Tuesday, March 05, 2013

#525. The Observer Effect

I've tried for years to figure out where Heroes went wrong.

Heroes is a TV series that ran from 2006-2010, becoming a massive breakout hit in its first season mostly because it seemed like it was the antidote to Lost, an arc-heavy drama that provided answers rather than provide more questions.  The second season was truncated by the Writers Guild strike, and by the time the third season rolled around, a backlash had set in that completely turned around the show's reputation.  It had, essentially, become the new Lost, and unlike Lost never had a shot at redemption.

Now, obviously the popular opinion of what went wrong with Heroes is that it simply stopped being awesome.  That's all well and good, but I'm going to attempt once again to contradict popular belief.  I'm here to argue that it wasn't the quality of the series but rather the observer effect that affected the show's fortunes.

What's the observer effect?  It's the ability of the audience to believe it has an effect on what it's enjoying.  Sometimes it's manifested in a surrogate presence, sometimes it's simply the characters or situation being open-ended and self-reflective.  At least in the first season of Heroes, for instance, the characters were engaged in an escalation of events that seemed to be headed in one particular direction.  By the third season, those expectations were proven to be categorically inaccurate.  Where viewers expected the series to continue expanding on its mythology, Heroes instead dug in and explored what had already been established, so that the first half of the third season was devoted to a character who had only existed previous to the start of the series, and thus the deeper mythology that the second season had touched on prior to the truncated effects of the strike.

What bothered these viewers even more was the use of one particular character, who had always appeared to be a villain, but whose increasing prominence felt like a contradiction of everything they had decided long ago.

In our modern social media age we can sometimes believe that it's the obligation of creators to take advice and opinions from those who are meant to enjoy a product rather than follow through with a vision that may have been set long ago, or one that evolved over time.  Lost proved exasperating because it ignored every convention, and finally when that theme went in truly exaggerated directions, viewers became interested again, until they discovered that the conclusions didn't return to the simplicities they'd been hoping for all along.  With Heroes, it was a mortal sin to scale back from the perceived elements of the first season, even though everything that followed was a organic continuation from them.

The problem, I say again, is the observer effect.  We love to be a part of the story.  The more we feel a part of it, the more we're willing to invest ourselves in it.  The Twilight Saga cleverly figured that out by becoming one of the first to engage fans in a campaign to support two potential romantic options even though the author likely had the outcome set long ago.

Okay, let's give some examples you'll be able to follow easily: with superhero movies it's always better to give context for a character's adventures.  Sam Raimi's Spider-Man flicks carefully cultivated his lead character's relationship with New York City, which was successful in part because they came directly after 9/11.  Yet the same is true for Christopher Nolan's Batman, whose relationship with Gotham is an equally central element to his story in all three films.  Tim Burton's Batman was the same way, while Joel Schumacher's was not.  The more Batman became a celebrity, in Schumacher's films, the less fans could see him function properly as a vigilante, because otherwise the villains behaved the same in all four Batman movies prior to Nolan's.  The Superman movies are the same.  In the first two, Superman's relationship with Metropolis is key.  The isolated he becomes in the later three, including Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, the less fans have a chance to identify with the experience.

Need further proof?  The Avengers cycle has been using this all along.  Superhero movies are never a sure-bet at the box office, but these films have consistently performed, and The Avengers itself was a massive success, mostly because viewers found their surrogates in the characters themselves.

Star Trek is the same way.  It was massively popular, at least within a limited cult audience, for two decades, and yet the more insular it became the more fragmented the fans became, the more it drew only on itself the less the fans thought they were essential, even though the material being generated was meant exactly for them.  It's not about limiting the audience, but telling the audience that you need to pay attention.

Paying attention is more often than not a popular kiss of death.  To reach a mass audience you need to assure the viewer that they don't need to pay attention, they only need to feel as if they're somehow a part of the experience.  Draw them in and they'll tune in.

Wrestling is exactly about this.  Hulk Hogan was a giant star because he encouraged participation from his fans, and they felt involved in his quests to subdue rivals in the ring.  Steve Austin succeeded him because he did the same thing, as much in what he did but by engaging viewer surrogate Jim Ross, who had never before and was never again as passionate about a wrestler as he was "Stone Cold."  Hearing Good Ol' J.R. cheer on his hero was enough to motivate fans to cheer right along.

I've been trying to figure this out for years.  I've been trying to figure out what makes something succeed or not succeed, because it's not always quality.  I'm not going to be one of those people who assume something with mass success cannot be good and popular at the same time.  But there is plenty of good material that isn't popular, and I wonder why.  It's because the material is self-reflective, doesn't demand audience participation.  Memento was Christopher Nolan's first critical success, and it launched his popular career, but is itself not a popular success.  It was at one point my favorite film, but to most people it's been completely lost in the shuffle since its release at the start of the millennium.  To me, it was an instant and timeless new classic, and I'm not talking simply in the way many critics do, latching onto something and keeping it on these lists without ever reconsidering or considering it in the first place, but rather as it exists and ages on its own merits.

I suspect that for most people, Memento is just a clever little film, ultimately disposable, not even to the merit of The Usual Suspects, which eternally engages the viewer in the discovery of how the central villain was hiding in plain sight for the entire movie.  Memento is like that, but it appears to hide this fact in a gimmick, much as how M. Night Shyamalan has been reduced to a director who appears to rely on gimmicks.  The Sixth Sense engaged viewers in the same observer effect as The Usual Suspects.  His subsequent films have never had that same effect, because Shyamalan has tended to focus them on one rather than two characters.  Bruce Willis is the observer in The Sixth Sense.  You might call Samuel L. Jackson the observer in Unbreakable, but the entire movie is about Willis being forced to discover something about himself, a deconstruction of Shyamalan's own Sixth Sense.  And to explain the other films would be to justify their existence in the face of criticism that misses the point.

You don't like The Village because it contradicts the observer effect.  It doesn't involve the viewer at all.  This is not a bad thing.  A painting like the "Mona Lisa" or "The Scream" involve the viewer, "Nude Descending a Staircase" involves the viewer.  Jackson Pollack does not involve the viewer.

The observer effect is something of how certain bloggers have massive success.  Alex J. Cavanaugh is a legend because he understands the observer effect perfectly.  He's built his whole Internet presence around it.  It's not simply interacting in a community, but an immersion.  Cavanaugh represents one such way this can be achieved.

Ironically, Heroes ended on the very note its fans expected two seasons earlier, when the public was finally admitted into the secret community of superheroes.  Viewers love to be acknowledged.  You can provide the most clever content in the world, but in the end you need to remember that if you don't engage those who ultimately consume it, the material is bound to meet a limited and compromised appreciation.


Maurice Mitchell said...

What a fascinating concept Tony. I've never heard of it before, but it makes sense. Thats why the"second screen" of Twitter or Facebook is so popular with TV. Lets how its used for good and not evil.

Tony Laplume said...

Facebook and Twitter, if anything, are helping to produce a more positive spin to the effect than the Internet has generally provided in the past. it's different when it happens among friends than strangers.

Spacerguy said...

Captivating read Tony. Now that I understand the observer effect, I realise social media is a force influencing the lives of many people. Everything we see, what you hear, you want to make it so, but would Captain Picard approve?

Tony Laplume said...

Only if Data found it intriguing.

MOCK! said...

"Only if Data found it intriguing."


Tony Laplume said...

Made someone laugh! Yes!


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