The work of mourning in contemporary television

Is there a mourning trend in contemporary television? At least on cable, it seems to be a dominant theme, one whose hold is only growing. The Walking Dead and Les Revenants (which will be remade in an English-language version) focus on what happens when the dead won’t stay dead — less an abstract thought experiment than a literalization of the process of mourning — while The Leftovers hyperbolically stages the randomness and incomprehensibility of loss. Recent seasons of True Blood have been dominated by mourning in a literal way, with episode-long funerals in many cases, as might be expected from the creator of one of the most successful “high-quality cable dramas,” Six Feet Under.

Once you notice the theme, it pops up everywhere. Much of the action in The Sopranos stems from the death of the initial boss from cancer, and the elderly mobsters like Uncle Junior could be viewed as something like an undead presence, especially once he develops dementia. The title character in Dexter derives his violent impulses from watching the death of his mother, and inherits his ethical “Code” from a father who feels responsible for her death and who haunts Dexter in the present. Homeland could be viewed as another kind of zombie narrative, as Sgt. Brody unexpectedly turns out not to be dead, disrupting his family’s new life and becoming an obsessive focus of Carrie, who is haunted by the specter of 9/11. Don Draper, like Walter White, is a man who survives his own death again and again, and the most recent season of Mad Men turns him into a kind of zombie haunting the agency. Etc., etc.

Obviously death has an appeal as a “universal human theme,” but I suspect there’s something more going on here. In a moral landscape where love seems like an empty cliche and loyalty is less a moral sentiment than a license for the most immoral possible behavior, the experience of loss seems like one final bastion of something like sincerity — the one unfakeable feeling. Even better, it provides a path toward multi-layered complexity of characterization, which is hard to come by when the assumption is that everyone is motivated by self-seeking pride.

Coming at it from a different direction, the fixation on loss seems to be of a piece with our neoliberal world. The only positive goals that are acknowledged are wealth, power, and prestige, which must be sought in an increasingly narrow range of pursuits by an increasingly narrow range of personality types. In contrast with this zero-sum struggle of individuals, the only space for something like human community or solidarity is loss or the threat of loss. In a weird way, then, there may be something optimistic about the narrative of mourning on television, insofar as it’s a way of gesturing toward connection rather than competition.

(Half-formed thoughts, sure to be dismantled in comments.)

11 thoughts on “The work of mourning in contemporary television

  1. I don’t know how to connect it but this post reminded me of when I started watching re-runs of the A-Team and the amazing length they went to show that *no-one-ever-dies-or-even-gets-shot* (absolutely loved the bad guys shaking their heads as they crawled out of the overturned vehicle). Though I think Face gets shot towards the end of the series . . . and it actually felt traumatic then.

  2. David, Definitely interesting that violent action shows would’ve so studiously avoided any death.

    Concrete Heart, I think I was trying to gesture at the overlap between neoliberalism and the “war on terror”? That probably makes no sense.

  3. Of course I think of Twin Peaks here as I always have since it first premiered. It raised the bar for taking death and loss seriously and never forgetting either. I had hoped it would change the way other series in its wake treated that subject but instead the opposite happened and we got drowned in a sea of CSI clones, all cultivating their cumulative indifference. Even Twin Peaks own imitators could only bear to imitate the superficial style or idiosyncratic humor. The dark heart of horror and the precision of its tragedy was gone.

    Since then, The Shield is the best example I know of a series which allows the impact of a single death to linger and haunt throughout (it is, in fact, in many ways the initiatory event). The implications of the violent act of betrayal and murder never go away, all the way to the bitter end.

  4. Six Feet Under has a really interesting take on mourning. Dad dies in first episode, main characters deal with his death for the rest of the series. On top of that, occasionally the characters will hallucinate and interact with the dead person the who’s funeral the episode revolves around, usually helping them deal with an issue the main character had with their father. In both situations, the person who is dead, is not actually gone, but becomes one of the main characters for the episode.

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