I’m usually happy to see thoughtful discussions of media storytelling strategies extend into the popular press, as it gives me hope that there is a broad audience for work that engages issues of television narrative and form as my current research aims to do. But I often read such popular accounts with a mix of interest and frustration, with the latter often overtaking the former. Usually popular accounts of television narrative commit three major (related) problems: they completely ignore the research that us academics have done, they make silly mistakes or weak claims that could have been avoided had they done more research, and they get read by thousands of times more people than will ever read academic work.
Exhibit A is this piece by Chuck Klosterman in the new ESPN’s site Grantland (which I’ve really enjoyed over its first week of publication). I generally like Klosterman, appreciating his prose style and typically thoughtful thinkpieces on popular culture. But this piece is a mess and it frustrates me to no end that so many people will read it and assume that he’s right. Basically, Klosterman is arguing that the “spoiler culture” of the internet has led to a reduction in twisty storytelling, as in Sixth Sense and Lost, with creators become hesitant to base an entire work on a final reveal that would likely be spoiled & thus lose its impact. And to that, I call bullshit.
First, Klosterman uses The Sixth Sense as his ur-case of twisty storytelling that thrived pre-spoilers, suggesting that the entirety of the film is wrapped up in its twist ending. But Sixth Sense was the most prominent of a fairly recent genre cycle of the “puzzle film” (about which there has been copious academic writing that Klosterman clearly hasn’t read) that thrived in the internet age, but were quite rare in the first century of cinema. There were many ways that the film could have been spoiled in 1999, and people debated this issue at the time. But while there may have been less likelihood that a 1999 twist would be accidentally spoiled than a 2011 one, the twist was not the entirety of the film – I’ve watched it at least five times (mostly in teaching), and there’s a lot more there to enjoy besides who’s alive or not, which is precisely why it’s the only one of Shyamalan’s twist films that really holds up. (I like Unbreakable a lot, but its twist is actually its weakest aspect.) Declines in the prominence of the puzzle film are not because writers are gun-shy of spoilers (which Klosterman asserts with no evidence except a hunch), but probably more due to the conventional ebb and flow of film cycles, and Hollywood’s realization that creating effective puzzles is really, really hard.
Tellingly, Klosterman turns to television writers Damon Lindelof and Kyle Killen to test his hypothesis – neither confirm his take, but I think the question about the role of spoilers and twists in serial television is definitely worth discussing. No doubt that spoilers enter into a showrunner’s mind and shape how they approach a narrative – see Matt Hills’ recent post on this concerning Doctor Who and Steven Moffat. But again, Klosterman elides the challenges of running a serial with the fear of spoilers. He cites Lost‘s aborted Nikki & Paolo story as a case of fan interference shaping the narrative (which it was, although in a more complex way than he asserts), but this has nothing to do with spoilers or twists! And he quotes Lindelof’s concerns that it will be hard to top Lost given heightened fan expectations as evidence that spoilers are undermining twisty storytelling, but what Lindelof really says is that fans will expect his next show to be twisty & deceptive, which makes it difficult to pull off effective narrative twists. (And I’ll incorrectly lay claim to Lindelof’s description of TV viewers as “forensic plot detectives” as a citation of my own work on Lost‘s forensic fandom!) This is the same struggle that undermined Shyamalan, as he pandered to the expected twist and failed to deliver anything approaching the success of Sixth Sense.
So Klosterman’s discussion really has almost nothing to do with spoilers. Instead, he’s writing about the author function, where viewers bring intertextual expectations to an established creator’s new work – as Lindelof vividly states, “I know whatever I make will carry the scent of Lost — it’s like I’ve just left a strip club.” And this is as it has always been – established authors set the horizon of expectations for their next work and must adjust to either meet or foil such expectations. Perhaps that expectation is that there will be a big twist or complex puzzle, or that it will be another example of cringe comedy (as in Parks & Recreation‘s challenge of escaping The Office‘s shadow), or that it will be deep and serious (as with AMC’s post-Mad Men and Breaking Bad branding), or that it will be a complex indictment of urban politics and systems (as with Treme, David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire). But there’s nothing new here except that television creators are now much more identified and foregrounded in fan discourse, functioning more like literary authors or film directors in the process of cultural consumption.
What about Klosterman’s claim that no big twist could work today so why bother trying? Poppycock! It so happens that this piece was published only a few days after Game of Thrones aired the episode with its own giant twist (which I won’t reveal here). This twist was easy to suss out for anyone who wanted to find it, given that it had been a crucial plot point in the original novel published in 1996! And certainly many viewers knew what was coming, whether they’d read the novels or not – in fact, I’m not watching the series (yet) and have never read the books, but I know what happened. But the easy access to the twist didn’t stop many viewers from being completely surprised by the revelation, and even prompting protests over what transpired (as detailed in this spoilery piece). Likewise Klosterman mentions The Killing, whose core murder mystery remains unspoiled for most of us until this coming Sunday (and don’t you dare post a comment spoiling me!) – yes, we watch a show like this tempering our expectations over how the mystery will be solved and sussing out false leads, as any mystery fan has done for decades across media, but again, this has nothing to do with spoilers.
What of my more personal frustration, that a smart writer with a broad readership will post something unfounded like this, while those of us academics with (hopefully) more nuanced and supported claims will go comparatively unread? While it’s certainly not a level playing field, things have gotten much better on this front. Twenty years ago, had a piece like Klosterman’s been published in a magazine, I would have had no avenue for a rebuttal save for a letter to the editor that at best would be published months later and probably would not have been worth my effort to write. More centrally, academics have ways to get their own research out there in a much more accessible form, making it more of an ongoing conversation than one-way launching of Great Ideas from on high, whether it’s personal blogs like this one, group sites like Antenna, or just a willingness to publish in more mainstream outlets.
Overall, the success of someone like Klosterman is a good thing, as he’s typically smarter about pop culture than the vast majority of journalists and bloggers. But just as Lindelof’s “strip-club smell” frames our expectations for something twisty, we should be careful not to let the perfume of Klosterman’s past successes in writing perceptively about popular culture mask the spoiled scent of his latest wrongheaded piece.
Filed under: Narrative, Press, Television, TV Shows | 1 Comment
Tags: Chuck Klosterman, Game of Thrones, Grantland, Lost, puzzle films, sixth sense, spoilers, The Killing