For network TV executives torn between reported demands for more Godly programming for the believers’ market, and the competing logic that airing overtly religious sitcoms and dramas could land them squarely in the middle of the culture wars (or just plain flop), there is a third way out: quasi-spiritual stories of hope and inspiration, and innocuous pop-psychology truisms. Such seems to be the philosophy of CBS’s new show, Ghost Whisperer, which dramatizes its bit of homespun wisdom –- everybody needs closure, especially after the death of a loved one –- through the adventures of Melinda Gordon (Jennifer Love Hewitt): a vessel for providing closure, to the living and the dead. And according to early Neilsen ratings estimates, Americans seem to enjoy watching people find closure too; Ghost Whisperer was Friday night’s most watched show.
According to CBS, Hewitt’s Melinda helps “earth bound spirits who have yet to cross over to the other side…in communicating and resolving unfinished business with the living,” working to provide the living and the dead with “emotional closure.” In the first episode Melinda helps the lives of Sgt. Paul Adams’s wife and the son he never knew, twenty years after he died in the Vietnam War. There is no doubt that by the end of the episode, by the end of all the episodes, Kleenexes will be out and tears will be shed. Like the end of a fairy tale, there is still more life to be led, but for the viewer, “they lived happily ever after.”
In a frightening and uncontrollable world, the desire for some kind of happily ever after, especially after death, is understandable. But unlike the nicely packaged Ghost Whisperer, Joan Didion’s new book, The Year of Magical Thinking (recently excerpted in The New York Times Magazine), shows the more difficult reality of life after death – specifically, Didion’s own life after the death of her husband of nearly 40 years, John Gregory Dunne.
Thinking back on the weeks before her husband’s death, Didion wonders if he had tried to provide closure both for himself and for her. In one incident, Dunne forgets his note cards — “He always carried cards on which to makes notes,” Didion writes. “Had he not warned me when I forgot my own notebook that the ability to make a note when something came to mind was the difference between being able to write and not being able to write?” — and so asks her to write his thoughts in her notebook. He stresses the notes were for his upcoming book, but when Didion gives the note to him the next day, he tells her she can use it. And Didion wonders, “What did he mean? Did he know he would not write the book? Did he have some apprehension, a shadow?”
She cites Philippe Aries, who wrote in The Hour of Our Death that, “death, even if sudden or accidental, ‘gives advance warning of its arrival.'” Did John have a feeling, she wonders? Were those little good-byes? Didion’s grief, mourning, and year of “magical thinking” culminate in a book written to “make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” Closure.
And she found it. When her daughter, Quintana, died in August, The New York Times asked if she would change the manuscript to include her daughter’s death. To which Didion replied, “It’s finished.”
Margaretta Soehendro is a graduate student at New York University.
Part II: Goodbye God, Hello Ghost Stories
By Sarah Karnasiewicz
Want to tap into modern American mythology? Watch TV. But who decides what myths America wants at any given moment –- men like Les Moonves, the powerful chairman of CBS whose recent programming decisions have been widely credited with salvaging the once floundering network.
So, you may wonder, what does message is Moonves getting from the American public now, on the eve of a new season of premieres? Given that Invasion, Ghost Whisperer, The Night Stalker, Supernatural and Threshold are just a few of the more than a dozen network newcomers to unleash a storm of otherworldly foes and mysterious menaces upon the nation in recent weeks, you’d be forgiven for guessing that the people of America are consumed with increasingly thorny and troubling questions of faith. But in a September 4th interview with Lynn Hirshberg for The New York Times Magazine, Moonves makes a case for a much less introspective America:
“Americans do not like dark…I understand why creative people like dark, but American audiences don’t like dark,” he says. “They like story. They do not respond to nervous breakdowns and unhappy episodes that lead nowhere. They like their characters to be a part of the action. They like strength, not weakness, a chance to work out any dilemma.”
Later, when Hirshberg questions Moonves as to why he decided to cancel the critically acclaimed but “unsexy” series, Joan of Arcadia — which followed a serious and sensitive young woman who received cryptic messages from God — and replaced it with Ghost Whisperer — the story of a clairvoyant cutie played by Jennifer Love Hewett, who is followed by unfulfilled spirits who need help achieving closure — Moonves is no less blunt:
“In the beginning, [“Joan of Arcadia”] was a fresh idea and uplifting, and the plot lines were engaging…But [it] just got too dark.” Or was it perhaps, as Nancy Franklin writes in The New Yorker, that it actually dared “grapple with issues of life and death and the existence of God and evil?” Damn, that is dark.
So, a recap: Americans like scary stories, but only if they have a happy ending. Americans like to watch things with a lot of action, and really cool larger than life characters. Americans are interested in God, but only when he is vaugely mystical and reassuring, grey-bearded and benevolent, or a crazy, vengeful badass. Americans are…children!
Indeed, Moonves copped to as much when he later framed his programming decision in the following light: “[We figured] that talking to ghosts might skew younger than talking to God.” And so now, the man who resurrected CBS –- and all his rival execs so eager to follow suit –- is spoon feeding the country a stack of unsophisticated ghost stories this season. The Seattle Post Intelligencer’s Melanie McFarland says it right: “As far as popular culture [is] concerned, our quest is now less about gazing inward at the soul than nervously shivering at the dark.”
Sarah Karnasiewicz is a graduate student at New York University.