Smart series and the cognitive turn in Serial Story-telling (part 1)

The dominant narrative of American series has changed over time. It has moved from identity politics via a single hero or a couple of heroes (from 1960ies to mid-1980ies) to morality politics revisited via ensemble heroes (from mid-1980ies to mid-2000). The more recent output seems to have moved to security politics, with a cognitive turn. This is apparent in post 9/11 series that tend to focus on neuro-sciences and para-mental processes, in relation with missing or lost people: Numb3rs (CBS, 2003–), House (Fox, 2004–), Medium (NBC, 2005–), Ghost Whisperer (CBS, 2005–), Heroes (NBC, 2006–), Psych (USA network, 2006–), Fringe (Fox, 2008–) , The Mentalist (CBS, 2008–), Mental (Fox, 2009–), Lie to me (Fox, 2009–).

These series have in common that they deal with the mental superpowers of ordinary people struck by a catastrophe or a hidden agenda (genetic manipulation, state project,…), unless they have a gift, an inherited talent. They deal with detection of lies to foster the truth. They popularize the latest research in neurosciences and social cognition by turning it from a mental to a spiritual phenomenon. They are very procedural in their styles of representation, using visual effects to mentalize the viewers and they distort cognition into narratives about memory in all its forms: memory loss, memory recovery, memory manipulation, memory erasure, … Such a process is a way of rewriting history and of mourning loss.

They place story-telling under the plot of detection with new scientific tools (forensic psychology, …) but in so doing they blur the borders of cognition with psychic sciences and para-mental and para-normal phenomena. They provide a new legitimacy for these “gifts”, “talents”, “intuitions”, that short-circuit very “scientifically” constructed shows (like Profiler NYPD Blues or the Experts). They invent a new character, the “psychic detective” who can be a procedural cop or doctor because they use cognition as inductive reasoning, heightened attention and intuitive insights that are like heuristic routines for the heroes. The detective plot consists in an investigation that eliminates red herrings and false diagnoses logically but with what seems improbable and highly questionable methods.

Representing brain states as well as germ suspects is difficult so the main character carries the load of making us believe in it. The capacities for insight of the heroes, their reading of the signs are often a result of priming (recency and frequency), which are visualized with flashbacks, flashforwards, all playing on memory of scripts and schemas. They are also the result of framing, that is scripts for interpretation that individuals rely on to understand and respond to events. They are used as heuristic devices or shortcuts to make sense of the world. Dectection then, as exemplified by the “psychic detective” consists of seeking to explain an event, by understanding the frame referred to. Psychics are individuals who constantly project into the world around them the interpretive frames that allow them to make sense of it. Their special talent consists of being especially aware of such frames, and also at being frame-shifters, capable to revise their views when incongruity calls for a frame-shift. They can integrate new information very easily and very fast and pay selective attention to consistency and inconsistency in facts and events. They can go against pre-established schemas and scripts; they can fight the confirmation bias of the mind and alter original schemas to fit the new reality. They can go from brain to mind (the meaning of psychic).

The implications for storytelling are various: characterization shows patterns of collaboration and cooperation among heroes that displace previous emphasis on conflict or unilateral decision-making. The characters are increasingly complex and ambiguous, with a relative indecisiveness about them that is related to their need for self-fulfilment as an ongoing search that is unpredictable from the outset. The narrative advances by serializing experience, as a felt practice that shows that adaptability and “mentality” are key. Felt experience is very important in such series, as a means of capturing “affordance” in its double meaning: describing all action possibilities that are mentally possible and also showing the hero’s awareness of these possibilities. By so doing the connection is established with the viewer, whose felt experience is solicited as well.

Smart series continue engaging the viewers via other media than television, thus establishing the continuity between fiction and reality with dedicated websites, publications as well as webisodes. Contrary to a verified Hollywood tendency, there are no spinoffs to these series. They seem to obey a cognitive strategy of continuity by integrating and engaging the viewers more deeply in using the digital social networks. The cognitive notion of viewer engagement is explored via new interactive media. Blogs of experts, games and webisodes are used to continue the felt experience by a kind of serial experiencing that maintains the attention of the viewers over several seasons, which means that they accompany the life of the spectators over enough time to have an effect on their attitudes, values and beliefs.

Contrat Creative Commons
Smart series and the cognitive turn in Serial Story-telling (part 1) by Divina frau-Meigs est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Paternité – Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale – Pas de Modification 2.0 France.
Basé(e) sur une oeuvre à mediasmatrices.wordpress.com.

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