Why Is The Golden Age of Television So Dark?

Megan McArdle asks a question I am singularly unqualified to answer, as with one exception I don't watch television (and I watch it only on Amazon Prime), and haven't seen any of the shows she's talking about. I'm going to pose an answer anyway, one that has nothing to do with the specifics of the shows, but has instead to do with the history of the cinema that these shows are replacing.

Gangster movies do indeed date to the beginnings of the cinema, but there was a moment about a generation ago when they became extremely popular. It would be easy to say that this was simply because they were particularly excellent -- The Godfather and The Godfather II routinely top the lists of great movies in Hollywood history.

But they were excellent for a reason, and the reason has to do with a function they were serving. There was a famous essay -- I wish I could remember the title or author, and perhaps one of you will remind me -- that held that the gangster film was uniquely poised to permit Hollywood to explore tragedy. At this point the Cold War was deeply established, and American audiences were enforcing on Hollywood its duty to demonstrate that the American way was finally a story of happy endings. The counterculture that produced Easy Rider was still the counter- and not the leading culture; generally, comedies and action films and romantic comedies and even dramas all usually ended on an up-note. American audiences wanted to believe that, if you were a good person and lived according to your own virtues, things would work out.

The one genre where that wasn't required was the gangster film. Here, the essential evils to which the gangster had to commit were enough that even the most sympathetic gangster could be punished by fate without the audience rejecting the film. It was a way of re-enabling the tragic function, which Aristotle talks about in the Poetics. It's an important and very high function of drama, and the gangster film allowed you to explore it in the context of the day.

It also allowed -- because the ending would be tragic -- characters who could offer a strict critique of the American way. Read the analysis of the scene which precedes these words:
This is the very first scene in the movie (though the dialogue is truncated for the big screen) for a reason. Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo understood the need to show the alternate moral universe of the mafia. Rahe points out that it’s no coincidence that the undertaker’s name is Amerigo Bonasera, which translates into “Goodnight America.”

Paul Rahe brilliantly explores the question of whether someone can be “armed” with “true friends” and still be a “good American.”
The only television show I've watched in the last five years is Sons of Anarchy. Its second season explores the positive aspects of that ideal. Its subsequent seasons explore, so far, the negative. It also seems to be a tragedy, based loosely on Hamlet.

But it also seems to be exploring the idea of the old view of friendship versus the American rule of law. And it does it in the context of an America in which the rule of law seems to be of a different character than a generation ago. Don Corleone complained that judges 'sell themselves,' and the process was slow to boot: in the new shows, the agents of the Federal government particularly are baleful, not just corrupt but wicked. Yet when -- spoilers, as they say -- the CIA proves to be behind the effort to smuggle guns to one of the Mexican drug cartels wreaking havoc in California, the show is not leading but following the news.

It may be the reason gangster 'films' are so pervasive on the new television are the two old reasons: that it as a genre permits a genuine tragedy, and that it permits a clear-eyed critique of the American system. But it may also be that the American system isn't as healthy as it used to be, and the critique is therefore more persuasive. At some point, the tragedy will fall away, and people will simply accept these gangsters as heroes, full stop.

McArdle's alternate theory asks, "What will you do for an encore?" But the encore follows naturally, if I am right.


Gringo said...

I similarly do not watch TV, so I would find it difficult to comment on the Golden Age. Over the years my TV watching got confined to British comedies on PBS and sporting events. The British comedies progressively tended to be reruns.
When the time came to get the HDTV box, and I found it too much trouble to program my remote to handle the change, I stopped watching TV. As I was watching it maybe two hours a month on average- no loss. I found out you can watch football games on the Internet, as long as you deal with the spam inherent in doing so.

Grim said...

Yeah, I gave up TV in 2006, and I realized that I'd been using it at most a couple of hours a week to watch old cowboy movies, plus the odd sporting event. You can get those much more cheaply elsewhere.