Politics & Pleasure: TV 2012

Written By: - Date published: 5:00 pm, December 31st, 2012 - 32 comments
Categories: capitalism, class, crime, culture, Deep stuff, police, tv, war - Tags:

I like to watch TV dramas, but every so often I need to remind myself of the political attitudes I’m absorbing with the pleasure of immersion in a fictional story.   I need to do this for all my favourite TV shows over the last year; ones that were made in different English-language countries, while still following the same sort of dramatic formulas.

It’s not just the kind of qualities given to the good guys and the bad guys, or the ways real life events are often re-written and believed more widely than the reality, or the ways certain activities are glamourised (usually those promoting capitalism) and others demonised.  As outlined in David Wong’s End Times Report (h/t Draco T Bastard), it has to do with the way we humans tend to rework reality into a basic (fictionalised) story structure:  most commonly in Hollywood films and TV it takes the form of a Three-Act Structure (problem enters status quo, struggle against dark forces, resolution and status quo resurrected).  As Wong says, everything in our brains is a story into which we fit all the information we absorb.  Information is worked into stories, each with a beginning, a middle and an end.

I will use a small, geographically diverse selection of shows I watched in 2012, to identify some of the political fish-hooks I swallow while watching TV:

Revenge (US)

I didn’t expect to like this show, but, in spite of myself got drawn into this well-crafted story-telling, which uses many of the fundamental dramatic formulas. The show partly takes a critical attitude to a small part of the 1%, the wealthy owners of the Grayson family corporation/s that abused his power and made Emily Thorn‘s father the scapegoat, wrongly convicted for an alleged terrorist attack.

But the show also reinforces the material excess of the wealthy in the glossy style and luxurious settings. Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann) started off as a bit of a stereotype of a bi-sexual, morally weak, self-seeking, wealthy entrepreneur. (See video clip).

Increasingly he has become my favourite character.  He is Emily’s some-time moral compass, as she begins to cross the line from righteous revenge to unrestrained malice.  It turns out he is motivated by loyalty and gratitude to Emily’s father, and loyalty to his aunt.  However, as James Wolcott explains, Ross is also drawn from the fictionalised real world many of us absorb from a variety of sources.

The other super-richie is Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), a tousled tech genius who created and cashed in on a Facebook-size sensation, and, like Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, is an alpha earner with beta deportment.  […] Tech wizards are as handy for screenwriters as hedgies because both appear to conjure money from air—their powers are a form of magicianship.

However, in spite of the regressive politics, the gripping drama and morally-compromised characters keep me watching.

Game of Thrones (US-UK)

I like the way the fantasy genre can present imaginative worlds where real world ethical, political and social issues can be explored.

new-game-of-thrones-poster

 Game of Thrones deserves a mention, if only because the title echoes real world political power games. The graphics and visual settings and landscapes are awesome. I am not into it as much as shows like Battestar Galactica, or Once Upon a Time (the latter also about the corrupting influences of power and money).

I do like the mix of Hollywood glamour and UK gritty realism in GOT.  I am particularly sympathetic to the social and political outcasts who are the watchers of the wall, in the treacherous and threatening northern environment.  The “savage” warlord, Khal Drogo, is a bit of a stereotype of pre-industrial tribal people, who were too often colonised by European nations.

I am particularly ambivalent about the brutal patrarchal values that permeate this show.  On the one hand it doesn’t really show the power games of patriarchal societies in a very good light.   But its brutal anti-heroism, graphically displayed on the shiny little screen, kind of glamourises them.

Strike Back (UK)

This is a UK show that has taken a lot from the glamourisation of violence in slick Hollywood action shows. The title song of the latest season to show on Prime TV is particularly seductive, along with the silhouetted graphics and slick style.

I enjoy it more than Game of Thrones, partly because it has more women being assertive and/or in positions of authority.  It is however, in Graham Greene territory of morally compromised people, sometimes breaking the rules, but trying to do the right thing at the edge of empire, in sweaty, decadent and rugged places.  However, unlike Greene’s defrocked priests, SB characters are always agnostic, pragmatic intelligence operatives, acting for the UK on the edge of the US empire – often in colonised but rebellious territories that are exoticised in their foreign seediness.

Rush (Australia)

Some Aussie TV shows are hybrids of US crime genres, adding a bit of Aussie down-to-earth mongrel and outlaw allegiance (goes back at least as far as Ned Kelly).  Rush is fast-paced, centred on an urban tactical response team.

RushThe team members are good at heart, just trying to do their jobs as best they can, but they also have human failings, where they cross the legal line: for instance Leon, the computer whiz for the team, sometimes uses the police electronic systems t do a little personal investigating for himself.

Normalising Surveillance:

3 of the above shows normalise contemporary electronic surveillance technologies.  In Rush and Strike Back that are used by the authorities to do their jobs, but also to maintain their power.  In Revenge, Nolan and Emily use electronic surveillance to investigate the 1%ers, and to try to expose them to the authorities, as part of Emily’s revenge project.

This Naomi Wolf article (h/t Napkins) draws attention to the way authorities misuse surveillance on behalf of the powerful and wealthy elite, against those who try to challenge their power.  Recently released official documents show that the FBI coordinated surveillance of Occupy protesters in the service of banksters.

Discussion:

Feel free to discuss the political aspects of the above shows, or any others you have watched this year.  I watched all the above shows via Freeview NZ.  If you are commenting on shows so far only shown in NZ on Sky, or outside NZ, could you please follow convention with a spoiler alert at the top of your comment:

***** SPOILER ALERT****

32 comments on “Politics & Pleasure: TV 2012 ”

  1. Revenge was totally a guilty pleasure for me, though I felt about it the same way I did about book!The Devil Wears Prada – in that it felt like it was trying to have its look-at-these-pathetic-rich-people-and-their-stupid-glamorous-lives cake and eat it – by having just a bit too much fun with said glamour – too.

  2. Napkins 2

    I’m going to have to take a thorough look at Strike Back. Thanks for bringing it to my attention Karol. You mentioned BSG? Do check out the Blood & Chrome mini-episodes now all on Youtube, if you haven’t already. For some old school science fiction I highly recommend “Soldier” (circa 1999) with Kurt Russell. Strictly B grade but highly entertaining and thought provoking in its own way.

  3. karol 3

    Yes, agreed QOT. All the shows I mentioned in the post are guilty pleasures to a greater or lesser extent (I don’t find Game of Thrones that pleasurable). The politics of Revenge and Strike Back are particularly dubious, but I got sucked into them both anyway. Rush is about as dubious as most crime shows.

    I was planning to mention a couple of Brit shows that are anti-glamour, but the post got long enough.

    Misfits is a comedy-drama that both sends up and enjoys the super-hero format. The group of people who accidentally gain superpowers are young working class people doing community service.

    Vera, is a detective in the tradition of Brit middle-class, middle-aged female detectives, in a rural area, following the clues. Of course Vera has the problem of reinforcing traditional white middle-class values. But it’s good to have a woman lead character over 30 who isn’t unrealistically glamorous.

    PS: QOT, it looked like I accidentally sent your comment to moderation when I tried to comment on it. I un-moderated/approved it.

  4. Schlurps McGoo 4

    Treme is a great series. Set in New Orleans, its from the production team that made The Wire.

    I found the long, drawn out scenes of local musicians and food being prepared tedious at first, the editing didn’t seem to be as crisp or as efficient as what was shown in The Wire. It quickly dawned on me that in exploring post-Katrina New Orleans, its not possible to understand the values or the culture of the people who live there without being shown extensively what they value. That is to say; a way of life that is far less materialistic and more celebratory than what seems to exist in most of western society. If you give the slow pace of the narrative a chance, you will be rewarded.

    The problems that these individuals and communities face seem to be exacerbated rather than fixed by the institutions and agencies that are set up to serve them. Policing a post-disaster area, shortfalls in education funding and charter schools, outright corruption and dodgy dealings with construction and insurance companies lobbying politicians, it all seems like life imitating art when we consider some of New Zealand’s current problems.

    Also the high abundance of scenes showing the local music and cuisine give the necessary escapism that any good TV series needs. I learnt to enjoy these scenes funnily enough, the pacing of them seems less indulgent and more intuitive by the time you learn the characters.

    Long story short, if watching The Wire or Treme is adopting a liberal/left agenda disguised as a TV show, then its my kind of poison.

    • karol 4.1

      Thanks for the tips, Schlurps and Napkins. I liked The Wire. That reminds me, I also enjoyed watching Southland. Was fairly late on TV One, but I recorded it. It’s a look at the daily life of South LA police, with a lot of gritty detail. I think it might have some connections with The Shield .

      • lprent 4.1.1

        Southland really is pretty good. Just finished watching all the series again –
        Lyn was watching them back to back.

        • karol 4.1.1.1

          Yes, it’s quite gripping in its own way – mainly because we get so close to the characters – very social realist in style. I have some episodes still on my freeview, saved to watch over the summer.

  5. just saying 5

    Can I recommend books? I will anyway.

    The ‘Garnet Hill’ trilogy by Denise Mina.
    Set in working class Scotland, an entertaining, gritty, and often bleakly funny thriller and investigation into the effects of neoliberalism, poverty, sexism, racism, rape culture… etc. with a kick-arse protagonist and cast. Although, very different, it reminded me of the working class realism of the ‘Regeneration’ trilogy by Pat Barker, which is, of course; also brilliant, though set around world war two, with a mainly male cast.

    Mina has written a few books since, including a series on a young woman journalist in the early eighties, as neoliberalism began to unfold. Well worth reading too, I hope she returns to the series. Mina was herself, a young reporter in the eighties. There is much more to told of the profound changes neoliberalism brought to journalism.

    Happy 2013 standardistas. Keep fighting the good fight. No retreat, no surrender (as the song goes.)

    • rosy 5.1

      Thanks for the tip js. I tend to be a reader rather than a watcher. I’ll look out for Denise Mina.

      • LynWiper 5.1.1

        My reading time is precious so always appreciate highly recommended books. Thanks js.

    • Rogue Trooper 5.2

      Regeneration trinity passionate

      -Gloria in excelsis deo (seriously)

  6. Tiresias 7

    Haven’t watched anything so far mentioned. In fact I’ve largely given up ‘popular’ TV as it all seems essentially the same crap beneath glazes of various degrees of shinyness and craft, and all just designed to trap eyeballs for the commercials.

    I’ve probably watched more of the endless re-runs of ‘Time Team’ on Sky’s ‘History’ channel than the rest of my year’s viewing combined. Watching the team excavate a badly plough-damaged but still impressively beautiful mosaic in a field in the middle of nowhere which is all that remains of a once thriving Roman Villa supported by a sophisticated and powerful empire that fell, or the lovingly and skillfully crafted fountation-stones which are all that remains of a monastic church to which hundreds once dedicated lives of labour and service with love and passion, or even the tips of half-rotten posts or roughly-shaped stones which men hewed out of nature with nothing more than stone tools and hundreds of hours to decorate their landscape and world for reasons and purposes we cannot begin to comprehend puts all the posturing and ego-stroking, the self-importance and shallow, tinsel brilliance of today into context.

    “Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.”

  7. xtasy 8

    To me television is a “dead end” venue now, and movies, I have mostly stopped bothering to watch years ago, as you get some interesting stories, but essentially the same kind of drama delivered in different format.

    So I am a total reality person, I have an archive of selected movies, documentaries and other stuff, mostly recorded overseas, and some of it would never be shown here, but even that I only watch now and then, more for reflection to get a grasp of what media and other history delivered over the last couple of decades.

    If you observe a television channel, other broadcast, and even movies, you will find, that you get bombarded with thousands brief clips, impressions, messages, even hidden bits of advertising, that over-stretch any brain from digesting all this normally.

    Hence the success of trivia media, infotainment and all other rubbish so common now. People do not even get the chance to digest, to absorb and process the bit images and aggressively targeted advertising, they are brainwashed so solidly, the normal brain function is killed by over-kill.

    It is designed to work like this. No human senses, ears, eyes or other senses, can possibly process these instant bombardments of visual and acoustic signals normally in the time frame offered. Your senses pre-shaped through evolution are not prepared and made to do this.

    If you think I am over the top, do some studies on how many bit images are bombarded at viewers nowadays, per second, minute and more. A few decades ago you could watch documentaries and other programs that gave you time to digest it all, to reflect, think and learn something.

    What we get now is stuff Goebbels as the Nazi propagandist would only have dreamed about in his wildest dreams. Commerce rules, brainwashing rules, and we even now discuss certain Hollywood movies here, give me a break, please, this is insane.

    • karol 8.1

      I do read a lot these days, but it is pretty much always non-fiction. I used to read a lot on fiction is year’s past. But these days, most of my screen viewing is of screen fiction. It think it is the area where society’s values are made most explicit.

      Yes, there is a tie up between the use of visual communications and that of the 3rd Reich. Many say Mr G’s visual strategies are now front and centre in our culture. I rarely watch ads though, as I record most of the fiction TV I watch, and flick through the ads. Or I watch series on DVD.

      If you observe a television channel, other broadcast, and even movies, you will find, that you get bombarded with thousands brief clips, impressions, messages, even hidden bits of advertising, that over-stretch any brain from digesting all this normally.

      This is a very important point. The speed of edits and changes of scene has increased quite a bit since the 70s. Now there is a very short period between edits (a shot), when there is a shift in camera angle, or scene. Within shots either the camera is often moving in pans and zooms, or the action in front of the camera is moving. It does interfere with the amount people can reflect.

      This also carries over to documentaries and the news room. This live crosses to a talking head at the scene of the news event, are just about giving the impression of movement – changing the scene to keep the mind and eye’s attention without any real depth of focus on the topic.

      All this is why it’s important to reflect on and talk about what we are seeing. Some of today’s young viewers are very knowledgeable and sophisticated about being able to decode the messages encoding in these fast changing images.

      And it’s important to have programmes like much of what is currently on Triangle and Maori TV/Native affairs. More talking heads – less flash edits and changes of scene to distract the mind. Just people, often with quite a bit of knowledge, talking about things in depth.

  8. Huginn all God's Vipers 9

    WTF??????!!!!!
    This is a golden age of television US television drama. A series of 12 episodes lets writers develop complex, interesting characters. It lets them build intelligent stories with substance.

    Its the cultural dividend from the neo-con White House. We’ve surely got George W Bush to thank for instilling a taste for moral ambiguity and cynicism in the American viewing public.

    At the moment we’ve got:
    Treme – which is sublime.

    Breaking Bad – mild mannered chemistry teacher Walter White’s compelling descent into narco-capitalism as a response to very bad luck and turning 50 – told as a joined-up story over 4 and a half series. The second half of the finale series, coming out 2013, likely to conclude the battle for Jesse Pinkman’s soul. One of the best tv shows ever.

    Boardwalk Empire – Steve Buscemi Plays Nucky Thompson, the undisputed ruler of Atlantic City, who was equal parts politician and gangster. Gorgeous, expensive production values. Watch series 1 for some serious milf trouble – series 2 for Bobby Cannavale’s jaw-dropping performance as the psychopathic Gyp Rosetti.

    Homeland – sucks you in for the first three episodes of series one and then pulls the rug out – again and again. Paranoid – and talk about the surveillance society!

    In the last few years we’ve had:
    The Wire – saved by the DVD subtitle function. Every one of the 5 series was a nuanced, perceptive examination of Baltimore’s institutional landscape. Who would have anticipated that a suspension of the war on drugs might lead to a spike in child unemployment as all the little hoppers are put out of work?

    The Sopranos: ’nuff said

    Mad Men – look back to the 1960’s. Always leaves me feeling anxious and queasy. I can’t believe Geoff Ross takes it at face value.

    Big Love: two gay script writers examine the institution of marriage through the lens of modern polygamy in Utah.

    Luck – short lived, but very good. Starring Dustn Hoffman, Nick Nolte and Michael Gambon. Directed by Michael Mann. Created by David Milch.

    Deadwood – Hobbes’ primal state. Woo’s pigs and the poor old doctor are the heroes of Deadwood. Stars Ian McShane as the machiavellian Al Swearengen. Look out for the extraordinary, and dramatically essential, blowjob scene. Interesting also because the writers began to script in lambic pentameter:

    Well here’s to you, your majesty. I’ll tell
    You what. I may a fucked my life up flatter
    Than hammered shit, but I stand here before you
    Today beholden to no human cocksucker.
    And workin’ a payin’ fuckin’ gold claim.
    And not the U.S. government sayin’
    I’m trespassin’ or the savage fuckin’ red man
    Himself or any of these limber dick
    Cocksuckers passin’ themselves off
    As prospectors had better try and stop me.

    Amazing television! Get it out on DVD or you’ll be selling yourselves short.

    • karol 9.1

      I agree on the quality of many fiction TV series these days. They are made knowing that many people will view the series on DVDs or will record a whole series and watch watch episodes closely. Many are written and produced with the quality of movies.

      I tend to watch only what is available on Freeview these days and record on my freeview. There’s more than enough viewable shows. I have more recorded than I have time to watch.

      I thought Deadwood was great. Breaking Bad and Sopranos – I can appreciate their quality but they seem pretty much boys’ stuff to me. I feel the same about Boardwalk Empire, which Iwas really into to start with, but my interest has waned over time (and I’m someone who likes a like of “masculine” genres like action, si fi and crime).

      Mad Men – I’ve liked what I’ve seen, but never really got into it. It startedon TV before I got into recording shows. Will give the next season a look.

      I particularly like The Good Wife as well-written and produced TV, with endless twists. It is a programme that engages the mind a bit more than most popular TV. It also is a little critical of the political power games men play, while women in their lives get drawn into them. Kalinda is a favourite character, and an ethically ambiguous one.

      I started watching late. I was not keen to watch it as I’d heard it was anti-Islam. However, I agree. It really does suck you in. And it’s one of those shows where good and bad gets blurred, and within the same characters. Engaging characters, unexpected twists, and some critique of the political establishment – though not really of the dominant values of the US ruling classes.

  9. Shorts 10

    Newsroom, shows how one can be true to your beliefs (and party) without toeing the party line, indeed it shows that the true patriot does this as a matter of course. Also the corruption of business interest vs real news, phone tapping etc are covered in a engrossing and dramatic manner. The love stories tend to detract (badly thought out snd scripted) from what is a riveting show. The bin laden episode also shows the weirdness of the American pysche. Not brilliant, just bloody good…

    Bsg, blood and chrome rocked, also showed how one can use the net intelligently with you audience first and foremost in your mind

    Portlandia, hipster comedy from indie rockers, hilarious or baffling… Depending on your cultural goalposts

    Breaking bad, wow… Just wow. Tv is and can be just amazing – refer comments above

    Nashville, personal and local politics set around the country music capital, love it

    Walking dead, highlights all that is good, bad and ugly about tv… Sometimes brilliant often flawed always worth the effort. Classic tale of good vs evil and the human ability to cope in chaotic times

    Southpark, not my fave cartoon, but the one with the best writing hands down. So very clever given its puerile humour

  10. Rogue Trooper 11

    In my nihilistic years of a “made” man I followed Big Tone’s orders and The Wire
    (The Chronicles of Riddick; there was an “anti-hero”)

    -John (Henry) Doc Holliday

  11. Huginn all God's Vipers 12

    Lena Dunham’s Girl’s

    A radical departure in the way that women can describe themselves on screen and therefore, the political highlight of last year’s film offerings.

    She’s changed the landscape. I could feel the ground shifting out from under me as I watched Dunham dismantle the conventions of sex on film. It’s interesting to see HBO distancing themselves from what she has done by touting her as a voice of her generation, but I suspect that she might just be a voice of her times.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jun/07/loves-lena-dunham/?pagination=false

    • Rogue Trooper 12.1

      anchovies and olives on my pizza’s (jalapeno’s before i started takin’ better care of me bad self)

    • kiwi_prometheus 12.2

      Yawn. Nothing radical happening there.

      Sex as entertainment. Inward looking, self indulgent , Yank pop psychology.

      Marx said something like “religion is the opium of the people.”

      Well another philosopher recently said “imaginary sex is the opium of the people.”

      Like “Sex in the City” its all a fluffy diversion.

      And this is all very American, nothing the Yanks produce ever challenges their central national myths, no matter how sexually explicit or perverse the subject.

  12. Mike 13

    Check out the NZ filmed ‘Spartacus’ series for a look at the extreme of inequality in a society. Not for kids or the fainthearted though

    • karol 13.1

      Yes, the glossy use of blood and sex to sell it is a bit of a turn-off. However, the story is gripping and the characters interesting. It does deal with issues of power and justice. I have watched some of it on DVD from my library, but I wasn’t able to watch the whole season in the loan period – there’s only so much blood and guts I can take at one time.

  13. kiwi_prometheus 14

    I don’t watch TV, Karol. I used to think it was the adverts that aggravated me, but as already pointed out most people can get the program unadulterated now.

    But still the programs didn’t interest me. They are still structured for ad breaks, you can pick the fade out point where an ad is suppose to cut in.

    More importantly there seems to be a lack of philosophical depth, of character depth. It’s a medium where style dominates over substance always.

    Tropes, genres, hero worship, they dominate.

    There is no cinematic vision but sometimes there is mimicry.

    Then there is the whole stars and celebrity worship whirlwind.

    That’s why I’m amused at how often people who consider themselves thinkers or intellectual are hooked on some TV series.

    I think it reveals their mediocrity.

    • karol 14.1

      Ah, the generalisations. Genres dominate but are constantly hybridising and changing. I don’t like the her and anti-hero-worship either.

      It’s like any fictional form, some merely mimic and recycle old formats and plotlines, others are more creative. Some shows, with fairly ordinary characters, and average looking actors, aren’t really star and celebrity-worship vehicles, such as Vera, Misfits and Deadwood. Neither are the likes of Southland very much into star-promotion. Others are merely star vehicles with little else to recommend them.

      Also the good thing about the Internet is that it has opened up access to TV in non-English language countries, and they aren’t necessarily so strongly into star and hero-worship as Hollywood products. DCnrjoe mentions, Borgen from Denmark.

      Shows like Southland, Wire, Misfits, West Wing, Sopranos, The Good Wife can stimulate reflection on real world issues, including political ones.

      Many popular movies are just as mimic-ridden, mindless star vehicles as the worst of TV, but many others are far more creative.

      Things like the impact of ads on story-structure are not necessarily limiting – all creative forms have their structural limitations.

      And many people who consider themselves thinkers/intellectual spend a lot of time watching sport – which can be just as much into mindless celebrity worship as any TV show, and there isn’t as much scope with sport for stimulating critical thinking about society, ethics, politics etc.

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