Why You Should Be Watching Cable TV Comedies and Drama to Understand the Economy
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Sunday said he engineered the central bank's controversial actions over the past year because "I was not going to be the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over the second Great Depression." Bernanke either doesn't acknowledge or hasn't tapped into the new zeitgeist on pay cable television -- where a raft of characters and plots are better leading indicators than those preoccupying Federal Reserve economists. If Washington doesn't know how to describe a Depression, Americans attracted to cable TV do.
In the real world where most TV viewers cope with a cratered housing market, vanished assets and expectations, talk of TARP funds and fiscal stimulus hardly register. Note to Federal Reserve: for American audiences the economy has been bad for so long, the entire notion of "rescue" is a faded joke. On today's menu of TV story lines: characters on the edge of a slow motion pratfall from the middle class.
The zeitgeist of the new television connects to societal depression, not a mental recession or tea leaves featured in Time or Newsweek or advertiser-sponsored, network TV. In NBC's "The Office", there are whispers of layoffs, triggering panic, but no one is layed off who doesn't return. Everyone plays the edge of his or her comedic level of competence. Look, I'm a fan of "The Office". But in "Breaking Bad" on the AMC Channel, an incompetent drug addict turned thief gets his head crushed by a pinball machine in the course of a kidnapping. His girlfiend's fiendish response: get the meth from his pocket. It's a laugh, alright. In "Eastbound and Down", the retired home run king who lorded it over the protagonist gets his eye socket pulverized at a baseball "duel" meant to attract buyers to the local car dealership. No cars are sold, and it is very funny! The downbeat get their due on cable TV.
Today's television comedies on cable skewer the passive consumer. Clearly, that's not acceptable for the economically challenged mainstream media, like advertiser sponsored television, that prayerfully await the return of the consumer. Movie humor today is harmless, sophomoric and stripped of irony leaving only jokes about flatulence or premature ejaculation. The difference is because international audiences -- for whom American movies are really made -- don't share the peculiar evolution of American awareness. They were never at the top of the economic order, so they don't experience the bitterness having fallen so far.
Drama and comedy always thrive at the edge of normal behavior, with characters who dive back and forth entertainingly. But today's best crop of television comedies are onto something new. In "Weeds", a suburban mom turns wily drug dealer battling Mexican drug lord screws one to safety while protecting her family in idealized middle class stability. The joke is not just the sardonic nuclear family; it is that the nuclear family can only survive by breaking the law. In "Breaking Bad", a suburban high school chemistry teacher with cancer -- who cannot afford his cancer treatments without bankrupting his family -- starts freelancing as a maker and seller of crystal meth. In "The Riches", a family of gypsy grifters blend in seamlessly with the trappings of suburbia, cheating and winning with the flat-landers on adaptation strategies that viewers can only fantasize. In the new HBO "Hung" another teacher -- the second winningest basketball coach in Westlake history -- embarks on a career as a male escort to pay the bills and redeem himself with his twin Goths. In "East Bound and Down", a former pitcher in the Major Leagues parlays a failed career into a dream of a middle school athletic coach who now can boff the Homecoming Queen without performance anxiety. He pitches his comeback to the small Southern town where he was once a hero, where everyone is overweight and teetering on the edge of ruin with sweetened ice tea, or excessively thin against the backdrop of suburbia as Potemkin village. In HBO's new series, "Nurse Jackie", healthcare and hospitals, the last standing leg of the US economy, provides a lead character who doesn't even look at the label of the bottle or the number of the anti-depressants she is randomly pops. Funny.
These comedies don't need to say the "green shoots" economy is a running joke. Place matters. In "Breaking Bad", in "Hung", and "True Blood", the opening sequences are terrific visual montages of the creepy, dissolving American landscapes. This is the canvas of the new reality. "Hung" is set against the decrepit background of Detroit where solid middle class values--whatever they were -- went the way of abandoned factories. People still have lake boats to tool around on weekends, and there is still gasoline in the Porches of the anonymous, blinding anomie of suburban Arizona ("Breaking Bad") or California ("Weeds"). But the bottom line is its own horror: an American landscape so pockmarked with failed Chamber of Commerce values that you can only do one thing with the discrepancy between the idealized and the real: laugh or overdose.
The same, of course, holds true for the law. In Showtime's "Dexter" or "Damages", law enforcement, lawyers, and forensic detectives all thrive betraying their professional license requirements. The proliferation of drugs in American society is so obvious, prohibitive laws so ineffective that the plot lines glide straight through the obsessions of political "values". Those values voters? More likely or not snorting meth or spacing out on hash brownies or hiring the largest dong in Detroit or cheering Kenny in "East Bound and Down" or contesting the true value of vampire blood.
In the new television, what should be in the shadows is out in the open. This is, too, the playfulness of "Mad Men" that tracks the evolution of American advertising through the 1950's and 1960's. Today, there is no Cadillac in the year-end performance bonus. Just the Detroit high school coach figuring the commercial advantage of an extra large size penis by the inch, the housewife with a keen sense for making money selling pot by the ounce then kilo from her Corian kitchen countertop, the grifter without legal experience becoming legal counsel to a fraudulent real estate developer, the beaten down former baseball pitcher trading status as a has-been pro-baller for community acclaim: the more outrageous one can make the "getting by" in these difficult times, the funnier the premise.
In his TV interview, Fed Chief Bernanke described himself as "disgusted" at the circumstances that led to the biggest intervention by government in the economy since the Fed was formed in 1913. I'm going to guess that Mr. Bernanke is nowhere near as disgusted as the viewers watching the new television by the millions. It is a form of silent protest against the modern version of a Depression that shows no "green shoots" for 99.8 percent of viewers.