Real-Time and the Foregrounding of Style

25 Nov

We talked a little on Tuesday about 24 and “realism,” particularly in relation to the real-time aspect of the show. The way this real-time is used, with the gaps for commercial breaks and the clock that keeps reminding you that THIS SHOW IS IN REAL-TIME, EVERYONE lends a sense of urgency, but also seems to be aiming for a kind of “reality” effect. In some sense the narrative might seem less mediated—the plot has the potential to seem less “constructed” and more “real,” because it is unfolding, as life does, chronologically, minute by minute.

However, if the real-time aspect is endeavoring to be a kind of “realistic style,” a style that is an attempt to bring the fiction closer to reality or realism*, I think it backfires. Instead of creating the impression of real, actual time, the “real-time” conceit instead highlights the show’s construction, foregrounding a narrative gimmick that never lets you forget its presence. We end up even more aware of the show’s construction, because the particular way that the show is constructed is its main distinguishing, marketable feature, and because it is ever-present. The ticking clock that sandwiches each commercial break, instead of reminding us that the events are unfolding in real-time and making us acutely aware of the passage of that real time during the break, reminds us that the show is using a real-time style, and that the show skips chunks for commercials—instead of further immersing us, it highlights the fact that this is a constructed narrative that is using particular tricks.

The other main obstacle to the “real-time” creating “realism” is the fact that though they show every moment, each episode must contain the same amount of drama and narrative tension expected of an episode of a show that does not employ the real-time conceit. In any other show, presumably, we skip all the boring parts of life, where characters are sleeping or eating lunch or reading books, and show only scenes where interesting, plot-related things happen. 24 still has to only have scenes where action occurs, but because it is in real-time, that means that it has to posit a world in which at every moment something interesting, plot-related, and worth watching is happening. The only joke anyone makes about 24 is a joke about how the characters never use the bathroom or eat. This serves to further distance us, because we become increasingly aware of the unreality of the narrative, simply because we know that life is far more full of mundane moments than 24 is.


*Defining this here to mean “a style that attempts to create an impression in the viewer that they are watching something that closely approximates or represents reality,” and not to mean “something that is like reality.”

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