So, now I’m philosophical. I haven’t actually written anything down for a long time. Ideas come and go, but I am too busy to cup them in my hand long enough to pour them into words. Today, I decided to try to hold still long enough to do it. I’m terrified of boring you to death. But I don’t know if what I think makes any sense at all unless somebody tells me it does. Or doesn’t. Ensuit – voila.
I like the idea of television; I’m a storyteller who loves to be told stories. Here, there are a number of things I could say – questions about how many stories can be told in the world before we’re doing nothing but repeating ourselves. About how money and politics over-shadow storytelling constantly in the media. Whatever. I think I’m a little miffed this morning because I keep going to the well in hope of finding refreshment only to come away dry almost every time. There just aren’t that many stories in the Magic TV Box that are worth the time it takes to watch them. Even documentary stuff – because the styling has changed; you don’t just get interesting info – now you’re bombarded with this unbroken underscore of INTENSE synthesizer music. So glad I can be sure that lectures about cuttlefish or South American amoebas will have plenty of edge and tension so I won’t get bored.
I suppose, if you’re into certain aspects of earth life, like you’re a real sex fan, or you like explosions, or you get happy watching really intense, narcissistic people being clever, there’s a lot of programming out there for you. Or murder. Heck, plenty of that. Which is what set me off this morning.
How many murder mystery shows are there on the rotation any given night? And they’re all the same: you get the quirky crew rushing to the scene of the brutal murder (what is murder, by the way, if not brutal?) which you get to see in detail on screen for a good couple of minutes—all the gore and blood and unnaturally positioned bodies. Gee, I love that. Then, finally, they get to the process, which – according to a detective I know – isn’t close to what really goes on in most investigations.
I really like the problem solving part. And I’ll admit I like NCIS – not for the murders. I don’t care about the crime part. I like the problem solving part. And I’m engaged with the characters. And it’s one show that hasn’t succumbed to the tradition of a constant barrage of irresponsible sex and the new, hip trend of inserting foul language in dialogue. But the MURDER – why does the problem solving always have to be about murder? It wears me out. So I was trying to that figure out this morning—why are so many of the tales we now tell around the campfire about murder?
Well, I have a theory about that.
Stories have always been about conflict. About taming fear. About settling the universe’s accounts. And traditionally, they’ve been about passing values and information from one generation to another within a culture—about the cohesiveness and survival of groups of people. The teaching vector is about engagement – through fascination, and sometimes through judicious use of inspired fear.
TV is about return audience and money.
Add to that, the tenor of our times—largely about desperate efforts not to offend the offendable (and who is not one of those? Which means we have to make sure everybody is stroked).
Maybe – just maybe – murder is the only moral point we can all agree on.
Maybe you can’t tell a story about anything else anymore.
There are lawyer shows that get around this by semi-wrestling with ethical questions, and some of them are good at doing that.
But we’ve got some fundamental problems here: if you want a straight-ahead story – conflict and triumph – it has to be built around basic moral assumptions. In the past, cultures grew up and held together by the strength of their shared moral assumptions. Their narratives were based on these shared moral assumptions.
But that is not now.
We are too connected for that now. Once upon a time, there were clear enemies: enemies of society, monsters in the dark, evil countries, evil human types. We could believe in them because they lived somewhere else—maybe as close as the house next door, maybe across the planet—made invisible to us because of walls and doors and mountain ranges and oceans.
With Star Trek, it was Klingons. We could really hate those guys. There was nothing sympathetic about them—not the way they looked or dress or spoke or behaved themselves. Until the show began to take on substance. Then suddenly, there was a beloved and sympathetic Klingon on the bridge. So we had to have Romulans—safe because they were based on a slight resemblance to an ancient, aggressive, vanished culture. Then we had to go to non-humanoids, and even that petered out on us.
Who do we have left to hate? And what behaviors are left that can be universally haled as reprehensible – so we can tell stories with strong villains and monsters, vanquish them with relish, push them out the airlock with a feeling of innocent and good-hearted relief?
There are plenty of people who complain about the internet, who are secretly terrified of this sudden new connectedness in the world. We don’t just live in neighborhoods anymore where people are hidden behind doors and walls. Now, we see each other because the windows have been thrown wide open. Some people will never feel comfortable being that exposed, or having other people literally expose themselves the way we do now.
Add to that the fact that media (which I must assume we can all agree cannot be trusted to be truthful, even the confusion of life’s complexity aside) isn’t allowed to tint characters with any of the old patinas.
I watch The Good Wife. It’s not an easy story, and there are things in it I hate. But the wrestling with questions has an honesty to it, a sort of tragic truth, that makes me think. The characters are not simple; there are qualities about almost all of them that engage me, allowing me to invest something in the on-going story. But each character walks in shade, making choices I cannot love. As I think about this, I know that I also walk in shade of my own making; my moral code is clear, but my application gets muddled. So many extenuating circumstances. So little logical order in real life.
How odd it is that the sun beats down on us all without partiality, but the shade we walk in is different for each of us. I suppose that has to do with the angle we strike, relative to the sun. And there is always that confusing added complexity of clouds.
So how do you tell a story now, when we see this truth: that sympathy can, if we are honest, be found for almost every person on the planet? That if Facebook were available to every human being in every country, we would find someone loveable and admirable in every one of them? When for every sin, there is a sinner with a true story that can explain at least portion of the terrible choices? When those who take Christ as a standard realize that casting stones means picking up and stone and throwing it at somebody?
And yet – there must be stories to tell.
Maybe our present stories would still have substance if we were wise enough to look impartially at life and see that, whether it’s comfortable or not, a certain set of behaviors often bring about a certain set of consequences. Even the very personal behaviors that so many think “shouldn’t matter” to anyone else. Based on defendable statistics, shouldn’t we be able to build wise and complex stories that are true? That could actual contain wisdom?
Stories like that would demand complex characters. And the writing would have to be controlled and insightful, if the truth and the wisdom were to be maintained.
This kind of story would not be the fairy tales we favor now, where any choice brings about a good consequence for a sympathetic character because somehow, by virtue of being alive, we all deserve a happy ending. Because we all want what we want, and never should be injured or ruined by our choices. This, I think, is the Achilles’ heel of this culture – the inability to understand that happy endings are not universal. The inability to understand that what is “good” is not equivalent with what we want. Our fantasy narratives don’t pass anything of substance along. What they do is reinforce the dangerous childishness of our cultures.
So I don’t know. Maybe we’re stuck with murder mysteries for a while. Really ugly ones, so we’re absolutely sure we want the person caught and brought to justice. So we’re absolutely sure that the conflict in the story is based on something that can safely be judged as bad and evil.
So that’s all I got. Now what do YOU think?