Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Desperate Households

Why do we watch these television dramas? Why do we love feeling pangs of pain and sadness when a regular character is hacked to pieces and the doctors try to save the hell out of her? Why do we care, why do we stand to watch actor-surgeons hack into the character on the operating table, split open her chest, say “rib spreader” between two takes’ bagels, crank the ribs open, dive into the chest cavity with both hands, pump the actor-heart, throw those electric paddles in there and jump-start it when it goes in defib, if that’s what it’s called? It gores us, it upsets us, and when she dies our lips turn and we feel our own tear ducts well up. Cry, at this? Sometimes we do. We mourn – very mildly, relatively speaking, because as soon as the first commercial has run its course we’re in the kitchen having a drink or kissing or talking about what trinkets the teacher needs the following day for a talk on the weather or flipping to M*A*S*H or hearing the local news anchor blabber with incoherent urgency about the wreck on I-4, the latest bushy follies and the amazing discovery about fat (“you need it!”) all coming up next. Hadn’t the cherished character died one hundred twenty seconds earlier? It’s not as if the day after we go to work with a heavy heart, feeling any sort of pain whatsoever related to the loss. It’s not even a discussion item at the proverbial water-cooler. Our evenings’ habits are now so fragmented, not from an abundance of fascinating things to do but from that fragmented grid of time-wasting still concentrated in that television box, that few of us have anything like a television channel in common, let alone a show in common. It’s not cool anymore to talk much about shows as if they have an effect. Have we no other lives? Of course not, but let’s not let on.

Still, the story is in our mind. As the following week’s episode approaches we think about it once or twice. The evening of the show we thrill a little with anticipation, wondering what will happen next even though we’ve been conditioned by so many years of formulaic plots to know exactly what will happen. The one character who didn’t die will recover, not nicely, and begin watering his guilt for a half season’s worth of episodes, he’ll think he was responsible for his colleague’s death, he’ll break down, start doing drugs, go to rehab, then return in triumph, a new man, the Prince Andrew of NBC’s hit television show, with the special bonus of not being, like Andrew, dead. The lesser character is sliced off so the star can live. There was an episode or seven like that on ER, the one where Carter and Lucy, freshly stabbed and hanging by an organ or two, are pieced together again by every doctor in the hospital. Carter survives. Lucy dies. The head doctor, the one who usually plays the resident asshole, works on Lucy and is upset when she dies. He smashes equipment and refuses to believe she has died. (Always that dramatic refusal of the obvious.) A moment of humanity from the mean man. We were sad for Lucy too even though she was our least favorite character, that Lucy plucked from one of those idiotic right-wing family shows like Full House or Empty Nest or Half-Way Fascist. We fell, too: we felt for her, for that half minute. Why? “For a generation of Americans now in the twilight of their 20s, no other series on television better illustrates how weirdly compelling bad TV can be,” one critic wrote when “Melrose Place” (Melrose Place!!) was cancelled last February. ER is not bad TV. It was once as good as it got in that gauze of low threshold entertainment. But still once it’s over it elicits nothing more than that half minute of rote reflection even at its most compelling. So why do we return? Because, I think, ER is not only as good as it gets, or got, but it’s part of that grid of truth-making that’s as good as we have in these culturally suburban, vaguely anxious, slightly too comfortable times. It’s not ER by itself that matters, but ER and the lesser-quality fare that makes up our weekly, ritualistic habit of reassuring ourselves of a predictable set of references. In other words it’s not the shows themselves but the act of watching the shows that brings us back, the desire for those small doses of narrative that frame the rest of our flatter and unflattering lives in the titillation of plot and a certain amount of assured, safe, predictably “closure”-prone anxieties. We feel for Lucy. But we’re grateful it’s her and not us on the operating table in the exact same way we felt for victims of terror bombings with the same grateful guilt that it was them and not us in indistinguishable pieces: It’s primarily a television event conditioned by television’s expectations of emotions calibrated to last twelve minutes at a time, until the next commercial break (unless you’re on cable, in which case it’s six minutes at a time). Here’s what we’re being spared, at least for another day, we think as we watch, not-too consciously. Entertainment (or news) as palliative, but not necessarily good palliative. The more reassuring thing about those weirdly compelling dramas is the boundary they still afford between the real and the fantastic. For all the drama, we can always say: It’s make-believe. But that defeats the purpose of fiction as fiction ought to be understood. Make-believe’s power, when it has any, is in its veracity. No fact ever explains or gets at the emotional depths and truths of good fiction. Which explains the ultimate shallowness of television dramas. They reach, but never grasp, literary truths.

Chip McGrath in that (to me) famous New York Times Magazine article five years ago compared television drama to the compelling literary dramas of the nineteenth century that the French and Russian novelists serialized in newspapers. “[T]here are ways in which TV has actually taken over some of the roles that books used to fill. A few of the more inventive TV series, for example, have become for our era the equivalent of the serial novel, unfolding epic stories installment by installment, and sweeping all of us up in shared anxiety and in a lot of group sighing and head shaking over what fate or (it’s the same thing) the author has in store. TV drama is also one of the few remaining art forms to continue the tradition of classic American realism, the realism of Dreiser and Hopper: the painstaking, almost literal examination of middle- and working-class lives in the conviction that truth resides less in ideas than in details closely observed. More than many novels, TV tells us how we live now.” It is “the prime time novel.” Maybe, but it’s still that weak palliative for a reason. There’s too much of it, whatever it does is too diluted by its own mixture of pretensions and surplus. Richard Ford wrote about this once: “Worrisome things are happening to my sense of the now. Maybe many of us are feeling that way. [... ] whatever the reason, now -- by which I mean our experience of the present moment, that ever-passing, uncertain platform upon which we recognize ourselves to be alive, and appraise how life seems -- that now feels under attack. Chiefly, what I’m talking about are the ways in which that series of present moments we describe collectively as our real lives is made insignificant, made ignoble or forgettable, made hellish or made in essence non-existent by all sorts of forces outside our brains, yet forces whose existence we may have complicity with.” Ubiquitous televisions everywhere we go, telemarketers, email, phone surveys. “Of course, I'd be happy to think that reading a novel or a short story or even a poem could help in this cause.” He’d like more people to read more novels, which “slow the reader's pace and make him self-conscious so that his now is made vivid and of worth. In addition, novels are often all about these very important issues I'm arguing we've lost our good grip on; measuring cause and effect from a recognizable place in time; calculating the results of history; noticing how events of the moment can prefigure events still to come; recognizing our very selves and appraising how we are. Frankly, I doubt if it’ll happen.” Can it be that television dramas and good novels, good literature, have in common the same ultimate failing, that they cannot finally satisfy our craving for a more meaningful now? War and Peace tangentially addresses that very question, as it does all others. Its answer is precisely in the absence of an answer.