As of this post I’ll have broke out of my recent tie with my globe-trotting friend, the recent historicist and the red-haired poet. Competitive as I may be, that isn’t the sole reason for writing. However, as I am vaulting into first place post-wise (I have a lot of catching up to do in the replies, which I have loved reading and especially loved seeing some new names attached to them) I suppose I should begin by apologizing. With this post, I will become the lead contributor, which means that with this post there will be way too much TV being discussed on this fine web-based experiment.
I don’t want to apologize too much. Our instigator did write in his mission statement that we are “here” to, among other things, share our “musings on culture,” and as it should have it, recently my muse has found amusement therein (and in puns, evidently).
But with any luck, this post will do a little bit more than critique one specific show. Maybe with a little luck, patience and attention (and, as Focault said, as long as the “courage” does not desert me) I can do a little better, and perhaps even start to muse about, as our instigator put it, examine a portion of the “diverse elements of our community’s collective imagination.”
There’s been a trend of late, it seems to me (and to someone else who wrote about this first: I think it was about the show “Smith”, which I’ll discuss later, and it appeared in The Boston Globe) that lots of TV and some movies have tried very hard to romanticize suburban life. For the sake of argument, I’ll start the trend at “American Beauty” (it doesn’t really start here): in “AB”, Chris Cooper’s ex-Marine is a closet homosexual, his son Wes Bentley famously finds beauty in filming a plastic bag (and everything else), Annette Bening has an affair with the guy with the huge eyebrows on “The OC”, etc.. As normal and predictably yuppy/suburban as almost everyone seems, there’s always something dramatic happening behind closed doors. There’s a degree of romance to it: something special, something hidden, buried deep within the mundane.
But the ‘special’ in “American Beauty” doesn’t seem so special when it’s compared to the romantics of its descendents. Now we have Zach Braff and Natalie Portman trekking through the woods in garbage bags, destined for a ship hanging precipitously over a rock quarry, or peering through pin-holes in a hotel. Some of “Garden State”, I think, says that there’s more to the homes that we’ve left than we thought.
There’s also “Desperate Housewives.” “DH” loves showing us the back-stabbing, two-faced nature of suburbia (if anything, that’s not Romanization, its reality). But in order to flush out the narrative of niceness and normalcy (and to keep us watching), there’s always a layer of the truly bizarre waiting just beneath the suburban and everyday (Betty Applewhite locking up her son in the basement is probably at once both the best and worst example of this, and also probably bears some further examination).
There was “Sleeper Cell” and its movie-cousin “Arlington Road,” both about terrorists living next door to us. There’s “Smith”, the recently-cancelled Ray Liotta drama wherein the Goodfella played suburban dad by day, master-thief by night. And, hey, speaking of cancelled shows dealing with the same premise, there was even “Thief.” There might even be an element of Tyler Durden in there as well.
It’s not in everything that’s out there: “Lost” doesn’t romanticize everyday suburban life at all. “Heroes” takes us to the city, not the suburbs. And there’s “CSI” and its cousins, “House,” “Grey’s”, etc..
But there’s some sort of pattern here, some sort of general movement that these shows have either created or been pulled in to. I want to ask why: why this sudden urge to not just show how the difference between the performed public and the reserved private, but also to romanticize the everyday.
An uninteresting answer is that there’s a market for it. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it, but I should note it: obviously, Hollywood feeds on itself. There’s a reason why there’s fifteen “CSI’s”: TV has found a formula that works and wants to make the most of it. Relatedly, there might be a demographic pattern that TV is following to the suburbs. I don’t have any stats that say this is even a phenomenon, and I realize that suburbanization has been going on since the close of World War II, but maybe there’s been a recent surge, and maybe people want to watch what they identify with.
Certainly possible, certainly plausible. And certainly, I should recall these plausibilities as I start to get a little more interesting as I wonder why.
Why feel this maybe recent need to tell stories about ourselves in this manner? Why coat the everyday with the extraordinary? Entertainment, not just television, has always returned to examine its audience and their shared world. Sometimes it’s showed the audience in the happy-go-lucky way it saw itself (think “Leave it to Beaver”) and sometimes it tried to do just the opposite (“The Crucible”, etc.).
What might be at issue, what might cause today’s writers to apply the romantic ‘veneer’, is what they’re trying to show us (in the same way that Miller wanted his audience to do the work for him: he didn’t want to put Cotton Mather on the Supreme Court, instead he put 50s America side by side with Salem and let the audience draw their own conclusions). Maybe TV needs this gild to hide the audience from itself, from what is beneath their shared world, from what is inevitably beneath a gilded veneer: nothing.
Do we need this kind of romantic TV? Not just as a means of entertainingly exploring the public versus the private, but to substitute for something (I hate to say it) existentially missing? Do we have to have this possibility for the extraordinary? These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’m really asking: is it that bad?
Maybe it’s something else entirely. Is that lacquer slapped on top of normal life as a further means of self-delusion, or does it represent instead something optimistic, some attempt to beautify, improve or even dislodge the ordinary? Maybe these shows try to deregulate the sensible, or at the very leas suggest that we are all far more interesting than we ever let on. Maybe they’re suggesting that we should do away with whatever institutions encourage such insecurities in one another so that we may discover just how worthy we are of each others’ attention. Paradoxically, if this is the case, then the message is being conducted through the very institution of insecurities, like a secret code reverberating against the walls of a prison cell, sent by a desperate inmate tapping out against the walls of his own cell, praying that his neighbor will listen and understand. These show might be meant as encouragement (again, might be), but they themselves are not the answer to whatever root dissatisfaction we might feel. Instead, they only locate the problem and identify a possible point of rupture.
(Whether you believe our esteemed TV writers are covering something hollow (the pessimists) or encouraging better behavior (obviously the optimists; I really don’t want to suggest one or the other, or to even limit this to an either/or issue) I think that at the root of this (at least the present either/or issue) is dissatisfaction: with life, with suburbia, with normalcy, with our jobs, with what we have compared to what we wanted, to what have you. This root dissatisfaction, endemic of something bigger than how TV writers are feeling (because TV audiences are watching) might result in these shows I’ve been discussing. And our interpretation of these effects (i.e., whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist) might say more about how likely you imagine a satisfactory resolution to this ‘root dissatisfaction (if indeed we’re willing to admit that such a thing exists) than the effects themselves.)
Even “Heroes” and “Lost,” shows that aren’t located in the suburbs and have more admittedly fantastical elements still contain bits of this romantic salvation. On TV ordinary people wake up one day and find out they can fly and that the world suddenly needs them, or the island that they’re trapped on is paradoxically connected to the rest of the world—and maybe that's the only chance we get.