Monday, June 1, 2015

Some Reflections on Consuming Pop Culture in Isolation

StarGazer

        Last Friday night, I officially went into mourning for Jimmy Darmody. I’ve spent the last few months slowly making my way through Boardwalk Empire, the Prohibition era-set, Steve Buscemi-starring HBO drama that lasted five seasons before airing its final episode in October last year. Having never quite mastered the art of binge-watching, I sometimes go days, even weeks between episodes, so it felt like a small victory to finally complete the second season, even though I’d started the show at the end of February, which meant that it took me three months to watch a mere 24 episodes.

        The finale left me a bit emotionally distraught, as I knew it would. Yet even as I typed out that off-the-cuff tweet, the part of me that wasn’t numb with sadness felt ridiculous. After all, this was a fictional character whose abrupt demise had originally taken place way back in 2011, and while I managed to avoid hearing details of the specific circumstances, I’d been aware of this particular plot point virtually since it happened, giving me plenty of time to prepare. This foreknowledge naturally colored my viewing experience, but rather than spoiling it by taking away the element of surprise as I might’ve expected, it made me appreciate Jimmy’s overall arc as well as Michael Pitt’s performance more. The prospect of his ultimate fate loomed like approaching storm clouds, imbuing his scenes with an underlying sense of dread and melancholy, and what might’ve otherwise come off as an out-of-left-field twist incorporated for shock value instead seemed all the more tragic for its inevitability.

All I wanted was more of this ruthless swagger


        Deciding what TV shows to watch, once a simple matter of flipping through a handful of channels to see what’s on at the time, has become a rather trying occupation, one that requires careful planning and time management. More than any other form of entertainment, TV demands commitment, asking viewers to devote potentially years of their lives to following a single story that in all likelihood won’t even get a proper, satisfying ending. With the rise of new technology and the medium’s reputation, there’s a greater variety of quality shows than ever before. So, options must be weighed, priorities determined, sacrifices made. However, in the age of Netflix, HBO Go, DVRs and other alternate streaming/viewing avenues, what’s sacrificed is often not a particular show, but rather, the conversation around that show.

        You can watch Lost, for example, at any time on Netflix and you’ll probably enjoy it as much as you would have if you’d seen it when it was actually airing (indeed, if anything, that show might benefit from a binge watch), but you won’t have the community that sprang up around the show. When I think about Lost, which was far and away my most formative TV show, along with The Simpsons, I don’t remember plot or even character details as much as I remember the agonizing weeks or months of waiting between episodes and seasons and the intense, deeply involved theorizing and discussions that took place both in the real world and online. In retrospect, the anticipation that accompanied each upcoming episode and the joy I got from reading EW’s inimitable “Doc” Jeff Jensen’s recaps afterwards almost trumped anything the show had to offer. In other words, for me, the experience of watching Lost became inseparable from Lost itself.

        Whether you’re reading a book, watching a movie or listening to a song, consuming pop culture is in many ways a solitary activity. With the main exception of a music concert, a quiet environment is often necessary for maximum enjoyment or appreciation. Talking about a particular work or event with a friend after the fact isn’t exactly the same as experiencing it together, and even if you and your friend are technically in the same room watching the same film, you both could end up with vastly different appraisals of the movie and the overall experience. Because art is highly subjective and personal, our reactions to it tend to be emotional as well as intellectual, shaped by an individual’s specific tastes and accumulation of past experiences, and attempting to convey that to someone else, to adequately translate a jumble of uncertain, sometimes contradictory thoughts and sensations into actual words can seem like a futile endeavor.

        This communication difficulty is perhaps why, even as we seem to be moving further away from a monoculture to one that is more niche and diverse, I still crave communal experiences, which have become rarer and, as a result, more precious. For instance, while I still love Inception, no subsequent viewing of a DVD at home will ever compare to that first opening-night screening and the collective gasp and groan followed by applause that echoed through my theater when the film cut to the end credits. The random D.B. Cooper/Sharon Tate conspiracy theories that permeated the Mad Men fandom until the finale aired two weeks ago could be exasperating, but I’m not sure I would’ve found the show quite as delightful  if I wasn’t aware they existed. Though I think Game of Thrones’s reputation for “OMG did you see that?!” shockers often causes people to overlook the quieter, more thoughtful moments that actually make it a good show, as I’ve said before, I loved following the reactions to the infamous Red Wedding because, aside from giving me an opportunity to revel in smug schadenfreude, it meant people all across the country or even the world watched the same thing and had the same gut response at essentially the same time. I still like seeing buzzy movies as soon as possible (waiting until Sunday to watch Mad Max: Fury Road the week it came out was a true test of my patience), and I frequently choose which shows to watch based on how excited other people seem to be about them. In short, my approach to entertainment is heavily motivated by the desire to feel relevant, to participate in the immediate cultural conversation, and the fear of missing out on something significant.

Remember that month in 2008 when people wouldn’t stop referencing this scene?
Good times.


        Watching Boardwalk Empire, then, has been a somewhat interesting experience. I actually saw the pilot way back when it originally aired in 2010, thanks to a free preview that HBO had that weekend for non-subscribers. At first glance, it seemed to have everything that generally attracts me to a new show: the 20th-century period setting, gorgeously meticulous visuals and production design, a veneer of prestige meshed with pulpier genre elements, the involvement of reputable names like Martin Scorsese and Steve Buscemi. Yet, along with the fact that not subscribing to HBO at that point would’ve made it difficult to keep up, I simply wasn’t engaged enough by that first episode to want to follow these characters week after week; I admired it on a technical level but not much more than that, so I let it go without any particular regrets. When I heard that Michael Pitt’s character (easily my favorite in the pilot, partly because I find Pitt to be a charismatic, underrated actor) had been killed off after the second season, I largely lost whatever interest I still had in catching up, especially since the overall consensus on the show still appeared to be that it was fine but nothing special.

        Thinking back, I’m not sure why I decided to give it another shot when I did, except that I finally got an HBO subscription and was in the mood for something gritty and noir. Now that I’ve gotten deeper into the show, I genuinely enjoy it, even though its reliance on the male gaze gets tiring and the political storylines bore me, but I’m also glad I waited to watch it. In addition to the convenience of being able to pace out episodes however I like, there’s something freeing about experiencing a show like this in a bubble, allowing me to form my own opinions without feeling the constant urge to compare them to everyone else’s. Boardwalk Empire lacks the intricacy of a show like Mad Men, which was sometimes so dense that some amount of discussion was necessary to even understand what just happened in an episode, and the dramatic watercooler moments of Game of Thrones. So, while part of me is intensely curious about how everyone reacted to a certain incest sex (rape?) scene when it aired, I don’t mind missing the predictable griping over Kelly MacDonald’s Margaret, who I assume wasn’t the most popular character given that she’s a woman who frequently opposes and foils the plans of our male antihero protagonist, and I have no idea if other people were as devastated by Jimmy’s death as I was. I can wallow fully in my emotions without having to perform them within the framework established by post-episode recaps, think pieces and conversations on social media. Though I wonder if I’m mostly just relieved to not have to encounter any disagreements or challenges to my opinions, and obviously, there’s really no “right” way to watch any show, I think ultimately this approach works for Boardwalk Empire because I’m confident enough in my own interpretation of the show that I don’t feel the need to deliberately seek out anyone else’s. It can be refreshing to not care what other people think.

        Now that I’ve finished the second season, I’m planning on taking a break from Boardwalk, though I haven’t figured out what to try next. With the 2014-15 TV season coming to a close, except for Game of Thrones, which has two episodes left, and most summer shows still not yet ready to start, this brief breather provides the perfect chance to catch up on something old. Perhaps I’ll try to make some more headway with Buffy the Vampire Slayer or I’ll finally get around to classic HBO shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood. Or I’ll dive into a shorter show that’s currently underway, say, Rectify or The 100, or I hear Halt and Catch Fire has really caught on. Maybe I’ll step away from the TV and work on those job applications or even go outside. Whatever I end up doing (probably a combination of all of the above), it’s weirdly comforting to know that Boardwalk Empire will still be around, waiting eager and unchanged for me to return. More than most other people I know, I often get caught up in wanting to join the zeitgeist and whatever the dominant cultural conversations of the moment are, so this was a pleasant reminder that it’s not always a bad thing to be out of the loop. Sometimes, it’s okay to just enjoy the silence.


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