TV IN THE ERA OF IMPERIAL DECLINE
A look at political trends in streaming TV
By Reese Erlich
The East Bay Monthly, April 2017
The 1950s were once considered the golden age of television. Comedies such as The Honeymooners and Harvey graced the airwaves. Some shows were classics, such as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
On the whole, however, the designation golden age is more puffery than substance. TV was just getting started as a mass medium, and I think people look back with nostalgia-colored glasses.
TV had severe technical limitations. Live shows were shot with bulky cameras tethered to cables. Shows were aired with flimsy, indoor sets each week. Outdoor filming was prohibitively expensive.
Even more importantly, three broadcast networks monopolized TV, and McCarthyism reigned. Some of the best writers, directors, and actors were blacklisted from TV. As the name “GE Theater” indicates, major corporations sponsored the shows, ensuring that no politically controversial material appeared. Capitalist product placement predominated, with TV stars, for example, contractually required to smoke the sponsors’ brand of cigarettes on air.
Today, we are living through a real golden age of TV, once again related to technology and politics. Decades ago, cable TV was the hot, new technology. But companies such as HBO and Showtime quickly realized they had to produce new content to hold subscribers.
These days, technology allows audiences to view programming on demand and watch programs on big screen TVs, tablets, or even smartphones. So Netflix, Amazon, and a host of others have been producing their own original movies and series.
Binge-watching series is now a national pastime. And dozens of companies compete for new viewers. Content providers—previously known as writers, directors, and actors—can distribute their work on multiple platforms. Competition allows artists greater room to challenge political, social, and cultural conventions.
HBO’s The Wire, originally aired 2002-2008, still sets the bar as the best of the new TV. Disguised as a police drama, The Wire actually explores the corrupt underside of Baltimore, through its cops, politicians, newspaper reporters, union officials, drug dealers, and big capitalists.
While none of the current offerings meets that standard, some are pretty damn good. All are available online for a fee.
House of Cards
(Streaming on Netflix)
This Emmy-award winning series brings Shakespearian level drama to Washington, D.C. Kevin Spacey portrays a modern day Macbeth while Robin Wright schemes as his manipulative Lady. House of Cards captures the corruption and hunger for power in Washington. Everyone, whether Democrat or Republican, is evil and conniving.
While the first season is particularly enjoyable, the following seasons breed cynicism. The politicians, lobbyists, big capitalists, and foreign leaders are so bad, why bother resisting?
That contrasts sharply with the original BBC miniseries on which the U.S. version is based. The plot lines between the two are quite similar. The British House of Cards, also available online, dramatizes the life of an evil member of Parliament determined to become prime minister. The hypocrisy of this “family values” politician seducing and then murdering a young reporter makes your skin crawl. But the BBC version didn’t leave a cynical aftertaste, just a hatred of the corrupt system.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, the fourth season of House of Cards slid downhill dramatically and politically. We meet the Kevin Spacey character, Frank Underwood, as an unelected president trying to seek election.
The political plot lines, especially the foreign policy disputes, are paper-thin excuses for the main characters to show their evilness. At least the old series The West Wing tried to deal with contemporary issues realistically.
This season does contain great promise, however. Underwood, who murdered two people already, admits the murders to his Secretary of State, then cackles and says he’s just joking. He then threatens to kill her with a letter opener and says he can have her killed anytime.
Underwood is clearly coming unhinged, a la Macbeth. What dire fate awaits him and who will survive the carnage? Will the show-runners update the script now that The Donald is president? The final season begins May 30 on Netflix.
(Streaming on HBO)
Some critics are comparing HBO series Westworld to The Wire or The Sopranos. Westworld is entertaining and intriguing, but it falls well short of great TV drama.
In 1973, Hollywood produced the film Westworld staring Yul Brynner as a rebellious robot at a futuristic theme park. It was commercially successful science fiction. Memorable cinema, no.
HBO has taken the movie’s basic premise and deepened it dramatically. It hired some really great actors including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, and Evan Rachel Wood. Thandie Newton does a particularly fine job portraying a ruthless robot plotting her freedom.
Early episodes in season one are intriguing as we get to know the human and robot characters. Wealthy visitors pay a huge fee to visit a lifelike town full of robots dressed as 19th-century Wild West characters. Visitors can drink, gamble, have sex with, and even murder the robots—all with no consequences. Visitors can abuse the robots, known as “hosts,” but the robots can’t hurt guests—or can they?
As the plot line develops, we learn that some of the robots are being programmed to act as independent humans, while some of the humans are actually hosts. See if you can spot the phony humans as subtle hints are dropped into the dialogue.
The show-runners introduce some intriguing dramatic and philosophical ideas. For example, what happened to Anthony Hopkins’ early partner, Arnold, who helped establish the theme park but ends up dead? Why do the hosts keep remembering Arnold in flashback memories? Has he allowed them to develop human emotions?
As the series progresses, however, the drama and intrigue give way to numbing repetition. OK, the guests abuse the hosts. OK, robots can learn to be human. What else you got to add, eh partner?
Some viewers will also find the series excessively violent and could be offended by the male and female full frontal nudity, albeit humans-acting-as-robots nudity.
The final 90-minute season finale tries to tie up all the loose story lines. It just ends up as a complicated and ponderous mess. A diligent New Yorker staffer wrote over 2,000 words just summarizing it. The robots rise up against humans, but they do so as part of an Anthony Hopkins’ conspiracy.
The people’s revolution is actually a palace coup. Conspiracy theorists unite—you finally have a series of your own.
(Streaming on Netflix)
In the 1940s and ’50s, American comic books celebrated superheroes such as Superman and Batman. They fought fascists during World War II and communists during the Cold War. They had few internal doubts and focused their energy fighting bad guys like The Joker and The Penguin.
These days, comic book superheroes are full of self-doubt and existential angst. Their medium isn’t even called a comic book anymore; it’s a graphic novel.
Netflix is distributing two new superhero dramas based on the Marvel Comics characters Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. They perfectly represent the musings of heroes living at a time of decline in the American Empire.
World War II and Korea had their comic book heroes. The Iraq war produces nothing but sorrow and PTSD.
Cage is an African-American super hero living in Harlem. He is super strong and bullets bounce off his skin. But as a traumatized, escaped convict, he is reluctant to use his superpowers, instead opting to work as a barbershop floor sweeper.
The first few installments are quite intriguing as Cage, played by actor Mike Colter, muses about who is really a hero? He talks about other fictional black heroes such as novelist Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins. The show asks how do any of these fictional characters compare to Crispus Attucks, the real life black Revolutionary War activist?
The series presents a diverse cast of African Americans, Latinos, and women. Alfre Woodard does a particularly fine job as a Harlem city councilwoman who rallies the people against racism while secretly profiting from organized crime. Former Hayward resident Mahershala Ali turns in a great performance as the evil but always upbeat gangster Cottonmouth.
Luke Cage works when it shows the interactions of politicians, police, and gangsters—each trying to rally support among the people. Strong women characters—all of whom are black and Latina —use their strength both to exude and fight evil. No Lois Lanes here!
But the series falls apart toward the end through a number of incredulous plot twists. A new villain named Diamondback, played by Erik LaRay Harvey, has countless opportunities to kill Cage and his friends, but keeps deferring the decision to a later episode. And an episode when Cage is literally boiled in acid seems straight out of, well, a comic book.
Luke Cage tries hard. Maybe it will work better in season two, which is likely to be released later this year.
Oakland journalist Reese Erlich writes this arts and culture column every month. Follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich, on Facebook (facebook.com/reese.erlich) or contact him by email, ReeseErlich2@hotmail.com