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Finally, a show that gets text messaging (more or less) right

by moniguzman on January 27, 2013

It’s hard to film communication.

When I watched “Friends” and “Seinfeld” in the 90s, I wondered if single adults really visit each other as often as these characters did, from one impossibly big New York City apartment to another. When I grew up, I realized, No, they don’t. But showing people talking on the phone doesn’t make for very good TV.

Fast forward to this decade. Forget the landline. Text messages, Facebook chats and tweets are the way we talk. On devices that go with us, no less. I haven’t seen the study that shows how many times the average smartphone user checks her phone in a day. I assume it’s a lot. I haven’t seen the study that shows how much of our rampant communication happens in person. I assume it’s not much.

I’ve taken it for granted that TV and movies won’t show how we actually communicate. Just one of the many ways entertainment won’t match reality.

Then I saw “Sherlock.”

The British drama reimagines Sherlock Holmes as a “consulting detective” operating in a modern world, living in central London with Watson, an Afghanistan vet who craves the adrenaline of a good battle almost as much as Sherlock craves the mystery of a good murder.

There was a moment in the pilot when it happened. A character got a text message and looked at his phone. Without cutting away, white titles appeared on the screen. We read the message as fast as he did. A moment later he lowered the phone and the story carried on.

It’s amazing, when you think about it, but over these last few years we’ve developed the ability to read portable messages on our portable screens without having to pause to digest them. They distract us every now and then, but if they don’t call us to do anything, we come back to what we were doing without missing a beat.

This happens over and over again in Sherlock, as it would in real life. Somebody gets a text message, or someone goes and looks something up online. Each time, we see him search, scroll, select. All with white titles descriptive enough to let us in on the search but not so complicated to be distracting. Meanwhile, whatever dialogue was going on between characters goes on. The show could slow things down to give us more time to process it, but why? If we can read messages while carrying on conversations in real life, we can do it while watching TV.

So, kudos to the makers of “Sherlock.” They’ve proved me wrong.

If I run into a show that makes Facebook this interesting, I’ll let you know.

  • fred owens

    “If we can read messages while carrying on conversations in real life, we can do it while watching TV.” So you say. But I predict that doing one thing at a time has not become extinct — in fact, you will see a revival of focused concentration in the near future. You will see people reading books but not listening to music at the same time. Or listening to music without checking their smart phones. Smart phones are peaking right now — can you guess what comes after that? because something different always does come along — and it comes along just when you get used to the way things are now.

  • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

    I hear you. It actually hurt a bit to write that sentence, because that kind of dual-attention multitasking is a bad idea. It happens, but it’s ick. I can’t tell you how many times Jason has to repeat himself because I looked at my phone just as he asked me something.

  • http://www.enter.co/colaboradores/joseluis/ José L. Peñarredonda

    What about House of Cards? I find the texting solution there pretty decent: graphic displays with chat…

  • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

    Yes! Noticed that and lived it. The key is to blend it into the landscape, I think. Not cut away so abruptly when none of us ever do.

  • Pingback: Today's Scuttlebot: Texting on 'Sherlock' and Ethereal Images - NYTimes.com

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