Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Night Lights: The New "The Wire?"

WORK WITH ME ON this analogy for a moment: the United States as a microcosm of the entire globe. In this scenario, New York, with its major city, its British connections, and its chilly Atlantic climate would be England. California, with its long coastline, its wacky culture, and its obsession with technology, is Japan. So, which state is America? The ostentatiousness of Texas, its brashness, its bigness, its sense of self-regard, is the United States.

Even without this silly comparison, Texas is, perhaps the most American of states, and the last eight years of the Bush presidency have essentially made Texas America's state. The problems of Texas are the problems of our country; the obsessions of Texas are the obsessions of our country. To understand Texas, then, is in large part to understand America.

You can't understand Texas without understanding two interdependent pillars of Texas culture--the small town and football, and no contemporary text explores these two concepts better than Friday Night Lights.

Now that The Wire is no more, Friday Night Lights has emerged as the best hour-long drama on television.

Like The Wire, FNL concerns itself with a setting at the forefront of America's consciousness. For whatever reason--maybe Sarah Palin--this country's attention has migrated, gradually, from "the inner city" to "rural America." The "ghetto" used to be white culture's dramatic scapegoat, the scene against which America's problems got played out. Now, though, the small town has supplanted the ghetto as the most interesting pop culture setting.

For liberals, small towns are places where lynchings still exist, where polygamy happens, where males who go on shooting sprees are bred, and where evolution is kept out of schools. For conservatives, small towns are where America's family values are not just enacted but protected. Friday Night Lights takes an agnostic view of the small town; the fictional Dillon is neither romanticized nor lampooned.

It is, however, presented as a round place, full of complex social norms, stratifications, racial boundaries, and religious expectations. Unlike many independent films, who look at small towns the way an anthropologist might, FNL opens up the small town experience, making easy interpretations and facile paraphrasings pointless.

Less about football than about the role rituals like football, church, and family gatherings play in small town cultural life, FNL does an amazing job of making the everyday, the quotidian, the mundane, riveting.

If you haven't seen the show--and even if you don't like football--try an episode, then try a second. You'll be hooked.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Conservatism: So Simplistic, A Child Can Master It

ON MORE THAN ONE occasion, William Buckley performed the miraculous. He made conservatism both palatable and charming. Smart and snarky (in a buttoned-up New England sort of way), he married intellectualism with common sense rationality. In his nasally, skeptical voice, conservatism could actually sound adult.

This is less the case with Jonathan Krohn, the 14-year old child actor from Atlanta, whose recent book Define Conservatism has landed him on talk shows across the country. His study, whose title sounds like a command a teacher might give student or a challenge a game-show host might hurl at a contestant, tells us less about this ambitious teenager and more about the vacuousness of conservative ideas. It's an accidental expose--it reveals just how simplistic the basic tenets of conservatism actually are.

In his tract, Mr. Krohn defines a conservative as someone who believes in

1. Respect for the Constitution
2. Respect for Life
3. Less Government
4. Personal Responsibility

These are great notions. I would probably agree with all of them. In fact, most of us would. I mean really, who wants a government thinking it's big enough to tell us what marriage is?

The ease with which Mr. Krohn enumerates, defines, and distills conservatism remains both that movement's strength and weakness. On one hand, the ability to circumscribe a comprehensive belief system in four concepts and twelve words lends conservatism a certain ease. It's comfortable like soft slippers. It is reassuring. Black and white. Seemingly concrete. It is this aspect of conservatism that allows a 14-year old to articulate the concepts of an entire political party with confidence and ackknowledgement. It is also why conservatives have an easier time talking about their ideas than progressives. It's why Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity move from real issues to righteous indignation all in the span of a single commercial break.

But as America matures, conservatism's simplicity starts to look more and more like naivete. If conservatives actually stuck to the denotative meanings of the four ideas enumerated above, it could be a viable system. But, instead of being about denotation, conservatism is about connotation. Mr. Krohn's list is simply a litany of cliches, buzz words that mean something quite different from what they say. For example, "less government" really means "less taxes on the wealthy." "Respect for life" doesn't mean "we respect all living people," it means "no abortion."

America, like the world, is complex. It is full of gray areas. There are situations, evolutions, struggles, resentments, eventualities, and misunderstandings that require nimbleness, agility, open-mindedness, compromise, and nuance. As the world gets more complicated, simplistic political ideologies become less pertinent. It's like trying to repair a computer with a rock and a stick. Advanced issues need advanced ideas. Real-world problems need solutions commensurate with their difficulty. Hard conundrums can't be solved with easy platitudes. Complexity often requires complexity. Conservatism has been a lot of things, but complex has never been one of them.

And complexity and nuance are almost always hard to get worked up about. They engender emotions of patience, thought, and consideration. Black and white ideas, on the other hand, lead to emotions of anger, outrage, and offense. Hence the talk shows, hence Rush Limbaugh's inability to be anything but a disc jockey, hence Sean Hannity's bulging neck veins.

Conservatism is nostalgic. It's one dimensional. It's the poster of the Van Gogh. Not the Van Gogh.

Jonathan Krohn is a good kid with a big heart and a devotion to civic duty that is admirable. Pretty soon, I suspect he'll realize that if he really wants to ensure his four concepts find full and actual implementation into public policy, he's hitched his wagon to the wrong elephant.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Bachelor Ethics: Molly, Memoirs, and Machinations

THE AFTER THE FINAL ROSE Ceremony on ABC's The Bachelor made for great, if inexplicable, TV.

As most know by now, the bachelor--the earnest and self-satisfied Jason Mesnick--breaks things off with Melissa Rycroft on national television just six weeks after an emotion-laden marriage proposal amidst ferns. That proposal came on the heels of a teary-breakup when Jason ended things with Molly Malaney. How teary? I've never seen a dude cry so much.

But, who said Reality TV has ever been about subtlety?

Breaking up with Melissa on national TV is, on its own, high camp. But, on the same program, within minutes of putting the former Dallas Cowboy cheerleader up for free agency, he admits he's been wanting to be starting quarterback for Molly's team all along.

Ah, the old switcharoo. Most of us can't get away with that. Can ABC? Maybe, maybe not.

"Reality Steve," a blogger who claims to have an in with the network, has been writing for some time not simply that the scenario outlined above would happen but that it has been entirely scripted by ABC and the show's producers--from the beginning. According to him, it was clear a few days into taping this season's episodes that Jason and Molly were The Bachelor's Brad and Angelina. Faced with a dull, predictable series of shows (and no twins), they made Jason a deal--you can eventually choose Molly, but you have to propose first to Melissa.

Conspiratorial? Sure. Great TV? You bet? Moral? Less clear.

My interest here is not necessarily judging the ethical decisions of Molly, Melissa, and Jason but rather, if Steve the prose-impaired blogger is correct what this says about the ethics of ABC and the reality of reality TV. In the past, I have written about fake memoirs in these virtual pages and elsewhere, and my wife, who is smarter than I am about most things, challenged me last night post-bachelor to distinguish between fake memoirs and fake reality TV.

Why, she queried, do I get all worked up by invented memoirs but not un-real reality TV?

It's a good question, for which I have no good answer.

But, let me start here. For one, we're not sure just how scripted this season or the past few episodes of The Bachelor actually were. We do know, on the other hand, the many things James Frey or Margaret P. Jones made up to make their memoirs more fabulous. That said, I do believe a great deal of what Reality Steve proposes, and a reporter for the newspaper in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Molly is from, has also agreed that this scenario makes sense.

So, going from there, I would say that the distinction is that we expect an authored book that markets itself as "autobiography" or "memoir" to adhere to "reality" more than reality TV. Perhaps because books have no actors, no producers, no advertisers, no need for weekly Nielsen ratings, and no sense of the episodic, we grant television liberties we don't grant authors; perhaps because we know a week of hanging out on an island with a bunch of other people cannot--under any reasonable circumstance--be edited down to 42 minutes with any real degree of accuracy.

I also think that we still expect something of books. This might be old-fashioned, but I believe we hold reality books to a higher standard of verisimilitude than reality television, which has become a kind of oxymoron.

We have--for better or worse--a different moral compass for high and popular culture.

This is good for books but maybe not so good for us, since far more people make television part of their identity than literary texts. But, both share the public push for narrative drama and emotional tension, and who among us has not been tempted to skew reality, transpire events to make our stories more readable?

ABC absolutely was involved on some level in determining the course of events with the show. The question is, with willing participants and an eager audience, did they do anything wrong?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Totally Looks LIke

I'VE BEEN A FAN of Totally Looks Like for some time now, but the Whitman/Gandalf pairing has officially nudged out Brown/Jackson as my favorite brotherhood.