A Reaction Piece About Reactionaries
Everything You Know About Most Political Pundits Is Wrong…And Why You Really Liked The Sopranos
Note: This is a different piece than usual. Originally it was intended to be more politically oriented about certain pieces on this blog. However, that would court more controversy than I would like. This piece may very well do the same, but I intend to tie it in more to the field I work in. The political part may come up later in certain places.
The more I read certain pieces online and watch cable news; I have come to the realization that we may have made a fundamental misunderstanding about the identification of many political pundits and journalists. I believe that the labels we give of conservative and progressive are both wildly inaccurate. I fundamentally think that far too many people on either side are variations of what could be quantified as the reactionary.
While defining a progressive or conservative has become difficult the past several years, it is far simpler to define a reactionary. You can boil down the rhetoric or the prose to four simple words. For conservatives: Republicans Good, Democrats Bad. For Progressives, reverse it.
Sound too simple? That’s the way the world is, certainly that of this century. You can argue about the degree of the message or how it’s delivered, but at its core, one of those two variations is all the talking heads on both sides are trying. Whether or not they believe is subject to debate, but it is what they are trying to tell us and the only reason that they keep having to say it over and over with multiple variations is because they’d all lose their jobs if they just said that that every time they appeared on your screen or wrote an article.
Now I have no doubt millions will argue that it didn’t used to be like that: that the internet and social media and the 24 hour news network made it this way. I’m now going to give you news that isn’t going to be comforting: it never did that. At its core, politics has always been that. Not just in the history of America, but across the planet.
And the reason we know that is because philosophers and kings have been telling us that for centuries. From Sun Tzu to Machiavelli, from Lord Acton to Napoleon. Demagogues may have been able to put a better use to it than more manner politicians over the years, but it is fundamentally simple. Since the dawn of civilization, we are always drawn to the evil of the other. I don’t think it has to do with the flaws in democracy or capitalism or any of the other so-called evils that so many pundits think plague man. I think it may come down to biology.
Many years ago when I was watching Oz for the first time in an episode themed on addiction (I know it was in the first season; I don’t know which episode) speaking through Augustus Hill, Tom Fontana gave one of the truest speeches about addiction. He said that we are all addicts to a degree. Some of us mainline money, some of us are addicted to power. Our brain chemistry has designed us so that achievement — doing well at something — kicks in our endorphins. Think about it. Whenever you do well at something — whether you get praise for a job well done, win an athletic meet or, hell, for me get a comment from someone at this blog saying they like my work, you get a rush. And you want to experience it again. All of us do anything we can to equal it.
In a way, I’d argue that all the people who get their highs through drugs are kind of doing the least damage. Sure they may be hurting themselves and their families, but what about those of us who get a jolt through hurting other people? Who like having power over other people? Who only feel joy when their stomping on someone’s dreams? In short, what about basically every major series that we consider Peak TV.
The Sopranos was the first major success in the new Golden Age not just because of the quality of the writing and acting and all the technical aspects, but because it centers its world on a man who was the dictionary definition of a sociopath. When Tony Soprano strangled a man in real-time in College, it was considered revolutionary because it showed a man for the first time in TV killing with no reason to, giving in to a code, but also his id. How many millions of people watched The Sopranos over the years and justified the illegal and violent behavior all of the characters did to themselves? Critics have commented on this fact for years.
And I have a feeling — it is only theoretical, I admit — that the reason so many of the series at the center of Peak TV which centered on bad men doing bad things — were successful among critics and audiences because they appealed to that id. Why else would a series like Dexter — a show that has as its leak a serial killer who ritualistically kills bad people every episode — be a success for eight seasons? Why did people loathe Deb, the hero’s sister who was seen a buzz kill when she learned the truth about her brother and tried to curb his violence? Why is that millions of Americans idolized Vic Mackey and Walter White but spent enormous vitriol on Corinne and Skyler, though their only crimes were that they tried to mitigate the damage and protect their families? (They felt similar venom towards Carmela Soprano as well.)
Napoleon once said that men are more easily governed by their vices then their virtues. I think that’s why so many viewers worship at the feet of these horrible men. If we can’t give in to our vices, we like watches other bad people get away with it. Why do millions go to horror movies, why are we drawn in to series about psychopaths? We are drawn to violence. Why were series like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy, series that celebrated the men and women who killed people horribly, not only enormous hits, but are still inspiring spinoffs years after they ended? There is a part of us that is drawn vicariously to watching horrible people do the things civilized people can’t.
Violence always inspires reactions in us. It’s always been there. We like it when vigilante cops kill bad guys or superheroes dawn costumes to beat up criminals. How many successful video game franchises have us just shooting soldiers or monsters? You want to argue technology has made it worse, go ahead. I would argue that all it’s done is make it more obvious.
And yes, this does apply to politics as well. House of Cards was Netflix’s first breakthrough success not only because it was well acted and well written, but because Frank Underwood (and later on, Claire) were basically the DC versions of the Sopranos. They gave the air of being civilized but they were as violent and ruthless as the rest of them. A huge part of the success of the series was because both of them broke the fourth wall to let us on their thinking, and by definition, make us co-conspirators. We felt we were getting away with all the bad things they were doing. I certainly felt that way when I first watched the show, and rewatching the first two seasons, that feeling hasn’t gone away.
And while there are those who complain about so many series being centered around ‘White Male Antiheroes’, I fundamentally don’t see this so much as complaints about racism or sexism as minorities being jealous that they don’t get to have the same fun as those who appear on Ozark. Why else would Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder be smash hits; why did so many people love Empire a few years ago and Power is in its fourth spinoff? Those who argue so much for equal representation in these series might want to think what they want representation in.
Several months ago, I read a piece in the New York Times Magazine arguing that the success of Mad Men ten years ago was due to it being a celebration of work and the fact that Succession is now a similar hit is because of our frustration with work. There are countless reasons I think these arguments are flawed and I actually planned to write a separate piece on it. For now, I think it’s worth saying that one of the reasons for both series success is because of that same reactionary feel. Admittedly it’s different for each. In Mad Men, much of the reason we celebrated Don Draper was a modification for that of Tony Soprano and Walter White; we liked seeing a man behave horribly — to his wife, to his children, and to the people he worked with. (Granted he never killed anybody, but there’s another reason I think the show work which I’ll get too in a moment). Succession operates on a different field of reaction: we like seeing the Roys treat each other horribly, but we also are experiencing a reaction of schadenfraude at seeing the rich and powerful as miserable as the rest of us.
There’s another reason we like Mad Men, different then some of the other series. It’s a period piece, which means it brings up feelings of nostalgia, which is in itself a whole different set of reactions. And it’s all about the world of advertising. And the best advertising is about inspiring the right kind of reaction. Why were so many enraptured by The Carousel the Season 1 finale? Sure it was moving to Don, but it was also the ultimate sales pitch. That’s all advertising is. Inspiring certain kinds of reactions.
This is the fundamental truth about Peak TV as well as the era we live in. Critics have spent the last twenty years celebrating men and women who represent the worst of humanity. And so many of these series are about characters that make choices that are good for themselves rather than the community. The Wire, which I have mostly ignored, argued that the institutions we have been counting to support us for centuries have calcified so badly that the individuals in them can not fight them against any more and can only deal what gives them upward mobility rather than social improvement. Whether it’s the drug war or the educational system, the working class or journalism, and yes, especially politics, are broken to the point that people react towards their own personal benefit than act for the common good.
I don’t pretend to be different. I am a critic. My job is as much about my own personal reaction as it about analysis. I like to think I am capable of being more than the sum of my reactions but I’m a realist. Hell, those of you who have read my columns over the years know that I’ve devoted entire series about certain shows which I viscerally hate. I might be able to accept that certain people love Ozark and Euphoria but I can not overcome my first and basest reactions.
And I don’t necessarily think that being driven by your reactions is always a bad thing. If reactions lead to action, if they inspire change, if they inspire talk, then they have done the right thing. Say what you will about Peak TV, but very few of the series just left you feeling: “It didn’t leave any impression on me.” Where it becomes a basic problem is when you apply it to everything else — or worse, when you use the reaction as the only action you take.
There’s more I want to say about this — a lot more — but in all honesty, I think I’ve made the point I want to in this article. I will use this as a link to future reactionaries I encounter on this site — which is honestly more people than I care to admit. For now, I will say this: all of us are more reactionary than we want to think. The question becomes: what kind of reactionary are you?