Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.

Carnivore Culture, not Cancel Culture: The Mandalorian Season 2
Sunday, 14 February 2021 12:13

Carnivore Culture, not Cancel Culture: The Mandalorian Season 2

Dennis Broe continues his series of reviews, discussing The Mandalorian Season 2 and the growing limits on creativity in streaming services

One of the surprise hits of the contemporary streaming era is the first original series on Disney+, The Mandalorian. A surprise not because it was a hit – any Star Wars spinoff is guaranteed to have a wide audience – but because of the magnitude of its popularity and the way it has penetrated the culture.

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Baby Yoda 

This space Western features a lone gunslinger and bounty hunter who befriends a timeless and seemingly helpless kid, a baby Yoda called The Child and now named Grogu. The series was twenty times more popular than any other original series on Disney+, the third most popular series (with 1,032 billion minutes viewed) in one of the Nielsen streaming ratings which highly underestimate number of viewers, and crucial in Disney+ surpassing 74 million subscribers worldwide in 2020, far beyond its initial goal of 60 million by 2024.

At Christmas, an American workforce seeing its economy evaporate and stuck at home still spent heavily on toys. One of the crown jewels of the toy world was a giggling, babbling Baby Yoda, for $60 no less. In this year where whole cinema chains closed, the animatronic wonder was the only significant seller in film and TV merchandise. This Green Goblin, now a mascot for Disney+, threatened even to replace the angel announcing the birth of Jesus at the top of the Christmas tree.

Part of the furore and adoration is warranted. The first season of The Mandalorian breathed new life into an atrophied franchise. The tale is set after the end of the first Star Wars trilogy where the empire has collapsed but the budding Republic is weak and unable to pull together an unruly universe. Mando, in his quest to preserve and protect this powerful baby visits a different planet each week, most with broken-down governments and infrastructures.

The collapse of the Americam empire

Season one was a fit metaphor for the imminent collapse of the U.S. empire as its currency faltered and economy plummeted, in a downturn accelerated but not caused by Covid. The individual planets with their barely surviving frontier systems of government looked a lot like failing American states in the aftermath of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal onslaught, finally done in by Trump.

The worlds of The Mandalorian also echoed failed states around the world, as parts of the U.S. global empire collapsed with protests in Lebanon, Chile, and Algeria, to say nothing of recent people’s movements closer to home in the Gilets Jaune in France, the Indignados in Spain and the mass movement that led to the momentary success of Syriza in Greece.

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Gina Carano’s Cara Dune

This degradation can be seen also in a comparison of the leading females of the original trilogy and this new iteration. Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia battled and was a rallying figure around opposition to the fascist Darth Vader and the Death Star. The leading female figure in The Mandalorian was the now-fired Gina Carano’s Cara Dune, a gun-toting warrior on screen, and off-screen a Trump supporter and former wrestler known for her viciousness in the ring.

Carano, now one of the world’s most popular celebrities and a tweeter of racist, anti-democratic and a pro-Covid positions, was the Princess Leia of a broken- down generation buffeted about by the neglect of an ever-greedier capitalism and hardened not so much to resist that neglect but to survive it in whatever way possible and not excluding the embracing of fascism.

The trimmings of The Mandalorian though couldn’t have been cleverer, with the musical theme a combination of both John Willams’ Star Wars majesty intermingled with the ominously tense strands of Ennio Morricone’s themes for the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns. The weekly trip to another planet was borrowed from the original Star Trek as were the end-credit freeze-frames of action in the episode.

Season two began as more of the same, but as the quest to find Baby Yoda’s home took centre stage, the show slowly and then more frenetically drew in components and characters from the extended Star Wars world, or as it’s called using the Marvel example, the Star Wars universe. These included the bounty hunter Boba Fett from the original trilogy but also from the second, mostly unsuccessful, prequel trilogy and Rosario Dawson’s female Jedi Ashoka, a voice-over in the last episode of the most current trilogy and one of the stars of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a character fleshed out in that series by Dave Filoni, co-creator of The Mandalorian.

The ultimate inclusion though was the surprise at the end of the series with the reappearance of the first trilogy’s key character Luke Skywalker, played by a reanimated and youthful Mark Hamill, arranged by both the digital reverse aging technique used by Scorsese for DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci in The Irishman and a mounting of Hamill’s face on a contemporary body.

The move was heralded by Star Wars fans as a crowning touch in the acceptance of the series into the extended universe, with its creator George Lucas now being whispered as himself part of season three.

Nothing new to say

Of course, it was something else too, and that was a gigantic lure for the Disney+ streaming service, which has produced little original content and which has now used this hit as a launching pad for nine new Star Wars series. The company has had to move more actively and rapidly into streaming as other parts of the empire, specifically its theatrical films, amusement parks and cruise ships, falter due to the virus.

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Rosario Dawson's Ashoka

Disney is all about synergy, that is, with one part of the company interacting and promoting another. Thus, having bought the Star Wars franchise, not only did the film beget the series but Disney is also borrowing the concept of the “universe” from Marvel, as well as crossing personnel from the two universes. Thus, the upcoming series The Book of Baba Fett will co-star as the outlaw’s sidekick Fennec Shand, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Ming-Na Wen.

Elsewhere, Marvel guru, studio chief and keeper of the universe flame Kevin Feige is developing a new Star Wars movie which will supposedly extend this new universe into infinity. Each of these series and films of course will also be designed to generate cuddly figurines as both toys and collectibles so that the commercial reach of these shows and films extends beyond the screen.

There is something else going on here besides mass merchandising though. The limiting of creativity even in this overly commercialized product so that the show in season two begins to fold into itself and collapse into an already established pattern and constellation is an indication of a culture that is eating itself. More than carnivore, the show is now emblematic of an autophagic, or self-consuming, culture that quickly extinguishes any spark of the new by folding it back into the tried, tested and comfortable – and in that way annihilating it.

As such, the journey of The Mandalorian is not so different from that of the country itself. A once powerful manufacturing juggernaut, the U.S. has now been utterly hollowed out so that manufacturing, or making stuff, accounts for only one in 20 businesses and one-ninth of the workforce compared to after World War II, where one-third of the workforce was employed in factories. The art of producing material goods has been replaced by the symbolic economies of finance, entertainment, and the digital, with the only real manufacturing being done in weapons construction, in the sale of which the U.S. leads the world.

Instead, manufacturing has fled to China and other parts of Asia so that by December of last year China, back at nearly full capacity after recovering from the coronavirus, had a record trade surplus of $75 billion. Over $50 billion of that figure consisted of exports to the U.S., where stay-at-home consumers were eagerly buying up Chinese made home fixtures and toys for Christmas, including the aforementioned Hasbro Baby Yoda doll, manufactured in a Chinese factory.

Remake and redo - This is not the way!

This hollowness or emptiness at the core of the society, reflected in the entertainment complex as lack of innovation, so that any spark of creativity must quickly fold back into preestablished patterns, is at play also in the finance industry in the form of stock buybacks. After the 2008 financial collapse and continuing with the Covid aid to American banks, insurance agencies and investment firms, instead of investing in the society as a whole or in innovating in their firm, the financial sector bolstered their position by using the money to repurchase shares in their own, often faltering, companies, resulting in zero gain for our society as a whole but enormous profits for their own shareholders since the stock value was now, artificially, increased. The rationale for propping up this zombie culture was, “We don’t see any better investment than in ourselves,” a phrase which reaffirms their greed and lack of interest in the society as a whole.

This is where much of the money from Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthiest, supposedly designed to “trickle down” to the rest of the society, went, with over $806 billion in buybacks in 2018 after the 2017 tax cut. In that year, only 43 percent of the 500 wealthiest companies spent any money, even a penny, on research and development, while spending $4.3 trillion on propping themselves up in the market and enriching themselves.

When these companies were recently challenged on the market by the Reddit traders, using a failed brick and mortar company GameStop to wage war on the established hedge funds, this popular mass of traders, separate from the established Wall Street cronies, ended their communiques with The Mandalorian phrase, “This is the way.”

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Rerunning Sex and the City 

And indeed, it was the way for a season, that is before the show finally folded in on itself and became part of the same carnivore culture so rampant in the industrial and financial worlds. As the stakes increase for the streaming services they move as well to squelch innovation. Witness HBO Max’s return of Sex and the City as well as a redo of Gossip Girl and a Friends reunion special to announce the return of that series to the AT&T fold, where it is designed to bolster fading HBO Max subscriptions.

While the right worries about cancel culture – and the left ought to also because the great unwashed neoliberal middle will be coming for progressives next – the bland corporate elite produces a carnivore culture by feasting on what is left of the carcass of a once thriving entertainment and economic complex. In this new chasing after the last vestige of abundance in a fading financial structure, the promise of plenitude that begat the streaming era has ceded to the kind of remake and redo policy that has driven the Hollywood film industry. If the monoliths of HBO/AT&T and Disney prevail, this lack of innovation in a culture feeding on itself will become the dominant. With American corporate and conglomerate capital unfortunately, “This is the way.”

It isn't!

What's Left on the Dial? Alternative TV in the U.S.
Friday, 01 January 2021 09:56

What's Left on the Dial? Alternative TV in the U.S.

Dennis Broe reviews alternative TV and podcasts in the US. Image above: Amber Ruffin as Melania Trump on Late Night

 The US election has finally been secured with even Donald Trump tacitly acknowledging that he lost. In the aftermath, the mainstream media has now swung behind Joe Biden and the return to normalcy. The dominant media opposed Trump not on grounds that he was a corporate bloodletter who bombed Syria, murdered Iran’s leading general and laid waste to U.S. natural resources – all actions they either applauded or tacitly condoned – but that he was an unfit and buffoonish manager of the empire.

It is only in the world of alternative media that those questions are being asked about both Trump’s actual crimes and Biden’s neoliberal “normalcy”, which had the global economy on the brink of a new recession before Covid, was rapidly accelerating an income disparity which created the conditions for the rise of Trump and Trumpism, and which has done little to slow the environmental devastation that is wrecking the planet.

CNN, MSNBC and the rest have their straw man in Fox News. The mainstream networks seem reasonable in opposing the lunacy and ravings on that station, but since they seldom provide any real solutions beyond corporate-mandated reforms, the two exist in perfect harmony. The goal of all these enterprises is to eliminate any real empathy with working-class suffering, while enabling the mainstream to seem morally uplifting in opposing an enemy with whom they are more similar than they care to admit. 

CNN fueled the rise of Trump, then looked to bolster its ratings by using him as its foil and even, once he was defeated, quickly ran a story claiming that Trump, their ratings master, was the frontrunner in 2024. The channel is filled not with Trump opposers but Trump enablers. The relationship is not antagonistic, it’s synergistic.

Covid is raging and the economy's a shambles

The stakes are high with Covid raging and the economy, other than financial speculation on Wall Street, in a shambles. So this is a good time for a sweeping survey of television series and podcasts that are genuinely in opposition not only to Trumpism but also to Biden’s “normalcy,” as well as faux-alternative sites to which they are opposed.

The primary alternative to the insistent drone of corporate media, providing news but pandering to the ratings, is RT. Russia Today, which bills itself as neither right nor left, has in fact become the clearing house for progressive thought in the US and the UK. Three shows, Redacted Tonight, Renegade Inc. and George Galloway’s Sputnik Orbiting the World stand out as startlingly clear on US and British imperial interests, on the widening income gap in the wake of the surrendering of the economy to corporate finance and tech interests, and the tough decisions that need to be made in the name of the planet so that environmental policy is more than just greenwashing.

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He wasn't far wrong

Perhaps the station’s insistently critical beat is motivated by an attempt to weaken both countries from within, but whatever the reason, its critical stance often rings true.

Comedian Lee Camp’s Redacted Tonight, whose title implies it is trafficking in censored news, is a wildly intelligent take on topical events. It uses the Daily Show John Stewart/Trevor Noah approach, opening with Camp’s well-founded rants on such subjects as how in the last election, with the legalization of marijuana in three states, the Reagans lost their war on drugs, a war waged against the poor and an excuse to jail them.

He is ably assisted, in Daily Show format, by a team of “correspondents” that features, for example, Naomi Karavani’s take on how in the last election dark corporate money was defeated in its attempt to restrict issues from ever being on the ballot; Natalie McGills’ report on the deliberate inaccuracies of the Trump census; and Anders Lee’s look at who Biden would have blamed had he lost the election – hint, not the corporate Democratic National Committee for its refusal to take a stand on anything other than it was not Trump. Camp’s angry idealism, and the combination of comedy and astute reporting on the part of his compadres, makes this a cut above both the average late-night comedy show and the average newscast.

Renegade Inc., on the other hand, focuses its once-weekly episode on a single issue, each time with a guest or guests with a take on social problems which is outside the norm. The show is hosted by Brit filmmaker Ross Ashcroft, whose Four Horsemen documentary is a questioning of mainstream economists by the likes of Joseph Stieglitz, Noam Chomsky and Gillian Tett.

Perpetual warfare, dressed up as democracy, peace and human rights

Ashcroft’s deep dive approach to issues has included author Richard Rothstein driving home the links between continual housing and education segregation and inequality. Another episode had lawyer and peace activist Dan Kovalik laying out in stunning detail the U.S. promotion of perpetual warfare under the banner of democracy, peace and human rights

George Galloway has found a second life and a wide audience on RT with his Sputnik Orbiting the World series of interviews and his Mother of All Talk Shows in which he uses the sensationalist tactics of right-wing shock jocks to drive home some truths fueled by his still-strong adherence to a foundering Scottish and British working class, and his wide knowledge of the US and UK’s global imperial policies.

A recent Mother featured journalist Garland Nixon suggesting the assassination of the Iranian atomic scientist was a byproduct of the meeting in Riyadh between Saudi princeling Mohammed bin Salman, US State Department head Mike Pompeo, and Israeli premiere Benjamin Netanyahu.

Of late, Galloway has followed the case of Harry Dunn, the teenage allegedly hit-and-run victim of a female US intelligence official that the US claims has immunity and cannot be extradited, while the same show featured a report on how the U.S. and British governments are colluding in the attempt to extradite Julian Assange.

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The highly relevant and creative Means TV

A low budget but highly relevant and creative answer to the millions behind not only Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News but also the emerging OAN and Newsmax – two networks Trump may eventually move to – is Means TV. Means bills itself as a “worker-owned streaming service,” a billing that has upset US media reporting on the station. It’s flagship programme is Means Morning News with Sam Sacks and Sam Knight, who in a recent holiday special proudly engaged in the “war on Thanksgiving” instead of as they claimed the usual war on America’s indigenous.

They questioned the joyousness of a holiday which 20 percent of American workers spend not with their families but working, and awarded the week’s “Rich Dick Award” to California Governor Gavin Newsome whose recent partying in defiance of his own protocols proved once again there is one set of rules for the wealthy, and another set of rules for everyone else. The show though could use more creative graphics to go along with the astute commentary.

Means sports show Southpaws has yet to find its voice and is too much a straight copy of mainstream sports shows on Disney-owned ESPN. On the other hand, Art House Politics makes stunning use of its do-it-yourself low-budget aesthetic by using on one show a faux drawing and colouring class to convey the full horror of Thanksgiving, with the narrator commenting on the “settler colonial myth” of holiday affirms. The narrator draws an indigenous American, a turkey and a Pilgrim, who the instructor then chastises as responsible for the wholesale appropriation of land that continues to lead to the destruction of the planet. For his crime, he sets the Pilgrim on fire. The show used the conceit of the art class to enact a very funny and effective rethinking of this foundational myth.

Liberal handwringing and mouthpieces for the Democrats

Elements of the so-called alternative media have become increasingly mouthpieces for the Democratic Party. Foremost among these is WBAI’s Democracy Now, which since the emergence of Trump might more accurately be dubbed Democrats Now. Liberal hand-wringing increasingly substitutes for analysis with the show “all in” with Syria’s White Helmets, elsewhere dubbed as the Public Relations wing of Al-Qaeda, and during the campaign featured a ludicrous “debate” about how Joe Biden can become a force for good. This is already belied by his administration picks, which recently included the Uber representative who was part of the $200 million defeat of the California law requiring Uber and Lift to behave like responsible employees. The supposedly more progressive vice president Kamela Harris has as one of her senior advisors Tony West, the lawyer who led the charge for Uber against the legislation.

For a long time, the genuine progressive alternative was the Russian radio network Sputnik’s Loud and Clear, with anti-war activist Brian Becker chairing a show that ran for 5 years, 1,138 episodes and boasted over 6000 interviews. The known quantity, the star element, of the show was John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on CIA torture and was one of Time magazine’s Persons of the Year. When Kiriakou left, the show folded, pointing to a weakness of RT/Sputnik programming, that it is star-driven.

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Host Brian Becker with Historian Gerald Horne on The Socialist Program

Becker is back though in a new listener-sponsored show The Socialist Program in which he is a bit more strident, while continuing to dazzle with his own astute analysis and perceptive interviewing acumen, aided by his on-air producers, Walter Smolarek and Nicole Rousselle. Becker and Smolarek contradicted the New York Times suggestion that we will see a new, now chastised and cautious, Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State. They did this by hammering home Blinken’s support for the War in Iraq, his aid in planning the bombing and destruction of Libya – the African country with the largest oil reserves – and advocating for bombing Syria.

The team was equally thunderstruck by the timid reaction afforded to Biden’s nominee for first female director of national intelligence Avril Haines, explaining that she was the person who met Obama each week and advised him who to kill that week, in drone bombing missions that numbered far more than those of Trump or any other president. The team reported that Obama’s comment on Haines was that “she was a very nice person.”

Many of these kind of shows also work because of a rotating guest list that most prominently includes economist Richard Wolff, who lays bare the misery and devastation caused in the US by the evisceration of its industries and the acceleration through Covid of what now amounts to “the worst economic crisis in a century.” Another mainstay is Gerald Horne, a prolific author whose history of the slave trade as motivating the European expansion into the Americas, and the settler colonial defense of slavery as one of the primary reasons for the American Revolution, was the subject of his last two books.

Finally, there is Mark Swoboda whose inciteful and balanced takes on the Russian state and the Slavic world make him the natural inheritor of the recently deceased and lamented Russian expert Stephen Cohen, whose voice of peace was often shouted down in the bipartisan escalation of US/Russian tensions under Trump.

Another source of what was once alternative news and opinion which has recently also come around to being increasingly a sounding board for Democratic Party politics is the website The Intercept. Democracy Now alumnus Jeremy Scahill put together a comprehensive seven-part soundscape of the Trump administration's failures. Recently, though, a seismic shift occurred when the site’s co-founder and most intrepid reporter, Glen Greenwald, who helped break the Snowden revelations about NSA spying, left. Greenwald said the site censored his report on the contents of Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s computer, which suggested collusion for profit with the Ukrainian government, similar to the offence that was the pretext for Trump’s impeachment, and a marker of the similarities rather than the differences between the two parties.

Draining the swamp of bipartisan corruption

With Greenwald gone, the best alternative to The Intercept is the podcast Moderate Rebels, with Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, and their website The Grey Zone. This site also includes the reporting of Aaron Mate, who continued to question the faulty assumptions of the Russiagate probe, which the Mueller Report declared not actionable and which were then used as the basis for a phoney and unsuccessful attempt to impeach Trump. Trump is a tax dodger, war criminal and scam artist who could have been indicted on actual impeachable offenses but that, as Mate pointed out, would have meant truly “draining the swamp,” that is focusing attention on the bipartisan corruption that fuels Washington politics.

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Moderate Rebel’s Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal

The latest podcast has Blumenthal and Norton examining the “authoritarian censorship” of the French government which like many of the Western democracies becomes more repressive as conditions become more desperate for its citizens. The Grey Zone bills itself as “Investigative Journalism on Empire.”

The last source of more alternative news and opinion is the progressive wing of late-night television, especially Seth Meyers's Late Night and Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, excerpts of which can be watched on YouTube. These shows counter the ceaseless and increasingly mirthless frivolity of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, the misplaced and often nasty humorlessness of Jimmy Kimmel Live and the “sophisticated” but often vacuous “satire” of Steven Colbert’s The Late Show. In the Trump era all three of these mainstream hosts moved to try to embrace topical humor, which the audience was demanding, as the other two watched Colbert’s emphasis on political humor pull him ahead in the ratings. The positive in all this was that the audience is demanding more relevance and less froth as entertainment, and so endless endorsements must now be mixed with a healthy dose of commentary on the day’s events.

Pummel the president! And Melania!

Of all the late-night topical humor though, Seth Meyers’s A Closer Look (YouTube) is the best written, funniest pummeling of the Trump presidency. The show also boasted the African-American writer and comedian Amber Ruffin, who now has her own show streaming on Peacock which sadly lacks the sharpness and the biting wit of her continued appearances with Meyers. In stunning back-to-back weeks Ruffin, in wig and full pouty gestures, in a week where it was thought the White House was employing Melania doubles, played the first lady, quoting from an official document where she had to turn the page to read the name of their son Baron, but then said Donald had to turn more pages to remember his son’s name. The next week, after Kanye West, 50 Cent and Ice Cube were revealed as Trump backers, she came out as Lil Doof, a rapper who rapped against his own interests.

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Amber Ruffin as Melania Trump

The other late-night alternative is Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. Noah’s own segments sometimes lack punch but are always well written and graphically astute. The strength of the show lies in the “correspondents” and the segments Noah helps engineer. One of the best was Roy Woods’ countdown of “Donald Trump’s 100 Most Tremendous Scandals,” a highly imaginative montage with Woods’ indignation – coming in at number 1 – that after 99 scandals Trump is still president. Desi Lydic’s Thanksgiving plea to her “family” of conservatives – Uncle Rudi (Giuliani), Cousin Sean (Hannity) and Aunt Jeanine (Pierro) has her asking the Fox mainstays for some civility at the dinner table and each of them, in their own words, refusing.

Finally, back in the fold is Jordan Klepper, returned from hosting his own Steven Colbert like faux-conservative The Opposition. He is even funnier in his “Fingering the Pulse” segments as a debunker of the illogic of Trump supporters who – like the couple in Washington at the recent Million MAGA march there to celebrate “the winning of Donald Trump” – contradict themselves and argue against their own interests.

One of the major gains of the Trump presidency has been an increased interest in analysis, biting commentary and humor and satire, mostly directed against Trump. It will be important to continue that trend as the Biden presidency attempts to confuse and beguile its adherents with a phoney “normalcy” amid the widespread panic, devastation and destruction that has been the accumulated result of all the presidents, especially since Reagan.

Trump ascended into office with the car poised at the edge of the cliff. He gleefully pushed it over and asked the country to enjoy the ride. It will take much more of the kind of sincere honesty that the above shows and sites practice if there is to be a chance of putting the pieces back together.

The Year of Living Digitally: 2020 Top 30 Global TV Series
Thursday, 24 December 2020 09:40

The Year of Living Digitally: 2020 Top 30 Global TV Series

Dennis Broe reviews global streaming services, part of a generalized movement online this year, and nominates his Top 30

The biggest story in television this year was the rise of the streaming services, with Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and NBCUniversal's Peacock joining what was already the crowded field of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. This followed a monopolistic wave of mergers and consolidations that included: AT&T buying Time Warner with Warner Bros. and HBO; the cable network Comcast buying the NBC network with Universal film studios and becoming principal owner of Sky, the most popular European satellite network; and Disney buying the Fox Production Company and Fox studio and catalogue and becoming principal owner of Hulu.

The point of this activity was to begin moving television (and films) online, a movement that was accelerated by COVID, such that Disney, whose live action theme parks and cruise lines are floundering, has in one year reached 86 million subscribers, a figure it was predicted would take four years to accomplish. Netflix is nearing 200 million subscribers worldwide with the majority now outside the U.S. and with 25 million new subscribers during the first phase of the pandemic. Disney+, Amazon Prime and Netflix are forecast to control half of the world's streaming video subscriptions in the next five years.

This is a movement that defrays costs especially as it circulates the globe. Thus, publicity costs for the 21 Warner Bros. films that will be released online as well as in theaters next year do double duty as trumpeting the film in the theater and as providing subscribers online. Complex overseas licensing agreements are short-circuited as all profits now accrue to the distributing company. These companies once they become global also undercut local production, most often of nationalized television networks and stations whose major artists then clamor to sign with the streaming services which guarantee global distribution. Rights, following the Netflix model of artists only being paid upfront, could revert to the streaming service in perpetuity, which then uses the series or film to stock its back catalogue and gain future subscribers without paying royalties.

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Global expansion of American conglomerates 

The streaming services are also part of a generalized trend toward life moving online and away from forms of neighborhood and local collectivity. Movie theater chains in the U.S. have closed this year and gone bankrupt as the major studios experiment with online distribution. Malls and small shops across the western world are empty and deserted as Amazon, now promising one-day delivery, becomes the world's shopkeeper and Amazon warehouses replace stores as whole city blocks flounder. The movement to 5G and its faster download speeds hastens the move from television as family centerpiece to individualized cell phone viewing, turning the physical shared space of the household into individualized spaces with each member in their own world.

These new largely digital and communication conglomerates also have their own agenda with television and film seen as a sideline or shill for the main industry. Almost two-thirds of AT&T/Time Warner's profits come from the parent company's cell phone sales, and Warners now must accommodate to friendly cell phone viewing fare. The aggressive takeover prompted the HBO president, after being told the prestigious company needed to be more popular and make more money, to quickly resign. There may be some desertion of what might be a sinking ship as agitated creators, seeing their profits diminished as films open online, have begun referring to the company as Former Bros., and with the mother company, as are all these conglomerates, 170 billion in debtAmazon Prime video must work in concert with the delivery of Amazon products: It was recently revealed that Apple TV+ had quashed a series which was laudatory about a defunct gossip app Gawker which had revealed company secrets.

Last year the U.S. produced 532 series, a number sure to be exceeded in 2021 as Disney, for example, goes full tilt into series production with no less than nine new Star Wars series in a repeat of the television network habit of saturating the market with copies after every hit series, in this case with the success of The Mandalorian. A point that bears emphasis is that 532 and climbing is just a drop in the bucket of global series, which last year numbered 10,600. In attempting to compete with this movement online, national television networks everywhere are joining forces with independent networks in their own countries or regions to form their own streaming services, most prominently in the UK with Britbox, in France with Salto, and in the Scandinavian countries with the already widely popular Viaplay.

The American streaming services are also accumulating untaxed wealth as they circulate the globe. Next year will be part of a global effort to tax American digital companies, following this year's European Parliament attempt to make online services more accountable for their content and to curtail monopolistic and non-competitive practices.

With the streaming services this year, there is a renewed emphasis on original production since it is becoming clear that new series are what drive subscriptions as HBO Max, which has ventured few series, has badly lagged in subscribers. The series on offer have attained a level of sophistication above what used to be network fare, but which has stagnated. HBO Max's first new entry, The Flight Attendant, is a star turn for Big Bang Theory's Kaley Cuoco and an advert for HBO Now after the service bought back the rights to her former show Big Bang, one of the most popular of steaming series on Netflix. The Flight Attendant is a fast-moving comedy-thriller that deals with addiction and childhood abuse, but in a superficial way that leaves untouched any deeper sociological implications about abuse, addiction and the deteriorating American family structure due to increased joblessness.

Top 20 + 10 (+ bonus 5 worst)

I watched 140 series this year and was able to cull a Top 30 which, with some categories combined, is really 35. Thus, one-fourth of the series I watched were praiseworthy, a high number. But that does not count approximately 400 series I monitored and then passed on because too derivative of other earlier, better series and films or whose subject matter and treatment promised only socially irrelevant diversion, and not particularly well executed diversion at that. This mediocrity will accelerate in 2021 with the entry of more money into the conglomerate streaming race.

This year's Top 30, from 12 countries, also expands the notion of series, including: one retro anthology series that today looks more prescient than ever (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), discoveries of previous series based on this year's creators (Misha Lovecraft Country Green's Undercover), and weekly and topical news and commentary series necessary in the age of Trump and Biden (RT's Redacted Tonight, Seth Meyers and Amber Ruffin on Late Night). Also included is one shining moment of truth telling, Ricky Gervais's Golden Globes monologue that, because it was so honest, stood out like a sore thumb not only during awards season but for the entire television year.

​Top 20

A Christmas Carol – Steven (Peaky Blinders) Knight's answer to Christmas drivel like Jingle Jangle. Knight's imagining of a nearly unrepentant Scrooge as prototype capitalist owner resounded throughout this year of Jeff Bezos profiting from his own Tiny Tims without allowing them bathroom breaks. Knight's version is a very Peaky and very profound reimagining of Dickens tale, which had lost its bite in too many syrupy retellings.

Home Before Dark – First great series from Apply TV+ about a pre-teen journalist whose truth-telling exposes the embedded masculine power structure in a small town in Washington state. Hilde's online dispatches bring together an African-American boy and Asian-American girl, a Black female deputy who must question her white male superior, and the pint-sized reporter's lawyer mother, all to right a past injustice visited on the area's indigenous Yakama population. Superbly differentiated characters and an exceptional cast highlight the storytelling.

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The insidiousness of fintech in Bad Banks season two

Bad Banks – Fintech, the infiltration of the tech industry by the financial industry, is the subject of season two of this superb German series. Jana's megabank expands, and she is sent to corrupt a start-up designed in its idealistic phase to aid sustainable development. This interpenetration reminds us of a moment long ago and many galaxies away when Google's motto was "Don't do evil"—a moral imperative now become a punchline.

For Life – This series, produced by 50 Cent and based on a true story about a Black prisoner who became a criminal lawyer and defended inmates, was, in the year of Black Lives Matter's questioning of the criminal justice system, a clear-eyed and penetrating look at how justice in the U.S. and the West is aligned against minority defendants. Aaron Wallace's struggle against a corrupt prosecutor played out alongside and amplified calls in the street for police injustice to be halted.

Babylon Berlin – Season three found police detective Gereon Rath and his female accomplice Charlotte Ritter drawn ever further into the developing fascist morass that will eventually spell the end of the Weimar Republic. A financier and Nazi sympathizer preaches chaos as the stock market collapses and the army and the police reveal themselves to be centers of a fascist coverup. Amidst this carnage, Gereon and Charlotte are more hard-pressed than ever to defend the fading democracy, and Gereon is introduced to a new book titled Mein Kampf. Couldn't be more prescient as Proud Boys take to the streets to support Trump's attempted coup. Perhaps brandishing copies of Art of the Deal, this generation's fascist manifesto? If the current U.S. street situation isn't Weimar, it certainly is Weimarish.

The Valhalla Murders – This Icelandic series, now on Netflix, begins as a very clichéd serial killer romp involving the long-ago psychological debris of the violence of a boarding school. Stay with it, though, because the series at its midpoint takes a surprising turn as the effects of the initial exploitation work their way upwards to engulf layers of the criminal justice system. A stunningly effective and vastly underrated series.

Normal People – This BBC and Hulu co-production based on the Sally Rooney novel is an acute examination of not just the triumph, pain and physicality of a first love but also the horrific and persistent ways that class divides people as we watch a working-class boy and an upper-class girl alternately find each other and fall victim to the layers of distrust in themselves and in Irish and capitalist society as a whole.

Money Heist – Seasons three and four on Netflix attempt to disprove the old adage that "you can't go home again," or in this case you can't rob Spain's national bank after robbing its national mint. The Professor and his team this time are melting down gold in the post-U.S. dollar world where countries are hoarding this precious commodity ahead of a U.S. currency collapse. The season should have concluded the end of the robbery, but the streaming service opted to delay the outcome to peak interest in another season, a move which weakened season four.

Jordskott – This Swedish series brought together various strands from other films and series and wove them into an emerging subgenre, ecological horror. Season one had forests, which cover half the area of the country, under pressure from a logging cabal with a Stockholm detective in search of her long-lost daughter becoming ever more involved in the need to recognize and preserve a verdant nature being destroyed by greed. Season two had her returning to Stockholm but with her connection to the forest nourishing her fight to protect it.

Homecoming/Hightown – The high and low of the drug trade. Season two of Amazon's Homecoming has Janelle Monáe as supposed victim of a corporate pharmaceutical company that in season one had annihilated veterans and cut loose amnesiac therapist Julia Roberts. Season two's sole hero is another veteran who doggedly pursues the company's predatory commercial impulses and ties to the military. Hightown, on the other hand, charts the struggles of a Latina lesbian in drug addled Provincetown as she keeps hitting deeper bottoms but refuses to give up on her quest to become a detective.

Ricky Gervais' Golden Globes Monologue – Last time for sure the comedian and inspiration behind The Office will be asked back to what is more public relations stunt than acknowledgement of creativity. His mantra, as the monologue crossed the boundary from ribbing to active jabbing and exposing of the hypocrisy of liberal Hollywood, was "I don't care." High point was the accusation of a taboo subject in the entertainment world, the sweatshops in Asia that underlay Hollywood wealth. The disapproving look of the town's current wielder of soppy morality Tom Hanks? Priceless.

Fearless – This 2018 series, pejoratively labeled at the time "for the conspiratorially minded," has Peaky Blinders' Helen McCrory as a crusading attorney who uncovers a secret behind Tony Blair's criminal rush to enlist Britain in the Iraq war against the will of the country. McCrory's unearthing of the collateral damage of the war on British democracy as Blair blindly followed U.S. Pres. G.W. Bush is worth a second look in light of the upcoming verdict on the U.S. extradition of Julian Assange, with Britain, as it supposedly embarks on its independent course post-Brexit, being asked again to surrender its sovereignty.

Snowpiercer – Last year we got Bong Joon Ho's Parasite, perhaps the most astute analysis of class tensions and contradictions ever put on the screen. This year we have TNT and Netflix' series adaptation of his film Snowpiercer, about a class-segregated train that circles a globe frozen because of a failed technological attempt to subvert global warming. Daveed Diggs is stunning and resolute as the revolutionary who carries his struggle for the oppressed backenders to the head of the train. With the reports that five years after the Paris Accords the planet's temperatures have worsenedSnowpiercer is beginning to resemble not a far-off dystopia but the evening news.

Green Frontier – Colombian series on Netflix that centers on the Euro destruction of the Amazonian rainforest and the attempt by its Indigenous and a female cop from Bogotá to save the forest. While its Swedish compadre Jordskott employs the tropes of horror, Green Frontier summons the Latin American mystical embrace of Magical Realism in its depiction of the timeless quality of the forest's protectors versus the contemporary assault of loggers, corrupt law officials and a mysterious ex-Nazi linked to the history of European exploitation of the continent.

Biohackers – Netflix series hatched in the wilds of Bavaria that takes us inside the corporate-university world of genetic engineering. The heroine is a young student herself the victim of this biological tampering who enlists her fellow students as part of a do-it-yourself bio-technology movement all to thwart the efforts of their unethical professor who experiments on human tissue, a modern Dr. Mengele in a pantsuit.

Lovecraft Country backed with Underground – The first is a contemporary HBO series that expands the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres, putting African Americans front and center in a successful attempt to shatter the cultural apartheid which surrounds American popular entertainment while also highlighting the literal apartheid of the 1950s in defining the country as a police state patrolling racial boundaries. The second, a former series by the same showrunner Misha Green—the discovery of the year—tracks the "Macon 7" as they escape Southern slavery in season one and as they and their Northern Abolitionist allies become radicalized as they come in contact with John Brown in season two. The antidote to the ludicrous Brown portrayal in Good Lord Bird.

Mystery Road – Aaron Pedersen's Aboriginal detective who travels the Australian North is in season two in search of the nest of a viperous crystal meth gang growing rich off infecting the Indigenous who are scattered along this road. Pedersen's stolid and stoic doggedness as he upsets the still-colonial Anglo power structure of the region remains rooted in his connection with his people who continue to cling to their way of life in a region that is now becoming a center of Anglo flight from the continent's overpopulated cities.

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Women take the dance floor in Lovers' Rock's reggae house party

Small Axe – Videographer, artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen's outrageously ambitious mini-series made up of five episodes that collectively map the progression of Caribbean peoples of the Windrush generation, imported into Britain post-World War II to help rebuild the country but who were discriminated against then and now. A truly Balzacian and Zolaesque project whose equivalent in literature is Walter Mosely's Easy Rollins novels about Black Los Angeles. The series tracks Caribbean life and culture in a racist Britain in its bars (Mangrove), house parties (Lovers Rock), interaction with the police (Red, White and Blue), in prisons (Alex Wheatie) and schools (Education). Music is crucial to this evolution; the subtlest and slyest episode is the two-hour house party that is Lover's Rock with its extended takes of women on the dance floor carving out their place in reggae and the crowd going wild over "Kung Fu Fighting."

Next – In this year of both U.S. and European questioning of the unrestrained power of the technology industry, this series about a master computer gone berserk and waging war on a planet of utterly interconnected devices was a breakthrough into relevance for U.S. network TV. Next summoned the ghost of series past, particularly Fringe, in its warning of how our lives are threatened by our devices and the companies that wield them for profit. Fox, sensing the series was groundbreaking, canceled it after two episodes but will allow the remaining eight episodes to be shown.

Big Sky – David E. Kelly's correction to his own scurrilous adoration of the rich that was The Undoing. This ABC series brought female agency to the rightfully maligned, male misogynist serial killer genre as, after a shocking resolution in episode one, male energy gives way to cross racial, cross-class female agency.

Ten Honourable Mentions

Seth Meyers Late Night and The Daily Show – As Trumpism gives way to Biden's New Normal in the midst of a pandemic and an economic collapse, these two series, the cream of the crop of a heightened satirical late-night impulse, couldn't be more relevant. Seth Meyers' and Amber Ruffin's faux trailer for "White Savior," about Hollywood movies that ignored the African-American role in Black Liberation in favor of a white liberal hero, was NBC must-see TV. The Daily Show's group of "correspondents"—Desi Lydic's mocking of Trump-era journalism called "Journalisiming," Roy Wood Jr.'s knowing deadpans and telling sarcasm, and Jordan Klepper's "Fingering the Pulse" of Trump lunacy—made this show shine. All clips are available on YouTube.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Retro series of the year with Hitch directing three of these brilliant and only slightly veiled critiques of the vacuousness and greed of a 1950s America, celebrated by Trump nostalgists as a Golden Age: Lamb to the Slaughter, Breakdown and Poison, all available on YouTube.

Taken Down – Irish series that illuminates and undercuts the miracle of the Celtic Tiger by viewing it from the vantage point of immigrants, abused and exploited as Irish society becomes consumed in a wanton greed and a need to approximate the lifestyle of Dublin's elite.

Stargirl – Best of Greg Berlanti and the DC Universe was this under-the-radar revival of the 1940s Justice Society of America as seen through the eyes of a female teen whose superpowers take second place to her bonding with her nerdy but affectionate stepfather. Far more touching and affecting than the polyglot overpopulated superhero extravaganza that was Crisis on Multiple Earths.

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Cross-racial, cross-cultural romance on Bob Hearts Abishola

Bob Hearts Abishola – Season two of this Chuck Lorre series, about the later-in-life touching romance of a Detroit Anglo sock merchant and a Nigerian nurse, centers around the tensions involved in Bob and Abishola's marriage while featuring the cynically hilarious takes of Abishola's African-American and Nigerian co-workers.

The Mandalorian – Best Star Wars iteration since the original trilogy. This space Western boasted a second season full of surprises but which by season's end, because of its patterned folding into the mythology of the original, was in danger of losing its own originality.

Jack Irish – Guy Pierce in this Aussie detective series that spotlights the local tavern and racing culture of Melbourne's Fitzroy district as well as the corporate greed of again a pharmaceutical company experimenting on immigrants. Funniest moment is the private eye when asked if he always lived in Fitzroy explaining that he briefly moved to North Fitzroy but that was too much, and he quickly moved back. The series is available on Amazon Prime.

The Conners and Superstore – Two series which this year highlighted the plight of workers during the first phase of COVID. Most dramatically, the Conners, having failed to secure work during the epidemic, face eviction in the pilot of their new season. Meanwhile the diverse labor force of the Walmart-style Superstore, in a pilot that tracks the disease from March to July, face a corporate headquarters long on praise for its frontline workers but short on masks to protect them.

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Beleaguered Driver Peter (Toby Jones) and his stowaway Kayla (Erin Kellyman)

Don't Forget the Driver – Toby Jones as a set-upon bus driver in a languishing seaside British town, given new life through his encounter with the hopefulness of an African female teen, an illegal stowaway on his bus. Jones is a master at understatement and his frustrated takes as he deals with a deteriorating working-class lifestyle in post-Thatcher Britain make him the poor man's Bob Newhart.

RT – Three shows highlight the Russian network's position as clearing house for left and progressive reporting and commentary: Redacted Tonight with Lee Camp as wry commentator on weekly events, Renegade Incwith filmmaker Ross Ashcroft interviewing a different iconoclastic thinker each episode, and the old reliable George Galloway reimagined as left-wing shock jock in The Mother of All Talk Shows.

Five worst series

Hunters – Reducing the Holocaust to a Superhero cartoon is trivializing enough but then to add Al Pacino's over-bloated Dr. X in, as usual, a hammy star turn put this Amazon series over the top, that is, beyond redemption.

The Stranger – Harlan Coben Netflix nonsense which teases as being a critique of bourgeois false morality and then at the last moment, oh so predictably, seals back up the nuclear family tensions it initially purported to expose.

#blackAF – Kenya (Black-ish) Barris's transmuting of Black radical experience into a Curb Your Enthusiasm-type curmudgeonly grumbling. The street argot meaning of the title, black as f**k, is instead here simply an excuse to wallow in Black affluence, the real meaning of the series.

Wild District – Netflix series from Colombia that features a racist depiction of Bogotá's inner city as a jungle and rationalizes the right-wing refusal to negotiate peace as a valiant fight against guerrilla "terrorists," who themselves are suing to be recognized as a political party and legitimately debate ideas the right is terrifying of acknowledging.

Brockmire – Season four of this decently interesting series about an alcoholic baseball announcer and his struggle to show up for his team owner girlfriend and the boy he has tacitly adopted abandons both characters and instead opts for the entirely implausible promotion of Brockmire to be commissioner of baseball. Unlike other shows, such as Weeds, where "blowing up the series" gives it new life, this explosion demolished the series and illustrated the perennial problem with bringing back, because commercially profitable, shows which have reached their narrative peak.

Marginalised and forgotten: indigenous and working-class people in TV series
Monday, 21 December 2020 21:15

Marginalised and forgotten: indigenous and working-class people in TV series

Dennis Broe reviews TV series that focus on indigenous and working-class themes, including Mystery Road, Don’t Forget The Driver, The Connors, and Superstore. Image above: Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan in Mystery Road

Few series on television focus either on both the earth’s first inhabitants, the indigenous, now mostly quartered in slums across the world, or on workers, their lives and their daily concerns. The Australian series Mystery Road, now back for its second season, bucks this trend in focusing on the scattered remnants of the country’s Aborigines as they find themselves besieged in new ways by their Anglo colonizers.

Likewise, the BBC’s Don’t Forget the Driver (available on Britbox in the US) deals with a lonely and depleted working class playing out the string in a rundown shell of what was once a seaside resort, while The Connors and Superstore describe the effects of Covid. The Connors begins its new season with the extended family jobless and unable to pay the rent and Superstore recounts the effects of Covid on its essential workers, caught between a company more concerned with profits than workers’ safety and customers hoarding supplies that are in too short supply.

This is the second season for Mystery Road (BBC in the UK and Acorn in the US), a series based on an Aboriginal cop, Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), a character already established in two previous films. The mystery road that Jay travels is the wide-open country of Australia’s great and impoverished North, populated by its indigenous people and everywhere now the subject of a land grab by the Anglo tenants of its overcrowded cities looking for a property bargain. Season one centered around the death of a ranch hand in one of these towns and illustrated the monopoly on power a ranch owner exercised on the surrounding land and peoples.

Season two has Jay pursuing a crystal meth drug ring that radiates out from the town he arrives in and showers death and destruction on the entire region. Jay quickly traces the potential source to a local trucking company in cahoots with another powerful ranch owner, and suspects there is someone behind them. Part of season two is directed by Warwick Thornton whose Sweet Country was as astute examination of how the Australian treatment of its indigenous people in 1929 was closer to 19th century American slavery, as an Aboriginal ranch hand who strikes a blow in self-defence against a cruel and tyrannical owner must flee into the bush country and eventually stand trial before a white jury for his crime.

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Swedish anthro-colonialist in Mystery Road  

Warwick brings that understanding of this perpetual oppression to the series, which also highlights through several characters, often revolving around the indigenous female cop Fran (who partners with Jay) the complexities of modern Aboriginal life and its encounter with colonial capitalism. A subplot involves a Swedish archeologist, Sandra, working on a dig in the town that she claims will illustrate the continuity of indigenous life and thus serve as an answer to the claims that it is simply primitive.

Just as in how anthropology has been criticized as in its attempt to “understand” other ways of life which it imposes Western concepts on these customs, the locals see her as intrusive. This distrust comes to a head when she conceals the traces of a crime she finds on the dig because it would imperil her work and when her offer to have the town keep her findings is refused by the university that stakes her claim. She is neither completely well-meaning nor innocent of the same exploitation that the Anglo crystal meth dealers are engaged in.

Of course, it is possible to argue that the national Australian Broadcasting Company is engaged in the same process in the symbolic realm in using the country’s indigenous as a source of digital profit in creating a globally popular series. But something more is going on here. The series employs the iconography of the Western, with Jay Swan as the prototypical silent Western hero, a kind of Aboriginal Shane. He is both stoic and blunt but behind those qualities is the hardiness of a cop who is unwanted in Anglo law enforcement – represented here by the local racist police chief who disparages him and may himself be implicated in the drug running. He is resented also because he is an independent and powerful Aborigine and a stalwart defender of his people.

Season two illustrates these qualities in his steadfast and dogged pursuit of the Anglo dealers in the service of breaking their hold on the lives of those from which they are growing rich. Late in the season, a secret pad of one of the dealers stresses the lavish lifestyle acquired by the profits of this purveyor of misery. Jay, as opposed to the Western sheriff, is not a defender of justice and the rule of law in the abstract but rather a proponent of justice for his people and they are the source of his strength and resoluteness.

Jay’s ex-wife Mary seems to follow him along the mystery road as she turns up here again, this time involved with an ex-cop who suspiciously offers Jay aid. Mary is a nurse and hospital orderly who cares deeply for her patients and over the course of the season also demonstrates a propensity for police work in her aiding of Jay. She seems headed in that direction in season three, but the move from caregiver to cop is a questionable one. Jay’s daughter’s friend Shevorne, who functions as a surrogate daughter, also reappears, involved with a meth-head boyfriend in a relationship that she must sort out.

The series does a remarkable job of embracing the complexity of a people attempting to cling to their own traditions and forced to transition to a world that is ever more not of their making.

Working-class TV: few and far between

Network, national and streaming TV is filled with characters living a lavish lifestyle and/or one relatively untouched by the problems that beset the majority of populations under Western capitalism. The richness of the interiors of most television series is designed to blend seamlessly either with the advertisements which surround them, where a problem is solved in one minute by an appropriate commodity, or with other streaming service fare which reinforces the idea that lavishness is omnipresent and to be aspired to. Can you say Emily in Paris?

A series which counters this characterization is Don’t Forget The Driver, a recounting of the put-upon life of an ageing English seaside bus driver. Peter Green (Toby Jones in a series he also co-wrote) lives in the dying seaside resort of Bognor Regis, a smaller and more desperate Brixton – or in the US a Coney Island or Asbury Park, – past its day in the sun and haunted by memories of former glory.

Peter is a single father whose daughter can’t wait to leave the town, has care of a racist mother plagued by dementia, and ignores a would-be girlfriend. His plight is summed up each morning by his beat-up old car that only starts when he takes a hammer to it. Toby Jones is hilarious in the role. He’s a British Bob Newhart, able to grind every laugh possible from the dry acceptance of his lot in life, including putting up with a brother (also played by Jones), the apple of his mother’s eye who has cheated and swindled his way to his “promised land” of Australia where he affects an Aussie accent.

In each episode the beleaguered driver pilots another group of passengers to an obscure destination, none more hilarious than the group of septua- and octogenarians (the series is set in the 1980s) who barely survive the trip to Dunkirk in France to cheer on the British fallen at their gravesite. Unbeknownst to him, on the way back he is unwittingly part of a smuggling ring, bringing in a teenage African female stowaway Kayla in search of her brother in London.

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Beleaguered driver Peter (Toby Jones) and his stowaway Kayla (Erin Kellyman)

It’s Kayla’s presence that enlivens not only Peter’s life but also those around him, making his daughter more resolute about the path her life will take and prompting Peter to accept the relationship the erstwhile owner of a rundown sausage stand by the sea is offering him.

This crossing of an elderly European with an African refugee is becoming a staple of Euro representation. Its original and best rendering is Aki Kaurasmaki’s Le Havre where a retired fisherman encounters and hides an African boy, assisting him on his journey. (A bleaker and dystopian version of this trope is the Dardennes’ La Promesse.) The current Netflix film The Life Ahead has Sophia Loren as an aged prostitute who takes an African boy under her wing in a relationship that seems arbitrary and never grounded in mutual acceptance.

The point of the encounter is that it is enlivening for the European, stuck in the deteriorating patterns of the Old Continent to encounter the youth and enthusiasm of the young African refugee. Don’t Forget the Driver doubles this pattern as Peter’s prejudiced mother also succumbs to the caring and fellow feeling of her Indian neighbour. Against the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the continent, this trope offers the counter-argument that the encounter of the two continents is a lifesaving breath of fresh air and necessary for the survival of an atrophied Europe.

The Connors is another series which deals with working-class life and which has in its current season taken as its point of departure the increased burden that Covid has brought to the working class in the US – now almost synonymous with the working poor. The series was a hit in the 1990s for its co-creator Roseanne Barr, but after its successful revival she was removed after a racist tweet. The fictional family is intact with Roseanne’s absence on the show being explained by her death from an opiate overdose, a sneaky way of describing her tweet as the product of a fevered drug-induced existence.

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The Connors besieged with Covid

In the pilot of this new season, this extended family of Roseanne’s husband, two daughters, son, their children and her sister each struggle due to the Covid shutdown to find work. The Connors’ plight acutely mirrors workers in the US, largely employed in the service industry, now finding those jobs have disappeared due to accelerated automation and online selling. These workers are encountering a difficult retraining process from semi-skilled to skilled laborer, so that in one recounting a theme park stage manager must become an electrician, a taxi driver a plumber and a cook must acquire the expertise of a software manager. Dan, Roseanne’s husband, meets a family friend who has found work as a process server announcing the eviction of working families from their homes.

In the conclusion of the first episode, after fruitless attempts at finding work, the “family friend” appears at the Connors house to announce it is being repossessed. This is the presenting problem for a season in which the Connors’ plight increasingly will become the new normal for American workers, who must risk their lives now in search of dangerous work in the midst of a pandemic because of a government that refuses to expend money to take care of its most needy – while its congress schedules a special session to pass a bill appropriating more and more billions for war and armaments.

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Superstore’s diverse labor force dealing with Covid

Finally, NBC’s Superstore, returning for its sixth and final season, began the season tracking the effects of the Covid first wave, from March to July, on its diverse workforce in their attempts to both serve a public growing increasingly more hostile in its hoarding of diminishing supplies like toilet paper and a corporate hierarchy that salutes the workers as heroes for showing up for work but is unconcerned with supplying them with the masks that might keep them safe.

The pilot was supposed to be about America Ferrara’s leaving the show, having anchored it for five seasons and with her departure delayed because last season's final episode could not be shot, as the show was forced to shut production in the first wave. Instead, that storyline was delayed an episode so that the series could focus on how workers in the store coped with the pressures they were, and continue to be, under in the pandemic. In a remarkable instance of a series putting its social worth over more standard entertainment values, Amy’s departure and the resolution of the standard romance between her and her co-worker Jonah took a back seat to a pilot that stressed the overall impact of the crisis on a diverse workforce.

The success of these three instances, antidotes to Emily in Paris, prove not only that working-class television that deals with actual hardship and suffering is possible, but that there is a thirst for it on the part of precarious viewers, who at this point constitute the majority of the audience.

Coming Undone: The Undoing, Big Sky, The Deceived and the limits of MeToo
Friday, 18 December 2020 08:29

Coming Undone: The Undoing, Big Sky, The Deceived and the limits of MeToo

Dennis Broe reviews some more series TV, regrets the reactionary and elitist tendencies of some contemporay feminism, and calls us 'to reach across race and class boundaries installed by a capitalist patriarchy'. Image above: Grace’s Manhattan in The Undoing

“The rich are different,” said Fitzgerald, in a languishing dreamy tone. “Yes,” replied Hemingway brusquely, “they have more money.”

It is difficult not to recall this exchange when watching HBO and Sky Atlantic’s David E. Kelly mini-series The Undoing, which in this year of an ever more rapid Covid-induced transfer of wealth from the lowest to the highest income brackets, thinks it is giving us a female emancipation series in the guise of a murder mystery. In fact it is simply glorifying and asking us to adore the wealthy.

The series illustrates not the triumph of the MeToo movement but the nightmare of what it always threatened to become: emancipation for rich white women, here in the form of Nicole Kidman’s strident strolls in a great green coat along the avenues of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Along with that comes its converse, continued eroticizing and exoticizing of minority and working-class women in the form of the murdered Latina wife and mother who dared to mix with the rich – women who are the victims of both wealthy men and women.

On the other hand, the promise of MeToo is displayed in, oddly enough, another David E. Kelly series Big Sky (on ABC and Prime Video) where male energy in the pilot yields in a dramatic reversal to female and transgender bonding, in a series that upends many of the tropes of the misogynist serial killer genre. A new kind of MeToo cliched formation unfortunately coalesces in the BBC gothic thriller The Deceived and undercuts what might have been a necessary corrective, in this Gallic remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

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The triumphs of the MeToo movement are many and its strength and power is especially evident in the entertainment industry and in politics, two of the most visible areas of American life. Victories include: the trial and conviction of the powerful self-styled studio mogul Harvey Weinstein; the promotion of more women to positions of power within the industry; and the increased participation of women in public office, which has included women of color. It has also given rise to the misogynist president’s worst nightmare, The Squad, a group of articulate, outspoken minority women in the House of Representatives who have brought new and much needed energy to an atrophied institution.

It’s so much nicer being bombed by women and people of colour

But there was always a darker side of MeToo, the idea that it would simply leave in its wake a shuffling of gender seats at the top, where the faces but not the policy decisions would change. Biden is currently taking advantage of this with his minority and female appointments, the latest of which is an African-American general from the powerful arms contractor Raytheon and from his own private weapons contracting firm, as the head of the defense department.

It is useful to remember Clinton’s secretary of state Madelaine Albright who defended the death of 500,000 Iraqi children by U.S. sanctions and who at a 2016 presidential rally introduced candidate Hilary Clinton whose famous statement on the bombing and devastation of Libya to secure its oil fields, rationalized as regime change to get rid of Muammar Gaddafi, was “We came, we saw, he died.” The cartoon where one Middle East resident says in effect to the other, “It’s so much nicer being bombed by women and people of colour,” again points to the problem of a tokenism which leaves the criminal structure intact, but which has the appearance of change.

Which brings us back to The Undoing. Nicole Kidman, in a role now reprised and refined in an earlier, better series – Big Little Lies – is a psychoanalyst and marriage counsellor who, it turns out, can’t see the trouble in her own marriage to Hugh Grant’s supposedly caring pediatric cancer specialist.

Her journey to clarity is the subject of the series as much as it has a subject. Its actual subject is a supposedly tantalizing look at the lives of Manhattan’s superrich. Kidman’s Grace is from a wealthy family whose patriarch (Donald Sutherland) is a ruthless old man who, far from getting his comeuppance in the series, instead becomes Grace’s steadfast supporter as she labours to get out from under the spell of her husband while in effect returning to the patriarchal womb of her wealthy family.

We are supposed to be adoring of Grace’s wanderings through Central Park, her meetings with her father in the Metropolitan Museum, and her playing a grand piano with him in one of the rooms of his cavernous mansion. It’s the same kind of idle rich worship practiced in the 1950s in such films as Imitation of Life where the Broadway star Laura’s (Lana Turner) Connecticut home is a dreamy setting for her to play out her supposed caring for her black maid, while all the time ordering her around as if the place was a Southern plantation.

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Eroticized Latina Elena Alves (Maltilda de Angelis)  

Just a stone’s throw away from Grace’s hermetically sealed existence are neighbourhoods in the predominately Latino section of the Bronx, ravaged by Covid and now with an unemployment rate of over 25 percent. That world is only figured briefly in the series and only in the highly exoticized form of the Latina who has an affair with Grant’s doctor and then attempts to seduce Grace.  

The rich in The Undoing do suffer though. Grant’s privileged pediatrician’s affair with the Latina woman from Harlem ends in her death. The authorities have the audacity to then arrest him for the crime, causing undue grief to the family. It’s not supposed to, and doesn’t usually, happen this way. We are reminded of the Sackler Family, the executives of their drug company Perdue, and their public relations firm whose combined thirst for profits caused the Oxycontin plague that contributed to the deaths by overdose of 750,000 people, and who were never even threatened with jail.

Later in the series Grace’s son knocks into the son of the woman his father is accused of murdering. He is then called in to the principal of the exclusive private school he attends and told it would be better if he were home schooled. The parents then righteously defend their son for his bullying and accuse the school of pandering to the press. Another example of how the rich are singled out and abused just because they cannot control their disdain for everyone else in the midst of a recession and a pandemic. Shocking!

The series has little in the way of plot twists. Episode two with the Grant character pursued for the murder has an entirely predictable ending, and the last episode concludes with a rerunning of the O.J. Simpson helicopter pursuit, finishing in a ludicrous and utterly unsuspenseful confrontation. A second season is being contemplated and who would want to miss it? There are so many lavish Manhattan blocks that we haven’t yet seen Grace striding through in her greatcoat!

The antidote to this nonsense is another David E. Kelly series Big Sky. Kelly is an excellent writer and since he wrote both series one has to conclude the difference is the source material, the novels on which both series are based. Big Sky, set as the name implies amidst the lush green wilds and the decaying human ruins of Montana, adds an entirely new MeToo wrinkle to the serial killer genre.

The first episode is all male energy, as what appears to be a serial killer kidnaps a sex worker at a truck stop, and then two teenage girls who challenge him on the road. Meanwhile, the African-American employee at a detective agency Cassie has been having an affair with the male head of the agency (a star turn by Ryan Phillippe) resulting in a bar-room brawl with the other female member of the agency, Jenny, the director’s wife. Though the filming of the fight stresses the physicality of the confrontation, the scene, as does a later one where Jenny “goes undercover” as a prostitute, still elicits male prurient interest.

The pilot though ends in one of the most startling surprises of the season in any series and episode two restarts the series with the two female detectives beginning to bond. More startlingly we watch the three victims of the would-be serial killer, who we find out is instead the procurer for a trafficking ring, themselves coming together to challenge their captors. One of the victims turns out in a wonderfully human moment to reveal herself to be on the LGBT spectrum and this revelation is queried and then accepted by the teen prom queen whose experience is the opposite.

Female bonding in Big Sky

The bonding of both sets of women, inside and outside captivity as well as their continual challenge on the inside to their kidnapper and on the outside to the police officer who they suspect as the ringleader puts active female contestation at the heart of a genre that most often was simply about females being slaughtered in ever more inventive ways with only, as in the screen series Scream, a “final girl” surviving to ultimately wreak revenge.

Big Sky substitutes active resistance for passive slaughter, and in its insistence on female bonding across class, racial and gender divides against an ever more violent patriarchy, provides an antidote to Grace’s lonely walks and retreat to her heartless father.

The show, a mini-series of ten episodes, is a fit sequel to its network ABC’s last season femme breakthrough Stumptown, a too quickly cancelled series about a military ex-cop and would-be female private detective who struggles to integrate herself into the Native American community of her dead husband, while contesting the brutal pull the military exerts over her attempt to find the truth about his demise.  

Horror, Horror Everywhere and Not a Cliché is Spared: The Deceived

The BBC’s Deceived, a series which begins promisingly by invoking Hitchcock’s gothic thriller Rebecca, ends up as simply too formulaic in its simplistic characterization of male power.

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Ophelia (Roisin Mulvery) ‘deceived’ by her English professor (Emmett J Scanlan)  

The series begins with its ingenue, Ophelia, in voiceover describing the horror she felt in a Gothic mansion as the camera pans up the pathway to the house. The shot duplicates that of the opening of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. This time Mandalay, instead of in England, is in Ireland in Donegal, the place that Ophelia seeks out to find her Cambridge English teacher Michael who she has an affair with to tell him she is pregnant.

Hitchcock used the Daphne de Maurier novel to explore the subtle sadism inherent in Lawrence Olivier’s Maxime de Winter, a British nobleman who tortures his new bride by bringing her home to what amounts to a tomb for his dead ex-wife and then pretending nothing is askew. The master director though pulled his punches and exonerated the aristocrat by deflecting the evil of the house entirely onto Judith Anderson’s devilish housemaid.

Deceived does attempt to correct this sleight of hand but goes too far this time, in Michael’s increasing dastardliness in the face of all the women in his life coming together to crush him. He is haunted by the death of his ex-wife, by a former student, by his ex-wife’s mother and by his own conviction that his writing career is a sham.

Ophelia, echoing her namesake in Hamlet, is increasingly driven insane by the doings at the mansion which may or may not be haunted by the ghost of Michael’s ex-wife. The problem in the series, which by the way is still far better than the insipid picture postcard that is the current Netflix remake of Rebecca, is its Manichean quality, with absolute evil accruing to Michael and absolute good in the hard-fought formation of the female collective.

This lack of nuance ultimately damages the argument of the series and instead substitutes a paint-by-numbers solution that because it so stretches plausibility fails to make its case, replacing complicated class contradictions with caricature.

Thus are the vicissitudes of a powerfully activist contemporary feminism that in this complacent instance is capable of turning reactionary and elitist. This is a tendency best alleviated by reaching across the race and class boundaries installed by a capitalist patriarchy.

What’s Left on the Dial? Alternative TV and Podcasts
Friday, 11 December 2020 11:24

What’s Left on the Dial? Alternative TV and Podcasts

Dennis Broe gives us a guide to some alternative TV media

The US election has finally been secured with even Donald Trump tacitly acknowledging that he lost. In the aftermath, the mainstream media has now swung behind Joe Biden and the return to normalcy. The dominant media opposed Trump not on grounds that he was a corporate bloodletter who bombed Syria, murdered Iran’s leading general and laid waste to U.S. natural resources – all actions they either applauded or tacitly condoned – but that he was an unfit and buffoonish manager of the empire.

It is only in the world of alternative media that that questions are being asked about both Trump’s actual crimes and Biden’s neoliberal “normalcy”, which had the global economy on the brink of a new recession before Covid, was rapidly accelerating an income disparity which created the conditions for the rise of Trump and Trumpism, and which has done little to slow the environmental devastation that is wrecking the planet.

Eliminating empathy with the working class's suffering

CNN, MSNBC and the rest have their straw man in Fox News. The mainstream networks seem reasonable in opposing the lunacy and ravings on that station, but since they seldom provide any real solutions beyond corporate-mandated reforms, the two exist in perfect harmony. The goal of all these enterprises is to eliminate any real empathy with the working class's suffering, while enabling the mainstream to seem morally uplifting in opposing an enemy with whom they are more similar than they care to admit. 

CNN fueled the rise of Trump, then looked to bolster its ratings by using him as its foil and even, once he was defeated, quickly ran a story claiming that Trump, their ratings master, was the frontrunner in 2024. The channel is filled not with Trump opposers but Trump enablers. The relationship is not antagonistic, it’s synergistic.

The stakes are high with Covid raging and the economy, other than financial speculation on Wall Street, in a shambles. So this is a good time for a sweeping survey of television series and podcasts that are genuinely in opposition not only to Trumpism but also to Biden’s “normalcy,” as well as faux-alternative sites to which they are opposed.

The primary alternative to the insistent drone of corporate media, providing news but pandering to the ratings, is RT. Russian Television, which bills itself as neither right nor left, has in fact become the clearing house for progressive thought in the US and the UK. Three shows, Redacted Tonight, Renegade Inc. and George Galloway’s Sputnik Orbiting the World stand out as startlingly clear on US and British imperial interests, on the widening income gap in the wake of the surrendering of the economy to corporate finance and tech interests, and the tough decisions that need to be made in the name of the planet so that environmental policy is more than just greenwashing.

Perhaps the station’s insistently critical beat is motivated by an attempt to weaken both countries from within but whatever the reason, its critical stance often rings true.

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Lee Camp and Naomi Karavani on Redacted Tonight   

Comedian Lee Camp’s Redacted Tonight, whose title implies it is trafficking in censored news, is a wildly intelligent take on topical events. It uses the Daily Show John Stewart/Trevor Noah approach, opening with Camp’s well-founded rants on such subjects as how in the last election, with the legalization of marijuana in three states, the Reagans lost their war on drugs, a war waged against the poor and an excuse to jail them.

He is ably assisted, in Daily Show format, by a team of “correspondents” that features, for example, Naomi Karavani’s take on how in the last election dark corporate money was defeated in its attempt on the ballot to restrict issues from ever being on the ballot; Natalie McGills’ report on the deliberate inaccuracies of the Trump census; and Anders Lee’s look at who Biden would have blamed had he lost the election – hint, not the corporate Democratic National Committee for its refusal to take a stand on anything other than it was not Trump). Camp’s angry idealism, and the combination of comedy and astute reporting on the part of his compadres, makes this a cut above both the average late-night comedy show and the average newscast.

Renegade Inc. on the other hand focuses its once-weekly episode on a single issue, each time with a guest or guests whith a take on social problems which is outside the norm. The show is hosted by Brit filmmaker Ross Ashcroft, whose Four Horsemen documentary is a questioning of mainstream economists by the likes of Joseph Stieglitz, Noam Chomsky and Gillian Tett.

Ashcroft’s deep dive approach to issues has included author Richard Rothstein driving home the links between continual housing and education segregation and inequality. Another episode had lawyer and peace activist Dan Kovalik laying out in stunning detail the U.S. promotion of perpetual warfare under the banner of democracy, peace and human rights.

George Galloway, left-wing shock jock

George Galloway has found a second life and a wide audience on RT with his Sputnik Orbiting the World series of interviews and his Mother of All Talk Shows in which he uses the sensationalist tactics of right-wing shock jocks to drive home some truths fueled by his still-strong adherence to a foundering Scottish and British working class, and his wide knowledge of the US and UK’s global imperial policies.

A recent Mother featured journalist Garland Nixon suggesting the assassination of the Iranian atomic scientist was a byproduct of the meeting in Riyadh between Saudi princeling Mohammed bin Salman, U.S. State Department head Mike Pompeo, and Israeli premiere Benjamin Netanyahu.

Of late, Galloway has followed the case of Harry Dunn, the teenage allegedly hit-and-run victim of a female US intelligence official that the US claims has immunity and cannot be extradited, while the same show featured a report on how the U.S. and British governments are colluding in the attempt to extradite Julian Assange.

A low-budget but highly relevant and creative answer to the millions behind not only Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News but also the emerging OAN and Newsmax – two networks Trump may eventually move to – is Means TV. Means bills itself as a “worker-owned streaming service,” a billing that has upset US media reporting on the station. It’s flagship program is Means Morning News with Sam Sacks and Sam Knight who in a recent holiday special proudly engaged in the “war on Thanksgiving” instead of as they claimed the usual war on America’s indigenous.

They questioned the joyousness of a holiday which 20 percent of American workers spend not with their families but working and awarded the week’s “Rich Dick Award” to California Governor Gavin Newsome whose recent partying in defiance of his own protocols proved once again there is “one set of rules for the wealthy and another set of rules for everyone else.” The show though could use more creative graphics to go along with the astute commentary.

Means sports show Southpaws has yet to find its voice and is too much a straight copy of mainstream sports shows on Disney-owned ESPN. On the other hand, Art House Politics makes stunning use of its do-it-yourself low-budget aesthetic by using on one show a faux drawing and coloring class to convey the full horror of Thanksgiving with the narrator commenting on the “settler colonial myth” of holiday affirms. The narrator draws an indigenous American, a turkey and a Pilgrim, who the instructor then chastises as responsible for the wholesale appropriation of land that continues to lead to the destruction of the planet. For his crime, he sets the Pilgrim on fire. The show used the conceit of the art class to enact a very funny and effective rethinking of this foundational myth.

Elements of the so-called alternative media have become increasingly mouthpieces for the Democratic Party. Foremost among these is WBAI’s Democracy Now, which since the emergence of Trump might more accurately be dubbed Democrats Now. Liberal hand-wringing increasingly substitutes for analysis with the show “all in” with Syria’s White Helmets, elsewhere dubbed as the Public Relations wing of Al-Qaeda, and during the campaign featured a ludicrous “debate” about how Joe Biden can become a force for good. This is already belied by his administration picks, which recently included the Uber representative who was part of the $200 million defeat of the California law requiring Uber and Lift to behave like responsible employees. The supposedly more progressive vice president Kamela Harris has as one of her senior advisors Tony West, the lawyer who led the charge for Uber against the legislation.

For a long time, the genuine progressive alternative was the Russian radio network Sputnik’s Loud and Clear, with anti-war activist Brian Becker chairing a show that ran for 5 years, 1,138 episodes and boasted over 6000 interviews. The known quantity, the star element, of the show was John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on CIA torture and was one of Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year. When Kiriakou left, the show folded, pointing to a weakness of RT/Sputnik programming, that it is star-driven.

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Host Brian Becker with historian Gerald Horne on The Socialist Program 

Becker is back though in a new listener-sponsored show The Socialist Program in which he is a bit more strident, while continuing to dazzle with his own astute analysis and perceptive interviewing acumen, aided by his on-air producers, Walter Smolarek and Nicole Rousselle. Becker and Smolarek contradicted the New York Times suggestion that we will see a new, now chastised and cautious, Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State, by hammering home Blinken’s support for the War in Iraq, his aid in planning the bombing and destruction of Libya – the African country with the largest oil reserves – and advocating for bombing Syria.

The team was equally thunderstruck by the timid reaction afforded to Biden’s nominee for first female director of national intelligence Avril Haines, explaining that she was the person who met Obama each week and advised him who to kill that week in drone bombing missions that numbered far more than those of Trump or any other president. The team reported that Obama’s comment on Haines was that “she was a very nice person.”

Many of these kind of shows also work because of a rotating guest list that most prominently includes economist Richard Wolff, who lays bare the misery and devastation caused in the U.S. by the evisceration of its industries and the acceleration through Covid of what now amounts to “the worst economic crisis in a century.” Another mainstay is Gerald Horne, a prolific author whose history of the slave trade as motivating the European expansion into the Americas and the settler colonial defense of slavery as one of the primary reasons for the American Revolution was the subject of his last two books.

Finally, there is Mark Swoboda whose inciteful and balanced takes on the Russian state and the Slavic world make him the natural inheritor of the recently deceased and lamented Russian expert Stephen Cohen, whose voice of peace was often shouted down in the bipartisan escalation of U.S. Russian tensions under Trump.

Another source of what was once alternative news and opinion which has recently also come around to being increasingly a sounding board for Democratic Party politics is the website The Intercept. Democracy Now alumnus Jeremy Scahill put together a comprehensive seven-part soundscape of the Trump administrations failures. Recently, though, a seismic shift occurred when the site’s co-founder and most intrepid reporter, Glen Greenwald, who helped break the Snowden revelations about NSA spying, left. Greenwald said the site censored his report on the contents of Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s computer, which suggested collusion for profit with the Ukrainian government, similar to the offence that was the pretext for Trump’s impeachment, and a marker of the similarities rather than the differences between the two parties.

Moderate Rebel’s YT channel

With Greenwald gone, the best alternative to The Intercept is the podcast Moderate Rebels, with Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, and their website The Grey Zone. This site also includes the reporting of Aaron Mate, who continued to question the faulty assumptions of the Russiagate probe, which the Mueller Report declared not actionable and which were then used as the basis for a phoney and unsuccessful attempt to impeach Trump. Trump is a tax dodger, war criminal and scam artist who could have been indicted on actual impeachable offenses but that, as Mate pointed out, would have meant truly “draining the swamp,” that is focusing attention on the bipartisan corruption that fuels Washington politics.

The latest podcast has Blumenthal and Norton examining the “authoritarian censorship” of the French government which like many of the Western democracies becomes more repressive as conditions become more desperate for its citizens. The Grey Zone bills itself as “Investigative Journalism on Empire.”

The last source of more alternative news and opinion is the progressive wing of late-night television, especially Seth Meyers Late Night and Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, excerpts of which can be watched on YouTube. These shows counter the ceaseless and increasingly mirthless frivolity of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, the misplaced and often nasty humorlessness of Jimmy Kimmel Live and the “sophisticated” but often vacuous “satire” of Steven Colbert’s The Late Show. In the Trump era all three of these mainstream hosts moved to try to embrace topical humor, which the audience was demanding, as the other two watched Colbert’s emphasis on political humor pull him ahead in the ratings. The positive is that the audience is demanding more relevance and less froth as entertainment, and so endless endorsements must now be mixed with a healthy dose of commentary on the day’s events.

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Amber Ruffin as Melania Trump on Late Night

Of all the late-night topical humor though, Seth Meyers’s A Closer Look (YouTube) is the best written, funniest pummeling of the Trump presidency. The show also boasted the African-American writer and comedian Amber Ruffin, who now has her own show streaming on Peacock which sadly lacks the sharpness and the biting wit of her continued appearances with Meyers. In stunning back-to-back weeks Ruffin, in wig and full pouty gestures, in a week where it was thought the White House was employing Melania doubles, played the first lady, quoting from an official document where she had to turn the page to read the name of their son Baron, but then said Donald had to turn more pages to remember his son’s name. The next week, after Kanye West, 50 Cent and Ice Cube were revealed as Trump backers she came out as Lil Doof, a rapper who rapped against his own interests.

The other late-night alternative is Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. Noah’s own segments sometimes lack punch but are always well written and graphically astute. The strength of the show lies in the “correspondents” and the segments Noah helps engineer. One of the best was Roy Woods’ countdown of “Donald Trump’s 100 Most Tremendous Scandals,” a highly imaginative montage with Woods’ indignation – coming in at number 1 – that after 99 scandals Trump is still president. Desi Lydic’s Thanksgiving plea to her “family” of conservatives – Uncle Rudi (Giuliani), Cousin Sean (Hannity) and Aunt Jeanine (Pierro) has her asking the Fox mainstays for some civility at the dinner table and each of them, in their own words, refusing.

Finally, back in the fold is Jordan Klepper, returned from hosting his own Steven Colbert like faux-conservative The Opposition. He is even funnier in his “Fingering the Pulse” segments as a debunker of the illogic of Trump supporters who – like the couple in Washington at the recent Million MAGA march there to celebrate “the winning of Donald Trump” – contradict themselves and argue against their own interests.

One of the major gains of the Trump presidency was an increased interest in analysis, biting commentary and humor and satire, mostly directed against Trump. It will be important to continue that trend as the Biden presidency attempts to confuse and beguile its adherents with a phoney “normalcy” amid the widespread panic, devastation and destruction that has been the accumulated result of all the presidents, especially since Reagan.

Trump ascended into office with the car poised at the edge of the cliff. He gleefully pushed it over and asked the country to enjoy the ride. It will take much more of the kind of sincere honesty that the above shows and sites practice if there is to be a chance of putting the pieces back together.

John Brown as buffoon in 'The Good Lord Bird', vs. Brown as radical in 'Underground'
Wednesday, 09 December 2020 14:05

John Brown as buffoon in 'The Good Lord Bird', vs. Brown as radical in 'Underground'

Dennis Broe compares and contrasts two images of John Brown in recent TV series. Image above: John Brown at his zaniest, in The Good Lord Bird 

While the last two episodes of Ethan Hawkes recounting of the John Brown story have some emotional resonance, The Good Lord Bird as a whole, derived from a National Book Award winning novel by James McBride, is a postmodern mocking of Brown and Frederick Douglass. John Brown’s incendiary raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 was the event that precipitated the Civil War, which ended slavery. 

Hawkes’ Brown is quite a different figure. He mistakes Henry, the young, freed slave for a servant girl and has him parade around in a skirt, until, in the end, Brown turns the charade into an LGBT acceptance moment. Brown is seen mostly as a raving lunatic, compared by Hawkes to Shakespeare’s Lear, with Hawkes for much of the series playing Brown, as he attempts to free slaves in Kansas, as Lear’s mad scene on the moor. In episode two he shows up at the end to rescue Henry, who he calls Onion, rambling insanely with guns a-blazing, turning what was an astute description of racial exploitation from the point of view of Henry and the other African-Americans in one Kansas town, into farce.

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David Deegs as the windbag Frederick Douglass 

Equally Daveed Diggs, so powerfully dynamic and scene-stealing as Jefferson in Hamilton and so resolute as the revolutionary in Snowpiercer, as Frederick Douglass gives an over-the-top wild star turn to the point where Diggs and Hawkes in the same room as Douglass and Brown are simply trying to upstage one other, with both speaking past each other and simply projecting their own star quality. Douglass’ later bromide about the camera, “I am enamored of the device and the device is enamored of me” supposedly a slight on the publicity-grubbing aspect of the black Abolitionist leader, is in this series simply a description of the egos of the two stars.

Representations of John Brown

Hawkes’ performance and engineering of the series suggests once again that “Hollywood intellectual” is simply an oxymoron, with the emphasis on moron. But there is something deeper and more problematic at work here. Rather than a postmodern debunking of these legends, Hawkes performance fits neatly into a representational history of John Brown, a figure who causes liberals much anxiety. Brown’s quest to wipe out slavery is indisputably seen by an intellectual elite as just, but his violent methods, since he claimed that slavery would not end peacefully and that believers must take up arms to oppose it, apparently still cause fits in liberals. Here, using the postmodern cover, once again that anxiety is expressed as Brown being a full-blown raving lunatic even though history proved him correct.

Another side of Brown’s mission is stunningly captured in the far better season two of Underground, a series by African-American showrunner Misha Green, that was summarily cancelled after its radical affirmation of not only the righteousness of Brown’s cause but also of his method.

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Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan as Jeb Stuart and Custer join forced to preserve slavery in The Santa Fe Trail

An early Brown depiction which helped to set the tone for subsequent portrayals was Warner Brothers’ 1940 The Santa Fe Trail. The previous year Warners had gone out on a limb in its Confession of a Nazi Spy, the first anti-Nazi Hollywood film. The studio was accused of being “prematurely anti-fascist.” In this western, with war breaking out in Europe, famed German American Bund and Nazi sympathizer Errol Flynn stars with Ronald Reagan, future saboteur of the Actors Guild of which he was president, as Jeb Stuart and George Custer.

The two come together to crush Raymond Massey, looking like Moses in a depiction of Brown whose wild-eyed demeanor made it seem like he was constantly in front of the burning bush. In crushing Brown, the two affirm that the North and the South can co-operate to insure the ultimate goal, which they claim is peace at any cost. Needless to say, in this attempt to make up for its earlier “transgression,” Warners proposed isolation and peace as the response to Nazi aggression, accomplished in the silencing of an attempt to promote racial equality.

Massey would again play Brown repeating the same religious zealotry at the expense of any concentration on what Brown stood for in 1955 in Seven Angry Men. In the 1982 television mini-series The Blue and the Grey Sterling Hayden reprised the Massy interpretation, in which the killing of the “traitor” Brown was compared to the killing of Caesar by Brutus and the Roman senators. In the 1986 follow-up mini-series North and South Johnny Cash lent the lilting righteousness of his deeply calloused working-class voice to Brown, but Brown appears in the series for only three minutes, almost as if the producers were too afraid to give much credence to Cash’s rendering of his presence and his message.

This modern rendering of Brown has its moments. Newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson is superb as Onion, his authenticity and sincerity the antidote for much of the series to Hawkes hokeyness. Henry/Onion is part Huck Finn trying to navigate this treacherous landscape, part Sancho Panza to the realist Brown’s delusional Quixote and part Fool to Hawkes’ Lear. The series also has a picaresque quality as the idealistic Brown finds his finances laid low by a swindler straight out of the corrupt capitalist terrain of antebellum America portrayed in Twain’s The Gilded Age, and Melville’s The Confidence Man.

Brown also has his moments, as when he explains to Onion that the only thing the white man understands that will turn him away from his thirst for the profits of slavery is violence. Later, as Brown faces execution, his son Owen explains that he will not try to rescue him because his father understands the import of his execution: “Most people they don’t die for anything, but he, he died for something.”

It is telling though that once Brown is in prison, awaiting hanging, that is shorn of any immediate threat, he is portrayed as saner, calmer and cooler and able to see clearly who Onion/Henry is. The histrionics cease and Brown is presented in a more normative, human way as he awaits the gallows. Hollywood liberals admire martyrdom. They’re just uneasy with the threat of revolution.

Most versions of the story emphasize a dramatic presentation of Brown’s words in court on trial for murder and sedition, his most cogent translation of the attempt to free the slaves into the language of class struggle and rendered extremely powerfully in a recording by Orson Welles:

 Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…or any of that class – it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

The Good Lord Bird sidelines this statement, which also links to Martin Luther King’s speech just before he was assassinated, linking the black and white working-class struggle. This version dedramatizes the statement, making it simply Hawke’s voiceover as part of a series of letters written from jail. The series, scheduled for release at the beginning of the summer, was delayed by Showtime (and Sky Atlantic) because of the irruption of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, with the station apparently afraid this John Brown would fuel the fire. For the most part though, they needn’t have worried.

Underground’s African-American John Brown

There is a whole other perspective on John Brown, quite strikingly different from Good Lord Bird and its ilkIn 1941, perhaps in answer to Santa Fe Trail, Jacob Lawrence completed a series of 22 paintings, titled The Legend of John Brown, with Lawrence’s modernist angular and elongated figures and objects and matter of fact narration presenting Brown as a contemporary freedom fighter, shorn of the overlay of religious fanaticism. Good Lord Bird acknowledges Lawrence’s work in its animated title credits.

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Jacob Lawrence’s John Brown

Particularly striking is a painting near the end of the series titled John Brown with a company of 21 men, white and black, marched on Harpers Ferry. The image which stresses the overcoming of racial tensions in a blending of working-class arms, is a series of light and dark colored knives marching together on the landscape.

W.E.B Dubois in his biography of Brown described him as “a man whose leadership lay not in his office, wealth or influence, but in the white flame of his utter devotion to an ideal.” Dubois stressed Brown’s coming to awareness in the light of previous black struggles for freedom, most prominently that of Haiti’s independence from Napoleon and the French and Nat Turner’s slave uprising in Virginia. DuBois’ termed Brown’s coming to consciousness a realization that “American slavery was the foulest and filthiest blot on nineteenth century civilization.” When asked which white presidential candidate  he would vote for James Baldwin replied “John Brown” and the comedian turned radical activist Dick Gregory described Brown as “the number one being that’s ever been produced in America.”

The fittest riposte to Hawkes’ John Brown is season two of Underground, still streaming on Hulu and Prime Video. The season consists of the remnants of “The Macon 7” group of now freed slaves venturing South to rescue their kin. A secondary plot concerns the Anglo woman Elizabeth, who has seen a loved one murdered in front of her by a slaver who recognizes them as abolitionists. Elizabeth, over the course of the season and partially due to her encounter with one of John Brown’s sons, moves from grief and anger to a more measured realization that an institution so deeply ingrained in the American consciousness will require violence to uproot it.

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Harriet Tubman’s (Aisha Hinds) Abolitionist Plea in Underground 

Elizabeth hears but disagrees with the mulatto woman who runs the station on the Underground Railroad and argues that slavery can be eradicated peacefully by freeing one slave at a time. A remarkable moment of the season occurs in an episode that is breathtakingly experimental for television, in which Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman first stands before a mirror and then takes the Abolitionist stage and tells the story of her bondage and freedom in an extended take that lasts the entire episode. In the final episode of the season, Elizabeth makes her decision, taking up arms and firing on the slavers who abused her.

For its resolute radicalness in presenting Brown’s struggle and methods as necessary Underground was quickly yanked off the air while The Good Lord Bird on the other hand is on its way a bountiful harvest of trophies in awards season.

5G and ‘Biohackers’: Technology Rules Ok! (or does it?)
Wednesday, 25 November 2020 10:15

5G and ‘Biohackers’: Technology Rules Ok! (or does it?)

Dennis Broe writes about how 5G technology is designed to make the world safe for capitalist cultures of consumption, and reviews Biohackers

There seems to be no questioning the technological imperative. 5G will, when it is fully operative, increase download speeds such that general mobile phone internet activity will be 20 to 100 times faster, thus greatly enhancing watching Series TV on the go. 5G will also, its promoters claim, fulfill the promise of both Artificial Intelligence and the internet of things: interconnected smart homes, smart cars, and consumers served by smart farms and operated on by smart machines. Likewise, in genetics, the cracking of DNA and RNA codes—which may enable current COVID-19 stimulators to allow the body to suppress the virus without a dangerous ingestion of COVID—may eventually lead to promoting a generalized immunity from many diseases.

What could go wrong? Plenty, say 5G critics in France. Likewise, in the realm of genetic algorithms, the German series Biohackers equally sounds the alarm.

In the U.S. and across Asia, in particularly in China and South Korea, the answer to what can go wrong is, Nothing. In the U.S. the “debate” over 5G is only about how fast and efficient the service is. The “criticism” is that the Verizon-Apple iPhone 12 and the AT&T-Galaxy 5G rollout, even in the large cities, is only partial, four times rather than 20 times faster. China, meanwhile, leads the world in 5G patents and sees the technology as its way to climb out of the stigma of world’s low-end manufacturer, throwing off the “Made in China” labeling to be replaced by the Huawei branding of assembled technology, this time “Made in Vietnam.” In South Korea, the “debate” is on how soon 6G will arrive.

Europe is behind in the race to 5G, though one of its two telecom companies, Ericsson, has now announced it’s ready for a rollout. But not so fast. Across the continent questions are being raised about the safety, the consumerist changes, planned obsolescence and inequality the technology will effectuate, and about how 5G is part of the capitalist profit-driven productivist imperative that has so ravaged the planet. In Germany and Britain, angry citizens have pulled down towers. In France, especially with the rise of a progressive Green Party called EELV, the entire ethos of 5G is being questioned.

The opening salvo against the technology was fired by the Green Party Mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, who questioned its supposed benefits. “With 5G I can watch porn in HD in my elevator and know if I still have yogurt in the refrigerator” is the way he described the new promised land that proponents claim the network will usher in. In return, the Rothschild banker-turned-President Emmanuel Macron, a prime promoter of neoliberal technology as saviour of French society, labelled the Greens “Amish” who “wanted to return to the era of the oil lamp.” His fellow right-wing confrères warned of a “Green Peril,” using the Cold War overlay of Red Peril, and branded those questioning this imperative as “Khmer Green,” likening them in the digital realm to Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge.

There is little doubt that the primary reason 5G, the star of the Christmas consumer push, is being so thoroughly trumpeted is the profits it will reap, forecast to account for 668 billion dollars globally in six years and predicted, with the gain in the sale of mobile phones, with an  enhanced gaming experience and with more widespread virtual reality headsets, to account for 5 percent of global GDP this year.

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5G Makes the World Safe for Consumerism  

Elements of the French left, though, including François Ruffin, a legislator and director of the film Merci, Patron, or “Thanks, Boss,” a kind of French Roger and Me about France’s richest bosses mercilessly closing factories, have suggested that this technological bounty is being asked to fill the void in lives that are increasingly despairing. Ruffin notes also how this “techno-totalitarianism,” what media critic Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism,” will amplify already existing inequalities. The technology may widen the gaps between the increasingly more plugged-in cities with 5G, the periphery around those cities with 4G, and the country’s rural areas with no G, thus in France exacerbating what is termed the “territorial fracture” and what in the U.S. might be called the Red/Blue dichotomy.

Echoing Morozov, Ruffin points out this this kind of thinking leads not to, for example, regulating agribusiness to produce healthier and more eco-friendly food, but to supplying more intelligent forks. In Catholic France 5G is breathlessly talked about, Ruffin says, as the second coming of the Holy Spirit, illuminating our smart phones in the way the first coming descended on the apostles at Pentecost. In the holy light of such a miracle, the telecom industry shakes off the shackles of any sense of being a public good, and instead regulation becomes only about how market competition can be promoted.

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The Miracle of Consumption in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her 

France has always been suspicious of consumer “miracles” which its leading thinkers have often seen as foisted on it by American capitalism in its drive for global hegemony. Witness Godard’s Two of Three Things I Know About Her and Weekend and the films of Jacques Tati (Playtime, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) in their unfolding of a critique of a French society being remade from without.

The debate here is raising important questions that are given short shrift in the rest of the world. Europe is simply being asked to conform and told that if it does not it will be left out of a mainspring of the global economy, with its devices unable to catch up or be plugged into the global flow.

Studies indicate that the digital economy emits 4 percent of greenhouse gas, a number that is predicted to double in five years and which 5 and 6G will accelerate. The Green Party labels 5G an “enevore,” that is, energy gorging, noting that mobile phone use already accounts for 2 percent of electric use in France.

The introduction of this speedier technology is designed to increase costs, not only of a monthly mobile bill as more data is accessed and downloaded, but also necessitating replacing existing mobile phones with 5G-ready equipment, phones which are now already on the average replaced every 18 months to 2 years. Eventually, the technology with increased pixelation for faster and clearer viewing will be a part of computers and televisions and, like the changeover in television sets from analog to digital, will require a wholescale worldwide replacement.

The ecological question also involves not only the global waste in disposing of the used devices which is estimated to reach 2 million tons, but also in their creation with 70 kilos or 154 pounds of raw materials, including rare metals, necessary for the assembling of one of these super devices. These rare metals, which emit radiation, are strip-mined in the south of China where production is still largely private and loosely regulated. Elsewhere, 80 percent of the cobalt and tantalum needed for assembly comes from the east of the Republic of Congo, a war-torn area where 40,000 children work in the mining zones.

Consumer enhancement, of course, with the tech companies goes hand in hand with consumer surveillance, and 5G increases the drive to a global data centre where billions of data packages will be available to publicity and advertising agencies for use in instantaneously molding and soliciting user taste depending on the content of individual cell phones and the store any consumer passes or, more creepily, any impulses they have. By 2025 it is predicted that 75 billion objects will be interconnected, all transmitting user data so that the refrigerator that is telling you to buy more yogurt is also spying on you. The internet highway becomes a spyway.

The implementation of 5G is also wasteful. Huawei is clearly the global leader in cheap and efficient 5G construction. A mobile phone is made up of a complex of 250,000 inventions and patents. In 2020 the Chinese lead the world with 34 cell phone patents, followed by South Korea and Europe with the U.S. a distant fourth. Yet, in labeling the Chinese company a security risk—when in fact the real threat is that it is a more skilful competitor—and forcing its allies to boycott the company as well, installation of 5G will be more costly with companies required to duplicate already established efforts.

Finally, there is the question of safety. There has been no comprehensive government study on the effects of the increased sonic waves on the human body. Private corporate studies, which are not required to be made public, all negate this possibility, while public studies suggest there may be some danger. The U.S. National Toxicology Program found evidence of cancer tumors in rats exposed to high frequencies, and in Italy the Ramazzini Institute warned there were potential carcinogens in radio frequencies. The French government has commissioned a thoroughgoing study, the results to be reported in Spring 2021. The newspaper of record Le Monde and 70 legislators have asked for a moratorium until the findings are revealed, but Macron’s Minister of Finance Bruno Le Maire wants to hasten 5G installation, warning that a delay would contribute to France losing its digital sovereignty.

The corporate sector sees 5G as simply an economic issue with the question being when and how, not why. The Greens and the French left see 5G, in the way it will change French life, perhaps increasing what the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze called “societies of control,” as a social and ecological issue and a place where the overwhelming drive to more and faster which has so devastated the planet must be questioned. On the continental, national and individual level, to not have 5G means to drop out of the digital flow, with capital arguing, as Theodor Adorno warned in the mid-20th century, that the worst of all conditions is to be left behind. What a bleak future indeed without porn on our elevators and without knowing if we need another yogurt in our refrigerator!

Are you ready for more genetic engineering?

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Genetic Mind Games on Biohackers

A series which similarly questions how technological prowess is being implemented and controlled, this time in the area of genomes and the human body, is the German show Biohackers. The series is financed by German government and Bavarian Television funds, and shot in the same studio as another German series, Dark, both available on Netflix. The simplicity of Biohackers, which begins with a highly dramatic bio attack on a train and then flashes back to explain how the young female student Mia got there and why she is not susceptible to the attack, works in its favour, as opposed to the laboured three-era, almost impenetrable flashbacks of Dark.

The action takes place on the Bavarian campus of the University of Freiburg, the German centre of all kinds of genetic engineering experimentation. The students at the school, a band of renegades working on their own socially uplifting mutations, are part of a do-it-yourself biology known as the biotechnological social movement or as bio- or wetware hacking, similar to the early rough and tumble cyberpunks of the internet. Mia’s roommates—botanist Chen Lu, monied beauty queen Lotta, and nerd seed experimenter Ole—form an international group of scientific Scooby Doos who come to her rescue as she is first taken under the wing of the university’s star biologist Dr. Tanya Lorenz and then threatened by her, as Mia and her friends expose the ruthlessness of their professor’s experiments to perfect a subject immune to disease.

Mia’s futon and her rumpled student quarters are contrasted to the corporate-funded Dr. Lorenz’s elaborate multi-storied, impeccably furnished and ordered home in the Bavarian forest, complete with lab in the basement. As with 5G, Dr. Lorenz issues a warning that Germany, which has lost out and is behind in digital mastery, must conquer the realm of biotechnology to compensate.

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The Scoobys in Scooby Doo

Dr. Lorenz, though, is revealed to be experimenting on human subjects, leaving a murderous trail behind her and recalling earlier experiments by the Nazis who also claimed to be benefiting humanity. She is Dr. Mengele in a pants suit. This contemporary version of the former ethos features Lorenz, as Mia points out, marking her subjects with a bar code, as the Nazis burnt prison numbers into their subjects’ flesh.

We are reminded that the Bavarian countryside and its dark forests hatched Hitler in his first coup attempt and that Freiburg University was the place the philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his moment of embracing National Socialism, accepted an appointment as head of the university until his gradual disgust with the movement resulted in his resignation.

Biohackers, renewed for a second season when the conspiracy to hide the experimentation reaches a national level, does not shy away from the subject of chemical and biological warfare. However, instead of the hackneyed usual and usually insane “terrorist,” the terror here is far better organized and financed not by rogue fanatics but by a corporate-medical ethos which values profit above human life.

Lovecraft Country: Liberating 1950s Apartheid America One Monster At A Time
Sunday, 15 November 2020 16:30

Lovecraft Country: Liberating 1950s Apartheid America One Monster At A Time

Dennis Broe continues his review of new TV series. Image above: Battling Housing Segregation in '50s Chicago, from Lovecraft Country

It’s now a done deal with the series already out in its entirety, but the best pilot and one of the best shows of the year is HBO’s Lovecraft Country. The series is a second stunner by showrunner Misha Green after the too-quickly aborted success of Underground, about the underground railroad. Lovecraft Country refashions and redefines ’50s America, not as consumer paradise, but as apartheid state, just as Underground revisions the pre-Civil War battle against slavery as a revolutionary struggle.

The pilot of Lovecraft Country is a combination of Green Book and Night of the Living Dead, one a masterpiece and the other a hunk of unmitigated garbage. Lovecraft Country cleans up the trash that was the Academy-Award-winning Green Book and resets its smug righteous Driving Mr. Daisy reaffirmation of white, liberal America by refocusing its road trip by three African-Americans through a perilous Northern landscape that is fraught with the still-present danger of white cops constantly threatening their lives. The pilot also revives George Romero’s still shocking masterwork, a zombie apocalypse where the horror of the ’70s America racist police state in the end outdoes the horror of the flesh-eaters, as the sole black survivor is gunned down in a finale that merges the Black Panther Fred Hampton’s killing with the zombie film.

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Lovecraft’s Monsters

Here, after the terror the three African-Americans suffer at the hands of white America on their trip from Chicago to the supposedly progressive haven of Massachusetts, the appearance of several of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s signature monsters, The Shoggoth – blobs devouring everything in their path with thousands of snapping teeth – comes as a relief. These monsters at least are finite and not part of a perpetual system that categorically excludes black people. Or, as the show would have it in quoting James Baldwin, part of a country where the American Dream is achieved at the expense of the American Negro. The contemporary series nods at Romero’s classic – with police and the three black crewmembers trapped in the same house, this time the monsters attack and eat the police, revenging the death of the lone Black survivor in Night of the Living Dead.

Admittedly, the show is uneven and is more a series of spectacular parts than a stunning whole. However, its project of revisioning African-American representation and extending it both to genres and to areas of intellectual activity which Blacks had previously been locked out of is a mind-bending corrective to the representational apartheid practiced in white Hollywood and academia.

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'50s Haunted Diners

Episodes one and three emphasize the socially critical aspect of New Black Horror, so prominent in Get Out, the masterwork in this subgenre. Tik, Letti and the reliably stabilizing Courtney B. Vance as Tik’s Uncle George, take that most American of adventures the road trip, in search of George’s lost brother. They encounter not the oddball-but-endearing characters of a Route 66 but rather a murderous police state aligned against them. In a diner, they view the ’50s kitsch figures not as nostalgic but as menacing, and are forced to flee with the arrival of armed attackers. A lingering and unnerving shot of a white man with a gun in the back of a truck suggests the chase and murder of Georgia jogger Armaud Arbery, pursued by a gun-toting ex-cop and his sons. Finally, they are pursued to the border of a county which has a sundown clause, meaning, the sheriff explains to them, that they can be shot if they are found in the county after sundown.

Episode three, with Tik, Letti and Tik’s father back in Chicago, takes up the thorny ’50s question of housing segregation, as Letti buys a home in North Chicago across the line of demarcation. Letti faces a brigade of white men parking their cars in front with the horns perpetually blaring to drive her out of her home. The trick, Tik reveals, is one that U.S. soldiers used in Korea where he was a part of their efforts to drive prisoners insane. That revelation of American mind games rewrites the myth of Korean ‘brainwashing’ solidified in the film The Manchurian Candidate.

Social distancing via racial segregation

The house is haunted with the spirits of African-Americans massacred in the abode. Inside and outside Letti and Tik are tortured by that other kind of social distancing, the racial segregation that with its attendant defunded schools and perpetuation of poverty is still a primary way today of maintaining inequality. Letti revenges herself on the cars with a baseball bat and stakes her right to cross the colour line.

Episodes two and four are about bringing African-Americans to the forefront of genres they have been locked out of. Black audiences, lacking an identification figure in what was the squeaky-clean genre of horror, often rooted for the monster who ravaged the privileged victims of a supposedly all-white America. Episode two restores Black agency to the genre as Tik, Letti and George stand in the center of the standard horror trope of the haunted house, here a Massachusetts mansion with a devil cult that not all the characters escape from alive.

Episode four places Black characters at the center of an Indiana Jones-type adventure saga, but with an African-American historical perspective. When Letti has second thoughts about crossing a frail rope bridge in a typical adventure sequence, Tik’s father spurs her to conquer her fear by telling her the rope reminds him of the whip his mother described to him, used by masters on Black slaves.

Throughout, the African-American characters also counter myths about Black prowess exclusively in the fields of sports and entertainment. George and his wife Hippolyta are cartographers, drawing up maps in the Green Book that provide safe journeys through the dangerous morass of apartheid America. Hippolyta proves herself adept at astronomy, and in a later episode acquires a lived historical knowledge by inserting herself into various epochs. Their daughter Diana writes and illustrates her own comics, in a way that presages today’s Black comic resurgence. The family reads and reveres sci-fi adventure author Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft mentor and Dracula creator Bram Stoker. The series highlights Black curiosity and intellectual acuity as the show itself crosses cultural colour lines in showing that it is not for lack of persistence and interest that African-Americans have not thrived in these areas.

The show also of course rewrites Lovecraft himself, using a contemporary novel by Matt Ruff that highlights the horror writer’s glaring limitations. Lovecraft wrote in the 1920s, with the Klan firmly established and often, as in The Call of Cthulhu, set the stories a decade earlier, at the moment when the progressive period of Reconstruction was still being turned back, just after statues commemorating the Confederacy had sprung up everywhere, and when a new category of ‘whiteness’ was being constructed by pitting all the European US arrivals against their non-European ‘other(s).’

In Cthulhu Lovecraft recounts the danger posed in the North by a Negro sailor “from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside” and in the South in the bayous surrounding New Orleans by a Voodoo gathering containing “singular and hideous” rites. Lovecraft Country refashions and reverses this fear, as in one episode the Shoggoths appear again, this time to destroy a squad of Chicago police who have come to wipe Letti out of her home.

In the most stunning reversal of a horror staple, Letti’s sister Ruby undergoes the wolfman transformation from human to beast, a prosthetic tour-de-fore pioneered by Rick Baker in An American Werewolf in London. The trick here is that Ruby transforms from an African-American to a Caucasian woman. This monster is instead granted full access to white society. Ruby had previously been rejected from a sales clerk position at the department store Marshall Field’s but ‘white’ Ruby is not only hired but made supervisor at the store. The episode spotlights the horror of white privilege as it is lived by Black America.

A critique of capitalism

One problem with the series is that it stays at the superficial level, viewing Lovecraft as simply a creator of monsters, including in a later episode, an Alien-type Korean female that we sympathize with as she revenges herself on both the Japanese and on US servicemen in Korea, both of whom oppressed the country. Beneath the surface prejudice, Lovecraft’s creatures from the netherworlds actually constituted a critique of the rational, scientific, calculated world of a capitalism that was hell-bent on erasing all traces of the ancient myths and modes of thinking that his monsters represent. The series misses this aspect which in the second season might be a way of more thoroughly linking Lovecraft’s subconscious love of the irrational with the battle of the series characters for recognition of their own modes of thinking and making sense of the world, which both embraces and contradicts the rationalized “normality” of the consumer world around them.

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The Macon Seven on the run in Underground

Lovecraft Country also signals the arrival in town of a new show-running sheriff, Misha Green, an African-American female writer whose work, both here and in Underground is peppered with images of revolt and resistance. The “Macon 7” plantation runaway slaves in the first series who make an impossible journey from the openly oppressive South to the more sophisticated prejudice of the North and the genre and gender smashing intrusion of Tik, Letti, and Hippolyta in her second series carve out a far more openly rebellious path for Black television representation, making Shonda Rhimes’ professional and middle-class world (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder) seem tame by comparison.

Exec-producing on Lovecraft Country are J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele. Abrams seems to contribute little to the mix, except occasional melodic horror strains on the soundtrack, borrowed from Lost, which often attempt to create the feeling of terror but seem divorced from the actual action. Peele, on the other hand, continues to invest the horror genre with contemporary social significance. This series is the true follow-up to his Get Out, where the horror is the psychic manifestation of the racist system which terrorizes the characters.

Lovecraft Country, with its array of cops more frightening than the actual monsters, and its ordinary African-American characters deeply embedded in the street life of a community with its stickball and block parties also casts a suspicious and critical eye on that other HBO series Watchmen and its Kamela-Harris-type Black female superhero vigilante cop, whose opposition to white racism could equally be an opposition to Black rebellion. The high point of Watchmen is the first 10 minutes of the series, which figures the Tulsa massacre as jealous Okies revenge themselves on the economic prosperity of Black Wall Street. Misha Green though, as everywhere else in this extraordinary show, goes one better than that heavily-awarded series in sending her characters into the past, in an entire episode based on the Oklahoma bloodletting.

This may be a series of parts, rather than a coherent whole – but the parts are some of the most memorable moments of television in this year of Black Lives Matter.

‘Vida’ on Starz: Fighting gentrification “But with a little sex”
Friday, 11 September 2020 09:52

‘Vida’ on Starz: Fighting gentrification “But with a little sex”

Dennis Broe reviews Vida and some other of the latest series on streaming services. Image above:Vida’s Mari (Chelsea Rendon) as neighbourhood activist

All over the news today are articles about a new kind of white flight, again as in the 1960s to the suburbs, but this time it is also a Covid-19 flight, from beleaguered cities to the supposed safety of rural areas and the suburbs.

There is a different kind of flight, though, which is not voluntary but forced, and that is the decades-long process of gentrification. It’s highlighted as it occurs in a Mexican neighborhood, in the first season of the Starz series Vida.

The series, available on Amazon Prime, loses focus in its two subsequent seasons, where it turns into an LGBTQ-themed telenovela, and was cancelled after its third. But that is no reason not to celebrate the triumph of season one, where Vida tackles the problem of displacement of minority and poor populations better than any of its film and television rivals.

The series opens with a bang as a young Mexican punk goth woman, Marisol or Mari, with a wicked message which she later conveys through spray paint, posts a manifesto declaring her anger and willingness to fight back over the dispossession of her neighborhood, the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles.

Boyle Heights has a long history as a progressive center of the city from its earliest Jewish radical and Japanese populations. It was one of the few neighbourhoods in L.A. not to block minorities through what were called restrictive covenants (see: Ronald Reagan et al.).

In 1949 the neighborhood elected the first Mexican and Latino city councilmember (and later Congressman), Edward Roybal. Once Jews in the post-war era started moving out to more upscale areas, Roybal acted to further open up the area for what is now its predominantly Mexican population. It is currently the centre of an attempt at a land grab by the wealthy dominant class since, with the resettling of more affluent residents in downtown L.A., it could become a more fashionable adjacent alternative to downtown’s high rents, something akin to hip and slightly cheaper Brooklyn’s relationship to Manhattan.

Mari’s group, The Vigilantes, are activists disturbed and frightened as they watch the neighbourhood change around them. Real estate developers from the nearby Silver Lake area eye the neighbourhood, “eager for those Trump dollars.” In the vanguard of this attempted dislocation is a Latino-fronted real estate group “sucking the blood out of the neighborhood.” Against Mari’s and the activist group’s “Make America Brown Again,” the Latino real estate agent Nelson Herrera is buying block after block of what the agency calls BoHe, the rebranding of Boyle Heights as a now fashionable location. This landgrab utilizes white artists, whose outpost Mari spray-paints, as their shock troops, while the real estate agency offers predatory loans that will result in residents losing their local businesses.

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Lyn (Melissa Berrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) on the rooftop of their neighbourhood bar

Returning to this neighbourhood in turmoil are the two Hernandez sisters Emma and Lyn, brought back at the death of their mother, the Vida (“life” in Spanish) of the title, and now proud possessors of their mother’s debt-ridden bar that is a mainstay and casual gay centre of the area. Emma is a tough-as-nails, corporate businesswoman back from Chicago, and Lyn, with hippie tendencies, is a kind of palimpsest of all California counter-cultures, a vegan slacker comfortable in the upscale hipness of nearby Silver Lake.

The sisters are thoroughly assimilated, and as the series opens couldn’t be further from the Mexican roots of the neighborhood. Emma wants immediately to get rid of the low-rent tenants in the bar building, many of them undocumented, searching for a “better” clientele. Lyn, meanwhile, dropped by her Anglo boyfriend just after her mother’s death, seeks solace in the orgiastic complacency of Silver Lake poolside sex.

Both are brought down to earth and humanized by their reacquaintance with the neighborhood. Eddy, the gay wife of their mother, who also lays claim to the bar, finally shames Emma into not becoming an agent of dispossession herself by turning out the building’s tenants. Lyn, meanwhile, while being adopted by the affluent Silver Lake crowd, has second thoughts as she is riding the bus home with a Mexican maid, who cleans up the bodily fluids strewn by the privileged pool users.

Capitalist and colonialist culture

There is conflict between the two sisters as well, with Emma the responsible one and Lyn perpetually trying to “find herself.” But the more interesting conflict is between Emma’s corporate and Lyn’s privileged “alternative” values and the fellow-feeling of the neighbourhood. What in many shows would be a one-episode pilot, where the sisters finally decide to stay at home and become a part of the neighbourhood in adopting the bar, takes the entire season because this is not just a personal conflict but a conflict of values. More pointedly, it’s about the sisters learning to reaccept as a positive value the ways the more communal culture they grew up in challenges what they have learned from the capitalist and colonial culture outside the neighborhood.

The culture manifests itself in two ways, language and its food. The characters use a simplified form of Spanglish, that constant mixing of English and Spanish that is the mark of a people whose native tongue is devalued. The show does not translate either these phrases or the words to a multitude of Spanish songs, forcing its Anglo audience to learn the phrases, many of which are street lingo, such as the amount of porquería, or bullcrap, with which this neighborhood in the process of being moved in on has to contend.

Elsewhere the contentious Mari and a friend rebond over a chamoyada, a flavoured sliced ice drink, and Lyn gets into an argument with an upscale Mexican city councilmember about putting Valentina, a brand of hot sauce, on a taco. Food is a signifier and imprint of childhood cultural heritage in the lives of these people.

Neighbourhood dispossession has been a popular theme in film and television recently, including a rival Netflix series, also set in Boyle Heights, Gentrified, much slicker and hipper than this series and much less effective. Robert Moses’s mass dispossession of New York’s African-American and Hispanic populations is also the subject that underlies the film Motherless Brooklyn, whose heart is in the right place but which is ultimately spoiled by its clumsy, play-by-the numbers, Chinatown-clone narrative.

The nearest rival to Vida is The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a thoughtful, quietly sad film about the cleansing of that city of its poor and even lower middle class by the ever-increasing rents, because of its adjacency to Silicon Valley. But that film is perhaps too quiet and mournful and so does not have the immediate visceral impact of Vida.

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The two sisters with Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), the soul of the neighbourhood

The second and third seasons lose focus and pit rival groups against each other in what amounts to the same struggle. Emma’s decision to cut Eddy, the conscience of the tavern, off from her stake in the bar in season two is supposedly, but not actually, rectified by Eddy’s returning to the place, this time as bartender, not co-owner. Emma sells off a mural her mother had commissioned showing the two girls as taking part in the Mexican Revolution. The indescribably sad moment when it is papered over with a beer ad goes unremarked.

Season three features the return of the patriarchy in the form of the sister’s lost father, whose full-force identification with a rigid religiosity threatens their mother’s legacy in making the bar a space of LGBTQ freedom – a space, by the way, that is echoed by the all-LGBTQ writers’ room on this show.

That season also sees Mari leaving The Vigilantes, who themselves get sidetracked and campaign against the transgender bar. Mari turns from collective political work and instead is “discovered” by a website entrepreneur and transformed into a politically trendy “influencer.” Her revolutionary expression of the pain and resistance of her neighborhood is now converted into a more commercial “edginess.”

There is nothing askew with the shift to a more telenovela confrontation with the religious patriarchy. The problem is that the reclaimed father now becomes the primary foe and the gentrification process is sidelined. There is no reason for this. The two are twin aspects of the same oppression and it is needless and heedless to pit one against the other, rather than seeing how they form a seamless whole.

On a positive note, the series does end with the memory of Vida with all her flaws restored in the eyes of her daughters and with a wise neighbourhood woman’s santería, that blend of Mexican native traditions with a more primitive Catholicism, posed as an alternative psychic healing method both to the more Western psychoanalysis and to the father’s Pentecostal evangelism.

Starz and sex as pay-per-view commodity

Starz, the network that broadcast Vida in the U.S. is a pay-per-view channel whose rivals, before the streaming services, were HBO and Showtime. Starz, a latecomer to pay-per-view, often attempts to distinguish itself with the quantity of its nudity and sex. The famous opening scene in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels recounts a director’s ambitions to make a film of quality about people’s lives during the Depression, to which the studio executive keeps interjecting, “But with a little sex?” At Starz, the network execs always seem to be interjecting, for example in the case of Vida’s ambition to tackle the thorny issues of gentrification: “Yes, but with a lot of sex?”

So we get a montage of the two sisters, one lesbian, one straight, copulating as the opening of one show. There are several kinds of “kink,” as in Lyn’s councilmember wanting her to wear a strap-on, and Emma, programmatically gay, taking a former male inmate who is working for her for a sexual ride in her office to ease her anxiety. Sometimes this adds to character development – Emma realizes the form of sex she often engages in is simply a corporate brand of using people to satisfy her needs – but just as often it’s simply a way of Starz hooking audiences with a quantity and an outlandishness of nudity that makes Game of Thrones look like Camelot.   

P-Valley’s Working Girls

This has been true in the history of the channel with a show such as Spartacus, nominally about the slave who challenged Rome, distinguishing itself from HBO’s Rome and from other shows on that channel by adding bloodcurdling, sadistic violence to the bloodcurdling, sadistic sex. Even Outlander, the channel’s most successful entry, is essentially a more sexually explicit, time-traveling kinkily romantic bodice ripper.

The ultimate expression of this use of sex as branding mechanism is the channel’s current series P-Valley, which stands for Pussy Valley. (I rest my case.) The show about African – American dancers in a Mississippi strip club does validate  their work by presenting it from their point of view, but refuses any wider consideration of how they are trapped within the colonial structure of the backwater of that state.

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Party Down’s precarious Hollywood caterers

Starz’s actual glowing moment was Party Down, a two-season series about precarious workers in Hollywood who must labour with a catering company while trying to make dreams that are constantly shattered come true. It’s a hilarious show about the more perpetual downside of the lives of Hollywood hangers on – Mulholland Drive as a sitcom.

Formerly we might have labeled the sex on Starz as “gratuitous,” but that word does not capture the nature of what is going on here. Sex on Starz is corporate and commercial. It is commodified, often not about freedom of bodily expression, but a marketing gimmick to suck in audiences. Even the sex on Vida, which does often also enhance character development, is ultimately not so much boundary-breaking and liberating as way degrading – not the sex itself, but the fact that it is often used simply as a means of addicting viewers and thus is devalued.

Such is la vida in the ever more intense competition for viewers who in the midst of an economic malaise, state and militia violence and a pandemic can scarcely afford food and medical supplies, much less add pay channels on top of their already exorbitant cable bill.

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