Do you ever feel like you’re just being brutalized by a piece of media that for some reason you are watching for personal entertainment? Do you find yourself thinking — why am I subjecting myself to this?
That pretty much sums up my feelings about the CW’s series The 100 I’ve recently started watching on Netflix. Don’t get me wrong. It’s an objectively very good series. In the distant (or … not too distant?) future, the human survivors of a nuclear holocaust hover in orbit above the radiation-soaked Earth, waiting for a time when it will be safe for them to return. As resources become desperately scarce, however, desperation leads them to send 100 juvenile offenders to the ground in hopes that they might determine whether it is habitable. What results is a gruelling tale of survival and moral compromise. Including the brutal deaths of teenagers in pretty much every episode.
It is, admittedly, compelling television. I’ve blasted through the first season, and I am well on my way through season 2 (season 3 will begin later in the Fall, I assume). But as much as I feel myself compelled to keep watching the drama unfold, I can’t help but feel I am not actually enjoying myself. Maybe that’s because all the characters must make so many difficult choices for their survival that ultimately no one remains that likeable. Maybe it’s because of the aforementioned brutality. But, ultimately, I think my lack of pure enthusiastic love of the 100 stems from its absolute and total lack of humour. Sure, there are moments in the series where children aren’t being totally mutilated. I guess that’s a win? But there are literally no moments that are played for laughs. There’s no time to catch a break from the tension and let loose with some comic relief. And the series suffers from that.
This got me pondering why series need comic relief so crucially. I know my tastes veer towards the ridiculous, as we have previously established. If it were up to me, I’d just be watching episodes of Brooklyn-99 every night (confession: Brooklyn-99 makes an effective post-the 100 palate cleanser). Still, there are more stories to be told than whimsical comedies and those stories inevitably necessitate darker tones. Yet, looking just at the genre of TV series, even those with more dramatic storylines make the concerted effort to include moments of levity and outright comedy. Lost wisely gave Hurley time for his hijinks. At its best the show had you shouting in triumph as much as gasping in shock. I’ll confess, I’ve had a hard time getting into the much-praised Netflix series Daredevil due to its brutal violence. But I will say its creators know how to use the character of Foggy Nelson to offset the intensity. Also, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t sing the praises of my favourite cult-classic Farscape, which knew how to give characters permission to laugh even when staring death in the face.
Now, I suppose one could argue that “comic relief” as it were is just one more consumerist ploy to keep potential audiences entertained so that they keep watching and are not put off by an unrelentingly grim narrative. I can’t help but think there is another, more profound, reason writers and creators feel compelled to make room for a bit of laughter. We human beings are limited creatures. As grim and dark as life can be, we cannot bring ourselves to remain in that darkness. We laugh even in the midst of real, palpable grief. Perhaps it is a defence mechanism. Perhaps it is a bit of grace in the midst of suffering. But laughter always finds a way to break through. It’s why, in spite of some very strong characters and writing, a show like the 100, ultimately comes across as just slightly tonally off to me. No matter how grim the circumstances we are facing, I cannot believe the human race would get to such a place that we could not laugh at ourselves.
Now, this might sound like I am praising the idea of laughter and joy and frivolity in and of itself. I have indeed expressed such sentiments previously (and I stand by them). My thoughts this afternoon, however, are a bit more complicated. What I want to encourage us to reflect on this afternoon is not so much the gift of “comedy” in itself but the gift of that messiness and complexity that marks our lives. We are delightfully complicated, messy creatures. We are able to find laughter and joy in the memory of a lost loved one. And, it must also be said, we can be struck with a hint of bittersweet sadness in a moment of joy when we realize how fast time slips away.
This is the life that God gave us. I cannot help but feel we so often fall into a trap of trying to put ourselves and all the various aspects of our lives into strict boxes and categories. “This” is funny. “That” is sad. Or, perhaps more pointedly … “This” is where and when I pray. “That” has nothing to do with faith.
Think how much poorer our world and our lives would be if we kept to these orderly boxes, especially when it comes to the merging of our spirituality with the everyday business of our lives. God has a tendency to pop up where least expected. That can be surprising, challenging, and exciting. It’s also … messy. A fact for which I am incredibly grateful. I’m glad my life, my emotions, and my faith are all at times a big mess. It makes TV more interesting. And it certainly makes life more interesting.