Indirection and the horrors of the moment

Last week I finished watching Season 2 of The Good Fight on CBS Some Access (that’s not what they call it, but…welp). I really loved the show from which it’s a spin-off, The Good Wife, and they kept some of my favorite characters and added a few new characters I like a lot. All the things that frustrated me most about the original show were gone, plus they had kept the rich and extensive universe of characters going. Yet I found watching this season a slog–I was going downstairs to watch it with my workout with a little distaste rather than a lot of excitement–so I had to think about why.

The Good Wife had fictional court cases inspired by real ones in recent headlines, starting from the first season. That wasn’t new. But The Good Fight doubled down on the contemporary references. It is a show that is entirely about American politics in 2018. There’s a lot that’s directly about Donald Trump and his effects on local and state level politics. There are also plotlines that are less inspired by and more copies of current events in other areas. Even plotlines that are supposedly about the characters’ love lives are often also about the fate of protesters or how candidates are presented in modern elections.

I sympathize. I do. There’s a lot out there, and sometimes just screaming into your pillow is not enough. Sometimes you really want to scream something in words, that someone else can hear. Words like, “What is even going on,” and, “I am not okay with any of this.” I get it. But I think that there’s a paradoxical effect where the closer you get to an actual nonfiction commentary without being one, the harder it is to take.

I think the people who wrote M*A*S*H are a great counterexample here. M*A*S*H is set during the Korean War, but even a cursory glance tells you it wasn’t about the Korean War. It was about the Vietnam War. Not only does the quagmire timeline not make sense for the US’s presence in Korea, none of the characters’ backstories do either. Anyone over the age of 22–so all of the main characters except Radar and maybe Klinger–but probably just Radar–should have WWII experience if they’re regular Army. If they’re not, they should still have the perspective that came of having their country in an all-out world war within the last decade. But they don’t seem to. What they do have, eventually, is Colonel Potter, the old-timer with world war experience that he’s always hearkening back to–but not recent experience, of course. This makes no literal sense, but it makes complete emotional sense when you consider that the show is really about the US troops in Vietnam instead.

Why bother? Why use one war to comment on another? Why remove your characters that far? If they wanted to talk about current events, why didn’t they? For me, one of the answers is: it can get overwhelming. Dealing with news stories and then having your fictional entertainment copy those same news stories exactly: it’s too much of one thing. Which is bad enough when that one thing is chocolate peanut butter ice cream, far worse when it’s a specific corruption charge.

Another answer is broader thinking. One particular policy discussion can start to fall into “denounce this one thing, this one thing is bad.” In real life, that can be necessary! But art gives us the chance to look for patterns. To ask, what kind of thing is this, where have I seen it before, where might I see it again, would it still be bad in those contexts too or is there something specific to this one. What are my actual principles here, when removed from the immediacy of people I already know I trust or distrust? How would I react to a situation like this one if there were a few things different? and what does that tell me about this situation?

Of course my bias is toward indirect comment because I’m a science fiction writer. M*A*S*H may have been the first Vietnam War commentary I encountered, in reruns my parents watched while they were making supper, but The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is also pretty influential in my line of work. Haldeman is a Vietnam vet who had things to say–and he used the depth of hundreds of years to say them. Haldeman also wrote War Year and 1968, both of which are non-genre novels inspired by his experiences–both of which are very different from The Forever War. Indirection and shift of perspective give you different art, even when it’s coming from the same person.

I’m not giving up on The Good Fight. I hope that it manages to find its footing and a place to stand where it can create commentary that stretches beyond the current moment, that gives us a lens that allows us to look into that moment without damaging our eyes with the intensity. But my preference as a reader and as a writer is going to continue to be work that tries to find a different angle for perspective and illumination.

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