Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Wonders of Optimism

My interlocutor, myself and our housemates have been watching a lot of Stark Trek: The Next Generation: over the past month or so.  We're skipping the bad episodes and sticking to the good to great ones, us the Onion AV Club's excellent episode guide.  The result is extremely impressive (no doubt in part because the show was of variable quality, and we are skipping the bad parts).

The good things about the show have been talked about a lot -- as everyone probably knows, Patrick Stewart carried most of the show on his shoulders through most of its run; his incredible acting skills and sense of dignity give everything Picard does a kind of gravitas.  His line delivery is incredible, and yet his acting is overall so good that it is worthwhile just to watch his face, even when he's saying nothing.  I could say more, but Stewart's awesomeness is not what interests me here.

Watching the show again, I've become completely charmed by its determined optimism.  Coming from my college and teen years, where I gobbled up 'dark' art and entertainment like grimdark candy, a show that wears its optimism on its sleeve is quite captivating.

Part of this is simple weariness with the ubiquity of grim and gritty themes in entertainment.  I love The Wire, but Dave Simon's miserablism makes it hard to watch except in small chunks, and you begin to suspect that his pessimism has made the show's Baltimore actually worse than the real city.  Most other HBO drama's are similarly bleak, and when they're not as good as the Wire (I'm looking at you, Game of Thrones) the payoff/pain ratio is low enough that I'm not that excited about watching them.  Taken in this context, Star Trek TNG's optimism makes the show novel and interesting, a break from the antiheroes, let-downs and outright tragedies that populate contemporary 'serious' culture, particularly on TV.  It's a breath of fresh air.

Beyond this, I think -I'm- tired of dark themes.  I'm no longer an angsty teenager who thinks that for a truth to be profound it must be unpleasant.  I'm married, I have a job that I don't hate and I've discovered that even an unremarkable life is quite nice.  Saying that life was painful and that everyday existence was meaningless seemed almost comforting to a 20-year-old who hadn't had a chance to live much; to a 26 year old it sounds both tedious and manifestly untrue.  I will also say that I've become soft in my 20's; once I liked "Requiem for a Dream" and now I see it as a slick but meaningless exercise in cruelty*.  Now I'd prefer to watch pixar movies with my wife rather than re-watch "Ran."  Whatever it was in me that sought out pain (for its own sake) in the world has disappeared.

I don't miss it. 

Beyond my personal reactions, the essential optimism of TNG brings the darker moments of the show (and it has those, as in "The Chain of Command") into a kind of emotional relief -- we're so used to seeing Picard conquer challenges that seeing him broken is much more powerful than if he was simply another ineffectual anti-hero. 

I find that this is also true of one of my favorite comics, Kurt Busiek's brilliant, moving 'Astro City,' which has a similar love and respect for its characters as TNG does.  Rather than ripping off Watchman and showing superheroes as neurotics and psychopaths, Busiek lets them be their iconic selves, while showing enough of their humanity to give the icon some depth -- this is perhaps best shown in Confession, which, hokey as it sounds, is a comic book about what it means to be good.  And it's not hokey, it's just hopeful and beautiful and human.  And in the end, I think that's what I want most of all.

*It is a tragedy where the 'heroes' have no tragic grandeur, which reduces it, for all the brilliance of its execution, to a series of horrible things happening to not very interesting people.

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