Streaming Guides · TV

What if Frank Underwood didn’t do that one thing?

By  · Published on March 8th, 2017

Netflix to supplement mildly meaningful entertainment with meaningless choices.

Freedom of choice is what you got/Freedom from choice is what you want ‐ Devo

Imagine if a character you really liked or didn’t like did one thing on a TV show instead of another thing. Crazy world, amirite? Well, these wild times are soon to hit the otherwise safe shores of Netflix where, the Daily Mail recently revealed, top headscratchers are “working on ways to give viewers control of key plot decisions.” That means you! Instead of falling asleep in the middle of an elongated three-way scene, as I generally do during steamy and suited episodes of House of Cards, you just might have to start making some serious decisions. The Daily Mail, reportedly informed by a mysterious source as to these developments, quotes someone from the streaming giant as claiming: “We’re doing work on branch narratives so you are actually making choices as you watch.” Digital Spy, who officially confirmed these rumors with Netflix yesterday, predicts: “it’s…a thrilling concept that could only get more impressive over time.”

Wow! And how about that! Many around the world wide web, like Gary Ogden at Shortlist, are drawing comparisons to the Give Yourself Goosebumps series that R. L. Stine put out in the late 90s. But Give Yourself Goosebumps, of course, was a shameless rip off of Edward Packard’s earlier Choose Your Own Adventure series of likeminded children’s books that debuted in the late ’70s and ran no less than 185 official titles. The premise of these books were simple enough: instead of leaning back and enjoying a ripping yarn, you are obligated to only depart for certain pages if you want the characters of the book to do a particular action. The beginnings came frontloaded with warnings like “The adventures you [the reader] take are a result of your choice. You are responsible because you choose!” and “Your choice may lead to success or disaster!” Wikipedia classified them as “gamebooks.”

While the comparison to a few mildly popular children’s series has mostly been positive ‐ Ogden calls recollects the Goosebumps knock-off as “a lot of fun” ‐ I’m ready to call bullshit. Jacob Heller, who reread a Choose Your Own Adventure title he remembered in order to milk some content for The A.V. Club a few years ago, came to the dreary conclusion that:

It’s no longer a novelty or a rite of passage to pick what I want to eat or watch or read or buy or vote for. Often it’s a chore ‐ or, at worst, a source of mild anxiety. What once seemed like agency is now just another thing to worry about.

Perhaps for this reason, the Choose Your Own Adventure series and most of its rip-offs died by the midway point of the last decade. The narrative device of choosing one’s own adventure, however, has lived a remarkably healthy life in the pornography industry, promising a new way of reigning in the direct audience surrogacy that the industry demands. Beyond merely ‘interactive’ videos, a “Choose Your Adventure”-themed phone sex line was launched by Dejamor, a company that once made monthly sex kits for couples, and HarperCollins published an erotic novel called Follow Your Fantasy by Nicola Jane that boasts: “Even if you choose submission, the control is still all yours.” Ian Paul, CIO of Naughty America, the popular porn studio that’s been at the forefront of developing VR porn, gave the sinister statement to a journalist that “We do think the future is in a choose your own adventure where you don’t have to choose.”

Will Netflix’s Chose Your Own Adventure-style take more after the porn industry than children’s books?

Like the porn industry, Netflix has already begun with some interactive add-ons to its own conventional content. An animated original series on Netflix called Kong: King of the Apes (unrelated to Kong: Skull Island) was launched with video-game like “Power Ups” that rewarded continued viewing. Per the Daily Mail’s discovery, Netflix will begin by running the format on some of their original children’s programing debuting later this year and will bring it to its more adult-oriented original series if that proves popular with the kids.

More interesting will be discovering how filming multiple endings or plot points that viewers can sift through like so many extra features on a DVD will change how viewers relate to the oft-deified showrunners whose singular decisions are often used as testaments to their prowess. Would the much talked about endings of shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad feel less meaningful if there were a series of alternate versions? Or, to use the latter example, if Hank Schrader didn’t go to the bathroom at the end of “Gliding Over All” and five additional seasons are filmed for viewers who select this option? Probably not. The choices, as I imagine them, will most likely involve alternate dialogue cues and other kinds of meaningless choices that fill our daily lives.

The only benefit I see to Netflix commissioning a litany of possibilities from their directors and shuffling them up for the masses is to complicate the lives of television critics and however you call those people who write TV recaps. Fuck those guys.

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