Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Lamest Generation

The Wife was off doing one of her various things last night, so after I tucked Things 1 and 2 into bed, I sat down to watch some crappy TV and wait for her to return. I couldn't watch anything good, of course--not without her. So Lost had to wait. I ended up watching an episode of Desperate Housewives. I used to watch it regularly, but I've kindofsortof lost interest. And yet, there it was on the DVR. Or, rather, there they were--several unwatched episodes.

The episode I chose is probably a month old, by now. I'm not sure. The couple who run the pizza restaurant were in dire financial straits, on the verge of losing their business. The father, against the advice of his (desperate) wife, fires his entire staff and enlists his children to help. They whine and complain, but they do it--until a crowd of high school kids come in to the place, and the two oldest kids--twins--who are in high school--refuse to serve the table. It will be too embarrassing, they say. One of the kids at the table is a prick, and will make fun of them for it forever.

The dad gets angry--too angry--and ends up yelling at the kid and pushing him up against the wall, saying things like, "I've put everything into this restaurant. Everything!"

See, the dads are desperate, too.

Anyway, the dad sees the error of his ways the next morning, and decides to close the restaurant and sell, at bargain prices, everything inside. They make just enough money to pay off their debts. In the end, they are left penniless and unemployed.

BUT--the point of this arc of the episode is that the dad learned a valuable lesson and did the right thing. This is clear and least from the point of view of the writers and director. Yes--he saved his two teenage sons from mortal embarrassment. Never mind the fact that they both look to be about ten minutes away from graduating. Never mind the fact that college is now out of the question, for them and probably for the other three kids coming up behind them. This is never mentioned. His choice was correct. Because he spared their feeeeeelings.

So, lesson number one here is the obvious and oft-repeated one: the people who create our popular entertainment don't have a fucking clue how most of us live, though their costumers and set dressers can create a reasonable facsimile of what reality looks like. When I taught high school in New York City, fifteen years ago, there were plenty of kids who worked at their family's restaurants, or dry cleaners, or whatever. Did they love doing it? Probably not. But they knew why they did it. They did it for the family, and they did it for themselves--because the family's economic health made it possible for them to go to school and, possibly, go on to college.

Granted, they were all the children of recent immigrants. I have recent ancestors who worked in the family business as children, too. Would I have done the same, a few generations later? Not happily, I'm sure.

But there's the point: you don't do it happily, but you do it. Because you're a child, and your very limited, short-term sense of happiness is not what grownups build a family upon, or make huge decisions based upon. Did the dad on this TV show blow up, and get too angry? He did. Did that invalidate what he was trying to say? It shouldn't have. The scene needed to end with him calming down--that night, or the next day--and explaining to his nearly-adult son why this business had to survive, and why facing some short-term embarrassment was a minor thing compared to bankruptcy. He might have even coached the kid on how to face the abuse he might get from the asshole kids at the table--how to hold himself with pride, and speak with authority, because he was helping to run the family business, while the other kids were still useless parasites.

But no, he apologized, and he shut down the business, and they're broke. And I have no idea what happens next, because I'm too busy to catch up on three or four more episodes.

But if our TV reflects our culture in any way--if the people who make the shows are not as clueless as I'd like to think they are--if they really do know what's going on--then we're in massive trouble. Because if we, as a culture, really do condone and applaud this mindset--that our children are precious flowers who must be protected from all hurt and harm and who should not be expected to help the family in times of crisis--then what kind of id monsters are we raising? If we, as a larger culture, can't find it within ourselves to gird our loins, grit our teeth, and do some unpleasant things in order to survive hard times, if unpleasant things are required (and by the way, we are in hard times. Even the stupid show acknowledged as much), then...well...we aren't going to survive hard times.

Just imagine how this very same scene would have played out in a TV show from the 1950s or even the early 60s. I think it's pretty obvious. The kids would be told to buck up and deal with it, they'd face down the assholes at the table, who would end up more abashed and repentant than their real-life counterparts ever would, and the kids would learn a Valuable Lesson, which would be spelled out in excruciating detail around the family dinner table in the last scene.

So trite! We laugh. Good thing we've come so far.

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