June 27th, 2013 / 2:40 pm

Television and the Destruction of the Moral Universe

blakeI think a lot about television and the destruction of the moral universe. Once, I tweeted, “A whole moral universe can be created in the span of a movie, whereas television has room to prove that no universe is strictly moral.” I was thinking about punishment and permission. As with any expressive form, of course a television show has creators, akin to gods. Matthew Weiner as the ghost in the machine (I’m misusing the idiom, but I think it works). The trick is whether the writers/show-runner/whoever apply consistent moral principles of punishment and permission to the fates met by the characters.

Today, Joyce Carol Oates tweeted, “Please disclose whether the coldly reptilian wife of the ‘majority whip’ in House of Cards is eventually terribly punished.”

I can only guess that Joyce Carol Oates will not continue to watch unless she knows the House of Cards universe is as strictly moral as the Scottish play to which it pays overly stylized (if I’m being nice), at times fatuous (if I’m not) homage. In a moral universe, a pretty young virtuous thing might be tragically victimized, but she’s a kind of rapturous sacrifice, and her offenders get their comeuppance and presumably rot in hell, at least one of their own making.

When I looked up “moral universe” on Wikipedia, I saw what it (the god of Wikipedia) calls his “oft-quoted saying, ‘if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.'” Permitted by whom, Fyodor? Still seems like there is a god there doing the permitting, since a secular nation can still have laws. Just a really permissive god, too distracted or checked out to enact discipline, like a Nancy Botwin or Al Bundy of a god.

When Gabe Durham and Ken Baumann unveiled plans for Boss Fight Books, I thought a lot about my favorite game as a child, Oregon Trail. The god of that game was real and Puritanical. The game rewarded good sense, a bent toward commerce, dignity, and steadfastness. Showing the wherewithal to notice and treat the early signs of dysentery in your 8-year-old son tended to garner you more than just a cure, it seemed also to promise friendlier Indians at the ferry crossing and a glut of bigger, slower game at the hunting range.

But suppose you killed more buffalo than you could carry, more than your share. Suppose that case of dysentery set in faster than you could catch it, and say that 8-year-old who you sort of weirdly named after your current 7th-grade crush went and died on you, and you were faced with a choice of whether to honor your dead or not, and you elected to bear immediately on without providing what the game called “a proper burial.” That kind of waste, that kind of unchristian haste would meet with sudden and fearsome retribution from the hands of the Oregon Trail sovereign, and I’m talking much more than a broken axle or an ox wandered off. More like: “5 members of your party drowned.” “Your wagon has turned around.” “You lost: everyone in your wagon has died.”

Compare this to those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Those were amoral as fuck. There was never enough information to make good decisions. No amount of wisdom, caution, or goodness made your odds of survival any better. Usually, the options were arbitrary. You had to pick a door. Turn to page 39. There’s a dozen coked-up rattlesnakes on the other side and they all bite you and you die. Other times, a choice that seemed reckless could end up saving you.

There isn’t time for that in a movie. There isn’t time for bad choices not to end up mattering that much. Even when tragedy strikes, there’s a sense that there’s something learned, something gained. Even Tom Ripley, who gets away with murder, seems awfully sad and lonely by the end of the movie, having had to kill someone who could have loved him. Whereas in the books, by the time he resurfaces in Ripley Underground (uh, maybe “resurfaces” isn’t the best word here), he seems pretty unruffled, his youthful passion and obsessiveness having cooled.

It’s no accident that the best examples I can come up with from books are both series, and in the case of “Choose Your Own Adventure,” ones with a multiplicity of possible outcomes within one volume. Just like in our lives, which we live serially. We don’t have all the information. Some trifle could turn our fortune more definitively than a sound decision carefully made. Not everything happens for a reason. Matter of fact, nothing does. Which is not to say we can’t make meaning, or dust everything up into the shape of a narrative, find symbols and signs. We survive that way. We consider the consequences. We have good or bad feelings about things, and often they are borne out. I knew something big would change for me if I went to New Orleans in late May. I was right. But I don’t think the world was responsible, or some god. I don’t believe the world makes order in our lives, but neither do I have much use for the concept of accidents, except at its root: things falling together. We use our hands.

In Sex and the City, Carrie spurns the love of a good man, uses him, throws up when she sees the ring he bought her and refuses to wear the one he buys to her liking, and she still ends up with everything she wants. The unavailable guy turns out to have loved her all along. So did the universe of the show unduly reward her? I don’t think so. Seems more like blondes who have giant Manhattan apartments and unmerited steady writing gigs just tend to get most of what they want, and then some. They hunt more meat than they can carry, and their oxen wander back to them.

Whereas, on The Wire, teenagers in the Baltimore ghetto don’t tend to get what they want. Underpaid schoolteachers fail to make a difference. So do troubled idealistic cops. Some plot-lines, like the star-crossed love of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, build slowly toward the most cinematic and Shakespearean end. And then someone like Omar, with his code, and how he ends up–just imagine if that were the whole thing, as a movie. It would be supremely weird, schizoid, weirder than anything in David Lynch.

When I say that television has room to prove that no universe is strictly moral, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that all television shows make efforts toward perforating the boundaries of the moral universes they create. Only that some do, like The Wire and Friday Night Lights, as in the way Landry never suffers any outward consequences for killing that guy–which was thought by many critics to be a weak, tangential subplot, but which to me was essential in the way it muddied things up. My first example, Sex in the City, works only by comparison, probably. I doubt the show’s creators were trying to make some larger point about privilege. But the serial nature of television is much more life-like by nature. It’s unwieldy. Plots are dropped. Characters disappear like an ex-boyfriend who you never think of, ever. I have more to say about that, but for now just this: hey Joyce Carol Oates! Let’s quit asking for a God-like system of permission and punishment in our expressive forms. A long-running television show has a fantastic potential for murkiness and moral non-linearity even within the bounds of a network procedural. What a better mirror.



  1. juneww

      Wow you quoted from your own tweets and even looked up the big word on Wikipedia just like a real writer! Then you described your conceited, self-important nostalgia for video games and made some painfully obvious conclusions about television! Great article. Really fantastic work, this website is over.

  2. Adam Robinson

      How are you not blocked yet?

  3. Amy McDaniel

      I think that’s a separate but also interesting question – the way we’re made to empathize with characters who do awful things. It makes me uncomfortable, too. I thought at first with Dexter (and Weeds) that we were supposed to grapple with our discomfort, but that sort of fell away and I stopped watching. More to my point, I think a tv show like Friday Night Lights builds characters who are good, well-meaning people grappling with complex moral dilemmas but also doesn’t try to depict the world in some rosy, “good things happen to good people” sort of way.