FEBRUARY 25, 2014
MY FRIEND, he’s not like other friends. My friend, he’s smart. He’s tall, six feet or a touch over, probably not traditionally good looking, but he’s got a strong chin, big chest and a pleasant disposition, if a bit anxious. He’s balding, but he’s been balding for 20 years. The bald spot hasn’t changed so much as the thin, sometimes clownish hair has receded. He’s probably 60 or so now, but I’ve known him since his late-30s. I’m only 27, but let me explain. My friend, he’s not like your friend. Our relationship, it’s different.
He’s extremely smart — eccentric, some would say. He often comes off as pretentious, but his heart is big and he’d do anything for a friend. I know; I’ve watched him. He’s Harvard-educated, well-off, though I couldn’t ballpark his net worth, because I don’t really know how much radio personalities make. He’s also very generous with his money. His favorite city is Firenze, which is certainly where we differ, as I love Sienna, though for my own reasons. Sometimes when I drink beer, he drinks coffee. Almost always, actually. But he’s a good friend and I like to have him around. You might know him: Frasier Crane.
A year ago, I came across the 1990s sitcom Frasier on Netflix. In an attempt at viewing-diplomacy with my girlfriend, I suggested we give it a shot as our tastes in entertainment often vary, if not disagree totally. I am not, and never have identified as, a TV person, but I recalled, with a certain fondness, my family sitting down together to watch Frasier, and thought, beyond whatever familial trigger-point experiment I was conducting, it might make for a pleasant distraction.
It was, and soon my girlfriend and I were eating dinner with Frasier, telling friends about Frasier, falling asleep to Frasier. Eleven seasons, roughly 24 episodes a season, roughly 22 minutes an episode, something like 5,800 minutes of our lives spent watching the complete series. We achieved this magnificent feat by watching 2-3 (sometimes more) episodes a night, almost every night for three months. We also had some ground rules: We were not allowed to watch Frasier apart, and in the rare case of anxious deceit, the one who skipped ahead was required to re-watch the stolen episodes so that we both remained equal in our viewing.
Frasier was with us in our living room, while we cooked dinner, in our bed before we fell asleep. He was also in our conversations. Any prompt — how was your day, something strange happened on my way home, I spoke to Ezra today etc — soon transformed into a conversation of favorite episodes. Remember that one where Niles and Daphne pretend to be lovers at the ball? That time Martin wrote a song for Frank Sinatra. The cabin episode? There was almost nothing we talked about that couldn’t somehow, in some sidelong way, relate to a Frasier episode. And it wasn’t simply dormant in our shared subconscious — we drew inspiration from Frasier. The way the characters cared for each other, how Frasier and Niles met every day for coffee. (At the height of my viewing, I told my brother who lives across the country how I dreamt of one day sharing that midday coffee routine with him.)
My nervous system had begun to go haywire, constructing its own set of memories, just as John Jeremiah Sullivan had observed while documenting the afterlife of Real World cast members in his hyperreal and hilarious essay, “Leaving Reality”:
How many times had I sat with them like this, by pools and Jacuzzis? How often had we chilled like this, just drinking and making points? Thousands of times. My nervous system had somehow convinced itself we’d all been on the show together; that we were on the show right then. I believed I knew them well.
Frasier wasn’t simply a show we watched, but a group of people with whom we lived. 5,800 minutes of our lives spent together; 5,800 concentrated minutes of laughing; 5,800 minutes of crying; 5,800 minutes of comical misunderstandings; 5,800 minutes of Niles in love; 5,800 minutes of Frasier and Roz bantering; of Daphne and Martin; of Martin and Eddie; of us and them.
Recently, Netflix released findings from a study it conducted on “binge-watching” (2-6 episodes of one series in a sitting). 61 percent of respondents reported engaging with their shows in this manner regularly and when asked how they felt about such practice, 73 percent reported positive feelings.
Netflix, of course, being in the business of making money, touted these findings in an academic-cum-PR-fashion, citing cultural anthropologist (and Netflix-funded), Grant McCracken:
TV viewers are no longer zoning out as a way to forget about their day, they are tuning in, on their own schedule, to a different world. Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcomed today.
So far the discussion around Netflix and the viewing habits it promotes has been largely business centric: What will the cable companies do with a whole generation of cord cutters (lingo for people who don’t own TV or cable subscriptions)? What is the future of at-home entertainment and how can we monetize it?
But this megaphone-blasting bit of digital enthusiasm, despite being magnificent promotional copy for Netflix, raises a few larger, maybe even philosophical, questions, namely: Are we sure this is the kind of “freedom” we want? Is this “freedom” at all? And maybe, and bear with me here, when does ‘tuning in to a different world’ start to, well, change the one we live in?
“I long ago assented to DeLillo’s unspoken premise—that fiction exaggerates the ever-weakening power of motive in human dealings,” wrote Martin Amis in his review of Don DeLillo’s excellent (and only) story collection, The Angel Esmeralda, “Yes, it does; but there’s a reason for that. Motive tends to provide coherence, and fiction needs things that cohere.”
He was referring to “The Starveling,” a perplexing DeLillo number that Amis believed “avowedly abjures all cause and effect […] and enters the void of the motiveless.”
In the story, DeLillo gives us Leo Zhelezniak, a man who, thanks to his father’s hefty bequest, spends his days in the cinemas, theatres, and megaplexes of New York City.
It is fitting then that the author first introduces Leo, seated, gazing upon his ex-wife, Flory, as she cleans the dishes. DeLillo colors these early pages with a sense of awe, of wonder in the mundane: a haircut is “submitted to in order to be forgotten,” a brassiere hanging on the doorknob demarcates the passage of time. Imagery, in short, of “a life that had slowly grown around them, unfailingly familiar.”
This same sense of listless wonder is magnified when Leo is at the movies, where, by way of Flory, we learn, that he’s “gripped by a passion,” “a monkish dedication.”
What he was doing was going to the movies. […] They only needed him to be there.
Life, it soon becomes apparent, simply happens around Leo. He is divorced, yet still shares an apartment with his ex-wife; he once took careful notes while watching movies, now he simply has to be there. In fact, being there is Leo’s defining trait. And for a spell, we are led to believe this might just be a bath-tub story, where nothing happens, full of interiority, philosophy, wherein Flory speculates motive and Leo loses himself in flashes of movie scenes and memories.
He’d known from the beginning that he was advancing toward a future without paydays, holidays, birthdays, new moons, full moons, real meals or very much in the way of world news.
But this daze is soon interrupted — with action — when Leo finds himself stalking a fellow manic-movie goer across town. She is a young, white, “anorexic” girl whom Leo can’t help but imagine, interpret, and eventually fictionalize as if she were a character in a film.
He watched her, half a car away.
She almost never speaks. When she speaks, is there a stutter, an accent? An accent might be interesting, somewhere Scandinavian, but he decided he didn’t want one.
DeLillo’s real-world/fake-world confection continues to mix until finally exploding. As Amis succinctly summarizes:
He follows her from theatre to theatre, follows her home, follows her, finally, into a multiplex toilet (the Ladies’), where he unburdens himself of an erratic, free-floating five-hundred-word monologue—and then she flees.
Here DeLillo forces Leo to interact with the character who, until this moment, has only existed in the context of his voyeurism. Leo is thrust back into the real world, and instead of an apology or an explanation (in other words: a reasonable response), we get a monologue filled with obscure movie memories and hyper-realized moments that seemingly never left the screen.
A careful piece of interiority interrupts the monologue: “His voice sounded peculiar. He could hear it as though he were listening to someone else speaking.”
Finally, it becomes painfully clear, reality has given its seat to the unreality around us. Leo, too, like Flory, like the movies, like “The Starveling,” exists in a permanent state of his observation, where his voice sounds like “someone else speaking.”
Once “The Starveling” has fled, Leo is left alone, staring fixedly at the washbasin. Then he returns home, where he finds Flory “standing motionless.” Ending on a lyrical note, DeLillo returns Leo to where we first found him, in his natural state: seated and watching.
He lost all sense of time, determined to remain dead still for as long as she did, watching steadily, breathing evenly, never lapsing.
If he blinked an eye, she would disappear.
So much for “cause and effect.” Leo’s actions and obsessions prove beyond both his and our understanding. As an irritated Amis rightly pointed out, we are left staring into the “void of the motiveless.”
Yet in this “void” DeLillo presents an entirely modern ailment: the fear not of dying, or being cheated, or losing romance, but of never really having lived. A life of observation, one that exists only until we “blink an eye,” look away.
During those three months of obsessive viewing, I too had done little more than work during the day and watch during the night. My mind would reflexively relax at the sight of Martin Crane’s raggedy old recliner. Frasier’s strong, Mid-Atlantic voice often shuddered my eyelids, allaying the day’s stress. Through it all, it never quite felt like an obsession, never quite felt like Leo Zhelezniak. Mostly, it felt like living. Was I the only one confronted with an unintended relationship (in my case, with Frasier) — a true Zhelezniak, adrift on a sea of screens?
In his new film, Her, Spike Jonze answers said question with a resounding no. The film takes us to the “slight future” where Artificial Intelligence has, more or less, caught up with us. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is privileged, melancholic and commonplace. His daily life, though lonely and recently altered by a separation, looks a lot like that of a person in 2014. He gets off on porn, keeps track of the news, and loses himself in video games and other “immersive” technologies.
Soon Twombly turns to a new innovation, OS One, which bills itself as the world’s “first artificially intelligent operating system.” Born from the OS is Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and as the story goes, so is their romance. Before long Twombly has fallen for Samantha, and he’s not alone in this regard. As Brian Christian writes in The New Yorker:
[P]eople everywhere seem to be dating or befriending them…
Practically overnight, the prevailing social fabric is utterly rearranged, and Jonze paints this shift as astonishingly casual.
This “astonishingly casual” shift is fundamental to the story. In this shift we see not simply one man’s disturbed adventures in love, but our collective loneliness. That this shift happens so casually, and quickly, reveals less an imagined future and more likely a current cultural indictment. How great is our intimacy-deficit in the “slight future?” If it’s anything like 2014, none of us should be surprised by Twombly’s digital affections. Christian, again:
Twombly and Samantha’s rapport and companionship rivals, maybe exceeds, most screen romances to which viewers are intended to aspire. And yet, ultimately, you can’t entirely shake the feeling that Twombly is still a man alone, alienated, detached from society, talking to himself.
The question persists: If we were to turn the camera around, how different might we look? How far down the Frasier express line was I from becoming Theodore Twombly?
Discomfort is key to the movie’s overall success — he won’t, he can’t possibly, oh no — and many viewers will take comfort in the distance that “slight” provides, seeing only a sad vision of the future, the ugly potential of our endless search for intimacy.
But it is worth mentioning that Twombly’s “one-way intimacy,” as Christian identifies it, is not new, and though Jonze is kind enough to distance our lives from it ever so slightly, we don’t need science fiction or even a “slight” future world to understand it.
As Christian rightly points out: “Books themselves are perhaps the first chatbots: long-winded and poor listeners, they nonetheless have the power to make the reader feel known, understood, challenged, spurred to greatness, not alone.”
Netflix is also aware of its product’s likeness to the book experience, though in a more limited view, and appears to be banking on this familiar relationship. In a recent New Yorker profile of the company, founder and current C.E.O. Reed Hastings purposefully linked the two forms of entertainment as a matter of returning “control” to the viewers, who according to Hastings have long suffered in their “‘managed dissatisfaction’ with traditional television.”
“Think of it as entertainment that’s more like books, Hastings said. “You get to control and watch, and you get to do all the chapters of a book at the same time, because you have all the episodes.”
He’s not wrong. Much like with books, people have long sought comfort in their television set: laughing along with sitcoms, cooking dinner to nightly news, crying with primetime dramas, falling asleep to The Tonight Show. The loneliest of us have found a friend in television, its faint, distant echo and canned laughter soothing our tired souls and hot-wired brains. For so long we have lived with this form of entertainment, and somehow, whether due to commercials, TV scheduling, or, most prominently, primitive technology, we were afforded some distance. That timeslot for television, that boundary between our lives and our entertainment, is disappearing.
Netflix and the potential for unlimited “immersion” it trades in risk further disappearing the road signs still flashing before us, offering exits to and from reality. Like no other time before, and like no other form of entertainment, “binge-watching” requires we live beside it. And as a result, save for the screen itself, there is nothing telling us these characters, these people, aren’t real.
“Her,” writes Christian, “says more about the nature of human intimacy than it does about the limits of computation.”
If Christian is right, and I believe he is, then we’ve long been training our minds to fall in love with our entertainment, regardless of future advancements in AI. From the fireside stories of Homer to the great bildungsroman novels of the 18th century, to the characters of Casablanca and, yes, even Frasier, we’ve managed to lend a fraction of our minds to fiction. This sort of intimacy, then, should come as no surprise. It is expected.
But while we’ve been interacting with books for centuries, let’s not delude ourselves: with Netflix, we’re lurching ever closer to an “immersion” where the separation between interpersonal and virtual intimacy is indistinguishable. Today, our fictional characters flickering across the screen have real-world voices, reactions we can see, the ability to fill our empty rooms with noise. Sensations, it seems, already enough to make these fictional characters real. Soon, however, with the advent of haptic technology, we’ll be able to touch them. Soon our entertainment, as Disney’s Research team says with great enthusiasm, will “bridge the virtual and physical worlds in new and exciting ways.” Even Theodore’s loving OS isn’t too far away, as noted futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote in his review of Her: “Samantha herself I would place at 2029.” For now, though its premise is familiar, and not so distant from the novel, present day “binge-watching” — that thing Netflix exports as entertainment “freedom” — looks and feels a lot more like Samantha, Theodore Twombly’s bodiless lover and a lot less like a Dickens plot.
Her, though set in the future, isn’t such a distant reality then, but something already tangible, something 61 percent of us already partake in, in varying degrees, whether we’re ready to admit it or not.
One late November night, after a particularly long day at work and in an attempt to evade the inevitable Frasier-viewing (the idea was beginning to fray my nerves), I ducked into a dimly lit bar to eat alone and read a bi-weekly magazine whose regularity and quality outpaced my reading speed and appetite. I was feeling tired, and my magazine anxiety was growing so great that a night devoted simply to the back issues was in order. A dimly lit bar, empty save for the anxious bartender, appeared to be the antidote. One beer and two articles finished, I was feeling content, when a large group, a ruin-your-quiet-dimly-lit-bar-experience sized group of about 8-10 well-dressed, middle-20s entered the establishment and began to talk. Try as I might, the cause to tackle the bi-weekly died upon their arrival.
Soon I was browsing Twitter on my iPhone and quietly judging the merits of their conversation as they delicately drifted through cultural flashpoints until landing on, the great stabilizer, a popular TV series, Breaking Bad.
I listened. I judged. I drank. They argued over plot turns, character development, dialogue, series structure, quality of the acting, and finally the finale. Then they moved to Party Down, then Arrested Development, all offering thoughtfully developed opinions, arguments built from knowledge and care and passion. Clearly, they too, had spent a lot of time with their favorite shows.
Drunk, tired, and bored, I resolved to quit Frasier. For months I had laid my mind down on the couch and left it there. Like Leo Zhelezniak, I fed off Netflix’s virtual nourishment, meeting its simple request that I “only needed to be there.” If I’m going to share my brain with fiction, I thought, better for it to be books. Within their covers, my effort was still required, my mind actively engaged and my opinions hard-earned. Right or wrong, in its limited demands, I could reclaim my agency and my reality.
I put the phone away, paid my bill and left the restaurant.
On the subway ride home I spotted a familiar face. Carefully, I pretended to read my magazine while taking quick, sure glances in his direction, studying the man’s face, his profile, the early trail of a receding hair-line that disappeared under his snow-cap. It was Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce to all you living in the real world) and I was upset that it had taken me so long to figure it out. His face was slightly puffed with age and his chin appeared sharper, more rugged than I’d remembered. Still, no excuse for the delay. How had I failed to register such a familiar face?
“He looks old,” I told my girlfriend later.
“Well, it’s been a while,” she said.
Frasier had been off the air ten years when I saw Niles Crane quietly riding the subway.
“God, it has, hasn’t it?” I said.
“Yep.” She was being nice, playing along while getting ready for bed.
“What does that mean for us?”
She stopped folding her clothes. Serious eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Which one are we on again?”