I’m one of those addicts who believes that Breaking Bad is the very best thing in the world. I don’t mean the best thing on television, I mean the best thing, period. It is an immersive aesthetic experience that at once mimics daily life in eerily naturalistic fashion (the suburbs, the diners with their country music) and stylizes it with overt artifice (the art-school camera angles, the silences). For me, the experience bears no interruption.
So I am baffled by the way in which AMC, its broadcasting network, wants you to watch it. The channel offers a “sync-view” feature online, meaning you watch the show with your computer on. On your screen, you are constantly given annotations of the action (stats on the type of machine gun Walt is packing, for example, or a humorous body count) and prompted to vote in polls (how moral is Skyler’s behaviour here?). Then, immediately after the episode, you can stick around to watch “making of” films, showing you behind the scenes, and interviews with the actors about their roles. The actors are not in character.
The point must be to break the suspension of disbelief. But why would you want to demystify such a convincing experience? Why would you want to be constantly reminded that actors are acting, to be pulled out of the illusion? This is Brechtian modernism – verfremdung, or estrangement – made commercial. (In 1936, Bertold Brecht wrote of an ideal theatre experience in which “acceptance or rejection of [the characters’] actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious.”)
The effect of this hyperconsciousness in a show as violent and disturbing as Breaking Bad is to make it a little less upsetting – just as you tell a child scared by a movie, “It’s okay, it’s not real.” And to make it slightly humorous, too: Think of the annotations on the videos in the popular VH1 show Pop-Up Video that pointed out continuity lapses or the names of extras. That was a form of mockery, a reminder that something meant to be escapist is instantly dated and analyzable as history.
But AMC’s “interactive” experiences are not so much high modernism as simply the way we perceive now. Obviously, we can experience identification and be annotating at the same time. If we were completely distanced from the action, we wouldn’t be so obsessively frightened of “spoilers.” (That fear of learning about a plot twist in advance is really a contemporary one, too; book reviews from 50 years ago didn’t fear the revealing of endings.)
The online discussion of a fictitious narrative as it’s unfolding is alienating to me; I don’t want to be plucked from the illusion until well after the show has ended. But it’s part of modern experience, just like the real-time tweeting and vlogging about everything else everyone does. And, paradoxically, being aware of the artificiality of art all the time is kind of the flip-side to the urge to make the real into representation all the time.
The novelist Tao Lin demonstrates this connection better than I can. In his recent book Taipei, some very alienated and very connected young people decide to go to see a trashy movie only to “group live-tweet” the experience. This means tweeting to each other from the moment they get in the taxi together. The narrator, Paul, instructs his friends not to talk: “You should tweet it, stop talking about it.” He has already made it clear, earlier in the book, that he believes that anything he didn’t video-record with his MacBook didn’t really happen. The friends enter the cinema once the movie has already started, begin tweeting in a lacklustre fashion about what they are watching, but rapidly lose interest in the film and begin tweeting about themselves and their feelings. Then they retreat to the washrooms to weep.
One of Lin’s amusing literary tics is to put certain words in internal monologues inside quotation marks, as if to show that his characters are constantly thinking in terms of how they would describe in writing what they are feeling, as if they are constantly writing their lives. Which they are. (“We’re all just going to keep forgetting it,” Paul said, “pessimistically,” he thought.) There is no distinction whatever between their lives and the broadcasting of them, and multiple layers of quotation marks suggests their awareness of this.
This making of all living into a representation of living is the corollary of the “sync-viewing” phenomenon, where art cannot exist without immediately being a commentary on itself. If social life is art, then art is social life as well. I’m not sure I quite enjoy this way of being, but I suppose I will get used to it, as will we all.
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