The Globe published a good op-ed this weekend by Meta Wagner, a writing instructor at Emerson, about “cartoon dramas”:
But, now there’s a new, popular TV genre that somehow pulls me in while preventing me from becoming fully invested. I’ve come to think of it as the cartoon drama.
With cartoon dramas, the people, the storylines, and the situations are so unreal — or perhaps hyper-real — as to be laughable, which perfectly befits cartoons but not traditional dramas. These shows (their precursor is “24”) take the most frightening and horrifying political events of the day and present them in an over-the-top, unbelievable, outrageous fashion. It’s television for an age where we’re concerned and terrified yet simultaneously suffering from compassion fatigue: the age of ISIS, ISIL, the beheadings of two American journalists, war in Syria, a do-nothing Congress, the militarization of our police forces, the Ebola virus, etc.
And so viewers not only turn to sitcoms and reality TV to escape, we also turn to cartoon dramas to confront the ugliness of current events, but in a way that can leave us ultimately untouched. Murder, torture, corruption — none of it sticks.
She identifies “Scandal,” “Homeland,” and “House of Cards” as three of the biggest offenders, or perhaps I should say “delighters.” Ever since Bertolt Brecht, we’ve known that while drama inherently draws people in, there are also techniques it can use to push an audience away–not in the sense of disengaging, exactly, but in the sense of making people aware, suddenly or stubbornly, that they are watching a piece of staged entertainment. Brecht called it the “alienation effect.” If you’ve ever seen a show where you can see all the ropes and pulleys backstage, or where the stagehands move the furniture around in plain sight, not trying to be unobtrusive–that’s a little Brechtianism, right there.
Television can’t simply show you the wires and hired help, like theater can, but it has other ways of reminding the audience that this is just a show. (Besides the most obvious one, commercials–which to this day no one has employed to better Brechtian effect than Alfred Hitchcock in 1950s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” program.) Television can get the alienation effect by being over-the-top, or self-referential, or–and no stage director would dare try this–simply not very good.
I wrote a similar analysis to Ms. Wagner’s about “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which I still consider, pace “Scandal,” to be the finest exemplar of the genre.
An aesthetic style that would continually shift audiences between sentimental empathy and critical awareness is called “epic theater.” It was a groundbreaking idea a hundred years ago, and the smartest theater artists in the world are still exploring this extraordinarily fertile concept today.
“L&O: SVU” achieves epic theater status by the simple expedient of not being very good.
Or, more precisely, being bad in very specific ways that keep the viewer from being overwhelmed by the horror of the actual stories portrayed in the show. Those stories, and the actors who play them–those are often very good indeed.
In the episode “Disabled,” for example, the detectives watch a video recording of a caretaker beating a paralyzed woman with a bar of soap in a sock. The woman in the wheelchair has advanced multiple sclerosis; she can feel the beating, but not dodge or even scream beyond choked moans and grunts. The video goes on for several minutes, one woman mercilessly pounding another across the head, face, breasts. The detectives are repulsed–even Ice-T is visibly shaken. The video cuts out.
After a moment of silence, the forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Huang, speaks. “I think Janice deeply resents having to care for her sister.”
YOU THINK? Let me tell you, Bertolt Brecht is kicking himself in his grave, if such a thing is possible, for not putting Dr. Huang in “The Good Woman of Szechuan.”
This is how “L&O: SVU” works. It doesn’t distance the viewer with theatrical “breaking the fourth wall” tricks. It distances the viewer by providing such an excess of information, which is never understood by the characters to be so, that the “Duh” response of any normal person is triggered several times an episode. This makes it possible to actually enjoy tales of horror that would otherwise be far too disturbing.
Whether the fears are international terrorist threats or the psychopath next door, “cartoon drama” helps you put them in a box and cope. You can read the whole thing here.