Groundhog's Day TV Wrap-up
by Hank Jacobs
Over the weekend I watched three things on TV: the Chernobyl miniseries on HBO, the series finale of The Good Place on Hulu (by way of NBC), and Super Bowl LIV— produced and aired by the National Football League and FOX Sports. Each of these programs illustrates the positive power and possibility of the mass medium of television.
In this new age, it can feel as if consuming content is our job as Americans. It is a primary subject of conversation between friends and strangers alike. We define ourselves by what we consume. We will leave the right and wrong of that supposition for another day, another essay. This one is about three shows and a lot of feelings.
Let’s begin with Chernobyl. First of all, this is an extraordinary show, not for the faint of heart. It is nasty, scary, tense, sad, and brutal. This limited series is based on eyewitness evidence of true events, and the characters are based on real people, with some license taken for dramatic purposes. It lands in the category of historical dramas such as Captain Phillips, Vikings, and Manhunt: Unabomber— spare, intense, focused, gritty, and vivid. These are dark times and tough people.
The show makes very clear what happens in a system of government that is built entirely on control of the narrative, where saving face is more important than saving lives. Watching this story unfold is like watching a train wreck play out in slow motion. Actually, it’s like watching a nuclear meltdown play out in slow motion. There were many moments in the run-up to the explosion where things could have gone differently, where lives would have been saved, poison kept from entering the Earth, and communities spared.
Watching Chernobyl, I could not help but reflect back into the present. And the insight hit me: the Trump Administration is running the United States Government like the Soviets. Not shocking I suppose, given that Vladimir Putin- a former KGB agent- is Trump’s leadership mentor, if not his outright handler. In a world run in this way, it’s the one with the most insistent story to tell, he who shouts the loudest, bullies the cruelest, creates the most fear, and is able to use the levers of bureaucracy the most effectively, it is he who that sets the rules. Government by ego, by cruelty and by fiat, this is what creates disasters.
What are the circumstances that will create the next major disaster? Where will the toxic brew of incompetence, ego-driven decision making, and having the wrong people in the wrong positions lead to something truly horrifying? Who knows. But if it happens under our current leadership, count me unsurprised.
And yet, within the horrific circumstances of the show, we see the Russian people step up again and again. The show gives a sense of their toughness, humor, sacrifice, and grit in the face of tragedy. It gibes with my previous experiences of Russian people, as opposed to the media-driven horror stories I grew up with in the 1980s. It is this very human trait, to come together and work for the greater good, that I saw in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, in New York City. I was there at the time and made this video.
That is not to say that the Trump Administration is leading us to a Soviet-style disaster and eventual collapse. There are many who would say that with much more authority and back it up with evidence. For the moment, it is just another disastrous TV reality show with very real consequences.
Chernobyl shows that a well-told story has the power to remind us that we are strong, and that heroism is innate in most human beings. Yes, we have perpetrated great evil, but we are capable of even greater good.
There is a higher level of consciousness available to us in these times. In fact, the planet-wide shit show currently unfolding will have the effect of leading many millions of human beings into that higher consciousness. Breakthrough doesn’t happen without breakdown.
THE GOOD PLACE
On the subject of higher levels of consciousness, let’s turn our attention to The Good Place, another in a line of wonderful half-hour single-camera comedies from the brilliant Michael Schur. His previous works include Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99, and the U.S. version of The Office.
Schur’s shows have a lightness and kindness to them that serves as a kind of counter-programming to the majority of comedies on TV, which tend towards a meaner type of comedy based around insults, mistrust, and uncomfortable awkwardness. Schur’s comedies are heart-centered, character-based stories with a great deal of love for every character that enters the story, even the “bad guys”.
After all his early success, why would Schur want to take on a subject that doesn’t obviously scream comic possibility-- Heaven, Hell, and the judgment of all humanity? Well, he does, and the results are entertaining, funny, and surprisingly thought-provoking.
Once again he has created a workplace comedy with a group of disparate individuals who come together to form a family. Only this time they’re dead. And the four seasons of this show follow our heroes on a Dante-like journey through the different layers of the afterlife, decorated to look like a planned community somewhere in the exurbs, with lots of metaphysical detours taken along the way. They study philosophy and ethics, they fight for each other and with each other, fall in and out of love, and solve the mysteries of their post-existence.
As the series moves along, each character is presented with tests that bring out new skills and possibilities, new ways of being, and powers they did not know they had. By the time they reach the series finale, each of the characters has balanced out their strengths and weaknesses to the point where they become fully realized beings, and all of the stresses and fears that seem to come with human consciousness have vanished, and they are able to release the last bits of themselves that made them separate from the rest of the universe.
This raises a truly fascinating question: is it our struggle that makes us human? What do we become when we really and truly surrender to the simple act and fact of being? When we cease all effort, from birth to death, heartbeat to heartburn, disaster to delight, when we simply just… be… What could possibly happen?
The Good Place finale came after an investment of 4 seasons in this odd narrative. Perhaps it felt a bit rushed. Maybe they bit off more than they could chew. And maybe this show will be enjoyed and studied for years to come. But one thing that I can say is that they have laid out a kind of road map to higher consciousness, slyly hidden in the benign and brightly colored clothes of a network comedy. I was left with a feeling of thoughtful calm, an inscrutable smile in my heart.
This is another miraculous thing that we can do as content creators. In the midst of a culture-wide breakdown, we get to light the way forward.
SUPER BOWL LIV
Finally, we arrive at Super Bowl Sunday, on the palindromic date of 02-02-2020.
Personally, I love pro football, even as I am aware of its problems. It's a game as beautiful as it is brutal, a game that lifts its players up while it takes years from their lives. It espouses a kind of good ol’ boy patriotism, even as many of the players are lifted from poverty and disadvantage. There are echoes of slavery, with tight-faced white owners high above and sweaty workers in the fields. To be an NFL fan and a thinking person with a social conscience, one must be able to carry two disparate thoughts in one’s mind at the same time.
Tackle football is marvelously complex and looks incredible on television. A game between the two best teams that year is bound to create drama and tons of storylines. So there’s endless fun and distraction in following the teams, the players, the stats, and the grand tales of winning and losing told every Sunday. And that’s not to mention the adrenaline rush of all the gambling.
What makes a great player? What makes a great coach, owner, or general manager? Why do some groupings create winning franchises, while others create drama? What type of leadership is effective, and what undercuts the effort? What is the role of women in this world? Why do we passionately root for our teams and viscerally hate that other team across state lines?
The NFL is an institution in the US, and it’s growing around the world. It's a proxy for war. It is ballet. It's an intricate battle for supremacy in the trenches, and those six inches of daylight around the margins that mean everything. The NFL shows us who we are, who we have been, and who we are becoming.
And it also gives us a national holiday to come together, eat, drink, and celebrate all of the things that make us the powerhouse consumer nation we are, for better or for worse.
It was nice to see Kansas City win, a team that hasn’t won a Super Bowl in half a century, and America has a handsome new hero in Patrick Mahomes, one that represents our halves coming together. A man who looks like our future.
And then, of course, at halftime, two powerful and sexy Latinas giving America the feels with a relentless onslaught of beats and dance, screaming loud and clear: This is our world too. Get over it.
A drama about a massive tragedy, a comedy about the nature of consciousness, and a complex game that stands as a giant consumerist mirror to ourselves. What do all these things have in common? They allow us to experience a wide range of emotions and consider these complexities in the comfort of our homes, with other people of our choosing, while still feeling connected.
There is now an immense, decentralized, and unstoppable power organizing our society around stories. I pray we choose our stories wisely.