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Ed Driscoll

Of Difficult Men and Good Ol’ Boy Inc.

December 31st, 2013 - 2:32 pm

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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.

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I got rid of cable television several years ago when it got prohibitively expensive. And I can name at least a dozen people just like me of all ages and backgrounds who just couldn't afford it anymore. Back to the antenna days, except now it's a digital antenna. And I still don't watch the damned thing much.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
"But [CBS] fell from first to second place in the ratings – and would have slipped even further, saved only by NBC, which ... was an impossible train wreck full of junk primetime shows."

Soon to be followed by a Supertrain wreck of junk primetime.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Excellent piece, Ed.

As someone who consults in this industry a bit, I can say without reservation that the execs won't be retiring reality shows any time soon for the simple reason that they're dirt cheap to produce. If a Phil Robertson occasionally rocks the boat, well, that's collateral damage. But compared to dishing out seven or eight figures to the talent, it can be managed. All they need is "content": when you can create an entire show with a director, cameraman and lighting guy (and a few teenagers to digitally cut it on their laptops), the rest is pure profit. The only alternative seems to be going the highbrow HBO route, but that gum has been losing its flavor recently (e.g., it's requiring talent again).

I am greatly amused that producers unwittingly create conservative heroes in the process. That's the trouble (for them) with a true mass medium: even when *you* work up (or these days, just film) what you consider to be a perfect wretch, *millions* of others will idolize him. Goes with the territory.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
So if Tony Soprano and Don Draper etc. are TV psychodrama versions of George Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc., where are the TV worlds that work through the implications of the current crop of the politically powerful, Obama, Jarrett, Sibelius, Holder, HRClinton etc.? Maybe the reality shows are the flip side of the administration because they do take place in the real world, which must be respected. Like the clowns in a Shakespeare play, who bring some high-flying hubris-filled hero back into perspective.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
TV, video shows, are for the passive class. Who the f**k gives a da*n about them?

They train passivity.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Reality shows featuring men in dirty and dangerous occupations seem to have become a franchise on some cable channels such as Discovery. The antidote to pajamaboy has to be Parker Schnable of Gold Rush who took over his grandfather's gold mining operation at age 16.

My favorite has to be A GEICO commercial that ran on these channels. Where once the GEICO caveman was meant to be a sympathetic appeal against stereotyping, the figure became a stereotype of PC nonsense. The commercial features the real life crew of one of the crab boats from Deadliest Catch who are waiting for their new cook to arrive and the tide is close to turning. It's the metrosexual, complete who shows up in cab with an 8 piece set of matching luggage who wants to know if he has time to get a latte.

29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
We loved the Sopranos and Deadwood, we tried watching The Wire, it sucked, absolutely no likeable characters.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
The DVR is changing television even more. Viewers (like me) select shows, mostly movies, from the guide a week at a time and record them for viewing at a more convenient time. Popular shows may or may not be included in my viewing; depends on what is offered at the time of broadcast.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
I protested cable and network TV with my feet three years ago. I got so tired of fathers being portrayed as clueless, bumbling, idiots in commercials and sitcoms; that I decided (albeit after a rate hike) that it just wasn't worth paying that monthly fee to watch shows that disgust me.

As the article points out, if conservatives would to cancel their cable TV during the next leftist tirade, the executives would take notice.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
We don't call it the "BoobTube" fer' nuthin'!!

(Boob, as in idiot, not breasts)
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
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