This week’s question is from reader Rori Stevens:
I’ve noticed that of late, the most popular/talked-up entertainments have a tendency to focus on pessimism, angst, and misery. Even a lot of entertainment aimed at teens and kids have unusually grim premises: dystopian/after-the-end settings, romancing bloodthirsty (or otherwise problematic) monsters, and/or killing the evil overlord. The general mode seems to be that “life is suffering, and you have to kill or be killed.” What’s your favorite entertainment based on people making the world a better place, talking down the villains instead of shutting them up with a bullet, making firm sacrifices for the welfare of others, seeing the world as half-full rather than half-empty, etc.?
There are plenty of things I reach for that serve as a spiritual pick-me-up, but I don’t know of any film that feels as much like a security blanket as Groundhog Day. There’s something about Bill Murray’s repetitions and the manner in which he eventually stops the unending time loop that feels like Buddhist philosophy in cinematic practice. It’s a kind of “betterment against all odds” messaging that can’t help but be uplifting, and it’s somehow withstood repeat viewings well enough to make a trip through Punxsutawney feel inviting each time.. It may be a movie about being stuck in a single setting, but it’s one that benefits from truly making you feel like you’ve undergone a transformation right alongside Phil Connors.
Most of the TV I watch ends up going pretty negative. Walter White becomes ever-more ruthless and controlling; Jaime Lannister pushes a kid out a window, and then just when he starts to win us over, does that other thing; even in comedies, Louis C.K. picks apart his flaws and everyone else’s, and Archer manages to make a silly Bond spoof into a commentary on male entitlement at its ugliest. So thank goodness I can sit down with my kids and watch Adventure Time. Unlike the toy-commercial cartoons of my youth, the show isn’t afraid to deal with injury, death, heartbreak, and loss. But it does it all with an unbroken optimism. Finn the human is a hero, and that isn’t simply his role in the story; it’s central to his identity. He can be as impulsive, irresponsible, and silly as any preteen boy, but nearly every action he takes is motivated by a desire to help. The show holds up honesty, loyalty, and self-sacrifice as ironclad values, and shows them to be the glue that holds society together, even if that society’s made up of magical talking animals and sentient candy.
For me, what turns a feel-pretty-good movie into a feel-great movie is whether those good-to-great feelings are earned beyond the mere employment of charming actors or competent execution of formula. Happy endings are fine, but they’re better when they feel emotionally plausible and don’t necessarily depend on the vanquishing of an enemy for their effects. Outside of the obvious choice of the Pixar canon, some of the cinematic optimism that makes me happiest comes from selected works of Cameron Crowe, particularly Say Anything and Almost Famous. Neither of these movies shy away from angst or heartbreak, but Crowe writes conflict with such charming specificity, and with such a clear avoidance of assigning villains, that his optimism rarely feels like an easy cheat. Think of that last scene of Say Anything on the plane, perfectly balanced between hope and uncertainty, or the way William Miller and Stillwater go their separate ways in Almost Famous; these movies make the sentiment that everything is going to be okay seem genuine, rather than an empty bromide. Crowe is so good at this stuff that he even crafts strong endings for movies that don’t live up to them; the final scene in We Bought A Zoo is so beautiful, I wished it had been affixed to a good movie. As I write this, Crowe’s still-untitled dramedy starring Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone has just been pushed from a Christmas release into summer 2015; I’m Crowe-style hopeful that it will mark a return to form for him. Until then, I’ll be waiting for the ding.
My Neighbor Totoro is the kind of movie little children should be watching, because it addresses their fears in the most reassuring way possible. Monsters are real, but they are your friends and protectors. Children get lost, but (morbid conspiracy theories notwithstanding) then they are found. People get sick, and they don’t always get better right away, but in the end everything is going to be okay. Satsuki and Mei, the young sisters at the center of the story, have some real problems to deal with—they’ve just moved to a creaky old house in the country with their father while their mother is in the hospital suffering from an unnamed disease (probably tuberculosis). But their lives are also full of magic thanks to Totoro, the portly half-cat, half-raccoon creature who protects their bucolic home and his adorable supernatural friends. My Neighbor Totoro is above all a gentle film, full of loving, gorgeously animated details depicting everyday life in the Japanese countryside circa 1955. It teaches children and reminds adults that although life can be hard, we are never alone when we are in tune with the benevolent power of the natural world. And in the end credits, Mom comes home.
I’m terrible at having television on in the background or trying to zone out in front of something brainless. It doesn’t even matter what the show is; I inevitably get too invested and end up rooting for professional bachelorette Andi to hurry up pick the former pro baseball player already (he can pick her up and spin her around!). Then again, as Rori points out, so much of our excellent television is built on tension rather than not. So if I want to truly relax in front of my television, I turn on Bob’s Burgers. Sure, the Belchers are a hyperactive and shrill family, but they bounce off each other with a mischievous glee that always makes me laugh. Everyone on Bob’s Burgers embraces their particular brand of weird with zero fear of judgment because they know that at the end of the day they love each other to death and back. The Belchers’ fierce affection grounds every larger-than-life scenario they tumble into, so that even their strangest detours have an undercurrent of joy. A fully grown man repeatedly flushing a turkey down a toilet has rarely had so much heart.
The worlds created by Joss Whedon aren’t particularly happy places. They’re full of wars, monsters, and enough interpersonal conflicts to keep their casts at each other’s throats, sometimes literally, for years. But they’re also worlds where heroism counts for something, where well-meaning people can stand up against oppressive forces and make a difference, even if at great cost. Ironically, Serenity, Whedon’s feature-film conclusion to his sadly short-lived sci-fi western Firefly, finds one such moment of grace in the immediate aftermath of an atrocity: The revelation of what the Alliance government did to the people of Miranda finally releases damaged teenage telepath River Tam from the burden of carrying the knowledge alone; at the same time, it gives shellshocked war veteran Malcolm Reynolds the righteous fight he’s been searching for. Though death and sacrifices follow, the movie, like most of Whedon’s works, ends on a moment of hard-won triumph, with the universe a better place, if only a bit, because good people decided to make a stand.
While it may seem against the spirit of the question—being about mocking people and all—Mystery Science Theater 3000 is ever and always about feeling good in the face of adversity. (You know, like being shot into space by mad scientists and forced to watch crappy movies.) From the start, the show’s heart was always about getting by with a sense of humor—and your pals. The first thing Joel Robinson did was build himself some friends and christen his orbiting prison The Satellite Of Love, a goofy, good-natured playroom where he, Tom, and Crow (and Gypsy, Cambot, and Magic Voice) could while away their captivity by goofing on the very goof-on-able. (Replacement sap Mike Nelson was a little snarkier about it, but was basically a decent sort.) During a particularly bad place in my life, I’d pop in a six-hour, home-taped cassette of episodes and let it play all night. When I awoke, they were still cracking wise, together, and I felt comforted enough to face another crap day—if they could stand it, then so could I.
I do love a good show about morally-compromised people looking sadly out windows in the rain, but one does not live on repressed tears alone. However, in thinking about my feel-good entertainment, I realized it lies not so much in people trying to do good, but in them being horrible in more delightful ways. I guess that’s why I fell hard last year for Reign, a show that runs past history just close enough to flick it on the nose, and plays fast and loose with nearly everything else. (Is Nostradamus a fantasy element or just terrible at guessing? Both, probably.) Best of all, it managed to make its central character a ruthless, older queen mother who gleefully poisoned about a dozen people over the course of the season, including herself. I suppose you could argue she makes sacrifices for her family, but honestly, I’m not in it for her hard sacrifices nearly as much as I’m in it for her endless strings of cheerful insults, her happy sighs over her potion collection, and her eminently reasonable negotiations for a bigger band at her execution in exchange for a slightly less glitzy tomb. She’s terrible, and it makes me smile.
I was made for the Internet era because I tend to talk in superlatives. Everything is my “favorite.” But whenever I’m asked who my favorite writer is, I only have one answer: E.B. White. While I love his essays, I devoured his three children’s books as a young one, and I still regularly find myself escaping into his world of big ideas filtered through innocence. No matter how dark and terrible the world gets, Charlotte will always be there to help Wilbur, and Louis will always be able to find his voice. To steal a phrase from Charlotte’s Web, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” To me, White feels like both.
I love me some dark, grim storytelling, and when I’m in a lousy mood, sometimes the meaner stuff is the only stuff I can watch, because it fits the way I feel. But if I’m ever in need of an honest-to-god pick-me-up, I put my copy of Joe Versus The Volcano in my DVD player, because it is quite possibly the most life-affirming movie I own. At the very least, it’s the most life-affirming movie I own that climaxes with a couple throwing themselves into an active volcano. (Don’t worry, they come out okay.) Playwright John Patrick Shanley’s directorial debut is an odd duck, full of philosophical musings, broad comedy, and some of the brightest, warmest colors you’ve ever seen. Tom Hanks’ quest for meaning in a drab world will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever felt stuck in a life that doesn’t live up to their dreams, and the movie’s open, almost childlike sense of wonder requires an audience willing to forego cynicism, at least for a couple hours. Plus, there’s Meg Ryan at her most luminous. You’d have to have a brain cloud not to smile.
As someone who could never fully get on-board with the current violent antihero craze, I am thrilled by Rori’s question. When I just want to feel good I turn to old MGM musicals. I’m familiar with the best of the genre (novices should check out this great A.V. Club Primer), but I’m pretty much happy to watch anything produced by the studio. If it’s got singing and dancing and is on TCM, there’s a high chance I’ll enjoy it. While these plots don’t generally revolve around making the world a better place, they do focus on the noble tasks of finding love (On The Town), putting on a show (Easter Parade), appreciating family (Meet Me In St. Louis), or sometimes all three (Summer Stock). There’s plenty of drama, but in the end everything works out okay and I’ve been entertained by some slam-bang numbers along the way. When I’m feeling down and need a pick me up Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds are always there for me.
The conceptual issues with Undercover Boss are legion, especially the notion that a corporation’s sinister policies and institutional inequities can be addressed by giving a few conscientious employees two-week Caribbean vacations. Still, I’d be lying if I said I’m not satisfied nearly every time I watch the show, as it represents the fulfillment of a most common wish: for the big boss to see how hard you work and reward you for it. The CEO of Cinnabon appeared in one episode, and after learning one of her hardest-hustling managers dreamed of “owning all the Cinnabons,” she had to stop short of granting that wish for obvious logistical and securities-related reasons, but she covered his franchise fees and gave him his own store. For some reason my allergies always flare up when I watch it.
The first thing this question made me think of, and certainly what I’ve been watching quite a bit of lately, is Star Trek. Of the various incarnations, I’d say it’s The Next Generation that most clearly fits the definition above, almost to the letter. Indeed, its original conception put it quite firmly (and quite preachily) in an honest-to-goodness utopia, one far more advanced than our barbaric times and none too shy about pointing it out; that rather reductive worldview was one of several reasons why the show took so long to find itself. But as TNG matured, it shifted its essential optimism away from the world in general and onto its characters, particularly Jean-Luc Picard, who could always be counted upon to stand up for the best of humanity and deliver a damn rousing speech about it. Look, it can all be rather painfully earnest, but at its best, The Next Generation—and Deep Space Nine, albeit in different, more morally nuanced ways—makes the point that it’s worth fighting for a world in which it’s possible to do the right thing, and that starts by doing the right thing yourself, even when it’s inconvenient.