A Man Made a Deal with the Devil
Every now and then I write something completely off base from my standard fare about software, technology and business. This is one of those times, the following post has absolutely nothing to do with CRM so you don’t need to read it if that’s what you’re here for. This is simply about some cultural observations that I wanted to write down. Some times you just need to scratch an itch.
As a casual viewer of cable television over the summer I’ve noticed some similarities and wonder what they mean. Summer Olympics changed my viewing habits, which I suppose is the reason networks bid so much for the right to carry them. Upend the established viewing pattern and you can find you’ve changed your place in the pecking order. Chants of “USA, USA” turn to “We’re number 1!” in viewership if you are lucky.
In my case this worked rather well but the losers were all the established broadcast networks, including NBC, which spent a small fortune on broadcasting the Olympics, and the big winners are shows on cable with smaller followings. I found the new shows more to my liking and more important, it was possible to watch a whole season of reruns in a few nights and move on to yet another good new cable show.
The shows I’ve glommed onto are Californication, Boss and The Newsroom. Say what you want about my taste and my politics, I don’t care. This piece is actually trying to be the kind of literally analysis I vaguely recall from college.
To me, all three shows use as their basic theme the Faust legend. That’s the old story about a man making a deal with the devil; usually but not always, the story involves a smart person auctioning off his soul for all eternity for a few years of earthly bliss. In the story the devil has the power to grant temporary riches, strength, beauty and intelligence and the recipient accepts the offer and promptly goes on one heck of a bender for, let’s say, twenty years.
Admittedly, that sounds like a bad deal these days with little discussion of options, renewals, and syndication or out clauses. But that’s the charm of the premise and the three shows examine, in one way or another, how the protagonist deals with an increasingly bad deal. To make it interesting, each show in its own way concentrates on the main character’s efforts to either deal with a bad hand (the twenty years is almost up) or simply slog through what passes for happiness.
The latter is a fair summary of Californication. In this show, which has five seasons under its belt, the protagonist, Hank Moody played by David Duchovny, is a former east coast college professor of literature who’s written a couple of novels. Moody relocated to California about many seasons ago to accept Big Money for screen writing gigs and to pursue his interests in Porsches, brown liquor and easy women in any combination you, or the writers, care to imagine.
Although he’s been at it for years, Moody still cruises through southern California with a mix of incredulity and aplomb, which is not to say comfort. He’s out of his element and can still be surprised by what he sees but he fakes it admirably, there are many times when he’s a pilgrim making little progress. This is especially true when dealing with his ex-wife and college age daughter, girl friends who want to get serious, or, heck, any female love interest.
Moody’s deal seems to be that he can enjoy any wonderful thing he wants but he can’t truly have it; he can sample but not possess. So he visits the Ex- but doesn’t get any, drives his agent’s Porsche, has forbidden sex with a gangster’s girl, and generally tempts fate. He even landed in prison at one point. Not to worry though, his contracts seem to renew regularly and he is never in real mortal danger. Perhaps we need to wait a few more seasons. Moody is still playing out the deal he made with impunity.
Then there’s Boss, Kelsey Grammer’s very good if slightly unbelievable production based on “what it must be like” to be the mayor of a mythical Chicago. As political shows go, this is not The West Wing. It’s all about angles and calculation and nary a word about the better angels of our nature. It is the first show I am aware of that makes a main character Democratic politician into a bad guy. I have always wondered if this show was financed by someone like the Koch brothers — Look that’s the real Chicago! Sure, Obama has a U.S. birth certificate, but look at his political roots! (I know what you might be thinking, but if you don’t like this one, write your own. This is mine.)
More accurately, Grammer’s mayor, Tom Kane, is a kind of anti-hero. Kane is in the early stages of the devil’s reclamation of his soul. After one full season we know that he has an incurable degenerative brain disorder and it almost seems like he is, at times at least, trying to make a few things right before the long good night. Breaking good? That’s not allowed. He’s been mayor for about twenty years and he’s driven forward by his wife who is the daughter of a former mayor of similar long standing and curiously, similar dementia. The daughter/wife seems to be the one with steel in her spine Grammer just plays the role at city hall. She is the guardian assigned to keep tabs on the devil’s investment.
Boss is well acted and well written if it is a tad unbelievable in the gangland depictions of some activities in Chicagoland and the gratuitous sex which is designed to simultaneously depict the sterility and animal passions of this political world. Boss is a classic examination of the idea that the ends justify the means.
Finally, just arrived this summer, is The Newsroom, a show about the news department at the number two rated cable news channel. One of the many great things about this show is its creator and primary writer, Aaron Sorkin, who has The West Wing, Sports Night and The Social Network on his resume, and that’s just for starters. The show is great fun to watch because it is cut like a good movie with long flashbacks and other techniques designed to make you think. It is also written over the real news from about a year ago. Nothing fictional about the script’s fiction except how these characters handle the moment (with some help from Sorkin’s hindsight).
If Kane shows a Democrat as a bad guy, The Newsroom takes equal liberty to portray the show’s anchorman, Will McAvoy played by Jeff Daniels, as a Republican and something of a real intellectual. McAvoy’s positions sound so progressive and so reasonable that Sorkin feels obligated to remind us from time to time that this is a Republican because we certainly don’t get it from the script which is focused on extremists. Is this what it used to be like? Can we have it back? Not so fast.
Deeper examination shows a journalist who is totally and finally fed up with the mess the political discourse has made of his beloved news. He’s a burned out ghost walking through the halls of his former life and part of the show’s recurring plot is an attempt to get him back. This is made clear in the opening credits as images of Chet Huntley, Walter Cronkite and Saint Edward R. Murrow parade through along with an animation of Sputnik.
Those must have been the good old days of high minded broadcast journalism unfettered by analysts and ratings. Sorkin makes sure to also point out that the news back then was, in Stephen Colbert’s phrase, “newsier” and less polluted by self-promoters and flat earth theories. But isn’t that what nostalgia is all about?
In some ways, The Newsroom is the biggest homage to the Faust legend because it shows the viewer that you are part of this too, this mess is yours and that’s the point, I think, of all these shows. If the society we live in smells like a dead fish it is our dead fish collectively. But Sorkin is too good a writer to let you know that he knows you know so the plot is much less obvious than Californication. Heck with a title like that can anything be subtle in that show?
So Will McAvoy has done multiple deals with the devil. The show opened with him a bit burned out from trading his Serious Journalist Cred for ratings — say it ain’t so! The opening makes a believable connection between the way we are and the way we as consumers of the news have let journalism slide. The series is set around the very American premise that you can get your virginity back if you do an about face on all that is here and head west. In this case to go west is to say, screw the ratings, LET’S DO THE NEWS!
It hasn’t been that simple since they closed the frontier in 1890, alas. The one percent still want to eat, after all. Jane Fonda as the executive-owner of the network who wants to pander to the Tea Party admirably holds down that end. I wonder where she got her inspiration for the role?
Networks like ratings which makes it hard to explain why the network hired Mackenzie McHale, played by Emily Mortimer, to produce the news. She supplies part of the cocoon around McAvoy so that he can do his stuff even though she once broke his heart. For this indiscretion, Mortimer’s McHale is serving time in her own private purgatory and is visited there by McAvoy who sometimes plays the role of resident devil torturing her. If it sounds confusing it is not. It simply accentuates the many skills of creator and primary writer Sorkin.
So, by my count, there are at least three shows that borrow liberally form the Faust cannon to weave very different stories about contemporary American life. What do we make of this? Is it simply coincidence? Are all the writers and producers simply mining a rich vein? If they are just mining the question remains. Why are they all mining this vein at this particular time? Is it midnight in the American Cinderella story too? September 11, 2011 is too far removed from today to suggest it has an impact here. But it does seem like something became badly unhinged at some point in the not too distant past in this mythical America portrayed on cable.
I think it’s not 9/11 though. It would be too cliché for all these shows to somehow reflect back to those events. I think these shows all, in one way or another, try to answer the question, what do you do when you have everything? Everything is at the heart of Faust and in some iterations, the character discovers everything isn’t enough while in others everything eludes him like the green light at the end of Daisy Buchannan’s dock. In a sense they are generational shows reflecting back at baby boomers the choices they’ve made over the last few decades as the richest, most well educated but also most spoiled generation in the history of the planet.
Any way you slice it, the main characters are middle aged strivers who, like Norman Mailer, once reached the top of the mountain huffing and puffing only to ask, Is that it? There’s never been a satisfactory answer to that one. Maybe that’s all there is here. Three shows that explore what it’s like to reach the top with gas left in the tank, all dressed up but with nowhere else to go. Come to think of it, each incorporates Sisyphus too because they keep coming back anyhow. It’s a golden treadmill and a sobering thought. Faust may not be pretty to contemplate but these shows are entertaining as hell.