A lot of stories aim to be real. Or as real as you can be while being a, y’know, story. The challenge here, of course, is figuring out what real is.
One interpretation of ‘real’ is realistic. No spaceships, because spaceships are far from commercial right now. No superpowers or superheroes, because those aren’t things. And no magic either. Y’know, realism.
So like Lost in Translation. It’s about two people in Japan, and just about there. There’s no monsters in this Japan; Godzilla’s not here to do its thing this time. It’s a story about people, being lost, and being understood. This isn’t communicated through metaphor or by using fanatical elements to play it up. Everything’s communicated through Bob and Charlotte’s interactions, it all feels real. For these two people out of their element, the mutual feeling of outsiderness brings them together. There’s this sensation that, yeah, you could be one of them. But Lost in Translation is still very romantic — and not in the lovey-dovey kind of way, but that of something being idealized. Tokyo itself is almost magical in Lost in Translation.
‘Realism,’ then, tends to be interpreted as gritty. Compare Game of Thrones to The Lord of The Rings. Despite both being very much fantasy, the former is more ‘realistic.’ In Westeros there’s political machinations, religious bickering, prostitution, and gory violence you don’t come back from. It’s realistic fantasy! It makes for a very different tone and world from Rings, but it works for the story the show is telling.
Mr. Robot also aims for realism. Now, one thing the show does really well is do hacking proper. No one hacks the mainframe by reversing the polarity of the hard drive; all the technobabble is real (which is great, let’s have more of that). Now, Mr. Robot also adds other things of ‘reality.’ There’s the grime of New York City, there are events outside of the characters’ control that sends the plots off the rails, there are these bibs and bobs that are all there to make the show seem more real, seem like an honest portrayal of the world.
Not that it does anything. Look, I wasn’t impressed by Mr. Robot, and I know I’m ragging on it; but for all its attempts to construct a very ‘real’ place, the characters and events don’t resonate. It doesn’t matter how real the world is, if we don’t care for the characters, we don’t care for the story. Even if we’re angry at the characters, that’s still feeling something.
There’s nothing inherently added by including the gritty details of life. Fiction, despite being a well-crafted lie, relies on honesty. The reason something like Star Wars resonates so well is because the characters feel true; Luke’s wanting to be more than a farm boy on Tatooine is something all far too recognizable. Both Thrones and Rings have characters with tangible motivations and responses. We understand Tyrion’s hatred of his family and Boromir’s desire to bring honor to Gondor. Beneath the dragons and Elves there’s an actual honest emotional truth. Lost in Translation is built entirely on that emotional honesty; it’s an exercise in empathy. The stories that really work, work so well because they feel true, even they aren’t.
Postscript, because I absolutely have to mention this:
Hardcore realism can have a role in fiction, minutiae can work. It just has to be incredibly well done. Like in Ulysses, by James Joyce, which has all the ins and outs and dirty humanity of a normal day (plus or minus a little bit of oddness here and there). Ulysses works, though, because of the honesty within it. Bloom is still haunted by the death of his infant son and we, as readers, are invited to try and understand what it’s like to go through your day like that. There’s a verisimilitude to it that lends it the honesty that makes it successful.