The Ark of an Arc

The sense of an ending

And the winners and the losers went into the arc, two by two, stopping when they reached the end

What is it about humans that makes us so desperate for a full stop?

Dave Trott has just written about how many TV programmes seem to rely on human being’s innate need to care about an outcome.  So, regardless of the format – baking, singing, dancing,living in a house, anything – requires winners and losers.  Audiences love to see points awarded and prizes bestowed.  But is that really about finding winners and losers, or just the feeling that something has finished?  Sometimes programmes are about a contest, and sometimes there’s simply a narrative with a conclusion – the end of something.  So panel shows such as QI and Mock the Week insist on determining who has won, and who hasn’t.   Home-improvement programmes unveil a final result, programmes end with closure. Is that natural?  Films, plays, sporting events and concerts need a conclusion because at some point the audience needs to go home.  BUT TV needn’t stop in the same way.  Like that log-fire effect, or The Landscape Channel, it could just carry on as a steady flow in the background.

That’s life

Some programmes eschew the idea of speciously imposed narrative arcs and winners. Question Time doesn’t award a prize for best panel members.  Later doesn’t acclaim the most musical act (although one newspaper has tried to anoint one).

David Attenborough doesn’t insist on counting the animals down.

I worked at MTV when it played music videos and the countdowns were always the most popular programmes – they combine a neat conclusion with a sense of a winner.  So we tried to impose a structure on other programmes.  I later worked for a  news broadcaster.  The problem with news bulletins is that they operate to the opposite rhythm – starting with the big stories and ending small. And rolling news channels need to keep stories ticking over through a series of interim conclusions, with new stories picking up as others wither away.  And rolling news attracts only a fraction of the audiences to scheduled bulletins on mixed channels because audiences feel uncomfortable with the continuous stream. They like punctuation.

Can we understand why humans behave like this?  Why are we addicted to closure?  What would be so wrong with TV programmes that pause suddenly and say ‘more next time’.  Perhaps it reflects the way we live.  Our lives follow a story arc which builds to a peak in the middle before settling into a grim final chapter (the sharpest knife, cut down to a dull roar).

Some of us look for continuity from an afterlife, or DNA, or memory (good luck with that…).  Existential questions of where we came from, why we are here and what is it all about – the BIG questions – are easier to grasp through the power of a ‘human’ story – notably the one in the new testament which starts every Christmas and ends three months later…

Every year the seasons show renewal and die-back.  Each day we get up for a new day and life start anew, then we get the chance to sink into a welcome bed at the end.  Are TV programmes simply echoing these built-in rhythms? And the good thing about the natural rhythms, as with life, is that at the end of the day there’s no such thing as a winner or a loser.  We’re all both and neither.

Julian Barnes wonderful book: The Sense of an Ending


Talking about endings: Proserpina

1. Lyrics by The Evidence

Somehow inevitably what blooms
Withers eventually, is consumed
And light, life and liberty will die soon 

2. The last song written by Kate McGarrigle, Performed by her daughter Martha Wainwright

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