If we’ve reached (what must by now be the outer edges of) the Golden Age of TV, what comes next?
We’ve seen the dimensions of characters expand, we’ve watched plotlines extend and twist in ways never attempted before, and we’ve seen an elevation of the form that continues to make the movies seem more just like really big TVs. But we haven’t seen a change in TV itself, a paradigm shift that feels achingly overdue.
The future of storytelling is a big set of questions — it even has its own conference. Tech optimists (of which I sometimes count myself a member) might point to virtual reality as the most likely space for TV to take its next big formative steps, but immersive 360 filmmaking presents challenges that carry big narrative implications (how to direct when there’s no frame, for instance), as well as technical hurdles (a moving camera in VR can send anyone lunging for Dramamine). For now, gaming is where the narrative possibilities of virtual reality can be best and most safely explored.
Oddly enough, the most forward-thinking experiment I’ve encountered in TV comes via an app — just as we enter what some have stamped the “post-app era.”
Presented by media tech company PodOp, “Mosaic” is a new app-based project created for HBO by filmmakers Steven Soderbergh (“Magic Mike,” “The Knick”) and Casey Silver, and writer Ed Solomon. It launched this week as a free app for iPhone, iPad, and AppleTV (an Android version, as the chorus so often goes, is on the way).
“Mosaic” is also a six-part limited series coming to HBO on Jan. 22, with a strong cast sporting names like Sharon Stone, Beau Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Frederick Weller, Paul Reubens (yes!), and Jennifer Ferrin. So “Mosaic” the app is, at heart, a promotional product.
But in drumming up interest for this tale of children’s book writer Olivia Lake (Stone) and the trouble she seems to have gotten herself into, the experimental app takes some significant narrative liberties with the story it tells, and the end result is a kind of tap-your-own-adventure story you can enter and exit at your leisure. According to HBO, the technology developed to support the app (from script management tools to “user selection-driven narratives”) required the filing of 14 patents. More than most TV shows, I’m guessing?
More importantly, as things you watch on your phone go, “Mosaic” is pretty gripping — several steps up from the average mobile fare of cats failing at jumping or your friends eating things. A half-hour “pilot” of sorts appears at the top of a vine-like “story map” on the homepage, with lines that connect, intersect, and converge on the still-locked nodes of the story.
As you watch (Sharon Stone, btw: amazing), tiny icons might pop up in the video player signaling another branch of the narrative to tap into — it might directly reference a line of dialogue or the appearance of a new character. But rather than feel like disruptions or the narrative equivalent of pop-up ads, these seeming tangents curl around and inform a broader view of the story.
This multi-perspective approach is further bolstered by tappable meta-ephemera like e-mails, voice mails, and news clippings.
Yes, too much “interactive content” can quickly start to feel cloying and unnecessary, but in the hands of Soderbergh and company, the loose ends left strewn all over this first iteration of “Mosaic” actually create an intriguing tension — and the way one perspective subverts another feels oddly in tune with an audience stuck in a post-factual rut.
“Mosaic” should not be mistaken for some open universe where anything can happen and users play a part in determining the outcome. Just like those old choose-your-own-adventure stories, this book is bound by a beginning and an end; it exists within a fixed vision of the story.
What’s fascinating about “Mosaic” is the way it frees viewers from a linear march to a free roam in order to form our own conclusions, to root through what’s given to us and judge for ourselves where the truth falls between the bounds of the stories. If TV can remind us how to think for ourselves, I’d count that as a major step forward.
Michael Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org