How to do event TV right

DECEMBER 15TH, 2016 — POST 338

Probably spoilers for Westworld here. Best to avoid if you’re not up to speed.

For 10 weeks there, the internet was a minefield on Mondays. Before HBO’s Westworld had even aired, I knew it was going to run into trouble. With high-profile series — and specifically high-profile genre series — attracting so much attention and as consequently such fervent fan speculation, I suspected Westworld could very easily have key reveal ruined by the infinite monkeys typing on infinite typewriters between each weekly episode. And it only took two episodes for a prediction made by Chris Plante to float onto The Verge, a prediction that ultimately turned out to be correct 7 weeks later. It was then that I kept my guard up on Mondays, forced an erratic swipe at even an image of Dolores, The Man In Black, or Ford on some publication or social network.

I’m glad I did. Since finishing Westworld, I’ve gone back through Out West, a fan theory podcast by The Outline that ran concurrently with Westworld after the third episode. Whilst there are of course some ridiculous things raised as possibilities, every key revelation — which for me came down where the creators intended — was called at least 2 episodes in advance. This is a problem unique to broadcast television, of course. As I wrote after coming into contact with Plante’s theory, for event TV in a post-Game of Thrones world

we’ve just agreed to be okay with people talking in the middle of what we’re watching. But instead of a whisper in a movie theatre during the silence of an establishing shot to ask a friend “Do you think he did it?”, the silence is a week long, filled with literal hours of shouting across the internet.

Which is why Netflix’s upcoming series The OA, set for release this Friday, is doing it so right. Netflix compelled the invention of binge watching by releasing TV in a way that broadcast (probably) can’t. So when The OA drops on Friday, it’ll leave an 8–13 hour crater in the earth where it lands. To watch is to lock yourself away, neglect everything but necessities for survival and a pane of glowing glass for a sizeable chunk of the weekend. If there’s any chatter between episodes, it’ll drip onto social networks, untethered to any episode or series moment by a lack of public knowledge of the chatterers progress. And then we’ll all know to Shut The Fuck Up for at least a month, checking that every member of whatever group we find ourselves in is up to speed before talking about it.

Compared to Westworld which seemed to sit down the entire internet every Sunday night, the kind of hermitic viewing practice of binge watching might seem devoid of that oh-so-precious “shared experience”: that event TV is a rare and supreme experience because — with public spaces increasingly fractured online — event TV is something we can all share. There’s an argument to be made that we don’t really share the experience of Westworld, but rather are all subjected to the same experience. This argument would point to something like Stranger Things, an 8-hour experience that friends had to open up to each other about to share: something that was their own, then in conversation given up, shared. Thankfully, Netflix doesn’t have time for such headiness.

In the lead up to the release of The OA, Netflix has been writing the script for a mode of event TV post-broadcast. An intentionally inscrutable trailer, a direct play to our current obsessions of science fiction and mystery, and possibly the richest Instagram account I’ve ever seen featuring “clues” to that which the series will cover. This is the hype engine. The true value of event TV for a distributor like Netflix or HBO is it drives an almost moral duty to consume the content. Because if you don’t, everyone else will and 1) you’ll be left behind (read: a loser) and 2) you’ll have it ruined for you (read: you’ll never not be a loser). Whilst Stranger Things whipped up its event TV status a week or so after it was released, The OA is something Netflix is ensuring you’ll have no chance at avoiding. And we eat it up.

Crucial to all of this is the cards the creators hold throughout. Whilst the gap between weekly episodes of Westworld turn an entertainment product over to a rabid fanbase to ruin, this cross-platform hype building keeps a thirst without giving anyone enough to guess the whole series. And no one will care how good your theory after Episode 2 is when the whole thing is waiting to be watched. For entertainment with a heavy mystery component such as The OA, this would seem the only way to do it.

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