Undoubtedly, the Silent Generation has made a huge impact in the field of arts and entertainment. Their careers go back to the Golden Age of film and to the dawn of the TV era. For my generation, which was weaned on television, they were the young actors of the sit coms and dramas to which we were first addicted as children.
So it is amazing to me today, after we have evolved past the convergence of TV and the Internet and into the streaming era, that their generation still has its own television show. That’s right, I’m talking about Grace and Frankie on Netflix. Every one of the four actors in the roles of the two comically disordered couples is from the Silent Generation: that would be Martin Sheen (b. 1940), Sam Waterston (b. 1940), Lily Tomlin (b. 1939), and Jane Fonda (b. 1937).
Now, it’s true that the show is produced by Boomers and the lead characters are probably meant to be parodies of Boomers, but the Silent personality still comes out. The characters are neurotic and confused, the tone warm and humane. The show is about elders opening up, pushing boundaries, and staying hip with the latest social trends and language – in the 2010s!
Grace and Frankie is the swan song of a generation that has managed to keep itself relevant through over half a century of social change. It is a reminder of the long-reaching effects of the transformative time of their youth – embodied in part in the family dynamic with the main characters’ quirky Gen-X adult children. The plot may be contrived, the writing clichéd and predictable, but the show is always fun.
We’re in the middle of the fifth season and we like the show almost as much as these guys do:
My BFF and I started watching The Walking Dead again after a long hiatus. She just couldn’t stand the show any more after a certain something happened at the start of Season 7 (if you watch the show you know what I mean). And so we stopped watching it. But in time she was ready to get back to it, and we have watched all of Season 7 and are now in the middle of Season 8.
When I watch this show, I can’t help but think of how Gen X it is. The main characters are almost entirely from our generation or from the Millennial generation. There is a smattering of characters from older gens, but they tend not to last, and there are some token kid characters with no real story arc. The Gen Xers are always in charge of the different groups, and have to become ruthless enforcers and daring opportunists, always thinking on their feet and doing whatever it takes for the group to survive. The Millennials meanwhile are the hopeful and idealistic ones, whom the Gen Xer leaders are protecting. What stung so much about the opening of Season 7 was that one of the nicest Millennial characters was brutally murdered. As my BFF put it, “they killed the heart of the show.” That made it hard to care about the series any more.
So on the show, each Gen X leader has their own unique way of leading, giving each group or community its own culture and political structure. The show ends up exploring questions of politics like what gives a ruler the right to rule, or how do you balance the needs of the many with the needs of the few. In fact, when one of our boys was taking a civics class and trying to understand the concept of “rule of law,” I used an example from the show to explain it to him.
There was one not very nice group in an earlier season that had a rule where if you saw something before anyone else and called out “claim” then it was yours. I explained how even the leader had to follow this rule; if one of the others called “claim” on something really nice, the leader couldn’t use his position to trump the subordinate and take that thing from him. If the leader acted that way, this basic rule that held the group together wouldn’t work any more, and the group would fall apart. That was the idea of “rule of law” – the law has priority over the whims of the politicians. This applies even in the very simple polity of a group of people banding together for survival after a zombie apocalypse.
What’s ironic about this show that explores politics being a Gen X show is that Gen X has actually eschewed political involvement our whole lives. It’s like we would only do politics if absolutely forced into it, as would be the case if civilization collapsed. In fact, it seems like Generation X has been waiting for the collapse – it’s our expectation after being told since childhood that the world is doomed. The popularity of end of the world shows like The Walking Dead is a manifestation of our yearning to see it all just go to hell.
I’ve even seen bumper stickers like the one above. You probably have too. We really do want to stand on the sidelines and watch the world burn. We don’t want to choose between the lesser of two evils – we want all the evil to come out all at once. We want to find out how we would handle it. We want the ultimate freedom of a lawless world where the winner takes all ethos prevails. Because that is just so Generation X.
Hence our society’s apocalyptic mood, our deep sense of foreboding that we express in this dark genre of entertainment. We are in a fin de siècle phase of history – the American century is coming to a close, and there’s no telling what come next. Possibly the Pax Americana is coming to an end as well. For some Americans, the wound to the pride has been too much.
Politics is driven by resentment. Long festering problems of economic insecurity and environmental degradation may have grown to the point of insolubility. It might seem that the only way out at this point is cataclysmic and violent change. To cut the Gordian Knot you need the sharp edge of a sword. Or a zombie apocalypse.
But remember it is the cycle that is coming to an end, not the world. Zombies are a fantasy. War, plague, climate change – those are real but of course we can survive them all. As we have before. History is inexorable and will take us into the next cycle whether we’re ready for it or not. We don’t get an escape hatch in the form of utter destruction. This craving for the end of the world is a cop out.
Consider the Greek roots of the word apocalypse: apo- ‘un-’ + kaluptein ‘to cover’. To uncover, to reveal. As in Revelations. The apocalypse is not a violent end, it is a moment of truth. It is the moment when the facade is swept away and the stark reality underneath is exposed, and we have to finally face the problems we have been putting off. It is happening now, shaking up and realigning our politics, pitting group against group.
Generation X can help lead us through this conflict. It won’t be the sci-fi extravaganza we have spent our lives fantasizing about. It will be a messy, mundane effort to reconstruct our teetering old political institutions to deal with life in the new century. And I hope that what prevails is a community built on the principles of one of the good groups from The Walking Dead – one that is fair and kind and inclusive. One that taps into, to quote Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”
But we can’t avoid the reckoning. We can’t avoid getting involved, hoping that it’s all just going to end. Not my generation, not any generation alive today can escape the future. We must face, without fear, the world that is bound to come.
The rest of the family is on vacation at Knoebels this week. I would have joined them, but I couldn’t afford to take the time off; not with another vacation coming up in July. So instead I will work, and at the end of the day get back to binge-watching The OA on Netflix.
If you subscribe to streaming video, which you probably do, and if you live in a family, which you might, then you are familiar with the following pattern. If you start to binge-watch a show with a certain subset of the people in your family, then you can’t continue to watch episodes until all the people in that particular group are together again. So you end up with one show that you watch with one family member, a different one to watch with another family member, and a third show that you watch when all three of you are together.
And then you have series to watch when you are alone, or everyone else is busy. For me, it’s been The OA, an imaginative and drawn-out sci-fi/fantasy thriller. It has a little bit in common with the mini-series Maniac – what is it with Millennials and shows about being experimented on? It’s basically a genre – fantastical sci-fi where Millennials are tested, evaluated, rated, categorized – going all the way back to Harry Potter. Is this really how they’ve felt their whole lives?
Another kind of show you might have is one with short episodes to watch while enjoying a meal. The convenience of the streaming format really shines in this context; you’re home from work, you’re eating dinner, you want a 20 minute episode to watch, and there’s practically an endless supply of them available. For me lately, assuming it’s just me, the show I’ve been watching at dinner has been Rick and Morty. The girl has no interest at all in it, and the boys have seen all the episodes multiple times already.
That show is on Hulu. Yes, I pay for both Hulu and Netflix, and then of course there is Amazon Prime. I’m amazed that I am able to keep up as well as I do with which show is on which service. Even paying for all three still costs less than cable. And there are no ads. Who wouldn’t cut the cord?
Finally, there is another mode of binge-watching which you might have experienced – re-watching a series with someone who hasn’t seen it so you can enjoy their reactions to it. I remember how much fun it was to re-binge-watch (that’s a word now) Stranger Things with my mom and sisters during a weekend visit – just because they hadn’t seen it yet. And the girl and I have binge-watched old TV shows from her childhood that I missed – Dark Shadows for example. And I do mean the 1960s version – another awesome thing about the streaming era is how much old film and TV is available.
All of this just goes to show that I watch too much TV. I watch it like I’m running out of time, but as the girl reminds me, there is no way I will watch it all before I die. But I will try at least to watch all the sci-fi. 😀
My BFF and I binge-watch episodic television on streaming services, or – in the parlance of our times – “Netflix and chill.” We always find, though, that everything in the panoply of shows available, on multiple streaming services, is just so dark. It’s either harrowing, desperate drama or mean and sarcastic comedy. Personally, I like harrowing, but my BFF prefers entertainment with a positive message – but where is it? I suppose in the Kids Profile, but that won’t suit us.
So why is everything so dark in this entertainment era? I think there are two possible explanations. The first is that the fault lies with my generation – Generation X – which currently dominates television and film, as directors, writers, producers and lead actors. GenX likes fiction that is raw and uncomprimising, exposing the rotten side of the human psyche. We like fraying and corrupted settings populated by wandering anti-heros.
Another possibility is that it is simply the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. It is a deeply pessimistic time, and our society is interested in exploring human failure, at both the individual and institutional levels. That is why there are so many end of the world stories coming out. It’s where we assume we are headed.
Really these two factors intersect, as it is the attitude of the living generations that defines the spirit of the age. So while my generation is at the peak of life and in charge of creative content, you’ll just have to live with the new noir age while we work out some personal issues. Once we get through these dark times, some other generation can create the celebratory epics of our triumphant passage through the gates of history.
Of course, it is also true that there are options for entertainment that my BFF and I ignore – cable and over-the-air television with its many niches and its nostalgia channels. No mind, because my BFF got hooked on the brilliant – and harrowing – Amazon Prime show The Man in the High Castle. And if we want upbeat, we can always watch The Waltons. Yes, on video streaming services one can binge-watch television from 40 or 50 years ago if one wants. Truly amazing times.
We’ve been watching Star Trek: The Original Series on Netflix and I am impressed by what a good show it is, really standing the test of time. This is despite the fact that by today’s standards the plot development is slow and the acting melodramatic. On the other hand, the characters are well defined and engaging, and the stories are interesting.
It’s really the superlative writing that makes the show, bringing in the talents of some of the great science fiction writers of its time. As I watch the episodes, I see how Star Trek was the fountain from which all future sci-fi television sprung. There really didn’t need to be any more sci-fi TV after that; it’s all just the same stories again and again. Not that I’m saying there shouldn’t be any more – I am someone who laments when I can’t find any more high-quality sci-fi left to watch on three different streaming services.
Star Trek: The Original Series comes from another age, an expansive era when America was confident and proud. It deals unapologetically with issues of empire and civilization, has faith in the benefits of technologically progress, and projects a future where gender is still strictly defined and the white guys are comfortably in charge. Later versions of the franchise (there are at least six) tracked the changing social mood, and I’m hoping that once we’ve watched all the episodes, I can convince the family to pick up with Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I’m up in PA for a bit and the boy wants to watch as much Smallville as we can get in while I am here. He says it’s his favorite Superman story because Clark Kent is not overpowered compared to his adversaries. The girl mostly likes it because Tom Welling is such a cutie, but she’s so exhausted from her work days that she usually falls asleep during the episodes anyway.
I like the way it neatly bridges the transition from the Gen-X youth era, as exemplified by a similar TV series, into the Millennial youth era. The other series to which I refer is (you may have guessed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which like Smallville has a superpowered chief protagonist who attends high school in a town where weird things happen. In Buffy the preternatural events occur because of a gate to Hell, whereas in Smallville they are because of a meteor impact. In both shows the main characters depend on as well as protect a cadre of loyal peers, and there is ample high school relationship drama.
What’s neat is that the characters in Buffy are from the class of 1999, the last Gen-Xer high school class, while the characters in Smallville are part of the first wave of Millennial high school grads. Granted, Clark Kent is portrayed by a Gen-Xer (Tom Welling was born in 1977), but the supporting cast of friends and love interests are almost all first wave Millennials. Overall the characters seem more well-adjusted, more outgoing and less angst-ridden than the characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Smallville characters with emotional issues who exhibit antisocial behavior turn out to be the episode’s bad guy and often meet unfortunate ends.
You can really see the contrast in the families of the main characters. Buffy has a fraught relationship with her single mother, who is usually too busy to be involved with her daughter’s life and doesn’t even realize she is a Vampire-slayer until later in the series (sorry for the spoiler). But Clark’s Mom and Dad are together, invested in helping him with his powers and fully present in every episode. The Kents are a quintessentially American midwestern family, corny and endearingly wholesome.
I’ve heard that the series changes format and gets darker in later seasons; so far I’ve only seen Season One episodes. For now we’re enjoying what feels to me like part of the early 2000s television coming of age of the Millennial generation. I guess Glee could be next…
A tough day at work has put me in the mood to watch Vikings(on Amazon Prime, of course), another in the modern vein of gritty and rough-edged TV series, covering a period mostly neglected in historical drama – the Dark Ages in Europe. As you may imagine, there is a lot of warfare on the show, just what I need to heat up my blood.
One scene from an episode I’ve already watched has a Norse warband defeating a less disciplined English force, which ties into a book I recently listened to – War by Sebastian Unger, a reporter embedded with a platoon of airborne infantry in Afghanistan. In the latter case, as well, the superior training and discipline of U.S. forces allows them to prevail against a seemingly endless supply of hapless Taliban fighters, who are mostly teenage boys with almost no warfighting skills (but armed with deadly weapons and therefore a serious threat).
So across the ages, this simple military principle holds – discipline and training are the key to success in battles, whether fought with bow and arrow, spear and sword, or with rifle, mortar and grenade. But also consider that England is ruled by the English still, and the Taliban remains a force in Afghanistan. So winning battles is not necessarily going to achieve one’s war aims in the long run.
That’s enough thinking for now I am going to watch TV.