Game of Series – A look at the emergent cultural fetish of downloadable TV shows.

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So what’s all this? What are you actually on about you tool? 

Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Suits, Deadwood, Girls, The Walking Dead, and The Sopranos – pick your poison (those are all of mine) – nowadays people’s fetish for back-to-back, non-stop, late-into-the-night series watching has reached unparalleled heights. Fueled by ever-accelerating download speeds and a panoply of torrent sites and applications, the choice to watch any show you want when you want has become just that, a choice (an often illegal one albeit). Across the board, men and women, both young and old (within reason), gorge on a veritable smorgasbord of genres and narratives of TV series. It’s no secret that escapism by way of TV or film is something that has long been enjoyed by people all around the world, but lately it feels almost inescapable (I’ll let you bask in the glory of that pun). Conversations about fictional characters (most of whom you yourself have been recently discussing) characterize much of today’s small talk. “How much do you think Harvey Spectre’s suits cost?” “Who would you smash first bro, Rachel or Donna?” “Hannah from Girls has cankles hey, did you notice?”  “I can’t believe how small Eric Northman’s penis is!”

We even assimilate sayings and mannerisms from some of our favorite shows. The Jesse Pinkman-esque “Yo, bitch”, was one such example that pervaded my own vocabulary for quite some time. Another curious habit I’ve adopted is walking around the house (in the nude) chanting Hodor – granted I’m not the only one who does that, an entire internet meme has developed on the back of our poor old friendly GOT ogre/giant.

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If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then my point remains sound. What’s my point exactly? There are elements intrinsic to the narrative structure of a series that allow people to develop ‘real’ emotional connections with the characters – in a far more tangible way than a feature length film I would argue. In the same way that spending time around someone over an extended period of time often results in some form of relationship developing, the continuity offered to us by recurrent doses of familiar characters and compelling storylines can in some ways mimic the stages of falling in love. There are said to be three stages when it comes to falling for somebody, lust, attraction and finally, attachment.

Lust

Why do people ‘lust’ for TV series? I should first preface this by pointing out that I’m discussing an active pursuit of a specific series, not mindless Sunday indulgence in a Kardashian omnibus. To answer that question we must interrogate what defines a person’s most basic needs. Referring to a rather outdated yet still relevant theory, namely, Maslow’s Hieracrchy of Needs, can to some extent serve as rationale in this case. The theory posits that over and above physiological imperatives like food, water, sleep, shelter and funny enough, sex, people value safety and emotional relationships (respectively) as the next most important needs that one should strive to attain. Pretty straightforwardly then, people need some form of emotional attachment in their lives, be it friends, family, a lover, husband, wife, guinea pig or being part of a twerk club; there are numerous ways of satisfying one’s emotional longings. People like to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves; it’s the origin of purpose in many respects.

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So bearing the above in mind, you might say, okay, people like to be part of stuff, so what? I think it’s no coincidence that the adoration of all things series intersects with the advent of social media – a caveat mentioned earlier, admittedly, both of these things are largely due to the development of the internet, specifically broadband capacity. However, I’m looking more at the cause and effect relationship between the two – I will explain what I mean. A quote from Stephen Marche of The Atlantic will help to introduce my position:

Social media—from Facebook to Twitter—have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity, new research suggests that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic)—and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill.

In what could be seen as the digital equivalent of the Big Bang, social media went from being nonexistent to suddenly being omnipresent. Like Adam after he’d taken a hearty bite of that big ripe juicy apple, our eyes were opened – pupils dilated – gaze fixed on our own pixelated reflections. It didn’t take long to realize that this new world of social media meant our worth could quickly be numerically quantified; number of: friends, followers, likes, retweets, comments, check-ins… the list goes on. Like Adam, we found ourselves naked and scrambling to meet the criteria of this new world, self-aware and contrived, selfie-by-selfie, post-by-post.

An unanticipated side-effect of this novel voyeuristic wilderness had sprung from human nature itself, like it was the Serengeti all over again, people could now size-up their competition, often to our own detriment, embellishing all the positives of others’ lives, whilst scrutinizing all our own perceived shortcomings. “He’s in France? Fuck sake man, I’ve never even been to Mozam”. An unquellable internal monologue pointing out how much better his or her life is than yours – it can sometimes feel like you’re the one standing on the outside of the symbolic high school circle, FOMO at its best, your life’s passing you by whilst everyone else is out fulfilling their dreams. So how do series even relate to any of this?

As aforementioned, finding a series that you really enjoy is like finding a someone you’re crazy about: you think about them all day, you can’t wait to get back so you can see them, and you forget about everything else when your with them. People lust for series because it goes some way in filling the void created by an assortment of social maladies in today’s world, a void potentially exacerbated by social media. “Potentially”, because not everyone is in this boat, but a lot of people are, and that’s backed up by research. The connection a person makes with the characters of a particular series can often feel remarkably real, acting like an artificial substitute for tactile emotional relationships. Hence, if one had to follow this argument down to its roots, the question of why people desire series – on an existential level – is simply to feel like they’re part of something, like they’re in the ‘circle’.

 Attraction

 This stage is referred to as the ‘love-struck’ phase. Even the most superficial series, where character development is non-existent and plot formula is painfully predictable, à la Big Bang Theory and Two and a half men (circa Charlie Sheen of course) are capable of finding their way into our hearts. As corny as it may be, entertaining Sheldon Cooper’s painfully staged idiosyncrasies (“Penny…Penny…Penny…Penny”) still brings a measure of joy to my life. Alas, to each their own; people will be attracted to a show that fulfills a particular need. It goes without saying, if a show is capable of evoking a desired emotional response, then people are inclined to be attracted to it.

Being a voyeuristic medium, all things film have the added benefit of facilitating vicarious experience – ever wanted to know what it feels like to land the girl of your dreams? Maybe how things would turn out if you started cooking meth? Series can go some way in giving you an idea, both cognitively and physiologically, through the unfolding of a plot and the release of associated endorphins. The fact that many of us cry during scenes involving fictional characters emphasizes just how powerful the events depicted on a screen can be. Pornography is another relevant case study for the translation of pixelated representations into actualized physical responses within the body, granted, for slightly different reasons.

In any event, once someone is attracted to a show, it’s evident; how many times have people you know (or even you for that matter) admitted to being ‘addicted to that show’? Whilst not as powerful as drugs like nicotine and alcohol with respect to their addictive profiles, an enticing show is still not to be underestimated.

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 Attachment

 Becoming attached to a show exemplifies the transition from being giddy with infatuation, to a more committed and acquainted mindset. This familiarity comes with a set of expectations; you understand the show, and expect certain deliverables. If a particular episode falls short of these, one can quickly become disheartened. However, so long as your relationship with a show is fulfilling, your attachment will continue to grow deeper. Conversely, if a show starts going pear-shaped (like I experienced with Community and Californiacation) then attachment can soon become resentment.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to make it all the way through to the end of your show, then you should be familiar with the post-finale depression associated with this bitter-sweet situation. It’s a feeling that closely resembles losing a friend or a lover on the same day you achieve something great, fulfilling, yet eerily melancholic. Sometimes leaving you in a pretty shitty place with a sense of, “Now what?” – much like a breakup.

So…

Ostensibly, the parallels between watching a series and cultivating a fulfilling relationship are there (or I see them at least). The anti-social social networker is becoming an increasingly present archetype of today’s world, and whilst technology can connect us, emotions are what we connect with – enter the downloadable TV series, the synthetic formula for an emotionally malnourished world.

P.S. You just got Litt up.

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