Lifetime’s Flowers in the Attic: the mother of all TV incest?
Originally published as the Kill Your Darlings TV Column.
I went to see David Sedaris the other night. He discussed his penchant for collecting filthy t-shirt slogans. One, spotted on a young man’s back in a pub, read: “Beer with no alcohol is like going down on your sister. It feels right, but it’s wrong.”
The audience laughed because that’s why we were there, and the joke and the guy and the notion of collecting t-shirt slogans was funny and gross. But after the snorts came the obligatory squirm, laughter followed by an awkward ‘ugh’ because incest is one of the oldest and most referenced cultural taboos that can reliably incite revulsion.
Only child or otherwise, it’s an uncomfortable topic that generally leaves a bad taste in your mouth (sorry). Even if you claw your eyes out like Oedipus, there’s no escape from incest in pop culture.
This week saw the telemovie reboot of V.C. Andrews’ 1979 cult novel Flowers in the Attic air on Lifetime, the American cable network, dedicated to soaps, melodrama and such televisual theatrics. It’s no surprise they produced the mother (yep) of all contemporary incest texts for the small screen.
Millions have read Andrews’ pulp classic about the Dollangers, a perfect all-American family gone awry. After the sudden tragic death of their father Christopher (Chad Willett) his wife Corrine (Heather Graham) move their four children—two blonde boys and two blonde girls—to Foxworth Hall, her family home. Previously ostracised, Corrine is determined to win back her place in her terminally ill and exceptionally wealthy father’s heart and will.
Unlike the 1987 campy film version, the telemovie does not evade the incestuous storyline but it doesn’t reach the horrific heights of the neo-gothic novel. While the telemovie is aesthetically pleasing, the torture the children suffer is not as gruesome as Andrews’ descriptions; beyond some overwrought narration, their inner-turmoil is absent and general neglect dulled via the Vaseline lens of a stilting soap opera framework. The whippings and malnourishment is tempered for the viewership, meanwhile the budding, bottled tension between the siblings isn’t as primal or explosive as in the book; Dye’s portrayal of Chris’ growing sexuality is somewhat potent but sadly Shipka is less convincing during Cathy’s integral womanly transition. It’s still implied they do it on the dirty mattress though.
Graham’s crazy eyes are too party girl vague to be malevolent and—otherwise accomplished—Burstyn’s wickedness is cartoonish but not intimidating. Let me put it this way: at one point in the book, Corrine wipes her face with a handkerchief that is “monogrammed with a big C.” And Corrine is supposed to be total big c (if you know what I mean), but that doesn’t translate here.
Incest is an eternal taboo but it seems the resurgence—think Bates Motel, Boardwalk Empire, Bored to Death, Game of Thrones, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Arrested Development, Sons of Anarchy and more—is utilised to push what little boundaries are left in an otherwise desensitised ‘civilised’ society. In a good program, this tension can help develop characters and propel narratives while becoming a question of moral relativity. Where love blossoms is no one’s fault – and for Cathy and Chris, trapped in the attic, it’s impossible for us to understand their burdens; we empathise with their clouded teen minds mingling with adolescent lust but the added imprisonment and constant cruelty is alien to most, so who are we to judge what they cling to in order to survive? It definitely adds to the direness of their situation.
When questioned about this trend, HBO president of programming reasoned that television creators are “drawn to areas that are rife with conflict and drama.” Audiences are affected and do react to this subject matter, particularly when these incestuous relationships are manipulative, abusive or non-consensual. While incest in Flowers is consensual, the generational damage and familial abuse is at once unintentional and deliberate.
In the a recent episode from season three of Girls, Richard E Grant’s character spouted, “Take time to reflect on the issues that your daddy had with his daddy, and his daddy, and his daddy before him and every daddy that’s been going on before that daddy!” And the original Flowers in the Attic book did this, rather traumatically, for mummys and daddys and siblings. Sadly, the Lifetime telemovie fails to be so intense.