I make it no secret on this blog that I love television. It used to be that great television didn’t want to be TV to be good: it wanted to be HBO. Now great TV can be TV and not worry about whether or not it’s HBO. And although I am a fan of the fantastic (and the science fictional) on television (the Buffyverse, being perhaps my favorite of all TV), I’m intrigued by the stories that seem to inspire the most passion in me these days.
Yes, we fans of the speculative have Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead to enjoy right now, but I find myself looking forward to shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men even more. I’m even busy watching Friday Night Lights lately. And that show is about football. Football! Either I’m changing (some snoots would call it “growing up”) or I’m missing something.
I think it’s the latter: the connection between “realistic dramas” and fantasy fiction.
Is Fantasy all about “fantasy”–magic, strange languages, fictional beasts and birds? Absolutely not. A fantasy can be a fantasy and include none of the above characteristics (an alternate universe story, for example).
What makes fantasy “fantasy” is the element of removal.
I’ve spoken to many non-fantasy fans who deride the genre because it is “not real” and seeks to endorse wish-fulfillment and escapism rather than seeking to show us the truth of “reality.” But removal does not necessarily involve escapism and wish-fulfillment (though I would be a fool to suggest that those things aren’t aspects of much fantasy).
Removal is the principle of storytelling that allows us to view common (or common-ish) aspects of human experience from different perspectives. I find that if I’m not removed enough from a moment in a story then I can only view it as reaching impossibly for a reality that is unattainable in fictional art.
Let’s take an example. In The Sopranos, Tony’s therapist is brutally raped one day when she leaves work. Her rapist is caught but ultimately released on a technicality.
I’ve seen/read stories that aim for “realism” and “everydaylifeism” deal with such topics, and while they may do so with authenticity, the aftermath almost always veers towards being maudlin or overtly political in how it deals with the subject.
Because of removal, The Sopranos is able to deal with the issue in a manner that is artistic and thought-provoking rather than stereotypical and obvious. The “removal” The Sopranos offers us is the fantasy of the mob: a band of people who can and do live outside the law in a way that can only be a fantasy (brutal or otherwise) for the vast majority of the audience. The character, Dr. Melfi, has a patient who is a mobster, and while they are not truly the best of friends, she knows that if she even remotely hints at the fact that she’s been raped, Tony will find and kill the rapist.
Will she make use of this impossible to stop assassin? Will she not?
This is the drama that the removal provides, and the question that it raises: if you had the power to take the law into your hands with some kind of unstoppable force of vengeance, would you?
Not many of us have our own Tony Soprano, nor the certainty that our Tony would be capable of killing the rapist with immunity (for all intents and purposes). In this way, we must seriously question our views about crime and its necessary punishments. We want her to tell Tony, and we want Tony to kill him–even though we know that Tony is then only doing what he does at his worst, taking matters of life and death into his own hands. What does it say to us if we want this? Or is it right to want this?
At its best, fantasy provides for the highest level of removal. I cannot watch an episode of Dawson’s Creek where a girl gives her virginity to a man who ultimately turns out to be a bastard. It can’t help but feel false in its attempts to be true. But I can watch Buffy deal with the emergence of Angelus after she has sex with Angel for the first time. The removal of the metaphor makes the emotions real.
I would argue that the removal of “realistic” works of art like Breaking Bad (the “drug world”) and Mad Men (the culture of the sixties) provides for opportunities to reveal emotional truths precisely because they are playing with fantasy.
Don Draper’s Madison Avenue may be filmed with precision in order to avoid historical inaccuracies, but it cannot be the Madison Avenue of the sixties. It is a fantasy world created with great care by a man who was five years old when the sixties ended. If Don Draper was a working man of 2013 America and we watched his marriage disintegrate after a series of affairs, it would not be the show it is. The fantasy world makes it speak to us.
I think the answer I’m looking for as to why I’m so recently consumed by stories that seem beyond my normal tastes is this: I seek out good stories that–while not necessarily filled with elves and magic rings and dark lords–are founded on a conceit of removal. It’s the exploration of different worlds that makes fiction great. Fantasy is the king of exploring different worlds.