Bingeing, once the preserve of bulimics and young men who drink themselves stupid before throwing up in some concrete town centre precinct, has recently expanded to encompass a whole new form of behaviour. You thought you were harmlessly sitting down in front of your screen to watch the latest on-demand series from the States. Six hours later, bleary eyed, you admit defeat, retire to bed and put aside tomorrow evening for Episodes 7 through 13.
Yes, you’ve got it, you’ve been bingeing, and if there isn’t a self-help group for you already, there’s sure to be one coming your way as this new twist on the concept enters the Oxford Dictionary.
But hang on a minute. Haven’t we spent the past thirty years being told that attention spans have shrunk to a point approaching non-existence? Blame the digital age, declining standards in schools, too much choice, a morally deficient generation, take your pick. These days it’s all tweets, bullet points, elevator pitches and executive summaries.
Yet a groundswell of evidence seems to be moving in the other direction. If attention spans are so short, if people are so reluctant to take the time to look at anything properly, how do we explain the massive global upsurge in sophisticated, multi-layered dramas with large casts of complex characters that take ten or more hours of screen time to unravel?
Let’s take two recent dramas. The first, Capital, based on the novel by John Lanchester, was produced by the BBC and aired towards the end of 2015. I was rather looking forward to this, having enjoyed the book. However, I was a little concerned when I saw it had been condensed into three one-hour episodes. The book comes in at just under 600 pages, so we’re looking at racing through just over three pages a minute, against a more natural page a minute.
No problem there for the get to the point on to the next scene before they hit the remote and start channel-hopping school of commissioning and scheduling. But to me the end result felt choppy and rushed, the characters flattened and unformed. The whole thing stank of corners being cut, from Christmas scenes shot in mid summer to entire story lines being eliminated. Was it just money, or did someone at the BBC believe (a) the book didn’t merit more than three episodes or (b) the audience couldn’t last the course of a full dozen? If it was (a), why did they commission it in the first place, and if it was (b), they need to take a hard look at what’s going on across the Atlantic over at the online subscription channels.
Which brings me to the second drama, Bloodline. No one’s in a hurry here, the series’ creators have sufficient self-confidence in their characters’ complexity and the multifarious webs that entangle their fortunes to allow things to unravel at a luxuriant pace, taking in the steamy atmosphere of the Florida Keys.
With Bloodline, it’s easy to see why some of the best actors in the business (in this case Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn) are eschewing the big screen for the depth and subtle character development offered by these big budget extended dramas.
For really, they are novels for the screen, the 21st Century’s answer to Dickens, Tolstoy and George Eliot. Indeed, many novels we now think of as classics were first introduced in episode format in magazines. While readers were gorging on the latest twist in Raskolnikov’s fortunes, poor old Dostoevsky was wondering how the hell he was going to get the next instalment written in time for The Russian Messenger’s deadline. Were the people who waited until the novel appeared in book form and then read the lot in one hit guilty of bingeing? Is refusing to ration an enthralling book into polite segments not exceeding a genteel 30 pages per session a diagnosable illness symptomatic of a need for medical treatment?
I’ll admit it, I like bingeing, whether it’s a book that really grabs me or a Netflix hit like Narcos or NBC Universal’s Friday Night Lights. Because when I binge in this way, what’s really happening is I am being transported into another world with all its dramas, intrigues, heartaches, joys and sorrows. So I’m certainly not going to take offence at anyone bingeing on my novel Francesca.
The story begins in the 1970s with then Indonesian President Suharto cozying up to US President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Suharto, lest we forget, is the man who in 2004 had the dubious distinction of being listed the world’s number one kleptocratic head of state by the global anti-corruption organisation Transparency International. Estimates of the extent of his theft during his 31 years in office range from $15 to $35 billion, some three times more than his nearest contender, Marcos of the Philippines.
If you’re robbing your own people on that scale, it’s hardly surprising you don’t lose any sleep when it comes to helping yourself to a neighbouring country. Suharto’s 1975 adventure became a generational and genocidal tragedy for the people of East Timor, and it is this story that is told through the eyes of one young woman, Francesca.
Francesca is available at http://viewbook.at/francesca