By Diana D’arcangelo
More than a decade ago in the mid-aughts, there was no greater constant in my life than my Saturday morning routine. Still in my pajamas, I would wake up by 9 am, grab my bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and sit in front of the living room TV to watch the newest episode of Yu-Gi-Oh, dubbed into child-friendly English from its original Japanese. Unless I pestered my parents into buying me a VHS copy of my shows, and since we normally couldn’t afford cable, Saturday mornings were my only brief window into this captivating world of color, dialogue, and narrative. Dramatic arcs would be laid down brick by brick, week after week in 22-minute timeslots, culminating in exciting season finales that would satiate my angst-filled, eleven-year-old brain. If I wanted to experience the dopamine rush that came with seeing Yugi Muto discover his past life as a magical, Egyptian Pharaoh, or if I wanted the adrenaline that filled my veins when anticipating what Pokemon Ash Ketchum would catch next, then I did what most children in 2004 did: I waited. Week after week.
Sound nostalgic but totally outdated? That’s because it is. In the time it’s taken me to grow from an emo-rock listening pre-teen to an NPR loving adult, the availability of television and visual media in general has experienced a revolution, to put it lightly. Where I’d be lucky as a ten-year-old to catch a single episode of Spongebob after school from time to time, toddlers today are consuming multiple episodes of Peppa Pig on their parent’s smartphones while waiting in line at the grocery store. If you’re like me, you may inadvertently judge these parents, thinking about how irresponsible they are to jack their kids into cyberspace as a means of escaping the exhausting duties of parenting, but to paraphrase Jesus, it might be best not to cast the first stone.
The by-product of the internet we’ve come to know as streaming services, (you know, your Hulu’s, your Netflix’s, your Amazon’s for whatever reason) has, like the internet, begun to alter Western human experience in ways we will likely not understand for quite some time. One of these subtle effects can be seen in the way streaming services, and their ever-growing share of the television market has quietly and gradually altered the way stories are told. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan stated five simple words that would alter how we view media: “The Medium is the Message.” Mediums, such as our beloved streaming services, fundamentally alter more than just the intended use of the medium. In this case, if I can assume, streaming television originally began as a means of faster and more convenient delivery of your favorite TV shows, thus ensuring customer loyalty and higher profits. While there are plenty of unintended consequences from the rise of Netflix, YouTube and the like, including consequences that range from political to biological, I’m only here to mention one consequence, and that is the subtle but unfortunate degradation of serial storytelling.
Using McLuhan’s logic, we can already guess that there will be changes in the way TV shows for these services are written and made. Where before television shows would be rationed out week by week like cabbage soup at an orphanage, now a buffet of complete seasons refilled constantly with new episodes are at your disposal. But ironically, one doesn’t yearn for buffet platters the same way an orphan might yearn for their daily bowl of soup. The vast array of other new dishes to try, carefully curated to your liking by incomprehensible algorithms, lessens the power of whatever dish you happen to be on. Shows on streaming services must adjust their storytelling technique to keep your attention occupied, especially when something like Instagram’s mind-numbing rabbit hole is just a tap away. Streaming’s effect on the medium and message of television can be seen in the third and latest season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name. The Handmaid’s Tale is already a dramatic, heart-wrenching story just by the nature of its content, but how this story was told and continued beyond the source-material in its second and third seasons dramatizes its narrative to a new level. The original novel, while no stranger to violence and drama, became regarded as a literary masterpiece thanks to its power in its quieter moments. Handmaids in the fictional dystopia of Gilead are silent, powerless, and must express their rebellion through subtleties and internal monologue. To transition this story from its printed medium to a televised one would already need to include a creative license, but its home on Hulu, one of the larger streaming services around, has had a different impact on its narrative. One is the incessant use of the cliffhanger, which is a device that plagues many of our favorite streaming shows. Like junk food, it gives us the rush and enticement we’re looking for, but often at a cost. Yes, cliffhangers have been a thing since the dawn of literature, and they’ve certainly been a staple in television for decades, but they’ve become pronounced and saturated in today’s streaming world. Shows like The Handmaid’s Tale must be punctuated by endings that keeping viewers glued to their seats, to keep the expected hit of dopamine on schedule to prevent viewers from hitting the ever-present back button on their phones. The eventual problem with this effect is that televised stories, instead of developing organically and ending on a spot that will make narrative sense, must obey planted checkpoints that are like flags in the dirt, forcing writers to hurry or slow their character development and story momentum to meet these demands. Instead of stories generating revelations, timed revelations now dictate the story. In Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale, the episode “Heroic” ends on an emotional shift for the show’s protagonist, June. This epiphany of hers, however, comes after a grueling and long episode of little to no plot development. The episode’s final moment that sees June come to her new conclusion to save the children of Gilead could’ve been condensed into another episode entirely, but it is a moment that was arguably set aside for the purpose of “cliffhanging” this one episode in particular. Episode endings are not the only casualty of this new medium, however, since this same effect also creeps into the greater narrative in general.
Not to get too philosophical, but in a way, the internet has fundamentally altered our relationship with time. Our perception of time is dictated by our consciousness and the content it consumes, and in 2019, the volume and variety of information at our disposable would be beyond understanding to anyone even a century ago. What this has done is destroy any sense of linearity society may have gotten accustomed to in their media consumption. Instead of a morning newspaper or nightly news brief, news can now bombard your brain at literally every second of every day. Instead of viewing a TV show once a week at a set time, entire seasons of different programs can be watched anywhere between hours and months. This new model of media consumption is reminiscent of a Rhizomatic model of media. According to Deleuze and Guattari, a Rhizome does away with traditional, Western forms of hierarchy and instead develops a formless web of constantly shifting connections and causality. This chaotic model has been applied to the order in which we watch our favorite shows, since prior to streaming, show ‘A’ would always be scheduled at a network’s whim between show ‘B’ and show ‘C.’ I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that now in days one can binge a few episodes of The Great British Baking Show right after finishing the dystopian gloom of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Rhizome can also be seen in the narrative construction of the TV episodes themselves. Where prior to streaming one would have to stay put for thirty minutes from beginning to end to watch a show, we now have the power to pause mid-episode and mid-season, sometimes never to return again. This Rhimozatic model has resulted in the proliferation of what I call “moments,” which are emotional, impactful points in the storyline that have all the cinematic grandeur of important narrative development, but when studied further, are really just empty fluff. As The Handmaid’s Tale continues its trudge forward in Season 3, these “moments” become more and more apparent, resulting in a story that at times feels like it’s running in circles. It pits characters against each other in ways that will create sizzling points of tension and emotional catharsis, but when viewed from a narrative standpoint, they are essentially useless. This tendency seemed to carry on all the way into the season’s finale, and I’m certainly not the only one to feel this way. Erik Kain of Forbe’s Magazine questioned a moment in the season finale that looked very cool on-screen but is logically questionable. “She (June) ends up in a gunfight with a Guardian… Why didn’t she just pretend to be shot earlier and then shoot him with her concealed pistol? I suppose it’s so they could have that scene with the Handmaids carrying her on their makeshift stretcher…” which is a scene that is both cinematically beautiful but also somewhat unsound in its utility. It is a prime example of a designated emotional “moment,” (June being carried on the makeshift stretcher) forcing the events that precede it into an inorganic pattern. Kain continues to note this trend of putting style over substance: “This conclusion… should be more satisfying than it is. But there’s something about it that feels . . . too forced or too contrived for my liking.” Kain correctly points out, in my opinion, the too-good-to-be-true nature of this season finale. As much as I cried my heart out watching the hero get exactly what she had hoped for in the season’s conclusion, it was an unsettling reminder of the show’s ever-thinning foundation, and the writing staff’s ever-shifting prioritization of emotional “gotcha” moments over more sound, thematic storytelling, arguably at the fault of its streaming medium.
It will take a keener eye to document the true scope of change seen in streaming shows, but before one can recognize these differences, we must first understand why these changes have taken place. Recognizing McLuhan’s theory of the medium being the message is a first step, but arguably it’s not the first step. A more recent theory, Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, goes hand in hand with it. Actor-Network theory blurs the line between actor and network and asserts equality between the members of a network and the network itself. In terms of streaming television, the humans downloading Netflix and Hulu are just as essential to the network of modern television as the streaming services themselves. If we fail to recognize this, then we will fail to recognize McLuhan’s assertion that the changing medium of streaming TV will also change us in ways we have yet to understand. I’ve pointed out a few ways that it’s already affected the way we tell stories, but more importantly, we should pay attention to how it’s affected we, the audience.