Self-Narrative TV in Uncertain Times




EVERY WEEK, on one of our phone calls, my sister and I inevitably talk about the TV shows we are watching at the moment. She does this mostly to humor me, I suspect (I am writing my dissertation about television) and our conversations usually just skim the surface. We talk about our current likes and dislikes, the series premieres we are most anticipating, and what we are rewatching while we patiently wait for the new seasons of our favorite shows (the answer is almost always The Golden Girls). Recently, however, two television series propelled us into a deeper discussion: Somebody Somewhere on HBO, and Life & Beth on Hulu. These shows have some striking similarities. Both stories are about returning home as an adult, painted not as joyful homecomings or cheerful family reunions but as the kind of ambivalent returns that are only ever prompted by loss.

In the case of Life & Beth, Amy Schumer stars as the title character, Beth, who must return to her hometown on Long Island when her mother suddenly dies in a car accident. Her experience of homecoming is painful: not only is Beth forced to confront a series of childhood traumas while organizing her deceased mother’s funeral and affairs, but, in doing so, she also must grapple with the unhappiness of her stable, yet aimless, present. In Somebody Somewhere, we find Sam, played by standup comedian and cabaret performer Bridget Everett, already back in her hometown of Manhattan, Kansas, working as a standardized test grader and sleeping on the couch at her sister Holly’s house, who had recently died from cancer. We learn in the first episode that Sam had returned to Manhattan to care for Holly during the final stages of her illness, though problems within her family in the aftermath of her sister’s death — including financial struggles with their farm, and her mother’s subsequent stay in rehab for a long-term drinking problem — seem to compound Sam’s grief with paralyzing force. As Sam’s dad says of his farm’s flailing crop yields: “It’s hard to get excited about the future when you’re just sort of hanging on to the present.”

As coming-of-middle-age stories, it is no surprise that these series have received such positive reception: they make the banality and uncertainty of the present palpable in their premise, affect, and aesthetics — at a time when a global pandemic, climate crisis, and financial instability have left most people feeling as though they are spinning their wheels, listless and adrift under the weight of an uncertain future. But to shed light on the present and future, uncertain as it may be, both Life & Beth and Somebody Somewhere turn to the past. The promotional materials for these series and subsequent reviews regarding their reception hinge on the autobiographical nature of their storylines. In Life & Beth, Schumer incorporates elements from her own life to set the stage for her character’s childhood, including her family’s bankruptcy, her mother’s affair, and her parents’ divorce. The writers of Somebody Somewhere used details from Everett’s past, such as her real-life sister’s death in 2008 and her mother’s struggle with alcohol abuse, as source material to animate the struggles of Sam’s present. In so doing, a sense of intimacy, also overwhelmingly absent in the age of the virtual and the socially distant, seems to emerge.

Television is a medium of intimacy, par excellence. At its very origins, when it was installed in the 1950s postwar American home, it was marketed as a tool to unify the family and the nation. The late television scholar Jane Feuer famously argued that television is inherently implicated in maintaining an ideology of unity — to make those who watch feel “like a family,” and not just to their fellow viewers, but to the people on-screen. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly taken TV to task on recreating community and sociality in these highly fragmented times (as Lynne Joyrich argues in “Watching Television in a Pandemic”). With such a high currency placed on proximity and closeness in our present moment, it is perhaps unsurprising to see a steady rise of television series that seem to unveil the innermost vulnerabilities and traumas of their subjects. The impulse to reveal, and the consequences of personal disclosure on theory, genre, and literary form, is a well-trodden discourse. Whether in the name of autofiction, memoir, personal criticism, and autobiography; of second-wave feminism; or of the 1990s’ debates on public versus private life — writing on the self bears a cultural impact on nearly every type of media. Somebody Somewhere and Life & Beth are two of many television series in recent memory that operate in this realm, along with Pamela Adlon’s Better Things (FX, 2016–22), Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi (Amazon, 2015–17), Abby McEnany’s Work in Progress (Showtime, 2019–21), Michela Coel’s I May Destroy You (HBO, 2020), Mae Martin’s Feel Good (Netflix, 2020–21), and numerous others to be sure. In an interview with The New York Times regarding the series finale of Better Things, Adlon remarks on the incredibly intimate nature of her show, having at first resisted the lure of personal exposition but eventually embracing it. “I tried to start the show away from my life. I realized that wasn’t going to work,” Adlon recounted. “My dad always said, ‘Write what you know,’ so I can’t feel any shame that I’ve co-opted my daughters’ lives.”

The influx of these types of series and their positive reception, of which Life & Beth and Somebody Somewhere are the most recent, is firmly in lockstep with the post-1960s rise and institutionalization of memoir and related genres. A plethora of academic theory and literary criticism describe these moves: in Getting Personal, Nancy K. Miller recounts the early days of personal criticism in the academy, while Lauren Fournier’s recent book Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism rigorously documents the “autotheoretical turns” taking place in contemporary art, philosophy, and the humanities in general, including accusations of the genre’s narcissistic qualities and the gendered implications of said claims. In my estimation, it is worth thinking about this form, what I would categorize quite broadly as self-narrative — to “write what one knows” — and the shape it has recently taken on television, specifically. The goal of thinking through self-narrative on television is less motivated by an attempt to coin a readily identifiable genre, and instead to observe its intended effects and affects — what it means when a television form proceeds from the intimate act of disclosure of narrating the self.

The quietness of Somebody Somewhere (its sparse soundtrack is much less busy than Life & Beth’s quirky jazz score) gives one the sense of witnessing someone in the humdrum of everyday life, rather than grabbing the viewer’s attention with cinematic special effects, narrative twists, or cliffhanger-type seriality. For example, in the third episode of Somebody Somewhere, Sam and her friend Joel secretly follow her brother-in-law around (who they suspect to be dealing drugs) to no avail; the episode ends with conflict at an otherwise quiet family barbeque. In Life & Beth, an entire episode is spent watching Beth and her sister hang out with Beth’s new boyfriend on a boat. “Quality television” — or “peak TV” — has, of course, always had a quiet fascination with the everyday, the banal, and the mundane. This emerges most often in critical acclaim for standalone, or “bottle” episodes — episodes that, on the surface, seem to be “about nothing,” if only because they often read as self-reflexive and introspective vignettes rather than building blocks of narrative information for a larger whole. Somebody Somewhere and Life & Beth seem to expand the standalone episode into one long story arc, where one could in theory say “nothing happens” for an entire season. Such a move is perhaps a reversal of the type of quality TV we have become more accustomed to watching as of late, shows that capitalize on television’s capacities for radical seriality and temporal experimentation, now favored over more conventional and formulaic narrative forms. With narratively complex stories, gratification is more about the thrills of watching the story itself unfold — to revel in television’s ability to tell stories through incredibly convoluted and elaborate means — a kind of “narrative pyrotechnics,” as Jason Mittell would say. A show like Netflix’s Russian Doll comes to mind as one of these series that pulls off such pyrotechnics to a baroque degree, using the container of the episode to immerse the viewer into a multiverse puzzle game, where the goal of watching becomes less about drawing conclusions and more about the joy of the unknown.

Television form, at its most exaggerated, can feel more like a game, rather than a reliable transmitter of narrative information. Similarly, a series like Game of Thrones or Westworld favors visual spectacle to keep viewers invested in its meandering story. Life & Beth and Somebody Somewhere seem to do the opposite, so much so that one may begin to wonder why exactly they keep watching. For my sister and me, we agreed that what endeared these series to us was the feeling that we were watching someone we know: perhaps ourselves, or at least somebody much like us. The less-than-sympathetic take on this uncanniness is to simply write it off as television narrowcasting, where everyone now gets a show that feels as though it is made “for” them. Television like this, concerned with self-narration, would then seem to favor audiences that are much like their main characters: white, middle-class women who — despite their privilege, education, and relative success — remain chronically alienated, thoroughly traumatized, and categorically unfulfilled. This is a significant departure from the first-person narratives of queer women of color, such as Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldúa, who used autobiography and autotheory to challenge the conventions of second-wave feminism, namely the false notion of a cohesive, unified category, “woman,” that supersedes all other aspects of one’s identity. It would be easy, then, to simply file self-narrative television under the category of self-indulgent narcissism; indeed, Somebody Somewhere and Life & Beth hardly seem like deconstructive meditations on collective identity. However, a far more generous, and perhaps compelling, view is to ponder the rise of memoir, autobiography, and personal criticism on television for its salutary potential. Why tune in to the self-narrative series now, in uncertain times?

Much like Pamela Adlon’s impulse to write what she knows, the desire that seemingly emerges as a viewer of self-narrative TV is to watch what one knows, which is that none of us seem to really know anything. Understanding oneself is a process of continuous unfolding, and series like Life & Beth and Somebody Somewhere continue a tradition of challenging the self as always already knowable. The fiction in these narrative forms then is not the spectacular pyrotechnics of narrative complexity, or the glow of cinematic special effects on the small screen, but the act of self-discovery as a fiction, and one not in the name of becoming a “good” or ideal subject who finally arrives at a tangible, achievable state of self-knowledge. This seemingly goes against television’s narrative principles, which historically favor some points of resolution, whether in the form of an episode, season, or series finale. We might tune in to Life & Beth to see Beth dump her boyfriend without a clue of what to do next, or to Somebody Somewhere to witness Sam in a tumultuous family therapy session, not because we want to know what will happen next and we seek resolution — we watch because they don’t know what they are doing, and we too are uncertain of an outcome that one might call ideal or desirable, both for them and for ourselves. The narrative choices of these characters and the reasons the viewer tunes in become one and the same: the brief amelioration of negative affects like grief, depression, discomfort, and uncertainty — even if only temporary — rather than the sheer desire to be entertained, in suspense, or entranced by a story and its unfolding. Self-narrative television might impart on its viewer a lesson in being present when a future seems unimaginable, and that these feelings of uncertainty are what is shared. For my sister and me, it helped us connect with each other and with our shared pasts, experienced similarly in some moments and differently at others. Grief too, for both Sam and Beth, is intimate, local, and uniquely experienced. To disclose those experiences on television is a gesture of connection — at least to somebody, somewhere.

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Madeline Ullrich is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. Her current research explores feminism on contemporary television.

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Featured image: Family Watching Television c. 1958 by Evert F. Baumgardner. Image has been colorized.

 

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