Once upon a time, a fundamental aspect of compelling narrative was the presence of, at least, one likable character. In recent years, however, a character who is kind, decent, gentle and joyful has become a pariah on American television. Good people are routinely eliminated to create space for boring anti-heroes who are sold as fascinating because, despite being violent, vicious, racist, or sexist, they occasionally show a slight hint of humanity.
The cynicism and nihilism that now passes for artistic television is particularly interesting and troubling, because everyone from the brilliant film critic Roger Ebert to the excellent novelist Richard Russo, have praised the current period of American TV as a golden age.
It began with The Sopranos. The tale of Tony’s two families revolutionized television, and stands out as a stunning achievement, not only within its format, but of American art. The writing may be the sharpest in the history of the genre. The directing was always surprising and superb, and the ensemble cast, led by James Gandolifini and Edie Falco, was one of the best ever assembled. Superlatives fly effortlessly off the tongue when discussing the groundbreaking HBO drama.
It’s true that almost none of the characters withstand even the most casual moral scrutiny, and that with each season, all of them, most especially Tony, became less and less redeemable. That, however, was the whole point. The Sopranos, for all of its artistic edge, was literarily traditional. It was an allegory – a cautionary tale about the homicidal and suicidal consequences of conducting life as a reckless, heartless, and endless pursuit of profit, power, and pleasure.
The greatness of The Sopranos was also the greatness of David Foster Wallace’s monstrous novel, Infinite Jest. David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, like Wallace, used innovative technique and daring tactics to tell traditional stories. Since the program’s controversial series finalé that ended with what Michael Imperioli, an actor on the show and on again, off again writer and director, interpreted as an off camera killing of Tony, a brood of mutated spawns have crawled onto the pixilated landscape. They are dark, moody, and hateful, but they escape consequences, offer cynicism as the only acceptable reading of reality, and put a sign over the opening credits of their digital homes, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
The delinquent and dysfunctional spawn of The Sopranos includes Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Boss, and the most overrated drama on television, Mad Men. Judging from the pilot alone, it also looks as if the seemingly promising new HBO Drama, Luck, will also follow the format for making characters universally detestable.
Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, summarizes not only his series, but the entire formula when he describes protagonist Bryan Cranston, “You’re going to see that underlying humanity, even when he’s making the most devious, terrible decisions, and you need someone who has that humanity – deep down, bedrock humanity – so you say, watching this show, ‘All right, I’ll go for this ride. I don’t like what he’s doing, but I understand, and I’ll go with it for as far as it goes’.”
Without David Chase’s philosophical depth or the sociopolitical outrage of David Simon, the brilliant creator of The Wire and Treme, watching people lie, kill, and exploit and expand the misery of those around them simply becomes an exercise in vicarious cruelty. The formula that Gilligan describes, which I will label the “Hitler Had a Dog Device”, creates television that does nothing but feed America’s bottomless appetite for death and destruction.
In real life, the meth dealers, biker gangs, corrupt politicians, and other characters that populate the amoral worlds of Breaking Bad, Boss, Sons of Anarchy and other Hitler Had a Dog programs, pile up a body count that devastates the lives of innocent people. On television, they murder people who are better and more interesting, but do not have sufficient caché to survive a culture of cynicism.
If one takes a tour of the televisual morgue, one will find the crafty, charming, and compassionate private detective Mma Ramotswe, played by Jill Scott on HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’s Detective Agency. Another amateur investigator fills the slot next to her, Bored to Death’s Jonathan Ames played by Jason Schwartzman. David Milch, the creator of Luck, may have learned to adapt to the Hitler Had a Dog model, because his bizarre, but fascinating and uplifting drama, John From Cincinnati, was cancelled after a single season.
The most hopeful, affecting, and emotional dramatic series of the last 15 years, Friday Night Lights, miraculously lived on life support for its five year run. NBC had to work out a cost sharing deal with Direct TV to justify airing the program that, despite receiving rave reviews and a Peabody award, never scored high ratings and was consistently outshined at the Emmys and Golden Globes by Mad Men.
An Endearing Tribute to Young Adulthood – Its Energy, Vitality and Uncertainty
Anyone who followed life in Dillon, Texas on Friday Night Lights should feel immensely grateful for the clever maneuvering of Peter Berg, the series creator, who brokered the deal between NBC and Direct TV. Viewers of quality television who do not subscribe to the Hitler Had a Dog theory should feel equally disappointed that Friday Night Lights did not achieve commercial success. Had the inspirational program managed to win a few battles in the mindless ratings war, it may have created a trend in programming that opened space for likable characters that not only deserve success, but make viewers feel good about cheering their success.
The commercial failure of Friday Night Lights protected the status quo of cynicism in American television, and its latest victim is the smart, romantic, and timely HBO series How To Make It in America. How To Make It in America told the story of good, but unconventional people trying to actualize their dreams into independence through smart, but unconventional means in New York City.
A young woman quits her job in public relations because she wants to write stories that matter, and struggles as a cultural journalist. A reformed ex-convict creates an energy drink, and fights the temptation to bribe, blackmail, and bully his way into the market. The center of the show, however, is two men in their 20s, one Jewish and one Latino, who start a fashion line of T-Shirts, hoodies, and jeans called Crisp.
Bryan Greenberg plays Ben Epstein, a smooth and calculating fashion school dropout who has grown fatally fatigued with working as a salesman at Barney’s, hawking clothes inferior to the designs he stitches in his fantasies. His overly cautious approach to life would have handed him a life sentence in retail had he not befriended Cam Calderon, a romantic who sees the world through the lens of dreams, hustles for his income, and manages to live with energy and uplift despite sleeping on his grandmother’s couch every night. Cam was the scene stealer, and Victor Rasuk delivered a performance worthy of the charm of the character.
The first season of How To Make It in America, which is now available on DVD, provides a manual befitting its title that includes ambition, sweat, heart, and a faith in both fate and luck. Epstein sketches designs, and Calderon works tirelessly as the “man on the street” to find fabric and funding. Season One chronicles their struggle with humor and drama, but more importantly with grace and compassion.
The believability of the show lied in its capacity for surprise, and its presentation of the unintelligible mystery that seems to guide everyone’s life. Just when it seems like Crisp is an utter failure, something shocking occurs that turns everything. Ben and Cam take their jeans to a Japanese distributor after discovering that the sample maker they hired at a loss has, due to a miscommunication that was Ben’s fault, hideously wrecked the samples. They expect the Japanese distributor to harshly reject their denim line, and he does. Just as they are walking out of his office in humiliation, that same distributor compliments Ben’s T-Shirt – a T-Shirt that Ben just happened to have designed. He orders hundreds of shirts and sweatshirts.
A couple of episodes later, Ben and Cam have their shirts and sweatshirts in the back of a truck belonging to Cam’s uncle, the aforementioned ex-convict and energy drink proprietor. As they prepare to celebrate, they helplessly watch from a restaurant window as someone steals the truck. They run down the street, vainly trying to catch up with a speeding automobile that contains everything for which they’ve worked, dreamed, and prayed.
During the first season’s depiction of enterprising at its earliest and toughest stages, Ben reunites with a high school friend, David “Kappo” Kaplan, who lives in a penthouse, drives a luxury sedan, and enjoys the accoutrements of his high finance salary. Kaplan becomes an early investor, and despite achieving great monetary success, lives vicariously through his old friend Ben and his new friend Cam as he watches them exercise the courage he never had to do what he wishes he would have done rather than simply taking the best opportunity for the safest bet.
They are following the affections of the heart and the truth of the imagination. With intelligence, they are allowing their passions to guide their lives.
Anyone who appoints passion as benevolent dictator, anyone who is working on a dream, and anyone who is struggling to find freedom and financial independence in the morass of misery that is the Great Recession can not only relate to How To Make it In America, but can also find it as a source of insight, comfort, and motivation. Ben and Cam are smart and tough entrepreneurs who conduct themselves with integrity and generosity. Viewers of the program can root for them to succeed, just as they root for themselves to succeed.
In the second and unfortunately final season, just when they begin to gain traction and make progress, viewers can delight in their accomplishment. Joy in the success of a television character is an especially welcome change for Americans in their 20 who should be vomitous over their representation on TV, which is typically limited to the displays of stupid and sickly self-absorption that passes for “reality” television. One of the most beautiful strengths of How To Make It in America is that it is an endearing tribute to young adulthood – its energy, its vitality, and its uncertainty.
David Foster Wallace confessed to having an addiction to television. The addictive property of television, according to the great author, was that turning on the set was akin to inviting people into your home. They walk into your living room and entertain you, creating the illusion of intimacy and the feeling of friendship, and if you grow tired or bored with their company, you can simply press a button on the remote to meet new friends.
The writers, directors, and actors of Dexter, Boss, and Mad Men are clever, creative, and talented people with great potential. It is good and necessary, however, to occasionally invite characters into our homes that will bring joy to the party, and in doing so, will encourage us to become bigger dreamers and better people.
Cam, Ben, and the youthful searchers of How To Make It in America were such characters, and now they are gone – no longer welcome in our living rooms, no longer available with the touch of a remote.