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Fear Factor

Inside the paranoia-entertainment complex

Nearly eighty years after the event, which means almost everyone involved is as dead as a veteran of Valley Forge, people who’ve researched the question can’t say for sure just how widespread a panic was provoked by Orson Welles’s faux-newscast radio version of War of The Worlds on October 30, 1938. For that matter, it’s not clear how big an audience even bothered to tune in to Welles’s Mercury Theater On Air on CBS. If the twenty-three-year-old Welles was famous at all, he was only famous in New York City, more or less the way Lin-Manuel Miranda was before Hamilton’s opening night.

The broadcast made Welles enough of a nationwide celebrity that RKO got the bright idea of offering him a movie contract, with results we all know. Nonetheless, the hubbub created by his contrived Martian invasion of first New Jersey, and then civilization writ large, is one of pop culture’s foundational legends in a way that Citizen Kane is not. Inducing hysteria by purposely blurring the line between fiction and reality had been a tactic confined on the airwaves to ideologues and propagandists: Rev. Charles Coughlin, say, or Coughlin’s Nazi ideological soulmate Joseph Goebbels. By and large, commercial entertainment’s share of the pie involved soothing people with music and jokes, not agitating the bejesus out of them.

So let’s ponder how callowly but presciently War of The Worlds predicted our media landscape in 2017. Nowadays, except maybe at Christmas, lulling the big audience into confident placidity doesn’t loom large on the mass-entertainment itinerary, any more than it does at Fox News or MSNBC. Even our government, which used to be unexcelled when it came to dispensing well-crafted bromides, got out of the reassurance business some time ago. From Burbank, California, to the Pentagon, keeping Americans in a semi-permanent state of jumpy excitement about the dystopian menaces lurking around us, from marauding terrorists to the zombie hordes who function as their home-grown simulacra, is how “the military-industrial-entertainment complex,” as Agent Mulder of The X-Files once puckishly labeled it, handles twenty-first-century crowd control.

Just like the War of The Worlds broadcast, The X-Files—which premiered in relatively tranquil 1993, well before giving audiences the heebie-jeebies became standard procedure on television—was unwittingly predictive. Piling conspiracies atop conspiracies, inventing ostensibly well-gardened mazes that gradually fuzzed into aspects of an alarmingly unprunable labyrinth, creator Chris Carter’s ode to paranormalization worked the way The Twilight Zone would have if Rod Serling had hooked up every episode of his alternate universe into a gigantic, sprawling but cohesive narrative arc. At least on the surface, the premise’s sardonic paranoia didn’t match up with the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 vacation from history we know as Bill Clinton’s presidency. And that only heightens the truth-is-out-there mystique of the show: why did its claustral, galaxy-spanning plot catch on at a time when Americans had so little to fear?

Besides Serling’s annual Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathon and The X-Files, the key forerunner was the original 1990-91 iteration of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Among other things, Lynch’s creepy floating rendition of a Pacific Northwest menace—which has just enjoyed a suitably geeky revival on Showtime—served as the prototype for every TV series that invites its viewers to come unglued as they scour all available footage in an obsessive Barthes-meets-Conan Doyle quest for hidden meanings.

Today’s TV landscape is eerily devoid of anything resembling optimism.

In the cosmos of Twin Peaks and its many subsequent imitators, every decorative detail and vagrant allusion serves as a potential clue to a larger meaning withheld by the show’s creators. But unlike Lynch, who’d be perfectly happy if the 1950s had never ended and whose work is more or less allergic to contemporary concerns, Carter—and, perhaps more pointedly, his key X-Files hire, future Breaking Bad maven Vince Gilligan—knew how to make enigmatic ominousness seem not only suggestive but ineffably topical.

Then 9/11 happened—and all of a sudden, the topical was newly effable. Effed-up, too. Besides being, in a sense, the event that Fox News was born for—all that rabble-rousing truculence finally had an objective correlative its own size to snarl at—the attack made not only The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man but good old Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Hellmouth belatedly seem less far-fetched. For all their obvious differences, both these 1990s shows shared a then-novel idiom: fantastic, morbid happenings that all but begged viewers to intuit them as hyperbolized reality. This new breed of Chicken Little popcult simultaneously magnified and satirized dread as the baseline of American experience.

From 1996’s Independence Day, which basically invented George W. Bush’s presidency, to 1998’s Armageddon, Hollywood had done its own bit to anticipate the new era. Famously, “it’s like a movie” was a common reaction to the WTC’s collapse among not only media commentators but people on the scene. But in 9/11’s wake, it’s been television—once our foremost purveyor of pabulum—that’s done the most to redefine our lives as a continuous state of siege.

Pavlov’s Hellhound

With ABC’s Lost leading the way, mythology-minded, jitters-inducing TV shows that trafficked in pervasive malignancy, without ever explaining their own reasons for being, became the signature hits of the later aughts. Call this the pop-culture equivalent of our ever-exfoliating permanent wars, whose ultimate purposes are similarly opaque now that their origins have grown obscure. Early on, Lost’s premise—Gilligan’s Island meets Carnival of Souls—resonated primarily as an unmistakable, vivid metaphor for post-9/11 dislocation, insecurity, and fear, and that was the main reason it was so compelling. Then the series turned into a fancy puzzle without any external referents, a transformation fans embraced without wondering whether the switch to creative solipsism was a relief.

One attraction of shows in this vein is that viewers can stay convinced that something intensely meaningful is going on well after they’ve peaked in narrative terms. We obsessively track the clues that may disclose a higher purpose long after the aura of disturbance has ceased doing anything beyond keeping us hooked—that is, permanently antsy. There’s always been something paradoxically trusting in fanboys’ perpetual, Lucy-and-the-football belief that the solution that makes sense of everything will be divulged in their favorite series’ finale. Why violate the premise by giving it a rationale? That’s been true even of shows lacking an overt supernatural element—The Sopranos and Mad Men, most famously. Frustration, usually inflected with unspecified malaise, is the new closure.

One effect of all this mystery-mongering is to remake conspiracy theory into a key ingredient in our pleasure. It doesn’t even matter much if a lavishly produced, terrifically well-acted hunk of dungeons-and-dragons neo-shlock like Game of Thrones doesn’t appear to be rife with unfathomable subtext to a non-buff’s eye, because HBO was put on this earth to prove Pavlov was right. The projection of mystique, plus an appearance of momentousness, has been enough to spawn neo-Kremlinologists by the truckload, sifting the clues to Jon Snow’s parentage as their forebears tried to anticipate Khruschev’s next move against West Berlin. Back in the happier days when All My Children adepts were merrily dissecting Erica Kane’s latest ploy with similar passion, they had a keener awareness of their hobby’s frivolity. By contrast, if you want to leave the average Game of Thrones fan speechless—but not for long—try opining that the show’s Sturm und Drang und T und A und Dinklage is fun but inconsequential.

Whether it’s lighthearted and puckish or mirthlessly obsessive, the way any audience relates to its preferred forms of entertainment is always an index of that audience’s emotional priorities. But there may be no precedent for the way current tastes in pop-culture fetishism simultaneously burlesque and enshrine real-world paranoia, dystopian gloom, cults of brute force, and fierce quasi-ideological allegiances. Any critic who’s ever risked panning, say, a Christopher Nolan movie can tell you how uncannily the ensuing fanboy invective mimics Trump fans’ or Hillaryites’ or Sandersistas’ incredulous rage at any slight to their idols, not only in its vitriolic language but also in its assumption that no issue could be more important.

Entertainment consumers who opt for old-school casual enjoyment of, say, The Big Bang Theory over constant and frenetic agita may be a) more sensible and b) the majority, but they aren’t the ones driving the conversation. The shows they casually enjoy don’t exactly dominate it, either. Ever since David Chase invented Tony Soprano and convinced a generation of would-be TV connoisseurs that darker is always better, the prime-time fare with the most cachet has grown steadily grimmer, more pseudo-metaphysical, more lugubriously self-serious—to most Breaking Bad devotees, a term like “entertainment consumers” would sound like a calumny—and definitely less calming.

Today’s TV landscape is also eerily devoid of anything resembling optimism. This is a telling and significant omission, since feel-good programming used to be the medium’s sometimes namby-pamby, sometimes energetic stock in trade. If our reigning doomsday genres qualify as escapist at all, it’s a very peculiar version of escapism—consoling people by creating imaginary worlds so freakish, violent, Machiavellian, and sinister that the real world’s terrors seem tame by comparison. It’s anyone guess whether this stuff is sublimating our fear of apocalypse or pacifying us by demonstrating that even the apocalypse will just be one more clever showbiz career move by Planet Earth—the ultimate superstar.

All the World a Trash Fire

To understand how drastically TV’s role in our culture has changed, picture The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Mary Richards being paraded nude like Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister through Minneapolis’s golden-mean streets as a jeering crowd shouts, “Shame! Shame!” The image could instantly turn the average boomer’s brain into a nuked potato chip. Yet Mary and Mary risked popular opprobrium in 1972 when a mild birth-control joke indicated that this single, never-married American sweetheart wasn’t a virgin. That was about as provocative as any Nixon-era sitcom lacking Norman Lear’s name in the credits ever got.

In the 1950s, which was when TV ousted radio as America’s primary domestic venue for entertainment and information alike, the new medium’s unofficial, hence pervasive, mission statement of reflecting an anodyne popular consensus drove bohemians and intellectuals crazy. I Love Lucy premiered under a year before the GOP’s first-ever televised convention nominated Dwight D. Eisenhower for president, and synergy does move in mysterious ways. Despite unruly exceptions ranging from Ernie Kovacs to Sid Caesar to Gore Vidal’s teleplay for his original version of Visit to a Small Planet, not to mention the surlier Ubu Roi episodes of The Honeymooners, television was perceived from the start as The Great Pacifier.

In beleaguered hindsight, dinosaur TV’s broad project of pacification actually had its unrecognized virtues. Sure, it’s ridiculous that a sitcom set in a Marine Corps barracks—Gomer Pyle: USMC—could air from 1964 to 1969 on CBS without ever once mentioning Vietnam, where almost fifteen thousand of Gomer’s real-world counterparts ended up in body bags between 1964 and 1972. But the guarantee that the show wouldn’t mention Vietnam was no doubt a major reason people tuned in.

It’s hard to imagine what the 1960s would have been like if TV viewers, flooded with nightly news reports of atrocities, emergencies, and horrors, had simultaneously been getting their entertainment jollies out of fantasy versions of the same atrocities, emergencies, and horrors. But that’s more or less the situation today. If contemporary TV has a unifying theme, it boils down to this: no refuge.

That’s most obviously true of TV news itself, which has come a long way from the palmy days when no menu of disasters was so deleterious to our worldview that Walter Cronkite couldn’t sanitize and rationalize it in twenty-two avuncular minutes. For one thing, it’s no longer compartmentalized, the way it was when watching the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite or The Huntley-Brinkley Report amounted to eating your vegetables before moving on to the candyland of prime time. Thanks to 24/7 cable news channels, it’s a constant barrage of alarums and excursions, and once again, there’s no refuge this side of 24/7 hermithood. Try dodging the din for even an afternoon, and your Facebook and Twitter friends will post links to whatever hair-raising crap has just happened here, there, or everywhere. Helpfully annotated, too.

Needless to say, cable news—unlike long-retired Uncle Walter—isn’t into providing reassurance. It hasn’t been since Fox News joined the fray just over twenty years ago and proved that equanimity was bad business. Peddling apprehensiveness, truculence, alarmism, and whatever else will keep our fight-or-flight epinephrine levels jacked up sky-high is the norm, regardless of whether the latest news cycle’s events warrant any such response.

In a roundabout way, not much demonstrates what a nation of hysteria addicts we’ve become better than Rachel Maddow’s emergence as a relatively sensible and good-humored cable-news poobah. This, admittedly, is not that high a bar to clear when the competition is an escapee from the USDA’s meat inspectors like Sean Hannity and her own network’s hissy Lawrence (“I haff vays of making myself talk”) O’Donnell. Back when Cronkite was alive, Maddow would have looked like such a raving, twitchy, inexplicably narcissistic conspiracy theorist that they’d have hauled her off the air in a butterfly net.

Television or Barbarism

“That was some weird shit,” George W. Bush muttered, or is supposed to have muttered, after Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address. American “carnage” didn’t correspond to any sociological reality Dubya (or anyone else) was aware of. Nonetheless, in the spirit of “alternative facts,” here’s a game for you: name the TV shows of the past fifteen years that could have been retitled American Carnage without anyone’s batting an eye. Sons of Anarchy 24? House of Cards? Breaking Bad? True Blood? The now defunct The O’Reilly Factor? The list could go on.

Exhibit A, inevitably, is AMC’s The Walking Dead, on which sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is now in his eighth season of protecting his motley flock from hordes of ravening ghouls—along with, increasingly, rival camps of non-undead fellow citizens.

There’s always been something paradoxically trusting in fanboys’ perpetual, Lucy-and-the-football belief that the solution that makes sense of everything will be divulged in their favorite series’ finale.

What makes zombies such an apt analogy for how Americans cope with their real-world foreign and domestic nemeses is that they’re literally dehumanized: formerly human, but no more. That’s why they can be blown away with no compunction whatsoever, even when they spookily resemble our onetime relatives or neighbors.

Well before Trump came along to validate the conceit, The Walking Dead had added a mordant dimension of political parody to its original survival-of-the-fraughtest premise by introducing David Morrissey as “The Governor,” essentially a psychopath in messiah’s clothing. By now, the series dwells more on rival humanoid factions battling each other than it does on dispatching dull zombies, and the implicit joke is that they’re vying for supremacy in a wasteland that will never again resemble the U.S.A. they once knew. You couldn’t ask for a better preview of next year’s midterm elections.

That element is what links up The Walking Deadto the past decade’s slew of overtly political, Washington, D.C.-set TV dramas, from House of Cards and Scandal to Homeland. (It should go without saying that the most realistic of them all is Veep.) All of them treat terrorism, usually of the ever-popular Islamic-fundamentalist variety, as the oxygen we breathe. But with the lone exception of Madam Secretary, which harbors a distinctly old-fashioned faith in truth, justice, and the American way, these shows also treat democracy as, essentially, a sham. The national security state is where the action is, and the action is almost invariably ominous, cynical, and malignant.

Shonda Rhimes’s outrageous, only subliminally tongue-in-cheek Scandal goes the farthest in this vein. It transforms Washington’s ruling class into a pack of murderers so glibly violent that the series plays like the fashion show version of The Duchess of Malfi—combined, say, with Danielle Steel’s rewrite of Advise and Consent. For a prime-time broadcast soap whose audience is overwhelmingly female, it’s also astoundingly graphic in its gore: torture sessions, someone’s head getting beaten in with a chair, blown-up bomb victims.

All these shows predated the Trump era, but their message is identical: things are so hopelessly fucked up that it no longer matters whether our leaders are good or evil. All that matters is that they keep America safe—even though why we’re still worth preserving and protecting isn’t altogether clear.

No refuge? Well, I’m obviously exaggerating. For people in need of escape, there’s always reality TV. For instance, Big Brother, which traps more than a dozen utter nitwits inside a house under constant video surveillance. (They really are nitwits, too; their charisma-free cretinism and self-delusion may enhance your respect for the relative shrewdness and charm it takes to survive on Survivor. They’re utterly bereft for the duration of anything resembling culture—no books, no magazines, not even TV itself—and know nothing except what their jailer, beaming Julie Chen, chooses to tell them. Intramural paranoia and hostility are the only ideations of any use to them.

Naturally, they’re competing to see who can stay trapped in the house the longest. Trump’s base can almost certainly identify, but the rest of us aren’t in much of a position to feel superior. Presumably, America’s current fixation on terroristic dystopias as our simultaneously unnatural and self-explanatory condition will wane eventually, along with the cultural vogue for exploiting it. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the Byzantine national-security and surveillance apparatus that’s sure to go on justifying its existence by invoking 9/11 long after 9/11’s victims would have peacefully died of old age. But when that happy day comes, we may find ourselves relearning the truth of C. P. Cavafy’s most famous lines: “Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.”