The "Endurance Plot"

This post originally started out as commentary on Friends. However, it has morphed into a critique of a certain type of literary plot.

As part of our sitcom list, Mike and I reviewed Friends. As a result of reviewing Friends, I ordered and watched several seasons.

Here's what I learned.

Friends is extremely well-written, not just per episode but per season. The writers pace the big events extremely well; they aren't as crowded or as spread out as I had remembered.

And I never realized how long the duck and the chick were Joey and Chandler's pets!

I also learned that if you watch Friends too much, your brain cells will die.

You could say, "Well, that's true of all sitcoms," but I beg to differ. I have seen Frasier all the way through at least twice, and I've never felt like too-many-episodes=death-of-the-brain.

The writing (in terms of jokes/lines) is equally good on both shows; the difference in brain cell killage, I believe, lies in an underlying fundamental difference: Friends is a show about people who endure. Frasier is a show about people who create their own destinies.

In Friends, everything that happens, happens TO the characters, even when they are the cause of those things. Ross's divorces are things that happen to him. Rachel having a baby is something that happens to her. Rachel and Ross getting married in Las Vegas is something that happens to them. It isn't so much that they are victims; rather, they are constantly at the mercy of LIFE.

Now, this isn't exactly a false truth. Things do happen to us that we simply have to handle. Despite Ayn Rand's remarkably silly assertion in Anthem, we do not single-handedly recreate our own societies on a day-to-day basis. We are communal animals and part of being a communal animal is enduring. Say I get into a car accident--I fill out the paperwork, get a new car with another loan, and keep working, etc. I don't go live in a tree somewhere.

But this "endurance plot" is the only truth Friends knows.

In Frasier, Niles leaves his wife (of two days) to be with Daphne. By any moral standard, this is a really rotten thing to do. But it never bothers me the same way Ross and Rachel bother me because Niles is fully aware of what he is doing. He makes the decision and bears the consequences. There is never any suggestion that this is something that just happened to him, oops, guess he has to live through it.

Frasier is filled with people who may not make the decisions I would make but who are MAKING decisions that result in them creating certain types of lives for themselves.

Friends is about people who never really seem to get this.

And lately, it seems like this "endurance plot" has become rather ubiquitous. Without naming certain popular teenage series . . . it seems like the heroes and heroines are all reactive. Things happen to them, and they bear up. They bear up well . . . magnificently . . . endearingly.

But nobody actually gets on with things. As has been said, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

Or, as Eugene said once, "When the going gets tough, the tough leave." The Puritans got tired of being martyrs and sailed to America where they suffered but also where they built an entirely unique existence/culture/future.

"Endurance plots," on the other hand, only allow for one outcome: staying put and suffering. The Puritans remain in Europe; the Americans never get to the moon ("Oh, the Russians are beating us into space! I guess we should gnash our teeth and feel bad about it. Errrrrrr."); Monet et al. give up fighting the establishment and nobody hears of Impressionism. And maybe these specific outcomes wouldn't bother you, but they sure would make history kind of dull.

However, my main problem with "endurance plots" is not historical. I don't think they (or Friends) are indicative of the downfall of civilization or whatever. (In fact, if I were pushed, I would state that Friends is the type of show that keeps civilization trundling along--so many cultural norms are reinforced by the show, it isn't exactly a status quo breaker. Note: I'm not a big fan of status quo breakers).

My complaint is more aesthetic than philosophical.

To illustrate:

I like romances and mysteries because the tough do something, even if that something is to physically/metaphorically walk away from the problem. One fundamental rule of romances is that the heroine must change; internally, she (and sometimes the hero) undergoes a transformation. She doesn't change civilization as we know it, but she learns and grows within her own framework.

One fundamental rule of mysteries is that between the beginning and the end, the murderer must be identified (by the characters) and removed from society (absent a deus ex machina, also by the characters).

These are not HUGE, AWESOME changes; they are minor, personal, local. But they matter at the minor, personal, and local level. And I care about these changes because characters I care about make them happen.

But lately, there's been an awful lot of heroes and heroines I really couldn't care less about. I mean, so they've endured all kinds of horrible stuff . . . so, um, yay? Snooze. Okay, give me a romance or a mystery.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Good insight, Kate. Never was much of a fan of the sitcoms you mention. I agree Friends deserves the credit it received and that Ross was one excruciating painful character to watch. I suppose there are people who could relate to Ross but I hope few aspired to be like him!