For the past while, Michelle and I have been making our way through Six Feet Under. My mom watched the show religiously when it was on, so I got her the complete series a few years back when I was flush with fat grad school money and borrowed it the last time I was visiting (well, exchanged her complete series set of The Sopranos for it...). I can't remember when we started watching it. Sometime in July, I assume, but the seasons are pretty short (13 episodes each for the first three seasons, 12 for the last two), so who knows. It's a fine show. It took a little bit to win both of us over, but we're in a good groove now, watching the first six episodes of the fourth season today (for example). Like with most shows you just plough through on DVD, watching it in such quick succession hides some of the flaws (or makes them easier to ignore), but also heightens the attachment to characters. At least for me. You're spending so much time with them that it's hard not to feel more engaged with their little worlds. Tune in an hour every week with the odd break week and it's easy to maintain a casual distance, but a few hours every couple of days? You're in deep.
Which brings me to the fifth episode of season four, "That's My Dog." It's not the best episode of television I've ever seen, but it's one of the most disturbing. In fact, it's probably one of the most disturbing pieces of entertainment/art I've come across ever, mostly because it was created within the context of a television show. The episode seems like a regular episode of show with various subplots working, including one where David, the uptight-but-kind gay funeral director, stops to help a guy who says he's out of gas and just needs a ride to the nearest gas station. Something isn't right, obviously, but what happens is completely unexpected. You expect a robbery, you expect maybe some violence, but you get the entire episode hijacked along with David as the guy terrorises him, alternately being friendly and threatening to kill David. We're talking near escape gone wrong, forced drug use, lies, manipulation, a nasty beating, having a gun stuck in his mouth, gasoline poured on him with the threat of being burned alive... and with no explanation. At one time, David just asks why, how could someone do this to another person, how could they be so oblivious to their pain and suffering... and gets no answer. Mostly because what answer works? (The show revolves around pain and suffering without any answers, but this one seems worse, because the cause is sitting right there. Usually, it's the vague concept of how god could let someone die, but this... shit.)
I kept waiting for it all to be a dream since the show uses dreams/fantasies/hallucinations often, but it wasn't. It was a character that I'd grown quite attached to being put through hell while I watched. Part of me wanted to turn it off, part of me wanted to just cry, and part of me demanded I keep watching because I had to know what happens -- I had to see David somehow survive, for something good to happen.
I've seen stuff like this before in movies or comics or books... shorter versions, ones that didn't affect me as much, but this... this just left me sad and freaked out a little. I mean, this is your worst nightmare isn't it: you trying to help another human being who does everything they can to hurt and humiliate and tear you down like you're nothing? How do you watch something like that and not walk away slightly freaked out?
But, this was happening to someone I cared about -- even if he was just a fictional character. And that's something that television can do better than film, I think, because of its longform serialised nature: it makes you care more. Part of what makes this episode so powerful is that David Fisher is someone we've known for 43 episodes prior to this one. That's around 36 hours of television (which he wasn't on screen for all of, obviously, but still). Thirty-six hours of watching him struggle with his homosexuality, his relationship with Keith, his family, his business, everything... and then we have to watch him get punched and robbed and kidnapped and bullied and degraded and FUCK! It's just so damn cruel and effective.
The formula is also a tool here, because, like I said, the entire show is hijacked along with David. Once he's punched by his attacker, there are no other subplots. It's just those two guys and us as we watch. We can't escape, because David can't escape. It's not until the end, when he's walking down the street in a shitty neighbourhood, beaten, clothes torn and dirty, covered in gasoline, and a cop car stops -- he's found, not rescued -- that we get to leave as the episode fades to white.
We had to watch the next episode if only so that wasn't our last experience with the show of the day. Because, fuck, he didn't deserve that and, honestly, neither did we. But, hey, that's life and that's some damn good television... not necessarily enjoyable or entertaining, but well-crafted, well-executed, and a great use of the medium.