Nothing but the Truth?

Who would have thought The Ethicist would have this effect on me?  I’m up in arms!

I’ve read Randy Cohen’s “Ethicist” column in the NY Times Magazine for quite some time now, and it makes for fun shared Sunday morning commentary with my wife about how we would respond to his queries.  It turns out that Cohen also writes a blog for the online Times, entitled “Moral of the Story.”  And this week he strayed into cultural criticism, which was something of a mistake, I’m sorry to say.

In a post earlier this week that he called “Good Cops, Bad Cops, and Bad Emmys” (http://ethicist.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/14/good-cops-bad-cops-and-bad-emmys/), Cohen writes about some of the nominees for this year’s Emmy awards that are “built around the Hero Cop.”  (He lists “Saving Grace,” “The Closer,” “C.S.I.,” “Life on Mars,” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” as the shows under consideration.)  He claims that these shows perpetuate a “fundamental falsehood” and that awarding these shows both endorses and promulgates a lie.

The “falsehood” that Cohen objects to is that the portrayals of the police in these shows is not particularly realistic.  On the face of it, this is rather silly.  Of course these shows are not particularly realistic – what woman wears to work the tight t-shirts that the women sport on ALL of the C.S. I. shows?  What man would put up with Brenda, the deputy chief portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick, who is married to the ever-suffering Fritz?  Grace, on “Saving Grace,” sees and speaks with an angel!

In laying out his logic for his position, though, Cohen goes further than just saying that some of these shows are not “realistic” and instead proclaims an aesthetics that bears inspection. He writes that “to be worthy of esteem, these shows must in a broad sense be truthful – and they are not.”  What does “truthful” mean to Cohen?  He defines it in the next paragraph: “fiction, if set on this planet, must present something we earthlings recognize as plausible.”

What really tears him up about these shows is that they offer a highly biased and implausible portrayal of policemen and policewomen, as well as police work.  Again, to him I would say, “No kidding.”  But I would also want to push back at his thinking, because plausible is a horrible definition for “truthful” when it comes to narrative fiction.  In fact, I would say that “plausibility” might be one of the most outlandish restrictions for narrative fiction that I’ve ever read.

Why must narrative fiction be plausible?  Cohen bases his argument on the foundational verity of this claim, but there are any number of problems with it.  First, who determines what is plausible – the viewer or the writer?  Do we need a certain percentage of agreement among the general audience to reach a final verdict?  What do individuals base their determination of plausibility on?  Personal experience?  Something they’ve read?  Other television programs?  Second, what gets excluded when you set plausibility as the minimum standard for “truthfulness?”  We’d probably have to throw “Lost” out, and also shows like “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files,” even if they didn’t fully take on the claim of science fiction or fantasy but instead purported to be taking place in the world we actually live in.  What about a show like “24?”  Is that plausible?  Yes and no.  What about “ER?”  What about “The Sopranos?”  Would a mob boss really go to a therapist?  Pretty doubtful.

Heck, one could easily argue that no television is actually plausible, in that life so rarely fits into the 60-minute format.  (I suppose that this might bring “24” back into the conversation, though they squeeze much more into 60 minutes than I think actually happens in that time, and I’ve always wondered what’s going on in the show during the commercial breaks…)

“Truth” is a tricky word, so when you say that shows must be “truthful,” you’re entering into a pretty complicated realm.  Whose truth?  Yours, mine, Hugo Chavez’s?  Or are you imagining some sort of absolute truth?  (Pandora’s box alert!)  As my friend Sarah Freligh said when I was speaking to her about Cohen’s piece, “believability” would be a better word.  If he had claimed that these shows are often lacking in “believability,” then he would have had a much stronger argument (see the above comments on individual shows!).  In fact, there wouldn’t have been a lot to disagree with.

It’s more than fair for viewers and critics to ask if a show, or a character, or a situation is believable.  But asking this takes them into a much different set of criteria of judgment than narrative fiction.  In a follow-up to his post, (“More Thoughts on Hero Cops and Award Shows,” http://ethicist.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/16/more-thoughts-on-hero-cops-and-awards-shows/) Cohen writes that “the problem with these shows is not that they’re fiction; it’s that they’re too often bad fiction.”  Fair enough sir, but you should be basing this aesthetic judgment on a criteria of aesthetics that have to do with the making of art, and “believability” makes for a much sounder basis for some of those criteria than “plausibility” does.

By the way, “In Treatment” was the best show of the year.  But more on that in another post!

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