Why is everybody on TV hallucinating?

05.09.09 8 years ago 5 Comments


As I understand it, the rule has always been that one time is a happening, two times is a coincidence, three times is a trend.

Last week, by my very unscientific count, at least five characters on shows that I watch regularly found themselves hallucinating, with four of them having conversations with said hallucinations. 

That goes beyond a trend into a full-blown outbreak, TV’s spring equivalent of the swine flu…

[More after the break, spoilers for previously aired episodes of “House,” “Bones,” “Fringe” and “Grey’s Anatomy” included…]

In 1854, more than 600 people died in a cholera outbreak in London. It was hardly Europe’s most deadly outbreak of the disease, but it’s significant to this day because John Snow was able to trace the cholera back to a water pump on Broad Street, a public well that had been dug with unfortunate proximity to a cesspit. Icky, right? But Snow’s research was a seminal event in the science of epidemiology.

If John Snow were alive today, he might first attempt to trace the outbreak of hallucinations to FOX, which may not be the source, but was certainly the area of highest incidence last week.

On “House,” the Good Doctor has now been receiving visitations from a ghost, specifically Anne Dudek’s Cutthroat Bitch (or “Amber,” if you prefer) for three weeks now, though she’s really less of a ghost and more of a manifestation of his subconscious. On “Bones,” David Boreanaz’s Agent Booth had previously seen retired hockey star Luc Robitaille and a deceased war buddy, but it was this week’s interactions with Stewie from “Family Guy” that pushed him over the edge. And then you have “Fringe,” where Agent Dunham started seeing all manner of things-that-weren’t-there this week, most dramatically a scene of Boston in post-anihilation ruins.

For the season, at least, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” has been Patient Zero. Viewers were subjected to several weeks of Izzie Stevens having sex with ghost-who-wasn’t-a-ghost Denny Duquette, who returned this week just when we though/hoped we’d seen the last of him. Perhaps Izzie infected Adam Goldberg’s Eric Delahoy, who spent this week’s “The Unusuals” having recurring visions of his teenage sweetheart (played by Conor Leslie, whose resemblance to the unhallucinated Amber Tamblyn was a distraction).

That list doesn’t include what was going on in Alpha’s head during Friday night’s “Dollhouse” finale, though that could probably count as hallucinating. It also doesn’t factor in whatever was happening with Michael Weaver’s Gary on Tuesday’s “Reaper” when he started getting advice from a karaoke-singing dead demon, though I probably should. I’m also not going to discuss whatever transpired on this week’s “Supernatural,” not because there wasn’t hallucinating afoot, but because it isn’t a show I watch.

That’s one week of TV. Are we going to learn next week that Dorota is just a figment of Blair’s imagination? 

On the small screen, there’s a whole lot of hallucinating going on. Instances of characters talking to people who aren’t there may soon outnumber the conversations involving people who exist.

Tangible explanations for the hallucinations also abound. Well, they aren’t exactly myriad. Izzie, Booth and Delahoy all have brain tumors of various sizes, shapes and operability, in what has become TV’s most reliable character-driving diagnosis this side of Huntington’s. House’s visions seem to stem from his Vicodin dependancy, though he attempted to come up with several alternative theories, but fell short. Olivia’s “Fringe” visions are harder to pinpoint, since they involve seeing things on parallel alternate timelines, probably with the help of an experimental drug she was given as a child.

Why the rash of television hallucinations?

Well, hallucinations are helpful. House and Izzie both used theirs to make diagnoses this week. Booth’s visions previously helped him escape from the Gravedigger. Presumably there will be a crime-fighting aspect to Agent Dunham’s gifts, just as there was earlier in this season when her exposure to Agent Scott’s brain patterns (or whatever the heck happened) gave her a totally different kind of second-sight.

At their basic level, though, the hallucinations are just the latest extension of a very specific brand of writing shorthand. Getting to the root of a character’s internal struggle is a difficult chore if you do it using naturalistic means and it runs the risk of not getting the point across clearly. 

If Hamlet’s a really morose teenager [or acting like one] sitting in the corner of his room talking to himself about killing his stepfather, he’s just plain crazy. If he gets a visitation from a ghost explaining the otherwise-unseen backstory, he gets carte blanche for an escalating series of misdeeds and goes from totally mad to merely somewhat nuts (“mad north-northwest,” if you prefer). If Scrooge has a dinner one night, experiences minor indigestion and wakes up the next morning with a newfound love of his employees and Christmas, he’s an unmotivated, senile man. If he’s subjected to a bevy of ghosts, his actions make sense. If George Bailey feels miserable, gets drunk, thinks about his life a bit and comes to the conclusion that things would have been worse without him, he’s self-important and delusional, but if an angel comes along… Well, you get the drift. In “Hamlet,” “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” no outside agency is actually required for the character development in question, but mere introspection is pretty dull drama, so you add a little pizzaz. 

What? You think Booth needed a talking baby to let him know that maybe he has feelings for Bones and that he’d like to be part of their hypothetical child’s life? He could have just thought for a couple seconds. You think Denny Duquette’s presence was required for Izzie to know she had another tumor? She could have just had a headache. Somehow House turned Amber’s appearances into a catalyst for getting Cuddy into bed, but he could just as easily have brought her flowers. Sure, that would be common sense, but it wouldn’t be as unnerving and disorienting as introducing a good hallucination.

Ghosts and angels and apparitions are handy, because what a character wouldn’t say to their actual partner or even their friends or lovers, they’d say to Their One True Love or to a Famous TV Baby. Since they aren’t conversing with real people, it’s the same as giving a character a soul-searching soliloquy without quite the same level of contrivance. Hamlet could talks to ghosts and chat with himself, but the minute House starts nattering to himself at his piano, he goes from vulnerable to pathetic. Bringing in Amber for an out-of-left-field diagnosis or two just eases the monotony of House figuring out every answer at the end of a seemingly unrelated conversation with Wilson.

These hallucinations come into play when writers tire of more realistic, but clunky and expositional, paths to the same revelations. Flashbacks accomplish similar things, spelling out the things you can’t articulate in normal interactions. Sending your character to a shrink is another traditional way of unearthing secrets and emotions. How about bringing in a special guest star from outside of the show’s universe? If Addison’s coming back to “Grey’s Anatomy,” you know that she’s doing to be party to three or four epiphanies in a single hour. If somebody’s long-lost mother, long-lost brother, long-lost ex-husband comes out of the woodwork, you know that monologuing will ensue. “Brothers & Sisters” hasn’t resorted to ghosts or hallucinations, but the number of secret-Walkers, or secret-near-Walkers is in the dozens by now. Luke Grimes’ Ryan Lafferty is so boring and one-note a character he might as well be a spirit. Ryan is every bit as much a means-to-an-end as Ghost Denny, though you can be sure Greg Berlanti and company look at the proliferation of supernatural interlopers on other shows and go, “At least we haven’t gotten that desperate.”

But it’s no surprise that most of this hallucinating is taking place during sweeps. Damn the antiquated sweeps system for making flights of fancy more acceptable in November, February and May than they would be any other time of the year. “House” and “The Unusuals” and “Bones” are generally semi-realistic shows, but the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief is heightened three months per year. It helps that the major revelations hallucinations allow are also the sorts of transitional revelations that are best held for the end of a season, or at least the last episode before a lengthy hiatus. 

Timing really is everything for a good hallucination. If Olivia’s time-time-tripping is just the result of her time in the Cortexiphan trials, this could have begun at any time. How fortuitous that it’s beginning not only after her meeting with Walter Bishop, but also after she’d had enough time with Walter to learn to accept certain parts of his mumbo-jumbo and shortly before our impending first meeting with William Bell. Like if this had begun when she was in high school and Walter was in a mental institution and Pacey was still pining over Joey, it could have been mighty awkward. But, to paraphrase something an inspiration poster once told me about God, writers rarely give characters more hallucinations than they can handle.

Fortunately, the hallucinating can’t last forever. Booth was already rushed into surgery last week, with a hopeful prognosis. Izzie may face surgery next week, with a cloudier prognosis. The fastest drug withdrawal in history left House Amber-free. And “The Unusuals” is going to be cancelled before we need to worry about what’s happening inside Detective Delahoy’s skull. And as for “Fringe”? Well, it’s a show where men become porcupines in airplane restrooms and women spontaneously combust, so hallucinating is probably the least of our problems. 

Maybe next May, though, TV’s writers won’t have this collective hallucination at the exact same time. How about a spate of musical episodes next time, guys?

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