Engage As Intended

As usual, I don’t intend anything prescriptive by what I’m about to say–I’m just kind of musing on art and story and experimenting with the conclusions that the musings bring me to. This is may well be a theme around here. Disclaimer out of the way, I’ll proceed.

The beautiful freedom of the modern age is that we as consumers can engage with art in almost any way we choose. In fact, the recombinant engagement that a lot of people choose across the internet, from fanfic to vids to Tumblr gifsets to mashups, makes literal a lot of what we talk about when we say that genre is a sort extended artistic conversation. To greater and lesser extents, the creators of recombinant and transformative art are directly engaging with the art in question, interrogating and deconstructing it in really unique and enlightening ways.

This is very cool, and I applaud it.

One of the other ways we’ve started to engage with media and art, lately, is the almighty binge. I remember the first time I binged on a show–the first time I could binge on a show–was when I got the first two or three seasons of Stargate SG-1 on DVD. As I recall, I spent a few days on the futon in my wife’s apartment (before she was my wife, of course) mainlining Jack O’Neill and Daniel Jackson and Samantha Carter and Teal’c like a fiend. Couldn’t get enough. It was glorious. It was a temptation I simply could not resist, if I could even conceive of resistance as an option.

I’ve discovered a few things about binging in the years since, though. One is that it leaves me wanting more where there is no more. I was lucky, back then. I ended up getting all of the DVDs that were out at the time, and got caught up to where Stargate SG-1 was when it jumped over to the Sci-Fi Channel. So then I had more on a weekly basis for about half a year, every year. But binging on a show that’s already done, when I’m watching all there is of it… that’s kind of a bummer.

The other thing I realized is that the binge leaves everything… more muddied. There really isn’t a chance to reflect on what I’ve watched, let it sink in, let any anticipation build. My wife and I are catching up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. right now, after leaving it for most of the year. But, for various reasons, we can’t really binge on it. We get in about two episode a week, and that’s it. So, as of this typing, Skye is in near-death coma and has been since Saturday night. I probably won’t get to see the follow-up episode for another week-plus, given our weekend plans.

That’s cool. I’m down with that. It gives me time to think a bit on it, gives it time to mature, to “season” I guess.  I don’t need to rush through it.

One of the other things I’m finding is that people work on the weekly TV show as its own art form, within its own constraints. I think I first encountered this idea in a blog post by John Scalzi (don’t ask me to go spelunking through his archives for it; I’ll get lost down some 300 meter shaft), where he was advising, in his calm-headed way, that This New Medium did not mean the death of That Old Medium, that people had said the same thing about That Old Medium back when it was new. The idea being that stories will find their natural place, that if there’s a story that can only really be told in Smell-O-Vision, it will be best told in Smell-O-Vision but that won’t mean we can’t still create stories for the “traditional” cinema. We won’t have to create everything for Smell-O-Vision.

I’ll call this A Scalzian Principle (but not The Scalzian Principle–the dude has too many to grant any of them the definitive article).

Anyway, it has occurred to me that, especially with older shows, but still with new shows, there is a reward to watching them more or less as they were originally intended to be seen. Now, in a lot of cases, especially let’s say pre-2000ish, this did actually mean you could watch them in any particular order. A lot of them did feature the dreaded reset button, the horror of ungrowing characters and static, immutable situations. But I’m also coming to appreciate this constraint that the creators had to work in. How do you make Thomas Magnum’s exploits suspenseful when you know he and Rick and TC and Higgins are still going to be alive at the end of the episode?

I could probably write a whole other blog post answering that question, so I won’t try to get to it here. I’ll think about writing it another time, though. Suffice to say that I’m finding it both interesting and instructive to see the art in that kind of constraint. How is it handled, how is it done well, how does it fall down?

But, well, also I’m just enjoying the shows for the sake of the shows themselves. Just watching them as they are, as they were intended to be watched.

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