Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Performance anxiety: dirty workers on cable TV

As I'm pretty sure I've said before, I watch just about all the major dramatic efforts on cable. I like some (6 feet under, Sopranos, Mad Men, Californication) more than others (Entourage, True Blood, The United States of Tara) but even when they have basic flaws in logic or structure, they tend to be pretty well written and really well acted. And I love TV in general, so why not?

And like everyone else who has the full monte of cable channels, I've been watching Nurse Jackie and the new seasons of Weeds and True Blood. In addition, I've noticed the preview for a new show--subtlety titled HUNG--about a down-on-his-luck guy who also happens to be swinging some serious pipe and so decides to become a prostitute. . On the most basic level, this obviously follows the basic situation/structure of Weeds. Put a basically decent person in some difficult situation so we grant them the moral license to do something that would otherwise be considered ethically or at least socially marginal and we watch the comic misadventures follow.

(Digression: Frankly, I'm not sure how well that structure is holding up on Weeds, at least for the lovely SJP, whose character seems to change with each episode. But who cares with such fantastic secondary characters)

But that's a digression, because what I'm really interested in here is an apparent pattern in all these shows: That is: the main character's career is a source of moral conflict. Among the artists on cable TV (Entourage, Californication), the moral dilemma is usually one of artistic integrity. Among our petty criminals (Weeds, and I'm guessing HUNG) it is around the definition of crime itself, as the characters try to negotiate the boundaries of social convention ("victimless crimes") and balance their personal necessity up against real social harm. Nurse Jackie, while the most recent, is actually up a against a more familiar conflict. The passionate renegade bucking the system to do what's right, even if she has to break the rules.

But even here, the show's writers felt the need to burden or enrich her character with several other ethical flaws (drug addiction, adultery). Perhaps they thought this made her more gritty or realistic. But this pattern of morally flawed heroes suggests that the writers are responding to something bigger than the requirements of character development.

The high-flying cultural theorist might claim this is a response to our lack of confidence in traditional institutions of cultural authority: Doctors, Lawyers, those darn greedy bankers, etc. But all these shows are dramas of personal conflict, not social commentary. They aren't about the culture at large, or the roles of institutions in our lives, but rather how an individual attempts to define their identity in the midst of ethical compromises required by work.

I'd say this trend is more about the fact that many of us (or maybe just hollywood writers) feel ethically ambivalent about our careers, or the notion of a career in the first place. Most of us think we are basically doing good work, or least doing it well, but unlike previous generations, we aren't as confident that making a decent living is itself an ethical act, worthy of respect.

We wonder about the social impact of our careers and so try too mix progressive causes with our capitalist labor. We worry we have given too much of our life to our work and so try to redefine work/life boundaries creating new aestheticized definitions of what the "good life" looks like.

And of course we are drawn to shows and heroes that embody this same conflict but in more dramatic and funny contexts. The heroes of Weeds, Hung, Nurse Jackie, and the Soprano's, all need to make a living too, just like us. And in virtually every show, they dramatize this conflict between what they think they need to do to survive and what they fear it is doing to them.

It seems NO ACCIDENT as they say in the trade that the previews for HUNG show our hero at a career counseling session being asked about his special talent. His answer "a really big dick" is both a shallow and a deep (pardon the pun) joke. The deep joke is about all our professional anxieties to "perform" in the newly competitive workplace. If only all our special skills were so tangible.

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