Thursday, November 17, 2016

How We Got Here: A Cultural History of the 21st Century - Episode 0 (first two-thirds - rough)

Greetings, salutations, welcome, and all due appropriate sentiments to this episode #0 of "How We Got Here: A Cultural History of the 21st Century." 

We have just emerged from the Television era. I believe that in the past generation, it is not movies or music that has represented us most accurately, however well some in each field of the Arts do, and it's certainly not fiction or art. Far more than any other medium, TV gives its creators the freedom and diversity to show our lives accurately.  This podcaster was born at the cusp between Generation X and Millennials, we were not only born in the television era, but even our parents can't remember a time before television. But our parents grew up with three basic networks, we grew up with thirty, and by the time we became adults, we had 300. 

I would imagine that we are now in the Podcast Era - hence why I'm here. But there is a great difference between TV and Television. TV is entertainment, Television is art. TV is escapist, Television is cathartic. TV exists to comfort us, Television exists to drive us mad. 

I would date the emergence of Television rather than TV to somewhere between the final episode of Seinfeld in May 1998 and the pilot episode of The Sopranos in January of 1999. Something in the American air changed during those months much as they seemed to in the Fall of 2014. 

The 'quote-unquote Great Event' of that period was the Lewinsky investigation and the Clinton impeachment, which everyone both Right and Left agreed, represented a new low in American discourse in which the country had nothing better to talk about for an entire year than the President getting a blow job. The great political development of that period was the Drudge Report - traditional news, even 24 hour news, could no longer keep up with the proliferation of trivial but distracting political stories, or entirely made up stories, that cater to the prejudices of people who believe that traditional journalism have an inherent bias. No newspaper, no television network, could ever keep up with an aggregating website that could send its audience down a rabbithole of information, often false, that was available to them at the click of a button. But the great substantive event of this period in American history was that this was the period when more substantial debate was conducted over the repeal of the Glass-Steagal act, enacted in the beginning of the Roosevelt administration. Glass-Steagal was the banking act that allowed banks to diversify their holdings - unwittingly by some, perhaps wittingly by others - as unbelievable as that sounds, it set the stage for The Great Recession of 2008 and all sorts of other events to come. However it was done, the center of American life, its basic expectations and routines, was hollowed out in that infamous year of 1998. 

Art is a societal seizmograph. It is impossible to look at Art and not see it tell the story of the era in which it was made, and it is impossible, much as Vladimir Nabokov would disagree, to look at Art without reading parallels into it from the real world - from our own lives, from the lives of people we know and love or hate, from the wider world at large. The great secret of Art is its societal tremors. With exceptions of course, a secure era will be dominated by secure Art where by the end, everything returns home to the place where it began. Homer Simpson, no matter what his mistakes, always keeps his family together. The Seinfeld Four, no matter what their venalities, are never held truly accountable until the final episode. No matter how long the doctors of MASH stay in Korea, their lives remain a never ending party and unless they're played by McLean Stevenson their security is rarely compromised. Norms are upheld, stability reigns, and no matter how complicated the leaps, the best Art has a kind of joyful virtuosity, with a perfectly comprehensible form and a perfectly executed landing at the end. 

But an insecure era will be dominated by insecure art. We never know if or when a main character in The Sopranos or The Wire will survive or die - let alone Game of Thrones. We never know what taboo South Park or Family Guy will break next. We never know what incomprehensible twisting of form Arrested Development or Lost will embrace and we're not sure we understand it when they do it.

Before the Television Era came the TV era. The TV era began in the early 80's and continued until the late 90's. TV had been around for 30 years, perhaps generation and a half, and TV writers finally understood how to write for it. In the 50's, often referred to until recently as the Golden Age of Television, the greatest shows were in many ways high culture mass produced for a larger audience. There were three big networks, all of whom established themselves as empires in the days of radio - American Broadcasting Corporation, National Broadcasting Corporation, Columbia Broadcasting System; ABC, NBC, CBS. Though challenged as never before, they are still the 'big three', and because they are challenged so frequently, the quality of their programming has declined precipitously from what it once was to appeal to the most escapist common denominator. There were a variety of networks that tried to challenge the Big Three's supremacy in many ways, and until FOX in the 80's, all of them failed to establish a secure place as even the #4 network. Today, the Networks are perhaps creaking antiques, but in the 50's, they were as unquestioned an empire as the country which let them dominate, and as every empire does that wants to remain an empire, the Big Three embarked upon projects designed for good public relations. They seemed determined to bring a kind of enoblement to the masses. Leonard Bernstein broadcasted lectures on classical music after football games, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals were telecasted after sitcoms. Plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller appeared before detective shows. All three genres had famous composers and writers working on projects directly for television. Playwrights and composers who never quite made it were enlisted to write for lowerbrow shows that raised the quality of production to heights that were not seen again for thirty years. Great vaudevillians and great young comedians wrote for sitcoms - and for a young comedian, writing a sitcom was considered a stepping stone for a great career in standup. The reason for all this quality was probably nothing but good public relations, but contrary to what so many believe today, good public relations is not an inherent vice, and often is an indicator of sincere virtue. Regardless of whether the means were justified, what is undeniable is that high culture proliferated in the early days of Television, which was as diverse in its highbrow to lowbrow content as vaudeville once was and European television is today. 

By the 1960's, TV earned an audience of hundreds of millions, and became far lazier. was not known as a wasteland until the 60's and 70's, when television generally became formulaic and lazy. Fictional shows were usually mass-produced, sometimes at forty episodes per year, and some would stay on the air for twenty years at a time. The audience for these shows was as absolutely huge as the most read internet sites are in our day, but the reason for television's popularity was for escapism, not challenge or catharsis. However extraordinary some internet content is, hundreds of millions of people in our day do not look to Youtube or Funny or Die for anything but escapism. If they look at the astonishing proliferation of political websites, they look mostly to confirm their own biases. In the same way, people watched Gunsmoke, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bonanza, Andy Griffith, and Happy Days to unwind in the same way we look at youtube today and previous generations of Americans went to the movies. There were exceptions, some of them like MASH and All In The Family were of exceptional quality, but from the very late 50's to early 80's, it was to movies that people went for edification, for catharsis, for emotional food and intellectual challenge. As amazing as it seems today, in the early-to-mid sixties, it was to foreign films that many, many Americans went for such things until the late sixties, when a few dozen American directors began making movies of perhaps unprecedented quality in the already long and illustrious history of film. We are still so close to the Age of Movies that we don't remember them, but there are literally hundreds of great films from this era of comparable quality to The Godfather. The mass audience had deserted movies for TV, which was more convenient. All that remained was the people who were up for adventure, and did they ever get it in director-driven movies that were mostly as unpredictably dark as most of the producer-driven movies of yesteryear were reliably sunny. 

But by the 80's, writers had so much experience writing for TV that they accumulated decades of wisdom for what works and what doesn't. TV was still mass produced, but the quality of it was much, much higher. Sitcoms with their canned laughter and schtick in place of jokes, were once considered the dumping ground for mediocrity - but with Newhart, Night Court, (gulp) The Cosby Show, The Wonder Years, Family Ties, Thirtysomething, Moonlighting, and especially Cheers, possessing virtuoso casts and writers who'd become seasoned pros, TV comedy became something more than it once was - a form of entertainment was beginning to be raised to an art as the great studio movies of yesteryear were. Even the laughtrack was omitted from some of them. A stable art that no matter how weird or occasionally fraught with conflict, upheld the importance of traditional values like family, friendship, romance, and the workplace nevertheless. 

But there was, of course, another side to the 80's. What about all those people cut out of Reaganite prosperity? How were they represented? Representing scientists who saw their funding cut to nubs, there was Quantum Leap, which seemed to at least a few to represent the frustration of an era that first declared war on science.  For the gay experience during their darkest decade, there was Pee-Wee's Playhouse, which was, unbelievably, a kids show because the only place where the camp that dare not speak its name could find a regular place for itself in mainstream entertainment.  You had Hill Street Blues, a serialized police drama depicting the streets of an unnamed American cities with a handheld camera - the camera itself was literally as unstable as the material it covered. There was St. Elsewhere, a teaching hospital in a poor South Boston neighborhood seeing times harder than ever before in which the final episode is universally considered the most unpredictable moment in the history of television - I won't spoil it for those who don't know. But ultimately, the tremors mostly remained off-camera - swept under the rug.  Quantum Leap exposed millions to the wonders of science's possibilities, but did nothing to explain how those wonders were being gutted. Even to those who understood Pee-Wee's true identity, it was a show which put the happiest possible face on a community that was dying by the thousands. And while both Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere were about urban blight, neither was told from the point of view of the blighted. In a few cases, it was told from the point of view of the blighter.

In the 90's TV got ten times still better. There is no question that The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Rosanne, Everybody Loves Raymond, Newsradio, Beavis and Butthead, Married with Children (yes, even Married with Children), The X-Files, Star Trek TNG and Deep Space Nine, My So Called Life, NYPD Blue, Picket Fences, were entertainment raised fully to the quality of art, some of it to the quality of timeless art. But virtually all of them were created as entertainment first, and any art put into them was mostly snuck in under the noses of the networks which broadcasted them. 

For an ever so slightly more liberal era, many of them espoused values that were clearly more liberal than the great TV shows of the 80's. The new Star Trek franchise was not primarily about science, it was about politics - it was about the challenges of upholding a liberal order in the chaos of the wider universe - the galaxy itself became a parable for our world, and a beacon of inspiration that it was still possible to stay true to principles of improvement and justice when all about you is bellicosity. Frasier, for all it makes fun of its main character's pomp, took the intellectuality always on display in Cheers, amped it to the n'th degree, and displayed it on television as a true badge of honor. Everybody Loves Raymond, still one of the most misunderstood shows of all time, had the bravery to show that family values are worth upholding in part because families can be nightmarish prisons in which people who care about one another can tear one another to shreds - but that family is still a valuable institution because no matter how much a family hates each other at any given moment, they will still come through for one another as no one else will. NYPD Blue was utterly unashamed to portray its characters as something other than upholders of law and order, as sometime bigots who take out their hostility on the very people they're supposed to protect and defend. In the wake of the new Presidency, Rosanne may still prove the most relevant show of all - it displayed the frustrations and heartbreak of the forgotten working class and suggested that the prosperity of the American overclass, experiencing more prosperity than ever beore, forgot that some people were getting much poorer. Homicide, Life On the Street, the laboratory out of which David Simon grew The Wire, was ostensibly a police drama, but dared to tell nearly as many stories of the people protected and prosecuted in equal measure by the detectives. Beavis and Butthead was an unequivocal condemnation of its main character's idiocy. 

But everybody knows that there were two shows that there were two shows that dominated the era like colossi, and set the stage for everything to come. They are, in all probability, the American literature of the age - the semi-sacred texts we always return to for wisdom and memory and ritual and comfort and it's so stupid to speak about them so pompously because Art was the last thing they were ever meant to be. 

For my parents' generation, that show was Seinfeld. Seinfeld is the ultimate Baby Boomer show, and the show with which they came of age as the Masters of their Domain. It is an almost literally perfect show - as perfect in its way as Mozart piano concerto or a Raphael fresco. There may not be any particularly profound idea within it, but the perfection itself is a kind of profundity. In every twenty-two minute episode, four of the best performers on Earth immersed themselves in four separate story lines that would intersect at the end of the episode in a completely unexpected, but completely satisfying way. Forty-five years of the accumulated TV wisdom of writers, actors, cameramen, and production designers, built to this one show.  

In the half-hour sitcom, where compression is the key to it all, any emotional bond with the characters is dead weight, a place where the show wastes time being serious when there could be a joke in its place. There are many shows, good ones, where sitcom characters can be quite serious, but very few people would watch them if these characters did not also make them laugh. Far funnier, therefore, is to have an unlikeable character you can humiliate with their comeuppance, and since they're so unlikeable, they never learn their lesson, and they can be humiliated week after week. Comic characters cede a huge amount of their comedy if they grow, therefore, Larry David proposed the most inspired two rules of Seinfeld: No Learning, No Hugging. I occasionally think to myself that the truest progenitor of Seinfeld might be John Cleese's Fawlty Towers, in which Cleese plays a hotel operator of such pure bile that his continual humiliation is always completely deserved and completely satisfying. 

Seinfeld was billed, still notoriously, as a show about nothing. Seinfeld was very much not a show about nothing. The Nothing, however, was how Seinfeld got away with the Somethings it was truly about. Seinfeld is about taboo - mentioning all those things one does not mention on TV because one does not mention them in polite company. Some of these taboos were a bit shocking in what they discussed in detail: masturbation, faking orgasms, bullemia, breast augmentation, blackface, stalking, stereotyping of immigrants, ogling teenagers, fetishizing Asian women, the possibility of turning gay men straight, even an allegory of date rape.

Seinfeld began its airing during the tail end of the first Culture War, when figures in the conservative public intellectual industry like Alan Bloom, Roger Kimball, William Bennett, Norman Podhoretz, James Davison Hunter, Robert Bork, and of course Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich fought back against what they saw as the encroachment of liberal permissiveness against the bedrock conservative values that preserve a country from its decline - secular liberal values like abortion, contraception, recreational drug use, limitations on gun use, separation of Church from State, the right to be openly homosexual or transgender, lack of censorship. On the other side of this culture war were the figures of what began to be termed - political correctness. What was, until the late eighties, a Soviet term - usually conveyed in hushed tones - for an unobjectionably proper appointment of a functionary to a position of bureaucratic power - meaning that the potential appointee says nothing objectionable, does nothing objectionable, thinks nothing objectionable, will never challenge the official party line.

Conservatives began to use it against as a pejorative, but it was taken up by certain more extreme figures of the academic left as a badge of honor. Most of the Baby Boomers moderated significantly in their politics, and became as militantly of the radical Left as their grandparents' professors had been militantly of the radical Right - academia, it would seem, forever gravitates to extremes. Even academic Marxism became somewhat passe, and after what might be termed the final generation of true American Marxists: Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and Christopher Lasch and Fredric Jameson, considered by later thinkers to be hopelessly trapped in their white male privilege, the most important American theorists of the radical left - while no less savage toward capitalism - seemed to believe that the rather abstract idea of social class itself was a means by which one racial group or gender or sexuality continued to oppress another for not allowing for oppression within the oppression. Social class was considered utterly outmoded and monolithic and insufficient to explain the vagueries of oppressions' mechanisms. Ever new critical theorists emerged from academic journals with ever new theories of oppression with entirely new hierarchies and taboos: what the literary critic Harold Bloom referred to as the School of Resentment - at the front of the line was Edward Said with his theory of Orientalism which states that the very concept of the East in Western writers and all their attendant cultural observations were a means of oppressing ghettoizing those peoples not from the West, Judith Butler had theories about the oppression of binary gender, Andrea Dworkin about the oppression of pornography, Paul Goodman about the oppression of modern technology, Robert McChesney about the oppressiveness of media. The reading of critical theory text surpassed the reading of primary documents as the prime object of a humanities education on the university level - classic texts, be it fiction or poetry or history or philosophy, was implicated as former tools of oppression, and therefore, by and large outmoded at best, dangerous at worst.

Are their theories correct or incorrect? Are their theories beneficial or dangerous? While the opinion of this caster is obvious by now, this is nevertheless not the place to ride these theories and their adherents too hard. What is undeniable though is the shockwaves sent by them through the life of America, and possibly through the life of the world. What has become clear over this quarter-century is that around 1990 second American religion was being born. A secular religion. A religion not unlike the Marxists and Communists of European yesteryear. A religion with as many orthodoxies and heresies to fight over as occurred when various forms of Christianity competed with one another for adherents and converts, and in the process created the traditional values which we now know as the dying 'Small Town America' values which culture warriors like William Bennett and Pat Buchanan still lead fights for along with whole new generations of culture warriors at their back. In this ascendent Age of the Internet, what once was an intellectual war fought on the pages of late-century intellectual journals is now a fight that takes place among millions, perhaps tens of millions, of laypeople of the internet - and threatens to turn into a kind of Civil War, a Holy War, and very much a violent war, over whether God or Social Justice is the most important element in American life. It is, most certainly, a one-sided war, in which the apparatus of power is entirely on the side of the traditional culture warriors, but because justice can never imposed on unjust people through peaceful action, social justice in the future will no longer be synonymous with peace activism - I am certain of it. The coming decades will harden them just as the democratic revolutionaries of 1848 were hardened into Marxist agitators for whom democracy was a horrifyingly messy process full of compromises and triage that had to be done away with. So if the world of 2016 is one for which the radical left agitates for peace, the inexorably coming tide against them will in all likelihood turn them by 2116 into something unrecognizably bellicose and authoritarian. Even standing toward the beginning of the historical process as we now are, we can perceive that what once was a rarefied academic war, incomprehensible to most, that had little if anything to do with the thriving, nihlistic, militantly undemanding, and exploitatively sensualist, popular culture that dominated American life of that late century American idyll which all of us over 30 remember so well - has become the prime motivator of contemporary American life in which taking a stand is virtually impossible to avoid. If the world's sole superpower has balkanized this much in twenty-five years, if the balkanization could not have been stopped by President Obama who talked so movingly in his first candidacy about how there is far more which unites us than divides us, how much more balkanized and hateful toward each other have we potential to become in the next 25 years?

It goes without saying that figures of both sides in the culture war were and remain scandalized by Seinfeld - albeit conservatives were far more vocal at the time. And yet, by being so reflective of an era that overturned taboos which existed for hundreds of years into trivialities, Seinfeld did as much as any cultural force in the world to create these new taboos of social justice about what cannot be mentioned in polite company - taboos which may last still more hundreds of years. Freedom is the most difficult and ephemeral concept in which people exist, and the vast majority of people will do what they can to place limitations on their freedom because individuality can be an inhuman burden to bear. Once an old heirarchy with its nittygritties and certain unmentionables are torn down, a new one will rise, inevitably and inexorably, almost as soon as the old one crumbles. 

Seinfeld will not date well for the next few generations - I'm sure of that. More and more writers on the internet are professing offense at Seinfeld in a social justice manner that is entirely different from the manner in which the most vocal objectors, generally conservative, took offense at the time - some magazine journalists already are, and it is nothing less than a tribute to the show's subversive power. To the plurality of us in the midst of this culture war, liberal or conservative to varying extents but skeptical both about traditional sacred values and their radical upending, Seinfeld still seems like a revolutionary bomb launched into the propriety of people who want life to mean more it seems to mean. It is nothing less than a force of liberation. Certain things about it may date: the coded way which characters speak about the issues they discuss - 'master of your domain' in place of refraining to pleasure yourself, "refunding" in place of bullemia, 'shrinkage' to describe what penises do in cold water; do not seem shocking anymore, just an eccentric and perhaps pointless display of code. But Seinfeld's form is so ironclad that it works anyway in the context of the show's design, and will work just as easily in two-hundred years. What is liberating about Seinfeld in the age of Game of Thrones is that a show can shock so often and still be so light and joyful.

It is difficult to recreate the shockwaves which so many Seinfeld episodes sent through American culture in the 90's. Seinfeld was merciless about addressing the taboos of the time, because they seemed to be asking us 'why are these taboos actually taboos?' And in the context of their era, it was entirely appropriate to ask. What the hell mattered to middle class white adults in the 90's? Their lives were so cut off from reality as most people live it - the suffering underclass of every race, the suffering of nearly every non-Western country, even the suffering which their American parents underwent to bring them to such privilege. To most people, life has consequence and matters because its continuance is not a given, but in 1990's America, it was very much a given, and there was nothing left to do but strip away those taboos which were once so significant in everyday life, but had long since turned into senseless trivialities. But what gave Seinfeld a far darker undertone is that even if life forces us to suffer more than four baby-boom-vaguely-Jewish-lower-upper-middle-class New Yorkers in the 1990's, does suffering make our lives mean more than they ever seemed to on Seinfeld? We have no proof that they do, and we have no proof that anything more verifiable is truly learned or felt in our lives than the very little that is learned or felt by the four lead characters of Seinfeld - all four of whom may very well have professed to liberalism then voted Trump.

What makes Seinfeld brutal in retrospect is that we've learned all sorts of things since the 1990's, things that we cannot unlearn. But we, at least we the privileged, cannot ever be as joyful again as we were in the innocence of that era. We cannot turn back time to an era before all we learned from the Contract with America, the government shutdowns, Monicagate, Glass-Steagall's repeal, Bush v. Gore, 9/11, the Iraq Invasion, Abu Ghraib, Halliburton Contracts, Hurricaine Katrina, The 2008 crisis, The Great Recession, the difficulty of passing Obamacare, the realization that Pakistan was hiding Bin Laden for the better part of ten years, the police murders of countless African Americans, the urban riots of Ferguson and Baltimore, the difficulty of negotiating an international environmental emissions treaty or a peace treaty with Iran, or the nomination and election of this next occupier of the White House and all the horrors to come that may arise out of it. Surely so many bad things happened around the world in the more innocent era of the Reagans and the Clintons, but for whatever reason, we were not as aware of them - secure and innocent in our trivial bubbles of privilege. 

We must remember, the Nineties was the Era of the End of History - which is the title of Francis Fukuyama's hugely influential neoconservative political science volume released in the wake of the Cold War's end which could have doubled as a thesis for why so many in the Bush Administration thought an Iraq invasion such a fantastic idea. The thesis of the book was that History has an end in both senses, that global conflict will now be a thing of the past, and that history has a purpose and a destiny, something resembling a live organism or a divinely mandated story that builds toward the realization that liberal democracy is the best of all possible governments. To Fukuyama, the arc of history is long, but it not only bends toward justice, but arrives there. Even if one agrees with the sentiment about liberal democracy, and I don't know how too many people can disagree, how idiotic those sentiments now seem and should have seemed at the time! And yet Fukuyama was not laughed at. Like all successful ideas, his thesis rose to the top of discourse because the thesis represented the national mood better than any other. To posterity, he is the great intellectual representative of his particular era, and like many intellectuals, he will in all likelihood be taken seriously by historians and philosophers and political scientists precisely because he was so wrong. 

Seinfeld remains on in syndication seemingly eight times every day. People of a certain age still watch it religiously, endlessly reliving episodes that speak to them of their lives' zenith, when life seemed so endlessly prosperous and trivial and almost unbearably light. I wonder if, today, Baby Boomers do not look upon Seinfeld with a certain sadness and regret. Remembering their lives, remembering their country, remembering the Era of the End of History, when life was so relatively easy, and wondering how they could have not seen the warning signs of darker times to come. I think Milan Kundera put this problem best in a still reasonably famous quote from The Unbearable Lightness of Being if you can bare a gratuitous sexual intrusion of the type for which Kundera is truly notorious and which women may find offensive, my apologies in advance for his metaphor which is inappropriate for the matter at hand to the rest of the quote:

He says: "But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest image is therefore simultaneously the image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, to take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements are free as they are insignificant. What shall we then choose? Weight or lightness?"

I would add one sentence of my own to Kundera's somewhat famous quote: Our parents' generation chose lightness, therefore we are forced to choose weight.

Seinfeld is a deceptively light show that stands in that long American tradition, the American Countersublime, in which lies all that great art whose truths are sufficiently horrifying that we wish we could run away from: in their various ways, they portray all that is dark, ignoble, shameful, contemptible, vile, and degenerate in human nature, in the American character, without offering us any redemptive humanity from its darkness, and once we encounter them, it's very difficult to escape the voyeuristic fascination they hold: Sleepy Hollow, The Tell Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, William Wilson, Dr. Heidegger's Experiment, Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Bartleby the Scrivener, The Turn of the Screw, The Devil's Dictionary, Birth of a Nation, The Tomb, The Tree, The Outsider, The Call of Cthulu, The Jungle, As I Lay Dying, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, Shadow of a Doubt, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Catcher in the Rye, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Rear Window, Invisible Man, The Searchers, Flowers for Algernon, Gypsy, Touch of Evil, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Where The Red Fern Grows, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Catch-22, The Bell Jar, Dr, Strangelove, In Cold Blood, Portnoy's Complaint, Patton, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, Deliverance, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Network, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Sweeney Todd, Sophie's Choice, Little Shop of Horrors, Blood Meridian, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Psycho, Bonfire of the Vanities, GoodFellas, Assassins, The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven. And so many works, both TV and otherwise, of the 21st century, which we will talk about here in this series, clearly at great length. And yet, because the facets of nature they portray are so horrifying, they are necessary reminders of those dark crevasses of human nature which we wish we could avoid, but reminders that we need to find the strength at times to stoically bear life's dark side - and experiencing these works, which happen at the other side of a page or a screen, can be of enormous help. We are attracted back to these works like flies to a deadly hot light, like marble rye to a window. These are works about loathesome brutes, and yet we can't look away. So here's the miracle of Seinfeld, here's the miracle of Seinfeld - of all these works that offer no redemption, except for The Producers (and imagine if George Costanza is possible without either Max Bialystok or Leo Bloom), Seinfeld is perhaps the only one to offer the viewer any sort of respite from darkness, because it's told with such lightness and joy that the dark side of human nature can seem nothing but appealing.

But if Seinfeld seems to take everything that's light about the American Experience and twist it into darkness, The Simpsons seems to take everything that's dark about the American Experience and transfigure it into light.

The Simpsons are at least as crucial to our generation as Seinfeld is to our parents'...

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