Death of a loved one, friend or family, is a life-altering event; the grief and loss color everything for a while. Even when it seems that the worst of the grief has subsided, it still comes in waves for a while as we struggle to maintain our equilibrium and return to life as we knew it before loss. We live our day to day in a sort of agreeable coma, at least slightly convinced, temporarily comforted by the cozy lie that we are immortal, that those we love will never leave us. We know we are lying to ourselves, but while we may try to live consciously, to know the end will come, I think we mostly pretend otherwise. This is part of the reason that sudden and accidental deaths rattle us to the very core.
As parents, our greatest fear is that our child will die. Depending on how neurotic we are, we imagine it almost every day. What else could unhinge us so dramatically when a child breaks curfew? Those phantom images we fight off with varying degrees of success — our child dead in a traffic accident or fallen from a window or murdered by a roadside. As children, our profoundest fear is that we might lose a parent. Fairy tales and much of fiction exorcise and exercise that primal fear for us that we might master it; these stories show us that adventures and life after loss can continue. Orphans have always been the plucky fixtures of novels and cinema; from Oliver Twist to Shirley Temple, motherless children have faced all kinds of adversity and lifted our spirits. Perhaps our nation struggles in the aftermath of 9-11, in the glare of constant global warfare and disaster to make peace with the proximity, the inevitability of death. But I think the trend of making light of parental death has gone too far.
The ridiculously gorgeous Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel play Holly and Messer, another in a seemingly endless string of unlikely and inevitable romantic couples in this misbegotten romantic comedy drama. If you live under a rock, let me break it down for you. Their best friends, played by the luscious Christina Hendricks and the mostly forgettable Hayes MacArthur, try to play matchmaker and fail. They also get married, have a baby, and a birthday party for their baby within the first minutes of the film. Then they die. And because there’s no one else in the movie universe who’s suitable, they leave their baby to their two best friends. Who hate each other. Which in movie mythology means that they are fated to be together forever. This is not Life As I Know It. But what the heck.
The Defending Champion
thirtysomething is a television series of the late eighties that closely follows a group of friends. Some are married, some are single. Some have children, some are arrested overgrown children. Creators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz explored all the big and small issues of this tribe of yuppies.
Yes, they’re all smart and white, but they’re all beautifully drawn characters who will remind you of someone you know.
This is Life As I Know It. I’m just sayin.
I watched the pilot episode of Fox’s new and edgy Raising Hope; those fortunate enough to have missed it need only know that the pilot set the premise in the following manner. A cute white girl and serial killer has sex in a van with the boy who mistakes the fleeing felon for an anonymous hitchhiker in trouble. The following morning, when he sees her face on the news, he turns her in. Nine months later, her baby arrives in prison, and the clueless young dad watches his one-nighter cutie fry in the electric chair dandling their illegitimate baby on his lap. I can’t adequately capture the tastelessness of the enterprise in a mere paragraph, but perhaps these next sentences will do it. Cloris Leachman plays the grandmother. She has dementia. Laughing yet?
Neither am I.
When I coached improv comedy at a local high school, I taught my students to steer clear of death as a subject. In any audience of a few hundred people, I warned them, at least a few are likely recovering from some family loss or preparing for one and someone else has just been diagnosed or is worrying about a lump and avoiding seeing a doctor. The last thing people need while they’re looking for a little comic diversion is a bunch of callow kids making light of something bigger than they can handle. There have been a few great films with death as a subject deftly using comedy as a leavener; as in life, black humor is curative and inevitable. The very best drama is punctuated with laughs, and the best comedy is about something important. That said, it takes real talent and taste and wisdom to pull that off. James L. Brooks did it in Terms of Endearment, and I’m hard-pressed to think of many more.
Life As We Know It did not succeed. Not by a longshot. Death was needed for the premise, but it didn’t inform much of the film. Oh sure, the triplets playing the orphaned baby spent most of their onscreen time crying, but the adults played it mostly like a garden variety rom-com with occasional pouting. Reality took a major holiday. Here are a few of the tried and untrue moments that kept me cringing: Driving to an airport to stop someone from leaving and arriving when the doors have already closed. Hiring a completely unsuitable and unwilling stranger to babysit — a cab driver in this case. Changing diapers and finding decent childcare knock two intelligent professionals flat. Jean Smart plays Heigl’s mom, and this talented comedienne had no dialogue. She may have nodded and assented at some point. “Away We Go” style, all parents were assholes. One didn’t know how many kids he had. Hilarious. Another p-whipped her husband as she cranked out the progeny. Oh, and she was overweight. And the only person in Atlanta, Georgia with a southern accent. Interesting choice. Oh, and don’t forget the horny skinny mom too. She wore a pink track suit. And all the suburbanites traveled in an annoying clump. Just like real life. Not. And the grieving father with emphysema has his tubes yanked by accident. I could go on.
Most people have more than one friend, and if they don’t, (as apparently is the case in Life As We Know It for the principals) then the loss of those friends would be an enormous thing. These characters don’t even have families. They don’t even have work friends. They have their attractive looking careers (When did owning a bake shop become the glamour job for women?) and that’s about it. (1987’s mediocre Baby Boom had the good sense to have Diane Keaton’s single woman character inherit the orphaned baby of a distant relative she has never known. It’s stupid, but this rather far-fetched premise allowed the tone and focus to shift without incurring the audience’s discomfort.)
Audiences will be lulled into accepting this appalling drivel; apparently the beauty and inherent likability of its two stars fool audiences into thinking they’re being entertained sufficiently. Ah, but they are mistaken. Why does this matter? I’m not one of those zealots who believe that a child will become a serial killer if he plays violent video games nor do I think watching Britney Spears videos turns little girls into pole dancers. I do think that we become a little deadened and difficult to shock, that our sensitivity is dulled by incessant exposure to cruelty and casually accepted insensitivity. I think we become less human. That’s why it’s important to see people, role models, modeling recognizable, well-observed human behavior instead of simply going through the paces of stupid set pieces. Adulthood, real mature adults, are so rare on film as to be non-existent. Where are the Gary Coopers and the Myrna Loys? All these twenty-and-thirty-somethings exist in a world where a full diaper can send them over the edge. And this incapable, addled, stupid behavior starts seeming acceptable. Social retardation and immaturity, insensitivity and a lack of humanity become the new normal, and this worries me. When your best friend dies, it’s supposed to stay with you. It’s supposed to make you sad. You’re not supposed to gambol in their sheets and wonder aloud why you never did that before. Adopting a baby isn’t about changing a diaper and getting a stray dab of excrement on your cheek. It’s not about finding a sitter. Parenthood is about lifetime commitment. It’s about recognizing that the world is bigger than just you. It’s about growing up all of a sudden and becoming competent or at least pretending to be competent or aspiring to be competent. It’s not about celebrating what a selfish nincompoop you are. This isn’t recognizable human behavior. It’s bad behavior. And it’s not even close to okay.
Television does this sort of thing better; at least it has the potential to create characters with arc and history and richness. Great writing is rare on the small screen too, but when the stars align, something truly glorious can happen. We get to know individuated characters in great depth over time, and they become real to us. We know them well, and we root for them the way we root for our friends and family. We understand their weaknesses and admire their strengths and we recognize their inconsistencies. Terrific examples: The Sopranos. Rescue Me. Mad Men. All three mix drama and comedy and RECOGNIZABLE HUMAN BEHAVIOR brilliantly.
Perhaps best at exploring the controversially low stakes drama of contemporary life is that masterpiece of yuppie angst and triumph created by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, thirtysomething. The reality of how it truly feels to be human informed every moment of the four seasons. Deaths occurred here, and the repercussions of those losses rocked the world of all the characters. We meet parents and siblings and employers and employees, and every single character was created with impeccable depth and care; the cast was fearless and brilliant, unafraid to look selfish and vain and even foolish. For me, Tim Busfield, Patricia Wettig, and Melanie Mayron were the standouts in a very strong field of players. The fashions may look a little dated with all the shoulder pads and Flock of Seagulls haircuts, but the truth hasn’t changed much. The first season is the weakest of the four; characters are broader and themes less subtle in the beginning of any series. The show took a year to really find its creative stride, but it’s a tour de force nonetheless. And it puts clunkers like Life As We Know It to shame. If you didn’t watch the series when it aired originally, you might want to give it a shot and you can. The show is available on DVD now for the first time, and pirated episodes exist on YouTube.