Catharsis

During these times, many have sought solace in a well-made television series.  One that can at the very least escape the time, one that when done well provides a much needed catharsis.

A catharsis is an emotional release – “a process of releasing and thereby providing relief from, strong and repressed emotions.”

Two shows that have provided that effect in our household bear many similarities and a few marked differences.  

Both involve a father uprooting his wife and children, moving them to a new, unfamiliar place. There they confront danger, violence, death, conflict and many moral dilemmas. There are also many moments of levity and laughter. Most of all they are shows built around the lengths that we would go to build a better life for our family. Both take place in the American heartland, albeit separated in time by more than a hundred years.  Of note, they both aired during times of great national strife and division.  

The shows?  Ozark and Little House on the Prairie. (Quite the unlikely couple and I imagine this may be the only place they’ve been linked together.)

Ozark is a decidedly darker show both in terms of content, cinematography and the moral character of its characters. Its catharsis comes largely from seeing the characters face and escape absolutely terrifying and intense situations each episode. It’s not much of a pick me up but it temporarily puts your sense of feeling down on hold. My wife and I binged watched Ozark over the course of the first two months of the pandemic. For while it’s a drama about a family, it is definitely not a drama for all the family to watch.

Over the last few months, we’ve  introduced our kids to The Little House on the Prairie – a staple from our own childhood – that first aired one month after Nixon resigned. It is lighter both in tone and texture. But the situations are no less serious and in fact much more relatable (for example, a recent episode called The Plague, showed how the residents of Walnut Grove had to deal with an outbreak of typhoid fever, complete with lessons on social distancing and essential workers that we’d be wise to heed today). Rarely an episode goes by where someone in our family isn’t crying before it ends. Often the tears are not born from sadness but appreciation for the incredibly kind ways right triumphs over wrong.

Each show offers a different type of catharsis for me personally. One coming during the episode and the other after. During an episode of Ozark, we are allowed to release our feelings of anxiety and angst by comparing our problems to the Byrd family. By contrast, the catharsis provided by Little House of the Prairie comes once the episode is over. Concerns for our family are temporarily transformed into hope and resolve.  

Wallace Stevens wrote, “I don’t know what to prefer…the blackbird whistling or just after.”  

In reflecting on the catharsis provided by these two shows, I believe my preference would be “just after.”

What’s your cathartic preference days?  And how is it leaving you feeling “just after?”

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