“Schitt’s Creek” stormed the Emmys by winning awards in every comedy series category — a new record. It was co-creators Dan and Eugene Levy’s gift to the world: a warm bowl of hot cultural soup, brimming with life-affirming values, acceptance and big-hearted Canadian corniness.
It was the perfect entertainment solution to an imperfect time. It was good for what ails us.
It’s not the first time we’ve turned to entertainment for comfort. In fact, if there is anything as predictable as death and taxes, it’s that during times of trial, we need to be entertained.
There is a direct correlation between feel-good fantasy and feeling-shitty reality. The worse things get, the more we want to escape it.
But the ways we choose to be entertained have changed. And maybe — just maybe — the media channels we’re looking to for our entertainment are adding to the problem.
The Immersiveness of Media
A medium’s ability to distract us from reality depends on how much it removes us from that reality.
Our media channels have historically been quite separate from the real world. Each channel offered its own opportunity to escape. But as the technology we rely on to be entertained has become more capable of doing multiple things, that escape from the real world has become more difficult.
Books, for example, require a cognitive commitment unlike any other form of entertainment. When we read a book, we — in effect — enter into a co-work partnership with the author. Our brains have to pick up where theirs left off, and we together build a fictional world to which we can escape.
As the science of interpreting our brain’s behavior has advanced, we have discovered that our brains actually change while we read.
Maryanne Wolf explains in her book, “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”: “Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. . . . Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be reshaped by experience.”
Even movies, which dramatically lowered the bar for the cognitive commitments they ask by supplying content specifically designed for two of our senses, do so by immersing us in a dedicated single-purpose environment. The distraction of the real world is locked outside the theater doors.
But today’s entertainment media platforms not only live in the real world, they are the very same platforms we use to function in said world. They are our laptops, our tablets, our phones and our connected TVs.
It’s hard to ignore that world when the flotsam and jetsam of reality is constantly bumping into us. And that brings us to the problem of the multitasking myth.
The problem is not so much that we can’t escape from the real world for a brief reprise in a fictional one. It’s that we don’t want to.
Even if we’re watching our entertainment in our home theater room on a big screen, the odds are very good that we have a small screen in our hands at the same time. We mistakenly believe we can successfully multitask, and our mental health is paying the price for that mistake.
Research has found that trying to multitask brings on a toxic mix of social anxiety, depression, a lessening of our ability to focus attention, and a sociopsychological impairment that impacts our ability to have rewarding relationships.
When we use the same technology to be entertained that we use to stay on top of our social networks we fall prey to the fear of missing out.
It’s called Internet Communication Disorder, and it’s an addictive need to continually scroll through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and our other social media platforms. It’s these same platforms that are feeding us a constant stream of the very things we’re looking to escape from.
It may be that laughter is the best medicine, but the efficacy of that medicine is wholly dependent on where we get our laughs.
The ability for entertainment to smooth the jagged edges of reality depend on our being able to shift our minds off the track that leads to chronic anxiety and depression — and successfully escape into a fictional kinder, gentler, funnier world.
For entertainment to be a beneficial distraction, we first have to mentally disengage from the real world, and then fully engage in the fictional one.
That doesn’t work nearly as well when our entertainment delivery channel also happens to be the same addictive channel that is constantly tempting us to tiptoe through the anxiety-strewn landscape that is our social media feed.
In other words, before going to “Schitt’s Creek,” unpack your other shit and leave it behind. I guarantee it will be waiting for you when you get back.