Getting to “yes”: Redefining “big” stakes in modern television

The best and worst thing about having years of thoughts about television easily searchable online is that anyone can point to two statements that seemingly contradict one another and exclaim, “Aha! Hypocrite! Turn in your critic’s badge at the door and henceforth be gone from Al Gore’s interwebs!” Which is, of course, silly. There’s no such thing as a critic’s badge. There IS a critic’s pin, which is fashioned in the shape of a monocle, but that’s something else altogether.

The point is that what makes me happy about television shows now is vastly different than when I started seriously taking the medium seriously a decade ago, and pointing out contrasting viewpoints between then and now isn’t an accusation so much as a compliment. If they WERE exactly the same…that would be really weird, right? That wouldn’t suggest a consistent point of view but rather a rigid adherence to a certain prism through which to view television programs. It also denies the subjectivity that is inherent in all critical analysis. While there are formal, impartial elements to the job of a critic which should indeed be separated from one’s one personal perspective, subjectivity isn’t a negative but rather a positive when it comes to a critic’s ultimate output. If the reader doesn’t know the critic, then the criticism itself is ineffective at best and crippled at worst.

All of this is a way to say that ten years after starting to look at the medium anew in the wake of the premiere of “Lost,” I’m more than ever for a show to look at the world around us and say “yes” rather than “no” after looking at the challenges it presents.

That’s an insanely vague way to frame my current predilections, but it’s also the most encompassing way to help verify why I have certain shows in certain mental buckets at this point. It also helps me to sidestep the elusive nature of “quality TV” in favor of programs that espouse a certain worldview that nourishes me rather than drains me. If you look at the last entry written on this blog, it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything here. That’s not for lack of time, although that’s certainly part of it. But it’s primarily due to lack of inspiration: I jot things down here when absolutely, positively pressed to do so, and the dark underpinnings of most major dramas right now discourage such inspiration.

hannibal_key-art_table_940×529_full11.pngIt’s hard to motivate myself to write about “Hannibal,” for instance, since it’s both a brilliant show and one of the most miserable viewing experiences I’ve ever put myself through. It’s unbearably fetishistic, and its celebration of life via the show’s dioramas of death resonates intellectually but never emotionally. It’s a program whose current long con may result in the capture of a serial killer but doesn’t have anything particularly positive to say about what it means to actually live in the world. I’ve read essay after essay that extol Bryan Fuller’s ability to create beauty through staged mutilation, and I can understand those arguments without being moved by them. The show operates at a certain frequency, and it’s a hauntingly beautiful melody for some. For me, it’s the best visual entry into the macabre world that the majority of dramas on television currently inhabit.

Likewise, even before the controversial rape scene in the third episode of this season of “Game Of Thrones,” I teetered on the edge of recognizing the show’s many virtues and abandoning the endeavor altogether. The show rightly points out that people can and do horrible things to one another. But the precision and authenticity with which the show often portrays these injustices does not automatically mean that I want to keep watching new variations on this theme until winter comes and goes. I just don’t have enough time or energy in my life to dedicate to a show that keeps portraying the worst of people at the expense of their best. The two storylines I could latch onto early on were both aspirational: Both Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen look at the world around them and look to fight the almost overwhelming tide of inertia and affect at least some modicum of change. And maybe eventually, they and others will. But there’s so little sign of hope right now that sticking with it until that undetermined day seems like a fool’s errand.

To be clear, what I’m interested in now are not shows devoid of stakes. I’m interested in shows that present problems (large or small) in a realistic manner while offering up avenues for characters, and thus the world, to improve in some tangible manner. My two favorite shows of last year, “Orange Is The New Black” and “Enlightened,” both put their characters through the ringer but almost always towards some new place that was better than the old way. Neither show pulled punches, and neither show magically wiped away the obstacles that might exist for these people later on. But both were keenly concerned with people who looked into the face of despair and chose to fight rather than surrender, to rise up rather than sink below, to choose to live instead of waiting to die.

review-with-forrest-macneil-review-comedy-central.jpgOne show that just ended, Comedy Central’s “Review,” and one about to return, FX’s “Louie,” handle this same topic is differing ways. “Review” will be on my year-end best of list, barring some unforeseen circumstances I can’t presently fathom. And a great deal of why it will be there isn’t just because it was one of the funniest shows on TV thus far in 2014, but also because it was often genuinely dramatic and ultimately saw its protagonist Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) break free from the show-within-a-show that had gradually stripped everything away from him during the nine-episode scene. His final moments are incredibly cathartic, and suggest the psychological torture chamber of the in-world show actually has an escape hatch. Once Forrest literally runs through that door, he transforms from an observer of the world to a citizen of the world.

In the upcoming season of “Louie,” comedian/writer/director/editor/choreographer/point guard Louis C.K. once again uses the show’s malleable format to look at the world around him to not ask, “Why?”, but rather, “Why not?” It’s an incredible curious show driven by an incredibly inquisitive mind, one that understands that it doesn’t understand everything but wants to learn at least a little more each day. Some people ask lots of questions out of sheer laziness, stemming from a lack of imagination and/or effort. These are the people for whom typing in something into Google would be too much of a bother. “Louie,” and Louie, asks questions due to genuine curiosity about how others think, and rather than imposing its viewpoint on them, allows these disparate voices to have an equal say at the table. Even the camerawork on “Louie” seems intensely curious, framing things in such a way as to almost say, “Can you believe what’s in-frame? Isn’t this just INTERESTING?” The overall effect is that the voice of one single man transforms into a kaleidoscope of perspectives, each one with something interesting to say.

Both “Review” and “Louie” find the world worthy of embracing, as difficult as that embrace can be. No one on television knows how hard it can be to reach out than Don Draper, but that’s exactly what he’s doing (albeit in tentative steps) on this final season of “Mad Men.” The fact that “Mad Men” is turning towards the light in its final 14 episodes is one of the most satisfying things about television this season. It could have gone anywhere, especially since the show doesn’t have an overt signpost in the way that shows such as “Breaking Bad” or “Spartacus” did. It could have sent Don all the way to the bottom over its last season. Instead, without suggesting he’ll have a “happy” ending (since I don’t think it will be remotely that pat, and nothing he does now completely erases what he has done before), it’s nevertheless arrived at a point in which Don doesn’t float through life but rather engages in the messier, but more rewarding, act of actually engaging with it.

Forrest, Louie, and Don all initially desire to shape the world by their own rules, only to find those rules actually prevent them from doing anything but observing that world from a distance. They might understand the steps it takes to become a participant, but knowing them and executing them are two different things altogether. If these shows only staged scenes of near-misses, they would be nigh unwatchable. They would be all tension and no release. Instead, we see Forrest running into the night away from the cameras. We see Louie’s attempts to land out David Letterman’s job. We see Don finally letting Sally see her father for the first time. None of these acts solve anything in a permanent fashion. But these acts turn “no” into “yes” in thrilling fashion, even if the stakes aren’t “big.”

But know what? Fuck that. Those stakes could NOT be higher, and it’s time to push back against what “big” and “small” stakes truly are on television. Both those making television and those watching it usually associate “big” stakes with literal life-or-death situations, as if a show can only have big stakes if a building is about to explode. Watch scenes involving any characters on “Friday Night Lights” (crazy murder plot in season two excepted) and tell me those stakes portrayed onscreen aren’t big for those involved with those storylines. Getting a college scholarship is not nothing. Saving a marriage is not nothing. Helping someone realize their potential is not nothing.

These are not small things but the biggest things most of us will ever face, and celebrating shows that tell these small-scale stories is vital to the health of the medium as well as the health of our personal sanity. There is and will always be a place on television to reflect our darkest impulses, our greatest shortcomings, and our more-than-occasional failures. But that can’t be all it reflects. If that’s all it does, than it’s The Anti-Life Equation measured by the 18-49 demo it pulls. And I just don’t want any part of that. I’m tired of shows that offer me “no” and nothing more. I’ve heard it too many times at this point. Message received, loud and clear. I don’t need to hear it again. For now, I’m saying “yes” to more shows that say yes to life.