Monday, October 13, 2014

When Cynical Shows Send Inspirational Messages

A couple years ago, I had a Facebook conversation with someone about TV shows we liked, and we ended up talking about how I have a real fondness for snarky, cynical movies and shows. This led to a discussion about cynicism vs. sentimentality in entertainment, and whether one is better than the other. I have a definite distaste for the sentimental (with a few exceptions) because it often feel disingenuous or manipulative, but the other person argued that cynicism is perhaps just as manipulative and disingenuous, just on the other side.

I've been mulling that conversation over in my head ever since then, and while I don't know how it works for other people, I have discovered something about myself:

For me, the most emotionally meaningful moments are unexpected ones.

When a movie or a TV show deliberately sets itself up to be meaningful or sentimental -- or even sincere -- then I become consciously aware of its every move in trying to manipulate me to a specific emotional end. The characters don't seem real enough for me to truly get invested in them, because I see them only as tools for the melodrama. It's why I often don't respond well to films that bill themselves as "inspirational." There are no surprises. Each character simply acts in the most inspirational way, and that, to me, seems insincere.

So let's flip this around and look at my favorite example of unexpected sincere cynicism: the TV show Community.

I've written many times about my love for this show, but one of the things that always surprises me is how much I've come to care about the characters. For a meta, snarky show that's fairly pessimistic about human nature, it has a surprising amount of moments that invoke all the feels.

One example: "Basic Human Anatomy," the only season four episode fans of the show really liked. The plot's a little complicated, so if you haven't seen this episode, bear with me.

In this episode, best friends Abed and Troy switch bodies. The rest of the gang knows that they're just faking it, but these two seem absolutely committed, to the point where Troy's girlfriend Britta goes out on a date with Abed (who insists he's really Troy in Abed's body).

There's lots of physical comedy involved with the actors playing each other's characters, along with jokes about body switch movie tropes, and there's plenty of snarky commentary as the study group get annoyed that they won't let go of their insistence on the body switch. But there's a lot more to it than their self-aware snarking. Toward the end of the episode, we discover that Troy has been wanting to break up with Britta but got scared to do it, so the body switch is a way for Troy to break up without having to actually be there. Ultimately, Troy is convinced that he has to break up with her for himself, so he goes to the restaurant where Abed and Britta are having their date, stages their bodies switching back, and does what he needs to do.

Community's humor is not the type you'd immediately associate with highly emotional moments, but the scene where Troy talks about his fear of breaking up with Britta was very moving for me. In an unconventional and unexpected way, it communicated something very relatable: a fear of making tough decisions and hurting someone in the process. I absolutely connected with his desperate desire to do something, anything, so that he didn't have to be the one to be there for it.

Daria is another show that does the same thing for me. It may be even more cynical than Community, as there seems to be absolutely no chance that anyone in this show is going to change for the better any time soon. And yet, there are wonderfully touching moments. Moments where shallow sister Quinn reveals that she is aware -- and not entirely proud of -- her shallowness. Yes, she's back to the same thing the next day, but there's a sense in which we see her through a different lens.

In other episodes, Daria even wonders herself if she's becoming too cynical, and while she might not change her behavior in the episodes after that, we know that she's thinking about it, and there's a thought that maybe things might change after all -- even if it happens long after the show ends. It uses its dark humor to convey some messages that meant a lot to me. Oddly enough, this dark and cynical show is one that encourages me to monitor my own cynicism, because sometimes what seems like a great way of responding to frustrating situations can actually keep me from enjoying positive ones.

Not every cynical comedy has moments of sincerity. For example, much as I enjoy Seinfeld or Arrested Development, I'll happily admit there's no sincerity and very little emotional connection there. But many of the ones I love the most draw on this.

Part of the joy of this is that these emotional moments come out of the characters. The characters don't come out of the emotions. These characters are there to make us laugh, but they've become real people along the way, and that means that sometimes, the comedy reveals something deeper about them, and the veneer of cynicism is lifted for just a second so we can see and love and hurt for these people. And I do.

I think part of the reason this is so powerful for me is because my life is a lot like that. I don't live my life from meaningful experience to meaningful experience. I don't deal with a new major life crisis every week that will turn me into an exponentially better person if I can only defeat the odds and overcome it. Change happens slowly for me, in the midst of the silly and mundane. Like Daria and Jeff from Community, I can lose sight of that change and see the world only through a cynical lens, but, just like them, I find moments where, amid the laughter and the frustration and the goofy late-night conversations, meaning suddenly crowds its way through, and I remember what is important and what I want to be and what I want to be working towards.

When something meaningful happens in a super-sincere show that has a moral every episode, I can make no connection to my own life, because my life doesn't have a moral every episode. But whenever there's a sudden snap of meaning in a cynical show, I am reminded to look for the moments of meaning in my life.

Well, that's my take. What do you guys think? Does this happen to you too, or do you prefer stories that are more consistently inspirational?

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