Highlighting and concealing class conflict as inequality intensifies: new TV series
Monday, 29 November 2021 15:32

Highlighting and concealing class conflict as inequality intensifies: new TV series

Dennis Broe reviews some forthcoming TV series, presented at the recent Series Mania festival in Lille 

It’s Emmy Award season – but rather than dwell on television’s past it might be better to dwell on its future. What follows are the best (and worst) of fall series previewed at the recently concluded Series Mania, the Festival of Global Television in the French northwest former mining centre of Lille. Many of the series were concerned with either highlighting or concealing class-based social divisions, in the wake of the vast transfer of wealth that has followed the COVID billionaire accumulation in the online goldrush.

The mining history of Lille is relevant because the best of these series was a new French public television version of Germinal. Two of the six episodes were broadcast at sites throughout the region, which was one of the coal mining and industrial centres of the world when Zola wrote the novel in the 1880s. The novel, about workers’ actions in 1860, is a long debate about managing a strike so that workers can claw back some measure of decency from an increasingly exploited life at work, requiring ever more sacrifices just to make their daily bread.

It’s the same struggle that workers in sites like Amazon warehouses are engaged in today, and they also face a triple onslaught from the government. With the Delta Covid strain still rampant, the state of Texas has attacked the right of women – mostly from working-class minority ethnic groups – to abortion. The Democrats have allowed the rent moratorium to end, throwing millions out into the street and have also withdrawn financial support in an attempt to force workers back to work in the same low-paying but now more dangerous jobs. To add insult to injury, all three attacks came over Labor Day weekend.

Producing Germinal as a TV series restores the novel to its original serialized version, with its hourly climaxes similar to how Zola wrote them for French magazines like Gil Blas. It is a welcome contrast to the supposedly magisterial but actually stuffily conservative 1993 film version by Claude Berri. This film turned the living, breathing workers of Zola’s novel into stone-faced French national icons.

This is class war

There is a nice blend of personal and collective in the endings of the first two episodes which propel the audience forward. The first episode ends with what is depicted as the rape of the mining girl Catherine by a rough fellow miner Chaval, while episode two ends with Catherine’s mother Maheude casting a full-throated vote for a strike after her young son is crippled for life in a mining accident,.

There is a nod to contemporary finance capitalism as the mine manager Hennebeau, positioned at the end of long table with the Parisian company stockholders, argues for the miners but is told by the board members that “this is a war” and they cannot relent.

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Maheude’s son crippled in the mine, in Germinal  

The series is shot in CinemaScope, using a grisly colour palette influenced by Peaky Blinders and the darkly ominous films of James Gray (Little Odessa, The Yards). The effect is one of gloomy misery, visually echoing Zola’s description of the mine as “a mechanical monster and the men and women mere beasts or insects fed to the monster.”

The series’ writer cites John Sayles’ Matewan as an influence, and it premiered around the 100-year anniversary of what was called The Battle of Blair Mountain, that the Sayles’ film is based on. This saw miners battle a company private army in an attempt to organize the Appalachian coal fields, not dissimilar to the strike described in Germinal or the Teamsters Union attempt to come to the aid of Amazon workers’ struggles to organize.

The producers turned down an invitation to premiere the series at the Venice Film Festival, preferring to present it as television and to premiere it at the Arenberg pit in the town of Wallers, near to where the novel’s action took place.

The series is being used as a calling card for production development in this area is a means of replacing the long-deserted mines. It is unfortunately also being trumpeted by the region’s director Xavier Bertrand as part of his bid to represent the right-wing Republicans in the next presidential election on an anti-working class emphasis around the diversionary issues of security and immigration – an ironic undoing of Zola’s mission in the novel.

On the plus side, the series also corrects an imbalance with other French series that are often ineffective imitations of their American counterparts. Thus 10 Percent is warmed over, sentimentalized The Larry Sanders Show and Episodes, which are both bitter satires of the entertainment business, and Spiral is only a step above Law and Order.

 Stifling socially relevant drama

The best French series are those which either deal in an authentic way with French history, eg Un village français about the German occupation and The Price of Peace about Switzerland coming to grips with its Nazi past after the war, or with contemporary social problems, eg the excellent attack on carcinogenic polluters like Monsanto in Game of Influence. This is a reversal of the situation in visual art in the first half of the 20th century, where everywhere there were copies of French art which generally stifled local artists – just as copying of American rom-com and crime formats today stifles more socially relevant French television and film production.

The companion piece to Germinal in terms of its high degree of class consciousness is the Australian series The Unusual Suspects, about two high-end families and their Filipina maids in Sydney’s lavish, gated, eastern suburbs. This series follows in the wake of The White Lotus’ concentration on the gap between rich pampered tourists from the mainland and the still-colonized Hawaiians who serve them at an elegant resort. Both these shows, despite the New York Times’ description of them as being about problems on vacations,  are about gross inequalities, and make series that simply concentrate on the foibles of the rich – such as Nine Perfect Strangers – now seem antiquated.

The Unusual Suspects has the matrons of the two households, betrayed by either criminal or incompetent husbands, aligning with their maids to pull a heist to try to maintain their status. The show is a vicious satire about privilege, with Sara, whose “brand” is #loveyournanny, ordering her maid Evie to sit at the breakfast table for a ‘happy family’ publicity photo and then ordering her to get up and clean up, after the phot.

There is more than class satire in the series, however. It is actually about the way that the dominance of financial capital and the symbolic economy is turning people into various kinds of scam artists, where nothing and no value is real. Sara’s “company” which she is trying to sell to an American investor is all about family management – but she doesn’t know where her own kids are and that they have gone to the zoo.

The cross-class bonding between the matrons and their maids and the planned heist makes for an exciting series, in the vein of the previous Aussie series Wanted about two women of different classes coming together. But the real breakthrough point of the series is the way it highlights the sham element of advanced capitalist societies where value is divorced from production and created and lost on the whim of its “influencers,” hedge fund investors and vulture capitalists.

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Reviving a dead factory in The Last Socialist Artefact 

The deterioration of Germinal’s industrial economy is the starting point for Croatia’s The Last Socialist Artefact. It’s about two self-styled entrepreneurs who must revive a turbine plant in rural Croatia, where the company has long since moved as a part of post-Soviet deindustrialization. The two work to reactivate the factory and restore the town, which is full of too-soon and too-long pensioned engineers, plant managers and workers, now being given later in life a second chance.

The series is a kind of Music Man for the deglobalized generation, a left-for-dead rural Eastern Europe which saw its economy collapsed or plundered after the heavy infusion of capital post-1989. The question is whether the two ideas men from the capital Zagreb will deliver on their promises. The series focuses on the hope of a revival, as skilled workers from the town bring a new fellow-feeling which outdistances and changes the entrepreneurs, humanizing them by giving them a stake in the well-being of the town which becomes more than just an investment, as one takes up with a local bartender and the other falls for the camaraderie of the ex-factory workers.

Unbridled and unquestioned class privilege

The most disappointing series were those which simply focused on unbridled and unquestioned class privilege. The Bite starring The Practice’s Audra McDonald, teases at being a zombie series but comes across simply as Upper East Side COVID confinement show about a doctor and a dominatrix residing in the same luxury building as a zombie infestation sets in. CBS thinks it’s being very radical by proposing a Black female doctor and a blonde dominatrix as leads, but in fact the series is a faux-doctor and faux-sex series. It’s even a faux- zombie show with little tension, carnage or laughs, so frankly if you watch it for the zombies, you’ll be disappointed.

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Women on the verge of a shopping spree 

The French actress Julie Delpy, star and co-creator of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight film series, is one of the creators and the star of On The Verge, a series about four middle-aged women in L.A. who help each other through the apparently difficult time of what in male series is called mid-life crisis.

Unlike the far better Almodovar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, where the heroines struggle against a vicious patriarchy, when these upper middle-class career women are on the verge of not a nervous breakdown but rather a mild anxiety attack they go to the beach, or more likely go shopping on Rodeo Drive. What they really are on the verge of is becoming “Karens,” the eponymous, privileged racist figures that keep popping up in the media. Their supposed “struggle” for recognition as they age is in a way no more compelling than similar series about Dicks – privileged men superseded by youth and now mostly relevant because of their wealth. A prominent example of which was TNT’s Men of a Certain Age.

 Ignoring and eliding class conflict

The last and most interesting of this trio of series is Hacks, starring Jean Smart, so convincing as the nearly inarticulate but steadfast working-class mother in Mare of Eastown, here reimagined as that character’s opposite. Smart plays Deborah Vance, a Las Vegas comic whose routines have long since ceased being funny and who lives in splendour so appalling and gross that when the young female, Hollywood writer she hires to revive her act approaches her mansion she mutters “This is why we need a wealth tax.”

Hannah Einbinder’s Ava, as the wise-cracking out-of-work writer, shows promise as an alternative voice in the series, which unfortunately is never able to get beyond Smart’s unfunny, smarmy Vegas jokes. The two bond in their relation to comedy but that seems unlikely given the gap between Ava’s truth-telling humor and Vance’s truth-concealing Vegas put downs. It is interesting also that the show’s Hollywood creators position an up-and-coming Hollywood sit-com writer as an alternative to smarmy Vegas humor and lifestyle, when in fact that writer is simply on the path to eventually becoming the same thing herself.

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Money for nothing in the Swedish series Dough 

Far better at cross-class female bonding in the Wanted mode is Dough, a Swedish series about a down-and-out ex-convict mother trying to nurse her baby on the street, a middle-class set-upon mother beset by financial difficulties and a troubling teenager who discovers a pile of loot in the forest. Best scene is the ex-con mom getting a job and then saying she has a record but for nothing special, “petty theft, driving while drunk,” then walking away and turning as she remembers “and, oh yeah, assault.”

There is a contrast in the camerawork around the two women. The poor woman gets the Dardenne Brothers up-close, in-tight kind of camerawork, emphasizing her state of constant agitation, while the camera keeps a respectful distance from the middle-class woman, who is actually just as harassed. At this point, the show begins to feel just a bit too pat, as this post-Thelma and Louise bonding is now becoming not a way of emphasizing the shared plight of women but a de rigueur trope that fits neatly into the standard, culturally hegemonic narrative that elides class conflict.

As Judith Butler would describe it, there is a wide gap between the middle-class woman’s precariousness, which is a more universal plight about parenthood and raising a teen, and the working-class convict’s precarity, the result of a societal class war waged against her.

Last and least in this survey is The Rope, a series from the usually cinematically reliable French and European production house Wild Bunch. The series will keep you on the edge of your seat but only because you’ll be wondering how and why it got made. It’s Survivor meets Waiting for Godot, and not in a good way – a baldly philosophical series whose problem is the clumsiness of a conceit not grounded in any material reality. Here are some examples of the snappy dialogue: “Should we follow the rope?” “You need to keep following the rope,” “I don’t want to follow the rope,”….and frankly neither do we.

On the horizon in the new television season is hopefully more grappling with the gross, absurd disparities in wealth generated by capitalism. A recent report by the U.S. Treasury stated that the rich have cheated the government out of 630 billion dollars in unpaid taxes – this while Congress argues over whether poor working people “deserve” to have daycare education and free community college. Let’s hope this season features more cross-class alliances, fewer Karens, and no more Dicks.

Jean-Paul Belmondo

Jean Paul Belmondo died last week at 88. He was the New Wave icon, who with his insouciance and general amoral nonchalance brought a new body to the French cinema, notably in Godard’s Breathless, Pierrot le Fou and Une Femme et une femme.

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He was an active part of all of the contradictions of the day. Born of extremely privileged heritage in Neuilly, the richest city in France, he briefly became a soldier, taking part in the war in Algeria. However, he then became the lead in Pierrot le Fou, pursued along with his female accomplice by OAS gangsters in a direct reference to the conservative forces that tried to oust De Gaulle because of his ending of the Algerian war.

The film was censored for even these slight references, with the censors paying particularly acute attention after Godard’s film two years earlier Le Petit Soldat, in a way remade in the U.S. by Hal Ashby as The Last Recall, and both about a soldier’s reluctance to do their duty, in the French case to go to the Algerian war.

Belmondo was also during this period the head of the French Actors’ Union, an affiliate of the radical CGT union. After his stint in the New Wave, he remained an emblem of French popular cinema.