As its lengthy title hints, the recent book by liberal journalist Brett Martin, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, focuses primarily on the psychodramas veteran leftwing cable TV producers live out in their scripts and in their angry tirades with their writers and staffs. (And on that level alone, it’s quite a read.) But in the middle of the book, Martin explores what made these shows popular with a certain coastal elite leftwing audience in the first decade of the 21st century. Quoting NYPD Blue producer David Milch, who said that for the first quarter century of TV’s history, “commercials were the church—which is to say, you couldn’t offend the sponsor. Therefore, certain values had to be underscored in the subject matter.”
Cable TV, particularly premium channels without regular 15-minute commercial breaks such as Time-Warner-CNN owned HBO freed the hour-long show from having to cater to its sponsors, and as a result, in Milch and Martin’s opinions, opened the floodgate to TV’s nihilistic anti-heroes, beginning with that beloved murdering North Jersey Mafioso, Tony Soprano. The Sopranos TV series preceded by almost two years, but then tracked exceedingly well with “the most ignominious day in [the] collective political lives” of the professional left, as noted by Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal: Not the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, but losing the Florida presidential recount, and hence the 2000 presidential election. Martin all but confirms that hypothesis with this passage:
And so came the antiheroes. Long before David Simon proposed that The Wire would document “an America at every level at war with itself” or The Shield spent an entire season playing out an L.A. allegory of the Iraq War, it was clear that the cultural climate of the 2000s would be propitious for such characters. America, as The Sopranos debuted, was well on its way to becoming a bitterly divided country. Just how divided would become vividly clear in the 2000 presidential election. After it, Americans on the losing side were left groping to come to terms with the Beast lurking in their own body politic and— as the decade rolled on with two wars, secret prisons, torture scandals, and more—with what things it might be doing in their name.
That side happened to track very closely with the viewership of networks like AMC, FX, and HBO: coastal, liberal, educated, “blue state.” And what the Third Golden Age brought them was a humanized red state: cops, firemen, Mormons, even Nixon-supporting Don Draper and, crime of all crimes, nonvoting Jimmy McNulty. This was different from previous “working-class” shows, such as Roseanne, pitched at attracting a large audience who related to its financially struggling characters, or even All in the Family, which invited each side to laugh equally at the other. This was the ascendant Right being presented to the disempowered Left— as if to reassure it that those in charge were still recognizably human. “
“A show like The Sopranos has a soothing quality because ultimately there’s an unspoken assumption behind it that even the most monstrous people are haunted by the same concerns we’re haunted by,” said Craig Wright, a playwright who wrote for Six Feet Under and others. Such, he went on, has always been the case during conservative pendulum swings: the Left articulates a critique through the arts. “But the funny part is that masked by, or nested within, that critique is a kind of helpless eroticization of the power of the Right. They’re still in love with Big Daddy, even though they hate him.”
While plenty of scripted fictional antiheroes still ply their wares on cable TV, the true ratings winners in recent years are their real-life counterparts. AMC’s Mad Men’s season finale had 2.7 million viewers back in June, the highest rated episode so far in that show’s six-year run. In sharp contrast, A&E’s Duck Dynasty had 11.8 million viewers for its fourth season premiere two months later; according to Entertainment Weekly, that segment “was the most-watched non-fiction series telecast in cable TV history.” (For comparison’s sake, and since we mentioned them in the previous post, MSNBC averages 645,000 viewers during primetime.)
But the mindset of those who green-lit the reality show for the A&E network aren’t much different than those creating fictional anti-heroes at NBC, HBO, Showtime and AMC, as Victor Davis Hanson writes in his newest article, “Good Ol’ Boy, Inc.:”
Given that these reality shows are, like professional wrestling, largely scripted, one mini-catastrophe — a snapped cable, a tipped-over Cat, a fishing boat dead in the water — is obligatory per episode to remind the viewing audience that we are not watching office workers complaining about someone’s too-strong perfume or discussing a sex-discrimination suit filed against the boss.
The performers are also ostensibly politically incorrect, another characteristic preferably hinted at rather than in your face. While producers are usually careful not to allow their casts to spout off about their supposedly obnoxious political views, most viewers assume that a no-nonsense, screw-you attitude accompanies their brutal work. Usually, though, we have to make do with bleeped-out swear words and temper tantrums instead of an incorrect joke or musing. Anger at the gubmint bureaucrats who try to shut down the digging or who want to save a forest rat at the expense of a good tree suggests that the legions of Pajama Boys and Sandra Flukes are not welcome.
There are lots of theories why watching these good ol’ boys at work has caught on. The zoo hypothesis suggests that American suburbanites are amused by exotic creatures that they rarely see at the mall or biking about the trails in Spandex — in perhaps the same way as Petronius wrote for his literate audience about smelly soldiers and crafty innkeepers. The miners and cutters certainly don’t act like the Prius crowd in Menlo Park or the wine-tasters in Napa Valley.
Instead, just as grizzly bears and Bengal tigers are a big draw at the zoo, so too white-boy reality shows allow us to get close to these perhaps-endangered species. And as long as they do not stick their paws and snouts too far out between the bars to mouth off about gays, minorities, or feminists, there is a quaint appeal in — safely — watching these men cuss, and occasionally fight, while sawing and drilling in the wild. Why go on safari to their usual haunts in Alaska, Louisiana, or Wyoming, where bad things are said to happen to outsiders, when A&E can bring the perpetrator class, slightly sanitized, into your living room? A metrosexual can enjoy Duck Dynasty or Ax Men without necessarily being fond of the political wing inhabited by Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee.
Aside from the idea of glimpsing rare species in their natural habitat, a second theory suggests that viewers are smugly satisfied that they are not like these uncouth white boys, who are certainly worse spoken, more emotional, less mature, and more intolerant than the viewership. For all the MSNBC talk of “white privilege,” these reality shows remind Americans of a non-minority underclass (fabricated though it is for TV) that is a bit worse off than the Latina newscaster who trills her Rs each evening on the news.
The producers perhaps sense that paradox of the so-called privileged being not too privileged. They usually script a clueless laborer forgetting to gas up the drilling rig and then wondering why it won’t start – the producers’ use of a sort of postmodern white version of Stepin Fetchit. Sometimes a foolish driver takes his tracked vehicle over a ridge — only to be surprised when it tips over. Things seem to smoke, blow up, and go kaboom a lot, as the good ol’ boys apply baling wire to broken, but once sophisticated, store-bought machines. These white boys also seem perennially broke — just one good gold vein, a bunch of crab legs, or a good batch of moonshine away from at last dealing with their joyless, bottom-line-watching creditors.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the original three television networks all had westerns that gave American audiences nightly tastes of danger on America’s wild frontier, while safely ensconced in their living rooms. After 1968, elite liberals decided that these shows were too politically incorrect for their increasingly punitive and black armband views of America’s founding. As a result, this genre of programming was eventually retired en masse. Their successors would largely be hard-edged cops patrolling mean urban streets, who began life as straight-edged Joe Friday, but by the mid-1980s, morphed into Sonny Crockett, whose tactics and personal style were often interchangeable with the drug dealers he pursued. 15 years later, a show built around Tony Soprano, a hardened serial killer and mob leader, made TV’s descent into nihilism complete.