Monday, November 10, 2014

Television Characters: I Know They're Not Real People, But...

This piece originally appeared on HuffPost Entertainment

“Christian Troy never learns his lesson.” I made that statement very matter-of-factly and honestly about a character on Nip/Tuck during the end of its run on FX Network. It was just a normal part of the conversation while discussing the previous night’s episode. The friend with whom I was discussing the episode began to laugh. He responded, “Sweetie, you know he’s not real.” As soon as that comment was out of his mouth I joined him in laughter. Yes, I know Christian Troy is not a real person, but that doesn’t change the fact that as a television viewer I get very invested in the television shows I like and even more so in the characters I like on those shows. 

Details. I’m obsessed with the details. I watch episodes of How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM), American Horror Story: Freak Show, and Scandal more than once to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Usually that repeat viewing reveals something I missed the first time. The attention to detail was outstanding on Breaking Bad. Not even the smallest moment was unnecessary. A flash across the screen of Walter White that might have appeared to mean nothing in season 1 could be an important plot point in season 2 and finally tie up by series end.  

Mythology. I love the mythology on shows like Lost and Once Upon a Time. The worlds created on those two shows in particular are so structured and detailed. It thrills me to see how the characters are connected. The same can be said of Sleepy Hollow. It keeps me on the edge of my seat. It’s a show that takes our country’s history and stories from the book of Revelation and weaves them into an intricate end-of-days story that keeps surprising me week after week. And while I’m touting mythology I have to mention Twin Peaks. The first season was so layered that I consumed each morsel of information regarding the central mystery and was always left hungry from more.

Conspiracy Theories. A show like HTGAWM is ripe for conspiracy theories. #WhoKilledSam is one of the show’s hashtags. I watch. I re-watch. I question. I join the conversation on Twitter. I want to know who killed Sam. I want to know who’s covering it up. I want to see what Annalise Keating is going to do next. Okay, let me be honest, I want to see what any of those characters is going to do next. My curiosity makes me want to cancel all plans on a Thursday night so that I can be part of #TGIT while it’s happening. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve been willing to put up with commercial breaks, but television is so of-the-moment right now. In our social media world of live tweeting and live blogging if you don’t watch right away the plot details get spoiled or you’re out-of-the-loop conversationally. If I haven’t watched American Horror Story: Freak Show or the aforementioned Scandal and HTGAWM before I get to work the next day I spend that day apprehensive of spoilers on Twitter and Facebook, frustrated that I don’t know what happened, and annoyed that I can’t take part in the greater conversation.

My over-involvement in the lives of television characters is not new. It goes way back to my soap opera watching days. Back in the late 80s when I used to set the VCR to record them every day. (Grainy tapes that were recorded over, then over again, multiple times.) God forbid I should miss the moment Cruz and Eden find their kidnapped daughter Adriana on Santa Barbara or the day Stefano returns from the dead for the fifteenth time on Days of our Lives. But those moments were merely scenes that I wanted to see happen. Today it’s more about being part of the conversation surrounding all the moments that happen to be happening on any given show during any given episode. And let’s face it, Scandal, HTGAWM, and American Horror Story: Freak Show are roller coasters. Once they plunge down the first hill they begin to reveal every twist and turn their writers have in store for their richly developed (or developing) characters for the season.

During a recent episode of The Walking Dead a friend of mine was live tweeting in all caps. I finally asked her if her use of all caps was an indication that she was yelling at the TV. She responded, “Basically.” I laughed. I’m familiar with this occurrence. I’ve yelled at my television so many times that I have neighbors both past and present who probably think I’m a little cuckoo. Hell, maybe I am. At least when it comes to my investment in the lives of fictional people. During that above mentioned episode of The Walking Dead I was angry. Here’s one of my live tweets: “#TheWalkingDead makes me rethink my faith in humanity. Live together, Die alone. But still…” Did you pick up on my Lost reference in that tweet? The dot dot dot ending leaves the tweet feeling unfinished because I just couldn’t express myself any further. I realized the situation I was watching wasn't real life, but I was putting myself in the scenario and kept wondering when those still alive in the world of The Walking Dead decided that having control and power meant more than helping fellow survivors. Imagine what I could do if I spent that kind of energy on real world problems.

Television characters have moved me to tears, made me LOL, frustrated me to the point of giving up on watching a show, outraged me for reasons I didn’t even recognize at the time, and shocked me to the point of tears, frustration, and outrage at having to wait another week for answers. I know I’m not alone in this. I can’t be the only person who wants to know everything there is to dig up about Annalise on HTGAWM. Or the only person who wants to know in whose favor the Victoria/David/Emily triangle’s game of deception and revenge is going to play out on Revenge. I know there are millions who want to know if Olivia will save Jake on Scandal and if she does will she choose him or Fitz? Will Rick & company ever find a cure for what plunged the world into Zombieville on The Walking Dead? Will Crane and Mills stop the end of the world on Sleepy Hollow or witness it? Will Elsa make it out of the Freak Show alive? I don’t know, but I tune in every week to find out. And you can bet I’ll be tuning in to Showtime in 2016 to see what the hell is happening with Cooper et al in Twin Peaks 25 years later.

I — we — love these people, er, characters. I’m invested. I want to know how it all turns out. I’m the guy who wonders if Monica and Chandler are still married and if Ross and Rachel had any more kids. I also want to know who the hell JR’s daughter is, but unless another network picks up Dallas I may never find out. 

Some might view the amount of hours I spend watching TV as a waste of time and that’s ok. I see it as pure escapism that thrills me, inspires me creatively, and at times teaches me a lesson. I also see it as a chance to connect with people through the inevitable conversation that happens when a TV show is home to flawed, despicable, virtuous, righteous, driven, angry, good, evil, secretive characters. I just keep reminding myself that commercial breaks are opportunities for my blood pressure to regulate…and that these people aren’t real. 

In the spirit of conversation, please keep the conversation going with your thoughts and comments on getting intimately involved in the lives of fictional characters below.