Markus Gull

What we see when we watch series.

Isn't it amazing how quickly streaming platforms like Netflix have completely re-sorted for us what used to be called television? Hardly anyone can do without their favourite series, which are reported on with rapturous enthusiasm. With strong recommendations, of course. Series marathon as a popular sport, so to speak.

Bingewatching - why do we do it?


In the blogcast, I read this recent blog article to you. With emphasis, of course!

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The aspect of entertainment, diversion and escape from everyday life plays a major role, that much is certain. Once you've been sucked into a series, you simply want to know what happens next. Every reasonably skilful author has a few tricks up her sleeve to make sure you want to know how it ends. Whether it really ends well - exactly the way we want it to. Whether the right people get what they want. Or what they deserve. In other words: what they actually need. And that is usually not what they want. Often even the opposite. In no time at all, they are pushed out of their comfort zone and stumble along the path of knowledge towards their possible transformation, and we ask ourselves: Will this character succeed? Already we've tipped into it. We have begun to empathise with one of the characters - the empathy spark has ignited.

It's about empathy. It's true that sympathy can't hurt either, but an emotional bridge built on sympathy sways on wobbly, thin legs. Empathy, on the other hand, is stable. We can even feel it with a character we don't like. We link our inner bond with that of the character. Anyone who has seen "The Joker" knows how it works: there is no trace of sympathy, but plenty of empathy. We empathise with fictional characters because we know the character's situation, their emotions, because we ask ourselves the same questions, suffer the same pains, traumas, longings, hope for the same things. Because we are on a similar path, just in our own world.

In fictional stories and their characters, we humans create and recognise a world with which we can explain our own reality. Yes, our own reality.

Do you know your story?

Yuval Noah Harari describes it this way in his book "Homo Deus": "Each of us has an elaborate system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a select few, mixes them with bits and pieces from films we've seen, novels we've read, speeches we've heard and our own daydreams, and knits out of all this clutter a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I come from and where I'm going. This story tells me what to love, who to hate and what to do with myself. This story can even lead me to lay down my life if the plot demands it. Everyone has their own genre in this: some live a tragedy, others inhabit a never-ending drama of faith, some live their lives like an action movie, and quite a few act like they are in a comedy. But in the end, they are always just stories."

You can't say it better than that, can you? Shorter, yes, as Max Frisch did: "Sooner or later, every man invents a story that he thinks is his life.

Or he finds a story that contains his life. Life as it can be, life as it should be, his life. "There's more treasure in books," said Walt Disney, "than pirate's booty on Treasure Island, and best of all, you can enjoy that wealth every day of your life." Libraries have always been, streaming platforms more recently, richly filled treasure troves. Bubbling treasure chests of self-knowledge.

Author Dan Fogelman has put a particularly sparkling jewel in there for us: the "This is us" series. What an artist, this Dan Fogelman! "This is us" runs on NBC and is streamed in our latitudes on Amazon Prime, currently on view in its sixth and final season. Definitely do it!

The breathtaking craftsmanship of the cinematic storytelling would be worth a multiple compliment somersault on its own. But what the audience is offered here in terms of nourishing impulses of insight is a source of pure joy and vital example of what so-called entertainment productions can actually achieve when empathetic people do their work as artists with loving precision and thus help something into the world that nourishes the souls of many others.

Do you know a happy family?

Not everyone knows Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina", but almost everyone knows the first sentence from this epic: "All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". All too many know this experience, and they know it first hand. The Pearson family from Pittsburg knows both.

"This is us" tells the story of the Pearsons - now adult triplets and their parents - in the now, in wide flashbacks and flashforwards, and for long stretches it feels like a live transmission from one's own soul. The axis around which everything revolves in "This is us" is the longing for connection in the smallest cells of human coexistence: as lovers and as a family. The longing for something like family, as it could and should be and apparently erodes a little more with each generation. That's how it is, isn't it?

This is us - flawed human beings, stumbling in constant effort and repeated failure to be what one might call decent. Tangled in the questions that life poses. How is one a good person, and who is? How can I be a good person? What is a good person anyway? Can I succeed - driven by longings for belonging, recognition, love? In whom can I look for a role model, who can I be a role model for? How do I succeed in being a family, in becoming a family, especially at a time when everything, everything, everything is driving us apart? Drives us all apart? Where are our roots, and why do we need them? Then again: understanding first-hand that giving love is just as vital and difficult as receiving love. And: What does it mean to take responsibility - for myself, for others? Can I do that? Such questions and: How can I do something well, do something better than those who have hurt me? Can I get rid of what has hurt me and protect others from it? Above all, can I make amends? Because that is precisely what we humans - and only we humans - are given and thus given up.

"This is us": a piece of - for my sake - American entertainment television stirs one's own inner question-mark world with fictional reflections. Why does so-called public television practically never produce this kind of thing? Wouldn't that be your job? What else? Play "Big Bang Theory" reruns?

Those who write, it is said, write not to explain the world to others but to themselves. Some - writers, authors, lyricists, essayists - let others share in this and shine their searchlight on a little something in our basement. Like Dan Fogelman and the team of authors of "This is us", they say: "This is how I see the world. This is how I see life. This is how life could be." They are making us an offer. They are inviting us into this world of theirs, sharing their perspective, their view of the things of life. But more than that, they ask questions based on their values and their worldview.

It's always the questions that move us forward, not the answers. Especially not the quick ones. Again and again, again and again, in different guises, our original question trilling appears:

Who am I?

Why am I?

What will be when I am no more?

Who knows!

That is why we tell ourselves and each other stories - legends, fairy tales, myths, films, series, novels - on stages and around campfires. And even religions are ultimately nothing more than metaphorical stories with which we explain spirituality to ourselves, so that we can discover a meaning in our transient lives. Our life is the most exciting story of all, even though we know without spoiler alert exactly how it will end.

By the way: the actor playing Uncle Nicky in "This is us" is Griffin Dunne, actor, producer, director. On Netflix you can watch his documentary "The centre will not hold", a film he made about his aunt, the revered author icon Joan Didion, who died in December. Joan Didion once said: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear." It's lucky she let us share that with her!

Do you know journaling?

We can all do what Joan Didion did, quite simply, probably minus the National Book Award, but that doesn't matter. More and more people are doing it, and of course it has already been given a label: "Journaling" is written on it and means that you sit down at the table, preferably in the morning, let your thoughts run, write along and are amazed at what you suddenly conjure up. What you explain to yourself, clarify within yourself, recognise and understand. What is transformed and illuminated in the process. Journaling is not a chronicle of events, as a diary is, but an expedition into one's own inner self, a voyage of discovery towards the inner story, a morning walk into the truth forest. Suddenly you see the forest and the trees.

The shape? Doesn't matter!

Style and literary value? Never mind!

Comprehensibility for others? Never mind!

Those who write do not write to explain the world to others, but to themselves.

There's a collection of essays by Joan Didion called "We tell ourselves stories in order to live". The stories we tell ourselves and each other keep us alive, because this is us. This is us - one way or another. Or this way.

So it's not a question of whether we tell ourselves a story, but what that story is.

The eternal story we tell ourselves and each other, in sagas, fairy tales, religious narratives, myths, films, series, novels, on stage and around campfires, is the story of "good versus evil - and good must win". The good guys in this story are always us, the bad guys are the Other. The other is everything that stands in our way on the way to winning, that is, that must be consistently mastered, conquered and defeated. What we need for this may be used, exploited and plastered. Everything and everyone serves as a resource for our gain, because that is how we - that is, the good guys - win. This story is told in a smooth, exciting and multi-faceted way. It is - if we look at the beneficial achievements of science, technology, medicine and such things that have been driven by this story - highly efficient. Moreover, it makes our knotty lives easy, because "... this story tells me what to love, who to hate and what to do with myself. This story can even result in me surrendering my life if the plot demands it". - Exciting, efficient, simple.

And wrong.

Because if you haven't spent the last 20 years under a rock, you've long since noticed what comes out of it, because in the story of the Others, we are not us, but the Others, that is, the bad guys. The old story of good versus evil is actually entitled: "Everyone versus everyone".

Do you know the New Story?

I am firmly convinced that we need a new story, a better one. This new story, the "New Story", is about the harmony of opposites in a better future, where we support each other instead of fighting each other. The main characters in this story, the heroines and heroes, are the ones the Dalai Lama meant when he said: "The planet no longer needs successful people. The planet desperately needs peacemakers, healers, innovators, storytellers and lovers of all kinds."

In doing so, they tell and enable the stories of a future that we want to live in, and that we want our children and grandchildren to live in and bingewatch series with each other. The New Story tells of a future of enabling instead of today's present of hindering. A future of listening, of tuning in, of cooperation, of mutual support, of understanding, of heart-building.

The main characters, i.e. the heroes in this story, are empowerers, not conquerors, because there cooperation determines the action and not dominance, as they were told in the old story. They know: I can do something well, do something better than those who hurt me. I can put right what has hurt me and protect others from it. That is what is given to me, in this New Story, is given to us. Working title: "This is us".

All of this is guaranteed not to happen quickly. For this, we absolutely have to think in terms of generations, and like-minded people are needed in all places. In education, in business, in politics. Especially in so-called civil society, we need leaders who can pose the right questions, from which the new stories will burst forth in waves of bingewatch. Questions like: Who can I be a role model to? What does it mean to take responsibility - for myself, for others?

With luck, this new story will be told in a series that will run forever and have more episodes than "The Simpsons". You've probably already guessed what my grandmother, old Story Dudette, is up to: yes, she's working on the script for Episode 1, invitingly titled "New Story. New Glory."

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