Meaningful Mysteries – Psychoanalytic Pleasures in Today’s TV

by: Sharon Ross / Columbia College Chicago



The structure of this journal (multiple topics visible at a glance, with ever-more links) looks like how I imagine my brain to be inside. As a TV scholar and teacher, my brain is pretty much all about “bouncing around.” I think FLOW’s structure also parallels the TV experience for many today: TIVO links and recommendations, opportunities to catch missed episodes, the “bouncing” TV seasons. This is definitely the place to be discussing TV! That said, what to write about? My strategy was to revisit past columns and see what triggered my interest. That was a miserable failure — too much to choose from, and a likelihood that some other more organized columnist would beat me to the punch. So I’m going with a topic that my husband (and many of my students) swears is uniquely my own and begging for explanation: the inside of my brain. Right now, the neurons babbling the most loudly are chatting about “Meaningful Mysteries” — shows I am obsessed with because they offer up overarching mysteries that extend beyond the “mystery solved!” formula of today’s procedural-dominated landscape.

The shows I have in mind are: Nip/Tuck (which I watched backwards and I think may have enjoyed more for that), Desperate Housewives, Lost, Medium (technically a procedural but see below), Veronica Mars, and Wonderfalls (cancelled but living with unaired episodes on DVD.) Clearly I can’t break down each of these shows (which, by the way, you should all be watching, either because you love TV and/or because you teach it), so I’m “forced” to forge a connection. Go ahead and laugh, but I think psychoanalysis is the route to take (again, my husband and students are likely to concur, albeit in a different sense.)

All of these programs are rooted in an overarching mystery to varying degrees. Nip/Tuck has left us hanging with a serial rapist about to attack; Desperate Housewives is prompting speculation about why Mary Alice committed suicide (among other mysteries); Lost has a “simple” mystery (where/why the hell are they?); Medium has weekly criminal mysteries matched with a larger mystery of how the psychic DuBois family handles the uninvited visions they receive; Veronica Mars has a periodically missing mother and a dead best friend; and Wonderfalls features inanimate objects come to life who guide the cynical Jaye to perform unwilling acts of kindness. There’s a way to fit even Nip/Tuck in here if I wanted to go the Freudian “what do women want?” route. But I’ll take things in a different direction psychoanalytically.



Epistemophilia and the Uncanny

Humans like to figure things out, from why bad films win Oscars to why that girl from the 6th grade teased you so mercilessly. We like puzzling over such psychological and emotional issues — both on a personal and (Jungian) collective or social level. Storytelling has been a strategy across cultures for us to work through our fears and desires, and TV is just one of the more recent manifestations. Epistemophilia explains the pleasure in this process — and this is where TV in general and the “Meaningful Mystery” shows in particular take flight. The pleasure, from a psychoanalytic perspective, comes in the process of trying to figure things out. In other words, we enjoy the “chase” more than the “catch.”

Don’t ask me to fit in Law & Order or CSI here — that’s a different psychoanalytic ball game. Look instead to the shows I listed: their mysteries extend beyond solving a crime to pondering “larger” mysteries, very Freudian in nature. Why do people abandon us? Why do dead people return to bother us — literally and figuratively? Why do we end up with the people we do in our lives? Is there such a thing as karma? The uncanny, a la Freud, occurs when something threatening emerges that is oddly familiar to us at the same time; we are compelled to return to that mystery (why is it familiar? why is it threatening?) over and over until we master the situation (i.e., remove the threat.) TV watching is all about returning (week after week, season after season), and these shows add a more overt thematic layer of “returning,” as seen in the questions I rattled off above. What pulls me in further is that they turn Freud’s uncanny upside down: the overarching mysteries provided and the epistemophilia provoked situate the uncanny as something with potential rather than as a threat-infused monster to conquer. (This is perhaps best exemplified by Locke early on in Lost, who “looked into the eye of the island” and “saw something beautiful.”) Further, the use of literal mysteries provides viewers with the epistemophilac (probably not a real word) pleasure of prediction (what comes next?), while the overarching span of the mysteries prompts the twin pleasure of speculation (why will that come next? what is the meaning of the mystery itself?). Throw in the Internet, and you’ve got an ever-expanding web of topics that become inextricable from each other as viewers discuss their show’s mysteries — a never-ending source of epistemophiliac pleasure.

Lacan might chime in here and explain that we constantly seek a return to jouissance — that state of blissful oneness we apparently had pre-birth. There’s something there I think; but again, for me it is about being in the midst of the mystery-solving itself. I don’t want to achieve jouissance — that would mean the game is over. This is perhaps why I get bored with procedurals (and why others prefer them.) It may also explain the increasing soap operatic aesthetics of TV — something Horace Newcomb saw coming long before the rest of us.

I leave you all with a jumping off point for discussion in the spirit of solving mysteries and in the spirit of this journal: Is there a reason that there has been a “mini-explosion” of such shows recently in TV? And how do the pleasures of being immersed in a mystery interact with the pleasures/displeasures of the content of these shows (see Allison McCracken’s recent discussion of Lost and religion)? I write again in June, so be interactive and use the FLOW response links to choose a topic you’re interested in and calm my bouncing neurons: 1) season finales, 2) “mid”-season hits and misses, 3) fiction Peabody winners, 4) what got cancelled that shouldn’t have, 5) Everybody Loves Raymond‘s version of feminism, or 6) Degrassi on “the N.”


Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud. Trans. Alix Strachey. Ed. Phillip Rieff. New York: Collier, 1963. 19-60. (orig. pub. 1919).

McCracken, Allison. “Lost.” FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture. 1. 4 (19 Nov. 2004).

Newcomb, Horace. TV: The Most Popular Art. Garden City, NJ: Anchor Press, 1974.

Web Links
Desperate Housewives
Veronica Mars

Image Credits:
1. Nip/Tuck
2. Medium

Please feel free to comment.


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  • I think Ross is on to something here with the pleasure of the “chase.” Except for the crime franchises (and with a nod to Heidi Klum), it seems that contained narratives such as sitcoms are out and serial genre hybrids are in. The shows mentioned that I am familiar with, Desperate Housewives and Lost, reveal themselves onion-style: each week peels off new details about the main arcs and characters. To take the onion metaphor even further, the layers only serve to build our emotional investment in the show as we both seek to understand these new developments in light of past episodes.

    This style of exposition allows us to invest as much in the characters’ personal mysteries (such as Locke’s transformation, which proved to be the episode that finally hooked me on Lost for good) as the primary mystery. Viewers can thus gain pleasure beyond the whodunit factor or, in fact, ignore the whodunit completely, as I do with DH, preferring to get caught up in the soapy lives of the women of Wisteria Lane. Finally, the soap elements of these shows and others (such as Six Feet Under), part of a larger trend towards hour-long genre hybrids, are what I think enable these mysteries to succeed.

    Finally, I register my vote for a discussion of cancelled-shows-that-shouldn’t-have-been. Hopefully in June Arrested Development will still be off that

  • I agree with Ross that those who enjoy the more serial aspects of television are often in it for the thrill of the chase. “Lost” is an excellent example of a show which recognizes this element of storytelling. It consistently raises more questions than it answers. Even when it does answer a question, that answer raises a multitude of new questions. Unfortunately, the danger in this sort of storytelling is that eventually people tire of the chase and want the catch, and I’ve yet to view a highly serial series that has come to a satisfying conclusion. The X-Files comes to mind as a recent example. For years, the series engaged the viewer in a sort of narrative foreplay, constantly provoking us to question the mysteries of the series’ mythology. When we finally were given the answer to our questions, it was quite anti-climactic. This raises an interesting question. Is it ever possible for the catch to be as thrilling as the chase?

  • re: epistemophilia

    I can relate to the above said wholeheartedly , however i was just wondering if the pleasure of the chase is not psychonalitic at all but at a much deeper level, at the level of our phylogenetic memory, our biological darkness…the hunter, the killer ape that we are was the father of the pleasure in the chase?…just thinking

  • I agree that many people watch TV shows consistently because of “the chase”. People get hooked on shows when they have complex storylines and leave you with unanswered questions at the end of the episode. Producers in TV know that cliff-hangers are a good way to add suspense and get people to come back for more. For example, I watch Desperate Housewives because I want to find out what happened to Mary Alice and why her husband has killed so many people. I also want to figure out what the plumber is doing and if he’s really a good or bad guy. Due to this built up anticipation, or the chase, it takes a lot for the answers, or the catch, to be truly satisfying.

  • Scarlett Oehlke

    Ross presents an interesting point in this article. It makes me realize how much more I enjoy a show if there is some sort of mystery involved. “The chase,” as Ross refers to it, is certainly what keeps me watching most of the programs that I enjoy. Creating mystery on a television program is the perfect tactic to obtain viewers. Sure, it’s a little gimmicky, but maybe that’s what it takes to be successful. For me it is just so satisfying to follow a show every week and wait for a certain big moment where something is revealed. I like speculating about how shows will turn out, and I like it when the ending is not at all what I expected. I admit that it’s frustrating to be led on by television programs, but mystery makes them so addictive that I cannot help but watch. Considering all the time viewers sit around waiting for some huge revelation, it is especially disapointing when that revelation isn’t absolutely perfect. It takes a lot to create something that will be truly satisfying for viewers. The anticipation just makes television so much more enjoyable for me.

  • Elaine Ferritto

    I completly agree with Ross’ structure argument that viewers much prefer the “chase” rather than the catch. Not only does this method make TV series exciting and allowing for the viewer to engage, but I think this concept relates well to our daily lives. When a chase is presented on television it can be a mirror image of how our society works. Take for example many of our youth’s relationships. So many of us enjoy the chase much rather than the catch. People enjoy exciting events, new things, and something to do or work on. Television series such as these mystery shows, specifically Nip/Tuck does an excellent job of keeping the viewer wanting more every week. I think that’s why people are so attracted to shows like these. I pick Nip/Tuck because its season is also during the summer, and during the summer months viewers are looking for anything to engage themselves in. Placement (timing) is important for these shows, but also their structure allows for them to be more lenient than other kinds of shows on television.

  • Christopher Kaiser

    Meaningful Mysteries in Japanese TV

    I think it’s impressive that there are as many shows on the air as there are right now with serial content, like 24 and Lost. They are riskier to produce because if viewers don’t keep up with the story, they may get frustated and stop watching completely. Yet these shows have the potential to hook viewers into coming back week after week for more episodes.

    In my experience, I haven’t come across a very high percentage of “Meaningful Mystery” shows in primetime television. However, for at least six years I have had many friends who are obsessed with Japanese animated television shows. One of the main things which seems to draw people to these shows is their story/character arcs; these shows almost all have a strong beginning and end, and many episodes of “middle”. And almost all of the anime shows I can think of fit Ross’ description of “Meaningful Mystery” shows. Usually, these shows involve one or more central characters which have something mysterious in their past which is shaping their behavior, but it is only as the show progresses that the viewers are allowed to understand what has happened. As an example, I’ll take Neon Genesis Evangelion, a popular anime of the 1990s which has become a prototype for many other series. It takes place in the future, when “angels” prophesied by the Dead Sea Scrolls have started attacking earth. 14-year-old Shinji Ikari is called upon by a government agency to pilot an “Eva” alongside a few other youngsters, as the last and best line of defense against the “angels”. The show starts the viewer off in the midst of the fast-paced story with little explanatory exposition, and mostly shows only Shinji’s perspective of the story. The viewer is challenged to piece together all of the mysterious proceedings as Shinji does. What are the “angels” and why are they attacking earth? Why are only 14-year-olds chosen to pilot the “Evas”, and why Shinji in particular (he’s a whining, self-loathing wimp)? Why does Rei – one of Shinji’s teammates – seem so mysteriously emotionless, and why does she have blue hair and red eyes?

    With shows like this from Japan becoming recently more prominent on American television on cable networks such as TechTV and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, maybe it’s not a coincidence that dramatic shows with “mystery” story arcs are being revived so strongly on primetime network television.

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  • Mind over Matter

    I believe shows that have several mysteries hovering over them have become popular because producers began realizing two things: 1) Sometimes you have to take risks to be successful and 2) The audience is more than just a bunch of robots with eyes. They are living breathing people with brains that like to be exercised, EVEN while sitting at home watching television. The audience has been “watching” tv for years, so something different that allows the audience to mentally get involved with what they see puts a fresh coat of paint on the way we see tv. Some people might respond to these types of shows by saying “Wow!” because its something new and interesting. Others may say “Finally!” because its something different that should have happened a while ago. Instead of tv producers trying to recreate the experience of watching movies at home, they began to make the experience of watching tv at home more interesting. They ditch the linear story format and use the time they have to expose just enough to grab the audience’s attention until the viewers have enjoyed it so much that they come back for whats next. And by doing this, the viewers get to attach themselves to the show for multiple themes they take interest in, instead of just one hook aimed to satisfy all.

  • Bonjour, On en veut davantage traité de cette manière. Merci 1000 fois ! Bonne journée

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