Neverending stories on screen and social media

NEW YORK • The age of the sequel is over. Now, it is the age of the sequel to the sequel. Also the prequel, reboot, reunion, spin-off and stand-alone franchise-adjacent film.

Cancelled television shows are reinstated. Killed-off characters are resuscitated.

Nothing ends anymore and it is driving me insane.

No property may rest. The series finales of Roseanne, Murphy Brown and Will & Grace were not finales, after all.

Didn't endings used to mean something? They imbued everything that came before them with significance and then they gave us the space to reflect on it all. More than that - they made us feel alive.

The story ended, but we did not.

This had been true at least since the novel supplanted the oral tradition.

In his essay The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin wrote that the novelist "invites the reader to a divinatory realisation of the meaning of life by writing 'Finis'."

He continued: "What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about."

We needed stories to end so we could make sense of them. We needed characters to die so we could make sense of ourselves.

Today, the tradition of the novel has been supplanted by that of the comic book. Stories extend indefinitely, plot holes patched through superpower, magic and dreams.

But something bigger is happening too: The logic of the Internet is colonising everything.

Ends have been ending for some time now.

Twitter's unhalting feed was presaged by 24-hour cable news. Star Wars debuted with a threat of epic instalments.

And plenty of television shows - like Doctor Who and General Hospital - were built to last.

But our cultural landscape was not always quite so infinite.

Lists of the top-grossing films chart the steady erosion of the end.

In the 1980s, six of the top 20 grossing films in America were sequels. So far this decade, 17 of the top 20 are.

At the same time, social media is pushing the limits of limitlessness.

What Instagram has branded "Stories" is an endless feed of images, one-liners and special effects that carries no pretence of progression. All it does is continue.

The novel's bounded story was a technological innovation as much as a formal one. Benjamin charted its rise alongside the spread of the printing press. But, even in 1936, a new form was on the horizon - what he called "information".

A novel must end because the physical object of the book will eventually run out of pages.

But news wires and radio reports just keep coming and, as Benjamin put it: "By now, almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information."

Now we might call it something else - content.

And the boundless architecture of the Internet has exploded its dominance. Stories have become data.

Netflix can commission a reboot based on how many users are streaming the original. Amazon calculates the worth of its original shows based on how many Prime subscriptions they generate.

The storytelling imperative has receded in favour of stickiness. For Hollywood branders, the appeal of endlessness is obvious. For creators, it can present a tantalising opportunity - a do-over.

Marketeers may love franchises for their ability to break through the clutter - a revival sells itself - but audiences, too, cling to these comforting cultural billboards.

The security of recognisable characters and a built-in community that understands the same reference points can supersede the material itself.

Criticism gives way to fan theories, with endless possibilities but little significance.

These days, even our cultural fantasies of the end are mutating towards infiniteness.

In his work of literary criticism, The Sense Of An Ending, Frank Kermode wrote about the relationship between literary endings, character deaths and the long-standing human fascination with apocalyptic fantasies.

Just as the novel imposes a structure on the human experience, speculation about some impending apocalypse seeks to fit a pattern onto all of history.

But now, our half-ironic Twitter cries shun end-of-the-world metaphors in favour of ones that suggest that time itself has imploded: "We live in the stupidest timeline."

At least this story ends.

NYTIMES

•The writer is a critic-at-large.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 25, 2018, with the headline 'Neverending stories on screen and social media'. Print Edition | Subscribe