I’m a bit of a Jos Wedon fanboy, but I ‘ve seen only a few episodes of Buffy or Dollhouse. I treasure every episode of Firefly, and while I can’t recall how much I’ve seen, I really liked Angel as I recall. For a fanboy I’m a pretty irregular watcher. So I guess it isn’t really about Wedon. It is about something I think Wedon does well. He tells a great story. His themes are nothing less than epic. What is evil, what is good? How can we tell the difference? Is redemption possible? What is it that makes us human? What is the human condition? Heady stuff for anyone, but he managed to pull it off quite often on shows that were, shall we say rather lighthearted in nature? More on my thoughts about the stories that matter after the jump.
On our little corner of the Chuck-verse Joe has developed a great method to see what is going on in the most basic level of a story. There are two questions. Who are you, and what do you want, and at some level every character is answering, or seeking to answer one, the other, or both. I like it and I use it often, and one of these days I’ll actually rent Babylon 5, about the time Joe rents Firefly. 😉 But Joe’s (and Babylon 5’s) questions are a reflection of something that has been going on a lot longer. This post started some time ago as an examination of the artist and the audience and what they owe each other, but ATCDave has covered that far better than I was doing, so in thanks for removing that roadblock, I’m going to drop that part and cover the other idea this post dealt with. Why our stories matter.
We often talk about Joseph Campbell’s theory of the Monomyth, also known as the Hero’s Journey. It is a template often used by writers to construct a good action tale. But it started out as something else. Campbell was convinced that there was at some level a universality in all mythologies, that every culture and every myth spoke at some level to something intrinsic in humanity, or humans. It is an appealing idea, and one that makes a lot of sense. If we are evolved creatures, so is the culture that allows us to live as a cooperative species evolved from something more primitive. When you look at many societies, you see that the basic outlines are remarkably similar. At the lowest level we are organized around kinship; family, then extended family or village or tribe, up to larger structures like nations. At each level there is both a responsibility and an expectation that works in each direction. This seems at the most basic level to be the social model that man has evolved. Now look at the Hero’s Journey stripped to its most basic elements. A boy or man leaves the life he knows to venture out into the unknown. In the unknown he is changed and returns to his home to enjoy new status for delivering a great boon for his people. It’s pretty much an outline for the boy venturing out on his first hunt. In that basic sense this is why our stories matter, and why they first mattered. They are how society transmits its requirements and expectations to each new generation. As societies have grown more complicated than villages of hunters and gatherers so have our myths. New layers and stories have been grafted on the old, but the basis is still passing on a sense of who you are expected to become.
As complicated as it may get, the human condition does come down to those few questions of Joe’s, who am I and what do I want. But it isn’t in asking us who we are that our stories matter, it is in the telling of who we are and who we can be that the social values have been passed along for centuries. This is who you are, one of us, and this is what we aspire to be. Even though starvation and social collapse aren’t necessarily as near as they were in centuries past, to an extent any civil society in any model still requires us to recognize what we have in common and how much we need each other. This carries over to the individual when it comes to our stories.
We are directionless slackers coasting through life never utilizing our potential. But we could be a hero if someone saw us in a new way and helped us discover a side of ourselves we didn’t know. We are career focused emotionally walled off professionals, but someone could teach us to treasure what is truly precious in life. These are the new stories that matter. You are not limited to who you are now, you can be anything you want. Sound familiar? When these stories are told well, they touch something in the core of our humanity, hope. While our lives may require compromise and disappointment, there is always hope for something more or something better.
Love conquers all, that’s another one of our stories. Also known as sometimes the nerd gets the girl. Last Monday, whether they intended or not, TPTB told us that no, he doesn’t, completing a process they started with Chuck Versus The Ring. Because Chuck the nerd didn’t get the girl, much as they try to split the difference by showing Sarah was ready to stay at the end of the Ring. Because they never ever acknowledged to each other that it happened they were pulled apart at the last minute again. Sometimes you need to take a chance on someone, also known as exactly how long am I supposed to feel sorry for Sarah as opposed to suggesting serious psychiatric help? Aside from the tiresome re-re-re-use of the same damn character trait we were supposed to see her growing out of again, this time they hit us with a double whammy. When Chuck and Sarah get together, he’ll no longer be the nerd, he’ll be the spy. And in the meantime it turns out that Sarah Walker actually does fall for every guy she works with. That makes both her season 2 love for Chuck, and their eventual coupledom a bit cheaper. Wether they intended or not the damage they did to the characters just made their story a lot less compelling. There is the source of anger. They didn’t just damage the characters, they took away season 2 from us, or at least what it meant to us. We don’t have Barstow anymore, because it didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t real apparently, just a momentary fantasy they both had before life intruded again. It is going to be tough to scrub that one from the collective memory. I have said it before, TPTB had the chance to do something unique, and decided to take the traditional route. I’ll always think it was their biggest mistake, they didn’t believe in themselves enough to try it. The rest is details.