Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The rise of MISERY PORN

A conversation with a friend today about Six Feet Under and thinking about how the third season of Rescue Me is about to begin in a matter of weeks led me to some thoughts about what made Six Feet Under such a slog and what threatens to undermine Rescue Me: misery porn.

Don't get me wrong. A little misery porn is a GOOD THING. It keeps things interesting. And bad things happening to people is almost always more fun to watch than good things happening to people (within reason. . .I can't imagine I would derive much pleasure from watching Mr. Burns crush the head of Santa's Little Helper underneath his boot while Bart weeps behind him. . .though I suppose he would have to have Smithers do it for him). And, as with any work of narrative, if you put your hero through some real travails before he emerges at the end, perhaps not HAPPIER, but WISER or BETTER ABLE TO COPE or something, it makes the ending feel that much more earned. If our hero just gets everything he wants handed to him on a silver platter, a happy ending feels like a cheat.

But television, especially American, open-ended television, is such a fluid thing that at some point you're going to reach a tipping point. What, exactly, will be the thing that seems like it's TOO MUCH, that makes it seem like the hero should have killed himself long ago?

But bad things happening to your hero isn't NECESSARILY misery porn. If bad things happen for a REASON, that's good drama. If bad things just. . .happen. . .to show that the world can be a real cesspool, THAT's misery porn. Tony Soprano being shot in the gut by his demented uncle is ironic, good drama. David Fisher being randomly abducted by a man and forced through a hellish night. . .THAT's misery porn.

Do you see what I'm driving at? Misery porn is like real porn. It's supposed to seem like a come-on (oftentimes, it will seem like a soap opera plotting tactic), but it usually feels sort of seedy and desperate, as though the writers were backed into a corner. Misery porn is also always, ALWAYS gratuitous.

The worst thing is that misery porn is often mistaken (especially by its creators) for profundity. "This is the way the world works," they'll often seem to say. "Life is just one damn thing after another."

Well. Yes. It is. But some of those damn things are good. And some of them are bad, but we find glimmers of hope in them. I realize people are more depressed and alienated than ever, but if we didn't find SOME hope in our conditions, we'd all have SHOT each other long ago.

But like any trick in a writer's arsenal, misery porn CAN be effective. It depends on how you build it into the story. The question is. . .can you EARN it?

Let's look at one of my favorite shows ever, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy could be a pretty grim show, but for the sake of this argument, I've picked out two instances that were flirting with misery porn. One, I think, worked. The other, I think, did not.

In season five, Buffy's mother died. Now, on the show, recurring characters had been killed before. Regular characters had left. But these sorts of things always grew out of a need to show the villain as a real threat or a need for character development or a need to push a relationship to places it hadn't been before. The death of Buffy's mother, on the other hand, was COMPLETELY gratuitous. She didn't HAVE to die. But the writers of the show made that the WHOLE point of the episode. Her sudden, unexpected death at the hands of a natural anomaly became a chance for them to examine just how tenuous life really is. Not exactly a new theme, but they did it well. And they played it out over several episodes AND used the death to reinforce Buffy's standing as the head of a motley family. In other words, what COULD have been misery porn became earned and felt vital to the show's success.

In season six, Xander and Anya were going to get married. The writers had TRIED to drop hints that the two were having doubts, but they were scattered so sparsely throughout the season that the doubts felt like normal, pre-wedding jitters. In addition, the two actors had good, "old married couple" chemistry. But in the wedding episode, the show resorted to splitting them up over suddenly expressed REAL doubts about the future of the marriage from Xander (there was a demon involved. . .ah, let's not get into it). An attempt was made to say that this tied in to the larger theme of being in your 20s and doing stupid things, but isn't it MORE likely that two crazy 20somethings would GET married and then find their marriage sucked? I think so.

The worst part about the whole thing was that it felt like an attempt to get back to the status quo. Buffy was NEVER about sticking to a status quo. Characters grew and changed. But, for some reason, a marriage was off-limits.

Plus, it came in the middle of a season that was CONSTANTLY flirting with misery porn. When this twist didn't seem as well-executed as many, it pushed the show over the edge for quite a few. In general, I'm a season six defender (I think it has a lot to say about trying to find your place in your early 20s), but I think the Xander/Anya wedding subplot could have been tied into the theme of the show much better.

Did the writers set out to say, "Oh life sucks. Happiness is completely elusive." I doubt it. But that became the message of the show. And it's a message few would want to embrace.

To return to the start of this post, Rescue Me has, I think, found a pretty good way to avoid falling TOO deeply into misery porn. Its dark, dark humor provides a sort of valve that the writers can open to let off some of the pressure. But if this season closes with a set of episodes as unrelentingly grim as the ones that closed last season (in which something huge and horribly bad happened to EVERY character), I just might bail.

2 comments:

Daniel said...

I think that it's pretty oBvious that Rescue Me is already there. I doubt it would be like that every episode or anything--but it is clear that the writers equate good drama with horrible events. They've latched onto it at this point. Which is unfortunate because this is one of the most sharply written shows on TV. It almost seems like they've just become lazy and taken the easy road. I fear it will only get worse from here.

Edward Copeland said...

I like Rescue Me a lot, but toward the end of last season they did begin to turn Tommy into a new version of Andy Sipowicz. At some point, you have to ask how much misfortune can befall one character. Hopefully this season they'll return to a more balanced mix of the humorous and the dramatic.