The things the body cries out for…

focus_of_evil_the_americansIn a conversation over at OT begun by “Glyph” about THE AMERICANS, whose Season 3 finale was broadcast last week, I ended up taking the position that the sheer unreality of the show’s scenario might have something subtly to do with its failure to develop an even moderately large audience in contemporary cable TV terms:

The plot consists now almost entirely of filling in, as movingly, richly, and believably as acting and period detail and real history can make it, the abyss that sits there in place of realistic foundations. I somehow think that the widely observed critical success/popular failure is tied to this problem. It’s not that the concept is more outlandish or incredible than the concepts of more successful shows, but that the characters just don’t make sense to the average viewer. They’re not just anti-heroes: They’re voids. To the extent they’re “like us,” it’s in a way that we don’t like to contemplate: They’re as meaningless and empty and morally compromised as we are.

I was not trying to suggest that the TV audience demands its fictions true to life – not at all. I was suggesting that the relentlessly serious or some might say grim and humorless tone of the show in combination with characters and predicaments that are senseless as well as incomprehensible1 leaves people cold. Like BREAKING BAD, THE AMERICANS does not really sustain scrutiny, but BREAKING BAD, though never a hit on the level of the Prime Time institutions of yesteryear, was sometimes played for laughs… not least by playing the darkness of the story against its bright, compulsively upbeat Southwest American-suburban ambience. (Perhaps a cheap irony, but we seem never to get enough of it.)

A TV executive whom I met during one of my past lives last century put the matter simply. The man, whose name I have forgotten if I ever knew it, was a longtime associate of Aaron Spelling, producer of such very un-THE AMERICANS American TV fare as THE LOVE BOAT and BEVERLY HILLS 90210. I was told that Spelling’s insight, achieved during the advent of color television and extended during the period of exponential expansion of television venues, focused on channel-surfing. According to Spelling, I was told, TV viewers looking for something to watch would more often pause to view, and more often stay with and return to, shows that featured bright colors (and I think, by implication, brightly dressed, attractive and upbeat people).  So, this:


… but certainly not this:


…and not the image with which we started either.

The sub-titles in the last image are words spoken by the character on the left, a physicist who has been kidnapped (abducted by our anti-heroes) and forced to work for the Soviets. The phrase finishes his description a la Solzhenitsyn of what, he says, individuals seeking true freedom from the totalitarian state must be willing to deny themselves. Spelling’s insight, if it qualifies as an insight, suggests that the showrunners, though they can hardly be called failures, are refusing to give the mass audience what its mass of bodies cries out for. Across the world, our hero Philip is depicted receiving another version of Spellingism in Erhard Seminars Training sessions. His very 1983 American trainers insist that he listen to the body and hold it equal or superior to spirit.

In the totalitarian totality of entertainment for entertainment’s sake and no other sake, THE AMERICANS is therefore condemned to a dark corner of television Siberia. Its inhabitants, including its fans as fellow inmates, are left to seek the peculiar victories achievable only there.


  1. See additional discussion following from the comment already linked. []

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2 comments on “The things the body cries out for…

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    • As much as I might want to make something out of that data, I don’t think it’s actually very helpful, for reasons that the blogger somewhat acknowledges, even somewhat repetitiously acknowledges. We don’t need numbers of uses of variations on the word “America” per 1,000 film titles to confirm that “America” is a peculiar problem to itself, but the numbers alone cannot tell us what kind of a problem it is: Lots of films about “America” could be symptomatic of questioning and desperation, or symptomatic of an upsurges in self-confidence or self-congratulation, or both at the same time, or just, given the numbers involved and peculiarities of the movie industry, the symptom of a rather meaningless titling fad or sub-fad.

      The author treats the production of an American history series in 1941 as an outlier. Considering the role of that year in American history, I’d be more likely to see it is a serendipity more suggestive in its way than the later apparent trend or pseudo-trend.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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