Trope or Reflection?

Running behind, as usual, and so Nancy Franklin’s August review of the new Laura Linney show, The Big C, just crossed my path. I think it’s time to face the fact that I’d rather read Nancy Franklin about television than actually spend time to watch television.

What caught my eye, though, was this little bit about the main character’s decision to not tell her family of her diagnosis:

This worries me, as the trope of secrecy came close to ruining “Nurse Jackie” and made me very impatient with the first season of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” in which a man who finds out that he has lung cancer keeps the news from his family for an implausibly long time. It’s unfair to the other characters, and it’s unfair to viewers, who are blocked from fully getting to know them.

This struck me as an odd reaction but I suppose a critic is dealing with story and character development. What is the term of art? The arc of the season or character? In any case, I had a completely different take on it having missed the emergence of the trend. (Stick your nose in a book and the world will pass you by my mom used to say.)

Why should this secretive behavior be so off putting that it’s unfair? I actually think it’s completely in keeping with life in the age of Facebook. Erving Goffman taught us that people manage their personas, they have a front stage that is presented to the world and a backstage.

Of course, in personal interaction the cracks can show. Richard Boyzantsis and Annie McKee even devoted a whole book (Resonant Leadership) to minimizing these differences so that managers can be more effective. So if we accept the dramaturgical model all of these characters are just managing the front stage.

Now think of Facebook as a medium in which each user controls his or her presentation. Facebook is a veneer machine. It’s a common stage set in which the user (who can and probably should be thought of as an actor or agent) chooses what and whom to respond to. So it has elements of absurdist theatre in its DNA.

What is apparent, though, is that drastic differences between front stage and back stage always emerge even if it takes several television seasons. In a world of electronically mediated social interaction with the appearance of complete control the desire and attempt to conceal the truth should surprise no one.


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