Burdened White Men

Most fair-minded people would agree there is no human tragedy more compelling than white middle-class men confronting the horrors of middle age.  I’m sure people of other genders, races, ages, and class positions have their own problems, but as decades of cultural production have generally avoided addressing the interiority of these other populations, the dilemmas facing impoverished Asian-American teenagers or elderly Latina millionaires remain for the most part off the radar, unless of course their stories somehow impinge on the fate of white middle-class men approaching middle age (as in a comic inability to park a car or a peculiar accent that prevents tidy transactions at the dry cleaners).

One might think that the national tragedy of aging white boomer men (followed closely by the “ain’t gettin’ any younger” Gen-Xers) would merit the sobriety afforded by television drama, a form that seems ideally suited to capturing the various humiliations now attending a social formation that once dominated almost every aspect of cultural production in the USA.  But truly this trauma of dispossession is so profound that conventional dramatic treatment would be too intense, too difficult to process.  Brothers and Sisters has struggled valiantly to narrate the unique challenges facing rich white people, and Men of a Certain Age took a stab at dramatizing the fate of men transitioning from the stars of history to mere extras in a Flomax commercial.  But for the most part "serious" television has been a dead end in this respect, no doubt because TV drama itself is a dying form beloved primarily by aging white boomer men.  I predict that when Mad Men finally catches up to Woodstock, it will signal a terrible sociological syzygy that not only extinguishes, once and for all, every “classic rock” station from coast to coast, but also guides a trembling hand at HBO to sign the first contract for a reality series in which contestants compete to lick celebrity toilets. Days later I predict Daniel Tosh will stage a bloodless coup at The Daily Show, displacing a generation of critical irony with a 40 year reign of riffing snark delivered without any discernible perspective or agenda.  It will be a brave new world.   

In the meantime, however, the aging, white, male, and middle-class among us are fortunate that television comedy has never been more courageous in narrating this sense of collective generational doom.  In fact, the fall TV season has provided an embarrassment of riches as a number of thirty and forty-something comics confront the pain of growing increasingly white, paunchy, and irrelevant. 

When Louie premiered a few months ago (it just finished its 13 episode original run on FX, but is now popping up in reruns across the schedule), eagle-eyed obsessives might have noticed that star Louie C.K. not only wrote and directed each episode, but also took a credit as film editor.  Having seen the complete run, this additional duty now makes more sense.  As the series unfolds, Louie gradually transitions from a familiar “stand-up sitcom” toward something more akin to a low-budget diary film cut into 13 half hours.  Whereas Jerry Seinfeld, still the holder of this generation’s bra$$ ring of comedy, has greeted middle age by bankrolling a sanctuary for good old-fashioned wife jokes, Louie documents the quotidian routine of a B-level comedian (in terms of exposure, not talent—just to be clear) living and working in New York City. 

In more narcissistic hands, this might have veered into annoying “insiderism.”  Unlike the navel-gazing horror of Studio 60, a show that asked us to honor those entrusted with writing the nation's dick jokes as heroic gods on high, Louie thankfully focuses on relatively common human misery, treating the world of professional comedy as little different than any other craft-based occupation.  In fact, even though "Louie" is a reasonably successful member of the entertainment industry, supporting himself through stand-up, television, and occasional movie roles, one episode features his babysitter suddenly exploding into tears as she contemplates just how bleak and depressing his future will be as a 42-year old divorcee with two kids.  In another bit, he's lucky enough to hook-up with a 26 year old hottie who has a fetish for "older" men.  Rather than signaling a return of youthful virility, however, the evening concludes with Louie bringing her to a climax by shouting out signposts of his generational decrepitude ("I can remember when people still smoked on air planes!" he shouts).  

There are a number of random black-out bits peppered through the series, but overall the episodes advance a rather leisurely portrait of midlife reassessment in the wake of divorce.  The first season concludes, finally, with an unexpectedly poignant plea for the virtues of acceptance and resignation, an ending that nicely reasserts the program's ambition to be something more than a string of jokes about weight gain and hair loss.

Equally ambitious, albeit radically different in tone, is Eastbound and Down, which has just returned to dissect the vulgar pathos of masculine sociopathology for a second season.  The first series documented the descent of Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) from once famous hot-shot ballplayer to lowly gym coach in his old hometown, a fall made even more poignant by Powers’ absolutely delusional belief in his continuing awesomeness, talent, and fame.  The setback is just temporary, he tells anyone who will listen, and soon he fully expects to be back in the bigs mowing down the opposition and shouting his famous catch-phrase ("I'm Kenny Powers and you're fuckin' out!").  Whereas Louie opts for an "indie" vibe, McBride and co-creators Jody Hill and Ben Best have designed Eastbound as a tantalus-like opera of spiraling degradation.  The more Kenny Powers tries to reclaim his masculine pride and prowess, the more diabolical the forces that conspire to pull him even deeper into abject humiliation.  As the second season begins, for example, Kenny is living in exile in Mexico--surviving as a cock-fighter, getting wasted, and apparently masturbating nightly to a yearbook picture of his ex-girlfriend. That's already pretty sad, but within the first hour, Kenny's prized fighting cock ("Big Red") is dead and he learns that his ex, with whom he almost reunited at the close of the first season, has gone through with her half-hearted marriage to the twerpy principal of their hometown junior high school.  Let’s see Mad Men take Don Draper that far down the chain of androcentric despair.

If Eastbound and Down were simply about beating up on Kenny Powers, who remains oddly sympathetic despite burning through life as a testosterone tornado that emotionally destroys everyone in his path, the series would get old quick.  Luckily, the show is smart enough to link the fate of the mulleted, super-awesome, and sociopathic Kenny to a parallel crisis in America’s collapsing confidence and identity.  Like John Rocker, the now retired baseball pitcher who once famously complained about all the "foreigners" on the 7 Train to Yankee Stadium, Powers as pitcher and as American is a man disjointed from time, a relic of pre-9/11 swagger that has no place in the New World Order.  In a rather glorious set-piece from the new season, Kenny makes his debut pitching for a terrible team in the Mexican league.  As part of his agreement, he demands the team owner mark this momentous occasion with fireworks and confetti, Powers entering the stadium and taking the mound draped in the Stars and Stripes, flipping off his new hometown fans for no other reason than Kenny's belief that it conveys his indomitable winning attitude.  In the mostly empty stands, the “crowd” looks on in boredom and confusion, much as they do at the UN. 

David Cross’ new series on IFC, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, is also centered on the figure of the aging American idiot, in this case a temp employee who unexpectedly finds himself in the United Kingdom supervising the marketing of a new energy drink (Thunder Muscle!).  I’ve always found Cross’ "political" stand-up act a little overly didactic. His explicitly leftist humor works better in skit and character form, probably because Cross has more appeal illustrating American stupidity rather than lecturing us about it directly.  Cross has thus played a variety of self-deluded idiots over the years, perhaps most famously the mincing Tobias Funke in Arrested Development.  While Todd Margaret, so far at least, appears less directly concerned with mid-life masculinity, Cross’ character does have the potential (especially given the title) to descend into the most bitter and abject emotional void of the three (in fact, as the two shows proceed, it will be interesting to see who blinks first in terms of “redeeming” their much abused star, the creative team behind Eastbound or Todd Margaret.  Suggestively, TM has somehow found in Sharon Horgan an uncanny British analogue of Catherine Keener, who will no doubt be dangled as the love of a good woman that might “save” TM from himself—I mean, I hope not, but TV is in the end TV, and it is doubtful even Cross would completely annihilate his ugly American doofus, no matter how much he is personally embarrassed by this country).

Ostensibly a “fish out of water” set-up, Todd Margaret is particularly elegant at lampooning that oddly American desire to “fit in” with British culture--like a little brother who, even in adulthood, continues to look to his older sibling for praise and acceptance.  Much of the humor issues from Todd’s painfully misguided attempts to adopt British accents and idioms, thinking this will help him charm the locals into buying his deadly toxic energy drink.  In a deft bit of casting, Blake Harrison (the one kid who inexplicably always somehow gets laid in The In-Betweeners) appears here as a wiseass Iago, egging Margaret on to even more embarrassing spectacles of cross-cultural stupidity.  

White, balding, paunchy, clueless, pathetic, morose.  Taken together, Louie, Eastbound, and Todd Margaret paint, in varying shades, a rather desperate picture of a certain type of American masculinity in the early 21st century.   The series also demonstrate once again that the most interesting work on television these days, at least in terms of tone and style, is coming from comedy.  I like Mad Men as much as anyone else in my tax bracket, but in the end I could care less what actually happens to any of the characters on that program.  With Boardwalk Empire, meanwhile, HBO's hour-longs creep ever closer to Merchant-Ivory territory, having nothing to say or do other than pursue a course of relentlessly fetishistic art direction. Perhaps it's the smaller economies of scale that allow these writer/performer's to have a more substantial impact on the overall look and feel of the series, but these three comedies--each in a very different way--strike me as having infinitely more potential to actually accomplish what television drama once sought to do: create a narrative story world capable of eliciting at least some modicum of affective investment. 

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