The Empty Middle

I wrote about the show "Succession" again

A couple weeks ago I started binge-watching Succession, more often than not as background viewing because it bores me if I engage too much. It’s a weird show. It’s well-executed on a micro level, and then there’s this middle layer where it follows very powerful characters through essentially meaningless plots where they will never face real consequences or confront the actual impact of their actions, but then again on a macro level it’s always winking at the inanity. I’m pretty sure I “get it” – at least, this Vulture writer who seemed to like the show and was paid to write about it echoed my thoughts. Conversely, the show gets that these characters are internally broken, outwardly destructive, and never going to really change these things. It’s not that I have perspective on the characters that’s not already cooked into the show. It’s just that I don’t enjoy the taste of this particular blend so much. Some people seem to experience it as deeply funny, and to me, it’s kind of funny with some good runs, but the main joke wears a little thin, the mechanics of the character drama aren’t that interesting to me (whereas I sometimes enjoy similarly empty work if it’s built on solid comedy or action mechanics), and the cultural texture just doesn’t appeal to me (whereas the look and sound of rural Louisiana carried me through the first season of True Detective despite its deficiencies).

Still, it’s interesting, in a way that doesn’t really require me to keep watching because I got what I need. One thing that sticks in my mind is that the things that really matter are both under and over the main texture of the work. The characters are pretty deeply fucked up, and this matters because they’re human. They also impact other people, and this matters extra because they’re powerful. A lot of the humor comes from these meaningful facts intruding on their meaningless power games, and then them sort of acknowledging and dismissing them. They’re not trying to solve themselves, and they’re not trying to solve the world, and both sides will continue to be fucked because of this, and we can laugh(?) because of the doom. Some of my favorite shows (Deadwood, Enlightened, Bojack in the later seasons) actually confront these meaningful issues, but if you’re not going to play it that way I kind of prefer Succession’s consistency to some middling shows that give their shitty characters a kinder touch. I still think, “why spend so much time on this bullshit if you know it’s a bullshit?” but the self-awareness helps. The show has a new angle on actual big problem, that we (my class, my generation, most of us under capitalism) have trouble connecting our meaningful interiority to the meaningful world outside ourselves. We talk about and read about politics in part because we’re so alienated (by learned helplessness, by individual negligence, and by structural design) from any real impact. We get lost in the empty middle.

Of course, we don’t need 20+ hours of Succession to beat that point into our heads. We need to piece together things internally and externally, individually and collectively, and part of that work is pushing to restructure things so these pursuits aren’t always being hewn apart. Use the show if you need entertainment and it fits your taste, and take from it what you will. In the balance of your time, do what you can. Will it end well? Of course not. We’re all going to die individually, and collectively we’re sliding down the cascading slope of a mass extinction with fascists among our leaders. But there could be some good stuff in the middle, and I hope we all get better at filling that out.

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SOME RECS OF WHAT TO SEE AND WATCH

One creative work I really loved recently was Parasite (by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-Won), which is, for one thing, just a beautifully made film, and for another, the starkest representation of inequality I’ve seen in a major movie. There’s one way to read the plot (and the ending, which I took sort of ironically) as sympathetic to the rich, but texturally it felt really clear that it had no respect for wealth. The two big rules of the world of the film seemed to be first that status, privilege, wealth, and their signifiers were completely arbitrary and had no connection to competence, and also that they held tremendous material power despite this disconnect. That seems pretty damn true. I also much prefer the angle of making the protagonists the (countless, in reality) people in the shadow of power than the (few) in the seats, and made the poverty normal and the wealth exotic. Thinking back to Succession, the works seemed to know the same things about power, but only Parasite seemed to respond to this knowledge with its overall decisions. I also thought its dark humor was deeply funny.

Another work that does a good job humanizing very common experiences was Midnight Traveler (by Hassan Fazili), a home movie made by a filmmaker family as they fled Taliban death threats in Afghanistan to seek asylum in Germany. In order to get there and get a hearing they needed to make a lot of border crossings that the law didn’t allow, but these crossings weren’t sensationalized and the movie was a lot more interested in what their life was like over the course of these travels. That quality reminded me of Exit West, where Mohsin Hamid made the choice to replace border crossings with magic doors between countries that left you harried and exhausted on the other side, giving him space to center on his characters’ lives in different places instead of on the crossings themselves. It’s also just a well-edited family documentary that helps you get to know them. The whole thing was filmed on SD cards on the father’s Samsung phone, which they also used to navigate and make connections. A lot of people, especially American boomers, still think of smartphones as a luxury, when they’re an essential means of survival and economic connectivity for a lot of people. Echoing this point, Parasite started with the family struggling to find a source of free WiFi so they could look for work.

I’m also enjoying two works about The Troubles in Ireland – the TV show Derry Girls and the book Milkman - both centering Catholic girls in Northern Ireland and written by women who lived through it, and both treating The Troubles as a background inconvenience. In Derry Girls, the protagonists are a rascally band of friends, and in Milkman, a book-loving mostly-loner who talks by reading. Derry Girls (by Lisa McGee) is a really good sitcom, always fun and funny and quick and occasionally poignant, but Milkman (by Anna Burns) is the one that speaks to my soul more, just the way she breaks down the world. I’m only a third of the way through, but I’ve already read many of my favorite sentences in a while and I suspect it will only get better.

And with that I’m done writing for the morning and will pick up and read Milkman some.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I know I haven’t kept up the volume with this newsletter. Lotta stuff going on, and hopefully once I resettle it will get going again. But my bad. All who are pay subscribers will get a free extra year (please email me for the gift subscription when it expires or unsubscribe now and email me, I can’t gift-subscribe current subscribers) in which hopefully I will produce enough good exclusive stuff to make up for the laxity.

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