Monday, October 29, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook: #158: The Paradox of Genre Fiction

I’ve been praising a lot of comedies recently, which may make you think that I’m only interested in light-hearted cheesiness these days.  But that’s not true, I’m also interested in black-hearted cheesiness, which is to say that I’ve been greatly enjoying season two of “American Horror Story.”

Season one [SPOILERS ahead] was wildly uneven, but ultimately very enjoyable (largely because of amazing performances from new discovery Evan Peters and underused veteran Jessica Lange.) In the end, its greatest innovation was its shock ending: Everybody died.  This overcomes the biggest problem of horror TV: the need to protect the main characters from danger.  And the fact that they didn’t warn us in advance made it wonderfully mind-blowing to see these seemingly-permanent characters get killed off one by one.

Having burnt that bridge, they started over from scratch this season with all new characters (but many of the same actors, including Peters and Lange) for the story of a 1964 lunatic asylum.  This time, of course, the jig is up: we now know that each season will be self-contained, so we’re forewarned not to get too attached.  This is a true horror show, and things are pretty much guaranteed to get worse and worse. 

And yet, against all logic, despite knowing that things will almost certainly end badly, I enjoy rooting for the characters to escape and/or expose the evil of the asylum-keepers. 

This is the big paradox behind our enjoyment of any genre story: why do allow we ourselves to worry about the characters, when the genre alone tells it how it’s probably going to end: we pretty much know that the super-spy will triumph, and the sexually-active teen that taunts the monster must die. Somehow, good stories get us to suspend our meta-textual awareness and forget that the ending is a foregone conclusion. 

Let’s compare this to a show from last season that I wanted to like, but just couldn’t.  Longtime readers may remember that I was a big fan of the short-lived show “Lone Star” from a few years ago.  After that show was abruptly cancelled, creator Kyle Killen got a chance to try again the next year, so he took its double-life concept and attempted to transplant it into a more high-concept network-friendly show. 

The result was “Awake”, about an LAPD detective who’d been in a horrible car crash and now lived two lives, one in which his wife died and another in which his son died.  He knew that one must be a dream, but he didn’t want to know which was which.  It was an fascinating concept, but it just didn’t work, and the biggest reason for that was that the show was just too much of a bummer.  Were we supposed to root for the wife to be dead, or the kid? 

Now don’t get me wrong: the tone of “Awake” was surprisingly uplifting: in both realities, the cop was healing through grief counseling, learning to love his surviving family member more, and solving a case-of-the-week.  The tone of “AHS”, on the other hand, could not be more nasty, lurid, and bleak.  So why do I find “AHS” to be fun and “Awake” to be such a drag? 

The answer is that, when we watch, we’re focused not on what’s probably going to happen to the heroes, or even what’s actually happening onscreen at the time, but on what we want to happen. 

There has to be a good option.   On “AHS”, I desperately want the unjustly condemned lesbian to defeat the evil nun and bring her asylum crashing down around her ears, and that’s why I watch.  Even though I know, on some level, that it’s never going to happen, I can still quixotically root for it until the last moment.   On “Awake”, meanwhile, things were getting better all the time, but there was never any real hope that he would escape the underlying horror of his situation, so, despite all the learning and growing that the hero was doing, I couldn’t root for him. 


j.s. said...

I never saw AWAKE but I read the pilot script and I had a number of problems with it that I'm surprised you got past. Starting with the fact that it's so exposition heavy that I felt like I spent most of my energy following verbal exposition in a way that reminded me of something like INCEPTION, but delivered in a more static and less interesting situation. Then there's the question of why the protagonist is a cop exactly, what that has to do with his split world dilemma, why it's an other than arbitrary choice for his profession. And finally there's the biggest question of all which is what is this a metaphor for exactly? Where's the point of emotional connection for the audience with this ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary situation? Most of us won't ever have to make this kind of Sophie's Choice about which reality is really real and so which loved one gets to stay dead and buried. For me, it wasn't so much that the show was a downer but that this dilemma was just kind of wildly unrelatable, that it didn't stand in for any more common experiences. And I just couldn't see it sustaining enough energy and interest for a whole season let alone many more.

Matt Bird said...

This is all true. (I've talked before about the unrelateability of dead kid stories, after all.)

Maybe if both had died, and he was escaping more and more into dreams in which they'd lived, then that would be a metaphor for having to choose between fantasy and reality.

j.s. said...

Your solution makes AWAKE more relatable but also less original. I'm thinking that maybe there's a rule in here somewhere. Because I just massively screwed up a draft of something I was working on by refusing to ask these hard questions or to accept the fact that my high concept premise just was not a metaphor for any undergirding emotional reality. And it couldn't easily be made to be without destroying what I thought made the thing worth writing in the first place. I guess that's what I get for not starting from character. For thinking that that stuff would work itself out.

Matt Bird said...

Destroying what you thought made the thing worth writing in the first place often works out just fine. Hopefully you'll find that that was just a starting point, not the whole point.