• Against the Cynicism Cycle: Why TV Could Do with Less Moral Grayness

    Noah Ciubotaru Wonders if We’ve Given Antihero Stories Too Much Credit

    By now, we’re adept at defending our interest in television’s antiheroes. As viewers and critics, we’ve been rehearsing versions of this defense since The Sopranos. Even if a series follows a depraved protagonist, or multiple depraved protagonists, it can still be concerned with the moral considerations weighed by its audience. Perhaps that series can even present a more true-to-life and insightful portrait of morality than one that draws a sharper distinction between good and evil.

    We’ve celebrated moral grayness, deemed it to be indicative of clever writing, a sign of art’s ability to twist and stump our moral intuitions. But maybe our praise has been misplaced; maybe grayness has become an empty affectation, doing nothing for us, and asking nothing of us but to drift through unfeeling stories.

    In a 2012 essay published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, Albert Wu and Michelle Kuo examined the moral framework of Breaking Bad, before the premiere of its fifth and final season. They began the essay by situating the AMC series in the same class as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, a lineup that has become accepted as the auspicious lineage of prestige TV.

    What connected these shows and made them innovative, according to Wu and Kuo, is that “[t]hey all advance a particular moral view of the universe and operate in the Dickensian tradition of morality tales and social critiques dressed in the guise of realism.” The essay ultimately argued that the morality tale of Breaking Bad was “Old Testament at its core”: Even though Walter White endeavors to construct a narrative of his life that absolves his moral failings—that chalks them up to a science-minded understanding of the moral universe as governed by the same subatomic randomness as the physical one—viewers are still expected to reject his narrative and, with biblical certainty, insist that he has crossed into the realm of objective evil. There’s nothing very gray about it.

    If we keep tracing that prestigious lineage to the present day, we arrive at Succession, the HBO behemoth that just concluded with its fourth season. In his review of the show’s penultimate episode, David Klion considers a scene from The Sopranos, in which Carmela’s psychiatrist says something Klion interprets as a breaking of the fourth wall that cloaks the following message to the audience: “Tony [Soprano] will not be redeemed, and neither will anyone who sticks with him. You can keep watching for three more seasons, but you can’t say you haven’t been told.”

    Succession, with its bread and butter being the sociopathic maneuvers of a family behind a media empire, often seemed to be built upon the same implicit message: Don’t expect the despicable Roy family to face retribution for their actions, lest you be guilty of demanding that television—or whatever culture you consume—placates by projecting a neat moral order, where evil is punished and goodness rewarded.

    Morality seems more to have dropped out of these shows than to have provided the bedrock for their narrative ambitions.

    Author and critic Brandon Taylor warned against this, in a recent entry to his newsletter that used Succession as its central case study in dismissing the expectation that flawed fictional characters experience some form of redemption. Morality in fiction, he wrote, is “about trying to remember that a story has its own moral universe and its own system of weights and measures.… In the absence of such a system of weights and measures, the audience, the reader, will supply their own.”

    So, while Wu and Kuo proposed that Breaking Bad relied on viewers to interpret the show through their pre-held moral principles, Succession might’ve sought to complicate that process by constructing its own moral system, one that could not accommodate our intuitive judgments. In Taylor’s view, “Part of the anesthetizing quality of Succession, part of its magic trick, is that it sneaks things in that feel quite evil but the world makes those things seem so hazy and distant from our main characters that we only register them as evil because we live in the real world and we know the outcomes of such things.”

    It’s this “anesthetizing quality” that concerns me. If one of the supposed challenges or payoffs of antihero-driven television is to rouse viewers into grappling with moral grayness, then what does anesthetizing accomplish? If we’re numbed, how are we bothering to inspect the whole “system of weights and measures” so carefully set up by a great work of fiction?

    My concern is that big-budget antihero series—which have dominated the majority of what is popularly considered to be of “prestige” caliber, and, consequently, the majority of what is granted critical coverage—have often been unsuccessful at inciting the kind of complex, illuminating moral reckonings for which we’ve given them credit. And I think evidence of that has appeared in the same pieces of criticism that aimed to commend these series.

    The distinct moral philosophies that Wu and Kuo ascribed to The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad were developed in response to the “question of responsibility for ‘evil,’” meaning these series wished to consider from where evil might stem and what evil might look like. However, in Wu and Kuo’s analysis, “Mad Men largely evades this question; its driving philosophy has little to do with ‘moralistic’ questions of human responsibility but rather the individual’s abiding unhappiness, and how modern capitalism intensifies it.”

    The Wire, similarly, “risks bleeding into fatalism,” since in its view of the world, “individuals have little recourse against the destructiveness of institutions.” If we accept these descriptions as accurate, morality seems more to have dropped out of these shows than to have provided the bedrock for their narrative ambitions; and by considering these examples, we also get a sense of how historical conditions have given rise to the grayness that pervades prestige television.

    As the oft-repeated origin story goes, the antihero was born out of the moral vacuum left by religion’s diminishing influence and the failures of other institutions to fill that gap of authority. If we don’t trust our government or legal systems, and if capitalism implicates everyone in ethically dubious chains of relation, then an antihero seems to reflect our floundering social order: our inability, or reluctance, to hold immorality to account. “What is left for us to worship in the 21st century?” asked Wu and Kuo. “It would seem to be the radical individual, the singular genius—Nietzsche’s Übermensch—who can break through the bonds and chains of social evil.”

    So, we get Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, and the Roys. We’re given these aggressive, callous, egomaniacal characters, and we tell ourselves that, over the course of watching them, episode after episode, year after year, we are piecing together some sort of intricate moral picture, deciphering the codes behind their behavior—when really, it appears our ambient cynicism about our godless world just keeps being repackaged and fed back to us.

    We’re now looking out across the desolate plains of television’s future, asking what will be built there.

    In Klion’s above-mentioned Succession review, he argues that the show did, in the end, prove itself to be invested in underscoring the depravity of the Roy family, as well as the real-world power structures they represented. “None of this was subtle,” he writes, after running through a highlight reel of the family’s most horrific deeds.

    “The viewer was permitted to enjoy the Roys’ nasty little quips and expensive wardrobes but not to forget the human stakes of their actions.” But, despite these scattered reminders of decency and pleasing moments of nastiness, when Klion dissects the scene of Logan Roy’s funeral, the cynicism that loomed over the show’s viewing experience reveals itself.

    He focuses on the eulogy delivered by Logan’s brother, Ewan, who appeared only a few times throughout the series but whom Klion hails as its sole voice of morality. In his speech, Ewan emphasizes Logan’s tainted legacy—“He made but a mean estimation of the world, and he fed a certain kind of meagreness in men”—which leaves one Roy son, Roman, blubbering, unable to muster a word, and incites the other son, Kendall, to defend what was the “terrible force” of his father, deploying the cold language of profit extraction.

    However, even if Ewan offers the viewer some gratification by inserting an ounce of conscience, Klion suggests that ounce just gets swallowed up by all the careless greed witnessed within the show and outside it: “Ewan’s stark moral judgments are unanswerable, and everyone knows it, but in the end they aren’t going to change anything—and to suggest they come too late is to imply they ever could have. Who has time for morality these days?”

    What a question—and indeed, it did seem too little, too late. While Succession’s third season was airing, Taylor was sounding off in his newsletter, echoing a similarly apathetic stance: “No matter how stylishly the show is shot or how winking and knowing its tone or how self-referential it becomes. I just don’t care. This show has spent three seasons basically tracing all the knowns of its world, introducing nothing.” He continued: “More and more, I feel like Succession’s real genre is neither comedy nor drama. The genre is kind of this: a show that has nothing revelatory or interesting to say about the way we live and feel, whose sole function is mere mimesis.” Yet, Klion also managed to hold out as he waited for the show to deliver on some nebulous promise; his review, which, I remind you, is of the series’ penultimate episode, is titled “Succession at Last Found Its Moral Center.”

    I don’t know for certain what keeps people tuned in to a show that lacks a moral center, but I suspect it has something to do with the cycle of cynicism I mentioned earlier—or with that stylish, knowing self-referentiality of which Taylor writes—and again, I admit, that concerns me. But I do know there is a show that has time for morality these days, and it specifically has time for the kind of morality that relates to everyday people on an everyday level—as opposed to the obscure, distant kind that relates to mobsters, media magnates, or meth-dealing cancer patients, that hinges on life-or-death or million-dollar decisions.

    Somebody Somewhere cares about the blossoming friendship between Sam (played by Bridget Everett) and Joel (Jeff Hiller), two middle-aged people living in small-town Kansas. In the pilot, which premiered in February of last year, we see them form a connection at their workplace, where they grade standardized tests in isolated silence. They went to high school together, but Sam doesn’t remember this; Joel, on the other hand, still reveres Sam for having displayed such a powerful voice in the school’s show choir, and he’s intent on reminding her of that gift.

    At first, Sam’s guarded defeatism clashes with Joel’s joie-de-vivre: she’s still reeling from the loss of her older sister to cancer, and taking care of her parents is becoming increasingly burdensome, as her mother’s drinking gets out of hand and her father must give up maintaining the family farm. But as she spends more time with Joel, Sam begins to appreciate the way he delights in the motions and rituals of daily life, and in every opportunity to be a good friend and community member. Gradually, she begins to allow herself moments of delight in her own life.

    I don’t want another sleek, sneering, pompous depiction of our crumbling media landscape, corrupted democracy, or fraying social fabric.

    The world of Somebody Somewhere stays small. There’s a stagnancy to the characters’ lives that resembles the rolling fields we see in establishing shots before many scenes. They’re people who remain rooted in their town, cycling through the same activities and locations, but who are always doing their best to take care of themselves and their closest relations. Even if they don’t aspire to radically change their conditions or attain audacious goals, they do have goals, and they’re honorable.

    In its second season—which wrapped up in May and aired quietly during HBO’s Sunday slot that followed the heavy-hitters of Succession and Barry—Sam starts taking singing lessons with a woman named Darlene, who taught her in her youth. She’s training her voice so that she can overcome her nerves about singing “Ave Maria” at her friend’s wedding. At one point, Sam tells Darlene, “We have our work cut out for us,” and Darlene, confused by the comment, asks why she keeps saying this. “Well, because you said that to me in high school,” Sam blurts. Darlene’s face drops as she processes how Sam has carried the weight of that offhand remark all these years.

    The revelation makes sense of the tightness that Sam holds in her chest, of the fears and doubts that have hampered her singing. Returning to Darlene allowed Sam to dredge up and address that decades-deep memory—and together, through a challenging process that unfolds across the whole season, they work to dislodge that weight.

    If Somebody Somewhere has a spiritual sibling, it’s Better Things, Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical brainchild that aired on FX, for five seasons, between 2016 and 2022. Adlon starred as Sam Fox, a single mother in Los Angeles, raising three daughters, working as an actor, and dealing with her tetchy mother next door.

    In his riveting LARB essay about how hints of the supernatural emerged out of the realism of Better Things, Phillip Maciak described it as “a show with the barest of premises and the grandest of scopes…. It’s a slow story about aging—for Sam, her mother, and the Fox Sisters—and it’s a loosely told story about how loosely our lives accumulate and grow. The discrete moments that make up this show are not randomly chosen; they’re chosen because they mean something, they matter. And we can neither observe nor describe the tonnage of what’s in them.”

    With the death knell of prestige TV sounded, and the entire industry at a standstill due to the Writers Guild of America strike and the piled debts of the broken streaming model, we’re now looking out across the desolate plains of television’s future, asking what will be built there. I don’t want another sleek, sneering, pompous depiction of our crumbling media landscape, corrupted democracy, or fraying social fabric. I don’t want to watch a funeral scene that positions me to look at someone breaking down in grief and think how pathetic; to watch an impassioned eulogy and realize that, in fact, it’s just a tribute to capitalist accumulation; or to watch another eulogy that expresses solemn concern for the state of our souls and think, well, it’s too late for that.

    In the finale of Somebody Somewhere’s second season, we watch the wedding of Sam’s friend, which takes place on Sam’s family’s property. At one point in the night, that friend stands on stage and makes a toast to the “host who’s not here,” referring to Sam’s father, who was played by Mike Hagerty in the first season.

    When the camera cuts to Sam—her eyes glossy, her cheeks reddened—there is such a sincere mixture of sadness, remembrance, and gratitude in her expression that, while watching, I questioned for a moment whether I had missed the plot point of Sam’s father dying. I hadn’t; he’s out at sea on his brother’s boat—but I later learned that Hagerty passed away in May of 2022. That toast commemorates him, and the whole scene is realized with such pure intent that one senses it touching on something real—something that matters.

    Noah Ciubotaru
    Noah Ciubotaru is a bookseller and culture writer, from Montreal. Much of his writing can be found in the Canadian publication Exclaim!, where he covers pop stars, indie rock, and alternative comedy.

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