Monday, December 19, 2016

From the Archives: Cultural critic Paul Cantor assesses the politics of the new TV season

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on September 30, 2010. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Cultural critic Paul Cantor assesses the politics of the new TV season

While best known in academic circles as a scholar of Shakespeare and of 19th-century English Romanticism, University of Virginia English Professor Paul Cantor is also a well-regarded critic of popular culture whose 2001 book, Gilligan Unbound, took a close look at TV staples from the 1960s through the 1990s, including Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek, The Simpsons, and The X-Files.

Cantor’s most recent book, co-edited with Stephen Cox, is Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, which applies concepts of Austrian economics to the analysis of literary works.

At an event hosted by Students for Individual Liberty on the UVA grounds on September 29, Professor Cantor was in the audience and, afterward, spoke to the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner about the new television season.

'CSI' and Justin Bieber

His first thought was about the season opening episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (the original franchise, set in Las Vegas).

Paul Cantor
“I read a description of” the episode in TV Guide, he said, and “was a little suspicious of it.”

After viewing the first episode, Cantor suggested that it may have been “first salvo in Hollywood’s attack on the Tea Party,” because, as he described the show, “it more or less treated Tea Party types as if they were some sort of 1960s-style militia, as if they were terrorists.”

He explained that, “on the one hand, it [showed] a gathering of dissident political figures [who] clearly were attacking -- though not by name -- the Obama administration. On the other hand, they were then connected with bombings and terrorist acts,” including exploding a policeman’s coffin at his funeral.

“I’m afraid,” Cantor said ruefully, that “this is the Hollywood take on the Tea Party. This is the beginning of a lot that we’ll be seeing on television.”

Cantor is not alone in his assessment: political commentator Alex Knepper made a similar point on Big Hollywood on Wednesday.

The fact that Canadian singer Justin Bieber made his debut as a dramatic actor in the season opener of CSI was not coincidental, Cantor said.

“They were certainly exploiting” the teen idol’s celebrity, he explained. “Clearly they were trying to get him to get more interest in this episode.”

The producers “probably got a lot of people to watch the show who might not have watched it” otherwise. Bieber “actually gave a surprisingly good performance. He was supposed to convey an aura of innocence and yet then turn out to be involved,” in the domestic terrorism. Moreover, the ending of first show is “setting him up as a returning character.”

'The Event'

Cantor said the new NBC mystery-thriller series, The Event, is “clearly a recycling of The X-Files. I don’t know where it’s headed but it does seem to be the first attempt to portray Obama on television.”

In terms of plot, The Event is “an allegory of the issue of shutting down Guantanamo, though in this case it’s a holding area for extraterrestrials in Alaska. (Don’t ask me to explain that.)”

Veteran TV actor Blair Underwood plays a Cuban-American president, who is also black, and, Cantor said, “he’s being portrayed as a sympathetic character.”

In the second episode, the Underwood character is shown “in charge of things,” Cantor explained, “but there was this amazing line where he was trying to get information out of one of the aliens and he said, ‘I hope I’m not being too narcissistic, I hope I’m not being too obsessed with my place in history.’”

For Cantor, that line “was very interesting because it’s such an accurate characterization of Obama.”

'X-Files,' 'Weeds,' 'Breaking Bad'

Today’s cultural climate, Cantor agreed, is “absolutely” open to conspiracy-type shows along the lines of the 1990s Fox cult hit, The X-Files.

Having written about The X-Files in his book, Gilligan Unbound, Cantor said he gets “annoyed when people treat The X-Files as dead and buried and said it was, ‘a show for the ‘90s.’”

Virtually “half the shows on television now are conspiracy shows,” Cantor said, naming Rubicon, Sons of Anarchy, Weeds, and Breaking Bad as examples.

Shows like Weeds and Breaking Bad, he added, are rather sympathetic to (in this case) drug dealers” and they also “portray DEA officials in a very negative light.”

That, he said, is “an interesting sign of what’s going on in popular culture.”

Cantor’s personal “must-see TV” is Breaking Bad on AMC. He notes that it is produced by X-Files alumnus Vince Gilligan and judges it to be “the most powerful show dramatically.”

As an aside, Cantor adds, Breaking Bad “has a strong libertarian element in it, so I can recommend it on political as well as on aesthetic grounds.”

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