The Last Vestige of Human Drama: Introducing the Mute Test

Isaac BerlingCorrespondent IFebruary 8, 2011

No words or sounds are necessary to get a very clear picture of what is going on here.  How many T.V. shows can you say that about?
No words or sounds are necessary to get a very clear picture of what is going on here. How many T.V. shows can you say that about?Christian Petersen/Getty Images

TV quality is declining in this country at an alarming rate. I’m not speaking in terms of morality; rather I am speaking strictly from an originality and character standpoint. Nuances of communication have been replaced by complex sensory inputs that confuse our brains into perceiving things that are not what they appear to be.

Television simply put, like most things in life, has become both artificial and superficial.

There are three main reasons for televisions decent into maddening mediocrity. First is reality TV. It’s just terrible how bad it really is. Yet, who hasn’t, myself included, been drawn in by some nonsensical storyline or teaser featuring two people yelling and screaming, one crying and one running out of the house?

It’s like eating a KFC buffet. Yeah it seems like a good idea at the time, but is anyone ever really glad they ate there when they are done?

Second is overacting. I just can’t emphasize this enough. Somewhere between 1996 and 2001, television executives decided two things about their actors: 1. That deadpanning serious situations and raising their eyebrows every 15 seconds were the keys to being a great actor; and 2. That if all else fails this was their go-to formula for success.

Take a group of idiots, disguise them as real people, add some cameras, sprinkle in a goofy stipulation and hold secure in the knowledge that the American public won’t realize how bad these shows actually are for them until it is too late and they are addicted to it (like a KFC buffet or simply fast food itself).

Third, and most importantly, is the gimmick over character distinction. TV used to be character driven. Human interpersonal character-to-character communication would manifest itself as comedy, drama or suspense depending on the skill of the actor and the depth of the script. No longer.

Gimmicks have replaced character as driving force behind TV. Gimmicks come in many shapes and sizes. Background sets, show stipulations, music and quick camera cuts fool the mind into processing sensory input that isn’t really there. Remove the gimmick and find out if there is any true substance behind the show.

Enter the mute test. Take any show on TV, press mute, try and watch it and take the following self test. First, focus on the nonverbal cues between the actors. Is it obvious that they are acting? Can you gather what emotions are trying to be conveyed? Does it still hold your interest when the gimmicks are taken away? The fact is that today most if not almost all TV shows fail the mute test. Why is that?

When we press mute, we stop confusing our brains with multiple sensory stimuli. What our minds are able to do then is single out one sensory input, in this case visual nonverbal communication—which in turn leads to us picking up on the subtleties of human communication lost once audio is turned on. So what does pass the mute test then?

Well think about sports in the last 10 years. Everything in media has been about pushing the individuality of a player and his character as news over what a team does.

Sports are character driven. It’s what makes them intriguing to watch and talk about.  It's what makes the players simultaneously sympathetic heroes and notorious villains on a level that TV has stopped reaching.  It's what makes them real.

Hit mute when you are watching a sporting event. The facial expressions and body language of the players do not lie. They are legitimate emotional reactions to given circumstances.  That's why as a fan we always seem to be able to tell when someone flops during a basketball game.

Try the same thing with a reality show and you’ll end up wondering whether someone died or the house just got a new extra large bag of Doritos. The game is like its script, easily identifiable, guiding the players (actors) to a destination by having them exist within the framework of set rules.

It holds our interest because of its inherent simplicity. No background gimmicks are needed. The boundaries that are set by the rules of the game automatically advance the storyline by using the players as the vehicle to physically move it.  

That’s how television used to be: A set of characters driven towards resolution of a conflict within the confines of the shows overarching theme. Their nonverbal communication would reflect these simple, yet clearly defined goals of each individual episode just like players nonverbal communication reflect the objective of each individual game.

So try the mute test sometime. And when and if you do, I apologize in advance for ruining most of television for you.