Thursday, January 24, 2008

Best of January

All the best creative drama I've seen this month. Heroes, Wicked, and Juno.

At the center of each is the anti-hero. Someone awkward, inexperienced, and downright lowly. Hiro the office worker. Peter Petrelli the nurse. Elphaba the... wicked. Juno the kid, tipped forward with a kid of her own. None of these heroes is recognized by the people around them as destined for anything great. They don't look like people who'd be touched by destiny (except Elphaba, she looks green). But they are.

This is a trend, I think. Remember how Spiderman rocked all of our worlds and then Superman disappointed (even, for me, on opening night with 3D IMAX glasses)? It's because Superman is rock-star iconic - i.e., nobody we can relate to; and spider bites, on the other hand, happen to us all.

Am I saying the obvious when I say that in a world where "big figures" like government leaders and corporate top talent have failed to inspire (or even perform on a basic level, in some cases), it makes sense that we are moved by ordinary and every day heroes? We are a generation with no JFK or MLK; with no Sinatra; with no Gandhi; with no Rockefeller or Carnegie. We barely remember Lady Di. Instead of icons, we have reality TV and Fergie.

If our Presidents can't lead and our Senators gotta get it on in the bathroom, hell, if our parents can't even stay married most the time, then we will have to learn how to act like adults from a teenager like Juno. The husband Mark, who bears all the financial and social markers of an adult, is the film's real teenager. Juno, spewing slang and wearing stripes, models maturity.

In a time when evil is just a caricature and good is canonically a clean red-white-and-blue flag, the stability of good and evil as concepts disappears. I love how "Wicked" plays on value-laden language until words like "good" and "bad" no longer have a clear meaning. Lines like, "Wickedness must be punished, for good." and "Who can say if I've been changed for the better? Because I knew you, I have been changed for good." They take "good" out of its binary and put it somewhere else, somewhere idiomatic, somewhere deeper. Anyone can evoke the good-bad binary, and anyone does (cough cough Bush cough cough War on Terror cough cough). "Wicked" reminds us that good and bad are made.

The super-hero is a uniquely American, and beautiful, tradition. (Read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay if you're not already in on this fact.) And we all want to be heroes. What stops us? In each of "Wicked," "Juno," and "Heroes," there is a kind of anti-sidekick who encourages the would-be hero to get pragmatic, and not pursue heroic dreams. Not risk comfort and safety for something merely right. Says Glinda: "You're having delusions of grandeur." Nathan throws black paint on Isaac Mendez's painting of homecoming, believing he is saving Peter's life. Various peeps try to dissuade Juno. There is always a moment of choice: be a hero or not? And these three dramas all move me because in each the central characters ultimately choose heroism.

Though "Heroes" has been cut off, it is moving in the direction of complicating that moment of choice. A choice that seems right and heroic ends up killing somebody else, sacrificing something else. Nothing is orderly in that show as of Season 2. When it got cut off, "Heroes" was descending into a kind of complicated (perhaps postmodern?) chaos. "Wicked" flirts with this place too, during the song "No Good Deed goes Unpunished."

Mostly, though, Wicked, Heroes, and Juno make me feel unstoppable. They make me feel hopeful about the heroic potential we all contain - we're all actively containing - all the time.

Let's go stop time. Let's balance a bike with a guitar on our backs and go write a great song. Let's heal from any wound. Let us empathize in super human ways. Let's defy gravity.

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