The Most Important Invention of the 20th Century

Ladies and Gentlemen! Please join me in honoring the winner of the World’s Most Important Invention of the 20th Century!

Our candidates, first. In no particular order, I give you:

  • Automobiles
  • Airplanes
  • Antibiotics
  • Computers
  • The Internet

And the winner is…

A write-in candidate! It is the Fast Forward button on the remote!

OK, maybe I am exaggerating a little. But the FWD button on the remote has become my go-to tool for a while. I am a cord-cutter and movie theater fiend, which means all shows I watch are “remotable.” And my watching has changed a ton, in unforeseen ways.

To wit: I was watching the first season of Blacklist. It reminds me a lot of White Collar meets 9/11, which should make for exciting stories.

About midway through the season, episodes 9 and 10 form a double meant to be suspenseful, even riveting. The main character has been abducted and is in danger of dying. The good guys vs. the bad guys. Finding a mole. Good stuff.

Yet, I found myself fast forwarding throughout the double episode. The problem, of course, was that I knew in the end nothing serious would happen to the main character or any of the major players. So I also knew the “suspenseful” parts like chases through dark corridors, gun fights, and the like, would no yield anything new. The bad guys would die, the good guys would survive.

In the past, I would have been glued to the screen, waiting for a resolution I already knew in my heart of hears. Nowadays, I just fast-forward, cursing the fact Netflix doesn’t have scene forwarding (really, Netflix?) and forces me to treat every show like it’s on a DVD or worse, on tape – since I can’t even get the stupid stream rewound to a specific point.

The odd thing is that I do that even when I know it will take the stream more time to reconnect than for the story to play out. I feel betrayed by the storyline, taken for granted as a viewer, and want to register my disapproval by simply skipping. (Really, Netflix, that’s info you should send on to the makers of shows and movies: where do people tend to FWD?)

Reflecting upon this, I realized that I developed a topological view of stories. In my mind, any tale is a connected web of significant events (“game changers”) that are the only thing that truly matters. There aren’t a whole lot of game changer types in modern story-telling, so it’s fairly easy to realize what comes next by the setup that leads to it.

When I see a lengthy section that builds up to a particular game changer, I fast forward. The only thing that matters to the story is the resolution, not how we get to it, and I will figure what happened from how it mattered to the rest of the story. I save time, of course, but mostly I turn away boredom. Those interminable scenes with car chases and gun fights and lone heroes traipsing through the dark in haunted mansions – all gone.

Yet, it’s not that I mind suspense. That’s not really the problem. The problem is that it’s not suspense if you can predict the outcome. You can admire the beautiful motorcycle chase in Matrix Reloaded, but ultimately you know the bad guys will die and Trinity survive. (It kind of works because Trinity is not essential to the story.)

Similarly, in the double episode of Blacklist, the parts where the main characters are at play end up being plain boring, because we don’t believe anything will happen to them. The only moment my interest was roused was when two minor characters, the helpers of Red-the-protagonist, are threatened. Their survival was at stake, because who knows what offers the actors received from other shows. And, indeed, one of them dies while the other survives.

I think that might be one of the major reasons why horror movies are so successful: they are willing to sacrifice their main characters. The trials and tribulations become much more interesting when you don’t know where they are heading. Conversely, superhero movies routinely fail the test, because it is part of the genre that you know ahead of time what’s going to happen to whom.

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