When Carla comes to visit Rose in the fourth chapter of The Kindly Ones, Rose is getting ready to videotape an episode of the sitcom Roseanne. She tells Carla that she is hoping to write something about three sitcoms in particular: Roseanne, The Addams Family, and Bewitched This information comes as she and Carla discuss, among other things, the difficulties and weirdnesses of families. (And from A Doll’s House we might remember that Rose knows a thing or two about weird families.)
The Addams Family and Bewitched both played on ABC and aired their first episodes on consecutive days in 1964. (Their fates were different, though, as The Addams Family only lasted until 1966, while Bewitchedcontinued until 1972.) Roseanne also played on ABC, but twenty-four years later, premiering in 1988 and running until 1997.
One of these things is not like the other. While all the shows were comedies, the two older ones were both full of magic and monsters, and generally devoid of “serious issues”. Roseanne was exactly the opposite, an attempt to create a realistic show within the confines of the sitcom format. Its storylines presented problems of class, gender, and sexuality, including the introduction of gay characters. It presented the difficulties of family life in ways the earlier shows would never have considered.
The Addams Family and Bewitched are fantasy worlds and fantasy families, but Roseanne was, for its time, one of the most realistic shows on tv.
While it is often misleading to reduce people to their fantasies and entertainments, Rose’s interest in these particular shows seems to me quite meaningful. Perhaps they speak to her feelings about her experiences and the worlds she has seen, the history she has known. They certainly echo, sometimes in mirror-image, the challenges faced by Rose, Lyta, and many other characters throughout The Sandman: how do we reconcile the immediate, mortal world with the worlds of dreams and myths and magics that shadow it?
Rose and Carla’s conversation comes right after we have seen Lyta in between both worlds. It’s an extraordinary sequence in its art and the suggestiveness of its writing: Lyta talking to people along the path she travels toward revenge, with each encounter ending in the city and giving us, the readers privileged to a distance Lyta is not allowed, at least a bit of uncertainty: is she dreaming, deluded, insane? And what would that mean, given all we know of dreams and delusion from The Sandman?
There’s nothing funny about Lyta’s plight, and so the sitcoms stand in an inverse relationship to her experience. Their monsters and magics are funny, and even the most dire problems of the most realistic family can be played for laughs. Lyta and Rose don’t live in such a world, though they may yearn to. Rose can watch that world on her tv, she can preserve it on videotapes, she can write essays about it to try to determine its deepest signs, suggestions, and significance. But The Addams Family, Bewitched, and even Roseanne are all fantasy worlds. Fantasy fantasy worlds, not real fantasy worlds like the realms of the Endless. Television worlds are manufactured, deliberated, produced — they don’t live in a mythosphere of human dreaming, they aren’t ancient, terrifying, wise, bewildering.
Or are they?
People have made the case that television and movies and comic books are our contemporary myths, that popular mass culture provides our societies with the sort of sustenance provided to ancient societies by their stories. I am not experienced enough with myths and legends, either themselves or their histories, to venture an opinion on whether this is so, but certainly we cannot deny the effect of all the various media on our imaginations. From childhood on, we dream through Bugs Bunny and Harry Potter, we visit the shrine of Disneyworld, we chronicle the legendary exploits of celebrities through tabloids and TMZ.
Neil Gaiman is especially aware of this, as not only The Sandman but many of his writings, especially American Gods, show. What becomes of old gods, old beliefs, old myths? Where do they go when no-one is left to believe in them, when they are forgotten?
I’m not sure if that’s the direction The Sandman is taking, but its mélange of comic book culture and thousands of years of human belief and storytelling implies the question. What happens when all our dreams get copyrighted? When belief is little more than an accumulation of Twitter stats? Should Dream get a Facebook page?
The Dream King
Created new Corinthian. w00t! It’s good to be the king!
Well, maybe not.
Although Mervyn Pumpkinhead might be really amusing on Twitter. But he gets into enough trouble as it is.
All the social media in the world won’t save Lyta, though. I fear for the path she’s on, and the Furies she will encounter.
But that will all have to wait for later.
Right now, I need to go find out more about Kanye West and Kim Kardashian…
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.