Love, Lust, Life, Loss … and TV

Years ago, during a signature-karaoke-song email thread, the ever-sensible PPQ nixed the idea of me adopting Iris as one of my three go-to selections. As I recall, she opined that lyrics suggesting that “yeah you bleed just to know you’re alive” were pretty much the domain of frat boys who wanted to sound sensitive so they could get laid after the party. Luckily for me, at that point I wasn’t acquainted with Hinder, so I may have been inadvertently spared the full flowering of PPQ’s divine wrath that would have followed a selection even worse than Goo Goo Dolls. (Seriously. Most of Hinder’s ballads feature lyrics that read like bad love poetry from an angsty high-school sophomore boy with self-esteem issues. Better Than Me; QED.)

Anyway. Tonight, as I was washing dishes, my mind wandered to the latest TV show in my Netflix queue — The Vampire Diaries. I’m just getting into the third season; the fourth season is currently airing. TL;DR version is that it’s a CW series in the “teen drama” and “supernatural” category, so you’re guaranteed lots of intense but superficial emotion, copious amounts of PG-rated skin and sometimes byzantine subplots driven by teenage impulsiveness within the season’s story arc. And there are vampires, werewolves and witches. But I like it, just like I enjoy Supernatural, the last series I watched.

As I thought about the latest episode I watched and after PPQ’s injunction popped into mind, I asked myself why I like this particular TV genre. Some of it is technical, of course. Supernatural did a great job of character development over the last seven seasons — just compare Sam from the pilot to Sam of today to respect the smooth way actor Jared Padalecki grew the character — with a series of ever-more-complex story arcs that provided just the right balance of plot twists with overt humor and frequent good-natured violations of the fifth wall. The Vampire Diaries features an astonishingly good actress in Nina Dobrev, who pulls off some really subtle performances as Elena/Katherine, coupled with the deft work of actor Ian Somerhalder in portraying the gradual re-engineering of his character Damon.

But there’s something more afoot, too, and I think it has to do with the raw, obvious emotion in these shows.

In bygone days, people escaped to popular entertainment — novels, operas, music, plays, motion pictures — as a defense mechanism of sorts. Sure, your life sucked, but you could temporarily decamp into a fictional world as a way of finding solace from the day’s worries. When a favorite character in a novel grieved over a death, you grieved too, because odds were good that you had experienced the death of a loved one and could relate. When a character fell in love, you fell in love too, because you had your own experiences with love and loss and the peril of forbidden romance in a more class-conscious society. These forms of entertainment reinforced and legitimized the feelings people normally experienced, and in so doing, provided a safe harbor for channeling their real-world responses to emotionally charged situations.

Today, though, a large number of people are coming of age in that upper-middle-class milieu so coveted by advertisers and so catered-to by the entertainment industry. This demographic endures parachute parents, tiger moms, play-date calendars for toddlers, safety helmets for tricycles and awards just for showing up. These kids have enjoyed easy, safe lives of material abundance and a near-complete absence of adversity. But just like a kid raised in San Diego has no concept of a bitter Minnesota winter, these kids really don’t know the pain that comes from hardship or capital-U Unfairness; when it’s always sunny in Lake Wobegon, a cloudy day is an eminently theoretical construct knowable only in the head but never the heart.

If an escape from adversity and a re-direction of emotion marked the whole point of the pop-entertainment enterprise of yesterday, what marks it for today? Put differently, could a show in the same vein as The Vampire Diaries make cultural sense a generation or two ago?

Perhaps the pursuit of “teen entertainment” isn’t so much an escape anymore as much as it’s a chance to live vicariously, to grasp at the highs and lows that viewers’ otherwise safe lives deny them in the real world. When “love” has no barriers and no risks, when the audience has little or no experience of privation or sickness or death, then these subjects aren’t things you escape from — they’re things you seek out as a novelty, “to bleed just to know you’re alive.” If your idea of love hails from the hookup culture, the idea of dying for your beloved signals a degree of deep emotional attachment they’ve never seriously encountered. If your idea of loyalty begins and ends with the Bro Code, then duty is an idea, not an experience. If you’ve never lost a family member, then watching gut-wrenching goodbyes on TV is your only surrogate for an experience as old as humankind.

I once heard an older friend remark that she didn’t need romance because she had cable. Instructive, that.

There’s a world of difference in sympathizing with a character because you’ve experienced the emotion being portrayed, versus allowing the thrill of the imagined emotion to substitute for actually having lived it. I didn’t understand death, no matter how many times I saw it rendered on the big screen, until my grandfather died. I didn’t understand love until the first time I willingly sacrificed for another. I didn’t understand lust until, after seeing the head beside mine on the pillow the morning after, I felt the pang of regret. So when I watch these shows, it triggers empathy. Been there, done that.

For too many, though, it’s not “been there, done that” — it’s merely substitution for the real thing. They’ve never known love or loss or regret, so they get their adrenalin kick from the TV, form-fit the experience to their own lives, and call it good.

Which is probably why some people are genuinely touched by Hinder lyrics.

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  1. This PPQ you speak of sounds incredibly wise and like a true friend to talk you out of decision whose far-reaching implications were unimaginable to you at the time. Perhaps, to your thesis here, she had previous experience with choosing a questionable karaoke song that became forever linked with her. (And one that, sober, she still does not know all the words to.)

    1. As a matter of fact, I do bow in the general direction of this fabled PPQ. And for good reason! Her guidance has kept me from sliding down the dark path of becoming a gypsy, tramp or thief!

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