Superheroes in the Autopsy Room or:

How a TV Star Tried to Save my Life

As I write this week’s column, it’s New Year’s Day—that one magical holiday when most of us sit around following a week of indulgences and resolve to do all manner of great things.  It’s one of my favorite times of year because it’s one of the only times when it feels okay to shed that cynical, protective veneer most of us usually wear and wrap ourselves in hopeful, naïve, and unabashed optimism.  Is this the year I’ll write the great American novel?  Compete in the triathlon?  Learn to play the violin?  Finish War and Peace? Western culture is full of people, from Benjamin Franklin to Jay Gatsby, who deliberately set out to perfect themselves, and it’s fun to play the New Year’s resolution game each year.

But of course, that’s largely what it turns out to be—just a game, much like filling out the brackets for March Madness or the World Cup.  Most of us realize that somewhere between the idealism of January 1 and the harsh reality of … say, January 10, life will get in the way.  We’ll get the flu, the toilet will start to leak, or a crisis will occur at work, and suddenly that triathlon-training program gets pushed aside.  Clearly, in order to live your ideal life and still survive in the real world, you would need more hours in the day, more days in the year.  You would need more time.

But what if you had it?  What if, as the old Louis Armstrong song says, you had “all the time in the world?”  I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, especially since I started watching the ABC drama, Forever.  It’s about a medical examiner named Henry Morgan who also happens to be immortal.  After having lived for 200 years, Morgan has developed Sherlock Holmes-level powers of observation, which, combined with his medical training and scientific acumen, gives him an uncanny ability to solve murder cases.

The idea of being immune to the passing of time is fairly common in fantasy.  In some variations, such as Bill Murray’s misanthropic weatherman in Groundhog Day, the suspension of time ultimately has a positive impact, with Murray gradually learning empathy.  In other cases, such as Hob Gadling in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, personal evolution comes much more slowly.  In Forever, immortality is both a blessing and a curse for Morgan, and the series thoughtfully explores these complexities in between the more obligatory crime scene investigations, police interrogations, and autopsies.

When the show debuted last fall, I paid little note, largely because it looked like yet another police procedural like Bones and Castle.  But when I finally gave it a shot a couple of weeks ago, I got hooked almost immediately—and for a couple of reasons.  First, I discovered that it’s actually a superhero show.  While it may not be as overt as The Flash or Gotham, Forever nevertheless has all the elements—a hero with special powers, an arch-nemesis, a sidekick, and a unique headquarters or home base.  In fact, one of the supporting characters actually reads comics, and a recent episode focused on a serial killer who recreated historical murders as depicted in a fictional comic book series.  Not to mention the fact that Morgan is played by Ioan Gruffudd from the Fantastic Four movies.

The showrunner, Matt Miller, was one of the writers on Chuck, and like that show, Forever keeps one foot in the real world and one in the geek tradition.  The pilot quite deliberately references M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, the ultimate real-world superhero film, by reworking the opening scene—placing Henry Morgan on a subway, casually flirting with a woman until the train crashes, killing everyone aboard save for the immortal Morgan.  All of which is to say, there are plenty of reasons for the comics and science fiction community to embrace this show.

That’s the first reason I got hooked.  The second has to do with one of the supporting characters—the no-nonsense Detective Hanson.  Hanson is played by Donnie Keshawarz, a veteran character actor you might’ve seen in The Sopranos, 24, Homeland, or The Wolf of Wall Street.   He’s very good in this show—tough, but also funny in a wry, subtle way.  I’ve been watching him for several years now—not only his film and television appearances, but also some of his earliest stage work.

I should also probably mention that he once tried to save my life.

You see, Donnie and I actually graduated high school together.  I didn’t know him personally—it was a relatively big school and we were never in the same classes—but I certainly knew who he was.  Everyone did.  Donnie was the actor.  I don’t know what things are like now, but at the time, most high school plays in Arkansas were about as miserable as you might imagine.  But our school had recently hired an ambitious theater director, Keith Salter, and he and Donnie transformed the idea of a high school play into a real cultural event with plays as diverse as Bye Bye Birdie, Frankenstein, and Visit to a Small Planet.

So even though Donnie and I didn’t know each other, I certainly knew who he was.  Which leads me to our one, memorable interaction.  It was our freshman year in college and we had both enrolled in the local state university.  I was walking up a hill, struggling to make it to class on time when suddenly I couldn’t breathe.  It seems I have a weird physical quirk where, every once in a while, with no warning, my vocal chords start to spasm and I can’t breathe.  According to my crack team of medical researchers on the Internet, such an episode is called a laryngospasm.  It’s not supposed to be life threatening, but for a couple of minutes I make a dreadful sound while trying desperately to take in air.  It’s scary, both for me and for anyone else standing nearby.

Well, on this morning, trudging up that hill, I had a spasm.  There were lots of people scurrying back and forth on the sidewalk, but all of them gave me that awkward eww-he’s-making-weird-noises glance and kept on walking.  All except one person who was coming down the hill—Donnie Keshawarz.  I don’t know if he recognized me from school or not, but he made a beeline for where I was slumped over, and while others were trying to avoid my glance, Donnie got right in my face.  His eyes were wide as he raised his hands, helplessly, and said, “TELL ME WHAT TO DO!”  I knew it would pass, so I waved him off, trying to be cool like Steve McQueen with a pretzel stuck in his throat, but Donnie stuck around until the episode was over.  Since that time, I’ve never forgotten it.  Even though I was pretty sure I would be able to breathe again, it was nice having someone stand there, willing to do anything I needed to help.

Thinking back, I wonder where Donnie was headed.  Did he have a class that was about to start?  Was he late for an audition?  Was he speed walking as part of some exercise regimen?  It didn’t matter.  Unlike Henry Morgan, we don’t live forever.  That means we have to be willing, like Donnie, to toss aside our plans and live in the moment, to make helping another person our number one priority.

So with that in mind, I’m still going to make all those idealistic New Year’s resolutions this year, but this time I’m adding a new one.  When something or someone along the way derails all of my wonderful plans, I don’t want to get frustrated.  Instead, I want to look that obstacle in the eye, raise my hands in surrender, and say, “Tell me what I can do.”

Because living isn’t really about staying on track or meeting goals.  As John Lennon once wrote, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”

Happy New Year.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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