This post suffers from a disease characteristic of most lifestyle/entertainment news: two’s a coincidence, three’s a trend. Blame it on my past as a reporter. It’s an illness not easily cured.
I don’t know precisely what caused it, but white supremacy is back on television! Of course, by “back” I mean white supremacists have returned as villains in several cable dramas, most recently on FX’s new drama Justified, another FX series Sons of Anarchy and in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming – and extraordinarily expensive – Boardwalk Empire, premiering this fall.
Color me naïve — it’s a color I’ve worn before — but I always thought serious consideration of white supremacy was a no-go for television: it would alienate liberals and minorities and wouldn’t win anyone else. But the search for more provocative programming to cut through the TV clutter, along with the general tendency among certain cable networks – the premium channels, along with FX, TNT, AMC, etc. – toward “cutting edge” narratives, has allowed some room for the KKK and their ilk.
Heather Havrilesky at Salon contextualizes it well: “Since these shows revolve around likable but deeply flawed, not-very-good guys, the actual bad guys have to be very, very bad, indeed, straining during most of their time on-screen to embody pure evil.”
It’s not for me to say what can or cannot be filmed or represented. If it exists in society – even if it doesn’t – there’s little reason to ban it in our media. But you do wonder what makes these “bad guys” so appealing to viewers.
Justified’s Supremacists Are Bumpkins!
Justified, the latest in a decade-long string of “renegade anti-hero” dramas on cable which began with The Sopranos, gives us white nationalists who are mostly idiots. The story in the well-rated pilot is simple: Raylan Givens is a US Marshall relocated by the federal government to his home state of Kentucky after shooting, under dubious circumstances, a gangster in Miami. Upon returning home he meets some old enemies, mostly a band of neo-Nazis. Their leader, Boyd Crowder, is the most sophisticated of the band of rebels, smart enough to nearly catch our hero in an impromptu duel (Justified is a neo-western).
We doubt whether Boyd Crowder is a true believer, despite the swastikas adorning his lair and his body. Our hero Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) has us question his motives: maybe he’s just a guy who likes to shoot people and blow things up! Has our hate-mongering leader assembled a ragtag group of unemployed losers just so he has an excuse to create mayhem in eastern Kentucky? We don’t know yet.
Certainly Boyd doesn’t stir us as he recites a biased reading of the Bible (you’ve heard it before: the Edomites are the descendants of Cain and they’re evil). He delivers the ideology with a subdued assurance, more like he’s reciting talking points than preaching the gospel. True believers, though, often speak in talking points. Raylan quickly points out the falsehoods in Boyd’s “reading” of the Bible and dismisses his neo-Nazism as a boyish love for trouble. But will this be the end of it?
There’s something a bit too sexy about Boyd. He’s like Heath Ledger’s Joker, undeniably evil, unpredictable, morally bankrupt, and yet alluring in his passion and ideological rigidity. As bad as he’s supposed to be, he is a renegade like our hero, which is a very dangerous, though dramatic, narrative to follow.
Sons of Anarchy‘s Supremacists Are Powerful!
Sons of Anarchy, FX’s other critically acclaimed and well-rated drama, follows the local politics and personal dramas of a gang of motorcyclists in northern California, who traffic in weapons and porn (no wonder the show is popular), but also stand for principles: justice, fairness, community, etc.
Season two focused on the powerful League Of American Nationalists, headed by a shadowy businessman named Ethan Zobelle. Unlike Justified’s country bumpkins, Sons of Anarchy envisioned a scarier white nationalism, one connected at all levels of government, rich and devious. Zobelle is looking to play an interesting game of racial warfare in California. He pits the various ethnic gangs against each other and looks to break down the mostly white, but nonetheless integrated, Sons of Anarchy through various schemes.
Unambiguously Zobelle is a bad guy, and his goons are portrayed as angry and misguided. But not completely. Wanting narrative complexity, Sons creator Kurt Sutter gives both Zobelle and his top man AJ Weston (played by uber-gay-friendly Henry Rollins) children to care for. Most interestingly, Zobelle is always a highly intelligent man. He speaks volubly about the need for America to stay true to itself and not let outside interests take hold. This is where the show enters murky waters, which are dramatically interesting and well-written, but nonetheless disconcerting.
I wonder how many of Sons of Anarchy’s viewers – I presume a large audience of white, older straight men, given the show’s focus – are subtly seduced by Zobelle’s commitment to “American” purity, his cunning and business saavy, his churchgoing lifestyle, fancy cigar shop, and, yes, even his gorgeous daughter. He has a life many American men would want. That he’s peddling drugs and guns is irrelevant – we all know from The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and numerous other shows that criminals often make the most relatable and interesting characters. Zobelle is so charming he’s even hard for me to hate.
Sons of Anarchy gave white supremacy a sheen of respectability and upward mobility. It’s a fascinating dramatic choice and made for solid, unsettling storytelling, but I wonder if every fan has the critical distance to see beneath the surface.
Representation: I’m Not the Police!
Will the search for ratings and headline-grabbing series motifs eventually lead to a show about a neo-Nazi group? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. As mentioned, cable is already having success with shows about immoral people and groups. Television is a tough market, and novelty is hard to come by.
As I said earlier, I have little interest in policing what should or should not be shown on television. I believe we create the media as much as, or more than, the media creates us. No program is going to change a significant number of people into white supremacists. Haters will hate with or without representation — research from online gaming to YouTube has shown this.
I think what I’m so fascinated by is a very public and sustained engagement with America’s dirty secret, something we ignore, hoping it will go away, something we’d rather not acknowledge for fear it be seen as “legitimate” and catch on again (or more). It doesn’t need to be said that during a time when the first black president’s lowest approval ratings are among white voters (which, for complex reasons to be sure, have been as low as 39%), and when he’s the most polarized first-year president in polling history, it does make minority TV viewers slightly more sensitive to these kinds of representations. (I’m not even going into the Tea Partiers; it’s been over-discussed).
So far, I do think FX has displayed the kind of artistry and sensitivity necessary to deflect criticism. I can only expect the same from HBO. But who knows how people read television? Decades of research, from Fiske, Hartley and Jenkins and beyond, cannot fully predict what import this particular moment holds. I’m not going to speculate on “effects.” I’m just going to sit back and take in how interesting it all is.
PS – Have I missed any recent series with recurring and extended narratives on white supremacy? There’s only so much TV I can watch! Crowdsource!