If you watch enough television, as Creepy and I most assuredly do, you begin to get a bit of a feel for how the life cycle goes.
For television shows, between seven to ten seasons is considered a good healthy lifetime. We’re assuming a season of around twenty episodes – this of course comes from the old agricultural times, when the farmhands and the mistletoe pickers would gather around the television’s warming tubes and enjoy a simple night of entertainment before sleep, and another day of honest toil on the morrow. A season, therefore, was an actual season. From planting to harvest time, give or take the occasional lapse in the blood sacrifices required at the solstices, is twenty-something weeks and you get an episode a week, allowing the show to actually get made in between.
This changed, as ever, with the relentless march of modernity. As the length of episodes changed to meet different commercial niches, so too did the length of seasons change until the whole thing really lost all meaning. Still, seven to ten seasons – a hundred and forty to two hundred episodes – was a solid life well lived.
There are exceptions to this. The fledgling shows barely born before being ignominiously cancelled. The abiding ancients too corny and formulaic to die. But watch enough, and some things become universally apparent.
For example, at one hundred episodes, a television show becomes self-referential. The hundredth episode will be a musical, or otherwise include some nostalgic callback to early episodes. The two hundredth episode is usually the point at which a show achieves sentience. It’s not always apparent, but if you know the signs you can spot it. Its self-awareness is no longer a figure of speech. The fourth wall is increasingly probed at, the stars of the show are consumed, and what was once an entertainment production involving a cooperative of individual people becomes a gestalt media organism with living components. Often, shows don’t survive this transformation. People fear them. Even if they come to a natural end or are cancelled shortly following the Change, the actors involved never really return to ordinary life. They remain “The Guy From That Show” no matter how many Nobel Prizes they manage to win in Chemistry.
Around the fourth season, depending on the show’s genre, you’ll generally start seeing time travel episodes as the entity begins to explore the boundaries of its self. The episodes following the one hundredth episode are usually the ones in which cross-over and spin-off shows are formed, as the maturing beast mates with other monsters in its cultural swamp, and sheds its spores into the creative ether. Characters a little too quirky and inexplicable start to spontaneously appear, and the main characters send them off with a fond parental, “I can only imagine the crazy adventures you’ll have … and maybe, just maybe, we’ll pop by from time to time.” All intelligent beings struggle with mortality.
Usually, and unexpectedly, the spin-off phase is accompanied by a strong shift towards the show and its characters going to Camelot for some reason. Creepy and I suspect this is because the Arthurian ur-story – and obviously this only holds true for terrestrial Western civilisation although there are certainly parallels in other cultures – is so foundational that as the show begins to grow threadbare and the paint starts rubbing off, Merlin and Excalibur just begin sort of … showing through. Infirmity is nothing to be ashamed of.
You’d think that once you get to a show with episodes numbering in the hundreds, that’s about as old and established as such a life-form can get. But then you remember the true monsters.
The One With The Hospital. The One With The Sands And The Hourglass. The One That Is Barátok Közt. We don’t speak of that one. These lumbering beasts of the telesphere amble effortlessly into their thousands, past the ten-thousand-episode mark, and who knows what kind of intellect grows and awakens – indeed, Becomes – beneath their heaving prose and behind their well-chewed scenery? Occasionally a variety show or a game show will sneak in there, armour-plated and invincible thanks to its ever-changing organic components and its adaptive format. But usually, it’s soaps.
The greatest of the television shows, at least on Earth, is of course The Little Sandman. Even the layperson will know this twenty-thousand-plus-episode German leviathan that crawled out of the Schwarzwald of Baden-Württemberg, home and legacy of the Grimms. The Little Sandman could stomp The One With Young And Also Restless underfoot and swallow The One Where Bulaga Gets Eaten whole – and use a small-fry like The Yellow One With The Fat Bald American Who Says D’oh to pick its teeth. Its millions and millions of small, shiny teeth.
We don’t watch it for fun, just in case you were wondering. The Little Sandman stopped being fun around episode #300, and blasted across the Enjoy Ironically threshold at #950, and even passed the Watching As Atonement event horizon at #2500. Two thousand five hundred is a big one for some reason, but obviously The Little Sandman is far beyond such paltry and childish things.
No, we watch it out of vigilance.
Creepy and I usually sing along with the theme tune. It’s the best way to appease the dark stop-motion God-thing that The Little Sandman has become.
Sandman, dear Sandman, don’t be in such a rush!
Everyone, young and old, listens to the “Evening Greeting” every night.
Please be our guest for that.
It loses a lot in translation and in the absence of ritual runework and gigantic stepped pyramids of rough-hewn blocks that you can’t imagine the hand of human beings dragging to this place. But you get the gist. We sing, because to do otherwise would be to court disaster.
The sheer mass of The Little Sandman on the fabric of cultural space-time, you see, is such that it pulls similar life-forms into its orbit.
Sometimes, these things are much, much bigger.
“Um … Hatboy?”
“What day is today?”
“It’s not Christmas Day, if that’s what you’re about to imply,” I said. “It’s the middle of November,” Creepy leaned forward, looking past me and over towards Yool, the ostentatiously buff Christmas tree who has been here the whole time. “What?”
“What,” Creepy said, “is that?”
I turned. “What’s what?”
Creepy pointed. “That.”
“What? Is there something behind Yool?”
“Who the fuck is Yool?” Creepy demanded.
Creepy was a bit different-y sometimes, and frequently failed to pay attention, but this was a whole new brand of vague-out. “What do you mean who the fuck is Yool?” I waved a hand towards Yool. “That’s Yool. He’s been here the whole time.”
“That’s my name,” Yool rustled cheerfully. He uncrossed his legs and planted his yellow gumboots on the floor. “Don’t wear it out, or I’ll make you buy me a new one.”
“How could I wear it out?” Creepy jumped to his feet and levelled an accusing finger at Yool. “I’ve never seen you before!”
“Tetchy,” Yool jingled.
“Creepy, you’re blocking the screen,” I warned in a nervous singsong undertone.
“Also, the whole concept of wearing out someone’s name is nonsensical on its face!” Creepy added. “Also also, Yool doesn’t have a face!”
“Creepy, you’re upsetting the little sandman,” I hissed.
By then, of course, it was already too late. It had always been too late. The slowly-wandering eye of a behemoth of primeval media-space, the 25002500th episode of the quasi-metaversal infomercial opera Yool’s Tools had sensed the tiny vacillation of distress from The Little Sandman at our lapse in attention, and had settled an all-seeing, all-selling pseudopod upon our pitiful layer of reality. Time ceased. History warped. Causality became effectality. The unseen and unseeable boundaries between all things curled like autumn leaves and blew away in the howling winds from the outermost reaches of reiterative eternity.
the behemoth inscribed its manifesto on the crumbling walls of reality,
Creepy and I fell, eleven- or twelve-dimensionally, and clapped our hands over our mouths as that was what we were hearing the words with. Yool’s Tools was a thing of pure consumption, its monolithic statements echoing backwards and forwards through time and warping the tiny drifting motes of Earthly infomercials so that they had always been warped mirrors of the ineffable whole. It was more than a catchphrase. More than a religious decree. It was higher physics in its purest, most literal form.
“Only The Little Sandman can save us now,” I tried, an infinite number of times, to shout.
Compared to Yool’s Tools‘s 25002500, The Little Sandman‘s 22200-episode bulk was less than a microbe, the dimple it had made in the programming continuum barely worthy of notice. But a microbe in the right place at the right time can do a lot of damage.
Without pausing to think about it – or perhaps sitting down to discuss it for several eternities until the course of action had always been taken – Creepy and I threw ourselves into the groaning television, Yool clumping along right behind us.
I stumbled, looking around in the grimy darkness. Whether my feeble collection of senses were feeding the information to my brain in heavily-filtered packets it was capable of processing, or whether we had stepped through into some kind of pocket – or stomach – of The Little Sandman where relative normality remained intact, was of course impossible to say. But we were in a warehouse of some sort, vast and echoing and gloomy. There were big, clunky-looking cameras scattered around, and from a nebulous area of illumination up towards one end, I could hear the sound of abject, exhausted sobbing.
“What is it?” Creepy whispered.
“I think it’s the animator,” I murmured back, my voice queasy with horror.
When a show achieves sentience, the people involved in its creation and continuation become little more than cells in its body. Constantly sloughing away and being replaced … but on a higher conceptual level, like the ship of Theseus, they endure.
Weeping, the animator moved the figures on their softly-glowing stage. Crouched angular amongst the props and scenery, he had himself come to resemble a piece of gaunt, folding equipment. Twenty thousand episodes and counting, he moved the characters … shot a frame … moved the characters … shot a frame. Prayed for an end. Moved the characters.
“Hey,” Creepy called out. “Have you seen a, I don’t know, a way way bigger show around here somewh-”
“Creepy,” I hissed.
The titular little sandman turned his head, quite independent of the animator. The setting in which he stood seemed to be some sort of Arctic wilderness, complete with an igloo and snowman. None of the other pieces seemed to be moving – yet – although they did have a horribly vital glow about them that the animator conspicuously lacked.
“Außerirdische eindringlinge,” the little sandman said in a high, piping voice.
The animator wailed and clutched at his face. “Gott im Himmel,” he moaned, “jetzt muss ich nochmal von anfängen! Idiotischen außerirdischen!”
“Even a gentle and hopeless plea for help sounds harsh in German,” Creepy noted philologically.
“I don’t think he’s gently and hopelessly pleading for help,” I said, and stepped back. I bumped into Yool, whose decorations jingled softly. The animator ranted on, clawing at his eyes and slowly unfolding like a mantis. The little sandman continued to gaze at us.
“Es ist zu spät, dummköpfe,” he trilled. “Willkommen im beim Großen Sandmännchen.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” I murmured.
“I haven’t liked the sound of any of it,” Creepy said, “but I freely accept that this is probably due to a deeply-ingrained cultural bias and in admitting to its presence I am clearly showing more sensitivity than you are in your denial and therefore I can forego the need to actually address it-”
“Oh, we’re going to have to address this,” I said.
Around us, the warehouse unfolded and unfolded and unfolded, growing and yet also shrinking in on us, ultimately remaining unchanged although everything had changed. We now stood on the set of The Big Sandman: Death to Creepy & Hatboy: A Yool’s Tools Production. The snowman leered. The igloo gaped like a sepulchre. The animator lurched across to a table, sat down and began splicing film. The unnatural, distended thing that had once been the little sandman held up a slate menacingly in his horrible puffy hands. Creepy and I exchanged a look while Yool rustled nervously behind us.
“How are we going to address this one, Hatboy?” Creepy asked grimly.
I frowned. If The Little Sandman was a microbe within the body of Yool’s Tools, we were an atom. But an atom can be pretty darn effective, when split. Or fused.
I looked at Creepy.
Split. Yes, split is definitely better.
“Hatboy?” Creepy said. Yool shuffled his gumboots behind us. “What are you thinking? And why do I already hate it?”
“That’s probably the temporal effectality talking,” I said, concentrating ferociously. Split. Atom. Split. What happens when you split an atom? Something about a neutron being absorbed, and a uranium-235 nucleus turning into a uranium-236 nucleus, and the atom blasting out energy and some other elements, and it probably doesn’t matter because this was a completely inappropriate analogy to start with and I was stripped of my physics doctorate after that unpleasantness with Glowing Benny and it was only an honorary doctorate anyway.
Completely inappropriate analogy to start with.
To start with.
I turned to look at Yool, a visceral-discomfort-inducingly buff Christmas tree who had been here the whole time. Creepy was right, damn him. It made no sense on its face. And yet … and yet.
“It’s already happened,” I said, and pointed at us. “Split atom,” I pointed at Yool. “Gamma rays,” I spread my hands, raised my face to the unquiet ceiling, and closed my eyes. “Fuck-off big explosion.”
There was a long, expectant silence.
“Hatboy?” Creepy asked.
I didn’t open my eyes. “Yes?”
“What are you philateling about, you postage stamp?”
“A metaphorical atomic fission detonation in the belly of an omni-dimensional infomercial amoeba,” I said, and squeezed my eyes tighter and struck another here-it-comes pose.
“Amoebas don’t have bellies, Hatboy.”
“Certainly not after an atomic fission detonation has gone off inside them they don’t, Creepy.”
There was another long pause. The big sandman cleared his throat. It made a sound like a woodchipper upon which had been forced a tortured parody of life by a dark wizard grinding up a load of broken glass and shredding itself internally in the process. It had no right to sound that way, and I had to exercise all the willpower I had not to march right over there and punt the obscene swollen bobblehead halfway into the 2501st blog post.
“Jawohl, ja … Großen Sandmännchen,” he resumed, and I opened one eye a crack to see him taking a shuffling step forward and raising the slate again. His eyes were lurid whirlpools of black and red.
“Observation,” I said.
“Are you just throwing random pseudointellectual vaguely physics-y terms at this thing and hoping something will happen?” Creepy demanded shrilly.
“Do you have a better idea?”
“As a matter of fact I do!”
Creepy turned, grabbed Yool by one unpleasantly muscle-corded woody forearm, and swung from it about as ineffectually as anyone his size and weight could expect to swing from a Christmas tree built like a rogue detective’s aging boxing coach to whom she still turns for advice and perspective and inadvertently-slipped-into-conversation-clues when she’s been taken off the case for being too close to it and who insists she could have made the professional leagues with a right like that if she hadn’t put all her effort into making detective to avenge her father’s death at the hands of the mob and who calls her Firecracker or Babybird. I lunged and grabbed Yool’s other arm, and together we managed to hurl him staggering and jingling onto the set, where he collided with the snowman and together they both tumbled into the side of the igloo.
The universe trembled.
“Gah!” the big sandman howled. Parts of the warehouse locked up and froze, other parts flickered and shut down completely. “Warum gibt es so viele texturen, zehn gigabyten texturen!”
“Mein großensteinen!” Yool shouted, as the abnormally large glass of foamy German beer he’d been holding the whole time slopped sideways and an amber tsunami sent the animator and three cameras tumbling into the abyss with a sound like gratitude made of bleached driftwood.
Creepy and I staggered and fell to our knees again as Yool’s Tools delivered another vast, unsympathetic utterance. In that moment, I realised where the blast of analogous energy had gone when we had always have been fissioned or something.
The show had eaten it.
Yool’s Tools had ambled in upon hearing the bleating of a far smaller show in distress, had given the entirety of our cosmos a gentle snuffle, and we’d fed it with a nice big metanuclear whatever-the-fuck. And then…
And then it ambled off again.
Creepy and I climbed to our feet. We were back in our living room. We collapsed back onto the couch. Creepy picked up his coke. His hand shook, but of course he didn’t spill.
“It doesn’t get easier,” he said, “does it?”
“Nope,” I replied.
“Amen,” said Yool.