All in the Family: Incest on TV
by Stephanie Earp, posted Jul 26th 2011 4:00PM
I suppose it says something about where we're at with incest that I barely blinked when 'Game of Thrones' introduced us to Queen Cersei and her brother Jamie Lannister, only to show them in flagrante during the first 50 minutes of the show's premiere. If confronted with this sort of behavior from real people, I'm pretty sure I'd say more than, "But isn't that her twin brother? Ohhhhhh." But when it comes to fictional people, lately it seems like a little inter-genetic action is par for the course.
On 'Veronica Mars', the specter of incest was suggested right away, when narrating Veronica suggested Jake Kane had no alibi for his daughter's sex slaying in the pilot episode. As the show developed, it became clear that Veronica's unceremonious dumping by her high school sweetheart happened because he began to suspect they might be half-siblings. If it hadn't been for the terrible miscasting of the boyfriend, we viewers might have even rooted for them to throw caution to the wind and get it on anyway. But certainly, the fact that these two characters abhorred incest was a mark of their moral strength.
Which is interesting, especially in this case. Veronica regularly violated people's privacy, lied to loved ones, and broke the law to get what she wanted. Her boyfriend hired an assassin for the execution of his sister's murderer. Yet, I promise you that any 'Veronica Mars' fan will tell you these are the good guys. How do we know? Well, for one, they didn't want to commit incest.
A similar storyline played out in an early episode of '30 Rock.' Liz Lemon, back in her truly nerdy days, finally meets a cute, nice normal guy only to discover a picture of a family member on his end table. You guessed it -- it's his relative too. Of course they split up; this is '30 Rock,' not 'Arrested Development.'
Because if anyone made incest mainstream, it's the Bluth family. While most assuredly played for laughs, the running joke of the sexual tension between could-be cousins George Michael, Maeby and Steve Holt, and between matriarch Lucille and her son Buster, is surely one of the reasons the show couldn't find a larger audience. I fully admit I found it all endlessly hilarious -- remember the 'Afternoon Delight' episode? -- but I can see how the obsession with that particular joke would seem in bad taste to many, many people. The thing about the Bluths is that they were bad people. I think we fans of 'AD' tended to forget that because we had so much fun with them, but I'm sure Mitch Hurwitz did not expect us to admire his creations. Other than George Michael, each and every one of them was lazy, self-centred, deluded and egotistical. So, incest, even in a comedy, is still a marker of position on the moral compass. Only bad people think about doing it.
This holds true for 'CSI' and 'Prison Break,' where evil-doers do it or victims occasionally go all 'Janey's Got A Gun,' but that's no surprise. Procedurals are bound to be more interested in incest as part of a crime. But even in more sophisticated fare like HBO's 'Rome,' 'Lost' and the above-mentioned 'Game of Thrones,' where the incest is presented as consensual and between adult siblings, it's still a pretty good bet that the writing crew is giving you a message. As in "Yoo hoo there, just wanted to let you know these two people on the screen right now might not have the best motives. Got it? OK, then!"
And I think that's the point of it all. Viewers and critics are demanding complex characters from TV writers, and often that means moral ambiguity. Whole shows are built on the idea of a good person doing bad things for a good reason: 'Weeds,' 'Breaking Bad' and 'Hung,' for example. If drug dealers and prostitutes can claim the moral high ground, how are we supposed to know when to be suspicious of someone? Enter incest.
I've talked to a few TV fans who are really disturbed by the increasing number of incest stories on serialized television, and I suppose I can't say I blame them. I'm an only child so maybe this doesn't grate on my nerves the way shows about glee clubs and journalists with huge apartments do.