• The Caillou Conceit: Narrative Overexposure and Hyperreal Pacing in Netflix’s Love

    A 2011 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that children who watched fast-paced cartoons (like SpongeBob SquarePants or Dragon Ball Z) performed significantly worse on memory and attention tests than children who watched real-time, slow-paced cartoons like Caillou or Sesame Street.

    Caillou is a simple show following the day-to-day, real-life situations of the four-year-old Caillou. Caillou is like a cartoon descendant of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in terms of show pacing: Caillou rides in a car with his mom, plays in the park with his friends, goes to the dentist, and makes Christmas cookies with his grandma, all in an eerily evenhanded human tempo.

    The Netflix show Love, which premiered in 2016, has a similar Caillou conceit — an intentional, hyperreal pacing drives the narrative and demands an unusual amount of patience from its viewers. Love positions itself as an alternative to jump-cuts and rapid-fire romances seen in shows like Gossip Girl, aiming to train the viewer’s attention span to the pacing of a real relationship. Gus (Paul Rust), a nervous, overeager type, and blunt, self-destructive Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), meet one day at a gas station, and the show follows the arc of their relationship over three seasons, almost moment-to-moment. The last scene of the first season is the same one that starts the second. All of the narrative information, significant and insignificant, is available to the viewer. The result is a kind of scripted version of uncut reality TV footage.

    The benefit of this storytelling method is that it has the potential to give the viewers an extremely intimate and minutia-oriented detailing of, well, Love. We get a full and complete view inside a relationship from start to finish, and perhaps its creators hope we can witness a connection. It is a TV-voyeurism novelty to experience the entire trajectory and particularities of someone’s relationship, even in a simulation. But strangely, the result of this storytelling conceit is a feeling of discomfort and boredom instead of an interested focus.

    Part of this reaction is probably that instead of Pretty Little Liars, where we see only the juiciest parts of a fake relationship — drama, scandal, cheating, lies, sex — Love shows Gus and Mickey getting to know each other at breakfast after sleeping over, wandering to a movie after, going to work. My attention span ends up straining, not lengthening, against the banality of watching someone ask another person how many siblings they have. But, while feeling the widening gyre of my attention span is part of the discomfort of watching Love, Gus and Mickey’s love connection just doesn’t garner enough enthusiasm to keep us glued and ultimately works against the Caillou-style storytelling meant to train our attention.

    At its best, the hyperreal pacing technique and narrative overexposure of Love has the potential to capture the diffuse and particular essence of two people’s burgeoning chemistry like a lightning bug (or lightning) in a bottle. And, similar to the satisfaction of telling a friend the play-by-play of scenes from our real-life relationships, this overexposure leaves no stone unturned, no detail left up to interpretation. Instead of the he-said-she-said of real life, all fodder for analysis and scrutiny is offered to us in a buffet of open information. Slice of life meets Freedom of Information Act.

    The potential downside to the lightning bottle, however, is that things kept in a bottle are susceptible to withering and dying. Which is unfortunately the fate of Love. The chemistry between Jacobs and Rust’s characters is only ever tepid at best, and whatever simulation of bonhomie they were able to muster is suffocated in the never-closing eye of the narrative lens. The Caillou conceit storytelling backfires when the content doesn’t live up to the creative potential of the hyperreal pacing.

    One could argue that the show isn’t trying to depict anything more than a lukewarm relationship and it’s banalities, but because the show ends in marriage and is littered with quotes like, “I never gave a shit about work before I met you. You really bring out the best in me,” it feels reasonable to assume that they were aiming at depicting a meaningful relationship. Sound bites like that indicate something substantial has happened between them, but the results of a challenging, life-giving connection are never earned. Meeting a few parents and exes does not a connection make. Which isn’t to say love can’t be mundane, but to judge it on the terms that they set out for themselves, it seems to just go through the motions and fall flat.

    Duck Butter, a movie that also employed Caillou-conceit storytelling, more successfully depicted a compelling, real-time relationship. The story is about two women who meet and pledge to spend 24 hours together without sleeping in order to fast track the intimacy of a relationship. Just like Love, they show every scene of the relationship from start to finish and their rapid connection and dissolution is fascinating to watch. Duck Butter succeeds in depicting the magic of people falling in love by showing the getting to know you conversations while maintaining the depth and frisson in the art of an intimate conversation. Where Gus and Mickey discuss how many brothers and sisters they each have in a stilted manner over coffee or argue about whether or not they should throw out the milk, Naima and Sergio from Duck Butter yell at a wall together about why they hate their moms and Sergio makes Naima scream at the moon “I am beautiful!” Our attention is trained by the pacing but only because the content sparkles and makes it shine.

    Caillou’s hyperreal pacing has the potential to capture the otherworldliness of love as part of this world, “the real world,” but also its extra dimension, a place where it transcends space and time while still apart of both. It’s like never closing your eyes to try and see the grass grow: it happens while you are watching, but you can’t see it. The hyperreal pace allows us to experience love in real time without attempting to interpret it, to catch it, to hold it still and piece it together. The hyperreal gets us the closest to the incommunicable of the real. In this pacing’s best iteration, concept and content merge and the viewer becomes submerged in the numinous.

    As Love rounded out its third season, they came up against the inevitable monolith. Watching a couple brush their teeth, discuss ROYGBIV on a date, or compose texts to each other during a work day is, at the end of the day, boring — unless this is actually a couple we have become invested in as an audience. But even then, if we tell ourselves stories in order to live, they need a little bit of magic — something that sets them apart from our lived reality and mirrors the ineffable. We want reality, of course, but we also want a slice of the sublime that reality contains.