In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Overdrawn At the Memory Bank, one of the call-outs, when they play a few seconds of Casablanca on a computer screen, is “never show a good movie in the middle of your bad movie” (or words to that effect). It’s funny, especially in the moment, but I wonder if it’s actually good advice. It can be applied with very little modification to having characters discuss a good book in what one may hope is a good book but what may not be as good a book as one hopes.
The intention behind the comment, during the episode, is that showing a good movie reminds the audience of how good movies can be, and thus makes it more difficult to enjoy whatever little good there is in the bad movie that they’re watching. And, indeed, this is possible. Reminding someone that they could be having a better time is not always a great strategy for an entertainer.
The fact is, if someone is watching your movie or reading your book, they’re not watching that better movie or reading that good book, and in the modern world it’s unlikely that it’s because they would rather be doing it, but can’t. I’m a big re-reader and re-watcher, but you can’t watch Casablanca and read Pride & Prejudice every day.
If the viewer has chosen to not watch Casablanca today, then reminding him of Casablanca will not cause him to stop your movie and go watch Casablanca instead. In fact, it may have the opposite effect—it may make him happy with the reminiscence of a movie that he likes. Further, it may create the parasocial feeling in the viewer of being with people who like the same movie he likes.
Parasocial engagement is one of the great problems of our day, but that does not make it intrinsically bad. Like so many things, much of whether it’s healthy or harmful is in how it is managed and presented. A great deal of the parasocial engagement that exists on the internet is exploitative parasocial engagement; it is designed to encourage the mistake that it is not parasocial, but social. It is designed to be addictive. Movies and books have an end; they are a fantasy that comes to a definite conclusion and thus makes it easy to get back to the real world and remember that one needs to live in it.