The cellular telephone assault on fiction
Update, to make it interesting: Can you think of movies/books/TV shows where there were obvious technology fails in the plot? Or, conversely, what movies/books/TV shows would be completely ruined by being set a little later in history, when the characters would absolutely have things like cell phones and email? No cheating with medieval stuff!
Years ago, I was listening to a podcast and they were talking about how disconcerting it can be to watch mid-century caper films, because there are routine situations in them where the introduction of the cell phone would clear up the problem creating all the tension. Of course, they didn’t have cell phones back then, but that was the point—they’ve become so ubiquitous that the idea of not having one is becoming hard to imagine. It was something that came to mind for me recently when something quite unusual happened on “True Blood”. We’re only on season two of the wretchedly sick but deliciously campy horror series, and I think this was the first time I saw a character in these supposedly modern times actually do something most of us do all the time—receive a communication of some sort on a cell phone. And of course, it wasn’t actually a communication of any real sort—Sam the shapeshifting dude gets a call from his restaurant Merlotte’s and it’s a hang up.
It brought home something about the show that drives me bananas. Oh, it’s not the fact that vampires, shapeshifters, telepaths, and demon goddesses all are drawn to this tiny little Louisiana town. Frankly, I can’t think of a better place to get into supernatural mischief than Louisiana, which was practically made for it with its combination of swamps and tolerance for eccentricity. Nor is it that Sookie is one of those Mary Sue characters, because Anna Paquin plays her with enough knowingness that I find myself not especially perturbed by the obvious wish fulfillment aspects of a character that every sexy male vampire seems to fall in love with at first sight for no particular reason. I can overlook a lot in a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and “True Blood” absolutely does not.
But man, the lack of communication on that show! It’s clearly set in present times—the first book came out in 2001—and yet no one seems to think to make a fucking phone call, much less send off an email. I’ve been to Louisiana. They may be different from the rest of the country in many ways, but they enjoy the use of modern technologies just as much as the rest of us. But the characters on this show carry on like it’s some huge burden to pull your phone out of your pocket and make a phone call. For instance, even though we know for a fact that Sam has a phone, he never stops to call Sookie for help or advice when he finds himself targeted for abuse by Marianne. Even though, if that happened to me, the first thing I’d think is, “Who do I know that might also be a ‘supernatural’ that is impervious to Marianne’s spells, and also has a bunch of badass vampire friends who can kick some serious ass and are probably the only people I can think of to take on a demon goddess?” She may not be able to help, but it’s not like the cost of asking is that high. Maybe Sam is watching his minutes, but even so, I’d say spending a few on saving your own life is well worth, especially if you have a bunch of rollover minutes in the bank. Or what about all the angst Tara has about whether or not to let Marianne & Co. stay at Sookie’s place. Perhaps you could ask her? She’s in Dallas, not on the moon. They have cell phone towers in Dallas. Or what about Jason Stackhouse disappearing and not telling anyone? I know Sookie’s head is deep in Bill’s ass, but maybe she could check up on her brother through his Facebook status? I accept the whole thing where Sookie is kidnapped and trying to reach that other telepath, because you would have your cellphone stripped from you in that situation. (In fact, if I were the director, I would have made a point of showing the kidnappers frisk the victims and take their phones.) But a lot of the time, it just doesn’t make sense. The plot developments on the show rely far too much on a lack of communication that doesn’t make much sense in the 21st century.
This really is an ongoing problem for storytellers in our modern era. For literary novelists, it’s not really a big deal—there’s an allergy in anything with literary aspirations to using cheap plot devices like lack of communication to create tension—but for people making popcorn entertainment, this problem is huge. You don’t really think about how much lack of information and communication is the fallback technique until you see it shoehorned into a narrative illogically. I love Harry Potter, but that was the biggest flaw in the books. JK Rowling created tension by depriving the main characters of information by having the adults talk down to them. It made sense initially, but after the kids single-handedly win a couple of big battles, you’d expect realistically that the adults start at least coming clean with them. I will say that Rowling neatly sidestepped the cell phone problem by making the wizard characters ignorant of Muggle technologies, so that even if they would see the benefit in something like cell phones, it’s unlikely they would have the chance to learn about them.
I’m continually fascinated by the ways that writers of popcorn entertainment find ways to get around the problem of instant communication and information, when so much of what drives their plots is lack of information. “Lost” was smart in that the writers decided that the way to get around a world full of previously unthinkable modern convenience is to put characters in a situation where they’re completely deprived of it. But you can’t do that on every show. The writers on “Angel” knew that this was going to be an issue for them, and they hung a lampshade on it, by having Angel mutter darkly all the time about how much he hated cell phones. I’ve seen phones cut out on TV shows and characters deliberately refuse to answer. And in a brilliant move that just goes to show why David Simon is the shit, “The Wire” had a plot where the use of cell phones was the reason that the main characters were deprived of the information they needed, because the cell phones were being used to avoid a wire tap.
And then sometimes they just ignore the issue altogether, and the writers on “True Blood” are the worst offenders. I’m sure the justification is that the show is set in a kooky world to begin with, but I don’t accept that excuse. The whole point of shows like that is to juxtapose the supernatural elements with the known world. In fact, that’s what makes “True Blood” so fun. Vampires are out because of advanced technology that makes them able to live without feeding on people, and their struggle is overtly analogized to the gay rights struggle. Their world is full of HDTVs, innovative drug use, internet pornography (Lafayette makes money web-camming), and even the fundamentalist Christian church has all the markers of the modern day tech-happy megachurch. But even though we know the characters have cell phones that they use when it’s plot convenient, they somehow seem to forget they have them when the plot needs them to not be communicating. From what I understand, the show follows the books very closely, so it seems the original sinner in this regard is Charlaine Harris. I imagine in genre fiction on paper, it perhaps doesn’t seem that strange to have characters not pick up a phone and call when they absolutely would in real life. (Though even there, I’m going to say it’s a stretch.) But on TV, it’s absolutely jarring and I wish they would do something about it.
I will say this—you hear over and over again from aficionados of genre narratives that they are absolutely the same thing as literary fiction and that making distinctions between the two is elitist. And I’m often inclined to agree. You see genre fiction that rises to the level of literary fiction, as I believe “The Wire” did, and you see overtly artistic works borrow heavily from genre tropes. But in our era of heavy duty information overload, I think genre writers on all levels really have an opportunity to blur the distinctions by accepting that the same old plots that rely heavily on not knowing critical information just don’t work any more. This burden can be reconstructed as an opportunity to start coming up with new plot devices that rely much less on cliche.