Identity CrisisThis season's television.
The primary thesis of Wires and Lights is that entertainment media tells the most about a people because it tries to tell us what we want to hear. So what does this season of American television tell us about Americans?
Culturally, Americans are going through an identity crisis. Beliefs about who we are as a people are being challenged and shattered left and right. Of course we want to believe that regardless of past imperialist adventures, the United States is a force for good in the world, and at heart an honorable nation. Even in the face of growing economic inequality we want to believe that the U.S. is an economic bastion and a beacon of prosperity. But seeing the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and the financial Hindenburg that is Wall Street—well, the comfortable truths we relied on are revealed to have never been true in the first place.
So it’s no surprise that our television is so fixated on our identity.
Kings is the best new pilot of this television season. A retelling of the biblical King David story set in a modern-day alternate universe, this show created by Michael Green is an anomaly in the current network prime-time lineup. Its characters are thoughtful and richly layered, never caricatures; its dialogue is dense and lyrical yet never pretentious; its themes are resonant and allegorical, never heavy-handed. It’s the show NBC needs, not the one it deserves. The show’s botched marketing campaign and its regrettably mediocre ratings do not point to longevity.
But it was a major line in that marketing campaign which proved quite interesting: “What if America was ruled by a king?” There’s always been an undercurrent, a sort of guilty fascination with the monarchy since our nation has never had one. (The Imperial Presidency, Bush’s virtual rule by decree, and Obama’s charisma-driven following notwithstanding.)
And watching Kings, it’s easy to see why. There is a primitive draw to monarchy’s simplicity. Instead of the bickering quagmire of Congress or Parliament, wouldn’t it be nicer to have a charismatic, decisive leader with the power to guide us past all the troubles of the world, like Ian McShane’s brilliantly-conceived King Silas? How pleasant would it be if war could end with a single grand gesture on the battlefield or if financial ruin could be averted through strength of will and one brilliant maneuver?
But we’re reminded that this flirtation with monarchy is just a dalliance, a fantasy—the dark intrigue of the show (part of what makes it so great) reminds us that authoritarianism is born from the public’s desire to abdicate responsibility.
Dollhouse is not a great show. It’s not even a good one: right now it’s decidedly mediocre trending upward. But its premise—that technology exists to edit and rewrite personalities as easily as syncing an iPod—and its implications hold promise, especially considering it’s one of the handful of science fiction shows on television.
The original scripted pilot was dark, complex, brooding, and moved at a breakneck pace, which is why it was axed in favor of a bunch of grade-school level procedural plots which gave star Eliza Dushku excuses to get all sweaty and half-dressed. But the sixth episode, which show-runner Joss Whedon promised would be a game-changer, actually is. This is mostly because it starts to wrestle with the psychological and philosophical implications of technology dominating personality.
To connect with the buried anti-authoritarian themes of Kings, Dollhouse is a literal depiction of the theory of learned helplessness. When the Actives—the operatives of the titular Dollhouse—don’t have “elite assassin” or “hostage negotiator” loaded into their brains, they are child-like, docile, incurious, and easily controlled. The show acknowledges them as “tabula rasas.” It’s when they start gaining personalities of their own, when the Actives become active, that things begin to get dangerous.
Let’s make a James Burke-like leap here: why is this younger generation’s political efficacy so low? Psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge in her book Generation Me argues that we’re confronted by the clash between two worlds. One, spurred by decades of post-Boomer education proclaiming everyone is special and fueled by increasingly personalized and instantly-gratifying communications and media technology, encourages a sense of entitlement and rampant individualism.
Then there’s the other world, the one of the harsh economic, social, and political realities that we are all forced to confront at one point or another, in which nothing is easy and nobody is special. When faced with the larger problems of the world, a generation never trained to think collectively instead decides to disconnect and disengage, withdrawing to their individual bubbles.
Dollhouse actually touches on this very issue, populated by nobodies who become special but not really. A woman is asked about the Dollhouse technology and opines that being able to do all sorts of things without consequence and without personal responsibility sounds like a nice life. Another character says that technology that can shape personality and thought on a mass scale is not merely dangerous but could spell “the end of us.”
No, not a comment on the media at all.
If Kings is the best new pilot of this season, Breaking Bad is the best show currently airing on television, period. It’s also in its odd way the show that probably speaks the most truth about our current situation. When protagonist Walt White (Bryan Cranston) is asked why he ran off into the New Mexico desert, he replies, “My wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn’t intend. My fifteen-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher; when I can work, I make 43,700 dollars per year. I have watched all my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable and within eighteen months I will be dead. And you ask why I ran?”
Extrapolate and generalize at will.
What Walt doesn’t add is that his troubles have spurred him to embark on a scheme to produce and sell crystal meth to raise a nest-egg to pass on to his family before he dies of cancer. Boiled down to that, it may seem trite. The show is anything but. It’s firmly rooted in the grit of reality and is obsessed with logic and process. The show knows it is climbing a steep slope and methodically processes what would bring a man to this point. No matter what stunning turn of events occurs, it always makes sense. In its first season, the show took several hours to depict a murder that CSI would have glossed over in thirty seconds, and yet it is gripping and powerful for every minute. The second season continues its trend, wringing surreal imagery and intense psychological agony from the smallest of character moments. When things explode into raw emotion or into violence, it is entirely earned.
And if you want to grab a portrait of the average American, you have it in Walt White. A promising and talented man whose potential was squandered, a nobody who is literally wasting away during his final days, unable to get out from under financial debt and social alienation until he is pushed to the brink and seeks change—any change—no matter how destructive or fleeting. In these troubled economic times, and with unprecedented drug violence in Mexico and several states contemplating the legalization of marijuana, Breaking Bad is timely in its subject matter and pitch-perfect for its milieu. Among the constellation of talented performers, Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston as Walt stands out. Who knew the dad from Malcolm in the Middle was such a powerhouse?