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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Are cable dramas and comedies our best reflection of today’s zeitgeist?

A recent story on AlterNet by Alan Farago suggests that the only place where we’re seeing an accurate reflection of the zeitgeist at the moment is on cable TV: not the news channels, but on networks like HBO, TNT, and AMC. And certainly not on the broadcast networks:

The zeitgeist of the new television connects to societal depression, not a mental recession or tea leaves featured in Time or Newsweek or advertiser-sponsored, network TV. In NBC’s “The Office”, there are whispers of layoffs, triggering panic, but no one is layed off who doesn’t return.

But:

[T]oday’s best crop of television comedies are onto something new. In “Weeds”, a suburban mom turns wily drug dealer battling Mexican drug lord screws one to safety while protecting her family in idealized middle class stability. The joke is not just the sardonic nuclear family; it is that the nuclear family can only survive by breaking the law. In “Breaking Bad”, a suburban high school chemistry teacher with cancer — who cannot afford his cancer treatments without bankrupting his family — starts freelancing as a maker and seller of crystal meth. In “The Riches”, a family of gypsy grifters blend in seamlessly with the trappings of suburbia, cheating and winning with the flat-landers on adaptation strategies that viewers can only fantasize. In the new HBO “Hung” another teacher — the second winningest basketball coach in Westlake history — embarks on a career as a male escort to pay the bills and redeem himself with his twin Goths.

And so on.

What do you think? Are cable dramas and comedies our best reflection of today’s zeitgeist?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • The last half-season of The Office did more to keep me sane than anything I’ve glimpsed on cable recently. Of course, when you’ve worked in an office building in which the break room has a TV set that is almost constantly tuned to FOX-TV, CNN and similar stations, you don’t end up thinking too highly of cable…

  • Er, there’s probably a lot to be said for Weeds but I get so tired of being asked to salute the “realism” of TV shows which seem incapable of depicting an American Hispanic who is neither a servant nor a criminal.

    Gracias a Dios para the comparative realism of the Hispanics on Ugly Betty, Scrubs and even Six Feet Under.

  • i think we recently discussed that i noticed there was a sudden influx of shows where only the guys on the edge of the “law” can make things right –“Burn Notice and “Leverage” being the prime examples that come to mind. and i see there is a new show coming up where the thief is released to FBI custody because he’s the only one that can solve whatever crime they’ll start off with.

    i think this is sort of reflection of the zeitgeist, similar to the ones of the 30s (Great Depression), where gangsters and racketeers were glamorized or made into folk heros. of course, those were movies, where you had to go outside of your home to get this sort of cultural touchstone — the new shows are right in your home. i’m not sure that makes an appreciable difference as to how people perceive things.

  • Well America (IMO) has always had a fascination with the outlaw (look at the old west) or the Anti-hero (loads of examples in TV and movies all the way back to the silent era). As a country we have been glorifing gangsters and robbers (Bonnie and Clyde, Billy the Kid, Al Capone) for centries.

    As such I am not sure that is an acurate to say shows about breaking the law are a sign of the times. I am not saying that everyone is an angel, but saying that “law breaking” has had its pressence in our culture almost since the begining.

    What I do think is happening though is that there is more room to further humanise these types of characters. My fav example is “The Shield” that used to be on FX. Mackey was a very, very bad individual (took bribes, killed informents on his team, forceing competition out that didn’t pay him), but would have moments that you couldn’t help but feel for him (Mostly family orented, but also in his stances like no drug dealers were allowed to sell to kids no matter how much they paid him). Then he would turn around and do something totally aweful you wanted to curse out the TV. Brilliant Television.

    Still I think its more of escapism, to go completely out of the world we know into another one where the rules are scewed a bit and people get away with things they could never get away with in real life.

  • misterb

    No, I don’t think these shows mirror reality. In fact, reality has become more boring so our fiction has become more escapist. Reality is more boring because people have lost hope that things will get better. What we need is entertainment that shows us the promise of an enlightened future, but maybe that is too fantastic.

  • “What we need is entertainment that shows us the promise of an enlightened future, but maybe that is too fantastic.”

    i like the idea, but think it’s also a bit of “wish fulfillment” fantasy.

    remember how in the 50s, tv shows were the promise of what life was supposed to be about? mother, father, three adorable kids, one goofy neighbor… dad went to work in some vague suit-filled world, mom vaccuumed in pearls… how realistic was that? not at all, really… but it was the zeigeist of the moment. i don’t think we can ever get entertainment that reflects a “better human”… because that wouldn’t entertain us… otherwise, soap operas and reality shows wouldn’t exist at all.

  • Brian

    “What we need is entertainment that shows us the promise of an enlightened future, but maybe that is too fantastic.”

    i like the idea, but think it’s also a bit of “wish fulfillment” fantasy.

    The closest we ever got to that was Star Trek: The Next Generation. The writers figured out pretty quickly, though, that even in a future techno-utopia, character flaws and conflict were necessary for drama – and the show got better from there. Noble, just people making speeches about the Prime Directive get boring pretty fast.

  • Kate

    “Layed off”?

  • Paul

    While cable TV does make some very good shows, I think the Monday night line up “Two and 1/2 Men,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Rules of Engagement” and “Big Bang Theory” is the best comedy line up since the Thrusday night powerhouse back in the 80s. Each show demonstrates different aspects of sexual anxiety in our culture.

    I think the idea of rogue good guys operating outside the law has a long lineage. “Dukes of Hazzard,” “A-Team”, and “Knight Rider” are the ones that come to mind, but they can all be traced back to good old Robin Hood.

  • “Layed off”?

    Heh. Good eye, Kate.

    I’ve gotten so used to reading dysfunctional English on the Net–even from so-called “professional” writers–that I often read these articles the same way I used to write the letters I received from a foreign pen pal whose first language wasn’t English–focusing more on what the writer obviously meant to write than what he or she actually wrote.

    Though I suppose it’s nice to note the next time I make a mistake that even professional writers sometimes forget to proofread…

    I think the idea of rogue good guys operating outside the law has a long lineage. “Dukes of Hazzard,” “A-Team”, and “Knight Rider” are the ones that come to mind, but they can all be traced back to good old Robin Hood.

    Not to mention Zorro, The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet–and on radio, The Shadow.

    I still remember reading an essay written by a noted sci-fi writer back in the late 1960s which denounced the then-popular TV series It Takes a Thief because it essentially glorified a thief. (The protagonist of the series in question was a professional thief who used his skills on behalf of the U.S. government.)

    Yet that series was popular with a lot of law-abiding TV viewers–including my own parents.

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