American TV and Movies: Superheroes, Cops, and the Military

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A still from the new CBS Series, “SEAL Team”

W.J. Astore

Americans are being taught powerful lessons when they watch TV and go to the movies.  Place your faith in superheroes, (mostly) men of action, those who operate outside the boundaries of rules and laws, whether natural or human.  Defer to the police and their amazing investigative powers (witness all those CSI shows).  Trust the military and revel in their dedication and their clever technologies.  Mister, we could use a show like “All in the Family” again.

On HBO this week, Bill Maher had a compelling segment on the proliferation of superhero shows and movies, including a takedown of Donald Trump as “Orange Sphincter.”  The takedown was warranted in the sense that Trump often boasts he is the only man capable of doing something, like reforming health care or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bringing back great manufacturing jobs to America (apparently by selling $110 billion in weaponry to the Saudis).  Cop shows have been around forever, of course, but they’ve experienced a revival in these times of homegrown terrorism and Homeland Security, even as violent crime itself is mostly on the decline.

Finally, glitzy military shows are hitting their stride this season (no shows critical of the military, even comedies such as MASH, are allowed).  As the New York Times recently noted:

One of the most pressing questions for TV executives after President Trump’s election: How would the occupant of the White House affect what showed up on the air? One trend that has emerged is the rise of shows with military themes. NBC is betting big on a drama called “The Brave,” which is getting the coveted 10 p.m. time slot after “The Voice” on Mondays. The show will center on a group of undercover military specialists. The CW will introduce a drama this fall called “Valor,” about a group of highly trained helicopter pilots. They will go on missions and apparently get mixed up in messy intraunit romances.  CBS will debut a drama called “SEAL Team.” Executives at the network feel this show has the best chance of being a hit. It stars David Boreanaz, who had leading roles in “Angel” and “Bones.”

Just what we need: More military shows featuring SEALs and helicopter pilots and covert operatives, killing various bad guys in the name of democracy and righteousness.

Popular culture holds a mirror up to society, reflecting how we see ourselves.  But it’s more than that: It also shapes how we think.  It suggests what is possible and what isn’t.   By showcasing superheroes and cops and troops, it drives home the idea that these are the people and constructs with agency in our society.  The little people, ordinary Americans like you and me, are demoted in such constructs as bystanders, as supernumeraries.  Our main role is to acquiesce, to cheer the “heroes” as they go about their business.

I know that TV and movie executives typically play it safe.  They’d say they’re giving the people what they want in the name of making money.  They’d say it’s not their job to challenge the powerful in the name of the powerless.  The people want superheroes and heroic cops and heroic troops, so that’s what we’ll give them.  And because that’s what we can easily sell to corporations as advertising time.

But, again, it’s more complicated than that.  The networks themselves are owned by corporations, some of which also own military contractors.  Movies about superheroes and the military often lean heavily on the Pentagon for hardware and advice.  Again, it’s not that TV and movies are distorted reflections of society (though they are that).  They also establish boundaries.  To use fancy academic talk, they are hegemonic.  They empower one reality while diminishing or denying the possibility of other realities.

Any chance we’ll be seeing lots of blockbuster movies and high-budget TV series about peacemakers, whistle blowers, dissidents, activists, and other crusaders for justice and equity?  How about a movie featuring “Disarmament Man” as a hero: he eliminates weapons of mass destruction!  Starting in the USA!  Or a TV show featuring a bad-ass Mother Nature: she administers stern discipline to corporate polluters and frackers, while teaching her children the perils of global warming.  Or a “justice league” of pissed-off Native Americans, who band together to evict all the illegal immigrants to their lands over the last 500 years.

Readers, what movie or TV series would you most like to see?  Have some fun in the comments section, and thanks.

10 thoughts on “American TV and Movies: Superheroes, Cops, and the Military

  1. How about a TV series called “It Takes a Village” about a group of 40 people who live on the land, eating what they grow, making what they wear, and building where they live. Their only expenses are hand tools and organic vegetable seed. The plot lines involve the commune members trying to peacefully defend their way of life from police, hostile neighbors, and corporate developers. The theme song would be a Leonard Cohen song. The show’s sponsors would be local food co-ops and environmental groups.

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    1. Now that I think of it, why not “A Thousand Points of Light,” in which people live off the grid, generating power using solar panels and wind turbines and other renewables?

      My wife and I occasionally talk about what advertisers could do if they so wanted, like encouraging energy saving and recycling, making it cool to wear sweaters and to compost and so on. Imagine a society based on sharing and distribution rather than I-me-mine and consumption.

      But that’s not a profitable image for corporate success and “growth.”

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  2. Speaking of “war” imagined, produced, and delivered for your at-home viewing and advertising consumption (i.e., brainwashing):

    “… what attracted decision-makers to choosing ‘war’ is that Americans of the twentieth century had no direct experience of it and hence were receptive to having warfare imagined for them – and Hollywood happily obliged with ‘war movies.’ Save for actual combatants sent overseas and economic shortages at home, World War II was unexperienced. After 1945 ‘war’ was a tabula rasa on which opinion-makers and government decision-makers were free to constitute its meaning in terms that pretty much suited their purposes, allowing them to set the character of public debate and to acquire a vastly enlarged range of governmental powers – powers that, when they did not violate the Constitution, deformed it. … The meaning of war was given a plasticity that allowed the new image-makers to set its parameters as they pleased.” — Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy, Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008)

    My favorite new cable-tv show: “Penguins. An elite group of Ivy League hothouse orchids, recently graduated from Yale University Law School, dress up in tuxedoes to infiltrate weekend garden parties on Martha’s Vinyard in order to ferret out and identify insufficiently neoliberal “Democrats” who might have once heard the word-like noise, “peace,” and who could possibly even spell the forbidden word. Wednesday nights at at 8:00 p.m., Eastern time.”

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  3. I attended Northern Illinois University on the G.I. Bill. Gene Roddenberry was invited to speak in the early 1970’s after Star Trek had been cancelled. The place where he spoke was packed. Roddenberry was bitter. The executives he related fought to dumb down Star Trek. He provided an example of group think and management think.

    The original Planet of Apes Movie was successful. The underlying message was the dogma of ideological belief vs empirical evidence. The belief and dogma had to be protected at the expense of the truth. The average ape must not know the truth, dogma must not be allowed to be challenged. Roddenberry said the Hollywood take away was – Apes!, Apes!, the people want to see Apes. The result was a series of sequels all bad. What is successful in one movie or TV show must be concentrated and repeated over and over again.

    There would be no hope at all of a movie like All Quiet on the Western Front being updated to exemplify the futility of the Afghan War or Iraq War today. A remake of Seven Days in May, or an American version of a Very British Coup is also not likely to hit the silver screen, better to stick with zombies, aliens, heroic special forces, shapely policewoman and hunky male detectives. The Westerns we were inundated with in the 50’s through the 70’s validated violence as a solution.

    Hollywood learned a lesson during the McCarthy Era, that careers can be ruined by the wrong politics.

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    1. Good point about McCarthyism. Few people want to risk being blacklisted.

      Hollywood has the reputation of being liberal, but they’re mostly pragmatists and capitalists. A friend of mine told me how the bloated movie “Pearl Harbor” was sold as “Titanic” meets “Saving Private Ryan.” Movies are repetitively recycled as products. Risky ideas are rarely green-lighted, or they’re left to smaller, independent production houses.

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    2. My wife also has a shorthand for these movies and shows: She calls them “models with guns.” Whether it’s cop shows or military movies, it’s “models with guns.” And the superhero flicks are “models with special powers.”

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      1. From Wikipedia:

        Travis Fimmel (born 15 July 1979) is an Australian actor and former model. He is best known for his high-profile Calvin Klein campaign, for co-starring opposite the late Patrick Swayze in the TV series The Beast, for the movie Warcraft, and for his role as Ragnar Lothbrok in the History Channel series Vikings.

        So now we also have models with swords and axes. I can’t wait for season 5 of “Vikings” to begin later this year, even though the Travis Fimmel character, Ragnar Lothbrok, met his gruesome and historical death towards the end of season 4. We’ll just have to see if his “sons” and former wife/shieldmistress, Lagertha (who never seems to age a day), can carry the story forward. I understand that to compensate for the loss of the Travis Fimmel character the series has added Johnathan Rhys Meyers (who portrayed Henry VIII in “The Tudors”) as a warrior monk to give the Anglo Saxons a better chance against the marauding Norsemen.

        As for the Seal Team series, I wouldn’t watch a minute of it. We had a Seal detatchment at the ATSB in South Vietnam where I spent over a year. They had a German shepard dog and they delighted in having it kill some of the other pet dogs on the base. One of my fellow enlisted men who lost his own dog this way got out a pistol with which to shoot the SEAL’s cur animal, but we talked him out of it since the beast probably had some sort of official status as part of “the team.” One of the SEAL’s favorite slogans: “Make Love AND War.” They just couldn’t get enough of themselves. Even though everyone else just wanted to shut things down, turn operations over to the Vietnamese, and go home, these maniacs kept going out into the countryside, harassing the local peasants, and getting shot up in ambushes because they just wouldn’t leave well enough alone. I can just imagine the shit they try and pull on the farmers and villagers of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc. You want to make legions of new enemies who will hate America forever? Just send in the SEALs late at night and they’ll accomplish that in no time at all — and probably get a basketful of medals, too. They ought to change the title of the series to “Murder and Kidnapping, Inc.” Too many bad memories for me ever to watch certifiable crap like that. If I want to watch ignorant barbarians in action, I’ll stick with the Vikings.

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  4. I spent 23 years of my life working for ABC-TV, in technical maintenance – keeping the station in Chicago on the air. The working conditions were great, the benefits phenomenal, the pay unbelievable and it was a union job as well. The people I worked with were a cross section of America, good folks. But psychologically I found the work unbearable. TV increasingly revolted me from the shallow entertainment to the “news” that I realized, though it was the money-maker for the station, was something that, if never watched, would not make one iota of difference in daily life. The adoration of anchors by the public made me want to gag, not because those anchors were bad people, but because they were just like you and me except seen “on TV” and loved for their images.

    As the years went by I became more anxious that I would one day regret spending my entire productive life supporting an industry whose product I could not stand. Finally, I quit. Fellow workers warned me I was risking quite a bit as I had no job ready to jump into…though I had plenty of savings from making far more than I could ever use. I wanted to keep my sanity and I cannot tell you the pure joy, the mental relief that I felt on leaving. I was 49 years old and now, 17 years later I pat myself on the back for jumping ship. I saved my life. I had stopped watching TV long before I quit and my advice to one and all is to turn it off. To sit passively for hours taking in what people want to sell you, whether in commercials on in the regular programs, and all delivered at a machine-gun pace is bad for the mind. The multi-billion dollar TV industry is completely dispensable. Dump it.

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