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Screens onscreen: How do TV and film characters use tech, social media?

Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick is shown in a scene from "The Good Wife," in a file image released by CBS. On "The Good Wife," good news is rarely delivered by a screen.
Image Credit: AP Photo/CBS, David Giesbrecht
December 19, 2014 - 5:07 AM

TORONTO - On the twisty drama "The Good Wife," oftentimes the most electrifiying moments onscreen happen on another screen.

The past six seasons of the legal saga have indeed been fraught with more digital drama than a Sony email chain, with Julianna Margulies' titular lawyer near-constantly surfing a web of techno-emergencies.

Consider that in various plots, Margulies' Alicia Florrick has been subjected to demeaning memes (spun from her husband's infidelity), surreptitious surveillance by the National Security Agency and extensive hacking campaigns. Incriminating images — of her husband possibly fixing an election, of her outspoken brother brazenly spouting political poison, of her dutiful son toting a bong — pop up online with the stubborn regularity of ads for poker websites.

Even back in the show's relatively innocent early days, her seemingly fated relationship with beloved colleague Will Gardner stalled over a deleted message (on her BlackBerry, no less!).

Sometimes it seems like poor Alicia's toxic inbox is worthy of quarantine.

But her bleak Outlook aside, "The Good Wife" doesn't have an explicitly negative view of technology. And since the earliest episodes, the show's creators have endeavoured to nail the tech-dependent lives of lawyers, politicians and, well, pretty much everyone else.

"It's hard to treat seriously shows that have a kind of an old view, like a 10-year-old view of social media," Robert King told The Canadian Press in a recent telephone interview, joined in conference by wife and co-creator Michelle.

"We've always stuck with the idea of living in reality. The more real you make it, the better. And often these days, the bad news comes in the version of a text."

And yet, correctly representing the degree to which many of us live lives within our phones is a vexing challenge — and it's one that only some film and television producers have chosen to tackle.

It almost goes without saying that technology has transformed communication: our most important conversations are typed with our thumbs, earth-rattling revelations arrive in 140-character packages and public figures live and die on Vine.

Representing that onscreen in a visually interesting way isn't easy, and getting even a couple details wrong is an invitation to ridicule. But increasingly it seems that taking on that challenge is not a choice — with the alternative being to look woefully out-of-touch, a speed-dated artifact.

"There's not a ton of characters that are on their phone all the time, even though in real life there will be five people on their phones," observed comedian Chelsea Peretti, whose laconic "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" character stays constantly locked to her cell. "You'll be hanging out — and it happens all the time — where it's like a group of people and everyone has their phones out.

"I think that there's a generation of people where that's how their life is. I think they relate to that visual."

Of course, "visuals" are in large part the specific hurdle for shows or films that aim for greater tech literacy.

Anyone young or who's recently dined with a young person understands the numbing displeasure of staring at someone who is staring at a phone. Further, if important pieces of news are filtering into characters via their screens, there are practical questions about how best to relay that information to the viewers at home.

On Netflix's fleetly paced "House of Cards," Kevin Spacey's smug political puppeteer conducts much of his Machiavellian manoeuvring via BlackBerry, and typically those messages are reproduced in large font across the screen for viewers. Similar strategies — big, bold letters or a bubble-quote — have been used by similarly tech-engaged works including TV's "The Mindy Project" and Chris Rock's new movie "Top Five," among many others.

It's not a visual method favoured by the Kings.

"We've gone the opposite way of shows like 'House of Cards' and movies like 'The Fault in Our Stars.' That stuff is seeming very cliche to me, where there's a little bubble that pops up on the screen," explained Robert King, whose thorny drama returns to Global on Jan. 4.

"It's much better to be in the point of view of the character finding the text. (We) see it actually through your character's eyes as they look down at their phone. We haven't done anything that I consider silly with little bubbles popping up on the screen — I find that stuff to be a little cloying and kitschy.

"It looks good in the moment, but it's not going to look good in 10 years."

On M3's "Pretty Little Liars," the show's central quartet of impeccably attired teens has spent the past five widely watched seasons under the heel of an impossibly resourceful cyber-bully known only as "A."

Bad news arrives frequently for the girls, and typically it's heralded by an arpeggio of trilling cellphone notifications, as each Liar receives the same malicious message in sequence.

What the texts actually say is of less importance, says show-runner Marlene King.

"When you watch the show, you always hear the 'ring ring ring ring' — but we play it all on the girls' faces," she said recently in a telephone interview.

"There's so many times the text goes by so fast, I even know what it says and I'm still like: 'What'd that say?'

"It's very little about what the text says and very much about the emotion they pull out of our characters. It's all about the eyes on our show — I say that all the time."

In the tumultuous world of "Pretty Little Liars," social media bears an edge as sharp as a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

Although "A" eventually escalates her attacks to the real-world realm of crashed cars and kidnappings, at one point the threat of an emailed photograph was paralyzing enough.

Using technological methods of varying believability, "A" has falsely framed the Liars for crimes, manipulated their dysfunctional families or threatened to out their deliriously tangled romantic lives.

For the show's legions of dedicated teenage fans — and "Pretty Little Liars" has a 108-week time slot winning streak among female viewers aged 12-34 — the message about social media could scarcely be more clear.

"I would say 'A' is everywhere, and as people, I tell my children who are now starting to embrace social media: 'You have to realize that everything you put out there is available to everyone,'" King summarized.

"We kind of live in a world where we never really are alone anymore."

King originally included technological elements because she figured her young audience otherwise wouldn't relate: "If we didn't include a lot of technology and social media then we wouldn't be truthful to the reality that these girls face." Now, the show is a force on social media: it's the most-followed scripted show on Instagram with 1.5 million subscribers, and accounts for the top five most-tweeted-about TV episodes on record.

"I remember when I was writing the pilot, there's a line in there where one of the girls references Twitter," King recalled. "I remember there was this lengthy debate about (whether) we should include that in there, because Twitter could be a fleeting thing.

"It was so funny. Now it's become such a huge part of the show."

Similarly, writer-director Justin Simien penned an early version of his critically decorated debut "Dear White People" at a time when it seemed fathomable that social media was a fad.

It was 2006, "no one had smartphones," and social media was all but absent from rough drafts of the film, which follows four black students at a mostly white (and fictional) Ivy League college.

In the finished version that hit theatres earlier this year, however, characters express themselves via video blogs and a climactic plot point revolves around a Facebook invite.

So, what changed?

"There was a version of the screenplay where that was absent, there was no social media in it, and it always felt wrong," Simien explained recently in an interview. "Finally, someone called (me) out, like: 'Yo, these kids are in school today!' So I did a pass specifically for that and realized what a great metaphor social media played in terms of telling the story, which is about identity.

"Our Facebook statuses and our Instagram updates and our tweets, all of that is just building our identity, the way we're outwardly perceived, because it's all for other people. So to me it ended up not just being a social media pass, but it ended up being a concept that deeply integrated into what the heart of the movie is about."

As much as depicting technology can be simultaneously an inspiration and an irritation for behind-the-scenes folk, it's also a practical challenge for actors tasked with emoting opposite the cool glow of a screen.

Would HBO's whipsmart tech-industry satire "Silicon Valley," for instance, be as buoyant and accessible if the programmers spent any time programming?

"One of the criticisms of last season was, 'Well, they're coders, but you never really see them code.' Well, that's not interesting. It's not interesting to see people sitting at a computer, typing," star Kumail Nanjiani, who plays one of the coders, said in a telephone interview.

"These guys, I think, actually have been pretty good about setting up scenarios where we're reacting to other people rather than computer screens."

On "The Good Wife," Alan Cumming's excitable fixer Eli Gold is the character perhaps most often tasked with hurriedly flitting his eyes between various screens. In Cumming's own words, Gold is "endlessly on the phone."

And the Tony Award-winning actor does lament some of the pragmatic angles of that. Since he's not using his actual personal phone in shooting the show, sometimes he'll position the prop phone upside-down or struggle to use it convincingly.

Having shared so many scenes with screens, however, he's come to appreciate his inanimate acting partners.

"I don't mind it," said the impish Scot. "Sometimes it's better not to have to deal with the other actors. So looking at a blank screen with nothing on it or pretending to talk to them on the phone is kind of better sometimes.

"It just means less time to chat about acting and blah blah — I love actors but en masse, they're a really boring bunch."

As his "Good Wife" bosses strive for tech-savvy storytelling, meantime, they regret the few instances where unreality is thrust upon them.

For instance, Robert King says there's a rule — at his network at least — that a show can either mention "Facebook" OR depict Facebook onscreen, but never both — thus necessitating the creation of gawky fake website names.

"We're constantly making up names for things. We hate that aspect because you want it to seem like reality," Robert said. "My God, some of the early seasons just had awful website (names) that made no sense at all."

Although, Michelle pointed out, "much like real tech names, the first time you hear it it's silly, and then by season 6 'Chumhum' seems real to me."

Like other forward-thinking programs, "The Good Wife" has mined technological issues not just for atmosphere-enhancing detail, but for plotlines.

Bitcoin, the sanctimony of Internet anonymity and adultery websites have all provided fodder for the show's teams of legal wranglers. An upcoming instalment, the Kings say, will confront 3D-printed guns.

Still, even though personal tech has been a point of concern since the show's very beginning, some of those nascent episodes still appear now to be shaded by a quaintly nostalgic Instagram filter.

In the series' second episode, for instance, Alicia found herself at a competitive disadvantage because — unlike younger competitor Cary Agos — she didn't yet possess a smartphone.

"Now, that seems insane," laughed Robert King. "Now, if you go watch those episodes in the first season, they might seem a little dated about technology.

"It's just that technology's ability to change our lives is increasing with such dramatic speed. So each season of the show will feel a little bit like a time capsule."

Follow @CP_Patch on Twitter.

— With files from Canadian Press reporter Laura Kane.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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