1 - Television Nervosa

"Dad, you shouldn't say the dog's dead when he's not." - Homer Simpson
"It's not fair to toy with people's emotions like that." - Lisa Simpson

People have been using moving pictures to tell stories for a little over a century now. What we think of as a modern “movie” emerged in the 1930s as color and sound became standard and audiences began to accept a 1-2 hour runtime as the “feature” length that was worth their hard earned nickels.

Television became popular about two decades later, in the 1950s. While television is superficially similar to a movie, there are some important differences. Most obviously, the screen is a lot smaller. The breathtaking vista of an outdoor panorama that dazzled on an eighty-foot movie screen doesn't look quite so grand on a tiny, early model television. Similarly, movies can be just about any length, an extra minute or five doesn't really matter. On teevee, however, everything must be rigidly timed to keep to the strict confines of a set timeslot.

In terms of how each medium shapes storytelling, however, the technical differences are insignificant next to the fundamentally different social and commercial realities that underlie each one. A movie can be watched in the home, of course, but the primary commercial lure of a theatrical film is to get audiences to pay for admission. Having bought a ticket, a viewer then sits in a public place with no distractions from the main task: watching the movie. Television, however, is generally watched in private, where there is no social expectation of viewership and distractions abound.

A movie director can assume a higher level of audience attention than a television director, and that's before one takes advertising breaks into account. On television, the entire show is stopped every few minutes for a series of what amount to unrelated mini-movies that yank the audience out of the story. Since most advertisements are designed to provoke and exploit anxieties (do you smell? is your face not clean enough? why aren't your friends as pretty and cool as the ones in the ads?), people naturally dislike them. To keep viewers interested through those discordant interruptions, when many of them might wander out of the room or change the channel, most television shows rely on a series of miniature cliffhangers.

Before each ad break begins, some worrisome plot development will arise: a secret revealed, a new threat, surprise sex (a soap opera favorite); it doesn't really matter. The important part is that the home viewer's interest needs to be piqued long enough to pull them through those annoying commercials.

For a visceral demonstration of this, all you need to do is watch something that was originally broadcast on commercial television with the commercials edited out. A theatrical movie (well, most of them) will steadily build its tension and conflict until things get resolved near the end. A television show, on the other hand, has a sawtooth pattern to its tension, with sudden ups followed by equally sudden downs, like a carnival roller coaster that can't pull the car smoothly to the top of the hill.

To see this in action, look no further than the television directorial work of one Jeffrey Jacob Abrams. He took the big chair for three episodes of his show Alias (the pilot, the Season 1 finale, and the Season 2 finale) and the two-part pilot of Lost. All of them are available commercial free on Netflix, and each one contains a series of start-stop moments that would grind a theatrical movie to a halt.

For example, in the Lost pilot, a group of strangers find themselves stranded on a tropical island after a plane crash. The twists and disturbing discoveries come like clockwork every time the original broadcast cut to commercial. There's a scary monster, cut; there's an empty pair of handcuffs in the jungle, cut; there's a polar bear, cut. Several times, the show cuts after showing different characters flash back to the plane crash itself. With each one, the soundtrack stops, the screen goes black, and there's no mistaking that there were once a bunch of ads there.

You can't see them anymore, but once countless herds of ads roamed here.

Just one of the many 3-second blank screens required of commercial entertainment.

That is the nature of commercially financed television. The ads have to go somewhere, and people's attention must be kept, hence little cliffhangers every six minutes or so. Alias, a show built around betrayals, double betrayals, evil doppelgangers, medieval artifacts, and other high velocity nonsense, was perfect for yanking the audience through one set of ads after another.

The problem arises when this tick of behavior is put up on the big screen, where it is not only unnecessary, but outright damaging. Unfortunately for Star Trek and Star Wars fans everywhere, Abrams brought this compulsion with him to the cinema.

Continue to Chapter 2 - Mission Impossible 3: Salvage Job