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Virtual Insanity


Not even the people closest to me knew how many hours a day I thought about the characters as if they were people I knew. Then I discovered my college roommate had a notebook full of "Man From U.N.C.L.E." scripts she had written. I couldn't imagine my secret might be someone else's, too. I just refused to believe it. She was a Napoleon Solo person. I favored Ilya Kuryakin, yet we never discussed it. Never. It was too embarrassing.

For a while, I gave up television and attempted to live my own life. It didn't work. So I walked back through the looking glass of the TV set. I set a goal to watch every episode of "Law & Order." Since it was being rerun on two cable stations several times a day, I made excellent progress catching up. But I was confused. Most of the original characters had left, and I didn't know the history of where or why they went. So I went to the Internet, which was bubbling over with people flashing their obsessions like joyous perverts.

There I found answers, as well as Web sites built in homage to Jack McCoy and Claire Kincaid, two L&O characters who shared several years of episodes together. L&O is about the law cases, not the characters, but over the years, the writers have planted subtle hints and allusions in certain episodes that Jack and Claire were lovers. The hints are carefully documented on fan sites, along with plenty of fanfic (Internet-ese for fan fiction). More people than my former college roommate are writing episodes.

The fanfic about Jack and Claire is so steamy (the kind of romantically erotic soft porn women adore) it was too embarrassing to read. I tried one story and had to click out of it. I felt like a Peeping Tom. It also bothered me that this wasn't really part of Jack and Claire's history (never mind that they're not real) but the imaginings of a crazed fan. Reading fanfic is like hanging out with a stalker, slipping under the murky waters of the world of Rupert Pupkin and Masha in "King of Comedy."

Last year I started watching "ER." Again I was coming in late in the game, but daily repeats on a cable channel helped me catch up within months. "ER" is only marginally about medical cases. Primarily it is a soap opera about doctors and nurses who jump in and out of bed with each other and have more babies than bunnies due to a proclivity for all the female actors to get pregnant in real life.

The message board that finally sucked me in is for the most part made up of seemingly intelligent people (they spell pretty well and have encyclopedic recall of television history), but there's an ample share of posters who sexually obsess on characters in the squealing style of prepubescent teens and dissect every little nuance. Do they know this is a television show, not real life? I don't know. Do I?

As a writer, I critique the show from a writer's point of view. I know the plot lines are dependent on what contracts aren't being renewed, who's quitting the show, who's pregnant in real life, and which actors the producers hate, instead of what is the logical progression of any particular story line. Given all these limitations, the writers have to come up with stories for each character that provide dramatic tension that conveniently peaks every 11 minutes or so, in time for a commercial break.

Accordingly, plots become ludicrously unrealistic, so it becomes the mission of the message boards to provide enough psychological insight into the characters to have it all make sense.

You see where I'm going with this? We're insane.

Not only are we insane, we're insane in tribes. Those who want to see the characters Carter and Abby get together call themselves Carbys, while those who want to see Luka and Abby together are Lubys, and the two groups wage war against each other until the board administrator has to step in and flash a warning that fighting will mean banishment from the board (and what is more frightening than exile to real life?).

Then there are the trolls (posters who come onto the boards to write lies and start fights). Information about what is going to happen in future episodes is called "spoilers" and limited to spoiler threads so people who prefer to be surprised can remain spoiler-free. Trolls post fake spoilers, which cause cyber-riots, depression, anger and angst. There are actually troll patrols who study the posts of suspected trolls and then notify the board administrator to deactivate their screen name.

You see where I'm going with this? We're insane.

And yet I eagerly log on every day to see what new spoilers have been unearthed, and what people are saying about the last episode. I refuse to read the fan fiction, though. It seems as wrong as sequels to "Gone With the Wind."

And what about 9/11 or the war in Afghanistan? What about Osama and pipe bombs and the Middle East? Don't bother me with irksome realities. What I care about is what's going to happen to Elizabeth, now that Mark is dead, and will Abby's drinking get out of control? Will Luka ever be happy? Will we ever hear about Carol and Doug again?

To make television unreality even murkier, "The Osbournes," a new show I am obsessing about, is actually real, even though it's on television.

You see where I'm going with this? Good, because I'm confused. S

Mariane Matera is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.