FOE4 Musings: AMC’s The Prisoner and Transmedia Participation

AMC’s The Prisoner and Transmedia Paticipation

November 21st, 2009

In this week’s review of AMC’s remake of The Prisoner, I wrote at length about what I saw as a failure of the show’s narrative: in my eyes, the series struggled due to a lack of information that resulted in no emotional connection with the characters and, as a result, no real connection to the story. I resisted the argument that the series’ sense of mystery, and its complex thematic conclusion, justify this structure, and friend of the blog David J. Loehr brought up a great example to support my point:

It makes me think of Hitchcock’s example of the “bomb under the table” idea, that you can show ten minutes of two men having the most boring lunchtime conversation ever and BOOM, their table blows up. That’s a cheap thrill at the end of ten boring minutes. Or you could show the bomb under the table, then continue the exact same scene, boring conversation and all, except now it’s fraught with tension as you wait for the bomb to go off. The sixth episode is the bomb, at least in this example if not in modern lingo.

However, based on conversations I had with some of the always great posters at NeoGAF and today’s Futures of Entertainment 4 panel on Producing Transmedia Experiences: Participation and Play, I’m starting to understand why some have argued that the series was actually a success. It seems that those who enjoyed the miniseries are those who so inherently bought into the sense of mystery and intrigue (inspired both by the density of this miniseries and the decades of debate over the meaning of the original series) to the point where they began to see narrative gaps as clues, and inconsistencies as paradoxes meant to be seen as part of the broader narrative.

I would argue this was not by design, and that these viewers are taking poor execution and turning it into a game that the writers and directors didn’t actually create. They have effectively “gamed” the miniseries, taking a trend that is popular within serial dramas like Lost and applying it regardless of whether it is actually part of an intended transmedia experience.

It’s a behaviour that indicates television has become an environment of “game” (by providing a clear sense of how audience can participate in the construction of narrative) or be “gamed,” and that AMC missed an opportunity to improve the response and increase the impact of the miniseries by not actively pursuing this avenue.

Not only did The Prisoner create no direct avenues for transmedia storytelling, but it actually works against them in two different ways. The first is the way the miniseries was scheduled, in effect trying to avoid this type of response. By airing the six-hour miniseries over three nights, which by all accounts was not always intended and likely the result of quality concerns, they put a time constraint on the amount of time that viewers can spend asking questions and constructing their own theories. While a large percentage of the response to complex serialized dramas takes place immediately after it airs, a lot of discussion of theories and ideas takes place in the days that follow. The chosen schedule limited analysis of the miniseries to the whole, which still spurs discussion but doesn’t allow for the sort of contextual analysis that this sort of dense and complex narrative often inspires – if they had wanted to highlight this aspect, they would have spread the miniseries out over six weeks.

The second is that the miniseries’ writer, Bill Gallagher, indicated in an interview with Jace Lacob that, well, the process of creating the miniseries was anything but scientific:

Those are things that I wanted to address episodically. I like to start small. I wanted to write a story about the family for Six so rather than immediately setting a path for myself for some great mechanical, thematic approach, I just gave him a brother. So I start small and I go looking for where this takes me and then within the story of a man and his brother—is it my brother? Is it not my brother?—I then go looking for the things I like. They might interest you or they might interest my neighbor or be of interest to anyone who watches it and then through that… That’s my approach to universality.

In other words, rather than creating a larger universe and being selective about what is shown (thus creating the negative space that viewers will in with their own ideas before things are revealed in the finale), Gallagher chose to simply start small and eventually figure out where the story was going to go from there. This, without question, still creates a sense of mystery and an opportunity for the audience (who can relate to the theme of family) to construct their own story. However, what Gallagher terms as universality is the idea that everyone can make their own story, rather than suggesting that viewers can work to construct/deconstruct the story being presented. Gallagher wasn’t laying hints that would eventually come together to form a larger theme so much as he was dabbling with large themes and populating them with smaller stories that only hinted at the most interesting parts of the world.

As a result of both the scheduling and the writing process, I believe it says more about the expectations amongst genre viewers than about the miniseries itself that this sort of transmedia play (it all being a game for the audience to play) was taken as the narrative by some viewers. After I posted some of my own thoughts on the series on NeoGAF, user Jocchan posted this response (emphasis mine):

You seem to want the whole point of the Village to have been clear from the beginning, but this would have actually made the series completely worthless: it’s the fact we have no idea what’s going on that makes it interesting, and subtle hints to what’s actually happening are thrown everywhere, throughout the whole show, to make you try and figure it out on your own.

What’s interesting about this response is that I see the point: if I went into this miniseries believing that it was all a game, and that the only narrative being offered was a collection of subtle hints and abstract ideas, I think I would have enjoyed it as well. However, I think it also indicates (for me) the limitations of transmedia play as the inherent purpose of a television narrative. A show like Lost involves a great deal of transmedia storytelling told through Alternate Reality Games and online webisodes and a number of other media, but it is also at its heart a story about characters and their struggle to adapt to the insanity of the island and time travel and the rest of the show’s mythology. Where The Prisoner became problematic for me is that it had no such concrete narrative: outside of the transmedia game that viewers created from the disparate elements of the miniseries, there’s nothing for it to fall back on (and is, to some degree, completely worthless).

What’s frustrating, of course, is that the Prisoner legacy of intense debate over its meaning is crying out for some sort of transmedia storytelling, and I think if the end product had been a bit more well-executed AMC might have been willing to spend the time and money to put together some form of ARG or online component for the miniseries that could have started and even encouraged this sort of behaviour. As it was, though, AMC almost buried the miniseries, doing very little online promotion ahead of its debut and burning it off as quickly as they did. What’s interesting is that I think the miniseries would have been better received on the whole if they had worked to create a transmedia narrative that could purposefully overcome some of its traditional narrative shortcomings, but those shortcomings seem to have convinced AMC that the miniseries needed to be cast aside as quickly as possible.

Despite being scheduled and written in a way that fails to give audiences a clear way to participate in its narrative, AMC’s remake of The Prisoner managed to inspire transmedia storytelling simply by nature of its genre, the tradition of the franchise, and the growing expectation of these narratives within serialized television. It should serve as a lesson of sorts for producers of this type of serialized genre content: this audience is out there and eager to play this game, so give them the tools to do it (while also, you know, constructing a decent narrative at the same time).

Cultural Observations

  • The discussion on the #FoE4 hashtag this afternoon also veered into some more familiar territory for me, as there was extensive discussion of Joss Whedon (including the Dollhouse cancellation). I’ve written a lot on that subject in the past, including what I saw as his resistance to an entirely online business model, so I don’t really have anything new to add to that discussion.
  • I’ll probably put something together tomorrow overall, but in short I’ll admit that this whole remote attendance through Twitter was really frakkin’ awesome, so thanks to everyone liveblogging/tweeting/participating/etc.


Filed under The Prisoner (2009)

2 responses to “FOE4 Musings: AMC’s The Prisoner and Transmedia Participation

  1. I instinctively felt AMC must be at sixes and sevens over what they were up to with this show. It seemed to be in the cutting rooms for longer than it took to film. I also gather there were featuresfrom their original 9-minute trailer that never even made it into the show – suggesting some breakdown in joined-up thinking in the production process.

    If you have a *mysterious and arcane* show, surely the last thing you do is shove it like horse tablets down peoples throats, two hours a night, night after night. If there is *mystery*, surely the whole point is to allow it to unfold in peoples minds, just as you suggest.

    I gather however that the eve more arcane “Novemeber Sweeps” syndrome may have had more to do with their scheduling than artistic or rational thinking. Money always talks the loudest I guess.

  2. Pingback: Cultural Announcement: Reflections on an “Academic Blogging” Journey | Cultural Learnings

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