The Golden Age of TV Dramas, From Most to Least Trumpy

Evan Spiller
Bryan Cranson as Walter White (IMDB)

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.

Boostrappers, indeed.

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.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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