In Johnstown, Pa., where my father grew up, there's a museum built in honor of the 1889 Johnstown Flood, a disaster that killed 2,209 people and put this small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania on the map. While the idea of a museum built to commemorate a catastrophic flood might sound a little macabre even in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, apparently the museum's founders weren't all that shy about the morbid nature of their creation. When you walk in the door, the first thing you see is a massive uprooted tree, its gigantic trunk jutting into the main lobby of the building. The roots of the tree are surrounded by flood debris -- the roof of a house, a piece of a picket fence -- all haphazardly piled together, with a terrified-looking mannequin, an unlucky flood victim, clinging to the tree trunk, presumably as it flows through the center of town on a dizzying tide of white water and wreckage.
This unforgettable full-scale model is surrounded by a circular glass case that's filled with flood artifacts and printed statistics and first-person survivor accounts, and every few feet there's a small red button that, when you push it, offers a sonic reenactment of the flood: the sound of rushing water, voices yelling for help or screaming in terror. There's also a model of the floodwaters' path through town, and a 26-minute Academy Award-winning short film, "The Johnstown Flood," which opens on a lonely graveyard, as the sound of dripping water plays eerily in the background: Drip. Drip. Drip.
But the most memorable aspect of the Johnstown Flood Museum is not just its unabashed fascination with widespread death and destruction -- this was the worst man-made flood in American history, after all, with the highest single-day death toll of any American disaster up until Sept. 11, 2001 -- but its refreshing lack of perspective on the tragedy. Of course there's the standard talk of nature's fury, along with the dutiful testimonies honoring those who risked their lives to save others. We're also given plenty of details about the luxury lakefront retreat in the hills above Johnstown, where captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie relaxed and fished and neglected to adequately maintain the dam that would eventually kill thousands in the valleys below. But despite the obvious opportunities to aggrandize these themes of nature's wrath and man's heroism and the endangerment of the working man by those who own the means of production, none of these angles is embraced wholeheartedly. The facts and figures and socioeconomic perspectives are treated as footnotes to the main spectacle. More than anything, visitors are invited to stand, mouths agape, in awe of an unthinkably big, flashy catastrophe, and to bask in all of its grisly, unpredictable glory.
A traumedy tonight
This year's new TV dramas have a lot in common with the Johnstown Flood Museum. They might flirt with various psychological and sociological themes, from addiction to commitment phobia to police corruption to criminal behavior, but the main point is to savor the twists and turns of a messy, unpredictable tragedy. Like the disaster films of the '70s, the main thrust of the modern "traumedy" is to offer its audience a vicarious experience of the most sensational calamities, and a taste of the anguish and agony afforded to those who endure them.
How else do you explain the bizarre appeal of ABC's "The Nine," a show that does for post-traumatic stress disorder what "Curb Your Enthusiasm" did for narcissism? "The Nine" (which is currently on hiatus but will reportedly return to ABC's lineup later in the season) focuses on nine hostages of a botched bank robbery. Similar to "Lost," granddaddy of all traumedies, which explores the lives of its plane crash victims through flashbacks, the big bank robbery at the center of "The Nine" is revealed in bits and pieces throughout each episode, but we come to know the characters in the aftermath of the event.
Conveniently enough, all of the hostages are pals now -- they meet at a diner every week to keep up with one another's lives. Some of them are falling in love, some are breaking up and some are even becoming roommates! One couple that went into the bank together that day, Jeremy (Scott Wolf) and Lizzie (Jessica Collins), have since broken up, in part because Jeremy made a run for it without shepherding Lizzie to safety. Even though, as bank robber/nice guy Lucas (Owain Yeoman) tells Lizzie, "What happens when someone is pointing a gun at you is not who you are," even though Lizzie is pregnant with Jeremy's child, she's obviously seen "Titanic" one too many times, and isn't about to marry a guy who would sooner don a wig and a dress and sneak off with the women and children than go down with the ship like a real man.
Sort of makes you glad you're not a real man, doesn't it? If the traumedy teaches us anything, it's that real men have a seriously tough row to hoe. And the wimps and the lily-livered wussies? Instead of hoeing tough rows, they're raking in the 'hos, if Jeremy is any indication. Thanks to his nutless maneuver, Jeremy gets to date a cute little Betty and fellow hostage Franny (Camille Guaty), the kind of girl who still uses the word "party" as a verb. While Lizzie sulks around worrying about raising her baby on her own, Franny rollerblades around Venice Beach in cutoff jean shorts and a bikini top, talking on her cellphone while sipping lemonade through a straw. Given the tragic feel of her circumstances, sad-eyed Lizzie seems likely to fall for the sad-eyed robber Lucas. Sure, he held a gun to her head -- but that's more manly than running away from someone holding a gun to your head, right?
This is the sort of TV-show logic, created by guilty overpaid TV writers, that propels traumatic action forward: Sad-eyed criminal good, flinchy privileged boyfriend bad. And as ridiculous as that would seem outside of the small screen, the unspoken premise of the traumedy is that, in the wake of a major disaster, anything goes. When you're hurtling down a raging river of wreckage and debris, all you can really do is cling to the nearest tree trunk and pray for dear life.
Take Kathryn (Kim Raver), who suddenly finds her tried and true district attorney boyfriend vaguely dull and repugnant, when compared to fellow victim Nick (Tim Daly), a cop who was incredibly brave and self-sacrificing when things got ugly in the bank. Even though Kathryn isn't making much of a connection with Nick in the aftermath of the robbery, she still can't stop thinking about him. In what should be an unbearably hokey therapy scene, Kathryn discusses her attraction to Nick with her therapist.
Therapist: You and Nick went through something incredibly powerful together. It's not easily dismissed.
Kathryn: I used to take these walks on the beach when I was a kid, and I would pick up the brightest shells, the ones with the strongest greens and purples and reds, and then when I got home, I'd put them on the window sill and they just ... I don't know, they seemed pale and dusty like they couldn't survive outside the salt water.
Therapist: Is that how you feel about Nick? That he can't survive out in the world?
Kathryn: That what we had in the bank won't survive outside in the world.
I usually hate the newfound reliance on therapy scenes in TV dramas, but through some combination of strong writing and acting, this one really works. See how the therapist actually sounds like a real therapist, not just a foil or a disapproving scold, like Dr. Melfi of "The Sopranos"? And notice how she misunderstands Kathryn -- a nice, authentic touch. Plus, the therapist speaks from off-screen and is never actually pictured (Why should she be? We don't need to see her or know a thing about her). But best of all is Kathryn's description of shells on the beach, which is both poignant and realistic -- and if you think that's not a tough balance to manage, check out ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" or ABC's "Men in Trees" or most other schmaltzy dramas on the air today.
The advantage of the traumedy is, of course, that the stakes are always high, because the big disaster looms ever present. This gives us an excuse to get to know the victims in the meantime, gives us some time to follow them to work, to poker games, to meetings with the mother who abandoned them or to dinner with the boyfriend who's about to pop the question. No coherent overarching perspective is necessary, beyond the basic realization, post-tragedy, that life is short, so you'd better make sure you're not wasting your time.
Sadly, I've been wasting my time not watching "The Nine": The day I finished watching the last of five TiVo'd episodes, ABC announced the show will be shelved until later in the season. Yes, we've heard that one before. Here's hoping they decide to give this one a second chance at life.
We don't need another hero
Whether or not "The Nine's" days are numbered, it's true that all good nighttime soaps and dramas share a palpable feeling that life is a fleeting and precious thing: "Grey's Anatomy" (9 p.m. Thursdays on ABC) does a nice job of this with its consistently melancholy flavor, embodied in the week's little tragedies: the happy, very pregnant woman and her happy husband and their dead unborn baby; the dying woman whose boyfriend bails when he hears her prognosis; the child who cries out for her nanny from her hospital bed while her mother stands by, weeping. Unlike "House" or "ER," "Grey's Anatomy" is clearly made by a woman (Shonda Rhimes) for women -- in that, instead of focusing relentlessly on heroic measures and questions of manliness, its characters struggle with weakness, ambivalence and longing in the face of big life choices. Rather than face down the guns, "Grey's" heroes and heroines whimper, and run off to bed with a pint of Chubby Hubby ice cream (or with someone else's hubby), but we're encouraged to savor their mundane victories and acts of courage nonetheless.
Fox's "Standoff" (8 p.m. Tuesdays) is one of the fall's new traumedies that balances masculine bravado and feminine thoughtfulness particularly well. Trafficking in bittersweet moments, psychoanalytical mumbo jumbo, humble heroics and the heaviness of big, unexpected crises, "Standoff" has a little something for everyone. At first glance, the premise is just as willfully dorky as the premise for "The Nine": Emily (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Matt (Ron Livingston) are agents in the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit -- and they're also in love! Think "Hart to Hart" or "Moonlighting" but with (mercifully) none of the snippy love-hate bickering of Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis and none of the cheesy love-makey marriedness of Stefanie Powers and Robert Wagner. In fact, Emily and Matt just plain enjoy each other's company, they dig sleeping together, and they work well as a team -- not a bad foundation for a relationship, really -- except that they work together in the high-pressure world of hostage situations!
Thus do they cling to the narrative tree trunk together each week, and to the producers' credit, a wild and woolly range of hostage situations, each more unpredictable than the last, comes floating down the river with clocklike regularity. In fact, despite the apparent limitations of the premise, all of the episodes of "Standoff" I've seen have featured stories that drew me in quickly, from the long-pursued sniper randomly murdering strangers on the street to the angry brother of a cancer patient who takes over an operating room filled with doctors and nurses to the rape victim who feels comforted by Matt's words over the phone and starts to push the boundaries of their relationship, much to Emily's chagrin. While it's easy to imagine that hostage situations might get old after a while, so far the twists on this show are less predictable than most, and the stories have held my attention from start to finish.
Most of all, though, Livingston and DeWitt are such a departure from the typical macho-hero/hottie combination we've been offered so many times before. DeWitt is very pretty, but -- bonus -- she looks like a real person instead of an inflatable sex doll, and she carries herself like someone who believes in her own intelligence and the strength of her personality, a quality that's rare among TV actresses. Livingston, meanwhile, has a vaguely chumpy, lovable, relatable charm about him that's served him well ever since he starred in HBO's memorable but rambling World War II series "Band of Brothers." Together, these two feel down-to-earth and genuine enough -- individually and as a couple -- to keep the whole hostage premise firmly grounded in reality.
Like so many of the other traumedies that have already been canceled, "Standoff" doesn't have incredible ratings, but it definitely deserves to stick around until more people have a chance to check it out.
Low blood sugar mountain
But then, some of you don't like a nice balance between masculine and feminine energies. You don't want bittersweet moments or psychoanalytical mumbo jumbo or even humble heroics. What you crave is the heaviness of big, unexpected crises, over and over and over again. In other words, you belong at the summit of Mount Everest ... with a cellphone and a generator and some self-heating boots and a thermos of strong coffee and a phalanx of sherpas to short-rope you there, of course.
For a pure shot of traumatic action, nothing is better than a quick trip to Mount Everest! Ever since Jon Krakauer documented the deadly 1996 season on Everest in his bestseller, "Into Thin Air," a wide audience has become fascinated by Everest -- or, more precisely, fascinated by the question of what kinds of jackasses would want to risk altitude sickness, frostbite and countless other atrocities just to trudge at a snail's pace, behind a line of other jackasses, to a blustery, snowy peak at the top of the world. Most of us, particularly those of us who enjoy the conveniences of television and pizza delivery more than is reasonable or healthy, would sooner chow down a plate of week-old cow lips than attempt to scale Mount Everest. Yes, some of us dare to dream; others of us live our lives in our soft pants.
The Discovery Channel's "Everest: Beyond the Limit" (10 p.m. Tuesdays) provides plenty of horrifying thrills and spills for the soft pants crowd. The show documents a spring of 2006 expedition to Everest led by Russell Brice, a likable New Zealander with a delightfully pessimistic outlook on the whole venture. His clients include Mark Inglis, who wants to be the first double amputee to climb Mount Everest, Mogens Jensen, an Iron Man competitor with asthma who wants to attempt Everest without supplemental oxygen (most climbers rely on oxygen to get to the summit, and would become slow and ill without it), Brett Merrell, a Los Angeles firefighter who's unsuccessfully attempted Everest once before, and Tim Medvetz, a wisecracking bad boy who designs Harley-Davidson motorcycles for a living and hopes to make the summit despite his relatively poor physical condition.
For anyone who devoured "Into Thin Air" in one sitting, saw the IMAX film made during that '96 season, and then followed all of the controversy and the accusations and disputes regarding Krakauer's story in the aftermath, "Everest: Beyond the Limit" will offer a long-awaited return to the world's highest peak. The footage of the mountain is pretty extensive, the layout of the various camps becomes clear through repeated aerial-view graphics, and the two-month process of getting to the top is shown in detail. Throw in some colorful personalities, some bad weather and a few missteps, and this series will have you anxiously awaiting Tuesday nights.
Unfortunately, in some misguided effort to pump up the traumatic action, the producers keep cutting in these blurry flash-forwards where we see the team in peril. Occasionally, we're teased with shots of Brice despairing, "It's ridiculous! People come here to die!" And in promos for the show, a huskily macho "Shark Week" voice growls, "The ultimate question of the ultimate climb: Is Everest worth the price?" Do they mean the actual dollar price that the climbers in question paid to summit ($40K), or the price of a human life? And isn't it a little tacky to promote your series with the promise of impending death? (The producers of "The Deadliest Catch" obviously don't think so.)
Once again, we skip over any thoughtful perspectives or angles on conquering the mountain, gloss over anecdotes and personal stories and histories. All the viewers are expected to do is sit there and gawk at the horror of dying in a freezing, snowy place where no one can save you.
Rubbernecking on the couch
And hey, most of us are only too happy to gawk as instructed. No matter what anyone says about how repellent and wrong it is, we're all hungry for the grim details. Who among us wasn't disappointed when, somewhere toward the end of Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man," we realized that, although an audiotape of that poor man getting eaten by a bear existed, Herzog wasn't going to let us listen to it. Of course, Herzog was going to let us watch him listening to it, a decision that's not unlike the choice to throw in that frightened mannequin at the top of the flood wreckage at the Johnstown Flood Museum. Tacky, yes, but irresistible nonetheless.
And what about O.J.'s deeply disturbing intention to tell us how he would have killed his ex-wife, if he did kill her, which of course he didn't? Naturally we all agree that the mere idea of such an interview or book is utterly sick and wrong, and we can't imagine what sort of a mutant would think of putting such a thing on the air. But if a friend of yours at Fox had a tape of the interview, wouldn't you watch it? Damn straight you would!
We're all rubberneckers at heart, and why wouldn't we be? The flashier and more spectacular the tragedy, the more we're reminded of the fragility of our existences on Earth. This is why people climb Everest in the first place. It's tough to argue against any experience that makes us more aware of the preciousness of being alive. As a wise man once said, "Whatever doesn't kill you will only make you appreciate your soft pants all the more."