#NotEnoughSciFi: A dream who’s trying to save us

Are you watching Fleabag? I love Fleabag. The first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sitcom was so exquisite and complete, I could hardly believe there would ever be a follow-up. And yet – Fleabag series two is here.

I love the show for its mix of comedy, desperation, and sheer social awkwardness, all born of a radical honesty about the things we usually keep to ourselves.

One way that Fleabag discloses these hidden thoughts is by the lead character’s asides to camera – a televisual evolution from the play in which she originally appeared, a one-woman show where the character confessed all to her audience.

This element of the show is complicated, in the second episode of Fleabag’s new season, by a therapy session in which the character is asked if she has friends, and whether she sees them often.

“They’re always with me,” she says, looking directly at us through the screen.

It made me start to wonder: what is Fleabag supposed to see? What is she supposed to know about us? From her side of the screen, what does she think is going on?

The issue was complicated in this week’s episode, when the priest with whom Fleabag is besotted seemed able to detect her playing to the camera. He noticed the moments when she “went away” to address us with an expression or a word. What is he seeing? And what exactly is she doing?

At the same time as Fleabag is on, I’ve also been rewatching the 1980s detective show Moonlighting. The series, featuring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as mismatched private investigators falling for one another, was notorious for breaking the fourth wall and embracing the artifices of a TV production.

There’s an episode where a gunman, holding up our heroes, has his weapon taken from him by a props master who is collecting items at the end of day. The villain and his hostages are equally confused, until Bruce Willis’ character David is able to reassure everyone and tell them what was due to happen in the script.

The show’s episodes often ran short and the production team made up for this with jokey pre-credits scenes which also complicate the question of what we are watching, and what the characters know about their status as fictional beings.

They refer to their Emmy nominations, plan to release videos to cash in on their celebrity status, and generally charm us in sequences that seem removed from the world of the detective show they are nominally inhabiting. They know they are in a TV show and being watched, but they are not Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd; they are the characters David Addison and Maddie Hayes.

This attitude to the fourth wall can be funny but also heartbreaking. In the show’s finale, David and Maddie race to escape cancellation, trying to force a priest to marry them and rekindle the waning romance which a TV exec tells them has cost their ratings.

In their despair at cancellation and quest to remain “alive” on screen, David and Maddie’s plight is reminiscent of the recent Twin Peaks finale.

There, Dale Cooper finally managed to save Laura Palmer from the fate which she originally met in the 1980s, the murder which had been the motor of the show.

In doing so, he caused the series’ already troubled sense of reality to fracture further. There’s no explicit breaking of the fourth wall for Cooper, but his action shatters the world nonetheless, leaving him and Laura confused even as to their own identities, desperately trying to outrun the collapsing premise of their own television programme.

These shows, in their dying minutes, seem to surrender the basis on which we originally watched them. We feel, instead, that we are watching the fictions themselves trying to find a way to continue living. In their final moments, they stop pretending and face us as they are: constructs and fabrications about whom we nonetheless care deeply.

I got to wondering: are these asides, pieces to camera, and self-aware characters growing more common as we become ever more TV literate in an increasingly mediatized world? (Who would conduct that survey and how would you make it credible?).

Are writers, directors, and the showrunners of today laying the ground for some new kind of masterpiece, a future show runner doing for TV what Tristram Shandy or If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller… did for literature?

Certainly the fourth wall breaks in some interesting places these days. TV’s Doctor Who saw its lead character wish viewers a merry Christmas back in the Sixties, but more recently the Doctor has lectured us directly on the bootstrap paradox, and glanced our way while admitting: “I’m nothing without my audience.”

Russell T. Davies, who masterminded the show’s revival in the 2000s, has written of the life that characters take on beyond their authors’ wishes, referring to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author in his memoir The Writer’s Tale, and musing on the ill-served characters who might have a bone to pick with him for the stories he wrote them into.

Why does all this matter? First of all, because despite all the tricksiness, the characters still make us care. Moonlighting is the key here: the breaking of the fourth wall isn’t what made us love it, it was the romance between the leads.

A successor to more formulaic shows like Remington Steele, it recognised that such series’ appeal lay not in the mystery plots churned through each week, but the authenticity of the relationship between the leads. A show like Moonlighting was merely honest about the fact, stripping away the unnecessary accoutrements and looking you directly in the eye – just as Fleabag does, from within the maelstrom of grief, lust, secrets, and dysfunction which characterises her show; just as Doctor Who‘s lead character does, being – to steal words from an episode featuring Santa Claus – “a dream who’s trying to save us”.

These beings are fictional and socially constructed: they are not merely the product of a single author, but of a whole television production and its cast, plus a world of audiences and fans, and a spectrum of cultural attitudes to television. We don’t need to be the scriptwriter to know when our heroes are acting out of character; we sense it and we bristle. When TV crews betray the figures in their care, audiences complain. Television characters have a life of their own, and frame-breaking shows merely make that manifest.

By studying these figures, and their increasing self-awareness (or simulation of self-awareness), we might learn useful things about our relationship to more technologically advanced forms of “artificial life”.

There’s a good argument to be made already for not swearing at Siri and there’s a surprising amount we can learn from the fantasised relationships that sci-fi writers have given us to robotic life, but we should also pay attention to less obviously futuristic imaginary beings as we prepare for relationships with ever smarter devices.

Will Siri one day be able to add comments under her breath – saying, perhaps, one thing for public consumption and another for her device owner?

Will Microsoft’s Clippy give us the side eye?

How sophisticated are smart devices going to get?

The knowledge economy report Imagination unleashed points out that even the smartest machines can only repeat, not imagine; and what is more, they can only emulate tasks which we have worked out how to teach them to repeat.

Fleabag, the Doctor, Maddie and David from Moonlighting can repeat their actions as often as I care to press play on my DVD or iPlayer. And the shows in which they appear are story-generating machines, churning up endless scenarios at once familiar and novel, to keep us entertained. Will the care, artistry, and sophistication which went into them soon be found in our smart devices and their avatars? What is the limit to making such creations socially sophisticated and (apparently) self-aware? Could some devices end up acting as “dreams who are trying to save us”?

Will we be smart enough to remember that, however deft they become conversationally, those devices are actually no more aware of us than Fleabag is able to see out of the television screen?

It’s really important that we have broad, imaginative, and thoughtful conversations about the social relations we’ll have with such devices in the future. Sometimes that means acquiring technical knowledge about their current and likely future capacities. But it also means dreaming a little bigger, and paying a close eye to what the fictional beings are up to on your favourite TV show.

After all, some of them certainly have an eye on you.

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