Sunday, April 17, 2005

Kill Your Cultural Snobbery

I like TV. There! I said it. When I am tired of studying or writing or running around or whatever it is I'm doing, I like to watch. I don't think it inhibits my ability to create. On the contrary, there are plenty of shows that have helped me understand storytelling on a deeper level, and helped shape my personal storytelling aesthetic. The Monkees, for one. Sesame Street and Scooby-Doo were a couple more, early on. Certainly I've watched a fair amount of garbage in my life (CHiPs comes to mind), but selective TV-watching (with the help of Netflix for the cable-impaired) has really taught me a lot about story and character arcs and how, when things are working right, they mesh together into one graceful continuum.

I remember well how Bryan Cholfin's guidelines for Crank! used to exhort submitters to kill their televisions, that it would destroy their ability to tell a story, etc. And I'll grant that perhaps my attention span has suffered from my viewing habits. I have little patience for extended debate on any subject. I start to fidget after about 45 minutes of class. It's likely that too much of my brain space is taken up with memories of St. Elsewhere (which needs to come out on DVD, dammit). But overall, I think I've come out ahead.

I came across a meme on favorite TV shows, asking participants to post a list of 10 favorite shows and characters, and a reason why the characters are favorites. I was thinking about it and I realized that my favorite characters share some interesting traits.

The list:

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Willow
2. Angel - Wesley
3. Farscape - Aeryn Sun
4. Twin Peaks - FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper
5. Homicide: Life on the Street - Detective Meldrick Lewis
6. Oz - Kareem Said
7. Lost - Sayid
8. Popular - Mary Cherry
9. Xena: Warrior Princess - Xena
10. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Captain Benjamin Sisko

It's too difficult to pick out a favorite on The Sopranos, because so few of the characters are actually very likeable. I would almost say Paulie, because Paulie is funny, but he's also a mean fucking bastard with a propensity to murder people for no reason. Ditto Silvio, who's one of the more level-headed characters but also a cold-blooded killer.

No reality shows; although there's plenty of drama and some great characters on the Amazing Race or Survivor, there is no plot, just editing.

The analysis:

Six of the above have committed murder. Two of them solve murders. There are six men and four women on the list; the murderers are equally distributed among each gender, while the crime-solvers are both men. Of the men, two are white, three are black, and one is Iraqi. The women are all portrayed by white actresses (although one is an alien) and all but one have at least implied lesbian tendencies. Four are based on the west coast, two on the east, one on a living ship, one on an island of unknown location, one on a space station near Bajor and one in Ancient Greece.

What characteristics do they share? The primary one is that they are driven, often to the point of madness; they have goals, in other words, and they pursue them with greater or lesser degrees of ruthlessness. Willow, Wesley, Cooper, Meldrick, Xena, and Sisko are your basic Defenders of Good, with agendas colored by their affiliations and backgrounds. Cooper, Meldrick and Sisko, for example, are sanctioned by a state or other organization. Cooper is also endearingly nuts (perhaps); I'll never forget the first time I saw him start telling Sheriff Truman, Andy, Hawk, and Lucy about his Tibetan meditation approach to solving Laura Palmer's murder. That, and his gleeful appreciation of everything from Douglas Firs to "damn fine coffee," gives added dimension to a character who has a better handle on what's going on in the woods than anyone else will ever have, including David Lynch. Meldrick is probably the most "normal" person on this list, but it is his commitment to his own moral code which makes him a particular favorite. He sees his profession as a calling, not just a job. That, his humor, his hat, and the simple Meldrick-ness of him, make him a standout on a show full of great personalities. Out in space, Sisko is also driven by a strong sense of justice, but he's a little crazier than Meldrick. He's by far the most whacked-out of all the leads of the various Star Trek shows, a far cry from the genteel Picard (he was created as a foil to Locutus, after all) and even more unpredictable than Kirk. Plus, he likes baseball, so that's another point.

Willow, Wesley, and Xena are free agents in the Battle Against Evil, and the level of obsession that requires is what I find appealing. Willow's motivations are never deeply explored, but her rise from adorable nerd to bad-ass Wicca is meteoric and disturbing. I do think the power-drunk Willow storyline of Season Six is a weak point of the series, mainly because of the aforementioned motivation; in the absence of deeper analysis, Willow's moral code would appear to be the reason for her deep commitment to fighting evil--indeed, she often served as the moral center of the show in its early seasons. When she tosses this aside to seek revenge for her lover's death, the characterization crumbles. Wesley, on the other hand, has the sort of Deep Darkness in his past which makes for interesting characterization; true, the DD is eventually ascribed to (yawn) "Daddy Issues" which are left mercifully unplumbed, but in the uber-darkness of Season 4 Angel, Wesley shines as a man committed to fighting on without either friends or job satisfaction. His transformation from clueless milqutoast to stubbly dark knight is one of the more triumphant arcs of the Whedonverse, and Alexis Denisof does a wonderful job with it.

Xena is another character with a lot of darkness in her past; aside from Angel himself, she's probably the only mass-murdering character to have her own TV show. As a warlord Xena slaughtered thousands; in the series, she's trying to atone for that by fighting for good, but the darkness is never far behind. Sometimes it's personified, in characters like Callisto, the lone and insane survivor of one of Xena's raids. At other times it's more subtle--say, in the glee with which Xena approaches the inevitable violence. She enjoys kicking ass, and that's part of her problem. She's an addict, and even though she gets her fix by helping people, there's always a bit of doubt in the viewer's mind as to whether she might not flip back to the darkness again. Xena is very different from Aeryn Sun in this respect. Aeryn isn't addicted to violence, but it's all she's ever known. Once she sees that there are alternatives, she begins to wish to leave it behind--but the violence always finds her, and she is more than willing to fight back. She's a darker character than Xena in this respect--she takes no joy in killing, yet she does it repeatedly, to defend herself and the ones she loves. She does good, but more often than not it's incidental to her action, and not the intent (although her intentions are rarely evil, either). She fears that violence is her birthright and she will never escape it. But this fear is her own, and she doesn't care to share it with anyone, not even Crichton. She's every bit as scary as Ogami Itto, because once she's expelled by the Peacekeepers the only counsel she keeps is in her own head, and you never know when she might decide to cut loose anyone around her.

This leaves a prisoner, a castaway, and a high school student. Kareem Said serves as a fascinating examination of a man of deep faith, a man who teaches and exhorts but also fears and questions. He lives in a place where violence and degradation are the norm, and yet most of the time he manages to rise above it all, even to rise above the correctional system itself and make a political impact. Yet he feels his failures deeply, and is not content. He wants to effect deep and lasting change, but this lofty goal constantly conflicts with his need to be humble before his god. The other Sayid on my list is more of a cipher, and he may not stand out as my favorite character in the long run; there's enough going on on "Lost" that his status could change at any moment. But I like that he's not just slid into the "Professor" role of the castaways; he's a destroyer as well as a creator, a man trained to torture and break down humans as well as to repair and build machines. I'm not sure what I think about the Sayid/Shannon relationship, but I like that he has ghosts that he's trying to outrun. I doubt he will.

Finally, there's the odd character out here, the fabulous Mary Cherry from the highly underrated "Popular." Initially not much more than a wealthy girl who bought herself onto the cheerleading squad, by the end of Season 1 Mary Cherry had grown into an outlandish figure with a purposely exaggerated Southern accent, a purse which regularly produced items such as shovels and poison darts, and a tendency to score as "Serial Killer" on aptitude tests. Played with a genius bordering on madness by the mega-talented Leslie Grossman, Mary Cherry was obsessed with her own social status and the elusive approval of her mama (Cherry Cherry, played by Delta Burke). Both seasons of Popular are out on DVD now, and I guarantee you've never seen anything like Mary Cherry full-throttle.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. "Our Lady of the Underpass" would make a great title for an urban fantasy short.

2. I was reading a panel report the other day, one with Richard Matheson saying that he gets his ideas from movies. Bad movies! From sitting there and playing with bits and pieces of the story to come up with something new. And I thought, "Take that, ye anti-tv snobs!"

3. Sayid? I shake my head in your general direction. Or I would if I was standing on the moral high ground rather than down in a hole.

- Hannah

2:33 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

1. You may be right; but I have a vague feeling that the construction has already been used somewhere.

2. I also saw something--was it just on BoingBoing?--saying that most TV actually requires more intelligence than some other media, because of the complexity of shows like 24 (which I can't watch anymore due to the bull*%&$ factor) which require the viewer to make connections without getting all the information first.

3. Well, who's your favorite? The dead boy with the eyes?

10:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. You're probably be right. It would also make a great name for a rock band, but similar has definitely been used.

2. Was it the thing from the NY Times? This: Good article. I was going to post about it, but apparently I've watched too much tv and can't focus long enough to do so.

3. By now, the dead boy probably has no more eyes! Nah. He was eyecandy indeed, but Hurley's my favorite. After that, maybe Locke? Sayid is interesting--I liked his in-the-woods-with-crazy-Frenchwoman ep--but is somehow tangled up with Jack, in my brain.

- H

3:55 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

1. Definitely a bad alt-band meme, yes. But it also sounds to me like a TTA story, one that's already been written. Perhaps not.

2. Good article.

3. Locke is too easy. Hurley I like, but I don't see him making lots of tough choices. I think Sayid is going to be put through his paces.

1:17 AM  

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