Way too pretty to be real.

Boring Lives, Boring Television

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I've spoken before about the lack of drama in middle-class life these days and how it has affected television and movies. Wait, wait -- before you start penning your angry comment, let me make it clear that I am not saying there are no conflicts, challenges or struggles in middle-class life. But the stakes are (thankfully) a lot lower. Having sex, or a baby, outside of marriage is no longer a sin that could see you cast out of decent society. Widows and orphans don't starve to death. There are plenty of ways to support yourself other than becoming a downtrodden servant or marrying money. Young people rarely die of sudden, or dramatically lingering, illnesses. Women in horrible marriages can leave them.

These are all great advances in human flourishing, but it has done away with most of the stock dramatics that sustained the fiction and theater of yesteryear. I suspect that's the reason so much of today's critically acclaimed television dips into the criminal underworld, where there's still plenty of life-and-death drama to go around.

TV also borrows heavily from the past, of course, and fictional worlds where the mores of our past still apply. So far this year, I've watched "The Knick," "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," "Outlander," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Downton Abbey." Oh, I complain about the various anachronisms -- the clothes are too clean, the lives of the servants are far too easy and don't even get me started on, um, almost everything in "The Knick." But these are forgivable errors, occasionally almost lovable.

The thing I find harder to forgive is the shows' inability to commit to that drama -- to try to actually engage with what was actually dramatic and interesting in those eras. They can't resist moralizing from the point of view of a 21st-century modern -- and so they sap the conflicts they're portraying of their meaning. Every poor person lives in unmitigated squalor; every person who is not poor is grotesquely oblivious or spouts absurd social Darwinist dogma. Race and gender relations are handled with the subtlety and gripping realism of an ABC Afterschool Special, and every likable woman must, of course, at least secretly aspire to work outside the home. In period dramas, the personal is always, always political.

This is not, of course, how anyone actually experiences life, outside perhaps a handful of activists. The art of the time was often concerned with the unfairness of social convention, but it also managed to show people struggling with what they wanted to do and what they ought to do. This is very dramatic. Modern period pieces know what these people ought to do: They ought to blow it all up and join the 21st century, for heaven's sake. This is ... not very dramatic. After a while, it becomes really very irritating.

I've been thinking about this because I just finished watching "Srugim," an Israeli drama about modern Orthodox singles living in Jerusalem. One of the creators of the show grew up observant; most of the others working on it did not. Yet it managed to be interesting, touching and completely refreshing, because there was nothing else like it on television.

The most refreshing thing about it is that it was not intent on showing you what stunted, appalling lives these anachronistic characters lead (but such beautiful horses and pretty clothes!). Instead, wonder of wonders, it dramatized conflicts that don't even exist in the secular world. Some of them were trivial (what do you do when you forgot to turn off the refrigerator light before Shabbos?). Some of them were profound (what do you do when you realize you've stopped believing in God?). It showed you what is exotic and beautiful and appealing -- and confining and difficult -- about living a life within all-encompassing moral rules. It understood that there are trade-offs, and that choices can simultaneously be capable of creating great meaning and great pain.

It was a sort of combination between a sitcom and a drama, so many of these conflicts probably ended more happily than they would in real life. But they do not end with the pat assurance that an American television show would have brought to it for fear of seeming to endorse some sort of retrograde sexual morality. There is more than one right answer, and all of those answers are often hard.

"Srugim" was done by a secular cast for a largely secular audience. There's no reason that we can't do the same thing with our own past, except that the makers -- and maybe audiences -- seem to lack the imagination.

Don't get me wrong: I'll still be watching all of my period dramas this year. But I do wish I had more "Srugim" and less preaching.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net