The Comfort of Bad TV

Recently, I OD’ed on darkness. Sometimes, I cope with life’s terrors by watching horror movies and listening to true crime podcasts. There are many theories regarding the therapeutic nature of horror, some of which I discuss in my post “The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror.” But this month, I dove a little too far into the abyss (and it did not help that I had also read the beautiful but depressing books, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.) I was in desperate need of an overcorrect. I have read that type 2 diabetes can be cured with veganism, and I, too, needed an overly pure, difficult-to-sustain treatment, in order to counteract the narratives of serial killers and demonic influence that danced in my head. 

Then, as though sent from above, I received a notice on Netflix that there was a new season of the Hallmark Channel’s Good Witch. A few years ago, I had watched the first two seasons of the show but figured that it had been cancelled. As it turns out, there are now SIX SEASONS!! Thank the goddess!

Cassie, in her beautiful, twinkling shop, advising a customer.
Cassie, working in her shop, Bell, Book and Candle

What is Good Witch about, you ask? Well, it’s basically the witch-version of 7th Heaven. Remember that gem? I do, because I used to watch it every time I craved outlandish optimism and the absence of long-term struggle.

Usually, I like some juice in my stories, something at stake. It need not be literal life and death, but I want a reason to continue. Recently, I watched The Great, a series loosely based on Catherine the Great, and although it is a comedy, I felt compelled to watch as the teenage spitfire fights for education, feminism, and the American dre—oh, whoops, I mean the Russian dream. (It’s ok, Russia, it hasn’t exactly worked out for America either.)

Catherine the Great and her lover, in bed looking as though they've been deep in conversation.
Catherine the Great and her cute lover.

7th Heaven and Good Witch offer little to bite at, which is perhaps why they provide such a soothing balm. Both shows center around easily-resolved family issues, under the umbrella of watered down religion: The Camdens are Christian because they go to church and try to be nice to people; the Merriwick women are witches because they’re intuitive and drink tea. This dash of religion presents both stories as palpable to a mainstream audience, which traditionally opts for vanilla. 

7th Heaven does confront some legitimately stressful problems such as spousal abuse, gun violence, racism, and slut-shaming. (The latter ironically co-exists with the show’s human chastity belt, eldest son, Matt, who obsesses over his younger sisters’ potentially budding sexuality. This behavior is encouraged by the father, Reverend Camden, and it makes me want to wretch every time I think of it.)

Mary and Lucy looking off camera with frustrated, "I'm not having it" expressions.
Mary and Lucy: “What now, patriarch?”

But what takes the sting out of each trouble (even the waves of nausea triggered by creepy Matt) is that the problems are more or less resolved within an hour and often times, are never seen again. If we’re being honest, true issues are  rarely seen once. Most of the time, 7th Heaven problems are not actually problems. For instance, after the family doctor mixes up test results and incorrectly tells the Reverend and Mrs. Camden that Mary is pregnant (poor Mrs. Camden and her ever-fertile womb) Mary scolds her parents for thinking that she would “betray their trust” by having sex out of wedlock. But in case that’s not enough fantasy for you, there’s the episode that contains the least problem-y problem, “No Sex, Some Drugs and a Little Rock ‘N Roll,” where little Ruthie must come to terms with her gum-chewing vice. Seriously. 

Little Ruthie, looking seriously into the camera while drinking from a pink, toy tea cup and wearing a pink boa.
Little Ruthie: Trouble

Nevertheless, I am unironically fond of the episode, “Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion” where the (mostly grown) kids go to great lengths to hide their tattoos. At the end of the episode, the parents— alone in their bedroom—reveal that they already know about the kids’ tattoos, as they pull down their pajama pants to reveal their own ink—mark of the beast be damned!

When I was younger, I’d fantasize that I was somehow the long, lost daughter of the Camden’s and got to be a part of their family (whilst keeping my distance from purity-ring-Matt). I can’t say how my life with the Camdens would have worked out, though, as I am uncertain of how the characters’ lives actually function. I also don’t know if they accept non-heterosexuality. In my recollection of the show, no one ever asked about it. They did accept Judaism, though, so mazel tov to progress!

Matt and Sarah on their wedding day.
Here’s ol’ chastity belt himself, marrying a Jewish woman— officially—after secretly marrying her 24 hours after they met. Seriously. 

Meanwhile, in Middleton, the witches experience a similar dearth of painful problems. The protagonist, Cassie, does deal with the haunting presence of her late husband and lightly mourns her troubled childhood; however, the appearance of the handsome doctor, who moves in next door, at least gives her something pretty to look at. And yes, of course, they find love. Maybe the most vexing issue for the couple is their tendency toward mild arguments regarding western medicine versus herbalism. Here’s my interpretation of such a debate between them:

Sam: No! But…SCIENCE!
Cassie: Well, we’re both right, but mostly, I’m right. (knowingly smiles)
Sam: (thinks: She’s so pretty in that tight dress. Too bad sex does not exist in Middleton.)

Cassie and Sam, with jars of herbs in the foreground.
Cassie and Sam

Oh, that’s the other thing, as of Season 3, sex does not exist in Middleton. Nobody’s weird about sex but nobody’s having it, either. There is sex on 7th Heaven, but everyone gets all excited about it and not in a good way. 

Middleton is an entire town of people who cannot solve their own problems, without the Merriwick witches and essential oils. One can tell that they are definitely witches because they rarely charge anyone for their merchandise, and yet, Cassie maintains a beautiful, witchy shop, as well as an impeccable, mansion-sized bed and breakfast called, Grey House. 

This magic apparently rubs off on everyone because the town routinely joins together to produce extremely expensive, large-scale festivals and parties, all within around three days.

The carousel during the light festival.
Middleton organizes an ornate, expensive light festival within a couple days.

I fantasize about moving to Middleton. I can easily imagine the magic of fantasy-television, bestowing on me what would be, in real life, quite a chunk of cash, and then, mostly just milling around in Cassie’s shop, drinking tea, and taking long walks in the beautiful town. But what about the people? Would Cassie be my friend? Would we brew tea together? Or would her know-it-all sorcery grate on my nerves, like the mayor’s dissonant “yoo-hoo!” that slices every conversation. But I can hover in brief daydreams, imagining the beautiful vintage clothes I’d don on my way to meet friends at Middleton Microbrewery.

Mayor Martha Tinsdale, arms outstretched.
Mayor Martha Tinsdale

Middleton has also found its way into my sleeping-dreams. The night after the peaceful protests in my city (Birmingham, AL) turned aggressive, I dreamed that a few people from Middleton and I circled a crop of beautiful, six-foot-tall flowers and gently shoveled garden soil unto their base. I could not understand what, exactly, we were doing, but it felt correct. 

Cassie, holding an old book and gazing lovingly at the Middleton Merriwick flower.
Cassie, observing the famous Middleton Merriwick flower.

Nevertheless, as with any dream, one eventually wakes up. The world is a mess and always has been. Often, it’s hard to know how to change it. As I have yet to see systemic racism in Middleton (or actually any BIPOC at all) I assume that Cassie does not possess a tea remedy for two hundred years of oppression. 

In Sammy Rhodes’ book, Broken and Beloved: How Jesus Loves Us into Wholeness, he laments the success of 7th Heaven, claiming that he’s “convinced that Satan loved” the show because “When there is no real sin to repent of, there is no need for a real savior.” I see what he’s saying, but as a non-Christian, it baffles me to abhor good behavior for any reason. In contrast, Diana Tourjée’s article, “‘Satan’s Favorite TV Show’: The False Moralism of 7th Heaven,” ponders the show’s legacy after the sexual abuse allegations against Stephen Collins emerged in 2014: “So what does a show like 7th Heaven sell to its consumer? We already know that faith can be a mask to religious leaders whose personal lives are wicked. The series feels desperate in its attempt to reconstruct an American life it felt was in jeopardy. While much of religious media feels like it consists of caricatures of real families, 7th Heaven felt exceptionally crude—so clean it was obscene.”

For me, the hyper-vigilant peace and community of these television shows is both what provides an escape and what eventually annoys me. It’s a tease. First, I want to live in that world of puny struggles and gorgeous homes. Then, I realize that the majority of my friends nor I could possibly live there, and even if we could, it would mean the end of growth. There is more to give the world than well-rested smiles and wholesome advice. There is also more to receive and to learn.

I am reminded of the Good Witch episode (“In Sickness and in Health”) where a grumpy painter blows into town and is given a magic brush. (Seriously, Cassie sells magic paintbrushes in her shop.) He finds inspiration and paints several pieces that predict the bland, near future of the characters on the show. He leaves feeling better, inspired by a new perspective. But the point is, he leaves picturesque Middleton for a world where chaos and pain, and yes, also love and peace, intermingle and co-exist. Middleton is no place for an artist, unless he’s able to unhook the town’s snow-white bodice and reveal the dark contrast of human existence: we only know happiness as deeply as we know grief.

Today, I leave you with a simple haiku by Hokushi about a small moment that contrasts joy and loneliness:

for that brief moment
when the fire-fly went out…O
the lonely darkness

UPDATE: I finished season 3 and here are a few observations.

  1. POC siting! She buys valerian root for her sleeping problems. Hmmm…
  2. Someone (who lives in Chicago—not Middleton) finally tells Cassie to lay off the predictions.
  3. More mild trouble between Sam and Cassie: Sam doesn’t want to get married again; Cassie does. This conflict, expressed in near whispers, ends two tv-hours later with a horse-driven carriage ride and Sam on one knee. Huzzah! 

It’s the End of These Worlds as We Know Them, and I Don’t Feel Fine

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE DEADWOOD MOVIE AND THE SERIES FINALE OF GAME OF THRONES

This past weekend, the Deadwood movie came out on HBO. My wife had invited our friend over to see the movie, so I watched a few episodes beforehand and read a summary of the three seasons. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in the west, I’ve just never been into westerns. Nevertheless, I thought the series was well-written and provided complex characters. 

When the movie ended, I was interested to hear what my wife and our friend thought of it. The sentiment from both was that they enjoyed it, but that the movie, which takes place ten years after the series ends, pretty much left everyone and everything the way it had been. There were no surprises. “I’m not sure we needed the movie,” my wife said, thoughtfully. 

Initially, I believed that I didn’t care about Deadwood, but as the weekend progressed, I found myself bothered by its ending. I remember when the series first came out, a female friend of mine proclaimed that no one should be upset by the way women are treated in Deadwood because “that’s the way it was back then.” I’ve always thought that response is far more complicated than its simplistic facade. Why do we want to watch a show where women are treated in a way that supposedly ended long ago? I propose it’s because it actually hasn’t ended. We often identify with characters. But with whom are women identifying when they watch abused hookers from the 1800s (or the lovable, yet miserable, alcoholic, Calamity Jane)? Even more disturbing, with whom are contemporary men identifying? Of course, one doesn’t need to identify with characters to enjoy a story, but that still leaves me with the question: then why are we watching men abuse women in television shows meant to entertain?

Good storytelling is powerful, though. Even I felt myself sympathizing with the brothel’s pimp, and main character, Al Swearengen, played by the talented Ian McShane. Swearengen is dying of alcoholism, in the movie, and wills his establishment to his favorite prostitute, Trixie. However, the first episode of the tv series was still fresh in my mind, and I couldn’t help but recall that Al beats Trixie for shooting a customer, who wouldn’t stop beating her. He tells Trixie she’s “bad for…business” and then steps on her throat until she squeaks out “I’ll be good.” At the end of the movie, though, due to convincing writing and good acting, I felt as though Al loved her and that Trixie (who earlier urges a young prostitute to consider that she’s been gaslighted into turning tricks) has just won by inheriting an establishment that will no longer “run girls,” as Al puts it. 

I had similar feminist issues with Game of Thrones, although I was heavily invested in that storyline. Season 8 aside, I felt that most abused female characters (main characters, anyway) eventually found inner strength and exacted terribly satisfying revenge on their antagonists. Here are a few classics: 

Daenerys Resolves Some Family Issues: 

Screenshot 2019-06-03 11.46.38

Arya: The North Remembers

Screenshot 2019-06-05 13.13.37

Dracarys for Stealing My Babies

Screenshot 2019-06-05 13.10.49

Dracarys Down the Patriarch

Screenshot 2019-06-05 13.12.24

And my personal favorite: Doggone, Ms. Sansa!

Screenshot 2019-06-03 13.00.19

Although these women’s situations are worse than I’ve experienced, I can still identify with having to deal with abusive men and the society that enables their behavior. The women on Game of Thrones find justice that the rest of us can only dream of. That’s the appeal of watching them suffer: my inevitable relief when they become empowered and take revenge.

Of course, the narrative does not always show an awareness that women are human but instead, often remains stuck in old notions. For instance, Daenerys gets raped nightly by her husband until she learns how to seduce him through her eyes. (Seriously.) Then, they fall madly in love, and yours truly—despite my inner feminist (or really, inner NORMAL PERSON)—felt sad anyway when Daenerys’ “Sun and Stars” gets cursed by a witch, who, by the way, had previously been gang raped by ol’ Sun and Stars’ men! I can forgive Daenerys’ Stockholm Syndrome, but I can’t forgive the authors for roping me into it nor for implying that if women would just “get on top” they wouldn’t get raped anymore and would be stronger for it. In fact, they’d fall in love.

Similarly, Sansa’s own repeated marital rapes are implied as necessary for her character development and for her own empowerment, as if we’re supposed to forget that, often times, victims of sexual assault become depressed, anxious, and suicidal. Of course, I was relieved when she escapes by jumping off a castle roof, runs through an icy river, and returns home to mobilize troops and win the north’s independence, but I cannot get on board with the sentiment that her strength could not have manifested but for her husband’s abuse. She makes such a comment to the Hound, implying that she would never have grown up without the rapes. To correct the suggestion that the audience should believe that rape, for women, can be good for their personal growth would have been easy. The writers could have had the Hound reply to Sansa’s statement that she had found her strength despite her husband’s abuse. Again, I can’t blame Sansa for trying to make meaning out of her trauma, but I resent the writers for asking me to do it, too. 

I guess that’s how I felt about Trixie in the Deadwood movie. Who can blame her for her response to an abuser, especially when “that’s the way it was back then”? But why end the movie with the focus on comforting the abuser with yet another dominated woman rubbing his feet? I guess the scene’s comedy and sentimentality somehow eases our resistance? 

I don’t need all abusive characters to die by dogs or dragons, but I can’t help observing that, many times, there’s an awful lot of sympathy and comforting and, in the case of Daenerys’ husband, reward for misogynistic violence. I also don’t need sexual assault narratives erased completely. These stories are valid. I’d just like more thought put into the narrative and an acknowledgement that women are not that different from men: we don’t flourish from rape. 

For this month’s post, I’ve chosen Rita Dove’s “Persephone, Falling” for its use of timeless mythology and contemporary sarcasm to illuminate the patriarch’s method for maintaining female captivity.

Until next month: Dracarys Down Misogyny!

Persephone Falling

One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful 
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.
No one! She had strayed from the herd.

(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.

—from Mother Love by Rita Dove