text copyright Jonathan Zap, 2013
Like so many people, I followed Breaking Bad to its recent last episode, and am presently watching the last episodes of the third season of The Walking Dead in preparation for Season 4, which starts tomorrow. Two days ago, I streamed the first episode of House of Cards.
(Image Credit: Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
I find myself deeply affected by the content and lifecycle of some of these great series, series on the level of Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire and Game of Thrones. Although not all examples are so exalted, the television series is one of the greatest story forms ever created. Especially thanks to the pioneering efforts of HBO, and the technological innovations that have made HD content accessible to most of us, this powerful art form has become incredibly potent. The great television series are as much a cultural pinnacle in our time as Gothic cathedrals were in some earlier centuries. For some, they are too much stained with the technology and nowness of the present era, rather than the patina of antiquity, and a bias against the whole dimension of television keeps certain disdainful snobs from the awed recognition that they are witnessing the rapid evolution of some of the greatest cultural products ever created by our species.
Although a single visionary may be the initiator, television series are collaborative art forms, and sometimes the collaboration produces a work of genius. Other times, a brilliant collaboration seems to degenerate into the addled judgment of a committee, and a series that may start brilliantly, drawing me into a world that is vivid and alive, can degenerate into a wobbly and garishly colored counterfeit version of what it once was. Lost and Trueblood are, for me, examples of visionary series that failed their potential.
Painting by Czaritsa (Ashlee Casey)
My recent viewings have also left me struck by how much the psychopathy theme comes exploding out of most of these series. So many principle characters are psychopaths or, what I call “situational psychopaths.” In The Walking Dead, everyone, even those who haven’t turned, is infected with the flesh eating zombie virus and is only a heartbeat away from turning into a staggering puppet of reptilian drives and appetites.
Characters that I have witnessed struggling soulfully through heartfelt, often heartrending, moments unexpectedly take psychopathic actions, actions that sometimes haunt my mind years later. And other characters that I presumed were pure psychopaths, Merle in The Walking Dead, for example, unexpectedly reveal submerged humanity still alive in someone who has seemed like a mass of scar tissue and impulsive violence, someone whom I watched do so many brutal and evil things. Many of the characters in these great series are complex and paradoxical in ways that we don’t always want. As with so many of the people in our lives, these characters leave us with a disconcerting range of feelings.
Great television series, like all great stories, are portals that reflect back to us the story that enfolds us when we look away from the pages of the book, or the video screen— the story that Burning Man folk call the default reality, and that I call the Babylon Matrix. Great stories give us equipment for living through the ever-turbulent default reality, the story that still engulfs us even as we are privileged to look through portals into these shimmering mirror worlds.