The inertia of the suburbs

The Girlfriend and I have been watching The Wonder Years lately, and it’s striking how generic the setting is — if not for references to news events in the late 1960s, it could be any time period from 1965 to the late 1990s (and I only posit that cut-off point because of the advent of the internet). The suburban model that was built out starting in the immediate postwar era has proven to be remarkably resilient, and even now it has a kind of self-evidence as the “mainstream” American approach to family and community life.

In the immediate postwar years, it seems as though there was a level of “buy-in” across the population, as the prospect of one’s own house, a car, etc., seemed like wonderful luxuries. By now, however, the suburban model has shown itself to be costly, environmentally destructive, and in many cases isolating and community-destroying. Further, the concentration of good schools in the suburbs perpetuates an ongoing vicious cycle of “white flight” that reinforces the systemic racism of our society. And as the financial crisis revealed, the aspiration to suburban middle class status increasingly carries the risk of financial ruin.

More and more people are realizing all of this and don’t want to buy into the suburban model — yet except for the very wealthy, there seems to be no real choice for middle class people if you want to have children. And the reason for this surprising persistence of a model that no one really wants anymore is the power of state planning. Even if the population could be initially convinced to want suburban-style development, the decisive factor was a concentrated effort on all levels of government to create all the necessary conditions for that lifestyle, through physical and legal infrastructure and often through explicit subsidies (such as the mortgage interest tax deducation, which seems to be invulnerable). All of the stuff they created in that heroic era of American urban planning is still in place. The roads and schools have been built, and the legal structures for expanding suburban development if needed are already in place and ready to go. All the incentives for middle-class families still point outward into the suburbs.

While reading about the ongoing disaster of education “reform,” I once thought: “What if cities stopped trying to attract tourists and started trying to gain permanent residents by creating awesome schools?” As I thought about what that would entail, however, it became clear that no one city has the resources to fully reverse the trend — to really work, it would have to entail a complete reshaping of the school funding structures, a build-out of public transportation infrastructure to support the expanded population, etc., etc. In other words, it would take forceful state planning on the model of what created the suburbs in the first place.

Unfortunately, it appears that the U.S. only had one relatively brief window for such forceful state planning, extending from FDR to Nixon (only 40 years out of the 200+ of the Republic’s existence) — and it wasted it on the suburbs. Barring a new FDR, we’re probably stuck with it. The bright side, I guess, is that The Wonder Years will remain legible and relatable for generations to come.

“At least I’m honest”

“Sure, I have racist thoughts. I’ve crossed the street to avoid a black man sometimes, but only at night. I mean, at least I’m honest about it, though, right?”

“I have had a lot of bad experiences with women, and yes, I’m resentful about it. It colors how I treat the women I meet. Even though I know in my head that it doesn’t make sense, in my gut I feel like every woman I date owes me sex on behalf of all those other bitches who teased me and left me high and dry. But hey, at least I’m honest!”

“Can I just say that for me, family life was always just an obligation? I mean, yeah, I care about my wife and kids, but what’s really important to me is my work. I wish we could just be honest about it — I’ll give them money if they leave me alone.”

I don’t think that any of us would say that statements like this represent important ethical achievements. Even in their own wording, they openly admit that they’re doing the very minimum — more honesty! Yet the “at least” may already be an overestimate: who would claim that unethical behavior suddenly becomes ethical when it is openly engaged in?

In reality, the “at least I’m honest” gesture is a foreclosure of ethics, a short-circuit by which being true to one’s own authentic shittiness becomes an ethical obligation in itself. It is the last stillborn offspring of the Christian critique of hypocrisy — a critique that was originally intended to shame people into living up to their stated ethical ideals, much as Christian confession (“being honest with yourself”) was a first step toward ethical transformation and made no sense outside of a process of conversion. In the “at least I’m honest” worldview, by contrast, ethical aspiration as such is already the hypocrisy that must be rooted out, and the only possible outcome of confessing one’s shittiness is to remain authentically, honestly shitty.

In response to this radically self-serving post-ethical stance, all we can do is require people to stop being so damn honest and start being as hypocritical as possible — because say what you will of hypocrisy, at least it maintains the possibility of an ethos.

Main Character Syndrome

The consensus is clear: Orange is the New Black spends too much time on its main character, Piper. I don’t disagree — the other women’s stories are objectively much more interesting, and there’s something disturbing about the fact that we supposedly “need” a privileged white woman as an initial point of identification for a story about a women’s prison.

OITNB is hardly the only show afflicted by Main Character Syndrome. Mad Men spends too much time on Don Draper. The Wire spent too much time on McNulty. Deadwood was clearly inclined to spend too much time on Bullock, but thankfully we were spared that due to Swearengen’s breakout performance. Weeds spent too much time on Nancy Botwin. True Blood just can’t quit Sookie. Etc., etc.

This happens so much that it has to count as a systemic problem in serial television drama. The answer can’t be that the writers all spontaneously screwed up when creating the main characters — systemic problems have systemic causes. I believe a combination of economic and artistic factors are at work here.

Read the rest of this entry »

A darker, grittier Louis C.K.

There has been something disturbing about the current season of Louie, an undercurrent of anger and even violence that lends Louie’s depressive misadventures a more sinister edge. One episode has him permanently injuring a woman he’s slept with when she insists on tickling him, and another features him tuning out what he believes to be rejection and venting his anger by destroying a piano with a baseball bat. He has recurring fights with his ex-wife, openly admitting that he’s too angry to contribute anything of value. Most alarmingly, he all but forces himself on his Hungarian girlfriend Amia (who cannot communicate with him in English) and a couple episodes later attempts to rape his old obsession Pamela — and regards it as a triumph when she very reluctantly consents to kiss him. To put it bluntly: what the fuck, Louie?! People still seem willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and it doesn’t seem that he’s presenting his encounters with Amia and Pamela as anything to be celebrated — but he’s in very risky territory and the way he handles this in subsequent episodes will make a huge difference.

My most optimistic reading as of now is that he’s trying to enact a kind of internal critique of pathetic white male sexuality. Specifically, he’s showing how difficult it is for even the “nicest” and most “sensitive” guys to break out of the patriarchal habits of possessiveness and entitlement, and how vulnerable even the smartest and least stereotypically masculine men are to challenges to their masculinity. After all, he only forces the issue with Amia after getting continual ribbing from his friends, his ex-wife, and even Amia’s elderly aunt. The situation with Pamela is a typical Nice Guy scenario where he feels he has put in his time — but it has soured into resentment after she has denied him so long, so that he can’t respond positively to her offer to give romance a try. Yet once she’s opened the door, he has official “permission” that she can never revoke. He also seems to believe that Pamela’s habitual sarcasm (which is also clearly a threat to his masculinity) gives him permission to ignore her clear rejection of his advances.

This stew of insecurity, entitlement, and wounded, angry pride is all too familiar to me from my adolescent days. Seeing it played out in a grown man is alarming and sobering — and it shows how deeply engrained the habits of patriarchy are in essentially all men. Our society is so completely fucked that taking women seriously as autonomous human beings with their own preferences and priorities is only rarely the first pattern of behavior that is modeled for and inculcated in young men. Feminist men are almost always converts, and the potential for backsliding is always there. The question for me is whether Louie will continue to strike the painful balance where his behavior is both undeniably pathetic and undeniably scary.

What’s good about Enterprise

After finishing the first season of Enterprise, I can see clearly why it’s universally regarded as the weakest series. Half the characters are totally forgettable, the time travel plot is stupid beyond belief, and the theme song is simply intolerable. Now to be fair, the reason that the Next Generation characters were so much stronger is almost certainly due to exceptionally good casting rather than to the skill of the writers — I have no doubt that Ensign Mayweather would be unforgettable if played by a young LaVar Burton, for instance — and even in TNG it took them forever to figure out what to do with everyone (in fact, the actresses who played Tasha Yar and Beverly Crusher both complained of this and were written out after the first season, and Worf is little more than decorative until midway through the series).

What stands out to me about the series as its genuine contribution is the interplay between Vulcan and human society. We’ve learned a lot about Vulcan culture and of course the interaction between the rational Spock and the impulsive Kirk is the most loved feature of the franchise as a whole. But by that point, Vulcans and humans were already equal partners in the Federation. Showing the Vulcan reaction to humans when they are still clearly the inferior and subordinate society is something unparalleled in the rest of the franchise — and it’s genuinely interesting simply in itself, apart from its role in filling in the gaps in the Star Trek mythos (something that cannot be said of the greater detail about the Borg in Voyager, for instance).

I still think it would have been more interesting to have a season or two on earth before launching the first mission, because ironically, we know far more about Klingon, Ferengi, and Borg society than we do about the actual lifestyle of the average human in the Star Trek era. The one exception is the introduction of so-called “Boomer” culture, referring to the humans who lived for years on space freighters, which became family businesses. (Sadly, though, the one representative of that culture on the crew is played by a total non-entity, so I doubt it will get much exploration.) In general, though, I’m much more fascinated by the guy in future Oklahoma who found a Klingon in his silo than by yet another mission of exploration. I’m given to believe that they finally start exploring the average human’s reaction to all this alien business at the end of season 4 — but by that point it was too late.

What a Star Trek prequel should have been

We had to confront it eventually, and tonight The Girlfriend and I started Enterprise. I’m already fairly familiar with the general parameters of the show due to my fascination with reading Memory Alpha, and it seems clear to me that the show was not just a creative failure, but a conceptual failure. The problem is that it starts off with the first mission of Starfleet. By that time, all the really interesting events have already happened. How did humanity transition from a security state characterized by vast inequality to a planet with no war and no poverty? Why would humanity submit to the guidance of the Vulcans, who apparently did not use force in their dealings with Earth? Basically, the Star Trek franchise tells us about the dystopian pre-First Contact Earth in several iterations (the Eugenics Wars that produced Khan, the military tribunal in the pilot of TNG, the lockdown society that prompted the Bell Riots in DS9, etc.), and they show us First Contact itself — and then they skip ahead to the point where everything important has already been decided.

It’s difficult to imagine what a show about the transition would have looked like. Perhaps it would have been a bit like The Wire‘s experiment with the ad hoc legalization of drugs in “Hamsterdam” — but instead of being shut down, it would have been allowed to evolve and spread, until we could envision an entire society in which the War on Drugs was over.

Leaving the Evangelical Borg Collective: Seven of Nine and Me

The Girlfriend and I continue to obey some obscure drive to watch all of Star Trek, and currently we’re in the sixth season of Voyager. One of the most controversial characters in that series was Seven of Nine, a liberated Borg drone who was added to the cast in the fourth season and dominated the storyline for most of the fourth and fifth seasons. (Shorter version: some people think it’s a shame she displaced established characters and believe that her physical appearance was an attempt to pander to the adolescent audience; on the other hand, though, she’s a great character performed by a great actress and, my God, it’s a Borg crew member and the Borg are cool.) I’ve noticed that I have a seemingly disproportionate investment in this ancient controversy — I will defend Seven of Nine to the death as a major improvement to the show. I’m starting to realize that part of the reason is that I identify closely with her struggle to define herself in relation to her Borg past and her uncertain future. She was assimilated at such a young age that she hadn’t yet developed an identity of her own and will never not be Borg (the implants are required for her survival now, and she still retains the vast knowledge she gained as a member of the Borg Collective), but she can also never go back.

The revelation came when the Voyager crew met a trader who offered to sell Seven some components that belonged to her old Borg unit — I turned to The Girlfriend and said, “If it was me, they’d be offering DC Talk albums from my old youth group.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Devil: Made for TV?

The last decade has witnessed an explosion in supernatural themes, in novels, movies, and television. Vampires and zombies have been particularly successful, but few mythological creatures have been left totally unexplored. That’s why the absence of the devil from our entertainment landscape is so striking. There are lingering rumors of some kind of Exorcist remake, but that doesn’t really have much hope of being a long-lasting TV franchise. Thankfully, I’m here to help.

Basically, someone needs to make a show where the devil and his legions of demons have decided, like the vampires of True Blood, to make themselves known to the general public. Their primary ambition in “mainstreaming” would be to institutionalize the act of selling one’s soul, and they could also run a sideline of short-term demon possessions for various purposes, perhaps to be able to get away with a crime — this could be run by “rogue” demons. The main characters would be a demonic middle manager and his minions, and through various plot contrivances we could get a peak at higher levels in the satanic hierarchy. Subplots would include following the lives of people who’d sold their souls, plus watching short-term possessions play out. The rogue demons offering possessions could be pursued by a kind of demon police. Surely there are thirteen decent episodes in this premise.

This show would be the logical outgrowth of the sociopath trend and could potentially be the step too far that killed it — asking us to identify and sympathize with figures who are destroying human souls by means of debt.

Being a Woman in a Man’s Science Fiction Universe

Lately The Girlfriend and I have been watching Star Trek: Voyager, the first Trek series to feature a woman captain. The transition is different from the shift to a black captain in Deep Space Nine — whereas Sisko’s blackness (like Geordi LaForge’s before him) was glaringly never made a theme, at least until very late in the series, Janeway’s gender seems to be creating all kinds of neurotic symptoms as the series desperately tries to repress the flagrant sexism of the Star Trek franchise. In the first season, for instance, there were at least ten episodes that turned on whether the ship could widen a narrow opening sufficiently to penetrate it. If it happened once, I’d say that I’m reading too much into it — but it was used so obsessively that it’s impossible to ignore.

It’s gotten more subtle as the series has progressed, but the repressed sexism is still operational. This is most notable in the infamous episode Tuvix, where a bizarre transporter accident leads to the combination of two characters (Tuvok and Neelix, hence the name) into a single entity. This new character has his own personality and consciousness, and when they finally develop a way to separate Tuvok and Neelix back out, he strongly resists as he doesn’t want to die. Reportedly there are many fans who believe that Janeway is essentially a murderer for forcing Tuvix to undergo the procedure.

Now this moral dilemma at first appeared to be so convoluted that even an analytic philosopher could never have come up with it. Yet as I cast about for potential analogies, a significant one presented itself: namely, abortion. The most immediate analogy is to the possibility of an abortion to save the life of the mother (Tuvix at one point says he thinks of Tuvok and Neelix as his parents). Yet one could also say that there are echoes of more “optional” abortions where a mother’s life will be significantly disrupted by a child — because although Tuvok and Neelix are “dead” in the sense of no longer controlling their own lives, they are still in some sense “alive” because Tuvok shares their memories and their emotional responses to certain friends, etc. Indeed, it’s as though the issue of two people being permanently and irrevocably “stuck” with each other (as with a mother and child) and the issue of the sentience of the fetus are separated out, but in such a way as to exacerbate both issues. After all, Tuvix is much more clearly a full-fledged human(oid) being than a fetus is!

The fact that Janeway makes the final decision is also an interesting displacement. Neither Tuvok nor Neelix have any agency in the situation, but it is a woman who decides to terminate the “pregnancy” for the sake of the “parents.” She is at once the “abortion doctor” (since the ship’s doctor refuses to perform the procedure and she does it herself) and the woman making the decision.

I’m sure we could analyze this further, and I definitely don’t want to get into a discussion of abortion as such — but isn’t it strange that this convoluted, abortion-like scenario only comes up with a woman captain? And isn’t it interesting that some fans still regard Janeway as a murderer while giving a pass to, for instance, the war crimes committed by Sisko on Deep Space Nine?

Tired of TV write-ups

Far be it from me to criticize people for analyzing television. I’ve written two books on the topic and plan to write a third. Yet there’s something about internet television criticism that exhausts me, above all the episode-by-episode “write-ups.” (Let’s leave aside the pure “recap” posts that simply summarize the episode — those are just sad.)

Now I participated in such a project for season four of Mad Men, and if the offer of a paying write-up position had come up at certain crucial moments, I would surely have served as a professional writer-upper. Indeed, TV write-ups are seemingly the only steady internet writing job available for culture workers, and I don’t begrudge anyone that. Nevertheless, I find something questionable about the whole enterprise.

The Breaking Bad finale is a good example here. Almost everyone seems to agree that Breaking Bad is a finely-wrought piece of art that has built up a compelling story over a period of several years. It is a complex work that has prompted widely divergent reactions — in fact, it deserves to be debated and discussed for years to come. And the most appropriate reaction is for us all to rush to pass judgment on the ending.

The fact that the judgment has generally been positive in this case is a small blessing, at least. More trying was the write-up culture around season six of Mad Men. Read the rest of this entry »

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