MR. ROBOT: BRINGING DOWN CORPORATE AMERICA ON SCREEN, WHILE ENRICHING CORPORATE TV OFF SCREEN
2016 SERIAL TV: HYPERCONGLOMERATION, SERIALITY AND SAMENESS
Last year at this time it was a pleasure to report that the Comcast-Time-Warner merger had been halted. In this year of the Trump corporate giveaway, it is sad to watch the Charter-Time Warner merger approved so that essentially two companies Charter-Time Warner and Comcast control cable access to the American home with the result that the Charter
Time-Warner cable rates rose immediately and transport speed slowed. It is also sad to report that the miracle of OTT (over the top) television watching where viewers cut their cable cord and stream from a variety of sources is beginning to look simply like the process of readying TV watchers to pay for what was in the old days free TV. The streaming services and particularly Netflix, the most successful among them, meanwhile have begun to look and program like the television networks of old. Netflix inundates its subscribers with new series, however, the repetitive and knockoff quality of its average series are, rather than suggesting the utopia of a new Golden Age of Television, instead harking back to the “vast wasteland” of network TV and to cable’s 900 channels with nothing to watch.
Nevertheless, it was a stellar year in Global Television for the advancement of the serial form of storytelling as showrunners consistently used the form to explore social and class tensions in the past and the present and to chart in a sublimated way, through these complex narrative patterns, thinequalities and injustices that they were only too well aware of in dealing with the corporate ethos of their own industry.
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Top 10 Series
Strange Empire – As so often in television, the best series do not last, which is no reason not to honor them and this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Western tracing the attempt of three women to shake off the masculinist shackles of the West on the Montana-Canadian border was cancelled after a stunning first season that kept getting more politically intricate as it detailed the economy of a mining town where the owner consigned women to prostitution and men to wage slavery. A must-see.
Mr. Robot – Maintained consistently the air of menace hanging over the corporatization of the virtual world we are now co-inhabiting with our other lesser reality, but never quite matched its opening salvo with the supposed paranoid bursts of two generations of conspiracy theorists. Christian Slater, in his reworking of his ‘80s teen persona as harbinger of the awfulness of corporate mind control in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume, merges literally with the superb Rami Malek’s Anonymous-styled hacktivism to produce a contemporary critique that was as much global corporate truthtelling as conspiratorial rant.
Rebellion – Best series of the year hails from Ireland and charts the events leading up to and following the 1916 Irish Rebellion in Dublin, as the Irish consensus to fight the imperial First World War for their British Masters broke down. The most remarkable and liberating part of the series is its intense focus on three women engulfed in not only British domination of Ireland but also in Irish antagonism to their defining themselves as equal partners in the struggle.
Peaky Blinders – This British indie series is far more than the usual American gangster rags to riches tale. Set in Birmingham in the 1920s, it details the coming to prominence of an Irish gang whose ruthlessness was forged in the World War I slaughter that leaves its members traumatized. Swimming in the same sordid pool are labor agitators ready to lead a working-class rebellion, the budding Sein Fein Irish independentists, and a jealous Irish Protestant Cop, Sam Neil in the role of his career as the hand servant of a Winston Churchill who wants to destroy the whole lot. Gripping period drama. The noir version of Downtown
Abbey and not for the squeamish.
The Americans – Best years, those confronting the all-out Reagan Russian paranoia, are perhaps behind it as this series about US-Russian Cold War tensions in the 1980s told through the eyes of a married Soviet spy team, has attempted to increase the tension in the domestic area by involving their pampered, rebellious but ultimately boring daughter Page in the intrigue. Still though, the smartest American series about the moral costs on both sides of Reagan’s upping the ante in an American attempt to win the Cold War.
Ripper Street – This Amazon/BBC series set in the poorest section of Industrial Revolution London in the decade after Jack the Ripper surprised by never focusing on the serial killer aspect of the Whitechapel district and instead concentrating on the class tensions unleashed by both American and British ownership interests, the actual serial killers, who saw the slum residents as expendable. Fifth and final season again brought back the specter of the Ripper only to resolve that never-emphasized plot line in a way that stayed true to the concentration instead on the social fabric of the neighborhood.
Silicon Valley – The funniest comedy on television is also the most biting satire as not only the supposed moral high ground of the tech industry is skewered as it becomes more nakedly a collection of simple gold digging enterprises but along with it the neo-liberal ethos whose upside of entrepreneurial energy is constantly being contaminated by its now more dominant downside of massive wealth accumulation. Mike Judge in fashioning a minutely detailed study of one industry’s evolving corruption has equally fashioned an allegory of the way the television industry works as well as the way artists as a whole, represented by the Pied Piper start-up unit, constantly both rise above and are drowned by the waves of the corporate tsunami that engulfs them.
Night Manager – This BBC/AMC series while yes being an entertaining actor’s throwdown between The Hollow Crown’s Tom Hiddleston as everyman outraged by corporate barbarity and House’s Hugh Laurie as clandestine arms dealer concealed behind philanthropy and boasting stunning Mediterranean sets is also as with most John LeCarre adapted work a recounting of how difficult it is to get justice for corporate wrongdoing in both a government and business world where money dictates morality. So much better than its evil twin, the corporate patronizing Showtime actors duel Billions where Paul Giamatti and Damien Lewis simply wallow in their own sordidness which the series admires.
Rectify – Sundance’s first original series very much brings an American independent film sensibility to television in the way this series, about the prejudice of a small Georgia town toward a supposed wrongly accused murderer set free after 19 years, lets its characters breathe in imbuing television seriality with an ease in emphasizing small moments and a deliberate thinness to the intrigue that focuses on minute character development in understated ways. As a critic pointed out, one episode ends with two of the characters literally watching paint dry and the moment is resplendent. Well-developed portrait of small-town prejudices that in the year of Trump we know have, far from being transcended, become ascendant.
Jordskott – This Swedish series, about a cop from Stockholm who returns to her natal town and to the forest surrounding it where nine years before her daughter had disappeared, is a kind of The Kingdom meets Top of the Lake mystical investigation into the destruction of nature by capitalist enterprise and the mysterious ways Nature fights back. The title itself without a corresponding word in English indicates a throwing or pummeling of the earth and in the guise of a police procedural this is what the series explores. Best, as it is termed, Scandicrime series of the year. Now being purchased widely and will be coming your way in 2017.
The Romeo Section -- Canadian spy series by the magnificent Chris Haddock, though too much American influenced after his stint on Boardwalk Empire, still recalls his spy masterpiece Intelligence, a systematic dismantling of the idea that the security state was installed to protect us. This series pulls its punches and too much romanticizes its intelligence operatives but is still a gripping reminder of the former series.
Trapped – Icelandic noir about gang imported murder in the midst of a blizzard in a remote town that is about to become a booming global port. On the strength of this Hollywood hired Baltasar Kormakur to direct Everest but they missed the boat in that the detailing of the town’s growing corruption is the strength of the series, not the director’s ability to handle snow.
11.22.63 – J. J. Abrams’ television return had James Franco as a time traveler set on thwarting the Kennedy assassination as a pretext for exploring facets of the Kennedy Legacy and of the conspiracy surrounding the assassination. More comfortable than gripping but still welcome renewal of traditional liberal television for the streaming TV era.
Midnight Sun –French/Swedish co-production starring A Prophet’s Leila Bekhti as an inner city, or French banlieu, cop sent to Sweden’s far north to investigate the death of a French citizen in the land of the indigenous Sami or Laplanders which also houses European defense installations and mining companies, both of which could be involved. Nice combination of Scandicrime with French banlieu values in an intriguing co-production.
The Break – Belgium noir that in its detailing of the concealed racist small town sentiments behind the murder of an African soccer player could not be a more timely exploration of how anti-immigrant feelings erupt into violence in a Europe where immigrants far from a burden on the economy are a desperately needed work force to combat the growing expenses of sustaining the continent’s aging population. Spearhead of a noir resurgence in the economically devastated Wallone or French portion of Belgium.
Series Mania: GOT, House of Cards and Billions,
How the One-tenth of One Percent Live and Why We Can’t Get Enough of Them
Last weekend was a crucial moment in television history as 194 countries watched live the premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones, known to its fans as simply GOT. The show aired at 9pm, 3am here in Europe, and one Belgium company, located near one of the locations where the series is shot, gave its employees the morning off to recuperate. The serialized series has truly gone global as was also on display this week in Paris as a festival titled Series Mania which aired over 50 series from all over the world and included panels on series addiction, with fans mostly in favor of it, and series violence, with shows seen as cataloguing contemporary fears, and with interviews with Soprano’s creator David Chase, author Harlen Coben and co-developer of the X-Files conspiratorial mythology Frank Spotnitz.
Television has truly morphed and the era of the cheap reality series (Donald Trump and Berlusconi television) is finally, thankfully, over with scripted shows being more complicated and with the element of continuity involving more fans more passionately in the shows. This is also the unhooked generation which does not regard themselves as watching television, since they are just as likely to watch on mobile devices and are less likely now to subscribe to cable services and instead see themselves as watching series wherever and on whatever device those shows are available.
What was on display at the festival, admittedly as much an industry as a critical event, was not so much a global horn of plenty as US-dictated, and some European inflected, models of production flowing out from the powerhouses of HBO, Netflix, NBC, Amazon and Hulu which together dominated the proceedings. Thus Netflix, a huge challenge for French pay TV channels Canal Plus and OCS whose subscribers also subsidize much French and global alternative film and television production, and which was referred to on a Cable TV panel as “the Red Devil from Los Gatos” (the California home of the company), was proudly prominent at the festival with a trailer of Marseille, its House of Cards power struggle in France’s second city starring Gerard Depardieu and boasting the city itself as character in the show. (This minimally means a higher production budget with sweeping shots of the city from above.)
In a panel titled “US Goes Transatlantic,” American television producers revealed they are now majorly trolling European production houses not only, as was the case in the past, for formats, that is series concepts that they can adopt (so that Denmark’s Forbrydelsen became The Killing and Israel’s Hatufim or Prisoners of War became Homeland) but now are investing in European production and are considering, after the success of Netflix’ Narcos which is roughly half in Spanish, the possibility of introducing the global original into American markets in its own language. Another avenue they are pursuing is what in Hollywood used to be called “value added,” that is, they are pursuing European storytelling as often unique, less formulaic than Hollywood, and a place where the script takes precedence over big budget production values and thus can be done more cheaply. The appetite for these series, now an instant way of branding a fledgling network, is so great that Frank Spotnitz revealed that Hulu simply asked him if he had any scripts sitting around and he pulled from his desk drawer his adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel The Man in the High Castle, previously seen as unadaptable and too expensive a series to make, and the company quickly greenlighted it.
In evaluating the series, I think it’s useful to revoice Andrew Sarris’ old dictum about the auteur theory, which validated the individual artistic genius of the director. Sarris said “You have to be a good director [that is learn the craft and interact with the studio] before you can be a great director.” For me contemporary series television, judging from the 19 series I watched at the festival, is good, that is, has reached a highly creative level, but it is not that often great, that is, has something to say that goes beyond striving for ever more clever (and intoxicating) ways of hooking an audience.
Let me begin with the most disappointing show, Showtime’s Billions, which over the course of the first two episodes I really grew to despise. It illustrates all that is wrong with the contemporary series about power and also illustrates that as an entity Showtime has no qualms about how it grabs viewers. The show is presented as a contest for control and as an acting showdown between Paul Giamatti’s US Attorney and Damian Lewis’ former working class dynamic head of a powerful investment house. The series presents them as equals, both equally self-motivated, corrupt and driven to seek status, though Giamatti’s Elliot-Spitzer-like attorney, complete with sado-masochistic sex life, comes off as more power grabbing than Lewis’ constantly on-the-go investor and innovator. This is the mentality that allowed no one to be blamed or go to jail for the 2008 recession. In this perspective, crusading attorneys like Spitzer, despite his personal faults, and the new “Sheriff of Wall Street” Preet Bharara are simply headline grubbing impediments to the free flow of capital: Those who cheat the system for gain and those who pursue them are equally corrupt and self-serving, a very neo-liberal utterly pro-business position posing in the series as a neutral look at “corruption” in high places.
The impetus behind the obsession with power in these series has got to be that the majority of viewers, as the income gap widens in the US and in global capital in general, are feeling powerless and trying to understand how wealth can be obtained and so, since nothing else seems to work, are now consulting television series. This obsession with power replaces in the pre-Recession era the moment on TV of reality television when audiences still felt that they themselves could, through individual celebrity, gain access to power by being who they are. The idea now is simply to understand how those in the ivory tower, which used to be academics but is now business people, clawed their way to the top and the series tend to put on display the mechanics of power as simply viciousness in a more desperate world, while shedding little light on how power and equality can be recaptured by collectives of those from below. The other direction in exploring power is ambiguity. Thus, to simply call even the grossest inequality, that of the case of a projected future Nazi and Japanese fascist state in the Frank Spotnitz Hulu series The Man in the High Castle, evil is too trite and instead we must try to understand this position. This is the stance adopted by this Spotnitz series which unlike the X-Files, where the lines of conspiracy and evil were clear, makes not for a complex but for a diluted series which fails to find a strong focal point.
I was also disappointed with Vinyl, the Martin Scorsese pilot for a series that explores the record industry in the 1970s, with the pilot said to have reached the status of a Scorsese film. That is true but it’s a mishmash of all of his films. It does contain a wonderful explanation via the documentary impulse in Casino of how the record industry operates by all risk being assumed by the artists while the company takes all the profits, but it also ends by wallowing in a Goodfellas type sadistically violent murder for its own sake and a rather corny resurrection of the record executive as its finale. Writer Harlan Coben’s The Five on Rupert Murdoch’s British Sky TV was very Broadchurchy, a word I’m coining, based on the earlier British series brought to US TV on Murdoch’s Fox Network as Gracepoint, to designate this new range of series which introduce child violence and molestation as a new area of titillation and which generally tend to alternate between a smugly moralistic and creepily exploitative tone.
All this is not to say that the serial series form is not thriving globally and that there are not many worthy examples of it. Best series I saw at the festival was an Irish series titled Rebellion, which explores the failed Irish uprising of 1916 and its aftermath, content similar to Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall and co-starring Brian Gleeson from that film. The show explores the range of attitudes toward the Rebellion (with one banner responding to the British conscription of Irish troops for World War I reading “No King, No Kaiser, Ireland for the Irish”) but what really marks the series as unique is its being told through the eyes of three women, two actively engaged in the rebellion who are often imprisoned in the man’s world of both British colonialism and Irish paternalism. Extraordinarily well done and well written.
Mr. Robot, already recompensed at the Golden Globes, has Christian Slater reviving his anarchist persona from Heathers and particularly Pump Up The Volume along with eerie newcomer Rami Malek whose Slater-like monologues about the unfairness and absurdity of the neo-liberal world cite television addiction as part of that world, as Anonymous type cyber hackers set out to bring down the automated world of high finance. Two Francophone series were highpoints and prove there is life in the French series, which have recently been prized abroad, beyond the big-budget Marseille. The first is a series shot in the Belgium countryside called La Treve, The Truce. An ominous Twin Peaksish air of menace hangs over the community threatened by the building of a mega-dam but itself torn by National Front style racist sentiments over the death of a black man, an Angolan soccer player, which the police chief want to cover up by labelling it a suicide. Scandicrime, that is crime dramas from Scandinavia, has become a global series genre and those crimes have now moved out of the major cities and into the countryside in the far north in three difference series, Norskov, Bordertown and the best of all Midnight Sun, a French Swedish production featuring death in an outlying town near the North Pole and a stirring of the elements which include the Pole’s indigenous residents the Sami, a mining operation which consumes the town, and a secret government space installation. French banlieu actress Leila Bekhti, from A Prophet, stars in a very surprising crime mix.
The UK, the other powerhouse in series production, was well represented with as already mentioned The Five, as well as Capital, billed as genre-busting but basically an updating of the middle class Brit sitcom that proved to be fairly tepid; London Spy, John LeCarre meets the gay sensation Weekend in a series that, though rather cold itself, sheds light on the frigidity of the British ruling class; and the best Brit series Night Manager, LeCarre for real in a series based on his novel about a hotel clerk who becomes involved in international intrigue. The location is updated from the Cold War aftermath to Egypt in the Arab Spring in again as in Showtime’s Billions an actor’s contest between Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers but more appropriately the Brit production of Shakespeare’s Henry the fifth series The Hollow Crown) as the hotelier squaring off against Hugh Laurie (House) as a ruthless arms dealer hiding behind philanthropy. This Sundance backed series is the antidote to Billions and here wealth is not just ruthlessly attractive, but also ruthless. The series switches glamourous locations frequently as a kind of James Bond for the more politically committed. Worth mentioning also is HBO Asia’s Indonesian sci-fi fantasy, grounded in the Jakarta slums, Halfworlds, a Highlander like battle of demons and humans but behind that a look at how power is wielded is this modern society awakening from its US-induced fascist slumber with the demons in their limos and corporate offices displaying power that on HBO, though not on Showtime, can still be viewed critically.
The festival concluded with the pilot to J. J. Abrams Hulu series 11.22.63 about time travel to stop the Kennedy assassination. Based on a Steven King novel, the series and its quaint closet time travel element has a much older feel to it, deliberately slowed down from the more circuitous time travel of flashbacks, forwards and sideways on former Abrams series like Lost and Alias. Also pleasantly naïve are its politics which assumes that stopping Kennedy’s assassination will halt the Vietnam war but there is, in this age when money and power rule everything and arrange the world around us that we barely even live in anymore, nothing naïve about the suggestions of the assassination as involving the CIA and its second episode focus on Oswald’s potential CIA handler. Nice to have Bad Robot and the J.J.Abrams’ liberal consciousness back in series. This is a more innocent Mad Men but this time more critically about the closing down of a period, not its dawning consciousness.
Netflix and Industrialized Seriality: Narcos, Jessica Jones, Daredevil
Today I want to talk about two developments in the production and distribution of the contemporary series.
The first is what I call “seriality” and what in critical circles has been called “complex tv” and what the industry, always willing to pat itself on the back, calls “Quality TV.” The mark of this most recent reiteration of the series is its continuing nature, that stories, or narrative, far from ending after a single episode, develop a more complex story arc over an entire season or, as in the case of the network model of this type of series Lost, over the entire run of six seasons. Along with this increased continuity goes multiple characters begetting multiple story lines and a flashback story that also builds impact as the series progresses as Lost had its flashbacks initially describing the characters before they came on the island, but then later turning into flashforwards, from the future and flashsideways from different dimensions.
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Further, this new kind of series, which really owes much of its existence to the persistent influence of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, has exhibited often hypergeneric combinations as Lost ran the gamut from its Land That Time Forgot fantasy horror to the lead female character’s fleeing of the law reminiscent of The Fugitive. And finally the series reflexive casting and naming conventions, so that Locke on Lost with his ultimate individual ethos is a direct descendant of John Locke and Peggy Lipton’s sultry blonde diner hostess recalls the 70s Peggy Lipton of The Mod Squad. This new reflexivity, of the discovery and conscious incorporation of the medium of television of its history, echoes the moment in cinema where the French New Wave in its multiple “homages” were said to be the first generation conscious of the history of the cinema.
This “new seriality” though is more than just a narrative wrinkle; it has confounded, baffled, dismayed and generally frustrated network programmers who find its audience demands not conducive to advertisers imperative that the network deliver a simple straightforward show that will not disturb the viewers’ relation to the advertisers own one minute stories in which a pill or product cures all and insures happiness. Networks have been quick to yank, tinker with or destroy even successful serial series and have preferred some version of the CBS/CSI model of the series where every episode is tidily wrapped up, with the bad guy caught by the still predominately male order of concerned cops and security agents in the post 9/11 new world order that is restored each week.
The series that have majorly disturbed the episodic model have also tended to have something else other than a law and order politics, as more complex narrative begets at least more ambiguous political explorations. The key series here is the espionage story set in the 1980s, The Americans, in which the male-female spies are Russian agents who the audience finds itself constantly rooting for/identifying with and whose viewpoint on the dangers of Reagan’s America is allowed a substantial airing. Other series in the developing history of seriality with a politics that contest the norm are: the aforementioned Twin Peaks with its linking of the corporate order and incest; The X-Files with its stylistic exploration of the horrors of the “deep state”; and the J.J. Abrams series Believe, in which the Firestarter little girl and a ragtag band of rebels was pursued by a Dr. Mengele-like corporate scientist and Revolution, set in an electricity-less future in which the rebels this time battle a militia with the name, The Patriots, more reminiscent in its scariness of the post-9/11 legislation than the football team. Finally there is the showrunner, a term that has grown up with seriality and is the equivalent of the 1950s “auteur.” Foremost among TV showrunner/auteurs is Josh Whedon with a trio of series beginning with ragtag heroes battling a) the patriarchy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, b) a post 9/11 imperial coalition that looked a lot like what George Bush fashioned in Afghanistan in Firefly and c) the encrusted male order in the post-feminist series that suggested the machinic must be part of any hyperindustrial path to freedom, Dollhouse.
The second topic is the new mode of distribution and consumption of these series. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are now releasing series entire seasons at a time and promoting a new form of viewing, called binge watching, that encourages viewers to watch all the episodes at the same time, or, over the same weekend. Several points to make about this phenomenon. One is that the small screen, the name the movie industry came up with to degrade its competitor television, has now gotten smaller. The shows can be projected onto a television, but basically they can also be watched anywhere, so television is no longer hearth or family gathering, or perhaps, the hearth is now mobile. The digital aspect of Netflix releasing is also new. When I went to binge their Marvel Studios co-production Jessica Jones, I fast-forwarded by mistake and could not get back to the episode I was watching. I then had to troubleshoot the product with online support and was sent a link back to reconnect me. Thus, the show was released with some technical flaws still intact, which reminds one of the rush to get software to market by say Microsoft which often, rather than extensively testing the product, troubleshoots later based on users finding the system’s bugs.
But let’s go to the series themselves. Narcos, Netflix best series so far, does incorporate a historical sweep into the story of Pablo Escobar which makes it, until late in the series, a step above the usual gangster film. It deals with DEA/CIA rivalry with the CIA not at all interested in stopping drug trafficking but only in chasing communists, which the series sees not a menace but often as a victim of the drug lords. The series is also much concerned with the logistics and economics of drug running which it borrows from the wonderful first half of Martin Scorsese’s Casino, one of the finest cinematic explanations of political economy. Until late in the first season Narcos does not indulge in the typical gangster bloodletting, ala Scorsese’s Goodfellas, in a type of violence which has by now become banal. However, the network must have gotten worried because there is an abrupt shift in the characters of both the DEA agent and Escobar in the last two episodes in which each suddenly is overcome with Tarantino/Scorsese/DePalma sadistic violence that here seems the mark of executives getting nervous about the series not drawing enough subscribes to the streaming service.
In some ways the more interesting series, though not the better one, is Netflix/Marvel’s Jessica Jones, based on the little known Marvel comic. The series stars Krystin Rytter as a proto-punk detective in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen and unlike the Marvel/Netflix former effort Daredevil, set in the same part of the city, uses New York location shooting enhanced by Rytter’s own quasi-street toughness which gives this series a bit of a lived-in New York feel. (However, two straight Hollywood series about Hell’s Kitchen, using its degenerate nature as flavor must mean the gentrifying agents are eyeing the areas carefully.) Rytter, who I liked as a similar character in the short-lived Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 and who also starred in Breaking Bad, is wonderful, cruising Central Park in her leather jacket and jeans, walking through a bubble blown by a vendor and addressing him with a throwaway “That’s not cool.”
The series’ villain, the unambitiously named Kilgrave, destroys people through mind control by giving them commands which makes them human time bombs which can go off at any moment and where you never know who is under Kilgrave’s command, that is, the series evokes the emotional structure of living in a world where intimate violence can explode at any moment, one reminiscent of today’s Paris. The series explores the subject of guilt in a world governed by what appear to be random acts of violence and concludes that there is no guilt or responsibility for those left behind in this new world.
What I want to talk about though is the formula. Netflix and Marvel have signed a deal to develop five binge-worthy series and to do so they have developed a kind of industrial seriality, judging from the similarities between their first series Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Both begin in a more complicated world retaining a strong episodic element, in Jessica Jones, of Jessica’s individual detective cases. Both then jettison this model and simply focus on the battle between superhero and single opponent. The plotting gets thinner as the 13-episode grind wears the characters down, so that Daredevil flounders by asking Vincent D’Onofrio as the rotund Kingpin to do too much. Frankly he’s not Orson Welles and it shows. In Jessica Jones, the midpoint of the series takes a very strange turn with Jessica submitting to the villain tormentor and then reversing the tables and tormenting him in a way that grinds the episodes to a halt, but makes them easier and quicker to manufacture.
Thus seriality, a mode and form that had carried a political and social thrust and that by its engaging nature fought television’s bland commercial routine, has now in the Marvel formula become routinized. If audiences accept this model we will soon have intimate and simplistic seriality that might, rather than being representative of what is sometimes called the new Golden Age instead remind older TV viewers of Warner’s compulsive repetition of Westerns (Cheyenne, Colt 45) and Private Eyes (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye) in the late 1950s. In contemporary streaming television seriality, rather than being a mark of creativity, begets saturation.
Paris Report Update
Paris, site of the COP21 climate conference, which by the way could have been a very healing moment, instead has cemented its transformation from bastion of freedom to laboratory of repression. The conference has included: climate activists under house arrest until two days after the conference is over; a six months instant institution of martial law; and the ability to a) revoke French citizenship and b) begin forced renditions of French citizens abroad.
At La Republique demonstrators were attacked by the police and worldwide press led by French President Hollande claimed the demonstrators had trampled on the memorial and thus the memory of the victims of the attack. In fact, and Amy Goodman has video to prove this, the demonstrators, whose motivation after all is concern for the planet, were utterly respectful of the monument while the French gendarmes, whose motivation is the fascist one of restoring order, actually trampled the memorial in their rush to gas activists.
It is clear that COP21 is, in the eyes of the authorities here, going to be an official conference with no input from the Paris street and thus the combination of ISIS and the French government acting in concert have stifled dissent in the most important conference humanity has ever held, with both equally to blame with an energy stalemate perhaps benefitting both ISIS oil routes and France’s oil colonies since the French are now militarily engaged across many of the counties of the Sahara and Middle East.
The salient fact that the three last decades, that is, from the beginning of the domination of neoliberal capitalism, are most likely the hottest period in 1400 years; 14 of the first 15 years of the 21st century in which capital and markets have ruled unfettered, are the warmest ever recorded and this year, 2015, where the tech companies added in force their ecological imprint to the energy companies, is likely to be the hottest in human history.
The most hopeful healing moment of the conference so far was the panel on divestment held by Bill McKibben and others of 350.org and the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement in which even the Rockefeller Fund, whose wealth of course comes from oil, has now agreed that fossil fuel is dirty and it is time, not only ethically but also financially, to get out. We also have the Columbia University Student study released in time for the conference showing that Exxon scientists knew in the early 1980s what the world would look like today and the grave danger the company was perpetuating. Instead of acting to stop this, they, like the tobacco companies, choose to throw funds into concealing the damage, to the point where last year 141 million was spent in the US to conceal the truth about climate change.
Should Exxon be brought up on charges for ecocide as lawyers are now preparing to do with Monsanto at the International Criminal Court in The Hague? Not if Hollande and the French police have their way. With them the guilty parties are demonstrators in the streets, disturbing the order of the cocktail parties in the suites where Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and company champion their philanthropy at the same time as a study in The Atlantic shows that Bezos and buddies, the richest 1 percent, give a little more than 1 percent of their income to charity while the lowest 10 percent of those on the planet give over 3%. But in the new France, it is the 1% who are celebrated and the philanthropic poor who are gassed.
I call this Top 5 and then some, though you may call it a Top 10 Broe for Broe on the Global Television Beat.
Top 5 and then some, Television series this season. Just as some of my top films have not been released, so given the nature of sporadic creativity in commercial media, some of what I think are the best shows of this television season have been cancelled, though they’re still available to download.
1. Mom – Who would a thunk it. The Chuck Lorre house of ideas is experiencing its best season ever with this, lets face it, working class comedy about three generations of alcoholic women, all in some way and all hilariously getting clean. This is at the same time that the Lorre flagship Two and a Half Men is having its worst and last season. The difference here is the female voice of Gemma Baker, which makes Mom more than just Two and Half Women. The animating feature of this season’s arc is that the women, because of Christy Anna Faris gambling lose their home and must survive on various couches. Poignant, funny, and not afraid of not being funny, account of the lives of three extraordinary working class women.
2. Worricker BBC triology written by David Hare, starring the inimitably likeable Bill Nighby as a British Intelligence, MI5 agent, who has seen enough of his country’s treachery in the Iraq invasion and walks away with the secrets intact. Best episode of the series is the middle, or in tv theory terms, liminal, episode where Worricker helps force war on terror profiteers to pay their taxes while outwitting Christopher Walken’s CIA agent who wants him to turn him back to MI5. A bit disappointing in its accommodating last episode but the middle episode, Turks and Caicos is to die for.
3. Selfie – It came, it conquered, it was cancelled. ABC’s satire of the narcissism of the digital age was the sharpest, wittiest show of the year with one of the year’s best comedians Karen Gillian as a virtual Eliza to her corporate officer’s Henry Higgins. This Lucy for the online age suggested in its protagonist’s inability to navigate the interpersonal world of live contact that indeed something important has been lost in what we are told is the age of superconnectedness.
4. Revolution/Believe – Two JJ Abrams series, also both now cancelled and that each in its own way reverse programming against the CBS national security state juggernaut which also included the Abrams show Person of Interest. In these two shows in contrast the television serial was used in Revolution to critique the Patriots, clear Neo-Cons in the show’s post electrical age and in Believe to summon up the ghost of The Fugitive and Stephen King’s Firestarter to suggest Security State experiments in harnassing telekinesis for weaponry brought to you by Kyle McLaughlin’s update on the Nazi Dr. Mengele. Oppositional television that of course did not survive the post 9/11 militarizing of network television.
5. The Americans - The audacity of retelling Reagan’s acceleration of the Cold War from the perspective of two Russian agents not only enervated this series but also made it one of the most emotionally accurate spy series ever on television. Series with this kind of ambiguity and multi-perspectival vision most often in their later seasons take a turn toward more simplified pro-Western politics, as we see in Homeland, so enjoy the sophistication of this show while it lasts.
I’m late in coming to these, but I would like to recommend the first seasons of three series, the CW’s Arrow, AMC’s Hell on Wheels and the BBC’s Ripper Street. Arrow featured in its debut season a superhero for our time as Oliver Queen in the wake of the Occupy Movement battled Starling City’s 1%. Hell on Wheels, a western with a strong pro-Native American and pro-Nature bent suggested that the transcontinental railroad, as today’s Canadian pipeline, was more destructive force of capital than technological miracle and Ripper Street ignored the conventions of the serial killer genre that gave it its name to focus instead on Brit and American industrial barons laying waste to the London slums. The first two at least changed their focus in season 2 but the initial seasons are worth checking out.
The best satire on television and the most wicked laying bare of the industry which puts even the hacked Sony memos to shame is the Showtime series Episodes. Matt le Blanc is hilarious as himself, a puffed-up talentless hack and the comedy duo of the British writers at the core of the series who are continually horrified as their work is reduced to its most common denominator continue to skewer the medium. Tamsin Grieg, the female member of the duo, in her deadpan takes on the industry is the funniest woman on television.
Last, least and of course already cancelled by the network where great shows go to die is Rake on Fox, Greg Kinear’s show about a defense attorney who though addicted to everything, sex, alcohol, gambling, is not tempted by the filthy lucre of corporate law.
Broe on the Global Television Beat Episode 3: Fall Season Review
Two points to make, first of all, there is in effect no longer a fall season. Cable shows open all year round and open not with full seasons but rather by making each separate show an event so the fall season encompassing only the five networks no longer means what it used to. Second, even when viewers watch network TV, more and more they may not watch it on television and at the appointed network hour. Gotham this year on Fox is touting itself as the first multi-platform hit and last week HBO and CBS offered viewers a chance to unhook from cable and view their programs for a separate fee. There is a whole generation now that does not watch but streams—if you ask them if they watch television, they say no, not meaning they do not watch series, they are avid series followers, but that they do not watch the set.
Also, against the backdrop of the opening of this season are the crucial issues of Comcast’s merger with Time Warner to control broadband access to the American home and the issue of net neutrality with streaming services demanding that their viewers pay more for faster access to that home. Both developments are threatening at the distribution or delivery end to alter Along with the loss of importance of the major networks, for a long time in competition with cable and now in competition with streaming services like Netflix, the nature of the television series is changing as well. More viewers are ‘binge’ watching even network series, ingesting several episodes at a time. This is the only way a workforce under pressure to be constantly at work because of a sharp decline in wages, can keep up with what used to be leisurely 8-11 prime time viewing. This cumulative viewing at the same time has led to an increase in the serial aspects of each series, with more detailed and serialized story and character development. The Simpson’s episodes that are always self-contained with no one remembering anything about the last episode—as even more pronouncedly Mr. Brynes never remembers his employee Homer’s name—now seem like a relic of a bygone era when Americans had the time to gather together in front of the electronic hearth. Television is now on flex time, available as Jonathan Crary says, 24/7, but that is because the American worker’s “flex time” has them working two jobs and their new 8-11 is now 11-2.
So, for your streaming pleasure, and a little diversion before your reduced sleeping time, with 8 hours now becoming 6, here’s this season’s best and worst. First two network trends. One, the post 9/11 militarization of network TV proceeds apace. This year we have for example, The Mysteries of Laura, where Deborah Messing, the sitcom star of Will and Grace is a cop and a mother, as the series blurb would have it watching over the city and her children. Great, now we have joining all the other cops, Nursery Cop. The other trend is of course superheroes everywhere, partly because the special effects revolution that in the movies make these characters seem to spring off the comic book page can now be adapted to a more limited TV budget. Another reason, I suspect, though is a flight from reality in the wake of the realization that the long term effects of the Great Recession are going to be continuing losses in employment and income for the majority, a fact which television, Two Broke Girls aside, and don’t get me started on that, does not wish to confront.
The best shows it must be noted are all with caveats. Selfie, in the ‘80s teen film Heathers mode, is the wittiest sit com in a long time. The show is about the selfie generation’s lack of understanding of human relationships or inability to live offline. It’s a very funny satire couched in a My Fair Lady parody that works well. Lizza Dooley, a top salesperson in this corporate setting lives an entirely online life, blithely unaware of any human activity around her that is not delivered to her via a screen. To help her overcome her utter lack of empathy, she employs advertising guru Henry Higs, to tutor her in the ways of flesh and blood mortals. In a very funny exchange Lizza explains that its good online to have haters, it means you’re being noticed, so she welcomes them as she tries to build her web presence. Henry then explains to her though that offline when you have haters, it means they hate you –and she looks surprised. Funniest new show of the network season with enough of a dash of actual satire to make it resonate and with the season’s best comedienne, Dr. Who’s Karen Gillon, a red-headed Lucy for the 21st century, which by the way means that the two funniest actresses in American TV, the other being Episodes Tamsin Grieg, are British. The problem here is that Henry Higs, played by Korean comic John Cho, a bit clunky in the role, is a corporate huckster, whose own grasp on relationships is if not thinner at least more manipulative than Lizza’s.
Gotham –This Batman update takes its cue from the first-in-the-franchise 1989 film directed by Tim Burton, but, more crucially, designed by Anton Furst, whose foreboding Gotham, echoing German Expressionism’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, was the overwhelming impulse that powered the film and indeed the entire franchise when there was anything lively about it. The title tells you that the show is about atmosphere. It is set sometime between the 1920s and today, looking alternately like The Untouchables and The Wire, though without that series content. The mob overlay on the pre-Batman story—Bruce Wayne as a boy traumatized by his parent’s murder seeking to understand the city’s power structure—is an expression of the series intractable belief in the corruption of all layers of Gotham, which even draws in its seemingly indestructible hero, Jim, later to be commissioner Gordon, here a detective with a partner whose every pore oozes graft. The ungrounded ‘40s-to-the-present-noir-pastiche look exists alongside a more psychologically complex hero and villainy continuum which takes its cue from the childhood abuse that animated Heath Ledger’s Dark Knight Joker (the two most resonant auteurs in the series, Furst and Ledger, both committed suicide around the time of their Batman contribution).
This is especially evident in the sociopathic sadism of its Penguin in waiting, Benedict Cumberbatch. The problem with the series, the ‘something extra’ Fox has ingested into it is the violence, in Fox’ attempt to bring cable violence to the network, and duplicate gorefests like cable’s most popular series, The Living Dead. Gotham’s ever growing body count and the gratuitousness of its aggression-- just before commercial in an early episode, a killer raises a knife, brings it down in a murderous trajectory and we cut to the more refined violence of selling products—is an excuse to employ the noir setting as a rationalization for network incorporation of cable-style bloodletting. This is not quality television, it’s the simpler formula that sex and violence sells and where cable is used as excuse to push the violence limit on the still more widely viewed and supposedly tamer networks. And it’s working. Batman is a hit not only on the network but also on VOD sites and DVRs, judged a must-see by cable fans.
Jane the Virgin – Love the telenovela influence. The character of Jane, a Latina good girl whose life is altered by an unwanted pregnancy, is great. Her sexpot mother is exquisite, a Latina version of Alison Janey from Mom – it worked there and works here as well. Set in Miami, the show basks in the telenovela coincidences where every character is eventually related to every other in parentage models that are a more exaggerated form of the 19th century novel. Telenovella contrivances makes Dickens seem like Roberto Rossellini and the show has great fun with them. In the Ugly Betty mode-there is a moment in the pilot when Jane a waitress in a Miami nightclub has to dress as a mermaid for the night—this is a great breakthrough series for Latina representation. The problem here is the series adamant anti-choice stance. Jane against all odds and for no reason is going to have her artificially inseminated baby, and as this decision becomes loonier and loonier the show marches forward basing its plot line almost entirely on it. A trend that began with Murdoch’s Fox indie label’s Juno, about the hipness of keeping an unwanted child, continues apace here. Where oh where is the television series brave enough to be about a young woman’s admittedly more painful decision to say no, that she needs to get her life in order first before bringing another premature baby into Hollywood ratings land.
Okay, now lets move to the bottom of the barrel.
Gracepoint. What’s interesting about this adaptation of the currently running British series Broadchurch is it has the same British producer, director and the same actor, David Tennant, here playing a churlish American in the Broadchurch offseaon and a churlish Brit when that show returns in England. What’s not interesting is the show itself. Fox plays the death of a small boy up for all its smarmy perderastic implications while also remaining moralistic and sanctimonious to ward off any charges of lasiviousness on the part of the show. The snarky but righteous treatment of small town America, indulging its audience in sanctimonious pederasty, is the opposite of Twin Peaks critique of the false morality of American life. The show was lauding a New York Times review that said there are worse things to do on Thursday night. Network standards have truly fallen if that is now high praise.
Almost immediately the show emitted the whiff of complacency that marked last year’s equally smarmy moralistic tour of the American home, Hostages, a high-profile series that did not return. Take my advice, do not slow down, The Flash – In light of the Greg Berlanti CW series debut season of Arrow, two years ago, this Berlanti show is a big special effects laden disappointment. Its hero, Barry Allen is too timid by far to be interesting while meanwhile, and this was a problem with the original comic strip, the powers of his alter ego The Flash—he is the fastest man on earth—are too enormous and superhuman for him to be contested or for us to relate. Like many of the male figures on the CW with its teen audience, he has father issues; this time trying to save a father in jail. This figure though is far less interesting than Arrow’s, Oliver Queen’s, corrupt father and Barry Allen is focused both on freeing his helpless father, and mollifying his foster father. Is there no life outside of the family and the oedipal cycle? What happened to kids’ time to grow, experimenting with freeing themselves from the family influence? Not apparently on the CW where, as this generations’ chances for true economic independence shrink with a diminished economy, family money and thus family relations becomes a more crucial issue.
Black-ish. Its very hard to watch even a single episode of this series whose title suggests that it could have been a satire on the fantasy of an Obamaesque post-racial society, a supposed moment where these tensions have been eliminated. That would have been a great show and is the subject of a contemporary film, Dear White People. That’s not this show which is simply a shuckin’ and jivin’ post-Cosby family that rather than suggesting race has been transcended, instead suggests that racial representation has regressed all the way back to a kind of Stepin Fetchit clowning that is utterly embarrassing and a waste of the acting talent of series lead We had Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is Constantine, the Demon Snoozer.
Wow is this series lame. As Lizza might say on Selfie, the laminity factor is through the roof in this quasi-religious, quasi-garish show about a demon chaser aided by a guardian angel, Lost’s Harold Perrineau, who when he got kicked off the island apparently ended up in heaven, with wings. J.J. Abrams series like Lost debate religiosity and spirituality but this series displays it bluntly, with all subtlety lost, as the series’--and DC comics hero the series is based on--namesake is the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity. The demon killer’s back story about one girl he could not save makes little sense, but the main problem here is the lead character and actor Matt Ryan are insufferable and cannot carry a show which shuns multi-character development and returns to a single character focus. In the pilot, Constantine, because he is obsessed with being alone, though we’re hardly obsessed with being alone with him, sends the most interesting character, a young woman with supernatural vision, packing, when instead she should have been the center of the show. She is not because the show is lodged in a Friday night slot where NBC is hoping to get stay-at-home teenage boys to keep watching after its preceding supernatural series Grim-a show which has always sounded much better on paper that it actually is on the set.
Last year’s attempt at maintaining the ratings, Dracula, was, in contrast, a stylish, well-conceived, intelligent series set in Victorian England where the demon lord in his human guise as an energy magnate pushing the newfangled invention of electricity took on the British ruling class and particularly a BP type cabal coagulating around oil. It was a fascinating series. Needless to say, it did not return.
That’s my fall wrapup and this is Broe on the Global Television Beat signing off.
Global Television Beat Report, 10/2/14, Listen Here
Global Television Report, 10/16/14, Listen Here
This is Broe on the Global Television Beat. I’m Professor Dennis Broe from Long Island University and today’s episode is entitled “Political Sophomore Slump: Why series which start off with a progressive slant turn conservative.”
As opposed to “quality television,” an industry term after all that refers to a supposed new complexity in psychological characterization and a new narrative complexity in the television series, I would posit the theorem that contemporary television is in the words of the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci a “site of struggle,” a battleground of constantly shifting ideas and meanings that results in a series of openings and closings.
I want to talk about two openings that were then closed. The first is the CW series Arrow which had a fairly spectacular first season and which took it all back in the second. The first season in 2012 followed by exactly a year the Occupy Wall Street movement. In the wake of that movement, for the CW’s young audience, suddenly protest against the 1% was hip and so Arrow, the DC superhero, in real life Oliver Queen, scion of a wealthy in this update tech company, spent season one trying to bring down the upper echelon of Starling City, who his father had named just before he died as part of a conspiracy to destroy the city. “The Hood” as he was called in season one became a kind of embodiment of the critical energy of the Occupy movement and the show was much concerned with the corruption in Oliver’s own family as well.
The mandatory back story which all contemporary series are required to have, showed in flashbacks to a mysterious island, that recalled Lost, how Oliver Queen became The Hood and seemed like it would build an alternative world on the island which at the end of the series would connect the past and present Oliver. The downtrodden part of the city, called the Glades, was seen not as a place to avoid nor through and upper class gaze of fascination but as a place of desperation. In a cross-class alliance Oliver’s sister became enamored of a boy from the Glades who steals her wallet. The dastardly villains by season’s end evolved a plot to unleash a bomb on the Glades so that developers could come in and seize the property and in the end the Hood was unable to foil the plan and the Glades were devastated. Fairly heady and truthful stuff for network TV and for the CW and its teen audience.
Also too good to be true. The second season utterly reversed the politics of the first. The Glades became an unlawful place to be feared. The Hood enlisted himself in the service of the local cop and became a standard superhero vigilante, now called Arrow, that is, he fought crime and kept the lower and working classes in their place so they would not menace the now restored 1%. The backstory also got muddled and confused and began to immediately pay off in the present. Oliver’s mentor on the island, Slade, reemerged as the season’s primary villain, in a revenge plot that like most revenge plots in its utter silliness, based in this case on a misperception, leads in its abstract bloodlust away from a consideration of Starling City as a contemporary social and political entity. Why the change?
First, the show had always set up for such a change. Oliver’s Iraq and Afghanistan combat vet bodyguard kept urging him in season one to assume a more standard vigilante role and his voice became larger with Oliver deciding it was wrong to kill the rich, and so he instead became a peaceful, though violent, vigilante who however did not mind killing the underclass warlord population of the glades. The larger reason for the show’s change, I would posit, was the erasure of the Occupy Movement or its downsizing from popular discourse after the raids on various Occupy sites, most notably Zuccotti Park in New York. The movement continued but the impetus for network TV to play on its success declined with its reduced place in mainstream media.
Another stunning first season was had by the series Hell on Wheels with an equally stunning reversal in the second. In the wake of the failed climate conference at Copenhagen in 2009, this 2011 AMC series about the building of the transcontinental railroad was afire with cynicism about the nature of capitalist “development.” The set of the show went out of its way to emphasize the squalor of the railroad camp and an episode where the Cheyenne ride into the camp and are appalled at its decadence echoes a similar scene in Terrence Malik’s The New World where the Algonquin survey the equally appalling site of the filth of the European settlers after a winter spent holed up in Jamestown.
The series notes the price that the Native Americans must pay for the railroad as the Cheyenne in the same episode lose a race with the iron horse and the chief realizes this contraption will destroy an entire way of life, one much more in tune with the rhythms of the natural world than this unnatural technological demon. The enterprise of railroad building is also seen for what it was, a gigantic moment of speculation that fueled the corruption of one of the greediest moments of American history, the Gilded Age. The railroad magnate Durant is caught investing federal subsidies for his own personal gain rather than paying his men but turns the tables on the US Senator who would expose him and instead continues to keep the senator in his pocket. The series lead, a Confederate veteran named Bohannon, is secretly on a mission to destroy the Yankee soldiers who had laid waste to his land and killed his wife and son, with this same US army seen as simply an adjunct to capitalist expansion, as the senator threatens the Native Americans that if they get in the way of this enterprise they will have the army to deal with.
Season two is a different story, and a new showrunner begins to assert himself and alter the trajectory of the series. There is much more a sense that the railroad’s destruction of the Indian is not only inevitable but also desirable. Early in the season, Durant and Bohannon gaze across Cheyenne land and note the consequences to the Indians of the taking that land, but later they simply poach it as a needed best route through the mountains for the railroad. There is a huge change in the character of Bohannon, seen as a kind of film noir outsider in season one and in the opening of season two re-voiced as a Southern aristocrat who abandons his quest for revenge against the marauding Yankee imperial army and instead moves early in the season from foreman of the railroad company to co-owner and company visionary, now directly enlisted in its progress. Why the change?
The change was partially affected by the ascendance of a particular showrunner Joe Shiban who had worked on the cynically despairing Breading Bad and who has a pro imperial vision. I would suggest that culturally it followed a moment in which the outrage of the defeat of the climate conference in Copehagen gave way in the mainstream media to increased coverage not of the impending disaster of climate change but of the possibility of capitalist technical fixes. One such discourse being the fallacy and lie of natural gas and fracking as a new “safe” energy source that would revive the economy as competitor to the idea of a Green New Deal, talked of at the beginning of the Obama Presidency but losing credence during the course of that presidency even as the need for such an economy increased. In Hell on Wheels, initial cynicism over capitalist progress gave way to a much more cynical adoption of the inevitability of the capitalist technical solution as solving the problem.
This is not even to mention, although I will, the change in the already conservative Homeland from seasons 1 and 2 to season 3. The show, with a combination of producers from its Israeli antecedent Prisoners of War and from a show which grew increasingly more reactionary the Fox series 24, did manage to complexify the war on terror at points, though never questioning its roots. By season three though, the terrorist cell that exploded a bomb in front of CIA headquarters was identified as Iranian, a direct escalation of TV tensions in the Middle East and a very pro-Israeli position.
In one early episode CIA and Mossad targeted killings were followed from the CIA control room and cheered with the kind of enthusiasm that in an earlier era was reserved for the success of manned space flights, not for open assassination, Finally, in the worst, most racist moment I have ever seen on American television, and that’s saying something, a Muslim woman in a shawl working for the CIA is told by the series voice of reason, the CIA leader Saul, that her wearing a shawl is a gigantic slap in the face to all those who had died at Langley. This is the worst George Bush-era- like direct assault on all Muslims, which in the context of the series ratifies what the CIA calls the kill zone from Pakistan to Istanbul. Why the switch here, or the coming out of this show from conservative to 24-type reactionary? My hunch is that with the beginning of the rumblings of ISIS and the continued collapse of any Israeli-Palestinian meaningful negotiations, the show felt emboldened to advance its pro-perpetual war agenda further. This is CIA and Mossad approved television, the worst kind of war on terror propaganda posing as quality TV.
What can we conclude from these shifts? One, that television is not a perpetually advancing medium now in its Golden Age but rather one that is fueled by a series of starts and stops, with advances often being countered by regression a season later, all part of the constraints of the commercial model, which has not been superseded by a simple use of the word “quality.” Two, that television is responsive both to positive and negative changes in the society but that its model for detecting these changes is the mainstream media.
Thus, the battles against the 1%, climate change and the exposing of the economic and energy causes behind the war on terror as they are refused coverage in the press, seem also to disappear or no longer fuel progressive leanings on commercial television. I suppose the last thing we should conclude, that is, the logical place this is leading, is that we should shut off our televisions and get involved in the grassroots movements such as last months climate march and demonstration against wall street which will eventually reappear in the mainstream media and may again provoke more progressive series content.
If however you decide to be an activist and a TV watcher, I will be back in a few weeks with a review of the current television season. This is Broe on the Global Television Beat signing off.
This is Professor Dennis Broe from Long Island University and this year I’m covering television but not just American television, at this moment the standard in the field as the contemporary network, cable and subscription service series has replaced mid-level film production. I’m also covering world television and looking at how global television influences, ratifies and modifies the Hollywood model.
This week’s episode is entitled “Why Orange is the New Black and True Detective are not All That, and why Ripper Street Is.”
Two of the most hailed series in the last two years are Netflix’ Orange is the New Black, the female and feminist prison series created by Jenji Cohan, the brains behind Weeds, and HBO’s True Detective, which harks back to the seedy pulpier than pulp men’s magazines with similar titles, created by Nik Pizzolatto who formerly worked on The Killing and Exec Produced by the series stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
Both series are highly acclaimed and deservedly so. Orange extends the boundaries of the situation comedy almost to the breaking point, with one of its characters dying in the first season. It also presents a wide array of types of African-American women and at the heart of the romantic comedy mainline of the sit com it gives equal weight to its hero, Piper’s inside-the-walls lesbian relationship as it competes with her straight relationship with her writer boyfriend outside. One of the pleasures of the series is watching That’s 70s’s Show’s early feminist post-hippie played by Laura Prepon reborn as a post-millennial lesbian drug dealer. We’ve come a long way from the 50s sitcom; Donna Reed’s white picket fence has been replaced by prison walls.
The show also points to the systemic corruption in the prison system, with its guards dealing drugs to the inmates, watching them die to conceal their drug dealing, and, in the season one finale, turning a blind eye to a to-the-death face-off between Piper and the Jesus-loving meth head who has sworn to kill her. The prison officials choose to cover up a guard’s having sex with an inmate because it will affect their career plans and this couldn’t be more topical as just this week it was revealed that not only was violence at Rikers covered up with inmate fights not reported but then the two officials who covered up the rise in violence were not demoted by the commissioner who instead of dealing with the violence ordered the exposure of the two officials removed from a report.
So what’s the problem with the series? The problem is that though the series goes farther than any other sitcom, it is bound by the restrictive measures of both the sit com and of “quality television,” the industry brand for supposedly serious, adult TV. The sit com residue that harms the series is the need to focus it through the middle class character of Piper, since it is through her eyes that we see the prison with the pilot entirely about her entering prison. There is a Wonder Years quality to her character, since she is upper middle class and privileged, that always presents her as the knowing one who is really above all this, just as in that show we always knew the writer looking back on his life was better than that life.
The other “quality TV” problem, concerns ambiguity, the idea that all characters must have their say and point of view which here translates as a kind of bland affect to the characters from the ‘evil’ prison guard, Pornstache to Piper’s counselor Sam Healey who is not sadistic, but rather, as the show would have it, “in need of counseling.” The other quote “ambiguous” character is Piper’s boyfriend played by American’s Pie’s Jason Biggs, whose New York Times and NPR exploitation of Piper’s condition in jail is treated as simply a necessary step in his career even by Piper who fails to get angry at his denigration of her fellow inmates. There are places in this society where the middle class “mystique” of ambiguity is not apt and the inequality and treatment of the prison population in this society is one of them. The show conceals and blunts in its character’s bland affect what it depicts in its images.
True Detective is a dark, Twin Peaks-inspired, series set in southern Louisiana, a locale that is out of reach of urbanized New Orleans. The series pushes the boundaries of the crime genre in its exposure of the failings of both lead characters as Louisiana state troopers. Matthew McCoungney’s Rust Cohle is the more complicated of the two; a brilliant loner whose time undercover in the DEA has left him prey to addiction. While Woody Harrelson’s Detective Marty Hart is a family man who constantly cheats on his wife and whose moral righteousness erupts in repeated violence. The show’s way of mixing three different eras in the eventual capture of a serial killer is compelling and its sense of place, of the desperation and degradation of the lives of those on the rural bayou is striking.
The problems are in this case again the limitation of the genre of the detective buddy film that the series in many ways subverts and the problems of production censorship. There is an attempt to link the killings in a vague way to a Southern preacher whose brother is governor of the state. But what is never explicit is the way that the pertrol economy of this area has destroyed the region. One episode begins with a shot of the refineries spewing noxious chemicals and McCounghney’s character in another moment says in a throwaway line that the swamp the two detectives are gazing out on will be destroyed in 20 years, but there is no linking of the evil of the crime and devastation of this colonial petrol state, much worse than the Brits claimed an independent Scotland would become.
The answer to this puzzle is revealed not by the detectives but by the show’s credits which unveil the show as a product of the enormous tax breaks that the state is now issuing to all kinds of film and television production. But that money comes with a price and here it is the avoidance of the real evil in the state. I should also add that the series conforms ultimately to the dictates of the detective buddy film in that Harrelson’s Hart, revealed throughout the series as a sadistic and a morally corrupt self-appointed guardian of morality, is in the end redeemed as the co-killer of the serial murderer.
The Hollywood logic here, which Hart states in a rationale that puts Cohle’s and McCounghney’s quas-philsophical half-musings to shame, is that the evil of the detective’s is necessary to defeat the more destructive evil of the serial killer. Two problems with that Hollywood logic. One, this is simply a rationale for the brutality of the police. And two, what about the far worse evil of the serial polluter, that evil which constitutes the actual Louisiana power structure which is slowly poisoning the state? True Detective: come for the ambiance but do not be fooled by the apolitical politics of “quality television.”
As a counter to both I would recommend the fairly neglected BBC series, Ripper Street, just renewed for its third season. This show about London in the late 1880s just after the Jack the Ripper murder spree disdains the apolitical typical American crime villain, the lone psychopathic serial killer and instead offers a nuanced look at Anglo-American industrial politics as they play out in the working- and underclass district of London’s Whitechapel. The show’s gender politics are often regressive with female figures mostly consigned to the district’s prostitutes or to well-meaning middle-class charity women, but even here there is a sex-worker whose attempts to leave the brothel reveal the troubled past that drew her into this work.
The show’s strength is in shedding light on the ways that the poor in the district are prey to the industrialist’s, focusing on the attempts to disrupt by labelling as violent the London Dock Strike of 1889 by the Russian Secret Police aided and abetted by the British Whitehall and Scotland Yard establishment. Even better is the season one penultimate episode “A Man of My Company” in which the lead detective’s American friend, a forensic philanderer who owns the local brothel, is pursued not by a serial killer, as he would be on an American series, but by a brutally murderous Pinkerton who helped insight the Haymarket riots in Chicago and who is now a hired killer for an American magnate who is attempting a hostile takeover of a shipping company by offing its chief engineer.
The show’s mix of industrial politics and its refusal to ignore the part the economic powerholders play in the creation of the slums of Whitechapel is a tonic and an antidote to the chaste and politically childish American obsession in the two series mentioned above with either a distorted “ambiguity” or a supposedly ultimate individual pathology that excuses the far more lethal social pathology of pollution and the corruption it engenders.
So long from Broe on the Global Television Beat. Later episodes will look at why and how TV series do an about face on their politics from one season to the next in Arrow and Hell on Wheels and will review the current Fall TV season.
Dennis Broe can be heard on WBAI Radio in New York and on the Pacifica Network on Arts Express Radio. He is the author of a Choice Outstanding Academic Book Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood, and has written for Newsday, The Boston Phoenix, Social Justice and Framework, and Jump Cut.