Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

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.

Wanted's Women on the Run
Wednesday, 26 May 2021 10:30

Varieties of working-class women: Wanted, Bitter Daisies and Mare of Easttown

Dennis Broe discusses various depictions of working-class women in Wanted, Bitter Daisies, and Mare of Easttown

In large parts of the world anywhere between 50 and 70 percent of women are now actively engaged in the workplace, with most earning less than men and many performing the essential service and caring jobs that keep their societies running. This doesn’t include the nearly 100 percent of women whose domestic labour is unpaid and whose work in all the activities of reproduction (childrearing, cooking, cleaning) is still officially labelled ‘unproductive’.

Three series from across the globe, all falling into the crime genre, spotlight the ways working-class women make sense of the world and contend with a patriarchy which everywhere besets them. Wanted (Netflix) from Australia features two women who meet by chance and must take flight together in a version of Thelma and Louise that is much more class-conscious than the original. Bitter Daisies (Netflix) follows a police investigator as she burrows ever deeper into a sex ring that exposes the layers of male violence in the desolate Spanish province of Galicia. And, finally, Mare of Easttown (HBO/Sky Atlantic) presents the dense web of familial and social relationships in a Pennsylvania ex-mining town, centered around an anything-but star turn by Kate Winslet as a cop trying to solve the murder of a young girl in the town while keeping her family together.

Wanted’s Women on the Run

The set-up for Wanted is exquisite. Lola is an aging cashier who has no love for her menial job, sassing her employer and walking off the job when she feels like it. Chelsea is a young accountant at a corporate firm with a rich father who longs to assert herself in a job in which she remains faceless. They cross each other because both wait at an otherwise deserted bus station each midnight but would have never spoken except that they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a drug deal gone wrong involving a crooked cop.

In defending them Lola proves adept with a gun, resulting in a death and necessitating them fleeing together with the money from the drug deal, pursued by both the dealers and the police who are also in on the deal. The series, on Australian independent television, lasted three seasons – it was hoped Netflix would pick it up for a fourth but it did not – and over those three seasons the show highlighted various kinds and degrees of corrupt cops, mostly male but finally in the last season also a female corrupt cop who ultimately proves to be understanding of their situation.

The actual subject of the series is the relationship forged between the adamantly working- class Lola, whose family is no stranger to Australian prisons, and the privileged Chelsea who longs to break out of a patterned luxurious life that she simply inherited and that ultimately confines and limits her. Lola is ingenious at manoeuvring in the margins of the law, while Chelsea proves herself adept at manipulating a financial system which is set against them.

In each of the three seasons there is a moment at the end of the season where they acknowledge what they mean to each other. The series is touchingly about a difficult friendship forged in the midst of an impossible situation where each comes to admire the gifts of the other while accepting their faults.

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Thelma and Louise was a first blow in the direction of female friendship formed through a challenging of the patriarchy, where the open road offered a vision of freedom, though it didn’t stress class differences and ended in tragedy as the only possible ending for such an encounter. In contrast, Wanted ends its three-season run on a tragic note involving Chelsea but with the two together and finding solitude in the beaches of Southern Australia while securing the deserved gains of their adventure. That they find solace together and don’t need to go over a cliff is an acknowledgement within the genre that the outlook for female emancipation has changed. It is now a more than a remote possibility and with #MeToo the potential for fulfillment may be increasing both in the crime genre and in the world at large.

Bitter Daisies and Establishment male power in the sex trade  

Bitter Daisies is set in the rough northwest province in Spain of Galicia, known for hosting the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage across its mountainous terrain. The native Galego language is spoken in this series about a “newbie” female detective sent to the town by the Guardia Civil to solve the disappearance of a young girl against the background of the pope’s visit to the faithful. The detective Rosa follows a trail that leads to several murders in what appears to be a Jeffrey Epstein, Eyes Wide Shut ring involving at the lower level in the first season several of the men of the town. Rosa’s investigation is a way of exposing the web of male power that leaves the town’s young women as prey, and there is even at least a hint that the pope, whose visit delays and obscures the investigation because of the commotion, is tacitly a part of that male power. The first season also centers around a prostitution nightclub and Rosa’s forays into it in disguise have a prurient element but also partake of a Spanish, Almodovaresque flair for costuming and sex as female power.

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Rosa proves herself an able detective in her pursuit of the underlings who connive and murder to arrange and then clean up a debauched “party” for the region’s elite. Rosa is driven by a personal loss and a mystery that she is attempting to unearth and that may be related to the larger mystery. It is the subject of the ‘bitter daisies’ of the title which show up at what seems to be a burial site. The series is particularly adept at unearthing the layers of corruption engulfing the region and obscuring her investigation. One final reveal at the end of season one, where the lead female’s mental condition evokes and then far outstrips that of the counter-intelligence agent in Homefront, is entirely unnecessary and an arbitrary impugning of her skills.

The show became a global hit, reaching a place in the Top Ten most watched non-English language shows in the U.K. The second season promised the detective returning to the area and this time investigating the actual web of elite men of the region who are participants in the sex ring involving young girls. The budget is bigger in season two, culminating in a lavish crowded party scene in the finale. The problem is hypocrisy: in the second season the tendency toward titillation, evident in the first season, continually vies for attention with a condemnation of this exploitation.

There is a particular scene in which a young B&D Spanish mistress, who in order to pile on the fetishized layers also dresses in a kimono and goes by the Asian name of Huichi, when the detective leaves after questioning her, lingers in her dungeon, flexing her whip and glaring at the camera. Who is this for if not the men (and women?) in the audience to enjoy the same kind of practices that the show accuses the rich and powerful of engaging in? The season culminates in an apocalyptic party scene which is again a combination of exploitation/revenge which speaks to male and female audiences in those two respective registers. In general, though, the exploration of a net of power relations in season two falls prey itself, ironically, to a need to grab global (male) audiences.

The season focuses again mainly on the functionaries arranging the fete, though there is significant attention paid to the young women who are to be the victims of it. This focus for the most part conceals the identities of those masked exploiters at the party, and so much of the critique of season one instead of being deepened is blunted. Nevertheless, the series is a valiant stab at representing the layers of male privilege dominating not only the region but extending, through the web of young East European women gathered for the saturnalia, across the continent. This dominance of West European masculine power extends to the British and American world as well, in a Jeffrey Epstein-like web. 

Mare of Easttown and intimate crime

Kate Winslet’s Mare is a sodden, downtrodden cop from solid and now decaying Scotch-Irish stock in a place that is less a suburb of Philadelphia – its actual location – than an embittered ex-mining town in the dried-up Allentown region whose mines have long since ceased to function. Mare’s family consists of her mother (an equally sodden turn from the veteran television actress Jean Smart), her lesbian daughter who is haunted by the demise of her brother and who may escape the town, and an adopted boy of mysterious origins. Right next door, lives her ex who, if that’s not torture enough, is about to be blissfully remarried.

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Mare is an excellent cop who uses her knowledge of the town and her relations in it, both direct and indirect, to solve crimes. No one is above suspicion in the death of a young girl, not the local priest who refuses to talk about why he was relocated to Mare’s parish, the father of the dead girl’s son, or even the once honoured writer (Guy Pearce) who is now a dried-up professor at the local college who courts Mare. What gives the series its breadth and depth is Mare and the other characters’ display of raw emotions in this desolate working-class setting, where each struggles to find soothing words rather than fists or inflammatory rhetoric to express themselves.

This battle to throw off inarticulateness is manifest most strongly in Mare who gives way to bull-headed decisions to protect those around her and keep what is hers, but who constantly is pulled in the direction in spite of herself of caring for those near her and for the welfare of her community as a whole. This is one of the best American series on the toll that the lack of economic opportunity has taken on working-class lives, with those in Easttown struggling to keep their heads above water as they watch those around them drowning.

The general reaction of the American critics, before the mystery swung into high gear, was that the series was a bore, that Kate Winslet let herself wallow in mediocre material, a reaction that was less critical opinion than disdain for any series that treats working-class life with the seriousness it deserves.

A final note. It seems odd that this ultimately working-class series stars the English actress Kate Winslet and the Australian actor Guy Pearce – but perhaps not so strange, since each comes from a culture which is much more conscious of class differences than that of the U.S.

People in Prison: ‘They’re Gonna Wanna Get Out’
Friday, 21 May 2021 15:47

People in Prison: ‘They’re Gonna Wanna Get Out’

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reviews Manuel Tiago’s fictionalized version of his own prison experience in The Six-Pointed Star

There are many calls today for abolishing the police or, in actuality, establishing a downsized police force and allowing social workers to respond to calls for help not with a badge and a gun but with an understanding of the problems that plague troubled and impoverished communities. The same can be said for prisons, where, especially in the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world, large scale reforms are needed.

This social fact is driven home by the recent publication of the Portuguese author Manuel Tiago’s fictionalized version of his own prison experience in The Six-Pointed Star, in a first translation into English by Eric A. Gordon. This is the nickname given to Lisbon’s fortress-like carceral building with a surveillance centre and cells radiating out from it. During the Salazar dictatorship, which ran parallel to Franco’s rule in Spain, the fortress housed prisoners guilty of crimes large and small. As the book relates, some were violently antisocial while others were a cry against the dictatorship’s inequality. Alongside these were of course those most dangerous of inmates, those imprisoned, as are Mumia Abu Jamal and others in the U.S., for their political ideals. Not to mention two other prominent global political prisoners whose incarceration under harsh conditions is being used to push them slowly and quietly toward death: Wikileaks Julian Assange and Hotel Rwanda’s Paul Rusesabagina, a cancer survivor kidnapped and detained in a Rwandan prison. 

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The layout of the prison with its columns radiating out from a central point seems modeled after Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, the structure that was able to survey its inhabitants at all times. Michel Foucault then took this layout as the model for modern surveillance outside jailhouse walls, which has through the digital universe further extended this perpetual prison in which we are all being watched, monitored, and disciplined.

Tiago, the pen name for the political activist Álvaro Cunhal, stresses the arbitrary nature of those locked in this system as the dictatorship reached its apogee in the 1950s. The author is struck, in getting to know the inmates, by the fact that the prison is filled with “killers who are neither worse nor better than one[s] who have never killed and never would,” adding, in terms of the unfairness of the system, that “many who committed crimes could well have spent their whole lives without doing them.”

This is a breathtaking novel of heartbreaking vignettes, aided by Gordon’s translation which respects the timeframe but updates the lingo at moments where this is crucial to an understanding by a contemporary audience.   

The author suggests a strong contrast in the motives and circumstances of those locked up. Silvino, convicted of a number of robberies and break-ins, is recognized as “a good man” by guards and prisoners and is fascinated by his explorations into the animal kingdom. Augusto retaliates when a big landowner robbed his family, seduced his sister, and then threw them off their land. In anger at this injustice, he plugs the landowner at point blank range with a shotgun in a crime for which the prisoners forgive him. Garino, meanwhile, stole food, distributed it to his fellow villagers and for this was locked up for twelve years.

These crimes, the product of a ruthlessly unequal society, are differentiated from, for example, the doctor who drugged his patients and then raped them. Behind bars, he treats the other prisoners disdainfully as if he should not have been among them. Instead of showing actual remorse he makes a show and spectacle of prayer which he performs in front of guards and prison officials in a way that is designed to get him an early release. In this other group also is Argentino who trafficked in women and, in a fit, kills his partner with, in this case, “the crime revealing the kind of man he was in the end.”

The subject of prison labour, in the South in the U.S. practiced in a prison system after Reconstruction overwhelmingly filled with Black prisoners and a substitute for slavery, is described in the novel as a scam. The prisoners earn a pittance for the most taxing work while then having to use two-thirds of their earnings to pay the cost of their cells, their food, and, not just their clothes, but the washing of them as well.

A liberal warden begins his stint at the prison enacting reforms, including the prisoners finally being allowed to eat together instead of their only collective experience being one hour in the yard. One prisoner dryly remarks, “This won’t last long,” and indeed it doesn’t as after a slight provocation the reforms are withdrawn.

Tiago’s or Cunhal’s own experience is reflected in the novel in the character of a political prisoner, locked in solitary, whom the other prisoners take pity on, attempting to smuggle soap to his cell as a way of acknowledging his presence. Cunhal was elected head of the Communist Youth Brigade in the 1930s where his adventures included a visit to Moscow and two arrests. He was thrown into the Lisbon prison for good in 1949 and spent the first eight of his 11 years there in solitary. In 1960, after being transferred to a prison with less security, he escaped and rode out the dictatorship living in Moscow and Paris.

In 1975, after the fall of Salazar the year before, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly, while also carving out a career as a novelist, writer of short stories, artist, and translator, notably of King Lear. His funeral in 2005 was attended by a half million Portuguese.

Perhaps Cunhal’s most famous novel was A casa de Eulália (Eulalia’s House), on a Spanish Civil War theme, and his works were turned into Portuguese films and television series. The Six-Pointed Star is also a highly cinematic work recalling the Hollywood crime films of the 1940s. The story of a bandit in the hills which the prisoners follow and who is eventually gunned down by the police is eerily similar to Bogart’s doomed escaped con who falls in love with a blind woman in High Sierra.

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The novel’s description of one prisoner’s body exiting the prison “wrapped in a topcoat of planks” recalls a moment in I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang where one of the inmates upon his release rides out from the chain gang institution on top of the coffin of a dead inmate.

The doctor, who assists the prisoners as best he can but is replaced by an incompetent one whose mantra no matter the illness is the do-nothing “This will pass,” recalls both the kindly doctor and the hardened replacement regime in that greatest of all prison films Brute Force.

There are prisoners who hang themselves after having all of their delusions broken, a stirring moment in the film which Cunhal describes in the novel. Others wither away. Such is the fate of Number 402 who made it over the walls but then collapsed in an injury that precipitated his slow decline. 402 describes the injustice of a system that has, like our own, foregone rehabilitation and is simply about a punitive exploitation: “I’m here for the rest of my life just on account of one second in my life.”

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The desperation of these wasted lives who nevertheless make of this inhuman situation a kind of lively humanity is perhaps best summed up by the last line of Brute Force. The kindly doctor, as a post-mortem for prisoners mowed down in an escape attempt, says there is one thing that unites all of those in this situation. “Whoever they are, they’re gonna wanna get out.”

The Six-Pointed Star, translated by Eric A. Gordon, New York: International Publishers, 2020, 112 pp., $19.99, ISBN 10: 0-7178-0835-1. Please order here.

May Day 2021: The150th anniversary of the Paris Commune
Tuesday, 27 April 2021 14:55

May Day 2021: The150th anniversary of the Paris Commune

Published in Cultural Commentary

Dennis Broe celebrates the 1871 Paris Commune, an example for Marx of 'communal labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart', and its representation in photos, novels, films and paintings, 

Here in Paris we are now living through the 150th anniversary of the Commune, identified by Karl Marx as perhaps the first workers’ republic established in the history of humanity. The Commune lasted 71 days, beginning on March 18, 1871 and ended in a violent repression during what was called the time of the cherries, of the budding of the cherry blossoms, in the bloody week of May 21 to 28.

The Commune is represented in novels, films and non-fiction though in general representation is sparse. Aesthetic recounting of this rebellion is limited, as this history of a workers’ republic remains contested and repressed in France.

The Commune was a response by the Parisians to the end of an ill-fated war waged by the emperor Louis-Napoleon to distract the French from the corruption and negligence that characterized the latter stage of his Second Empire. It ended up by uniting the German states under Bismarck as the French military, also hollowed out by years of corruption, was quickly defeated. The delusion of the emperor, his ignoble defeat and the shattering of the imperial dream are recounted in the penultimate novel in Zola’s epic chronicling of the rise and fall of Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire in the Rougan-Macquart series, titled appropriately La Débâcle .

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Upon its victory, the German army then became an occupying army and laid siege to Paris, figuring to starve the city into submission. The French ruling class, industrialists and remnants of the old aristocracy led by the emperor’s minister Adolphe Thiers, left the city and fled to the former palace of the king at Versailles, where they would soon collaborate with the Germans to crush the commune.

Inside the city a new form of government appeared, a direct democracy with elements of the National Guard on its side and with the working people of the city behind it and engaged directly in carrying out reforms in health, education and an equal status for women. Indeed, the face of the commune that has come down though history is that of the feminist Louise Michel, in the forefront of many of these reforms and, upon the downfall of the Commune, exiled from France.

The Commune is not well represented in the cinema, but its most shining moment makes up for that lack of coverage. Peter Watkins’ La Commune from 2003 is an almost six-hour faux documentary, with a filmmaker interviewing the ordinary working people who took part in the moment. Each of these non-professional actors, many researching their characters on their own and including many Africans, detail their involvement in a way that also allows us to see the continuity between these worker-actors of today and their character of 150 years ago. One critic labelled La Commune as the best film in a 15-year span.

The Commune defied the industrialists and issued proclamation after proclamation that pushed the government of Paris toward a workers’ state. Thiers and the German collaborators he represented were furious and finally with the aid of the German army annihilated the rebellion, in the bloodiest week of state terrorism in French history since the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the Huguenots.

Communards Wall resized

Row after row of these working people were lined up and shot. The most sacred place commemorating the Commune is the Mur des Federales, the wall of these victims inside the famous cemetery Père Lachaise.

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 With the Commune in ruins, its proponents either dead or exiled, Thiers then proclaimed the birth of the French Republic, ending forever the attempts to re-establish the monarchy, which had been overthrown in the French Revolution. Indeed, French Republicans now proclaim the Commune as a founding moment in the establishing of a representative parliamentary democracy. However, that bourgeois democracy, with the industrialists now firmly back in power, was erected on the bones and coffins of the Parisian citizens who had instituted a direct democracy in which the people made decisions together.

Battles over the memory of the Commune continue to be waged. Adolphe Thiers is commemorated in the traditional French manner by having streets and squares named after him in many French cities and towns. However, there is no street or square that bears his name in Paris, the site of his bloody executions.

The Catholic Church, attacked for its corruption by the Commune as it was in the French Revolution, allied with the state to anoint the Church of Sacre Coeur, of the Sacred Heart, which overlooks the city and stands as a symbol of the triumph of the bourgeoise. However, just below the Church, in a way that suggests the old spectre of revolution is not dead, sits Louise Michele square, with its commemoration of the Commune’s leading spirit.

 Released to coincide with the 150th anniversary is a work by the French historian Michele Audin, The Bloody Week, which claims that Thiers’ accounting of the dead is vastly understated. The official figure is over 6,000 casualties but by checking cemetery records this new book claims the figure is at least 15,000 and may have been as high as 20,000. Underground mass graves of the communards were still being discovered in the 1920s, while building a line of the Paris subway.

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Audin is a renowned mathematician who has also written two novels about the Commune, the lastest of which is Jose Meunier: 19 rue des Juifs. In it a sex worker, a dressmaker, a janitor and a hairdresser aid the lead character Jose, a miller, to escape the clutches of the secret police as the Commune is overwhelmed. Jose then goes into exile in London where he dreams of returning to Paris.

leon lhermitte les halles 1895

Les Halles by Leon Lhermitte, 1895 

The subject of repatriation of exiled revolutionaries also featured in another novel by Zola, The Belly of Paris, where an exile from a failed attempt in 1851 to overthrow the second Napoleon returns to the huge outdoor marketplace in the centre of the city that was Les Halles and attempts to shelter himself amid the bounty of the market.

In France this year, the March 18th date was celebrated with great fanfare but that celebration quickly gave way to its opposite as the country readies itself for the 200th anniversary in May of the death of Napoleon. He is a symbol of empire and conquest beloved by the right and no friend of democracy. It was his nephew, founder of the second empire named in honour of his uncle’s self-proclaimed first empire, that started the war that brought on the siege of Paris.

Marx’s valuing of the experiment of the Commune as a spirit that is yet to be realized explains why it remains at the same time a moment of hope for working people. It is also a moment of fear for their new digital overlords, whether they be Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, Elon Musk’s Tesla or Emmanuel Macron’s start-up nation. Here's what Marx said about the Commune:

The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man [and woman]…; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated or communal labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.

Bring it on!

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Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask
Sunday, 25 April 2021 08:13

Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reviews Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask, by Ken Fuller, and discusses how Chandler and others unmasked the capitalist delusion that was - and is? - Southern California

Raymond Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett before him and Ross Macdonald after, effected a startling change in the crime novel. As Chandler put it, he took the novel away from those who commit murder with "hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish” and returned it to “the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

This passage from Chandler’s essay explaining his technique in “The Simple Art of Murder” is dripping with sarcasm, contempt and class analysis in its explanation of how the genre had been practiced by the upper-class detectives of the Sherlock Holmes/Agatha Christie school.

Chandler is at pains to argue that murder and crime in general is not done for specious reasons and in a way that creates a puzzle for the detectives or as a clever ruse, or, as is still practiced in much of the serial killer literature of today, as expression of aberrant psychology.

A new book by Ken Fuller, Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind the Mask, in its strongest moments concentrates on Chandler’s implied politics in his noir novels. Chandler focuses on a generalized corruption in capitalist society that with his other two compadres opened a space for crime novels to have a strong infusion of the social aspects of crime. As he portrayed it, crime was committed by either those wanting more in a society which gives them less than they want, or by those on top who commit crimes as the way of establishing the fortune that then makes them respectable, or to maintain their position on top.

In Chandler’s world, crimes are committed for profit or out of class antipathy. For my money, the best of Chandler’s novels, the most explicitly class-conscious in this respect, is The High Window. Sometimes called The Brasher Doubloon, this novel focuses most directly on great fortunes and great crimes and reminds us today of the Sackler Family, who have paid almost no price for their role in promoting their drug oxycontin which led to the opioid crisis.

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Fuller highlights a change in Chandler in the wake of the House Un-American Activity Committee and McCarthyite purges in which he disavows progressive social content and dawdles for a period on “the non-communist left,” a movement and a moment that, as Fuller describes, was well funded by the CIA.

For Fuller this turn in Chandler’s sympathies aligns both with his Eton-like elite education and ambition to create “literature”, leading to his perpetual disappointment because his work was not accorded that status, and also his secret homosexuality, shown by the way his lead character, the hard-core private detective Philip Marlowe, constantly projects his anxiety around women.

Fuller has a reading of Chandler’s work that sees his literary career as building to The Long Goodbye, seen as Chandler’s only real literary novel, and then suffering a precipitous decline.

Here the book is on more tenuous grounds. Judging Chandler on the somewhat antiquated and elitist assumptions of whether or not his works are “literature” takes us away from his actual literary contribution. Chandler unmoored Hammett’s often critical view of the detective as hired gun of the owner class and instead followed that other impulse in Hammett which allowed the detective to be a kind of interrogator of the class system itself, constantly and smirkingly questioning its assumptions, because of his or her freedom to go anywhere in search of the solution to the crime or to aid a client.

This multilayered examination of a society fractured on class lines – and what manifestation of society is not more fractured than status conscious Los Angeles? – is Chandler’s contribution to opening an entire literary genre to a wider view of the world.

Fuller illustrates Chandler’s literary failures by pointing out minute plot inconsistencies, something which Chandler was well aware of and never overly concerned about. His famous quip about moving the story forward was along the lines of, ‘Whenever I am unsure what to do I have someone come into the room with a gun and start shooting.’ It seems a bit of a timewaster to keep pointing out the ragged edges of Chandler’s plotting when he himself, and most readers, are not overly concerned with it, mostly because the themes and atmospherics are so strong.

The other aspect of Chandler’s work Fuller points to is how his repressed homosexuality plays out in his novels. Fuller does make a strong and original case in both examining the life and the novels for traces of this proclivity, which Chandler may never have acted on. In fact, there is a whole range of criticism which sees noir, or tough-guy fiction, as driven by repressed and unfulfilled masculine relationships. The problem here though is in a way the failure to link what may be an unconscious motivation with the main line of the novels. How does the repressed homosexuality affect Chandler’s views of society?

The Man Behind the Mask is well worth reading for its careful examination of Chandler’s overt politics and how this played out in his novels. The book though doesn’t do justice to Chandler’s achievement in significantly advancing the class consciousness displayed in his predecessor Hammett, and laying the groundwork for an even sharper class critique practiced by his successor Ross Macdonald. In Black Money, Macdonald explored all the dark nooks and crannies of the loathing and disgust generated over the failure of the capitalist delusion that Southern California was a new Eden and land of promise.

Black money

Pros and Cons: Scamming Neoliberal Scammers
Wednesday, 31 March 2021 08:33

Pros and Cons: Scamming Neoliberal Scammers

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.

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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.

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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.

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Carnivore Culture, not Cancel Culture: The Mandalorian Season 2
Sunday, 14 February 2021 12:13

Carnivore Culture, not Cancel Culture: The Mandalorian Season 2

Dennis Broe continues his series of reviews, discussing The Mandalorian Season 2 and the growing limits on creativity in streaming services

One of the surprise hits of the contemporary streaming era is the first original series on Disney+, The Mandalorian. A surprise not because it was a hit – any Star Wars spinoff is guaranteed to have a wide audience – but because of the magnitude of its popularity and the way it has penetrated the culture.

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Baby Yoda 

This space Western features a lone gunslinger and bounty hunter who befriends a timeless and seemingly helpless kid, a baby Yoda called The Child and now named Grogu. The series was twenty times more popular than any other original series on Disney+, the third most popular series (with 1,032 billion minutes viewed) in one of the Nielsen streaming ratings which highly underestimate number of viewers, and crucial in Disney+ surpassing 74 million subscribers worldwide in 2020, far beyond its initial goal of 60 million by 2024.

At Christmas, an American workforce seeing its economy evaporate and stuck at home still spent heavily on toys. One of the crown jewels of the toy world was a giggling, babbling Baby Yoda, for $60 no less. In this year where whole cinema chains closed, the animatronic wonder was the only significant seller in film and TV merchandise. This Green Goblin, now a mascot for Disney+, threatened even to replace the angel announcing the birth of Jesus at the top of the Christmas tree.

Part of the furore and adoration is warranted. The first season of The Mandalorian breathed new life into an atrophied franchise. The tale is set after the end of the first Star Wars trilogy where the empire has collapsed but the budding Republic is weak and unable to pull together an unruly universe. Mando, in his quest to preserve and protect this powerful baby visits a different planet each week, most with broken-down governments and infrastructures.

The collapse of the Americam empire

Season one was a fit metaphor for the imminent collapse of the U.S. empire as its currency faltered and economy plummeted, in a downturn accelerated but not caused by Covid. The individual planets with their barely surviving frontier systems of government looked a lot like failing American states in the aftermath of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal onslaught, finally done in by Trump.

The worlds of The Mandalorian also echoed failed states around the world, as parts of the U.S. global empire collapsed with protests in Lebanon, Chile, and Algeria, to say nothing of recent people’s movements closer to home in the Gilets Jaune in France, the Indignados in Spain and the mass movement that led to the momentary success of Syriza in Greece.

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Gina Carano’s Cara Dune

This degradation can be seen also in a comparison of the leading females of the original trilogy and this new iteration. Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia battled and was a rallying figure around opposition to the fascist Darth Vader and the Death Star. The leading female figure in The Mandalorian was the now-fired Gina Carano’s Cara Dune, a gun-toting warrior on screen, and off-screen a Trump supporter and former wrestler known for her viciousness in the ring.

Carano, now one of the world’s most popular celebrities and a tweeter of racist, anti-democratic and a pro-Covid positions, was the Princess Leia of a broken- down generation buffeted about by the neglect of an ever-greedier capitalism and hardened not so much to resist that neglect but to survive it in whatever way possible and not excluding the embracing of fascism.

The trimmings of The Mandalorian though couldn’t have been cleverer, with the musical theme a combination of both John Willams’ Star Wars majesty intermingled with the ominously tense strands of Ennio Morricone’s themes for the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns. The weekly trip to another planet was borrowed from the original Star Trek as were the end-credit freeze-frames of action in the episode.

Season two began as more of the same, but as the quest to find Baby Yoda’s home took centre stage, the show slowly and then more frenetically drew in components and characters from the extended Star Wars world, or as it’s called using the Marvel example, the Star Wars universe. These included the bounty hunter Boba Fett from the original trilogy but also from the second, mostly unsuccessful, prequel trilogy and Rosario Dawson’s female Jedi Ashoka, a voice-over in the last episode of the most current trilogy and one of the stars of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a character fleshed out in that series by Dave Filoni, co-creator of The Mandalorian.

The ultimate inclusion though was the surprise at the end of the series with the reappearance of the first trilogy’s key character Luke Skywalker, played by a reanimated and youthful Mark Hamill, arranged by both the digital reverse aging technique used by Scorsese for DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci in The Irishman and a mounting of Hamill’s face on a contemporary body.

The move was heralded by Star Wars fans as a crowning touch in the acceptance of the series into the extended universe, with its creator George Lucas now being whispered as himself part of season three.

Nothing new to say

Of course, it was something else too, and that was a gigantic lure for the Disney+ streaming service, which has produced little original content and which has now used this hit as a launching pad for nine new Star Wars series. The company has had to move more actively and rapidly into streaming as other parts of the empire, specifically its theatrical films, amusement parks and cruise ships, falter due to the virus.

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Rosario Dawson's Ashoka

Disney is all about synergy, that is, with one part of the company interacting and promoting another. Thus, having bought the Star Wars franchise, not only did the film beget the series but Disney is also borrowing the concept of the “universe” from Marvel, as well as crossing personnel from the two universes. Thus, the upcoming series The Book of Baba Fett will co-star as the outlaw’s sidekick Fennec Shand, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Ming-Na Wen.

Elsewhere, Marvel guru, studio chief and keeper of the universe flame Kevin Feige is developing a new Star Wars movie which will supposedly extend this new universe into infinity. Each of these series and films of course will also be designed to generate cuddly figurines as both toys and collectibles so that the commercial reach of these shows and films extends beyond the screen.

There is something else going on here besides mass merchandising though. The limiting of creativity even in this overly commercialized product so that the show in season two begins to fold into itself and collapse into an already established pattern and constellation is an indication of a culture that is eating itself. More than carnivore, the show is now emblematic of an autophagic, or self-consuming, culture that quickly extinguishes any spark of the new by folding it back into the tried, tested and comfortable – and in that way annihilating it.

As such, the journey of The Mandalorian is not so different from that of the country itself. A once powerful manufacturing juggernaut, the U.S. has now been utterly hollowed out so that manufacturing, or making stuff, accounts for only one in 20 businesses and one-ninth of the workforce compared to after World War II, where one-third of the workforce was employed in factories. The art of producing material goods has been replaced by the symbolic economies of finance, entertainment, and the digital, with the only real manufacturing being done in weapons construction, in the sale of which the U.S. leads the world.

Instead, manufacturing has fled to China and other parts of Asia so that by December of last year China, back at nearly full capacity after recovering from the coronavirus, had a record trade surplus of $75 billion. Over $50 billion of that figure consisted of exports to the U.S., where stay-at-home consumers were eagerly buying up Chinese made home fixtures and toys for Christmas, including the aforementioned Hasbro Baby Yoda doll, manufactured in a Chinese factory.

Remake and redo - This is not the way!

This hollowness or emptiness at the core of the society, reflected in the entertainment complex as lack of innovation, so that any spark of creativity must quickly fold back into preestablished patterns, is at play also in the finance industry in the form of stock buybacks. After the 2008 financial collapse and continuing with the Covid aid to American banks, insurance agencies and investment firms, instead of investing in the society as a whole or in innovating in their firm, the financial sector bolstered their position by using the money to repurchase shares in their own, often faltering, companies, resulting in zero gain for our society as a whole but enormous profits for their own shareholders since the stock value was now, artificially, increased. The rationale for propping up this zombie culture was, “We don’t see any better investment than in ourselves,” a phrase which reaffirms their greed and lack of interest in the society as a whole.

This is where much of the money from Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthiest, supposedly designed to “trickle down” to the rest of the society, went, with over $806 billion in buybacks in 2018 after the 2017 tax cut. In that year, only 43 percent of the 500 wealthiest companies spent any money, even a penny, on research and development, while spending $4.3 trillion on propping themselves up in the market and enriching themselves.

When these companies were recently challenged on the market by the Reddit traders, using a failed brick and mortar company GameStop to wage war on the established hedge funds, this popular mass of traders, separate from the established Wall Street cronies, ended their communiques with The Mandalorian phrase, “This is the way.”

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Rerunning Sex and the City 

And indeed, it was the way for a season, that is before the show finally folded in on itself and became part of the same carnivore culture so rampant in the industrial and financial worlds. As the stakes increase for the streaming services they move as well to squelch innovation. Witness HBO Max’s return of Sex and the City as well as a redo of Gossip Girl and a Friends reunion special to announce the return of that series to the AT&T fold, where it is designed to bolster fading HBO Max subscriptions.

While the right worries about cancel culture – and the left ought to also because the great unwashed neoliberal middle will be coming for progressives next – the bland corporate elite produces a carnivore culture by feasting on what is left of the carcass of a once thriving entertainment and economic complex. In this new chasing after the last vestige of abundance in a fading financial structure, the promise of plenitude that begat the streaming era has ceded to the kind of remake and redo policy that has driven the Hollywood film industry. If the monoliths of HBO/AT&T and Disney prevail, this lack of innovation in a culture feeding on itself will become the dominant. With American corporate and conglomerate capital unfortunately, “This is the way.”

It isn't!

What's Left on the Dial? Alternative TV in the U.S.
Friday, 01 January 2021 09:56

What's Left on the Dial? Alternative TV in the U.S.

Dennis Broe reviews alternative TV and podcasts in the US. Image above: Amber Ruffin as Melania Trump on Late Night

 The US election has finally been secured with even Donald Trump tacitly acknowledging that he lost. In the aftermath, the mainstream media has now swung behind Joe Biden and the return to normalcy. The dominant media opposed Trump not on grounds that he was a corporate bloodletter who bombed Syria, murdered Iran’s leading general and laid waste to U.S. natural resources – all actions they either applauded or tacitly condoned – but that he was an unfit and buffoonish manager of the empire.

It is only in the world of alternative media that those questions are being asked about both Trump’s actual crimes and Biden’s neoliberal “normalcy”, which had the global economy on the brink of a new recession before Covid, was rapidly accelerating an income disparity which created the conditions for the rise of Trump and Trumpism, and which has done little to slow the environmental devastation that is wrecking the planet.

CNN, MSNBC and the rest have their straw man in Fox News. The mainstream networks seem reasonable in opposing the lunacy and ravings on that station, but since they seldom provide any real solutions beyond corporate-mandated reforms, the two exist in perfect harmony. The goal of all these enterprises is to eliminate any real empathy with working-class suffering, while enabling the mainstream to seem morally uplifting in opposing an enemy with whom they are more similar than they care to admit. 

CNN fueled the rise of Trump, then looked to bolster its ratings by using him as its foil and even, once he was defeated, quickly ran a story claiming that Trump, their ratings master, was the frontrunner in 2024. The channel is filled not with Trump opposers but Trump enablers. The relationship is not antagonistic, it’s synergistic.

Covid is raging and the economy's a shambles

The stakes are high with Covid raging and the economy, other than financial speculation on Wall Street, in a shambles. So this is a good time for a sweeping survey of television series and podcasts that are genuinely in opposition not only to Trumpism but also to Biden’s “normalcy,” as well as faux-alternative sites to which they are opposed.

The primary alternative to the insistent drone of corporate media, providing news but pandering to the ratings, is RT. Russia Today, which bills itself as neither right nor left, has in fact become the clearing house for progressive thought in the US and the UK. Three shows, Redacted Tonight, Renegade Inc. and George Galloway’s Sputnik Orbiting the World stand out as startlingly clear on US and British imperial interests, on the widening income gap in the wake of the surrendering of the economy to corporate finance and tech interests, and the tough decisions that need to be made in the name of the planet so that environmental policy is more than just greenwashing.

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He wasn't far wrong

Perhaps the station’s insistently critical beat is motivated by an attempt to weaken both countries from within, but whatever the reason, its critical stance often rings true.

Comedian Lee Camp’s Redacted Tonight, whose title implies it is trafficking in censored news, is a wildly intelligent take on topical events. It uses the Daily Show John Stewart/Trevor Noah approach, opening with Camp’s well-founded rants on such subjects as how in the last election, with the legalization of marijuana in three states, the Reagans lost their war on drugs, a war waged against the poor and an excuse to jail them.

He is ably assisted, in Daily Show format, by a team of “correspondents” that features, for example, Naomi Karavani’s take on how in the last election dark corporate money was defeated in its attempt to restrict issues from ever being on the ballot; Natalie McGills’ report on the deliberate inaccuracies of the Trump census; and Anders Lee’s look at who Biden would have blamed had he lost the election – hint, not the corporate Democratic National Committee for its refusal to take a stand on anything other than it was not Trump. Camp’s angry idealism, and the combination of comedy and astute reporting on the part of his compadres, makes this a cut above both the average late-night comedy show and the average newscast.

Renegade Inc., on the other hand, focuses its once-weekly episode on a single issue, each time with a guest or guests with a take on social problems which is outside the norm. The show is hosted by Brit filmmaker Ross Ashcroft, whose Four Horsemen documentary is a questioning of mainstream economists by the likes of Joseph Stieglitz, Noam Chomsky and Gillian Tett.

Perpetual warfare, dressed up as democracy, peace and human rights

Ashcroft’s deep dive approach to issues has included author Richard Rothstein driving home the links between continual housing and education segregation and inequality. Another episode had lawyer and peace activist Dan Kovalik laying out in stunning detail the U.S. promotion of perpetual warfare under the banner of democracy, peace and human rights

George Galloway has found a second life and a wide audience on RT with his Sputnik Orbiting the World series of interviews and his Mother of All Talk Shows in which he uses the sensationalist tactics of right-wing shock jocks to drive home some truths fueled by his still-strong adherence to a foundering Scottish and British working class, and his wide knowledge of the US and UK’s global imperial policies.

A recent Mother featured journalist Garland Nixon suggesting the assassination of the Iranian atomic scientist was a byproduct of the meeting in Riyadh between Saudi princeling Mohammed bin Salman, US State Department head Mike Pompeo, and Israeli premiere Benjamin Netanyahu.

Of late, Galloway has followed the case of Harry Dunn, the teenage allegedly hit-and-run victim of a female US intelligence official that the US claims has immunity and cannot be extradited, while the same show featured a report on how the U.S. and British governments are colluding in the attempt to extradite Julian Assange.

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The highly relevant and creative Means TV

A low budget but highly relevant and creative answer to the millions behind not only Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News but also the emerging OAN and Newsmax – two networks Trump may eventually move to – is Means TV. Means bills itself as a “worker-owned streaming service,” a billing that has upset US media reporting on the station. It’s flagship programme is Means Morning News with Sam Sacks and Sam Knight, who in a recent holiday special proudly engaged in the “war on Thanksgiving” instead of as they claimed the usual war on America’s indigenous.

They questioned the joyousness of a holiday which 20 percent of American workers spend not with their families but working, and awarded the week’s “Rich Dick Award” to California Governor Gavin Newsome whose recent partying in defiance of his own protocols proved once again there is one set of rules for the wealthy, and another set of rules for everyone else. The show though could use more creative graphics to go along with the astute commentary.

Means sports show Southpaws has yet to find its voice and is too much a straight copy of mainstream sports shows on Disney-owned ESPN. On the other hand, Art House Politics makes stunning use of its do-it-yourself low-budget aesthetic by using on one show a faux drawing and colouring class to convey the full horror of Thanksgiving, with the narrator commenting on the “settler colonial myth” of holiday affirms. The narrator draws an indigenous American, a turkey and a Pilgrim, who the instructor then chastises as responsible for the wholesale appropriation of land that continues to lead to the destruction of the planet. For his crime, he sets the Pilgrim on fire. The show used the conceit of the art class to enact a very funny and effective rethinking of this foundational myth.

Liberal handwringing and mouthpieces for the Democrats

Elements of the so-called alternative media have become increasingly mouthpieces for the Democratic Party. Foremost among these is WBAI’s Democracy Now, which since the emergence of Trump might more accurately be dubbed Democrats Now. Liberal hand-wringing increasingly substitutes for analysis with the show “all in” with Syria’s White Helmets, elsewhere dubbed as the Public Relations wing of Al-Qaeda, and during the campaign featured a ludicrous “debate” about how Joe Biden can become a force for good. This is already belied by his administration picks, which recently included the Uber representative who was part of the $200 million defeat of the California law requiring Uber and Lift to behave like responsible employees. The supposedly more progressive vice president Kamela Harris has as one of her senior advisors Tony West, the lawyer who led the charge for Uber against the legislation.

For a long time, the genuine progressive alternative was the Russian radio network Sputnik’s Loud and Clear, with anti-war activist Brian Becker chairing a show that ran for 5 years, 1,138 episodes and boasted over 6000 interviews. The known quantity, the star element, of the show was John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on CIA torture and was one of Time magazine’s Persons of the Year. When Kiriakou left, the show folded, pointing to a weakness of RT/Sputnik programming, that it is star-driven.

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Host Brian Becker with Historian Gerald Horne on The Socialist Program

Becker is back though in a new listener-sponsored show The Socialist Program in which he is a bit more strident, while continuing to dazzle with his own astute analysis and perceptive interviewing acumen, aided by his on-air producers, Walter Smolarek and Nicole Rousselle. Becker and Smolarek contradicted the New York Times suggestion that we will see a new, now chastised and cautious, Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State. They did this by hammering home Blinken’s support for the War in Iraq, his aid in planning the bombing and destruction of Libya – the African country with the largest oil reserves – and advocating for bombing Syria.

The team was equally thunderstruck by the timid reaction afforded to Biden’s nominee for first female director of national intelligence Avril Haines, explaining that she was the person who met Obama each week and advised him who to kill that week, in drone bombing missions that numbered far more than those of Trump or any other president. The team reported that Obama’s comment on Haines was that “she was a very nice person.”

Many of these kind of shows also work because of a rotating guest list that most prominently includes economist Richard Wolff, who lays bare the misery and devastation caused in the US by the evisceration of its industries and the acceleration through Covid of what now amounts to “the worst economic crisis in a century.” Another mainstay is Gerald Horne, a prolific author whose history of the slave trade as motivating the European expansion into the Americas, and the settler colonial defense of slavery as one of the primary reasons for the American Revolution, was the subject of his last two books.

Finally, there is Mark Swoboda whose inciteful and balanced takes on the Russian state and the Slavic world make him the natural inheritor of the recently deceased and lamented Russian expert Stephen Cohen, whose voice of peace was often shouted down in the bipartisan escalation of US/Russian tensions under Trump.

Another source of what was once alternative news and opinion which has recently also come around to being increasingly a sounding board for Democratic Party politics is the website The Intercept. Democracy Now alumnus Jeremy Scahill put together a comprehensive seven-part soundscape of the Trump administration's failures. Recently, though, a seismic shift occurred when the site’s co-founder and most intrepid reporter, Glen Greenwald, who helped break the Snowden revelations about NSA spying, left. Greenwald said the site censored his report on the contents of Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s computer, which suggested collusion for profit with the Ukrainian government, similar to the offence that was the pretext for Trump’s impeachment, and a marker of the similarities rather than the differences between the two parties.

Draining the swamp of bipartisan corruption

With Greenwald gone, the best alternative to The Intercept is the podcast Moderate Rebels, with Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, and their website The Grey Zone. This site also includes the reporting of Aaron Mate, who continued to question the faulty assumptions of the Russiagate probe, which the Mueller Report declared not actionable and which were then used as the basis for a phoney and unsuccessful attempt to impeach Trump. Trump is a tax dodger, war criminal and scam artist who could have been indicted on actual impeachable offenses but that, as Mate pointed out, would have meant truly “draining the swamp,” that is focusing attention on the bipartisan corruption that fuels Washington politics.

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Moderate Rebel’s Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal

The latest podcast has Blumenthal and Norton examining the “authoritarian censorship” of the French government which like many of the Western democracies becomes more repressive as conditions become more desperate for its citizens. The Grey Zone bills itself as “Investigative Journalism on Empire.”

The last source of more alternative news and opinion is the progressive wing of late-night television, especially Seth Meyers's Late Night and Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, excerpts of which can be watched on YouTube. These shows counter the ceaseless and increasingly mirthless frivolity of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, the misplaced and often nasty humorlessness of Jimmy Kimmel Live and the “sophisticated” but often vacuous “satire” of Steven Colbert’s The Late Show. In the Trump era all three of these mainstream hosts moved to try to embrace topical humor, which the audience was demanding, as the other two watched Colbert’s emphasis on political humor pull him ahead in the ratings. The positive in all this was that the audience is demanding more relevance and less froth as entertainment, and so endless endorsements must now be mixed with a healthy dose of commentary on the day’s events.

Pummel the president! And Melania!

Of all the late-night topical humor though, Seth Meyers’s A Closer Look (YouTube) is the best written, funniest pummeling of the Trump presidency. The show also boasted the African-American writer and comedian Amber Ruffin, who now has her own show streaming on Peacock which sadly lacks the sharpness and the biting wit of her continued appearances with Meyers. In stunning back-to-back weeks Ruffin, in wig and full pouty gestures, in a week where it was thought the White House was employing Melania doubles, played the first lady, quoting from an official document where she had to turn the page to read the name of their son Baron, but then said Donald had to turn more pages to remember his son’s name. The next week, after Kanye West, 50 Cent and Ice Cube were revealed as Trump backers, she came out as Lil Doof, a rapper who rapped against his own interests.

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Amber Ruffin as Melania Trump

The other late-night alternative is Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. Noah’s own segments sometimes lack punch but are always well written and graphically astute. The strength of the show lies in the “correspondents” and the segments Noah helps engineer. One of the best was Roy Woods’ countdown of “Donald Trump’s 100 Most Tremendous Scandals,” a highly imaginative montage with Woods’ indignation – coming in at number 1 – that after 99 scandals Trump is still president. Desi Lydic’s Thanksgiving plea to her “family” of conservatives – Uncle Rudi (Giuliani), Cousin Sean (Hannity) and Aunt Jeanine (Pierro) has her asking the Fox mainstays for some civility at the dinner table and each of them, in their own words, refusing.

Finally, back in the fold is Jordan Klepper, returned from hosting his own Steven Colbert like faux-conservative The Opposition. He is even funnier in his “Fingering the Pulse” segments as a debunker of the illogic of Trump supporters who – like the couple in Washington at the recent Million MAGA march there to celebrate “the winning of Donald Trump” – contradict themselves and argue against their own interests.

One of the major gains of the Trump presidency has been an increased interest in analysis, biting commentary and humor and satire, mostly directed against Trump. It will be important to continue that trend as the Biden presidency attempts to confuse and beguile its adherents with a phoney “normalcy” amid the widespread panic, devastation and destruction that has been the accumulated result of all the presidents, especially since Reagan.

Trump ascended into office with the car poised at the edge of the cliff. He gleefully pushed it over and asked the country to enjoy the ride. It will take much more of the kind of sincere honesty that the above shows and sites practice if there is to be a chance of putting the pieces back together.

The Year of Living Digitally: 2020 Top 30 Global TV Series
Thursday, 24 December 2020 09:40

The Year of Living Digitally: 2020 Top 30 Global TV Series

Dennis Broe reviews global streaming services, part of a generalized movement online this year, and nominates his Top 30

The biggest story in television this year was the rise of the streaming services, with Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and NBCUniversal's Peacock joining what was already the crowded field of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. This followed a monopolistic wave of mergers and consolidations that included: AT&T buying Time Warner with Warner Bros. and HBO; the cable network Comcast buying the NBC network with Universal film studios and becoming principal owner of Sky, the most popular European satellite network; and Disney buying the Fox Production Company and Fox studio and catalogue and becoming principal owner of Hulu.

The point of this activity was to begin moving television (and films) online, a movement that was accelerated by COVID, such that Disney, whose live action theme parks and cruise lines are floundering, has in one year reached 86 million subscribers, a figure it was predicted would take four years to accomplish. Netflix is nearing 200 million subscribers worldwide with the majority now outside the U.S. and with 25 million new subscribers during the first phase of the pandemic. Disney+, Amazon Prime and Netflix are forecast to control half of the world's streaming video subscriptions in the next five years.

This is a movement that defrays costs especially as it circulates the globe. Thus, publicity costs for the 21 Warner Bros. films that will be released online as well as in theaters next year do double duty as trumpeting the film in the theater and as providing subscribers online. Complex overseas licensing agreements are short-circuited as all profits now accrue to the distributing company. These companies once they become global also undercut local production, most often of nationalized television networks and stations whose major artists then clamor to sign with the streaming services which guarantee global distribution. Rights, following the Netflix model of artists only being paid upfront, could revert to the streaming service in perpetuity, which then uses the series or film to stock its back catalogue and gain future subscribers without paying royalties.

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Global expansion of American conglomerates 

The streaming services are also part of a generalized trend toward life moving online and away from forms of neighborhood and local collectivity. Movie theater chains in the U.S. have closed this year and gone bankrupt as the major studios experiment with online distribution. Malls and small shops across the western world are empty and deserted as Amazon, now promising one-day delivery, becomes the world's shopkeeper and Amazon warehouses replace stores as whole city blocks flounder. The movement to 5G and its faster download speeds hastens the move from television as family centerpiece to individualized cell phone viewing, turning the physical shared space of the household into individualized spaces with each member in their own world.

These new largely digital and communication conglomerates also have their own agenda with television and film seen as a sideline or shill for the main industry. Almost two-thirds of AT&T/Time Warner's profits come from the parent company's cell phone sales, and Warners now must accommodate to friendly cell phone viewing fare. The aggressive takeover prompted the HBO president, after being told the prestigious company needed to be more popular and make more money, to quickly resign. There may be some desertion of what might be a sinking ship as agitated creators, seeing their profits diminished as films open online, have begun referring to the company as Former Bros., and with the mother company, as are all these conglomerates, 170 billion in debtAmazon Prime video must work in concert with the delivery of Amazon products: It was recently revealed that Apple TV+ had quashed a series which was laudatory about a defunct gossip app Gawker which had revealed company secrets.

Last year the U.S. produced 532 series, a number sure to be exceeded in 2021 as Disney, for example, goes full tilt into series production with no less than nine new Star Wars series in a repeat of the television network habit of saturating the market with copies after every hit series, in this case with the success of The Mandalorian. A point that bears emphasis is that 532 and climbing is just a drop in the bucket of global series, which last year numbered 10,600. In attempting to compete with this movement online, national television networks everywhere are joining forces with independent networks in their own countries or regions to form their own streaming services, most prominently in the UK with Britbox, in France with Salto, and in the Scandinavian countries with the already widely popular Viaplay.

The American streaming services are also accumulating untaxed wealth as they circulate the globe. Next year will be part of a global effort to tax American digital companies, following this year's European Parliament attempt to make online services more accountable for their content and to curtail monopolistic and non-competitive practices.

With the streaming services this year, there is a renewed emphasis on original production since it is becoming clear that new series are what drive subscriptions as HBO Max, which has ventured few series, has badly lagged in subscribers. The series on offer have attained a level of sophistication above what used to be network fare, but which has stagnated. HBO Max's first new entry, The Flight Attendant, is a star turn for Big Bang Theory's Kaley Cuoco and an advert for HBO Now after the service bought back the rights to her former show Big Bang, one of the most popular of steaming series on Netflix. The Flight Attendant is a fast-moving comedy-thriller that deals with addiction and childhood abuse, but in a superficial way that leaves untouched any deeper sociological implications about abuse, addiction and the deteriorating American family structure due to increased joblessness.

Top 20 + 10 (+ bonus 5 worst)

I watched 140 series this year and was able to cull a Top 30 which, with some categories combined, is really 35. Thus, one-fourth of the series I watched were praiseworthy, a high number. But that does not count approximately 400 series I monitored and then passed on because too derivative of other earlier, better series and films or whose subject matter and treatment promised only socially irrelevant diversion, and not particularly well executed diversion at that. This mediocrity will accelerate in 2021 with the entry of more money into the conglomerate streaming race.

This year's Top 30, from 12 countries, also expands the notion of series, including: one retro anthology series that today looks more prescient than ever (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), discoveries of previous series based on this year's creators (Misha Lovecraft Country Green's Undercover), and weekly and topical news and commentary series necessary in the age of Trump and Biden (RT's Redacted Tonight, Seth Meyers and Amber Ruffin on Late Night). Also included is one shining moment of truth telling, Ricky Gervais's Golden Globes monologue that, because it was so honest, stood out like a sore thumb not only during awards season but for the entire television year.

​Top 20

A Christmas Carol – Steven (Peaky Blinders) Knight's answer to Christmas drivel like Jingle Jangle. Knight's imagining of a nearly unrepentant Scrooge as prototype capitalist owner resounded throughout this year of Jeff Bezos profiting from his own Tiny Tims without allowing them bathroom breaks. Knight's version is a very Peaky and very profound reimagining of Dickens tale, which had lost its bite in too many syrupy retellings.

Home Before Dark – First great series from Apply TV+ about a pre-teen journalist whose truth-telling exposes the embedded masculine power structure in a small town in Washington state. Hilde's online dispatches bring together an African-American boy and Asian-American girl, a Black female deputy who must question her white male superior, and the pint-sized reporter's lawyer mother, all to right a past injustice visited on the area's indigenous Yakama population. Superbly differentiated characters and an exceptional cast highlight the storytelling.

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The insidiousness of fintech in Bad Banks season two

Bad Banks – Fintech, the infiltration of the tech industry by the financial industry, is the subject of season two of this superb German series. Jana's megabank expands, and she is sent to corrupt a start-up designed in its idealistic phase to aid sustainable development. This interpenetration reminds us of a moment long ago and many galaxies away when Google's motto was "Don't do evil"—a moral imperative now become a punchline.

For Life – This series, produced by 50 Cent and based on a true story about a Black prisoner who became a criminal lawyer and defended inmates, was, in the year of Black Lives Matter's questioning of the criminal justice system, a clear-eyed and penetrating look at how justice in the U.S. and the West is aligned against minority defendants. Aaron Wallace's struggle against a corrupt prosecutor played out alongside and amplified calls in the street for police injustice to be halted.

Babylon Berlin – Season three found police detective Gereon Rath and his female accomplice Charlotte Ritter drawn ever further into the developing fascist morass that will eventually spell the end of the Weimar Republic. A financier and Nazi sympathizer preaches chaos as the stock market collapses and the army and the police reveal themselves to be centers of a fascist coverup. Amidst this carnage, Gereon and Charlotte are more hard-pressed than ever to defend the fading democracy, and Gereon is introduced to a new book titled Mein Kampf. Couldn't be more prescient as Proud Boys take to the streets to support Trump's attempted coup. Perhaps brandishing copies of Art of the Deal, this generation's fascist manifesto? If the current U.S. street situation isn't Weimar, it certainly is Weimarish.

The Valhalla Murders – This Icelandic series, now on Netflix, begins as a very clichéd serial killer romp involving the long-ago psychological debris of the violence of a boarding school. Stay with it, though, because the series at its midpoint takes a surprising turn as the effects of the initial exploitation work their way upwards to engulf layers of the criminal justice system. A stunningly effective and vastly underrated series.

Normal People – This BBC and Hulu co-production based on the Sally Rooney novel is an acute examination of not just the triumph, pain and physicality of a first love but also the horrific and persistent ways that class divides people as we watch a working-class boy and an upper-class girl alternately find each other and fall victim to the layers of distrust in themselves and in Irish and capitalist society as a whole.

Money Heist – Seasons three and four on Netflix attempt to disprove the old adage that "you can't go home again," or in this case you can't rob Spain's national bank after robbing its national mint. The Professor and his team this time are melting down gold in the post-U.S. dollar world where countries are hoarding this precious commodity ahead of a U.S. currency collapse. The season should have concluded the end of the robbery, but the streaming service opted to delay the outcome to peak interest in another season, a move which weakened season four.

Jordskott – This Swedish series brought together various strands from other films and series and wove them into an emerging subgenre, ecological horror. Season one had forests, which cover half the area of the country, under pressure from a logging cabal with a Stockholm detective in search of her long-lost daughter becoming ever more involved in the need to recognize and preserve a verdant nature being destroyed by greed. Season two had her returning to Stockholm but with her connection to the forest nourishing her fight to protect it.

Homecoming/Hightown – The high and low of the drug trade. Season two of Amazon's Homecoming has Janelle Monáe as supposed victim of a corporate pharmaceutical company that in season one had annihilated veterans and cut loose amnesiac therapist Julia Roberts. Season two's sole hero is another veteran who doggedly pursues the company's predatory commercial impulses and ties to the military. Hightown, on the other hand, charts the struggles of a Latina lesbian in drug addled Provincetown as she keeps hitting deeper bottoms but refuses to give up on her quest to become a detective.

Ricky Gervais' Golden Globes Monologue – Last time for sure the comedian and inspiration behind The Office will be asked back to what is more public relations stunt than acknowledgement of creativity. His mantra, as the monologue crossed the boundary from ribbing to active jabbing and exposing of the hypocrisy of liberal Hollywood, was "I don't care." High point was the accusation of a taboo subject in the entertainment world, the sweatshops in Asia that underlay Hollywood wealth. The disapproving look of the town's current wielder of soppy morality Tom Hanks? Priceless.

Fearless – This 2018 series, pejoratively labeled at the time "for the conspiratorially minded," has Peaky Blinders' Helen McCrory as a crusading attorney who uncovers a secret behind Tony Blair's criminal rush to enlist Britain in the Iraq war against the will of the country. McCrory's unearthing of the collateral damage of the war on British democracy as Blair blindly followed U.S. Pres. G.W. Bush is worth a second look in light of the upcoming verdict on the U.S. extradition of Julian Assange, with Britain, as it supposedly embarks on its independent course post-Brexit, being asked again to surrender its sovereignty.

Snowpiercer – Last year we got Bong Joon Ho's Parasite, perhaps the most astute analysis of class tensions and contradictions ever put on the screen. This year we have TNT and Netflix' series adaptation of his film Snowpiercer, about a class-segregated train that circles a globe frozen because of a failed technological attempt to subvert global warming. Daveed Diggs is stunning and resolute as the revolutionary who carries his struggle for the oppressed backenders to the head of the train. With the reports that five years after the Paris Accords the planet's temperatures have worsenedSnowpiercer is beginning to resemble not a far-off dystopia but the evening news.

Green Frontier – Colombian series on Netflix that centers on the Euro destruction of the Amazonian rainforest and the attempt by its Indigenous and a female cop from Bogotá to save the forest. While its Swedish compadre Jordskott employs the tropes of horror, Green Frontier summons the Latin American mystical embrace of Magical Realism in its depiction of the timeless quality of the forest's protectors versus the contemporary assault of loggers, corrupt law officials and a mysterious ex-Nazi linked to the history of European exploitation of the continent.

Biohackers – Netflix series hatched in the wilds of Bavaria that takes us inside the corporate-university world of genetic engineering. The heroine is a young student herself the victim of this biological tampering who enlists her fellow students as part of a do-it-yourself bio-technology movement all to thwart the efforts of their unethical professor who experiments on human tissue, a modern Dr. Mengele in a pantsuit.

Lovecraft Country backed with Underground – The first is a contemporary HBO series that expands the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres, putting African Americans front and center in a successful attempt to shatter the cultural apartheid which surrounds American popular entertainment while also highlighting the literal apartheid of the 1950s in defining the country as a police state patrolling racial boundaries. The second, a former series by the same showrunner Misha Green—the discovery of the year—tracks the "Macon 7" as they escape Southern slavery in season one and as they and their Northern Abolitionist allies become radicalized as they come in contact with John Brown in season two. The antidote to the ludicrous Brown portrayal in Good Lord Bird.

Mystery Road – Aaron Pedersen's Aboriginal detective who travels the Australian North is in season two in search of the nest of a viperous crystal meth gang growing rich off infecting the Indigenous who are scattered along this road. Pedersen's stolid and stoic doggedness as he upsets the still-colonial Anglo power structure of the region remains rooted in his connection with his people who continue to cling to their way of life in a region that is now becoming a center of Anglo flight from the continent's overpopulated cities.

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Women take the dance floor in Lovers' Rock's reggae house party

Small Axe – Videographer, artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen's outrageously ambitious mini-series made up of five episodes that collectively map the progression of Caribbean peoples of the Windrush generation, imported into Britain post-World War II to help rebuild the country but who were discriminated against then and now. A truly Balzacian and Zolaesque project whose equivalent in literature is Walter Mosely's Easy Rollins novels about Black Los Angeles. The series tracks Caribbean life and culture in a racist Britain in its bars (Mangrove), house parties (Lovers Rock), interaction with the police (Red, White and Blue), in prisons (Alex Wheatie) and schools (Education). Music is crucial to this evolution; the subtlest and slyest episode is the two-hour house party that is Lover's Rock with its extended takes of women on the dance floor carving out their place in reggae and the crowd going wild over "Kung Fu Fighting."

Next – In this year of both U.S. and European questioning of the unrestrained power of the technology industry, this series about a master computer gone berserk and waging war on a planet of utterly interconnected devices was a breakthrough into relevance for U.S. network TV. Next summoned the ghost of series past, particularly Fringe, in its warning of how our lives are threatened by our devices and the companies that wield them for profit. Fox, sensing the series was groundbreaking, canceled it after two episodes but will allow the remaining eight episodes to be shown.

Big Sky – David E. Kelly's correction to his own scurrilous adoration of the rich that was The Undoing. This ABC series brought female agency to the rightfully maligned, male misogynist serial killer genre as, after a shocking resolution in episode one, male energy gives way to cross racial, cross-class female agency.

Ten Honourable Mentions

Seth Meyers Late Night and The Daily Show – As Trumpism gives way to Biden's New Normal in the midst of a pandemic and an economic collapse, these two series, the cream of the crop of a heightened satirical late-night impulse, couldn't be more relevant. Seth Meyers' and Amber Ruffin's faux trailer for "White Savior," about Hollywood movies that ignored the African-American role in Black Liberation in favor of a white liberal hero, was NBC must-see TV. The Daily Show's group of "correspondents"—Desi Lydic's mocking of Trump-era journalism called "Journalisiming," Roy Wood Jr.'s knowing deadpans and telling sarcasm, and Jordan Klepper's "Fingering the Pulse" of Trump lunacy—made this show shine. All clips are available on YouTube.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Retro series of the year with Hitch directing three of these brilliant and only slightly veiled critiques of the vacuousness and greed of a 1950s America, celebrated by Trump nostalgists as a Golden Age: Lamb to the Slaughter, Breakdown and Poison, all available on YouTube.

Taken Down – Irish series that illuminates and undercuts the miracle of the Celtic Tiger by viewing it from the vantage point of immigrants, abused and exploited as Irish society becomes consumed in a wanton greed and a need to approximate the lifestyle of Dublin's elite.

Stargirl – Best of Greg Berlanti and the DC Universe was this under-the-radar revival of the 1940s Justice Society of America as seen through the eyes of a female teen whose superpowers take second place to her bonding with her nerdy but affectionate stepfather. Far more touching and affecting than the polyglot overpopulated superhero extravaganza that was Crisis on Multiple Earths.

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Cross-racial, cross-cultural romance on Bob Hearts Abishola

Bob Hearts Abishola – Season two of this Chuck Lorre series, about the later-in-life touching romance of a Detroit Anglo sock merchant and a Nigerian nurse, centers around the tensions involved in Bob and Abishola's marriage while featuring the cynically hilarious takes of Abishola's African-American and Nigerian co-workers.

The Mandalorian – Best Star Wars iteration since the original trilogy. This space Western boasted a second season full of surprises but which by season's end, because of its patterned folding into the mythology of the original, was in danger of losing its own originality.

Jack Irish – Guy Pierce in this Aussie detective series that spotlights the local tavern and racing culture of Melbourne's Fitzroy district as well as the corporate greed of again a pharmaceutical company experimenting on immigrants. Funniest moment is the private eye when asked if he always lived in Fitzroy explaining that he briefly moved to North Fitzroy but that was too much, and he quickly moved back. The series is available on Amazon Prime.

The Conners and Superstore – Two series which this year highlighted the plight of workers during the first phase of COVID. Most dramatically, the Conners, having failed to secure work during the epidemic, face eviction in the pilot of their new season. Meanwhile the diverse labor force of the Walmart-style Superstore, in a pilot that tracks the disease from March to July, face a corporate headquarters long on praise for its frontline workers but short on masks to protect them.

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Beleaguered Driver Peter (Toby Jones) and his stowaway Kayla (Erin Kellyman)

Don't Forget the Driver – Toby Jones as a set-upon bus driver in a languishing seaside British town, given new life through his encounter with the hopefulness of an African female teen, an illegal stowaway on his bus. Jones is a master at understatement and his frustrated takes as he deals with a deteriorating working-class lifestyle in post-Thatcher Britain make him the poor man's Bob Newhart.

RT – Three shows highlight the Russian network's position as clearing house for left and progressive reporting and commentary: Redacted Tonight with Lee Camp as wry commentator on weekly events, Renegade Incwith filmmaker Ross Ashcroft interviewing a different iconoclastic thinker each episode, and the old reliable George Galloway reimagined as left-wing shock jock in The Mother of All Talk Shows.

Five worst series

Hunters – Reducing the Holocaust to a Superhero cartoon is trivializing enough but then to add Al Pacino's over-bloated Dr. X in, as usual, a hammy star turn put this Amazon series over the top, that is, beyond redemption.

The Stranger – Harlan Coben Netflix nonsense which teases as being a critique of bourgeois false morality and then at the last moment, oh so predictably, seals back up the nuclear family tensions it initially purported to expose.

#blackAF – Kenya (Black-ish) Barris's transmuting of Black radical experience into a Curb Your Enthusiasm-type curmudgeonly grumbling. The street argot meaning of the title, black as f**k, is instead here simply an excuse to wallow in Black affluence, the real meaning of the series.

Wild District – Netflix series from Colombia that features a racist depiction of Bogotá's inner city as a jungle and rationalizes the right-wing refusal to negotiate peace as a valiant fight against guerrilla "terrorists," who themselves are suing to be recognized as a political party and legitimately debate ideas the right is terrifying of acknowledging.

Brockmire – Season four of this decently interesting series about an alcoholic baseball announcer and his struggle to show up for his team owner girlfriend and the boy he has tacitly adopted abandons both characters and instead opts for the entirely implausible promotion of Brockmire to be commissioner of baseball. Unlike other shows, such as Weeds, where "blowing up the series" gives it new life, this explosion demolished the series and illustrated the perennial problem with bringing back, because commercially profitable, shows which have reached their narrative peak.

Marginalised and forgotten: indigenous and working-class people in TV series
Monday, 21 December 2020 21:15

Marginalised and forgotten: indigenous and working-class people in TV series

Dennis Broe reviews TV series that focus on indigenous and working-class themes, including Mystery Road, Don’t Forget The Driver, The Connors, and Superstore. Image above: Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan in Mystery Road

Few series on television focus either on both the earth’s first inhabitants, the indigenous, now mostly quartered in slums across the world, or on workers, their lives and their daily concerns. The Australian series Mystery Road, now back for its second season, bucks this trend in focusing on the scattered remnants of the country’s Aborigines as they find themselves besieged in new ways by their Anglo colonizers.

Likewise, the BBC’s Don’t Forget the Driver (available on Britbox in the US) deals with a lonely and depleted working class playing out the string in a rundown shell of what was once a seaside resort, while The Connors and Superstore describe the effects of Covid. The Connors begins its new season with the extended family jobless and unable to pay the rent and Superstore recounts the effects of Covid on its essential workers, caught between a company more concerned with profits than workers’ safety and customers hoarding supplies that are in too short supply.

This is the second season for Mystery Road (BBC in the UK and Acorn in the US), a series based on an Aboriginal cop, Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), a character already established in two previous films. The mystery road that Jay travels is the wide-open country of Australia’s great and impoverished North, populated by its indigenous people and everywhere now the subject of a land grab by the Anglo tenants of its overcrowded cities looking for a property bargain. Season one centered around the death of a ranch hand in one of these towns and illustrated the monopoly on power a ranch owner exercised on the surrounding land and peoples.

Season two has Jay pursuing a crystal meth drug ring that radiates out from the town he arrives in and showers death and destruction on the entire region. Jay quickly traces the potential source to a local trucking company in cahoots with another powerful ranch owner, and suspects there is someone behind them. Part of season two is directed by Warwick Thornton whose Sweet Country was as astute examination of how the Australian treatment of its indigenous people in 1929 was closer to 19th century American slavery, as an Aboriginal ranch hand who strikes a blow in self-defence against a cruel and tyrannical owner must flee into the bush country and eventually stand trial before a white jury for his crime.

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Swedish anthro-colonialist in Mystery Road  

Warwick brings that understanding of this perpetual oppression to the series, which also highlights through several characters, often revolving around the indigenous female cop Fran (who partners with Jay) the complexities of modern Aboriginal life and its encounter with colonial capitalism. A subplot involves a Swedish archeologist, Sandra, working on a dig in the town that she claims will illustrate the continuity of indigenous life and thus serve as an answer to the claims that it is simply primitive.

Just as in how anthropology has been criticized as in its attempt to “understand” other ways of life which it imposes Western concepts on these customs, the locals see her as intrusive. This distrust comes to a head when she conceals the traces of a crime she finds on the dig because it would imperil her work and when her offer to have the town keep her findings is refused by the university that stakes her claim. She is neither completely well-meaning nor innocent of the same exploitation that the Anglo crystal meth dealers are engaged in.

Of course, it is possible to argue that the national Australian Broadcasting Company is engaged in the same process in the symbolic realm in using the country’s indigenous as a source of digital profit in creating a globally popular series. But something more is going on here. The series employs the iconography of the Western, with Jay Swan as the prototypical silent Western hero, a kind of Aboriginal Shane. He is both stoic and blunt but behind those qualities is the hardiness of a cop who is unwanted in Anglo law enforcement – represented here by the local racist police chief who disparages him and may himself be implicated in the drug running. He is resented also because he is an independent and powerful Aborigine and a stalwart defender of his people.

Season two illustrates these qualities in his steadfast and dogged pursuit of the Anglo dealers in the service of breaking their hold on the lives of those from which they are growing rich. Late in the season, a secret pad of one of the dealers stresses the lavish lifestyle acquired by the profits of this purveyor of misery. Jay, as opposed to the Western sheriff, is not a defender of justice and the rule of law in the abstract but rather a proponent of justice for his people and they are the source of his strength and resoluteness.

Jay’s ex-wife Mary seems to follow him along the mystery road as she turns up here again, this time involved with an ex-cop who suspiciously offers Jay aid. Mary is a nurse and hospital orderly who cares deeply for her patients and over the course of the season also demonstrates a propensity for police work in her aiding of Jay. She seems headed in that direction in season three, but the move from caregiver to cop is a questionable one. Jay’s daughter’s friend Shevorne, who functions as a surrogate daughter, also reappears, involved with a meth-head boyfriend in a relationship that she must sort out.

The series does a remarkable job of embracing the complexity of a people attempting to cling to their own traditions and forced to transition to a world that is ever more not of their making.

Working-class TV: few and far between

Network, national and streaming TV is filled with characters living a lavish lifestyle and/or one relatively untouched by the problems that beset the majority of populations under Western capitalism. The richness of the interiors of most television series is designed to blend seamlessly either with the advertisements which surround them, where a problem is solved in one minute by an appropriate commodity, or with other streaming service fare which reinforces the idea that lavishness is omnipresent and to be aspired to. Can you say Emily in Paris?

A series which counters this characterization is Don’t Forget The Driver, a recounting of the put-upon life of an ageing English seaside bus driver. Peter Green (Toby Jones in a series he also co-wrote) lives in the dying seaside resort of Bognor Regis, a smaller and more desperate Brixton – or in the US a Coney Island or Asbury Park, – past its day in the sun and haunted by memories of former glory.

Peter is a single father whose daughter can’t wait to leave the town, has care of a racist mother plagued by dementia, and ignores a would-be girlfriend. His plight is summed up each morning by his beat-up old car that only starts when he takes a hammer to it. Toby Jones is hilarious in the role. He’s a British Bob Newhart, able to grind every laugh possible from the dry acceptance of his lot in life, including putting up with a brother (also played by Jones), the apple of his mother’s eye who has cheated and swindled his way to his “promised land” of Australia where he affects an Aussie accent.

In each episode the beleaguered driver pilots another group of passengers to an obscure destination, none more hilarious than the group of septua- and octogenarians (the series is set in the 1980s) who barely survive the trip to Dunkirk in France to cheer on the British fallen at their gravesite. Unbeknownst to him, on the way back he is unwittingly part of a smuggling ring, bringing in a teenage African female stowaway Kayla in search of her brother in London.

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Beleaguered driver Peter (Toby Jones) and his stowaway Kayla (Erin Kellyman)

It’s Kayla’s presence that enlivens not only Peter’s life but also those around him, making his daughter more resolute about the path her life will take and prompting Peter to accept the relationship the erstwhile owner of a rundown sausage stand by the sea is offering him.

This crossing of an elderly European with an African refugee is becoming a staple of Euro representation. Its original and best rendering is Aki Kaurasmaki’s Le Havre where a retired fisherman encounters and hides an African boy, assisting him on his journey. (A bleaker and dystopian version of this trope is the Dardennes’ La Promesse.) The current Netflix film The Life Ahead has Sophia Loren as an aged prostitute who takes an African boy under her wing in a relationship that seems arbitrary and never grounded in mutual acceptance.

The point of the encounter is that it is enlivening for the European, stuck in the deteriorating patterns of the Old Continent to encounter the youth and enthusiasm of the young African refugee. Don’t Forget the Driver doubles this pattern as Peter’s prejudiced mother also succumbs to the caring and fellow feeling of her Indian neighbour. Against the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the continent, this trope offers the counter-argument that the encounter of the two continents is a lifesaving breath of fresh air and necessary for the survival of an atrophied Europe.

The Connors is another series which deals with working-class life and which has in its current season taken as its point of departure the increased burden that Covid has brought to the working class in the US – now almost synonymous with the working poor. The series was a hit in the 1990s for its co-creator Roseanne Barr, but after its successful revival she was removed after a racist tweet. The fictional family is intact with Roseanne’s absence on the show being explained by her death from an opiate overdose, a sneaky way of describing her tweet as the product of a fevered drug-induced existence.

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The Connors besieged with Covid

In the pilot of this new season, this extended family of Roseanne’s husband, two daughters, son, their children and her sister each struggle due to the Covid shutdown to find work. The Connors’ plight acutely mirrors workers in the US, largely employed in the service industry, now finding those jobs have disappeared due to accelerated automation and online selling. These workers are encountering a difficult retraining process from semi-skilled to skilled laborer, so that in one recounting a theme park stage manager must become an electrician, a taxi driver a plumber and a cook must acquire the expertise of a software manager. Dan, Roseanne’s husband, meets a family friend who has found work as a process server announcing the eviction of working families from their homes.

In the conclusion of the first episode, after fruitless attempts at finding work, the “family friend” appears at the Connors house to announce it is being repossessed. This is the presenting problem for a season in which the Connors’ plight increasingly will become the new normal for American workers, who must risk their lives now in search of dangerous work in the midst of a pandemic because of a government that refuses to expend money to take care of its most needy – while its congress schedules a special session to pass a bill appropriating more and more billions for war and armaments.

SUPERSTORE -- Pictured:

Superstore’s diverse labor force dealing with Covid

Finally, NBC’s Superstore, returning for its sixth and final season, began the season tracking the effects of the Covid first wave, from March to July, on its diverse workforce in their attempts to both serve a public growing increasingly more hostile in its hoarding of diminishing supplies like toilet paper and a corporate hierarchy that salutes the workers as heroes for showing up for work but is unconcerned with supplying them with the masks that might keep them safe.

The pilot was supposed to be about America Ferrara’s leaving the show, having anchored it for five seasons and with her departure delayed because last season's final episode could not be shot, as the show was forced to shut production in the first wave. Instead, that storyline was delayed an episode so that the series could focus on how workers in the store coped with the pressures they were, and continue to be, under in the pandemic. In a remarkable instance of a series putting its social worth over more standard entertainment values, Amy’s departure and the resolution of the standard romance between her and her co-worker Jonah took a back seat to a pilot that stressed the overall impact of the crisis on a diverse workforce.

The success of these three instances, antidotes to Emily in Paris, prove not only that working-class television that deals with actual hardship and suffering is possible, but that there is a thirst for it on the part of precarious viewers, who at this point constitute the majority of the audience.

Coming Undone: The Undoing, Big Sky, The Deceived and the limits of MeToo
Friday, 18 December 2020 08:29

Coming Undone: The Undoing, Big Sky, The Deceived and the limits of MeToo

Dennis Broe reviews some more series TV, regrets the reactionary and elitist tendencies of some contemporay feminism, and calls us 'to reach across race and class boundaries installed by a capitalist patriarchy'. Image above: Grace’s Manhattan in The Undoing

“The rich are different,” said Fitzgerald, in a languishing dreamy tone. “Yes,” replied Hemingway brusquely, “they have more money.”

It is difficult not to recall this exchange when watching HBO and Sky Atlantic’s David E. Kelly mini-series The Undoing, which in this year of an ever more rapid Covid-induced transfer of wealth from the lowest to the highest income brackets, thinks it is giving us a female emancipation series in the guise of a murder mystery. In fact it is simply glorifying and asking us to adore the wealthy.

The series illustrates not the triumph of the MeToo movement but the nightmare of what it always threatened to become: emancipation for rich white women, here in the form of Nicole Kidman’s strident strolls in a great green coat along the avenues of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Along with that comes its converse, continued eroticizing and exoticizing of minority and working-class women in the form of the murdered Latina wife and mother who dared to mix with the rich – women who are the victims of both wealthy men and women.

On the other hand, the promise of MeToo is displayed in, oddly enough, another David E. Kelly series Big Sky (on ABC and Prime Video) where male energy in the pilot yields in a dramatic reversal to female and transgender bonding, in a series that upends many of the tropes of the misogynist serial killer genre. A new kind of MeToo cliched formation unfortunately coalesces in the BBC gothic thriller The Deceived and undercuts what might have been a necessary corrective, in this Gallic remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

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The triumphs of the MeToo movement are many and its strength and power is especially evident in the entertainment industry and in politics, two of the most visible areas of American life. Victories include: the trial and conviction of the powerful self-styled studio mogul Harvey Weinstein; the promotion of more women to positions of power within the industry; and the increased participation of women in public office, which has included women of color. It has also given rise to the misogynist president’s worst nightmare, The Squad, a group of articulate, outspoken minority women in the House of Representatives who have brought new and much needed energy to an atrophied institution.

It’s so much nicer being bombed by women and people of colour

But there was always a darker side of MeToo, the idea that it would simply leave in its wake a shuffling of gender seats at the top, where the faces but not the policy decisions would change. Biden is currently taking advantage of this with his minority and female appointments, the latest of which is an African-American general from the powerful arms contractor Raytheon and from his own private weapons contracting firm, as the head of the defense department.

It is useful to remember Clinton’s secretary of state Madelaine Albright who defended the death of 500,000 Iraqi children by U.S. sanctions and who at a 2016 presidential rally introduced candidate Hilary Clinton whose famous statement on the bombing and devastation of Libya to secure its oil fields, rationalized as regime change to get rid of Muammar Gaddafi, was “We came, we saw, he died.” The cartoon where one Middle East resident says in effect to the other, “It’s so much nicer being bombed by women and people of colour,” again points to the problem of a tokenism which leaves the criminal structure intact, but which has the appearance of change.

Which brings us back to The Undoing. Nicole Kidman, in a role now reprised and refined in an earlier, better series – Big Little Lies – is a psychoanalyst and marriage counsellor who, it turns out, can’t see the trouble in her own marriage to Hugh Grant’s supposedly caring pediatric cancer specialist.

Her journey to clarity is the subject of the series as much as it has a subject. Its actual subject is a supposedly tantalizing look at the lives of Manhattan’s superrich. Kidman’s Grace is from a wealthy family whose patriarch (Donald Sutherland) is a ruthless old man who, far from getting his comeuppance in the series, instead becomes Grace’s steadfast supporter as she labours to get out from under the spell of her husband while in effect returning to the patriarchal womb of her wealthy family.

We are supposed to be adoring of Grace’s wanderings through Central Park, her meetings with her father in the Metropolitan Museum, and her playing a grand piano with him in one of the rooms of his cavernous mansion. It’s the same kind of idle rich worship practiced in the 1950s in such films as Imitation of Life where the Broadway star Laura’s (Lana Turner) Connecticut home is a dreamy setting for her to play out her supposed caring for her black maid, while all the time ordering her around as if the place was a Southern plantation.

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Eroticized Latina Elena Alves (Maltilda de Angelis)  

Just a stone’s throw away from Grace’s hermetically sealed existence are neighbourhoods in the predominately Latino section of the Bronx, ravaged by Covid and now with an unemployment rate of over 25 percent. That world is only figured briefly in the series and only in the highly exoticized form of the Latina who has an affair with Grant’s doctor and then attempts to seduce Grace.  

The rich in The Undoing do suffer though. Grant’s privileged pediatrician’s affair with the Latina woman from Harlem ends in her death. The authorities have the audacity to then arrest him for the crime, causing undue grief to the family. It’s not supposed to, and doesn’t usually, happen this way. We are reminded of the Sackler Family, the executives of their drug company Perdue, and their public relations firm whose combined thirst for profits caused the Oxycontin plague that contributed to the deaths by overdose of 750,000 people, and who were never even threatened with jail.

Later in the series Grace’s son knocks into the son of the woman his father is accused of murdering. He is then called in to the principal of the exclusive private school he attends and told it would be better if he were home schooled. The parents then righteously defend their son for his bullying and accuse the school of pandering to the press. Another example of how the rich are singled out and abused just because they cannot control their disdain for everyone else in the midst of a recession and a pandemic. Shocking!

The series has little in the way of plot twists. Episode two with the Grant character pursued for the murder has an entirely predictable ending, and the last episode concludes with a rerunning of the O.J. Simpson helicopter pursuit, finishing in a ludicrous and utterly unsuspenseful confrontation. A second season is being contemplated and who would want to miss it? There are so many lavish Manhattan blocks that we haven’t yet seen Grace striding through in her greatcoat!

The antidote to this nonsense is another David E. Kelly series Big Sky. Kelly is an excellent writer and since he wrote both series one has to conclude the difference is the source material, the novels on which both series are based. Big Sky, set as the name implies amidst the lush green wilds and the decaying human ruins of Montana, adds an entirely new MeToo wrinkle to the serial killer genre.

The first episode is all male energy, as what appears to be a serial killer kidnaps a sex worker at a truck stop, and then two teenage girls who challenge him on the road. Meanwhile, the African-American employee at a detective agency Cassie has been having an affair with the male head of the agency (a star turn by Ryan Phillippe) resulting in a bar-room brawl with the other female member of the agency, Jenny, the director’s wife. Though the filming of the fight stresses the physicality of the confrontation, the scene, as does a later one where Jenny “goes undercover” as a prostitute, still elicits male prurient interest.

The pilot though ends in one of the most startling surprises of the season in any series and episode two restarts the series with the two female detectives beginning to bond. More startlingly we watch the three victims of the would-be serial killer, who we find out is instead the procurer for a trafficking ring, themselves coming together to challenge their captors. One of the victims turns out in a wonderfully human moment to reveal herself to be on the LGBT spectrum and this revelation is queried and then accepted by the teen prom queen whose experience is the opposite.

Female bonding in Big Sky

The bonding of both sets of women, inside and outside captivity as well as their continual challenge on the inside to their kidnapper and on the outside to the police officer who they suspect as the ringleader puts active female contestation at the heart of a genre that most often was simply about females being slaughtered in ever more inventive ways with only, as in the screen series Scream, a “final girl” surviving to ultimately wreak revenge.

Big Sky substitutes active resistance for passive slaughter, and in its insistence on female bonding across class, racial and gender divides against an ever more violent patriarchy, provides an antidote to Grace’s lonely walks and retreat to her heartless father.

The show, a mini-series of ten episodes, is a fit sequel to its network ABC’s last season femme breakthrough Stumptown, a too quickly cancelled series about a military ex-cop and would-be female private detective who struggles to integrate herself into the Native American community of her dead husband, while contesting the brutal pull the military exerts over her attempt to find the truth about his demise.  

Horror, Horror Everywhere and Not a Cliché is Spared: The Deceived

The BBC’s Deceived, a series which begins promisingly by invoking Hitchcock’s gothic thriller Rebecca, ends up as simply too formulaic in its simplistic characterization of male power.

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Ophelia (Roisin Mulvery) ‘deceived’ by her English professor (Emmett J Scanlan)  

The series begins with its ingenue, Ophelia, in voiceover describing the horror she felt in a Gothic mansion as the camera pans up the pathway to the house. The shot duplicates that of the opening of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. This time Mandalay, instead of in England, is in Ireland in Donegal, the place that Ophelia seeks out to find her Cambridge English teacher Michael who she has an affair with to tell him she is pregnant.

Hitchcock used the Daphne de Maurier novel to explore the subtle sadism inherent in Lawrence Olivier’s Maxime de Winter, a British nobleman who tortures his new bride by bringing her home to what amounts to a tomb for his dead ex-wife and then pretending nothing is askew. The master director though pulled his punches and exonerated the aristocrat by deflecting the evil of the house entirely onto Judith Anderson’s devilish housemaid.

Deceived does attempt to correct this sleight of hand but goes too far this time, in Michael’s increasing dastardliness in the face of all the women in his life coming together to crush him. He is haunted by the death of his ex-wife, by a former student, by his ex-wife’s mother and by his own conviction that his writing career is a sham.

Ophelia, echoing her namesake in Hamlet, is increasingly driven insane by the doings at the mansion which may or may not be haunted by the ghost of Michael’s ex-wife. The problem in the series, which by the way is still far better than the insipid picture postcard that is the current Netflix remake of Rebecca, is its Manichean quality, with absolute evil accruing to Michael and absolute good in the hard-fought formation of the female collective.

This lack of nuance ultimately damages the argument of the series and instead substitutes a paint-by-numbers solution that because it so stretches plausibility fails to make its case, replacing complicated class contradictions with caricature.

Thus are the vicissitudes of a powerfully activist contemporary feminism that in this complacent instance is capable of turning reactionary and elitist. This is a tendency best alleviated by reaching across the race and class boundaries installed by a capitalist patriarchy.

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