Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tolerable drama

I don't watch a lot of drama. It's not because I don't respect the art form. It's because it tends to seep too deeply into my brain, forcing me into another reality. So I have to find something I like about that reality to tolerate the trip.

I've watched 15 minutes of 24, and it was terrific. Maybe someday, I'll watch the rest of that season. But I can't devote that much time to worrying about Jack Bauer right now. Not with two young kids. Not while I'm at a career crossroads. Not with yard work to be done.

Lost just seems far too bleak to me, though I have to concede I haven't watched it. I see ads with a woman holding a baby on an island, and I want to cry. All the joys I've seen with my kids are joys this kid will never know. I'm sure someone will tell me Lost is about the triumph of the human spirit, and there may be some truth to that. It is, as Steven Johnson has noted with similar shows, a testament to how much complexity Generation Y can absorb in its TV viewing, and that's great. I simply can't spend that much time on the island. I'm fascinated in reading about Lost, which I sometimes do. But I can't watch it.

And forget ER. Nice of them to let at least one kid and his mom survive, but it's too little, too late.

I've found two exceptions ...

Friday Night Lights. It's hauntingly beautiful, just like its theme music (play Remember Me As a Time of Day, though it's edited -- to brilliant effect -- in the opening credits). I'm sure some people would say it's as bleak as Lost in the sense that all of the people involved are striving for things they're not likely to reach. The star quarterback is paralyzed. His girlfriend is realizing -- slowly -- that the fairy-tale life she planned with him probably isn't going to happen. The brooding alcoholic fullback is racked with guilt over the injury, and messing around with his girlfriend (my theory: He can't stand to see her despondent, and in his subconscious, he's just trying to make her happy). The coach only occasionally finds the words to wriggle out of uncomfortable conversations with boosters and townspeople who will think him a failure if he doesn't deliver a title. The supposed star running back who stinks up the field and blames his blockers.

And then there's the character with whom I identify -- the backup QB full of self-doubt who also has a part-time job and cares for a grandmother with dementia.

Gee, I make it sound great, don't I?

Well, it is. Like all good scripted sports, it delivers the occasional moment of triumph. And a few moments of levity, like the coach urging the backup QB to deal with tension by asking out the girl he likes and taking her to the back seat, not realizing that the girl in question is (ulp!) his daughter. The scene in which he realizes what he's done simply cannot be topped in writing, directing and acting. It's brilliant.

At its core, the show is about identity. The town's identity is wrapped tightly around this football team, fairly or unfairly. The paralyzed QB is grappling with questions of who he's supposed to be now. His girlfriend, having lost the "Mrs. NFL QB-in-waiting" persona, is searching.

In all likelihood, few people in the show will get everything to which they aspire -- the state title, the major college scholarship, the perfect relationship. In that sense, perhaps it is like Lost.

But what you'll see in this show -- as you see in sports -- are the little triumphs you gain while striving for something bigger. The backup QB, as the coach tells him in the last episode, is a changed man already.

I'm wondering if America is failing to embrace this show because it can't deal with triumph on a small scale. American mythology is that you aim high ... and succeed. Or die trying. Friday Night Lights is for those of us in the middle.

Watch it. Or I'll hunt you down and physically injure you.

The other drama (with considerable wit) on my mind: Doonesbury, subject of a good profile in the weekend's Post Magazine.

When For Better or For Worse launches into something tragic, that's a safe bet to skip the next couple of weeks. In fact, you can pretty well skip the strip every day except Sunday, when Lynn Johnston occasionally brings the funny with a pet-related cartoon. She touched a lot of people when the old dog, Farley, died in heroic fashion, and so now she goes to the well far too often. And she gets more maudlin each time.

When I saw a Doonesbury strip in which B.D.'s Army buddy, Ray, was clearly agitated amid circumstances that weren't immediately clear, I knew this would be the first thing I read in the paper for the next week and likely beyond. I didn't know if Garry Trudeau was going to let B.D. die or be seriously wounded. But I knew he was going to handle it thoughtfully. We didn't actually see B.D. for a couple of days, and it was a striking image -- wounded, missing a leg, seen for the first time without a helmet. In one panel, he had transformed the character.

The Post story shows us just how thoughtful his work really is. Trudeau talked to veterans before figuring out what to do with the storyline. That gives him some cred, and it gives him the confidence to inject humor into the situation. (A classic features a doctor describing the stages through which amputees pass. Last panel: B.D., off-screen, yells "Son of a BITCH!" Doc concedes that some skip through the "denial" stage.)

Trudeau has received a warm welcome from wounded veterans. It's no surprise. He's telling stories better than many journalists can. Just as The Simpsons is often a better reflection of society than your daily paper, Doonesbury is capturing reality for us.

So from these tragic, desperate situations, I'm getting uplifting thoughts. I'm inspired. I'm not sure I can say that about most dramas. If Lost is a testament to the human spirit of survival, great; if it's just a big puzzle to expand mental capability, then chess is just as efficient.

(Maybe Lost is the reason America doesn't produce many good chess players. Damn you, Hollywood.)

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