Chris Palazzolo confesses that he just can’t handle more than two seasons of the Truth.
Realism, like all aesthetic modes, involves an element of bluff. A viewer or a reader has to be persuaded to accept a narration’s code of ‘reality.’ That acceptance, because it is given by a free agent, can be withdrawn at any moment, and so we judge a narrative (whether a novel, film or tv show) by how long it can ‘play us along’ so to speak, with its bluff, a kind of aesthetic co-dependency. Realism in literature emerged in the mid 19th century in the novels of Dickens and Flaubert, in order to satisfy middle class and newly literate proletarian classes who wished to see the hardships, disappointments and endurances of their own lives represented in narrative. As each generation became dissatisfied with the previous generation’s codes of ‘reality,’ more intense forms of representation were required, until literary realism terminated in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where every second of an ordinary day is recounted through every function (including bowel movements) and cogitations (including abstruse mathematical computations from a 90 year mortgage repayment) of the bodies and minds of two ordinary men.
Realism can become something of an abyss for representation; exactly how close to ‘reality’ can we go; what do we choose to represent? Is it necessary to show our characters sitting on a toilet, digesting their meals, etc? The reality of ‘realism,’ as we have come to accept it in the early 21st century, is that it designates a highly stylised form of ‘adult’ representation, a tough minded storytelling for ‘grown-ups.’ We say a show or a film is ‘realistic’ if it consistently satisfies our criteria of what is important and real in contemporary life (and in history), that is to say consistently realistic portrayals of settings (not pretty, but gritty), human motivations, reactions and consequences, the logic of which are never deflected by sentimentality.
It seems to me that at present what satisfies all these criteria are the tv shows produced by cable tv companies such as HBO, FX and AMC. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Rome, Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy. It is to these shows that the 21st century middle class (and its literate proletarians) seek their dose of ‘realism,’ away from the nonsense of children and the necessary lies of commercial culture (of which they and the shows are a part, but which only suckers, who are not them, believe). The shows are all uniformly excellent, that is to say they all set a very high benchmark for bluff. Watching them it’s tempting to be seduced into feeling that you’re part of a social elite, privy to the bitter ironic truths of life in the west. Even shows like Rome, set at the beginnings of Imperial Rome, and Game of Thrones (a fantasy Dark Ages) just confirm the universality of hard truths about power, and living among other ambitious and craven people all jostling and hustling for more than their share of the pie. What will cultural historians of the future say about these shows with their remarkably high production values, their violence and pessimism, not to mention their immense popularity among the educated citizens (reality tv is for illiterate proletarians) of our civilization?
I have to confess I find these shows oppressive. I can never get more than two seasons into any one of them. So much ‘realism,’ whether of the Dark Age version (Game of Thrones) or the 1950s Madison Ave version (Mad Men), that never seems to end, week after week, the same betrayals, the same mendacities, cruelties, gruesome massacres, executed with such verve, such stylish unsentimental professionalism, just gets me down. I can only accept the bluff of ‘realism’ so long, before I begin to reject the whole thing as a string-along to keep a bunch of writers, actors and crew in jobs (and here, paradoxically, I’ve touched on one of the qualities of these shows – a tip for future cultural historians perhaps; where does the tension of Mad Men come from? It comes from the peculiarly ruthless nature of television production, in which a slight dip in the ratings means the entire show can be axed at a moment’s notice; all the actors, writers, crew work under that imminence, and the stress of their professionalism radiates through our screens in a show about people working with the knowledge they could be out of a job in a moment’s notice!)
I prefer Hoopla Doopla to HBO. I’m not like the toughies watching season 6 of Game of Thrones. I’m weak and sentimental, and no doubt an agonising and gruesome end is in store for me, just as it is for all the weak and sentimental characters in that show. Until that happens, I’m a medieval peasant enjoying a troupe of talented clowns acting like acrobatic toddlers, falling over, getting scared of shadows, and yet having no memory to be scared of anything really dangerous. I won’t analyse it, it’s too sweet and silly.
– Chris Palazzolo
Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.