What’s wrong with this story?
I’m referring first to Congress, where legislative leaders seem to shrink in stature by the day, unable to act, unable to articulate, and unable to cooperate. The first government shutdown in seventeen years is the inevitable conclusion of myopic ambition, intellectual paralysis, and ideology as a substitute for reason.
But enough about the Tea Party.
This is also a case of life imitating art.
Television has never been more skilled in storytelling, but my vague disquiet with favorite series, especially on cable, has found its reflection in Congress. No more heroes. Everyone is on the take. Venality triumphs.
Call it the True Blood syndrome, in which all the good guys become monsters. Unlike politics, the infected vampires, werewolves, fairies, and witches all dissolve in righteous gore when struck through the heart. Like politics, a distinct shortage of real human beings has developed as the series has progressed.
The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland, The White Queen, Shameless, Ray Donovan, Dexter, House of Lies, House of Cards, Californication, The Wire, Veep, Deadwood, Girls, Eastbound & Down, Entourage, Spartacus, Magic City, and Boss could also seem short in the humanity department. Where are the good guys? It’s Fifty Shades of Moral Relativity. Life is the Titanic, fight for the lifeboats.
Shame on me for liking many of these shows. I’m a man of my times, stuck with a Congress that seems to be watching The Borgias instead of Lincoln.
The theme of Boardwalk Empire, for example, is the corruption of Prohibition. But by this point everyone in the series is corrupt, women and children have largely vanished, and the best thug doesn’t just win, he ambushes saps and beats or murders them while they’re down. The show has become as dispiriting as John Boehner. Nucky has even lost his carnation, for goodness sake.
In Game of Thrones the most heroic character, Ned Stark, had his head on a spike by the end of Season One. The other good ones were massacred at a banquet by the end of Season Three, the pregnant one stabbed in the belly. Repeatedly.
Were House members taking notes?
True, my own fictional protagonists are often flawed or frustrated. But they aren’t all-out criminals, sadists, betrayers, or bi-polar.
Even in situation comedies, role models are hard to come by. The joke on Seinfeld, 30 Rock, or Sex And The City was how narcissistic and ineffectual the characters were. On less sophisticated shows, the men are often juvenile, the women predatory, and the children obnoxious. Bring back Shirley Temple!
Literature is mixed, but there are an awful lot of gloomy books full of despairing or mendacious characters. Moral: Life sucks, and then you’re dead. Or, play your cards right, and you might meet a sadomasochistic billionaire or vampire boyfriend.
We do still have heroes, played by Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.
We try to elect them, too. Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama were “outsiders” sent to cleanse the temple. (The first Bush was heir to Reagan, and the second Bush was heir to…Reagan.)
Unfortunately, the bad guy (Washington, D.C.) always wins. Read This Town by Mark Leibovich if you want to groan until you cry about our capital.
Our gloomy wars have failed to produce the usual military heroes, with the exception of Colin Powell, who declined to run. He did arguably create acceptance for a national black leader like Obama.
But, no Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, or Gary Cooper. Since the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, and Watergate, Hollywood and the arts have reflected our national disquiet. The dysfunction has been fictionalized and echoed back at reality, creating a national political culture modeled on the caricatures of TV. How should we behave? Like I, Claudius.
Odysseus was a rascal, too. But he did, finally, get home.