In hurt and humor, finding ways of living with death
Prime time once buried the dead swiftly and irrevocably. But look at this.
Although Andy Brown’s wife, Julia, died eight months ago, the ache of her loss lingers. “I’ve lost my joy,” he says sadly in tonight’s episode of the infant WB series “Everwood.”
More than just a poignant moment, Andy’s tender expression of grief reflects gradual evolution in how TV series portray death’s impact on the living. From “Everwood” to NBC’s “The West Wing” to HBO’s “Six Feet Under” to Fox’s “24" -- which opened its second season with Teri Bauer’s death still weighing heavily on her husband and daughter a year after her murder -- it’s now fine for TV characters to mourn.
And if not that, keep alive the departed in other ways. Instead of black armbands, for example, viewers got pitch-black comedy from HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” recently when Larry David somehow spun peals of laugh-out-loud humor from the unexpected death of his fictional mother. In Sunday’s episode of Fox’s “Futurama,” set in the next century, Al Gore is billed as “inventor of the environment and first emperor of the moon” at a global warming conference while resurfacing (in a sort of living death) as a head under glass.
Not that long ago, TV regularly paused for death in newscasts much longer than in entertainment shows, where characters typically bypassed pain and went directly to amnesia following the loss of loved ones and others with whom they were close. Go figure, but all memory of the dead usually was cranked into the ground with their bodies, erasing them like blips on a radar screen well before the final credits.
For contrast, think back to media memorials for Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. You know, when anchors, reporters and commentators draped themselves in black hour after hour, their grieving faces at half-mast, their hyperbole falling like tears as Americans who adored watching the rich and haughty fall on their face-lifts in “Dallas” and “Dynasty” bawled over these real-life tragedies.
More recently, October was especially morbid, with sniper murders and Moscow’s lethally gassed hostages heading the month’s gloomy TV cortege, along with Democrat Paul Wellstone and others, including his wife and daughter, dying in a plane crash. Even if Wellstone’s death hadn’t ruffled Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race shortly before Tuesday’s election, his TV eulogy still would have been substantial.
And rightly so. Yet if this had been a few years ago, and Wellstone a fictional senator whose plane went down in a prime-time drama, he would have finished out the hour as faceless and voiceless as a tree stump. That’s because most TV scenarists regarded depictions of grief as either irrelevant or as melancholic pit stops that would repel viewers.
An attitude now laid largely to rest.
Take “Six Feet Under,” a series at once funereal and funny while centering on a family-run mortuary. It displays not only cadavers (which other series also do almost routinely these days), however, but something much deeper by also keeping alive memories of the family patriarch who died in the first season’s opening episode.
Just as Andy Brown (Treat Williams) clings to visions of his dead wife in “Everwood,” which, in many ways, is about working through pain. That goal occupies Andy, formerly a famous New York physician, in this picturesque Colorado town where he moved with his two kids in hopes of making a new start after Julia’s death.
“He’s no longer talking to her like she’s still here,” says his teenage son, Ephram (Gregory Smith). “So I guess that’s a step in the right direction.”
The hour opens and ends in a church, in itself a stunning anomaly for ever-secular, God-expunged network TV. We find Andy, a Christian who is anything but devout, especially sad on the 20th anniversary of his marriage to Julia, and thinking back to when “I knew my life was worth living.”
And now? “I never believed you owed me anything,” he tells God, “but I am telling you I have got nothing left.”
What a moving and honest speech this is, one written with great economy by Oliver Goldstick, directed with no trace of schmaltz by Michael Schultz and played without false emotion by Williams in a role that would have lesser actors blubbering and falling back on the old lip quiver. Especially when Andy delivers a major lump in the throat upon discovering a surprise that Julia had left behind.
There’s no universal scenario for bereavement, making grief a difficult emotion to depict persuasively. Coming to mind here is the famous “Chuckles the Clown” episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” that mingled eulogizing and laughter without dishonoring poor Chuckles.
It helps tonight that the depth of Andy’s despair is something many real-life mourners can recognize, though, even as “Everwood” heads toward an ending that’s a shade too pat while yielding ever so slightly to TV’s tendency to unnaturally knot loose ends.
Here’s hoping that Andy recovers his joy but doesn’t entirely lose his sorrow in the process.
Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Where: WB (Channel 5)
When: 9 p.m. Mondays (rated TV-PGDL; may be unsuitable for young children due to coarse or suggestive dialogue).