Monday, December 13, 2010

Poetics of the Secret Identity TV Show

I don't know how many precedents there are for shows about characters with secret lives, who seem to be family people but are something else, but "The Sopranos" has been one big example of the last decade or so, and "Mad Men" and "Dexter" two current ones. In each show, there are at least three concurrent sources of dramatic tension, all centered in the main character. There's 1) the secret life, that the character is most identified by to the audience--Tony as mob boss, Dexter as serial killer, Don Draper as identity thief and impoverished war hero, plus ad man with philandering as integral part of his corporate identity. There's 2) the domestic life, that maybe aligns the character most with tv as a cool, family medium, presenting the normative family zinging briefly away from normativity and back again by the end of most episodes. Then, there's 3) their overlap, which is repeatedly presented to the viewer, and may be the main tension-enhancing threat in each show--that the main character's secret self may be exposed to those on the domestic side. The tension surrounding this one seems to return ritually, maybe not each episode, but as the one where the music really rises, maybe, where other shows would show the main character almost dying.

It's tempting to think that there's a character-death implied by that overlap being exposed, but it gets exposed in each of these shows--Tony's kids eventually find out that he's in the mob; Don Draper's secret past gets wicked up into the light by his blood kind returning from out of it; and Dexter, who may most wholly embody that secrecy, brings someone into it each time he kills someone who recognizes him from his other life. But there's a post-metanarrativity at that point of access that gives it the excitement of watching or reading a murder mystery--having the tension be such that the performance of the text gets pushed into my own mind more overtly than with less gripping stories. In this case, the revelation that the character I am watching is only a character can happen within the storyline itself, and keep that dramatic tension, as the people that the character has kept in the dark join the audience where I am, and/or I join them, with the chance to pick at the narrative weave, but, no, to have that unravelling taken out of my hands, and put into those of the wife, the cop, and whoever else might stand for the one who can't, and has to, find out.

One character that Aristotle doesn't mention in Poetics, when he's going through examples of different characters, is Odysseus-as-old-man, when he's returned to his homeland in, not just disguise, but an acting job thorough enough to hide him as long as the narrative needs it to. It's interesting to think that he might not just have left it out because he didn't need it to demonstrate any aspects of epic that he had to discuss, but also because that is an example of the epic not ennobling the person. We could say that it shows Odysseus' genius at work again, but he's not the one who transforms himself; it's a divine event. But the maybe-implicit agency of the audience in Aristotle gets its apotheosis as metaphor in Vico's depiction of Homer, as many different voices that the poems hold together; and I like to think that it offers a figure for that mix of tension and revelation in these tv shows. I watch the character move back and forth across that line where he plays different characters for different audiences within the show, and know that somewhere, by some then-invisible network of ratings, focus group abstraction of my taste, and capital, his secret is safe with me.


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