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.
As VDH hints, today’s reality shows are the westerns of the modern era: “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.”
But there was just one problem: While blue state audiences were laughing at these figures, red state audiences were thrilled that they were seeing themselves on the air. It was yet another variation on Hollywood’s perpetually-surprised reaction when characters such as Archie Bunker and Family Ties’ Alex P. Keaton, originally created as villains and buffoons, become beloved by conservatives who are desperate to see somebody on TV reflecting some of their views, even if they’re distorted through Hollywood’s cracked funhouse mirror.
The same thing happened to the Duck Dynasty gang, except for one problem for TV executives: unlike Archie and Alex, who were portrayed by perilously liberal actors, the Robertsons are real people, which presents a problem for TV executives not used to dealing with actual humans from flyover country. (See also: leftwing elites’ reaction to Palin, Sarah, and Mr. Obama’s bitter clingers Kinsley-esque gaffe.) That was the point of Pat Archbold’s recent article in the National Catholic Register, when he described Duck Dynasty as “The Show That Got Away From Them:”
This is what happened. The whole idea of the show was to parade these nouveau riche Christian hillbillies around so that we could laugh at them. “Look at them,” we were supposed to say. “Look how backward they are! Look what they believe! Can you believe they really live this way and believe this stuff? See how they don’t fit in? HAHAHA”
When the producers saw the way the show was shaping up, different than they envisioned it, they tried to change course. They tried to get the Robertson’s to tone down their Christianity, but to their eternal credit they refused. They tried to add fake cussin’ to the show by inserting bleeps where no cussword was uttered. At best, they wanted to make the Robertson’s look like crass buffoons. At worst they wanted them to look like hypocrites.
They desperately wanted us to laugh at the Robertsons. Instead, we loved them.
A&E wanted us to point fingers at them and laugh at them. But something else happened entirely. Millions upon millions of people tuned in, not to laugh at them, but to laugh with them.
And they’ll follow such shows to whatever network — cable or Internet-based — that wishes to air them, un-PC statements from their cast and all. Which is why, Kurt Schlichter of Townhall believes that the tide may be turning in the PC left’s battle to suppress free speech. Kate McMillan of Small Dead Animals likes to say that “not showing up to riot is a failed conservative policy.” Similarly, Schlichter writes that “Liberals Win Only If We Refuse To Fight Back:”
We’re not going to stand for corporate cowards squelching the free exchange of ideas. The L.A. Times, which used to be a newspaper, barred “climate change deniers” from its op-ed pages. That’s its right. It’s perfectly within A&E’s legal rights to fire Phil Robertson – this is not a First Amendment issue – but if companies choose to take sides in the culture war against us, then they better be up for our counter-attack. Cowardice has a price – and we’re going to ensure they pay it.
Here, A&E, let me help you and the next company caught up in a situation where someone expresses his views under your auspices:
“At A&E, we support the right of every human being to express his views freely. Phil Robertson is capable of discussing and debating his ideas, and we are confident that those who disagree with him will be able to do so using the same rights Phil exercises.”
Done. Finished. That’s all A&E needed to do. And that’s all the next company needs to do. Once a company refuses to give in to blackmail the whole sordid scheme of unofficial oppression falls apart.
As conservatives, we need to show companies that if they choose the side of cultural conformity then they have chosen against us. If they do, they’ll pay. In our viewing, our purchasing, and in our everyday lives, we need to stand up against the silencing of dissent liberalism requires to survive.
That includes when it happens to people we don’t like. While turnabout is fair play, and karma can be fun, noted liberal Alec Baldwin should not have been fired. Noted liberal Martin Bashir should not have been fired. Noted liberal Paula Deen should not have been fired. They should have been criticized, mocked, and debated.
Remember, we don’t need to silence our opposition – empirical evidence demonstrates the meritlessness of leftist ideology. Liberals need to silence us because we’re right and they’re wrong.
They want a cultural war, and I say let them have it. We’re fighting for a vibrant, free culture with a multitude of religious expressions, with a plethora of ideas and a refusal to hide truth so as to not offend some vocal component of the leftist coalition. They demand a mindless, fearful conformity with everyone paying homage to the same pagan liberal idols.
To hell with that.
Will cable TV executives continue to find ratings gold in reality TV? Or as with westerns, will they retire this genre now that they realize how politically incorrect it is – and worse, as it requires interacting with real people, from flyover country, the portion of the county the networks needs for its eyeballs and advertising revenue, but has truly loathed to deal with for at least 40 years.
In the early 1970s, CBS had its “great rural purge,” in which it cast off the westerns and other rural-themed shows that appealed to America’s heartland. The result was that CBS executives no longer had to be badgered by their fellow McGovern-supporting liberals at industry cocktail parties over their “embarrassing” programs. But the network quickly fell from first to second place in the ratings – and would have slipped even further, saved only by NBC, which then as now, was an impossible train wreck full of junk primetime shows.
Today, there are hundreds of cable TV channels; A&E was lucky enough to hook up with the Robertson family, albeit likely for the wrong reasons, as VDH and Archbold have written. But equally likely, when they depart the network, it will likely return to obscurity, just another channel, along with hundreds of others, on your DirecTV menu.
But I’m sure the cocktail parties will be much more pleasant for their executives. And in Beverly Hills and on Park Avenue, isn’t that really all that counts?