This week on Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett talked to Diane Winston, a professor at USC who teaches about religion and the media. They spoke specifically about television shows and touched on Lost, House, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, and others. They also chatted briefly about what television shows they watched growing up, things like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie. It made me think of M*A*S*H.
I am a story-junkie, no doubt about it. I love television, movies, and novels. My tastes are very broad. I love the niche and offbeat and the big blockbusters. I am pickier in my novels, preferring science fiction and fantasy, but every now and then I'll dive into something else. I love good plots. I love fiction. I rarely read biographies or true stories and I couldn't care less if a movie was "based on real life events."
I have often wondered if this is some kind of failing in a Buddhist. After all, we're all about present moment, ultimate reality, right here, right now, waking up from samsara, etc. And here I am happily dreaming along either making up my own stories or immersing myself in someone else's. But then I remember how I got here, and I listen to people like professor Winston talk about exploring ethical questions, normative value setting, and the shared experience of being human.
I got here by watching shows like MASH. It was my mother's favorite show and even when I was grounded and without television privileges, MASH was always the exception. My mother liked it too much to forbid it. Now that I think about it, I wonder why she was ever surprised I was such a cheeky little brat growing up with the likes of Hawkeye Pierce as a roll model? In a way, I guess that's a hint at the power of stories, of fiction. Mom never expected me to take after Hawkeye because she knew he wasn't real. But sociologists have studied the impact of shows like Will and Grace on normalizing certain character types within society and proven they do have an impact. Television can create society as much as reflect it, in this way.
MASH is one of the longest syndicated televisions shows ever made, with eleven seasons to draw on. It was on for an hour every evening for as long as I can recall living with my parents. It was set in a war. A comedy, one of the best comedies, set in a war, and as funny as it was, they never let the audience forget that war is ugly and brutal. Yes, I laughed, but I also watch it with this strange fascination and wondered - why, why, why?! Why were they fighting this war? Why did even people like Hawkeye, who hated it so much, stay? He could have gone AWOL, run away to Canada, not easily or without penalties, but it could have been done. Yet in one episode, when he'd fought so hard for some R&R in Tokyo, as the choppers came flying in, he set down his suitcase, took off his hat, and went to scrub up. My questions were always his questions. Why couldn't anyone else see the awful truth of it? Why couldn't they end it?
It's easy to dismiss entertainment media as valueless, meaningless, and I'm sure some of it is, but I never saw it that way. For me it was always the way of exploring questions nobody bothered to cover in junior high school classes. As a seventh-grader, I read Dennis McKiernan's books, full of Elves and Dwarves and Halflings. He explored questions of God and evil and creation. As a teenager I loved Star Trek The Next Generation, the loyalty and fidelity of the crew, and Star Wars with its themes of sacrifice and redemption. As an adult I love Doctor Who. I suppose The Doctor is very much like Hawkeye Pierce, a cheeky pacifist who never the less runs into the danger and tries to save everyone. I love the unapologetic ridiculousness of Doctor Who, the fast past, the shouted demand (not request!) for the suspension of disbelief ala Monty Python. Suspending disbelief is to suspend belief and when we can do that, we can start to ask the hard questions.
And I think of the Odyssey, Beowulf, the Bible, Canterbury Tales, the Jataka Tales. These weren't ever just for children. Human beings love stories. We learn from them. But it's true, we also escape in them. Entertainment media can be just that, if we let it. We need to seek the Middle Path in this as in all things. Stories have a power that sermons and dharma talks lack, however profound, - the power to be both eternal and subversive. We tell stories because they are entertaining, and we pass them on, one to another. If we take an ethical view of story-telling, if we look to find something true within the fiction (and what is the dharma but "truth?") stories can be very powerful tools.
I'm hooked on stories of suffering and sacrifice. I love the unlikely hero. I love the fighter, the one who simply won't give up, won't turn away, even when they could. I am fascinated by ideas of free will and choice and the willing acceptance of pain and sorrow. And I love a good line, a catchy witticism, the tongue in cheek jest, the innuendo. I clap when things turn out different from what they seem. I can't stand to see anyone embarrassed, and I even close my eyes and cover my ears, in sympathy with the imaginary person on the talking picture box. I love the characters, the deeper, the better, and decry the use of red-shirts, the throw away death, the disposable extras. I like it best when characters grow, morph and change and learn. I don't care about the odds, or the accuracy, or how many times they save the world. I've been watching science fiction long enough that I've seen all the plots: time loops, body switching, invisible person, supernatural possession, the ticking bomb, the test of faith, and the great battle. As long as they're done with heart and the characters have depth, I don't actually care.
It doesn't matter how many times the story has been told, because each time it is a new person telling it and a new person listening. This is true even for the same people. I watch MASH entirely differently now as an adult than I did as a child. I get the dirty jokes I missed and see the darker places I never really noticed. If I had never watched MASH as a child, I don't know that I ever would have found my way to the dharma, or if it would have resonated the way it does.
Maybe television rots my brain, but it also speaks to my soul, and how's that for the willing suspension of disbelief!