Hot Glued to the Cold Screen

I love watching bad TV. Or, at least, I watch it so frequently that I have to tell people I love it. Actually, I just watch a lot of bad TV for reasons that aren’t exactly healthy. I watch most of my bad TV on YouTube because I can’t stand commercials (I hate good commercials, the ones that make me laugh or give me the chills because I know the real intention of a commercial is to sell me something. A good commercial is like that really charming guy who comes around, complements you, smiles, makes some tasteful small talk then walks away with your wallet and watch). I also binge watch. I’ll be dry for weeks, even months if I’m lucky, then suddenly I’m on my eighth hour of The Steve Wilkos Show and I haven’t even brushed my teeth.  So, this habit is unhealthy on the surface. Obviously I’m wasting time that could be spent doing something helpful or nice or productive. Also I stop taking care of myself (you can include not washing or eating during a TV binge as well; the tooth brush thing was just scratching the surface). But there’s something subtler that happens. It’s a dynamic that exists in me and doesn’t make a lot of sense at first glance. I watch a lot of these shows: Judge Judy[i], Dr. Phil, the terrible singers from American Idol and The X-Factor, the Australian dating show Taken Out and its British derivation Take Me Out, Kitchen Nightmares, Hotel Hell, and of course The Steve Wilkos Show[ii]etc. etc. etc.

It would be easy to tell myself that I actually do like these shows (granted I’d have to alter my self-perception quite a bit) but that wouldn’t really be true. It’s easy to laugh it off and say something about being masochistic; this would contain a kernel of truth, but the emotional context of the self-denigrating joke would be a lie.

Thing is, every one of these shows has judgment as its core tension. Judgment is the attraction of these shows. Yes, a lot of the American Idol singers can sing beautifully (in a kind of white washed, production ready kind of way… Mick Jagger, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, maybe even Janis Joplin, wouldn’t have gotten far on the show. Their voices have a rough side. They have the particular character of imperfection while still sounding good. It’s, you know, human) but the tension of the show, the conflict, is whether or not the omnipotent judges will accept or reject the singers. The show manages to make both acceptance and rejection really fun to watch[iii]. This is very obvious in a show like Judge Judy. Judy is the embodiment of the law. Her language, whether it’s smart or direct or snarky, is the law. It’s small claims court with a lot of pathetic cases (man wants money from renter, renter says man came onto him and wants a counter suit, both cases are thrown out. A high school girl pulls a nasty prank on her friend by cutting a hole in friend’s dress, one mom sues the other, all are put through Judy’s verbal gauntlet. Etc. etc. It proves the stocks didn’t disappear, they just migrated to TV and people started volunteering for money, help, fame, who the heck knows) but despite its small claim, Judy is still the one that imposes moral, emotional value as well as litigious judgement.

It’s this judgment that I look for. Not necessarily consciously, it’s more like a nasty, subtle feeling that sits in my belly and limbs and jitters like bad coffee. You see, I don’t identify with the judges and I don’t exactly identify with the judged. I do however feel the part of myself that wants validation perk up in attention whenever the Verdict is laid out. Part of me wants to be judged and told I’m good and because, by the nature of the whole structure of desiring external validation and having trouble providing it for myself, I don’t necessarily believe I’d be judged kindly so I end up tapping into and encouraging a part of me that thinks I deserve, even wants, to be humiliated. The TV watching is a little masochistic, but not really in a funny way.

So, everyone deals with issues of approval. If you ever meet someone that says they are totally without insecurities they tend to undermine themselves by feeling the need to prove they don’t have insecurities otherwise, they probably wouldn’t say anything (it’s not like random people randomly tell me about their random insecurities, I just have this tendency to talk to total strangers about pretty intimate stuff. It’s usually really nice, but it can get weird, and my parents constantly worry I’m going to get taken advantage of or something paranoid [and understandable from a parental point of view]). In fact I might go so far as to say becoming yourself is a continual awakening to a new set of insecurities. Some stick with us and some don’t and it’s important to be aware of them. Clint Eastwood saying “A man’s gotta know his limits”, that whole line of thinking.

Approval, validation, and judgment get complicated when depression rears its head. Depression, unlike diabetes or cancer, does not have a core. Instead, it is the sum of its aspects. It’s not a pancreas that doesn’t release the right amount of insulin, the disease is defined in the negative, what it isn’t. Because it feels like hungry, angry, frustrated sadness that lives in my head but it’s not just that. It feels like my soul is slowly suffocating because my skin and pores have been covered and clogged with burnt grease, but that isn’t entirely right. One of the real shitty parts of depression is that, at least in my case, there are times where I need external validation. I am not incapable of telling myself I’m worthy of love, but when my mind’s eye utters it my self’s soul cannot hear it. So in a way this masochistic practice of watching TV also helps me cope with painful mood states. It would be healthier and better to ask a friend or family member, but keep in mind, that most of me decided (without my consent) that I wasn’t worthy of their love so contacting them isn’t just dialing a phone number, it’s navigating a spiral of spiky self-loathing that has no real reason to exist. It can feel like trying to knit with the branches of a pricker-bush, it takes concentration and time and the process requires I get pricked a few times. And that’s dialing the phone.

If anything, TV ends up being an available Band-Aid that needs frequent changing.  The disease of depression just helps me pick up on the nastier parts of the shows I’m watching. The disease is hyper sensitive to judgment (remember I am my disease and I am not my disease, it helps to see it as something other than me, but it helps me to act if I tell myself I am the disease as well, it’s a tricky contradiction to manage, but one I need). Then again, I’m not really capable of saying whether TV makes it any worse.

So here we are, another conclusion that can’t be concluded. Again, there never really is a final word on depression because it’s cyclical, it can return and leave with or without a discernible pattern. It would be silly of me to try and simply say “there, now you know that TV is both good and bad” not only because it would be cliched and boring, but because, like reruns of Judge Judy, TV repeats itself, as does my habit of imbibing it. What I can say with some finality, is that depression permeates things so much that it’s touched something as inane as watching the television (or just any screen). Depression is an attentive disease that never bores of its subject. In fact, like television itself, it with repeat episodes, rerun old thought parts, desire and introduce the same humiliating complex TV displays.  So now I’m going to make like Seinfeld and get out while I still have some momentum. It will leave you hungry for closure like all TV (and like depression in that it desires finality in a transcendent, work through hell and climb out Satan’s ass crack Dante like way, or the way depression can get really scary when suicide starts becoming a reality rather than a thing “crazy” people do) does.

[i] I actually kind of admire Judge Judy as a person. She at least presents herself as not playing a judge. She’s actually that way in a court room. Those are actual cases. They’re just filmed in LA and made to seem like they’re filmed in NY. In fact, she was asked if she felt like she was mean in the same way Simon Cowell was mean and she gave a response that was both smart and sort of touching. She said something along the lines of “There’s a difference, there’s a subtle difference…Those people who come and sing their heart out and then are annihilated—for sport… I couldn’t be Simon Cowell, no ma’am.” The whole clip is worth watching, despite some overproduction. The part I’m talking about can be found here and starts at about 6 minutes, thirty seconds. The meanness on her show is thoughtful in a strange way. Or at least, it’s respectable that she sees her role to act like a judge and there is a purpose to her meanness.

[ii] In true hipster fashion I started watching this ironically then somehow ended up attending the actual damn show and yelling “STEEEVE” with actually sincere glee. It was the first time I realized ironic detachment often turns into genuine, if confused, care with enough time. I liked Steve Wilkos (this is sort of a pattern if you read the previous Judge Judy fn. as well). In fact if you find yourself watching The Steve Wilkos Show you can probably see both me and my very disgruntled best friend quite a bit. If you’re luckier they included the shot where Tony waved the camera man out of his face.

[iii] American Idol also uses some fucked up tactics. The initial judging stage isn’t done by Simon Cowell et al. Instead, thousands of people are prejudged. This means that those “crazy” people that are showcased for our pleasure are actually approved by the production team with the sole intent of mocking them. The show discourages compassion and in fact promotes a weird Manichean dualism that’s about whether or not someone can conform to a particular aesthetic. Obviously this makes sense: it’s a competition show. But there’s something really sad and hateful in the way the show uses people who might need help, might be better off not ending up on national television, because the show assumes we as viewers want to mock the singers. The shitty thing is they’re right to a certain extent. I absolutely do this. And while the laughter seems fun, it’s not a happy laughter. I feel like that kind of laughter leaves a trail of slime like a creepy slug.

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Seeing Sadness: Veiled and True

Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon was groundbreaking. It was groundbreaking as a piece of visual storytelling and it was groundbreaking in how I understood myself. It was the first time film addressed the idea that truth differs for each person. Memories and impressions may be entirely at odds with one another, but necessarily coexist. There is no single shared story of the past. In the movie a Japanese woodcutter and priest are sitting under the massive wooden arches of a destroyed building, hiding from torrential rainstorm. A harried man comes along and tells the two he’d just witnessed a chilling trial. A samurai was murdered, survived by his wife and a bandit that had attacked him. After the harried man tells his story (all shot through flashbacks that depict the “actual” events) the woodcutter he witnessed the events as well and tells his own version. According to the woodcutter the bandit had tied up the samurai and raped the samurai’s wife. The wife untied her husband so he could defend her, but the two men were scared to fight and ended up rolling around on the forest floor. Neither of them were dignified or tough or cool or even masculine. While the men fought, the wife laughed at how humiliating the whole disastrous mess was.

The first time I saw Rashomon was as a skinny college sophomore taking a film theory class. During the woodcutter’s story my professor let out a deep chuckle that turned into a cackle. I found myself shocked watching these seemingly macho guys role around as the woman onscreen laughed and my professor cackled. I was shocked at how disturbed I was. I didn’t understand why he was laughing and I was squirming with anxiety. After class I asked my professor what he’d found so funny and responded with something about their pitiful emasculation that revealed the fragility of masculinity. I told him that while I didn’t disagree with his point the scene disturbed me. I felt something in my guts shift and struggle, like a single egg full of adult snakes trying to break so they could spread through my insides and wrap around my muscles and introduce me into some new horror I’d never realized was there. We watched the scene again and he said he just didn’t see it. I might not have used that exact metaphor now that I think about it.

At the time I thought this meant I was flat-out wrong. That my reaction was the wrong reaction. I hadn’t been introduced to the fundamental notion that multiple emotional reactions to a single event can firmly coexist–cohabitate even–both in and between people. Self denigration through invalidation of emotional reactions (read as: telling yourself off all the time) is a pretty common thought pattern with depression. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen something shocking and sad and I told myself it just wasn’t there. I was like Haley Joel Osmet in The Sixth Sense if he’d consistently told himself Bruce Willis didn’t really exist and Haley was a bad person for seeing Bruce at all. Part of the reason I’d tell myself I was wrong was because I seemed to be the only person that saw sadness and cruelty where there was apparent humor and normality. People were frequently shocked at my reactions. But it makes a lot of sense that others found my reactions weird.

I’m not much fun to watch Family Guy with. Whenever the show goes out of its way to be cruel to Meg (even something as asinine as getting rid of a booger by rubbing Meg’s head and telling her she loves him) I can’t help but imagine the creators as people capable of great dehumanizing disdain for unpredictable reasons. While this seems like an overstatement, it still makes a lot of sense to me. It’s difficult to compartmentalize disdain. Even creating an imaginary punching bag of a character like Family Guy‘s Meg encourages the emotional practice of celebrating casual cruelty. As a character Meg is either boring or uncharacteristically crazy (in one episode the writers have her mimic Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction for no discernable reason) and the joke of hating Meg seems to simply be “Hey isn’t funny that there’s no reason to hate her but we hate her a lot anyways!” I always found it really easy to start assuming people I might walk by on the sidewalk were objects of disdain because it was “funny” to think like that, especially after watching Family Guy. I couldn’t help but make it personal in someway. Thing is, I don’t think making it personal was a bad thing.

Finding sadness and cruelty where it might not otherwise exist isn’t exactly fun. It doesn’t fit in with the constant search for the silver lining type mentality that’s really popular at the moment. One that can hamper my attempt to connect with people over painful topics that need solemnity rather than enthusiasm (I don’t know how many times I’ve heard some ask “Yeah, but, something good must have come from it” or “Everything happens for a reason” when all I needed was some company and a “That sounds hard” or two). Finding sadness and cruelty where it might not otherwise exist also doesn’t fit in with the cynical nihilism that everything sucks (because why would I be shocked at something cruel since everyone is really truly an asshole at their core?). I’ve found that asking myself why I find something shocking or sad or cruel tends to reveal that I really do care–I just care in general, whether it’s family, politics, people I’ve seen once or twice–and caring requires hurt. Shock and sadness remind me that the deadening parts of depression are losing. Shock and sadness require me to be emotionally willing enough to be shocked and sad. Feeling shocked or sad requires that I’m not afraid of tough emotions like the myopically positive and that I’m not so calcified by my own disappointment that I put on the pretense of apathy (cynical nihilism is at best a defense against any threatening emotional stimulus out because I fear feeling hurt. It’s an understandable reaction to cruelty [who the hell desires to hurt?] but it perpetuates an emotional cycle of consistent misery).

This is not to say everything is sad and cruel and you should look for it in everything you consume. There’s real incontestable value to positivity. It’s thirst quenching and energizing and momentum producing; it just isn’t very good at recognizing when it’s time to engage and nurture emotional hurt. Cynicism can be helpful when being critical, it’s just really draining.

Some can see a man walking late at night, shoulders hunched and hat pulled low, shrugging against the wind as his shadow turns like the hands of a clock against the warm sodium glow of the yellow streetlights that blanket the asphalt and they might see loneliness. Others might see determination. Others, fragility of beauty that might not have existed if they hadn’t glanced out their window at that exact moment. And some others might just see a guy. The point is, the first few reactions fill out the night with the color and shape of imagination and in doing so continue to give life to the interpreter and to the man himself. That part, the life part, is the important part.

To put it another, less overwrought way, sadness and shock are so pathologised, not only if someone has depression, but in the general US population, that their life-giving qualities are overlooked. Depression denies the feeling of even sadness. It is a kind of anti-life. It hates sadness and shock with the same dulled fury that it hates laughter and passion.

So why the hell was I so shocked by that scene in Rashomon? The best I can do is try and remember the feelings and where they came from. I was shocked at how easily the promise of protection provided by machismo shatters with the a simple trip or chuckle. I felt embarrassed for the men rolling around, knowing death was close by but it wouldn’t be dignified. I saw all my dreams of knights in thick armor fending off wounds and baring forward into inhuman jaws and returning triumphant flicked away with every clumsy flash of their swords. I heard the mocking anger in the woman’s voice and realized I was not familiar with true strength and would have to discover something entirely new to feel safe. And now, thinking back, I heard the whispers of depression asking “why bother when it’s all such pathetic shit.” It took a while to learn that my realizations were valuable ones and that pathetic bluster shit can absolutely be okay. I don’t know if I would have had any of those thoughts without the desperate feeling that depression can let in.

To conclude, I don’t really want to wrap this up. Things still shock me with their sadness and cruelty. It could be the harsh edge in someone’s laughter after I trip, it could be the local news reporting the death of a child in Texas with near libidinous fervor, it could be something everyone finds sad and shocking. This stuff doesn’t stuff, and while depression wanes I refuse to stop caring if only out of fear depression might wax again.