I've always liked happy endings. I suppose it goes back to my childhood, when I suffered the Baby Boomer's trauma of watching Bambi lose his mother in Technicolor. After that, I quickly learned to shield myself from the media's emotional manipulation. Before allowing myself to invest in a character in a book, I'd turn to the back pages and make sure the character would survive the plot. If not, I wouldn't allow myself to get emotionally involved and thereby empathize with the sadistic pain the authors were inflicting in the name of drama. The strategy helped me get through most of the readings assigned in high school and college (Dickens, anyone?) and appreciate the intellectual value of literature, without risking the emotional scars of fiction's so-called catharsis.
The intervening adult years have not changed my attitude towards entertainment media. My personal and professional lives have brought me my share of joy and sadness, and, yes, drama. But, for recreation, I've always sought out an escape in the world of fantasy, whether in print or screen, to counteract the depression and exhaustion from many of life's challenges.
With movie reviews easily available, I've been able to similarly protect my vulnerable spirit by opting for comedies, and thrillers where the heroes win and the objectified bad guy's destruction doesn't have a painful psychic impact. (Though I have to admit I was recently blindsided by Up's poignant scenes of loneliness and aging, and actually had run through my pocket pack of Kleenex by film's end. Sheesh, the Ratings Board should add a "T" for "Tears.")
To some extent, I've also tried to edit my small screen viewing, (such as it is when the screens are no longer small). I devour clever comedies, and enjoy action-adventure shows where the actors are sharp, the dialogue is witty and the bromance is unimpeachable. I also tune into procedurals that are descendants of Agatha Christie, where the murder victims are unsympathetic, the suspects eccentric, and the detectives charming. And the good guys always catch the bad guys in the end. Taxi Driver, LA Confidential, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill? Not so much. I am, proudly, a demographic dinosaur.
And, as I inch towards--cough--middle age, I find myself truly seeking lighter fare on TV. After a taxing 12-hour day at work, and second-shift duties at home, I look forward to plopping on the La-Z-Boy and watching a program that will give me a lift rather than nightmares. Week by week, I not only get drawn in by the machinations of each new episode, but by the charisma of the characters, whose policing, profiling and forensic skills never seem to disturb their attractive clothes and makeup. After a while, when the plots become predictable, I watch to keep up with the soap opera -- in other words, to catch up with the characters and their personal story arcs. I've found that I can put up with a bit of tension in the characters' lives and still relax and enjoy the show if I know that "things will work out in the end." As it was in my younger days, when Kirk, Spock and McCoy and the Bonanza clan, like Wile E. Coyote, would be back the next week, healed and smiling once again.
I blame MASH for starting the new trend, but the opposite approach of killing off characters has now become a tsunami. There's barely a show on TV where, if it survives cancellation in the first place, doesn't see a revolving door of cast members, entering and exiting to coincide with sweeps months and season finales. (Or, for more recent network shows, budget meetings and contract negotiations.) An occasional change in the status of my on-screen "friends," hopefully in a positive direction, could make a show more interesting--Rhoda may never have been the same after she moved to New York and got married, but at least she wasn't found beheaded by a homicidal maniac who placed the knife in Phyllis' hand after inducing a psychotic break. And, we got Sue Ann Nivens in Minneapolis, and Brenda and Ida in Brooklyn. Win-win.
Nowadays, surviving the serial killer at season's end doesn't guarantee that your favorite character will be back on a renewed show. Bad enough that we'll never know if Flash Forward's Mark Benford lived through the FBI Building explosion--it's even harder for us fans to watch beloved characters wake up from their comas, amnesia episodes and brain surgeries only to lose them for good when producers/show runners and network executives decide to stir up the pot.
Research has shown that viewers bond with the characters with whom they share hours of their lives every month. This bond should not be taken lightly by "The Powers That Be"--especially when a show is doing well. Severing this bond can lead to a significant sense of loss--and can end up alienating loyal viewers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle learned this lesson well when he murdered, and, after public outcry, resurrected the popular Sherlock Holmes--the characters authors and writers create can become "real" companions in people's imaginations. Tossing them away without warning and without due cause, simply to stimulate ratings and resuscitate budgets, breaks the trust of viewers who have committed to following a TV series over months and years. Many fans understandably feel saddened, angry and/or manipulated.
Real life is unfair and unpredictable. Poverty, disease, illness, death are all around us, and we are all vulnerable to tragedy up to our very last breath. In real life, we have, of course, to focus and work towards the positive, and face challenges with optimism and strength. But when it comes to entertainment, I'm eager to escape to a world where, as I wish it were in reality, "Friends" live forever and happy endings are guaranteed. Perhaps then it's time for an additional two ratings to guide those of us who are emotionally wary as we comb through the TV listings: "A" for "Angst", and, for my kind of show, "All's Well That Ends Well"--AWTEW.