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Saga, Carrie and Sherlock – making different the new normal

December 15, 2015

Saga Noren

It’s time to admit an unpalatable truth about myself. I am a voyeur.

Admittedly not the sort who hides in bushes and looks through other people’s windows to catch them doing what comes naturally, but I’m a voyeur just the same.

I’ve come to this conclusion after asking myself why, with so many excellent TV series available to watch, there are three that sit pretty near the top of my menu: The Bridge, Homeland and Elementary.

And it’s simple. When I try and remember the plotlines from the previous episodes, many of the details escape me. But I never have a problem describing the exact stage we have reached in the mental disintegration of the leading characters.

Murder schmurder, there are only so many ways to kill someone, though The Bridge does manage to push out the envelope. The real horror is the sight of the good guys steadily becoming more demented than the bad guys.

Poor SagaNorinMalmoCountyPolice, as she introduces herself in all circumstances, including to potential sex partners at a singles hook-up evening. The writers have really thrown the kitchen sink at her in Series Three.

They’ve taken out Hans, her boss, who shielded her from criticism of her Asperger-like problems with empathy and communications, and replaced him with a uniformed poison dwarf who makes her reluctance to give Saga the same slack as Hans did abundantly clear.

They’ve introduced her mother, who, as some mothers do, manages to stick the needle into all the vulnerable parts of Saga’s personality. And then, when her mother dies, she ends up under suspicion of murdering her, as if six increasingly bizarre serial killings aren’t enough to be getting on with.

Saga’s eyes bulge and her lips quiver as she struggles to hold herself together. The whole thing is utterly compelling. You want to weep for the poor woman as she’s pitched into excruciating encounters with “normal people”. Such as when the poison dwarf suggests that she needs some communications training, to which Saga replies that it wouldn’t work, because she’s – long pause – different. And when, at the singles evening, the first thing she says after introducing herself to a guy is to ask him if he’d like to have sex. Pathos and humour are a deadly combination.

On top of all her other troubles, she lost her previous partner at the end of Series Two after she shopped him for murdering the serial killer. And now she’s got Henrik, who has his own cross to bear. His wife and children disappeared a few years ago. Perhaps under the influence of the pills he pops, he has regular conversations with their ghosts around his house. But at least he slots in as the one person who sticks up for Saga. Like Martin, his predecessor, he has the communications skills Saga lacks, and he appreciates her brilliance as a detective even if the poison dwarf doesn’t. He even becomes her occasional sex partner, though lover would not be an appropriate description of the relationship.

As I write this we’re two episodes away from the end of the series. How much more Saga can take before imploding for good remains to be seen.

Most likely, as with Carrie in Homeland, the script writers will patch her up and send her back into battle for the next series.

Carrie, the bipolar CIA agent, has had more implosions than the average po-faced spy has had hot dinners. Again, the focus is as much on her troubles as on the labyrinthine plots constructed around her. She also has a mentor, Saul, who, though around her behaves as a sympathetic father figure, is a dab hand with the political stiletto. In the current series Saul is also no longer there for her, since she’s finally left the agency and is freelancing for a German industrialist. Yet you know he will come through in the end.

With Carrie, the main concern is that one day a bad fairy will wave a magic wand, and her stock expression of swivel-eyed outrage will become permanently etched on her tortured face. As with Saga, it’s mainly in the eyes, though the Swede comes over as more of a full-body eccentric than Carrie – stiff, with a jerky walk, she recoils from physical contact, something Carrie could never be accused of.

So at the centre of The Bridge and Homeland are interesting and of course damaged (though political correctness dictates that you call them otherwise) women.

In Elementary, in which Sherlock Holmes is transplanted into modern New York, we get the male of the species. Like Saga, Sherlock is surely “on the spectrum”. And like the Swedish detective, his personality is reflected in his rather odd body language. He walks as though half of his vertebrae are permanently fused.

In the current series he also suffers from vengeful script writing. As a former heroin addict he teeters on the brink of a return to his old ways. He actually falls off the wagon in one episode, after beating half to death the guy who tempts him. Only the ministrations of the female Watson save him from a permanent return to the muddy waters.

Ever since the dawn of Hollywood it’s been the case that the heroes and heroines have been spiced up with intriguing dark sides. In the old days the demons would be failed romances, drinking problems or post-traumatic stress. Nowadays scriptwriters compete to come up with the most interesting personality disorders. A reflection of an age in which every little eccentricity can be explained by the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

So these days, part of the entertainment value in all these series lies in a game of Spot the Psychosis. If it’s not bipolarity or Asperger’s, it’s attention deficit disorder, obsessive/compulsive disorder or any one of hundreds of mental ailments listed in the manual. And when we’ve diagnosed the good guys, we can turn our attention to the bad ones. Basically, we’re all expected to be armchair psychologists. How long will it be before the DSM sits proudly on our bookcases alongside the Oxford English Dictionary?

Loopy killers have always been at the centre of a recognised cinematic genre. But since Hannibal Lecter dissected Clarice Starling’s personality in The Silence of the Lambs, the good guys have increasingly become loopy too. In one sense this is good news, because as I mentioned before it’s no longer socially acceptable to write a person off as loopy. The classic terms have become adjectives, as in “he’s rather OCD, isn’t he?”

We increasingly recognise that many so-called disorders bestow talents beyond those of us who are not, as Saga says, “different”. Which is why organisations like GCHQ, Britain’s electronic communications agency, try hard to recruit people who are skilled at pattern recognition and decryption, but, ironically, may not have a high level of communications skills. Even psychopaths can be of benefit to society, as Jon Ronson points out in his book The Psychopath Test. Always provided they’re not murderous ones.

The downside is that since we can blame just about every quirk and hang-up on a personality disorder, nothing is our fault any more. We are absolved of responsibility for our flaws. We are victims of our genes and our upbringing. We are all survivors of one sort or another. Which is heaven for therapists and authors of self-help tomes.

Despite the GCHQ’s proclivity for brilliant “oddballs”, insiders have commented that in real life Carrie Mathison would never be able to hold down a responsible job in the CIA. And within Britain’s police forces and possibly America’s too, where outliers are suffocated by cultures of conformity, the likes of Saga would be unlikely to prosper.

Listen to interviews with real-life detectives, and few of them stand out as anything other than boringly normal people, even if the odd nutter might be lurking in the back office. Which is a shame really, because perhaps with a few more Sagas and Sherlocks in the ranks, the clear-up rate might significantly improve.

One problem is that highly talented but quirky individuals are often high maintenance. For every Saga there needs to be a Hans to keep her on the straight and narrow. For every Holmes, a Watson. And for our austerity-obsessed masters, that is a luxury that’s hard to afford.

But never mind. In our hearts we’re all Sagas, Carries and Sherlocks now. We’re being conditioned to ask not whether a person, including ourselves, is sad or bad, but why. And The Bridge, Homeland and Elementary (with an honourable mention in this category for True Detective, in which Matthew McConaughey’s character is gloriously deranged) are no doubt inspiring a new generation of spooks, detectives and criminologists for whom procedure is no substitute for insight, rules don’t stifle initiative and being different is not a barrier to employment.

And so long as we don’t end up with a host of Guantanamos and regular extra-judicial killings as the new normal, that should be fine by all of us.

From → Employment, Film, Social, UK, USA

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