Monday, March 22, 2010

Of Art, Life, and Ubiquity

I just finished reading Brian Stelter's piece in today's New York Times regarding the new role that Twitter will play in the second season of Nurse Jackie. Here is his account of the what and why of that role:

Beginning in the season’s second episode, the Dr. Cooper character, played by Peter Facinelli, will be shown posting on Twitter, and the character’s comments will show up in real time on a Twitter account, called @DoctorCoop.

The account, whose posts come from the “Nurse Jackie” writing staff, is already warming up; “a tweet a day keeps the doctor okay,” it said last week.

Non-Twitter users may wonder what the fuss is about. For Showtime, it is about turning the onscreen action into a marketing device.

“We want the story to extend beyond the half-hour or hour that it lives on air and become ubiquitous with your life,” said Robert Hayes, Showtime’s senior vice president and general manager for digital media.

I have two reactions. The more obvious one is that, if the Nurse Jackie team decided that one of their characters should be an obsessive tweeter, then Cooper is definitely the perfect choice. While it is true that just about everyone in Jackie's hospital is damaged goods (which makes it one of the best illustrations of the need for health care reform), Cooper embodies just the sort of "professional" that you want to avoid, whether your medical needs are routine or an emergency. This is a guy whose head is never in the right place; so it is entirely consistent that he should get hooked on yet another one of life's consumer-based distractions.

However, I am not so much concerned with what the creative team of writers and actors have lined up for the new season as I am with what "the suits" (embodied in this case by Hayes) make of it all. I am not sure just how Hayes sees this as a marketing device, but I know that he is oblivious to how at least some folks watch television. Whether or not my wife and I are outliers in any statistical space of viewers, his quotation is most likely one of those examples of blowing smoke by drawing upon little more than the speaker's personal fantasies.

The fact is that there are plenty of stories on television that work their way into our lives; and I am pretty confident that my use of "our" in that phrase extends beyond my wife and myself. (Consider, for example, how The New York Times' own ArtsBeat blog serves to keep certain series alive on an episode-by-episode basis.) I suspect that the best example of a series that lived beyond its on-air episodes is still The Wire. My wife and I could have conversations about David Simon's narrative throughout the week, keeping each episode alive until it was time for the next one to air. Simon, after all, wrote with the keen eye of an ethnographer and the direct style of a journalist; so, even if the subject matter was fiction, the narrative itself was so embedded in the real world that it offered more sources for serious reflection than most of the babble that now passes for news. Even the very language of The Wire became part of our own living language, whether it involved instances of street talk or that all-purpose escape clause, "it is what it is" (which actually shows up several times in different guises in Shakespeare, an observation that I am sure did not escape Simon). For those of us old enough to appreciate the extent to which, taken as a whole, The Wire is an extended requiem for the way in life in which we matured and thought we would grow old, that program is still very much part of our lives. If Nurse Jackie were half as good as The Wire, perhaps it would have been harder for the powers that be to sway pubic consciousness against health care reform.

What Hayes most fails to understand, however, is that content like the narrative of The Wire does not "live" through an on ongoing flow of tweets. It lives through its power to inspire conversation, whether over the breakfast table at home or over the water cooler at work. More specifically, a narrative lives when we appropriate it and draw upon our appropriation in our own communicative actions. That is the stage at which we become informed by the narrative. It ceases to be a mere document and becomes, instead, an instance of what James Wertsch calls "mind as action." In other words the narrative has become part of our knowledge, and once that has happened its life will endure as long as our own does. From Hayes point of view, of course, the problem is that such knowledge has no part in any calculation of "marketing value." He is not interested in how we become informed. He is only interested in how mechanisms of a "consciousness industry" can improve Showtime's subscription numbers, getting more consumers addicted to his commodity. This may be one reason why Nurse Jackie is not a subject of conversation in our household, particularly when there is so much more to tease out in the complexities of United States of Tara (whose narrative is also not particularly consumer oriented)!

No comments: