The 2016 season of the long-running television series “American Democracy” has its season finale tonight. Is the ancient prophecy we see hung in so many southern kitchens—“Bless this Mess”—accurate? If so, then this mess is truly blessed, and as viewers, we are forced to conclude, however we may vainly struggle with perspiration and dark oaths, that we have just seen a masterpiece season of American Democracy. It falls to the critics among us to make sense of what we have just seen. This is not merely a professional duty, but moral one. I will do my best.
American Democracy, now in its 240th season, brought a lot to the table this year, and it showed. Lately the show-runner, God, had been scandalously attacked by critics for his lackadaisical storytelling and obvious drug habits. His drinking has been the talk of the town. Had success ruined the Sky-Father? We all remember his top-notch offerings, such as Dewey Defeats Truman and Lincoln: An American Assassination. Yet his most recent works, such as Comcast and The Royal Wedding, had been accepted as the paltry offerings they were to horror movie taste.
Still there was ample record to drown out the haters. Consider the saucy sallies of yesteryear, such as the Black Death, the breakdancing craze, and the band Genesis. These had shown an artist with a more sensitive aesthetic sensibility, one that was, dare I say, avant-garde. Certainly God was still winning prizes, no matter how much his work had declined since Tsunami ‘04. Critics bitchily called out to the sky, saying “Give us more in the way of Shrek—either more movies or green biological monstrosities.” And yet the answer did not come.
Frankly, there was no pleasing the audience, who couldn’t agree on the authorship question, much less what their taste was. It was understood that the modern taste had changed so much that old chestnuts along the lines of “Rats Eat Town Full of Children” or “Ancient World Orgy” would no longer play to the suburban masses.
With these limitations, other artists could have drunk poison, gone to jail, become bankers. But this show-runner moves in mysterious ways. Perhaps stirred to jealous action by Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, God decided that he, not Sofia Coppola or Max Landis, would be the national sweetheart to stoke our collective imaginations. A new creative direction was decided upon early on: No. Holds. Barred.
As in previous seasons, the characters were drawn from the same usual pool of grotesque elites that have so delighted the children and middle-aged circus fans since the gouty, sawdust-filled days of the 19th century.
Television programs and movies are filled with too-gorgeous too-hot too-heroin-filled genetic specimens from the corn-making and corn-devouring states. No matter what the TV program is about—the poor, lepers, doctors, lepers killed by doctors—the persons in front of the camera will be the most astoundingly perverse violators of cheekbone architecture, so much so that their beauty will want to make you mangle your own hideous mule face with a garden rake. This is why being a TV critic is so difficult, because of the constant screaming at Nature’s cruelty at not making you Jennifer Aniston from TV’s Friends.
As it happens, there is also screaming involved in being a watcher of politics, but for quite different reasons. The political class that stars in American Democracy is staffed every season with the weird scions of New England and Hapsburg inbreeding stock, rich people, various yahoos, and whatever crawled out of Harvard last week. In other, less happy lands, these persons would have been confined to the attic, but in the New World, mercifully, we have let them see the light of day, and often elected them to the Senate. It is from this pool of “talent” that the fresh faces of politics are drawn every year.
There were several new characters this year—well, new to the audience, but familiar to longtime watchers—such as Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Melania Trump, and Steve Bannon. Others were the shades of what had been: the walking scandal that was once Governor of Jersey, the wise scarecrow from a place called Hope. For the most part, the big stars in Season 240 were old-time hands in the political game. One was the former Secretary of State, and the other was in a state of insecurity most of the time.
True to form, the show-runner kept us in slack-jawed suspense. We didn’t know who would be the last person at the end of the Terrordome. Of course the performances were compelling in their way, especially the guest-star role taken by Larry David in the first story arc, where it really looked like Hillary might have to wait another minute for her climb up the ladder.
It’s no secret that the writing in Season 240 took an odd turn. At the beginning of the year, it was clear to all and sundry that there would be little interesting in these rote performance, especially given the wide field of competition. Who were we to know that the Orangeman would compel the attention of every curious, sensitive citizen? The audience had never had a very special episode where a candidate for the Presidency settled rumors about his penis on national TV, but this was the Year of Gifts, and we received with a gracious heart that which not even George Washington, the Father of His Country, had been able to give us.
Many watchers of this season have asked why so many of the long-running guest stars, especially the long-time stalwart Jeb, gave such un-Golden-Globe-worthy performances. We were all shocked, but I have my own suspicions. Several years ago, I saw a recording of John Kerry before he was to go on Colbert’s show. Colbert was manfully attempting to explain to Senator K that he, Colbert, was playing a character who was willfully ignorant and an idiot. Kerry smiled, nodded, and made mostly mammalian animal noises.
At first I thought, “Oh, maybe he’s tired?” This was, after all, a man who had been a candidate at one time for the highest office in the land, who had had to pass multiple tests, meetings, sizing-ups and interrogations. How could he have cleared any hurdles, if he was so semi-functional offstage?
Then it occurred to me: it was quite possible the American elite was drugged all of the time, doped up on complicated injections of Quaalude-like chemicals, and that political teams of handlers were the true queens and kings of America, and their bosses more like heavily sedated show ponies than masters of the universe. I have still not gotten past that idea, and believe it responsible for much of what happened during the part of the series.
Several major turning points, Mr. Robot-style, took us all by surprise. “Obama,” who had been a constant for eight years of American Democracy, was revealed, in one crucial episode a ‘la Fight Club, to be nothing more than a Jungian projection of Hillary’s repressed self, the super-cool smooth young President who got to be best friends with Joe Biden.
Although it explains several features of the Obama presidency, such as why the President could not actually physically do anything during his term in office, it left many watchers with a sour taste in their mouth, one that even the subsequent shaming of Anthony Weiner could not banish. Likewise, the introduction of the “Email Scare,” just like “The Benghazi Adventure,” seemed formulaic and contrived, similar to every episode of House post Season 2. Really? Another scandal?
Rumors that Michelle Obama would have a starring role in the new post-240 seasons, like Anya in the later years of Buffy, were quickly dashed. In a series of early-season debates, Hillary Clinton was forced to move left on several issues, so much so that certain ungracious critics cried character derailment. Those of us who have been watching this actress for a long time are aware of her range and were not surprised.
In the midst of this drama, sadly, famous character actor and friend of the show Antonin Scalia died, right before he could reinstate Dred Scott. I will think of him every time I see a broken Ronald Reagan Franklin Mint plate being used as an ashtray, and laugh in his memory, for several hours.
Arguably, the biggest draw for this season was the inclusion of insult comic, depraved sex criminal, and rhetorical playboy Donald Trump, whose outrageous pranking and catchphrase “Nobody can stop me, ever” threatened the important relationship between American Democracy and its sponsors: Wall Street, the Koch Brothers, and Sheldon Adelson, among others. A series of tepid, weak-tea warbles from the pundit class kept repeating over and over again how dreadful Donald’s audience segment were.
These pieces never mentioned that Trump’s viewership were long-time watchers of American Democracy who could barely get service out where they lived. Unfortunately, Donald’s audience also believed Obama was sending out secret Caliphate news on the public broadcasting station, which made them hard to take seriously as devoted fans of the series.
Since Donald’s graduation from ensemble dark horse to featured player, the series has been a duel between the two principal actors, with lots of roles for side characters, but the main draw has been the pair of leads. In truth, this is not so much a battle between two performers as it is a drawn-out comedy of manners displaying different schools of acting: method and crazy-ass improv. At times, Clinton and Trump seemed to be occupying different shows altogether. I began to wonder if the scripts had been subtly rewritten depending on the different actors, so as to get the strangest kind of result.
Whispers of the Nov. 8 episode as being a series finale seem out of place, although who knows? The UK version of American Democracy recently capped its centuries-long run with the anticlimactic “Brexit,” soon to result in the spinoffs “Scotland!” “Wales, Actually,” and “Little England.”
Yet there is no reason to be dispirited. There are only seven hundred and twenty seven days until the next Election Day, and if The Walking Dead has taught us anything, human beings don’t even need hope or sense to keep watching. We have the compelling nature drama “The Oceans Rise” in our near future, so that’s a definite yes. As long as next summer’s programming contains the words “Bill,” “Clinton,” “Loves,” “Trouble,” in some order, I will be a happy camper. Bless this mess.