The emergence of widely available Internet connection and the growth in so-called quality television are directly associated with the educational attainment of consumers. In a way that going to the movies is a one-time, standalone experience, serial television’s serial format encouraged online discussion through blogs, comments, e-mails, and, later, social media posts. However, it also locked into the new habits of the educated in a way that moviegoing did not.
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The main characteristic of high-quality television has been demonstrated to be its capacity to spark discussion, not just among viewers and critics but also among journalists. When specific television shows and television in general became the focus of extensive public discourse, meaning writers’ and viewers’ reactions to one another, such discourse became into news. Television suddenly jumped from the arts page to the main page, and the shows’ content furthered this tendency. Journalists’ noses for stories were grabbed—and are still grabbed—by their concentration on narratives and personalities involving famous occurrences in cultural history and contentious topics of modern sociology and politics. Several series appear to exist merely to offer subjects in a format that is ready for discussion; they are designed to produce “think pieces,” which have evolved into the preeminent—if widely mocked—critical genre.
Above all, the experience of attending college is what the viewing and criticism of contemporary serial television most closely resembles. Cramming is caused by binge-watching, and the conversations it sparks—What It Says About, What It Gets Right About, and What It Gets Wrong About—reproduce academic practices. There’s a lot of aboutness but not much being; a lot of material assembled in a puzzle-like fashion to investigate certain topics and ask specific questions (sounds like a term paper or final exam). For these reasons, factual books, documentaries, journalism, radio talks, and general internet browsing pose a greater threat to television than do movies, museums, or novels. The purpose of serial television is to satisfy the need for information to put together and evaluate. The media people who are its natural audience and who the performances owe their success, renown, and praise to are the ones who seem to have developed the medium.
Even now, Raftery uses the statement “they certainly won the impossible to quantify—yet equally hard to deny—metrics of online chatter, where they spawned countless essays and arguments for weeks and months on end” to highlight the significance of new television series. The amount of conversation counts in the cultural business, just as viewership does in the TV industry, since it’s what occurs when a piece of art transcends its boundaries and becomes visible in other domains. This explains why a large portion of the conversation produced by television is political, and why political discussion of art is the norm in this period of abundant cultural discourse.
Raftery uses the three recent films that he believes are “culturally crucial”—”Straight Outta Compton,” which is a decent film; “Inside Out,” which is a poor film; and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which is a wonderful film—to illustrate the distorted outcomes of this tendency. He believes that the fact that “they spurred uncomfortable but essential conversations” is what made them significant. He is employing the echo-chamber technique of critique in this instance: the films are important because they initiate “conversations,” and conversations are initiated because they deal with themes that are considered important. Unlike the films he’s watched this year, he believes these to be significant, and he bases this opinion on the fact that they speak to current political issues rather than artistic merits. In addition, he uses click counts to determine political importance.
Democratic politics are ultimately a numbers game. Everyone is concerned about politics, which is why “everyone” (i.e., those who produce the “countless essays and arguments” and the “online chatter” that Raftery uses to gauge relevance) talks about politics. In contrast, art is deeply personal to one individual. While art is about beauty, culture is about power. It’s also a question of freedom, spiritual freedom, and free-spiritedness, so it’s also political, but not in a way that makes sense right away and, more importantly, not in a way that lends itself to the type of conversation that makes for think pieces. The force of beauty, the effect that beauty has on an individual, defies explanation and begs for stillness while evoking pleasure, a state that is fundamentally distinct from analysis. That is the driving force behind the criticism that, in the best cases, converges with the artistic creation by serving as a source of inspiration for poetry, literature, and philosophy.
Because of this, a large portion of the best art has always been a niche phenomenon. When great art does become popular, it usually happens by chance, and the artist usually suffers the consequences the next time around (as was the case with Terrence Malick’s follow-up to “The Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder,” and “Knight of Cups,” and as I hope won’t happen with Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film, “Silence”). This is especially true with regard to movies these days, as wide releases and studio involvement have become less important. At a time when studios, following television’s example, are turning their films primarily into political allegories and statements carefully calculated to leap to the front pages and the op-ed section, the opportunity to make independent, low-budget films is greater than ever.