For almost 500 years the type of story most popular among literate Europeans was the chivalric romance. The Song of Roland, Troilus and Criseyde, the kind of stories that Monty Python and the Holy Grail makes fun of. In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes writes a bawdy little satire called Don Quixote. It takes all of the noble tropes of the romance and turns them upside down. In the place of a young noble undergoing a challenge of grave importance to earn the hand of a beautiful maiden, there is a destitute old crank and his wisecracking frenemy wasting their time shouting at windmills and fantasizing like incels about the feminine qualities of the beauties they’re totally going to find.
That’s how Cervantes accidentally invented the modern novel.
The novel embraced that it was a low, grubby kind of story. They didn’t have to be any more realistic than the romances. They just dealt with slightly more grounded people than Chosen Ones on a divine quest given to them by God. They made mistakes for petty, human reasons. That turned out to be relatable to people, and novels are still with us today.
I thought about the romance and the novel recently while watching TV, bored. I was watching It’s A Sin but it could have been any number of shows or movies. I realized that I wanted a drama but I was watching some new form of show that reminds me of school pageants.
Pageants present well-known stories about well-known people going through well-known situations. If the pageant is about George Washington, there will be a cherry tree and the Delaware will be crossed. About California history, expect Missions and Gold Rush and Silicon Valley. Any child actor is welcome to play their part artfully, if they so choose, but the form doesn’t demand it. A good pageant keeps the story moving along even when the people on stage aren’t behaving in ways that resemble any human let alone a particular character, or can’t remember their lines, forget how to speak, are having an out of body experience. It’s a funny art form!
Many shows and movies that get applause for being brave and diverse and bringing new stories are secretly pageants. It’s A Sin was about AIDS in the 1980’s, a rural, innocent looking twink moved to a big city and was taken under the wing of worldly club queens. There were tearful scenes of family betrayal and discrimination at work. Among a large cast of characters are stand-ins for straight allies, lesbians, older gay men, Black and Asian gay men.
Playing with pageantry can be great. Juno sends up the teen mom after school special by giving you a quirky, character-driven comedy. A lot of the pleasure of Ryan Murphy or Aaron Sorkin shows, Derek Jarman films, or Julie Taymor musicals are that they are pageants.
Pageants are blunt, though, and I don’t think they can ever introduce a new story as well as a drama. Work in Progress, The Bisexual, and Chewing Gum are all weird, flawed shows. But showing the messy ambivalence of the human, strange, lovable characters at the heart of those shows gave me a chance to fall in love with them. That’s what I need from TV.