Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Soap Operas About Horrible People

In real life, an ER nurse wired on narcotics would be a really bad thing for patients.  On television, it is heralded as the best thing in the world!  How did we get to this point?

One of the most annoying trends of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is the prevalence of what I call soap operas about horrible people. These shows which started with HBO and progressed to Showtime and Netflix are usually long-winded dramas where the "hero" of the show (and I use that in quotes), is a horrible person who does horrible things. Apparently we have some insatiable need to vicariously live the lives of horrible people.

You know what I'm talking about. Tony Soprano who murders and maims people for a living, is glamorized in several seasons of an HBO series. Nurse Jackie, a drug addict, is lauded even though she lies and abuses people because she "saves lives." I 'm sorry to say but the reality of an opiate-addicted nurse is probably far different. Breaking Bad is yet another example of the trend, where we are encouraged to root for a person who is a methamphetamine dealer and also manufacturer.  It doesn't matter if these people come to bad ends by the final episode, the point is that we are encouraged root for them.

Also, these shows advance the plot in teeny, tiny increments with every episode - just like a soap opera.  And just like a soap opera, when the writers write themselves into a corner, they just pursue another plot line or say it was all a "dream sequence" and start over.  Lazy writing and poor character development are the hallmarks of soap operas.

But what is really infuriating is that these modern soap operas are about really horrible people.

You could trace this trend back to the previous century. There were a plethora of cop shows and movies of that era such as the "Dirty Harry" series which was so wittily parodied by The Simpsons "McBain" character - "he breaks all the rules but he gets results!" is the byline.  In other words it's the oldest argument in the books - the ends justify the means.  We never see, today, stories about people who tried to live decent lives doing the right thing, giving up the limelight or the big bucks in exchange for being decent citizens.

McBain - he breaks all the rules but he gets results!

You might argue this was never the case, but back in the 1960s we had shows like The Flying Nun with Sally Field whose only sin was that she could fly, which was looked down upon by the Mother Superior.  Nevertheless, she spent each week's episode trying to do good for the world well concealing her fundamental flaw - being the ability to fly with a nun's hat.

Today we have House of Cards, which portrays our entire society as banal and evil and, well, ready to collapse at a moment's notice.  People are just bad - that is assumed from the get-go.   What we want to know is, how bad will they go to get what they want.   It is akin to slowing down at a bloody SUV wreck.

The problem with these soap operas is not that they are merely poor normative cues or very bad lessons for your children, but that they are also boring and predictable.  If you watch any of the shows, you be quickly become frustrated by the fact that plot is advanced by mere inches or even millimeters every episode.  We all know that Nurse Jackie is going to eventually crash and burn from her drug addiction, but it seems that while each episode promises to show the final crash, somehow she manages to elude the grim reaper until the very end.   And even then, like the Sopranos, the end is vague and ambiguous - two hallmarks of the passive-aggressive personality.

The same is true for all the other shows like this. You watch episode after episode, season after season and still the actors who are the prime movers in the series never seem to meet their comeuppance. This is a big change from the shows of the 1960s and 1970s where the bad guys always got their due within 22 minutes of a 30-minute cop show.  In Dragnet, the bad guys always got caught, and you had the vicarious pleasure of seeing their "mug shot" live in the denouement.

So what's the point of this?  It's hard to say, other than we seem to have morphed into a new mode of entertainment. In the old days, we had movie codes and television codes that specified that the bad guys always lost in the good guys won. And maybe that was bad - maybe that was some form of censorship.  With the advent of cable television and cable television networks which were not bound by the same rules as Network TV, new possibilities and merge.

Like the Yakuza movies in Japan, we started to explore the dark side of our society.  Not only did we delve into the depths of criminality, we celebrated it.  In movies and television, the bad guys were the good guys and vice-versa.  Eventually, however, the Japanese got tired of the antics of the Yakuza, particularly as they strangled the economy - as well as their enemies.

Cop shows like The Wire ended up being shows about the criminals.  Let's face it, you were rooting for some of the criminals including Stinger Bell and Omar Little - the gay assassin who robs drug dealers -  to be successful in their endeavors to deal methamphetamine and crack in the streets of Baltimore. If you lived in Baltimore or even near the area, you knew horrific human cost of drug dealing and drug addiction in that sad little town. You be less inclined to glamorize drug dealers if you knew the reality of the situation.

However, safe in our Suburban enclaves, watching the flickering blue television light our living rooms and bedrooms, we could indulge ourselves and pretend that we too, were bad-ass gangsters in the hood who were kicking ass and taking names.

Of course, there were always shows back in the sixties and seventies where the protagonist had a tattered past.  For example, The Rockford Files really started this trend toward the dark side and included a protagonist, Jim Rockford, who had been in prison, although unjustly convicted.  The subtext here was that the system was flawed and that people had to use extraordinary measures in order to achieve justice.  However Justice was always administered within the one hour format of the show.  Rockford may have bent the rules, but he supported the system.

Perhaps that is how this narrative started.  In the sixties and seventies, our democratic system was viewed as flawed.  Nixon was impeached for covering up "dirty tricks".  Criminals were running rampant, as they had "rights" which were enforced by the courts.  Ordinary citizens were victimized, whether it was having your shit stolen from your front porch or being held up at gunpoint in a bad part of town.

In the 1970s, crime was pretty rampant in the United States compared to today.  New York City was not a safe place to visit.  The New York City subway system was covered with graffiti. You risked your life by even riding the subway during the day much less at night. Central Park was a good place to get mugged in the daylight, and a good place to be killed at night.

Against this background, there appeared the new genre of gritty realistic crime dramas such as Dirty Harry, Serpico, The French Connection, and the like. These shows had a moral ambivalence about the police, who are often portrayed as corrupt or incompetent. People were suffering and yet the police could do nothing as the criminals had the upper hand.  We all rooted for Dirty Harry when he gunned down the bad guy.

As the police started to cross the line more and more in these social dramas, it reached a point where we started rooting for the actual criminal. Maybe Taxi Driver was the turning point, where Travis Bickle, a psychopath and a criminal, ended up being the hero of the movie.

From there, it was downhill. Pretty soon the criminals were viewed as the heroes.  Movies like Scarface with Al Pacino, who formerly portrayed the valiant police officer fighting corruption, was now playing the drug dealer fighting his fellow drug dealers. Say hello to my little friend!

It is doubtful that this trend will change. You don't generate ratings, clicks, or eyeballs by putting on a show about an honest police officer fighting corruption or a sober nurse who heals people.  Such a show with generate negative ratings and be quickly pulled from the lineup.  People want their red meat, they want to see the seamy underside of society. They want to lift the rock and see the maggots underneath.  They want to see "The Arrow" kill the bad guy, preferably with an arrow though his eye.

It seems that television, or more precisely, the premium cable networks, will never stoop too low.  Probably the worst example of this was Dexter - a show about a serial killer - who serial kills for good, right?  What's next?  A show about a pedophile who molests for good?  "Yea, sure he molested that girl, but she was a drug dealer's daughter, so that makes it OK!"

Sorry, I ain't buying it.   Because first of all,  Dexter is fiction.  He doesn't exist, except in the minds of a writer.  And they tacked on this "he kills for good" to make it palatable for Mr. and Mrs. Middle-America (and their kids!) to watch a "how to" video series on how to thrill kill for fun.

Second of all, vigilante killing is wrong, period.  And it is wrong because we said so, as a society.   Lynchings and the like were outlawed because mob justice isn't justice. When one person or a rabble decides that they know the whole facts and can be judge, jury, and executioner, then our society falls apart.

Do we ever see the movie where Dirty Harry shoots the wrong guy because he got his facts mixed up?  Of course not.   But Police do this on occasion - do a no-knock warrant on the wrong apartment, for example - usually with disastrous results.  That's the legitimate police. At least they are held accountable - or can be.  Do we want self-appointed executioners doing likewise?  That's what vigilantism results in.   And where does it end?

Some would argue that life imitates art, while others argue that art imitates life. Some artists and television producers would argue they are "just showing reality". Some others would argue that it is just fantasy, and it is up to the audience to distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality.

But we know what the reality is, don't we?   Deep down we know we are influenced by what others say and do, and this includes what we see in the media - slickly packaged and flung deep into our cerebral cortex at the speed of light - four hours a day or more.  We all know how "propaganda" works and how the last election was influenced (even in the tiniest amounts) by Russian trolls on Reddit and elsewhere.

Maybe you think you are immune. Maybe you are. The vast majority of us are not. Is there a connection between the popularity of Breaking Bad and the methamphetamine epidemic?  The timing is about right - just as it is for Nurse Jackie and the opiate epidemic.  The narrative of both series is about the same - that one of the most horrific things in the world, drug addiction, is really not all that bad.   These shows gave a lot of people "permission" to experiment with drugs that should not ever be experimented with.

Of course, to say that you can't say these things is to be accused of censorship.   But like so much else in our society, these terms tend to be overblown.  Censorship is when a government entity or other body of authority tells people what they can and cannot say.  It is not the same as a network or a sponsor saying "You know, I don't want my company affiliated with that message, because it is beyond the pall of decent society."

Recently, much brouhaha has been made because some commercial sponsors have pulled their ads which inadvertently appeared on objectionable content on YouTube, Google, and even here on Blogger. This has even extended to television shows, where Glen Beck was forced off the air when sponsors withdrew their support.   Bill O'Reilly appears to be next.  People on the right cry "censorship" without knowing that the term means.  In their minds, sponsors are obligated to advertise on all channels, particular ones with high ratings, even if their message is dreck.

But as the Supreme Court has held, corporations are people, too, and they are entitled to their opinions and yes, even feelings.  A major corporation who serves the bulk of populace is not required or mandated to sponsor messages that they feel don't represent their values or beliefs, or moreover would turn off more customers that it would garner.

But that is the problem with non-network programming. Since there are no advertisers and no television code, the writers and producers are free to offer whatever it is the public wants to watch.  And judging from what I see on YouTube, car crashes are exactly what they want to see.

I am not sure what the answer is.  I am finding less and less content on Netflix worth watching as it is all soap operas about horrible people.  Even something as innocuous as "Grace and Frankie" profiles horrible people.  Maybe they don't kill each other, but they are not kind, either.

It will be interesting to see where this goes. I doubt my not watching Netflix will make much of a change in the market.  But maybe if hundreds, and then thousands, and then millions turned away from this sort of poor normative cue programming these new "networks" of online content providers would change their tune.  I doubt it, but we'll see where it goes.

Because these are poor normative cues - they teach us to be passive consumers and to not try to change our lives, because change isn't possible as the system is vile and corrupt and trying is too hard. The best we can hope to be is Nurse Jackie, squandering what little money we make on drugs, and "doing good" in our jobs, which make other people rich.

Is that the real message they are sending?