Tuesday, 15 January 2008

"Three stories, three subtexts."

There are three major US drama series’ that I have an avid interest in. It’s interesting that these shows should bear such marked similarities even though the essential themes are different and they come from separate networks. All of them fall into the category of 45 minute dramas and all of them are at present between their third and fourth seasons (at least in the UK). It’s also interesting that these three dramas should perfectly correlate in terms of subtext to the three pillars which I believe individuals should build their lives upon and are key to understanding humanity.

These three pillars are philosophy, spirituality, and psychology. This idea is taken from the philosopher John Cottingham who I’m most familiar with as an expert on Descartes but who elaborates on these three tenets in this podcast about the rather grandiose subject, the meaning of life.

The first show is ‘Lost’. ‘Lost’ is overtly philosophical most obviously in the naming of important characters. John Locke, Desmond David Hume, Mikhail Bakunin, Rousseau, Boone Carlyle, Richard Alpert, and Ben Linus (this is a tenuous one: Linus was the quasi-philosophical character in ‘Peanuts’). And rumour has it that next series there’s a new character; a brilliant mathematician called Russell. These names all match up to eminent philosophers and the show deals with diverse elements such as morality, human politics, faith vs. science, duality, Pascal’s Wager (pushing the button), the nature of existence, time travel, causality, and the existential notion of ‘the absurd’. The subtext of ‘Lost’ is mostly concerned with defining oneself anew in circumstances beyond one’s control; coming to terms with an existence that is absurd albeit in an exaggerated way. It’s a classic story of existentialism where every character strives to move past the major constraint they all share ie. their pasts which the writers elaborate on using the flashback narrative device (even though they’re now moving partially to flash-forwards which will certainly change the dynamic).

The second show is ‘Battlestar Galactica’. Somewhat surprisingly for a sci-fi show, this correlates with spirituality/religion. Gaius Baltar’s struggle to accept God and reconcile that with his logic is a big story point in the first season. The war between humanity and Cylon is essentially a holy war since the Cylons believe unwaveringly (almost unwaveringly, some of them are atheist) in the Judeo-Christian tradition of God. Struggles with spirituality and morality are present through the entire show as well as the ramifications of destiny and the nature of God/gods. This also overlaps with philosophy somewhat as there are questions about what it means to be human and deeper concerns about the morality of war, suicide bombing, and genocide. It also happens to be far better scripted and directed than ‘Lost’; plus Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, and James Callis can act rings around most of the main cast of ‘Lost’ which makes ‘Battlestar Galactica’ one of the most undeservedly under-rated dramas on TV.

The third show is ‘House MD’ and this deals largely with the last pillar; psychology, which can be taken as enveloping science and biology as well. While it may not focus as overtly on psychology as ‘The Sopranos’ apparently does, it fits well enough into the psychology mould and I’ve never watched ‘The Sopranos’. Gregory House is a genius doctor who struggles against the egoism and tormented nature of his damaged psyche. The show deals with the seemingly inconsistent psychology of Dr. House as he solves medical mysteries and carries out his day-to-day relationships. It touches on human motivation, the power of delusion, the effects of drugs on human functioning, the limits of friendship, and the difficulty of reconciling one’s mind to a world in a perceived context of logical scientific empiricism. He’s also sarcastic and funny.

Three great shows, three meaningful subtexts. And all the shows will be entering their fourth seasons when they return to British screens. Strange coincidence.


Barbara said...

You have excellent taste in television shows!

Here's a Catholic screenwriter in Hollywood asking some ethical questions of BSG:


Simon XIX said...

Thank you very much, that's a fascinating read. And the Last Supper homage posted yesterday is great...