Tag Archives: television

Why “F Is For Family” Is The Perfect Satire Of The American Dream

netflix-f-is-for-family-bill-burr-e1498677110849

What would you say about a man who constantly yells, curses like a sailor on crack, and constantly threatens to put his kids through a wall? On the surface, it sounds like this guy has some serious anger issues. You would probably suspect there’s something wrong with him and that he needs help from a competent therapist.

Then, after you find out that man’s name is Frank Murphy from the animated show, “F is for Family,” you quickly realize that even the best therapist in the world couldn’t do squat for this man. His anger, cursing, and threats of intentional property damage are entirely understandable. In fact, he would need a therapist if he didn’t exhibit some level of anger.

That’s because Frank Murphy, along with every other major theme in “F is for Family,” is the personification of the disillusion of the American Dream. Take everything you think you know about what it means to work hard, get ahead, and achieve your goals in life. Then, kick it in the gut, spit on it, and throw it through a brick wall. That’s Frank Murphy’s life. That’s what “F is for Family” is all about.

I only recently discovered this show while browsing Netflix and I’m glad I did. “F is for Family” is one of those shows that takes an overdone concept, like a dysfunctional cartoon family, and injects it with some overdue nuance. This isn’t a show about a bumbling dad, a nagging mom, or mischievous kids. The issues and themes in “F is for Family” feel genuinely relevant to the current state of the world.

For a show that takes place in the 1970s, that’s quite an accomplishment. At the same time, it makes sense for this show to take place during that particular time period in America because that’s when the hopes, dreams, and optimism of the post-World War II economic boom began to falter. They just faltered a lot faster for Frank Murphy and his family.

In many respects, Frank’s short-tempered persona is a byproduct of that decline. Throughout the show, it’s clear that Frank underwent a significant transformation. He wasn’t always this rage-filled working stiff who jumps at any chance to cuss out anyone in close proximity. He was once an upbeat, optimistic man who reflected the spirit of his time and his country. This is even reflected in the show’s opening theme.

He starts off as an idealistic youth. Born in 1931, he enters adulthood just as his country returns victorious from World War II. Like others before him, he serves his country after getting drafted in the Korean War. He returns home somewhat scarred, but still optimistic about his future. In 1958, he has dreams of flying airplanes and marrying Sue, a young woman in college at the time.

By all accounts, Frank plays by the rules. He works hard and carries out his duty as well as anyone can expect. He’s not some thick-headed dope like Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin. He’s also not some misanthropic underachiever like Al Bundy. He can speak in complete sentences, form coherent thoughts, and demonstrate an average level of competence.

He is, for the most part, an appropriate representation of a working class man trying to provide for his family. The problem, and the frequent source of his anger, is that his efforts often go unrewarded and unappreciated. In some cases, he gets completely screwed over, both by forces beyond his control and by unexpected consequences from his behavior.

In the first season, he works hard and sucks up to his asshole boss, Lance Dunbarton, to get a promotion at the airport he works at as a baggage handler. He even manages to avert a strike on Christmas Eve. Rather than get rewarded for this effort, he gets fired.

In the second season, he gets a chance to return to work, but the way he confronts his former supervisor, Bob Pogo, ends up making his situation worse.

Along the way, Frank also attempts to deal with the constant dysfunction of his family, which includes a rebellious teenage son, a wimpy pre-teen son who gets bullied at every turn, and a young daughter who refuses to conform to traditional gender norms. On top of all that, his wife is dissatisfied with just being a housewife and her efforts to achieve her own dreams cause plenty of marital strife.

At every level, Frank Murphy’s life is not the at all consistent with what the American dream had promised. Instead of the white picket fence with a content wife and well-behaved kids, his life is a constantly-devolving mess. No matter how hard he works or how much he plays by the rules, nothing seems to improve. Things only ever get more frustrating. After only a few episodes, it’s easy to understand why Frank is so angry.

To some extent, Frank Murphy is a fitting personification of Murphy’s Law. That’s not to say that everything goes wrong for him all the time, but through three eventful seasons, his attempts to improve his lot in life never works out. For every step forward he takes, he suffers a major setback.

He finally gets his job back at the airport where he hopes to pursue his dream as a pilot. Then, he gets his wife pregnant and they have to put their dreams on hold again.

He tries to improve things with Sue by taking his wife out for a romantic evening on their anniversary, but ends up getting into a major fight that makes everything worse.

Even his family isn’t immune to this regressive trap. While Frank struggles to find a stable job, Sue attempts to enter the working world, only to have her dreams crushed when the company she works for steals her invention. On top of that, she works in an office where she’s constantly belittled, harassed, and demeaned by co-workers whose conduct makes Don Draper look like a hippie.

His rebellious son also has dreams of becoming a rock star, but ends up getting kicked out of his band after a breakdown involving his drug-loving neighbor’s busty girlfriend. In season 3, he tries to reinvent himself and he tries to find a sense of belonging with a new group of friends. The end result is him getting arrested and spending a night in jail.

His youngest son, Bill Murphy, learns these harsh lessons even earlier than his father. He also tries to work hard and play by the rules. He tries to stand up for himself and confront the bully who torments him. Like his father, though, he ends up making things worse. I won’t get too deep into spoilers, but I will note that there’s some heavy arson and awkward boners involved.

Even his brainy daughter, Maureen, isn’t immune from it. Being a young girl in the early 1970s, her dreams are limited. Even when she aims low, like winning a ring toss contest on kids show, it still fails and through no fault of her own. Like her parents and brothers, the world seems determined to deny her any semblance of success.

If the essence of satire is to offer scathing criticism of a particular social construct, as those who edit Wikipedia imply, then “F is for Family” is a direct attack on the ideals and assumptions we associate with the American Dream. It never gets overly-nihilistic like “Rick and Morty” or “Bojack Horseman.” With every episode and sub-plot, it chips away at the foundation on which that dream is built.

It’s established throughout the show Frank and Sue were both in a position to achieve that dream. They were on a promising path with Sue being in college and Frank wanting to become a pilot. Even when they faced a major obstacle, namely Sue getting pregnant, they tried to do the right thing. They sacrificed for each other and their family.

That’s NOT red paint.

In any other narrative, their responsible behavior would be rewarded. By the standards of the American Dream, they did the right thing. They got married and tried to provide for their family. However, despite those sacrifices, they’re repeatedly denied their dreams. At the end of the day, doing the right thing and playing by the rules just doesn’t cut it.

Frank watches as his obese, slob of a boss screws him over on Christmas Eve. Sue watches as the company that made her so miserable steals her idea and profits from it. Their kids watch as the world around them rewards and punishes those who don’t deserve it. The only ones who ever seem to benefit are those strong enough to skirt the rules or well-connected enough to bend them.

In that context, it’s fitting that “F is for Family” takes place in the 1970s. That marked the end of the post-World War II economic boom and the beginning of major economic decline from which working class people never recovered. The well-paying, blue-collar jobs that once allowed a man like Frank Murphy to support his family are long gone thanks to the rise of automation and globalization.

While the show never dives too deep into the complexities of this decline, it provides a great deal of crude tongue-in-cheek humor that reveals just how flawed the American Dream had become at that point. There are not-too-subtle jokes about women, minorities, family life, politics, and the media that highlight just how flawed the system is. Frank Murphy is just the guy who gets screwed more than most.

In the end, though, that’s what makes “F is for Family” the ultimate satire for the idealized narrative we associate with the American Dream. It shows that this notion that a hard-working, self-sacrificing working man who plays by the rules will achieve his dream is nothing more than a bad fairy tale. Frank does everything society expects a working class man to do and rewards him with jack squat.

Given everything he endures, from abandoning his dreams of becoming a pilot so he could provide for a family that rarely shows him any gratitude, I’ll rephrase the question I asked earlier. What would you say about a man like Frank Murphy, who played by the rules and bought into the American Dream, only to see it screw him over at every turn? Can you really blame him for being so angry?

1 Comment

Filed under gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, men's issues, political correctness, psychology, sex in media, television

The Mixed (Yet Uplifting) Message Of “Malcolm In The Middle”

landscape-ustv-malcolm-in-the-middle-cast-shot

Not every TV show gets to have a series finale. In fact, it’s fairly rare for any show, be it a sitcom, a drama, or a Saturday morning cartoon, to get to that point. More shows tend to get canceled before a finale can ever make it to the drawing board.

When a show does get to that point, though, it’s still no guarantee that the finale will be satisfying. Ideally, the end of a long-running show should tie up loose ends, create a sense of closure, and reward the audience for sticking with the story since it began. That’s the best case scenario. More often than not, finales tend to be mixed.

Truly satisfying finales like that of “M*A*S*H” are a rarity. More often than not, a series finale is going to leave some fans elated and others upset. To this day, there are still people who argue about the finale of “Lost” and I imagine there will be just as many arguments about the finale to “How I Met Your Mother.”

It’s next to impossible to create a finale that satisfies everybody. The most anyone could hope for is a show that at least creates a complete story, even if it remains open-ended to some extent. That’s how the finale to “Breaking Bad” handled things and while not perfect, I think it worked in the context of the show.

There is another show, however, that didn’t try that hard to make the perfect finale. In fact, the show did something unique in that it embraced the idea that there’s no perfect ending, but there is a path forward. There’s no final triumph or ultimate reward for the characters. There’s only the understanding that life goes on, there’s no easy way to do things, and sometimes the things you don’t like will always guide you.

That show is “Malcolm In The Middle,” a quirky, but entertaining sitcom full of juvenile humor and questionable messages. For some, the show just took family dysfunction to an absurd extreme. Even so, it was pretty funny. Between lovable charisma of Frankie Muniz, the physical comedy of Bryan Cranston before he was Walter White, and the overly dramatic presence of Jane Kaczmarek, this show had a lot to offer.

Like “Married With Children” before it, this show went the opposite direction of the typical feel-good sitcom. Malcolm’s family aren’t the upstanding, upbeat models of society in the mold of “Father Knows Best.” They’re a collection of low-class, ill-mannered, under-privileged brutes who always find themselves in bad situations that inspire bad decisions.

They’re the kind of dysfunctional family that give other dysfunctional families a bad name. Part of their appeal was how they navigated that dysfunction. They rarely learned their lessons, they rarely underwent meaningful growth, and they often screw themselves over with their bad decisions. That’s what made it funny.

For seven seasons, the antics of Malcolm and his family followed a fairly successful formula. Malcolm, his brothers, and his parents find themselves in trouble or in over their heads. They struggle to rectify the situation, but often end up making things worse and incurring plenty of memorable comedy along the way.

In the series finale, however, the show takes that formula and injects something unique into the mix. After seven seasons of wild antics, spectacular failures, and memorable monologues, “Malcolm In The Middle” sent a message that went beyond the forces behind family dysfunction. I would even go so far as to say that message is more relevant now than it was when the episode aired in 2006.

The main premise of the episode revolves around Malcolm graduating valedictorian from high school. Being a certified genius, as revealed in the first episode, his life is the only one within his dysfunctional family that has the potential to be something. There are other assorted side-plots to the episode, one of which involves a giant bag of shit that Reese created, but this is the main catalyst for the ultimate conclusion of the show.

Shortly before graduation, Malcolm is given the kind of opportunity that most people can only dream of. Instead of college, he’s offered a lucrative job at a tech company that would’ve given him a six-figure salary, stock options, and a far less hectic life compared to the one his working class family afforded him.

Malcolm makes clear that he wants that job. He wants that life because, unlike his brothers, he has a chance to escape it. Like so many other times throughout the show, though, his control-freak mother steps in and stops it. She makes the decision for him. He’s going to college. On top of that, he’s going to have to work his way through, drudging along as a janitor instead of using his genius to make things easier.

Naturally, he’s not happy about this. It’s not the first time his mother has made choices that affected his entire life. In fact, that’s one of the most prevailing tropes of the show. No matter what Malcolm or his brothers do, they can never escape their mother’s neurotic control.

She doesn’t just want to control what he does after he graduates, either. She wants to put him and/or shove him down a path towards becoming President of the United States. Both she and Hal, played by Bryan Cranston, reveal that they’ve had this in mind for Malcolm since they found out he was a genius. It leaves him baffled, frustrated, and pretty upset.

Among other things.

However, this time his mother gives meaning to her decision that go beyond the usual “I’m your mother so do as I say” excuse. Instead, she does something that nobody on the show ever attempted to do to that point. She imparts upon Malcolm, and the audience by default, a series of harsh truths within the context of the bigger picture.

Those truths all hit hard as they come pouring out in a memorable exchange that helps encapsulate so much of the dysfunction Malcolm’s family endures. At the same time, it also makes a compelling case for why Malcolm should become President.

Lois: That doesn’t matter. What does matter is you’ll be the only person in that position who will ever give a crap about people like us. We’ve been getting the short end of the stick for thousands of years, and I, for one, am sick of it. Now, you are going to be president, mister, and that’s the end of it.

Malcolm: Did it ever occur to you that I could have taken this job, gotten really rich and then bought my way into being President?

Lois: Off course it did. We decided against it.

Malcolm: What?!

Lois: Because then you wouldn’t be a good President. You wouldn’t have suffered enough.

Malcolm: I’ve been suffering all my life!

Lois: I’m sorry. It’s not enough. You know what it’s like to be poor, and you know what it’s like to work hard. Now you’re going to learn what it’s like to sweep floors and bust your ass and accomplish twice as much as all the kids around you. And it won’t mean anything because they will still look down on you. And you will want so much for them to like you and they just won’t. And it’ll break your heart, and that’ll make your heart bigger and open your eyes and finally you will realize that there’s more to life than proving you’re the smartest person in the world. I’m sorry, Malcolm, but you don’t get the easy path. You don’t get to just have fun and be rich and live the life of luxury.

Beyond simply reinforcing how much Lois exerts control over her children, her words reflect the collective frustration of families mired in dysfunction. From the Bundy family in “Married With Children” to the real people in the world who have kids they can’t manage and jobs that don’t pay enough, she articulated a sentiment that is difficult for most non-working class people to grasp.

Malcolm and his family are essentially trapped in the dungeon of modern society. They’re low-class, ill-mannered people who never got the opportunities to climb the social ranks. Lois and Hal work demeaning, low-paying jobs that don’t provide nearly enough to support a large family, let alone one full of rowdy children that get in trouble every other week. How could they not be dysfunctional in that environment?

It’s an environment that keeps anyone who wasn’t born into a good situation from improving their lives. It’s an environment that breeds and reinforces the dysfunction that Malcolm and his brothers so hilariously embody. Any time somebody does get a chance to leave, they jump at the opportunity and never look back. Moreover, they don’t do anything to help those who never get that chance.

Lois knows this. She can already see that happening with Malcolm. If he takes that job, he’ll just get rich and comfortable, forgetting about where he came from and never giving another thought to those who weren’t as fortunate as him. That’s entirely understandable, as Malcolm’s reaction so nicely demonstrates.

Most people do take the easy path out of hardship, poverty, and dysfunction. It’s not just a temptation. It’s a reflex. Growing up poor and dysfunctional is akin to torture and, as is often the case with torture, people naturally do whatever it takes to make it stop. Lois, for all her neurotic tendencies, is pushing Malcolm to endure for the good of every other dysfunctional family like them.

What makes these final moments of the show so powerful is that Malcolm actually listens to his mother in this case. He doesn’t fight her, for once. In the final scenes of the show, he actually follows the path she lays out for him, going to Harvard and working as a janitor to pay his way through. He’ll continue to suffer the effects of his family’s dysfunction, but it’ll help him maintain perspective.

That perspective is something almost no modern President will have. They really can’t because most modern politicians are millionaires. They essentially do exactly what Malcolm suggested, getting rich first and then buying their way into power. The fact that many politicians seem so out of touch with ordinary people, especially the working class, gives further weight to Lois’ words.

Rather than leave his dysfunction behind, Malcolm will carry it with him. He’ll use it to bring a perspective that others either don’t know about or don’t want to confront. Unlike everyone else who tries to raise awareness of working class dysfunction, he’s smarter than them. He’s actually capable of overcoming the traditional barriers that keep people like him from achieving real power.

It’s an unexpected, but satisfying brand of hope. Most episodes of “Malcolm In The Middle” tend to end with a sense of misanthropy that reverts Malcolm’s family back to the status quo. They’re never allowed to get ahead or rise above their dysfunction. At the same time, though, they don’t sink into a defeatist malaise like the Bundy family.

That’s exactly what puts Malcolm in a position to do something more in the end. Everything that held him and his family back is now a catalyst for something greater. He has both the perspective and the aptitude to do great things, such as become a President who actually cares about helping dysfunctional family’s like his.

At a time when income inequality is on the rise and the working class is enduring greater hardship, the world needs leaders who have Malcolm’s perspective. Unfortunately, such leaders are exceedingly rare, especially as powerful institutions become more and more prone to the interests of the rich.

The “Malcolm In The Middle” finale dares people to imagine what we can do when capable people from dysfunctional backgrounds actually get a chance to do something greater. The show doesn’t offer too many details about what happens to Malcolm beyond Harvard, but it’s refreshing and even a little uplifting to think that a show full of so much exaggerated dysfunction could envision a brighter future.

That future may not improve for people like Reese, though, but that’s probably beyond Malcolm’s abilities. Some dysfunction is just too great, even for a genius President.

2 Comments

Filed under human nature, media issues, philosophy, psychology, television

Walter White Vs. Saul Goodman: A Tale Of Two Villains

better-call-saul-644x362

If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to villainy has many paths with similar landmarks. Well-developed villains can be every bit as compelling as their heroic counterparts, if not more so. Ever since Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show and an Oscar in “The Dark Knight,” great villains aren’t just a complement to the heroes. They’re a journey unto themselves.

At the moment, Walter White from “Breaking Bad” is the ultimate embodiment of this journey. His path to villainy made for some of the greatest moments in modern television and Bryan Cranston has the Emmy trophies to prove it. Since then, it seems as though everyone is just struggle to keep up.

However, there’s one journey that comes very close and is remarkably similar. Fittingly enough, it spins right out of the world of “Breaking Bad.” I’m talking, of course, about “Better Call Saul,” the prequel/spin-off that tells the story of how an aspiring lawyer named James McGill became the morally bankrupt legal guru, Saul Goodman.

I’ve been watching this show closely for a while now. I was originally planning to wait until the conclusion of Season 4 to write about it, but after re-watching the Season 3 finale, I feel like there’s too much to work with. After seeing that episode, I feel like I saw a turning point in the ongoing transformation of James McGill to Saul Goodman. I also saw some important parallels with Walter White that are worth discussing.

At its core, “Breaking Bad” is a story about how a law-biding man goes from an underpaid chemistry teacher to a blood-thirsty drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan nicely summed up Walt’s transformation as going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. That journey, and the story behind it, took an initially unassuming character and turned them into someone they never thought they could be.

The essence of “Better Call Saul” is very different. James McGill is not the same as Walter White. From the very first episode, we can see traces of the unscrupulous con man manifesting in a many ways. The show establishes in Season 1 that James McGill is not some clean-cut straight-arrow like Walt was. His soul was tainted before he ever applied to law school.

James “Slipping Jimmy” McGill is someone who always seems inclined to cut corners, break rules, and cheat to get ahead. That’s something his older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill, constantly points out over the course of the first three seasons. Every time Jimmy had a chance to do the right thing, he compromised. Just doing the right thing wasn’t enough for him.

Walter White’s decision-making process was similar. In the early seasons of “Breaking Bad,” he showed a reluctance to cross certain lines and go too far. He often found himself pushed or tempted, sometimes by forces beyond his control and sometimes by the consequences of actions. At the end of the day, though, he still didn’t get off that path.

That’s a common thread for many villains in their journey. They find themselves on that path and they see opportunities to leave it, but they choose not to. They don’t seek redemption like a hero would. They just keep making excuses, willfully entering a brutal cycle of corruption and compromise.

Whereas Walt succumbed to that cycle, though, James McGill steadily embraces it. Moreover, he isn’t drawn into that path by tragedy or bad luck. He gravitates towards it. He’s even excited by it. James is at his most animated and charismatic when he’s pulling a con, putting on a show, or crafting a lie. It’s not a necessity like it was for Walt. It’s a thrill.

If James is tempted by anything, it’s the lure of walking the honorable path like his older brother. In fact, Chuck might have been the only positive influence that kept Jimmy from becoming something worse than a sleazy con-man. He and a host of other influence, especially Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin, play the part of a reverse temptress, trying to keep him off that villainous path.

Early on, there’s a sense that James genuinely wants to be a decent, upstanding lawyer. There are situations where he does the right thing. Some of the causes he takes on, such as a case against an elder care facility that was stealing money from its residents, are objectively noble. In the end, though, doing the right thing isn’t enough for him. The end of Season 1 really cements that.

Walt goes through a similar process early on. Like the “refusal of the call” that heroes experience, Walt attempts to escape the villainous path. However, a combination of circumstances and choices put Walt back on the road towards becoming Heisenberg. By the end of Season 1, there’s a sense that there’s no going back.

Where Walt and James diverge, as villains, it’s how and why they make their choices. Walt becomes Heisenberg because he think he has to, first for his family and later for selfish reasons. James becomes Saul Goodman because he wants to. He tried to be the upstanding lawyer his brother and friends wanted. It just didn’t work for him. Being James McGill just wasn’t enough.

There’s plenty of conflict surrounding those choices. Part of why I love “Better Call Saul” is how it reveals the steady progression from James McGill to Saul Goodman. It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t even happen in a steady, linear narrative. James fluctuates on his journey to becoming Saul. He even hesitates a few times. He still doesn’t avoid it in the end.

That ending, as revealed through the finale of “Breaking Bad” and the flash-forward sequences of “Better Call Saul,” shows one other key distinction between Walt and Jimmy. While both men complete their villainous journey, they both end up in very different places. Walt is dead or at least close to it, as some fan theories predict. However, Saul Goodman’s fate might actually be worse.

In the first minutes of the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” we see what came of James McGill/Saul Goodman after the events of “Breaking Bad.” Gone are the days where he shows up in flashy commercials and hatches elaborate cons on unsuspecting people. Instead, he lives an unexciting, mundane life in Omaha, Nebraska managing a Cinnabon.

Some might argue this is Saul’s personal Hell, trapped in a such a sad and unassuming life. I would say it’s more like his purgatory. In this world, he can’t embrace that villainous persona that gave him so many thrills. Even if he wanted to be that villainous character again, he can’t because it means losing what little he has left.

Just as he frequently did in the early seasons of “Better Call Saul,” James McGill takes the easy way out. Walt tried that too in the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” but that didn’t last. He eventually chose to confront the byproduct of his villainous choices. James ran and didn’t look back. The easiest path, in the journey of a villain, is often a coward’s path.

Whether or not James McGill escapes his purgatory or continues wallowing in obscurity remains to be seen. The fact he ends up in this state after undergoing this transformation into Saul Goodman reveals another critical component to the villain’s journey. While the hero ultimately triumphs, the villain eventually loses. It doesn’t always end with them going to jail, but they often endure a less-than-desirable fate.

Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” are both great shows that set a new standard for depicting the evolution of a character into a villain. I won’t claim that “Better Call Saul” is superior to its predecessor, if only because the story isn’t finished. It does, however, accomplish something every bit as remarkable as the story of Walter White.

The process of becoming a villain is a steady, inconsistent journey full of many complications and tough choices. Walter White and James McGill began that journey under different circumstances and ended up in different places. Ultimately, they both crossed lines that sealed their respective fates. It’s tragic in some ways, but it makes for some damn good television.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under human nature, philosophy, psychology, Villains Journey

Five Things I Want From The “Daria” Reboot

96d03d53-c9a4-43ef-a0a2-f99b14256637

Last year, I wrote an article about how the classic 90s MTV show, “Daria,” is more relevant today than it was back when it debuted in 1997. That special brand of misanthropic monotone conveyed a harsh, uncompromising honesty of the world in a way that felt both genuine and endearing.

Well, it appears I’m not the only one who felt that way because according to The Hollywood Reporter, the newly-minted MTV Studios is looking to reboot the show as part of a push to reinvigorate the MTV brand that seemed to fade along with the appeal of boy bands. While I’m skeptical that MTV can ever become relevant again, I couldn’t be more thrilled at the prospect of Daria returning to TV.

I think I speak for many who watched that show back in the late 90s when I say that this world needs her. Specifically, it needs her critical insights into a world awash in fake news, alternative facts, and political correctness. There’s an entire generation emerging whose reality is shaped by their news feed on social media. It feels as though no one is even capable of seeking the truth anymore.

Daria doesn’t just tell the truth like she sees it. She says it in a way that is apolitical, unbiased, and relatable. She doesn’t criticize. She doesn’t have an agenda, either. She sees something she thinks is a farce and she points it out. At a time when every character needs to be an icon for something or someone, that’s nothing short of refreshing. For a character from the late 90s, that says a lot about our current state of affairs.

There’s a lot more I could say about “Daria,” both as a character and as a TV show. For now, I want to create a wish list, of sorts, for what I’d like to see in a “Daria” reboot. I know that’s a bit premature since MTV Studios is in the very early stages of making this happen, but I think the prospect of more “Daria” at this particular point in our history is exciting.

I know excitement is the last trait anyone would associate with Daria Morgendorffer, but I’m willing channel my inner Quinn to entertain the possibilities. What follows are five things I want from a new “Daria” show. I know any rebooted show is subject to reinvention, sometimes for the worse, but I believe if the new “Daria” delivers on these critical elements, it’ll be a success. It might even get Daria herself to crack a smile.


Wish #1: Build Daria’s Agenda Around Exposing Other Agendas

Let’s face it. Today, everyone seems to have an agenda and social media has given people a platform to pursue that agenda, even when they’re dangerous, damaging, and downright hurtful. In the late 90s, media outlets like MTV got a lot of flak for pushing bloated consumerism around bubblegum pop music and reality shows. Today, social media has created countless outlets for countless agendas of varying absurdity.

Daria Morgendorffer can set herself apart in this chaotic landscape by building her agenda around exposing other agendas. She could see right-wing talking points as just excuses to pay fewer taxes and be a dick to poor people. She could see left-wing talking points as utopian fantasies mixed with a pathological need to be outraged over something. With Daria, no agenda is safe.

In any show that would have her take part in the current climate, it needs to give her opportunities to see all this social masquerading for what it really is. As I’ve noted before, people have a frustrating tendency to believe they’re the hero of their own story. In Daria’s world, there are no heroes. There are no villains. There are just people.

That’s a harsh reality, but one Daria refuses to ignore. Her reminding people of that reality in any show would be both refreshing and cathartic, especially to anyone who is sick of people building their agendas around professional trolling.


Wish #2: Continue Daria’s (Unique) Growth From The Show

Throughout five memorable seasons and two made-for-TV movies, Daria’s character remained remarkably consistent. However, she did undergo her share of growth during that time. It was subtle, much more so than that of characters like Jane, Quinn, Helen, and Tom. However, that’s exactly what made it meaningful.

At the beginning of the show, Daria is already her anti-social, misanthropic self. She’s a teenager and a high school student, though. Teenagers go through changes. Even Daria isn’t immune to that. She developed her first crush, had her first serious boyfriend, and even improved her relationship with Quinn, a character who might have been the least likable person on the show.

The show ended with Daria graduating high school and going to college, culminating in one of the most memorable graduation speeches ever made. However, college is rarely the endpoint for anyone who survived high school, even someone as jaded as Daria. Any new show that expands her story should also follow that evolution.

Whether it takes place in college or shortly after, Daria always expressed a desire to get out of Lawndale and do something with her life that she wouldn’t hate. That’s a process a lot of people go through, but few could endure it with the same attitude or crass as Daria. That’s exactly why that story is worth telling.


Wish #3: Keep Her Apolitical And Unbiased

No matter how much she grew over the course of the show or what she encountered, Daria Morgendorffer may very well be the only character in the show, or in real life, who can call themselves truly unbiased. She doesn’t have a political affiliation. She doesn’t identify with one group or the other. She’s just Daria. Her opinions and leanings are her own.

That’s an important facet to preserve in any new “Daria” show. That may prove challenging, though. If you go by current stereotypes, Daria’s age and education levels put her in line with the kind of left-leaning archetypes that Fox News whines about every half-second. However, in terms of her overall worldview, Daria would be just as cynical about the MSNBC crowd.

The core of Daria’s politics is that all politics are stupid. Politics is just one big exercise in people gathering around others who think like they do so that they can rely on someone else to do the thinking for them. That is not Daria’s style. She believes in thinking for herself. Anything beyond that is a waste of time.

Moreover, her worldview is as simple as it is plain. The real world doesn’t care about your beliefs, your principles, or how hard you fight for them. The real world is harsh and whining about it doesn’t change anything. That would put her at odds with liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between. The idea of her getting into debates with some of the politically-minded trolls in the world would certainly be worth watching.


Wish #4: Give Her Supporting Cast A Chance To Support Her

Like any great character, animated or otherwise, a big part of what made “Daria” such a great show was its diverse cast of colorful characters. From her annoying younger sister to her uptight mother to her charismatic classmates, Daria was surrounded by a lot of memorable individuals who helped highlight just what a unique persona she was.

Daria’s closest relationships were with her friend, Jane Lane, and her family that could never understand her. To maximize the strength of her persona, those relationships should definitely be part of a new show. There can also be room for new relationships that put her in entirely new situations.

That may already be in the works. Within the announcement surrounding the possible reboot of the show, there’s a mention of giving Jodie Landon a significant role in the show. That has a lot of potential because Jodie was a great character who didn’t get a chance to develop until the last two seasons of the show. A new show could give both her and Daria new opportunities in a world full of new controversies.

Within the existing cast, there’s also potential for Daria to forge connections with characters other than Jane. There’s also potential to form new romantic entanglements. She does have the capacity for affection, despite what her demeanor may imply. In an age where romantic entanglements are fraught with complications, that could bring out the best in her and the worst in everyone else.


Wish #5: Put Her In The Middle Of Controversial Issues (And Let Her Work Her Magic)

The original “Daria” was a great show in that it didn’t take sides in a controversy or preach to the audience. In fact, those kinds of public service announcements would’ve been antithetical to Daria’s persona. She doesn’t think that it’s the job of other people, be they animated or otherwise, to tell you how to feel about an issue. That’s something you’re supposed to figure out for yourself.

At the same time, however, I felt as though “Daria” avoided too many major issues that could’ve helped make the show even more relevant. While it lightly touched on issues of teen sex and out-of-control consumerism, it didn’t get too deep into the kinds of topics that inspire hashtags and hate mail.

I think that worked well for “Daria” in the late 90s. I don’t think it’ll work as well in today’s hyper-political climate where a new outrage is just a click away. A new “Daria” show won’t succeed if it avoids hot-button issues like the anti-harassment movement, gender inequality, and an emerging generation that may end up being the most nihilistic of all time.

I’m not saying the show has to be built around those kinds of serious topics every other episode. Shows like “South Park” already do that. The biggest appeal to this show would be Daria offering her misanthropic take on those issues to help expose them for what they are.

I believe that there’s definitely a market for that kind of nuance in our current political climate. I also think there’s a growing need for a voice who can sift through the endless shit storms that get kicked up every day for one reason or another. Whether it’s something the President tweets or some dumb comment a celebrity makes, we all need a harsh, but sincere voice to speak the honest truth.


Daria can be that voice. I would still argue we need that voice now more than we did in the late 90s and early 2000s. I hope that this show, assuming it gets made, provides that voice. “Daria” was ahead of its time, as a how and as a character. It’s time we finally catch up with one another.

Daria” was a great show in that it didn’t take sides in a controversy or preach to the audience. In fact, those kinds of public service announcements would’ve been antithetical to Daria’s persona. She doesn’t think that it’s the job of other people, be they animated or otherwise, to tell you how to feel about an issue. That’s something you’re supposed to figure out for yourself.

At the same time, however, I felt as though

1 Comment

Filed under Current Events, gender issues, media issues, political correctness

Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Hank Hill

nol3t

When it comes to paragons of masculinity, the standards tend to skew towards characters who crank the testosterone levels up to the maximum and even go a little bit beyond. From mythical figures like Hercules to modern icons like James Bond, it often seems as though that a truly masculine man has to exceed some lofty standards.

While there’s certainly a place for that kind of masculinity, I don’t think that has to be the only criteria. I believe there’s room for a more subtle, yet equally strong manifestation of manliness. They don’t have to be the kind of men who sweat raw testosterone and shave with shards of broken glass. They can be their own man and still embody respectable masculinity.

I chose Joel from “The Last Of Us” for my first profile in noble masculinity primarily because his example was not very subtle. He embodied the masculine values of strength, survival, fatherhood, and compassion in ways that are easy to highlight within a larger narrative. It didn’t take much work to make my case for Joel’s noble traits.

For my next profile, though, I’ve chosen a character who presents a tougher challenge. He comes from a narrative that’s very different from Joel’s. Instead of a post-apocalyptic world where everything comes back to survival, his is a more contemporary story from the far less dire setting of suburban Texas.

His name is Hank Hill. He sells propane and propane accessories. He’s a proud American, a hard worker, a die-hard football fan, and the star of “King of the Hill.” In the pantheon of modern-era animation, it’s a show that doesn’t usually rank near the top for most people, but the fact it lasted 13 years proves it did something right and Hank his is one of those things.

I consider him another example of noble masculinity. He’s one that differs considerably from Joel in “The Last Of Us,” but I consider him an example none-the-less. Over the course of 258 episodes and 13 seasons, Hank establishes himself as one of those rare characters who manages to be compelling and respectable without being too flawed.

He’s not a bumbling dad, nor is he self-absorbed narcissist always looking to get ahead. Hank Hill, at is core, is blue collar family man who loves his job, loves his wife, and tries to make the most of his situation. He’s not a whiner. When he sees a problem, he tries to fix it. When he makes a mistake, he owns up to it, even if he stumbles along the way.

He tries to do all of this while surrounded by characters who have a wide range of issues, flaws, and eccentricities. One of his neighbors is a self-loathing loser obsessed with his wife. Another is a chain-smoking paranoid idiot who doesn’t know his wife cheats on him. The other is Boomhaur. Actually, Boomhaur is awesome.

Beyond his idiot friends, Hank also deals with a know-it-all wife with an inflated ego, a lazy son who goes out of his way to under-achieve, a bimbo niece who attracts all the wrong people, and an eccentric, misogynistic father who hates his guts. The fact that Hank manages to maintain such a calm, collected demeanor most of the time is a testament to his strength.

That strength, however, isn’t exactly obvious if you just look at his persona on paper. In fact, if you just skim the basics, Hank doesn’t come off as a very interesting character, let alone one who fits the criteria for noble masculinity. He’s conservative, he’s frugal, he doesn’t exude charisma, and he’s a staunch defender of law, order, and the status quo.

Hank isn’t the kind of man who willingly goes on adventures, acts on an impulse, or seeks to radically change the world around him. He actually likes his world, for the most part, and actively defends it from those who try to upset it. This has led to more than a few conflicts throughout the show, but Hank’s ability to resolve those conflicts reveals that there’s much more to his character.

It’s in those efforts where Hank’s nobility, as both a man and a character, really shows. While he is a staunch traditionalist who goes to church, votes Republican, and is extremely uncomfortable with sex, he’s also remarkably tolerant of those who don’t share his views.

Throughout the show, he encounters people who are overtly promiscuous, exceedingly liberal, and don’t care much for football. At no point, though, does he try to change those people or convince them that they’re flawed. Sure, he’ll threaten to kick an ass every now and then, but he usually reserves that recourse for those who most deserve it.

When he’s not kicking asses that deserve to be kicked, Hank is also demonstrates an ability to reserve judgment and not make anything too personal. Throughout the show, he’s encountered crazy right-wing religious types, flamboyant homosexuals, and unapologetic womanizers. By nearly every measure, he deals with them in a way that’s respectable and fair for the most part.

For the most part, indeed.

Hank doesn’t condone or condemn their behavior. He’s more concerned with the consequences they have on others. In his view as a freedom-loving American, what people choose to do is their business, provided they understand and accept responsibility for the consequences.

Throughout the course of the show, he’ll point out or remind others of those consequences. He’ll even help some confront it. However, he doesn’t make it personal. He doesn’t whine about it. He doesn’t try to get everyone to embrace his way of doing things. Hank basically lets other people be free and live their lives.

It’s not the same as slaying giant monsters or rescuing princesses from towers, but it’s noble in its own right. In the context of masculinity, Hank Hill’s ability to remain strong, stern, and confident in the face of so much chaos from so many characters, each with plenty of quirks and eccentricities, is a testament to the kind of man he is.

He’s a man who takes pride in his work, leads by example, and tries to be the voice of reason in a world full of unreasonable people. He’s willing to be brave and bold when he has to be. He’s also willing to take responsibility when others won’t or refuse to. As a man, he’s someone who earns the respect of others and does plenty to maintain it.

That’s not to say that Hank is without his flaws. Sometimes, he is traditional to the point of being petty. In one episode, the entire plot was driven by his dismay at another family sitting in his non-assigned seat at church. He can also be controlling, especially with how he raises his son, Bobby.

On more than one occasion, he’s been an obstacle for Bobby’s endeavors. His famous refrain, “That boy ain’t right,” is often said in the context of him wanting to guide Bobby down a certain path. Most of the time, though, he does so in a way that’s appropriate for a caring father. Other times, though, he gives the impression that he wants Bobby to be just like him.

Even with these flaws, Hank Hill still commands and earns respect. As a man, a father, and an American, he checks most of the boxes in terms of noble masculinity. He’s strong, responsible, hard-working, and accepting of other peoples’ strengths and flaws. He’s a man worthy of admiration and the fact he knows propane is a nice bonus.

1 Comment

Filed under gender issues, media issues, noble masculinity, political correctness