In an age of anger, TV shows take a dif­fer­ent path: They’re sad

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - TV TONIGHT - By Hank Stuever

Sad songs, if you know your FM ra­dio his­tory, say so much. El­ton John was right when he sang about the cathar­tic pow­ers that come from a Top -40 wal­low in all de­grees of hurt and heart­break — the sat­is­fac­tion of rec­og­niz­ing one’s own pain in main­stream pop.

But as much as we’re will- ing to cry along with bal­lads, I keep run­ning into view­ers who don’t want to be brought low by watch­ing sad TV. When they get home and plop in front of their screens, they in­sist that the ma­te­rial be lighter — if not nec­es­sar­ily happy, then not a bur­den on the brain or es­pe­cially the heart. TV is, for them, an es­cape from their per­sonal prob­lems and their stress about the world. Why take on an­other show that is tonally gloomy or too dif­fi­cult to think about?

Long ac­cus­tomed to shows that ex­ist un­der the large, catchall de­scrip­tion of “dark,” view­ers are will­ing to stom­ach a lot of un­for­tu­nate events, vi­o­lent out­comes and fa­tal plot twists that de­fine most of TV’s most highly praised re­cent classics. An­ti­heroes, mas­sacres, dy stop ian strug-gle sin post-apoc­a­lyp­tic set­tings and sur­prise deaths— all of these are rou­tine oc­cur­rences. The sad­ness, how­ever, is usu­ally an af­ter­thought and not a theme.

It’s much harder, I find, to get view­ers in­ter­ested in shows that fea­ture a much more sub- tle form of dark­ness — the rain­cloud moods that are more about ex­is­ten­tial dread, universal lone­li­ness and hu­man grief.

There are sev­eral such shows pre­mier­ing or re­turn­ing this fall in which char­ac­ters both liv­ing and dead find them­selves trapped in low emo­tional ebbs and vis­ually drab cir­cum­stances. It’s a sur­plus of sad TV, and not merely the two-Kleenex-per-episode kind prac­ticed so skill­fully by NBC’s Emmy-win­ning drama “This Is Us,” which re­turns for its third sea­son on Sept. 25. ABC is try­ing its hand at emo­tion­ally sim­i­lar terrain with “A Mil­lion Lit­tle Things” (pre­mier­ing Sept. 26), in which three men try to cope with the sui­cide of their mu­tual friend.

Nearly two years into Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency, one might have ex­pected Hol­ly­wood to roll up its sleeves and pro­duce more di­rectly con­fronta­tional shows about the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal mood (I see you, “Mur­phy Brown”) and the cor­rup­tion that un­der­mines democ­racy. In­stead, the re­sponse from cre- ators has been a far more sub- dued dis­play of philo­soph­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal pon­der­ing: What hap­pens when we die? Is eter­nity all it’s cracked up to be? Is san­ity re­ally prefer­able to mad­ness?

Is t heres ome other kind of re­al­ity that’s dif­fer­ent from this re­al­ity?

Is there re­ally such a thing as hap­pi­ness in the face of so much sad­ness?

Ama­zon’s new se­ries “For­ever” (pre­mier­ing Sept. 21) stars comic ac­tors Fred Ar­misen and Maya Ru­dolph as a mar­ried cou­ple stuck in a pleas­ant but bor­ing loop of rou­tines. The stream­ing ser- vice has done every­thing it can to pro­tect the show’s big twist (re­vealed in the sec­ond episode) from be­ing spoiled. You’ll hear about it soon enough; for now I would only point out that “For­ever” skill­fully opens up a philo­soph­i­cal can of worms: What if our most mun­dane days re­ally are our best days? What if en­nui is eter­nal?

“For­ever” makes an in­ter­est- ing com­pan­ion piece to NBC’s hit com­edy “The Good Place,” which re­turns for a third sea- son on Sept. 27. It de­picts an af­ter­life that is both sur­real and dis­ap­point­ing to its in­hab­i­tants, who’ve long since real- ized the yd idn’t go to the Good Place when t hey died. The show’s sense of hu­mor is fast and cut­ting, whereas on “For­ever” it is slow and sure, but both shows cap­i­tal­ize on the ex­is­ten­tial dread that ac­com­pa­nies the con­cept of eter- nity. De­spite the joy­ful gospel songs about go­ing home, the no­tion of do­ing any­thing for­ever is not at all com­fort­ing to those of us who al­ready strug­gle with the con­cept of an eter­nal plane. What could be so great that you’d want to do it for in­fin­ity?

Back in the land of the un­hap­pily liv­ing, Facebook Watch’s “Sorry for Your Loss” (pre­mier­ing Sept. 18) is a highly in­ti­mate por­trait of a young ad­vice colum­nist (El­iz­a­beth Olsen) who is griev­ing the sud- den death of her hus­band. As the ti­tle sug­gests, the se­ries dwells in the zone where no amount of sym­pa­thy from oth- ers can do the trick; the hard­est part of grief is the part that you go it alone.

Imag­ine “Sorry for Your Loss” as an el­e­va­tor pitch to net­work ex­ecs: It’s about a re­ally sad per­son who cries alot.

Although “This Is Us” rekin- dled broad­cast and ca­ble in­ter- est in cathar­tic jour­neys for teary-eyed view­ers, the stream- ing net­works (Ama­zon, Net­flix, Hulu, et al.) tend to take big­ger chances on gloomier and more cyn­i­cal ma­te­rial — fa­tal car crashes, sui­cides, older par­ents keel­ing over, hos­pi­tal pa­tients who don’t get bet­ter.

Shows like “Sorry for Your Loss” feel like the wor­thy descen­dants of in­de­pen­dent cin­ema of 20 or so years ago, which thrived on sto­ries of per- sonal sor­row and angst (think Ang Lee’s 1997 film “The Ice Storm”). Take a sad, 100-min- ute indie film and stretch its gloomi­ness out for eight, 10 or 12 episodes, last­ing a sea­son or two (or longer), and you’re ready to com­pete in to­day’s peak-TV in­dus­try.

The aes­thetic of such se­ries prefers rig­or­ously bland set- tings that feel an­ti­sep­tic and/ or claus­tro­pho­bic, giv­ing the viewer a sense that the char­ac­ters are mired in their feel­ings. Net­flix’s “Ma­niac” (pre­mier­ing Sept. 21) stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as test sub­jects in a drug trial that seeks to cure men­tal ill­ness. They live in a world that is fu­tur­is­tic yet de­press­ingly retro (a place only hip­sters could de­vise), and vaguely Or­wellian. It al­most goes with­out say­ing that their char­ac­ters are both re­ally down in the dumps.

Show­time’s “Kid­ding,” air­ing on Sun­day nights, has Jim Car­rey play­ing a man who is pro­fes­sion­ally ob­li­gated to cheer the world up (as the host of a beloved chil­dren’s show), yet he lives in a sus­pended state of grief over the loss of a teenage son. His suf­fer­ing takes place amid happy pup­pets in make-be­lieve worlds singing songs about feel­ings — an ef­fec­tive con­trast to his per­sonal melt­down.

It’s true that one can only stand so much of this sullen ma­te­rial. Yet I think it’s im­por­tant to not shut out these shows simply be­cause they don’t chee r you up or help you es­cape. TV w ill al­ways have plenty of friv­o­lous shows that can do that.

When it comes to de­scrib­ing this era we’re liv­ing in, I hear peo­ple talk about out­rage and anger and vi­o­lence. Un­der­neath all that, I tend to agree with the cre­ators of these shows: A pro­found sad­ness is in the air. We have a lot of un­re­solved worry and fear about loss, death and grief. It’s hard to watch some­times, but I find it more de­press­ing to think of view­ers chang­ing the chan­nel just be­cause they don’t want to feel it.


El­iz­abe thOlsens tars in “Sorry For Your Loss,” about a young ad­vice colum­nist who is griev­ing the sud­den death of her hus­band.

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