Anxiety as Entertainment

by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

A few years ago, my husband and I watched the Ryan Gosling movie Drive. I don't remember the plot, and even if I did, I guarantee you I wouldn't be able to explain it. I can't tell you why people did what they did in Drive, nor why Ryan was so angry. I can tell you it was extremely violent.

At the time, my life was filled to the brim with its own stress and drama on an almost daily basis. In a moment of clarity--rare for me--I made the decision to no longer invite added anxiety into my life through my entertainment choices. If I chose to watch a film or a television show, I wanted to be uplifted, enlightened, entertained, and delighted.

My husband asked if that meant I'd never watch a drama again. It didn't. I have nothing against drama. I do have a great deal against relentless mayhem and senseless violence.

But I feel very alone. I am not among the millions--including my husband and eldest son--who can't wait for the finale of Breaking Bad. Over the past several years, I've also opted out of other hit shows: House of Cards, House of Lies, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Californication, Nurse Jackie, Deadwood, Weeds, The Wire, The Shield...the list is almost endless. I'm not taking anything away from these shows in terms of their plots or characters or production quality. Many of them are on "Best Series of All Time" lists compiled by people who know about this stuff. I'm just saying they're not for me.

Maybe I've outgrown the desire for chaos as entertainment. Otherwise, how do I explain being a fan of The Sopranos? It could be that my life was a lot simpler when the series started 14 years ago. Then again, I've since opted in to Rescue Me, 24, and Homeland. (I can explain the last two: I mock their plots relentlessly.) I'm in and out of Boardwalk Empire. Turns out the '20s may roar a little too much for me.

The confounding question is this: Why has our society embraced the anti-hero, and everything he or she stands for, as our favorite entertainment choice, especially over the past 15 to 20 years? When did coarse become cool? Check the TV listings on any given night and you'll be hard-pressed to find a Thomas Magnum or a couple like Hart to Hart's Jennifer and Jonathan. We haven't abandoned them entirely, but we have certainly updated them. Look behind the curtain of Girls or Two Broke Girls; you'll find remnants of Kate and Allie or Mary and Rhoda--just with a lot more colorful language.

You could chalk it up to society unraveling (again), but maybe it's just the way we use entertainment as a safety valve to relieve the tension swirling around us. Our own vices appear far less offensive when stacked up against those of the murderers, drug lords, addicts, and anarchists we tune in to each week. It could be that as our own boundaries of polite society get nudged ever so slightly wider, we need people like Nucky Thompson or Walter White or Dexter Morgan to demonstrate truly despicable behavior so we feel virtuous by comparison.

This isn't new, of course. Every generation pushes the "acceptable" boundary. For better or worse, each one redefines standards to some degree. Censors went wild over Elvis's pelvis on coast-to-coast television and everyone survived. (Well, except Elvis.) But without an Elvis, would we have a Miley? Impossible to say. I'd bet money that Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction would go unreported today, since the VMAs basically show the same thing on purpose.

I can't say whether all of this is progress, with entertainment leading the way toward a more tolerant society, or if society is taking a giant step toward widespread degradation. I'll close with one quick story, and let you ponder that question and come to your own conclusions.

Next time you hear the colorful language that seems to permeate our checkout lines, stadiums, classrooms, cocktail parties, and of course, the entertainment world, and wonder whether it's all inconsequential or is in fact lowering the standards of polite discourse, think about this. My mother rarely "let go an oath," as they say, beyond the occasional "Damn!" or something equally shocking. [In this regard, I wish I were more like her. Not true.] My dad once invited a young man who worked for him over to our house after work, and within earshot of my mom, this guy said the f-word. My father asked him to watch himself; that his wife wouldn't appreciate that kind of language. To his credit, the young man apologized to Mom--who wasn't even involved in their conversation, by the way, she just overheard it.

And then he sent her flowers the very next day to make amends. Wowie.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations': A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It's Not Me, It's You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.


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