As part of the current steampunk binge (yes, scholars lead horrible lives, don’t they?), I’ve been watching Sanctuary, a Canadian show that’s somewhere between steampunk and The X-files with less money and more campy monster costumes, for those not familiar with it. As series go, it’s very refreshing: the acting isn’t great and there’s a distinct B-movie feel about most episodes, but there is also a sense of enthusiasm and integrity that I really enjoy.
One of the things I like best about this show is that it takes time to portray actual relationships between human beings, and the kindness and affection that can exist even outside romantic relationships. It has very few romantic relationships, in fact, and hardly any sexual tension between men and women. It’s not a unique feature (Buffy did this to a large extend, as well, and other shows), but it’s far less common than it should. Most TV series are happy to dwell on complicated romantic involvement, insisting on how hard it is to negociate a relationship and how much sexual tension can exist between people who simply pretend to be friends; but outside of this, many relationships end up taking the form of tight-lipped, manly brotherhoods, with barely any indication that the characters can actually stand one another, aside from the occasional comments from sidekicks (‘You know he would do anything for you’, ‘You’re the closest thing I’ve got to a friend’, and the like), or big dramatic moments when someone almost gets killed.
As far as I’m concerned, Sanctuary does it much better. It’s not that protagonists spend half of every episode discussing feelings; it’s simply that they are shown having meaningful conversations about things that matter to them, offering concern and advice, and in general, not being tight-lipped and manly about stuff. After all, you don’t need to have characters falling into one another’s arms and bawling their eyes out while screaming ‘I LOVE YOU!’ to show that they care. There is, for instance, this bit when one of the Sanctuary’s employees realises that he’s turning into a werewolf and has trouble accepting it. While he’s talking about his existential problems with another Sanctuary guy (a kind of Bigfoot-like creature), he makes a tactless comment about turning into a disgusting man-beast. The second of silence that follows, and the immediate, genuine look of shame and embarrassment on his face, as he realises that he’s just insulted his friend, is enough to be telling: even when venting out in the middle of a massive existential crisis, hurting a friend’s feelings is unacceptable. That little scene was not much, but it was still so much better than the common staple of unrestrained aggressivity followed by ten minutes of drama that is often used to indicate feeling in other productions.
It’s funny, because in the end, this really makes one think that lots of directors must be uncomfortable around anything remotely emotional. It’s either expressionless comradry or half an hour of breakdown and tearful drama, as if there was no decent way around emotions other than ignoring them, then showing the character’s ‘moment of vulnerability’ (usually complete with a lot of screwing-up, aggressiveness and depression). I wouldn’t say Sanctuary is the show of the decade, but at least it got that part right: feelings and relationships are constantly present, constantly acknowledged and never overwhelming, even when they are the focus of an entire episode. So it can’t be so hard, can it?