For bet­ter or for worse, Twit­ter and TV wed

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Mary McNa­mara

LOS AN­GE­LES — From the mo­ment it pre­miered, Show­time’s wildly am­bi­tious spy thriller Home­land was not so much dis­cussed as it was anointed. It was the first drama to both em­body post-9/11 anx­i­ety and serve as a mas­ter class in act­ing, a nar­ra­tive high-wire act told from two dis­tinct view­points in which the cost of war was end­lessly cal­cu­lated. Two years later, Home­land has be­come a so­cial me­dia pinata, the sub­ject of of­ten out­raged re­caps, blogs and es­says that glee­fully harp on per­ceived flaws and in­con­sis­ten­cies. Last year the love af­fair be­tween the two leads, Car­rie (Claire Danes) and Brody (Damian Lewis), kept re­cap­pers and crit­ics in per­pet­ual churn, while pre­vi­ous praise for Brody’s daugh­ter Dana did such a 180 that Dana be­came fod­der for a Satur­day Night Live skit. This sea­son, a rev­e­la­tion at the end of the third episode twisted more than the story line. View­ers who had been com­plain­ing about what they con­sid­ered a slow start cheered, while oth­ers, in­clud­ing some crit­ics, called it out as a nar­ra­tive cheat. So fevered was the re­ac­tion that cre­ator Alex Gansa ac­knowl­edged to En­ter­tain­ment Weekly’s James Hib­berd: “It was a long con and maybe we played it for one episode too many.” Ei­ther way, we were once again treated to a de­bate about whether Home­land was los­ing its mojo. At the end of the third episode. Trends in so­cial me­dia and the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of TV dra­mas have cre­ated a new breed of In­stant Re­sponse Viewer that in­creas­ingly af­fects how a show is per­ceived, to its ben­e­fit or detri­ment. Like am­biva­lent lovers, In­stant Re­sponse View­ers con­tin­u­ally re-eval­u­ate their re­la­tion­ship with a se­ries, of­fer a run­ning com­men­tary that cel­e­brates that which pleases them and de­nounces, with vary­ing de­grees of um­brage, what does not. Far from the pas­sive ex­pe­ri­ence it has long been con­sid­ered, TV view­ing has be­come some­thing be­tween a blood sport and a teenage courtship. Is this sea­son as good as last sea­son? Am I love-watch­ing or hate-watch­ing? What does my Twit­ter feed say? The In­stant Re­sponse Viewer is ac­tu­ally a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion model. Pre-Twit­ter, in­dus­try watch­ers be­gan re­mark­ing on the rise of the Su­per Fan, those view­ers who flocked to a show’s mes­sage boards or Face­book pages, pledg­ing de­vo­tion with pas­sion that filled out the space where large view­er­ship num­bers used to be. Twit­ter made it eas­ier for the Su­per Fans to con­nect, with each other, with a show’s cast and cre­ator and, in some cases, with the net­works. NBC’s Chuck was fa­mously saved by a Twit­ter cam­paign (just as Cag­ney and Lacey had been saved, years ear­lier, by those bits of pa­per we once called “let­ters”). The me­dia fol­lowed suit, hir­ing re­cap­pers and en­ter­tain­ment blog­gers to keep up with hot shows and their au­di­ences; many crit­ics be­gan re­view­ing shows episode by episode. Twit­ter sped things up, and the In­stant Re­spon­ders were born, tweet­ing and blog­ging re­ac­tions hours, or in some cases mo­ments, af­ter an episode has aired, re­plac­ing the next-day wa­ter-cooler con­ver­sa­tion with a real-time, of­ten com­pet­i­tive fo­cus group. A crowded mar­ket­place al­ways in­ten­si­fies de­mand, and there are so many good shows that time man­age­ment has be­come a bona fide is­sue; Sun­day night alone has be­come vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to nav­i­gate with­out a pre­mium DVR pack­age. Add to that the con­stant re­as­sur­ance in­tense de­vo­tion of­ten re­quires and view­ers’ de­mands make some sense. More im­por­tant, at least for shows like Home­land, the au­di­ence has changed. While the loyal masses are still happy to fol­low NCIS and The Big Bang The­ory through episodes strong and weak, the emerg­ing genre of “pres­tige dra­mas” an­swers to a much smaller and more de­mand­ing de­mo­graphic, in­clud­ing those who once dis­missed tele­vi­sion as low­brow. Sud­denly the idiot box was not so id­i­otic; great clots of fans rose, each with sud­denly strong opin­ions that they could now of­fer pub­licly. Some­times, they’d re­ceive a di­rect re­sponse from the show’s stars or writ­ers, many of whom even­tu­ally learned how quickly in­fat­u­a­tion can turn to dis­ap­point­ment and even loathing. Since Twit­ter helped make the tween show Pretty Lit­tle Liars a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non and turn Scan­dal from bub­ble show to hit, a show’s suc­cess on so­cial me­dia is of­ten given equal weight as its view­er­ship. The me­dia in­creas­ingly re­ports on so­cial me­dia re­ac­tions, grant­ing them an Ev­ery Viewer sta­tus that may or may not be de­served. The Twit­ter frenzy over Syfy’s Shark­nado pro­duced more sto­ries than did the film it­self. And al­though Shark­nado did not ben­e­fit rat­ings-wise from the at­ten­tion, the net­work’s next movie, Ghost Shark, was sud­denly con­sid­ered wor­thy of re­view. But, as Home­land is find­ing, dis­sat­is­fac­tion can be just as con­ta­gious as en­thu­si­asm. The first show fa­tally stung by the In­stant Re­sponse men­tal­ity was AMC’s The Killing, which never re­cov­ered from the very vo­cal fury some fans and crit­ics felt when the ini­tial crime was not solved in the first sea­son’s fi­nale. Oth­er­wise rea­son­able peo­ple pub­licly swore they would never watch another episode no mat­ter what. Never mind that the show was un­de­ni­ably hyp­notic, with uni­formly ex­cel­lent per­for­mances, fear­less writ­ing and mood from here to next Thurs­day. In­stant Re­spon­ders were out­raged. The Killing limped its way through two more sea­sons, a flawed but of­ten quite ex­cel­lent show that never re­cov­ered from be­ing gut-shot. This isn’t to say that a se­ries can’t col­lapse un­der its own weight or lose its way, and if a ma­jor­ity of view­ers feel jerked around, well, that’s a real prob­lem for any sto­ry­teller. But a nar­ra­tively fal­ter­ing show can’t be saved by the cries of its fans or in re­sponse to its de­trac­tors. The best sto­ries are not writ­ten to or­der, or even to please. De­spite the in­flu­ence In­stant Re­spon­ders now have, the power of the au­di­ence and the crit­ics re­mains as it was four cen­turies ago, when the groundlings threw their chest­nut shells onto the Globe The­atre stage to protest a tired plot or bad act­ing. We can sup­port a show or kill it; tech­nol­ogy just gives us tools to do it faster. And, if we’re not care­ful, with­out enough thought.


Claire Danes in Home­land, a show that view­ers ob­ses­sively dis­sect and cri­tique via so­cial me­dia.

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