Mobile phones: no signal 02.04.12

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Has the mobile phone killed suspense? What would happen if our lone hero could get a signal? Will Wiles on the contemporary screenwriter's cellular agony

Here's a sampling of comedy situations from the American situation comedy Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998). Jerry and the gang have to wait for a table in a restaurant, and George risks standing up his girlfriend. Jerry and the gang cannot find Kramer's car in a mall car park, and George risks being late to meet his parents. Jerry and the gang are meeting at the cinema – but which cinema?

These minor social confusions were the stuff of Seinfeld; the above examples are classics, but only because they are archetypal episodes from a show that was famously "about nothing". Seinfeld was never really "about nothing", it was merely about the texture of the everyday, the experience of waiting, or being lost, or not knowing what to do or where to go next. This is the stuff that fills our lives – not nothing at all. But those quintessential Seinfeld moments are beginning to look as dated as the purloined letters of Restoration comedies. Seinfeld can now be seen as a survey of the landscape of interpersonal awkwardness on the eve of the transformation of that landscape by the mobile phone.

Despite having so many plot lines rendered obsolete – where a single call or text message could have eliminated a problem – one gets the sense that Seinfeld would not be impossible today. Far from it, in fact. It would just be completely different, reflecting the new pressure points of social anxiety. The rest of television and cinema – and literature and drama, for that matter – has had a much harder time adjusting. A useful word here is "trope", a word repurposed from literary criticism by the website TV Tropes ( to mean any kind of familiar, recurring plot device, situation, character trait or course of action. In order to keep the old tropes (the haunted house, the missed meeting) working, the mobile phone has to be somehow removed from the picture. This has, in turn, given rise to an entirely new trope. "No Signal (and other cellular drama)" is a YouTube montage of scenes from horror films in which, as the title suggests, the protagonists try and fail to use their phones. "I can't get any signal," they complain, or "No bars!" or "Reception out here sucks." The new lexicon of failed telecoms has become as sure a sign of impending terror as the words "I'll be right back". The phones have their own ominous lines to deliver: "no service" or "network failure", generally in an unconvincing graphical interface, an area where Hollywood seems incapable of realism. Phones are brandished at the sky, cursed at, handled roughly – look how hard we're trying to connect! And the audience rolls its eyes ... how very (in)convenient. Perhaps this simple techno-fix, rather than millennial or ecological concerns, can explain the present popularity of apocalyptic drama – it's just a way of getting those damned chirruping plot-killers out of the frame. "97 percent nationwide coverage and we find ourselves in that 3 percent," complains a character in The Hills Have Eyes (2006).

Is this a fundamental crisis affecting drama, particularly suspenseful drama? Is the world now so connected that the hero struggling alone is getting hard to imagine? Or is it merely a transitional period, while the imagination of writers flexes around the new technology in more creative ways, before "no signal" becomes a dated trope in itself? Stephen King has already neatly inverted the trope in his 2006 book Cell, in which the mobile phone is the source of the horror and the protagonists are seeking out a place where they'll be safe from the malign reception bars. It's not as if there aren't stories to tell any more – but pop cultural mass production lines, running under tremendous momentum, take time to retool their output. In the air is the pre-storm static of the new drama, the new cinema, the new television, of the smartphone era.

Will Wiles is an editor at Icon



Andy Gilmore



Will Wiles

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What would happen if our lone hero could get a signal?

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