April 17, 2019

The end of an era—in more ways than one

If it were a secret, it would be the world’s worst-kept. Game of Thrones is back.

If you’ve never heard of Game of Thrones, then one can only conclude that you’ve spent too much time, well, on the throne—the porcelain kind, that is. Now, that’s not the same thing as never having seen it—I’ve never seen a second of it myself, and that’s only partially because I don’t have HBO and haven’t had any incentive to get it. Mostly it’s because the show just doesn’t grab me. Lord of the Rings, with its Christian allegory embedded in the books (less so in the movies), was a horse of a different color; Game of Thrones, on the other hand, strikes me as just too much—too much legend, too much scope, too much time required, too much violence, too much incest, too much everything.

It’s the very universality of Game of Thrones that was the subject of Alyssa Bereznak’s article last week at The Ringer, “How ‘Game of Thrones’ Became the Last Piece of the Monoculture,” which asks the question: does the upcoming end of Game of Thrones also represent the end of the shared cultural experience?

For those who hang out in the virtual water cooler part of the Internet, there’s very little else that’s being talked about. In fact, if this season disappoints somehow, I’ve no doubt that there will be those calling on Robert Mueller to launch an investigation, thereby combining the internet’s too most recent obsessions. (It’s a good thing Meghan Markle was never on the show, otherwise the internet might well and truly break, and it would probably be a good thing.) Talk of the series’ final season is everywhere—The Ringer, for instance, which posts at least a couple of new stories each day, but also just about every other place on the internet. In fact, you’d have to make a conscious effort to avoid it. I’ve read enough about it, in my role as cultural archaeologist, to get the gist of what’s going on; it should help me, in a television sense, to keep up with the stories that will follow.

But what I find interesting about this—and I promise I’ll keep this short, no longer than a novella—is the irony of it all. Thanks to what Bereznak calls “entire online ecosystems,” made possible by “a media environment that thrives on obsessive fandom,” Game of Thrones has become the “de facto water cooler topic of the decade.” Yet, as she points out, it’s this very technology that makes it unlikely any other show—or possibly event, short of war—will ever come along again. The internet that helped birth Game of Thrones has, in a sense, moved beyond it, creating “a hyperactive attention economy that has revolutionized both the content people consume and how they consume it.” Using the data mined from viewership numbers and shaped by algorithms, the result is “shows that are far more fractured and niche.”

I started this off by mentioning how unlikely it would be to run across anyone who wasn’t aware of Game of Thrones—I have no doubt that somewhere in the middle of the rain forests of the Congo, there was a viewing party riveted to last weekend’s events—but it would be good to put things in a bit of perspective. The numbers that the program pulls in are modest when compared, say, to the ratings for The Beverly Hillbillies back in the mid ‘60s, and it isn’t as if we haven’t had this kind of excitement and anticipation over a television series before: look at the “Who Shot J.R.?” era of Dallas, for example.

But those came in a different era, when there were only three broadcast networks and the culture was more homogeneous than it is today. In what might be the understatement of all time, things have changed since then. Without trying to get too depressing, it’s probably safe to say that there is no common, shared culture in America anymore. As perhaps befits a country that’s always treasured the rights of the individual, we’ve become a nation of individuals—we’ve ditched radio in favor of our own downloaded playlists, we increasingly cut the cord and program our own television networks, we fractionalize our politics into smaller, more bitter factions with nothing in common.

It’s been held for some time now that only the Super Bowl continues to bring America together in a shared experience, all of us (metaphorically speaking) engaged in the same activity at the same time. Other things have the capacity to do that; 9/11, for instance. But very few pleasant things fit that description, and the more we fragment, the more we’re instructed by social media as to what is and isn’t permissible to be found pleasant, the fewer things we’ll find to celebrate. A while back, David Hofstede wrote a piece in which he discussed the number of television programs that slip under the radar simply because there are too many of them to keep track of, being made by too many different studios. (There’s that too much meme again.) Can television fit the definition of entertainment if there’s nobody aware of it, nobody watching it?

So the world congregates to celebrate the beginning of the end to a series that technology helped to build into a monocultural event, at a time when technology is doing everything possible to prevent that from ever happening again. That is ironic, isn’t it? And it would have made a great topic for an ABC Movie of the Week back in the day, a cautionary tale of artificial intelligence being used to tear apart the fabric of communal society. It probably would have gotten big ratings back then, too. Thing is, it would never get an audience today.  TV  

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