Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cell Phones on TV: Seinfeld and Harper's Island

There's no question that "The Bubble Boy" is one of the all-time great Seinfeld episodes. Of course, everyone remembers it for the titular Donald, his struggles with George, and George's insistence that the "Moops" actually invaded Spain in the 8th century.

Then there's the Ross family cabin, which every Seinfeld fan knows burns down at some point, but how many Seinfeld fans remember it happened in "The Bubble Boy"? And then there are subplots, minor character details that aren't easy to remember but are hilarious: Jerry's obsession with making his messages on his autographed pictures funny. George's obsession with "making good time". Kramer's obsession with pies.

But I couldn't help think of something as I watched this episode last week. The entire premise of this episode's humor just disappears if Seinfeld were being aired just a decade or two later. "The Bubble Boy" first aired in 1992. But pretend it's 2002, a mere 10 years later, instead. Now, when George speeds ahead of Jerry on the way to the Bubble Boy's house, Jerry can simply pick up his cell phone, call George, and ask him for the directions to the house.

To extrapolate further, what if the episode aired in 2007, fifteen years after it actually did? In that case, Jerry probably would have had a GPS that he could simply program the address into, eliminating the need to call George at all. And if it were 2012, twenty years later, presumably someone would have had a smartphone: type the address into the phone at the restaurant, click the address once you got into the car, and you only need one device instead of two. (By 2012, maybe smartphones will have the capacity for vocalized, real-time updating, turn-by-turn directions, like legit GPS does.)

Then it occurred to me: hasn't someone already covered this, making a list of all the Seinfeld episodes that just get about half as funny if all the central characters had cell phones? I can't find that list, so if anyone knows if/where it exists, please let me know. The closest thing I found is a compilation of why Seinfeld doesn't work with the iPhone. It's a good read, though it's far from comprehensive--"The Dinner Party" (aka the babka episode) immediately comes to mind as an omission, as does just about every episode involving an airport.

The point, though, is a solid one. It took only 10 years to develop a technology that completely changes the comedic landscape of the series. It's taken less than 20 to improve that technology so much that it offers not one, but two or three or more ways around most of its otherwise-funny stumbling blocks.

Another show that has a touchy relationship with cell phones is Harper's Island, a midsummer murder mystery that I've been sucked into lately thanks to one Alex Harkey. I'll talk more about the show in a few weeks, once it's run its course, but for now I'd like to talk about how cell phones change that show.

One of the necessary conceits for any murder mystery involves getting the victims alone for long enough for the murderer to do his dirty work. Of course this in turn involves having the characters "split up", whether it's to do a scavenger hunt, or to traipse off into the woods for whatever reason, or to look for a missing child. One way that characters have been isolated from each other in Harper's Island is through a number of old hunting traps--snares, pits, etc.

At some point, though, if you're caught in a snare and hanging upside down by your foot, aren't you going to pull out your cell phone? Call someone else on the island and say "hey, I was walking alone in the woods--stupid, I know--and I got caught in this trap. You want to come help me?" Harper's Island skirts this issue by explaining that "most of the island doesn't get good reception."

For now, in 2009, we're willing to buy that reasoning. If it were ten years ago, in 1999, it would be especially valid, and there might even be some characters that simply didn't have them. Twenty years ago, 1989, cell phones would have been entirely unknown. What about in 2019, or 2029? I'd bet that twenty years from now, phone technology will have advanced so much that service will be nearly ubiquitous, and that the "bad reception" argument won't carry any water at all.

Currently listening: "Strawberry Fields Forever", the Beatles

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