This may seem a strange question, but it arises out of a recent experience that has set me thinking about some of our fundamental cultural assumptions.
My dear wife and I watched the Emmy awards show the other night, and learned with the rest of humanity that “Breaking Bad” won several honors, including Best Drama, and the other big winners and/or nominees were “True Detective” (about violent crime in the boondocks), “Scandal” (about political scandal), “House of Cards” (about a corrupt politician), “The Good Wife” (about a corrupt politician’s wife), “Mad Men” (about adulterous and/or corrupt advertising executives), and “Game of Thrones” (about corrupt prehistoric politicians, internecine warfare, incest, and dragons).
More particularly (and of interest to me), the Outstanding Writing award nominees were the following: “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” and “True Detective.”
Seeing that “Breaking Bad” won Best Drama over her beloved “Downton Abbey,” my dear wife asked me what “Breaking Bad” was about, and I explained as best I could (having watched not a single episode in deference to her) that it was about a basically decent schoolteacher who is inexorably drawn into the seamy, violent world of dealing in illegal methamphetamines (forgive me if I got any of that wrong).
She then repeated a question that she had rather forcefully posed to me on one of our first dates over a decade ago (when I had foolishly taken her to see the film “Collateral,” in which, as you may recall, Tom Cruise plays a mob assassin who forces an innocent cab driver to drive him around while he knocks people off): why would anyone want to watch such a thing? Why deliberately (and at the cost of real money) expose oneself to graphic violence, betrayal, shame, crime — the very worst of human behavior and experience – for entertainment?
The question can easily be dismissed as amusingly naïve or closed-minded; indeed, what may be most interesting about the question is not any particular answer to it but the reflexive certainty with which we judge it to be a silly question. Yet I’ve learned to take my wife’s questions seriously, and I therefore proceeded in my bumbling way to defend modern entertainment in general and the world of TV and movies in particular. I utterly failed to persuade her, which is not surprising; but more interestingly, I also failed to convince myself. Let me try again.
One of my dear wife’s other favorite questions about movies, usually asked during the opening credits, is “Is this true?” By this she means: “Is what I’m about to see a true story, or has someone made it up?” If the answer is the latter, she is immediately skeptical to the point of outright resistance; if the former, she is cautiously receptive. (We watch a lot of documentaries.)
So in part the question of the morality of modern entertainment has to do with the virtue (if any) of fictional narrative itself, which (as I pointed out on the night of the Emmys) is as old as man. Why do we tell made-up stories to one another, and are those reasons good or bad ones?
At the virtuous end of the spectrum must be empathy: the creation and experience of fictional narrative forces us to see the world through the eyes of others; it broadens our experience beyond what a single life could encompass; it defeats the human limitations of time and place and makes us more communal beings. The experience of empathy is surely a good thing, though it must be said that purely factual narrative – some kinds of journalism – could provide the same. What is it about fiction that is virtuous or moral?
Fiction in its creation is a craft like any other – seizing common elements and shaping them into something that may not have existed previously in the world, and might never exist without the artist’s intervention. There are many chairs in the world, but none of them quite like the chair I might make in my garage (were I so foolish as to attempt such a thing). It has the stamp of me on it, my preference in woods, my competence or lack thereof with a lathe. Of course much fiction is autobiographical, utterly imitative of the real world, but it still has the stamp of a particular sensibility on it, because those are the rules of fiction: the author gets to choose how the heroine looks, what she says, because the author wants to communicate something that mere facts might not make so clear.
The audience’s experience of fictional narrative is fraught with the awareness that craft is afoot, that choices have been made, and that those choices are not necessarily bound by reality or experience. Much of our judging of the quality of fictional narrative is an evaluation of those choices, as well as of the execution of the craft. Our curiosity about those choices and the quality of that execution is what draws us toward the primordial campfire around which made-up stories are continually being told. We don’t know what will happen, because anything can. The author plays God, and we practice being in the hands of God.
I’d argue that that uncertainty about what will happen in a story is a virtuous experience, one in which it is good to be habituated. We all could use a bit less certainty in our opinions and prejudices and expectations of the world, and I think narrative fiction instills that openness.
But we haven’t yet addressed what my dear wife is really objecting to when “Breaking Bad” trounces “Downton Abbey” at the Emmys. Even if we grant that fictional narrative has, at least potentially, inherent virtue, what makes the story of a drug dealer or a murderer or a serial adulterer or an evil sorceress worth watching – indeed, more worth watching than the story of some over-dressed, deluded, but mostly harmless aristocrats in a big house in England? To put my wife’s thesis plainly: watching violence makes us more violent; watching corruption corrupts absolutely. This may not be provable with scientific certainty, but nor can we disprove it. Granting that we would all defend to the death one another’s right to consume the dark matter on our screens, the question remains: why do it?
Evidently we like it. The anti-heroes of last century’s literature and “The Sopranos” may have started us down this path, but the current cultural preference for shock and shame, for “Breaking Bad” over “Downton Abbey,” seems in part a juvenile response to the increase in sheer permissiveness afforded by the advent of cable, just as surely as advancements in computer-generated graphics made a “Transformers” movie franchise all but inevitable. We show it because we can. The merely possible can crowd out the good, and sometimes we overgrown children want to see the possible just for the sheer spectacle of it. (I myself will confess to sheer glee at seeing the Marvel comic book heroes of my youth brought to life on the big screen by middle-aged filmmakers who, like me, grew up with them and take them somewhat seriously.)
The immorality of narrative fiction – not limited to movies and TV – is of course most evident when its primary effect is titillation. When we’re just watching for the sex scenes or the shot of someone’s boobs or the gore of a horrible death, then we’re debased in the way that my wife fears. Most of us can recognize –and have experienced – fiction that calls mainly on our most reptilian sensibilities, that merely exploits our prurient fascination with sex, gore, and evil, that parades human frailty mainly to mock it or to allow us to feel superior. There is certainly much junk being made, and a great deal of it is on cable and in the movie theaters. Expensive, well-made, well-marketed, lucrative junk. And my dear wife is right to question why we watch it, or read it, for surely too many of us do, and in so doing insure that there will be much more of it.
Violence and sex and human evil are all part of the artist’s toolbox no matter the medium, because they are part of life; they can make a story more believable, or delineate what to avoid, or reconnect us to sensual pleasure, or allow the story to convey an otherwise unbelievable truth. As I say, I haven’t seen a single episode of “Breaking Bad,” but I’m prepared to believe that its virtues are as old as stagecraft: illustration of the frailty of human life, instruction in the ambiguity of human action and the unpredictability of its consequences, reminders of the potential for cruelty and dishonesty and occasional redemption and forgiveness in all of us; all of the grim particulars of the protagonists’ experience, made ours.
Then there’s the wonder of good acting, the sheer amazement at watching someone transform himself with complete authenticity into someone completely different. This adds another layer to the awareness of craft that distinguishes narrative fiction from the rest of our experience.
Who is to say when craft is misemployed, when it’s been applied to the wrong ends? Only each of us, and we’re lucky that it’s still our choice. My wife has clearly made hers.
I’m still not sure I answered her question.