Response: Tanner Stransky’s “Pretty Little Phenom”

A few weeks back, I wrote an opinion piece for CNN.com about the pleasures of binge-watching, but I realize that I may have neglected a different type of viewing experience, the weekly adrenaline-shot, water-cooler-fodder programming that runs heavy on plot and light on character. I don’t know that I can necessarily wait until the end of a season to watch something like Scandal or The Vampire Diaries, and that’s certainly true of Pretty Little Liars: in fact, in an attempt to impress a girl who’d recommended it, I caught up on the whole first season before realizing that I’d essentially watched the same episode twenty-two times in a row. The endless cliffhangers, one after another, dissolved into a diminishing series of thrills; the bubbly dialogue, left out in the open for nearly sixteen hours straight, quickly went flat. A plausible, richly detailed framework like David Simon’s Treme or David Milch’s Deadwood not only held up to marathon sessions, but benefited from it. The exaggerated emotions and tangled plotting of Revenge weren’t nearly as effective when taken in bulk, although by favoring relatively brief arcs as opposed to season-long narratives, the show managed to avoid feeling overly repetitive.

Pretty Little Liars seems to understand its own ephemeral nature; Stranksy compares its Twitter-heavy presence largely to reality competitors like Jersey Shore and The X Factor, programming that holds little appeal in syndication and is more of a cultural “experience it alongside the rest of us, then forget about it” — the one-night-stand of television programming, or, if you’re feeling more forgiving, a predictable event, like the dropping of the ball in Times Square that nonetheless gets millions of eyes to tune in to each yearly “episode.” ABC Family’s vice president of marketing, Danielle Mullin, goes on record as calling this an appointment-television strategy that plays to the insecurities of a younger, more insecure, and always-connected Internet generation: “FOMO, or fear of missing out.” She attempts to course correct by saying that it’s a “collective conversation, which our viewers really love to be a part of,” but how much of this is actually a conversation as opposed to a peer-pressuring lecture, in which failure to tune in will result in your friends dropping you from their conversation. I recently quoted an article by Jennifer Senior about high-school students in search of identity, and this sort of programming feels somewhat predatory. Every network obviously wants people to watch, since that justifies their advertising rates, or promotes their DVD sales and syndication deals, but you don’t see Justified attempting to strong-arm viewers into watching live. It trusts that you’ll get there at your own pace. Even The CW, whose slogan is “TV Now,” and which runs properties similar to the pretty little trash on ABC Family (like The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl which are also based on Alloy Entertainment series), doesn’t appear to stoop so low — yes, it panders with programming like Arrow by having lead actor Stephen Amell so often go shirtless, but it doesn’t insist that you’ll be missing out if you don’t watch immediately. You can let those abs accumulate on your DVR: they’re not going anywhere.

Don’t get me wrong: I think a more interactive form of watching television is brilliant, and the recent promises for, say, the PS4 show that the future is aiming for a more communal experience, even out of the isolation of your studio apartment. If watching Pretty Little Liars helps you connect with people, or get a second date, great. If voting for a competitor on The Voice or seeing your tweet get reposted at the bottom of the screen makes you feel more invested in the experience, terrific. The majority of friends I made at my first job out of college were people who liked to discuss last night’s episode of Lost. Hell, I literally write essays/rants/blogs on things that I watched/experienced and would like to share with others on a regular basis. I just don’t like feeling as if I need to watch something — at least, not so blatantly, so neatly packaged in a FOMO shell. After all, when I was in high school, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was tacitly understood to be necessary viewing, unless you liked having everything spoiled for you the next day. Then again, the difference may be as subjectively simple as the levels of quality: Buffy was surprisingly experimental in narrative formats and tonal quality, whereas Pretty Little Liars is a meticulously packaged Big Mac, resorting to trickery and artificial flavor-enhancers to retain its viewers. “We’re breaking through the clutter of television and standing out,” boasts Mullin. Sure, but as we all know, you can dress a pig in lipstick (and allow it to tweet): it’s still just a goddamn pig.

(Stransky’s article, which I’ve quoted from above, can be found in Entertainment Weekly, March 1, 2013.)

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