We are undeniably in the Golden Age of television. From bloody and brilliant epics like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, to irreverent comedies like Veep and Parks & Rec, these days the content roster is deeper and more loaded than a Crimson Tide defense. That’s a sports joke, for those of you fanatics that happen to be stopping by (thanks for reading, y’all!).
But with great content comes great responsibility, and now more than ever shows offer us increasingly immersive experiences. Not only are showrunners pumping out content, they’re finding innovative ways to engage with their audience and keep them invested throughout the week. The Walking Dead offers interactive 3D experiences; all of Showtime’s programming has loads of extras on the SHO Sync App; even shows that are running out of steam as quickly as FOX’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine have secondary online elements. The goal for shows these days isn’t just to entertain us, but to engage us, to keep us talking.
The question is: does this increased engagement truly heighten our experience, or does it hinder our enjoyment?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at one of the biggest small screen releases of last year, HBO’s Westworld.
So what’s up with Westworld?
For those of you who opted to hibernate for the rest of 2016 after Bowie died and Trump began his ascendancy, Westworld is HBO’s newest, biggest, wildest show yet. There’s way too much going on in the show’s periphery to explain everything, but at its core it’s a show about a Wild West theme park in the not-too-distant future where people can shoot, seduce, or befriend the park’s android inhabitants. Using HBO’s tried-and-true formula of excess blood and boobs, Westworld garnered a sizable viewership during its first season’s run. But, more importantly, it sparked the flame of debate on countless messageboards across the internet.
I have to admit: from the first episode of Westworld, I was hooked. With the beautiful John Ford-inspired landscapes, the intriguing Groundhog’s Day narrative loops, and the stellar cast (Jeffrey Wright though…), it was an easy sell. True, the show got convoluted and narratively manipulative down the stretch, and some of the characters’ motivations were wildly inconsistent, but that’s a conversation for another time. Despite these pitfalls I still love the show and watched it religiously; but, unlike any other show before, my perspective and opinion was strongly shaped by outside discussions.
Getting in on the conversation
From the jump, almost everyone I knew who watched the show was tuned in to the messageboards and websites that delved into the mysteries of Westworld. I mean, when a show obfuscates major narrative points at every possible turn, how can you not turn to Reddit for answers? The results, for me, were exactly what I imagine channel execs want from their audience: I was actively engaged with the show’s content after each episode, I eagerly searched for follow-up content, and I would eagerly await each new episode like a pre-teen waiting for his crush to text him back.
As an ardent fan of television series, both new and old, I watch a lot of T.V.. and toss around fan theories with the best of them, but never in my fandom have I ever experienced what happened with Westworld. The depths that some people scoured to validate their theories was astounding, and many of their ideas were captivating. HBO even fostered these convos by releasing extras on their website every week, giving you fresh behind-the-scenes looks that further teased your freshly-fucked mind with more puzzle pieces and red herrings.
In short, the interactivity of this show was second-to-none. This engagement made Westworld more like a movement than a show. These conversations made me love the show for what it was; but, in the end, they were also the downfall of my enjoyment…
Too Much of a Good Thing
Sometimes when you go searching for something, the absolute worst thing that you can find is exactly what you’re looking for. That was my experience with all of the messageboards and online convos that I had about Westworld: I went searching for answers, and ultimately I was devastated to realize that I found them.
There’s almost nothing as satisfying as discovering that you totally called a plot twist episodes ago…except when you realize that you’ve spoiled what was supposed to be a jaw-dropping moment for yourself. Maybe it was just predictable writing, or maybe our increased engagement with shows is spoiling our ability to be amazed. Viewers are smarter than ever. What once shocked us is now commonplace, and we can spot narrative maneuvers from a mile away. Bring hundreds if not thousands of these narratively-aware people together on one website, and someone is bound to predict where a show is going, no matter how ridiculous it may seem. Shows today encourage us to talk, beg us to theorize and debate, but in doing so they also tarnish something that we all love about a good show: our ability to be surprised.
What Do You Think?
So what do you think? I’m just one person amidst the hordes of television lovers across the world. How do you feel about our increased engagement with T.V.shows? Do you shy away from message boards or do you troll them for hours on end? Am I coming from a reasonable point of view or do I just need to have more willpower and stay off these theory sites? Would it be too self-aware for a T.V. show to use guerrilla tactics to promote a false fan theory to stave off ruining the big payoff? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section!