Misery Porn

I’ve noticed a trend in a type of television drama; putting characters through the ringer, and not just the odd obstacle either, but events that inflict massive emotional trauma. Recently watching Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers, and Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch, it hit me how much television is willing to subject its characters to.

But this isn’t something new. Shows that I’ve loved over the years have all experimented with despair in one way or another; loved ones dying, debilitating injuries, emotional break-ups, losing jobs or experiencing some other kind of heavy loss. Game of Thrones, Deadwood, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica have all done it.

Sure we read the news everyday about the atrocities around the world. We hear of tragic events like the 2011 earthquake in Japan and the tens of thousands of deaths and say ‘that’s terrible’. But it’s more sympathy than empathy. It’s plain journalism, just facts. It’s hard for us to connect with. Stories, fact or fiction, can help us cross that barrier to empathy, and come close to feeling what they feel.

I’ve come across the term, ‘Misery Porn’, also known as ‘Misery Lit’ used to describe stories, mostly memoirs, about people enduring tragedy and overcoming great adversities. I see it as not unlike torture porn, but rather than people getting dismembered, we just can’t get enough of seeing people endure and break through a deep soul crushing depression.

It’s an interesting phenomenon I’m going to attempt to put into words.

Why is it we like seeing people in pain, or overcoming pain? Or more rather, why is it so gripping to watch? Some of us watch television to escape the misery from our own lives. Why subject ourselves to misery of the fictional variety?

Is it because we can empathise with the characters in their suffering? We feel the loss of Danny’s parents, and how Danny’s passing deeply affects everyone in the small town of Broadchurch.

Is it because it makes us feel good that they are having a worse time than us? How about Nora Durst losing her husband and two kids in the rapture-like event in The Leftovers. Does her coping mechanisms and appearing calm make her brave to us, handling something we could never dream of handling?

Or do we watch misery porn simply to feel something? Could the main reason I watch television be to feel? Have I become so numb in my waking life that the emotion these characters feel and express is some kind of catharsis? Is this an individual thing, or is it a collective experience? People keep watching this stuff so it must have an effect on people.

So I’ve raised more questions than actually providing answers. What do you think?

My Ten Shows of Yesteryear

It wasn’t just games in 2012. There was a fair bit of time spent watching the old goggle box as well.

It was a year of shows I loved before and still love today (some in their second seasons, one in its eighth!), but two new shows did make it into my top ten; Awake and Girls. I feel bad for leaving Community and Doctor Who off this list, but sadly their seasons weren’t quite up to the standard they had set previously. Let’s not start off on on a sour note and instead enjoy my picks of 2012, because we all know I have the best taste, and the best hair, and… let’s just stop while we’re ahead.

American Horror Story

While the first (rather bizarre) season resided in Murder House, Asylum takes place in a mental institution in the ‘60s with some of the same actors playing new roles. Jessica Lange plays a larger role as Sister Judy, the head nun, Evan Peterson is a convicted serial killer, and Zachary Quinto is now a psychiatric doctor. There are no apparent ghosts in Asylum so the show feels a little more based in reality. That being said, I’m forgetting about mad scientist abominations and being possessed by the devil! Time doesn’t jump around as much so it’s more or less a linear narrative (with the odd flashback here or there). The cinematography is incredible for a TV show and although I wasn’t jumping out of my chair, it was hella creepy and I did have to look away from the screen more than once.

 

Awake

When Kyle Killen’s Awake got cancelled after its first season I have to admit I was a little sad and a tad angry. To me the show was just finding its stride. It started off like a police procedural set in two dimensions, but the more the show delved into Michael Britain’s psyche the more interesting the show got. It was emotional and didn’t mind screwing with your head a bit, especially when Michael starts to see things like computer generated penguins. The two worlds are lit differently to make it easier on the viewer (the one with the wife is warm and bright, while the one with the son is cold and blue), but even so I still had a hard time tracking which reality was which. The two shrinks offer good reasons why each world is real and even at the end I still wasn’t sure which was the real life — if there ever was one.  There’s a fair bit of detective work, but there’s also a lot of Jack-Baueresque running around with guns. If you want something different from your typical cop show, think Life On Mars, even for only one season, I would recommend you give this one a watch.

 

Breaking Bad

Surprise! Well if you’ve been paying attention to the Internet over the last. five years, not really. Breaking Bad is a fan favourite and resides on many a list. This epic meth making saga continues for one last time. Walt has near and truly gone all Scarface. It’s often nail biting and heart wrenching, but the writers don’t forget the comedy. I am reminded of the scene in which Jesse has dinner with Walt and Skyler; one of the most awkward and hilarious things to watch. Vince Gilligan’s mid-season finale left us in suspense for what’s around the corner. What will become of Walter White and his plucky sidekick Jesse Pinkman?

 

Game of Thrones

I read George R. R. Martin’s first book before watching the first season, but I found it rather dense. Fantasy isn’t my forte with all those made-up place names and characters that are impossible to spell. But I’ve stuck with this rendition and I’ve been rewarded for my efforts. When the show isn’t quick cutting away from the large ensemble and instead focuses on a set of characters (i.e. the episode Blackwater) the show really gets into the heart of its characters. I only hope the next season does more of this. It’s fantasy done right for the small screen. If you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings and are interested in seeing something darker (a lot darker), you will have much to like here.

 

Girls

This isn’t quite your Sex and the City. Set in New York, Girls follows the lives of a group of young friends. Lena Dunham writes, directs and stars as the unlikable, but somehow endearing, Hannah Horvath. Girls is kinda hilarious, and it has its dramatic moments too. As an HBO show they do get to show a bit more than you’d find in a network comedy. Not that we wanted to see it in the first place! But they do discuss subjects like abortion and sex and all that good stuff in a realistic context. Even with all the deprave acts many of the characters on the show partake in, I still found myself invested in their lives by the end of the season. Adam was pretty much a dick at the start, and gradually I began to like him more and more. It all comes to an interesting conclusion when things flip-flop in the season finale.

 

Louie

Louie is in its third season and still going strong. Like Girls and Lena Dunham (but on a greater degree), Louis C.K. writes, directs, and stars in Louie. This eclectic comedy/drama/medley of a thing is about a fictional version of Louie living in New York, doing stand-up, and supporting his two kids. Each episode is unique and while some events don’t have continuity, other things do come back for future storylines. There’s the amazing three-parter where Louie is pegged as the replacement for a retiring David Letterman. He is trained up as a late night talk show host by David Lynch (Twin Peaks) playing as an eccentric tutor. Louie is great. You never know what to expect week from week. Only thing I’m not too happy with is the fact we have to wait until 2014 to get more of it.

 

Parks and Recreation

This season in particular came off to a rocky start, tying together events in Pawnee and Washington D.C. But once it pulled out the knots Parks and Rec turned back into the show we know and loved. Amy Poehler as the plucky Leslie Knope, deputy of the Parks Department, now city councillor, is endearing as always. Unlike The Office (I stopped watching after season eight), the jokes are funny and it feels like the show has a soul. This season has NZ’s own Lucy Lawless as Ron’s new romantic interest, and Mike from Breaking Bad even makes an appearance as Ben’s dad. Parks and Recreation is reliably funny and uplifting, and I hope the show’s writers learned their lesson from splitting up the cast at the start of the season.

 

Peep Show

Now entering season eight (I did a marathon of season one through seven in the same year). David Mitchell and Robert Webb play as flatmates who are complete opposites; Mark (Mitchell), the anal-retentive office worker and Jeremy (Webb), the unemployed stoner. Peep Show offers us a direct look into the minds of these two guys and their thoughts without filters (through voice over). It’s not always pretty, but it’s always ripe for a laugh. This season Mark is wanting to move things forward with Dobby and Jeremy is left without a home. Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain write the perfect voices for the comedic pairing of Mitchell and Webb. The show hasn’t changed much since it first aired in 2003. The unique POV shots are all but familiar now, but the comedy is always fresh, so it’s a good thing there’s lots of it.

 

Skins

I started to review this season episode by episode but I ended my write-ups abruptly due to… well, nothing but sheer laziness really. And it’s a shame because I care a great deal about Skins. It’s shot beautifully, and the images are placed perfectly to great selections of music. Unfortunately this season falls into the same trap of making two guys fall head over heels for a girl who is by the end of the season self-loathing, selfish, and completely unlikable. I’m looking at you Franky. The Alo as a pedo episode is the funniest, most awkward, hard to watch thing I’ve seen in a while. And the Rich episode still gives me goose bumps when I think about it. I guess I do tend to identify more with the young awkward males! But each episode does give an insight into each character and how and why they tick, which makes the Skins format of focusing on a particular character each episode really ideal.

 

Wilfred

I’ve yet to see the original Australian version of this show about a man who talks to a dog (well, a man in a dog costume). But this American version starring Elijah Wood (Ryan) and Jason Gann (playing as Wilfred, the dog from the original) is fun to watch. It doesn’t mind going for crude humour and the toilet jokes. The show often plays with the mystique surrounding Ryan’s ability to see and talk with Wilfred to hilarious meta effect (just see the first episode with guest star Robin Williams!). Like the Peep Show pairing, Ryan is the serious type while Wilfred is always getting into mischief. It’s a tried and true combo that still works here.

My Top 5 Buffy Episodes


Seven seasons of the vampire-butt-kicking Scooby Gang aired between 1997 and 2003. A little late to the party I managed to polish them off during the last six months. So why Buffy now?

Two words: Joss. Whedon.

Having already seen Firefly and Dollhouse I knew I needed more of Joss’s masterstrokes. And that’s when I became obsessed with anything and everything Buffy.

Here are my top five episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Note that all these choices are unique in their format. They aren’t ordinary Buffy episodes, which are great in their own right, especially with the quippage and the snappy dialogues. But when Joss goes off the rails and tries something completely different, well, supernatural stuff happens.

And in no particular order we have…

Hush

 

For nearly half an hour (27 minutes according to Wikipedia) there is not a single line of dialogue on screen. Harking back to the days of silent cinema where in turn the music becomes oh so more significant. The premise is some creepy beings called ‘The Gentleman’ came along and stole the voice from every Sunnydale citizen while they slept.

Forget The Master. Forget Adam. The Gentleman are the scariest villains in the entire series. They float around Sunnydale at night in Victorian suits and wooden teeth, smiling as they watch their wild straight-jacketed minions capture their prey. Then its time to carve out some human hearts. All in the most polite and courteous manner.

Buffy and Riley finally share their love with a kiss. But this is also the point of the season where Riley and Buffy find out each other’s secrets. One is a Slayer, and the other, a military man. Both are tasked with taking care of vampires and demons.

Joss, being the clever fellow that he is, uses the episode to demonstrate problems with communication. Once they lose speech everyone is able to express themselves more clearly – ironic huh? Though of course there are still a few blunders.

The ending is absolute gold. Riley and Buffy can finally talk again but instead they sit in silence, unsure where to begin.

Once More With Feeling

And I thought Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog was good. This “musical” episode takes characters and a show we already know and love and well, turns it into a musical. Sweet, a demon, is summoned and casts a spell over the town of Sunnydale so that anyone can spontaneously burst into song at any given moment. Think Hush but in reverse.

Each character expresses their true feelings through song, finally things that they’ve been keeping secret come into the air. Buffy sings about her troubles and later about needing something worth singing about. Tara sings a lovely song about Willow only to find out about Willow’s magic meddling and so then she sings about how she has to leave her. Same with Giles to Buffy, in order to let her cope on her own. Xander and Anya sing about how they both love and hate each other and their uncertainty for the future. Unfortunately Willow doesn’t have her own song, only a few musical lines throughout. My favourite: “I think this line’s mostly filler”. Dawn’s song is interrupted and becomes a ballet of sorts. Spike sings about his torn heart for Buffy.

Walk Through The Fire is a damn epic and features heavily on my iPod along with the rest of the album. Yes, there’s even a Buffy album.

The Body

Warning! Pretty major spoiler ahead.

Right, you Buffy virgins all gone? Good.

So avid Buffy watchers, you must know that this is the episode in which Buffy’s mother, Joyce Summers, dies. Boy did I bawl my eyes out during those 45 minutes. Well, more like a constant drip.

There is no music throughout the episode. Everything is slowed right down to real-time, Breaking Bad style. In stark contrast to all the supernatural deaths on the show, this one is natural, a cerebral aneurysm. Joss’s mother went the same way.

Joyce was in recovery from her operations that season and in true Whedon fashion he killed her off right at her happiest point – being given flowers after a first date.

Everyone in the Scooby Gang deals with the death in their own special way. Buffy imagines scenarios in which Joyce survived. Xander throws his fist into a wall. Willow can’t decide what would be appropriate to wear. Anya, relatively new to the whole human emotion deal, breaks down. Dawn goes to see Joyce’s body in the morgue, by herself. And the only supernatural bit in the episode happens when a vampire rises from an operating table, in a tense. rough battle made all the more scary without music.

Again Joss pushes the boundaries of what TV can do. Without such a creative risk taker something like this would never have made it to air. It’s so raw and unlike any Buffy episode before it. This death meant something.

 

Restless

Instead of defeating the Big Bad in in a massive build up (that happened the episode before), this season finishes off with something quite different.

Due to using some big magicks to defeat Adam, four of the Scoobies are trapped inside their dreams, stalked by the First Slayer, an ancient African female, primal in her urges to slay. It would pay to watch the director’s commentary after this one. Much of the episode is spent inside the dream space. While Joss does say that most of the symbols should be taken quite literally it can still be a tad hard to decipher without the codex of a good director’s commentary.

Xander has the best dream by far and I’m not saying that because of the off-screen lesbian action! He has to conquer his fear of his failure from his long string of jobs and living in his parent’s basement. The long chase scene through each film set is incredible, Xander always ending up at the root of all his fear, the basement and what it stands for. Buffy’s Mum tries to seduce Xander which is awkward for him even after he’s freed from the dream.

The Cheese Man. What does he represent? We may never know. Joss says he’s completely random and without meaning, but I know better. The cheese Man is the answer to everything!

 

Fool For Love

The only non-Joss Whedon episode to make my list. And that award goes to Doug Petrie who wrote the screenplay for this unmissable glimpse into Spike’s backstory. Sure it’s mostly in flashback as Spike tells his story to Buffy, but it’s flashbacks we haven’t seen before – LOST style. After a near death encounter Buffy seeks out Spike’s experience with killing slayers so she can avoid encountering the same fate.

Who would’ve guessed badass Spike was a nancy mummy’s boy and a poet? The Master sired Darla who sired Angel who sired Drusilla who sired Spike, or rather, William.

All it takes is one bite to the neck and soon the meek boy William becomes a confident bloodthirsty vamp. So confident that we see Spike take on his first slayer in China in 1900.

Fast-forward to the 70’s where Spike faces off against a slayer on a New York subway train in an epic battle. Plus get a look at Spike’s outfit!

Like many of you Spike became my favourite character of the series. Where sometimes Buffy would be mopey Spike would always have something smart to say no matter his current state of mind.

 

That’s all folks. Off to watch Angel I go.

Skins S06E03 “Alex” Recap-view

“It’s numbers mate. Only numbers.”
– Alex

After last week’s very depressing end we’re introduced to a brand new character; Alex Henley.

Warning: Spoilers follow.

We wake up with Alex in his nautical themed room. He gets ready and makes breakfast for his memory challenged gran. She’s not afraid of saying anything offensive either but Alex takes it in his stride. The first hint of trouble arises when Alex’s dad calls in to prepare gran for a home. Something neither of which Alex or gran are keen for.

At the bus stop Alex fiddles with a die and reads a note with corresponding actions for each number. We can’t read the whole thing but there’s choices to streak, punch, kiss, wank, and run. But before he can roll the die the bus arrives.

It’s Alex’s first day at Roundview and after meeting Doug, now headmaster, and at his dad’s meddling he’s thrust into ICT along with the rest of the skins we’ve grown so attached to.

In the cafeteria Alex is sitting alone, tapping the die against the table. We see Grace’s portrait among some flowers. Alex then looks over at Liv and sees her pouring some hard alcohol into her coffee cup. Liv spots Alex staring at her and the two share smiles. Alex pulls out his card and we see for the first time all six actions:

1. Streak in a public place

2. Punch the next person to walk in

3. Kiss the person next to you

4. Do everything backwards

5. Have a wank. NOW!

6. Run away

I used to use an eraser myself as a mock magic eight ball, each side corresponding to a yes, no, or maybe. So not quite the same as Alex’s number system. Because here he means business. He rolls a 2. We see Nick and Alo walk in the door. But Alo is lucky first. Alex walks right up to him and punches him in the face. He quickly apologises and helps him to his feet. Alo is bewildered and Alex quickly walks out with everyone’s eyes on him, including Liv who smiles in astonishment.

Liv is having a falling out with Mini. The two are taking Grace’s death quite hard. Liv walks up to Alex and asks what his problem is. He looks at his die. “If you live by this, everything’s random”

He rolls a three and gives Liv a good smooch, until she slaps him in the face. Any normal girl would walk away at this point but she’s intrigued by Alex and the two walk together to Alex’s place. He introduces her to his gran. We learn more about gran’s husband who as it turns out was a sailor. Alex reads his grandfather’s travel diary as gran lies in bed.

Alex meets the gang in a bar, all sitting quietly and keeping to themselves.

Mini sums up my thoughts exactly. “We don’t need any new friends.”

But by this point I know I’ve started to like the character. I don’t see him as a replacement for Grace. He tries to learn more about her but everyone finds it offensive for him to be talking about her.

Liv goes off with Alex to a dingy warehouse with poker tables hidden out back. Alex wins the round against his final opponent, with a full house in fact. Alex is accused of cheating and the two settle it with another of Alex’s chance devices; the coin toss. Except as we soon find out, the coin is heads on both sides of the coin. The two manage to escape with the handfuls of cash. Liv looks like she madly wants to kiss Alex, but he’s blissfully unaware. He sends her off in a taxi and kisses her on the cheek, which again confuses Liv.

Alex pulls out his smart phone and loads an app called CruisR. The screen is littered with display pictures of guys. He selects the profile of a dude only 15 metres away. Next we see Alex in the throws of passion with… another guy. Suddenly it makes sense, that’s the reason he’s been coy about Liv’s advances. And I made that prediction about Liv potentially hooking up with Rich (too soon?), so that’s still up in the air now. Alex leaves the guy (a lot older than his pic showed to be) with a few criticisms, and tears up the cash on offer.

Liv and Alex break into a home, another one of the dice dares. They find a mess of a house and they tidy the place to freak out the owner. Liv advances on Alex but before Alex has time to explain the owner walks in the door, and the duo make their escape.

The two head to Alex’s home where they find his dad packing up gran’s things. Alex and his dad argue and Alex is left to pack up the rest. He doesn’t.

Everyone is hanging at the bar. Alex is growing closer to the group as Nick makes fun of his lists. A pretentious twat comes in and starts talking up a memorial service for Grace. There couldn’t be a worse faker out there and the gang is beyond peeved.

Mini has a fight with Liv and Liv takes off. Alex chases Liv to the bathroom and finally reveals to Liv that he’s gay. Liv takes this quite harshly, even Mini takes her side, and Alex runs away in shame.

Alex comes home to find his gran has overdosed on pills. Rather than be taken to a home, she decided to go her own way.

The service starts, and the gang heads along. While the twat and his accomplice begin a cringe worthy musical item, Liv gets so upset she trashes the keyboard and exposes herself to the crowd. The second part I don’t get myself. But it seemed to make sense to her at the time.

Alex tries to reconcile with Liv over the phone while waiting nearby.

Alex invites the group out for a cruise, where we discover he wants to send his gran out to sea for her burial. There the gang help him push the coffin into the sea. Alex says she can be their stand-in for Grace, as they weren’t allowed to attend the funeral (déjà vu anyone?). Alex recites his granddad’s diary one last time, and there are tears all around. I found myself rather swept up in the moment too. Mini and Liv are back on good terms. We hear in on a phone call from Franky to Matty. She tells him to never come back. Huh, and I thought she was nice again?

Alex rolls the die one more time: Run away. They jump into the sea. The last shot is of them diving for the die.

A little surprisingly Rich is nowhere to be seen in this episode. There is a moment where he is mentioned when Nick and Alo walk into the cafeteria. Blink and you’ll miss it. I guess it makes sense. His pain must be unbearable, and we witnessed most of it in the last episode. However I do hope we get to see him soon and how he’s coping.

I thought it would be a little strange to introduce a brand new character to a cast we’re already well acquainted with, but it turned out just fine. Great in fact. Alex is a fascinating new character, and as long as they don’t over-do the dice stuff, he should fit right in with the gang and hopefully ease their suffering as they grieve for Grace.