The Golden Age of TV Dramas, From Most to Least Trumpy
Characters like Breaking Bad's lucky ‘ol Walt get to live out every Trump-ish dream while the rest of us can only watch.
Perhaps America’s millennial TV obsessives should have been the least surprised by Donald Trump’s election to America's highest office, and the wave of middle-class, middle-aged white anger that fueled it. After all, we were warned by the first round of ‘golden age’ TV dramas -- those dark, usually violent series, created by white, male baby boomer auteurs, that featured boomer white guys struggling furiously to find a place in 21st century America.
Hillary Clinton’s lack of support wasn’t confined to middle-aged white men, of course; Democrats lost white women voters by nine points and saw support slip even among young and minority voters. (“Behind Trump’s victory: Divisions by race, gender, education”, by Alex Tyson, Pew Research Center 9 November 2016)
But the demographics represented by these series’ protagonists propelled Trump to victory with yuugggee margins of support. Trump won white men by 31 points, whites aged 45–64 by 28 points, and whites without college degrees by 37 points -- categories that describe Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Frank Sobotka and two-thirds of Walter White. (“The First White President,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates The Atlantic, October 2017)
It’s no surprise that the early golden age dramas observed and, sometimes, participated in the very cultural trends that put Trump in power.
Like Trump, these shows exploited the male fantasy of being an anti-social tough guy who takes no crap and makes lots of money. Like Trump’s supporters, characters were driven by a displaced sense of masculinity and whiteness in an economy that increasingly valued neither. Unlike Trump or those who voted for him, these shows fundamentally understood that indulging the dumbest male fantasies is wrong and consequential.
It started with The Sopranos, where mob boss Tony Soprano whines to a psychiatrist that no one loves a tough guy anymore. (“Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?”)
Then, there was The Wire where raw capitalism and smarmy liberals marginalized union humps and poor black communities with equal opportunity disdain.
Mad Men followed, a show of a different vibe and era where white middle-aged men actually adapted to an analogous period of social change -- the ad-men, after all, were one-percenters who continued to benefit handily from unregulated markets. Everybody else? Who knows? Who cares?
Finally, there was Breaking Bad, the Trumpiest of them all. Here was a show that dug into flyover country’s boomer white guy angst and imagined the costs of his darkest fantasies.
For most of the nation’s blue voters, Donald Trump’s election was a shocking event, the cultural equivalent of a thigh-high wave that turned out to be a tsunami. But, to paraphrase an important line from The Sopranos, no one can say we weren’t told.
With all that in mind, here are the Four Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse, the first great shows of the Golden Age of Television Drama, evaluated and ranked from most to least Trumpy.
#1: Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
Breaking Bad is damn Trumpy -- and I wonder what it will be like to re-watch it in 15 years.
Much like the 2016 election, we can parse where Walter White’s pathetic life is the fault of broken institutions and where, in the decisions he makes, it’s the fault of his own broken baby boomer mindset.
Not covered for cancer care? Broken institutions. High school teacher pay doesn’t cover the bills? Broken institutions.
Working two jobs so your homemaker wife won’t work one? Too proud to admit you’re sick or accept help from friends? Ashamed by your perfectly capable son’s manageable physical disability? Angry because you can’t figure out how to be a man (like Hank!) in a world where your cold, naggy wife gets to have a say?
Yeah, all mindset.
Anyway, lucky ‘ol Walt gets to live out every selfish white baby boomer’s dream, which is to say "fuck you" to his brown-skinned boss who isn’t even from this country, order around a lazy millennial, marginalize a bitchy woman, team up with Nazis, get rich, and start a trade war with Mexicans.
His fellow white boomers followed suit in the 2016 election (except for the rich part).
The other theme of Breaking Bad is that living out such wonderful fantasies comes with actual life-and-death consequences – which, in the case of electing Trump, I pray is less true than Vince Gilligan makes it seem.
#2: The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Tony Soprano, depressed middle-aged man and mob boss, is a sort of extreme, criminal version of the Trump diehard. He pretends to be religious even though he’s incapable of spirituality in the sense of compassion for a larger world outside of himself. He’s filled with poisonous nostalgia for a lost, violent era. He’s racist. He’s angry. He bends facts. He doesn’t believe in social welfare. He’s fixated on the idea that true, hard-working men like himself don’t exist anymore even though, in reality, he’s an indulgent mobster who hangs out at a strip club all day.
All of this is intertwined with a changing economy that doesn’t work for him anymore.
“It’s over for the little guy,” one mafioso says after failing to shake down a corporate coffee chain.
Tony is also a bit like The Donald himself -- dominating, pure id, without discipline, and prone to do what pleases him whenever he likes -- which is the fantasy Americans indulged when they watched the show/voted for a pussy-grabbing reality TV star.
The interplay between the Trump mentality and the mobster mentality is more than mere metaphor.
Trump’s greatest influence was mob lawyer Roy Cohn, who taught him the art of loudly and cruelly smearing adversaries. (“What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man”, by Jonathan Mahler and Matt Fleggenheimer, New York Times 20 June 2016)
Meanwhile, Trump’s tough-and-powerful New York shtick remains a part of his appeal (to some). When it was reported that Trump asked FBI Director James Comey for his “loyalty” and leaned on him to end the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 US presidential election, Chris Christie dismissed it as “normal New York City talk” (similar to “I took care of that thing for you upstate.”) ("Christie Defends Trump’s Comey Convos As ‘Normal New York City’ Talk", by Adam K. Raymond, New York magazine, 7 June 2017)
Moreover, The Sopranos mobsters lean far right when they offer political views. Tony’s brother-in-law Bobby even says we should build a wall to keep immigrants out! (“Soprano Home Movies”, The Sopranos, HBO, 8 April 2007)
Perhaps it’s no surprise that[right wingers on the internet have claimed Tony Soprano as their own. The following Youtube video with 800,000+ views is titled “Tony Soprano Destroys Liberals, Shows Us the Meaning of Hard Working Italians”. It’s a scene where Tony instills Italian pride in his son by showing off an old church his family helped build, going on a racially suggestive rant about Newark, and talking tough to a drug dealer in a black community where he’s buying real estate to scam a federal government housing program. The clip illustrates an ironic example of a white baby boomer falsely believing he and his people made it without the help of the benefits of white privilege -- or the government.
This Is Why Trump Won Award: Mad Men (2007-2015)
For all Matthew Weiner’s talk about Mad Men as history from the side of the loser, it’s really a show about 1 percenters begrudgingly accepting social change because, well, they still get to be rich and powerful.
When the show opens in 1960, the ad-men are gung-ho for Nixon and casually sexually harassing female employees. By the time it closes in 1970, they’re smoking dope, voting Democrat, and less casually sexually harassing female employees.
Turns out social change wasn’t that bad for the boys!
Further, they rarely bear the consequences of the products they peddle -- from cigarettes to soda -- or the privilege they exhibit.
Mad Men is about the soullessness of corporate capitalism and the effects of social change on individuals, but the plight is mainly borne by others who stand outside of camerashot and don't live in midtown Manhattan. It was then. It still is, now.
Honorable Mention: The Wire (2002-2008)
The Wire shares with Trump a dark evaluation of America and some of the same diagnoses for its decline, even if its solutions are leftist and institutional.
Creator David Simon, in fact, is a rather angry boomer himself.
In The Wire, politics are broken. Liberals are ineffective. The media is fake! The markets are screwing the working man.
“We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just reach our hand into the next guy’s pocket,” the union leader Frank Sobotka says in an Occupy Wall Street-like line muttered by a white working class character -- that segment of American voters that abandoned its Democratic Party labor ties to vote en masse for a racial populist last year.
Of course, The Wire’s solution isn’t demagoguery or racism, as this is mostly a show about the marginalization of America's inner-city black men. The solutions offered are drug legalization, unions, and social programs so, yeah, this show isn’t especially Trumpy at its heart.
In fact, if there’s a weakness to The Wire (and, goddamnit, there isn’t! the show is perfect!) it’s that it focuses so heavily on institutional racism and flaws that it downplays (but doesn’t exactly ignore) personal bigotry as a force that contributes to urban decline. But The Wire’s examination of broken institutions -- politics, media, police, schools, and unions -- and its bleak worldview will surely be valuable when historians try to figure out what the hell happened in 2016.
Evan Spiller is a humor and culture writer and former political aide. He writes for the LA-based humor magazine The Pasadenoid and previously wrote a blog on the crime and western writer Elmore Leonard.