Stories hold a power all their own. Think of Scheherazade, telling stories so good they saved her life. Or the thousands of fables and legends that have lasted through centuries. They answer a primal need to know about each other, to learn from each other, and to talk to each other.
And as we know, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A story without an ending is like a sentence without a period.
In my view, that's what happened to The Sopranos. The story stopped, but it didn't end, and they're not the same thing. The promise of once-upon-a-time is that there will be a they-lived-happily-ever-after, or at least a they-all-got-whacked. The fact that so many Sopranos viewers got angry at its ending proves the power of a story. It didn't matter to them that Tony Soprano was fictional. They still wanted to know what happened to him.
Sadly, The Sopranos was the only TV show I watched, and now it's gone. There are no good stories on TV anymore; I mean normal, scripted shows like the ones I loved. Remember Sex and the City, Seinfeld, or, in a pinch, Friends? Going further back, I adored M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Those stories got people talking to each other the next morning around artifacts known as water coolers. Starbucks would do, too; no matter what the beverage, we'd all gab about the story we'd seen on TV the night before.
But now TV isn't about story, but about contest. Who is the best singer? Who the best inventor? Best chef? Dress designer? Men compete for women; women compete for men. We watch game shows like Deal or No Deal, 1 vs. 100, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Or TV shows about real lives; Kathy Griffin's My Life on the D List. Those started with the Osbournes and continue with Gene Simmons and Paula Abdul.
Reality TV is the antithesis of fiction, and it has hijacked story.
So what happens to a popular culture without story?
At the same time that story has disappeared, gossip has exploded on TV and in newspapers, magazines, and Internet blogs. I think these two things are related. Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Nicole Richie have become our fictional characters. Angelina and Brad have replaced Edith and Archie; Tom and Katie took over from Lucy and Ricky.
Jennifer Aniston is the new Rachel Green.
Celebrities are our heroes and heroines now, discussed the next day over latte or lunch. We have such a strong need to talk to each other, to have some commonality of story, that we're finding it in celebrities. In effect, we're turning reality into fiction. Using actors and actresses, just off-duty.
The plotlines of our celebrity characters tend to fall into a pattern - how the mighty have fallen - but that's still juicy. They marry and divorce. They go into rehab and come out again. The paparazzi have become our new storytellers.
Some of the celebrity stories have unhappy endings, like Anna Nicole Smith's, but mostly they go on and on. Next week there's a new episode, like an arc in a plotline. The characters reproduce, shave their heads, get tattoos. Sometimes they get their tattoo on Miami Ink or buy a Harley customized on American Chopper, and we can watch that, too.
And if it's not too meta to follow, sometimes the celebrities fictionalize themselves - in a reality series. In The Sarah Silverman Show, the comedienne employs her real-life sister (and dog) to play themselves in a scripted storyline. Tori Spelling fictionalized herself in NoTORIous. We've got plenty of actors, but no spare parts.
And how is this working for us? Not great.
It leaves us with a perennially empty feeling. We find the celebrities empty, and at some level, we find ourselves empty for paying them so much attention. We've become reluctant voyeurs, and at some level, we know they're just people trying to live their lives. It hurts them, and it hurts us, too. Our culture begins to lack content, depth, and substance. We miss the richness of human experience that story embodies, reflects, and carries forward.
And now I hear that the few TV writers still extant are about to go on strike.
Where will we be then?
We might have to go back to reading books.
Lisa Scottoline is a best-selling author, most recently of "Daddy's Girl." She can be reached at www.scottoline.com.