According to Aristotle’s “Poetics”, the role of theatre in human life was to drag the recipient through the catastrophe in order to help them achieve catharsis — a state of total purification of all emotions.
Aristotle was an ancient philosopher whose ideas served as a stepping stone for modern cinema and storytelling. Aristotle was also a wealthy slave owner sipping lemonade in a shade of olive trees on his property — in the exact center of a civilization where nothing bad could ever happen to you unless you specifically ask for it.
The dude was chill.
We are not chill.
The purpose of drama
In the last decades, movies were getting more violent, more heartbreaking. I don’t know whether it was for the purification of our souls or our pockets, but the more hurtful it got, the more glued to the screens we were. What if we kill off the main romantic hero? Cut an ear off onscreen? Rape? Crush hopes? Show a mass slaughter? Wreck a family? Dunno, show a boob?
In the study books of the future, they will write that the 2010s were the pinnacle of high-pitched drama creation. They saw Game of Thrones with a story large enough to accommodate all the heart-wrecking tricks discovered by its predecessors. They had Black Mirror, animating our worst collective nightmares to chase us in real-life decorations. They had The Handmaid's Tale — a delirious experience of being trapped in a hangover, pious rape fantasy.
The Western world of the 2010s sat there, well-fed, well-dressed, enjoying an unprecedented peace. Languishing in unprecedented boredom. Turning to the entertainment industry as to an exquisitely made, artistic form of self-harm in order to just feel something.
Well, it’s the 2010s no more.
New times need new heroes
I have this aunt who physically can’t stand watching a movie or a show — or even listening to a song — in which the level of emotional tension exceeds one of a cartoon catered to five-year-olds. She enters the room where we’re gathered around the TV, watches the first 15 seconds, and promptly leaves to do yoga or sniff flowers instead. As a kid, I thought it’s ridiculous. But now, as a wrinkled, battered and weary 27yo woman, I get it.
Chilling adventures are exciting when you’re snuggling on a couch waiting for grandma to prepare dinner, and your life is laid out in front of you in nice little blocks towards inevitable success. But if you had to weather through one crisis after another, raise a child alone, live through heartbreak, treason, and echoing emptiness, you’d be way less likely to find those made-up problems of made-up people in any way pleasing to watch.
After the crush of Game of Thrones, we were left wondering what could ever take its place, what could ever fill this sucking void inside. And from the wisdom of 2020, I’ll tell you what: low-tech, light-hearted comedies and fluffy romcoms.
Even Reese Witherspoon is back at it after a detour to multidimensional characters full of hurt.
From tragedy porn to low-drama genre
In entertainment, we’re not searching for drama per se — we are searching for this disenthralling gap between the real and the imagined: when it’s not too far to be unrelatable, but not too close to be irritating. We enjoy guessing the truths, not having them slapped in our faces. And it’s exhilarating to imagine a catastrophe when it's just raising far away on the horizon — but when it’s already there, there is nothing fascinating about it. It’s business as usual.
Who needs Game of Thrones when the Last War between humans and zombies is regularly perking up in your local news? Who needs an elaborate nightmare about the future when you’re wondering how to pay rent this month, stocking up on rice, steering clear of strangers on a street?
The most dumbfounding thing I saw recently was Netflix’s Easy — a series following several normal people doing normal things. Boy, I wasn’t ready for this. My drama-hardened ass was expecting a painful collapse every minute. Is she going to kill him? Will they fight? Is this poisoned? Instead, defying the ancient laws of storytelling and gravity itself, things remain okay.
In times like these, it’s shocking when nothing bad happens
Times of abundance demand tragedy, but times of uneasiness, hopelessness, and doubt feed crave to see minuscule challenges and happy- or at least okay-endings. We are tired of tragedy porn. We need low-drama stories.
Like that: a hero is in a hurry for a dream job interview, drops her keys on her way out, finds them in three minutes, arrives on time. A man realizes this woman is the love of his life but she isn’t picking up the phone, so he finds her doing groceries in a supermarket around the corner — and then they cook pasta as relaxing music starts playing and credits roll.
Other facets of the low-drama genre are bedtime stories read by celebrities, intentionally boring podcasts, and ASMR ads — all the pieces of entertainment that make you feel nice without trying to shock you or drag your intestines across the street. Because there’s plenty of that in real life.
Back to the soul purification business
Ancient Greek philosophers deemed tragedy a higher form of art than comedy, and I somehow picked up this point of view growing up. Drama and suffering seemed a more noble occupation for a young lady than, say, gossip, or parties. Sad songs, dark movies, complex books — even when I grew up, learned English, and discovered the American pop music scene, I chose Pink as my icon. Pink with her eternal fight, endless hurt, with her ability to find beauty in a heartbreak, power through, and get heartbroken all over again.
But years pass, you know, and my icons don’t get happier. Ten years ago, it was exciting to listen to how much of an intolerable asshole someone’s husband is, but love is worth every amount of pain it brings. Now, hearing a mother of two singing exactly the same things is not exciting. It’s perplexing.
Because what’s so captivating, purifying in the drama is not the drama itself, but the peace that must come after it. The promise of a safe return — back to the Shire after being touched by a Nazgul, back to steamy sex after a tearful fight. Just defeat this last monster, explain this last thing — and the hell inside you will stop boiling forever.
Yet in real life, the hurt never ceases. We just kinda roll with it. And gradually learn to contain inner hells without spilling them in our morning cereals.
So, paraphrasing one Buddhist teacher, you either learn to find peace right here and right now, in the very eye of the storm, with prospects unclear and issues unsolved — or you won’t ever find it.
So may the comedy shows and ASMR ads guide you towards the enlightenment.