Because we are your friends
You’ll never be alone again
Well come on
Well come on
Well come on
Well come on
–Justice vs Simian, We Are Your Friends, 2006
Justice vs Simian’s 2006 track We Are Your Friends is a mantra guaranteeing companionship. Given that coupling is a primary purpose of dance anthems, this lyrical assurance is certainly reflexive. But the music video for We Are Your Friends offers a more nuanced perspective on the nature of the camaraderie promised by the song.
The scene is the apparent aftermath of a party, with young bodies passed out across a house. On a beige, wool couch, a shirtless boy dozes atop the lap of a fully-dressed sleeper, whose hand rests with seeming comfort on his buddy’s head. But as the lap-man begins to wake he pushes no-shirt gently off only to discover that the expected short drop from couch to floor is in fact a serious fall: the couch they were dosing on had been propped up on bookshelves by unseen “friends” and now the whole structure begins to collapse. The song continues: “You’ll never be alone again.”
Edging out bigger-budget competition, the video won the top award at the MTV Europe Video Awards in 2006 (Kayne, predictably, couldn’t take it). If We Are Your Friends struck a chord in the collective imagination, as seems to be the best explanation for its dark-horse win, there is something truly frightening about the evident efficacy of this dramatized betrayal of trust. Why did it resonate so strongly? What does this say about us?
Each time I found a new paperback fantasy in my elementary school library, I would race through it. I remember being so engrossed by The Hobbit (don’t judge) that I stayed up all night to finish it, reading in my bed by the hallway light peeking through under the crack of my door. In the dim confines of the lower bunk, I found this story so transporting that the squinting and straining of my eyes was forgotten as, over the course of an evening, I walked with the protagonists1 across half a world.
Decades later, my twilight hours again have my eyes straining, but in the opposite direction. My laptop screen will only get so dim, but I am apparently still willing to compromise my sight for a story. This time, I am not alone. My partner and dog join me, and although the latter is not watching, our shared body heat cannot be discounted as part of the experience of laptop Netflix.
Our Netflixing began in earnest the week we first visited Los Angeles to look for an apartment. As our prospects for finding a place diminished with successive fruitless searches, each day was more stressful than the previous. In this context of daytime anxiety, centered about a search for home, we became truly dependent on laptop television for the first time.
Throughout the next two years, we would turn to Netflix most nights, and one series above all: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite the initially crude costumes and dialog, the campy first season seemed like good-enough comedy, and our own near-distance to the nineties and new life in California gave the show a kind of ironic exoticism. My partner and I watched the relationships between the characters evolve from archetypal to nuanced, and the strong feminist message was welcome.
At some point, I found myself caring very deeply for the characters, relating to the detailed portrayal of quotidian troubles, which Joss Whedon and the writers seemed to use to ground the supernatural conflicts that ostensibly drove the plot.
But the nightly ritual of watching Buffy was also a surrogate form of intimacy between my partner and myself. As I waded into my graduate program, increasingly anxious in my day-to-day and turning inward, I also turned away from real companionship. Watching Buffy in bed together, instead of hanging out with friends, became a way to demonstrate affection for each other—that is, to signify caring—without the real underlying dialog and trust that sustains a relationship.
(This should not be taken as a mistaken for a criticism of Buffy).
Over time, we must have both realized that watching together was not spending time with each other, but we persisted. The strange feeling began to develop that nightly Buffy—more precisely, spending time with the conflicts and desires of the characters (which became incredibly lively over the course of seven seasons)—was effectively spending time with friends.
After all, I do keep up with friends physically or temporally distant (temporal distance being when we are too pressed for time in our 24/7 economy to sync our schedules) through social media. I do regard such ties as genuine, potentially meaningful, and at least somewhat sustaining.
What, I ask, is so different about relating to a person whose motivations and psychology are incredibly developed, but who only manifests on-screen?
One criticism might be the scripted nature of the TV-friend. How could the friend be authentic, if all her actions are prescribed? But authenticity holds little water as an absolute value today (see: appropriation art, or, more cynically, Joseph Pine on “rendered authenticity” as the ideal commercial quality in the experience-economy2). If, as I believe, facebook friend X’s excellent selection of re-blogged items can, over time, convey her personality, then criticizing TV-friends on the basis of being “scripted” seems weak.
To go further, a let’s consider the nature of friendship a bit more closely.
According to Aristotle scholar Alexander Nehamas, “no particular behavior manifests [friendship].”3 In his favorite example, the crash and burn relationship between Thelma and Louise demonstrates that virtuous behavior need not be the basis of comradery, although the friendship itself is still a good, in the strong sense. Moreover, Nehamas argues, convincingly in my view, that “friendship is made of [many] inconsequential events”4 which makes “drama […] better than narrative at representing friendship […] theater, film, and especially, television.” 5
Understood together with recent critical questioning of representation,6 Nehamas’ definition of friendship as a “promise based on our history together, which no one else can share,”7 allows me to consider (albeit polemically) each individual viewer’s experience of television characters—which will be unique to the viewer, and therefore “no one else can share”—not simply a representation of friendship, but friendship.
But one tremendous problem seems to remain: friendship should be a two-way street, and the nature of broadcast television is one-directional.
However, with new Netflix-produced series like House of Cards and Marco Polo, it seems that procedural dramas are no longer as one-directional as broadcast television once might have been.
Years of Netflix data on viewers’ watching habits were used to determine the syntax of House of Cards—the number of characters, length of cuts, episodic pacing—as has been argued convincingly enough by Michael Sanchez8.
This new wealth of data on specific viewing habits is in part fueling a television content rush, as “streaming outlets like Netflix and Amazon are wooing talent with big paychecks and promises to get their shows distributed more quickly and in a format viewers can binge-watch […] ‘The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us,’ said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.”9
Of course, networks are also adjusting their strategies. Jeffrey Bewk, Time Warner’s chief executive, recently characterized HBO-Now, a standalone content service that does not require a cable subscription, as “building a foundation for the transformation of television networks, so that they will be available on demand and on mobile devices with a seamless interface for search.10”
Netflix’s Marco Polo, an obvious attempt to replicate the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, typifies the kind of instrumental reasoning behind today’s many serialized binge-able dramas. In a New York Times article from two-weeks prior to Marco Polo’s Netflix launch, in which all episodes became available at once, Times media columnist Emily Steel notes that “Ben Silverman, chairman of the multimedia studio Electus, recalled having lunch with [Harvey] Weinstein [and] talking about great stories in the public domain that would intrigue viewers across cultures. The two brainstormed about how to create an East-meets-West drama that would include the appeal of a foreign land, but also a Western character who could connect it. […] Mr. Sarandos likened Netflix’s global expansion to Marco Polo himself. ‘At some point or another we have all been a stranger in a strange land,’ he said. ‘Netflix is that stranger in a strange land.’”11
A very unscientific survey, asking the same questions, separately, to two friends who’ve worked “in the biz.”
You write as a team, correct? Do you think your friendship with your co-writer ever translates into the relationships between the characters you write?
Amit Bhalla: Yes I write with a partner. All the time. When working for [my producer] the relationships in the room always translated to relationships in the show.
Dwayne Moser: I write solo. Although the show that was being produced, that was with my ex […]. We also wrote a feature together while living in upstate New York. One day while driving up the Taconic from the city we were just riffing on things. Neither of us had jobs, so we had time to brainstorm—she was writing a script she was frustrated with, and I was starting to look at my bank account and think that I needed money—and we came up with an idea based on a phrase. You know, working from the title backwards on what the feature would be. To answer your question, I don’t think the relationship translated into the screen relationships, but it is hard to say so… I’ve read too much Freud to rule that out entirely.
Do you have informal (or formalized) rules or guidelines on how to maintain a reader’s (eventually, viewer’s) attention?
AB: No we don’t. We read the script, if it feels boring, or feels like it’s lagging at some point, we fix it. I think most TV-writers work the other way with a more formalized act structure.
DM: Of course! CalArts had hired me to teach screenwriting. In some ways the rules I adhered to I’d developed on my own, and in some way they developed by teaching others. I tried not to teach rules in an unthinking way. That said, in screenwriting a rule-based approached is almost like accepted practice […] when you write a pilot, one of the things that every one of the network people who I ever talked to would demand is that the pilot has to both introduce the world—a term that is used all the time in this business—and characters in a thorough and new way. Additionally, and most difficult, from a writer’s perspective, is that the pilot also has to function like a normal episode. It can’t just be an hour of introduction. It needs to also introduce the rhythms of the show, to be procedural even. It needs to provide a viewing experience that promises to reproduce itself each week.
How do your characters come alive? How do you show that?
AB: Detail! They slowly develop a voice. You pick the good lines, the ones that feel true. After a while you start saying — but he/she would never say that.
DM: With as little dialog as possible. Maybe that’s a crazy thing to say. I’ve always believed in establishing characters through actions rather than dialog. One of the worst ways to make a character come alive is to show their messy, or overly tidy, apartment, though one sees this attempted all the time. I tend to want to put the characters in a position of decision-making under pressure. My belief is that the action they undertake at that point gives us, the viewers, a sense of who they are. Of course this belief stems from a corresponding belief about the revelation of character by real people in real life.
Do you imagine your viewers’ reactions to how your characters behave?
AB: All the time. That’s most of what we do. And then we put those reactions into other characters in the show. The viewer must feel there is always an avatar for their reactions, so as not to feel entirely alienated by the material.
DM: Um, yeah, of course. There might be a tv writer who truly wants their viewers to hate their characters, but it’s a risky move and I don’t know if anyone can really do it. It’s a popular form… TV in particular. To ignore your audience as an “artist in cave” or whatever seems crazy.
Let me tell you something no one else knows—that’s already putting a burden on the receiver of that phrase.
Secret keeping has high costs,12 and comes with shame.
Do those who get an energy rush from watching a horse get graphically beheaded on Game of Thrones share something with romance novel fans, who come together as a community through common guilt over their shared passion13? I doubt it is as beautiful as that.
Why is that a TV show like Bones—an economic vehicle for Fox, a crowd pleaser—can employ a gory fantasy of total virtualized control over a body as a successful hook for mainstream viewers? An episode titled “The Crack in the Code” is a case in point: the titular forensics team examines a human spine placed on the Lincoln Memorial; the killer has rearranged the vertebrae in order to send messages that only become fully apparent after 3-d scanning the charnel evidence. The most-binged Netflix entertainment of all time, Breaking Bad, employs a similarly grisly hook in the second episode of the first season: a corpse in an acid bath dissolves through the tub and floor in front of the protagonists.
Pierre Bourdieu suggests that in the case of the most heteronomous forms of cultural production, such as procedural television dramas, “adjustment to demand is not the product of a conscious arrangement between producers and consumers. It results from the correspondence between the space of the producers, and therefore of the products offered, and the space of the consumers, which is brought about on the basis of the homology between the two spaces.14”
In that light, another way to see the manifestation of violence on screen is as a homology to the cognitive-affective violence already present in our new consumer space, the bed. Where is that violence you ask? Isn’t the bed where we go to be safe, tucked in, maybe with a lover or pet? Well, since beds are above all places for rest, then perhaps it should not be surprising that they are also occupied by the exhausted and the depressed.
If the bed is historically, allegorically,15 and practically the place where one can expect a space for interiority, dreams, and intimacy, then it is also a place where the consumer of a story is particularly susceptible to emotional intensity. A screen flashes gore in our beds, while we are prone, most vulnerable. Could bedtime binge-watching trauma-bond viewers to their new (streaming) friends?
If, as I have argued, our relationships to TV-characters can have significance similar to our real-life relationships, then what ethics should apply to their—economically planned—fictional actions? And what to make of the extremely violent scenes that seem to be newly requisite in the Amazon, Netflix, and HBO-led television renaissance?
The most telling animal deaths seem to be exclusively for the purpose of demonstrating a character trait. One way of looking at it is just as the price to be paid in order for the characters to come alive more quickly than they should.16 It is a cliché of fantasy, shifted from story to reality: necromancy, beginning with a sacrifice.