Thursday, December 26, 2013

Notes on U.S. American contemporary Television: the right-wing looney, or Part I.

I’d like to start this blog post with a perhaps, vacuous but risky premise: television in the U.S. in the last 10 years has entered into a golden age.  There have been a number of shows that have not only been able to catch the attention of all kinds of audiences across the country and the world, but also, they have shown a quality in the writing, and the acting, that has been beyond any of the decades prior to it.  There are many reasons for this golden age that have to do with the advent of TV on the internet, Netflix-type services where one can watch a whole season in one go, and the importance of powerhouses of cable TV like HBO who have given film talent the opportunity to be showcased in the small screen, and a number of other reasons. 

I have certainly been paying attention to many different types of shows, but more than anything, I’ve been paying attention to sit-coms.  That’s the genre that I have seemed to prefer the last few years, and one that I hope continues to be as innovative as it has been in the last 10 years, where the technique of single-camera set-up with a cinema verité style has been employed in sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Recreation, to great responses from audiences that have been able to benefit, in my opinion, by the lack of laugh tracks, and the reality-tv style interviews that help enhance character depth and plot intrigue. 

Though these are interesting characteristics of the U.S. America sit-com, what interests me the most, what most piques my curiosity, is not the technical developments of these shows in the last 10 years, its virtues and issues – though in fact not all shows utilize this technique (30 Rock being a great counter-example), and some of the most recent debutante shows are not really sticking with it.  What really interests me is a particular type of character that seems recurrent in all sit-coms, and the character on which much of the intrigue, plot-development, and comedic moments rests.  This is also a great development of the last 10 years in television: the right-wing looney.  Dwight Schrute, Jack Donaghy, Ron Swanson and even Schmidt from New Girl (though maybe a younger, “cooler” type) all embody the right-wing looney.  All of these characters have pro-capitalistic, small government, power-grabbing, male-dominant delusional utopic fantasies of what the world should be – and the audiences of sit-coms just fall in love with these characters – mainly because they can easily laugh at them. 

Audiences love their rage, their over-the-top personalities, their ridiculous pomposity, their overt orthodoxy, their phallic personas and actions that overpower in many occasions, with their antics, the characters of the well-intentioned, beautiful and politically-safe protagonists of these shows.  Just like Milton’s Satan, they are also given the best lines – and the most outrageous ones: Swanson: “myperfect idea of government is one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, theonly thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke”; or Donaghy’s “(on being asked why he’s wearing a tuxedo) it’s after six, whatam I? a farmer?”; and even Schrute’s “a horse doctor… is just a regular doctor who shots your horse in the head whenhis leg is broken”. 

The audience loves these characters so much that in fact, as an example to my theory, Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson) took a stand-up show on the road based on his Parks and Recreation persona.  The end of The Office might be another example of this, with the highlighted importance of Dwight Schrute, and the audience’s complicit agreement with the writers of the show in the ultimate well-being of Dwight: he got married to the real love of his life, and will live happily ever after.  I think the show could not have ended with Dwight just being Dwight – his narrative arch needed to end with his ultimate happiness, or the show would not have real closure.  And in fact, it’s not that other characters did not get the closure they wanted, but the end of Dwight’s narrative arch was front and center.

I do wonder, how is conservative, white, middle-U.S. America reading these characters, or their personas.  Do they appear over the top to them?  I think the answer is absolutely yes, and mainly because these are different type of right-wing nut cases: the rural type, the small town type, the big corporation type, the yuppie type, and not one person can feel so identified with all of these that cannot recognize the prevalent tone in all of them: over-the-top conservative social politics and/or over-the-top neoliberal economics.  But isn’t laughing at someone, sometimes, the best form of flattery?  As I say, don’t audiences love these characters? Meaning, that, in fact, by laughing at their absurdity, they are actually condoning and accepting the existence of such personas?  Don’t we all want Dwight to get married and be happy, at the end of The Office, because he’s a good person, despite his anti-Jim antics, his backward ways? 

But ok, fine!  I can expect this, they are right-wing looneys! We come to expect this of them right? It’s just what they are.  Bah! You might even know some of these people in real life! Isn’t that so?  Man, some of these people might even post on your Facebook feed 24/7. 

Yet, the show Portlandia, in my opinion, offers an interesting response.  For a moment, let’s entertain the view that the right-wing intelligentsia is pretty straight-forward about its views: “our way or the highway” (or the other side of the thousands of miles-long wall they are building along the border).  Some of the most recent political events, namely the government shut-down, shows that this is indeed the case.  Though, in the end, they paid heavily for their intransigence.  If one believes this is true about the right-wing intelligentsia, one might say that the left-wing, on the other hand, presents itself as much more subtle.  To explain this I will use the IFC comedy show.  On the very first episode of the show, the characters sing a song that goes something like, “the dream of the 90’s is alive in Portland, Portland, Portland”.  Now, on the second season, they start singing the same song.  Yet at the end, they add a new punch line, “…the 1890’s”.  Lines about hipster mustaches, coiffures and outfits, artisanal sausage-making and micro-brews fill the beginning of the show as a critique of Portland, and U.S. American, hipster culture. 

What the episode doesn’t mention, what’s funny about it, and what I consider essential to understanding this phenomenon, is the orthodoxy that accompanies it – a nostalgia for a time, a set of values, and a culture that is beyond even the own personal histories of the people embracing it, and an irreverent belief that this is, in fact, the only possible way of looking at, and of living in, this world.  Hipster culture is the culture of the elites hiding themselves behind pop culture (I knew Radiohead before Radiohead was Radiohead). 

However, hipster culture is an old phenomenon disguised as a new one: it’s a phenomenon that much resembles Slavoj Zizek’s oft-repeated story about the postmodernist father: orthodoxy hidden behind free-thinking.  And this is true of the new U.S. American seemingly-progressive, green, free-thinking left: “look, it’s not that we want you to do what we say, it’s that the earth will be happier (and we will avoid catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions if the earth is happier) if you do what we say, but please, do what you like, you are free to follow us or destroy the world if you don’t”.  Is there a real choice to be made here?  This is another version of the saying “our way or the highway”.  Portlandia utilizes the same character of the right-wing looney, but flips it around and makes a left-wing, Whole Foods-loving, organic, free-range version of it. 

What Portlandia might be revealing is that shows like The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation could be accurate allegorical representations of contemporary U.S. politics: shows that, like the U.S. American left, dress themselves to be progressive.  These shows are about individuals like Jim Halpert (he wants to start a company doing what he loves, and not necessarily what will make him money), Leslie Knope (she wants to be a democratic politician), Liz Lemon (he wants to be a happy successful woman writer in a male-dominated corporate world) or Jessica Day (she wants to be a school teacher and find real love), but in reality they are shows about right-wing nuts: the Schrutes, the Swansons, the Donaghys…characters that get the most laughs, and at the end, the most empathy. 

Isn’t that same logic that’s hiding behind this supposed liberal government, and Barack Obama, which have big explosive rhetoric about left-wing ideals but have demonstrated time and again that it is behind big business and their interests; couldn’t provide universal healthcare for their citizens (one of the only industrialized western world powers to not do so) and the roll out and implementation of the existent Healthcare reform (which does not include universal healthcare) was a small catastrophe; and in recently heavily debated news, led by whistleblower Snowden,  has been shown to spy on its citizens constantly, as well as countless people around the world, including the leaders of “ally countries” such as Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and even Israel, resulting in violations of privacy (that have been deemed unconstitutional, and reprehensible by judges and investigating committees) in order to gain military surveillance control of the world? 

In my opinion, the right-wing looney character in contemporary U.S. American television becomes the limit of the imaginary horizon of expectation for political values – they are not beyond what is possible in reality.  In other words, these so-called nuts are, in fact not, hyperbolic, but truly what we have come to expect as normal: a systematic shift to the right of all of the (possible and acceptable) political ranges.

...So...these “notes” are Part I, and in Part 2, I will discuss the show Newsroom and I will go beyond “the right-wing looney” and talk some more about what I perceive as a systematic shift to the right…

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