The minimal fantasy of Downton Abbey

We’ve been expecting less from our fantasies for quite some time now. The turning point, in my mind, was “trickle-down economics.” The entire premise was of course absurd — the whole point of capitalism is that wealth tends to flow upward — but even if it worked as promised, it would avowedly be only a “trickle.” I make a similar point in Why We Love Sociopaths about the deflationary fantasy of the ruthless social climbers and lawless lawmen:

What kind of fantasy is it to say that people can get a satisfying job, if they are capable of amazingly ruthless behavior unrelated to the ostensible skill set required to do that job? How reassuring is it to learn that the U.S. will be free of terrorist attacks, as long as there’s one guy willing to take it to the limit and openly defy every law and authority?

And on the latter point, of course, even that tepid fantasy has been downgraded in Homeland, where there’s one woman who truly grasps the terrorist threat and predicts every attack — but no one ever listens to her until it’s too late.

There seems to be a similar minimalism in Downton Abbey, a show that I keep watching more for the pleasures of its surfaces than the intricacies of its plots. Here we have a world with a yawning chasm between social classes, where the majority of characters are toiling day in and day out for the benefit of an idle few. This is of course just like our world, with one important caveat: everyone admits that’s what’s going on. No one in the aristocratic family is under any illusion that they “deserve” what they have due to their intelligence or hard work — they were just born into this family, while others weren’t.

The frank class division opens up a space for the ruling class to feel a sense of obligation toward the servant class and the tenants. After a few plots early on in which it becomes amazingly clear that Lord Grantham has no idea how capitalism works, his concrete role in managing the estate is to put the breaks on the overly “economical” plans hatched by his bourgeois son-in-law and the socialist who marries into the family, to insist there must be some way to ensure the sustainability of the estate without being ruthless in profit-seeking.

Compared to our current system, where the ruling class believes it has “earned” what it has through “merit” and feels a moral obligation to maximize profits at all costs, this system seems positively utopian. The fantasy is similar to that in Mad Men — yes, the postwar ruling class was full of terrible people, but at least they wanted to convince themselves they were making people’s lives better. At least they wanted a space for creativity, or at least sincere sentiment, alongside the profit-motive. And at least they, like the aristocrats in Downton Abbey, give us something beautiful to look at, a play of surfaces that echoes the minimal ideological veneer with which they paper over the brutality of their times.

The work of mourning in contemporary television

Is there a mourning trend in contemporary television? At least on cable, it seems to be a dominant theme, one whose hold is only growing. The Walking Dead and Les Revenants (which will be remade in an English-language version) focus on what happens when the dead won’t stay dead — less an abstract thought experiment than a literalization of the process of mourning — while The Leftovers hyperbolically stages the randomness and incomprehensibility of loss. Recent seasons of True Blood have been dominated by mourning in a literal way, with episode-long funerals in many cases, as might be expected from the creator of one of the most successful “high-quality cable dramas,” Six Feet Under.

Once you notice the theme, it pops up everywhere. Much of the action in The Sopranos stems from the death of the initial boss from cancer, and the elderly mobsters like Uncle Junior could be viewed as something like an undead presence, especially once he develops dementia. The title character in Dexter derives his violent impulses from watching the death of his mother, and inherits his ethical “Code” from a father who feels responsible for her death and who haunts Dexter in the present. Homeland could be viewed as another kind of zombie narrative, as Sgt. Brody unexpectedly turns out not to be dead, disrupting his family’s new life and becoming an obsessive focus of Carrie, who is haunted by the specter of 9/11. Don Draper, like Walter White, is a man who survives his own death again and again, and the most recent season of Mad Men turns him into a kind of zombie haunting the agency. Etc., etc.

Obviously death has an appeal as a “universal human theme,” but I suspect there’s something more going on here. In a moral landscape where love seems like an empty cliche and loyalty is less a moral sentiment than a license for the most immoral possible behavior, the experience of loss seems like one final bastion of something like sincerity — the one unfakeable feeling. Even better, it provides a path toward multi-layered complexity of characterization, which is hard to come by when the assumption is that everyone is motivated by self-seeking pride.

Coming at it from a different direction, the fixation on loss seems to be of a piece with our neoliberal world. The only positive goals that are acknowledged are wealth, power, and prestige, which must be sought in an increasingly narrow range of pursuits by an increasingly narrow range of personality types. In contrast with this zero-sum struggle of individuals, the only space for something like human community or solidarity is loss or the threat of loss. In a weird way, then, there may be something optimistic about the narrative of mourning on television, insofar as it’s a way of gesturing toward connection rather than competition.

(Half-formed thoughts, sure to be dismantled in comments.)

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,008 other followers