While catching up on Homeland I realized something…both life and great cable television unfold one episode at a time.
As much as we want to know what will happen next week, or even in the next episode of Master of None, we must go in order. There are no shortcuts available. From here, I wondered if there were more similarities.
Granted, there are only so many parallels between TV and life to be found, since one is conducted on your rump and features invented stories while the other includes stocking the fridge, attending dentist appointments and forgetting—then frantically replying to—hours-old text messages. Still, there are some:
We take both very seriously.
We’re in it for the long haul. This isn’t a 90-minute feature.
A compelling antihero sits at the center. Assuming you’re the protagonist of your story and you’re neither completely good nor entirely evil.
Within an overall pace, the story moves at an unpredictable rate. Some days are slow; others jam-packed.
There’s loads of suspense. If you’re lucky you have a mild clue of the goings on, a couple hypotheses and maybe some solid explanations. But in both TV and life you may have noticed a distinct lack of transparency about a.) the big idea and b.) peoples’ intentions.
Much of the time, going about your day, don’t you wonder: What’s this leading to? Who (the hell) will these people turn out to be? A random mariachi band playing an interminable song to begin an episode (Breaking Bad)? Another innocent who is eventually disposed of (nearly all minor characters, The Americans)?
Sit tight and find out!
You’re often overcome with exclamations: Holy shit! Everything makes sense! It’s all coming together like a gorgeous puzzle! This is brilliant! “Oh my God!” also gets a lot of use, with varied inflections: “Oh my GOD!” “OH MY GOD!”
Loose ends are (eventually) tied. Characters you barely remember resurface to play major roles, like the guy selling hot dogs in the first scene of the pilot who turns out to be pivotal to the series. (Just made that one up). Unanswered questions from three seasons ago, which you were sure everyone else had forgotten, earn responses. Likewise, you receive replies to emails, catch up with your college roommate and manage to travel abroad.
Still, it’s rare to find answers to all questions. Basically everyone has a cloudy, mysterious past. Through glimpses we piece together some parts.
Now, for the rub. We tend to be super engaged with the lives of people who…hate to remind you…don’t actually exist. When it comes to our own stories…eh. It all seems like too much. Better to just get through the day and ask the big questions later, i.e., never.
Because even though we have unlimited access to life, with the latest episode airing all the time, we mostly squander it. We're impatient and just want to know what will happen next.
How can we transfer the boundless curiosity we feel for fictional characters, the giddiness of “I can’t wait to see what will happen…” to our own stories?
I know it’s a stretch. That’s why I’m pestering you about it.
We need to strike a balance. On the one hand, we must trust that all will be revealed, exactly how scenes are presented to viewers in a careful, deliberate order. The full deck is held, somewhere, and cards will be distributed as is seen fit.
That said, don’t get complacent. Stay active. Guess and think critically. Ask questions. Observe. Maintain a loose grip. Keep hypothesizing and paying attention. Don’t get spooked and give up on the show.
Because, in both cable drama and life, nothing is wasted. It all counts.
Do your best to relish the unknown. Trust it’s leading somewhere richer and more impressive. The mystery and confusion are required. Without them you wouldn’t have invested in the story in the first place.
Try to trust in the divine TV show of your life.