Tuesday, May 01, 2012

And You Will Know Us By Our Trail Of Dead

One of the reasons why The Walking Dead really strikes me as being - if not perhaps a "great" show - certainly a timely and important show, is that the sensation of a desperate and attenuated slow death is one that seems very current and very much of our moment. This is why I could not for the life of me understand the criticism that "nothing happens" on the show - nothing is supposed to happen. The show isn't about fighting zombies, it's about sitting around and slowly unraveling while you're waiting for the other shoe to drop. Complaining that "nothing happens" on the show is really mistaking a feature for a bug. It's not about the spooky ghoulies, it's about the long attrition of survival options in the face of almost inevitable annihilation. 

I can't remember off the top of my head where I got this link - someone off my Twitter feed, I'm sorry to say, I opened it in a window and didn't read it until later on in the day when I had forgot about attribution - but this is a great article about the survival horror genre seen through the lens of one of the great survival horror video games, the immortal Oregon Trail. I'm not much of a gamer so I am almost completely ignorant of what exactly the survival horror genre currently looks like in the realm of video games, but I liked this explanation of why the genre works (when it does):
In much of the modern world, most of us don't spend our days living in fear of injury or starvation. Why? Because we're prepared to handle them. They no longer pose an immediate threat. We're not scared, because we're just too ready.

Games are often about fulfilling power fantasies, so we tend to start off at least a little heroic and get even more heroic as we go. This can erode the challenge, so we usually increase the opposition (in numbers, in strength, or both) to match. This leads to an "arms race" that turns a lot of survival horror into yet-another-run-and-gun. We're no longer truly fighting to survive; it's just monster hunting, which isn't scary. When we remove the survival, we undermine the horror.
I should probably provide this caveat, by way of an explanation: I'm not exactly a zombie partisan - although, come to think of it, I realize I have seen a great deal of zombie movies, most of them are bad enough that I don't think I could really consider myself a "fan." There have been far more terrible zombie movies than good, and the best of recent vintage have been spoofs (Shaun of the Dead, the underrated Zombieland). 

But I certainly understand the appeal: the "zombie plague" trope may be trite and overdone and ripe for paraody and simply boring by now, but the reason it lingers in pop culture is pretty much solely attributable to the success George Romero found in his original Dead films - specifically, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (although I know that Day has its fans as well). Those films are "zombie movies," but (and this is hardly a new idea, so please forgive the reiteration) they aren't about zombies. Zombies have no personality, no charisma, no presence. The point is simply to see what happens to people when you put normal people in the pressure cooker of an impossible situation of survival in the face of the strangest, most soul-deadening circumstances possible. Zombies aren't individually a threat, but they tend to come in waves, and the immanent threat posed by tons of decaying flesh possessed by an insatiable appetite has a tendency to shred even the sturdiest disposition.
Oregon Trail uses some of the most fertile soil there is: desperation. Fear itself is too elevated an emotional state to keep up for very long, but desperation is more subtle and more sustainable. An added benefit is that when we're desperate, every emotional response is amplified - stretch a rubber band to its limit, and even a tiny scrape will snap it. This is the place where small problems (a snakebite) become heartbreaks, small victories (fording a river) become triumphs, a little humor (finding another player's tombstone) becomes an oasis in the desert, and a little fear finally becomes horror.

This sense of desperation creates interesting emotional conflicts, as well. When one of your party members dies, part of you mourns the loss - perhaps of the points more than of the character - but another part of you realizes this means fewer mouths to feed ... and the chilling fact is that part of you is a little relieved.
Reading over the comments from my post last week, I realize that I hadn't done a particularly good job of defining precisely why this is such an important sensation. I like the idea that the show is showing us a group of people who are being dismantled by fear to such a degree that they're irrevocably changed for the worst.

I know from the comics that the situation never improves, there's never any "cure" and it's only in recent months - almost 100 issues into the run - that the series has even begun to hint at the possibility of moving past constant survival situations and towards rebuilding some semblance of civilization. I've never been a fan of the comic before - Kirkman's weaknesses as a writer, such as the flatness of his characters and the methodical-as-a-bricklayer pacing and unimaginative plotting, are hard to ignore - but I have to admit I've been reading with some small interest these last few months as the series has begun to inch towards the establishment of a new society. Why? Because this is something different, this is something we've never really seen before in survival horror: rebuilding from the ground up after almost everything else has been destroyed. I don't know where this story will go, but the political theorist in me wants to see if the series will commit to this new direction, or if it's just a feint before the inevitable (and boring) return to the road.

But the show has a while to go before it catches up to that - if it ever does. For the time being, we're left with the spectacle of seeing these watching these people squirm like ants under a magnifying glass in the summer sun - slowly going insane from the heat seeping in from every direction, chewing their own guts out with anxiety. The only people who can thrive in this environment are monsters and sociopaths, and the only way to survive is by becoming a monster or a sociopath.

On that note, one of my other favorite shows - and perhaps my dark horse nominee for the current best show on TV - is Showtime's Shameless. You want to talk about survival horror? There's a show about what it's really like to live on the lowest rung of society, living from hand to mouth with no room for margin. Being poor does a marvelous job of clarifying your options: living so close to the ground means you can't be picky about opportunities. You have to compromise everything in order to make it from one night to the next.

Shameless is very funny. This is one of the show's best insights, and perhaps the best example of what it gets right about living in poverty: being poor is fucking hilarious. If you don't believe me, just try being poor. Everything takes on the aspect of gallows humor, and it's easy to laugh at your misfortune because the alternative scarcely bears considering. When you're desperate, everything assumes comic dimensions, every character becomes exaggerated - grossly distorted - and every decision is a Hobsons' choice. Usually when TV does "poor" they get it all wrong, and that's fine, because the reality of being desperate to pay your rent and having to choose between food and gas is too depressing to really want to see reflected back. But Shameless gets it right in some very important, almost uncanny ways. I can't say I grew up as poor as the Gallagher family, but I have been that poor at various points, and I certainly grew up closer to the Gallagher's than the Huxtables . . . but then, most people reading this probably did. (And that's another thing that the show gets right - being poor does make you feel ashamed, it makes you feel terrible about yourself, it eats away at your self-confidence and your mental reserves without ever offering up anything resembling consolation.) Eventually, being poor for long enough forces you to make some very hard decisions, decisions that either end with you completely broken and discarded, or that leave you a monster or a sociopath.

And I have high hopes for Girls, as well. On first glance this show could not be more dissimilar to The Walking Dead, but a closer look reveals a strange consanguinity. Girls is the precise negative inverse of The Walking Dead: survival horror as playacted by blithely clueless and blessedly naive idiots. Although three episodes in is too early to tell whether the show can sustain this level of quality so far it's been pretty consistently funny, and pretty consistently, deliciously cruel as well. This is a show about preciously insulated twenty-somethings left adrift in the headwaters of Hipsterland, New York. So far the show has made tossed salad out of the most pressing and potentially devastating issues in contemporary life: unemployment, STDs, emotional abuse, unwanted pregnancies. The kinds of issues that could demolish anyone on the lower rungs of the social ladder are grist for the mill for these self-infatuated, and yet supremely self-oblivious scions of privilege. If that sounds reprehensible, well, it is, and gleefully so: it's basically Less Than Zero for the Pitchfork set. Nothing has any consequences whatsoever and everything on the surface appears to be cruising along just fine, but just under the edges everything is beginning to get a little seedy, just a tiny bit shabby. Situations that might have been supremely glamorous just ten or fifteen years previous are now just pitiful and squalid, and the gaudy Sex and the City poster on one of the character's apartment wall calls this contrast vividly to mind.  

One of the best details from these first few weeks of the show is the profusion of internships. Suddenly, everyone is working for companies for free for the nebulous purpose of gaining "experience," with the hopes of achieving permanent staff positions that never quite materialize. These staff positions never materialize because companies know they can just bring in a new crop of interns every six-to-twelve months who will work off their parents' good will and the (almost certainly false) promise of future opportunity. It's a house of cards that continues to stand simply through the willpower of those unfortunate enough to get caught up in the desire to have the same standard of living and job security as people who were born into a permanently elevated tax bracket - the dwindling coterie of real movers and shakers in the New York art and culture world, who thrive simply because they are able to exploit the wishful thinking of those who don't yet realize their relative poverty. (Lena Dunham's character's great project is a book of essays entitled with the provisional title "Midnight Snack." I'm sure you can imagine what the book jacket would look like, if it were ever finished.)

Girls is all about class, and the fact that the upper classes ain't what they used to be. Even the supposed upper-middle class really isn't upper-middle class anymore, they're all just peons who manage to skate by working for peanuts because they're "allowed" the ostensible luxury of maintaining a preposterous bohemian lifestyle in trendy downtown locales. They're all just as doomed as the idiots on The Walking Dead, but at least the folks on that show have the common decency to acknowledge their hopelessness. In any event, the modern condition remains one of agitated delusion - it's just that sometimes the zombies are more visible than others.

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