TV Club

Enlightened and Twitter: Why do TV shows act like social media is exotic?

Why do TV shows recycle the same jokes about Facebook and Twitter?


Photo courtesy of MTV

Follow me,” Amy cooed this week in her latest dreamy voice-over. “Follow me.” She speaks both to the people she imagines marching behind her toward revolution and to the decidedly more banal ritual of courting new followers on Twitter. Amy’s narcissism would seem to be a natural fit for the site, but even she bristles at some of its more pedestrian associations: “I don’t, like, go on and tell everybody what I’ve had for breakfast,” she scoffs at a skeptical co-worker.

That Amy gives herself over to romantic ideas about social media feels right, and there are some clever gags, but Enlightened can’t escape the glib, dated trappings that befall too many shows when they suddenly discover Twitter, Facebook, and the like. In this case the show embraces the classic meet cute, wherein it’s hilarious Amy doesn’t know that it’s called a “tweet” (not a “twit,” silly!) and that she stares down her follower count until it jumps from 13 to 14. These jokes expired about the time Twitter’s co-founders taught Oprah how to tweet on the air in 2009, and yet here they are, on one of the slyest shows on television in 2013.  

The funny thing is that social networks are an undeniably important part of the business of TV. The ratings-industrial complex has gleefully sopped up love with fictional character accounts and cast feeds hawking teasers for new episodes every week. The networks themselves overlay sponsored hashtags on the air to connect fans. Nielson, the traditional ratings service that delivers overnight ratings, now even has a special metric that considers Twitter saturation as part of a TV show’s real audience power.  

But if social networking has found an aggressive and even sometimes sophisticated embrace on the network side, its infiltration of writers’ rooms has been lazy and arbitrary. On Castle, a party turns into a  movie-ready rager because someone … tweets about it. On The New Normal, Rocky shows Jane, the monster grandmother, how to use Twitter, and she creates a viral stream of vitriol that gets 422 followers in an instant. On Modern Family, there’s an entire episode about Claire’s Facebook momfails.

Even on the two episodes I have seen of Catfish, supposedly about life in a “digital age,” social worlds are treated like Lynchian puzzles where every Like and photo are rightful objects of anxiety and paranoia. (Admittedly, it also features this sublime exchange: “You asked him if he wanted to get engaged!” “Well, Facebook engaged.”) This is all not to mention the show nominally based on Twitter, $#*! My Dad Says, which predictably turned into a dismal failure, stopping a handful of similar adaptations cold.

Does the Internet remain so exotic that we need Tim Allen jokes to understand it? Enlightened is the least of the offenders, but its adherence to the tiresome formula is still disappointing. I’d rather watch Amy sit on a couch and tweet for a half hour from her BlackBerry than sit through another winded lecture on how social media has transformed our lives—and like Amy, I know I’m not alone.