Monday, October 3, 2016

Westworld, Stranger Things, And The Need For Joy

I am not a binge watcher, which these days feels almost like an admission of fuddy-duddyism. I am a full time teacher (and now grade dean) with a long commute and two four year old children. I have precious little free time, and honestly, television shows expecting me to sacrifice twenty hours of something I get for MAYBE two hours a day are asking way too much. My commuting and child rearing have reinforced my reading habits and podcast addiction, instead.

I long for old school TV watching habits, and so last night my wife and I sat down to watch Westworld, both of us fans of the dark hard sci-fi that spawned the original, and intrigued by what would be done with the update. I also just thought it'd be nice to have a show to watch on the regular, once a week, without feeling any pressure to give it a chunk of time that I just don't have.

I thought the show was worth the watch, and I think I'll watch it next week, but it had many of the hallmarks of HBO TV that I don't really care for. Were women other than the leads unnecessarily naked a lot? Yes. Was there a constant "dark gritty" overtone? Yes. Were the opening credits an eerie song beneath metaphorical graphics? Yes. Was there constant, gratuitous violence? Yes. Was there rape and violence against women? Yes. At least there wasn't a "complicated" male protagonist or an ironically sordid suburban setting.  The show raised enough questions about human behavior and artificial intelligence that I was willing to let my annoyance with the formulaic elements take a back seat.

Since watching it I've been thinking a lot about Stranger Things, I show I LOVED in ways that I don't think I have ever loved a television show. We had the time to binge watch it this summer, but spaced out the episodes because we didn't want it to end. (I felt the same way about Jessica Jones.) Was some of this nostalgia for all the things it referenced and the mood it evoked? Maybe.  But here's the deal: the things it reminded me of worked for the same reasons that Stranger Things worked. I really liked the characters. It actually showed a working class household with some measure of accuracy. The bad boyfriend ended up becoming a mensch by the time all was said and done. I could actually ROOT FOR the characters I loved to survive and emerge victorious without feeling ambiguous. (There's a reason Barb has become a meme. WE CARE FOR HER.) The show was still emotionally complex, and managed to touch on parenthood, adolescence, social class, bullying, and friendship. Pleasing the crowd does not mean sacrificing depth.

Wanting someone to root for seems to have become a no-no in the age of "dark and gritty" and "complicated." Look, I love 70s cinema and films like Chinatown and The Godfather, so I'm all about complicated protagonists. But on prestige television it has become a hoary cliche, just as it has in so many superhero movies. I think The Force Awakens succeeded because when Finn and Poe are escaping the Star Destroyer and shouting "woo!" in their TIE fighter it is such a moment of joy and fun. It just made me so damn HAPPY. And that feeling could still coexist with the sad story of the Solo family's disillusion.

Darkngritty for the sake of darkngritty is getting tiresome. When Walter White became progressively more evil, it pained me to see a man sell his soul a piece at a time, because I was allowed to root for him early on. Years from now Game of Thrones might end up being seen as a massively deleterious force on the course of television, just the same as Star Wars' unintended consequence was to squeeze out all those creative 70s cinema trends I mentioned before.

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