FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Television, the American Landscape and the New Economy

by ALAN FARAGO

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Sunday said he engineered the central bank’s controversial actions over the past year because “I was not going to be the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over the second Great Depression.” Bernanke either doesn’t acknowledge or hasn’t tapped into the new zeiteist on pay cable television– where a raft of characters and plots are better leading indicators than those preoccupying Federal Reserve economists. If Washington doesn’t know how to describe a Depression, Americans attracted to cable TV do.

In the real world where most TV viewers cope with a cratered housing market, vanished assets and expectations, talk of TARP funds and fiscal stimulus hardly register. Note to Federal Reserve: for American audiences the economy has been bad for so long, the entire notion of “rescue” is a faded joke. On today’s menu of TV story lines: characters on the edge of a slow motion pratfall from the middle class.

The zeitgeist of the new television connects to societal depression, not a mental recession or tea leaves featured in Time or Newsweek or advertiser-sponsored, network TV. In NBC’s “The Office”, there are whispers of layoffs, triggering panic, but no one is layed off who doesn’t return. Everyone plays the edge of his or her comedic level of competence. Look, I’m a fan of “The Office”. But in “Breaking Bad” on the AMC Channel, an incompetent drug addict turned thief gets his head crushed by a pinball machine in the course of a kidnapping. His girlfiend’s fiendish response: get the meth from his pocket. It’s a laugh, alright. In “Eastbound and Down”, the retired home run king who lorded it over the protagonist gets his eye socket pulverized at a baseball “duel” meant to attract buyers to the local car dealership. No cars are sold, and it is very funny! The downbeat get their due on cable TV.

Today’s television comedies on cable skewer the passive consumer. Clearly, that’s not acceptable for the economically challenged mainstream media, like advertiser sponsored television, that prayerfully await the return of the consumer. Movie humor today is harmless, sophomoric and stripped of irony leaving only jokes about flatulence or premature ejaculation. The difference is because international audiences– for whom American movies are really made– don’t share the peculiar evolution of American awareness. They were never at the top of the economic order, so they don’t experience the bitterness having fallen so far.

Drama and comedy always thrive at the edge of normal behavior, with characters who dive back and forth entertainingly. But today’s best crop of television comedies are onto something new. In “Weeds”, a suburban mom turns wily drug dealer battling Mexican drug lord screws one to safety while protecting her family in idealized middle class stability. The joke is not just the sardonic nuclear family; it is that the nuclear family can only survive by breaking the law. In “Breaking Bad”, a suburban high school chemistry teacher with cancer– who cannot afford his cancer treatments without bankrupting his family– starts freelancing as a maker and seller of crystal meth. In “The Riches”, a family of gypsy grifters blend in seamlessly with the trappings of suburbia, cheating and winning with the flat-landers on adaptation strategies that viewers can only fantasize. In the new HBO “Hung” another teacher– the second winningest basketball coach in Westlake history– embarks on a career as a male escort to pay the bills and redeem himself with his twin Goths. In “East Bound and Down”, a former pitcher in the Major Leagues parlays a failed career into a dream of a middle school athletic coach who now can boff the Homecoming Queen without performance anxiety. He pitches his comeback to the small Southern town where he was once a hero, where everyone is overweight and teetering on the edge of ruin with sweetened ice tea, or excessively thin against the backdrop of suburbia as Potemkin village. In HBO’s new series, “Nurse Jackie”, healthcare and hospitals, the last standing leg of the US economy, provides a lead character who doesn’t even look at the label of the bottle or the number of the anti-depressants she is randomly pops. Funny.

These comedies don’t need to say the “green shoots” economy is a running joke. Place matters. In “Breaking Bad”, in “Hung”, and “True Blood”, the opening sequences are terrific visual montages of the creepy, dissolving American landscapes. This is the canvas of the new reality. “Hung” is set against the decrepit background of Detroit where solid middle class values–whatever they were– went the way of abandoned factories. People still have lake boats to tool around on weekends, and there is still gasoline in the Porches of the anonymous, blinding anomie of suburban Arizona (“Breaking Bad”) or California (“Weeds”). But the bottom line is its own horror: an American landscape so pockmarked with failed Chamber of Commerce values that you can only do one thing with the discrepancy between the idealized and the real: laugh or overdose.

The same, of course, holds true for the law. In Showtime’s “Dexter” or “Damages”, law enforcement, lawyers, and forensic detectives all thrive betraying their professional license requirements. The proliferation of drugs in American society is so obvious, prohibitive laws so ineffective that the plot lines glide straight through the obsessions of political “values”. Those values voters? More likely or not snorting meth or spacing out on hash brownies or hiring the largest dong in Detroit or cheering Kenny in “East Bound and Down” or contesting the true value of vampire blood.

In the new television, what should be in the shadows is out in the open. This is, too, the playfulness of “Mad Men” that tracks the evolution of American advertising through the 1950’s and 1960’s. Today, there is no Cadillac in the year-end performance bonus. Just the Detroit high school coach figuring the commercial advantage of an extra large size penis by the inch, the housewife with a keen sense for making money selling pot by the ounce then kilo from her Corian kitchen countertop, the grifter without legal experience becoming legal counsel to a fraudulent real estate developer, the beaten down former baseball pitcher trading status as a has-been pro-baller for community acclaim: the more outrageous one can make the “getting by” in these difficult times, the funnier the premise.

In his TV interview, Fed Chief Bernanke described himself as “disgusted” at the circumstances that led to the biggest intervention by government in the economy since the Fed was formed in 1913. I’m going to guess that Mr. Bernanke is nowhere near as disgusted as the viewers watching the new television by the millions. It is a form of silent protest against the modern version of a Depression that shows no “green shoots” for 99.8 percent of viewers.

That’s why all we need is love, a little more Coke, and a little less of the real thing.

ALAN FARAGO writes on the environment, politics and culture in Coral Gables, FL. He can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 17, 2017
John Pilger
The Issue is Not Trump. It is Us
John K. White
Is Equality Overrated, Too?
Michael J. Sainato
The DNC Hands the Democratic Party Over to David Brock and Billionaire Donors
John Davis
Landscapes of Shame: America’s National Parks
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Politicians and Rhetorical Tricks
Chris Busby
The Scientific Hero of Chernobyl: Alexey V. Yablokov, the Man Who Dared to Speak the Truth
David Macaray
Four Reasons Trump Will Quit
Chet Richards
The Vicissitudes of the Rural South
Clancy Sigal
“You Don’t Care About Jobs”: Why the Democrats Lost
Robert Dodge
Martin Luther King and U.S. Politics: Time for a U.S. Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Jack Sadat Lee
I Dream of Justice for All the Animal Kingdom
James McEnteer
Mourning Again in America
January 16, 2017
Paul Street
How Pure is Your Hate?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
Did the Elites Have Martin Luther King Jr. Killed?
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Clobbers Ocean Life
Patrick Cockburn
The Terrifying Parallels Between Trump and Erdogan
Kenneth Surin
The Neoliberal Stranglehold on the American Public University
Lawrence Davidson
Is There a Future for the Democratic Party?
Douglas Valentine
Who Killed MLK Jr?
Robert Fisk
The Foreign Correspondent in the Age of Twitter and Trump
Dale Bryan
“Where Do We Go from Here?”
David Swanson
The Deep State Wants to Deep Six Us
Dan Bacher
Obama Administration Orders Speedy Completion of Delta Tunnels Plan
Mark Weisbrot
Obama Should Make Sure that Haitian Victims of UN-Caused Cholera are Compensated
Winslow Myers
The Light of the World
Bruce Mastron
My Latest Reason to Boycott the NFL: Guns
Weekend Edition
January 13, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Gregory Elich
Did the Russians Really Hack the DNC?
Jeffrey St. Clair
The President Who Wasn’t There: Barack Obama’s Legacy of Impotence
Anthony DiMaggio
Ethics Fiasco: Trump, Divestment and the Perversion of Executive Politics
Joshua Frank
Farewell Obummer, Hello Golden Showers
Paul Street
Hit the Road, Barack: Some Farewell Reflections
Vijay Prashad
After Aleppo: the State of Syria
John Wight
Russia Must be Destroyed: John McCain and the Case of the Dodgy Dossier
Rob Urie
Meet the Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
The Russian Dossier Reminds Me of the Row Over Saddam’s WMDs
Eric Sommer
U.S.-China War: a Danger Hidden from the American People
Andrew Levine
Are Democrats Still the Lesser Evil?
Linda Pentz Gunter
What’s Really Behind the Indian Point Nuclear Deal?
Robert Fantina
Trucks, ‘Terror’ and Israel
Richard Moser
Universal Values are Revolutionary Values
Russell Mokhiber
Build the Bagdikian Wall: “Sponsored News” at the Washington Post
Yoav Litvin
Establishment Narcissism – The Democrats’ Game of Thrones
David Rosen
Return of the Repressed: Trump & the Revival of the Culture Wars
Robert Koehler
War Consciousness and the F-35
Rev. William Alberts
The New Smell of McCarthyism Demands Faith Leaders Speak Truth to Power
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail