Sometimes I write essays and sometimes they get published. Sometimes they don’t and they sit in my hard drive until I share them with you here. Here’s one that seemed like a great premise a year or more ago but seems a tad optimistic today (and the references are getting stale). I still like it though, and think it’s generally true, although it can be hard to see the big picture these days when there’s so much upsetting news.
Life is a Sitcom (and what that means for America)
I had an idea for a light essay about television, about how our own lives are comedies but we seem drawn to believe other people live in dramas. Since the election, I’ve been pondering the deeper significance of this observation.
This all started with my wife, a doctor. Since we’ve been together, I have not watched an episode of “ER,” “House” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” She doesn’t like them. It’s too much like work, she told me. Actually, she corrected herself, it’s nothing like work because the average medical drama jams the worst cases she sees in a year into less than an hour.
There is one show about doctors that she likes and claims is extremely realistic: “Scrubs.” “Scrubs” was a sitcom about an insecure first year doctor who goofs with his friends, gets frustrated with the hospital administration, and whose nemesis is the hospital janitor. Medical cases on “Scrubs” weren’t always life or death, but the doctors had a responsibility to make the patients feel better, which they achieved either through medicine or, as was often the case, empathy.
Having been an intern at Boston Medical Center, my wife recognized the bonding between fellow doctors, and the importance of communicating with patients. Plus, she insists that the hospital maintenance staff definitely had higher status than the doctors-in-training.
Later, a friend who used to work in the Recreation Department of a town on Cape Cod declared that the Amy Poehler sitcom “Parks and Rec” was like a documentary of his work there. Once again, someone in a specific profession saw a sitcom as reflection of reality.
Please note that neither my friend nor my wife were saying that they didn’t have problems at work — rather that the problems they had were so frustratingly ridiculous that they had no choice but to laugh at the absurdity.
When I met a State Trooper at a tailgate party in Foxborough, I asked him what he thought was the most realistic cop show on television. Without hesitation he said: “Barney Miller. That’s what it’s really like.” For those too young to remember, “Barney Miller” was a sitcom set in a police station where the cops bantered while doing paperwork. The closest equivalent on the air today might be “Brooklyn 99,” where the detectives spend more time pranking each other than solving crimes.
How about politics? On the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast (5/27/16), Glen Weldon, an NPR writer based in Washington, DC, reported that he had group-texted a number of friends who worked in the Federal government about politics and television shows. Their take? “‘House of Cards’ is just silly; nobody in the West Wing talks like ‘The West Wing’ [and] … ‘Veep’ gets it exactly right.”
“Veep,” for anyone who hasn’t seen it, is a HBO half-hour comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Vice President of the United States whose days are consumed with deciding which events are worth appearing at, which lobby she can afford to offend and — in the recurring joke of the first season — whether the president will ever call. That’s what Washington insiders consider realistic? It seems pathetic, an office comedy.
From these conversations, it seems that while most people recognize their own lives as filled with laughable moments, when they look at lives they don’t lead (whether in hospitals, police stations or government offices) they likely believe that everyone else’s life is dark and dreary.
Actual political bureaucrats see themselves in “Veep” while the rest of us imagine them in “House of Cards” or “Scandal.” Doctors relate to “The Mindy Show” while we think of them as “House.”
So this was my cute, pop culture observation without import.
And then came the election, and the political analysis in its aftermath.
James Fallows on NPR’s Fresh Air described the contradiction of Trump supporters he met while traveling through small towns and cities in “flyover” country. They were voting for Trump even though their local businesses depended on Latino workers. They were voting for him even though they were fine with resettling refugees in their city.
Fallows summed up by saying, “almost every place you went, people felt, boy, it’s really a troubled time for America. But here in — name your specific city — Fresno, Ajo, Ariz., San Bernardino, Bend, Ore., Burlington, Vt., Allentown, Pa., things were moving at least in the right direction.
Another way to put it might be, Our own lives are sitcoms, but other people live in dramas.
Maybe if we understood how we got to this observation, Blue States would better understand Red States, and Red States would better understand Blue States.
Massachusetts voters want to raise the minimum wage for folks in Nebraska because the flyover states were hit so hard economically by the recession. Meanwhile, Nebraskans want more border and immigration controls for the people in Boston who were literally attacked by terrorists.
Maybe we’re being too empathetic?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how we got to this point, we just need to convince each other that we’re all doing okay. Your town is okay, and so is mine.
We need to dispel the proposition that life is a drama. Instead we should admit that, for a majority of Americans, life turns out all right; classical Greeks consider stories with happy endings to be comedies. The celebrated American optimism hasn’t gone, it’s just been regionalized and localized so much that we’re pessimistic on behalf of Americans who live in the next county or state.
If you think about it, it’s kind of funny.
Okay, so I didn’t stick the landing. But I thought it was an interesting observation that still stands. And, while I am still optimistic that we will all turn out all right, I know it won’t come from sitting around waiting for someone else to make things better; we have to keep people accountable and make sure everyone’s voice is hear, and advocate for ourselves at institutions on every level.
Jim Fallows, meanwhile, has written a book and an article about his travels. Here’s his framing of this conundrum:
“What explains the gulf between most Americans’ hopeful outlook on areas and institutions they know directly and their despair about the country they know only through the news? Would it make any difference if more people understood that the local progress they see was not an isolated anomaly but part of a trend?”
His conclusions are not that far from where I’m at, recommending more connections and engagement. It’s a long-ish article but Fallows is always worth a read.