Are Our Attention Spans Dwindling?

I’m going to ask a potentially volatile question, but I’m looking for a sincere answer: are we still compelled by a good mystery, or has the post-Internet world of instant gratification robbed us of our attention span?

Allow me to explain.

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This past Sunday marked the debut of The Leftovers, a new HBO series based on the book by Tom Perrotta. The promos were solid, and anything Damon Lindelof touches automatically grabs my interest, so I tuned in with high expectations.

Overall, it was a decent pilot, but it had some nagging production issues that removed me from the immersion. Still, it was captivating enough for me to stick with.

Hours later, I found myself still thinking about my concerns. Was I just being pretentious or did the elements that annoyed me bother anyone else? Although I rarely ever read user reviews online, with my curiosity piqued, I decided to comb through the IMDB message boards for other opinions. What I found there was a whole other conversation happening that I hadn’t expected.

** MINOR PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW **

Let’s start with what we learned from the first episode: two percent of the world’s population mysteriously vanished. Three years later, the “leftovers” are still in mourning, but attempting to move on with their lives. Science and religion debate while in search of an explanation. Some type of cult—referred to as the “GRs,”—have taken a vow of silence and smoke profusely in protest of a small town’s remembrance of those gone missing. Meanwhile, at an undisclosed location, a man named Wayne with seemingly mystical abilities warns that “the grace period is over,” and that chaos is coming.

Sounds pretty damn intriguing, right? Well, not everyone was impressed.

“…the plot had many holes and a bad storyline.”

“There’s too many questions and zero answers.”

“It left too many questions out there, basic questions, without rewarding me for having hung in there for the last hour.”

I wondered if perhaps some people thought The Leftovers was supposed to be a movie instead of a series. If a 90-minute movie leaves you with unanswered questions, that’s a problem, but a pilot’s job is to intrigue and keep you coming back for more. Surely they weren’t expecting all the mystery of a ten episode season to be solved in the pilot… right?

Much to my surprise, this negative criticism continued page after page. Reviewers expressed varying levels of animosity and frustration in their posts, but the underlying message was crystal clear: “I don’t like unanswered questions.”

What is it that causes this type of reaction? I guess it goes back to my original question at the beginning of this post: are we still compelled by a good mystery, or has the post-Internet world of instant gratification robbed us of our attention span?

I suppose the answer lies somewhere in the middle. While the reaction of the post-Internet generation can be explained by having never experienced a world without immediate answers available at their fingertips, what about us older folks?

This is where procedural television has significantly impacted viewer behavior. Not only can shows like Law & Order and CSI tell a good mystery, they can wrap it all up in less than 45-minutes. These stories are intended to be fun and digestible in small portions, and send the viewer to bed happy.

A similar feat cannot be accomplished with shows such as Lost or Fringe, which have complex storylines that take significant periods of time to unfold. However, if not paced properly, the viewership will gradually dissipate over time until all you’re left with are diehard fans. That’s when things get even harder for a storyteller.

Without a grand finale deemed worthy of the years of investment fans have put into the show, not only do you set yourself up for palpable outrage dismissing your work, but you also decrease the desire of viewers to invest in a “long game” story format ever again. And that, my friends, is sad, because there are some amazing stories that will never get told.

So, am I defending The Leftovers? Not entirely. While I do believe the story is interesting enough to deserve my attention, it suffers from other problems that will be difficult to overlook if it doesn’t improve.

“I dig fantasy and sci-fi and have no problem giving a show a few episodes to get going, but there is just nothing about the characters that makes me want to invest in their stories.”

“… there wasn’t really any character to latch onto and say ‘I like this person’.”

The complaint about a lack of interesting characters is fair and valid. I didn’t find a single one that I connected with or that I’m anxious to see again. I’m willing to give it more time to develop, of course, but to me the most intriguing character was Wayne, a guy that supposedly doesn’t appear again until the season finale. That’s a problem.

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