As insanely observant readers of this blog may have noticed, I’ve recently started watching “Battlestar Galactica.” (I haven’t seen any of this season yet — I’m midway through Season 2 on the DVDs, for once I’m going to watch a TV series in order — so please don’t give anything away.) I like the show a lot so far. It’s everything the critics and fans say it is: it’s smart, imaginative, well-written, richly detailed, emotionally and morally complex.
But as much as I’m enjoying it, I can already tell that it’s never going to be one of my all-time favorite TV shows. It’s never going to be, say, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” or “The Simpsons,” or “The Office.” I’m not going to watch it again and again; I’m not going to read books on its philosophical/ sociological/ political perspective; I’m not going to watch every director’s commentary, or indeed any of them. I’m not even 100% sure that I’m going to watch the rest of the series. I like it, I respect it… but it’s lacking something that I find essential in a long- running narrative.
It’s lacking humor.
The problem isn’t that it’s dark. Some of my favorite TV shows have been very dark indeed. “Buffy” is dark. “Six Feet Under” is dark. And while it’s technically a comedy (and is in fact very funny), I think “The Office” is one of the darkest things that’s ever been put on television. But all of these shows brought the funny as well: sometimes in the form of comic relief, sometimes woven into the darkness so closely the two were indistinguishable, but passionately, and skillfully, and in generous doses.
And to me, that’s essential.
It’s not just that humor makes a dark story bearable, offering relief and making it easier to watch. That’s true; but other things offer this as well. (Sex, for instance… which “Battlestar Galactica” has in trumps.)
It’s that humor is a central part of life.
Humor is one of the main pillars that supports us; one of the main nutrients that sustains us; one of the main threads running through our lives. Even in dark times. Heck, especially in dark times. The ability to laugh and make jokes in a sad, frightening, terrible time is crucial. It gives us strength. It gives us perspective. It reminds us of why the bad times are worth getting through. There are times in my life that I can’t even begin to imagine having weathered without my sick, morbid, fucked-up sense of humor.
To spend literally years telling a sprawling, wide-ranging, ensemble-cast story without exploring humor is overlooking a fundamental reality of what makes us human. It’s like overlooking love, or conflict, or fear, or friendship. It’s not just a disservice to the audience. It’s a disservice to the characters. Humor doesn’t just make a dark story easier to watch. It makes a dark story ring more true.
I’m not saying that every narrative — every novel, every film, every ballad, every graphic novel — has to have humor. They don’t. I’ve read/ seen/ heard some wonderful, completely satisfying ones that haven’t. But a long-running television show is different. If your show is an hour-long drama, you have about twenty hours a year, and you have it over the course of (hopefully) several years. It’s a unique art form, with a uniquely large scope. To spend that much time telling a story and still leave out the humor is like, I don’t know, spending all day cooking Thanksgiving dinner and leaving out dessert. It can be a delicious dinner, but it still leaves you feeling like you aren’t quite full… even if you ate for hours.