Is There Too Much Trauma Drama?
A Look At The ‘Trauma Plot’ In the Era of Peak TV
This week’s New Yorker features a long article by ‘A Critic at Large’ dealing with ‘The Trauma Plot’. I really don’t have to describe what that is to anybody who has watched any television for the past twenty years what that is is: almost everybody who has watched any form of entertainment sees at least one series where it’s at the center of some character’s conflict. Hell, one of my favorite series of all time is Lost, a show where every character is dealing with some variation on trauma in their life. Near the end of the series, we end up learning that almost all of the action that has happened has in some way derived from a deranged woman killing a mother after she gives birth to twin boys and her guardianship and favoritism of one over the other pretty much ends up driving the action.
There’s a very good argument — I’ve actually made it in a couple of previous columns — that almost all of Peak TV has been driven by the dark backstories surrounding the protagonists of so many of the great dramas. It’s not a universal truth — the characters on The Wire consider whatever traumas they have part of life and so it doesn’t seem to bother them as much as the system they’re stuck in, most of the characters in The Shield are driven to deal with the traumas of others, and while Walter White did have a couple of traumas in his background, they were practically non-factors in what made Breaking Bad so brilliant. But trauma is at the center of almost every major drama in the Golden Age of Television, so it is understandable why many people, including the New Yorker Critic thought it a bit threadbare. And she didn’t even bother to deal with some of the most prominent examples — without a childhood trauma we wouldn’t have Dexter, Mr. Robot or Ray Donovan (okay, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing)
I’ll admit I have tired quite a bit over the years of having to deal with character after character having some kind of backstory that deals with some kind of traumatic childhood incident. It’s practically a staple of every major female character in a Shonda Rhimes series — Meredith Grey had a mother who never loved her; Olivia Pope had parents who were monstrous (understatement); Mellie Grant was raped by her father-in-law; Annalyse Keating was molested by her father. Those, by the way, are just the leads’ traumas; I don’t know if anybody in Shondaland’s body of work is suffering from some form of PTSD.
To be clear network TV, like so much else, has always done a bad job painting trauma in anything but something that will always defines you. Almost every lead in Greg Berlanti’s DC world has become a superhero because of some kind of horrid trauma in their past (though to be fair, that’s basically the jumping off point for every comic book story). Many of the characters in Ryan Murphy’s 911 series are dealing with some kind of trauma at some point in their past (and if they aren’t, they will eventually). It is rare for a well-crafted network drama to have characters who aren’t dealing with some kind of trauma — Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an outlier in that sense: the characters were outsiders in their world but they actually managed to work through their issues. (Eliza Dushku’s Faith is one of the best examples of that.)
Now trauma may be at the center of so many of the dramas of Peak TV, but what separated it from so many other series what that it didn’t define the characters. (Oz actually had its Greek chorus character laughingly mock the idea of it in an episode, as if to say that it was double-talk and an excuse.) Tony Soprano definitely was traumatized, but he was still a monster — hell, the longer The Sopranos went on it became clear he was using his sessions with Dr. Melfi as some kind of excuse, something that became clear in the final episode. Brenda Chenoweth, Rachel Griffiths’ character in Six Feet Under had been traumatized before we got to know her but she managed to get through life fine, even without the Fishers. Half the characters on Deadwood were suffering from major childhood traumas — Swearengen recounted them horrifically in monologues, and they still paled to what most of the women had in their past — but in this community they have found a way to fill a vital roles and even have loving relationships. In Mad Men, no one even thinks of asking why Dick Whitman has become Don Draper as long as he can do his job — it’s only when he reveals his trauma that he becomes a liability. Even Dexter Morgan acknowledges that the trauma that is at the core of his being a monster — his Dark Passenger — is ultimately little more than an excuse.
Really, it’s only relatively recently that trauma became a go-to substitute for a back story for so many characters in television. I think this can actually be seen in the work of Bill Lawrence, the co-creator of Ted Lasso. The New Yorker article makes a fairly big point that so much of Ted’s buoyancy is at the center of a revelation in Season 2 about his own father. Compare this with the character of Dr. Perry Cox, memorably played by John C. McGinley in Lawrence’s NBC comedy Scrubs a decade earlier. Cox is the exact opposite of Ted in his nature — cynical, dark-humored, berating everybody around him, pissing on authority at every turn. On two separate brief occasions, we get a hint at Cox’s troubled childhood and it’s far worse than anything hinted at in Ted’s case. But Lawrence never considered it worth diving into the way he would so many of the characters around Cox — JD, Elliot, Turk, etc. He didn’t think it was important to us understanding him and it really wasn’t. I think Lawrence may have felt in this new era that there was some obligation to giving Ted trauma.
In all honesty, most of the best television of the past decade doesn’t burden its characters with traumatic backstories. Robert and Michelle King have been masters of this — no one on The Good Wife or The Good Fight has anything resembling a traumatic background, and if they do the writers don’t feel it’s worth dealing with. The Americans started out revealing a horrible trauma for Elizabeth, but the writers used as a way to move the characters forward from it, and once it was dealt with, never revisited in later seasons. Better Call Saul does reveal traumas in the backstories of familiar characters -we got a major insight into the cold Mike Ehrmantraut than I never thought was possible and we do have some ideas as to how Jimmy McGill ended up becoming Saul — but since we already know so much about them, it doesn’t seem like it’s tacked on in any way. The characters in Pose are all suffering from the most horrible traumas in almost every way, but the entire series was about them forgetting them and finding joy and happiness in life — something that was proven even in the sadness of the finale.
You can actually find this truth put at the center of a lot of the better comedies in the peak era. Barry actually did an entire season where his acting class found themselves working through exercises involving their often wretched backstories. When Barry revealed his, his acting coach thought it was a sign of too much stress. His girlfriend seemed to face hers in private — but when it came time to face it in public, she went back to the lie she spent years telling herself. Throughout Atlanta Donald Glover and his writers have constantly mined comedies out of the traumas of one past — ‘Teddy Perkins’ memorably joked that trauma was the only way to make art. The marvelous Dead to Me makes it clear that the worst possible thing that can happen to you doesn’t define you as person or serve as an excuse for how you live. And in the past year exceptional comedies like Reservation Dogs and Hacks make it clear that trauma is just a part of life — and sometimes, maybe the perfect material for comedy.
To say that the trauma plot is a weak excuse for storytelling is true — which is exactly why it’s not going anywhere. It’s far easier to write a series and have its central character dealing with a trauma that only becomes clear over the course of a season then just you know try to write a more interesting story. And the thing is there are certain people who lap this crap up. Critics may be getting sick of the trauma plot, but shows like Law and Order: SVU wouldn’t be going into 500 episodes if people didn’t like it. The trick has always been whether or not the series has more than a character with a dark background to recommend it. This includes putting trauma there when it might not be — many people constantly try to argue that a series like Succession is a much more layered series than it actually is by suggesting that all of the Roy children have been abused in some form by Logan. This is literally giving a trauma plot to a series that doesn’t seem to really have one. It’s also why I preferred Billions to Succession — the characters and plots were so layered they didn’t need someone adding something that might not be there.
Trauma will always be at the center of television series — the trick is does the series have more than that to make it peak viewing? I’ve enjoyed almost all of the series I’ve listed above for the lion’s share of their runs. Most of them were successful for the entirety of their time on their air. But for a lot of series today — and again, you know what they are — they will always seem to double down on trauma instead of brilliant writing, whether they are comedy or drama. At that point, when they become something you have to slog through rather than enjoy, do what any other rational viewer would do. Stop watching it. There will always be something lighter and certainly something better written to take its place.