[29 March 2009]
The Great Depression first aired in 1998, when the United States was financially fat and happy. Therefore, the documentary miniseries has no real sense of urgency, like it might were it produced a decade later. Upon its DVD release in the present year, this documentary is exactly the kind of media to which Americans may turn for some guidance, perhaps even hope, in these difficult economic times.
Fortunately, The Great Depression is nothing if not hopeful. The biggest relief the miniseries offers is a description of an economic collapse that, while bearing some obvious similarities, is nonetheless very different from the current world economic crisis.
Yes, both meltdowns happened under the watch of a wealthy, white American President who was clearly in over his head. And yes, both these men were replaced by popular figures who inspired hope and pledged big help from the federal government. Yes, both economic failures affected rich and poor in dramatic ways.
But fortunately for us in the present day, things aren’t otherwise looking like they did in the ‘30s. Whereas President Hoover was determined to let the market correct itself, both Bush and Obama pushed legislation through Congress providing for government intervention in the economy (controversial though that intervention may be). The national unemployment rate is currently around eight percent, but it is possible that, without America’s daunting (even a little horrifying) bailout packages, unemployment would be at 25 percent, as it was at the height of the Depression.
Then again, maybe the collective desire for a strong economy is a bit silly. At least, this is what The Great Depression often suggests. While the miniseries sometimes attempts to make viewers feel what it means to be alive in a time when one in four able adults can’t find a job, the show more often focuses on how this kind of crisis could be interesting for those who endured it.
Indeed, after establishing the circumstances of the crisis, the first episode of The Great Depression discusses at length the popularity of marathon dancing during the ‘30s. The entire second episode forgoes economic struggles to cover the development of popular media. Occasionally, this exploration is tied to Depression-era economics (most clearly in the discussion of Dorothea Lange’s photography and FDR’s Fireside Chats), but the connection is usually vague. When describing the end of the Depression with the coming of World War II, narrator Mario Cuomo expresses almost regret for the era’s passing.
The Great Depression takes for granted that its viewers understand the human cost of widespread poverty and unemployment. If you need to be educated about that unhappiness, read or watch The Grapes of Wrath. If not, The Great Depression offers a wealth of information on the joys and virtues that could be found in the hobo lifestyle, including interviews with Depression-era hobos (such as author/former hobo James Michener). Even better, it details how the frustrations of the California working class almost swung a gubernatorial election in favor of eccentric author Upton Sinclair, a man who usually affiliated himself with the Communist party and subsisted on nothing but raw fruits and vegetables.
According to this documentary, the Great Depression was a parade of oddballs, outlaws, Hollywood starlets and messianic politicians tap-dancing through Oklahoma dust clouds and Harlem riots, lifting a nation out of its collective despair. To be fair, hard times do bring unique players to main stage (as do very good times—remember Jesse Ventura?). And there is a certain romance in some Depression lifestyles, like the hobo hopping on a train, knowing he’ll be able to make his way from meal to meal as long as he’s willing to put in a hard day’s work.
But The Great Depression seems just as outdated as it is. Looking for the silver lining is so 1998. In the first year of the Obama administration, Americans don’t want to know how to forget the hard times. They want to know exactly what they’re up against and how to fight back. While the history of the Depression undoubtedly offers lessons in facing reality at its harshest, no one was looking to learn when the gravy train was still rolling.