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Friday, August 20, 2010

Is it any wonder that fictional people are becoming more appealing than real ones?
Posted by Jill | 5:29 AM
I'm starting to find myself recording ever more things on the DVR. I used to try to limit myself to two series at a time; maybe Dexter and Lost; or Nurse Jackie and True Blood. Do I really want to find myself on my deathbed wishing I'd spent more time watching television? This means I've missed some really great series, like Rescue Me and the first two season of Mad Men.

But when I go to the supermarket and think "one in five of these people think Barack Obama is a Muslim terrorist", and I look at Sharron Angle's and Sarah Palin's lunatic eyes and think that these are major political figures; when I listen to news that isn't NPR and it's all the frothing about Lindsey Lohan, as if they can't wait till a young actress' problems finally put her in a grave so they can say "How could such a thing happen?", the fictional characters of televised series begin to seem far more appealing; even the evil ones, like the deliciously deranged Russell the Vampire King on True Blood. I've even picked up Mad Men this season.

What ties my watching together is that it increasingly seems to be a theme of "women on the verge of a nervous breakdown." It isn't that these are fragile flowers in need of protection; it's that the women of television, armed as they are with awards and nominations (Edie Falco of Nurse Jackie with three Emmys, two Golden Globes, three SAG awards and even more nominations where she DIDN'T win; True Blood's Anna Paquin with an Academy Award before even reaching her teens and a bunch of Emmy nominations; and now The Big C's Laura Linney, with a slew of acting awards for the films You Can Count On Me, Mystic River, Kinsey, The Squid and the Whale, and the HBO series John Adams. And that doesn't even include Weeds' Mary-Louse Parker, because I don't watch Weeds.) Even Mad Men has sucked me in, not because I give a rat's ass about the scumbaggy advertising executive at the center of the show, but because we're starting to see the women begin to get an inkling that there just may be more to life than getting coffee for men who don't appreciate them, and as a result, we're seeing some damn fine performances from the actresses on this show behind their sheath dresses and beehive hairdos. The problem with Mad Men right now is that the cultural upheaval that's coming has never translated well to fiction (see also: Taking Woodstock) without looking absurdly silly, and I'm skeptical as to whether this show can handle it either.

But both cable and broadcast have become a haven of sorts for award-winning film actresses on the far side of 40, and while it's somewhat disturbing that being a drug dealer, a pill-popper, or a woman with cancer, seem to be the only way that a woman over 40 can be interesting in the world of television (at least since Lois Smith as Sookie Stackhouse's lovingly hip and tolerant granny was dispatched in True Blood's first season), when the alternative is to be Courteney Cox on Cougars, we'll take what we can get.

I was particularly looking forward to The Big C, mostly because Laura Linney could read the stock listings in the Sunday New York Times and have her face reveal a universe of emotions, but also because with Oliver Platt and Gabourey Sidibe also on board, how bad can it be? And it's not, but there's something about The Big C that's troublesome. It isn't that it's taking on cancer; cable has done this before, when Emma Thompson grabbed cancer by the balls and shook it like a terrier before expiring with dignity in Wit. And it isn't about being funny, because sometimes laughter really IS the best medicine. And it certainly isn't about being self-limiting, because there's something to be said about even a great show having a finite lifespan (I'll be back to this after we see serial killer/police blood spatter analyst Dexter Morgan be the only husband in history to not be a suspect in the death of his wife on Dexter this season). But while I'll continue to watch The Big C because of its great cast, I won't like myself for doing it.

The biggest problem with this show is the idea that you can somehow keep a cancer diagnosis from your family, especially from your children. This is about the most selfish thing that a person with cancer can do. There are people who are going to still be around after Cathy Jamison dies, and while I'm sure this character wants to be a wild and crazy gal before it's too late, there's something profoundly selfish about hiding this kind of information. This isn't a question of choice, or of self-empowerment, it's about what you owe your children. And no matter how much Cathy Jamison wants to turn cartwheels in the hallway of the school where she teaches, and no matter how much of a sullen asshole and practical jokester her son may be, she owes it to him to start preparing him for life without her. And it isn't about teaching him how to clear a clogged toilet, although it's clear that this kid's father (Oliver Platt) isn't going to do it. It's about giving him something to hold onto after she is gone and only memory is left. And throwing him against a wall and saying "I'm going to raise you so hard it'll make your head spin" isn't the way to do it. Because THAT's what he'll remember.

The other problem with The Big C is that it's just too twee. Lone Scherfig was able to pull this off in Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (review) with the right balance of pathos and humor, but there's something self-consciously adorable about The Big C, with its quirky eco-warrior brother and the insistence that Cathy's education about the value of just living one's life doesn't extend to Gabourey Sidibe's character, who seems to have already learned that lesson but the show feels a need to make weight loss her goal anyway (kind of an odd choice when dealing with a movie about cancer).

The other part of The Big C that's uncomfortable is how eerily it mirrors the real-life struggle of Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams, whose own recent melanoma diagnosis makes Linney's quirky character somewhat less compelling than she might be otherwise.

Still, in a world where stupidity has become the primary currency of real life, it's hard to blame some of us for preferring to step into a world in which women spouting witty repartee can be celebrated instead of spending too much time in the real one, where women who can do nothing but blather incoherently are regarded by the media as qualified presidential candidates and other women spouting the kind of crap that we used to associate with crazy homeless people may receive up to 50% of the vote in a Senate race.

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Anonymous Charlie O said...
This is completely reasonable to me. When asked what historical person I'd most like to meet if I could, I've always said Augustus McCrae. From Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove."

Anonymous tata said...
Since I'm sitting here behind a pseudonym, you can't make much of this for yourself, but some of the best writing I've ever done was after my father's cancer diagnosis and during his decline. Because I was allowed to work things out as they were happening, I have peace with his death and good work to show for that time. It is dumb beyond belief to think that shocking your loved ones with your sudden, unexpected death after a lengthy cancer spared them anything.

Blogger jurassicpork said...
Tell me about it, Jill. I create them all the time in my fiction. And, really, shouldn't all of us writers do that, to create people you wish you knew in real life?

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I did see an over 40 starring a woman the other night:

Marianne Faithful in Irin's Palm.

She was delightful, the movie was one of the few that I have enjoyed lately.

I don't remember seeing Marianne in the movies before, but I like the mature women, can't stand the Lohan types or even the Julia big lips types.

God, it is too bad those lips are not reversible.

Blogger Elayne said...
I wasn't planning on seeing The Big C, but other things bother me about the hype surrounding it (and I might be jumping to conclusions not having seen it) - first, the idea that it's okay for a woman to be this brazen and free because she's already been punished (and will be punished further by death); and secondly that she's going to her death looking fabulous. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't cancer take, you know, something of a physical toll on you?