As Netflix ponders the next chapter in television - with a show where viewers get to choose what happens next - Rebecca Davis sets down the remote
If you are old enough to remember the '80s, you might recall the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books for kids. Whereas previously young readers had to sit passively like dorks, absorbing the plot of a book that would never change, they were now in charge of their own narrative destiny.
At various junctures, the books offered the reader a choice between different courses of action. To try to swim to shore against the raging current, turn to page 21. To fight the ravenous squid with your spear gun, turn to page 22. To lie back and wait for the comforting embrace of death, turn to page 65.
Sometimes they had really sledgehammer morals. If you chose the easiest option — like stealing a wallet when you were hungry — a terrible fate awaited you a few pages down.
This was designed to teach you an important life lesson: in most societies, petty theft is punishable with the death penalty. In retrospect, though, the books were less moralistic tracts than they were obvious precursors to modern video games.
Now that we have all the video games one could ever want, who needs the Choose Your Own Adventure format? Ask Netflix. It was recently reported that the TV service is developing "interactive technology" which will allow viewers to control the plots of certain TV shows, within a circumscribed set of options.
Netflix envisages actors shooting a number of different plot twists to a series, and viewers getting to choose which one they'd like to see play out. This could be fun, in the same way that it is fun to create a world in computer game The Sims and then let it burn. It also could be a drastic over-estimation of the public appetite for conscious engagement with TV: as Guardian writer Lucy Mangan put it, "Netflix, this is not chill".
The point is, though, that when it comes to TV, the times they are a-changin'. The past few years have brought us narratively complex TV on a scale we've not seen before, as well as slow but real strides forward in onscreen diversity.
A decade ago, could we have predicted that a show about a transgender parent would be shown on prime-time South African TV? For all the backlash against Lena Dunham's Girls, it has ushered in an era of shows about young women unapologetically being themselves (watch Broad City and Insecure, both of which are funnier and cleverer than Girls).
As recently as 2011, a study concluded that white audiences in the US were less likely to watch a film if it starred "minority cast members". Last month, Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture, a racial satire called Get Out has raked in over $100-million (R1.32-billion) at the box office off a budget of $5-million, and TV shows like Black-ish and Atlanta have mostly non-black audiences.
WATCH the movie trailer for Get Out
When I started this column, I was told I could write about any TV show that was "legally available in South Africa". That is ethically sound, but simply doesn't reflect reality for people privileged enough to have access to generous internet connections. Most middle-class people I know are watching shows online, either via streaming services or illegal downloads.
An increasing number of my peers do not own televisions at all. I don't know where all this piracy is taking us, but if this were a Choose Your Own Adventure book, the outcome would be sticky.
This is my final TV column. It's been a blast, and a privilege. Happy TV-watching in future, and may your plot choices always be fruitful.
• Ed's note: Rebecca Davis will remain with us as a writer of columns and features.