The New Dark Age in Popular Culture
- Friday, August 24, 2012
It's both the best and worst of times for American entertainment, particularly television. The last ten years have seen many of the best shows in the medium's history, what some are calling a new golden age. If this is so, it's a very dark shade of gold as these stories challenge the longtime sensibility of television as escapism that appeals to the lowest common denominator.
A culture's stories usually reflect the times and public mood and the last ten years have included a war on terror, followed by prolonged economic uncertainty. Film and television storytellers reflected this in a new frankness and creativity. But for those who can tolerate the intensity, never has darkness been so compelling as we're offered stories that challenge us to ponder the human condition while riveting us to the screen.
Mostly what I'm considering is television (we'll get to film shortly), the medium of the masses that must attract and hold an audience through the four or five commercial breaks an hour in a hugely crowded programming schedule on hundreds of channels. Most network television, historically a great revenue source for the corporations that own them, have prospered with formula programming such as the many popular crime procedurals, sitcoms, talent and reality shows. This entertainment ethic usually offers scripted narratives with the safe and comforting content that engages viewers, with few challenges.
Dependably happy endings with heroic characters defeating bad ones help us feel that there is some order in a crazy world, even if it doesn't usually accord with the complexity of real life. Americans have always been generally optimistic and our most popular movies and television tend to be more upbeat than other countries'. But for the last thirty years, that broadcast network audience (including ABC, NBC, CBS, CW and Fox) has shrunk considerably because of the vast growth of the cable channel universe offering more diverse programming. Here, unbound by the same FCC restrictions on content, there has been greater latitude in creating series that push the limits of most broadcast TV content.
The watershed event that I believe instigated the creative surge of the last ten years was of course, 9/11: the nation watched as our greatest city and the headquarters of our armed forces was attacked and thousands died in the coordinated attacks. A new national sense of vulnerability was the result. It took a couple of years for this to cycle through the entertainment industry (although one series, 24, was ahead of the curve, already in production and played into our immediate concerns about national security in the age of terror). Several series arrived in the wake of the our new consciousness:
Battlestar Galactica: Ronald D. Moore's science fiction epic followed the remnants of a human civilization nearly destroyed by a robotic enemy, driven by religious zeal to destroy the human society that had created it. Possessing a more grown-up sensibility than the Star Trek franchise Moore once worked on, the grim series regularly posed the question of what a civilized society must do to fight evil without losing its soul.
Lost: Another series based around survivors of a catastrophe who search for meaning in the midst of a mysterious environment where unknown Others are out to kill them. The hit series explored themes of community, destiny and faith in unprecedented ways.
Rescue Me: A New York fireman struggles to keep it together after the deaths of his fellow firemen on 9/11 in this FX series starring Dennis Leary.
Person of Interest: The CBS series, created by The Dark Knight co-writer Jonathan Nolan, addresses issues of security and privacy, as two techno-vigilantes use an all-knowing surveillance computer that predicts murders, to prevent the crime before it happens. In the first season, its two heroes faced the kickback unleashed by their extra-legal activities as they are sought by both criminals and law enforcement.
A current TNT series, Falling Skies, has inherited the humanity-at-risk premise of the first two shows with ragtag survivors of an alien invasion struggling to retain their human values during their war with a technologically superior enemy.
The new sobriety of subject matter extends beyond 9/11 concerns. Other shows, though very diverse in subject matter, all share a common theme of their characters facing the unfolding consequences of their often foolish and immoral behavior. Among this group would be:
Mad Men: hugely and disproportionately influential compared to its relatively small audiences numbers, this recounting of 1960's advertising executives' journey through a decade of immense social upheaval is one of television's greatest dramas. It's opening credit image of a man falling past the alluring images he created to seduce consumers can symbolize many of the characters on cable dramas who cannot escape reaping what they have sown.
Men of a Certain Age: Middle-aged, that is—three life-long friends face the disappointments of life in a series that honestly depicted ordinary guys in a "dramady" that despite its originality and appealing stars, lasted only two seasons.
Breaking Bad: Perhaps the most daring of all the shows discussed thus far, this AMC series follows a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White (Brian Cranston), who, already embittered by life's denials (career failure, a son with cerebral palsy, his wife's late, unexpected pregnancy, and, oh yeah, a diagnosis of lung cancer) decides the only way to secure his family's future is to use his brilliant chemistry skills to make meth as a drug dealer. Fraught with dread, the tightly potted episodes build to terrifying suspense as White's desperate actions create an ever-widening circle of violence in his world.
Uninitiated readers may understandably want to flee such devastating dramas but these and other series have an honesty and insight into human nature mostly lacking in popular culture's entertainment-centered narratives. Most of these series aren't as dreadful a slog as these short descriptions make them sound. There are surprising moments of comic relief made even sharper by piercing the surrounding atmosphere of tension and high drama.
One series, FX's Justified, fits in with the rest even though, being based on Elmore Leonard's stories of Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, it has guffaw-inducing humor amidst the shoot-outs and explosions. It qualifies for the Dark List because its hero is often his own worst enemy and the show will not let him avoid the painful consequences of his often headstrong actions.
Most of the series here are currently in production so it's not easy to predict how they will end up and thus indicate whether their characters can find some sort of redemption despite their behavior. Will they be cautionary tales or will they, like the infamous last episode of The Sopranos, fade to black, seemingly with no final resolution or thematic certainty? In this sense, though television has better captured the mood of our times better than films, we're not yet sure what it all means and what these creators have to say in the end. That's where movies can offer some closure and out of the depths—the Dark Knight rises.
Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy has, in its own way, been the cinematic equivalent of these television narratives. Its protagonist engaged in some of the same post 9/11 issues as 24, and Battlestar Galactica, fighting various forms of terror that threatened civilized society. Bruce Wayne's self-created super identity, realistically rendered to engage us in recognizable threats, faced crushing challenges to his commitment and painful losses in his mission to protect his city.
Something like real-life consequences are the results of his heroic efforts. Unlike his immortal comic book inspiration, Nolan's Batman is truly flesh and blood, three-dimensional and quite human. By the start of The Dark Knight Rises, his hand-to-hand combat with crime has resulted in the loss of cartilage in his knees and arms, and the city he sought to save considers him a murderer. But unlike some of the cable show characters who are driven by their worst impulses, Bruce Wayne perseveres in fighting for Gotham, though the city will never know that it was him behind the mask, and, when the city is safe, he is self-exiled from it. He's the hero we need in the midst of our exhausting and not yet resolved economic, political and ultimately moral crises.
I'm not saying this dark age is what all our popular culture should be but it is bracingly to have both truth and consequences characterize the popular stories we tell. Nevertheless, I also hope Hollywood will remember how well it once distracted the nation from the dreary Depression years with some of the best entertainment it ever produced. The reason the number one film of the year, another superhero film, The Avengers, succeeded as well as it did was that its producers and writer/director Joss Whedon remembered what fun can be had at the movies and how great it is to cheer heroes triumphing against great threats.
We don't just need tears in our eyes and a lump in our throats these days, we want to laugh and cheer together in the darkness, too.
*This review First Published 8/24/2012
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