Some Musings on Current(ish) Television (pt. 1)

(***Warning: potential spoiler alerts for VeepThe KnickThe Wire and Show Me a Hero***)

Let me preface this with a caveat I know I’ve made before, and that’s that I almost always come late to any artifact of popular culture, even of so-called “higher” culture; I get to books (be they novels, works of history, philosophy, reviews, literary criticism, et al) , films, TV shows, albums, et al whenever I get around to them, and it’s more often than not that that’s months or even years after their first appearances. I try to stay current with the myriad periodicals to which I subscribe, but even that’s an unsure proposition from week to week. (As an aside, I find I’m best with The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, the former due to its — I hate this word, but it applies here — readability, and the latter due to its being limited to 20 issues p.a., giving one plenty of time between issues to stroll through. I’m worst with Scientific American and The London Review of Books, the reasons for which I could not say. The Times Literary Supplement is somewhere in the middle, depending on what my backlog looks like. Even though the copies for American distribution are printed in the U.S. — somewhere in New Jersey, I think — for some unknown reason, the TLS tends to come in clusters of two or three within, say, six mail days, and then none for two and a half weeks. It makes scheduling — something from which I derive immense pleasure, and if you’d care to know why, I’m afraid I can’t help you. I have no idea. — extremely scattershot.)

—Having just caught up on HBO’s Veep, watching all four seasons in a ten-day period (that would have been five or six had I not landed in hospital), I’m struck by a few things: it’s no secret that I’m a political junkie totally down with watching Congressional committee hearings on CSPAN-2 for hours, so I’m sure it will surprise no one that I loved The West Wing and am paying very close attention to the developing 2016 presidential race. I’ve tweeted extensively on the latter and have written on it on this site (with, I’m sure, much more to come). Granted, the two shows don’t have much aside from the Oval Office in common; one was a network drama that began in the lingering glow of the Clinton years and thrived in the afterglow, even as the world grew darker. The West Wing had its share of dark moments, sure, but projected an aura of optimism and faith in the power of competent administration to achieve concrete policy goals while actively and sincerely focusing on the wellbeing of the American people and the world at large. The West Wing showed us the Presidency and The White House as we — at least we of the progressive, educated, elitist class — believe it should and could be. The West Wing, whether consciously or not, became the mental template for many early Obama supporters, who projected onto him if not the actual character of Pres. Josiah Bartlet, then the values for which Martin Sheen’s character in the show stood.

A little more than a decade later, enter an entirely different animal that analyzes the tenor of American politics at least as incisively as The West Wing, albeit as a half-hour comedy/satire on a network (HBO) where the rules that restrict language and content on broadcast networks simply do not apply. Veep can drop as many f-bombs as it cares to, as well as any other amount of content that would never make it on a network show. (To be honest — and I’m frankly surprised to be writing this, as “fuck” in all its permutations is among the most-favored and most-often employed words in my vocabulary — I think Veep overdoes it on the “offensive” language bit. I could actually do with fewer f-bombs, and again, no one is more surprised to see that on screen than I am). So comparing the two shows is asymmetrical in more ways than just temporally. Veep exists in a post-Bush era where, by all accounts, even if one is sentient enough to dismiss the “Era of Good Feelings” talk of blowhards like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who romanticize Tip O’Neill’s relationship with Reagan, for example, to the extent that I’m surprised he hasn’t written an epic lyric paean to that era, the venom between political parties and individuals of differing political persuasions has become lethal (sadly, in too many instances, that’s not a metaphor). The tone of discourse, to parrot the talking heads, has coarsened. Veep reflects that in spades; every character — Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s brilliantly portrayed VP, then President Salina Meyer, perhaps most of all, though Timothy Simons’s Jonah Ryan is just perfectly written and acted — is blatantly acting on her or his own behalf above any and all else. The pretense of acting for the American people or some notion of the common good is always shown to be a smokescreen, another tool to drive up poll numbers, enhance future job prospects, keep a current job or win the next election, even if winning that election is the end-in-itself. Personal lives, ethics, policy — all are shown to be colossal jokes.

It would be easy to go overboard with this unforgiving and unflinching degree of satire, and Veep skirts the boundaries between cringeworthy because disturbingly accurate and cringeworthy because too over the top, but largely stays in the territory of the former. Salina’s instrumental relationship with her daughter is brilliantly done in this regard; Catherine, while not quite the strong character the writers at times hint she could (or could have) become eventually sacrifices her own potential happiness (or satisfaction, perhaps; this is not a show that offers much in the way of happiness outside of that accompanying a full bottle of bourbon and the crushing of one’s opponent) to her mother’s ambition for its own sake. While Catherine is still a minor character, the sketched relationship between her and her mother is the show’s theme in a microcosm: nothing matters but power and influence, and anything is liable to end up on the sacrificial altar.

Watching Veep in such a concentrated fashion in the accelerating run-up to the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. inevitably led to comparisons with the race and with The West Wing — namely, the observation that the two shows respectively show two equally valid sides of American political discourse, and both are being employed in the (not-quite) fledgling 2016 campaign in different ways by the different candidates. The question to candidates is whether they are running to be Josiah Bartlet or Salina Meyer (referring only to style, not policy; both are Democrats, though one gets the sense that Salina’s party affiliation has more to do with her coming up through the ranks of Baltimore and Maryland Democratic politics than any particular ideological identification — sound familiar? A certain Republican front-runner comes to mind…). The answer to that question by the candidates and by voters, in terms of which style they’d prefer, will say a good deal about our nation’s political present and its future.

—This post was inspired to a good extent by Amy Goodman’s extended interview with the creator of The Wire, Tremé and now Show Me a Hero David Simon. Not to play the so-caricatured “moony-eyed” idealist, but the turn toward anti-heroes makes one wonder if a counter-turn is not in order. Now granted, I’m a huge fan of anti-heroes: Dexter Morgan, House, John Luther, Walter White, Tony Soprano, Tyrion Lannister, Salina Meyer, Omar et al are among the most compelling characters in current and recent television, yet one does wonder if — to invoke a line again, one has been crossed. At the point which one ceases to empathize with a show’s, a novel’s, a film’s, a video game’s, etc. protagonist, does one lose interest or does one linger on to see at which point the ship does eventually founder? In the case of Dexter, that was true; the last four seasons (four years!) were poorly written; I’m inclined to believe that the number of seasons after the fourth (featuring the incomparable John Lithgow as no small part of its excellence) extended to four due to the talent of the actors. Beyond that, though, I watched Dexter to its unsatisfying conclusion because, by that point, I was invested in the characters. Does that fidelity to a particular character, even if or particularly if fatally flawed, replace the idealized identification with characters like Frodo or Sam from The Lord of the Rings? In that case, one can identify with Frodo in an idealized fashion for assuming an unbearable burden with scant chance of success, of hope. In the case of Sam — and this is often overlooked  — the true “hero” of Tolkien’s epic, it’s easy for us to insert ourselves in his place, carrying on a hopeless task out of duty’s sake, caring for a fallen friend (homoeroticism aside — another topic for someone else’s monograph), representing the good Anglo-American values of thrift, hard work and common sense. I wonder whether popular culture will return to the concept of a hero in which one can see mirrored one’s concept of a “good life.” I’m not necessarily advocating such a turn, just wondering if one will happen as a reaction to the brilliant characters mentioned above.

(part 1)

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~ by Benji on 28 August 2015.

One Response to “Some Musings on Current(ish) Television (pt. 1)”

  1. […] I’m late to this; as I explained recently in a different context, I get to cultural artifacts in my own time, which is inevitably late. So […]

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