The Butterfly Effect: The Chaos of Television by Douglas L Howard

Printable version Thursday 22 November 2012 Last updated at 10:01

I’ve been catching a number of butterflies on my television in the last year or so, but they bear little resemblance to the ones that I see from time to time in my backyard. Sitting through an episode from Season Three of Dexter last fall, I was struck by the self-reflective serial killer’s sudden contemplation of “the butterfly effect,” that “a butterfly [could] beats its wings in Brazil and set off a storm in Florida.”  For Dexter, these thoughts came as he considered teaching Assistant District Attorney Miguel Prado the terms of his killing code, a decision that set a series of other bloody events in motion, from Prado’s renegade murder of Ellen Wolf to Dexter’s own violent showdown with the psychotic Skinner. What seemed so unusual was not so much the fact that Dexter would think about chaos theory in the midst of his ongoing ethical dilemmas, but that this was not the first reference to the butterfly effect that season.  Only a few weeks earlier, Angela Petrelli had mentioned it when she warned future Peter about the consequences of his return to the past in the third season of Heroes.  “Step on a butterfly today,” she explained as he tried to map out the lines of convergence, “[and] three years from now, a million people are wiped out.”  In attempting to stop his brother Nathan from revealing his ability to the world, Peter believed, like Dexter, that he could control the outcome of his actions and prevent a future populated by superheroes and villains; instead, he changed the lives of all those involved and not necessarily for the better.  Both of these main characters (and, through them, the viewer) then, were forced to learn the painful lesson of causality, that every act, no matter how small or well-intended, can lead to something more devastating and destructive down the road.

Several other shows also played with this notion of consequences and the narrative timeline, even if they did not refer to the butterfly effect specifically.

 Like its BBC predecessor, the U.S. remake of Life on Mars, for example, dealt with a police detective apparently thrown back in time and forced to confront people and situations with an awareness of how both would develop and play out in the future.  Terminator (now terminated) was driven by this idea, as Sarah Connor, her son John, and his machine-protector Cameron tried to prevent the rise of Skynet by changing circumstances in the past.  Lost similarly explored the creative possibilities of cause and effect and time travel in its fifth season (although, as producer Damon Lindelof recently noted in an EW article, the show “was figuratively time traveling (see: flashbacks and flash-forwards) long before it was literally time traveling”). (Locke, in fact, hinted at this kind of connection at the end of Season One when he told Jack that everything that had taken place on the Island, including Boone’s death, “was a part of a chain of events that led [them…] to right now.”) Through its cultural-historical backdrop of the 1960s, AMC’s Mad Men continued to effectively work as a flashback all its own and dared viewers to contrast the values and visions of Sterling Cooper with their outcome in the twenty-first century.  And 24 and Prison Break created suspense by following intersecting plotlines and their ramifications for the characters in question over the course of their latest seasons.  Were all of these writers reading the same science and philosophy books during the Writer’s Strike in 2008, or was this the year when chaos (much worse, perhaps, than the kind that plagued Maxwell Smart) reigned supreme on our television screens, when causal connections became trendy in all of those writers’ rooms and productions studios?

Don’t grab your butterfly nets or call your exterminators (or your cable companies) just yet. The insightful Time Magazine critic James Poniewozik already referred to our preoccupation with butterfly fictions in the media, from Babel to Heroes to Lost back in 2006. (Had he accurately guessed at the theory behind creator Tim Kring’s work, or was he yet another future Peter, revealing the pattern to the writers that had been there all along?)  Even at that point, Poniewozik described what he saw as “a butterfly infestation,” with both films and television shows cleverly working to peel back the layers of time and causality and to reveal the intricate network of interconnectedness that shapes our lives.  Moreover, he maintained, these works were all aesthetic responses to our existence in a chaos-ridden world, and we responded because we found something familiar in them: “If Lost is a jungle of quasi-shamanistic kismet, it resonates because our world appears that way too. In Babel, Heroes and their forebears … even if the connections may be contrived, they feel authentic. That guy in the next car on the freeway could change my life someday! If I save the cheerleader, I can save the world!”  In the end, they demonstrated the fundamental truth of life “in the globalization, global-warming, global-terror era,” that “other people's problems are our own.” 

Poniewozik suggested that the original cultural butterfly may well have been (gasp!) Aston Kutcher, who brought the concept out into the public eye with his 1994 film The Butterfly Effect. (Following this line of thought, the casting director who put him on That’70s Show could, conceivably, be responsible for the future of television.) Author Michael Crichton may also deserve some credit here, since his mathematician Ian Malcolm uses it, both in the 1991 novel Jurassic Park and in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 hit film of the same name, to account for his skepticism toward John Hammond’s monstrous new theme park. “The butterfly effect” itself, though, comes from the groundbreaking work of mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, who wondered, in a 1972 presentation, if “the behavior of the atmosphere [was] unstable with respect to perturbations of small amplitude” or if seemingly insignificant factors could affect the development of weather systems as well as our ability to predict them.  Ironically, even the interpretation of his theory is a good example of chaos at work, inasmuch as people have applied and manipulated it in ways that he probably never imagined or intended.  In his essay on “The Meaning of the Butterfly,” Peter Dizikes explains that Lorenz’s real point was that “our ability to analyze and predict the workings of the world is inherently limited,” but the public, in its desire to find “more precise answers about the world” through science, instead adopted and reworked his idea within the popular culture to mean “that everything happens for a reason, and that we can pinpoint all those reasons, however small they may be.” Television in particular has thus used it to identify central causes at the heart of larger narrative controversies.

Given, as Thomas Friedman argues, how “flat” the world continues to become, how a blog posting can potentially affect diplomatic relations, how a YouTube video can turn a virtual unknown into an international celebrity—is there anyone who has not seen Susan Boyle sing Les Miserables at this point—and how the machinations of one corrupt CEO can devastate the global economy, perhaps the medium’s persistent interest in butterfly fictions makes perfect sense. What Poniewozik saw in 2006 is even truer today. We are living in the age of connection and consequence, and, with the return of most of these dramas and ABC’s highly anticipated time thriller FlashForward and Fox’s reincarnation drama Past Life slated for the coming year, this trend looks like it will be with us on television for some time to come (no pun intended).

Whether the writers follow Lorenz or not, whether they refer to his butterfly effect or to what Dizikes calls their own “bad physics,” however, television itself is and always has been, in the end, one of the best illustrations of this principle in action.  On the one hand, events that take place at the start of so many television serial narratives essentially are (or appear to be) responsible for all that takes place thereafter, for all that the protagonists go through and for all of the characters that they meet along the way—the murder of Richard Kimble’s wife on The Fugitive, Felix Unger’s marital problems at the beginning of The Odd Couple, Steve Austin’s plane crash on The Six Million Dollar Man, Rachel Green’s decision to walk out on her wedding on Friends, Tony Soprano’s decision to go into therapy on The Sopranos, Vic Mackey’s murder of Terry Crowley on The Shield, etc.  (In this regard, every season of every reality television competition, from Britain’s Got Talent to Survivor, may ultimately rely on one contestant’s decision to enter.)  As the mysterious bartender “Al” tells Sam Beckett exactly how he changed the world in the finale of Quantum Leap, in an explanation that could apply to almost every main character in every series, “The lives you touched touched others. And those lives others.” Whether you leap through time or just change channels, television is the epitome of consequence.

And beyond the plots of the shows themselves, there are all of those other butterflies, all of those outside factors that influence exactly how they evolve and that are (or appear to be) responsible for what they become.  Actors play characters in such a way as to inspire the writers in different directions, and audiences respond to them and to their performances in different ways.  Supporting characters emerge into the foreground, while the leads step into the background.  (Happy Days did not start out about the Fonz, but that is what the show became.)  Cast and crew members sign on and leave for others to replace them.  (How did David Caruso’s departure from NYPD Blue affect the development of Andy Sipowicz; how did McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers’s departures from MASH change the way that the Korean War appeared on television?) Historical and political contexts change. (Consider the shocking appearance of the Twin Towers on Life on Mars and Fringe this past season or the continued impact of 9/11 on Tommy Gavin and the other firefighters on Rescue Me.)  Regardless of the visions that the writers, directors, and actors bring to the episodes initially, television shows, unlike films, almost never end up where they started or in the way that they began, and the longer that they last, the more likely that they will transform, adapt, or develop in some unforeseen way. Who knows how the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of a director’s gesture or a punctuation error on a script may be behind what we now watch or what we will be watching ten years from now?

On the other hand, if we apply Lorenz more strictly, we might well come to the conclusion that we cannot reduce the development of an entire plot or an entire show to a single factor with any certainty, any more than the networks themselves can predict a show’s success or failure through prescreening and audience testing with perfect accuracy or, for that matter, any more than we can predict the weather through the flickering movements of one butterfly on the other side of the globe. We may need those narratives that suggest otherwise and in that vision of a more rational universe to ease our anxieties, precisely because we cannot keep pace with this world that is changing and “flattening” so quickly and so beyond our control. (That, too, of course, places the blame on a single cause.)  But television is also chaos personified, consistently betraying and undermining those causal fictions and thwarting those expectations and explanations, from the plotlines to the episodes to the series to the schedules to the networks to the seasons, and, if there is a thrill to watching, then it exists, in part, in the unpredictability of the medium, that we never know what we will get when we reach for that remote or how we will be entertained, enlightened, surprised, or disappointed.

How we view the butterflies that we catch, then, in the end depends on how we view the world beyond the screen, whether we choose to see order or disorder in its daily motions, but they are still out there and always have been, like the storm clouds that gather (or dissipate) in their colorful wake.

 

 

 

 

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