Sharp - - CONTENTS - By Nicholas Hune-brown

Nicholas Hune­brown on the in­sid­i­ous way tele­vi­sion com­men­tary is of­ten bet­ter than tele­vi­sion it­self.

How off­beat tele­vi­sion com­men­tary be­came its own form of en­ter­tain­ment

BY THE 53RD EPISODE OF BINGE MODE: GAME OF THRONES — the pod­cast/feat of stam­ina from sports and pop cul­ture site The Ringer — hosts Mal­lory Rubin and Ja­son Con­cep­cion are feel­ing punchy. Af­ter a gru­elling trek through six sea­sons of the HBO show, the yelling is slightly louder, the im­pres­sions of Qy­burn more un­hinged. “We are re­watch­ing all 60 episodes of Game of Thrones,” Rubin re­minds lis­ten­ers. “We are deep div­ing one at a time, and we are get­ting close. Spoiler warn­ing: we’ve lost our minds.” The pod­cast is a mix­ture of un­der­grad sem­i­nar–style anal­y­sis — with lec­tures on the im­por­tance of guest rights in the North and the his­tory of Iron Bank lend­ing pol­icy — and smart aleck riff­ing on the size of Hodor’s mem­ber. It’s at once a friendly chat be­tween friends and a cyn­i­cal land grab for pre­cious GOT fan real es­tate. It’s a cou­ple of smart peo­ple spend­ing a stupid amount of time talk­ing about drag­ons. It is, in other words, the voice of con­tem­po­rary TV fan­dom.

The pod­cast is a small part of the vast GOT cul­tural econ­omy. A new sea­son of the HBO show doesn’t just bring count­less pre­views, re­caps, pod­casts, and af­ter­shows, but also ad­ven­tur­ous, bor­der­line ridicu­lous trips into the dis­tant cor­ners of the show’s uni­verse. There are in­ter­views with the show’s “horse mis­tress.” A psy­chol­o­gist an­a­lyzes ev­ery fic­tional char­ac­ter and di­ag­noses them with var­i­ous per­son­al­ity dis­or­ders. Amid the del­uge of com­men­tary, the show it­self be­gins to feel sec­ondary — the ar­bi­trary cen­tre around which a whirling mael­strom of con­tent piv­ots.

This flood-the-zone strat­egy of TV cov­er­age is hardly lim­ited to Thrones. On web­sites like AV Club and Vul­ture you can catch episode-by-episode re­caps of Speech­less or Shame­less or Time­less (a show about a “rag­tag gang of do-gooder time trav­ellers who must track down a rogue gang of bad­die time trav­ellers be­fore they ma­nip­u­late his­tory and end life as we know it,” ac­cord­ing to the poor young writer as­signed to it). The ven­er­a­ble New York Times pays some­one to re­cap episodes of Bil­lions. Pod­cast lis­ten­ers can sub­scribe to Holler Back and hear ex­pert anal­y­sis of ev­ery episode of Jus­ti­fied, a show that ended in 2015. Fans of ABC’S fairy­tale-based melo­dra-

ma Once Upon a Time can tune into Once Uponth a Time, Once Upon a Pod­cast, Greet­ings from Sto­ry­brooke, or any of the other twenty-odd pod­casts de­voted to re­lent­lessly an­a­lyz­ing a show in which a bi­sex­ual Mu­lan has the hots for Sleep­ing Beauty. An out­growth from the era of Peak TV is the era of Peak TV com­men­tary.

It’s an era that be­gan in­no­cently enough. TV has al­ways been de­rided as an anti-so­cial medium. Cinephiles talk in hushed tones about the magic of en­ter­ing the sanc­tum of the theatre and feel­ing the col­lec­tive en­ergy of an au­di­ence of like-minded souls shar­ing a screen­ing of Trans­form­ers 12: Shrug of Ubiq­uity. TV watch­ers, in con­trast, were stay-at-home lon­ers con­tent to re­place real friends with the cast of an NBC sit­com. The truth, of course, is that TV is an art form that de­mands so­cia­bil­ity. The so-called “golden age” of se­ri­al­ized TV shows was built for con­ver­sa­tion, de­signed to ig­nite fevered dis­cus­sions among co-work­ers and friends who fol­lowed a grow­ing nar­ra­tive in real time. With new episodes of The So­pra­nos or Mad Men gen­er­at­ing Mon­day morn­ing con­ver­sa­tions around the wa­ter cooler, it just made sense to have a few in­tel­li­gent peo­ple dis­cuss it on­line.

To­day, that me­dia con­ver­sa­tion has all but re­placed the real-life dis­cus­sion. Last year, 455 scripted pro­grams were aired. TV shows that, 10 years ago, would have dom­i­nated the cul­ture come and go with­out cre­at­ing a rip­ple. In this era of frac­tured view­ing — with ev­ery­one watch­ing dif­fer­ent things at dif­fer­ent times on dif­fer­ent plat­forms — the chances of find­ing some­one who hap­pens to have seen the same episode of Fleabag or Le­gion on a ran­dom Wed­nes­day grows in­creas­ingly mi­nus­cule. Con­ver­sa­tions about TV to­day be­gin with a cat­a­logue of new shows — “Have you seen Amer­i­can Gods? What about I Love Dick?” — fol­lowed by de­mands that you avoid spoil­ers or ques­tions about where to stream it. At a mo­ment when tele­vi­sion is built for con­ver­sa­tion, the medium has been de­cou­pled from real-world com­mu­nity.

In­stead, if you’re a viewer of Preacher or Catas­tro­phe, your com­mu­nity is on­line. This kind of TV talk is, of course, of­ten em­bar­rass­ing. The hosts of Binge Mode are fully com­mit­ted to Thrones fan­dom. They call the fi­nal episode of Sea­son 6 an “in­com­pa­ra­ble sea­son fi­nale that is jam-packed with in­trigue and good­ness and ma­jes­tic won­ders and is ba­si­cally per­fect.” There’s no room for skep­ti­cism in this world. Like Fox News view­ers tun­ing into Sean Han­nity, the au­di­ence is there for a rea­son, and that rea­son is not a thought­ful dis­sent­ing opin­ion. The era of Peak TV com­men­tary is about ser­vic­ing true be­liev­ers — flat­ter­ing our taste, in­dulging our the­o­ries, re­liv­ing favourite mo­ments in the com­pany of me­dia pro­fes­sion­als paid to pro­vide good com­pany.

This is, among other things, a fun­da­men­tally de­press­ing fact about the lone­li­ness of mod­ern life. To­day we don’t just watch “our sto­ries”; we out­source dis­cus­sion of our sto­ries to a sec­ond tier of strangers, fic­tional friends chat­ting about fic­tional friends. But the ubiq­uity of this kind of con­tent speaks to its pop­u­lar­ity.

A few weeks ago, I fin­ished the fi­nal episode of the Aus­tralian show Please Like Me. The show is bril­liant — a dram­edy writ­ten by a young co­me­dian that opens with his mother’s sui­cide at­tempt and con­tin­ues from there, trav­el­ling through dif­fi­cult sub­jects with shock­ing sure-foot­ed­ness and hon­est hu­mour. It’s funny and lov­able, smart and fresh. In the era of Peak TV, it’s also im­pos­si­bly fringe — a cu­ri­ous im­port brought to an ob­scure Amer­i­can chan­nel and then qui­etly placed on Net­flix, in­vis­i­ble to all but those whose par­tic­u­lar al­go­rithm some­how in­tu­its that they might en­joy quirky com­ing-of-age come­dies about gay Aus­tralians with sui­ci­dal par­ents. When the fi­nal cred­its rolled, I re­al­ized there was no one I could talk to about it. Like the best TV shows, it had left me with a de­sire to live with it a lit­tle longer, to talk through some of my ques­tions, to find com­mu­nion with like-minded in­di­vid­u­als. So I opened my lap­top.

“The so-called ‘golden age’ of se­ri­al­ized TV shows was de­signed to ig­nite fevered dis­cus­sions among co-work­ers and friends who fol­lowed a grow­ing nar­ra­tive in real time. Now, me­dia con­ver­sa­tion has all but re­placed the real-life dis­cus­sion.”

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