Familiar bedtime stories for an unfamiliar world
In an ‘instant’ world, where every minute we have to get used to a new boss, new war or new enemy, it’s not surprising we want to see the same TV or literary heroes again and again before we go to sleep.
It's customary nowadays to say we live in a culture where everything has to be "instant." We're unable to delve into matters deeply, to stick to things, to wait. And in truth, it does seem that our culture is suffering from a general Attention Deficit Disorder, if not actual deafness.
But there is at least one side of life where it's possible to see the opposite trend - in our love for the heroes of television sitcom series.
It began with Tony Soprano, the mafioso who wanted to get to know himself. He was followed by the family of gravediggers from "Six Feet Under." Next came the rapid-fire team from "The White House," followed by the four young women from "Sex and the City."
More recently we became acquainted with Dr. Gregory House, who is addicted to Vicodin in the "House" hospital series, and Hank Moody, who is addicted to sex in "Californication", and then Jackie, the nurse, on "Nurse Jackie," who is addicted to whatever there is. And, of course, how can we forget Don Draper ("Mad Men" ) and Jack Donaghy ("30 Rock" )?
True, there is nothing new about television sitcoms. But while television was once overshadowed by movies, today these series and the heroes and heroines in them play an increasingly bigger role in the cultural imagination than do the heroes in the movies. This, of course, is connected with the changes in the movie industry that have many successful films resembling computer games more than classic dramas.
But there is another explanation: Especially since we live in a restless society that is constantly hurrying, trying to catch its breath, when we finally find the time to give ourselves over to fictions, we prefer to invest in heroes who will remain with us for more than 90 minutes.
This same trend can be found among readers of fiction. The New York Times 2011 list of the 100 most highly-recommended books included only two anthologies of short stories. The era of [short story writer and poet] Raymond Carver is over. Gone are the characters who appeared for a moment to illuminate some unknown place for us before returning to the shadows of the writer's imagination. They have been replaced by the heroes of thick volumes with whom we go to sleep night after night after night.
And if there is something more successful than the never-ending novels of Jonathan Franzen, it is the literary series. To judge by the next generation of readers, if we have already invested the time and energy to identify with a fictitious character and become attached to it, we want the character to return to us in another book, and another one. The "Harry Potter" series ran for seven books, and the "Hunger Games" trilogy is has millions of young people hooked.
But it's not only the youngsters; the first three places on the New York Times' bestseller list are taken by a trilogy for adults named "Fifty Shades of Grey."
The movie world has not managed to escape the addiction to sequels, either. Last year's list of box-office hits included no fewer than seven of them. In other words, if we're already accustomed to the strange habits of Captain Jack Sparrow of "Pirates of the Caribbean," why not have some more of him?
This affection for familiar heroes is poignant. In a world of pressures and alienation, in which every minute we have to get used to a new boss, a new status symbol, a new war or a new enemy, it is not surprising that we want to hear the same story again and again before we go to sleep. Like little children, it seems we, too, need a hero whose charms and faults we are already familiar with, and who promises us a happy ending.