention-to-detail insane and the gags were elegant strokes of masterful satire, allusion, wordplay, self-referential metaphor and absurdity. The shit was meta as fuck and funny as hell. I simply adored it, and that love has not faded with age, in fact, it greatly intensified when after only two-and-a-half seasons, it was cruelly taken away.
Of course I was not alone, but such was the magnetic charm of this show that you felt intimately attached to it. You weren’t just a bit miffed or disappointed… but outwardly devastated, jilted, shattered. The baffling decision by Fox to can it despite its obvious brilliance (it raked in six Emmys and dozens of other critical accolades) was simply unacceptable to anyone so blessed with the gifts of logic and reason. Of course, poor ratings were the cited cause of death, not the more glaringly apparent fact that the network completely mishandled its delivery. It was frustrating for the fans, the creators and even the actors, that a project so unique and special was allowed to wither and die on the vine of outdated network broadcasting conventions. I sensed injustice, and given that I was a university student at the time, studying media culture no less – I did what anyone in that situation would do and took matters into my own hands. I hired a one-armed man to teach them a lesson. And when that didn’t work, I wrote an essay about it.
When I sat down, fuming, ready to bash some epic, world-changing wisdom into the keyboard, my approach was simple: point out how stupid America is and how evil giant media corporations are and how Rupert Murdoch kicks puppies in their faces. But, this wasn’t for a politics subject, it was media cultures – so I took American stupidity as a universal constant and instead identified the key variables in play: the tension between the creative and the lucrative; audience types; ratings methods; technology; content; viewing habits; fandom and past cases of unpopular cancellations . I investigated and researched and postulated my pants off – all the way down to the cut-offs. Simply, I crushed it (as demonstrated by this dope extract).
‘Shows like Arrested Development win audience appeal with a ‘comedy verite’ approach. That is, making full use of unconventional techniques to create whole new aesthetic, and defining true uniqueness to increase the perceived quality of the show… the audience was rewarded for its devotion, and a sense of mutual respect between creator and viewer was formed… this was not a program for a casual viewer nor casual viewing.‘
Beaumont, C. (2006) How audience habits and technology will affect traditional television methodology. pg 4.
With paragraph after paragraph of intellectual gold, including brilliant insights from experts such as Brook Barnes, P Waugh and E Thompson (yes, I had sufficient citations), I soundly proved the point that Arrested Development arrived in the world too early. The reasons why were numerous: the show wasn’t really suited to weekly airings; using Nielson ratings as the prime measure of a show’s worth was fundamentally flawed; and there was a stalemate between the network heads who wanted the show to flatten out and appeal to traditional TV sensibilities, and the creators who didn’t want to spoil their work for their fans and their personal creativity. But most critically, what caused its demise was that the shining copper-plated knight of the digital revolution was too late to gallop to the show’s rescue. Seven years, three months and 13 days too late, evidently.
It’s difficult to imagine, but six years ago ‘social media’ was still an emerging phenomenon. Twitter was but an infant hatchling and nobody knew what to do with it. Digital TV was still developing, Netflix itself was merely an online DVD rental service and ‘streaming’ was more widely known then as the act of streaking with streamers tied to your body rather than the currently popular method for watching TV and movies via the internet. Arrested Development was a victim of timing, caught in the fidgety awkward period when traditional TV broadcasting and ratings models was known to be flawed, but the digital revolution we all knew was coming, wasn’t quite there yet. The audience was certainly there, a passionate and fiercely loyal mob, but relatively voiceless without today’s social web – and their value was underestimated by the TV executives who were devout believers in the old traditions of advertising, prime time and ratings.
I ended my essay with this prophetic nugget of wisdom.
‘A. Stanley writes, “In this Balkanized media landscape, viewers seek and jealously guard their discoveries wherever they can find them.” This is the attitude typical of the fans of Arrested Development and Family Guy. Both shows offered a different viewing experience to the conventional comedy formula, and connected more intimately with their respective audiences. Along with this came extensive use of trademark allusional humour – be it Family Guy’s broad spectrum of cultural references, or Arrested Development’s rich catalogue of inside-jokes. But, despite being cancelled by Fox for poor network ratings, strong DVD sales and loud online support from fans might trigger the industry to rethink and re-evaluate what makes a television program truly valuable. It helped lead to a resurrection for Family Guy, and with the support for Arrested Development still burning bright, its conceivable such an extraordinary event could reoccur.’
ibid, pg 12
Note that this paradigm-shifting parchment of genius essay was written in the brisk autumn of 2007. I remember the unseasonable chill that laced the winds. As far as the world was concerned, the Bluth family were as dead as a dodo that was killed by a doornail. But I knew better than to say never. And I was right. So, given that I was right and a good few years ahead of the game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I was given a lovely big 100%, double-tick and smiley face when I received this (rather important, might I add) essay back. But, no. my Principia of the modern age received the insulting score of… 83. Eighty-three! An unnecessarily frustrating two little marks off a high-distinction! It’s as if the tutor really liked my essay, but didn’t like-like it. I was so shocked I could do nothing but Charlie Brown-walk home and eat a whole thing of candy beans.
I know my tutor was an Arrested Development fan, he said so himself. And as a scholar of television media, he’d no doubt have found the story of its revival a fascinating and exciting study in the changing media landscape. Well, Mr mark-stingy tutor, does all this seem familiar?! Do you vaguely remember reading about this somewhere some time ago?! It was ME, dammit! MEEEE!!!
So, the new episodes? I decided to watch four a night. After watching six the first night, my seven-year itch was scratched. I still remember the very first time I watched Arrested Development, my cousin loaned me the series one DVD, promising me I’d enjoy it. “I dunno,” I said. “Is it better than Scrubs?” “Ha! You’ll see,” was his matter-of-fact reply. Unconvinced anything could better JD’s zany non-sequiturs, I finally got around to checking it out one morning when I was sick to go to uni (I sneezed twice before 10am, qualifying me as desperately bedridden sick). It took no time to fall in love. It was an unspeakably beautiful moment – I was, like so many unfortunate items in the path of Buster Bluth, hooked.
And now, miraculously that moment has returned – despite the odds. While nothing can ever match that first exhilarating thrill of discovery, this new second life for my favourite ever show did not disappoint. Despite the time and expectations, the new Arrested Development had no trouble making my banana stand. It’s a testimony to the brilliance of the show’s cast, creators and crew, and a glorious reward for the fans who kept the faith.
So all’s well that ends well, so they say. Well, almost.
I want my HD, you bastard!
*There was the time when I was 7 and I was given the massive fighter jet Transformers toy for Christmas. But it was the baby-spew green one and not the super-awesome black one, so it didn’t completely count.
Science is rad. For reals. For so long, the world of ‘science’ suffered from its public image defined by the stereotypical lab coat-shod propellerheads with pocket protectors and sex appeal equal to fuglio septia. But now, it has managed to break free from all that and (to an extent) fashion itself a new certain coolness. In fact, 4.9 million people ‘Fucking Love Science’, according to Facebook, and I count myself as one of them. It’s this new brand of ‘science-all-up-in-your-face’ attitude that has reinvigorated its place in the public sphere. Knowledge is cool, science is cool, biology is cool, the solar system is cool. Robots are so cool, they even formed a band – a kickarse band. But, it’s not as if the world of science has experienced a geomagnetic pole reversal and now all research findings are published as memes on Instagram or something. The eggheads still toil away uncovering the secrets of existence with their blackboards covered in alien language and particle-smashing multi-multi–billion dollar toys. And they are still as out of touch with the rest of the world as gravitational singularity.
So, who should we really thank for demonstrating that science is worth the love? If my calculations prove correct (and they always do), it’s those precious links between us and those in vanguard of discovery – the science communicators. They can be journalists, writers, spokespersons – or even practising scientists themselves, but they are the people who funnel and translate the impossibly esoteric mountains of information produced by experiments and research, and translate it into something understandable, informative – and most vitally – entertaining. They skilfully shrink down the overwhelming into something small enough for inexpert minds to grasp and enjoy, without insulting the intelligence of neither scientist nor reader alike. Without them, the undeniable awesomeness in all disciplines of science would remain invisible, foreign and boring. It’s a rare ability we take for granted as we ooh and aah watching docos, or raise a fascinated eyebrow reading Scientific American.
The idea of bringing news from the scientific frontiers to the layman goes back to the early 20th century, when Science Monthly became Popular Science Monthly – signalling a shift toward relatable and entertaining science literature. Albert Einstein was indeed an advocate. He famously said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” His ageless concepts remain the foundation of modern quantum physics, and so are pretty much as synapse-snappingly complex as they come, but he proves his point by offering some explanation of his theories of relativity in a pithy, sorta charming way. “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity,” said the great man.
Now, I (because it’s all about me!) was never destined to be a scientist. Lab coats don’t suit me, mathematics terrifies me and I’m simply not blessed with the focused intelligence the line of work demands. But I do have a healthy appetite for knowledge. My brain is never satisfied without an enormous feast of facts – no matter how obscure – actually, sometimes the more obscure the better. Often I find myself trapped on Wikipedia – unable to escape those enticing blue hyperlinks, lures that promise to take me to new enlightenments. One minute I’m looking up premier leageue statistics, then I’m boning up on nuclear dynamics, and suddenly I’m reading this and wondering how I ever got there. Imagine information as lillypads – I’m like a frog hopping from one to another, as if the lillypads were hot, and I didn’t have little frog-shoes on my frog-feet. That was an analogy. I’m fairly crap at them, as you can plainly see… And that is the reason why I’d never cut it as a science communicator either, unfortunately.
That really is a key to great communication – particularly in this field. Finding that great analogy – that spot-on simile that simple metaphor that twists the tumblers of the ‘I-don’t-get-it’ floodgate and lets the waters of understanding rush into the sluice chambers of your ‘now-I-get-it’ brain aqueduct. I’m simply not very good at it. I’m certainly not about to take up creative writing, for fear of ending up in some infinite tautological loop (“The sea glistened like a gigantic puddle of water’); nor romantic novels for fear of ruining the idea of romance for the entire literate world (“The dancing glow of the candles illuminated her gentle skin like a flickering TV left on in a dark room… she rolled her head back and inhaled deeply, feeling her desire escalating like the electricity bill from the carelessly forgotten TV set left on in the living room.”).
But there’s a difference between painting descriptive scenes with metaphor and striking a moment of mutual understanding with the reader. It’s the latter that is so important for scientific communication to work. If you notice in the first paragraph, I tried being clever and done flipped it around – tossing in a few obscure scientific allusions to the mix. Unless you were quite familiar with fungal growths, geophysics and quantum mechanics, it’s doubtful you’d readily comprehend what the hell I was talking about and so would be less inclined to read on. As with any matter, if the writing is too dense, it will sink. Had I used references more universally understood, then perhaps I’d have more success engaging you, the dear reader. And that’s why it is such a valuable skill in a communicator’s arsenal – particularly when it comes to explaining science. As much as I wish I did, I simply don’t have the knack for drawing perfect parallels – my mind doesn’t think along those lines (see what I did there?). But my lack of ability gives way to a heightened appreciation and respect for it.
So this is more or less a thank you to those people who enlighten us by taming the flames from the fires of great minds and lighting the torches of those who are out of reach. (Kinda better?). These are exciting times in all corners of the scientific realm, from the Higgs-particle; to new eco-innovations, robots (obviously), and bioethics – and without the talents of the world’s science scribes, we would barely even know such things could be exciting, let alone revel in the excitement of discovery. And that would be a tragic thing.