Harmonic Sentimentality Part 7: Making Sentimentality Believable
Irony’s evisceration of the sentimentality that preceded it was akin to hunting chickens with a shotgun. It was easy. It will always be easier to be mean than it will be to be nice. The reason being we have many, many more flaws and shortcomings as human beings and as a society than we have strengths. So the trend of comedies targeting sentimentality by way of cynical irony was expected. It was a slippery slope and once we stepped onto it, watch out. So, how can we reinstitute a type of sentimentality that isn’t in itself sentimental? What, as creatives, can we do in order to ensure that the sentimentality we foster won’t immediately be seen as cliché, blasé, cheesy, uninspired, boring, pathetic, banal, predictable, etc., and all but begs to be made fun of on obscure, subversive internet blogs? It’s easier than you think.
It all starts with the characters. If you want the sentimentality that they experience to stick, I mean really stick, then you have to create characters who are capable of being sentimental. Community accomplishes this by making extremely cynical characters which through H.S. allows them to change and become sentimental. This we know by now. So let’s look at the antithesis to Community by way of Parks and Recreation. Parks and Rec is a show centered around strong feminine ideals and qualities as well as the idea that it’s possible to make a show based totally and completely around kindness. The characters on this show exemplify kindness on every level despite their appearance of sometimes being rough around the edges (see Ron Swanson or April Ludgate). This gives the writers the ability to put the characters in extremely sentimental scenes, and the audience buys into it completely. These scenes can easily be interpreted as cheesy and are then dismissed, but because of how the audience perceives, relates, and genuinely loves the characters, we don’t want to perceive the scenes as cheesy. We make a conscious choice not to view them as cheesy. We want these characters to exist so that these scenes and situations can exist. For example, the hidden relationship between Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt culminates in a scene where they are alone, at night, in a comically small park that Leslie had to fight tooth and nail to get built, and they decide that despite the periphery consequences of it adversely affecting Leslie’s campaign for office, they will make their relationship public and deal with the consequences. Everything about this scene screams Rom-Com cheesiness, but we, the audience, buy into it completely. Why? Because the characters’ actions in the previous seasons, their development and personality traits, indicate that this is the only way they would ever admit their relationship to the public, that is, they would only come to this decision in a scene that’s a mirror of not only their own personalities, but the show as a whole. Of course this is how it happens. Of course they have this discussion at night in a park that Leslie had to jump through administrative hoops to build instead of it being over coffee at a diner or sitting in bed late at night, reading. There was no other option for the writers. This was how it had to be done and we, the audience, wouldn’t want it any other way.
The only way it’s possible to write characters like this is by not being afraid of what they can become. If the character of Leslie Knope was half-assed and had lapses of true, unredemptive cynicism built into her makeup, the scene described above would be too unrealistic, it would seem forced. The writers went all the way with Leslie and committed to her kindness completely. They were fearless of what would happen when they created her DNA the way they did. They knew cheesy sentimental moments would organically occur out of actions that Leslie would naturally take, and they embraced it. A general fearlessness of not only what situations the character will encounter, but also a fearlessness of what others think of the way you created that sentimental character is necessary. You can’t be afraid of true sentimentality, and you can’t be afraid of what others will think of you when you are sentimental.
Along with commitment to the characters, it’s necessary to have a total commitment to the sentimentality. Meaning, don’t hedge your bets. If you are being sentimental, don’t turn around in the next scene, or the next episode, or anytime down the line, and make fun of your show/book/movie for being sentimental. Don’t use irony or cynicism to undercut the importance of the sentimentality. If this happens, it would be a way of dipping into self-referential irony that brings us back to the roots of postmodernism in entertainment. If this occurs, every sentimental moment afterwards will be expected to be followed by a cynical undercutting making fun of the sentimentality. So now sentimentality has become a joke and is cynicism’s punching bag. Remember, a crucial effect of Harmonic Sentimentality is that the realization of sentimentality always overshadows the cynicism or irony that preceded it. If that’s undercut, the audience remembers the cynicism and irony more than the sentimentality. If the writers buy into the sentimentality completely, the audience will too.
Originality counts, too. Too often do we see people being sentimental in completely unoriginal, cliché ways. Look at any Rom-Com and place it next to any other Rom-Com. Do the guy and girl ever not end up being together? Probably not. How different is one Rom-Com from the other? This is why Rom-Coms have become a sneering joke in the film industry. What’s the point of watching a movie if you already know what’s going to happen? Why invest that time? Rom-Coms are now pathetic because of the formulaic plots. There has been a surge in Indy Rom-Coms that have sought to break the mold but so far they still fall short of actually being considered original. I would expound on the unoriginality of Rom-Coms but as I insinuated above, I can’t sit through them. Anyway, the unoriginality of Rom-Coms is an example of recycling a certain type of sentimentality. If you want your sentimentality to be considered seriously, seen as legitimate, then make it original. Don’t create characters to fit a model that allows for a certain outcome. Create characters and then allow the sentimentality to occur naturally and organically between them. That’s the difference between predictable characters and original ones: the predictable ones only have the depth that the formulaic plot allows them to have, while original characters create their own plots by way of acting and reacting. The predictable ones recreate predictable sentimentalities. Original sentimentalities, ones that ring true in the hearts of the viewer, are the result of original characters.