Frugality and austerity trump creativity: the top 25 global TV series in 2023
Sunday, 14 April 2024 11:30

Frugality and austerity trump creativity: the top 25 global TV series in 2023

Dennis Broe reviews this year's TV series from around the world. Above image: Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson’s Churchill without the statesmanship 

American TV series, which had led the world in both number, length and amount of episodes, were severely cut back this year in light of a general retrenchment in the industry, a trend that will continue next year. Expect shorter series, fewer episodes and faster pulling of the plug so that the landscape begins to look more like frugal, budget-conscious series from around the world.

Of my Top 25 series this year, though many are “limited” series, many others have either been cancelled or have ended prematurely. Only 6 series are returning. First to go, of course, are series that are socially relevant. Heading the list of unconscionable cancellations are Alaska Daily, with Hilary Swank as a reporter helping to lay bare the local power structure. Also, oddly, Walker Independence, a Western sequel from the CW that focused more than most not only on frontier prejudice but also the power of the railroads and Eastern capital in the development of the West.

The most egregious cancellation though was Warner Brother Discovery’s decision to refuse to air, after it had already been shot, season four of Snowpiercer, Boon Joon-ho’s nakedly anti-capitalist climate catastrophe series.

Who has time anyway to watch series that deal, even if obliquely, with power relations and social problems amid the plethora of game shows (Let’s Make a Deal, The Price is Right) , reality TV (World’s Funniest Animals, House of Villains), and reruns (Yellowstone) that the producers have foisted on the general public? All because of the writers’ and actors’ strikes but also due to their general cost-cutting, with the hope that some of this bottom-of-the-barrel cheap fare will outlast scripted series due to arrive next year.

A year in which it has been increasingly difficult to find progressive series also featured shows that, for the sake of gimmicky last-minute twists, utterly changed the trajectory of the series, as well as nominally interesting series that because of inane and cliched political assumptions floundered dreadfully.

Greedy producers and studios

Two Irish series fell into these categories. Clean Sweep was, up until its last moment, a suspenseful series which had us sympathizing with a former IRA agent now living a quiet life with the British policewoman pursuing – or rather haunting her – presented as a Les Misérables Javert-type villain. Until the end, when the former spy commits a reprehensible act that utterly reverses our sentiments towards her and validates the cop’s pursuit. A surprise yes, but a psychotic one that attempts to cancel out our understanding of this woman and that represents a failure of nerve on the part of the creators and the network.

Worse than that was Hidden Assets, where a series about an Irish female cop investigating a drug ring seemingly led by a dashing financier. Instead, the story turned into a “terrorist” tale tied to Syrian bloodletting, that utterly misrepresents the role of the West in trying to wreck that country. Yuck! Series with similar failings appear in my 5 worst.

Nevertheless, I have culled 25 worthy series from 10 countries and 5 continents, from the approximately 135 series I watched this year, which proves that creators can survive and thrive even in the challenges and rubble left them by greedy producers and studios.

Top 10 Series

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Elizabeth Olson in Love and Death 

Love and Death“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good” goes the Eric Burdon theme in a gospel rendering in this series, with a stunning Elizabeth Olson as a Texas suburban housewife who in the dawning of the Reagan era awakens and wants something more than the dull, drab existence to which she is confined. She chooses to have an affair which releases all kinds of tensions within her and this extremely repressed town, which is Anytown America, then and now. Writer/Director David E Kelly (Big Little Lies, Goliath) is at his most extraordinary in a masterpiece of empathy for a woman craving freedom, carved from the most exploitative of genres, True Crime. The series ends with the word “shhh,” a shushing and directive to maintain this repression. (Prime)

This England – Michael Winterbottom’s expertly rendered account of the British state during COVID is a paean to the British working-class health workers and to the colonial minority and aged victims of despicable policy management. Kenneth Branagh is Boris Johnson, obsessed with Shakespeare and Churchill but utterly blind to the plight of his actual countrymen and women. He illustrates the way, not only during COVID but since, Western leaders are utterly cut off from their constituents. Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day), Johson’s advisor, who had put across Brexit, is full of callousness and contempt for the jewel of the British welfare system, the National Health Service, wanting, as a good neoliberal, to clean house and privatize. The critique in this marvelous mini-series extends far beyond COVID as it figures the greedy malaise that is turning Western voters faster and faster to the far right. Beyond prescient. (Apple TV)

The Good Mothers This tale follows the efforts of three brave women in the south of Italy, in Calabria, who sometimes forcefully, sometimes reluctantly, take on the male violence and “omerta” or silence of the local mafia, the ’Ndrangheta with sometimes liberatory but often tragic results. Unlike most mafia series which focus on physical violence, this one concentrates on the emotional violence used to maintain this power. When brutal force is invoked though it comes as such a surprise that it drives home the way one underlies the other. Superb series about resisting entrenched male power. (Hulu)

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Hilary Swank as lead reporter on a local muckraking paper in Alaska Daily

Alaska Daily – Hilary Swank is excellent as a no-holds barred reporter, dedicated to telling the truth and opposing corruption for which she has been exiled to a local Alaskan daily. One wishes there were even a single Hilary Swank left in the corporate media and her exile illustrates what happens these days to truth tellers. The series main line is about a murdered indigenous woman. Along the way the series also highlights bribery in that state involving its politicians and media to open up protected Alaskan land for mineral exploitation. A series far too good and explicit about actual power relations both in the state and in the media to survive, and indeed it was cancelled after one glorious season. (Prime)

Little Bird/Bones of CrowsTwo Canadian series which deal with the same subject matter, the ethnic cleaning that continues to this day of that country of its indigenous population. The first is an intimate portrayal of one woman, wrenched from her family by the Canadian state, as she wakes to her heritage and attempts to surmount the obstacles in her way that maintain this suppression. Her awakening is painful and in one instance at least tragic, but it is presented with painstaking clarity. The second covers a longer history of this forced march of cultural genocide from before World War 2 to the ’60s and in a way fills in the gaps of the first series with Reservation Dog’s Paulina Alexis as the most shipwrecked victim of this systemic abuse. (Prime)

Nordland ’99 – This Danish series set in the not-to-distant past gives us a glimpse of maximal creativity within the new constraints of series austerity. A less than half hour format shot in rural exteriors with its eerie Twin Peaks air of menace created through night-time effects like the swaying of the wind in the forest. Its subject also recalls David Lynch’s masterwork as three teens search for their missing compatriot and uncover a dark adult world that threatens to engulf them, but by remaining true to themselves they survive. Extraordinary work by series creator Kasper Møller Rask. (Mubi)

The Last of Us – This next zombie apocalypse, after The Living Deads, is much meaner with fascists both in the organized government and power structure, as we have today’s Biden neoconservatives, and street fascists outside in the form of Trump-like racist Kansas City vigilantes. The only respite is a socialist community, “a true democracy,” encountered by the battle-hardened warrior leading a young girl who could perhaps save the world. Episode 3, nominated for multiple Emmys, is a self-contained survivalist love story that illustrates the concentration in this series, whose crude source is a digital game, on character at the expense of the infrequent appearances by the genre’s staple, zombies. Only in the last episode does the series veer into a zombie and human kill zone, and succumb to the temptation to return to its gamer origins. (Max)

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The magnificent Chloe Sevigny in Poker Face 

“Rest in Metal,” Episode 4, Poker Face The rest of this series is a slightly above average remake of Columbo here replaced by Natasha Lyonne’s heavy metal waif in episodes that alternate between being clever and gimmicky as the character Charlie Cale closes in on her quarry. However, Episode 4 rises way above the rest as Chloe Sevigny’s down and out rocker, who will do anything for a return to her glory days, lays bare the emptiness behind the music industry’s star-making and star-breaking machine. Extraordinary work from a peerless actress. (Peacock)

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Killing County 

Killing County – Blacklisted footballer Colin Kaepernick produced this documentary series about Bakersfield California, where the sheriff and his men kill with impunity and then cover up the murders with their control over the coroners’ office and their presenting the victims as hardened criminals. Utterly different from most “True Crime” reality series which simply and blindly cover up police violence. Here the patrolling and in some cases eliminating of a Mexican population by Caucasian cops is held up to scrutiny instead of lauded. (Hulu)

Thicker Than Water – Netflix French series about racial tensions in French society, as an Algerian TV reporter is promoted to anchor but then must endure the slings and arrows of a racist white power structure in order to maintain her fragile position. Most telling is an early scene where she is told she must straighten her natural curly black hair, and dye it blonde. She conforms and gets in an elevator full of white women with the same blonde streaks, all now ascending the corporate ladder. Nawell Madani as showrunner, writer, and star manages to highlight Algerian sisterhood and contrast it with more cut-throat standard French careerism. (Netflix)

Honorable Mentions

The Curse – This lead threesome is cloying, obnoxious and difficult to watch as the woke neoliberal couple attempts to jump on the indigenous bandwagon to exploit their lands for what amounts to “socially conscious” gentrification. Meanwhile, the filmmaker whose reality series will secure their profits is beset with his own careerist anxieties. Most telling scene of a sometimes-brilliant satire is the couple having masturbatory sex where neither connects with the other and which exemplifies their disconnection to the indigenous world they’re exploiting. (Paramount+)

Woman of the Dead – Austrian series about a female embalmer in a rural hamlet who takes on the local power structure which has colluded to eliminate her husband. She disrupts the attempt to turn the area into a luxurious ski resort in her quest for truth and vengeance against a religious, civic and corporate elite who she exposes and destroys. (Netflix)

Black Snow – Australian cold case murder mystery in Queensland exposing the roots of wealth in a town where slaves from the island nation of Vanuatu were brought to harvest the cane fields. Here the investigation of the past sheds light on the single murder but also on the larger crime of appropriation of an entire people. (Prime)

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Limboland, the breathtaking beauty of the Karachi Valley 

Limboland Pakistani series set in the gorgeously verdant and breathtakingly mountainous Hunza Valley in Karachi that has an old man, now owner of a luxury hotel, reminiscing about the mistakes he made in putting greed above human relations. This is Succession but entirely critical instead of a laudatory celebration of the Murdoch empire. (YouTube)

Black Santiago Club From Benin comes this African series about a music club that is a fountain of not only musical but cultural heritage in danger of being displaced by a greedy developer who wants to build condominiums for the rich. The series’ subject is the community organizing to preserve its social treasure. (YouTube)

Never Have I EverFourth and final season has the Indian teen of the title torn between two boyfriends. That tension though is not allowed to supersede her attempts to fulfill her dream of getting into Princeton, the actual focus of the final season in a liberatory way which upsets the usual single-minded romantic focus of the teen genre trajectory. (Netflix)

Bay of FiresBeyond quirky Australian series about a thoroughly competent female executive exiled to a Tasmanian town of ne’er do wells who may all have a criminal past. Marta Dusseldorp in the title role holds the whole thing together while teaching the disorganized criminals a thing or two about more organized corporate scamming. (Apple TV)

Dark Winds Season 2 – This series, torn from Tony Hillerman’s novels about southwest indigenous, features Zahn McClarnon and Jessica Matten as Indian lawman and deputy pursuing a deadly white racist and more presciently coming to grips with the land holders who hire these types to bury their secrets. (Acorn TV)

Billy the Kid Season 2 – This epic Western began as a recounting of the prejudice the Irish encountered in America, a unique take on the story of the famous gunslinger and bandit. Season 2 is more of the same as Billy fights the Santa Fe Ring, a group of investors who are swallowing up the territory. It’s a unique take by series creator Michael Hurst which like its fellow epic Heaven’s Gate presents the West from a class and outsider perspective, often missing from contemporary Westerns only concerned with vacant mythmaking. Can you say Yellowstone?  (MGM+)

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Scrublands' murderous priest, who exposes the town  

ScrublandsFour-part Aussie mini-series with a reporter exiled to a remote backwater town to investigate the aftermath of a mass shooting by the town’s pastor. What he uncovers instead of illuminating the priest’s psychopathy sheds light on the corruption of the town’s “upright” citizens and the landholding power behind them. Well executed exposé. (BBC iplayer)

Walker Independence – Who knew that a prequel whose original was a reactionary Chuck Norris series would instead be a questioning of not only the racism of this Western town but also the collusion of Western landholding wealth with Eastern railroad expansionists. Doesn’t lose focus on these power relations and for that reason met its fate of early cancellation. (Apple TV+)

Don’t Leave Me – Employs the trope of female detective returning to her home city of in this case Venice from Rome, and here obsessed with uncovering a ring of traffickers of young boys. Though not as compelling as the Icelandic series Valhalla, the detective’s focus on saving these boys and two late reveals which suggest wider corruption lead to a satisfying conclusion. (Prime)

Neon – Netflix series about a reggaeton singer, his manager and videographer leaving Fort Meyers and attempting to make it in lascivious, money-hungry Miami. Connects all the dots of the band fighting and then making up a little too comfortably but along the way maintains a nice focus on the music, on the illicit money that circulates around the music, and on comradeship as the only way of maintaining sanity in a marketing world gone mad.

Great Expectations/All The Light We Cannot See – Two series by Peaky Blinders and A Christmas Carol creator Steven Knight. The first uses Dickens again to spotlight the greed and vanity of imperial England as the ingenue Pip inhabits an utterly corrupt landscape with the stench of the colonial and capitalist industrial project suffusing and destroying personal relations. The second, lampooned by corporate critics for its unfaithfulness to the award-winning novel, instead employs the devices of series TV to heighten the melodramatic tension between a blind girl and a German soldier in the last days of World War 2 as they find purpose and redemption amid the ruins of the Nazi debacle. (Max/Netflix)

Daryl Dixon Second Walking Dead spinoff, after the bland Dead City, has the motorcycle redneck of the title marooned in France. Leave it to showrunner extraordinaire Angela Kang – leading light behind the neoliberal critical Season 11 of the mothership series and exec producer here – to infuse this examination of Daryl’s sensitive side with a Marine Le Pen subplot that has the a protofascist band attempting to rule France, not so different from the situation that the country in the wake of the failure of the ultracapitalist Macron finds itself in now. (Amazon)

Retro Series of the Year

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The greed behind the Frontier fur 

Frontier Season 1 – This Canadian series, about the British, French and American exploitation in the 18th century of the country’s indigenous, its land and its resources in the European craze for furs is, in the first season, a model historical series that lays bare its era. The budget kept decreasing in each of the subsequent three seasons as did the ingenuity of the writing but that takes nothing away from a truly remarkable opening season lost when it first came out in 2016 because it seemed to be nothing more than a Revenant rip-off. In fact, it was far more subtle than that overheated film. (Netflix)

Five Worst

High Desert/Based on a True Story – The first has the usually reliable Patricia Arquette swirling in the sand as a Stevie Nicks waif and for no conceivable reason. The second has the now increasingly vapid Kelly Cuoco, who has exhausted her post Big Bang cache, as part of a careerist couple who decide to let a serial killer roam free in order to promote their True Crime podcast. Supposedly funny, but actually just disgusting. 

Bupkis – The flavour of the month Pete Davison in a supposedly outré series with Joe Pesci that purports to be pushing the boundaries around sex but in the end quickly conforms and, as we’ve all seen for Davison, starts to look like just another Taco Bell ad.

Night Agent/Red Skies Politically regressive series from, in order, the U.S. and Israel. The first has an FBI agent pursuing terrorists and MAGA representatives inside the White House with no hint of irony about the real threat that lies within not from a mole but from those in charge of today’s White House, where its leaders are now attempting to start three world wars. The second claims to be an Israeli/Palestinian co-production centered on a mixed group of students but as soon as an attack comes betrays its initial premise and shifts into a billboard for Israeli repression and reprisal.

Under Control This French series attempts to be a more likable version of Veep, the HBO series about a vain politician. The problem is, unlike the former series, which took the gloves off and presented politicians as narcissistic media mongers, this one attempts to be amiable to all – as the lead character thrust into a key cabinet position is simply beset with turmoil – and in so doing instead becomes as Seinfeld proclaimed “a series about nothing,” but in this case not in a good or funny way.  

Found Horrible, smarmy, and smirking series about an African American female troubleshooter who, as does much of Washington, prides herself on stomping on other’s rights in her self-righteous quest to protect her clients. Full of horrible neoliberal police state sentiments like, “Sometimes the good guys win.” Turns a fascist vigilante into Sister Theresa. Much better is the erstwhile and humble detective of The Irrational who contests and is the former victim of white supremacy.  

Bonus Bad:

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The Buccaneers saluting wealth 

The Buccaneers – How does this series go wrong? Let me count the ways. Combine The Bridgerton faux casting which eliminates prejudice from history with the gutting of the critical thrust of its Edith Wharton source and the Sofia Coppolization via its rock soundtrack and jazzy montage in this story about rich New York young women who journey to Britain to marry and preserve decaying British wealth. Add a dose of Gilded Age (the series not the novel) concentration on the wealthy as the only characters in the 19th century with nary an ounce of Henry James’ critical examination of that class on both sides of the Atlantic and you have a series which simply celebrates money and status. Insipidly yours.

Utopia, dystopia and communal alternatives
Sunday, 14 April 2024 11:30

Utopia, dystopia and communal alternatives

Dennis Broe, in the second part of his articles on how corporate media downplays climate destruction, writes about recent films and TV series with both dystopian and utopian themes. Image above: post-apocalyptic dreaming in Station 11 

It is worth recalling that the genre that culminates in post-Apocalyptic television began in literature as one describing Utopia – Thomas More’s book of the same name. Its “presiding theorist” is Ernst Bloch, whose three-volume archeology of The Principle of Hope was written in the darkest days of World War II.

Such a text in which “political institutions, social norms, economic systems, and ways of life are superior” to the present could serve to call attention to the injustices and oppressions of that present.” With Bloch also comes the idea that “imagination is forward directed, a call to action.”

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Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope 

Thus, as Fredric Jameson says, “the waning of the utopian idea is a fundamental historical and political symptom.” So in the ’70s, as fossil fuel companies were commissioning and then suppressing studies that showed that their continued drilling could cause planetary destruction, came the disaster films, limited but horrible images of natural or human constructed devastation, including Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno.

As the consciousness of this potential devastation began to grow, public opinion went through first a questioning and then a period of greenwashing, where it appeared technical solutions within global capitalism could work. In this era, roughly the 1990s to the early 2000s, the apocalyptic impulse tended to decrease, with the fear allayed, and with occasional dystopic series where the world is threatened as in the film 9/11, but where those fleeing the earth in Battlestar Galactica still retain the image of an abundant earth in which to return.

However, with the dawning in the last decade of the full weight of climate catastrophe, the rapid acceleration of the crisis over even the last year, and the tendency toward throwing up one’s hands and deciding there is nothing to be done but submit passively, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic series, many of which simply see the end as inevitable, have increased in tempo, and the apocalyptic imaginary has also penetrated other genres.

Surely it can’t be capitalism?

In these series there are several “endings” of the world focusing on the adaptive strategies of those who survive with little left but their own resourcefulness – The Leftovers, Jericho, The Rain, War of the Worlds, and Silo. Capitalism, and its part in global war, climate destruction and a relentlessly unequal economy, is barely cited as culpable in this situation. The genre itself is a combination of science fiction, fantasy and horror, with the latter now coming to dominate.

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Silo, the latest Apocalypse

The post-apocalyptic imagination is also projected into the past in AT&T/HBO’s Game of Thrones and Throne of the Dragon, set in a primitive dog-eat-dog world that could be read as “post-neoliberal” where all the boundaries and protections of the state have been overturned, and it’s also a world where the splitting of an employee’s consciousness between work and leisure in Apple’s Severance effectively denies the real-world struggle of Apple workers to organize. The series is more like workwashing than greenwashing.

So what was once an archaelogy of hope has transmuted into an archaeology of despair, dominated by what Jameson identifies as the chief postmodern emotion, irony, in the form of Elvis Costello’s “I used to be disgusted but now I try to be amused” – where “what hurts” is transformed into “what smirks.” Being above the fray and superior to it short-circuits the stage of activism but increasingly the smirk, the attitude du jour still of many academics, cannot conceal the hurt. 

An exception to these late-stage post-apocalyptic series is The Swarm, an apocalyptic series which takes place in the “near” present as the ocean is mobilizing its defence, that is at the onset rather than after the apocalypse. It can be read as a call to action before the oceans are destroyed, from the heart of what still remains of European social democracy, as the series is financed by public television stations in France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland, as well as private streamers in Scandinavia and Japan.

These series are full of sentiments echoing this resignation. The Last of Us timidly claims, disavowing collective action, that as long as “there is one person worth saving” it is possible to live a fulfilling life”. In Station 11 the actress who survives a holocaust and finds a memoir of the time before that says: “I don’t care that the world was ending because it was the world.”

These views are endorsed in the press. The New York Times’ lead television reviewer, James Poniewozik, glibly described the latter series as “the most uplifting show about life at the end of the world you are likely to see.” He praises Station 11 as a series that celebrates humanity’s drive to create, with this neoliberal mumbo-jumbo about the indomitability of the human spirit concealing the fact that creation here is refashioned as a device not to save humanity but to divert it. Poniewozik concludes that this show is for you “if you want catharsis and a surprising laugh,”— the implication being that if you’re concerned with actually changing the world or forestalling the disaster this is not a show for you.

Apocalyptic alternatives

“If we…strip away the abundance and expansionism of the liberal capitalist order, we find waiting beneath the disguise of peaceful competition and meritocratic incentive the cruelty and repression to which modern liberalism has become oblivious.”  - Peter Y. Paik, in From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe.

Oddly, this statement could be the tagline for Season 11, the final season, of The Walking Dead. In it, the survivors take on their most deceptive opponent, the Commonwealth, a seemingly utopian community blessed with abundance and locked behind sturdy gates that walls its residents off from both the zombies and the viciousness of the bands that contend with them.

The kingdom is ruled over by Pamela Milton and her family. The dynasty is headed by this blonde ageing leader, with a physical similarity to Hilary Clinton, whose words proclaim that she only wants what is best for her people. Above ground, the mood is calm and tranquil, but below ground are the prisons for those who resist the Commonwealth’s abundance. Pamela tells an underling, “Not that it isn’t, but it can’t feel like a police state,” in perhaps a nod to the patrolling in the contemporary U.S. of black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The same old deplorable class distinctions

The Walking Dead survivors find that beneath this utopian veneer of a new world lurks the same old class distinctions, as two of the survivors are sent to a labour camp. They’re told that their “work will benefit those better than you,” while Pamela’s son, a little Hunter Biden or Eric Trump, betrays the truth of the place: “The reality is the poor stay poor so the rich can do whatever we want.” All of which reminds us of Clinton’s characterization of the working class as “deplorables” in the 2016 election.

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Season 11 of  The Walking Dead 

The foreign policy of the Commonwealth is one of dominance not benevolence, as its security forces attempt to turn the other camps outside their purview into outposts or labour camps operating for the good of the Commonwealth. It reminds us of Clinton’s destruction of Libya, the oil-rich African country with the most developed healthcare system and the highest literacy rates in Africa – and then boasting about it.

Anecdote: the weekend before the bombs started to fall, the Financial Times ran a detailed map of where oil was drilled, processed and shipped in Libya to remind NATO to bomb schools and hospitals but take care to leave the oil routes alone. Ten days before NATO took over what had been more sporadic bombing the FT ran a story about how Western oil companies were fearful that the leader Gaddafi would nationalize the oil.

Finally, Milton reveals her true self as she exiles her people outside the gates of the Commonwealth as the zombies approach, in oreder to save herself and a small cohort of her associates. After she’s overturned, the final shot of her in prison is a shot which compares her – though she still has an aura of reasonableness – to the imprisonment of the most vicious monster the survivors had faced, Negan, after his more openly brutal order was defeated.

Communal Alternatives in The Last of Us 

More problematic is another zombie apocalypse, The Last of Us, adapted from the game with its showrunner Craig Mazin having visualized the real apocalypse of Chernobyl.

The series, after it quickly jumps 20 years beyond the onset of the virus or fungus, posits first in the North in Boston Fedra, a broken-down police state, after a mycologist has proposed as a solution, since there is no vaccine, to “bomb everyone in the city.” Joel (The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal) and the teenage Ellie (Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey) then go on a cross-country tour to find a group of scientists since Ellie, who survived a bite, may hold the cure.

On the tour they encounter in St. Louis populist fascists who hunt their African American guide who explains that their viciousness is the product of the police state government’s “torturing and killing people for 20 years,”. It’s an admission that the brutality of these Trump-like survivors is partly caused by a system in the U. S. that for years has continually attacked their wages and lifestyle.

Finally, Joel and Ellie find an alternative in Wyoming, in a collective where leaders are democratically elected and ownership is shared. It is here that they are offered hope, a chance as Joel’s brother says to “figure out what they want to do with their lives.” But this actual utopia is simply a resting spot they might hope to return to because they must press on to get Ellie to a hospital where she can be examined, which proves again to be part of the nightmare of modern science, where curing and killing are synonymous.

Snowpiercer and the return of the utopian impulse

“It will then turn out that the world has long dreamt of that of which it had only to have a clear idea to possess it really.” Karl Marx

The most class-conscious apocalyptic series, and ultimately the most hopeful, is Bong Joon-ho’s adaptation of his film of the same name. Bong Joon-ho, the most class-conscious director working in film and television today, is currently adapting his Academy Award-winning film Parasite for television.

In Snowpiercer, the train that the survivors of a nuclear winter cling to as it circles the earth is “a fortress to class” with the “tailies” at the back in cramped quarters, called “unticketed passengers” to stress their illegitimacy, while the ultra-rich in the front of the train enjoy fine dining. “The Revolution” of the tailies, led by a stalwart leader Andre Layton, prevails in season 1 but is beaten back in Season 2 by the return of the train’s “engineer-entrepreneur” founder Mr. Wilford, a Richard Branson/Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk type whose contempt for equality drips from every corner of his mouth onto his fur coat.

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Off-loading the capitalist in Snowpiercer

Season 3 ends in a truly startling moment. Mr. Wilford has lost control of the train and is imprisoned, but attempts to regain power when the train’s original leader Melanie Cavill and Layton disagree on how to proceed over the possibility that there may be a spot on the earth warm enough to sustain life.

Imagine a world shorn of capitalist billionaires!

However, the traditional method of control, divide and conquer does not prevail, as Melanie and Layton agree to disagree on what path to follow but then together oppose the capitalist retaking the train. He is offloaded with enough supplies to survive but has lost his place in this now more equal class structure. The two factions make a mutual agreement where each takes a principled stand, which sees them dividing the train. The point is clear – with the capitalist gone, they are able to thrash out a compromise for what’s best for the train and for what’s left of humanity as a whole.

The final lesson of Snowpiercer is that if the world is shorn of its capitalist billionaires, its various and diverse peoples will find compromises that can yet save humanity. So, working from the presupposition that the world has ended, this series suggests a way forward that begins with the overthrow of the controlling leader who puts his own interests ahead of everyone else on the train and the planet. 

The reward for this bold proclamation? Warner Bros./Discovery, still ruled by the very conservative Texas company AT&T, refused to air the final season – shot and ready to go – on TNT. The company preferred a tax write-off to airing a show whose season is about how groups cooperate to learn how to retake the planet. It’s a grim scenario but we are in a grim place right now.

How corporate media downplays climate destruction: Part One
Sunday, 14 April 2024 11:30

How corporate media downplays climate destruction: Part One

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

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

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

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 David Harvey reading Marx’s Grundrisse

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil I Want Is You

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

DBA3 

Climate activists denounce COP28, the oil-friendly climate conference 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The failure to confront the fossil fuel industry

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

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

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

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

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

Nuclear war and imperial malaise

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

DBA4 

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament poster 

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

DBA5

From Apocalypse LA 

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

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

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

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

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

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