January 5, 2018

THERE'S ONLY ONE STORY:

Morality TV: why characters on screen are more anxious, guilty and self-hating than ever : From Search Party and The Good Place to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Bojack Horseman, characters are more concerned with their status as good or bad people than ever before. (ANNA LESZKIEWICZ, 1/05/18, New Statesman)

I've never committed a murder. But throughout Search Party's dark, painful, hilarious, anxiety-inducing second season, I identified so disproportionately with Dory, Drew, Elliott and Portia that their predicaments gave me nausea. I willed for them to do the right thing as each made worse and worse decisions. Against my better judgement I prayed they'd evade exposure. When Elliot screeches, "I'm so ashamed!" or Portia whispers to her only confident, "I'm so scared that you're going to think I'm bad," I felt I'd been there.

I think, for me, it all started with Roald Dahl's The Twits. I remember reading it as a child and coming across the book's most memorable page, complete with Quentin Blake illustrations of a dark-haired, skinny woman getting spottier and messier and grumpier. "If a person has ugly thoughts," Dahl explains, "It begins to show on their face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until it gets so ugly you can hardly bear to look at it." Beneath it was a drawing of a blonde, smiling, fat woman with wonky teeth. "A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly."

This is often quoted as a sweet, touching passage that reminds children and adults alike of the importance of inner beauty. When I read it, shame crept up the back of my neck. I had ugly thoughts. Every day, every week, every year. I already looked more like the dark-haired girl than the happy blonde woman, and soon I would be truly ugly - and worse, everyone would know why. They'd see my ugly thoughts, and they'd know I was bad inside.

Search Party isn't the only show full of questionable, anxious, self-loathing characters agonising over their own moral status. The Good Place offers us a vision of heaven and hell - The Good Place and The Bad Place - and forces its characters to reflect with panic over where they belong based on their past actions. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rebecca cuts herself off from those who have known her at her worst and relocates from New York to California with dreams of being a sunnier, better person - but struggles to hide a shameful secret and remains, in her own words, "a horrible, stupid, dumb and ugly, fat and stupid, simple, self-hating bitch". Bojack Horseman's title character is in possession of a particularly violent self-flagellating inner monologue that in no way helps him to improve himself. Of course, morally ambiguous characters, presentations of guilt, and questions of personal ethics have persisted in fiction since the dawn of time - but TV, especially TV comedy, feels infused with a reflexive anxiety that feels more intense than ever, and somehow reflective of our larger cultural and political concerns.

There is no other meaningful cultural question than whether we are decent Christians.  That, indeed, is the Culture.

Posted by at January 5, 2018 2:34 PM

  

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