The Pleasures of Humiliation?
Tibor R. Machan
Call me old fashioned, and in some matters I proudly am, but for me entertainment needs to contain a solid dose of enjoyment. So when I select my movies or TV fare, I usually check whether I will be enjoying what I am about to encounter. Of course, sometimes I want to experience tragedy, information, complexity, and other ingredients in what I chose for my entertainment but even then some upbeat stuff must be a feature of it.
I have only very few contemporary television programs I choose to watch — mostly some science and wilderness shows (the latter usually with the sound muted so I don’t have to hear the lopsided pleadings of environmentalists while I get the benefits of learning about and witnessing the Russian or Alaskan wilderness). Then there are some news programs I watch almost regularly, although if they are too lopsided in their viewpoint, like Bill O’Reilly or Fareed Zakaria, I will quickly, after watching for just several minutes, delete them from my list of recorded shows.
As far as entertainment is concerned, there are again only a few offerings I find pleasurable. One is White Collar, another Burnt Notice (most of the time, especially when Michael’s mother, played by Sharon Gless, who’s a consummate guilt warrior, is absent). Mostly I stick to reruns of Perry Mason, Have Gun Will Travel, Rockford Files, or Maverick. I did enjoy Boston Legal, even though the political and public policy values guiding it, apart from the respectable bits of the rule of law, were often despicable — corporation and profit bashing were running themes.
I usually check out new shows, once or twice, and that’s what I did with the recently begun Suits. So far it has proved to be a disappointment for me, mostly because the two initial shows contained orgies of humiliation among the characters as the primary means of entertainment, of the fun being offered up viewers. Yes, the repartee has been bright and fast but mostly at someone’s expense. Indeed, the most likable character, the one with the brains and with solid work habits and ethics, is constantly subjected to one-upmanship by other characters who are cads and usually play his administrative superiors. And those, then, are also subjected to humiliation by their superiors, and on and on and on. I suspect that somewhere down the line most of these arseholes will get their comeuppance but in the meantime viewers must endure this ongoing torture by the nitwits of their betters. It is like those violent programs, including movies, in which a great deal of brutality is depicted, relentlessly, before finally the perpetrators get what’s coming to them.
I am just not one who finds such cruelty, whether psychological or physical, enjoyable. Some of this may well have to do with me personally, since I have experienced a fairly hefty dosage of both early in my life. And, yes, entertainment is, to a significant extent, personal, maybe even subjective — although that is a misleading characterization of playing to people’s idiosyncrasies. But in fact I am quite baffled when I find that someone I respect and like finds programs enjoyable in which such devices are routinely deployed. In Suits — and the two installments I’ve seen may not be representative of what’s coming — not only is humiliation a constant among the players but there is little of substance beyond it. Boston Legal, even when morally obtuse, had at least the steady dosage of fictional law to keep one’s interest. While most television fiction, as well as movies, dwell too much on relationship issues, at the expense of seeing anyone doing any kind of creative, productive work, the legal fictions tend to have some substance, too. But in the two episodes of Suits there was nothing much to demonstrate the competence of any of the characters. Mostly it was all about mutual and nasty manipulation, with very few admirable attributes on display.
By the way, I am an avid reader of novels, especially WW II spy stories by, among others, Philip Kerr, and also of legal thrillers (when they get to the attempt to solve crimes, resolve disputes in court, etc.), as well as a few plain old whodunits. (I am a fan of Henning Mankell, despite his naive politics. And I am a great fan of Daniel Silva and Alan Furst.) But I also readily put down a novel even if I have reach the halfway point if something annoying starts to dominate it.
The cynicism and misanthropy of the two installments of Suits that I have seen are for me very unpleasant. Still, on the advice of family and friends, I will give the show one or two more chances. Yet time is precious when one gets old and so I think I may be looking for some more reruns, like Barney Miller, perhaps?