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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

TV Characters Don’t Have Text History. This Is Not OK

There’s a moment in Netflix’s otherwise sublime, challenging masterwork Emily in Paris that jostles viewers out of its revelatory hypnosis. Emily, looking impossibly chic outside a real, bonafide café where people are actually eating croissants, gets a text from Doug, her brozo boyfriend back in Chicago.

“Hey, how is Paris?”

Fucking Doug, deep-dish-gobbling dingus. Emily at least tries to save the scene with her searing observational wit.

“Good! It’s such a beautiful city. Can’t wait for you to be here …”

“I’m jealous,” Doug responds, probably drunk on green beer and his very non-French self. “Wish I was there with you already.”


Yes, it’s an exchange that makes them seem like two 12-year-olds pretending to be horny 30-year-olds on AOL Instant Messenger, but that’s not what’s galling. It’s the white space on Emily’s iPhone. The camera lingers on a shot of her screen long enough to make clear there are no previous messages in the thread. It's surely not creator Darren Star’s intention, but viewers are led to believe, sacre bleu, that “Hey, how is Paris?” is the first text she’s ever received from her long-term boyfriend.

Before we revoke Emily in Paris’ Golden Globe nominations, keep in mind that this blemish probably exists on your favorite show too. From frothy Hallmark Channel Christmas movies to awards bait, a years-long scourge of showing extremely intimate characters with zero text history continues to taint TV and movies. In the series finale of The Undoing, amidst a murder trial that’s tearing his family apart, Hugh Grant’s character sends a text to his very online son that reads “Miss you buddy.” It shows up as a colorful balloon in a sea of white. In New Girl, Jess sends what appears to be her first text to her lifelong best friend, Cece (“Schmidt is still here!!”), when she’s in her mid-thirties. On Insecure, Lawrence gets a text from his girlfriend, Condola, in what appears to be the modern messaging equivalent of in medias res: “Hey I know we said Tuesday, but any chance you’re free tonight?” On and on, scripted shows and movies cut to shots of characters’ phones as they appear to implausibly receive the very first texts ever from their spouses, moms, bosses, and best friends. This tabula rasa texting has to end. 

How can this problem exist in 2021? Texting has been part of our daily, hourly lived reality for some 20 years. It’s one thing for a show to dumb down the nuances of emerging technologies like facial recognition or quantum computing, or to get too carried away with physics-defying tech in sci-fi. But to bungle texting, a basic interface that Hollywood creators and audiences alike pull from their pockets to look at dozens of times each day, is inexcusable, and unnerving to witness. Today, seeing Emily inexplicably receive an initial text from Doug is as disorienting as if Doug inexplicably wore nothing but pasties and a Kangol bucket hat.

The obvious answer is that these shows are trying to avoid distractions. Directors know that after spending the day hunched over a screen and trying to detox in front of a bigger screen, audiences are reluctant to spend much time squinting to read a text. Why devote a precious 10 seconds to ensuring the audience can read some inconsequential past messages about ordering pizza and the texts that matter to move the story forward when you can get in, get out, and cut back to actors acting? But the attempt to avoid distraction with brevity only introduces a slew of new distractions. Did Emily get a fresh French phone and not back up her iCloud? Did Doug get a new number after he lost his device at a Wrigley Field urinal? Did they have some romantic pact to always call, never text, and Doug just finally ran out of minutes after spending 28 hours screaming at Robinhood customer service about his stonks? Most likely: Was every text Doug had sent beforehand so grotesquely unimaginative she had no choice but to delete them?

The immediate question that arises any time this problem appears is, how could the writers be so lazy? They sweat so hard creating a richly imagined world, only to rip us out of it by botching a simple element of the everyday one. We don’t need a character to scroll through days of texts to establish verisimilitude. Even hinting at a couple lines of past exchanges, out of focus or beyond the frame, to fill out the text box would do more than enough to make us believe these are texts between two sentient humans.

Shows and movies would often be better served by keeping those extra texts in focus, and seizing the opportunity to add Easter eggs and deeper characterization. Why not show an earlier photo Doug sent Emily of his slurped-dry T-bone at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse and the caption “booyah”? Why not show Hugh Grant and his son backchanneling over text for weeks without Nicole Kidman’s knowledge? If you’re going to include a shot of a texting app, that app becomes the stage, and its mise-en-scène should be treated with as much care for realism as any set, or you lose the audience. That white space is ghostly.

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There’s also a more elegant and cheaper option. Rather than cut to the phone itself, have the texts appear on their own, as a character receives them, over the screen’s main action. Some shows are savvier at this technique than others, but even the clunkiest versions are less disturbing than the blank slate route. What makes the Emily in Paris example so abominable is the show soon switches to the better approach. After that establishing shot of Emily’s iPhone, every text she receives for the rest of the season pops up beside her. (Her Instagram posts appear the same way; how she surges from 48 to 25,000 followers with photos of roses and captions #EverythingsComingUpRoses is a separate credibility issue.) It’s as if the creators assumed viewers were both unfamiliar with text threads and also completely unaware of smartphones. (Netflix did not respond to emails seeking comment.)

The only charitable explanation is that these are not oversights but deliberate depictions of vigilant text deleters. If that’s the case, then rather than looking like someone who’s never received a text, they just look like someone conscious of their data usage, or a digital neat freak. Or perhaps they just look like someone trying to scrub an unbearable past. If you erase everything and realize there is only now, you too can wipe away the Doug in your life and thrive in France without learning French.

There is, however, little data supporting this theory, or suggesting that text expungers abound in reality. Neither Apple nor Google would share with WIRED information on deleted text rates among iPhone or Android users. A crude poll of the WIRED staff found 61 percent “never” deleted their texts, and 39 percent did so “selectively.” No one said “often or always.” Chances are, most of us are as lazy about deleting texts as shows are about including them.

Though inadvertent, is there a message to be gleaned here? Would we be better off if we were like these characters—free of data, free of history, free of what we sent at 3 am? There is a certain Buddhist appeal to the cleanliness of their text threads. Nothing you’ve said before matters. You’re only as good as your next emoji, your next reminder to someone that you care.

Still, I reject this. For all we can debate about what smartphones have wrought, having an immense, immediately accessible library of our interpersonal relationships is among the net goods. While every tech platform nudges us toward the ephemeral—disappearing stories from Snapchat, Skype, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al.—our text histories offer an increasingly rare, comforting permanence. Threads are our staccato pen palships, testaments to our growth and regression, our inanity and suffering. Today you open the group chat to let your friends know you were laid off, and you are greeted by yesterday’s 78 texts dunking on Brendan’s new haircut. Rarely do I scroll back far, though sometimes my friend and I will use the search feature to resend a single text the other sent four years ago, completely out of context: This was you, then.

Texting presents challenges for any show or movie set in the 2000s. It’s most often implausible for characters to not text, and yet making texting look sexy is hard. But avoiding blank slate messaging isn't complicated, and there are rich aspects of texting’s impact on us still unexplored onscreen. Until then, maybe just show a new text coming in on the phone’s home screen, and don't have characters swipe open to the horrifying emptiness.

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