Hysteria (Amazon Originals): Pilot Episode

It’s just an aside, this time, because I saw it online and wanted to check it out and review it properly, but then I spent nearly an hour getting increasingly irritated and thought better of it and decided not to invest too much time into it.

Trigger warnings for mentions of rape and suicide.

This amazon-produced pilot, hoping to get a series order, stars Mena Suvari and TR Knight, co-starring Josh Stewart and Laura San Giacomo. Mena Suvari plays a psychiatrist working in Houston, but she’s originally from Austin. Her brother is on death row for abducting and murdering a young girl years ago — incidentally, the tree that he allegedly stuffed her dead body into still stands on the grounds of the park outside the hospital. Yeah, that’s the kind of story we’re dealing with here. The tree is dead and withered and black as coal in the midst of all that summer green, and I’m getting the feeling that the writers are trying tell me something here. Oh, sweet symbolism.

The thing is, while the acting may be solid from most of the cast, the editing fine and the direction kinda nice, the show does its name proud.

Hysteria.

There are two dimensions both to the title and to the story being told.

For one thing, hysteria denotes people becoming irrational over sensational or outrageous events or news, people going on a witchhunt, people not listening to reason and only following the public or media frenzy.

But the other thing is hysteria as derived from ‘hystera,’ the Greek word for womb. Back in the day, all vapors and fainting spells and any kind of emotional reaction from women that men weren’t comfortable with and couldn’t control — such as sexual dysfunction — were blamed on the females being, well, females. Possessing a womb was propagated to be causing some form of mental and physical illness via empathy, and that all irrational women stepping out of line were made sick by their wombs and hormones. A lasting consequence is that of women today struggling with the prejudice that they’re incapable of making tough decisions when they’re on their periods.

This form of “disorder” has been recategorised as a catch-all for medical stuff about women no-one bothered to research, and has been called a form of PTSD in women who were, back in the day, routinely domestically abused — spousal rape, child abuse, domestic violence are cited among the causes.

So, of course, these two dimensions cannot be separated from this show. One, because pretty much all the characters on this show are out-of-control, shrieking, and yelling at and blaming each other, and two, because the first case of the seizures is observed in a young woman who is struggling against a man who is sexually assaulting and preparing to rape her by penetration.

How, then, am I to separate this show from the idea of hysteria originating in people not while they happen to be female, but because they are female? That’s right, I can’t. Showing me a scene of a young woman nearly being raped, the perversion of a sexual situation, that young woman developing neurological symptoms involving uncontrollable flailing and shrieking — which is exactly what “hysterical” women are perceived as in society — and the symptoms spreading then being blamed on Conversion Disorder… how is that not complete and utter bullshit? It’s a conflation of concepts and diagnoses and it’s a mess. The thing itself spreading via feeling someone’s pain and people being sensation-chasing jerkfaces, that could have been suitably creepy. But the whole way this thing is being framed is a clusterfuck.

And now don’t go telling me that a young man caught it, too — that’s the other dimension. That’s the other piece of facepalm, the idea that “feeling your pain” happens through social media, that the saturation with images of Cassie seizing will make other people sick as well. What this show is going to be doing is demonising social media in the eyes of all those already not understanding the medium and those interacting with and using it.

Social media are not the problem. People posting a video of a friend on the floor, writhing in dangerous seizures online are the problem, people clicking on that video and watching it again and again and again is the problem. Teenagers watching a video of someone having a seizure and laughing about it are the problem. Their parents who haven’t taught them to be decent human beings are the problem. The medium is just facilitating. Reviewers on amazon are talking about the dangers of social media and keeping better watch over what their children are doing online because social media are taking over all our lives, boohoo. Seriously? Of course media coverage increases visibility, and increasing visibility invites copycats. But this isn’t about copycatting, because copycatting is still a choice people make. Like, media in Austria don’t report on suicides because suicide coverage raises the numbers. After Robin Williams’ death, people were concerned with suicide stats rising, because they usually do after celebrity deaths. But this, this Conversion Disorder here presented as being aided by social media, is presented as involuntary, as is nothing people can control. Except if they hadn’t, you know, clicked the video a thousand times. What are they going to do if this goes to series? Make social media the problem? The medium is not the message, here.

If people really want something to worry about, it’s that parents on this show seem to be principally ok with their teenaged daughters sneaking out at night to meet with “professional dancers who could teach them some new moves.” Like, if this is all legit, why not do it after school? Everyone on this show is acting in ways that make it completely impossible to suspend disbelief.

Like, the dads don’t know where their daughter is even though at least one of them has been home all morning and she got up to have a shower? They had to show the dad ripping away the shower curtain because she totally couldn’t have heard him call over the spray of the water? The press conference scene was completely ridiculous. One mother shouting at Cassie’s father that her girls are on the team, and that if he kept his daughter’s illness a secret… like, it is clear that this thing only happened last night, what, were they supposed to call the CDC, alert all the families, and have everyone panic? Well, nevermind, the panic is already happening anyway. Oh, and in the midst of it all, Logan’s ex (?) tells her that he never thought her brother really killed that girl. Oh, good, another predictable mystery.

And then, the older sister — not caring whether her sister being hurt is her fault, she still uses it to manipulate the cop whose babysitter she used to be and who took advantage of her youth and decided that having an affair with her was a good idea. It’s difficult to differentiate here: he deserves to be punished for having sex with a minor and someone who he is in charge of and is supposed to protect, for taking advantage of her and promising her undying love to get into her pants. Her conniving personality, however, going to the police station to give a statement and using what happened to her sister as a way of punishing him and blackmailing him into continuing to have sex with her, describing the details of penetrative rape whilst maintaining the innocent virgin facade in front of her father (who somehow doesn’t think to step in?)… that’s repulsive. She uses what happened to her sister to cover her ass, to manipulate the cop, and she only set this entire thing up to make a video to send to his pregnant wife, which is all kinds of reckless and deliberately endangering. He deserves to be punished, no doubt about it, and if she wants to give him hell for taking advantage of her and lying to her, that’s well within her rights. But not like this. Flawed characters are great, flawed and hateful female characters are even better — if they were well-written. But Audrey just drowns in this mess of, oooh, we’re so edgy, we have underage drinking and underage sex and blackmail and promiscuity.

And am I supposed to believe that her father never met the family who she used to babysit for? With him being the school principal, apparently? Am I supposed to believe that the helicopter mother is outraged and indignant at the thought of a rape kit? At the thought of a psychiatrist taking care of her daughter after what she’s been through? Like, ‘nah, my daughter wasn’t raped, we will not endure the shame of that’ ?! Am I to believe that the father will just listen to his daughter tell a cop how a man raped her by penetrating her with his fingers? And there’s no lawyer present, no taping equipment, and that it’s ok that the cop isn’t taking proper notes? Like, she knows these two guys, she knows the guy who she just told a cop had his fingers inside her and there are no arrests being made?

The teenagers overall are completely overwritten and overacted. I hate it when writers seem incapable of writing teenage girls as anything other than shrieking, overexcited, hysterical, over-sexualised nubile phantasies, and this is pretty much it; while the older sister is one pretentious “I’m going to sit here in this abandoned factory and drink and smoke and be totally badass and cool” kind of douchebag. And the other teenagers shown at the school are just pimply jerkfaces laughing at a video of a girl having a seizure. The contempt I have for such people is off the scale, and I hate that I have to hate those kids, too.

Everyone is so annoying on this show — and that’s the point, probably. People are being hysterical, they’re being irrational, they’re being plain stupid. But there we are again: all of that is based on that word. Hysteria. There’s more than just the media frenzy and the social witch hunt in there. The Victorian connotation of the word isn’t going to go away just because the writers want it to. If they want to take that out of the equation — pick another damn word. But apparently, they don’t want to. And making rape the first start of this is gross and reductive. I do not want to see stylishly edited rape sequences played for edgy kicks on television.

And now I’ve written over a thousand words and I really didn’t want to. Anyway. I’m done, and I really hope this show is going to tank.

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