Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Why the Delirium TV pilot fails at worldbuilding

I'll start by saying that I never read Delirium or any of the other books in the series, mostly because the concept sounded kind of silly and most of what I heard about the books failed to catch my interest. However, out of sheer curiosity, I decided to watch the pilot episode of the rejected Delirium television series, mostly because it was easily available and free. (For those who are interested, it's on Hulu.)

I suspected it would be bad, but even I wasn't prepared for how laughably awful it was.

The premise behind Delirium is that this futuristic society believes "love" is a disease and has found a way to eliminate it, using some kind of medical procedure. While the idea of a society "cured" of love is shaky and not entirely believable, it still has the potential to make for some really cool exploration of themes. (ie, forcing invasive and controversial medical procedures on people, government regulation of family and reproduction, etc.)

The main reason I'm writing this isn't just to rant. (Well, okay, maybe it is.) I'm writing this because I think this show's failures provide really good talking points about worldbuilding: not only where it went wrong, but also where it could have been really fucking awesome (but wasn't).

If you haven't watched the pilot, I would strongly suggest you do so before reading the rest of this post. Also, here is a really good review of the episode that you should definitely read. Also, see the comment(s) at the bottom of the post. (The main reason I linked to it is that they make several excellent points, and I don't like repeating what's already been said.)


So now that you've done all that, let's talk about Delirium.

Problem 1: Failure to illustrate what a "loveless" society looks like.

We are told that people who have undergone the procedure are incapable of love, but never do we actually get a sense of what this means. "Love" isn't a static concept--everyone defines it differently, and it often encompasses many different emotions (attraction, sexual passion, obsession, intimacy, affection, attachment). Which of these do people lose after they undergo the procedure? Is it limited to sexual desire/romantic love? What about familial love and friendship?

After watching the episode, I never had a sense that the adult characters were emotionally deficient. We are told that one character's parents were "going about the motions," but nowhere did I actually see this for myself. There are so many things this episode could have done to illustrate what "lack of love" looks like. You could show a before-and-after of a character who has undergone the procedure, or you could show more family dynamics. Yet, this episode does none of those things. There is only one moment in the entire show where you actually see a married couple interact, but beyond that, you get absolutely no sense that anything is weird or wrong. 

Problem 2: Failure to take the worldbuilding to the next level

In other words, with the exception of some very cliche totalitarianism tropes, this society is almost indistinguishable from ours. It's like the creators didn't take more than five minutes to actually ask questions or stretch their imagination.

For instance, Megan's comment on the Bibliodaze article brought up the question of sex and reproduction. I assume the procedure eliminates sexual desire, so it would make sense that a lot of reproduction takes place by artificial means. This brings up some really cool possibilities. If the government arranges marriages and controls reproduction, shouldn't they also take genetics into account so that they can lower the risk of passing on disease-associated genes? (According to one of my professors, this is a big part of how the Hasidic Jewish community arranges marriages.) The episode shows the interview process for matching, but nowhere do you see the characters getting their blood drawn or cheeks swabbed, so I can only assume they match people based on personality.

Oh, and while we're on the subject, why is marriage necessary in the first place? Why is everyone required to get married? And if there's no familial love (or maybe there is? I'm still not clear on that), what is the purpose of raising children in traditional family units?

Oh, and how does this society feel about adoption? Do people usually raise their own biological children, or does the government assign them a child?

I assume there's no divorce, since marriages are arranged, but what about re-marriage after a spouse dies? Does that ever happen?

Problem 3: It makes love look bad

At the beginning of the episode, I was convinced that Alex couldn't possibly be the main love interest, because he was creepy as hell. He fell in love with Lena from the moment he saw her (during her marriage interview, when she wasn't exactly being herself), and then basically stalked her until she loved him back. It almost made me wish someone had found a way to "cure" him.

However, I do think it's worth mentioning that while this trope is problematic, it also provides for another potential avenue of exploration. If people in this society are not exposed to the idea of love, how would they know what healthy, mutually-respectful love looks like? It would be really interesting to see how this society's rebels deal with things like unrequited love and relationship problems, since they don't exactly have anyone to model it for them.  

Problem 4: Unfortunate Implications

Everyone assumed/accepted that the mother killed herself because of love, even though she'd already undergone the procedure. Why is this? It's not like love and grief are the only reasons people commit suicide. In fact, the implication that she couldn't possibly have killed herself for any reason other than love is really insulting to those who have struggled with depression and/or suicidal thoughts.

Also, why are all of the characters rich/well-off? You see a couple of maids, meaning that there is some sort of socioeconomic division, but they're more set-dressing than actual characters. Nowhere do we actually learn anything about these women's lifestyles or how their demographic feels about the procedure.

Problem 5: The procedure

I'm not going to go to the trouble of analyzing the pseudoscience, but I do have one major question about the procedure: What happens when something goes wrong? Sticking a needle into someone's central nervous system is a very risky thing to do, so I'm definitely wondering how these scientists/doctors/government officials handle cases of disability and death.

Problem 6: Logical problems

1. [things previously mentioned by other people]: What about homosexuality (or non-gender binary individuals)? Why 18, instead of birth/puberty? How do people reproduce? Why is the gender segregation so half-assed? Why does no one seem to care when Alex takes Lena into her father's cell?

2. How is it that Alex managed to join the police force without having undergone the procedure? Is a fake scar really enough to fool people? What about things like medical records and background checks? I assume he found a way around those (forgery, hacking, connections, etc), but why did it never occur to Lena to ask? Even a girl who lives in a dystopia can't be that ignorant, right?

3. The fence is kind of a joke. I've seen more threatening fences around my neighbors' swimming pools.


I could continue listing other problems, but I'm sure you can already see my point. When you're building a world, you really have to stretch yourself mentally. Don't just add in a few cosmetic changes. Think about the greater implications of things. Talk to people who've studied anthropology or science or who come from different cultures. It's hard to step over your own boundaries when you don't realize those boundaries exist in the first place.

Worlbuilding is a challenge, but it might surprise you how much you can learn from it.

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