Thursday, January 10, 2008

It's so good it hurts

A friend of mine recently complained that television isn’t realistic enough, especially when it comes to romantic relationships, that in real life (specifically, his life) you don’t end up with the girl you want. I’ve ranted about this for years, but for the first time, I felt no desire to enthusiastically agree; in fact, I disagree.

I find entertainment today–especially when it revolves around the romantic relationships of young people–way more real than it used to be. And I have Judd Apatow to thank.

When My So-Called Life premiered in 1994 it wasn’t a hit, but its confessional, it’s-so-raw-it-hurts tone set the stage for everything that followed: Seth on The O.C. wasn’t a cool kid in his universe, the kids on Dawson’s Creek overanalyzed all their problems, and Freaks and Geeks really dealt with all the humiliating and soul-crushing banality of high school. While the phrase “cringe humor” has never been used to describe a Marshall Herskowitz/Edward Zwick production before, all their hyperreal creations fall into the same category as the ones that proudly carry the mantle: The Office, Juno, Knocked Up. What ties these all together is that the humor and the pathos comes from very real circumstances, the kind where you’re left gaping, “holy shit, they just stole that from my life.” Judd Apatow has brought this to the masses, bridging crass comedy with heartwarming, realistic stories that seem to hit the nail on the head for everyone.

While there arguably is some degree of wish-fulfillment in these entities–after all, things generally do end happily–it’s not the kind that results in anger, but in a smile of hopefulness. You’ve survived the awkward sex scene, so maybe one day you too will end up with the girl of your dreams. The “things work out in the end” ending is also somewhat necessary, considering how bleak at times the story can seem. All the premises surrounding the above entertainments deal with harsh situations and often crushing disappointments, but the pleasure of watching a sweet moment is magnified knowing all the pain that came before.

Even entertainments that are predicated on sweetness and airy romance have a dark element to their stories. Pushing Daisies’ central couple cannot ever touch. Enchanted is a perfect fairy tale that mixes both the conventions of the genre with the charming grittiness that is reality. Both balance out their saccharinity by acknowledging that happily ever after doesn’t exit, but that working on relationships is how you come close to it.

People do need and want fantasy in their entertainment, but maybe nowadays people want their fantasies to be as pure as possible, untainted by reality, and want those based in reality to have some degree of realness to them. Celebrities are no longer mysterious or worthy to be lusted after for their glamour when you can pull up a tabloid to see what they wear to the supermarket. Maybe that’s why pure fantasies are so popular now. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are more fantastic than ever, thanks to CGI. I have a friend who argues all the time that what she looks for in sci-fi and fantasy worlds is the sense of realness, but in terms of emotions and human reactions, not in technicalities. I, often unconsciously, look for that in a lot of the entertainment I pick.

A ridiculous plot sometimes can be forgivable if emotions are true–and that works for anything, ranging from Futurama to Sex and the City to Superbad. Look at Grey’s Anatomy. For all its faults as an overwrought soap, so many have found a real kinship with the words and actions that the characters use to describe their myriad fuckups. The storyline, even in the midst of its ridiculousness, stays true.


Emily said...

I think you're right in saying that "realness" is something people want in their entertainment these days. This is probably why romantic comedies in the way of When Harry Met Sally (one of my all-time favorite movies) are dead. We no longer believe that our dream guy will run through the streets of New York City on New Years Eve and find us in a crowded party just to say “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” Because, who does that? And if someone did do that, would I not just laugh in his face?

But yet, if I were Pam and Jim told me that he was in love with me on Casino Night…now there is some serious swoon-age.

John said...

I, too, think you're on the right track with this notion of a "realness" movement in the entertainment industry. Personally, I think Judd Apatow stood on the shoulders of giants like Cameron Crowe, who was doing real-feeling teen movies like Say Anything and Fast Times long before Freaks and Geeks (Fast Times at Ridgemont High was heavily based on real people and events, from Crowe's time in a real high school.)

Even some of the far-out comedies are getting more realistic. For all its silliness, Scrubs is often mentioned by medical students and professionals as the show that most accurately portrays life in a hospital.

As for the notion of "realness" in big-budget fantasy flicks, I'm reminded of a quote from V for Vendetta, "Artists use lies to tell the truth. Politicians use them to cover it up." Good Science Fiction and Fantasy stories use their fantastic elements to make the themes and relationships that much more real (which is one more reason why the SW prequel trilogy is so hated by critics and even SW fans.)