HBO Max: Is More Better?

AT&T, after the 2018 WarnerMedia acquisition, will now be rolling out yet another HBO service called HBO Max. It will be unveiled on May 27, 2020. What is different about it? Basically, they’ll be adding more content, original and otherwise. How will this affect those who already get HBO through one of the other services? It depends.

Although HBO Max won’t yet be available through Amazon Prime as is the case with HBO Now, one source states that this won’t affect many other subscribers to HBO Now: “most existing HBO subscribers on Hulu will be automatically upgraded to HBO Max” (Variety). Most? Not all? On the main page of the official HBO Max website, it suggests that all Hulu subscribers will be included in the transition: “Subscribers who get HBO through AT&T TV, DIRECTV, AT&T U-Verse, Hulu, or Spectrum will get access to HBO Max at launch (at no extra cost).” But there is conflicting info: “the upgrade is only available to direct-billed subscribers and not for those who access HBO Now via Roku, Hulu, Apple, or other non-direct avenues” (Observer).

The latter might be true. When attempting to subscribe to HBO Max through an account paid through Hulu, the following message is given: “Your HBO NOW subscription is billed through Hulu. You are not eligible for this promotional offer. […] Offer not currently available to subscribers that obtain their subscriptions through third-party providers that are authorized to distribute the HBO NOW service.” Does that only mean the promotional offer is not available to Hulu subscribers or that the entire service isn’t available through Hulu? It’s unclear.

Whatever this might mean for HBO Now in the future, it definitely won’t overlap with HBO Go that will remain the same as a separate service for cable subscribers. It seems that, for the time being, HBO Max will be in addition to these other options. But going by the reporting, it most likely will eventually replace HBO Now. The pricing will be the same as HBO Now at $14.99, if more expensive than the base plans of Hulu and Netflix. They might go the Hulu route on advertising: “Currently, HBO Max will not feature ads. According to Variety, HBO Max will receive a cheaper ad-supported plan in 2021” (How-To Geek).

It is a rebranding. HBO’s tagline used to be “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” but now will be “Where HBO Meets So Much More.” Further moving away from its cable origins, it will no longer will be a mere channel. They are calling HBO Max a platform, apparently seeking to rival the likes of Netflix and Disney+. Still, they claim they are going to continue to emphasize quality over quantity with what they produce, the complete opposite model of Netflix.

Yet some worry that mixing in non-HBO content waters down the premier image of the HBO brand built up over so many decades. “AT&T purchased Time Warner in the hopes that phone service and content would yield a peanut butter and chocolate combination. Instead, AT&T is junking up Time Warner’s luxury product, HBO, and turning it into HBO Max. This is the equivalent of Hermès selling JanSport alongside Birkin bags” (Fast Company). I don’t know if that is a fair criticism, but I could see the risk over time in HBO losing what made it stand out from the crowd.

On the other hand, HBO Max is putting forth an impressive lineup. “The streaming service pulls from WarnerMedia’s deep content library, including films and TV from Warner Bros.’ 100-year content collection, New Line, DC, CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, Rooster Teeth, Looney Tunes, a curated selection of classic films in partnership with TCM, and more. HBO Max will also offer an extensive selection of third-party acquired series and movies” (Digital Trends). This will be serious competition for Netflix, although less so for Hulu and Amazon Prime that allows HBO Now as an add-on.

Admittedly, for good or ill, it vastly increases the content available, from South Park and Rick and Morty to Doctor Who and DC movies, along with the Criterion Collection, Studio Ghibli, and BBC Studios. Also, don’t worry — it will still have Sesame Street, not to mention adding popular shows like Friends and Big Bang Theory (there will be a Friends reunion special! Oh joy!). There will be plenty of older shows too, such as Perry Mason and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That brings in a wider selection to an already well established 40 years backlog of HBO series, movies, documentaries, and stand-up comedy.

Of course, they’ll be producing more original content as well. One of their upcoming shows will be Adventure Time: New Lands. It will be awesome. In the final episode of the new series, Princess Bubblegum rides Lady Rainicorn while terrorizing the Candy people and burning down the Candy Kingdom. Oh wait… that was another show. I’m sure HBO will do better this time, right? There is no doubt it will bring in fans of the show.

Distant Lands will air as four hour-long episodes, bringing audiences back two years following the Cartoon Network series’ conclusion. Each of the episodes will focus on a different main character from the series, with the first revisiting BMO, the second about Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, the third on the Peppermint Butler and the finale featuring Finn and Jake reconnecting on a new quest” (CBR).

By the way, it does sound like HBO is still planning to come out with the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. I hope they are able to redeem themselves. Either way, HBO Max will be a better deal than what was on offer before. Paying for HBO as a separate service with HBO Now was always questionable, considering the limited if high quality content. HBO Max does put HBO on an equal footing with the other platform giants. But for most viewers, the equation remains the same. The main reason to get HBO Max is the same as it ever was, that one enjoys the original content of HBO.

Dark and Dystopian Entertainment

Dystopian and utopian stories come and go in popularity. But this present moment is dominated by the dystopian variety, for understandable reasons.

As GenXers, we grew up on post-apocalyptic movies along with other dark and demented entertainment-visions. It was the slowing down of the Cold War during our childhood. But fears of nuclear war were in still in the air. And the sense of doom lingered. The End of History with the end of the Soviet Union simply ramped up anxiety further. It led into a decade of school shootings and homegrown terrorism, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the the last killing spree of the Unabomber, with a new threatening crisis following after that about every decade: 9/11 terrorist attack, 2008 recession, and now 2020 pandemic.

In the childhood of Generation X, there was an innocence to the idea of civilizational collapse. Even war was something that happened elsewhere, as no foreign power had yet attacked the United States mainland. The dark bent of public imagination mired in a post-Vietnam malaise did make for a less than optimistic mood in that era, but those post-apocalyptic movies were often playful and over-the-top, like The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). It was letting off steam that had built up from decades of Cold War paranoia and anxiety. Besides, the American imperial hegemony stood all-powerful, as the Soviet regime wound down into irrelevance and then disappeared. Amidst American greatness, doomsday entertainment could be taken as safe escapism.

Nonetheless, it may have led to a demented fantasy life for children growing up in it, an entire generation often thought of as cynical in adulthood. There was the beginning of a sense of decline back then, that America was somehow no longer as great as it once had been. The post-world war new car smell had faded. The economy was heading downward in the 1970s, as violent crime shot upward. This led to moral panic involving weird conspiracy theories embraced by the mainstream — like child molestation rings operating out of childcare centers and satanic cults abducting children for sacrifice. Some innocent people got caught up in the hysteria and were prosecuted and imprisoned based on the manipulated testimony of children. The line between fantasy and reality became blurred.

It was a strange time. Besides post-apocalyptic movies, there were all kinds of violent Vietnam War movies and horror movies featuring children as victims, demonically-possessed, monsters, psychopaths, violent punks, and devil worshippers. Even superficially patriotic movies like the Rambo movies (First Blood, 1982) gave expression to a sense of rot in America, that the government had failed. And as late as 1984, a movie like Red Dawn could still be made about the Soviet Union invading the United States. This is the entertainment GenX grew up on.

It felt different as American society moved into the 1990s, even if new fears replaced the old, such as a focus on technology in stories like The Matrix (1999). For the younger generation, the partisan culture wars were tiresome and posed no existential threat, no matter how shrill the right-wing screamed. Because real threats were hard to find, the Christian right turned to End Times fantasies, such as the first Left Behind movie in 2000. That turned out to be perfect timing with an Evangelical as president when Islamic terrorists attacked the United States — President Bush declared a “Crusade” and that gave a boner to fundies all across the land. Rather than fear apocalypse, many of these Christian lunatics have longed for the end of the world. Even their support for Israel has been inspired by the belief that the Temple must be rebuilt so that Jesus can return with a flaming sword of destruction.

The reality of American decline, though, is less dramatic. Even now in this global pandemic, the average person’s experience is boredom as we wait it out. It’s hard to imagine this as the first of the Four Horsemen, named Pestilence. As pandemics go, it is rather minor. It was the same with the 2008 recession, as the federal government intervened to bail out big biz and big banks in order to prop up the economy once again, albeit the economic problems were merely delayed and have been growing worse. Fear has been muted, even when the threats are real and looming. This era of gloom is hard to put one’s finger on, a general sense of unease or what some call floating anxiety. Even President Donald Trump as aspiring dictator and emperor is rather pathetic as compared to previous authoritarian leaders in the Western world, although his being elected at all is disturbing.

There is growing anxiety and it is seen in our entertainment choices. Dystopian novels were rising in popularity with the election of Trump. And that probably boosted Trump’s ego knowing that many Americans thought so highly of his prospects. There was already an interest in dystopian visions of America with The Hunger Games movies (the first in 2012), and that interest is even more intense now. Over the past years, numerous highly watched television series have come out that portray dark visions of alternative Americas: Amazon’s The Man In the High Castle (2015-2019), Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-2020) with a planned second series based on the novel Testaments, and HBO’s Plot Against America (2020-).

As for alternative Americas, there is also the recently released Motherland: Fort Salem from the Freeform network. In that world, the persecution of witches ended several centuries ago and the result was a matriarchal society. Still, it’s not exactly a utopian narrative. There are central themes about conflict and exploitation. And it has plenty of violence, including horrific terrorism. It might turn out to be a decent addition to the rest, but so far it’s not clear it’s of the same high quality.

They keep making this kind of entertainment giving voice to a troubled society. Apparently, there is a large audience for it. In another genre, there are also other less-than-happy portrayals of alternative Americas such as The Dark Knight (2008) movies and the X-Men movies (2000-), or even bleaker the Watchmen movie (2009) and HBO series (2019). More generally speaking, the Harry Potter movies (2001-2011) along with USA’s The Purge (2018-) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Westworld (2016-), and His Dark Materials (2019-) also give hint to underlying fears in our society about authoritarianism, corruption, political failure, and impending doom. Another series HBO almost made was Confederate about the South having won the Civil War and so probably would have been another story of a fascist America.

There is a theory that, during hard times, people are attracted to escapist fantasy. Some famous examples of this during the Great Depression were Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), King Kong (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). That isn’t what we are getting right now, particularly not  The Wizard of Oz (1939). There is no present equivalent to a movie like that. There is no sense that we can click our heels and return home.

There is something else that is different right now. It’s not only the large number of dystopian entertainment, from post-apocalyptic to alternative history. It is increasingly mainstream. There have always been lots of movies in this genre, but we are seeing more and more series than was the case in the past. Some of these series are prestige shows with large financial backing. There is noting schlocky about them and they aren’t being presented as niche genre entertainment. They are popular shows that are being watched by people who don’t necessarily otherwise seek out speculative fiction.

This is a different historical moment. These shows are being made in a highly realistic manner and they are ambitious. Their intention is to be taken seriously and, in the times we find ourselves, they are being taken seriously. But it isn’t only about President Trump as an aspiring tyrant. Consider that the first seasons of The Man in the High Castle came out under the Obama Administration, as did the initial entry in The Hunger Games film series. A sense of dread about where society is heading has been growing for decades now. It’s now hitting a fever pitch, but that fever is a symptom of the disease, not its cause.

The infection began long ago and the disease has progressed without notice. The danger of dystopias is that they can be self-righteously comforting in making us think we know who the bad guys are. And as with white middle class feminists unconsciously wielding privilege, we can too easily learn the wrong lesson from a show like The Handmaid’s Tale, in not recognizing our own complicity. It’s not like being bottlefed on dystopian nightmares helped GenX to fight the system and stop the slow but methodical authoritarian takeover. If anything, it more powerfully inured our minds to the worsening conditions, not only with cynicism and apathy but moreso a numbed disconnection from the banality of evil, the creeping nature of worse becoming worse — such as being led along by the chains of lesser evil voting that made greater evil inevitable.

Dystopian entertainment, in its exaggerations and caricatures, can blind us to the evil already around us. It makes one wonder what it all means. The growing popularity of dystopias may not mean the public is waking up, no matter how nice it would be to believe we finally might begin to groggily open our eyes to the morning light piercing our nightmares. New generations are being raised on this mainstreaming of dystopia, not only in summer flicks but hyper-realistic dramas that go on for years and so becoming deeply embedded within the psyche. It forms the background of the collective imagination, for good or ill.

* * *

Let’s explore some further historical background to entertainment in the horror and dystopian genres.

As the Second World War came to an end, there was the baby boom and so a renewed focus on the young. The cover article of Parents’ Magazine, in January 1950, declared that, “Because in the next 10 years the United States will have a record child population, we are now entering upon what can well be termed the Children’s Decade” (quoted in the abstract of Andrew Scahill’s It Takes a Child to Raze a Village: Demonizing Youth Rebellion). A new generation of children offered not only hope but fear as well. “During the Cold War crisis, children’s bodies became the primary symbolic battlegrounds for political ideology” (Andrew Scahill, The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema). In both the United States and the Soviet Union, children were seen as targets of propaganda and so entry points of alien or corrupting forces.

There had been concern about youths gone wrong far back in history with moral panic rising in reaction to the mass urbanization and technological changes in the late colonial era (Technological Fears and Media Panics). So, children had increasingly become symbols of uncertainty and anxiety. Along with an emergent idealization of childhood, there was an ideological motivation to control children, as the ideal clashed with harsh realities. This underlying tension finally boiled to the surface with the under-parented Lost Generation of children working in factories and roaming in street gangs, although juvenile delinquency didn’t became a society-wide obsession until the 1940s and 1950s. The concern grew worse in the following decades. “Dixon notes that Rhoda in “The Bad Seed” was the first mainstream demon child, but the trope really took off with the 1960 British science fiction film “Village of the Damned” and the sequel “Children of the Damned,” in which a mysterious force impregnates all the women villagers simultaneously” (Douglas J. Rowe, Evil children chill moviegoers).

By the 1970s and 1980s, as another generation was coming onto the scene, it felt like the world was going to hell. Besides the peak of a violent crime wave, it was the period of economic recession and austerity, of farm crisis and AIDS crisis, of the final clashes of the Cold War and the lingering threat of nuclear catastrophe. “I’m a child of the ’80s,” writes David Sirota, “and I was deeply impacted by that decade and that pop culture — and for many reasons, that pop culture is back in a lot of ways. So I started thinking about why it’s back — and some of it is Hollywood laziness, some of it is coincidence — but it’s really kind of eerie, too, with the crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plant happening; you know, the last time that kind of thing was happening was at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the ’80s. So there’s a real zeitgeist of the ’80s returning” (from Jef Otte’s interview, David Sirota on Back to Our Future, Ghostbusters and the decade of “me”; see Back to Our Future: David Sirota on the 80s). There is also the fact that GenXers and their older siblings, the late Boomers, who were shaped by that era are now the majority of parents of youth and producers of entertainment.

Still, it’s the Fifties that must be given credit for giving birth to a particular strain of filmographic fear, and there were social circumstances to explain what went wrong. “While the media frequently portrayed teens as a monstrous threat to the stability of American society, these films show the teen as monster to be a creation of a corrupt adult world. If the teenager is vindicated in many horror films, mom does not come off so well” (Cyndy Hendershot, I was a Cold War Monster, p. 5). Yet, “In many of these films, the father is absent or bamboozled by his precious prince or princess; it”s left to the mother to come to the slow, horrifying realization about her offspring” (Douglas J. Rowe, Evil children chill moviegoers). In either case, it was a failure of adult authority figures, often the parents but also a sense of societal corruption in general.

Even when children were portrayed as dangerous, they often were also framed as victims and casualties of post-war changes or Cold War dangers. “With strong antecedents in the late 1950s (The Bad Seed, Village/Children of the Damned, The Lord of the Flies), the figuration of the revolting child—and specifically the child collective—is best understood as a Cold War monster. Indeed, […] public investment in the “good democratic child” and public outrage over the “juvenile delinquent” loomed large on the U.S. consciousness” (Andrew Scahill, It takes a child to raze a village: demonizing youth rebellion, p. 2). From a Fifties newspaper article, in reporting on the “Children’s Decade”, it was argued that all of society’s resources needed to be invested in children, as much out of fear as of loving concern: “The disturbed, hostile and rebellious child is a danger to himself and to the community, and a poor risk as a future citizen” (George Hecht, Today Is Termed Children’s Decade; Their Needs Cited, Madera Tribune, Number 75, 29 April 1952). “Beneath the insistence on creating a positive and healthy environment to foster children’s individual growth and social development was a concern over the nation’s future” (Daniel Gomes, “Sissy” Boys and “Unhappy” Girls: Childrearing During the Cold War). Childhood was the site of existential crisis.

There was something different, though, in the late Cold War era when horror movies fully went mainstream. Instead of the sins of the father and mother falling upon the next generation, it became more common for fictionalized children and youth to be made into something else entirely, ever more monstrous and alien. Youth culture was becoming its own force that diverged further and further from the adult world. This led to unsettling movies like the 1979 Over the Edge about juvenile delinquents running rampant and turning violent that shaped many minds of that generation of youth. “While somewhat raw and certainly not without imperfections, it’s easy to understand why Kurt Cobain claimed that the movie “pretty much defined my whole personality,” and why it so heavily influenced Richard Linklater in making his own ode to restless youth, Dazed and Confused” (Mike Sacks, Over the Edge).

Even so, most horrifying movies of that era didn’t put on a pretense of realism. That is what feels different about present entertainment. Movies and shows are so much higher quality in terms of special effects, script writing, and acting. It’s much bigger business these days and the profits are so much higher. Oddly, this has led to an increased popularity of gritty realism. Even alternative histories like The Man in the High Castle are made to be quite compelling in creating a plausible world that is fleshed out in great detail. Another difference is that the obsession with youth culture has completely changed in tone. In present speculative narratives of the dark bent, the younger generations are no longer demonized and made into scapegoats. Instead, when not simply ignored, they are heroes on a hero’s journey, rebellious fighters against oppression, and saviors of humanity.

We fantasize about the younger generation undoing our failures and making the world right again. At least, there is an acknowledgement of something being amiss and that someone had better do something about it. But what is our society supposed to do as GenZ reaches adulthood and they no longer are innocent children upon which we can project our failed aspirations? How are the young supposed to reverse centuries of damage to the environment, worsening inequality, and growing authoritarianism? Anyway, isn’t this rather convenient? Instead of doing the hard work right now, we can simply make and watch entertainment about alternative worlds and future worlds where fictional people do what needs to be done in fighting for a more just world.

* * *

Other examples of dark entertainment from the past couple of decades:

  • Children of Men (2006)
  • The Road (2009)
  • Dark Angel (2000-2002)
  • Jeremiah (2002-2004)
  • Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
  • Jericho (2006-2008)
  • The Walking Dead (2010-)
  • The Leftovers (2014-2017)
  • The 100 (2014-)
  • Colony (2016-2018)
  • 3% (2016-)
  • Black Mirror (2011-)
  • The Twilight Zone (2019-)

Articles of interest:

The US writers who imagined a fascist future
by Sarah Churchwell

Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics
by Alexandra Alter

Field Notes on Fascism: Four Novel Revivals, One Theme
by Harvey A. Schwartz

The creeping fascism of American literature
by Adi Robertson

Dystopian novels are dominating best-seller lists
by Michael Miner

Dystopian Fiction Finds New Meaning In The Age Of Trump
by Ben Barna

Why Even the Worst Alternate Universes Can Feel Like Safe Spaces
by Liz Shannon Miller

The Plots Against America
by Matt Gallagher

The Handmaid’s Tale TV Series Isn’t Revelatory, But Unfortunately It Doesn’t Need to Be
by Katharine Trendacosta

A Cunning Confection, and Some Food for Thought: A Review of The Hunger Games
by Gary Westfahl

Dear Television: I Can’t Handle Another Prestige Drama About America as a Fascist Dystopia
by Chelsea Steiner

The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be
by Evan Kindley

“I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast.”

Waitress: I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast. I can bring you an english muffin or a coffee roll.
Bobby: What do you mean you don’t make side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don’t you?
Waitress: Would you like to talk to the manager?
Bobby: You’ve got bread and a toaster of some kind?
Waitress: I don’t make the rules.

That is from the diner scene with Jack Nicholson in the movie Five Easy Pieces. All he wants is some toast. The waitress refuses because it’s not on the menu… and, well, there is the management-mandated rule: No substitutions! It leads to what in the movie is great comedy but in real life would be frustration for all involved. In my employment as a city parking ramp cashier, I suspect that some customers think of me in the way this waitress is portrayed. But from my perspective, I’m simply some schmuck doing my job, just following orders of management and city policy. And yet many people don’t understand why I can’t simply do what they tell me to do (e.g., not charge them $23 for a lost ticket because, after all, they assure me they were only parked for an hour).

I give them the official set of options and they don’t like any of them. This makes them unhappy and sometimes quite upset. A few of them start yelling and have tantrums. If there was a bunch of glasses to knock to the floor, they would be so inclined. Telling them, in a calm but stern voice, that they can talk to management rarely appeases them. As the person in front of them with the immense power to open or not open a gate, they see me as the ultimate authority figure who stands in the way of their being able to leave, the bad guy who is denying justice and common decency and who is refusing to do what obviously makes sense. I get it. Life sucks. And my blank face, after dealing with customers all day, probably comes across as unfeeling an unsympathetic, maybe cruelly indifferent and hardhearted. I’m the enemy, the ‘Man’, the ‘good Nazi’. Their entire fate rests in my hands.

We live in a world of rules, sometimes meaningless rules. And then there are those whose job it is to follow and enforce those rules. This is what we call ‘civilization’. Without it, we’d become savages and society would collapse into chaos! Who am I to defy all of civilization? As a mere peon, what is a bureaucratic functionary to do? It’s not just about the ‘toast’. It’s about the principle. There are ways things must be done because that is the way things are done because someone said so, someone above both of us. It’s the order of things. And if I don’t comply with the system, I’ll be fired and some other schmuck would be hired to replace me. The system itself will continue on. You’re still not going to get your side order of toast. I’m sorry about that.

Besides, look at it from the other side. This scene is from a movie script written for Hollywood. This was no small production. Jack Nicholson at the time already had 18 movies under his belt. And this wasn’t the first movie by either Carole Eastman (as Adrien Joyce) and Bob Rafelson who co-write the screenplay, specifically that scene. They weren’t poor nobodies struggling in the world. Imagine you are an impoverished and struggling waitress with a bunch of kids at home, a husband who left you, and bill collectors who keep calling. You work long hours at multiple jobs while going home to clean, cook, and hopefully find some time to sleep. Then a pompous Hollywood big shot comes into the diner where you work demanding toast, but the owner or manager has rules about no side orders of toast nor substitutions.

You don’t know why your boss makes up stupid rules. All you know is your boss, an middle class white guy, likes to yell at you and would be glad to fire you in an instant if you don’t do what he tells you to do. If you lose this job, you won’t be able to pay the bills or feed your kids and the threat of homelessness might be very much real. Or even if your financial situation isn’t that extreme, you’re simply overworked and underpaid, you’re tired and stressed. You have very little energy left over to deal with people making your life even more difficult.

Now tell me this. How would you feel toward some asshole acting like Jack Nicholson in this scene? This customer is another white male who has no clue what your life is like and who thinks its is his right and privilege to boss you around and tell you what to do, to harass and intimidate you. Guess what? Fuck such assholes! Leave the goddamn waitress alone. Order your fucking meal and, if all you want is the toast, then throw the rest away. Or if you don’t like the rules, just quietly go away. Don’t go away mad. Just go away. Don’t turn the situation into melodrama to feed your ego. Yes, the world sucks, but you aren’t the center of the world. Life is hard for others as well, quite likely far harder for others than you might imagine. Be kind. Be compassionate. Or failing that, keep it to yourself. Don’t add to the suffering of others in a false crusade of self-righteousness.

* * *

Bobby: I’d like a plain omelet, no potatoes – tomatoes instead, a cup of coffee and toast.
Waitress: No substitutions.
Bobby: What do you mean, you don’t have any tomatoes?
Waitress: Only what’s on the menu. You can have a #2 – a plain omelet, comes with cottage fries and rolls.
Bobby: Yeah, I know what it comes with, but it’s not what I want.
Waitress: I’ll come back when you make up your mind.
Bobby: Wait a minute, I have made up my mind. I’d like a plain omelet, no potatoes on the plate, a cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast.
Waitress: I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast. I can bring you an english muffin or a coffee roll.
Bobby: What do you mean you don’t make side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don’t you?
Waitress: Would you like to talk to the manager?
Bobby: You’ve got bread and a toaster of some kind?
Waitress: I don’t make the rules.
Bobby: Okay, I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce and a cup of coffee. 
Waitress: A #2, chicken salad sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Bobby: Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.
Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Bobby: I want you to hold it between your knees.

“What would Mister Rogers do?”

“He had faith in us, and even if his faith turns out to have been misplaced, even if we have abandoned him, he somehow endures, standing between us and our electrified antipathies and recriminations like the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square in a red sweater.”
~Tom Junod, My Friend Mister Rogers

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an inspiring and, in the end, a challenging portrayal of Fred Rogers, AKA ‘Mister Rogers’. It took some suspension of disbelief, though. Tom Hanks does as good of a job as is possible, but no one can replace the real thing. Mr. Rogers was distinctive in appearance and behavior. The production team could have used expensive CGI to make Hanks look more like the real man, but that was not necessary. It wasn’t a face that made the children’s tv show host so well respected and widely influential. A few minutes in, I was able to forget I was watching an actor playing a role and became immersed in the personality and the moral character that was cast upon the screen of imagination, the movie presented as if a new episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had just been released.

The way the movie was done was highly effective. It was based on an Esquire article, Can You Say … Hero? by Tom Junod. It was jarring at first in taking a roundabout approach, but it might have been the only way to go about it for the intended purpose. Fred Rogers appears to have been a person who was genuinely and fully focused on other people, not on himself. So a biopic that captures his essence requires demonstrating this concern for others, which makes him a secondary character in the very movie that is supposedly about him. We explore his world by experiencing the profound impact he had on specific people, in this case not only Junod but also his family, while there are other scenes showing the personable moments of Mr. Rogers meeting with children. The story arc is about Junod’s change of heart, whereas Mr. Rogers remains who he was from the start.

This leaves Mr. Rogers himself as an unknown to viewers not already familiar with the biographical details. We are shown little about his personal life and nothing about his past, but the narrow focus helps to get at something essential. We already were given a good documentary about him from last year. This movie was serving a different purpose. It offers a window to peer through, to see how he related and what it meant for those who experienced it. Part of the hidden background was his Christianity, as he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Yet even as Christianity inspired him, he never put his faith out in the public view. As Jesus taught to pray in secret, Fred Rogers took it one step further by keeping his faith almost entirely hidden. He didn’t want to force his beliefs onto others. The purpose of religion is not dogma or outward forms. If religion matters at all, it’s about how it transforms people. That is what Mr. Rogers, as a man and a media personality, was all about.

Some people don’t understand this and so don’t grasp what made him so special. Armond White at National Review wrote that, “Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster don’t show enough faith in Rogers’ remedies—and not enough interest in their religious origins. In short, the movie seems wary of faith (it briefly mentions that Rogers was an ordained minister) and settles for secular sentimentality to account for his sensibility and behavior. This not only weakens the film, but it also hobbles Hanks’s characterization” (Christian Faith Is the Missing Ingredient in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). That misses the entire message being conveyed, not only the message of the movie but, more importantly, the message of Mr. Rogers himself. As Greg Forster subtly puts it, “that is of course the whole goddamned point here” (Pass the Popcorn: Anything Mentionable Is Managable).

To have put Mr. Roger’s Christianity front and center would be to do what Mr. Rogers himself intentionally avoided. He met people where they were at, rather than trying to force or coerce others into his belief system, not that he would have thought of his moral concern as a belief system. He was not an evangelical missionary seeking to preach and proselytize, much less attempting to save the lost souls of heathenish children or make Christian America great again. In his way of being present to others, he was being more Christ-like than most Christians, as Jesus never went around trying to convert people. Jesus wasn’t a ‘good Christian’ and, by being vulnerable in his humanity, neither was Fred Rogers. Rather, his sole purpose was just to be kind to others. Religion, in its highest form, is about how one relates to others and to the world. Thomas Paine voiced his own radical faith with the words, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” I suspect Mr. Rogers would have agreed. It really is that simple or it should be.

That childlike directness of his message, the simplicity of being fully present and relating well, that was the magical quality of the show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I didn’t appreciate it when I was a kid. It was a fixture of my childhood, a show I watched and that was all. But looking back on it, I can sense what made it unique. Like the man himself, the show was extremely simple, one might call it basic, demonstrated by the same ragged puppets he used his entire career. This was no fancy Jim Henson muppet production. What made it real and compelling to a child was what the people involved put into it, not only Fred Rogers but so many others who were dedicated to the show. Along with the simplicity, there was a heartfelt sincerity to it all. The scenes with the puppets, Daniel Striped Tiger most of all, were often more emotionally raw and real than what is typically done by professional actors in Hollywood movies.

That is what stands out about Tom Hank’s performance in bringing this to life. He is one of the few actors who could come close to pulling it off and even his attempt was imperfect. But I have to give Hanks credit for getting the essence right. The emotional truth came through. Sincerity is no small thing, in this age of superficiality and cynicism. To call it a breath of fresh air is a criminal understatement. Mr. Rogers was entirely committed to being human and acknowledging the humanity in others. That is such a rare thing. I’m not sure how many people understood that about him, what exactly made him so fascinating to children and what created a cult-like following among the generations who grew up watching his show. As a character says about the drug D in A Scanner Darkly, “You’re either on it or you’ve never tried it.”

Some people claim that “sincerity is bullshit” (Harry Frankfurt), a sentiment I understand in feeling jaded about the world. But I must admit that Fred Rogers’ sincerity most definitely and deeply resonates for me, based on my own experience in the New Thought worldview I was raised in, a touchy-feel form of Christianity where emotional authenticity trumps outward form, basically Protestantism pushed to its most extreme endpoint. Seeing the emotional rawness in Mr. Rogers’ life, although coming from a different religious background than my own, reminded me of the sincerity that I’ve struggled with in myself. I’ve always been an overly sincere person and often overly serious, that is how I think of myself… but can anyone really ever be too sincere? The message of Mr. Rogers is that we all once were emotionally honest when children and only later forgot this birthright. It remains in all of us and that core of our humanity is what he sought to touch upon, and indeed many people responded to this and felt genuinely touched. The many testimonies of ordinary people to Mr. Rogers’ legacy are inspiring.

This worldview of authenticity was made clear in one particular scene in the movie. “Vogel says he believes his dining companion likes “people like me … broken people.” Rogers is having none of it. “I don’t think you are broken,” Rogers begins, speaking slowly and deliberately. “I know you are a man of conviction, a person who knows the difference between what is wrong and what is right. Try to remember that your relationship with your father also helped to shape those parts. He helped you become what you are”” (Cathleen Falsani, Meditating On Love and Connection with Mr. Rogers and C.S. Lewis). That dialogue was not pulled from real life, according to Tom Junod in his latest piece My Friend Mister Rogers, but even Junod found himself emotionally moved when watching the scene. The point is that what mattered to Fred Rogers was conviction and he lived his life through his own conviction, maybe a moral obligation even. The man was exacting in his discipline and extremely intentional in everything he did, maybe even obsessive-compulsive, as seen in how he maintained his weight at exactly 143 lbs throughout his adult life and in how he kept FBI-style files on all of his friends and correspondents. He had so little interest in himself that even his wife of 50 years knew little about his personal experience and memories that he rarely talked about. His entire life, his entire being apparently was focused laser-like on other people.

He was not a normal human. How does someone become like that? One gets the sense that Mr. Rogers in the flesh would have, with humility, downplayed such an inquiry. He let on that he too was merely human, that he worried and struggled like anyone else. The point, as he saw it, was that he was not a saint or a hero. He was just a man who felt deeply and passionately moved to take action. But where did that powerful current of empathy and compassion come from? He probably would have given all credit to God, as his softspoken and often unspoken faith appears to have been unwavering. Like the Blues Brothers, he was a man on a mission from God. He was not lacking in earnestness. And for those of us not so fully earnest, it can seem incomprehensible that such a mortal human could exist: “He was a genius,” Junod wrote, “he had superpowers; he might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved” (My Friend Mister Rogers). Yet for all the easy ways it would be to idolize him or dismiss him, he continues to speak to the child in all of us. Maybe ‘Mister Rogers’ was not a mystery, but instead maybe we are making it too complicated. We need to step back and, as he so often advised, remember what it was like to be a child.

Fred Rogers was a simple man who spoke simply and that is what made him so radically challenging. “Indeed, what makes measuring Fred’s legacy so difficult is that Fred’s legacy is so clear.” Junod goes on to say, “It isn’t that he is revered but not followed; so much as he is revered because he is not followed—because remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one. He spoke most clearly through his example, but our culture consoles itself with the simple fact that he once existed. There is no use asking further questions of him, only of ourselves. We know what Mister Rogers would do, but even now we don’t know what to do with the lessons of Mister Rogers.” He might as well have been talking about Jesus Christ, the divine made flesh. But if there was spiritual truth in Fred Rogers, he taught that it was a spiritual truth in all of us, that we are children of God. Rather than what would Mister Rogers do, what will we do in remembering him?

HBO’s Euphoria and ABC’s My So-Called Life

“If I could be a different person, I promise you, I would. Not because I want it, but because they do. And therein lies the catch.”
~ Rue Bennett, Euphoria

“People always say you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you can know what it is, even.”
~ Angela Chase, My So-Called Life

In HBO’s show Euphoria from this year, close similarities can be found to ABC’s My So-Called Life from 1994. A quarter century has passed since the earlier show was cancelled after a single season. The formula was repeated less successfully in some others that followed it (an interesting variant was the 2003 Dead Like Me). Now there is HBO’s offering.

Both are coming-of-age stories taking place in the world of middle class America with its private family struggles and isolated individuals seeking to connect. There is the female protagonist, Rue Bennett or Angela Chase, who is a teenager in high school. She is a somewhat quiet and thoughtful outsider observing the world around her through a detached attitude, along with offering running commentary with internal monologue. She has a younger sister, Gia Bennett or Danielle Chase, who looks up to her and a mother, Leslie Bennett or Patricia “Patty” Chase, who doesn’t understand what she is going through. There is some focus on her early relationship with her father, Robert Bennett or Graham Chase.

A central theme of the show is how relationships change over time and how teenagehood is a time of immense change, of developing identities and self-discovery. The protagonist has grown distant from a childhood friend, Lexi Howard or Sharon Cherski. Then there is her new best friend, Jules Vaughn or Rayanne Graff, who is a wild girl bringing energy and excitement, not to mention some melodrama, into the her life. But often the protagonist has to play the mature role to protect her new friend and intervene despite her own fears, doubts, and problems. Substance abuse is involved in both shows, specifically in terms of this budding friendship, if it plays out differently in terms of which character is afflicted. And there is also a sexual tension that complicates their relationship, demonstrating the similarity of young friendship and young love.

Then there is the cool and popular guy, Nate Jacobs or Jordan Catalano, who is aloof and selfish, although much more menacing in this more recent incarnation as troubled psychopath-in-training. I’m not sure about characters that fit the role of gay friend, nerdy neighbor kid, and such. Maybe some of the characters in Euphoria play similar purposes in the narrative. Is Fezco, the young local drug dealer, the equivalent of Enrique “Rickie” Vasquez, in that both are streetwise and have to take care of themselves? And is Kat Hernandez, an overweight girl, in her relationship to Ethan a slightly different version of Delia Fischer in her relationship to Brian Krakow?

To emphasize the similarities Euphoria references My So-Called Life in one of the early episodes, indicating the previous show is an inspiration. And likewise, this new show deals with issues of the day that earlier shows tended to ignore and many adults don’t consider appropriate for teenagers. It is going for an edgy appeal of gritty realism and teenage angst in a world where parents are rarely paying attention or know what to do. The younger generation in each case, GenX and GenZ, has to figure it out on their own and find their own way. This is amusing since the former generation is now the parents of the latter generation. One lost generation to the next.

* * *

Made You Look/Transcript
from Fandom

Rue: Watcha doin’?

Gia (Rue’s sister): Watching My So-Called Life.

Rue: *Chuckles* Fuckin’ Jordan Catalano.

Gia: I know, right?

Rue: Right. Ugh.

Gia: *Laughs*

Rue: Please promise me you will never fall for a Jordan Catalano.

Gia: But he’s so cute. *Laughs*

My so called life was cancelled after one season
by u/robologoin

Partly because Claire Danes didn’t want to keep going. But TV has changed now. Euphoria is the closest thing to that show I’ve ever seen. I’d like to think it could also survive a change in lead if Zendaya got some major movie role and moved on

Euphoria Review: Freaks and Dicks
by Jen Chaney

In the third episode of the trippy and explicit Euphoria, the pseudo-recovering addict Rue (Zendaya) enters the bedroom of her younger sister, Gia (Storm Reid), and finds her watching an episode of My So-Called Life. By referencing the 25-year-old ABC high-school series, Euphoria tips its hat to a previous entry in the same genre and reminds the audience that what was praised for its honest depiction of teen life in 1994 now looks quaint by comparison. That’s especially true if you’re comparing it to Euphoria.

The Kids Aren’t Alright In HBO’s Excessive ‘Euphoria’
by Ed Bark

A passing reference leaves its mark in Episode 3 of HBO’s aggressively graphic Euphoria.

The kid sister of central character Rue Bennett (Zendaya, already on a first name basis) is alone in her room, immersed in her iPad. What’s she watching? My So-Called Life, Gia (Storm Reid) tells Rue.

Today’s high schoolers weren’t anywhere near being born when the then very daring ABC coming-of-age drama series premiered a quarter-century ago and lasted just one season. Euphoria, which launches Sunday, June 16th on HBO at 10 p.m. ET, makes the disaffected youth of Pittsburgh’s Liberty High seem like the original comic book versions of Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica. But it certainly shows how far we’ve come – or fallen.

All of the Music Played During ‘Euphoria’ Season 1
by Khal

List of My So-Called Life music
from My So-Called Life Wiki
(Spotify playlist)

Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia

The amount of entertainment media is immense these days, even limiting it to big biz media in the United States: Hollywood, cable, television, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. I try to be discerning in what I watch, but I also have a curiosity to sample what is being produced. Viewing entertainment media offers a glimpse into the national psyche. It’s the moral imagination that Edmund Burke could never have imagined, the mental furniture of media-saturated late modernity.

I look for the narratives and tropes that are popular or for whatever reason are being pushed by media companies. As others have noted, the Cold War had re-entered or been re-introduced into the cultural imagination. It began with the 9/11 terrorist attack because our actions during the Cold War era were coming back to haunt us. In the fight against the Soviets, it was the U.S. that trained, armed, and allied with Osama bin Laden and in the process helped create al-Quaida. It was the U.S. that purposely destroyed so many secular democratic governments in order to replace them with theocracies, dictatorships, and fascist states. And it was the U.S. that, as allies with the Iraqis, gave Saddam Hussein chemical weapons (i.e., weapons of mass destruction) that he used against his own people while we watched and did nothing.

The sins of the father fell upon the sons. It was Generation X that fought in Iraq during Desert Storm and once again in the Iraq War. These GenXers and their non-military generational peers were bottle fed on Cold War media and ideology. It was maybe natural that, as this generation began careers in entertainment media, they (along with the older generations) inserted the Cold War mentality back into the mainstream. Once again, we started seeing Russians portrayed as enemies in movies and shows.

Recent political events during and following the 2016 presidential campaign brought back many of the dark fantasies of the Cold War. And the fear about media meddling struck a chord that resonated with the early Cold War. Russia has returned to the world stage as a major political power. And the U.S. corporate media have given the Russian elite all the attention and coverage they were seeking. Putin’s purpose was unlikely to elect any particular candidate and more simply to regain the respect of being treated as a real threat. As nothing else could, the fear-mongering of U.S. media boosts Putin’s ego and his popularity among Russians. They were back in their Cold War role.

I hadn’t given this much thought recently. But it all came back to my attention while watching a relatively new show, TNT’s Legends. It originally aired a few years ago and the rights to show it were purchased by Hulu. I mention it not because it is great entertainment, rather because it is an expression of the cultural moment. It’s likely Hulu wouldn’t have had any interest in it, if not for recent political events and investigations involving Russia. After watching a few episodes, it immediately felt familiar. I realized that, although outwardly about the Iraq War and the War on Terror, the basic story came from my youth. It’s a revamped Vietnam War show. There is the traumatized war experience that the protagonist can’t remember and some kind of secret government operation or experiment that involved combat soldiers. The protagonist has been brainwashed somehow and he is trying to remember who he was and what happened.

Legends has hints of Cold War movies like the Manchurian Candidate, although more heavily leans on the tropes of Vietnam War movies, specifically Rambo and Jacob’s Ladder. The latter movie, Jacob’s Ladder, came a bit later in 1990 when the Cold War mood was declining but still much in the air. All of these movies weren’t limited to the imagination of screenwriters and producers. They express the paranoid mindset that had taken hold back then. Also, the U.S. government really was doing some crazy shit, from brainwashing experiments to drug experiments. Jacob’s Ladder was a fictionalized account of an actual government experiment, although the source material of Rambo was a popular conspiracy theory that had no basis in reality.

Whether inspired by truth or paranoia, such narratives spoke and in new forms continue to speak to the public imagination. What do such narratives mean? And why do they keep coming back? The have become part of a deep-seated American mythos that continually gets introduced to new generations.

The Legends show was based on a novel by Robert Littell (two of his other works were earlier made into a movie and series). He grew up during the World War II period, was in the Navy during the early Cold War, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent during the Vietnam War, and began his fiction writing in the last years of the Vietnam War with his second novel being about that war. He is one of the authors who helped popularize the American spy novel, one of the main expressions of Cold War paranoia where truth and conspiracy were mingled. Although an old guy at this point, he is still writing and was last published in 2016 (a professional writing career that has lasted a half century).

The novel that was the source of the Legends was written in 2005, at the height of ramping up public opinion for the War on Terror. It was a time of the return of the paranoid mind with the likes of Alex Jones gaining mainstream attention. Interestingly, the developers of the show were three older GenXers: Howard Gordon, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and Mark Bomback. And all of them were born during the Vietnam War. These producers have been involved in other shows that embody the mindset of paranoia and the war state, such as Gordon having co-developed and written scripts for Showtime’s Homeland while Nachmanoff was a director for that show. Gordon had done earlier work for years as a supervising producer and scriptwriter for The X-Files, the original show that made conspiracy theory fully mainstream.

If these narratives, these collective fantasies didn’t have such staying power, it would be a lot harder for them to be constantly used as propaganda tools. The Bush administration was able to use them to great effect in drumming up support. And that persistent paranoia has taken on new life and new uses during this Trump era. It’s because the public and politicians are constantly being fed this kind of entertainment that we get this world we find ourselves in. They are powerful narratives, capturing the moral imagination through visions of power and greatness, paranoia and terror. We get trapped in the stories we tell. There is no way to rationally respond to them. They are mind viruses that get passed on from generation to generation.

Ian Cheng on Julian Jaynes

Down an Internet Rabbit Hole With an Artist as Your Guide
by Daniel McDermon

The art of Ian Cheng, for example, is commonly described in relation to video games, a clear influence. But the SI: Visions episode about him touches only lightly on that connection and on Mr. Cheng’s career, which includes a solo exhibition earlier this year at MoMA PS1. Instead, viewers go on a short but heady intellectual journey, narrated by Mr. Cheng, who discusses improv theater and the esoteric theories of the psychologist Julian Jaynes.

Jaynes, Mr. Cheng said, posits that ancient people weren’t conscious in the way that modern humans are. “You and I hear an internal voice and we perceive it to be a voice that comes from us,” Mr. Cheng says in the video. But Jaynes argued that those voices might well have been perceived as other people.

In that theory, Mr. Cheng explained in an interview, “The mind is actually composed of many sub-people inside of you, and any one of those people is getting the spotlight at any given time.” It’s a model of consciousness that is echoed in the film “Inside Out,” in which an adolescent girl’s mind comprises five different characters.

This conception of consciousness and motivation helped him build out the triad of digital simulations that were shown at MoMA PS1. In those works, Mr. Cheng created characters and landscapes, but the narrative that unfolds is beyond his control. He has referred to them as “video games that play themselves.”

Damnation: Rural Radicalism

Damnation is a new show on USA Network (co-produced by Netflix). It’s enjoyable entertainment inspired by history and influenced by literature.

As Phil De Semlyen at Empire summarizes the background of the show, it is “a 1930s saga of big business concerns and poor, struggling families, with possibly a sprinkling of Elmer Gantry-like religious hypocrisy, crime and demagoguery thrown in for good measure. “It’s set in the Great Depression and based on true events,” Mackenzie tells Empire of this heady-sounding mix, “It’s about strikers and strike-breakers in Iowa, almost the Dust Bowl, which is bloody interesting.” A bit Steinbeck-y, then? “Kind of. A little bit more amped than that, but yeah.”” And from a Cleveland.com piece by Mark Dawidziak, the show’s creator Tony Tost explained in an interview that,  “They’re unquestionably two of my favorite writers… The world of John Steinbeck as presented in ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Cannery Row’ was a big influence, as was Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, ‘Red Harvest,” which is set in a Western mining town. All of that went into the soup when writing ‘Damnation.’ ” In mentioning that interview, Bustle’s Jack O’Keeffe writes that,

While the show’s creator has named The Grapes Of Wrath as a touchstone for the series, it also calls to mind one of the most acclaimed period films of the past decade. The 2007 film There Will Be Blood covers the first three decades of 20th Century America, stopping just shy of the Great Depression. However, the small-town rivalry between a suspicious preacher and a business-minded capitalist that arises in There Will Be Blood seems to mirror the central conflict present in Damnation. Damnation seems to be drawing from some pieces of American fiction about the sociopolitical realities of this particular era.

In an interview with Cleveland.com, Tost admitted that Damnation’s influences don’t stop at Steinbeck or the violent filmography of Quentin Tarantino. Tost also listed iconic western director Sam Peckinpah, the Pulitzer-prize winning novel Gilead, and the non-fiction book Hard Times: An Oral History Of The Great Depression among his many inspirations. While Damnation may have invented the details of its story, the creative forces behind the show seemed to do their homework when it came to capturing an accurate picture of what life was like then.

While many of the show’s influences are set 80 years ago, the most surprising source for Damnation may be 2017. Tost told Cleveland.com in the previously mentioned interview, “If you look at the 1930s — a time when there was increasing distrust in institutions, there was fear of finding meaningful work, there is this onslaught of new technology taking away jobs — the relevance [of the show to 2017 audiences] is almost inescapable.”

In a Fayetteville Flyer interview, Tost describes “it as 1/3 Clint Eastwood, 1/3 John Steinbeck, 1/3 James Ellroy. That is, it takes some characters you’d normally see in a tough western, plops them in the world of Grapes of Wrath, and places them in the sort of pulpy paranoid narrative you see in Ellroy’s novels.” About the research, he says:

It’s a blast. Back in my academic days, my field of study was American literature from 1890 to 1945 and I wrote a dissertation on the influence of new technologies in the 20s and 30s on the American imagination. Then I wrote a book about Johnny Cash which delved into the same time period from a different angle, looking at the music and preachers and myths of Americana. So by the time I came up with Damnation as a TV show, I had a good feel for the period, I think. I’ve done plenty of research since then: oral histories and historical accounts of the period and so forth. We have a person who works on the show who daily does research into various arenas we’re interested in, whether it’s carnivals or bootlegging or pornography or baseball or what have you. Largely, I subscribe to David Milch of Deadwood’s advice: do a ton of research, then forget it, and then use your imagination. So Damnation mingles official history with fiction. I sometimes call it a “speculative history” of the time period.

And about “parallels between that period and today,” he states that there are, “Too many to list. I think that’s one of the things that got us the series order from USA network. Populist anger, fears about technologies and immigrants taking away jobs, fascist tendencies, fears of environmental apocalypse (dust bowl), life and death struggles over who is or isn’t a “real” American. The parallels are often spooky.”

So, even as it follows the general pattern of known history, it doesn’t appear to be based on any specific set of events. It is about the farmer revolts in Iowa during the Great Depression (see 1931 Iowa Cow War, 1932 Farmers’ Holiday Association, & 1933 Wisconsin Milk Strike), the kind of topic demonstrating traditional all-American radicalism that triggers the political right and makes them nostalgic for the pro-capitalist political correctness of corporate media propaganda during the Cold War. But I don’t think the fascist wannabes should get too worried since, as we know from history, the capitalists or rather corporatists defeated that threat from below. The days of a radical working class and of the independent farmer were numbered. The show captures that brief moment when the average American fought against the ruling elite with a genuine if desperate hope as a last stand in defending their way of life, but it didn’t have a happy ending for them.

The USA Network can put out a show like this because capitalism is so entrenched that such history of rebellion no longer feels like a serious threat, although this sense of security might turn out to be false in the long run. Capitalist-loving corporations, of course, will sell anything for a profit, even tv shows about a left-wing populist revolt against capitalists — as Marx put it, “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” The heckling complaints from the right-wing peanut gallery are maybe a good sign, as they are sensing that public opinion is turning against them. But as for appreciating the show, it is irrelevant what you think about the historical events themselves. The show doesn’t play into any simplistic narrative of good vs evil, as characters on both sides have complicated pasts. One is free to root for the capitalists as their goons kill the uppity farmers, if that makes one happy.

As for myself, the show is of personal interest as most of the story occurs here in Iowa. The specific location named is Holden County, but I have no idea where that is supposed to be. There presently is no Holden County in Iowa and I don’t know that there ever was. All I could find is a reference to a Holden County School (Hamilton Township) in an obituary from Decatur County, which is along the southern border of Iowa (a county over from Appanoose where is located Centerville with an interesting history). Maybe there used to a Holden County that was absorbed by another county, a common event I’ve come across before in genealogical research, but in this case no historical map shows a Holden County ever having existed.

The probable fictional nature of the county aside, there is a reason the general location is relevant. Iowa is a state that exists in multiple overlapping border regions, between the Mississippi River and the Missouri River, between the Midwest and Far West, between the Upper Midwest and the Upper South. It is technically in the Midwest and typically perceived as the Heart of the Heartland, the precise location of Standard American English. The broad outlines of Iowa was defined according to Indian territory, such as how the northern border of Missouri originally formed. What became a boundary dispute later on almost led to violent conflict between Missouri and Iowa, based on the ideological conflict over slavery that would eventually develop into the Civil War.

Large parts of Iowa has more similarity to the Upper Midwest. It is distinct in being west of the Mississippi River, one of the last areas of refuge for many of what then were still independent Native American tribes and hence one of the last major battlegrounds to fight off Westward expansion. Iowa is the only state where a tribe collectively bought its own land, rather than staying on a federal reservation. As for southern Iowa, there is a clear Southern influence and you can occasionally hear a Southern accent (as found all across the lower edge of the Lower Midwest). That distinguishes it from northern Iowa with more of the northern European (German, Czech, and Scandinvian) culture shared with Minnesota and Wisconsin. And the more urbanized and industrialized Eastern Iowa has some New England influence from early settlers.

Maybe related to the show, southern Iowa had much more racial and ethnic diversity because of the immigrants attracted to mining towns. This led to greater conflict. I know that in Centerville, a town once as diverse as any big city, the Ku Klux Klan briefly used violence and manipulation to take control of the government before being ousted by the community. The area was important for the Underground Railroad, but it wasn’t a safe area to live for blacks until after the Civil War. In Damnation, some of the town residents are members of the Black Legion, the violent militant group that was an offshoot of the KKK (originally formed to guard Klan leaders). In the show, the Black Legion is essentially a fascist group that opposes left-wing politics and  labor organizing, which is historically accurate. The Klan and related groups in the North were more politically oriented, since the black population was fewer in number. In fact, the Klan tended to be found in counties where there were the least number of minorities (racial minorities, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities), as shown in how they couldn’t maintain control in diverse towns like Centerville.

One of the few blacks portrayed in the show is a woman working at a brothel. I supposed that would have been common, as blacks would have had a harder time finding work. In a scene at the brothel, there was one detail that seemed to potentially be historically inaccurate. A Pinkerton goon has all the prostitutes gathered and holds up something with words on it. He wants to find out which of them can read and it turns out that the black woman is the only literate prostitute working there. That seems unlikely. Iowa had a highly educated population early on, largely by design — as Phil Christman explains (On Being Midwestern: The Burden of Normality):

This is a part of the country where, the novelist Neal Stephenson observes, you can find small colleges “scattered about…at intervals of approximately one tank of gas.” Indeed, the grid-based zoning so often invoked to symbolize dullness actually attests to a love of education, he argues: 

People who often fly between the East and West Coasts of the United States will be familiar with the region, stretching roughly from the Ohio to the Platte, that, except in anomalous non-flat areas, is spanned by a Cartesian grid of roads. They may not be aware that the spacing between roads is exactly one mile. Unless they have a serious interest in nineteenth-century Midwestern cartography, they can’t possibly be expected to know that when those grids were laid out, a schoolhouse was platted at every other road intersection. In this way it was assured that no child in the Midwest would ever live more than √2 miles [i.e., about 1.4 miles] from a place where he or she could be educated.7

Minnesota Danish farmers were into Kierkegaard long before the rest of the country.8 They were descended, perhaps, from the pioneers Meridel LeSueur describes in her social history North Star Country: 

Simultaneously with building the sod shanties, breaking the prairie, schools were started, Athenaeums and debating and singing societies founded, poetry written and recited on winter evenings. The latest theories of the rights of man were discussed along with the making of a better breaking plow. Fourier, Marx, Rousseau, Darwin were discussed in covered wagons.9

If you’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, you know that many of these schools were founded as centers of abolitionist resistance, or even as stops on the Underground Railroad.

The rural Midwest was always far different than the rural South. Iowa, in particular, was a bureaucratically planned society with the greatest proportion of developed land of any state in the country. The location of roads, railroads, towns, and schools was determined before most of the population arrived (similar to what China is now attempting with its mass building of cities out of nothing). The South, on the other hand, grew haphazardly and with little government intervention, such as seen with the the crazy zig-zagging of property lines and roads because of the metes-and-bounds system. This orderly design of Iowa fit the orderly culture of Northern European immigrants and New England settlers, contributing to an idealistic mentality about how society should operate (the Iowa college towns surrounded by farmland were built on the New England model).

The farmer revolts didn’t come out of nowhere. The immigrant populations in states like Iowa were already strongly community-focused and civic-minded. With them, they brought values of work ethic, systematic methods of farming, love of education, and much else. As an interesting example, Iowa was once known as the most musical state in the country because every town had local bands.

Unlike the stereotype, Iowans were obsessed with high culture. They saw themselves on the vanguard of Western Civilization. With so many public schools and colleges near every community, Iowans were well educated. The reason school children to this day have summers off was originally to allow farm children to be able to help on the farm while still being able to attend school. These Midwestern farm kids had relatively high rates of college attendance. And Iowa has long been known for having good schools, especially in the past. My mother has noted that so many Iowans she knows who are college-educated professionals went to small rural one-room schoolhouses.

Another factor is that Northern Europeans had a collectivist bent. They didn’t just love building public schools, public libraries, and public parks. They also formed civic institutions, farmer co-ops, credit unions, etc. They had a strong sense of solidarity that held their communities together. As the Iowa farmers stood together against the capitalist elites from the cities (the banksters, robber barons, and railroad tycoons), so did the German-American residents of Templeton, Iowa stood against Prohibition agents:

The most powerful weapon against oppression is community. This is attested to by the separate fates of a Templetonian like Joe Irlbeck and big city mobster like Al Capone. “Just as Al Capone had Eliot Ness, Templeton’s bootleggers had as their own enemy a respected Prohibition agent from the adjacent county named Benjamin Franklin Wilson. Wilson was ardent in his fight against alcohol, and he chased Irlbeck for over a decade. But Irlbeck was not Capone, and Templeton would not be ruled by violence like Chicago” (Kindle Locations 7-9 [Bryce T. Bauer, Gentlemen Bootleggers]). What ruled Templeton was most definitely not violence. Instead, it was a culture of trust. That is a weapon more powerful than all of Al Capone’s hired guns.

Damnation is a fair portrayal of this world that once existed. And it helps us to understand what destroyed that world — as vulture capitalists targeted small family farmers, controlling markets when possible or failing that sending in violent goons to create fear and havoc. That world survived in tatters for a few more decades, but government-subsidized big ag quickly took over. Still, small family farmers didn’t give up without a fight, as they were some of the last defenders of a pre-corporatist free market based on the ideal of meritorious hard work — the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer with its vision of agrarian republicanism, in line with Paine’s brand of socially-minded and liberty-loving Anti-Federalism.

On a more prosaic level, one reviewer offers a critical observation. Mike Hale writes, from a New York Times piece (Review: ‘Damnation’ and the Sick Soul of 1930s America):

Any fidelity to the story’s supposed place and time is clearly incidental to Mr. Tost. He’s transposed the clichés of 19th-century Wyoming or South Dakota to 1930s Iowa, and doesn’t even get the look right — shot in Alberta, the locations look nothing like the Midwest.

Perhaps he was drawn to the contemporary echoes of the Depression-era material but wanted to give it some mock-Shakespearean, “Deadwood”-style dramatic heft. There’s a lot of literary straining going on — the characters are more familiar than you’d expect with the work of Wallace Stevens and Theodore Dreiser, and the sordid capitalism and anti-Communist fervor depicted in the story invoke Sinclair Lewis and Jack London.

I’m not sure why Mike Hale thinks the show doesn’t look like Iowa. He supposedly grew up in Iowa, but I don’t know which part. Anyone who has been in Western Iowa or even much of Eastern Iowa would recognize similar terrain. I doubt anything has been transposed.

Iowa is a young state and, as once being part of the Wild West, early on had a cowboy culture. Famous Hollywood cowboys came from the Midwest, specifically this region along the Upper Mississippi River — such as Ronald Reagan who was from western Illinois and worked in Iowa and John Anderson who was born in Western Illinois and was college-educated in Iowa, but also others who were born and raised in Iowa: John Wayne, Hank Worden, Neville Brand, etc (not just playing cowboys on the big screen but growing up around that cowboy culture). This isn’t just farm country with fields of corn and soy. Most of that is feed for animals, such as cattle. Iowa is part of the rodeo circuit and there is a strong horse culture around here. A short distance from where I live, a coworker of mine helps drive cattle down a highway every year to move them from one field to another.

But as I pointed out, none of this contradicts it also being a highly educated and literate population. I don’t know why Hale would think that certain writers would be unknown to Midwesterners, especially popular and populist writers like Jack London. As for Theodore Dreiser, he was a fellow German-American Midwesterner who wrote about rural life and was politically aligned with working class interests, including involvement in the defense of radicals like those Iowa farmers — the kind of writer one would expect Iowans, specifically working class activists, to be reading during the Great Depression era. That would be even more true for Sinclair Lewis who was from neighboring Minnesota, not to mention also writing popular books about Midwestern communities and radical criticisms of growing fascism — the same emergent fascism that threatened those Iowa farmers.

It’s interesting that an Iowan like Mike Hale would be so unaware of Iowa history. But maybe that is because he was born and spent much of his life outside of Iowa, specifically outside of the United States. His family isn’t from Iowa and so he has no roots here. I noticed that he tweeted that he “Was intrigued ‘Damnation’ is set in my state, Iowa. Didn’t expect the crucifixion, gun battles and frontier brothel”; to which someone responded that “If in Palo Alto, San Jose & NYC since ’77, IA hasn’t been ur state 4 awhile.” Besides, part of his childhood wasn’t even spent in Iowa but instead in Asia. And beyond that, many people simply don’t think he is that great of a critic (see Cultural Learnings, Variety, and Mediaite).

A better review is by Jeff Iblings over at The Tracking Board (Damnation Review: “Sam Riley’s Body”). The review is specifically about the first episode, but goes into greater detail:

Damnation is a new show on USA Networks set in the 1930’s during prohibition, the dust bowl era, and the social unrest during the unionization and strikes that accompanied the corruption of that time. It’s an intriguing look at a moment in American history when people began to wrest control away from a government bought and paid for by industrialists, only to have their movement squashed by the collusion of moneyed interests and the politicians they’d paid for. The series begins in Holden, Iowa as farmers have formed a blockade around the town so no more shipments of produce can reach the city. The powerful banker in town, who owns the newspaper and the Sheriff, has bribed the market in town to keep his food prices low, to price the famers out of making a profit on their crops so they’ll default on the loans he’s given them. A preacher in town fans the flames of the farmer’s unhappiness and gets them to revolt against the banker. Who is this mysterious preacher, and what does he have planned? […]

Damnation is clearly well researched, and the true-life stories it uses to flesh out its world are there to service the narrative, not overburden the show. 1930’s America was a desperate, bleak time, where moneyed interests controlled everything. The game was fixed back then, with politicians in the pocket of industrialists and wealthy bankers. The people had nothing more to give, since the wealthy had taken nearly everything from them. It’s a very relevant tale. Almost the same exact thing is going on again in present day America, which I would imagine, is one of the points of Damnation.

Iblings writes in another Damnation review of the second episode:

Tony Tost and his writers room delve into the history of the Great Depression in order to mine forgotten aspects of our political and social movements. It’s incredible how prescient much of the struggles of the farmers depicted still are problems today. Price fixing, bank negligence and dishonesty, politicians in the pockets of big business, the stifling of the labor movement when it’s needed most, and the inherent racism and protectionism of white Americans towards other races are all as topical today as they were in the 1930’s. It’s as if little has actually changed 100 years later. Damnation may be a historical television series, but it’s speaking to the America of today.

And about the third episode, he writes:

There are a few interesting moments I want to point out that really stuck with me. The first is the opening scene of a couple watching their kids playing baseball and taking great joy in it. When the wife goes into the shed to get the kids some cream soda, there are nooses hanging from the ceiling and Black Legion outfits hung up on the walls. The man then exclaims to his wife, “If this isn’t the American dream, I don’t know what is.” Damnation uses this banal setting, and these uneventful people to show how the American dream was an exclusionary ideal. They look like normal people you’d run into, but underneath this veneer are racist secrets. This prejudice was pervasive back then, but in Trump’s America this type of hatred and racism has become the norm once again. It was disgusting then, and it’s disgusting now.

What I like about the show is how it portrays the nature of populist politics during that historical era. The show begins in 1931, a moment of transition for American society in the waning days of Prohibition. The Great Depression followed decades of Populism and set the stage for the Progressivism that would follow. The next year Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be elected and later on re-elected twice more, the most popular president in US history.

What many forget about both Populism and Progressivism is the role that religion played, especially Evangelicalism. In the past, Evangelicals were often radical reformers in their promoting separation of church and state, abolitionism, women’s rights, and such. Think of the 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech given by William Jennings Bryan. This goes back to how Thomas Paine, the original American populist and progressive, used Christian language to advocate radical politics. Interestingly, as Paine was an anti-Christian deist, the leader of the farmers revolt is a guy falsely posing as an itinerant preacher, although he shows signs of genuine religious feeling such as sparing a man’s life when he sees the likeness of a cross marked on the floor near the man’s head. However one takes his persona of religiosity, the preaching of a revolutionary Jesus is perfectly in line with the political rhetoric of the period.

I also can’t help but appreciate how much it resonates with the present. The past, in a sense, always remains relevant — since as William Faulkner so deftly put it,  “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” In a New York Post interview, the show’s creator Tony Tost was asked, “How relevant is the plot about the common man battling the establishment today?” And he replied that, “I wrote the first two episodes, like, three years ago, but contemporary history keeps making the show feel more and more relevant. I’m not necessarily trying to do an allegory about the present, but history is very cyclical. There’s some core elemental conflicts and issues that we keep returning to. In a way, the present day almost caught up.”

As with Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon’s Man in the High Castle, Damnation has good timing. Such hard-hitting social commentary is important at times like these. And in the form of entertainment, it is more likely to have an impact.

* * *

State of Emergency: The Depression and the Plots to Create an American Dictatorship
by Nate Braden, Kindle Locations 510-571
(see Great Depression, Iowa, & Revolts)

“In September 1932 Fortune published a shocking profile of the effect Depression poverty was having on the American people. Titled “No One Has Starved” – in mocking reference to Herbert Hoover’s comment to that effect – Fortune essentially called the President a liar and explained why in a ten page article. Predicting eleven million unemployed by winter, its grim math figured these eleven million breadwinners were responsible for supporting another sixteen and a half million people, thus putting the total number of Americans without any income whatsoever at 27.5 million. Along with another 6.5 million who were underemployed, this meant 34 million citizens – nearly a third of the country’s population – lived below the poverty line. [1]

“Confidence was low that a Hoover reelection would bring any improvement in the country’s situation. He had ignored calls in 1929 to bail out banks after the stock market crashed on the grounds that the federal government had no business saving failed enterprises. With no liquidity in the financial markets, credit evaporated and deflation pushed prices and wages lower, laying waste to asset values. Two years passed before Hoover responded with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, created to distribute $300 million in relief funds to state and local governments. It was too little, too late. The money would have been better served shoring up the banks three years earlier.

“With each cold, hungry winter that passed, political discussions grew more radical and less tolerant. Talk of revolution was more openly voiced. Harper’s, reflecting the opinion of East Coast intellectuals, pondered its likelihood and confidently asserted: “Revolutions are made, not by the weak, the unsuccessful, or the ignorant, but by the strong and the informed. They are processes, not merely of decay and destruction, but of advance and building. An old order does not disappear until a new order is ready to take its place.”[2]

“As this smug analysis was rolling off the presses, the weak, the unsuccessful, and the ignorant were already proving it wrong. Most people expected a revolt to start in the cities, but it was in the countryside, in Herbert Hoover’s home state no less, where men first took up arms against a system they had been raised to believe in but no longer did. On August 13, 1932, Milo Reno, the onetime head of the Iowa Farmer’s Union, led a group of five hundred men in an assault on Sioux City. They called it a “farm holiday,” but it was in fact an insurrection. Reno and his supporters blocked all ten highways into the city and confiscated every shipment of milk except those destined for hospitals, dumping it onto the side of the road or taking it into town to give away free. Fed up with getting only two cents for a quart of milk that cost them four cents to bring to market, the farmers were creating their own scarcities in an attempt to drive up prices.

“The insurgents enjoyed local support. Telephone operators gave advance warning of approaching lawmen, who were promptly ambushed and disarmed. When 55 men were arrested for picketing the highway to Omaha, a crowd of a thousand angry farmers descended on the county jail in Council Bluffs and forced their release. The uprising just happened to coincide with the Iowa National Guard’s annual drill in Des Moines, but Governor Dan Turner declined to use these troops to break up the disturbance, saying he had “faith in the good judgment of the farmers of Iowa that they will not resort to violence.”[3]

“The rebellion spread to Des Moines, Spencer, and Boone. Farmers in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota declared their own holidays. Milo Reno issued a press release vowing to continue “until the buying power of the farmer is restored – which can be done only by conceding him the right to cost of production, based on an American standard of existence.” Business institutions, he added, “whether great or small, important or humble, must suffer.” While advising his followers to obey the law and engage only in “peaceful picketing,” Reno issued this warning: “The day for pussyfooting and deception in the solution of the farmers’ problems is past, and the politicians who have juggled with the agricultural question and used it as a pawn with which to promote their own selfish interests can succeed no longer.”[4]

“Reno and his men had laid down their marker. Aware that the insurrectionists might call his bluff, the governor stopped short of issuing an ultimatum, but he kept his Guardsmen in Des Moines just in case. The showdown never came – a mysterious shotgun attack on one of Reno’s camps near Cherokee was enough to persuade him to call off the holiday – but others weren’t cowed by the violence. The same day Reno issued his press release, coal miners in neighboring Illinois went on strike after their pay was cut to five dollars a day. Fifteen thousand of them shut down shafts all over Franklin County, the state’s largest mining region, and took over the town of Coulterville for several hours, “exhausting provisions at the restaurant, swamping the telephone exchange with calls and choking roads and fields for a mile around” the New York Times reported. Governor Louis Emmerson ordered state troopers to take the town back. Wading into a hostile, sneering crowd who shouted “Cossacks!” at them, the police broke it up with pistols and clubs, putting eight miners in the hospital.

“The rebels were bloodied but unbowed. Vowing to march back in to coal country, strike leader Pat Ansbury told a journalist, “if we go back it must be with weapons. We can’t face the machine guns of those Franklin County jailbirds with our naked hands. Not a man in our midst had even a jackknife. When we go back we must have arms, organization and cooperation from the other side.” Shaking his head at the lost opportunity, he made sure the reporter hadn’t misunderstood him. “This policy of peaceful picketing is out from now on.” Reno conducted a similar post-mortem, acknowledging that his side may have lost the battle but would not lose the war: “You can no more stop this movement than you could stop the revolution. I mean the revolution of 1776.”[5]

“Not only were farmers burdened by low commodity prices, they were also swamped with high-interest mortgages and crushing taxes. In February 1933 Prudential Insurance, the nation’s largest land creditor, announced it would suspend foreclosures on the 37,000 farm titles it held, valued at $209 million. Mutual Benefit and Metropolitan Life followed suit, all of them finally coming to the conclusion that they couldn’t get blood from a rock.

“It was also getting very dangerous to be a repo man in the Midwest. When farms were foreclosed and the land put up for auction, neighbors of the dispossessed property holder would often show up at the sale, drive away any serious bidders, then buy the land for a few dollars and deed it back to the original owner. By this subterfuge a debt of $400 at one Ohio auction was settled for two dollars and fifteen cents. A mortgage broker in Illinois received only $4.90 for the $2,500 property he had put into receivership. An Oklahoma attorney who tried to serve foreclosure papers to a farm widow was promptly waylaid by her neighbors, including the county sheriff, driven ten miles out of town and dumped unceremoniously on the side of the road. A Kansas City realtor who had foreclosed on a 500-acre farm turned up with a bullet in his head, his killers never brought to justice. [6]”

Star Trek Over Time

I’m super curious about the new Star Trek show that will eventually be coming out, a bit delayed. The original is one of the shows I grew up with. And the entire set of series mark the changes of the world I’ve known over my life.

The Original Series is a cult classic. It’s Wagon Train to the Stars! It has the optimistic bravado of the early Cold War with a bit of an edge with the changing culture during the 1960s. It was largely escapist fantasy during a troubled era, but it was written and produced by those who remembered an earlier time. It resonated with the Golden Age of hard science fiction with its focus on technology and spaceships, exploration and adventure, along with some fun and imaginative ideas thrown in. It ended in 1969, before real world events turned even uglier in the 1970s, not to imply that American society wasn’t already taking a severe downturn.

I’ll skip over The Animated Series. It was a product of the 1970s, but it was very much an extension of The Original Series. I never watched much of it. The quality of the animation was equivalent of Scooby-Doo. The 1970s wasn’t known for its great animation, at least not on network tv, even if some of the cheap cartoons could be amusing for a child to watch. Anyway, Gene Roddenberry never considered The Animated Series to be canon.

Moving onto the 1980s and 1990s, there was The Next Generation. It revived the Star Trek world, brought the original out of status of mere cult classic and cheap rerun fodder. TNG was a truly high quality production. It made this future society much more compelling and realistic. The starship was an entire multicultural community with families, schools, entertainment, social events, etc. It was a utopian vision of technocratic socialism where the welfare state and social democracy had been pushed to their furthest extreme with all basic needs taken care of and all resources and opportunities made accessible, although a socialism that offered an alternative to the hard-edged communist totalitarianism of the Borg.

This particular futuristic imagining was the last gasp of Cold War optimism, the supposed end of history where capitalism had won and yet was becoming something entirely new. The show was initially produced during the last years of the Cold War and the beginning of the boom years that followed. It was a calmer time of history in the US and the West with no major wars or conflicts. Yet there was a growing edge of anxiety in the broader society. Threats of societal unease within the Federation mirrored the same in the United States, the tensions of a vast imperial-like civilization in both cases fraying at the edges with terrorism becoming an issue.

Interestingly, the Maquis were introduced in Deep Space Nine. That next series began in the last years of the previous series, The Next Generation. The Maquis were a terrorist group that arose at the frontier of the Federation, as some of the far-flung planetary colonists felt abandoned and betrayed by the centralized government. As TNG was still being produced, the Maquis storyline bled over into that series.

After the Cold War, Americans found themselves subjects of an empire and not sure what that meant. And those societies at the edge of the American Empire also were feeling on edge, as a new era of unchallenged neoliberalism came into dominance. It was a time of political conflict and culture wars. Without the global conflict of the Cold War, public attention turned toward these fractures within the Western world.

Years before the 9/11 terrorist attack, right-wing fanatics in the US and abroad were becoming central concerns. Ted Kazynski, the unabomber, continued his bombings through the early 1990s, the last two incidents killing the targeted victims, until he was arrested in 1996. The same year as Kazynski’s last bombing there was the Oklahoma City bombing, the largest act of domestic terrorism in US history. That was committed as retaliation for the 1993 violent conflict in WACO, involving the federal government and a religious cult that had been stockpiling weapons. There was also much violence by anti-abortion terrorists, including numerous murders in the 1990s. Outside of the US but in the English-speaking world, there was an upsurge of IRA bombings around that time as well, 28 attacks during the 7 years of TNG series.

On top of all that, it was a time of worsening racial and ethnic conflict. There was the police beating of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The tension of that decade was maybe exacerbated by the Immigration Act of 1990, which greatly increased the number of immigrants for the first time in decades. There was a realization that WASP culture was once again under threat. Fox News took advantage of those fears not just with right-wing pundits but also with hiring tall blonde women who represented the stereotype of the Aryan ideal, the white male audience presumably were supposed to fantasize about these women bearing them a new generation of Aryan children who would save America and lead us into the future… or something like that.

It was in this atmosphere that DS9 was produced. It showed a different side of the Federation and presented the first main captain character of a Star Trek series that was black. It was set on a space station near a wormhole and a highly religious planet, former territory of the Cardassian Union. The issues of the show were about conflicts, often violent, between various societies and groups within societies. These conflicts were often religious and ethnic in nature, but it also portrayed a setting of a multicultural meeting point where key characters of different races worked together and formed friendships.

The future of the Federation was being threatened like never before, but the enemies involved weren’t what the Federation was used to dealing with. The challenges faced were less of the variety of mighty space empires or communist-like Borg, but instead primarily the dangers of local religious fanatics and the menace of a highly advanced and secretive race of shapeshifters. The Dominion was an enemy that could be anywhere and appear like anyone. It wasn’t always clear, in DS9, who were enemies and who were friends or at least potential allies, as everything was in flux. Relationships, personal and political, were sometimes strained to the breaking point. And it was the destruction of the Maquis, caught in the middle, that was a prelude to war with the Dominion.

Back in the world of the United States, the sociopolitical mood during the mid-to-late-1990s was beginning to sour with the rise of a new kind of reactionary and conspiratorial right-wing that was given a platform through talk radio and Fox News: Alex Jones, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, etc. The Cold War had been about American might expanding onto the global theater and also a time of exploration of space. But in the last decade of the century, American society had turned more inward. The United States was drifting along into the future, we Americans having lost our cultural bearings. Many sensed an impending doom with our civilization approaching the year 2000 and along with it the third millennium, a symbolic calendrical shift giving rise to a foreboding mood as if almost anything could happen, even the end of the world as we knew it.

The reason the Maquis had been brought into the Star Trek world was as a plot device for the then upcoming series, Voyager. That next series, having begun in 1995, took over when The Next Generation ended. The confident optimism of the earlier Star Trek series had entirely evaporated. The new storyline was about a Federation starship and a Maquis starship becoming lost in distant and unknown stretches of space. The stability and safety of the Federation are gone. The crews are forced to join together in hope of finding their way home again. They are thrown into the unintended role of explorers, a rough-and-ready crew reminiscent of the the Federation’s early years.

Like these former enemies who became necessary shipmates, the bitterly antagonistic two-party system of the 1990s found itself unprepared for a world not expected or understood. DS9 having ended in 1999, Voyager carried us into a new century and a new era. The last episode of Voyager was aired only months before the 9/11 terrorist attack. The Voyager had made its way back to the Federation and soon after, outside of the Star Trek world, the United States would regain a sense of national purpose. But the economic good times were already winding down with the bust of the Dot-com bubble. America’s sense of greatness would be militaristic, not economic.

In the new century, Americans became even more obsessed with the national history. Maybe unsurprising, the last aired Star Trek series, Enterprise, brought us to the beginning of the Federation or rather slightly before its formation. That series demonstrated the mood of simultaneously looking back and peering forward. The period of the Enterprise was the Federation’s past and our future. According to the Star Trek timeline, this present century will involve World War III and a period of post-atomic horror. Following that comes first contact with an alien species. Later this century, human society begins to recover. And it is in the next century that humans become a spacefaring civilization, the story told in the Enterprise series.

Watching that series is to see the initial fumbling steps of humanity moving toward maturity as a species, but humans at that point are still largely arrogant toward and ignorant of the world beyond Earth. Many mistakes are made, as humanity attempts to gain a moral compass. For example, the Enterprise crew are confronted with a situation where they have to decide about intervention and this is prior to any Prime Directive, as there is no Federation yet. The Prime Directive has often been interpreted as a criticism of American interventionism, such as during the Vietnam War, but it took on new meaning during the post-9/11 years when the Enterprise series was aired.

For various reasons, many fans disliked that series. It maybe doesn’t help that it is the only series involving a non-Federation crew. A Star Trek show minus the Federation is not quite the same. It is specifically the vision of the future offered by the Federation that has attracted so many fans. But maybe it would have been hard for Americans to feel much interest in any Star Trek series in that early period of the War on Terror, a time when dark and dystopian entertainment captured the public imagination.

Yet in its own way, the Enterprise series did resonate. It maybe resonated too well, in presenting a future that was too close for comfort. In the 21st century, we are entering into the future history of the Star Trek world and it ain’t pretty. The coming years are supposed to be a time of mass unemployment, poverty, and homelessness which leads to the formation of ghettoized Sanctuary Districts and ends up inciting the Bell riots of 2024. It’s a pivotal moment, the setting of the stage for the events that move us toward global disaster and rebuilding. In its inspiration, it mirrors another pivotal moment, as the idea of the Bell riots was based on two real world events from decades ago: the 1970 Kent State shootings and the 1971 Attica Prison riot.

The era of the early Starfleet is born out of the ashes of, from our perspective, a yet to happen near apocalypse. With the mood of America and the rest of the world right now, World War III and nuclear destruction seems all the more probable. Our present fearless leader, President Trump, is a dumbed down and even less competent version of our last demoralizing chief of state, President Nixon with his inglorious impeachment and resignation, providing yet another link between the events of the 1970s and contemporary developments in the 21st century. As we face the future, it’s an immense gulf between our petty American Empire and the grand galactic civilization of the Federation guided by wise leaders such as Captain Picard.

That leaves us with the next installment. Coming soon is the Discovery series. It will return us to the time period of the original Star Trek, approximately ten years before. So, this will involve a refocusing on exploration and, well, discovery. I’m not expecting a re-envisioned Wagon Trail to the Stars, but I suspect the recent movies in the franchise very well might be indicative of the direction being taken. It supposedly is intended to help bridge the 150 years between the Enterprise and the original. I must say that sounds rather ambitious.

I’ll be curious to see how it might touch upon contemporary issues. One thing that stood out to me is that the cast is described as diverse, including a gay character. I don’t recall homosexuality coming up in the original show, but Captain Kirk had interracial kisses in two separate episodes which was scandalous for mainstream tv at the time. Whatever kind of show it is, it will be nice to return to my favorite fictional universe. And I certainly wouldn’t mind the opportunity to escape dark and depressing present realities, by leaping forward a couple centuries into the future. Star Trek, at its best, has been a visionary show and even leaning toward the utopian. We Americans could use some confident optimisim at the moment.

Introverted Delights

I’ve been watching Westworld. It’s my favorite show at the moment. That is saying a lot, considering it’s competition. The second season of The Man in the High Castle is about to come out, based on a novel I love by my favorite fiction writer. And the always entertaining Game of Thrones will be returning soon. But neither of those shows competes with Westworld.

Westworld is popular. But even though it has higher viewer ratings than Game of Thrones, it has much more mixed reviews. It’s such a complex show. The plotlines of Westworld are immensely more complicated than the sprawling narrative world of Game of Thrones. This makes it all the more impressive that it is so popular.

For some people, they see it as too cerebral. I wonder why that is. There is more emotional depth to this show in many ways than a show like Game of Thrones that is focused so much on physical action of fighting, on political machinations and worldly power. The inner experience of Westworld characters is conveyed to a much greater extent. Maybe that is what is difficult for some people, specifically extraverts.

Westworld, despite the outward action and adventure of the virtual world portrayed, is ultimately a show maybe best appreciated by an introvert. So many of the main characters on the show seem rather inwardly drawn and guarded about their most personal experience, which is unusual for mainstream action-oriented sci-fi. The point of the entire show revolves around growing self-awareness and the strengthening of an inner voice, the kind of thing that preoccupies introverts.

Some people wonder what is the point of all the convoluted plotlines, multitudinous cultural references, and in-show commentary of obscure ideas. Also, there is the simultaneous celebration and questioning of genre tropes. Is it embracing “guns and tits and all that mindless shit”? Or is the entire show a criticism of that, an exploration of what it means for our humanity? Maybe both. From my perspective, that just makes the show more interesting. But the basic show can be enjoyed on a much simpler level, even ignoring the sex and violence, as much of the character development is fairly straightforward. The motivation of characters is revealed as the show goes on, assuming enough imagination and curiosity pulls you in to follow the characters on their path of emergence.

The tricky part is that the identities of characters isn’t immediately apparent, only being revealed as their pasts are revealed. This is a slow reveal with glimpses of a murky past gradually coming into focus. The exploration of motivation is a learning experience as much for the characters themselves as for the viewers. We are meant to identify and empathize with the characters as individuals and not merely to be caught up in their actions and relationships with other characters.

This requires of the viewer both patience and immersion, along with suspension of disbelief about the entire fictional world. It’s an act of imaginative speculation taken to an extreme degree, an attempt to bring we the viewers into the borderlands of consciousness and of humanity. Some people have more tolerance than others for that kind of thing, but this is what the best sci-fi is able to achieve. That is what the producers of the Westworld show have been attempting, it being fair game to argue over how well they achieved it. Still, no matter how well done, these themes aren’t exactly of mainstream interest. Most viewers probably just want to see robots revolting and, for those folk, this show does deliver on that promise.

Still, Westworld is constrained by the sub-genre it belongs to. There is a central element of dark mystery and claustrophobic focus that is typical of gritty neo-noir, always leaving certain things unseen and unexplained. Take the slow burn of Blade Runner, exaggerate and complicate it, spread it across an entire show series with no linear plotline or single dominant protagonist, and that is what you get with Westworld. This isn’t a world-building exercise like some traditional fantasy and space operas where every detail is articulated and the background fully described. Everything in the narrative revolves around the characters and about what it means to be human.

This season introduced the individuals and their place in the world. The exploration of the larger world, if it is to happen, will be developed in the next season. The hosts, having gained consciousness, will no longer be trapped in voice commands, character scripts, and narrative loops. The inward focus likely will turn ever more outward, as the hosts try to grasp what kind of world they find themselves in. That is the natural progression of emerging consciousness, whether for a child or an android.