Keywords: television; drugs; empathy; autonomic nervous system; physical violence; Rob Morrow; Don Eppes; Numb3rs; Angelina Jolie; James Lipton; The Actors' Studio; United Nations; David Mamet; Barack Obama; expository writing; Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip; Matthew Perry; Matt Albie; Harriet Hays; Sarah Paulson; Aaron Sorkin; narcotics.
I don’t do drugs. Sometimes, however, I do television. I figure that’s safe — I’ll never die of an overdose — and it usually works pretty well. Lately I’ve been doing some serious writing for publication, not for you friends. The articles are about sociological theory, love, and climate change, and I need to keep on an even keel to be productive. I’m not sure that other writers have to retain such close emotional stability, but I use television dramas as sort of a regulatory thermostat. Since I’m a heavy empathizer, there’s always a chance I’ll become vicariously upset about something and lose my focus for writing, so during a productive stint I don’t often visit with my friends or even get enough exercise. In my entire life, I’ve never had a bright idea while exercising — even walking briskly — and it takes hours for me to settle down again enough to write.
Some television shows can regulate my autonomic nervous systemwith precision, up or down, while giving me an outlet for my need to empathize. However, I have to know what to expect so I can choose the right ones. I usually need warm, pleasant, mildly amusing situations involving intelligent, warm, interesting people who are feelingful and insightful but never in distress. The plot cannot be obviously formulaic, and I must not form a deep attachment to a character who gets into serious trouble that is not resolved by the end of the episode.
Oddly, I can tolerate physical violence better than psychological pain. Probably I have become de-sensitized by seeing too many homicides to feel the slightest anxiety anymore; I wish that were not the case, but I have to acknowledge that it is. It’s moral and emotional problems that hold my interest — at least if I empathize with the character — and may upset my equilibrium. There have been three such shows within the past ten days that left me too disturbed to work.
Take Numb3rs, for example. I don’t much like the show. Catching bad guys is not a useful or inspiring activity, so I barely empathize with the FBI agents — especially Agent Don Eppes who is unexpressive and all-business. I only watch it because of personal loyalty to Rob Morrow, a fine man who almost became a friend of mine a few years ago. He is able to play expressive characters supremely well, so it’s a pity to waste his talent on this wooden FBI guy. But the writers surprised us about ten days ago with a plot that questioned Eppes’s psychological well-being. He had shot more than the usual quota of bad guys, so even his colleagues and family began pushing him to get some therapy and examine himself. He refused until another incident arose; this time he shot an innocent man. Suddenly he turned himself over to a counselor, requesting a thirty-minute session. Thirty minutes? That’s a start, I guess, though we aren’t informed what they talked about.
Okay, if we’re going to explore Eppes’s emotional interior, I’m game. I’ve followed the show three seasons without seeing anybody grow much. True, the Eppes brothers are now able to date women, which is a little progress, but we don’t understand the hang-ups that previously blocked their love lives. So I was shaken, sympathizing with Don Eppes’s anguish over his trigger-happy shooting, even as I prepared myself for a sensitive exploration of his character in subsequent episodes.
It is not to be. The following week, we see another ordinary hunt for bad guys, but incidentally, Eppes’s new girlfriend wonders why he’s ignoring her. The most he’s able to say is that he’s “going through some stuff” that he doesn’t want to discuss. Listen, if you’re going to put me through this and ask me to follow Eppes as he mistakenly kills someone, at least make him take it seriously and reveal this emotional “stuff” of his. Otherwise, he’s not worth it. If he’s emotionally that retarded, I’m a chump for willingly caring about him at all. Don’t fool around with the audience. You’re messing with our emotions, which actually influence the way we live our lives.
Moving on, we come to Angelina Jolie. I had recorded her talk with James Lipton on The Actors' Studio yesterday. What a downer! She is probably the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes on. I’d never seen her in a film, but I’ve seen her make appearances on TV as UN Ambassador to Refugees, and she was superb — regal, warm, intelligent, compassionate, inspiring. Just go to the United Nations web site and look at the list of projects she has carried out during the past six years in that role. It is amazingly impressive. But instead of discussing refugees, the Actor’s Studio inquires into the personal background of each actor.
Remarkably, Ms. Jolie did not hide anything about her disturbing past, nor did she appear to think it unusual. She recalled “making out” with boys in kindergarten and getting into trouble over it. By age 14 she and her boyfriend were living together — with her mother, which she thought was a good arrangement. However, their sex life was evidently unsatisfying. Wanting more intensity, she picked up a knife one day and cut him. After that, they would frequently cut themselves in order to feel more “honest.” Asked about her scars, she said that, yes, she has lots of scars. (I saw no actual scars but several ugly tatoos.) She talked about her relationship with some women in the film “Gia” about lesbians, but her description was not particularly insightful or nuanced. Lipton asked how she had decorated her trailer and, for the first time, she seemed flustered. “There was a lot of pornography,” she replied. Why? Once more she explained it as “honest.”
When asked about addiction, she acknowledged knowing about addiction “in every form.” (Drugs? Lipton asked) “In every form,” she repeated smoothly. If you’d watched the interview with the sound off, you might guess she was describing her happiest memories. Here we were being told about a suffering girl, but the narrator is a poor storyteller, unable to articulate what was going on in herself, or even to identify it as suffering. Lipton asked whether she had undergone therapy. Yes, she had taken some in high school for “extra credit.” I wondered, how could a gifted actress depict her own inner life in such shallow language?
Angelina Jolie apparently places a high value on honesty. She lives by it, exposing facts about herself without hesitation. Why did hearing it bother me so much? I think it was the absence of commentary about her life that made her seem shallow. Just owning up to some negative experiences is insufficient; she needs to reveal her reflections about those experiences, from her most mature perspective, to show us who she is now and what those early events meant.
Compare that to Barack Obama. He was on Sixty Minutes yesterday and I liked him immensely. He too gave straight, plainspoken answers to questions about negative aspects of his life. Yes, he had tried marijuana and cocaine in his youth. But sitting beside his wife as a mature man, he showed that he wasn’t particularly proud of it, but explained that lots of young people try drugs as a means of rebellion, as a way of exploring who they are. He neither condemned nor denied this past, but you could see that today’s Obama has thought deeply about the earlier Obama and has grown beyond him. I had to question where today’s Angelina Jolie is, for I couldn’t see her. Her flat, factual description of past actions lacked the dimensions that come with age. It hurt to watch her. Indeed, I turned it off.
Which reminds me: This morning there was a review of David Mamet’s new book in today’s Globe and Mail. His main point, according to the reviewer, is that the action should speak for itself without exposition. He hates expository conversation in a movie. The reviewer then poked fun at Mamet’s own wordiness, quoting a lengthy paragraph that was loaded with words but lacked significance.
There’s an optimum amount of exposition in any writing. No act speaks entirely for itself. A simple, flat fact does not tell us anything about what should have happened instead, or why it did happen. An act without exposition reveals nothing about intentions, meaning, or interior life. Good exposition may be pithy or a prolonged rumination, but some of it is always required. Otherwise we are watching a two-dimensional picture instead of a life with depth. Angelina Jolie is gorgeous and — I can’t help believing — exceedingly compassionate. I wish she had a third dimension. Empathizing with her, in the absence of expository insight, was an experience that I can only call “shallowing,” instead of “deepening.”
And the same goes for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — but I feel actively distressed by that. It was my favorite TV show this year, even though I would not ordinarily be interested in a variety show such as Saturday Night Live, which it depicts. I love the two male protagonists and thus vicariously love the two (less interesting) women whom they love. Aaron Sorkin makes us work hard to follow his plots — actually, too hard for my taste. I can’t keep up, though Garrison Keillor has led me to believe that my IQ is above average. With my PVR working on my behalf, I can always replay Studio 60 and try to figure out what is going on. Sometimes I replay it several times, for the audio is poor and the characters often speak at the same time. Besides, there are occasionally touching or humorous scenes that I want to watch again and again. But the characters are consistently likeable, even when they argue — which Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and his beloved Harriet Hays (Sarah Poulson) do all the time.
Yesterday’s episode was entirely different. Matt and Harriet had broken up and Matt is falling apart emotionally. The tone of the show is dark, dark, dark. Matt is so engrossed in his memories about their relationship that he cannot respond when others ask him questions. He furtively swallows some unidentified pills. He visits a singer in her dressing room who gives him even more pills which are supposed to be some kind of narcotic. (Vicodin, perhaps?) Nothing in any previous episode has revealed Matt’s vulnerable, damaged personality, nor do his co-workers in the show recognize or respond to the crisis he is experiencing. He is alone in free-fall, a tragic narrative written without exposition. I feel disturbed today, worried about my friend.
Dear Aaron Sorkin, I chose Studio 60 as an “upper.” I have never been addicted to drugs, as you and the actor Matt Perry himself have been, but I use television for mood management, which is even riskier. I need to know how much pain you’re going to give me. I don’t take pills that I cannot identify, and I hate television that tricks me into going where I’m not willing. I don’t want to form attachments toward light characters who then turn into tragic or ignoble figures. Let's have truth in advertising from the outset. Promise me, Aaron Sorkin, that if I follow you through this story, I will be able to function normally as a writer while on the journey, and that I’ll end up wiser for the experience. And please, give me a little pleasure along the way.