by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University
America is making people disappear. While the “real” casualties of this administration are rarely represented on television, rituals of death are continually replayed and the sense of loss remains, haunting these texts. My subject for this first column is, appropriately, what we have lost and how we’re coping with that loss — on television, anyway. With a fall season marked by the popularity of programs entitled Without a Trace and Lost, the importance of loss as a televisual theme seems rather obvious. We can easily look back on the past few years for confirmation of this trend. For example, competitive reality programs in which the “unchosen” disappear into the night, through a ritual cab ride (as in The Apprentice or The Bachelor) or simply by going “off” camera. Others like Wife Swap exploit fears of spousal disappearance, creating fractured families who long for reconnection. And death, not love, is certainly all around in the crime procedurals that dominate prime time. These programs litter our evenings with corpses, most often women or children, casualties in a domestic war that has no name. Invisible during their lives, such bodies become sites for investigation after their death, as professionals use the latest technology to probe their flesh for clues to their untimely demise. As hard as these investigators work, however, the “losses” continue to pile up. On the one hand, these programs serve as cautionary tales reinforcing the terror warnings: we must be fearful, we must be good consumers, we must not lose the game. If we make a mistake, we shall be erased. On the other hand, these programs also enact a revealing displacement: both domestically and internationally, America is making people disappear. While the “real” casualties of this administration are rarely represented on television, rituals of death are continually replayed and the sense of loss remains, haunting these texts.
In American prime-time, such losses are not exclusively thematic; the industry itself has dramatically changed in the last four years, and the loss of socially progressive programming has been devastating to liberal producers and to the communities they serve. During the 2000 Presidential election, for example, I alternated between watching the returns and reading the reactions to them by Buffy fans on-line. That evening, we had all previously watched a new episode of the program’s 5th season, “Family,” in which Buffy producer Joss Whedon took a firm stance in support of gay couples, to the delight of fans. This year, one week before the Presidential election, Whedon unexpectedly shut down his television production company, Mutant Enemy, because, he said “I have a bitter taste in my mouth with where tv has gone the past five years.” (Variety, Oct.24, 2004). Since the surprise cancellation of Angel this year, all of Mutant Enemy’s programs are now off the air, replaced by sometimes entertaining but largely reactionary boy-centered melodramas like Smallville, Everwood, The O.C., Jack and Bobby, and life as we know it. Aside from a few female-centered programs, none of which offers the innovations Buffy did, girls (and queers) have largely vanished from prime time prominence, along with socially progressive agendas. Television’s experiments in the mid-to-late 90-s,which resulted in such gems as Freaks and Geeks, Homicide, My So-Called Life, Ellen, Oz, Once and Again and Sex and the City seems over. For their audiences, these texts represented a socially liberal space that enabled viewers to connect with alternative forms of community which may not have been available to them otherwise. Their loss (and the lack of comparable replacements) is a potentially profound one for many television viewers, who are no longer permitted the range of discussion or opportunity for community richer, more critical texts made available to them (and often encouraged by producers like Whedon).
It’s perhaps no surprise that, amidst such loss, prime-time television has turned to God (like many voters in this year’s election). While in the 90s Buffy re-appropriated religious symbols and icons to serve feminist and queer ends, and Oz acknowledged religious diversity and linked spiritual practices with broader humanitarian concerns, God has reappeared in more traditional forms in recent years, as a wise advisor or institutionalized icon. This shift to God in “straight” form has been particularly hard on female characters. The most obvious example is Joan of Arcadia, whose creator, Barbara Hall, rediscovered God after suffering a sexual assault. Hall created Joan so that adolescent girls and other viewers could turn to God in dealing with the perils of modern life. The program, however, often seems to have the opposite effect for Joan. God tells his handmaiden how to make everyone else’s life better except her own, which is continually disrupted by his bizarre requests (unsurprisingly, Joan is not permitted to know God’s reasons beforehand). Similarly, on the much-heralded new drama Jack and Bobby, future President Bobby recoils from his fiercely secular (and unfortunately shrill) mother to embrace religious life, paving the way to his becoming a minister. And last season on Everwood, local doctor Harold Abbott races to church to confess his sins after performing an abortion for a random teenage girl. While the girl herself never reappears, the point is clear: the fallen woman caused this good man to sin.
Alongside these literal references to God, the desire for supernatural or spiritual intervention has taken hold of more secular-seeming dramas as well, most notably J.J. Abrams’ Lost. Lost begins where most disaster films end — after the plane crash on the deserted tropical island. The program is particularly timely in that it deals both with lost people and feelings of loss generally, especially for a liberal-minded middle-class audience. Lost represents many of those who are normally invisible as protagonists on television (non-Americans, non Anglos, the disabled, the overweight, an Iraqi citizen, a drug user), but it also suggests the world view of American liberals who feel stranded in a land in which they have lost social power, and who are haunted by past events which have brought them to where they are. This is a potentially powerful scenario, but Lost has resisted complex interrogations of liberal alienation or American social violence in favor of more comforting supernatural band-aids.
The most successful episode, “Walkabout,” found fans absolutely overjoyed and in tears when it was revealed that wheel-chair bound Terry O’Quinn had been mysteriously healed by the plane crash. Even on such seemingly secular boards as televisionwithoutpity.com, religious rhetoric was plentiful as fans referred, some in gingerly quotations, to the “miracle” that had occurred. While the quotation marks indicate some possible discomfort with the term, especially in relation to a program coming from generally more progressive Buffy writer David Fury and Alias/Felicity creator J.J. Abrams, they also suggest an increased willingness to entertain religious explanations. Indeed, a recent TV Guide poll revealed that 26% of viewers think that the “survivors” are actually all dead, another 23% that they’re in “Purgatory” (TV Guide, 11/14/04). Perhaps more than anything else, this poll suggests the hopelessness of many audience members who seem willing to embrace, at least televisually, some sign of a divine or at least an easy, solution to a depressing, perhaps intolerable, situation.
Remarkably, I find myself looking to a procedural for representations of the “disappeared” in which conditions of actual social violence are referenced. Without a Trace is unusual for today’s procedurals because it is the only crime program which consistently offers thoughtful characterizations, fallible detectives, failed investigations, and moments of progressive politics. The program recently departed from its procedural format to offer a pretty faithful adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s social critique of the situation of low-wage working women (the episode titles are “Nickel and Dimed, Parts I and II”). In this case, the “vanished” woman is a single mother, trying to make ends meet by working at “Everymart” and cleaning houses on her days off. Desperate for money for her son’s hearing aid, she works as a go-between for drug-dealers, who kidnap and eventually kill her. Single female Detective Samantha Spade empathizes with the women, putting her own life at risk in order to search for her by going undercover as a low-wage worker; Spade’s “break from common procedure” allows the program to further expose these women’s inhumane working and living conditions. In the episode’s thesis statement, the frustrated Spade angrily mourns the missing woman: “It shouldn’t have been so hard for her, you know? She deserved better. This isn’t about records or files or paper trails. The problem is she’s invisible. This woman has vanished into thin air, and if it weren’t for Jake, [her son], it wouldn’t have even made a ripple. I feel like things happen to people like her and no one notices and no one’s held accountable!” Spade’s critique is remarkable in that it exposes the blinders of our culture generally, well represented by television’s other procedurals — their devotion to “paper trails” and elaborate autopsies while larger structural causes are never addressed. While her outburst does not offer a divine or easy solution, it does significantly acknowledge the pervasive losses caused by our social system. And Spade does mourn these losses, at least for a television moment — and such moments may be the only “real” comfort television has to offer for the next four years.
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