Dennis Broe continues his reviews on TV series
The shrinking middle class, and the pressures put on that class to survive an onslaught from the top directed at them and their working-class compatriots, is the subject of a number of contemporary series. Ozark, the most popular series on Netflix, has that class and the nuclear family around which it constructs its identity, besieged by, and caught in the middle of, a full-on war of drug runners. Breaking Bad, one of the most popular series of all time on U.S. cable, charts this downward trajectory as its anti-hero becomes increasingly more desperate and ruthless in his struggle to survive.
The popularity of these series is an indication of the anxiety experienced by a class which is every day, and more rapidly in the changes wrought by Covid, watching itself falling into what is becoming increasingly a regressive two-class system of the very rich and everyone else and which will not be halted, but only temporarily slowed, by Joe Biden’s return to “normalcy.”
This pressure is also felt globally and is the subject of a monstrously funny, biting social satire, posing as a “caper” show, the Danish series Pros and Cons. (Season one now available on Amazon Prime and season two on the way.) The show in Scandinavia is called Friheden, the name of the lower-middle class Copenhagen suburb in which its “average” four-member family is confined.
Erik and Nina can’t make the mortgage payments on a house located next to a suburban train track with the train rumbling through at all hours. Their young son Raj wants an iPad for school and their teenage daughter Esther needs a new computer to keep up with the other kids. These are expensive items that Nina, who is a corporate assistant so bored with her job she is having an affair with her boss, and Erik, who can’t seem to keep his jobs as a chef, cannot afford.
Erik and Nina though have a talent and a passion. They are initially revealed as top-flight con artists who were involved in conning drug dealers, but who have since decided that that life is no longer for them and have gone straight. Fifteen years after retiring though, the pressures of a squeezed middle-class life are weighing down on them and when their con handler Jacqueline reemerges with a plan to bilk a pharmaceutical CEO, that is, another kind of drug dealer, the couple agree to come out of retirement.
Not only is the series terrific on the plight of a dwindling middle class, it also in very clever ways juxtaposes these pressures with the con so that the parents have to split their masquerade so that one of them is always available to take Kaj to curling practice or to the doctor. The contrast between their mundane life as slightly bumbling parents and their expertise in inhabiting the world of the superrich and playing upon their greed is as sharp as previous series like The Sopranos with its gangster-family members, and more presciently The Americans with its Russian agents thwarting Reagan’s warmakers while keeping peace at home with two teenagers.
Pros and Cons goes one better on each of those series though because of its sharper contrast between the deprived milieu of the home by the railroad tracks and the ultra-elaborate gleaming glass structures of the corporate drug world and the lavish homes of its directors. As social satire the show works to enlist the sympathies of its audience, in much the way as did previous crime films like Double Indemnity. In that film we follow, and even are asked to cheer on, the bored but brilliant insurance salesman Walter Neff and the trapped, stay-at-home bride Phyllis Dietrichson in their quest to steal from an insurance company, even being intimate with them as murderers, because there is a sense that insurance is already a racket. A USA Today poll in the mid-80s revealed that a vast majority of Americans did not view cheating their insurance company as fraud, a recognition that the company, which makes a profit off gambling on when people will die, is already engaged in fraudulent activity.
There is widespread belief, now backed up in the opioid lawsuits in the courts, that drug companies are in the business of creating and then addicting customers to drugs they either don’t need or need desperately, in which case the company raises the price so the drugs are unaffordable. Scamming these scammers could not be more relevant as Western drug companies, having been financed by their governments then withhold global distribution of the Covid vaccine while engaging in price manipulation around the supply. Pros and Cons was an exceedingly popular show in its native Denmark and throughout Scandinavia, reaffirming the supposition that to con a drug company is more social revenge than hardened crime.
The ten-part season one then shifts gears to include in the con, through the sale of the drug company, a further con involving the Norwegian oil fund, one of the richest funds in the world which contains the contradiction of money that comes from destroying the planet by vastly adding to the CO2 buildup being used in “socially responsible” ways. The season two con involves a Danish cosmetics firm whose owner admits the branding simply conceals packaging ordinary natural elements as youth-restoring magical ingredients and a French luxury firm, based on LVMH which includes Louis Vuitton, and its regal owner, based on France’s richest billionaire Bernard Arnault, whose sweep in the show is about extending his own Trump-like ambitions of owning mineral-rich Greenland.
Eric’s “Frank Zeller” is the epitome of the slick and ruthless entrepreneur, and Nina’s uptight and obsequious corporate lawyer blanches while brokering the sale of the drug company, The ease with which Nina and Erik inhabit the world of the superrich is both humorous and sad. We read about the rich in magazines, gawk at them on television and are asked to imitate them but like Nina and Erik most of us then after a few fleeting moments of immersion must return to our crowded house next to the train station where the plumbing is failing and the bank hovers hoping the next mortgage payment is not made so it can reclaim the house. Pros and Cons, nominally a fictional series, is ripped from the emotional fabric of life under neoliberal capitalism, where opportunities shrink for the many who must go to elaborate lengths to even get the scraps from this wealth that now accrues only to the few.
Pros and Cons is a ten-part first season that has an unusual but now more popular structure that is quite effective. At the midpoint of the series, the end of five episodes, the con seems to have worked and the series might be over. Instead, new difficulties arise forcing the gang, now also including Nina and Nick’s daughter Ester in another nod to The Americans, to raise the stakes and escalate the con. At first the audience is left reeling, not knowing where the series is going, but then quickly new problems arise and the impetus for the second half of the season drives the show forward.
Two other series which use this season structuring approach are the Icelandic series The Valhalla Murders and American TV’s Big Sky. The Valhalla Murders is the most effective of all three in that the first half of the series seems to hinge on the discovery and thwarting of a serial killer, fairly standard stuff for a contemporary crime film. The killer seems to be brought to justice but slowly the two detectives learn that the web of intrigue around the sexual crimes at a boarding house extend upward and engulf the upper echelons of the criminal justice system. The midpoint pause in this case is used to shift gears toward far more critical content which we then realize in retrospect is crucial and intrinsic to any understanding of the original crime.
Big Sky, on the other hand, after a stunning reversal in episode one, which alters the masculinist trajectory of the series, also seems to come to a halt at the midpoint of its initial ten-episode run, with the series then pausing as it was originally shown on network TV for a several week holiday break. Here though the suspense is external. The kidnapping story which has driven the first five episodes seems to be resolved and the suspense operates more on the level of the audience wondering how the series will go forward, that is, how will it fill up its next five episodes and with the series then executing a series of shocks to satisfy this expectation, though none of them have the element of social satire which escalates as the series escalates in Pros and Cons and The Valhalla Murders.
Vertigo and Psycho
The models for this kind of jarring restart, halfway though the work, are the Hitchcock films Vertigo and Psycho, both of which feature the loss of major characters, who have become partial or full identification figures for the audience. The loss of these characters is so startling that in Vertigo the detective Scotty at first simply wanders in a kind of psychosis until the story restarts and in Psycho the audience itself, now minus its lead characters, sustains a similar type of vertigo.
Vertigo, which is the more remarkable of the two films, resolves much like Pros and Cons and The Valhalla Murders with deeper truths to tell about male psychosis when faced with female desire. Psycho while telling its own truths about male violence remains closer to the Big Sky model of a series of shocks that continually jar the audience while in this case engaging it directly in its own imbrication in visual processes of bloodlust. Big Sky, on the other hand, simply offers a series of ever-escalating and exceedingly clever surprises in a way that suggests the show is afraid to more openly critique and instead chooses to flatter and enthrall its audience.
Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.
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