On TV, Is Nasty More Compelling Than Nice?

Smitten Jack and Elizabeth (www.hallmarkchannel.com).

Smitten Jack and Elizabeth, who will eventually be a couple (www.hallmarkchannel.com).

Is nastiness more dramatically compelling than niceness? I wondered about that recently as I considered my TV watching habits. A number of my regular TV dramas have been on an extended winter break, and their absence has not made my heart grow fonder. In fact, I’ve realized that I can live quite comfortably without them.

While I’ve regularly watched Scandal eager to learn the next plot twist, I haven’t missed the gratuitous torture scenes, Fitz and Mellie’s maintaining one of the world’s iciest marriages, or Olivia’s suffering as she pines for a man she can never have (at least, not while he’s still president). On Grey’s Anatomy, I’ve waited for April and Jackson to reunite, but I haven’t missed seeing gory accident victims or the combustion of Meredith and Cristina’s friendship. As for Revenge, must the characters always be cruel to one another? Daniel’s sterilizing Emily post-wedding without her knowledge was simply too much.

In recent weeks, I’ve chomped at the bit to watch only one show: Hallmark Channel’s new series, When Calls the Heart. Set in a Canadian mining town in 1910, When Calls the Heart is everything most television is not – wholesome, fond of working people, and unafraid to acknowledge religion.

At the show’s start, a mining explosion kills many of the town’s men. The survivors respond by pulling together and doing all they can to help the miners’ widows and children. Neighbors invite one another over for dinner. Every Sunday, the townspeople gather to pray. When the town church burns down, they congregate in a wooded clearing, undeterred by circumstances. The people on the show face serious challenges – the mine explosion being the prime example – but they always persevere, often while cooperating. There is an appealing sense of community that is rare for television.

Characters speak earnestly to one another. There is no sarcasm, no biting put-downs.

Viewers are also engaged in the budding romance of Elizabeth and Jack, the town’s school teacher and law enforcement officer. As a Boston-born heiress on her own for the first time and a Canadian Mounty, they don’t make the most obvious couple. Yet, in the context of this small town, they fit perfectly. Each episode has gently nudged them closer together, but the story arc has remained chaste. On the Hallmark Channel, characters only kiss, and that’s typically reserved for movies’ happy endings.

When Calls the Heart portrays a fairly ideal, family-friendly world. But is it dramatically compelling? Meanness and bad behavior are certainly much more common on television. After all, without characters willing to lie, cheat, steal, or commit adultery, most TV dramas would lose the dramatic spark that drives their storylines. That said, don’t viewers have limits? Isn’t there a point when marinating in so much meanness simply becomes unpleasant, even numbing?

When Calls the Heart proves that an hour-long drama can successfully entertain viewers without being populated entirely, or even mostly, by nasty, unethical characters. The mine’s manager is a loathsome character, but he doesn’t cast a shadow over the whole show. And when a new miner proves himself to be dishonorable, Jack deals with him, because this community has standards.

It may be that When Calls the Heart portrays a world nicer than many of us know firsthand, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Our culture regularly confuses snark with wit and graphic sex and violence with art. So, it’s enjoyable to regularly escape to a place that we would gladly visit with our children, that offers us something to aspire to, and that simply leaves you feeling good inside. When Calls the Heart is simply everything TV should be.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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