Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of The House That Buff Built, the upcoming fourth volume in the Harry Palmer mystery trilogy whose subject is homelessness and the real estate industry, racial prejudice against the Chinese in Los Angeles, and the power of major media to set the development agenda.

How corporate media downplays climate destruction: Part One
Tuesday, 20 June 2023 10:05

How corporate media downplays climate destruction: Part One

Dennis Broe, in  the first of to articles, describes how corporate media in all its forms downplays climate destruction. Above: New York skyline, with soot 

Fredric Jameson’s famous dictum that “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” has been taken up wholeheartedly by the makers of corporate television. In numerous series stretching across different genres and now accounting for its own genre – “post-Apocalyptic TV,” – broadcast, cable and streaming TV (and of course numerous films) have concocted a plethora of “endings” to the world as we know it which have the effect of failing to challenge the climate apocalypse, which would mean immediate action in the present to keep the worst from happening.

In so doing, the makers of corporate TV, largely American but then picked up across the globe using the American prototypes, have found a new way forward in the persistent refusal to challenge the fossil fuel industry that is a more sophisticated approach to the now mostly discredited “climate denial” narrative initiated by that industry. For if the catastrophe is unavoidable, we may as well begin planning for the post-Apocalyptic future. In the industry these are referred to as Dystopian Series but that is similar to calling climate destruction climate change, it’s a carbon-neutral way of labelling the problem without discussing it.

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 David Harvey reading Marx’s Grundrisse

This paper highlights the shift from apocalyptic series, which focus on the moment of the end times of the earth, and might be politically more useful, to “Post-Apocalyptic” Series, where the endpoint of destruction has already come and gone and the series is about coping with the aftermath in the best way possible. That is, the genre, for the most part, as David Harvey utilizes these terms borrowed from Marx’s Grundrisse, “presupposes” the end as at this stage inevitable and is about “positing” how to survive after the end, once the presupposition of end times is established.

The material reasons for the preoccupation with apocalypse at this conjuncture are the destruction of the earth, the escalating danger of nuclear war and the decline of the West, all of which is accompanied by a resolute repression in the corporate media which either refuses to engage or downplays the implications of any of these conditions.

However, this also allows for an opening. Whereas, in series based in the present, political content is mostly abandoned or repressed, these series, once the idea that the end time is not nigh but here, may allow a freedom for both pursuing a deep critique of the contemporary order and a positing of alternative orders.

In Season 11 of The Walking Dead, the originator and dean of this genre, the problems of the present resurface, as the neoliberal “perfect world” of The Commonwealth conceals a vicious and violent inner core, a repressive deep state needed to maintain the surface air of gentility.

The Last of Us presupposes at its outset a fascist government, the endpoint of today’s neoliberal experiments as the French, no longer believing in Macron as a bulwark against fascism, since he has used undemocratic techniques himself, now turn to Le Pen. However, in the course of the cross-country travels of the two lead characters, the series posits the creation of a communal compound which is the opposite of this order and which opposes it.

Finally, the class antagonism in Snowpiercer indicates that the post-Apocalyptic world cannot escape the problems of the present, perhaps negating or qualifying the effectiveness of this flight into fantasy, while also suggesting, in the most radical positing of the genre, that a world shorn of capitalists can negotiate its own resurrection.

Oil I Want Is You

“The best thing about the Earth is, if you poke holes in it, oil and gas comes out.” — Republican U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman, 2013

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Climate activists denounce COP28, the oil-friendly climate conference 

We are all witnessing the increasing failure to confront climate catastrophe and to rein in the fossil fuel industry, with the next global conference on climate, COP28, being held in the oil rich city of Dubai, chaired by the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company which is investing billions in pumping more oil next year. It is no wonder there are calls to boycott the conference. With this capitulation depictions of the end times have increased.

At this year’s Series Mania, the largest television festival in the world held at Lille in France, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic series had, along with Me Too female liberation series, become the dominant genre, accounting for 13 percent of the total of 55 series. These included the apocalyptic tone of the endpoint of Western science in Lars Von Trier’s return to The Kingdom; South Korean high-school teens training for an alien threat that hovers over their heads in Duty After School; the Spanish series Apagon where a solar tempest strikes the earth; The Fortress, where Norway, in Trump-style, walls itself off from the world and then must confront a deadly virus; and finally The Swarm, a global series financed by several European public television networks in which the ocean sets out to wreak its revenge on a humanity bent on destroying it.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set the Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight, as planetary destruction looms. This grim future reality though is belied by a most abundant present for oil and gas companies whose profits have never been greater.

Largely as a result of the energy crisis because of the war in the Ukraine, the profits of the five largest producers of oil and gas, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Total, were $195 billion in 2022, almost 120 percent more than the previous year and the highest level in the industry’s history with the U.S. President Biden accusing these companies of “war profiteering.” Only five percent of these profits went to developing clean energy, with the majority going as Chevron claimed to “shareholders, investing, and paying down debt.”

The war has also occasioned a return to the most dangerous and most polluting methods of extraction, including in the West deepwater drilling and the return of coal, and across the world new nuclear power plants have been announced in Malaysia, Indonesia and The Philippines. Meanwhile France threatens to bring 6 to 14 new plants on line, regardless of the nuclear waste these plants will generate.

In the U.S., now the largest supplier of natural gas, this has meant a return and reopening of the previously unprofitable industry of fracking in a new narrative where this process, which destroys drinking water and leaks methane in a way comparable to coal mining, “saved American democracy.” The day the war began the Bloomberg News Agency ran a story headlined “Fracking: A Powerful Weapon Against Russia,” trumpeting the return of an industry that had almost gone bankrupt.

The carbon imprint of the replacement of Russian oil and natural gas with American fracked gas, with its increased transport distance is twice as great as before. Add to that the imprint of American hydraulic fracking and the carbon imprint is almost three times greater.

In addition, the war has also seen the blowing up of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 Russian pipelines, with the culprit still an object of surmise but with much of the evidence, as marshalled by the U.S. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, leaning toward the U.S. and Norway, oil producers who have been the major benefactors of the sabotage. The methane emitted from the cloud that passed across Europe was described as described as “the highest release of methane gas ever on the planet.”

The failure to confront the fossil fuel industry

Since the onset of the war, Western governments have caved into the demands of an ever more dominant and omnipotent fossil fuel industry with the U.S. president Biden having implemented all the policy requests of a secretive fossil fuel lobby group, just as Bush in a secret meeting never made public signed on to Cheney’s Haliburton agenda, and as Trump more brazenly named the head of Exxon as his secretary of state. Equally, European leaders have met more than 100 times with the industry since the war began, while industry lobbyists at 2002’s U.N. climate conference far outnumbered “climate-vulnerable African countries and Indigenous communities.”

The effects of this onslaught have already appeared in the U.S. in rising coastal sea levels in the East amid worse hurricanes and storms, Midwestern mega rains and droughts destroying crops and homes, and worsening and more destructive forest fires in the West. The apocalyptic effect by the end of this century if this destruction is not halted will be the drowning of island nations, the inundating of coastal areas from Ecuador to Brazil to the Netherlands as well as huge swathes of South and Southeast Asia and the potential extinction of major cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, London, Mumbai and Shanghai. 

All of this is linked to the failure to confront the fossil fuel industry. As Naomi Klein says:

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism. The actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe…[threaten] an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

All of this in terms of the apocalyptic imagination leads to “the acute and painful realization” that our “leaders are not looking after us . . . we are not cared for at the level of our very survival.”

Nuclear war and imperial malaise

There are two other forms of destruction on the horizon and which also are essentially going largely undiscussed and unheeded. These are are the (renewed) threat of nuclear war in the face of the ever-escalating war in Ukraine and what I will call, after Paul Gilroy, ‘imperial malaise’, the decline of the West, which is being hastened by the division of the West and the rise and resistance of the rest of the world prompted also by the war.

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Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament poster 

With Russia having announced the stationing of nuclear weapons in nearby Belarus and with the NATO countries continuing the path of escalation (the British supplying depleted uranium weapons which will leave radiation traces on both the Ukrainian users and the Russian targets while destroying swathes of the environment, the Germans sending Leopard tanks east in an ominous suggestion of World War II and with Poland now demanding to be armed with U.S. nuclear weapons) and as the U.S. secretary of state declares that the U.S. will support no peace talks and will not end the war, the threat of a full-scale nuclear war increases daily. This threat, mostly unacknowledged in the corporate press, also feeds the feeling of hopelessness and a sense the world may be coming to an end.

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From Apocalypse LA 

The failure of the West, led by the U.S., to enlist the rest of the world in its campaign against Russia, with fully 83 percent of the world refusing to go along with U.S. sanctions, has hastened an already accelerating decline, as the centre of economic activity shifts eastward to Asia. The results have been a cumulative apocalypse which has seen income disparity worsen to the point where the creators of these television series, the Hollywood writers, claim as a primary reason for their strike that they can no longer support themselves on their salaries while profits within the streaming industry soar.

In France inflation from price gouging and the war, the raising of the retirement age and the cancelling of job security is expressed in graffiti on the Left Bank that simply states “greve ou creve,” strike or die.

Finally, there is the crisis of the drug epidemic, as a way of coping with this destruction, that has passed from heroin to Purdue Pharma distributed oxycontin to fentanyl, seven times more potent and addictive than heroin – all three discovered and originally manufactured in Big Pharma laboratories – making the streets of Los Angeles unsafe. It’s no wonder that one of the contemporary Hollywood apocalyptic series From has everyone locked in their homes at night, with living dead, flesh-eating zombies ready to devour anyone who lets their guard down and goes outside.

The full weight of these various apocalypses is never registered in the continuing onslaught of corporate media where we are told that despite it all, the system is coping, doing its best and is still the hope for humanity. The cognitive dissonance and distance between what is said and what the collective unconscious knows to be true but which must remain unsaid is also responsible for the dominance of the terrifying images of post-apocalyptic television.

How can it be, for example, that a country which holds itself up as a shining beacon to the world, sometimes called “the indispensable nation,” supplies B-16 bombers to Ukraine at $550 million per plane but forces its homeless in Los Angeles, epicentre of a national housing crisis, to sleep at night on public buses?

Part 2 will describe various apocalyptic TV series as both promoting and contesting climate destruction.

The Global Crime Novel: Worldwide Corruption and Chiseling
Friday, 19 May 2023 10:03

The Global Crime Novel: Worldwide Corruption and Chiseling

Published in Fiction

The Global Crime Novel: Worldwide Corruption and Chiseling

In a 1931 Warner Brothers made the film Blonde Crazy, in the pre-Code period where expression was raunchier and more truthful, before the era of middle-class censorship. As the Depression reaches its peak, conniving bellhop James Cagney is trying to convince new hotel hire Joan Blondel to go on the road with him and work a hustle together. Leaning into the ingenue and laying his cards on the table, he makes his pitch, explaining that “The age of chivalry is over. This is the age of chiselry.”

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Cagney and Blondel in Blonde Crazy 

In the evidence of this year’s Quais du Polar in Lyon France one of the largest conventions in the world of global crime writers, the “age of chiselry” is, as the current recession/inflation/austerity continues, back with us, bigger and badder than ever.  And that age is not only perpetrated from below but also from on top as the very rich, with the global pie shrinking, take whatever steps are necessary, lawful or not, to hold onto what they’ve got, whether it was acquired lawfully or not.

Perhaps the star of the conference was India’s Deepti Kapoor whose Age of Vice is now being adapted for series TV by Disney+ and FX. Age of Vice takes place in the early 2000s, a time, the author explained, when India was making a transition from socialism to capitalism. It was also, as she describes it in the novel, a time when gangsters and organized crime entered the government, melding with regional authorities in a level of corruption that exceeded even Russia in the 1990s under its alcoholic “czar” Boris Yeltsin.  In that period, as Nick Harkaway, a crime author himself and John Le Carré’s son who was in Russia at the time, pointed out gangsters profited from the government, but stayed out of it.

Age of Vice is also about developers profiting in this new, “modern” India as whole settlements of the poorest are removed from the Yamuna riverbank in Delhi with everyone’s conscience eased because they are offered resettlement housing. However, the gangster-developer quickly sends his representatives into this area to buy back the resettlement land and to tear down the cheap housing and build on that.

The gangster’s son, who gallivants across the globe with his father’s money, has the vision of making the riverbank look like the Thames, with museums and upscale developments replacing encampments inhabited by the poor, but his father cuts that vision short and opts instead for the pure profit of high rises for the rich.

As Kapoor pointed out, India, with now the largest population in the world, has reached new levels of inequality, in the wake of the corruption she describes in the first decade of this century. According to the latest Oxfam survey, the top 1 percent own 40 percent of the wealth while the bottom 50 percent own 3 percent.

In an opposite way, in a panel that included Kapoor, Jake Adelstein, the author of Tokyo Vice, which Michael Mann has adapted into a series now renewed for a second season, described the overreach of the Japanese Yakuza gangsters, whose power has recently been curtailed in Japan because they attempted to aggressively challenge the police and the government, disrupting a truce that saw each existing side by side with the other. Adelstein, who was a reporter working on the crime beat in Tokyo, also explained that like Roberto Saviano, whose investigative work on the Camorra has entailed him living in constant police protection, now needs police protection when he visits Japan because of his extensive inside reporting on the Yakuza.

Crime novel 3

Volker Kutscher, author of ten books on which the German series Babylon Berlin is based, with the first five translated into English, described the schlumpy hero of the series Gereon Rath as a “mensch.” Rath is the sometimes less-than-decisive protagonist of the series. He is, though, a staunch defender of the Weimar Republic as we watch as the series, which starts in 1928, progresses or regresses through the years of Hitler’s coming to power.

In The Fatherland Files, set in 1932, Rath is sent to a remote corner of Germany near the Polish/German border as he tracks a wily killer who operates in Berlin. The still unresolved tensions in the border region, which a plebiscite had claimed for Germany, and the nationalist fervor of the Germans in the region, now further deepened by the ominous presence of the brown-shirted SA as well as the supposed patriotic fervor of a prosperous brewer are the seeds from which this violence in Berlin has erupted.

Elsewhere, Dennis Lehane, author of among others Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, addressed the conference remotely from the U.S. and explained how his latest novel Small Mercies, set in Boston in 1974 at the time of forced bussing to desegregate the public school system, dealt with a racial hatred, not so dissimilar to Kutcher’s borderland Germans, that resulted in the tragedy of the death of a little girl.

Melivina Mestre took the audience on a journey of both time and space as she described her latest novel Twilight in Casablanca, set in the early 1950s where the city was abuzz with spies, including a huge presence of American intelligence, trying to influence the continent. Jurica Pavičić, whose novel Red Water won the European prize for Best Crime Novel two years ago, returned to the conference with the soon-to-be-translated The Woman on the Second Floor.

Red Water described with a sprawling depth the break-up of Yugoslavia, the years of war after that break-up and how the modern Dalmatian coast has now turned into a high-end Western investment haven and tourist paradise – changes that have left the populace gasping as they tried to keep up.

Woman on the Second Floor covers similar territory but this time in microcosm, as a wife looks back on the events and rapid-fire transformations that led her to murder her mother-in-law. As such the novel in its intricate description of the consciousness of a single character and its explanation of what led her to violence, has something in common with David E. Kelley’s masterful Love and Death with Elizabeth Olson in a true crime recounting of how repression in a Texas suburb led her, as she made a valiant effort to escape that repression, to commit a violent act.

Crime novel 4

Also in attendance at the conference was Thomas Mullen whose trilogy titled “Darktown,” which takes the name of the lead novel, follows the first African American cops on the Atlanta police force in 1948 as they deal with violence, corruption, and racial prejudice in the pre-Civil Rights South. The final novel, Midnight Atlanta, set in 1950 stands on the cusp of that movement and features a cameo by Martin Luther King. The trilogy describes the extent of the discrimination in this earlier era where, as Cornell West described it, “Race is the way class is spoken in America.” It also calls into question how far supposedly progressive communities have come because today racial barriers are maintained through income disparity and high property values such that, in a way that allows for pristine discrimination without having to deal with ethnicity, in a reversal of West’s dictum, “Class is the way race is spoken in America.”

Finally, from Marseilles came the winner of the French prize for Crime Novel of the Year, Gérard Lecas’ Blood of Our Enemies, a “policier,” as the French call it set in that city in 1962, on the eve of the ending of the war for Algerian independence, in a novel that may well soon become a television series.

Two cops of different political persuasions, one communist, one conservative, must investigate the death of an Arab man whose body is drained of blood. The city is filled with representatives of the right-wing terrorist group the OAS, the Algerian independentist movement the FLN, “pied noir,” refugees from Algeria who supported and gained from colonial rule and Harkis, Algerians who served on the side of the French in the war. The two contrary officers must navigate these various groups as they search for the killer in a novel that has intonations of Dominique Manotti’s Marseille 73 where 11 years later the same tensions still erupt in a far-right plan to retake Algeria.

Thus, across the globe and through history, writers of crime fiction, as seen in this year’s Quais du Polar, are tracing an increasingly more malevolent turn toward violence as global conditions break down in the face of worsening poverty and inequality.

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Dennis Broe is the author of “Calamitous Corruption,” The Harry Palmer LA Trilogy that consists of Left of Eden, A Hello To Arms and his latest, The Precinct With The Golden Arm.

The Vast Wasteland of Series TV, and the Writers' Strike against Corporate Juggernauts
Tuesday, 09 May 2023 11:22

The Vast Wasteland of Series TV, and the Writers' Strike against Corporate Juggernauts

What is the state of TV streaming TV Serial Series, in the wake of last year’s Netflix devaluation and this year’s bank crisis in the U.S? That was a question that was not mentioned much at Lille in Northern France at this year’s Series Mania. It’s perhaps the world’s largest television festival, boasting 55 series from 24 countries, including for the first time series from Iran (The Actor) and a Pakistani/Indian co-production (Limboland).

The question of how to survive in an industry in retreat however did surface in disguised form repeatedly. This seeming global cornucopia and abundance of series TV is belied by the fact that financing is shrinking in the wake of another bank collapse. This time it’s Silicon Valley Bank, which made loans to digital companies of which streaming is now a part including bankrolling the streaming service Roku, as well as the collapse on the international level of Credit Suisse.

Not to mention another U.S. mid-level bank failure, that of First Republic, equally crucial to the digital economy on both coasts, which lost 102 billion in deposits in the first quarter of 2023 and needed a 30 billion bailout just to stay alive. The net effect of a run on mid-level banks in the U.S. was that money fled to the supposedly safer, larger banks, in particular J.P. Morgan (whose profits jumped 52% for the first quarter of 2023) and Citibank. J.P. Morgan also has now absorbed First Republic.

These banks will be much more conservative financiers of a largely debt-ridden industry which has yet to turn a profit. Warner Bros., operator of HBO Max, which recently became just Max, is 50 billion in debt, having lost 217 million in the first quarter, claiming that loss is actually a victory since it was far less than the previous quarter, while Disney+ is hoping to be profitable by 2024.

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First Republic Bank, now wholly owned by J.P. Morgan

So there will be less money to go around, and the money that is available will be coming from more conservative sources which will want more guarantees that the money invested will be profitable. All this in the wake of last year’s market devaluation of Netflix, based on subscribers declining for one quarter and a new emphasis on overall company profitability rather than on number of new subscribers, as the market becomes more suspicious of the streaming ‘house of cards’.

The retrenchment was an unacknowledged topic at the conference, with everyone realizing that budgets will be leaner and fewer series will be commissioned. There is also in the industry a new conservatism in programming, which likely dates from Reed Hastings’ comment in 2019, at that time as the head of the most influential streamer Netflix, about not opposing Saudi cuts in his company’s documentary because “We’re not in the news business. We’re not trying to do truth to power. We’re trying to entertain.”

This purposeful abnegation of any larger social role for the streaming industry was like the statement attributed to Jack Warner in 1947 in the wake of a strike against his studio, that “I will never again make a film about the common man.”

The renouncement of social content was touched upon by Series Mania director Laurence Herszberg, who candidly declared before the festival that “Today Netflix is more conservative than TF1” (TF1 is a commercial French on-air station, the equivalent in the U.S. perhaps to CBS).

The result of this retrenchment, which is already apparent, is a cutting back not only on the number of series and/or on the budgets of commissioned series, but also the failure of some of the streaming services. If they survive, it will be by making cheaper series, usually meaning unscripted or reality series which means a general diminution in quality.

Last year the French streamer Salto collapsed, while the merger of Warner Bros. and the documentary service Discovery meant that the resulting streamer, now simply titled Max, having shed the name of HBO, is now about saturation – but with cheaper reality series from the Discovery label, with the emphasis on more bottom feeder series such as Gold Rush, Deadliest Catch, and Moonshiners.

The End of Peak TV

This new state of affairs was described by the online service Slate as no longer “Peak TV” but rather “Trough” or bottom-of-the barrel TV. Two years ago, 2021, was probably the height of series abundance with 559 series produced in the U.S. By contrast, in the current climate, Sky, one of the leaders in European series, has invested in 200 series but only about 10 percent of them are scripted.

All over the world consumers, led by the U.S. and now labelled ‘cord cutters’, are cancelling expensive cable services for cheaper streamers. The problem for the streamers is that inflation and an austerity-driven global attack on working class income such as the French raising of the pension age from 62 to 64, and global central banks’ raising of interest rates which makes borrowing prohibitive, means that cord cutters are subscribing to fewer streaming services.

Meanwhile, as Herszberg says, streaming services across the globe are growing and have now reached by her count 700, which means the competition for viewers is increasing.

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Nordland '99

All this new penny pinching has prompted a return by the streaming industry to many of the practices of the older era of network TV, practices which for a decade or so the streamers had claimed had been surpassed in a frenzy of creative activity. Series are being cancelled sooner with some now cancelled in production before they reach the air.

This practice is more in line with the usual mid-season casualty list of network TV which used to announce after Christmas a fresh second season, having replaced fall series that were duds and ratings failures with spring series, many of which, a few months later, shared the same fate.

Budgets for series are being reduced and canny showrunners are already adapting to the new austerity. One of the best series in the festival was Nordland ’99 from Danish public television, in a shortened but tight half-hour rather than the usual hour format. The showrunner, Kasper Møller Rask, has fashioned a low-budget, rural series with a cast of mostly newcomers, filmed cheaply in the Danish countryside whose dark forests are alive with the eerie intonations of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks while also echoing the themes of Lynch’s series. Here, three teens search for their missing friend and discover the evil of an adult world which itself has been left for dead by the systemic brutality of what in the West can now be labelled authoritarian neoliberalism.

Freedom to choose bland TV

Another accommodation to the network TV era is the adoption of the dreaded strategy of advertising, which Netflix previously was famous for shunning, instead claiming it was viewer-sponsored with its revenue coming exclusively from subscriptions. All streamers now though have instituted “two-tiered” pricing, with a lower price that includes advertising and a higher price that excludes it. Advertising of course also opens the door to sponsors having a say in content and particularly in the atmosphere that the program surrounding their product sets up – yet another infringement on creativity that means blander content. This new austerity, control, and limiting of the range of content is presented as “freedom of choice” for the consumer.

To appeal to lenders wanting to be assured their money will prosper, the buzzword in streaming is now “IP,” Intellectual Property, which does not mean more thoughtful challenging work but rather the opposite. IP denotes utilization of a previously successful property. In the Hollywood studio sense this could mean that the series already has an audience in another medium, thus the recent television remakes of the novels Great Expectations and Tom Jones and Drops of God, an international co-production from a popular Japanese manga about competition between wine growers in France and Japan.

More often though IP means the extension of one hit series into a franchise, the business term, or “universe,” its creative equivalent.  With the success of the very conservative Yellowstone, a kind of modern-day cross between Bonanza and Dynasty, about a rancher and his family holding onto their land, aided by the fading star quality of Kevin Costner, Paramount+ has now gone back in time and created two copycat series about the origin of the dynasty titled 1883 and 1923.

This trend is further magnified by the ratings success of the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, which despite a lacklustre final season for the origin series has proven to be an enormous hit and which has prompted the development of six more GOT series. You can never have too much of a good thing even if that good thing ended by exhausting itself.

A mountainous abundance of ****

The general quality of the streamers’ stables is declining. Once upon a time television was referred to as “the vast wasteland” with that phrase then superseded by the labelling of the streaming era as a new “Golden Age,” harkening back to socially inflected anthology dramas of television’s early years. Today’s budget-conscious streamers, in an era of increasing competition, each stressed at the conference their desire to be all things to all audiences, a one-stop shop for entertainment, given that much of the audience can now only afford one stop.

This Noah’s Ark approach – comedy, drama, family, quality entertainment all in the same bundle – stressed the element of abundance, but the truth is there is now mostly an abundance of shows without much merit, so that, to find quality series it is now necessary to scour all the streamers to find the one or two relevant series on each.

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Sylvester Stallone’s Tulsa, part of the Paramount+ “Mountain of Entertainment

Paramount+, for example, a newcomer to European markets, in line with its old studio logo featuring a snow-capped peak, described its offerings as “a mountain of entertainment,” a “popular array of content” that presented a range of series with each being “best in class.” The streamer’s “sizzle reel,” a montage of its various offerings, with the tagline “The Stars Are Streaming,” belied these claims, featuring the almost comatose Costner in Yellowstone, Sylvester Stallone in his beyond-cliched gangster series Tulsa, a coming extension of Dexter about a vengeful serial killer and NCIS Sydney, the overseas expansion of that tired franchise. This is surely a mountain of something, but I’m not sure the correct name for it is entertainment.

There are three ways that both globally and locally the power of the streamers is being challenged. The first, in Europe, is still the possibility of government intervention to level the playing field, though as in many forms of the digital economy, with the EU already currently behind in the race for Artificial Intelligence (AI) as exemplified in ChatGPT, this intervention often comes in the ‘too little, too late’ variety.

There is a European mandate that the American streamers’ content must be at least 30 percent local. Despite or perhaps to surmount this mandate, the streamers are pilfering the best European series talent, with Netflix, for example, recently having hired Eleonora Andreatta, formerly the head of the drama department of the Italian public television network RAI and with the producers of the French espionage series Bureau of Legends, which has now become a global franchise, currently working for Disney+.  

In France, though, following the Chinese model, each co-pro with an American streamer now must have a delegated French producer. The idea here is that the producer then absorbs the American model and can instill it into French production, the way the Chinese allowed foreign companies to set up in China but then absorbed their know-how.

The writers are striking!

The most impactful challenge though at the moment is located in the belly of the beast. As this article goes to press, the biggest story in series and film production is the looming writers’ strike, which is now almost a certainty and will commence in May.

Since 2007, with a contract won in the wake of the last strike, the writers have been watching those gains steadily erode as their salaries declined by on average 4 percent while profits in the entertainment industry as a whole, despite the debt, have soared. The streaming companies on the other hand, now more budget-conscious, have not budged in negotiations, trying to extract as much profit as possible from writers who have a crucial role in the establishment of series TV and whose hiring is now more precarious since series have shorter time spans, 8 to 12 episodes as opposed to the former network model of 22.

Those 8 to 12 episodes now also take longer to produce in the era of “quality TV” but writers are being paid the same amount per show and thus are forced, as are workers everywhere, to work longer hours for less pay.

One of the points of contention in the writer’s contract is the use of AI, with producers threatening to employ this latest technological breakthrough to author scripts and the writers campaigning to keep AI out of the writing process. The problem here is that because of the declining quality which this article has mapped, and the whole history of Hollywood film and television production as rolling off an assembly line, some of the recent series look like they have already been written by programs like ChatGPT.

However, this assembly line production can never replace well-written series. One need only look at two recent series, released within a day of each other, to observe this. Amazon’s bloated, utterly unoriginal John Wick/True Lies/Jason Bourne paint-by-numbers Citadel, which will become a global franchise with new entries in India and Italy, sounds like it has been spun off a machine. To use the language of AI, the script, lacking an ounce of originality, is simply recombinatory.

On the other hand, David E. Kelley’s Love and Death, an extraordinary, minute examination of how unmet desires in a suburb of Texas at the dawn of the repressive Reagan “Revolution” erupt into violence, is not a machine-like spitting out of past cliches but a highly original work.

The third challenge to the power of the streamers is in the global content of showrunners willing to buck the trend of “pure entertainment” and create socially relevant series, which admittedly are in the vast minority.

The anti-capitalist alternative to wealth porn like Succession

An India/Pakistani production Limboland, although much more Pakistani centered, being shot amid the breathtaking peaks and lowlands of the Hunza Valley in Karachi, is a Succession themed series but unlike that series – which is simply wealth porn – has an anti-capitalist point.

Limboland centers on the decisions an old man, now a wealthy hotel owner, made in his life, shutting out the woman he loved in favor of the pursuit of money with a non-Western pace that equally belies the frantic pursuit of profit evidenced even in the editing of its American cousin.

Equally, Black Santiago Club, from Benin, describes the fellow-feeling around a jazz club that is being threatened by a developer who wants to gut the club and turn it into condo apartments. The film is crystal clear on both the communal sprit engendered by the club and the attempt to destroy that spirit by privatizing for profit what is a neighborhood treasure.

 Little bird

Little Bird

Finally, two other series highlighted racial inequality. The first was Canada’s Little Bird, voted the audience favourite at the festival, which situated itself first in the present as it follows the path of a Native American ripped away from her family and inserted into a Jewish professional milieu in which she has thrived. Then it flashes back to her painful abduction by the Canadian state and highlights the attitude of superiority that allowed that state to break up families in the name of “progress.”

Netflix’s Thicker Than Water, currently streaming on the network, a tour-de-force by showrunner, writer and series lead Nawell Madani, highlights the racism of the French professional classes. An Algerian female reporter must claw her way onto the set of French TV as an anchor woman, all the while dealing with her brother who is connected to a gang, while cooperating with her sisters as their family is caught up in trying to rescue the brother. As a reporter Fara is allowed her own curly black hair, a physical mark of her Arab heritage, but as an anchor, to come into the living rooms of a white French public, she must straighten her hair and dye it blonde. After the changeover, she climbs into an elevator filled with nothing but dyed blonde French women, ascending to the top of the station hierarchy symbolically and physically.

Thicker than W 

Thicker Than Water

As Western economies everywhere decline, the streamers also find themselves in a precarious position with Peacock, Comcast’s streamer made up of content from NBC/Universal, now rumored to possibly lose its identity in a merger with Warner Bros.’s Discovery, and thus in danger of becoming the first of the major streamers to throw in the towel.

Opposing the corporate juggernauts

The struggle continues of writers, other creative workers in the creative industries, public stations, alternative streamers as well as audiences to oppose the corporate juggernauts. In the latest manifestation of this struggle, writers, never more important in the industry, attempt, through the time-honoured tool of a strike, to fight off these latest efforts to reduce their value both by a regressive movement back to “non-scripted” reality television and a coming attempt to supplant their work in general through the onslaught of AI and ChatGPT’s replacing of a writer’s sensibility with a machinic recombination of genres. Unfortunately, the decline in series quality, supposedly motivated by decreasing budgets, is playing its part by readying audiences to accept this degraded mode of production.

Dennis Broe’s articles are television are available on Substack at Cultural Politics For Those Who Care and on his website Bro On The Global Television Beat. His latest book on television is Diary Of A Digital Plague Year: Corona Culture, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services.

The Invaders: Alien Beings From A Dying Empire
Wednesday, 12 April 2023 09:50

The Invaders: Alien Beings From A Dying Empire

Published in Fiction

The Invaders: Alien Beings From a Dying Planet. Their Destination: The Earth. Their Mission: To Make It Their World. It began with a landing of a craft from another galaxy. Now David Vincent knows that the invaders are here, that they have taken human form. Somehow, he must convince a disbelieving world that the nightmare has already begun.

That was the opening of a piece of ’50s paranoia that ran on TV in the mid-60s. These creatures from another planet are just like us but some of them have a deformity, a pinkie finger that sticks straight up. Each week architect Vincent tried to tell people that the planet was in danger, launched by a deadly foe that did not mind wiping out all life on earth to make way for this alien life form from a planet whose inhabitants assumed human shape but showed no emotion.

Unfortunately, the Invaders still walk among us. They resemble ordinary politicians except their rhetoric is much more bellicose. They threaten the rest of the planet and at every moment attempt to push war and halt peace. They have ordinary names like Nuland, Sullivan, Blinken and Biden, and you can tell them, not by their extended pinkies, but by their use of the word “democracy” as an excuse for their desire for planetary dominance.

They disrupt the flow of goods and the peaceful development of the resources of that part of earth called The Global South in order to maintain their dominance. They are especially active in what they see as the menace of Eurasia. When they saw the possibilities for shared resources with Russia and Western Europe they immediately went into disruptive mode, in order to further promote their own oil and gas and maintain their dominance over their Caucasian vassals.

DBinvaders Countries US military interventions scaled

Make no mistake about it, they are invaders. They themselves recently revealed they have launched 251 military interventions since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and 469 since the Invaders arrived in the U.S. in 1798. The greater contemporary danger though for these creatures for whom peace is an alien concept, is the coming together to share resources and aid that is the mutual development of the entire land mass of Eurasia. This danger is led by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which despite its problems, aims to be a bridge between the developing countries and Europe, with the trade on this New Silk Road raising living standards all along the way.

The aliens in the U.S. – already reeling from their failure to decimate Russia in their Ukraine proxy war as 87 percent of the world’s population refuses to commit to the war – have now set their sights on destroying the Belt and Road Initiative which they see as a challenge to their mission to control the earth, to keep it exclusively their world. What they pose as the alternative to the Chinese rising tide which lifts all boats is endless destruction in a kind of mafia protection racket. Either you are with us or against us and if you are against us, we are coming for you and you will be destroyed.

This is the Biden-Blinken-Sullivan-Nuland logic and, as they clamor for a rules based order, behind the braying, lies the power of their alien weapons now spread out in 800 military bases in over 80 countries while China, the country they present as a major military threat, has one foreign base in one country.

DBInvaders2

The way of life of this alien race is crumbling, as their leader, who they call The Biden, walks the streets of Ukraine with a fake air raid siren to make it seem he is in danger, while they ignore their own people who are dying in a chemical spill and then a purposeful explosion that may have decimated the drinking water and livelihoods of one-third of their own world, making it far more dangerous for The Biden to walk the streets of Palestine Ohio, where he does not dare to go, than those of Kiev.

David Vincent had to go person to person in the late ’60s to warn about these alien invaders, as people refused to wake up to the danger they posed. It is far more difficult for the David, Diane, Dinitia and Damon Vincents of today because the aliens have captured all means of communication in their world, and emit an endless stream of blather utterly out of touch with the geopolitical realities of the world around them.

Behind the wall patrolled by their alien devices which censor all global perspective, they reward their lying media as just recently a daily newspaper now taken over completely by these creatures, which they call The New York Times, was awarded the prestigious Polk Award for its coverage of the war in Ukraine. This was a completely one-sided and often inaccurate view of the war, with almost no reporting on how and why the war started and only one paragraph written about the revelations that their alien masters blew up the Russian Nord Stream pipeline.

Can the drive toward death and destruction by these alien creatures and their mad lust for power be stopped before they destroy the earth in their attempt to make it “their world” and to keep the rest of the world from rising? The architect David Vincent tried to spread the word but it will take all of us to build a peaceful world and rid this one of this ever more dangerous alien menace.

This is a preview of an upcoming episode of I Fought the Law featuring prolific author and historian Gerald Horne and titled “Me Tarzan, You, Are Either With Us Or Against Us: Joe Biden in Africa” 

Class, Crime, and the “Blonde Bombshell”: Diana Dors vs. Marilyn Monroe
Saturday, 18 February 2023 11:18

Class, Crime, and the “Blonde Bombshell”: Diana Dors vs. Marilyn Monroe

Published in Films

She was called “the British Marilyn Monroe” but in fact, in very telling ways, their paths and personas were different. The difference conveys some important truths about Diana's class-based British society, and Marilyn’s America, which was hell-bent in the 1950s on erasing any traces of class consciousness.

Both came to prominence in the oversexed – because in actuality horribly repressed – middle and late 1950s where misogynist terms like “sexpot” and “bombshell” were applied to any actress – though not to actors – who gave off the slightest whiff of sexual liberty. With Marilyn, this aspect of her persona was seen as part of her naïve charm. With Dors, it was part of a “bad girl” image from which she never strayed. She truly maintained, as a critic once described Richard Widmark, who often portrayed seedy low-lifes, “the courage of her own sordid convictions.”

Yet, underneath the tawdry image, in her British noirs of the period (The Long Haul, Tread Softly Stranger, Passport to Shame, all available for free on YouTube), was an acute identification with her working-class roots and with the pain as well as the solidarity that an exploitative class society often engendered. These films in which she had a prominent role in the late 1950s were the precursors to the wholescale entry of working-class characters into the British cinema in the early 1960s with what was called Angry Young Man or Kitchen Sink films – because they often featured working-class figures lurking around those sinks – beginning with Richard Burton in Look Back in Anger and featuring Carol Reisz’ majestic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  

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Monroe as working-class entertainer in Otto Preminger’s River of No Return

Marilyn had a different trajectory. She too had a humble working-class background and in her early films – John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Roy Ward Baker’s Don’t Bother to Knock and Preminger’s River of No Return – she was often a set-upon outsider who still managed to maintain her innocence. But something happened around 1954, when she moved to New York and started studying at The Actors Studio, which nearly ruined the authentic quality she brought to her early roles. Once she became an “aactrice” and started “aacting” she began to conceal all aspects of her actual roots and moved toward becoming an unmoored icon in a ’50s America that claimed to have abolished all class distinctions in the victory of capitalism.

The low point of this second phase was 1956’s Bus Stop torn from the condescending New York stage, where she plays a bar singer who falls for a rodeo cowboy (Don Murray). Both are seen as nearly sub-human, so inarticulate they can hardly communicate, and the “aactrice” Marilyn is happy to dumb down her character as she helps throw a “upper-middle-class elite gaze” on working people.

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Dors confined to a repressive reformatory in Good Time Girl

Dors was the quintessential “bad girl” – a ’40s label for women who breached the social code and sought independence – almost from her moment of entering the British film industry in 1948’s Good-Time Girl, about a rambunctious teen who breaks society’s rules and shows no remorse for doing so. After being condemned to a cruel women’s boarding house, and being a victim of a lascivious father, she breaks out, eventually led astray and into serious crime by first a gangster and then two hardened American servicemen. What is supposed to be a morality tale about the dangers of taking wrong turns, that is defying a society with rigid rules for its working-class women, instead through Dors’ refusal to radiate guilt, turns her tragedy into triumph.

She then partially tried to reform and become a more standard blonde heroine, but that part of her persona never took on. She instead went from brash prison inmate in The Weak and The Wicked to 1956’s Yield to the Night, an intensely sympathetic portrayal of a woman in her last days condemned to death for the murder of an abusive husband. In its branding of capital punishment as actual crime inflicted by the state on female victims, that film shared the limelight with the American I Want To Live, done two years later, another meticulously sculpted portrayal of the sadism of the state’s death sentence against a powerfully resilient Suzanne Heyward. Dors was lauded for her role at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Dors was then offered a contract with RKO in the U.S. and her persona was immediately altered by John Farrow and Jonathan Latimore ­ ­–the director and screenwriter of The Big Clock – to first bad girl and then repentant sinner in The Unholy Wife. She is saddled with a ’50s “loving,” but actually coercive, arrogant, moralistic Napa Valley wine merchant and husband, Rod Steiger, who can only think of their child which his wife never wanted. Had it been made today the film might have been called The Unhappy Wife, as in the end Dors is stripped of her platinum blonde hair, and as a bowed brunette awaiting the electric chair she repents and finds religion.

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Dors trying to break free of a gangster with trucker Mature in the background

The film, which strayed so far from her persona, was not a success. Perhaps the best thing that happened to her was that she returned to Britain and starred in three remarkable noirs. The first was The Long Haul, about a crucial sector of British working-class employment, the trucking industry. Victor Mature, his hard-bitten face here still able to convey longing before he consumed himself in an alcoholic frenzy, stars as an American vet who signs on to a transport company run by a gangster. Dors is the at first equally hard-bitten gangster’s moll who instead falls in love with family man Mature, but eventually returns him to his family and consigns herself back to her former prison as a club girl at The Congo Club. She is both seductive but in-the-end also attuned to Mature’s wife and child. Her meeting with them is presented not as submission to bourgeois morality but as solidarity in her recognition of their importance. This film and Hell Drivers, about the same industry, are almost a direct line to the British working-class cinema that will follow, as outlined in my chapter on British films in Class, Crime and International Film Noir.

The pain behind the bombshell persona

Next comes perhaps the best of this trio, at least in terms of Dors’ persona. In Tread Softly, Stranger, she comes between two brothers in one of the bastions of the British working class, the Northern steel town in Yorkshire of Parkgate. The film features extensive on-location shots of the factory which one of the brothers, an accountant, intends to rob. Dors’ character Calico, at first a kind of freeloading sexual user, is pushing for the robbery and seems to be nothing but a “gold digger”– a ’30s pejorative term for women seeking some level of financial independence – as she instead falls for the accountant Dave’s older brother Johnny, an itinerant gambler returned home from London to hide because of his debts. When the crime unravels though, Johnny charges her with exploiting men: ‘Doesn’t anybody mean anything to you?”

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Dors in the working-class bastion of Yorkshire in Tread Softly, Stranger

She answers with a remarkable monologue which softens and makes understandable her path and which is not only her character’s story but also partly autobiographical:

I come from a slum, from the gutter where it’s quite a step up even to the pavement. I never had a home. I never had a father my mother could put a name too. I never had a thing till one day I found I was attractive to the opposite sex. My legs could be used for something other than to stand on. I had one talent, most people haven’t got any, so I used that talent and I got tough.

She then says she never loved anyone until Johnny so in her mind she was never unfaithful but that she is faithful to him. The monologue is a clever deconstruction of the exploitative personality she was forced to adopt and her struggle to escape it. She will wait for Johnny and this becomes the fullest expression of the pain behind the “bombshell” persona perhaps ever in the cinema.

Finally, in Passport to Shame, Dors has the secondary role as a hardened sex worker in a house of prostitution in charge of overseeing the initiation of a new recruit. The ingenue though falls for a taxi driver who eventually exhorts his buddies in the cab company to rescue the recruit. Dors also falls for a not particularly handsome, but very sympathetic, cab driver and friend of the lead character, helps participate in the rescue, and leaves with her new friend. Again, a film where her persona as hardened exploiter gives way to someone who returns to her working-class roots, to male-female solidarity instead of cut-throat exploitation of each other, as she rejects the pull of the glamour of capitalist society whose promise of material wellbeing is in the end seen as empty.

Diana Dors had a remarkable career. Particularly in the late ’50s, at a time when Hollywood was simply full of beauties for their own sake as personified by Marilyn Monroe, she helped cast a new light on the working-class origins of these characters. This contributed to their ultimate dissolution as that image in the 1960s gave way to a more liberated one, while also branding her as a working-class woman of the cinema par excellence. Perhaps this is the reason why her performances – at least for U.S. and global audiences – are now almost forgotten.

A Cultural Dispatch From War-Torn Europe: Art, Theatre and Music in Vienna
Saturday, 28 January 2023 22:10

A Cultural Dispatch From War-Torn Europe: Art, Theatre and Music in Vienna

Published in Visual Arts

It’s hardly the ruined, devastated postwar rubble that was the backdrop of the most famous film shot in Vienna, The Third Man (see image above), but in more subtle ways Europe in general and Austria’s capital city in particular is showing signs of deterioration. After two years of a COVID lockdown and with the price cap on Russian oil and natural gas – prompting in return a cutoff of that supply from Russia – there is a general air of belt-tightening and despondency as well as an unleashing of right-wing sentiments in the wake of these twin catastrophes.

The belt-tightening is everywhere apparent. The museums cut back on Christmas blockbusters and instead tried to make up in ingenuity what they lack in budget. The Leopold Museum’s feature “Vienna 1900” displayed works by Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka in an exhibition that simply looks like a regurgitation of past exhibits using the fin-de-siecle 1900 label to group them under a new heading of the turn to modernism.

The Kunst Historisches (Art History) museum which in the past has featured blockbusters highlighting Titian, Caravaggio and Bruegel this year tried, in avoiding the high price of borrowing and insuring works, to trace the history of competition in art in its “Idols and Rivals” exhibit which featured an array of replicas and reproductions. It’s a topic that might have dealt more strongly with the pressures on artists to produce saleable commodities in a capitalist art market, but which instead focused on individual rivalries. Best moment was an etching of the art historian Georgio Vasari and Michelangelo visiting Titian’s studio at which time Michelangelo, peering over the master’s shoulder, is said to have remarked that the Venetians, famous as colorists, still had not learned how to draw.

The New Year’s celebration was also muted as the city, pre-COVID, had sponsored nine stages with various kinds of music ranging from Viennese waltzes in the city square to hip-hop to rock, but this year cut the display down to five. A highlight of past New Year’s events was a broadcasting outside the world-famous Staatsoper, the national opera house, of the New Year’s Eve perennial Der Fledermaus and the next day on the same screen the world-famous Vienna Philharmonic Concert. This year the events took place but were not broadcast outside, and thus remained only the province of the elite, though the concert in truncated form is broadcast on public television stations across the world.

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Surrealism and Psychoanalysis at The Freud Museum 

The most interesting exhibition was one of the smallest, a collection of 50 Surrealist pieces – sculpture, paintings and sketches – at the Sigmund Freud Museum, which recounted the sometimes troubled relationship between Freud and the Surrealist capo Andre Breton. Freud remained skeptical about the Surrealist project, which he claimed dealt only with the manifest, or overt, content of the dream, whereas he was interested in the latent, or hidden, content. But it’s easy to see that in fact the two benefited each other, with Surrealism helping to popularize Freud’s discovery of psychoanalysis, and Freud’s discovery of the unconscious which enlivened and invigorated the art world with a plethora of startling images. 

Also on hand at a revamped version of the museum was Freud’s correspondence with Einstein on the subject of the uselessness and destruction of war in the era between the two world wars. Their warning went unheeded, neither in their time nor today as we draw ever closer to global nuclear war.

The other most interesting exhibit was at the Welt or World Museum on the subject of “Oceans. Collections. Reflections.” The museum featured the work of New Zealand Maori artist George Nuku. The work, in exquisite paintings and sculptures, detailed the interdependence of the Maori on the ocean with each construction of a boat or a whale bounded by plastic bottles, indicating the way waste and the petroleum industry are devastating the livelihood and sustainability of the Maori.

Elsewhere, the exhibition described how in the 18th century New Zealand tribesmen had visited Vienna as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire and asked for aid as they were about to be invaded by the British. The emperor granted them a printing press which they used to print leaflets and testimonies warning of the impending invasion. Helpful, yes, but also a way of exonerating the empire from its colonial role in the conquest and colonization of the peoples of eastern Europe.

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The Volksoper's Threepenny Opera 

The Volksoper, or People’s Opera, which performs light opera or operetta and musicals, featured a strikingly modern version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil’s Threepenny Opera with the beggars dressed in the gaudy costumes of internet influencers and the thieves arrayed in the equally outrageous apparel of digital entrepreneurs. This element of the production emphasized the continuity between scammers of different centuries. What did not work was the overwrought Don Juan in Hell final death of the lead thief and cutthroat Mack the Knife which attempted to replace with smokescreens and stagecraft Brecht’s more radical ending. Brecht resolved the injustice of the play through a royal decree, which was designed to call attention to the falseness of Dickensian and other deus ex machina endings of  artworks which undercut the social critique in those works. The trope persists today, not only in fiction but also in the belief that billionaire philanthropy will in the end save the world, even as it adds to their own wealth.   

The city is dotted with metros, buses and trolleys, and is often voted the most livable on the planet. It continues to have extraordinary public transportation and affordable housing with the average price of 767 euros for a roomy one-bedroom flat just outside the central ring. Sixty percent of its population live in subsidised housing, a tribute to the post World War I affordable housing boom led by first socialist and then social democratic administrations. But as everywhere on the planet there are ominous sightings of the ever-present monstrous cranes, harbingers of the coming of large condos that will force the prices up everywhere in the city.

Renaissance of the right wing

There is also a disturbing right-wing renaissance even in this most cosmopolitan of cities. It’s perhaps the result of the support for the fascist elements in the Ukrainian government, soon to be aided by the flow of NATO arms that are making their way across Western Europe, where a right-wing planned coup was recently thwarted in Germany. Those arms have surfaced as far away as Africa, with Nigeria’s president announcing they have already reached terrorist groups in that country.

The Austrian History Museum, opened in 2019 and recounting Austrian events from after World War I to the present, featured an exhibit titled “Disposing of Hitler: Out of the Cellar, Into the Museum.” The Austrian criminal code bans any material that could be used to “perpetuate the aspirations” of any Nazi organization, but National Socialist paraphernalia – books, swords, photos, postcards – exist everywhere and can be bought on eBay. The exhibit consists of illustrations of this memorabilia and asks visitors whether it should be preserved, sold, or destroyed. Overwhelmingly the response, aided by the museum itself which presented an argument for a museum being a repository of historical memory, was “Preserve,” with no “Destroy” and an occasional “Sell.”

The exhibit thus functioned as a part of the path on the way to normalising this hateful junk, with the argument that “it’s part of our history” – the same argument propounded almost always by right-wing pundits and used to attack the pulling down of slave owners’ statues in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Elsewhere, the Staatoper’s version of Wagner’s The Master-Singers of Nuremberg, at over four-and-a-half hours the longest opera in the repertory, missed a chance to address the anti-semitism and championing of the Aryan virtues which made it not only a hit but the only opera performed at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival in Hitler’s darkest days of 1943 and 1944.

In the work, the proud German blond clean-shaven novice has to outsing the hard-hearted bearded technical master for the hand of a German maiden. The Staatsoper chose to simply recreate the work, putting its effort into painstaking reconstruction of the 17th century milieu in which the work is set, seemingly oblivious to its historical uses and its ethnic stereotyping. The opera is a fascinating meta-mediation by Wagner on the art of composing and singing, but it cries out for a modern retelling which ironizes and criticizes its original bigotry and the uses to which it’s been put. Recreating the period does not negate that history but simply suppresses it in an era in Europe where it is more alive than ever.

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Mozart in 3D 

Finally, Vienna also has, as is popular everywhere in Europe, a new immersive experience in the centre of the city titled “Mythos Mozart”. These are 3D recreations of Mozart’s death, his city Vienna in 1791 at the time of his writing of The Magic Flute, and the creation of his most famous musical number “A Little Night Music.”

In general, these “immersive” exhibitions flood the viewer with images – but afterwards one knows little more about Mozart and his world at the end than at the beginning. The last room is a kaleidoscope of random images assaulting the viewer on all four walls, the ceiling, and the floor. In response to this stultifying collage a little girl got on all fours, and raised one foot up against the wall as though she was a dog out for a walk doing its business. That little girl is going to make an excellent critic.

The beating heart of the city though, despite the rightward tilt and the wartime austerity, is still its cafes. Café Central, a haven for writers and once the home of Freud, the novelist and journalist Joseph Roth – the subject of an exemplary new biography titled Endless Flight – the anti-war critic Karl Krauss, and Arthur Schnitzler, the playwright and lampooner of the bourgeois. Café Museum was the home of the “1900” artists Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoschka and Café Mozart was the meeting place of composers and opera singers, and perhaps of Arnold Schoenberg and Albert Berg as they created the “new” atonal music.

These are now all packed with tourists but still contain the memories of a time that may hopefully be revived and prevail over the war clouds that now hang so heavily over Europe.

Calamitous Corruption: The Harry Palmer LA Trilogy
Wednesday, 21 December 2022 15:32

Calamitous Corruption: The Harry Palmer LA Trilogy

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe presents Book 3: The Precinct With The Golden Arm

In his third encounter with the seamy world of the LA power structure of the 1940s, disgraced ex-homicide detective Harry Palmer tangles with the LAPD as it attempts to shed its aura of corruption while clamping down on the Mexican American community of Boyle Heights in the wake of the Zoot Suit Rebellion. Lurking in the background is the burgeoning pharmaceutical industry as these various threads interconnect and lead Harry into a maze of sex and drugs as he confronts his own tarnished past.

Available on Kindle and in paperback 

Praise for Book 2:

“Dennis Broe has done it again! Private investigator Harry Palmer takes us on another twisting, careening ride through the noir underworld of early Cold War America. With racist, greedy, corrupt, violent, and erotic Los Angeles as the backdrop, this plot of espionage, murder, and intrigue will have you turning pages as fast as your eyes can follow”—Peter Kuznick, co-author with Oliver Stone of The Untold History of the United States

“This worthy contribution to the unsettling history of LA fits nicely between Raymond Chandler’s earlier depiction of the region and the contemporary vision of the Curtis Hanson/James Elroy L.A. Confidential and Mike Davis’ City of Quartz--Mike Berkowitz, Mendocino News

“Harry learns how the US became a war economy, and why the beneficiaries of that process will take any measures to keep their magic money tree watered…I defy anyone not to enjoy the quips, badinage and throwaway philosophy, delightfully faithful to the style of the period”—Matt Coward, Morning Star

And be sure to check out Book 1:Left of Eden 

Rising Above the Corporate Glut: The Top 25 TV Series in 2022
Monday, 19 December 2022 10:52

Rising Above the Corporate Glut: The Top 25 TV Series in 2022

In 2022 there was a near collapse of the major streaming services. The production of TV series went through a wave of retrenchment and belt-tightening, and tended to become homogenous, looking like they all were rolling off the same conveyor belt.

The other trend in 2022 trend was toward ever-higher budgets as streamers adopted and adapted the ’70s Hollywood model of the blockbuster and the ‘90s cable model of the megahit that branded the company. These mega-budgets of course made it harder for global public television—and much television outside the U.S. is public—to compete, and if they did compete also often forced them to employ U.S. models of design.

In terms of these bloated budgets and what they produce, let’s take a look at the BBC’s The English, a series that has been highly praised. The series is a marvel of British Isles acting as its pilot boasts both Ciarán Hinds as a dastardly landowning station manager and the always marvellous Toby Jones reprising his role as The Bus Driver here transplanted into the West as a stagecoach driver.

However, the series itself, featuring Emily Blunt introduced in extravagant close-ups of first her feet and then her face, is a “woke” Western with a female lead threatened by “the real America,” “a country only full of killers and thieves,” – in other words, Trump’s America. She is befriended by an indigenous Pawnee and she, the Englishwoman, is the voice of reason, with the series having no consciousness of the fact that part of the brutality of the West was the learned behavior transferred from the colonizer England. There is a Shakespearian high/low quality to the language in the contrast between Hind’s flowery dialogue and the Pawnee’s terse grunts, but we’ve seen this before and executed better in the language in Deadwood and in the narrative of the English woman stranded in the West in Hell on Wheels.

As opposed to the high-budget pretention of The English we have the low-budget “B-film” aesthetic of the CW’s Walker: Independence. It’s that lowest form of series, a spinoff of a series called Walker Texas Ranger that is itself a remake. The setup is similar; a woman from Boston stranded in the violent West but with a much stronger questioning of the power structure that is taking shape in that region. The Pinkertons, ace strikebreakers, are at first introduced as saviours but then highly questioned when shown to be in league not only with the railroad, which is transforming the West through the power and speculation of Eastern wealth, but also with the town’s corrupt sheriff.

This series is league’s ahead of the BBC’s better-looking, paint-by-the-numbers West. Proof that bloated budget and A-list actors do not always a better series make and proof that even in the belly of the beast, the lower-budget “B-film” aesthetic is capable of providing charming and politically charged series that stand outside the norm.

And that is a good way of introducing this year’s Top 25 (and 5 Worst) series which celebrates global resistance to corporate streaming extravagance, and low-budget freedom to challenge preconceived conceptions and introduce socially relevant content into a form that is in danger of atrophying, because of the excess money and the pressure to produce results in the form of subscriptions.

This year I watched 156 series and found roughly one-quarter of them worth watching, but I also passed on about another 350 series that just from the description seemed too derivative or too frivolous to even bother checking out. This means that I found about 8 percent of the total content worth watching, encompassing 13 countries, out of what is claimed to be a bounteous cornucopia of content.

The number of series of course conceals the growing homogenization as each strives to be just different enough from those surrounding them to attract audiences, while not different enough to challenge them and disturb the palliative effect of a mode of digital production that is designed to conceal the fact that the power of the West is fading. Meanwhile those on top grab ever more for themselves and leave audiences with the false hope of streamers which deliver actual bounty only to their shareholders – even as that bounty decreases in value.

Top 15

The Porter — This BET (Black Entertainment Television) + and CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) series highlights the struggle of black Pullman workers one hundred years ago to unionize. The Porter (see image above) is a highly nuanced series about the various kinds of black experience, including Afro-Caribbean, in a Montreal neighborhood that validates all forms of black economic practice, legitimate and so-called illegitimate, but also values solidarity and regard for the community over personal gain. A one-of-a-kind series, unfortunately, that was the year’s highlight.

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Billy The Kid re-envisions the West and the Western

Billy The Kid — the West and the outlaw tale as you’ve never seen it before. The series, available on Amazon, recounts Billy’s early history as an Irish immigrant in the tenements of New York and then as he experiences the prejudice of American society firsthand and through the treatment of his Mexican friend and later in the season as he breaks with the tyranny of a landholder terrorizing Mexican farmers. The series, while delivering aspects of Western gunplay, is much more about how those who came to America hoping to escape from under the thumb of the British in Ireland. In fact they found themselves terrorized by that same group and their descendants in a supposedly wide-open land that, as the series charts, was becoming more and more closed down as capital centralized. A superb recasting of the legend.

The Silence — This joint Ukrainian/Croatian production, on HBO Max, is about an understated element of the economy of both countries, the trafficking of young women and the involvement at the highest levels of both countries in that trade, and ends with a Twin Peaks type triple cliffhanger. Alas, because after the Ukrainian war, as that country becomes a shill for and empty shell of Western neo-liberal capitalism, while being held as an enduring model of resistance, the second season will likely never happen as it is now impossible to cast a critical eye on a country that, before the war, was recognized as the most corrupt in Europe. Another casualty of an unnecessary war.

Oussekine — Disney +’s first European series recounts the savage death of a young Algerian student in the Parisian Latin Quarter at the hands of the police. The series is exceptional on the role of the police, the cover-up at the highest levels of French society that persists to this day and the ability of a family, itself witness to a mass execution of Algerians by the police upon its arrival in the country, to persevere and push for justice in a racialized society which denies the existence of any official prejudice.

Joe Pickett — Paramount +’s counter to its reactionary white landowner series Yellowstone. This series, also set in the West, follows a Wyoming game warden as he attempts, with the aid of his lawyer wife, a Native American policewoman and a black Survivalist, to counter the influence of the state’s power centre in Jackson Hole, site of the yearly global finance summit.  Pickett’s “detecting” involves his knowledge of the increasingly perilous position of wildlife in the state and the mystery involving a land grab hinges on his knowledge of natural habitats and his refusal to take the money and instead become a land manager consultant who betrays the public’s trust. It’s a fascinating noir that remains true to its nature-in-peril setup. Relevant too, in this year of the COP 15 Biodiversity summit, which announced that over one million species are threatened with extinction because of the kind of exploitation the series illustrates.

 Snowpiercer — Season 3 of this TNT series, available on Netflix, opens with a bang as the stratified power structure on the train on which earth’s survivors travel is upset and Mr. Wilford, the neoliberal Richard Branson/Elon Musk figure, is dethroned. The series then coasts through the middle episodes but ends this penultimate season with a thrilling compromise between competing opinions on the train about what to do next with both parties—though one position is dictated by fear and the other by hope—able, minus the train’s CEO, to recognize the legitimacy of each position and effect a compromise that sets up next season’s finale. Powerfully structured addition to Bong Joon-ho’s film that expands and adds an additional layer of complexity to the film, rather than just ripping it off.

Babylon Berlin — Season 4 of this German series, coming soon to Netflix, is produced by the European satellite company Sky and continues to challenge American outlandish budgets in its lavish recreation of a decaying Weimar Republic in the ’20s and early ’30s. The police detective Gereon Roth, previously a staunch supporter of democracy, opens the series in full Brownshirt regalia in a 1930 New Year’s Eve Kristallnacht destruction of Jewish property. Meanwhile, his erstwhile protegee on the force, Charlotte Ritter, finds herself in trouble as she attempts to conceal the activity of her sister, forced through desperate poverty to become a serial burglar.

This season deals majestically with the coming force of Nazi goons and their protectors in the upper echelons of Weimar society, as well as encompassing a plot about corrupt cops who feast off the booty of thieves. Episode 8, of 10, follows too closely its Volker Kutscher source material and descends briefly into gangster Godfather and Tarantinesque brutality, but then rights itself and returns its focus to the actual danger of the fascist takeover. Fascinating as always. Along the same lines, though set in 1962, is the BBC’s Ridley Road which spotlights the brave efforts of a young Jewish woman to infiltrate a pack of British neo-Nazis.

Alaska Daily –This ABC television series, streaming on Hulu, proves there is still life left in network, or linear, TV. Hilary Swank stars as a tough-nosed, no-nonsense reporter outcast to the backwoods of Alaska on a local paper because of a major story gone awry. There she confronts the prejudice surrounding a botched investigation of the disappearance of native women, her publisher who tries to steer the paper toward supporting a corrupt Senate candidate and her own white whale, a general pilfering Pentagon funds. By the team that brought you the film Spotlight but much tougher than that film, undoubtedly in part due to the influence of co-producer Swank herself who brings her “does-not-suffer-fools-gladly” persona to the small screen as she calls out not only lying officials but also refuses to indulge in romantic liaisons which compromise her integrity. And on network TV – wow!

After the Verdict/Savage River — Australian series, produced respectively on Australian private and public TV, with that country currently the leader in socially relevant drama. The first brings together four middle-class jurors who believe they may have made a mistake in freeing a woman who possibly hoodwinked them with her status and privileged attitude. The series is actually not about the too-easily-guessed mystery but rather the troubles plaguing a Western middle class as it attempts to come to grips with a declining lifestyle and finds its best way of coping is not by denial but by cooperation.

Savage River focuses on the plight of a young working-class woman who returns to the town of the title after serving time for a murder and finds herself again the subject of an investigation into another murder. The laying bare of the power dynamics of the town, whose economy is based around a sheep slaughterhouse being put up for corporate sale, and the young woman’s active search to expose the true source of decay in the town, make this a series to contend with. 

Borgen – This Danish series streams on Netflix and portrays the complexity of Scandinavian multiparty politics. It seemed to have exhausted itself after three seasons but revived for a fourth and final season on the subject of the exploitation of Greenland, the pearl of Arctic oil drilling. Birgitte, now a Danish minister, at first takes the ecological position, refusing drilling against the Greenlanders themselves who want the benefits. Under pressure from Denmark and the U.S., she then switches positions and betrays her ideals as her associate in Greenland betrays an Inuit woman with whom he has a dalliance. She is punished for her lack of conviction, proving that women in government under a colonialist system are no more infallible or likely to reform that system than men. It’s a bitter ending to a series which debates all sides of an important issue.

We Own This City – This mini-series, by the creators of The Wire, charts police corruption in Baltimore for over a decade. It describes “The Thin Blue Line” of cops protecting cops as closer to the mafia law of omerta, of silence, than as an institutional means of survival against hostile neighbourhoods. Jenkins, the honored leader of a squad, not only steals and then resells drugs from street dealers, but also holds forth on pettier levels of corruption as he counsels his men on how to cheat on overtime. A powerful statement of the series, carried over from The Wire, is that this corruption is also a result of the failed “War on Drugs”, which “achieved nothing but brutality, full prisons and a complete lack of trust between police departments and their cities.”

Ms. Marvel – In general Marvel Studios television took a reactionary step back this year (See Moon Knight in 5 worst), but this series about a Pakistani teen in Jersey City was a quantum leap forward, up and out of the Marvel universe. The series, which at first seemed to be simply another elaborate advert for that universe, took a sudden turn when the family’s trip to Karachi included a monumental flashback as our superhero encounters her relative fleeing India on the last train out of the British partitioning of the two countries. On her return, the supervillains she contends with are well-armed U.S. federal agents attempting to capture her and wreak havoc on a community which comes together to thwart them. The series expands the Marvel Universe and through its partitioning flashback its “multiverse” and illustrates how that scheme can become something more than a catalogue of Marvel products. Will this model be followed? Probably not.

Andor – Another quasi-superhero series, this one in the Star Wars universe, that surprised by its, and The Walking Dead season 11’s, being the series which, though obliquely, best challenged the U.S. empire. Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien) is superb as the Bogart/Casablanca reluctant warrior against an empire that attempts to exert total control on a downtrodden galaxy. The series debates resistance against what seems to be an all-powerful foe as Andor, in a series of masterfully planned and shot escapades, eludes capture on his home planet, pulls off a payroll heist, breaks out of an impregnable imperial prison, and returns to the planet in disguise to save a friend and view his mother’s funeral. Would that more of those inhabitants, now firmly in the ideological grip of the U.S. empire, had Andor’s courage to challenge its accelerating drift into global war, as all the while it increases its mind control on its citizenry.

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The Walking Dead vs. the neoliberal Commonwealth 

The Walking Dead—11th and final season of this cable favourite, before splintering off into 3 separate series, has the survivors of a zombie disaster contending against their most powerful foe, the neoliberal Commonwealth, which is ruled over by a Hilary Clinton prototype who proclaims that all is well even as she employs ever more repressive measures to maintain control. The unruly band of survivors cannot live under the stifling abundance/repression of the Commonwealth and inevitably come into conflict with how it limits personal and group freedom. The season 11 showrunner Angela Kang has done a superb job not only in winding up the series but in proving that in the nether regions of genre and apocalyptic TV, which more learned critics and viewers have given up for dead, lurks the possibility of the deepest and most penetrating critique of the supposed benevolence but actual violence behind the current bourgeois order. Who knew?

Hightown/Before We Die—Sometimes series are simply well-wrought and compelling without having overt social content. Season 2 of Hightown is an example though it also continued its portrayal of the effects of the current drug scourge Fentanyl on a Provincetown, here portrayed as a fishing town struck down, as is its police detective heroine, by this disease. Both are attempting to recover from its insidious effects. The third and final season of the Swedish series Before We Die wrings, as do the previous two seasons about respectively the Croatian mob and a league of corrupt cops, every last drop of suspense from this tale of a police detective mother and her undercover son. A Hitchcockian tightening of the noose around both characterizes season 3 as the series ends prematurely as both characters finally reconcile. It’s an unusual premise and stunning follow-through of a series which is the best undercover series since the 1980s extravaganza Wiseguy. Also worth noting is another Swedish noir The Dark Heart ­(on Mubi) about a ruthless land baron father who lords it over his daughter, the local townspeople, and the environment which he brutally strips. The daughter’s awakening and revenge is the subject of this exceptional series.  

Honourable Mentions

Dark Winds—One of five notable indigenous series encompassing two continents, all of which deal with peoples under pressure. This most prominent, but not the best, series, on AMC+, features Indigenous actor Zahn McClarnon (also on Reservation Dogs) as a tribal cop contending with a history of abuse including forced sterilization on Navaho land and a racist FBI agent as he attempts to solve a brutal robbery. Canada’s indigenous channel produced another season of Tribal, available on Amazon, which highlighted again the tensions between Canadian and reservation police. Australia’s Troppo centered in Queensland, also on Amazon, involved an indigenous, aboriginal female aiding a disgraced cop in solving a murder that looks simply like a crocodile fatality. The Australian indigenous channel likewise produced True Colors (on Peacock) about an aboriginal cop who must solve the murder of a young girl amid the new wealth about to arrive in the local town because of the now global prominence of aboriginal art. Finally, The Tourist, on Netflix, tracks an amnesiac Irish visitor to the outback as he struggles to regain his memory and to figure out his relationship to his indigenous girlfriend as, all the while, he is being tracked by gangland killers. Each in the detective genre, but each employing that genre to investigate aspects of the inequality of global indigenous treatment.

Women of the movement – Season one of this ABC miniseries, now on Hulu, recounts the story of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmet Till, who launched a nationwide campaign to secure justice for her son, a victim of Mississippi racism. Actually, a multi-point of view recounting of the murder from the perspective of not only the mother but also the colonized population of African Americans in that state as they slowly find their voice and come forward in one of the earliest moments of the civil rights struggle.

Run the Burbs—Canadian series, featuring a mixed Asian and Indian family, that recognizes a cosmic demographic shift in celebrating not the whiteness but the diversity of the suburbs, making of those former conservative enclaves a multicultural utopia. Hats off also to the Nigerian-wedding-in-Lagos episodes of Bob Hearts Abishola and especially the wedding itself where the suburban Detroit sock vendor and his family integrate themselves into the joyful rituals of the African celebration.

From –There have been many post-Lost series with a group marooned somewhere (La Brea, Manifest, The Leftovers) but this series, on EPIX, which stars a haunting Harold Perrineau from Lost, about a group who do not know where they have surfaced and have to investigate the strange rules of their new world is, for its intriguing set-up and its enduring multicultural characters, the best.

Red Light—This series, streaming on Netflix, a product of Belgium and Netherlands TV, centers on three women, with its lead character a sex worker trapped by her pimp. The connection between the three and especially the struggle of the lead character with her own demons to find herself worthy to break away from her tormentor drives this series as it highlights trafficking between Antwerp and Amsterdam.

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Abundance vs. Disparity in Conversations With Friends

Conversations With Friends – This second Hulu adaptation of a novel by the class-conscious writer Sally Rooney, after last year’s triumphal Normal People, is only superficially concerned with the class elements of the interactions of its four characters but is generous in the way it suggests that “normal” bourgeois relations are limited and instead describes the abundance available in transcending them.

Abbot Elementary — ABC again, the most progressive of the network stations, broadcast this series, streaming on Hulu, that highlights the plight of both teachers and students as they attempt to confront the war on public-school budgets as more money goes to more segregated and upper- class charter schools as well as to the U.S. military and the war in Ukraine. The single-minded focus of this series on this lack marks it as a landmark socially adept sitcom. 

Chivalry/Reboot—Speaking of sitcoms, the two funniest were first Steve Coogan’s romcom pairing of an aging producer and a liberated director, Sarah Solemani, who is more than his match. Season one ends with her explaining she will not be with him because: “1) You’re too selfish and won’t be a good father, 2) I’m married and 3) You’ll leave me for a 25-year-old in 5 years.” Wise and wisecracking about the “new Hollywood” attempting and often backsliding in letting go of its misogynist ways. The first scene of Steve (Modern Family) Levitan’s Hulu series Reboot is one of the funniest of the year as it skews the lack of creativity in a network meeting about recirculating old series. Unfortunately, the rest of the series then jettisons that satire somewhat in favor of Levitan’s usual warm and fuzzy family relations, the most egregious of which is Paul Reiser’s, a co-head writer on the rebooted show, obnoxious attempts to reconcile with his also-in-charge daughter. Reiser, from the earlier Mad About You, is a traditional loud-mouthed, obnoxious sitcom character who in this series is saved, tolerated, and condoned by his willingness to change in a series of “heartfelt” moments that belie the more vicious, and more accurate, satire that surrounds these moments. 

North Sea Connection/The Cleaning Lady—Both series highlight populations in peril. The Irish series is about methamphetamine being brought into that country by the “entrepreneurial” activities of the brother of a woman who operates a fishing trawler on the coast. The series spotlights the way survival in this remote, formerly self-sufficient village in the wake of the attack on self-sufficiency by the global import economy, almost necessitates criminal activity. The first season of Fox’s The Cleaning Lady, based on an Argentine series and set in Las Vegas, is an apt description of the compromises this family of two working-class illegal immigrant mothers must make in the face of the constant onslaught unleashed against them by employers, the underworld, and the government. In the second season the show loses its way, jettisons the plight of the women, and moves towards the gangster plot in a way, miraculously avoided in season one. Both series available on Hulu.

The White Lotus—Season 2 of Mike White’s exploration of the callousness of an American privileged class as they journey abroad, here in Sicily, while often right on point, in an ending that seemed to reconcile the worst behavior of the most entitled couple, compromised its critique and for that is booted down to Honorable Mention. Not since Henry James has an American writer chronicled the upper classes with such unromantic clarity and it is hoped that the next, already commissioned season, will return to the colonized/colonizer moment of season one’s look at LA characters frolicking amid the quasi-poverty of the Hawaiian natives.

Worst 5

The Gilded Age—This high-budget recreation of an upper-class New York at the turn of the last century was compared to Edith Wharton. A not very adept comparison though because Wharton had a sharp social eye that she cast on the contradictions of that life, whereas this series simply wants to validate wealth as it gazes uncritically on its social-climbing characters. The supposed tension between old wealth and new wealth is simply instead a celebrating of the ultimate compatibility of both. In the same vein is Apple TV+’s Severance, which is a supposed “expose” of the alienation of work and private life but which instead functions as a smokescreen to conceal the real-life work grievances that prompted organizing of Apple’s workers to have more say in a workplace that silences them while claiming it is a progressive space in touch with their needs. Not greenwashing but workwashing of the real tensions in the Apple “family” by focusing on a false issue.

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Dumb and Dumber in The Peacemaker

Peacemaker—A waste of a James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy and the new head of Warner’s DC franchise) script. John Cena as the lead doofus is not funny and neither is the show which attempts to be a DC satire of action series and instead reads more like Marvel’s Howard the Duck. Outdone in the stupid action hero category by Reacher which at least had, in its treatment of a not to bright action hero, as Richard Widmark was once described, “the courage of its own sordid convictions.” Worse still was the highly praised Pam and Tommy, an empty portrayal of an empty movie-star, rock-star couple, distinguished by Seth Rogan’s disgustingly putrid working-class builder who is nothing but a mass of seething resentments. Both the series and Rogan are being honoured this award season.

Fairview—This inside the entertainment industry beltway series blatantly celebrates LA “culture” with its group of media saturated and overly savvy kids with nothing on their minds beyond their self-referential knowledge of the industry. Yuck. Gives new meaning to the word “insipid.”

Moon Knight/She Hulk—Two Marvel series that rather than expanding the Marvel universe, illustrated the potential retrograde quality of that space. The first was the worst. Oscar Isaac’s at first likable dweeb character instead turns into a psychotic murderous hero in pursuit in Egypt of Ethan Hawke’s turbaned villain in episodes that hark back to the worst of colonial Hollywood of the 1930s and ’40s. She Hulk on the other hand constituted a geek’s idea of what female liberation looks like with the lawyer, once she transforms into the green monster, completely forgetting her case against a corporate polluter and instead grappling with a costumed unidentified female supervillain and then joining a corporate law firm. Not a depiction of a professional career woman’s lives and traumas, as it pretends to be, but rather simply a billboard on which to advertise other Marvel products. Good for the company, not so good for viewers.

The Sandman—British DC superhero/horror hokum, featuring upper-class British accents in a 1916 manor that simply reads like generic whiteness.  This is the kind of series that had it been allowed to continue Lovecraft Country, with its Afro-centric take on the horror genre, would have pre-empted. Unfortunately, since that honoured series was cancelled after one season, this kind of churlish childness continues to be reborn. 

“The one where the whole thing nearly collapsed”: the business of streaming in 2022
Sunday, 04 December 2022 12:15

“The one where the whole thing nearly collapsed”: the business of streaming in 2022

If the buzzword for corporate streaming in 2021, with life still centered online as COVID lingered, was “Expansion,” the key phrase in 2022, with nuclear war looming, inflation and rising interest rates deflating salaries, and climate destruction worsening, was “Retrenchment.”

The turnaround of what was once part of one of the last of the still thriving sectors of capitalist enterprise was so fast and so wide-ranging that in March Netflix’ rising subscription rates were still the toast of Wall Street, but by April a one-quarter decline brought on a 35 percent loss of valuation as the company shed $50 billion in one day.

The tech industry as a whole—and the entertainment industry is now a branch of that sector after the mass movement to online streaming during COVID—suffered huge losses with the most stark of these being the crypto company FTX which went in days from a valuation of $32 billion to bankruptcy and which was described in court documents by creditors trying to reclaim their money as “a Ponzi scheme” with $8 billion “accidentally” missing from the books.

The 30-year old owner, who at one point talked about buying Goldman Sachs, also contributed $1.5 million to the U.S. war in Ukraine as well as bankrolling, to the tune of $70 million, both Democratic and Republican candidates in the November election, and in that way spreading the fictitious wealth around.

The Big Three streaming companies, Disney+, Netflix and HBO, have all sustained losses in both subscribers and market valuation over the last year, to the point where Wall Street has now made a shift and no longer values simple gain in subscribers but instead is looking at the actual worth of these companies – are they actually profitable?

The answer to that is of course, no. They are hugely in debt and none of the streamers has as yet turned a profit. They are part of the debt driven inflated U.S. economy as a whole which is entirely dependent on the promise of the future and the willingness of investors to believe in that promise. All of which the social philosopher and political economist Karl Marx termed “fictitious capital,” noting that these enterprises created no real worth or value for society.

That is not entirely the case here since each is in the entertainment business which does create potentially socially useful products – in this case, serial series. The problem is the “use value” of these products, their potential to improve the lives of those who consume them, is always tempered, mitigated and often corrupted by their “exchange value,” that is, how many people they reach and new subscribers they appeal to and how that boosts the market value of the company.

TV Emily in Parisjpg 

Emily in Paris featuring a Paris that no longer exists

At the beginning of the streaming era, in the 2000s, a high price was put on “quality TV,” as “showrunners” carved out a place for more sophisticated, intelligent or “Complex TV” which replaced the morass of cheap “Reality TV.” But, as the bigger players entered the arena, they have brought with them an increased emphasis on the profit motive of the streaming company which has resulted in a reversion to past media formulas. Thus, we have new kinds of homogenization, where many of the shows, which viewers often find “unwatchable,” are simply designed to appeal to a faceless “middle class” where crass consumerist values dominate.

Just as in the television network era of old, but which is also still with us, when one series or genre happens to resound with some sector of the public, the streamers then rush to follow that trend and create their own version. With the success of Netflix’s Emily in Paris, a high-end fantasy view through the eyes of a young female American associated with the fashion industry of a Paris that looks nothing like that of the city today but which appeals to viewers’ dreams of the city, the second season of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, seeking the same demographic, became a globe-hopping travelogue of its female heroine in fashion hotspots in the U.S. and Europe.

This is especially true of the fantasy genre where each streamer has allocated more and more money to have its own in-house mega-production, following the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones. HBO has its sequel/prequel Throne of the Dragon, Disney+ has its Star Wars franchise and the George Lucas fantasy version of that myth Willow, Netflix its mediaeval Witcher and super-powered Sandman produced by Warner Television, and Amazon its Lord of the Rings prequel and origin story The Rings of Power. As the mutations proliferate, the originality of each series declines.

TV Willow tagging all the Fantasy bases 

Willow, tagging all the Fantasy bases 

The streaming backlash began in April after Netflix subscribers declined (by 200,000) for the first time in its 2022 first quarter report. The company lost 25 percent of its worth. In reaction, as is happening in all quarters of the tech industry, the company laid off 300 workers and eventually 3 percent of its work force. In addition, the streamer instituted advertising into a model where the company had boasted it would never do that and began cancelling series it would usually renew, such as Glow and She’s Gotta Have It.

Mouse in the House

The Disney+ shakeup, after the company reported $1.5 billion in losses from streaming in November, involved replacing the Disney head Bob Chapek with its former head Bob Iger and a supposed return to a more “creative friendly” environment. Chapek had attempted to install a more vicious cost-cutting regime throughout the magic kingdom where even its once profitable theme park customers were complaining of nickel and diming.

Probably the grandest fiasco though was Warner Bros where AT&T, once it had bought the company installed its own head, John Stankey as head of the entertainment complex. Stankey was a “no-nonsense” leader who proposed to take the company global by producing quantity not quality, with a tilt toward more inexpensive game shows and reality tv. He simply wanted more hours of entertainment which meant that HBO Max would dilute the HBO programming. The response of the HBO head Richard Pepler, who then left the company, was “more is not better, better is better.”

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Westworld, gone and already forgotten

AT&T botched the job so badly with its bottom-line uninspired programming that it had to spin Warners off and eventually merge it with the Discovery Channel, though the conservative Texas company still controls 71 percent of the stock. The Discovery Channel leader David Zaslav was appointed head of the enterprise not because he would add quality to the HBO Max stable but because, under his “frugal” boss the media baron John Malone, he too learned how to trim a budget and that is what he has done. He immediately cancelled the CNN streaming platform CNN+, the $90 million nearly-finished film Batgirl and did not renew the HBO series Westworld. He also tried to cancel the Warner Bros Screenwriting Program which selects and trains new writers, that is, the entertainment complex’s future, but the outcry was so great he had to rescind that decision.

These actions of course have consequences beyond the insular world of streaming. Warners is being sued for exaggerating its subscribers by Ohio pension funds, a stable of many teachers, who claim the funds have lost $25 million on the company’s inept shenanigans.

What is responsible for these losses? There are several factors limiting subscriptions but three figure prominently in the global macro picture since the streaming pool in the U.S. is saturated and the companies need foreign expansion to show profit. The same factors also limit expansion in the U.S. where at present an average household has an unsustainable four streaming subscriptions a month, plus cable.

Climate, capitalism and other catastrophes

The first factor is global warming, with summer 2022 being the hottest on record for Europe and China, approximately 25 percent of the global population, and ordinary weather catastrophes – droughts, fires, floods, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanos – have increased in magnitude. Needless to say, in the aftermath of these dire global disruptions, streaming TV is not the first thing on local residents’ minds. The anticipation of more dire weather changes to come has also prompted the programming response of apocalyptic TV series, many of which are about not trying to avert the disaster but coping with and accommodating to its inevitability.

TV Climate catastrophe begets Apocalyptic TV

Climate catastrophe begets Apocalyptic TV

The second major trend impinging on global audiences is the threat of global war, the disaster not only of the proxy war against Russia in the Ukraine but also the anticipation of new global conflicts as the U.S. and NATO up the ante, pursuing possible simultaneous wars with China, North Korea and Iran. All of which make more likely the possibility of nuclear war, since most of those countries have nuclear arsenals which they are potentially willing to use if the U.S. continues its drive for “regime change ” seeking a return to a unipolar world which it can dominate.

With the various embargos on these countries, and especially that on Russia, European and global consumers who now must choose between food, shelter and energy or electricity have less left over for streaming TV. Another result of these wars is the way the closing down of these potentially lucrative markets inhibits profits – one factor in triggering the Netflix crisis which started this collapse was losing 700,000 subscribers in Russia.

This points to an overall emphasis, as in the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany, on the heavy industries of weapons manufacture and energy, that is, oil and fracking, with a corresponding de-emphasis on light industry, communications in this instance, which thrives in open rather than closed borders. In the Germany of the late 1920s the dominance of heavy industry led to fascism.   

Third, the inflation crisis is just the most recent in a series of global economic shocks that began with the collapse of the housing market bubble in the U.S. in 2007-8, which eventually spilled over into the European state debt crisis of 2009-12. Covid then exacerbated what was already one of the capitalist economy’s periodic recessions and which was then followed by the current inflation crisis as greedy owners coming out of the lockdown raised prices far beyond those that would cover their loses. Wages however stagnated making consumers, having suffered through the effects of these sequential shocks, less likely to consider spending on streaming TV.. The way the U.S. tackled the problem, raising interest rates, which was then picked up by other central banks, increased the pain of those middle- and working-class audiences in the U.S. and beyond who then found borrowing more difficult for the ever- accelerating costs of college, health care and maintaining a suitable standard of living.

A final factor is that as the streamers cut costs and as they homogenize product in a competition where each is afraid to distinguish themselves too much from each other, the initial creativity unleashed at the outset of streaming serial TV suffers and people lose interest because the series do not speak to their lives but rather accelerate in a frenzy of, as the French term “entertainment,” divertissement or diversion. In other words, the series are not as good as they used to be.

All is not lost. Part 2 of this series will discuss those series which responded in various ways, some of them oblique and metaphorical, to how these crises affected their audiences. The future of corporate streaming though is most likely one of further retrenchment. For example, the Comcast/Universal/NBC streamer Peacock and the CBS/Paramount company Paramount+ in danger of drowning as audiences tire of an endless array of ever cheaper series whose “bread and circuses” are what is offered to them – as all around them Rome burns.

Fallen Angels and A Road Trip to Nowhere
Saturday, 26 November 2022 13:24

Fallen Angels and A Road Trip to Nowhere

Published in Fiction

Fallen Angels

This Varg Veum novel, the latest to be translated into English, displays its author Gunnar Staalesen’s encyclopedic knowledge of his western coastal Norwegian town of Bergen, a microcosm of the minute class differences of any modern city.

Also on display are his Chandlerian use of allusions and metaphors including “a handkerchief large enough to cover several local corruption scandals,” as well as a generational exploration of the passing of one period, the so-called innocence of the rock ’n roll era of the early 60s, into another darker period, that of the repercussions and counter-revolution beginning in the mid-1970s.  

The novel’s theme is how the underside of that misogynistic culture comes home to roost a decade later and is still with us in the present. Varg Veum, whose name means wolf, tenaciously pursues a series of murders and along the way uncovers and exposes the consciousness of the members of a local band, the town heroes. One member boasts of his conquest that “She fell like a pear from a tree,” while later a victim of the charismatic lead singer despairs over “the years I wasted on him. And what was I left with, a life on the skids, squashed so flat that I’ll never be able to get up.”

This latest chapter of the Veum saga is a cautionary tale, where yes there is a single murderer, but many more are guilty as is the culture that spawned a liberation but which also left a brutal legacy.  Fallen Angels elaborately and elegantly reminds us that the era was never as uncomplicated as we thought.

Later in the book, and a decade later, Staalesen recounts a woman who survived this onslaught, and how, in coming to consciousness around it, she walks with long strides “as though on the way from one era to another.”  

Fallen Angels | By Gunnar Staalesen | 390 pp. | Orenda | £8.99

****

Road Trip to Nowhere

Jon Lewis’ Road Trip to Nowhere: Hollywood Encounters the Counterculture, picks up, amplifies and deepens Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Lewis’ customary attention to the telling detail and his grasp of the historical moment makes the clash between a countercultural movement and an entrenched Hollywood industry, not knowing what to make of this challenge but forced to accommodate to it, come vividly to life.

At this point Lewis needs to be acknowledged not only as an astute critic detailing the underside and contradictions of the Hollywood industry – most especially also in his recounting of the fringes of ’40s filmdom in Hardboiled Hollywood – but also as one of its great chroniclers. His gift for storytelling in a crisp, clear, totally compelling fashion is a continual delight.

Road Trip to Nowhere: Hollywood Encounters the Counterculture | By Jon Lewis | 390 pp. | University of California Press | $24.95

9780520343740

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