I haven’t done a good versus article in some time. While not as strong a disagreement as I’d like for one of these, I do want to comment on a recent article from Variety‘s website. Contributor Danielle Turchiano’s topic is “The Importance of Leaning Into Dark Dramas During Dark Times in History”. Look, everyone has their own tastes and opinions. My apologies to Elton John but sometimes a sad song will only make things worse. It depends on the person. And since I’m one of those people who prefers to challenge darkness with light instead of more darkness I thought I’d log my own two sense on this article. So read her thoughts first, draw your own conclusion, then come back and see mine.
Some of the strongest television dramas are cautionary tales — giving viewers tools to stop our future from becoming a dystopia. As tough political, racial and social issues continue to divide the country and darken news headlines, it is imperative that audiences don’t look away from equally dark television.
I have some agreement here. I’m not against darker stories necessarily, and one of the things science fiction likes to do is caution people about a future we’re heading for. If it can do so without the subtlety of a freight train at high-speed that’s fine. But the problem is that caution usually comes from a particular point of view, namely the writer’s or the director’s (and then whomever else at the studio adds their two cents, the motivation of the actor, and so on). So what happens if you don’t share the point of view of the creator(s)? What if you think we have different problems or what the creator(s) believes to be a problem you disagree with? You have to make your point right. It starts by not immediately insulting those who might not agree with you while getting their actual point of view wrong. If that was going on we wouldn’t have Comicgate.
Sure, after being bombarded with Trump tweets and reports of mass shootings, ICE raids and another rollback on healthcare (your politics is showing-SWT), the temptation is often to just kick back with something lighthearted and escapist.
Well that’s the news and politicians’ fault. All the news is focused on negatives, with one positive story after the weather and sports as if that makes up for having pounded in your heads that the world is awful. Then TV and streaming shows (the focus of the article) pile that on unless it’s the person or perspective they’ve chosen as “the right one”, whether logic dictates that or not. (See Star Trek: Voyager or Enterprise.)
There’s nothing wrong with a good cathartic cry over the loss of Jack Pearson on the more sentimental drama “This Is Us,” for example. But there is a danger in burying one’s head in series that don’t offer anything in the way of enrichment.
I haven’t watched the show although I hear good things about it. So I don’t know who Jack Pearson is. But this is what Turchiano calls “lighthearted and escapist”? The death of a character liked enough to cry over? Try something like The Greatest American Hero or even NCIS or Macgyver depending on the episode. You know, shows where the good guys win and the world is a better place while still being fun. From what I hear This is Us may be heartwarming and I have no problem with that, but it’s a little too “real world” (as viewed by Hollywood, so more like reel world) to be escapist.
Also, don’t tell me how to enjoy my entertainment. If I want enrichment I don’t go to fiction. I go to inspiring shows like Undercover Boss or something, stories that show life can be a good thing. There are already so many other sources telling me how bad things are. Maybe I want to also see how good things are. Or get away from one-sided viewpoints and just see some fun hero versus villain action.
Zone out for too long and terrible things can happen around you. Case in point: The Handmaid’s Tale.
For those of you haven’t heard of this Hulu series, the movie that came before it, or the original book, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a future where for some odd reason (it might be explained but it’s not my kind of story) the majority of the female population has gone infertile. Those few who are able to have babies are now forced to basically become baby factories to keep the human race going, but that’s all they’re treated as–just a uterus with legs. I think it’s also some commentary on religion but I don’t know many Christians who would be in favor of this. Sure, we all want to see the human race continue on (except for those who hate their own species) but that is no way to treat anybody. Of course, I’m pretty sure that we have no sympathy for those who want to keep humanity going; understand the goal but hate the methodology. It’s told from the perspective of one of these mistreated “handmaids” (what fertile woman are reduced to being called) and of course it’s not going to be positive. And probably shouldn’t be if it’s just her perspective.
Hulu’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is the darkest of the dramas, expanding in its second season to show that the horrors inside the walls of Gilead are far from the worst atrocities of its present-day timeline. But it is the show’s flashbacks that are the most chilling — because it is there that the seeds of the new world order are being planted, in a world that looks eerily similar to our own. First they came for individuals’ healthcare rights, then they came for individuals’ rights to be in love and marry whom they wanted to, then they came for individuals overall.
In other words the world they think Trump wants to do, whether he actually does or not. (I’ve never heard him say anything about gay marriage, which I assume is where the “rights to be in love and marry whom they wanted to” bit comes from. As for healthcare I don’t know the story and I’m pushing too far into politics as it is, something I like to avoid here because with all the politically charged nonsense pushing into as much of our lives as possible I like to think of BW Media Spotlight as a “happy place”.) Plus like I said it’s a world where only a small number of women can bear children for some odd reason and while I disagree with their solution (what I know of it) I understand why they did it. I have to wonder how much of this is exaggerated. Remember, from what I’ve heard the original story blamed the church and I don’t know any churchgoers who would be okay with this. They would rather pray for God to restore their or their wives’ ability to have children.
The active, engaged, thinking viewer is the most important viewer — and human being. And this television season has certainly delivered a plethora of things to ponder and from which to learn.
Netflix’s “Mindhunter” explored the psychology of serial killers; Hulu’s “Hard Sun” solved crimes against the backdrop of the looming end of the world; Netflix’s’ “13 Reasons Why” season two was still centered on the bullying, sexual assault and low self-esteem that caused a teenager to commit suicide; Showtime’s “Homeland” depicted the president as a fascist and messed with its lead character’s bipolar medication so she would unravel; and the entire premise of Lifetime’s “Mary Kills People” is built on terminal illness and assisted suicide.
I’m not necessarily against these, or the Westworld series on HBO she mentions in the next paragraph. Except maybe Homeland because I know that’s more one-sided politics because Hollywood, like most of the arts, are dominated by liberal perspectives after someone convinced the conservative to not pursue the arts. (Books are the place that has any real balance of thought between lefties, righties, and the apolitical, something we’re less and less allowed to be in this country. JOIN US OR DIE!) I grew up with stories warning against rape (before it became a cheap plot device that only happens to women because that’s the only way a writer can give them depth…depth only comes through pain and suffering and rape is a thing that happens to women in these stories), avoiding drugs, avoiding strangers and “bad touches” (I said stories I grew up with…being a “lovable stoner” was a okay with some “grown-up” stories), and worrying about the communists. But now we have a stronger divide and people who fail to actually understand what the other side is saying because it’s easier to label everybody as “Nazis” and “the real Nazis” then actually promote diversity of thought and understand where we are alike, even if we disagree on solutions to problems we agree is a problem. Like Nazis.
This is why I watch more kids shows. They’re still allowed to be fun and show good people (and puppies, birds, robots, various other creatures and beings) being good and thankfully are rarely spoiled by politics. Although I don’t see that lasting for long. Politics wants to be all you ever think about. Like that crazed lover that stalks you and kills your pets out of jealousy.
Perhaps some of these series should come with trigger warnings for the amount of trauma they inflict upon their characters and the audience by extension (but that’s probably a whole other column for a whole other time). Diving into such dark tales can be an escape of its own — of the “at least things aren’t that bad for me” variety. But they can also be therapeutic, a way for the viewer to work through some very complex emotions through the safety of a screen.
I emphasized that one area: “at least things aren’t that bad for me”, the reason Jerry Springer still has a talk show. If this is your thing, that’s fine. But what about those of us who aren’t into this? Where are our shows without having to go old TV shows. It’s like “hey, life isn’t so bad” stopped at the turn of the century. Do we blame the Y2K bug? And since these last two Presidents have been so divisive (people think Obama was the second coming and Trump the anti-Christ, or for others the reverse is true when they’re just people who made decisions you agreed with or didn’t) the only thing these shows do is preach to the choir. If you sing for a different choir you get told what a horrible piece of garbage you are, you get hit with more negativity about how bad the world is, and there is no counterpoint for these shows, no shows in the current line-up that doesn’t focus on the darker side of humanity without any real showing of the good humans can be and do, or how even good things can come from bad. It’s all “the world sucks and you suck for not agreeing with us and wanting to not hear about how bad the world sucks”. It may be intended to be a cautionary tale but when a semi-comedy like The Orville actually shows us being better as a majority rather than the small group of heroes who by nature of writing agrees wholeheartedly with the writer the best you can hope for is that the caution isn’t written on the sledgehammer you’re about to be hit with.
Audience members fortunate enough not to have to face such hardships themselves (the writer refers to “issues of race, class, drugs and gang violence in predominantly African-American communities”) can certainly expand their world views by watching reel lives deal with them — even if what they learn is “just” compassion.
Good, show that light, but also show those people who have escaped those hardships. What about a black person who escaped the ghetto and started a successful career beyond gangster rap? What about an interracial marriage in a positive light? Advertisements have been doing a better job than Hollywood at this. And they’re trying to sell cereal, laundry detergent, cell phone plans for senior citizens, and Crohn’s medication. What about a group of people to whom “class” is meaningless and they’re still friends? You might see that on a kids show if you’re lucky but usually it’s “rich people are evil except for Ritchie Rich and Bruce Wayne”. How about making less stoner comedies and more characters who turn drugs down? Have I really written anything that can’t be made into good drama rather than falling on the old cliches?
The more an audience goes through with characters, the more connected they feel, the more invested they are, and the more parallels they are likely to draw to their own lives and the world around them. And then the future should look a whole lot brighter.
I’d like to see what a brighter future looks like. Instead all we can look at is how bad the world is. That doesn’t breed improvement. It breeds giving up. I’m not advocating less darker stories. I’m advocating more brighter stories to go along with it, work off the darker stories to show HOW we avoid that by showing how THEY avoided that. You already have stuff to point at for what to avoid. Now show us what to do. That’s why The Orville is getting more fan love from Trekkies than Star Trek. Those of them wasting money on exclusive streaming services anyway.