Hurt so good: television that makes me cry

I noticed something recently, the older I get the more I like crying during movies, television, books, etc. I don’t think I am alone in this, sad stories have been around forever. ‘Tearjerkers’ is arguably a genre, or at the very least a Netflix category and isn’t that more important anyway? So what’s the deal, why do so many of us like these stories that make reach for the tissues? For me at least, I think it can be a sort of catharsis. I don’t cry often in real life, especially compared to how much I used to when I was younger (hint: it was A LOT), so maybe I am filling that void by tearing up during the stories of fictional characters.

In an attempt to solve this mystery, I decided to take a look at the things that make me cry most frequently. I’m using examples from television specifically because two shows immediately popped to mind, but also because we often tend to get more attached to television. We spend several episodes, sometimes over the course of several years with a set of characters, so we, perhaps foolishly, get attached to them and feel invested in their stories. The two shows that get me nearly every time? Parenthood and Doctor Who. (Obvious note: no doubt there are a myriad of reasons why people enjoy the feel good cry. This is merely a study of one, me. Using purely anecdotal evidence, me openly crying on my couch).

NBC’s Parenthood is a known tearjerker. It commonly leaves people curled up next to a pile of used tissues by the end of each episode (evidence: a friend’s Facebook update after watching the series finale, which included a real pile of used tissues). It hits us in a place that can’t help but stir the emotions: family. Even the happiest of families have issues. These issues are further complicated by the fact that we didn’t choose to have these people in our lives, yet (in most cases) we love them and (again, in most cases) we feel the need to preserve the relationships, at least somewhat. Parenthood knows this and it uses it to give us all the feels. The show has dealt with teenage romance, health issues, absent fathers, abortion, separation, job loss, aging parents, and a whole mess of other high emotion topics. Even if we can’t relate with a specific storyline or character (we can’t all be wealthy Californians after all), we can relate to the character’s emotions and their relationships with each other. Above all else, many of us can agree with what is arguably the show’s main thesis, family is hard, but you love them anyway.

Doctor Who may not make me cry during every episode like Parenthood, but it has me in tears quite a bit, and far more often than I would have thought. Unlike with Parenthood, it isn’t the close to home effect that gets me with Doctor Who, the best way I can describe it is as the ‘the universe is incredible, wide eyed with the possibilities’ effect. The Doctor is this powerful being who gets to travel throughout time and space meeting incredible people and seeing remarkable places, but he’s still lonely. The companions get to tag along for a short while, but in the end they are still human, with all the virtues and flaws that come along with that, and must return to their normal lives. But the fact that they get to experience it at all, even if for just a short while, is amazing. Life, the universe, the places you can go and the things you can do, in Doctor Who it is all so amazing and beautiful, and that beauty is what often brings me to tears.

What does this say about the elusive, feel good cry which I have come to adore? Well for me, it is either something which moves me on the closest, most intimate level or on the widest, big picture level. I want it to hit me close to home or make me in awe of the world. The dramas of familial relationships or the beauty of existence itself, throw either of those into the picture and you’ll likely get a tear or two from me.

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A study in the re-watch: TVD Season One

Well, it is twenty-two episodes later and I have finished Season One of the re-watch (it is still slightly painful to type that “re”) of The Vampire Diaries! To be perfectly honest I am already well into Season Two. It turns out that just sitting there and allowing Netflix to auto-play the next episode is far less work than writing up a “review”. Who knew? With that being said, I am going to try to keep this review to Season One only. I think it is fair to say that this review will have spoilers (but honestly if you haven’t watched it yet, you probably never will). I think there are three key pieces to TVD: the characters, the romance (obviously), and the plot. Some of you may read that last one, laugh and say, “What plot?”. However, I would argue it is a pretty plot driven show. Whether you genuinely find that plot interesting, or simply want to see what ludicrous lengths the writers will take it to next (this applies more to later seasons), will vary depending on the viewer. Either way, plot is a reason to watch this show. Now on to some Season One specifics!

The cast of characters of TVD can be pretty large, so I will just stick to the core set of characters:

Elena: Obviously we have to start here. Elena is the narrator as well as the audience surrogate. As the show opens she is a sad teenager trying to get over the death of her parents. One thing that comes up in many recaps and reviews of the current season of TVD, is a critique of how Elena’s character has become increasingly selfish and difficult to root for (and really kind of an asshole). I tend to agree with that sentiment, and I do even more so after going back and re-watching Season One. For the most part Elena is kind and genuinely cares for her friends and family in the first season. However, there are also some grating aspects of her character. Everyone is in love with her and sometimes it is difficult to see why. The only answer that’s really ever given is that she is nice, which is a great quality, but I don’t think it is going to have everyone falling head over heels for you. She also begins to put her boyfriend above everyone else as the season goes on, which is something that happens far too often in fiction. Speaking of the boyfriend…

Stefan: If I could only describe Stefan is one word it would be boring. He is just kind of a dud. His defining character trait at this point is that he loves Elena and would do anything for her. Oh, he also secretly has serious self control problems, combined with a holier than thou attitude. Awesome! I think Stefan is the opposite of Elena, in that his character gets better as the show continues. When we begin to see more of his flaws, it adds depth to his character and makes him more likeable. Whereas Elena’s flaws make her appear more shallow and far less likeable. I really don’t have much more to say about him. Wait, he is also brooding (the show loves to call attention to this in a ‘in on the joke’, snarky sort of way) and he hates his “evil” brother who is always ruining everything…

Damon: Stefan’s brother. The villain to Stefan’s hero. He is also probably the most interesting character in the show (at this point). A romance novel would say he has a devil may care attitude, and this has made him a fan favorite. At the beginning of the season he appears to simply be a murderous jerk who values nothing and is motivated only by blood lust. As the season wears on, we find that he is actually motivated by love (twisted love, but love none the less), and may even value friendship and his relationship with his brother. GASP! Most of this changed is sparked by his budding friendship with Elena.

Bonnie: Bonnie is Elena’s best friend and also a WITCH! She is just starting to learn about her powers in Season One. She is very suspicious (with good reason) of Stefan, and hates (again, with good reason) Damon. She struggles with her newfound power and relationship with the vampires throughout this season.

Caroline: Caroline becomes one of my favorite characters in later seasons, but in Season One she is portrayed as neurotic, clingy, and sometimes a bitch. She is manipulated by the evil brother above and jealous of perfect Elena. I’ll talk more about Caroline in later reviews.

Matt: Elena’s ex-boyfriend and  the love interest of Caroline. He is a football player with a bad home life. Matt is boring in this season, which is a common theme throughout the series.

Jeremy: Elena’s little brother. He is dealing with his parents death through drugs and partying. He’s a sad, emo loner. Jeremy dies several times throughout the series and I think he should’ve stayed dead on one of those occasions. He actually doesn’t bother me as much in this season because he is a peripheral character. He should have stayed that way (or dead).

Tyler: Matt’s best friend. The only bigger asshole than Tyler is Tyler’s dad. He is a very minor character this season up until the final episode, when we find out that he and his father have a SECRET! More on that later.

Alaric: The new mysterious history teacher who turns out to be a vampire hunter out for vengeance for the death of his wife! He also ends up dating Elena’s aunt. Alaric is yet another character who becomes more interesting in later seasons.

Now on to the romances, and in case you couldn’t guess this show is chock full of them! I have not decided if I am going to use the language commonly used when talking about romance in TV/books/etc. (especially teen/YA). Of course I am talking about the dreaded ‘ship’/’shipper’ and the name combinations (Stelena/Delena/etc.) we’ve come to know and love. Considering that I have already mentioned them, I am guessing it isn’t long before I devolve into using them. But for now I will use real, adult human language!

Elena/Stefan: On my first watch of TVD I enjoyed this romance, I still also enjoyed the Elena/Damon flirtations, but I was pretty on board with the Elena/Stefan romance. Maybe it is because I am older and wiser (code for more cynical and disillusioned), but upon rewatching I am just not that into it. They are sweet, sickeningly sweet. It is very much a typical high school ‘I love you now so I am going to love you FOREVER!’ relationship. Which makes sense for Elena, but Stefan is pushing 140 plus years, so I would think that he would know better by now (yes, he only ever loved Katherine. And yes, he spent years being a ruthless murderer not concerned with love. But still, his first love turned out horribly and he’s had a lot of life experience. Don’t be such a love sick puppy, dude). They do the whole break up and get back together thing a few times during the course of this season, but they always come back to each other because they are (currently) the OTP (God damn it! So much for avoiding the terminology. For those of you not “in the know”, OTP is a term used when describing a relationship between two fictional characters that is meant to be/written in the stars/whatever other romance euphemism you would like to use. It stands for One True Pairing. Now please excuse me while I go shame myself for using that phrase).

Caroline/Matt: Caroline has many boyfriends over the course of the series and I would like to take this moment to address all the hate towards her because of it. She is young, cute, strong, and will (eventually) live forever. She can have as many boyfriends as she wants! Get off her back and quit slut shaming (this also applies to all women in real life). With that out of the way, this is Caroline’s least interesting relationship. For approximately one second I thought this relationship was cute, but then it is simply used to make Caroline seem extremely jealous and insecure, so I was no longer on board. Also, as mentioned above, Matt is boring. Moving on.

Elena/Damon: I know not technically a relationship yet, but I forgot how much sexual tension there is right from the get-go. They are merely friends this season, but even that is interesting. It goes from fear/hatred to acceptance/liking, back to hatred, and finally settles on friendly “platonic” love. It’s nice and their scenes are some of the best of the season.

Let’s close this review out with some plot talk! Season 1 is probably the slowest moving TVD season plot wise. It spends a good deal of time setting up the world, and on Elena finding out about, and then dealing with, Stefan’s vampiric state. Then we have some vampire hijinks (including Matt’s sister being turned and ultimately killed), a secret council made up of the town’s founding families hell bent on destroying vampires, a vampire hunter history teacher with his own agenda, and of course bickering between the Salvatore brothers. All of this leads up to the big reveals of why Elena looks like Katherine (Damon and Stefan’s former lover and the one who turned them into vampires), who Elena’s biological parents are, and what the council plans to do to rid the town of vampires. Like any soapy drama, Season One of TVD leaves us with a juicy cliffhanger: Katherine is back! Yay for doppelganger shenanigans! The plot will thicken in Season Two (and continue to thicken until it reaches the consistency of three weeks old bad milk) and I will be writing about all the juicy (rotten) details!

Overall: Season one has a slow start but I think the latter third of the season makes up for it, and clearly it held my interest enough to compel me to watch Season Two (this may say more about me than about the show however). It is has the outlandish plots points and cheesy romance I’ve come to know and love from TVD, with some added heart that may be missing from later seasons.

Rank: Well this is the only one I’ve reviewed thus far so… season 1 is NUMBER ONE!

Lingering Question(s): So what happened to the whole Damon controlling the fog and (possibly) turning into a crow thing? We’re just going to drop that and never bring it up again? Okay, probably a good call.

A study in the re-watch

Note: this post was written back in January but is being posted now, in MARCH. Just go with it.

I started doing something that I am slightly embarrassed to admit. This is really saying something because I have always been a loud proponent of the idea that there is no such thing as a “guilty pleasure”. If you like it, you like it and who cares if other people do (or don’t). What’s “good” is a value judgement. It’s going to be different from person to person, and even what appears to be the shittiest of media is going to have some redeeming quality. For example, one could watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians as a study of our society’s obsession with fame and celebrity. Or you could simply watch it because you find it funny, therefore if gives you pleasure, and isn’t that what pop culture is all about? (Note: I personally don’t watch KUWTK, I just think it is a great example, and believe me there are other widely mocked television shows I enjoy immensely).

So if I can find redemption in Keeping Up With the Kardashians what could I possibly be ashamed to admit? Well…I started re-watching The Vampire Diaries. Now I have never really been embarrassed about watching this show. It has had its ups and downs (granted its never been awards worthy or of the caliber of say a House of Cards or a Breaking Bad, which yes I have never watched Breaking Bad but everyone swears by it blah, blah, blah), but it has always been entertaining. Whether I am genuinely invested in the storyline, laughing at the ridiculousness of the plot, or simply watching to read the humorous online recaps, I am getting some sort of enjoyment out of it. It’s the re-watch that I have mixed feelings about.

Re-watching (or re-reading or re-listening or re-anything) should be reserved for your favorite things. The things you love so much that you get something out of each re-watch. For me, a classic list of re-dos is: Parks and Rec, Friends, Veronica Mars (especially season 1), Arrested Development. See a pattern there? Mostly comedies and mostly shows that are widely beloved by everyone. Again, not that it matters who or how many love something, if you like it then own it, but somehow a re-watch feels different to me. That’s two (or three or four or however many) times as much time and energy invested in something, and with all the various forms of entertainment available to us today (I have also continuously lamented the amount of culture I “have” to consume) you have to really love something to be willing to allow it to take up that precious space in your pop culture calendar.

So do I feel that way about TVD? Not exactly. What are my reasons for rewatching then? First, I am kicking off the new year with a strict budget plan in hopes of making 2015 the year of savings (with the goal of making 2016 the year of travel!). This is relevant because there are many movies currently out that I want to see (in some cases need to for podcasting purposes, yes I am that cool), but I am waiting for Redbox releases and perfectly timed matinees to fit within the budget. So I need something to take up my at home because I am being fiscally responsible time. I am also an avid reader, but there are times when one wants to read and there are times when one wants to veg out in front of the bright, moving pictures box. Second, I am caught up on all the current shows I am watching and it is currently the dreaded mid season break. Now I could spend this time watching some of the series that I have been meaning to watch, like the aforementioned Breaking Bad, but that seems like…work. I fully realize that sounds like a ridiculous, lazy, first world, overall stupid reason. I also know that there are other options like GO OUTSIDE, but I live in Minnesota and it is January (yes, yes I know, LEARN TO CROSS COUNTRY SKI, SNOWSHOE, but no thank you). Or, interact with other humans, which I do, but sometimes other humans suck and all you want to do is sit unshowered in your apartment for a day. Also, remember 2015 is the year of saving so that 2016 can be the year of taking on the world. So for the purposes of this essay, let’s pretend consuming various forms of popular culture is the only option. In sum, it is winter, I am trying to save money, and I would like a comfort food of television to get me through a few (cold) months. So, a rewatch of TVD!

To make myself feel better about this decision I am going to write about it! Which now that I am doing it I cannot decide if it makes it better or more pathetic (eh, I’m over it). I hope for this to be somewhat interesting and humorous, no promises though. I don’t think I will go episode by episode because that would be ridiculous but I am about halfway through season one so I think I will write a reaction soon. This was simply the long winded introduction/self esteem boost. More to come!