Interactive TV is the best way to control your own destiny during lockdown

At a time when we can't go where we want, why not have an adventure on telly?

On paper, this writer is the worst person on earth to be in charge of guiding characters through a film or TV show. We’d be far too sensible to allow for any drama, and completely unwilling to let the horniest member of any group of teenagers on vacation in a remote shack, miles from any phone coverage, go and investigate the strange noises out on the old voodoo burial ground that sound like jackal skulls being trepanned with a motorised corkscrew. You’re reading the guy that gets to the end of most Shakespeare comedies and goes ‘they could’ve saved all that bother if they’d just pulled off the fake beard and said they had an identical twin in scene three’. For us, an interactive Die Hard would consist of Bruce Willis calmly evacuating the Nakatomi Plaza building via the designated fire exit and letting the proper authorities deal with it.

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Control your own TV destination via interactive programming. Credit: Alamy

Yet, as the ultimate back-screen driver, why wouldn’t we relish the idea of getting our hands on the fates of our favourite characters, convinced we could get Ross and Rachel sorted inside a single episode entitled ‘The One Where They Just Fucking Sit Down And Talk About It’, or get Frodo to Mount Doom in half the time via a shortcut we know round the back of Gondor. So Netflix’s interactive specials have been snaffled up in no time, and so far they’ve (luckily) refused to let us dodge the real action. Of course we agreed to let the company help make the video game in Black Mirror‘s Bandersnatch, and forced Stefan to take his prescribed medicine, but the show gave us a swift, sharp slap on our safe-playing wrists, an abrupt early ending and sent us whizzing back to make a more daring choice.

What we learnt from Charlie Brooker’s pioneering Black Mirror episode was that interactive TV isn’t so much a way to choose the sort of show you want to watch, or even too drastically affect the plot. Any ending you reached which didn’t satisfactorily wrap up the story or left the protagonist dead or imprisoned was instinctively a fail and – even if you thought the best thing for Stefan was to chuck himself off a tower block balcony at the first opportunity – the show itself sent you scurrying back to choose your way to the happiest ending available. Instead, it’s about forcing yourself out of your societal comfort zones and embracing the chaos and complexities of TV fiction. The ‘happy’ ending essential to all on-screen drama is still an inevitability, you just have to work harder to find it.

Bandersnatch
Fionn Whitehead in ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’. Credit: Netflix

So we threw ourselves into Netflix’s latest interactive experience, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy Vs. The Reverend, determined to go wildly off-road. Kimmy, now a famous children’s author with her own theme park, is set to marry Prince Frederick (Daniel Radcliffe), 12th in line to the throne of England, and this was going smoothly over our fudging dead body. This writer has always considered Kimmy Schmidt an interactive show anyway – how does anybody get through it without hammering the 10-seconds-back button to catch the machine-gun gags you miss? So our thumbs were already itching with mischief. Damn right Titus Andromedon is going for a nap rather than gym training for his new action hero role. You betcha we’re sending Lillian in to test Frederick’s faithfulness with a seductive karaoke rendition of ‘Yes We Have No Bananas’. And if you think we’re sending Titus up onstage in a rowdy redneck bar fully aware of the words to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’, you don’t know us too well, sister.

It turns out this is exactly the right way to ‘play’ Kimmy Schmidt. Netflix budgets haven’t yet reached the stage where there are a dozen entirely different episodes, each with a different happy ending, to discover on repeated play-throughs. There isn’t an hour-long thread where Jacqueline, and not Titus, goes with Kimmy to rescue the second bunch of mole women, just short branches off the central story you can head down for a quick laugh and a comedy ‘bad’ ending before being shuffled back onto the main path. The fun is in making the worst possible choices in order to find them all. Why not send Titus off chasing mushroom hallucinations of forest banquets – you’ll only get additional content before the story gets back on track. In fact, if you make a choice and the plot runs on without mishap for a few minutes, you’ve missed out on something – a laugh-a-minute plane crash, Lillian angling to be Queen or a squeaky voiced Josh Groban.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Daniel Radcliffe plays Kimmy’s fiancé in the special. Credit: Netflix

After decades of trying to make TV interactive, it seems like Netflix has finally found the right track. Until now, there’s always been an overt and see-through sense of cynicism to it. ‘Interactive’ systems like iTV in the early 2000s were all about allowing you to click straight through an advert to a purchase page, while ‘influencing’ shows like The X Factor by phoning premium rate lines to support a particular act was essentially televised ‘feel-good’ gambling – you paid out for the chance of ‘winning’ nothing more than the satisfaction that others agreed with you, and the emotional connection of having ‘bought in’ to a particular act. This was your TV making no effort to disguise the fact that it thinks you’re a sucker.

Evolutions like the Red Button and pause-able programming gave us more control over the extent and experience of the content we were viewing, now blown wide open with the advent of streaming and catch-up. But it’s only with these interactive specials that the viewer begins to feel fully involved in the cogs and crannies of the show itself. After so long as a gagged-and-bound consumer of well-honed televisual formulas, it’s refreshing to become an armchair puppet master. To feel that ‘our’ characters don’t have a prescribed, by-the-numbers story arc to follow, to screw with our own expectations and question what we really want to get out of a viewing experience: resolution, tragedy or sheer chaos? It feels right to be in control, even if the process so far is still a bit of a smokescreen and the resources aren’t there yet for us to actually perfect a show. Tellyheads can but dream of the days you’ll be able to distract the guards on Killer Women with Piers Morgan, or invite some squatters in on All Round To Mrs Brown’s…

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