Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Fear of the Abnormal

I recently saw this little promo clip for a new show on ABC, FlashForward:

What struck me is just how frightening the clip is. Or, rather, how frightening it is considering the contents.

The premise, quite honestly, is hokey. Everyone on the planet falls down, unconscious, at the same time. They're all out for 2 minutes 17 seconds. The settings of the clip are not particularly striking: a gal at a computer, surveillance camera footage of people doing ordinary things, like attending a baseball game. Even our villain - if he is indeed such - is not particularly interesting; he's a nondescript man in a coat. Big deal. We've all seen those before.

But juxtapose all these together and the result is fairly unnerving. Who is this man? Why is he walking about? Did he have a hand in this world-wide phenomenon? What makes him different? There is something profoundly sinister about this man whose only real crime is being different. (Ok, the creepy music helps too.)

Is there something in human nature that makes us fear difference? Some people would say there is. They would point to racism, for example, as proof that we instinctively fear those who are not like us. There may be something to that, but let me offer a second explanation: we fear the unknown. There are, of course, lots of things we do not know. But most of our unknowns fit well within our everyday parameters. Who is that man in the car next to me? I don't know, but I probably don't care either. He seems to follow basic traffic laws, thus endangering me in no way. Moreover, I'll wager that he's from our town, or visiting from a neighboring town. One way or another, he probably fits in a category I know.

But what the creators of FlashForward have done is create a situation we do not know, a situation where nothing can be taken for granted. Here every unknown becomes sinister, threatening. There are no categories for thinking about this sort of thing. And that puts a wrench in everything...

PS Did anyone else think of Dark City when they first saw this?

PPS Since watching this clip and writing the above comments, I've taken to watching the first few episodes on Hulu. I'm rather enjoying them. There's the usual FBI investigative drama, but with a strong dose of the abnormal (supernatural? We're not sure). And since the "blackout" covered the whole planet, the show's creators have plenty of material with which to work, something they generally do to good effect. Thus far, at least, they've managed to play out the mystery at a decent pace, always providing more clues and new twists, without giving away too much too quickly. And the situation raises a number of questions about fate and faith in the lives of our characters, questions which are usually treated with a degree of seriousness and intelligence typically lacking in television (but without being over the top).
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