May 1, 2018
FOX Introduces a 28-minute Commercial, Calls It a New Series
FOX Television, the people who brought you Wayward Pines, a series about a small town with a dark secret, has now unveiled Gone, which the network is hawking as a “Wayward Pines companion series.” At first glance, this new series of under three-minute webisodes feels legit. There’s a trailer, promos, and lots of places to watch—FOX, YouTube, and even an app. Gone seems like conventional spinoff, focusing on the disappearance of future Wayward Pines resident Sara Barlow in 2014.
Sara is not as yet a character on Wayward Pines, but we did get a glimpse of her in a recent episode. She was about to be defrosted by Pilcher Inc. when Ethan was visiting the mountain lair of the mastermind. Given that we already know where she ended up, it’s not too promising a premise. At most, it might provide more backstory for anyone obsessed enough with WP to want more than episodes 5 and 6 crammed down our throats. But Gone is not what it seems. The series holds a dark secret of its own.
Look closely and you’ll soon discover the truth. Gone is no more a companion series than Wayward Pines is simply a “nothing” town in Idaho. The trailer may look normal, but that’s only on the surface—and “the surface” is what Gone is truly about.
Each episode begins with a commercial. Nothing strange about that. Just because the episode itself might clock in at two minutes 45 seconds, no reason not to start it off with a commercial one-third its runtime. Each commercial is for the same product—as though it were the only one of its kind in the universe! What product is this? The Microsoft Surface.
But so what? It’s not out of the ordinary to have a sponsor. This is television after all.
The truth dawns slowly upon us! FOX and Microsoft have teamed up and figured out how to get us to watch 28 minutes worth of commercials. Gone is nothing more or less than a Surface primer—a video tutorial and demo, served with a lite narrative frosting. Behold the syllabus:
Episode 1 – Eric Barlow finds a video his wife Sara left him on her Surface. Today’s lessons: You can make videos! You can watch videos! Touchscreen!
Episode 2 – Eric finds Sara’s files about the mysterious story she was pursuing. It’s a tablet! No, it’s a laptop! Oh my God, it’s the tablet that can replace your laptop and store all your shit! And you can use a “picture password” to keep everything secure!
Episode 3 – Eric finds Sara’s addresses and contacts on her Surface! Is there nothing this little machine can’t do? And it all looks so easy!
In later episodes, we discover more about Sara’s Surface (and not so much about what happened to her). Sara’s Surface has a port! And wait there’s more! Eric not only can find locations using a map feature, but he can even draw arrows and circles on the map! (Just like you can with devices you probably already own.)
Here at HNTP, we watch television all the time. We know product placement is all over the place and it’s getting harder to tell the programming from the commercials. Were we outraged by Connection Lost, the groundbreaking episode of Modern Family filmed entirely on iPad and iPhone? Did that make us want to tear our hair out? No, it did not because it was funny. And we are less likely to tear our hair out when we are laughing. It worked because it was true to the long-established characters. It’s totally believable that “Claire’s porn” would involve organizing closets, that Jay would be befuddled by tech, and that EVERYONE in the Dunphy-Pritchard universe (except maybe baby Joey) would have his or her own tablet, and all of them the latest model of the same name brand.
But product placement is best served with a wink. Otherwise, the implication is that we’re all rubes too dumb to see we’re being conned into watching a movie-length commercial. It’s the equivalent of those cartoony cereal ads they used to show Saturday mornings (back when kids watched Saturday morning television). The commercials got banned because they blended in with the programming so that it was difficult for a five year old to know that there was a difference. But why should we be surprised that FOX is treating us like five year olds?
The concept of using a continuing story to educate viewers is not new. Some of you may remember the PBS series Destinos, which offered an introductory Spanish course in the form of a telenovella. In Destinos, Los Angeles lawyer Raquel Rodriguez travels the world to find ailing Don Fernando’s lost love, whom he thought had died during the Spanish Civil War. Each episode offered a language lesson with a focus on the culture of a different Spanish-speaking country. The difference between Gone and Destinos is that the latter wasn’t about buying shit and you cared more about the characters.