Is this the new American dream?
By Peter Aspden
Published: September 21 2007 16:57 Financial Times
It’s a line most of us have used, a witty apologia for a sudden, apparently unexplained lapse in cultural standards: “I know it’s bad. But it’s so bad, it’s good.”
I first heard the phrase used about Dallas, the television epic that famously rewrote itself in the mid-1980s by dismissing an entire series as a bad dream. The manoeuvre was so clumsily handled – aficionados note how Pamela Ewing went to bed with short hair and woke up with long – that its very ineptitude acquired a cult following. “I know it is silly. But it’s so silly, it’s brilliant.”
There were comparisons with the short stories of Borges in such trend-setting journals as the Modern Review. The world seemed turned upside down. We knew Dallas was bad but was it so bad it was good? How else to explain that weekly addiction to the small screen, for fear of missing some fresh absurdity in the giddy plot? The more overwrought the twist in the narrative, the more we discussed it. There was no limit. All regard to taste and sobriety of judgment was diverted. The killing of JR made the national news. It seemed important. We knew it wasn’t but happily treated it as if it was.
The lofty view of these developments is that we were embracing the postmodern sensibility, adopting a knowing and ironic stance to culture that enabled us to enjoy the trivial while never losing sight of its slightness. A less generous view is that we all finally surrendered to the flattening, hypnotic effect of popular culture. I remember television before Dallas as being funny, or serious, but not both at the same time. The descent into kitsch of television and popular music meant that we didn’t care about those boundaries any more. We just consumed, and found lazy solace in rubbish by ironising it, in order to appear clever. But we were being stupid.
No matter; the habit has stuck. I confess to having my own weekly so-bad-it’s-good moment, an hour that has become weirdly and depressingly sacrosanct. The crime in question is a programme called Brothers and Sisters, a heady American series about family life that is shortly coming to the end of its first run in the UK, and about to enter its second in the US.
The premise is simple: the travails of a Californian matriarch and her five offspring, who represent a kind of rainbow coalition of modern all-American virtues – ditzy, Republican media star; cute but drug-addled war veteran; openly gay lawyer; monosyllabic businessman; working mother with attitude. As you can imagine, they each have their troubles wrestling their personal baggage on to the wobbly-wheeled luggage trolley of life, but they finally come together because they are a family. (If you ever watch the programme, count the number of mentions of family. Bring a calculator. Subliminal this is not.)
What is extraordinary about the programme is this: no matter how awful are the things that happen to the members of this doughty family, all is resolved, every week, in the last five minutes, to the accompaniment of the gentle minor chords of a soft-rock ballad. The deepest emotional turmoil is healed instantly. Psychological damage that would seem to demand a lifetime of therapy is cured with sticking-plaster homilies. The warm embrace of the family conquers all.
Now you can say that the same thing applied to The Waltons or Little Women or any other sentimental classic – but they weren’t made in 2007. What sets Brothers and Sisters apart is that it knows about family dysfunction; it understands that they fuck you up, your mum and dad. We see it in every episode; but still we must have, as the 40 minutes draw to a close, our happy ending, each week.
This is regressive, not to say reactionary, television. Poor Dallas didn’t know any better. But in the era of The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, there is no artistic justification for taking a drama series into such shallow waters. Particularly when its makers are so demonstrably clever. There are good, funny lines in each episode. There are television in-jokes to enjoy: Rob Lowe, whose portrait in the attic must be looking very old indeed, plays an aspiring presidential candidate, which was of course the future predicted for his character in The West Wing.
The cast is not undistinguished – Sally Field emotes like a Fury, Calista Flockhart bumbles engagingly, Rachel Griffiths – the marvellous Brenda from Six Feet Under – wonders whatever happened to scripts in the past two years. There is some effective ensemble comedy. But the emotional infantilism of the series casts its shadow over all its good points. I find it compelling, because it tells us something about our world.
Brothers and Sisters strikes me as the polar opposite, in sensibility, of the plays of Chekhov. There are common primary concerns – chiefly the destructive effects of family intimacy – but opposing treatments of them. In Chekhov, all is latent, unspoken, shrouded in tension and dark moods. If there is underlying conflict between characters, it weighs throughout the work, and beyond. Chekhov’s agonists wonder, and worry, and wait. And through the stagnation, we sense the oncoming rush of social revolution.
What do we sense watching Brothers and Sisters? A society that believes the grand themes of human conflict can be swiftly resolved as long as that basic social unit, the family, sticks together. The country may be at war, society irredeemably divided but, if the family remains intact, all is well.
It all smacks of desperation: the story of a rich, white dynasty in constant flirtation with existential anxiety, but not to the extent that it ever gets hurt or made poor. Is this the new American dream? It’s a rotten one. Give me a nudge when Pammy wakes up.