How Drama can Underpin Reality in the Age of Post-Truth

Photo of Tim Mulligan
by Tim Mulligan

Some of the most impactful scripted dramas of the last five years have been led by narratives infused with the overlapping uncertainties of conviction-driven truth versus the messy reality of everyday life. To quote from HBO’s ground-breaking hit Big Little Lies, people see things as they are, not as they are. In an era of post-truth, where US political campaigns can be run on fake news propagated by Facebook and Twitter, where public speakers can be “no-platformed” at academic institutions for wanting to freely debate contentious issues in the public domain, and where people can be presumed guilty through accident of gender, story-telling is more important than ever in helping to provide a moral compass in an increasingly fragmented social space.

The post-truth era is growing hand-in-hand with the explosion of scripted drama

As MIDiA Research has identified in its recent Media report on Truth and Trust in the Era of Fake News , the post-truth era which is currently being catalysed by zealots and cynical politicians alike is a logical consequence of market liberalisation. Put simply, if you remove the restraints upon how individuals and companies can extract revenues in the hyper-connected digital era, then a proliferation of empathy-jacking content will result – all chasing engagement, and thus ad revenues.

On the positive side, the deregulation in the digital economy has led to a renewed appetite for compelling drama to grab market share in the post-peak attention economy. As the big giants of media move decisively into the streaming era with the launch of Disney+ in November followed by Warner Media’s direct to consumer (D2C) service at the years end, and as tech major Apple launches Apple TV+ in the fall of 2019, compelling content will become even more prominent.

The best TV shows tell us both who we really are and who we could be

The current iteration of premium video at its prime by market value and engagement is episodic scripted drama, and episodic scripted drama only works when you need to see the next episode.  The need to see the big reveal comes from following character arcs which are compelling because their individual stories resonate on the universal ley lines laid down in the Babylonic Tale of Gilgamesh and iterated upon ever since. Joseph Campbell identified that although the hero may wear a thousand faces, there are only truly seven stories and a handful of character archetypes to tell them about.  All those stories come down to people simply making sense of fluctuating social norms and life’s uncertainties, and they offer ways to seek redemption and find purpose beyond the mundane of simple daily needs. 

In our fractured social commons, the ability to make sense of difficult circumstances and choose sustainable and ethically sound outcomes beneficial to the communal good is more important than ever. In an era post-truth, these stories provide a map of conduct when nothing is certain. Despite the empathy-jacking which might be attempted, truly compelling content cannot be merely contrived. The storytelling trend, in all seven of its forms, will continue – and just as there are always questions, viewers will turn to the stories that resonate for their answers.  

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