“I think the subconscious always aligns in Hollywood, somehow,” says Dave Holstein, creator of Showtime’s “Kidding,” in response to a grim micro-trend in 2018 TV: stories about the death of children. Such plots were the central incidents of at least four new titles that launched last year.
In “Kidding,” a Fred Rogers-type character, played by Jim Carrey, struggles to continue fathering America’s youth after losing his own son. “The Chi,” also on Showtime, depicts a community in South Chicago reeling from gun violence that claimed the lives of two boys. In Netflix’s “Seven Seconds,” a teenager dies at the hands of police, launching the mourning family into a struggle with both sanctioned and illicit justice systems. And HBO’s “Sharp Objects” explores a family’s inheritance of cruelty and violence, following the murders of teenage girls.
Although the story lines unfold in different ways and to different ends, they all function as a response: to a lack of authentic depictions of such tragedies and to a time in history when audiences especially need these stories to be told. Ultimately, the commonality is not death but grief. “There’s [no pain] more deep than the death of a kid,” Holstein says.
“Too often, the media portrays grief in the same way our society tends to treat it, as taboo. ‘Let’s make sure the story has a good outcome,’ ” said Fredda Wasserman, therapist and special projects director at Our House Grief Support Center in Los Angeles. “That’s not realistic. Grief doesn’t disappear.”
“Seven Seconds” creator Veena Sud intended to fill this vacuum of authenticity. Sud cut her teeth as a TV writer on procedurals, what she calls “one-crime-an-episode” stories. “There’s little examination of what a family goes through,” she said. But “if we don’t see the price that a death has on a family or community, we stop caring. Murder isn’t entertainment.”
Specifically, “Seven Seconds” is a nod to Tamir Rice, who was fatally shot by a police officer in Cleveland in 2014. “This was a 12-year-old in a playground, playing. The fact that this country wasn’t in a revolution over this was devastating to me,” Sud said. With her Netflix show, she wanted other parents to understand that pain and consulted with three mothers who had lost sons to police violence, including Trayvon Martin’s mom, Sybrina Fulton.
Regina King plays the bereaved mother on “Seven Seconds” whose anger leads her to seek revenge. The distraction impinges on her ability to grieve, an outcome Wasserman said is common when a death is followed by criminal proceedings or political firestorms.
Alternately, in “Kidding,” Holstein specifically devised a random accident — a stoplight malfunctions, turning green on both sides and leading to a collision — as the inciting incident, so his characters had no culprit to blame. “Kidding” becomes a portrait of a surviving parent’s inward journey. “There’s a line you could draw between grief and identity crisis. When you lose something that important and definitive, you ask yourself, ‘Who am I now?’ ” he said.
Holstein conceived the show in 2010, “in the middle of all of the antihero shows,” he said, referencing “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad.” “I was trying to write what I hoped would be the next bend in the road. It wasn’t the dark character in a good world. It was a good character in a dark world.” But he said his show was greenlit not because of Hollywood cycles but because the real world is now feeling dark as well. “The reason you’re seeing this Mister Rogers documentary [“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”] and the Tom Hanks movie [in which he plays Mister Rogers, coming in the fall] and “Kidding” — it’s not a coincidence. The current world situation has created a demand for it.”
Sud adds: “We live in dark times, and the loss of a child is the darkest thing that could happen to someone. Are we collectively, as a country, grappling with extreme worries and fears that manifest themselves creatively in the worst thing that any of us can imagine?” When asked what she means by dark times, she said we “live in one of the most hate-filled moments in our country’s history.”
And of course, cultural division is not the only trauma of our day. Wasserman estimates that almost half of her clients, most of whom are bereaving parents, lost their loved ones to suicide or drug overdose. Between 1975 and 2015, suicide rates rose 31 percent among boys 15 to 19 and doubled among girls 15 to 19. Further, more Americans have died in mass school shootings this century than did in the entire previous century. Childhood mortality “is more in people’s awareness,” she said. “It’s is not a made-up story anymore. We hear what’s happening to our neighbors and friends and their kids.”
But sometimes what we hear has been distorted. Lena Waithe, creator of “The Chi,” has said her show was conceived as a counterpoint to the simplified stories about Chicago violence that are spread by the news media. “The Chi” instead offers a rich, complicated depiction of the effects of gun violence on a black community.
Sud said such story lines have been woefully underserved by network dramas. She describes TV procedurals as having an “obsession with sexualizing the dead, white, female body. It is a complete omission of other victims of violent crime: people of color, communities of color.” Another side effect of sexualizing dead white girls is, of course, as Sud explained, “the fetishization of the female body. [Procedurals] are bizarre and pornographic. It’s like murder porn.”
All four shows trace this alchemical quality of grief, how it changes shape and spreads. Holstein speaks candidly about how, as showrunners, the act of responding to pain — by writing these story lines — has also made them creators of pain. “We are killing children. We are really trying to push the envelope of how much [everyone is] hurting right now.”
The death of a child is an especially morbid topic for TV. In “Kidding,” when we meet Carrey’s character, Jeff, he’s been bottling his grief for a year. He hopes to process it via a special episode of his children’s show. But his producer (and father) denies the request to bring the subject of death into the show’s happy world. As a result, Jeff continues to spiral. “Eventually grief comes out, whether with your own physical illness or emotional complications,” said Wasserman, the therapist. Jeff experiences both.
The episode is an unintended metaphor for American TV as a whole: Rarely in history have viewers seen depictions of such deep pain. For 2018, producers said yes. Perhaps sharing the burden of pain is what we all need.