Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of The Precinct with the Golden Arm, the upcoming third volume in the Harry Palmer mystery trilogy whose subject is the LAPD, the pharmaceutical industry and Mexican culture in LA.

How to Organise a Union: 'The Porter' and Black Service Industry Militancy
Saturday, 02 July 2022 21:20

How to Organise a Union: 'The Porter' and Black Service Industry Militancy

There is a contemporary wave of union organising and militancy in the digital and service industries in reaction to crippling inflation. Price rises are double that of any rise in wages, there is a loss of participation in workplace decisions combined with increased algorithmic control where even bathroom breaks are monitored, and overscheduling and underpayment for increased workloads.

Union elections have been won at Amazon, where even a past defeat has been successfully challenged as the union Phoenix rises from the ashes, and also at Starbucks and now at Apple, as well as pushback from drivers at Uber and Lyft. In Britain, the railway workers’ strike, aided by its articulate and media savvy leader Mick Lynch, is supported by the majority of the population, despite the fact that the Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer—he’s royalty—warned Labour members of parliament to “stay away from the picket lines.”

To borrow from a Seth Meyers Late Night feature titled “The Kind of Story We Need Right Now,” The Porter, a joint production of the public Canadian Broadcasting Company and the Black Entertainment Network streaming service BET+, about the organisation of the first black union in North America, is “The Kind of Series We Need Right Now.”

Several factors contribute to making this the best series of the television season. There is the show’s nuanced presentation of both the class and race problems involved in organising the Pullman workers. There is its grasp of the several strands of history of the Jazz Age/Roaring Twenties, ranging from the 1919 Welsh race riots and the outbreak of the Spanish flu to the 1921 destruction of black commerce in Tulsa, all viewed from the perspective of a set-upon black population in Montreal. Finally, the show weaves together four elements of black advancement in both the male service economy of the Pullman porters who its lead character Zeke wants to organise, and the underground gangster economy who his friend Junior works to enter, as well as the female economies of entertainment and the medical and caring professions as Lucy Mae and Marlene, its two lead women, struggle to become singers and doctors.

The series, available in the UK on Sky Go, makes the bitter nostalgia of the BBC’s Sherwood seem tame and tepid in comparison, except for its exposing of Scotland Yard’s infiltration of the 1984 Miners’ Strike.

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Lucy Mae and Zeke in The Stardust Club 

All these struggles centre on wanting to “get out of the box” as Junior puts it, in which these North American and Afro-Caribbean peoples are trapped. The series is set on St. Antoine Street in Montreal (and filmed in Winnipeg) which is made up of the black male Pullman workers who work for double the hours and half the pay of mostly white factory workers, and the glamour of the Stardust Club with its female dancers who also compete with each other for a place on the dancing line. The series is also set in Al Capone’s Chicago, which is the end of the line for the porters.  

The show opens with the death of one of the porters because the train company is too cheap to hire enough labour to do the job safely. Not only does the company not pay for the funeral, forcing the victim’s widow to pilfer the money to bury him, but they also demand that the workers pay for the cost of his ruined uniform. Zeke, the most class conscious of the workers, attempts to negotiate with the company president over having more clean shirts for sweating porters, but instead the owner pleads poverty and “grants” the porters “a water pitcher.”

It is this negotiation, as well as a stirring session with the black organiser A. Philip Randolph, that convinces Zeke that the porters, who can never even work up to being conductors since this is a position reserved for white workers, must organize. The actual motto of the porters was “Fight or be slaves,” recognizing that North American wage slavery was not in the end so different from the actual slavery in the American South.

When the white train workers’ strike, Zeke supports them by revealing the company has secretly cached a trainload of strikebreakers, while a shot of the impoverished, mostly black faces of these even more oppressed workers is overlaid with Lucy Mae’s Gospel song “I’ve been redeemed” in a way that also highlights their underclass struggle.

Zeke is eventually undermined by the white workers, who sell out their black brothers for an extra “15 cents a month” and the ability to hold onto their more privileged positions as cooks and conductors. Zeke gives a stirring but unheeded speech about the debilitating quality of this racism for labour organizing. “I shouldn’t have been looking to my left and to my right for someone to blame, I should have been looking up” he argues, allowing that “We are at war, but the porters are not your enemy.” The speech goes unheeded and, at the end of season one, Zeke comes to the realization that the porters must organise their own union, the potential subject of season two, which has now been given the green light.

While Zeke seeks to organise, his companion from the war Junior seeks to break into the illegal economy, as we are reminded that the “Roaring Twenties” when the economy was booming was not a time of plenty for many black workers and their families. Junior’s struggle to move up in the Chicago gangster world, to turn the train into a rolling crap game and numbers racket and to best a white conductor who attempts to cheat him, are given equal time and weight with Zeke’s organising. The struggles of the two are often intercut, as in the end of the opening episode where Junior is beaten by other gangsters for trying to undersell illegal Prohibition whisky, while Zeke is rousted at a union meeting, with the police breaking up the gathering by yelling “Hands up, Bolsheviks.” The series refuses to condemn Junior’s path, seeing instead his and Zeke’s journeys not as opposed but as two legitimate paths to black prosperity.

Junior’s more violent path though is partially explained by his Peaky Blinders-type PTSD flashback to World War I and his rationale that he would be a different person, “if I didn’t spend all that time fighting the white man’s goddammed war.” He is also from the Caribbean with its longer history of black independence and, when he upbraids the conductor trying to muscle in on his action on the train who tells him his father was probably a slave who would have been whipped for “talking to his master that way,” Junior answers, “I’m Jamaican and no white man has ever conquered us.”

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Alfre Woodward as a tragic and ultimately good-hearted madam 

The series also concentrates on two female paths to success. Marlene, Junior’s wife, has to refute the dictates of Marcus Garvey who wants to send money raised in North America back to Africa whereas she wants to open a clinic in her neighborhood. She instead lodges her clinic in the basement of a house of prostitution, which features Alfre Woodard in a touching turn as the madam, while ultimately realising her best chance to help is by going to a black college and becoming a doctor, a kind of counter to her husband Junior in proposing the long game to his immediate hustle.

The singer Lucy Mae on the other hand has talent galore, as she choreographs and performs a Josephine Baker number shot in Ziegfeld Follies overhead style, but which the crowd dismisses as obscure “back to Africa stuff.” She then contemplates “passing” with makeup to look less African and in the end proves that she will do anything to get ahead. Her excuse for a betrayal is, “Someone’s always gonna profit off our backs, better me than him” which Zeke corrects as a kind of answer to both Junior and Lucy Mae: “In this community we look after each other.”

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Pullman Porters in the 1920s

Finally, the series has a historical sweep that is truly breathtaking. It is set in 1921 and manages either in the present or through flashbacks to integrate the dominant currents of the era all viewed through its black characters. There are cameos aplenty, with the Socialist black labour leader A. Philip Randolph, who Zeke admires, being accused in the wake of the Russian Revolution of being a traitor and a Bolshevik. There is a Tin Pan Alley musical number Lucy Mae watches in a private home in a performance by Irving Berlin and there is Marlene’s dealing with the chauvinism but also the black pride of Marcus Garvey.

A burly white worker glides by in the back of pickup truck with the sign “Stand by your Klan,” reminding us of the resurgence of the Klan in that moment, in the light of the widespread acceptance of D.W. Griffith’s celebration of the heroic valor of the Klan in the South in Birth of a Nation, a film that was hailed by President Wilson as “like writing history with lightning.”

There is a newspaper headline recounting the devastation of the “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa by white rioters, as well as Zeke and Junior enduring both the Spanish flu epidemic after their stint in the war and the race riots in Wales. Episode five opens with the Canadian prime minister vowing to uphold the values of “white dominance” which resulted in a 1923 act banning Chinese immigration to that country. Equally, Zeke observes a Chinese waitress serving white railroad workers and telling them, “You built the tracks the world runs on. It’s just a shame my people died clearing the way.”

The music also is a compendium of many of the styles circulating in the era: popular jazz in the Stardust club; a reggae soundtrack evoking the Caribbean influence on the block; and the insistent sounds of African drumming signalling a link to the past. Besides Lucy Mae’s Josephine Baker number, the Stardust club also features a rhapsodic blues ballad by blind Willie Johnson, a New Orleans musician known at the time as “The King of Crescent City.”

The Porter is a complex series that with its portrayal of organizing, of multiple black economies, and a dense overlaying of historical traces, points the way beyond the ever more limiting standard series with little or no sense of the actual issues confronting us in the present and with little regard for their origin in the past. The Porter’s workers’ struggle stands in sharp contrast to series like Apple TV+’s mega-honoured Severance which simply whitewashes that company’s exploiting of its workers by posing a false problem of a severing of a work and leisure personality while never raising the issue of how digital companies, like Apple, are erasing leisure in pursuit of perpetual work. A problem that can only be solved by its own workers taking a cue from The Porter’s recounting of past organising into unions.

Plains, Trains and Automobiles:  Snowpiercer’s People’s Transport vs. Lincoln Lawyer’s Luxuriating While the Planet Burns
Sunday, 26 June 2022 13:29

Plains, Trains and Automobiles: Snowpiercer’s People’s Transport vs. Lincoln Lawyer’s Luxuriating While the Planet Burns

Dennis Broe compares and contrasts Snowpiercer with The Lincoln Lawyer, from which the above example of product placement is taken

Planes, Trains and Automobiles was the title of John Hughes’ 1987 film where a mismatched duo, the sloppy salesman John Candy and the in-his-mind dapper executive Steve Martin travel across the country in a variety of modes of transportation, to reach Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago. Twenty-five years ago, the film had great fun as all three methods of transport failed in various ways but today, as people become more aware of imminent planetary destruction, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a serious discussion on which mode emits less noxious gasses.

The correct answer by far is trains, which a 2020 European study reported emit 0.4 percent of all EU greenhouse gases, in a sector which accounts for 25 percent of all emissions (27 percent in the U.S.) Planes accounted for 14 percent and by far the worst answer is automobiles which accounted for fully 72 percent of noxious gasses which must be curtailed if the EU is to meet its goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

 

The tailies battling for control of the train in Snowpiercer 

It is in the light of this crisis that the Netflix series The Lincoln Lawyer, whose lead defence attorney is whisked across Los Angeles in one of the great gas guzzlers of all time, a Lincoln Navigator, might be seen to contrast sharply with the TNT series Snowpiercer. Its motley crew of “tailies” are trapped with the middle and upper classes in a train that is the last hope for humanity on a planet frozen because nuclear weapons destroyed the earth’s atmosphere. There is a huge gap in the two series, both ultimately on Netflix, but one originating on the mixed working-class cable station TNT, that shows up in their either maintaining or working to overthrow their respective power structures.

The Netflix original series, produced by David E. Kelley, known for the twists and turns of his TV courtroom dramas (Ally McBeal, Goliath, The Undoing), was proceeded by the 2011 film introducing novelist Michael Connelly’s outrageous defense attorney Mickey Haller. Again, at that point, with the climate crisis just coming to widespread attention, the spectacle of a dynamite defence lawyer who thought best in a luxury sedan still seemed quaintly amusing.

The Lincoln Lawyer: Investigating case file S1E2 'The Magic Bullet' 

The lawyer and his black, female working-class chauffeur 

This 2022 iteration goes all out though, emphasizing the gas guzzling attorney being ferried about Los Angeles by a black female chauffeur in his Lincoln Navigator, one of three Lincolns he owns. The Navigator, an SUV with a price tag as high as $109,000, is close to the longest car built by Ford, involving the heaviest production, the greatest cargo space and seating for more than six. In the show it becomes a rolling, corporate law office, spewing pollution as part of the exhaust of Haller’s brilliant court mind. Not to mention the ultimate in product placement, with the product featured in the title of the series and utterly defining the lead character and the cost of running this mobile office with petrol in California, thanks to Joe Biden’s inflation, now costing almost $7 a gallon.

When he gets out of his SUV, if he is not in court, Haller favors steak houses. That is, his polluting and heavy carbon trace continues. Even Forbes is alarmed at this habit, acknowledging that the meat and dairy industries account for 14.5 percent of total human greenhouse gas emissions. Beef, in the form of Haller’s steak, is by far the biggest offender, generating nearly twice the emissions of the next largest animal offender (lamb), with the methane gas produced by cows 34 times more potent as a polluter than CO2.

What was “quirky” in 2011 in terms of Haller’s habits is deadly in 2022. The series in its second week on Netflix was the most viewed on the streaming service, accounting for 108 million hours of watching. Given that Hollywood has long been a promotional house for lifestyles and that Netflix circulates globally, The Lincoln Lawyer is a dangerous advertisement for vastly increasing global destructive consumption, including validating Amazon and the other increasing rainforest destruction to plant food for increased beef production. That process was  described by a Harvard nutritionist, who compared it’s polluting value to that of “coal-fuelled power plants,” as “the worst thing you could do.”

While those on board Snowpiecer, a class and racially diverse crew, struggle to overthrow the system of oppression which binds them and which has created the conditions which has confined them to the train, the Lincoln-based lawyer, who boasts about his prowess on his licence plates which read “NTGUILTY” and “DISMISSED,” in fact defends a tech gaming billionaire with the time-honored cliché that he doesn’t care if he is guilty or not.

In a half-hearted nod to diversity, the lawyer is played by a Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, but his Mexican-ness is only presented on the show as “flava.” His Spanish accent is discernible throughout but only acknowledged in a later episode, where he explains his mother took him to grow up in Mexico and we are to understand that is just a phase of his upbringing.

There is no feel for the struggle of Mexican-Americans in LA, for the lack of education and social services that keeps their wages low and furthers their status as second-class citizens. Garcia-Rulfo explained that he was able to bring his Mexican-ness to the show by in one scene ordering Tequila rather than Scotch and in another stopping by a Taco Truck. This is of course the definition of “flava,” a meaningless stylistic tic unconnected to neighborhood or community customs or struggle, but instead again employed in the service of consumption.

The differences between the two shows also can be attributed to their respective channels and networks. Netflix continues to court a global, depoliticized middle-class audience. Its recent series First Kill, like The Lincoln Lawyer, is solidly in that vein. First Kill is a teen vampire series being compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer but without that series’ attack on the patriarchy, detailed in my Birth of the Binge. Instead, the concentration is simply on teen lesbian sex, which after Killing Eve is simply a cliched “lifestyle” choice.

In contrast Snowpiercer was developed by the most class-conscious director working in the cinema today, South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho. This film will soon be followed by a serialized version of Parasite, his other masterpiece of class antagonism. It was commissioned by HBO, perhaps as an antidote to that network’s doting on the foibles of the rich in Succession.

 

Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal in TNT’s “black space” Inside the NBA 

Snowpiercer is initially broadcast on the TNT cable network which has put together a remarkable, unique programming schedule meant to entice working-class audiences across racial lines. The network boasts the “black space” of National Basketball Association coverage in its perennial Emmy-winning Inside the NBA, where the outrageous and outspoken basketball intellectual Charles Barkley holds court with his companion Kenny Smith and their Anglo counterpart Ernie Johnson, who simply fits in as a member of the team.

Equally, the network now also broadcasts the National Hockey League, beloved of white working-class audiences, and the professional wrestling show AEW Dynamite. Besides Snowpiercer, its original series include the Anglo gangster series Animal Kingdom, adopted from an Australian show and its recently finished series Claws, about the black female owner of a hairdresser and nail boutique who battles white gangsters trying to encroach on her territory.

Thematically, The Lincoln Lawyer, rather than taking up Kelley’s more masterful Goliath about an alcoholic lawyer who contests corporate power, instead reverts to the staider The Undoing, with a rich client who we suspect all along may be guilty but cannot bring ourselves to distrust until the revelation that yes indeed someone that rich could be evil. Justice in The Lincoln Lawyer comes not through the efforts of the lead character but simply by chance.

Season three of Snowpiercer on the other hand ends with a startling and profound development. The revolution in season one by the tailies is beaten back in season two by the appearance of the Richard Branson/Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos capitalist in the fur coat – Mr. Wilford – who then institutes a reign of terror to maintain control of “his train.” Season three has the exiled revolutionary cadre return to retake control. The season flounders in the middle as various factions emerge to challenge this leadership, but the ending is truly remarkable.

A debate emerges between two factions on the train about what direction to pursue in order to best provide for the survival of all. Wilford seizes the opportunity of this squabbling to attempt to reinsert himself as the leader. Instead, the two sides come together and oust him from the train. With the capitalist gone, they are then able to hash out a compromise that has each doing what they think is best for the train and what is left of humanity as a whole.

The final lesson of this season’s Snowpiercer is that if the world is shorn of its capitalist billionaires, its various peoples will find compromises that can yet save humanity. The final lesson of The Lincoln Lawyer is that gas-guzzling and beef consumption trump any consideration of how a more decent, equitable and safe world may be achieved.

Meet Juan Guaidó: Capra’s Depression-Era Comedy Rerun as Imperial Farce
Sunday, 26 June 2022 10:14

Meet Juan Guaidó: Capra’s Depression-Era Comedy Rerun as Imperial Farce

Published in Films

In 1941, Frank Capra directed Meet John Doe, the last of his Depression-era populist trilogy, extolling the virtues of the common man and woman. In this film Gary Cooper, a down-on-his-luck hobo gets chosen by a newspaper magnate as the ultimate symbol of an America still ravaged by the economic failure of the stock market crash.

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The eponymous everyman John Doe, in reality a broken-down, bush-league pitcher named John Willoughby, is built up by the popular media of his day, big city newspapers and radio stations, to unite the country in a wave of fellow feeling that magically puts people back to work and cures social malaise.

However, behind Doe stands the nefarious forces of media magnates wanting to rule the country, along with bought-off politicians, and greedy financiers in a legion of black-suited men holding a Madison Square Garden rally with all the traces of Hitler’s famed Nuremberg lighting.

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That scenario was replayed a few years ago as the U.S. with its own brand of newspaper magnates, military personnel and slinky Trump-era “statesmen” like the C.I.A./State Department’s Mike Pompeo anointed from nowhere and utterly out of the blue their Latin American John Doe, Juan Guaidó. It was one of their many attempts to overthrow the elected head of the Venezuelan state Nicholas Maduro. Elected head of the rival National Assembly in January 2019, Guaidó, barely known in the country outside politico circles, then announced himself president and was quickly recognized by the U.S., Canada and the EU.

Just as in Capra’s fable, this John Doe was built up by the corporate media, and particularly by the financial press, which quickly made him into a hero of the people. In being named one of its “100 Most Interesting People of 2019,” Time Magazine extolled the virtues of a leader who was “"young, energetic, articulate, determined" and possessed with "the mother of all virtues: courage.” The Wall Street Journal quoted a Jesuit priest who claimed this hand-picked man of the people “looks like he belongs in the barrio.” While Bloomberg Financial News hailed him as someone who was engaged in “building unity.”

In Capra’s film, John Doe struggles mightily to live up to the image that is created for him by the media, eventually beginning to believe that he is the common man so fed up with his despondent situation that he will commit suicide on Christmas Eve, but who then believes in communitarian good will. Venezuela’s Juan Doe has also struggled to maintain the image the U.S. press has created for him.

Four short months after he declared himself president, Guaidó called for an insurrection against Maduro which was unsuccessful as the military and those in the barrios have repeatedly backed Maduro, contrary to the testimony of WSJ’s Jesuit. Two months later Guaidó’s representatives in then right-wing Colombia were accused of embezzling up to $60,000, supposedly to pay for soldiers defecting from Venezuela but, so the accusations say, instead spent on “parties and nightclubs.”

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Worse was to come. That September there was a coup attempt led by two American special forces agents, who wanted in return for a successful takeover “$213 million from Venezuela’s future oil revenues” and which envisioned Maduro carted off to a U.S. jail where he would face a Noriega-style trial. It ended with the coup squashed and the two Americans in jail.

The plotters called it “Operation Freedom” but the press quickly dubbed the coup, which was planned by a former Trump security guard, “The Bay of Piglets,” referring to the failed CIA invasion of Cuba. As to Guaidó’s vaunted “courage,” after his failed call for an uprising, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister accused him of hiding out in the French Embassy.

In the film, Barbara Stanwyck’s journalist, who helps create the John Doe myth, succumbs at one point to the rewards offered to a press mercenary by the paper’s owner, played by Depression-era capitalist supreme Edward Arnold, rotund and quaking with a seething lust for power. Stanwyck’s newspaperwoman parades around in her new fur coat, is dazzled by a jewelled necklace and looks to be in line to marry the publisher’s nephew, thus sealing the deal.

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Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó has also attempted to cash in on his new-found fame. The U.S. has handed control of Venezuela’s bank accounts in the U.S. to Guaidó, claiming that this theft of the money from Venezuela’s oil revenues which the country is in desperate need of, would “benefit the Venezuelan people.” In the U.K., Guaidó is now closing in on being the recipient of the country’s $1.68 billion gold reserve though at this moment he is now not only not the president but in a power contest to even be head of the assembly. Last year, the European Union voted to no longer recognize him as the president of Venezuela and his support in the country now stands at a dismal 16 percent.

In Capra’s fable, the Stanwyck and Cooper characters come together, aided by various John Doe’s across the country to avert what is presented in visual terms as a fascist takeover by the power-hungry publisher and people begin to believe in John Doe though they now know his story.

The Latin American John Doe has a different ending. The U.S. and U.K. continue to cling to the now globally discredited myth of the “freedom fighter” his country at first never knew and now regards as corrupt. At the recent Summit of the Americas the Juan Guaidó myth was still being affirmed by Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. The summit was boycotted by Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras and Guatemala largely because Biden refused to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, countries he claims are not democratic, but who instead have had the audacity to elect leaders the U.S. dislikes.

Instead, we were treated to the spectacle of a U.S. backed puppet, a self-proclaimed president with almost no popular support, a John Doe who unlike Capra’s crusader who ultimately sees the light, simply hides behind what for Capra were the forces of an ever-growing threat of corporate fascism.

This is the second in Dennis Broe’s trilogy in honor of Capra’s films. The first was Mr. Zelensky Goes to Washington, about a phony populist. The third is the upcoming Mr. Caruso Goes to Town, about a Republican developer turned California Man of the People.

Despair and the Fading Middle Class in American TV series
Tuesday, 07 June 2022 08:52

Despair and the Fading Middle Class in American TV series

Dennis Broe looks at how Better Call Saul expresses the waning power of the American empire. Image above: Better Call Saul’s narcissistic but clever lawyer 

Better Call Saul is part of the Breaking Bad “universe,” as a prequel to that series. As such it also links to successors to that series, most prominently Ozark, another series admired by mainstream critics. As precursor to Breaking Bad, the series also follows a downward trajectory where a once up-and-coming lawyer ends up working for a drug cartel. Saul is a brilliant but flawed lawyer who cannot escape the whirlpool that seems to engulf the characters of all three series. The crucial questions about these series are: where does this vague whirlpool come from and how does the series regard this destructive descent?

It’s fairly clear that the descent itself parallels the loss of power being experienced by the American empire and the subsequent effect on the American populace by the gradual ending of that empire. This is often talked about as “the end of the American dream,” and what in its earlier iteration, in regard to the British empire, Paul Gilroy refers to as “colonial malaise.” The loss of living standards is real and has resulted in a great deal of pain for the average American, though none for their leaders.

The attitude about this diminishing of a social and economic horizon in series like these amounts to a kind of threefold coping mechanism. There’s a shrug as the situation worsens; a validating of “creativity” in the face of this onslaught as more and more energy is now needed to maintain one’s place in the professional middle-class landscape (and as we watch Saul caught in this miasma); and a wallowing in the mud and embrace of the hopelessness of this position. What is lacking in the Breaking Bad universe, however, is any kind of real critique, any real suggestion of what produces this situation and especially any concrete way of fighting for disappearing economic and social rights.

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Breaking Bad, originator of its own “universe” 

In addition, all three displace the anxiety of a fading imperial power onto the Mexican drug cartels. Instead of embracing the rest of the world and accepting that a diminishing American middle-class position might have positive effects – most notably for that class’s energy consumption which is destroying the planet – these series suggest that although the American middle class is under pressure and must make morally questionable decisions to stay afloat, this is always balanced by the fact that the other, the Mexican cartels, the only inscription of anything outside the American purview, is worse. Thus “America” though now openly becoming a land of cons and cheaters –having elected one as president – is still not as bad as the barbaric hordes outside, who really have no morals at all.

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Looking askance at crooked cops in We Own This City 

It is possible to contrast the glorifying of this downward trend with series that show the corruption in all its forms, but with the underlying Enlightenment-inspired faith in the idea that critique may be able to effect some change. There is a difference between the Better Call Saul universe, adored by U.S. critics, and the extension of The Wire universe in We Own This City about the corruption of Baltimore cops, and mostly ignored by critics or characterized as falling short of The Wire.

Here, the thrust is not to validate and admire the “ingenuousness” of the cops in robbing and looting poor neighborhoods, but rather behind the series is a sensibility that is outraged at their actions and especially in the sixth and final episode, written by Wire creator David Simon, making us aware of the larger implications of the “War on Drugs” as “war” on America’s poor, black communities. This is far different from Better Call Saul’s fomenting of racial tensions in the heavily Mexican American southwest by characterizing Mexicans only as drug runners.

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Ozark’s middle class menaced by those South of the Border 

All three series, and especially Ozark in its earlier seasons, present the American professional class of lawyers, accountants and disgruntled teachers as under increasing pressure to stay afloat and all three lionize those efforts. Ozark at least though, until the final season, looks askance at the damage that class does to its human and physical environment in clinging to its dominant position. But even it in the final season succumbs to the Breaking Bad mould and in the end simply wallows in the destruction, attempting to foist wallowing off as critique. The Breaking Bad universe has established a template for languishing, but never challenging, diminishing expectations as the American “universe” itself shrinks globally.

We Own This City is available on Sky from 7 June; all the other series are on Netflix.

The Thick Blue Line: Killer Cops in Baltimore and Paris
Monday, 23 May 2022 08:56

The Thick Blue Line: Killer Cops in Baltimore and Paris

Dennis Broe reviews some new police procedurals. Photo above: Jenkins and his Task Force going about their dirty business in We Own This City

Post-9/11, with the popularity of C.S.I., as George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” overlapped with George Bush’s “War on Drugs,” the airwaves were filled with every conceivable kind of law enforcement team, unproblematic and uncorrupted, battling all kinds of crime. These squads ranged from the Law and Order franchise which began over 20 years ago and has still not yet run its course, to the Navy (N.C.I.S.), to F.B.I. profilers who anticipate future crimes (Criminal Minds) and cops who sort through the past to locate lawbreakers (Cold Case).

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Fighting future crime in another post-9/11 “squad” in Criminal Minds

These series continue to be popular and to be the dominate image of the police in popular media. However, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, which though they took place in 2020 are just now starting to register on serial television, two shows have now appeared which offer a startlingly different view of the police and policing. From Disney+ there is Oussekine, about the death of a young Algerian student in 1986 at the hands of the French police and from HBO comes We Own This City, by the creators of The Wire about a division of the Baltimore police described as “1930s gangsters” who terrorized the Black inhabitants of the city over the last decade. Both are limited series of 4 and 6 episodes respectively and both are fictionalized representations of actual events.

Beaten to death by police

Oussekine follows the Algerian family of that name as they attempt to find justice for their youngest son Malik, beaten to death by three cops in the midst of a student protest in the Latin Quarter that he was not part of. The police deny any involvement in the killing with the French Minister of the Interior (Olivier Gourmet), staunchly moral in his quest for a cover-up, searching not for what happened to this budding student whose life is brutally snatched from him, but rather looking instead for a way to shift guilt, and finally alighting on the boy’s fragile condition as the excuse.

We watch the flowering of Malik’s sister Sarah (Mouna Soualem) as she indicts the police at the trial of two of the cops and we are treated to the spectacle of the French socialist (?) President Mitterrand arriving at the family’s house for a photo opportunity, arranged by posting him next to the window with the best light while the family becomes props in the background. Finally, we watch French justice, in one of the first ever cases with cops being held responsible for police violence, as the jury first convicts and then exonerates and whitewashes the guilty defendants.

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The Oussekine family mourning the death by police hands of the youngest son Malik

This is a strong series throughout, registering a racist history of prejudice against Algerians that the family witnesses upon their arrival in the country. In 1961 there was a mass killing led by the police of perhaps 300 Algerians, whose bodies were then tossed off the Pont Neuf bridge in the centre of Paris. The series unfortunately ends not with an outrageous bang at the verdict but with a timid whimper as we are shown the actual family today. It might better have countered the verdict with another spirited denouncement from Malik’s sister Sarah.

Theft, killing, extortion, fraud and drug dealing by police

More brutal because more systematic is David Simon and George Pelecanos’ We Own This City, based on the book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. The series is solidly focused on the leader of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, Wayne Jenkins, charged not with confiscating individual guns but with finding the source of the weapons. Instead, Jenkins is shown using his squad to track down dealers in order to steal their money and confiscate their product. He then sells to his own fence, who skims 15 percent off the top and then resells the drugs back on the street.

Jenkins and his men break and enter cars and houses and then request search warrants. In one sequence they steal half of the $200,000 they find in a dealer’s safe and then, for the body cameras they are required to wear, they stage a phony reopening of the safe now shorn of half its contents with Jenkins directing “the film” before they shoot.

A frantic chase by Jenkins, with little or no evidence of drugs or guns, results in the death of an old man. Jenkins steals from a dwarfish sex worker, boasting that he stole twice what she asked for, and then eludes a 20-day suspension because of his activity in leading a confrontation with protestors over the death in custody of a young, well-liked Baltimorean Freddie Gray.

On top of that, Jenkins is shown “halting” the looting of a Rite-Aid in the subsequent rebellion, but then confiscating the drugs himself and taking them to his fence, who recognizes they are “mostly Oxy” and who will then redistribute them to needy addicts. If the now disbanded Gun Trace Task Force was actually doing its duty in tracking arms to their source it might have arrested the 16,693 arms makers in the U.S. who, a recent Department of Justice report acknowledged, manufactured 71 million firearms in 2020.

Officers like Jenkins, promoted to sergeant and later given the police Medal of Honour, remain on the force because of the “professional” code, introduced by the LAPD’s Chief Parker, claiming that police as professionals with their own standard of conduct can best discipline themselves. Instead, we watch the Police Commissioner throwing up his hands and claiming the streets are too unruly to take officers like Jenkins out of action.

Jenkins and his colleagues also cheated the city out of a large amount of money by exaggerating overtime. In the opening of the series, Jenkins, in a training session with other police, claims that if cops don’t play rough, “We lose the streets.” The answer to this false claim is in the later scene where Jenkins is “instructing” his squad on how to falsely fill out overtime sheets and ends by asserting, “We own this city.” Jenkins’ resolute lawbreakers are a resounding answer and alternative depiction of the previously mentioned fun-loving cameraderie of the post-9/11 TV “squads.” 

The state-sanctioned war against poor Blacks by police

The series does not extrapolate larger points beyond the police, but as it unfolds there are larger points to be made. The first is along the lines of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine which finds a link between U.S. domestic violence and U.S. weapons manufacturing and foreign policy. Before entering the Baltimore police, Jenkins was a Marine who, as Fenton relates in his book, was described by his sergeant as exhibiting “the utmost flawless character that I’ve ever ran into over my twenty years of serving this great country.”

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Michael Moore with young gun enthusiasts in Bowling for Columbine

This “great country” boasts a military budget greater than the next nine countries in the world, while claiming it is constantly being threatened, and which, over the protests of European and developing world leaders such as Italy’s Mario Monti and Indonesia’s “Jocko” Jokowi continues to preach endless war in Ukraine. It is not a mistake that this country produces characters like Jenkins for its “war at home.”

That war, on the streets of the U.S., is waged mainly against its Black and minority citizens. Critics pointed out initially that the police in We Own This City are colourblind, with many of the subordinates on Jenkin’s squad being Black officers. However, it is still Jenkins, the white Marine, in charge. The larger point though is that the squad’s devastating attacks are shown as entirely against the Black population of Baltimore, viewed by Jenkins and his cohorts as not victims of impoverished neighborhoods infected with guns and weapons, but always, already as criminals.

Jenkins’ attitude is the unquestioned adoption of what in the 1930s and 1940s is now seen as a kind of eugenics where minority neighborhoods are viewed as genetically criminally inclined not because they are lawbreakers but because they are poor and stand outside the middle-class propriety of a Jenkins who lived in a comfortable Baltimore suburb.

There may be Black and White behind the Blue Line but that line is used to regulate and destroy all attempts at community, as the series illustrates in almost every scene. This community in its collectivity is perceived as threatening those who seem to look askance but ultimately look away, both in the U.S. and in the world, from the state-sanctioned violence needed to maintain their status.  

Mr. Zelensky Goes To Washington
Monday, 18 April 2022 08:02

Mr. Zelensky Goes To Washington

Mr. Zelensky Goes To Washington

Vladimir Zelensky has been called many things, depending on which side of the now firmer divide, with the U.S. attempting to recreate the old Iron Curtain, an observer falls. To some he is a hero, valiant defender of a small nation against a mighty one, David to Putin’s Goliath, or a saviour, turning back an invasion by sheer willpower. To others he is a stooge, playing at diplomacy while not actually knowing what he is doing or, worse yet, a puppet, with the U.S., NATO and Ukrainian oligarchs pulling his strings. But, perhaps the more accurate characterization of Zelensky is to take seriously what he is in actuality, an actor, one who has been called upon to play at least four roles.

Servant of the People

Zelensky’s series, Servant of the People, now a global sensation running on Netflix and Arte in France, ran for three seasons, 51 episodes. It catapulted an Alberto Sordi-type everyman into the Ukrainian presidency, based on a diatribe against corruption that one of the students in his high-school history class recorded and posted and then went viral.

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The show, which premiered in 2015, is a populist fable about how Vasily Petrovich Holoborodko, in his 30s, divorced and living with his parents, boasts that the country would change if he could just rule it for one week and then gets his wish. The villains on the show are Kiev oligarchs, shown in the opening from the back or in close-up with just their deceiving lips moving as high above the city they boast about the mockery of elections where each controls a different candidate supposedly opposing each other.

Holoborodko unifies the country, claiming that a small portion in the extreme East “The Separatists” and the West “The Nationalists,” both supported by the oligarchs, divide the nation by “country, language and birth.” Instead, Holoborodko preaches unity since “we are all human beings,” illustrated in the last episode by Ukrainian Russians from the “Far East” with their technical expertise assisting in saving miners trapped in the “Far West”. This recalls Georg Pabst’s Weimer film Kameradshaft (Comradeship) with its German and French working class coming together to heal the wounds of the trenches where they were exiled by their oligarchs. The show is a sort of Welcome Back Kotter meets House of Cards where the innocence of the high school teacher in the first rubs up against the cynical power structure of the second.    

One of the show’s funnier sequences has two parliamentarians having sex in an antechamber in one scene and in the next violently opposing each other on the legislative floor. The fake antipathy recalls the Clinton era marriage of Democratic consultant James Carville and Republican and George Bush consultant and Clinton opponent Mary Matlin whose tryst, instead of suggesting complicity by the nation’s rulers in a faux two-party system, as People suggests, instead was marvelled at by the media as a model of “civility.”

Another sequence has a temporary female president supposedly worried about the country but with her anxiety then revealed to be instead about the outfit she is wearing, a page torn from the narcissistic would-be president in Veep. There is a kind of zaniness to this political satire, most evident in the unrelenting music, mocking the always-on-the-go advisors putting a president through his vacuous paces. The show’s dourness contains more than a dollop of Russian fatalist humor and the series was very popular in Russia.  

Servant of the People – The Reality Series

Scarcely had the show finished its run in 2019, when Holoborodko/Zelensky was himself elected president, running on a platform copied right from his character on the show, promising peace, prosperity, and unity while portraying himself as a kind of homespun man of the people, ala Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, who would wage war against political corruption. He would also be a healer, a Jewish Russian speaker from the East who promised to “reboot” failed peace talks with the breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk and negotiate a “ceasefire” to end a war that had been destroying the country since 2014. Ukrainians, whose level of distrust of their government had reached a world low of 9 percent by the time of that election, ushered Zelensky/Holoborodko into office in a second-round landslide where he beat the standing president Petro Poroshenko, regarded by electors as a part of the oligarchy, by 73 to 24 percent.

Servant of the Oligarchs

Unfortunately, once in office, he himself behaved more like Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian manipulator in House of Cards then Gabe Kaplan’s affable instructor in Welcome Back Kotter. His clean-up of corruption turned out to be primarily to make Ukraine safe for foreign capital, and so he set about attempting to please Western financial institutions above all else. His neoliberal reforms were in fact even too fast for, as he put it, “The Europeans, the IMF, the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) and The World Bank, which were “very happy,” but, he reported, urged him to “slow down a little.”

A key demand of these institutions was “land reforms,” that is a privatizing and monopolizing of lands long held in common since the Soviet period, and the subject of Ukrainian filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 film Earth, as well as deregulation of the banking system. The land reform measure was widely opposed with 72 percent against this attempt to accustom the country to, in Zelensky’s words, “the normality of capitalism.” These neoliberal reforms, which Zelensky happily championed, led to industrial decline, salaries in arrears, rising unemployment and—and this is before the war with Russia—massive labor migration and depopulation, with experts predicting the country would lose one-fifth of its population by 2050, to the point where, by the time of the Russian invasion, Ukraine was the second poorest country in Europe, behind only its neighbour Moldavia.    

sellers copy medium

On top of this, there was a paucity of cases instituted to further Zelensky’s nominal mandate, to clean up corruption. A promised corruption task force, the Bureau for Economic Security, still not fully operational almost 3 years after the election. Finally, tensions in Ukraine did not decline but increased as the war in the Donbass dragged on with 14,000 citizens of the two now-breakaway republics killed before the Russian invasion as “unity” broke down with Zelensky, the great unifier, refusing to contest a law that mandated Ukrainian state workers only to speak Ukrainian, though 40 percent of the country speaks Russian. A few months after entering office he had an approval rating of 57%, but by August 2021, that number had dropped to 29, with 69 percent believing the county was going in the wrong direction. Perhaps Zelensky as this point was simply channeling the Peter Sellers character in Being There, Chance the gardener who as unassuming advisor to the White House is inflated to become Chauncey Gardiner.

A more sinister interpretation though accompanied this drop in popularity, as it was revealed that the owner of 1+1 Media the popular television channel that aired Servant, Igor Kolomoyskyi, lent his personal lawyer to Zelensky to be campaign advisor and contributed to and promoted his candidacy on 1+1 and various other media outlets he owned. Once in office, Zelensky removed the oligarch’s opponents, the Prosecutor General, the Governor of the National Bank of Ukraine and his own prime minister who tried to regulate the media oligarch’s control of a state-owned electricity company. At that point Zelensky appeared more like the oligarchs in the opening scene of Servant than the crusading teacher who had only the people’s interests in mind. All this suggests that the serendipity of Servant may instead have been a carefully calculated campaign hatched not in 2019 at the time of the election but in 2015, as the show debuted to widely popular audiences.  

Servant of the Empire

Zelensky’s world popularity, after reaching its absolute nadir in his own country, echoes that of George W. Bush in his before and after 9/11 transformation from academic ne’er do well to wartime leader. Perhaps the last role though is more ominous. With his popularity declining, Zelensky moved to institute more strict controls on freedom in the country. He has sanctioned political rivals and silenced television channels controlled by them, going so far in 2021 as to suggest that those in the Donbass sympathetic to Russia “immigrate there.” His party has also moved to pass a regressive labour law, curtailing rights on working hours and working conditions, as well as making it easier to dismiss workers without compensation, while even going so far as to cancel the rights of women to not be compelled to do strenuous labor. A previous iteration of the bill by the way was supported by the British Foreign Office, no stranger to neoliberal “reforms.”  It should be noted that almost the first act of the Nazi regime in Germany was to outlaw labour unions, and this bill is certainly trending in that direction.  

In addition, just before the war, France and Germany attempted to revive the Minsk accords, which would have allowed a ceasefire, and Zelensky refused to agree to restart the talks.

Zelensky then embarked on his world tour, this time as a kind of Zelig, Woody Allen’s chameleon who simply assumes the personality of whatever foreign leader he is near. Zelensky has become all things to all people, but especially serving those in the West who want to keep the war going in perpetuity, seeing a chance to achieve a 20-year U.S. goal of effecting regime change in Russia, no matter the cost.

Thus, in the UK his “We will fight on the shores” echoed Churchill’s World War II challenge to the nation in his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. In Germany, he raised the spectre of the Cold War division of the country, urging the chancellor to tear down the new wall being constructed in Europe by the Russians between “freedom and bondage.”

In the U.S. he urged congress to “Remember Pearl Harbour when your skies were black with people attacking you,” and then called for a no-fly zone which would almost certainly expand the war and potentially lead to nuclear destruction which would “blacken the skies” in the most dangerous way. Those who think the war was engineered by the U.S. as a trap for Russia might also recall John Toland’s Infamy where he attempts to prove that Pearl Harbour was deliberately manufactured by U.S. policymakers as a way to move the U.S. population to accepting entry into the global conflagration of World War II.

Finally, in Israel, he invoked the Holocaust claiming, “Ukraine made the choice to save Jews 80 years ago,” but there he was quickly rebuked with a charge that parts of the Ukraine had participated in the mass extermination of Jews.

meph

Which brings us to Zelensky’s last role, one where he moves from man of the people to perhaps now serving not only the U.S. empire but also, as aider and abettor of the Nazi Azov Brigade as it prepares for a last defence of Mariupol and of “Nationalist” parties such as The Right Sector, with that nomenclature often being a rebranding for a neo-Nazi formation aligned with the military. This new role is more akin to that of the actor in the 1980s film set in Nazi Germany who serves as a front for the government until he loses his effectiveness and is cast aside. Holoborodko, the Servant of the People, may be completing a long, arduous transformation into Mephisto.

Lost People, Spaces and Places: The 2022 Crime Novel
Friday, 08 April 2022 12:54

Lost People, Spaces and Places: The 2022 Crime Novel

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reports back from the recent Quais du Polar crime writing festival 

One of the largest International Crime Writing Festivals in the world, the Quais du Polar, just closed in Lyon, France. The subject on many writers’ minds was, surprisingly, not the Ukraine, though the war was ever present, but the erasure of economies, landscapes and memories in the transformations wrought in the last 40 years by the greedier, more all-encompassing form of capitalism which goes by the name of neoliberalism.

The only topic Polish crime novelist Zygmut Miloszweski wanted to discuss was the threat of a Russian attack. Miloszweski was asked about the state of Polish health facilities, after Swedish author Camilla Grebe (After She’s Gone) had talked about the Swedish hospital system being devastated after the 2008 financial crisis caused by U.S. capital housing speculation.

Miloszweski went so far as to claim that the main problem with the Polish health care system was the threat of hospitals being destroyed by Russian bombs. The Portuguese author of Château des cartes (House of Cards), Miguel Szymanski, took a far more reasoned approach, cautioning against disrespecting Russia and its nuclear arsenal in a move that could provoke World War III and that was anathema to any legitimate quest for European peace and security.  

Instead, Szymanski’s novel, the first of a series, focuses on economic corruption at the highest levels in Portuguese society, also in the wake of a financial crisis. His protagonist Marcelo Silva is a former journalist now working in the financial office of the Lisbon police, who, Silva says “attacks the little guys, but I attack the big guys.”

Financiers or gangsters?

Szymanski was himself a journalist who exposed two of the country’s wealthiest financiers, one of whom he portrayed as a gangster. As a result of the expose, he lost his job and was forced to move to Frankfurt and work as a taxi driver until he joined a magazine there.  He has now returned to Portugal to tell a similar story in the form of a crime novel.

Szymanski describes a country led into a trap by the easy money loaned by German financiers, with the streets replete with “German cars and everybody rushed to buy one,” but which then  submitted to a massive privatization by these same banks to pay off the debt, which included losing the country’s main energy company to a Chinese buyer.

In a telling description, a Portuguese banker who is about to be submerged in the collapse sees himself trading in “euros, dollars, yuans, yens, or francs” while his wife creates her cultural currency by trafficking in “Hermès, Gucci, Prada, Chanel, Langerfeld or Armani.”

A panel on the recurrent and contemporary rise of fascism, the brun peste or brown plague, featured Dominique Manotti, whose latest work Marseille unearths a 1973 plot by racist elements in that city (including the police department) to drive Algerians out of France at the end of the Algerian war – an actual event about which she said that the press had for the most part remained silent.

Pre-fascist France

Manotti described as deeply troubling the fact that 30 percent of the French now vote far-right, a result she said of the brun peste never being stamped out. So periodically, in desperate economic times like the present with inflation following hard upon the COVID lockdown, able to return. She characterized the present time in France as “pre-fascist,” with the caveat that whether that tendency gathers steam depends on what actions people take to combat it.

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Manotti cited Philip Kerr’s Metropolis, his last novel before he died, in which Kerr winds the clock back on his Berlin detective Bernie Gunther to the Weimar period, as an accurate description of “pre-fascism.” Kerr describes the city as a “Babylon…full of the maimed and the lame from the war,” with street scenes akin to “a painting by Peter Brueghel.” Gunther’s Nazi landlady bemoans the passing of “what was a respectable city before the war, after the start of which, “human life stopped having much value” and where, due to the war and then inflation, in the working-class quarters “people live like animals.”

She blames this disintegration on “Poles, Jews and Russians” as a poster anticipates the coming of Adolf Hitler who “promises to tell the truth and clean up the city.” Meanwhile, the not-yet-hardened cop Gunther understands that a series of murders of women is likely the result of “men who came back from the trenches with a real taste for killing.”

Manotti detailed her own journey in the 60s and 70s, when she worked full time to promote social change and then in the 80s realized that change was not going to happen and instead began scholarly and novelistic work – besides being an accomplished noir author she also teaches 19th century economics. She wanted to give people an overview of ways the system operates, eg by using gangsters and organized crime to enforce state power. Her call to investigate and learn about the mechanisms of power was greeted by spontaneous applause from the audience.

Capital's destruction of habitats

A panel titled “Lands in Damnation: Memories of Places” contemplated the sense of loss and what Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason called “melancholy,” at the way capital had destroyed both natural and urban habitats.

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Indriðason described Iceland before World War II as a land of small farmers. His policeman detective Erlandur in Arctic Chill and Strange Shores, returns to the wildest part of the country, the Eastern fiords, in search of the truth about the death of his long-lost brother in a snowstorm and finds farmers dying from hunger and displaced by “enormous dams.” In the capital Reykjavik, his now retired cop turned private eye, Konrad, in The Darkness Knows, also searches in the past for the truth about his murdered father while being horrified by the transformation of Reykjavik into a shining global city where small businesses are wiped out neighborhood by neighborhood by “20-story high-rise blocks” that are “a blot on the landscape.”

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The Scottish novelist Val McDermid (How The Dead Speak) described a similar process that had taken place beginning in the 18th century in Scotland where the small farms, the crofts, were destroyed as landlords enclosed the land and the inhabitants were forced to migrate to the cities, where they served industrial capital as a ready, cheap and expendable source of labor. McDermid talked about walking in the Highlands and coming across scattered traces of the crofts covered by moss – but still a visible memory of the past.  

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A different kind of laying waste was described by Nigerian female author Chika Unigwe whose novel On Black Sisters Street questions the placing of Nigerian women as sex workers in the windows of Antwerp’s Red Light District, one of which was also a prominent character in the series on the same subject Red Light.

David Joy’s crime novel When These Mountains Burn recounts the devastating impact of opioids on Appalachia as seen by a father who watches his son destroy himself, an addict, and an undercover cop. He decried the ways drugs were “deliberately and systematically” dumped on the region by Perdue Pharma, contributing to 100,000 deaths by overdose in the U.S. in 2020.

The English novelist David Peace, in a panel on “Noir and the Metropolis” which also echoed the theme of demolition, recounted a change in post-war Japan that took place in 1949 and is the subject of Tokyo Redux, the third part of a trilogy on that city.

At that time, the American occupation authorities, many of them Roosevelt New-Dealers who wanted to push social reforms and a more open society, realized the openness had gone too far and Japanese workers, often led by the Communist Party, were making substantial demands for power sharing in the society and now needed to be curtailed.

Peace’s detective Harry Sweeney, who had previously worked on breaking up gang activity and was called “the Eliot Ness of Japan,” is assigned the case of the momentous and actual death of Sadanori Shimoyama, the president of the Japanese National Railroad. Harry is urged by his superiors to be out and about “cracking union skulls, [and] breaking red bones.” Peace described that year as a moment in the transformation of Tokyo into the capitalist hypermodel of a city, a description that was echoed on the panel by Scottish-Indian author Abir Mukherjee (The Shadows of Men) as being initiated in the Calcutta of the 1920s and by the novelist, actor and director Boris Quercia (Many Dogs) in Santiago, Chile where “liberalism destroyed the historic center” of the city.

Harlan Coben and John Grisham were COVID casualties, unable to make the conference. Also missing in action was Giancarlo De Cataldo, the Italian chronicler of the history of the mafia in Rome in such novels as Suburra, which became the basis for a popular television series. Just in paperback though is Agent of Chaos where De Cataldo, an Italian magistrate, in a kind of Mark Twain folk tale with a factual basis. In it he describes Jay Dark, a petty thief who becomes a CIA asset in the 1960s and distributes LSD and heroin to the radical movements of that period. Dark’s handler is a German psychiatrist who believes in “the sacred values of order, the family, and patriotism” and who performs psychotropic experiments on mental patients in Bellevue Hospital, where he meets and transforms the street level criminal into a cultivated “agent of chaos.”           

De Cataldo’s work in charting the destruction of aspirations for a better world was in keeping with the theme of the conference – the devastation of human and natural habitats by neoliberal capitalism, which echoed through many panels, authors, cities and countries.

Another European Invasion: Corporate Streamers and Spring Television Preview
Sunday, 03 April 2022 10:17

Another European Invasion: Corporate Streamers and Spring Television Preview

The largest television festival in the world, Series Mania at Lille in Northern France, where 40 percent of all French television series are shot, just ended. Although everyone paid homage to the invasion in Ukraine, what was also often unstated was how to deal with another invasion, that of the U.S. streamer conglomerates. Money is now pouring into Europe, where production values are cheaper and where local production is being driven by the global and Western success of the Korean series Squid Game, proving that audiences around the world are no longer adverse to watching native language series with subtitles.

Public television is everywhere threatened by these private monopolies. Typical is the case of Sally Riley, who heads the drama desk of ABC television in Australia where she is also in charge of an Indigenous branch of the network. ABC has commissioned the aborigine series Mystery Road and Troppo, the latter set in the alligator wilds of Queensland, as well as the detective series Jack Irish, all of which are critical of the power structure of Australian society. Riley complains that with the global streamers now invading the market, it is much harder to secure “projects, talents and crew” and generally harder for public television to compete.

Nicole Chamoun as AMANDA

Nicole Chamoun in Troppo

Whereas previous festivals, even last summer’s, sounded a warning against European state production being overwhelmed, the panels at this year’s Series Mania Forum tended to compliment the way the streamers have invested in production, with the difference between cooperation and cooptation perhaps being thin. Bruno Patino, the president of Arte, a German-French station that is the crown jewel of European public television, lauded the Arte co-production with Netflix The World of Tomorrow, a supposed “origin story” of how hip-hop culture came to France.

The series won the grand prize of the festival but paled behind the vastly superior Disney + series Ossekine, about the police killing of an Algerian student. The lone voice of dissent on Patino’s panel “Collaborating Across Borders” was the Italian Gina Nieri, whose company has ambitions of being “the Netflix of Southern Europe” and who still viewed the American streamers as a threat to European cultural sovereignty.

In order to provide an infrastructure for this increased production, the streamers know they must cultivate talent while also tailoring European training to the needs of a more industrialized system, as the sheer volume of series ramps up. Thus, at the festival, Warner Media (HBO Now) revealed it was investing $1 million in the Series Mania Institute to train scriptwriters, directors, producers and broadcasters. This comes on the heel of Amazon’s announcement of a £10 million investment in UK film and television training.

Likewise, another panel featured Frank Spotnitz (X-Files, The Man in the High Castle) pleading and sometimes hectoring the audience of producers and media biz staffers to accept the American concept of the showrunner not because it gave more freedom to the writer, since showrunners are writers, but because it was a more efficient way of rolling series off the industrial ramp and better suited to the influx of cash that was now arriving in Europe. In my book Birth of the Binge, I praised the ascension of the showrunner as giving new power to writers with scripted series taking precedence over a god-awful era of unscripted “Reality TV,” but in this latest iteration the showrunner is simply a more efficient cog in the machine.

This invasion has also prompted increasing monopolization and mergers of local TV stations in order to compete. Foremost among them is the proposed merger of France’s top two private and linear broadcast stations TF1 and M6. The fear is that Vincent Bollore’s M6 will swallow TF1, which does commission its own French series in contrast to M6 known for its cheaply-made reality series.

Media magnate Bollore has positioned himself as the Rupert Murdoch of French media with his CNEWS cable channel, which spawned far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, being the French equivalent of Fox News. One member of the audience described the merger as being akin to “The Hitler-Stalin Pact.” The mergers, as in the U.S. and as mergers everywhere, are resulting in media workers losing their jobs, to the point where Variety cheerily described a “rosy media employment picture” in the U.S. in the wake of a host of mergers, where in the first two months of 2022 there were only 200 job cuts.

In terms of production overdrive, the leader in this field is Korea’s Studio Dragon whose CEO Young-kyu Kim revealed, to open mouths and gasps from the audience, that his studio – which produced two series highly rated on Netflix, Kingdom and Crash Landing on You – was churning out a full series every two weeks. Kim also brought along a reel illustrating how Korea had ingeniously surmounted the country’s COVID travel restrictions in a series about Korean and Italian mafias called Vincenzo, supposedly partially shot in Italy but in fact using a green screen background for actors and then filling in the Italian scenes with lifelike digital recreations.  

The Play’s the Thing

As for the series themselves, the festival functions as a kind of global spring series preview with a host of socially-minded series on the agenda. Clearly the best series at the festival, though the jury didn’t think so, was the MGM/Epix streamer Billy The Kid, premiering on April 25. The series starts out as the most cliché-ridden of all Westerns with Billy, spurs a-jangling and pistols at the ready, walking into an almost pitch-black saloon and facing down a bounty hunter who is after him.

BD3 Billy the kid

The opening though is simply a diversion as the series then cuts to the tenements of New York City as the now pre-adolescent Billy and his Irish family decide to go west because the conditions of immigrant life in New York are so awful. The show then becomes a kind of Heaven’s Gate, an underrated Michael Cimino film about the prejudice against East European immigrants in Wyoming.

The tension in this first season centers around a Nativist hatred for all those not American, featuring killing and lynching of Mexicans, as well as a cabal of those in power who simply want to exploit immigrant labor. Billy’s stepfather is, when Billy’s mother encounters him, a racist debtor trading on his white privilege who must leave Santa Fe for the wilds of Silver City in order to flee his creditors, just as another famous white bigot who then became president had to flee his debtors in Atlantic City for the wilds of Vegas and network TV. In the guise of a Western Billy the Kid is a sharply critical examination of the American character.

From Colombia comes Turbia, a dystopic anthology series, set in Cali, the site of much current labor organizing and dissent, about a drought in the not too-distant future that accentuates the already massive gap between rich and poor, with the police-barricaded rich now having abundant water while for the poor water is rationed or sold on an underground market. The series joins those other harbingers of impending doom (as Joe Biden threatens the world with nuclear annihilation in calling for regime change in Russia) Snowpiercer and The Walking Dead, the latter currently enjoying its finest season as the survivors battle a neoliberal U.S.-style government called “The Commonwealth.”

The ingenious arc of Turbia has each director constructing their own episode within the drought situation with the first three episodes concerning respectively star-crossed lovers on either side of the divide, an old man attempting to hold onto his shack being annihilated as part of a city demolition and children threatened by a fascist army officer. The different age groups recalls Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist trilogy with young (Shoeshine), middle aged (Bicycle Thieves) and old (Umberto D) subjected to the ravages of post-war Italy.

The team from The Wire, David Simon and George Pelecanos, are back with a limited HBO series, again dealing with Baltimore, this time with police corruption in We Own This City, premiering April 25. The series takes pains to show how police brutality is institutionalized, opening with the main corrupt cop, Wayne Jenkins, in an actual case from 2017, explaining to a group of his fellow cops that when you hit the streets you forget everything you’re taught in the academy because “this is Baltimore,” and if officers don’t play rough “we lose the streets.” We then flash back to 2003 where Jenkins is told this by the officer training him and then forward two years where he imparts the same “knowledge” to his trainee. The plot of cops stealing from those they see as merely “the criminal element” also figures prominently, and perhaps more ingeniously in season two of the Nordic noir from Sweden Before We Die.

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Two dark French policiers took quite different paths. Syndrome E moves at a frantic pace and encompasses a global medical conspiracy that also plays out in Morocco and Canada while Hors Saison or Off Season, is a French-Swiss series that breaks the traditional French cop series mode, an antiquated cross between Agatha Christie plots and Colombo-like eccentric main characters, in an appalling way. The female cop covers up a death, potentially a murder, caused by her son of an Eastern European immigrant woman and asks us to sympathize with the agonized mother in a way that simply romanticizes the police violence and coverups. These are otherwise contested in contemporary series, as the Black Lives Matter protests begins to (slightly) affect police procedurals.

A hard-hitting Disney series?!

The World of Tomorrow operates on the flimsy conceit that rap and hip-hop culture arrived in France thanks to a blond French DJ who went to a rap party in San Francisco and then transported the music. The series seems to have no feel for how rap challenged the very structure of a racist society, instead substituting the almost straw man figurehead of Jean-Marie Le Pen as an easy target. Much better was Ossekine, Disney Plus’ first French series which revolves around the 1986 police cover-up of the death of an Algerian student.

The series features a scene of police interrogation of the brother of the student, not to shed light on the victim, but to figure out how to portray the death as either warranted or an accident. A flashback also recalls the 1961 murder of up to perhaps 300 Algerians in Paris being thrown off the Pont Neuf, a bridge in the center of Paris, witnessed by the Ossekine family upon their arrival in France. Who would have thought the Disney series would be hard-hitting while the French series was pure fluff?

Elsewhere, Gold Panning, the first Chinese series in the festival, set in the mid-80s in a Wild-West San Francisco-type Gold Rush in a remote corner of the country where foremen cheat downtrodden workers doing the panning and everyone is out for themselves, trying to siphon off what gold they can. The series, with its contesting of the ’80s “Greed Is Good” ethos can be read as a corrective to the Deng Xiaoping era of introducing capitalism to Chinese society, as we witness Xi Jinping’s move to the left, attempting to curb corruption and discipline the too-big-too-fail Chinese tech enterprises.

The Dark Heart, now available on Roku, and a prizewinner at the festival that deserved its accolade, is a Swedish series about a controlling father who ravages the land and exerts his iron will over the town, where he is the leading landowner, his daughter, forbidding her romance with a worker’s son whose father describes the family as serfs to this capitalist lord, and the environment as he refuses to update his logging techniques to the more sustainable solutions his daughter proposes.

Finally, a series which suggests a social significance while actually staying purely in the realm of grimy science fiction is the Showtime remake of the David Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell to Earth. Outside of the heroine’s explaining that the reason she is coming along for the ride to aid an alien is to gain money to help her father who has lost his insurance and is dying because of this loss, there is almost no social context. The series attempts to be a cross between Nicholas Rowe’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet, but all that is retained from the Sayles film – the better of the two – is the grimness. We don’t know much about the world the alien comes from except that on this planet there is no sense of humor. His has to be the least funny planet in the universe.

Stories of the Lust for Profit in 2021: the Year in Global Streaming
Monday, 20 December 2021 18:35

Stories of the Lust for Profit in 2021: the Year in Global Streaming

This year’s Top 40 Serial TV Series unfolds against a background of continually rising inequality. Thomas Piketty (Capital in the 21st Century) and company released their figures charting global disparities exacerbated by Covid, this was front page news in Le Monde and ignored in the U.S.

Billionaires have captured much more of the global wealth since the onset of Covid and part of the increase in profits is from that enormous moneymaker, the streaming services, expected to generate $70 billion in revenue in 2021 with almost half of all of the global profits going to U.S. streamers.

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Meanwhile, the wealthiest 10 percent own 76 percent of the riches of the world while the bottom 50 percent own only 2 percent. It is the wealthy group that also leads in the destruction of the world through the carbon emissions that sustain its extravagant lifestyle. The most unequal level of emissions being in North America where the same 10 percent are responsible for approximately 75 percent of the pollution that is killing the Earth, while the bottom 50 percent are responsible for only about 10 percent of emissions.

The need to produce constant weekly product to match streaming competitors reached a level of frenzy this year to the point where the pressure put on industry workers resulted in even a traditionally sweetheart union like the IATSE sanctioning a strike. In addition, movie producer and star Alec Baldwin shot a camerawoman who was a IATSE activist, possibly because of the hiring of props and arms personnel with little or no experience in order to hasten production.

Stories of the lust for profit

Three parables illustrate the nature of this profit lust, heightened by the persistent presence of the virus, which has once again accentuated the drive to streaming.

The first story involves what used to be what Theodor Adorno termed “a mark of suffering,” now reduced to simple branding as the level of daily commodification also reaches new heights. Netflix’s reality series Coming Out Colton pretends to be the painful story of Colton Underwood, the NFL linebacker turned star of ABC’s The Bachelor – a heterosexual Cinderella fantasy which two seasons ago starred Colton as the prince.

Colton acknowledged, after the fact, that he is gay, and thus that the whole season, and perhaps the whole idea of the show, was a farce. In the Netflix series, Colton “comes out” to his parents but does it on-camera in a way that is, rather than an authentic moment, just a step in his further enlistment under the rubric of the star-making machine.

The most cynical aspect of the show though involves the use of the series by Netflix to take a swipe at one of the biggest moneymakers of its streaming rival Disney, which owns ABC where The Bachelor has been one of its major hits. The pain of the homosexual experience and the joy of its normalization thus both take a back seat to personal aggrandizement and industry competition. Netflix is using the documentary to attempt to show up the populist simplicity of the network while calling attention to its own supposed sophistication, while actually simply showing the cutthroat nature of the business.

The second revelation also involves Disney, which recently hired Geoff Morrell as the new guardian of its image and public relations. The Disney family brand has been built on ferociously concealing any of the contradictions that arise in the entertainment industry, with the former guardian Zenia Mucha nicknamed “mother crocodile” and “director of revenge.”

Morrell, her replacement, is currently working with British Petroleum, trying to burnish its image after the Deepwater Horizon spill which devastated the Louisiana Gulf Coast environment and economy. His previous position was as Pentagon Press Secretary in charge of promoting and putting a smiling face on the illegal, unlawful and murderous U.S. invasion of Iraq.

This hiring thus casts in concrete the military-industrial-entertainment complex, with Morrell now keeping the Disney skeletons in the closet just as he has done for the polluter BP and the Pentagon war criminals. With an ex-Pentagon employee now fronting for Disney, it’s difficult not to compare the way the U.S. dominates the streaming industry with the way it dominates the weapons – or rather war – industry with the U.S. defense budget greater than that of the next 11 countries combined. And the problem is China?!

The third item shows up the lie, perpetuated by both the Obama and Trump presidencies, that the industrial economy is returning to the West. Since the announcement of the Disney Plus streaming service, that is the move of entertainment to a symbolic, virtual or digital economy, the company has generated more worth on the stock market than Ford or General Motors, the former engines of the U.S. growth.

Is there hope within this bleak news? Yes, indubitably, there were a number of series this year which rose above their labels and companies and either struck blows aimed at illuminating social problems – my Top 20 – or with supreme competence told compelling stories in serial form – my 10 honorable mentions.

I also mention those who rose – or rather sunk – to the level of 5 worst with a bonus wurst. All of the series mentioned are culled from the 135 series I watched this year, from 13 countries, spanning the globe to find those gems which contradict the general trend towards ever more meaningless and more frenzied frivolity and fiddling, while the planet burns or is consumed in a either a nuclear holocaust or a viral apocalypse.

Top 20

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Dopesick/The Crime of the CenturyDopesick, the fictional series, documents the spread of Oxycontin in the Appalachian population, a group of workers that will become redundant as coal disappears and are now consigned to death by overdose. Michael Keaton is particularly effective as a country doctor who could have become a Disney-type “wise old salt” but who instead undergoes a painful metamorphosis. Meanwhile, two dogged state prosecutors attempt to sound the alarm while the Sackler scion first pushes the drug and in a final cowardly act attempts to remove the family wealth from any financial liability.

Alex Gibney’s two-part doc, on the creation in pharmaceutical labs of Oxycontin and its even more deadly cousin Fentanyl, follows with almost fictional intensity the two creators as they market their deadly product, concerned only with their own profit margins.

Goliath Season 4 – The last season for this series, about an alcoholic but crusading lawyer played impeccably by Billy Bob Thornton. It’s short on the personal peccadillos of the character, which became a drag in seasons 2 and 3, and long on his struggle to bring a drug company again in the Sackler/Purdue Pharma vein to task. David E. Kelly’s trademark courtroom reversals and heroics here are in the service of proving that the drug company was not in the business of easing pain but rather, as Thornton’s lawyer claims, in the much more profitable business of “promoting addiction.”  

The White Lotus – The pilot of this series about privileged tourists lavishing and lording it over still-colonized Hawaiian natives was the best hour of television this season. It featured a pregnant worker in the hotel forced to give birth in a back office because she was afraid to leave her job for fear of being fired, while a honeymoon couple complain about not getting the best suite. There was never anything as powerful as the first hour, but Mike White’s HBO series still unerringly kept the focus on race and class disparities in a way that may force other series to foreground these tensions and that showed up series (eg Nine Perfect Strangers) that didn’t.

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Thin Ice, battle for the Arctic 

Thin Ice – This Swedish series, available on Amazon Prime, set at a climate conference in Greenland, was the best political thriller of the year. It centers on the exploitation of the Arctic as a way of profiting from global warming. The series cannily encompasses the indigenous question in Greenland, Danish profiting from its control over the land mass, and Russian, U.S. and Nordic jockeying for position to mine the area and control its seaways. The series initially focuses on Russia as the threat to Arctic harmony, but by the end works its way around to the greater threat as we recall Donald Trump’s offer to “just buy Greenland.”

Tandav – This Indian series from Amazon, unlike fluff like Mira Nair’s Netflix outing A Suitable Boy, begins with a farmers’ strike in Delhi at the moment when farmers were actually in the street protesting the Indian premier Modi’s attempt to make their life more onerous, so they would collapse and be absorbed by Indian agribusiness. The police – two roly-poly seemingly comic figures – then massacre the demonstrators while in the upper echelons of Indian society a palace coup brings a conniving son to power. It’s a critique of Modi-style neoliberalism that was rivalled in the film department by Netflix’s equally vicious The White Tiger.  

Pros and Cons – This Danish series, available on Amazon Prime, follows the exploits of two scam artists, Eric and Nina, who give up the game and instead go straight, only to find that their jobs either pay little or involve necessary sexual liaisons to get ahead. Overwhelmed with the daily pressure of making ends meet, they decide to return to scamming as the only way to partake of any of the wealth that they see all around them. It’s as good a representation of the desperation of the Western capitalist working class as television allows, and a nicely done series of reversals as they strike pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies who are in the business themselves of scamming their customers.

Wanted/The Unusual Suspects – Two female revenge series from Australia, the first available on Netflix, the second on Hulu. Wanted is a more advanced Thelma and Louise which emphasizes the class differences between two women on the run and the patriarchal web they are snared in as they are pursued by drug kingpins and corrupt cops. The second focuses on the high-end relationships between gated community privileged wives and their maids, as the two discover they have more in common then they think – both are left high and dry by men who cheat them. The Unusual Suspects is also revealing about how much of the contemporary landscape is simply an advanced Ponzi scheme, not just fraying at the edges but collapsing at the centre.  

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Germinal in the time of Striketober 

Germinal – In this year of Striketober and of Starbucks and Amazon unionizing, this French series, available on Amazon Prime, masterfully refashions Zola’s quintessential tale of a mining strike in a way that casts a long shadow over today’s corporate landscape. The grey palette and earthily complex depiction of the strike, largely from the workers’ perspective, returns this series to what the French do best, a recounting of their own history in the line of the greatest of French series Un Village Française, and in direct contradiction to the airy transparency of their celebrated series Call My Agent (Ten Percent) and Spiral (Engrenage).

For Life – Season 2 of this ABC series began with a bang as Aaron Wallace won his release from prison where he, like many Black men, was incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. The show then falters as it focuses on the personal relationship between Wallace and his wife but picks up momentum and becomes a series for the ages as it incorporates two events. The first is the concealing of Covid deaths in prisons which turn, because of the inattention and rapid spread of the virus, from detention cells to slaughterhouses. The second has prosecutor Wallace pursuing and placing on trial a cop in a Black Lives Matter plot that illustrates that Serial TV can tackle current issues with urgency. This belies the usual use of the form to surround viewers with ever more hyper-mediatic and slick modes of endless referentiality. The reward for this trailblazing? The series was cancelled.

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Kate Winslet's character Mare, confronting capitalist devastation of a community

Mare of Easttown – Kate Winslet was astonishingly authentic in this HBO series about Winslet’s detective, tracking a murderer and also confronted with the decaying situation of an American rust-belt working class-community, left for dead in a Pennsylvania ex-mining and manufacturing town. The thickness of the web of relationships, both familial and communal, that Winslet’s character encounters suggests that those relationships have not been entirely torn asunder by the economic devastation wrecked on them by American capital’s flight to where it can extract lower wages. Jean Smart’s cynical but ultimately caring and supportive mother was another revelation of this series.   

The Labyrinth of Peace – This series is the proud product of German, Swiss and French public TV, now on Netflix. It charts the aftermath of World War II in Switzerland as a group of young Jewish refugees arrive in the country, welcomed in not for any authentic humanitarian purpose but because they will help ease the “public relations” problem of the country’s close connection through its “neutral” banking system with the Nazi hierarchy. Astounding contradictions abound in this stunning publicly financed answer to much private streaming mediocrity.

The Wonder Years – This ABC series, masterfully written by Saladin K. Patterson, while posing as a simple remake of the ’80s show effect expands the range of content the sitcom is capable of handling. Set in 1968, the show, about a Black middle-class family, is alive with all of the tensions of that era. The lead teenage boy’s father is a Black Nationalist, his brother is a soldier in the Vietnam War and his sister, is part debutante but also part budding Black Panther supporter who trades her SAT study manual for Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice. The pilot, skillfully directed by the ’80s series lead actor Fred Savage, has a black-white baseball feud interrupted by the murder of Martin Luther King in a crossing of the typical teen coming of age story with a tale about the dawning of political consciousness.

Clean Break –This Irish series, streaming on Acorn, methodically traces the increasing desperation and inability to alter his situation except through crime of a bankrupt car dealership owner whose upright, moralistic banker keeps tightening the screws on him and enjoying his misery. The small businessman’s bad decisions and the corruption of all those around him describe a world where class contradictions are so acute as to make life impossible for all but those few who control the purse strings.

Reservation Dogs – New Zealand Maori Taika Waititi’s fractured sense of humor and pathos, so evident in the wonderful exposure of the ignorance of xenophobia in Jojo Rabbit, guides this tale of four Native American teens on a res they are desperate to leave but that keeps calling them to stay through its own little miracles. A Sioux warrior who helped vanquish Custer keeps appearing to one of them, a local cop calls the soda machine dispensing sugar to sedate them “white man’s bullets,” and, in a stunning fantasy, the boy Bear’s mother imagines the local Anglo doctor as the master of an Indian plantation with her as one of the slaves. Small moments accumulate in this touching, tender and witty description of the pain and triumph of reservation life today.

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Snowpiercer rails against Elon Musks 

Snowpiercer Season 2 – Sophomore outing of this Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) series, about a train with the last survivors on earth after a climate catastrophe, which picks up after a revolution led by Daveed Diggs’ Detroit detective has overthrown the rigid class structure of the vehicle. Arriving to re-introduce capitalist discipline is Sean Bean’s Mr. Wilford, a neoliberal Richard Branson/Elon Musk type whose contempt for equality drips from every corner of his mouth onto his fur coat. The season shows the savagery that underlies the cult of the contemporary CEO and couldn’t be more relevant with Musk himself, who boasted about the coup in Bolivia to secure lithium for his company and was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year.

Bob Hearts Abishola Season 2/The Kominsky Method Season 3 – CBS mainstay Chuck Lorre’s best work in years is on these two series. The first continues to recount the middle-aged relationship of a sock executive and a Nigerian nurse in a way that expands on what in season one was an often too sit-com cliched presentation of the Nigerian world. In this season the loneliness of Kimi, played by series co-creator Gina Yashere, Abishola’s best friend, in a white world not of her making, comes touchingly to the forefront. The last season of The Kominsky Method, a sit-com about aging, is fittingly about death as two characters come to an end and as Michael Douglas’ acting coach struggles with the finality of life in a way that is still often achingly funny.

Home Before Dark Season 2 – This series about a pre-teen crusading journalist in its sophomore outing has Hilde tackling a company that has for years polluted her Washington state town and that affects her relationship with her grandfather directly. In this moment of the battle to keep Julian Assange from being turned over to the blindness of U.S. justice for the crime of revealing the empire’s secrets, this series is again a refreshing fictional reminder of what journalism can be. It is also a riposte to Apple’s mammoth-budget celebration of the banality of the form in The Morning Show.

Back to life Season 2 – Second season of this Daisy (Episodes) Haggard BBC series, streaming on Showtime, has Mimi, having returned from prison, this time pursued by the sadistic police chief who is the father of the friend she unwittingly victimized. The show covers ground initially mapped out on the Sundance series Rectify but with Haggard’s humor intact as she battles to be recognized as someone who has paid her debt in an unforgiving and narrow-minded society.

Bitter Daisies – The second season of this Netflix series about a woman fighting back and trying to expose the systematic male power and brutality of a Galician town in Spain culminates in an Eyes Wide Shut “party” that results in a final revenge for multiple young and underage women exploited in a Ghislaine Maxwell/Jeffrey Epstein mode. Season two does partly show a voyeuristic “pleasure” in this forced copulation but its sharper edge still echoes forcefully. In so doing it points out how another Spanish Netflix hit Money Heist, which began on Spanish TV with so much potential, has in the initial episodes of its final season substituted an ever-accelerating series of ever more meaningless shocks for what was initially a populist fantasy about returning wealth to the people.  

C.B. Strike – The heart of this series, based on the J. K. Rowling novels, is the relationship between the hobbling detective Strike and his one-time secretary, now partner, Robin. The intrigues, often involving the crimes of state officials or wealthy families, take a back seat in the series to Robin’s slow and painful coming to grips with the realization that the comfortable life offered to her by her corporate partner and soon-to-be husband does not make her happy. This lifestyle of the rich and privileged begins to exact more and more a burden on her as the series progresses and as she begins to question its value. A quandary that those still fortunate enough to have a job find themselves in today.  

The Chair – Sandra Oh, the put-upon government agent in Killing Eve, is even more harried here as the newly appointed chair of a liberal arts English department that is, like most liberal arts disciplines, left for dead, supplanted by technical and business programs. The focus here is more on “woke” student culture and its challenge to aging professors, but the highlight of the series is an appearance by David Duchovny as himself, playing an arrogant Hollywood “author” who supposes that academia is now simply another form of entertainment. It suggests that the neoliberalizing of the university has in fact resulted in it becoming just another receptacle for the detritus of pop culture.  

Honourable Mentions

Comfortable as opposed to challenging TV but nevertheless worth a look:

Kung Fu – Particularly strong in this CW martial arts series, streaming on HBO Max, was episode 5 which dealt with Asian bashing in the wake of Trump’s Chinese COVID panic. The final moment where the traditionally conservative mother and restaurant owner is converted to activism, offering herself up to be arrested to save an African-American protestor, has a particular frisson.

Big Sky – The first half of this David E. Kelly ABC series was a stunning reversal of the usual powerlessness of the serial killer plot, with combinations of women of mixed races and sexual orientations fighting back. The second arc, involving the decaying head of a Montana ranch, was also powerful but by the second season the show had fallen into a more simplified “twisty” tale that moved the series from groundbreaking to comfort TV, from a challenging series to one that is a guilty pleasure.  

Burden of Truth Season 4 – A revival for this Canadian series (streaming on Hulu) as former corporate lawyer Joanna defends a Native American woman who wages a lone battle against a mining company which plans to lay waste the town as her fellows urge her to take the money and run. The indigenous element enlivens multiple plot lines on the series and gives it its raison d’être.

Resident Alien – An alien apocalypse comedy set in small-town Colorado, streaming on YouTube, where the most endearing relationship is between the alien doctor (Firefly’s Alan Tudyk), sent to destroy the earth, and his Native American nurse/office administrator who teaches him what it means to be human, or rather, that all humans are not evil.

WandaVision – Most inventive Marvel series, streaming on Disney Plus, with the whole history of the sit com encompassed in its several episodes, a marvel of set design that still could have resounded more if it had increased the emphasis on the eerie emptiness of the form.

The Vampires of Midland – Russian Dracula series, available on Vimeo, that rather than focus on the decadence of the genre in the now departed Anne Rice Lestat mode, instead, in a very Russian manner, centers on the warmth of all generations of a vampire family which has ceased feasting on humans, but which is now prey to a predatory mercantile world surrounding them.

The Last Socialist ArtefactThe Music Man meets Eisenstein’s Strike in this Croatian series, streaming on the French service Salto, about two bumbling “entrepreneurs” who attempt to restore a factory and a town long-since given up for dead as part of the de-industrialization of Eastern Europe.

Biohackers Season 2 – The waters muddy a bit in this second outing for the Netflix German series, initially exploring the underside of biogenetic engineering with last season’s scientist/professor/villainess enlisted by Mia, the student who took her down, against an even more powerful and ruthless foe, the private financier of a pharmaceutical empire.

The Upshaws – This Netflix series is a refreshing throwback to Black working-class sitcoms like Sanford and Son and very alive with the self-deprecating but sustaining humor of its lead couple, a mechanic and a nurse battling to better themselves.

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We are all The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead Season 11 – Dynamite action opening of this last season of the perennial cable ratings leader has the newly returned Maggie leading a raid for supplies in an underground lair of the sleeping dead who, of course, waken. Final seasons, let alone an 11th season, are difficult to sustain (just ask the creators of the overblown last season of Game of Thrones) but this one does it with its perpetual focus on the characters even as we watch successive invasions of oxy and fentanyl plus COVID and its variants turn hollowed out Western “democracies” into zombie apocalypses that each day make the show less of a fantasy and more of a documentary.

The 5 Worst Series

Rutherford Falls – Comedy which gets the set-up completely wrong as Ed Helms (a little bit of him went a long way on The Office) instead of being the Anglo oppressor of the Native American community becomes instead their defender. A chance for first rate satire muffed and turned into ridiculous sentimentality.

Bloodlands – Psychotically reactionary BBC tripe from the network which brought you the equally conservative The Bodyguard and Line of Duty. What starts out as a twisty mystery, circles back on itself and moves insufferably to a cynical conclusion which poses as “ambiguous.” Equally reprehensible was the BBC’s Time which regurgitated the worst prison cliches about guards who are victims of vicious prisoners without a thought about the cruelty of the system itself.

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Nine Perfectly Boring Strangers

Nine Perfect Strangers – In light of the spotlighting of class tensions in the multi-character The White Lotus, this David E. Kelly series, which sets out to spoof retreat centres, seems instead a highly irrelevant, retrograde way of simply restoring a fixation on their privileged clientele.

ChapelwaiteThe Shining meets Moby Dick as Adrien Brody’s retired sea captain is haunted by and haunts a New England seafaring village. The floor of the old house his family inhabits creaks and so does the rickety plot as Steven King’s horror tales expose the wires that hold these rapidly aging contraptions together, especially in the light of the more socially relevant use of the genre by Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, Candyman).  

Foundation – The neverending search for a sequel to Game of Thrones (Dune, Wheel of Time, the now-cancelled Game of Thrones prequel) reached a low point in this Apple + high-budget, low energy adaptation of the Isaac Asimov novel where the only hope to save an oligarchic inbred empire is by a technological fix, ala a new iteration of the iPhone or the iPad. Less than meets the eye, this pretentious series instead is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Podcast.

Bonus Worst, or Liverwurst

On the Verge – The life, loves and angst of upper-middle-class women in LA with nothing much at stake. When the going gets tough, they go to the beach or Rodeo Drive. The only thing they are on the verge of is a shopping spree, in this series, streaming on Netflix, that is really just Much Ado About Spending.

From Black Radicalism to British Royals in Space
Tuesday, 05 October 2021 13:55

From Black Radicalism to British Royals in Space

Dennis Broe continues his series reviews. Image above: The Wonder Years

Now, at this point when most series TV has moved online and the autumn TV season is a thing of the past, a relic of - what did your parents used to call it? - oh yeah, network TV.  That quirky period of television history where three behemoths strode across the TV landscape forever locked in a death grip that mostly yielded copies of whatever was the latest hit on the other channel.

Yet another nail was driven into the coffin of this kind of traditional television, as opposed to boutique pay-by-subscription streaming television, at this year’s Emmys. For the first time, Netflix beat even pay cable TV favourite HBO by a margin of 44 to 19 – a score that would be labelled a rout on a football field.  

In addition, the streamers, supposedly free of network TV restrictions, have initiated what amounts to their own subscription drive, with each attempting to outdo the other in big special event series that also brand the company.

The greed and murderousness of drugs companies

There is Apple TV+’s celebration of the wonder of technology within a declining empire, in Isaac Asimov’s Sci-Fi-classic Foundation. There is the conservative company Comcast’s Peacock with a reactionary “War on Terror” overlay on Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, and Amazon with a fourth and last season of David E. Kelly’s Goliath, which rightfully and insightfully attacks the greed and murderousness of drug companies while also nicely tilting the spotlight away from Jeff Bezos and Amazon.

All however fail to match the splendour of the remake of a network TV sitcom The Wonder Years on the terrestrial channel ABC (owned by Disney and part of its “diverse” family strategy), this time with a Black family and set in the revolutionary period of 1968.

It’s hard to overestimate the contribution this remake of the popular series, which began in the late 80s and also was set in the 60s, makes to a deepening and politicization of the standard sitcom. Don Cheadle’s voiceover narration begins the episode, as we watch the 12-year-old Dean Williams peddling home in a middle-class post-segregationist Black neighborhood recounting “the talk,” – not about sex, as might be the topic of the original series about a would-be white writer, but about how to behave in a Black boy’s first encounter with the police.

The somewhat nerdy Dean is positioned in typical Malcolm in the Middle sitcom mode between an athlete older brother and a beautiful popular debutante sister, feeling he will never live up to either. However, the twist here is that he is also positioned between them politically with his absent brother away in Vietnam and his sister becoming radicalized. A photo dropping out of her high school textbook shows her with a gun in a Patti Hearst pose and choosing Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice over her SAT prep manual, after a momentous event which rocks the family

Also emphasized is that “post-segregationist” America is no less racist. A wonderfully telling scene has Dean, and his Black and Jewish friends at the school water cooler – which a white girl and boy then avoid. In a nod to female emancipation, Dean is about to try to rescue his “crush,” the girl he adores, from an aggressive male bully when she instead grabs the bully around the neck.

The one stutter step in what is a near perfect 21-minute script by sitcom veteran Saladin K. Patterson, has Dean expressing anger not at the further disenfranchisement and futility of a political assassination, but at seeing his crush with another boy.

The sequence is scored to the 5th Dimension’s A Change Is Gonna Come and let’s hope the show will continue to integrate its social agenda with the typical coming-of-age story in a way that makes this series a new take on the old sitcom formula, surpassing the original and aided and abetted by the superb direction of the 80s Wonder Years’ child actor Fred Savage.

Goliath

Goliath

There is a lot of moralizing about the savage viciousness of drug companies such as Purdue Pharma, perpetuator of the opioid crisis, in the fourth and final season of Amazon’s Goliath. It’s all warranted of course, but also works to shine a better light on less murderous worker gaugers – such as the show’s parent company, which this week was revealed has carried its super-exploitation of its employees into Amazon’s space division as well.

Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary final season, that does a superb job of wrapping up this series about a self-destructive, alcoholic lawyer (Billy Bob Thornton in one of his greatest roles) who also happens to be a brilliant legal mind and who enjoys sticking it to corporations.

The series does not focus on the near-peddling of Oxycontin on an unwitting population – though a lead lawyer’s daughter has died from becoming addicted – but rather on an underreported aspect of the crisis. This is the way lawyers on both sides collude to fix a settlement price that amounts to mere peanuts for the companies involved and, in that way, prevent the most damning aspects of company policy from ever emerging in court.

Because there is so little government regulation – a main point that emerges is that the companies do their own drug testing which federal regulators then approve – corporations more than ever fear a jury trial where they will be dragged before the public. Billy, the recalcitrant lawyer, is appalled that over the last decades the amount of civil suits that have gone to court where companies must face the public, have declined from 20 to 2 percent.

Settlement and not airing the companies’ dirty linen is clearly a priority. There is an initial whistleblower who describes the way the drug companies championed sales to doctors, including a lavish musical production number extolling the drug’s painkilling virtues. But this is common knowledge and well covered, especially in Alex Gibney’s two-part series Crime of the Century, part one focusing on drug company creation of Oxycontin, and part two on the creation of its even more dangerous cousin Fentanyl.

What is unique here is the show’s late reveal that the company knew all along about the addictive quality, and embraced that aspect of the drug to further its profits, like the tobacco industry where the “smoking gun” was that the industry knew all along about the harmful and addictive aspects of cigarettes and yet cultivated those qualities.

The series was created by David E. Kelly, known for his stunning courtroom surprises. The finale does not disappoint, with Billy struck off the case and a stunning summary by a surprise witness sinking the Purdue Pharma and Sackler stand-in company. Billy says of Zax, in his most damning indictment of the drug companies as a whole, “He’s not in the pain relief business, he’s in the addiction business.”

The show also makes cinematic use of San Francisco, with its foggy, shadowy menacing exteriors where everyone is monitored, and with long takes on lavish corporate interiors that are the lush opposite of disjointed life on the streets. It references Rear Window, Chinatown and directly quotes from High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, while also being an acting compendium with Billy Bob Thornton facing off in a multitude of scenes with his acting mentor Brue Dern.

Trap doors, hieroglyphs, cult villains and other shenanigans

Peacock’s splashy fall entry is an adaptation of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol which contains the Dan-Brown required trap doors, hieroglyphic imprints and shadowy cult villains, in this case the Masons. These old reliables work well enough, but there are two problems.

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Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon, pensive, bored or boring?

First, Comcast’s overlay of the now outmoded (if ever relevant) “War on Terror” on these shenanigans. The series opens with a reverse Abu Ghraib, with Muslims beating an American prisoner in a Turkish jail, which casts a pall over the series which is never quite dissipated and which feels like an extraneous and conservative sheen on the plot.

The second problem is the actor Ashley Zuckerman, playing  the young Robert Langdon, in a decision to turn back the clock. Brown is famous for his papier mâché characters who decode one symbol and then rush to the next. Even so, this Langdon is extraordinarily lifeless, affectless, boring, and without a trace of humor. At least Tom Hanks in the two films had a kind of smarmy Everyman morality that you could either love or hate, but here the writers completely abandon their job of fleshing out this lifeless Harvard quasi-archaeologist character, who makes Indiana Jones seem like Hamlet (or in the latest iteration, Lear).

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Royals in Space and a third-rate Loki in Foundation

The least successful and the silliest of the major series this Autumn is Apple TV+’s Foundation, based on the Isaac Asimov trilogy, about a future world where algorithms reign supreme. The empire has become a kind of cloned Dupont dynasty, inbred, self-perpetuating, decaying and under attack not by actual rebels who want to overthrow the imperial reign but by mathematicians who predict the empire will collapse and then move to try to preserve it and “civilization” against the self-destructive urges of its incestuously cloned leaders.

What better advertisement for Apple, a Silicon Valley company par excellence, which presents itself as outflanking government in both managing the future and preserving the integrity of its users? The phony British empire overlay – this is The Crown meets Star Trek, or Royals in Space – is heavy-handed, with the ultimate imperial villain, called “Empire,” scene-chewing as a kind of third-rate Loki.

A word about The Crown: “Yuck.” The success of this Emmy darling and British and U.S. fetish, with two actresses winning successive awards for playing various stages of the life of Queen Elizabeth, can probably best be explained as Elizabeth’s ‘grace under fire,” – the way she bears up under the fall of the British empire, as the American empire is itself in the process of crashing. Both sides of the Atlantic lionize an institution whose sell-by date has long since expired and which owns vast estates in the United Kingdom, while working-class tenancies deteriorate and homelessness abounds. The American royal equivalent is Bill Gates, who now owns large amounts of the country’s farmland.

The series does retain some of Asimov’s reverence for science, but often the special effects are gimmicky and leaden – it all adds up to a sort of 2001, A Space Odyssey: The Podcast. Finally, a 9/11-type terrorist attack on the empire with towers collapsing does not have the effect of say the pilot of Battlestar Galactica with everyone having to flee the planet. The main problem here is the ambivalence about preserving what amounts to a fascist empire, the same empire Apple is both building and helping to undercut as it moves itself to outflank all forms of government as it defines “civilization” not as culture but as algorithms.   

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