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Stranger Things and Westworld highlight theory-orientated television

Netflix's Stranger Things Wallpaper
Netflix’s Stranger Things Wallpaper

If it hasn’t become abundantly clear already then let me break it down for you: for a television show to be truly immersive and capture the minds and hearts of millions, it needs to subscribe to theory-orientated television.

This idea is very simple but the offshoots are where the complications and meanderings begin. Let’s analyse and explain this using one of the most popular and talked about shows of the year: Westworld.

Westworld was marketed, and cleverly so, as a vast and expansive sci-fi world clinging onto a Jurassic World like concept. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, as what I call a falling teacup show. The idea is that there are two types of shows: teacup and falling teacup. The teacup show wants you to look at, admire it, pick it up and eye it up, watching it for what it is. Whereas, the falling teacup show starts with a beautiful and bespoke teacup falling to the ground and the experience is all about the impact, the shattering and the pieces falling into calculated positions.

Westworld was all about the journey to the cold harsh ground and buttoned its stellar and ambitious first season with the moment the teacup shatters. But along the way, along the path, Westworld was all about analysing the design and curvature of the teacup. It asked the audience why the teacup had a handle? Why the teacup fell face down? Why the teacup asked itself if it was a teacup? You get the heavy-handed metaphors attempting to explain the metaphors of Westworld, right? No? Well …

Westworld purposefully broke chronological storytelling to tell its story in fragments. Characters we thought were operating in the present actually operated in the past. Characters we thought were shrouded in mystery were actually as clear as the sky. These revelations were made with impact and emotion but they were manufactured to be so. Westworld could very easily have told the story very linearly and we would have experienced it as such. But by slicing the show open, moving things around, you get the audience thinking – you get them active and the investment they made is now an intellectual one. And humans hate having questions left unanswered. Why do you think people still clamour for a Firefly revival?

Audiences think they want a show that answers more questions than it posits. But we keep watching shows that give us questions when we want an answer. People complained until the mountains crumbled when Lost was airing but the show was consistently watched. The X-Files indulged fans for seasons and seasons and even returned for a tenth season and still left a bunch unanswered. The truth is, and we will never admit this, the feeling of dissatisfaction keeps us yearning for more.

What do we say to the God of Answers? Not Today
What do we say to the God of Answers? Not Today

It is no surprise then, that J.J. Abrams, the man behind the likes of Lost and Westworld has instilled that same theory-orientated watching experience in the Star Wars Franchise. Sure we left the theatre after watching The Force Awakens content and thoroughly happy but we also kept asking: who is Rey? What did that force vision mean? Does Kylo Ren know who Rey is? Why was Luke on that Island? And where did he poop? Undoubtedly some of these questions, probably the last one, will go unanswered for the foreseeable future but that’s the key: don’t answer the audience.

Stranger Things, the surprise hit of the year, subscribes to the same brand of storytelling. It has closed out its first season and announced a second. In old television we’d be waiting to spend time with the characters again and catch up with them but now we’re asking: where’s eleven? Did Hop sell her out? Is Dr. Brenner still alive? What actually is the Upside Down? And what’s happened to Will?

Sure the idea of cliffhangers and leftovers has been around for a while but the argument is this: for modern television to have any sort of long-tail and social media engagement, it needs to indulge in theories, twists, cliffhangers and the art of answering questions without truly answering them. It’s something politicians have been doing for hundreds of years and television is catching on.

Every show dabbles in this theory-orientated mantra. The Flash always keeps its main villain’s identity a mystery, urging you to guess. Suits plays something out and invites you to figure out how it actually unfolded. Game of Thrones has theories at the centre of its narrative and has been answering them one by one as it nears its end. Sherlock, sometimes a bit to overtly, references its rabid fan base and all their theories.

Theories are engrained in television now more and than ever and soon, I predict, it will annoy the audience so much that such shows will come crumbling down. I will always enjoy challenging shows like this. Shows that ask audiences to partake in its craftsmanship and actively get involved. But you can already see how other passive shows are capitalising on audiences that just want background noise. Soap operas are popular for a very specific reason. Reality shows are hits for a reason. Talent contests are abundant for a reason. And they are, after all, television.

I do predict that television will one day go down this route but as long as there are challenging and ballsy producers, writers and directors out there, who want to cater to a smart and respectful audience, we will be getting television that we can truly sink our teeth into.


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