Culture for All: Why Television Matters
Monday, 08 August 2022 05:17

Culture for All: Why Television Matters

As part of the Culture for All series, Dennis Broe introduces another short film made with the support of the Communication Workers Union, on Why Television Matters.

 

Why Television Matters

by Dennis Broe

Hi I’m Dennis Broe, I write about film and television. I’m now writing a book about television watching in what for some is a lockdown and for others in a dangerous time where because of the virus just going to work can be risky, especially the kind of work, like that done by postal workers and engineers, that requires facing the public.

Previously I wrote a book on something you’re probably all familiar with, binge watching TV series. Where you watch the whole series in a weekend or a day.
Of course, part of this is pure addiction and you feel terrible afterwards, feel like the show just manipulated you into watching episode after episode, and that’s partly what it’s trying to do.

The satisfaction then may not be intrinsic to the show, that is a part of it, but rather the satisfaction is to have accomplished the feat of getting to the end of the show. Netflix was the first to design shows in this way, where they could be consumed all at once with shows such as House of Cards and the current addictive series The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit.

But there is another kind of satisfaction that for me comes from watching Serial TV Series, which is what I call this form, that have an actual point to them and teach some truths about the society we live in. I don’t know about you but when I have discovered one of these series, which are actually few and far between, instead of feeling empty afterwards I feel that my time was well spent, that I learned something or had my view of the world challenged in a way that allowed it to expand.

Most of these series deal either directly or symbolically with everyday struggles. A series from last year that was surprising in how it dealt directly with the struggle of black people in the U.S. with a criminal justice system that is always waiting to entrap them was For Life, produced by the rapper 50 Cent and based on a true story, available on YouTube and Hulu. The first season has the man imprisoned unjustly, framed by a District Attorney who used the defendant’s trial to climb the ladder to success. Rather than simply wallow in prison, the man becomes a lawyer and then takes on the attorney in court and in the media. The show then uses one of the oldest genres, or types of shows, the courtroom drama but updates it with the struggle for justice of a black prisoner who every week demonstrates his brilliance in court in front of judges, having each time to change out of his bright orange prison outfit into a business suit to plead his case and that of his fellow inmates. In the second season the show has become even more topical, taking on in one episode, prisoners dying of Covid and in another bringing a brutally violent cop to justice.

Snowpiercer

Another series, available on Netflix, is Snowpiercer. This series is set in the near future, which gives it some latitude in creating a metaphor for today’s situation. The characters are trapped aboard a train keeps travelling an earth frozen and uninhabitable because world leaders decided, a la Trump, that the way to prevent global warming was to fire nuclear weapons into the earth’s atmosphere.

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The train itself has three cars, the one in the front is peopled by the rich, in lavish clothes and served meals grown in the other sections. The middle section is workers also dedicated to serving the rich but perform jobs necessary to the train’s functioning. The back section is inhabited by “the tailies,” those left to die when the train took off who stormed the train to carve out their own place in it.

The first season charts the rebellion of the tailies who subsequently take over the train and make it a more equal place for all, while the second season is about the return of the owner of the train, Mr. Wilford, who wants to reinstate the old order and put everyone back in their place. This is a big budget action series but with a point to it, deliberately making a comment on the organization of today’s world and on today’s workers. We are watching more wealth, power and more of the world, here the train’s, bounty going to satisfy their lifestyle, with those in the middle cars, who in today’s world are still needed workers like engineers and the technical and communications workforce, shrinking and with those in the last car, who must degrade themselves merely to survive, expanding.

The producer of the series is the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho who directed the 2019 Oscar winning film Parasite, which you might have seen. It tells a similar tale, about contemporary Korea divided between a poor family living in a basement where they have to “steal” internet service and which often floods and a rich family who they go to work for and who live in a mansion surrounded by acres and acres of green lawn and a gate to keep others out.

What I wanted to show is that series can be both addictive and instructive and that it is important if we want to see more of an emphasis on the latter to watch and talk about those series which can be useful in shaping contemporary struggles.

Stories of the Lust for Profit in 2021: the Year in Global Streaming
Monday, 08 August 2022 05:17

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

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

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

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

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

Stories of the lust for profit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20

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

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

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

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

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Thin Ice, battle for the Arctic 

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

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

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

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

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Germinal in the time of Striketober 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Snowpiercer rails against Elon Musks 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honourable Mentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We are all The Walking Dead

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

The 5 Worst Series

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

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

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Nine Perfectly Boring Strangers

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

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

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

Bonus Worst, or Liverwurst

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

Rebels in Snowpiercer
Monday, 08 August 2022 05:17

Serial TV and the indignities of class: Snowpiercer, Normal People and Little Fires Everywhere

Dennis Broe looks at how our class-divided society is represented in three current series being streamed on TV

One of the effects of the coronavirus crisis is the accentuation of already exacerbated class differences. Yes, middle-class digital workers cheered largely working-class first responders from their windows, but that did not result in increased pay for these workers, performing the most dangerous tasks involving medical treatment and food supplies. Jeering from the sidelines, and the beneficiaries of the majority of government largesse, are the very wealthy who had often fled to their country mansions or summer homes and brought the disease with them.

Serial or streaming TV has highlighted these discrepancies in three current series. The most startling and most pronounced class gap is that which propels Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a series based on his 2015 film which is showing each week on in the US on TNT and globally on Netflix.

Class warfare in snowpiercer

The series is about a train which perpetually “orbits” the earth of the very near future, with all life outside the train frozen after a Trumpian attempt to “fix” global warming by firing nuclear rockets at the stratosphere backfired and froze the planet. The show first introduces us to the “tailies,” the ragtag rebels in the back cars of the train who rushed the train in order to make a place for themselves. They are called “unticketed passengers,” stressing their illegitimacy on a train that is run under the strict rules of capitalist class separation.

The tailies are bunched in groups and thrown scraps to eat, as opposed to the ultra-rich near the front of the train, who enjoy the finest dining from supply cars devoted to feeding them and catering to their every whim. The conception and organization of the train is supposedly the brainchild of “Mr. Wilford,” a shadowy Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk type character, a kind of Wizard of Oz with the strings not yet visible.

In the series the train is referred to as “a fortress to class” and the tailies recognize that conditions will only change “after The Revolution.” Plucked from the masses at the back of the train to investigate a murder in the front is a former police detective in dreads, Andre Layton (David Diggs from the Broadway show Hamilton). At first it seems the murder investigation will be a way of short-circuiting the class element and subsuming it under a more typical police procedural. But that does not happen. Andre discovers that the murder in the midst of the supposed “civilized” cars of the train involves cannibalism, a murder where body parts are sold for profit.

His “detecting” also has the dual role of investigating the running of the train and may eventually lead to a revolt. He watches the leaders of a tailie rebellion be frozen and bids them adieu with the phrase “God have mercy on your spark,” hoping eventually to reverse the cryogenic process and revive them to help him lead the rebellion. 

This direct portrayal of class antagonism is nothing new for Bong Joon-ho, now justly celebrated for his Oscar-winning laying bare of the sharp disparities in South Korean society in Parasite. Also along for the executive producer ride is Park Chan-wook, well known for the violent excesses of Old Boy and Lady Vengeance. He adds an element of sadism to the story, eg in treatment of the tailies who must pay for any rebellion by having their limbs exposed to the frozen air outside the train. Under Bong’s guidance however, this too plays as part of class violence and does not simply stand as gratuitous bloodletting.

While these sharp class contrasts are not unusual for South Korean cinema they are highly unusual for American television, even in the realm of science fiction, which being set in the future allows for a speculative element. Even the fantasy element though in Snowpiercer is mitigated by the fact that “the future” in this tale is 2021, stressing the imminent danger we are all in as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, based on nuclear and climate change threats, now sets the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight. It’s Bong’s stewardship which guides this train and keeps it on course rather than as on much American TV swerving off-course or derailing or getting sidetracked by the adrenaline rush of purely addictive effects. Predictably, many American critics dismissed the series as inconsequential.

The metaphor of the train circling the globe with sharp class partitions may seem like an aberration. But it is clearly being played out and accentuated during the coronavirus crisis in places like the Bronx, where in one twin-tower complex 100 renters at least have contracted the disease and where residents wait up to an hour to squeeze into poorly ventilated cars that frequently break down. This is the very image of the tailies. The Bronx – the city’s poorest borough – has the highest rate of infection, hospitalizations and death while Manhattan, the richest, has the lowest rates. How far are we from the head and tail of Snowpiercer?

Overcoming the Tragedy of Class: Normal People

The BBC and Hulu’s co-production of Normal People is based on Sally Rooney's eponymous novel, and is also co-written and executive produced by Rooney. The 12-episode series follows the initial formation of an Irish couple, Marianne Sheridan who lives in a country mansion, and Connell Waldron, who lives in rented social housing. The couple meet when Connell picks up his mother who cleans the Sheridan’s house, though their class difference is not directly acknowledged until several years (and episodes) later.

Rooney has a highly complex view of class. For her, the way that stark but unspoken class differences divide people is inhuman, and cause misery in society generally and between the couple. In their small town in Galway, the Gaelic football champion Connell is much admired, has a loving and wise working-class mother, and is seen as the ultimate bloke by his male peers. Marianne, on the other hand, is a loner who lets her contempt for her fellow students be known, and who sees herself as just passing through her hick high school until she can be with students from her own class at Trinity, the elite university she is destined for.

However, Connell is not the jock he is assumed to be. He is shy and sensitive, and he and Marianne bond and share a private sexual relationship that establishes their mutual need and respect for each other. Their loneliness is partly caused by their inability to relate to their own class. Marianne is emotionally abandoned by her careerist mother and abused by her useless but privileged brother, and Connell never fits with his blonde cheerleader-type girlfriend. This social awkwardness brings them together in a way that initially transcends their class differences, but then over the years, as we follow them both to Trinity, often causes their relationship to flounder because of these differences.

Connell and sMariannne in NP

The title of Normal People is in one sense ironic because both are not “normal” but are beset with anxieties related to their class position in their world. It also indicates that the tragic element of their relationship is “normal” in the sense of common or universal, because of the prevalence of class divisions in society. Marianne, devalued by her family, pursues relationships that exhibit her as worthless and which grow ever more violent and abusive in a way that critiques the bourgeois petty voyeurism of trash like Fifty Shades of Grey. Meanwhile, Connell deals with the anxiety of the working-class intellectual, honoured but also always on the outside of the elite institution and its attendees in which he nervously circulates.

American accounts of the series focused mainly on sex, partially as a way of ignoring the class elements. There is indeed an abundance of sex as Connell and Marianne fall in and out of bed while continuing to maintain their friendship – but the sex is never gratuitous, it's always revealing of the state of their emotional intimacy. This begins with the tender and affectionate presentation of their initial lovemaking, a refuge from class tensions, continues with their more mature sexual experimentation and concludes with an unsuccessful physical tryst which nevertheless results in Marianne realizing that her form of experimentation has become destructive and is linked to the violence in her middle-class family.

This is an intensely revealing and penetrating series on both personal and social issues, reminding us of what it was like to be young and when love cannot be separated from bodies intertwined. The series never loses its focus on the way actual human warmth and understanding is thwarted by class differences, though the mystique of Connell as working-class writer does often supplant considerations of Marianne’s own intellectual achievements. Normal People is also exactly the kind of series that can win a Golden Globe, BAFTA and/or an Emmy and will be a feature of an award season likely to be utterly dominated by streaming and serial TV.

Class as Race: Little Fires Everywhere

Cornell West’s dictum that “race is the way class is spoken in America” is the key to understanding Amazon Prime’s Little Fires Everywhere, about the relationship between a black, itinerant artist Mia (Kerry Washington) and her well-off white counterpart Elena (Reese Witherspoon). The series draws a sharp distinction between Shaker Heights, one of the richest districts in Ohio and in the country and nearby Cleveland, seen by the local high school principal as a poorly funded educational wasteland.

Little Fires is set in the 1990s, the Clinton years, when race was supposedly becoming invisible. It is at its best when it focuses on the ways that white privilege pervades and indeed defines a community that considers itself “progressive.” Thus, Elena’s daughter Lexie steals the story of Mia’s daughter Pearl’s being refused admittance to an upper level maths class partly because she is black. Lexie pilfers Mia’s experience in order to “round out” her application to Yale. Lexie, the spitting image of her mother, later appropriates Pearl’s identity to hide a far more embarrassing actual hardship she endures.

Mia Elena and White Privilege in Little Fires

The eight-part mini-series tells many subtle truths but flounders a bit in the backstory that crucially defines its two female antagonists. Elena’s choice to turn her back on her dream of becoming a journalist and instead find herself trapped as a mother of four is seen as tragic yet there is also a huge element of complicity in her embracing what she calls “the plan” of marriage and a family which also promises a well-off lifestyle. Mia’s backstory, as a talented but thwarted artist also defeated by a bizarre pregnancy, is simply too singular and odd and detracts from her own critique of the white privilege she finds herself constantly forced to confront.         

The series, in its “fair-minded” willingness to see all sides of class, race and gender conflicts is highly complex, but also itself falls victim to the Clinton-era regressive views of race and class differences as being transcended. In the series, the plurality and “fairness” of the telling thwart class critique. These perpetually unresolved race and class issues perpetually return, if not in the gilded bastion of Shaker Heights then in nearby Minnesota. Here, the Elena’s or Amy Klobachar’s of the world sanction white police violence, as Klobachar did as an attorney, by hiding behind a thin veil of reasonableness and a media characterization of themselves as “moderate.”