There is no more innocently cathartic experience than crying at the movies.
They used to make great crying movies. By “great,” I mean highly manipulative emotional smart bombs designed to bypass the left hemisphere of your brain and hit you right in the maudlins.
This wasn’t a genre trope. Criers once hit you from every thematic direction. Years ago, I was dragged against my will to see Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear.
It’s a movie about bears, starring a couple of bears. That’s it. There’s no dialogue.
The bears – a curmudgeonly bear and an orphaned cub – go around for two hours doing bear things.
But by the end, after the old bear has saved the young bear, I was in such floods of tears I had to be dragged from my seat and escorted out of the theatre like James Brown.
Modern entertainments gradually gave up those innocent charms, and replaced them with reality. That reality gradually grew so grim, so extreme, it began to bend back around to fantasy.
Black and white characters were replaced by a uniform grey. No more good guys and bad guys. Just guys who tipped only slightly one or the other, but always spectacularly so.
The stories were no longer happy or sad, exciting or aspirational. They were ironic.
Yes, sure, he’s a murderous criminal who enjoys ruining lives, but he gets panic attacks and is plagued by his mother.
This one’s a gormless chemistry teacher with terminal cancer, but you’ll never guess what he’s capable of once he figures out to get poison inside a sealed packet of Stevia.
You know which shows I’m talking about. Along with The Wire, they are the holy trinity of the golden age of television. And yes, absolutely, they are masterworks.
But they are not entertainments. Not in the kick up your feet, pop a bottle and forget your troubles sense of the word.
The problem with The Sopranos isn’t The Sopranos. It’s every wannabe Sopranos that followed. No one was dumb enough to straight-up copy the subject matter, but they all wanted to snipe the morally ambiguous tone.
Quickly, it became a race to the depressive bottom.
No new character seemed real unless he was a pill-popping, drink-addled, sex-addicted, middle-aged, rage-prone failure who somehow makes good. Eventually, this thematic weed crossed the gender and generational barriers. Every character became some iteration of this cartoonish sadsack – high-school kids, soccer moms, your mee-maw.
Since this kind of thing isn’t exactly a barrel of monkeys to watch, they sold these shows as capital-A “Art.” The sort that smart people enjoy. You want to be a smart person, right? The producers weren’t rubber necking at a human pile-up. They were starting overdue conversations about real people facing real problems, but, like, in the mafia, or on the run, or working at a secret government facility.
The most cloying of them claimed to be speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. I’m not sure the Hollywood aristocracy is best suited to represent the downtrodden, but, man, those people sure love to be photographed wearing a ribbon.
In the midst of this landscape of hectoring entertainments – because hectored is how I feel when I watch the latest show about some barking mad billionaire trying to digitally render his dead child because he’s, deep down, just a hurt person like the rest of us – two new shows stand out like guiding stars.
They are Ted Lasso (Apple+) and Lupin (Netflix).
One’s a fish-out-of-water sports comedy, and the other’s a French caper with a strong “Sherlock” design vibe.
Their mutual strength is their lead characters. Jason Sudeikis’s coach Ted Lasso is a dork, but never treated as such. His manic sunniness is irresistible to all the mild antagonists he meets and inevitably wins over. This show isn’t about soccer. It’s about the power of decency.
Omar Sy’s Lupin is Ted Lasso after 10 years in the special forces. He has been dealt a bad hand by life, but buoyed by his worship of a fictitious French burglar, he has survived by adopting a gentleman’s code.
Sy, a hulking man, plays the titular character with such a cunning mix of menace, gentleness and wry humour that you will find yourself half in love with him 10 minutes into the first episode.
In both instances, the secret sauce is in the theme. These two shows excise all the irony and replace it with 180-proof sincerity.
Together, they mark the return of the unambiguously good good guy. Here is the demon-free upstanding individual looking to put a little light out into the world. He can even get through a day without smoking heroin he’s stolen from the evidence locker.
Ten years ago, when Breaking Bad was ascendant, Ted Lasso and Lupin would have been laughed out of the shop. A good guy who’s just good? What, like Indiana Jones? Does he have a whip, too? What sort of Pollyanna are these shows for?
But now, watching Ted Lasso and Lupin feels like breaking the surface after a long time spent submerged.
There were moments in each where I misted up. Not because anything tragic had happened, but because both guys were so damnably nice to people.
These days, we get most of our exposure to the world through screens. As a result, nice is beginning to seem like a radical act. But you can feel the gentle breeze of change. Goodness, niceness and innocence are suddenly hot again.
In a few years, the scales will tip once more. Every second show will seem like a Ted Lasso rip-off and every main character unambiguously good. This time around, I won’t complain. Because when and if that happens, it will represent the sentiments of a happier, more content wider culture.
And if it’s a choice, I’ll take my golden ages out in the real world, rather than on TV.
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