I've been having these vague thoughts lately on "realistic" drama, and how it is or isn't realistic, or how real life does or doesn't get considered realistic. And seeing a couple of comments on the last couple of episodes of Mad Men spurred me to actually write some of them down.

Basically, it just occured to me how when you think about great dialogue, it's usually dialogue that is either witty and subtle or incisive and sharp. Dialogue or drama that's sentimental, clunky, or too on the nose is fake or inept. Yet so often in real life people are all those things.

On some level it's just like anything else to do with fiction--we cut out the boring parts. That's why it's art. Good dialogue that sounds natural but is profound is like hitting the jackpot. So I understand why people don't like moments that are instead filled with people explaining themselves earnestly and precisely or being generally cheesy. But sometimes I think that can lead to cutting out parts of the human experience. I've met so many people who really have explained themselves earnestly and precisely in a generally cheesy way--and okay, sometimes it makes me roll my eyes, but sometimes it's honestly who the person is.

To use an example, the past two eps of Mad Men (the first of which was AMAZING!) used three dramatic devices that I saw criticized by a lot of people, even if they liked the episode itself. The first was the appearance of a "ghost" (a character sees a vision of a person who is dead), the second was a hand squeeze accompanied by a serious Look and the third was voice over in the form of diary entries. Three things that were called cheesy (the first), too on the nose and OTT (the second) and just a bad device (the third).

To start with the first, it's not that voice over is bad, it's that it's so often used badly, especially in films where it's used to patch over holes. I can totally understand just finding it jarring and not liking it, especially in a show that’s never used it, but some criticisms I read implied that it made the ep artificial. Yet what struck me was how believable it was that this character at this time would be keeping a diary, and that he would write about what he was writing about. In fact, writing a diary is something that so many people would do in a similar situation. So I found myself thinking--hmmm, I feel like this is a totally believable choice for this character, but is it still a bad idea because a) voiceover is immediately bad and artificial and those things are supposed to be outside the style of MM, and b) a character laying out their thoughts is a cheat because good dialogue should be ambiguous and we should have to work to really understand people.

The two examples from the first ep were more about sentimentality: MM doesn't do ghosts and visions. It's sentimental. Yet for all the people who didn't like it there were, unsurprisingly, many people who said "It happened to me." Seeing visions of loved ones is really common in real life after they've died. Of course, it's even more common on TV, where the ghosts often become recurring characters. The problem with the ghost here was, I think, that it either signaled MM getting into magical realism or else it was presenting this vision as part of realism and that suggested a realism too sentimental for a sophisticated drama.

I can totally relate to that idea, but otoh, if this were a real guy? I would totally believe he would have had this vision--so does that make it OOC for the show or not? I don't know!

Likewise with the handhold, some felt it was too overt. It would have been better to have it unspoken (or more unspoken since there were no words), something more subtle would be more powerful. But to me, part of the point of the handhold was that it was supposed to be awkward and overt. The character felt pushed to be less subtle and really makes some sort of overt gesture. It wasn't about being caught off guard and revealing himself, it was a person uncomfortable with this sort of thing making a decision to do this sort of thing. It was a self-conscious performance, but a self-conscious performance of a genuine feeling.

So it winds up not being subtle or sublime or beautifully done. All these things wind up seeming like flaws for their awkwardness and volume level. It's like hitting a false note because you tried to hit it too loudly. But life itself seems to be really full of those moments, so sometimes I find myself cheering "serious" drama on for going there, for admitting that sometimes people, even on sophisticated shows, are sentimental and awkward and say things that are clunky and shallow and exactly what they want you to think about them (not talking Inception dialogue here, you understand--that's a different kind of bad) or they ponder their lives and don't come up with anything particularly interesting or original.

I don't want to sound like I'm saying anybody who didn't like any of these moments or devices lacks the taste to appreciate them or anything--I think they all have the potential to throw intelligent viewers out of the scene. I've just been thinking about how I do think that makes them gutsy. Because it's so easy to imagine a show that considers itself adult and sophisticated just being too cool for these kinds of moments. But this establishes that yes, this universe and these people actually do have a lot of the same thoughts and longings as the characters on Touched by an Angel or Little House on the Prairie.

(Okay I now totally believe that Don Draper will be a total closet LHotP fan in a few years...)

The other thing that really got me thinking about this, btw, was something [livejournal.com profile] jlh recently said about Gilmore Girls (a show I never watched so I can’t actually comment on). She said "Good television doesn’t all have to be harrowing drama or point-and-laugh kitsch." It points out the two extremes that that dominate TV nowadays (and fanfic as well, now that I think about it) that not only avoid the grey area in the middle but are both ways of avoiding those emotions people have that are embarrassing and sentimental while also being genuine.
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