By One with an Agenda
The most extraordinary thing has happened on prime-time television. We had been watching for the start-up of the new series “Hell on Wheels” on AMC-- about the push West to build the transcontinental railroad. Surely an interesting subject, don’t you think.
And it happened on November 6.The drama of the Union Pacific held us pretty close right up to the end when, out of nowhere, there sits the villain of the piece, the builder-owner of the new railroad, sitting in his office directing the very model of a soliloquy at us his audience.
I was nearly ejected up out of my comfortable arm chair.
It was pure “Shakespeare” and the American economic despot might just as well have been Richard III or Iago, explaining and justifying their evil intentions in no-nonsense, historical and existential terms.
It was an object lesson in Hobbes’ Leviathan-- and the economic ruthlessness that was and may still be making America tick.
I even thought I heard him talking iambs.
He spoke of himself as an actor on stage in a drama!
And this robber-baron of the railroads, sitting there, telling us all about it, even used the word “catiff” for how he knew history would remember him.
Catiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Has practic’d on man’s life! Lear III, ii.
This soliloquy, with its clips of illustration, ended this first installment with a real startle. It was a moment out of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, grabbing us by the throat.
I have to ask, Are television drama series moving toward a maturity for our desperate times?
I am glad to say that I think I can detect a subtle left-wing view of the world in most of the new season.
And then, as if that were not welcome novelty enough, we have a new and compellingly dark hero of another important series, “Person of Interest” on CBS. Here is the direct descendant of the Greek god of fire, the forge, and all technology, Hephaestus himself, right down to his bad limp and gnomish eyes, bespeaking his painful alienation. A principal character like that!
Here we have a new drama of this strange and brilliant Finch working through his agent, a new sort of un-super superman, a post-modern agonistes, Reeves who must do the hard work of rescuing people from impending harm.
And the series does not even have a resident hot-stuff female to sweat up a scene or two, if you can believe anything as improbable as that. Are we growing up? I ask you!
And, this grotesque and god-like Finch addresses his Frankenstinan creation, his muscle-man, as often as not, as Mr. Reeves! Mister! On network TV! Who the hell is writing this crazy, fascinating stuff? Mister Finch and Mister Reeves! Their obverse is in vaudeville.
Something is going on here. This is getting to be tough stuff.
It's crossed the line over into insistence upon our intelligence. Can the networks get away with it?
And to set the pace, British TV comes over with PBS Masterpiece's celebrated series "Downton Abbey" and David Hare’s stunning, anti-American play Page Eight. Hare lets us have it, full blast, as a central player in the worst international villainies of our times.
(No wonder Republicans want to shut PBS down. Romney says he would consider shutting down all these elitist cultural outfits when he’s president.)
Well, I could just be playing the fool in my excitement. I want American TV drama to be really good. I think I see, overall, better writing, the tolerance, even the invitation, to ambiguity and the difficulties of our terrible times. The shows feel more grown up somehow…. Our nation's actors are more than ready for anything the producers and writers throw at them. They make me proud.
It comes down to this: the older I get, the more I know that I shall have to depend on television and this iMac for continuing participation in the world. And so, I'm plugging for the whole shooting match.