Smackdown: Arrested Development versus The Office
If we wanted to envision some symbols of drillability and forensic fandom, it wouldn’t be too difficult: a drill, a magnifying glass, a shovel, a scalpel. That’s because these forms of audience participation are all about unearthing every hidden detail, looking for the minutest of connections, and examining characters and intentions both prominent and obscure. A media property, to a forensic fandom, is a nut just waiting to be cracked. One example given by the authors of Spreadable Media is that of Lost, a show that “gains much of its complexity because of the layers of meaning packed into a single episode” (136).
A spreadable text, on the other hand, is about making connections among many parts, although not necessarily those types that are hidden or require deep combing or making analyses. The symbols would be somewhat different: a patchwork quilt or a tapestry, perhaps. Here, Jenkins et al. give the example of soap operas, which “provide a storytelling universe substantially larger than the show itself, offering almost infinite material for fan discussions and debates—and thus ensuring ‘spreadable’ content across fan networks” (132).
Although we can see where these two conceptions have salient differences, they do align; since both are ultimately providing a way for audiences to engage with content, they are both forms of participatory practice. As Jenkins et al. put it:
In short, both types of stories provide viable models for engaging particularly dedicated audiences, for creating potentially spreadable material, and for taking a transmedia approach to storytelling—even if they build that engagement in quite different ways. (137)
To look more closely at how these two are different yet similar, it’s helpful to take a look at a couple of examples. The first case, drillability, might be adequately seen through Arrested Development, a sitcom created by Mitchell Hurwitz. The network of shows and media property here is small; the show originally only ran for three seasons for a total of 53 episodes, with Netflix eventually adding a fourth season of 15 episodes – making 68 total. Compared to long-running shows such as Seinfeld or The Simpsons, this number is small indeed.
The show managed to pack unprecedented levels of complexity into its run, however, with some jokes requiring fans to participate in three, four, five or more rewatches to catch. Websites run articles on “jokes you probably missed” in the show, with fans pulling together to share their knowledge in the hopes of finally unpacking every bit, every gag, every tidbit of humor.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is The Office, which ran for nine seasons on NBC for a total of 201 episodes. This doesn’t count the many international iterations of the show, including the original version that aired on the BBC, the webisodes, and even a spin-off movie. Fans, then, have plenty of screen-time with their favorite characters, enough narrative to explore, talk about, and ponder. While the jokes here aren’t as layered, in other words, there is still plenty of conversation and fan enjoyment.
It’s this fan enjoyment that provides the similarity between the two and ultimately what makes each a success, even if it’s due to engagement of a different stripe. As fans react and talk about the show, either by mining for jokes or considering character actions across platforms, the media property gains traction and (hopefully) long-lasting appeal.
Jenkins, Henry, et al. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York University Press, 2013.