Why shows that break your heart are the most important ones to watch

If you watch enough TV, then it will inevitably break your heart. Maybe a show you love will kill off a character, or maybe it will go completely off the rails and lose any of the charm you once found in it. Or, as in the potential case of a show like “Enlisted,” not enough people will love the same thing you do, forcing the business side of the industry to step in and take that show prematurely off the air. All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again. And all of this is perfectly fine and healthy.

Look, by all accounts, “Enlisted” will come back at some point in the nearish future and air the four eps that will be left after tonight’s final Friday airing. Those four episodes may or may not air. A second season may or may not happen. I want the former to happen in both of those scenarios, because I selfishly want to watch more of this show. But just because I may not get more doesn’t take away from what I’ve already gotten, which is nine episodes of my favorite comedy of this past television season. Falling in love with a show means you’re opening yourself up for yourself to get hurt. But I’d rather have that hurt than idly watch a bunch of shows that pass through me like ghosts in the night.

la-et-st-fridays-tv-highlightsenlisted-on-fox-001.jpegAll of this is a way of saying that getting hurt is part of the process, but ideally, getting hurt by a television show or a television network isn’t like getting hurt in love or life. For those making it? Sure, the two can feel like one and the same in this scenario. I never take it personally if a show sucks, but I understand COMPLETELY why someone working on that show might if they read a scathing review or a dismissive tweet. As antagonistic as some showrunners can be when confronted with criticism, I always view those rebuttals as healthy. If THEY don’t care, why the hell should ANYONE care?

The point is that it seems healthy to fall in love with a television show so much as one foot always stays in reality. The super intense side of the ‘shipper world probably doesn’t fall under this category, nor do the super-obsessive codebreakers that group around shows like “True Detective.” That’s not the type of love I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about people who derive pleasure from rooting for certain couples to get together, or enjoy theorizing about the mysteries in certain programs. I’m talking about all-consuming obsession, and obsessing over a piece of pop culture to that extent seems tailor-made for producing either delusional euphoria or incurable pain. Neither seems particularly fun to experience, even if those engaged in this way might tell you only THEY really understand the show in question.

Falling in love with a show can be fun, but it’s also predicated on a fundamentally one-way relationship. If I fall in love with a show, it’s because a downright miraculous set of circumstances occurred in which my predilections, passions, and station in life someone intersect with something created and executed by people I don’t know who absolutely did not have me in mind when they set out to make the show. It’s fucking WEIRD, is what I’m saying, and so I’m always tickled, delighted, and amused when such a connection is forged. It’s happened only a few times in the past few years, starting with “Lost” (which carried through the entire run) then eventually “Fringe” (although that basically ended with the end of season three), followed by “Terriers” (a one-and-done season show that broke my heart into pieces even while it aired) and “Spartacus” (a show destined to be found by people that WON’T BELIEVE no one told them about it), and now onto “Enlisted.”

t1largterriers.jpgThose shows are all in my DNA, and will continue to be in my DNA. If I had to draw a through line between them all, they all feature ordinary people crippled with doubt who often surprise themselves when they rise to the occasion. They fear connection because they fear opening themselves up to others, which then opens them up to be hurt by others. I am not going to try and fully equate Jack Shephard, Walter Bishop, and Pete Hill, because that’s madness and does all three a disservice. But all these shows concern engagement with a larger community, and the type of legacy people want to live after they have departed. None of these shows are particularly religious, but they all have elements of spirituality and morality. They all ask one question: “What makes life meaningful?”

A quick side-bar, though I swear it’s kind of the point as well: I keep most of my books in boxes in the basement. There just isn’t a lot of room for them in the house, and if I need to find one, it’s only a few steps away. But I keep a copy of “High Fidelity” in my office, one that I re-read after each break-up in my twenties. Each time I’d underline passages that were meaningful to me at that time. And each pass featured an almost completely different set of underlined passages. The text stayed the same, but the meaning kept shifting. And what’s great about the five shows listed above is how they tackled the same theme over the course of a decade of my life, which didn’t necessarily transform the individual messages transmitted by the show but sure as hell changed the frequency with which I was tuned into that message.

All of that’s a way to say that I’m not sure how 2004 me would feel about “Enlisted,” but probably what I respond to about the show is that 2004 Kevin Biegel wouldn’t have written “Enlisted.” He had to go through some stuff in order to get both the perspective and the courage and the will to tell the types of storied deeply embedded within the nominally silly world of the show. He didn’t have to tell such a personal story in this, his first role as sole creator. But rather than put off that story for later, he went for broke and told it as soon as anyone would let him do it. And that urgency lends the show a life-affirming quality, even if Pete Hill still feels the spectre of death just outside of his peripheral vision. It’s a show that engages with the world rather than shuns it, making Randy’s joy at every aspect of army life amusing but also important. These shows all reject cynicism even while recognizing its ease and allure. But even if the James Fords and the Derrick Hills and the Gannicuses of these shows convey an overall air of aloofness, they all ultimately side with those willing to be part of the world rather than stand apart from it.

And that’s why loving these shows is always a bonus for me, even if they are cut short like “Terriers” and “Enlisted.” Even “Fringe,” while dropped the ball so badly in its final few seasons that it was almost comical, still holds a firm place in my heart. Those first three seasons featured some of the trippiest, most audacious stories anywhere on any channel, but it was ultimately about a makeshift family forging itself in the crucible of the universe’s fundamentally funky flow. “Lost” had smoke monsters and time travel, but was really about a post-9/11 world citizenry trying to find commonality in a seemingly hopeless world. “Terriers” was about rising up to potential rather than living down to external expectation. “Spartacus” posited that actions in life ripple outwards into eternity, making each moral decision one that echoed throughout history. “Enlisted” suggests that being a lone wolf isn’t nearly as meaningful as feeling someone’s hand on your head. They all recognize how hard life is, and embrace it anyways. These are life lessons disguised as entertainments. They tell me great stories that stand on their own and point towards how I might use them to make my own life a story worth retelling someday.

So that’s why I embrace these shows, and why I have embraced “Enlisted,” and don’t for a second think I made a wrong choice to fall in love with a show that no one else watched. That hasn’t been my problem. That has been my damn privilege.