Increasingly, shows careen from one gasp-inducing plot point to the next.
I had entered the realm of “bonkers TV”, a budding genre that operates on the outskirts of our television renaissance. This is programming designed to stun its audience at any cost (even coherence and plausibility) in an effort to restore some kind of order to a chaotic media landscape. Like any other kind of entertainment, television has always goosed its audience with thrilling surprises. But during the formative TV-watching years for the people who are now in the writers’ rooms, the idea of a series whose every episode proceeded from shocker to shocker was inconceivable.
Though others may disagree, I would locate the advent of bonkers TV in the success of 24. In order for us, the viewers, to get onboard with the real-time conceit, writers apparently believed that every moment of every hour of Jack Bauer’s extraordinarily bad day would have to be packed with brutal violence and daring escapes, all in the service of a story with just about the highest stakes imaginable: an assassination plot against a presidential candidate. Along the way there were also rapes by terrorists, cougar attacks, limbs amputated after catastrophic car crashes, kidnappings, amnesia and a bewildering number of moles. 24 trained viewers to expect that any character could have any allegiance — that is, any character other than Jack Bauer — and that anything could happen. In the 1980s, a prime-time soap would aim for a couple of shocking moments in a season, but 24 was just a series of “whoas” strung together.
The success of 24 was just one innovation of the ’00s that helped change the TV landscape into what we’re living with today. Another was the rise of the premium cable drama. The Sopranos wasn’t HBO’s first original series, but it was its first to draw comparisons to Shakespeare. Broadcast networks, seeing all that prestige flowing higher on the dial, started pushing the boundaries of what kind of language and imagery they could get away with in order for network series to be as dark and transgressive as premium-network fare. Or at least, I assume that’s how I came to see a human corpse turned into a cello on NBC’s Hannibal last year.
Then there was the wide availability of DVRs. Of course, VCRs allowed TV audiences to time-shift their viewing for years, but programming them could be cumbersome, and you had to have a physical tape. But DVRs made recording shows easy for even technophobes; so easy that some of us might have forgotten where and when they were shown. We also lost the discipline of paying attention to a show while it’s on, because we could now pop back eight seconds if we missed a piece of dialogue or pause it to go to the kitchen.
Our ability to focus on a TV broadcast has been further chipped away by the rise of Twitter, even as the industry has embraced it. Seemingly overnight, more and more networks urged us to tweet about their shows, suggesting hashtags in the lower corner of the screen. But there’s an obvious problem: If we’re all watching our shows not when they’re on but whenever we feel like it, we’re not really talking to one another about them. How can any TV show triumph over the convenience of the DVR and get the greatest possible number of us to tweet about it all at once?
Bonkers TV’s solution: Make every night like the Oscars. When a widely viewed live broadcast, like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl, is on, it tends to dominate every form of social media. And if you plan to watch a recording later, then you have to stay off your feeds or risk the whole thing being spoiled. TV and social media are never better partners than at times like this, as they force you either to get onboard to be part of the fun or get off the grid for four to seven hours.
A bonkers show tries to recreate this viewing environment, by careering from one gasp-inducing plot point to the next, like 24. You don’t have to watch these shows live, but you time-shift them at your peril: one glance at the wrong tab might reveal a future first lady’s rape by her father-in-law (Scandal) or the slaughter of an entire wedding party, including the pregnant bride (Game of Thrones). And with a bonkers show, there’s little to savour beyond the big plot twists: So much care and effort are expended in making the story unpredictable that credible character development is usually the production’s first casualty. But by the time you notice how thin the characters are, you’re hooked. Bonkers TV is immediately addictive precisely because of how unpredictable it is: You can’t believe what you’re seeing, and you know you need to see more.