Post-Emotional America

This undated photo, provided by HBO, shows Tim DeKay and Ally Walker in a scene from the new HBO dramatic series "Tell me You Love Me," which premieres Sunday, Sept. 9, 2007. (AP Photo/HBO, Doug Hyun) AP Photo/HBO, Doug Hyun

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.




The most important time in the biorhythm of the American psyche is 9:00 p.m. on Sundays.

It used to be 8:00 p.m. on Thursdays. That was the sweet spot of national television watching. In 1984, "The Cosby Show" initiated "must-see TV." From that point on, the epitome of televised entertainment happened on Thursdays: "Hill Street Blues," "Family Ties," "Seinfeld," "L.A. Law," "ER," "Friends," "Survivor" and "C.S.I."

"The Sopranos" changed all that. Thursday may still be where the ratings are, but Sunday is where the zeitgeist airs.

"The Sopranos" was replaced by a show called "Tell Me You Love Me." The show had a moment of celebrity because it is chockful of realistic, unpretty sex. That turned out to be an unimportant and uninteresting part of the show.

As entertainment, "Tell Me" is repetitive and dreary. As art it is well-crafted and authentic. As a cultural artifact, it is invaluable. "Tell Me" tells us everything we need to know about what is wrong with hook-up culture, modern coolness and laissez faire private morality.

There were a million reasons to get hooked on "The Sopranos." I thought it resonated so deeply and was so perfect for the times for two reasons. It illustrated the cacophony of American moral life. Tony had a moral code, something like the Mafia's omerta, he was a good family man (by contemporary Mob standards) and believed in the American way. Obviously, he was a violent psychopathic thug. But his life and his show illustrated the principle that George Costanza of "Seinfeld" called "Worlds Collide."

"The Sopranos" also illustrated the incoherence of the way we see psychological life. It did this so powerfully by giving violent mobsters everyday emotional "issues." Tony sees a shrink and takes Prozac. His son gets depressed. His uncle gets Alzheimer's. Paulie Walnuts struggles when he finds out he's illegitimate, Vito is gay (then dead) and Bobby Bacala plays with trains. Take two Xanax and whack Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero.

"Tell Me" is also about the incoherence of 21st century American emotional life. But unlike "The Sopranos," it is essentially post-emotional.

The characters don't really have big feelings; they don't scream, hit or crack up, though they cry a little bit. They also don't know what they feel. And finally, they cannot express anything. They are post-language and, I might add, in a very realistic way. The inarticulate, monosyllabic dialogue is diabolically true to life.

The show turns on three couples and their marriage counselor, Dr. May Foster played by Jane Alexander. Dr. Foster is the only character who can speak in complete sentences. She is also wooden, shallow and cartoonish. She is the most unrealistic character.

Jamie and Hugo are twenty-something hotties who called off their engagement at the last minute. Hugo comes and goes in the series but Jamie is a major character. She has been and remains promiscuous, a "hook up" girl, a provider of benefits to friends. She likes guys that tell her that they love her and she likes what they do when she tells them she loves them. But she is calloused, impulsive, unknowing, manipulative and cavalier with the hearts of others. She generally uses her body instead of her words. The limits of her powers of articulation come when she declares to a boy, "I'm toxic." She happens to be right.

Jamie is a character parents of daughters will want to focus on as an example of a bad outcome in a sweet package.

Palek and Caroline are thirty-somethings in counseling because Caroline can't get pregnant. When she does get pregnant, Palek walks out, just like his daddy did when his mommy was pregnant with him. Caroline is hyper-articulate when stating her emotional needs to other people. She appears to be nice during sex and mean at all other times.

Palek is amoral. He is far colder than Tony Soprano. There is never any question that it is wrong to abandon a wife with child. This does not occur to him. Neither Dr. Foster, Caroline or Palek's buddy ever speak in moral terms. I imagine the show's creators think the word moral is something only dead, white males used.

These two couples are cool. They are all four gorgeous, hip and in control at all times. They are emotional flatliners. Their facial expressions don't change. They can't be shocked. They are cool like ice. I imagine that being cool like this helps to survive hook-up culture.

Dave and Katie are forty-somethings and they are not cool. But they are nice. Dave sells steel and helps at home. Katie is a mom and a graphic designer. They are in counseling because they don't have sex anymore. Katie has no idea why this is.

Poor Katie has no idea, period. She is a mumbler and a blurter. Her eyes tell us she has feelings but she doesn't know what to call them. She can answer yes or no questions, but she has no ability to construct a declarative sentence. Dave is a bit better, but then again, his eyes don't convey feelings.

So Dave and Katie are left groping for reasons to stay together. Again, morality plays no part. They like being parents so they want to be with their kids. But they never speak of staying together for the kids' sake. They never think they have an obligation to their children or to each other to work out their problems. It is all about wants, not shoulds.

There is a difference between feelings and emotions. All these characters have feelings. Their lives are driven by feelings, little, inarticulate, fleeting, unexamined feelings.

Emotions, I suggest, are more than that. They are bigger. They connect to the intellect and through that connection become more important and enduring than mere feelings.

Emotions also connect with morality, with obligations, commitments and commands. They gain gravitas and their owners take some responsibility for them. They are mature, adult feelings.

America at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights is post-emotional. And that's cool.




E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.
By Dick Meyer
  • Dick Meyer

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