If you watch television, you may have noticed a remarkable rise in the number of programs infused with some sort of millenarian spirit: the benign intervention of extraterrestrials and the super-intelligent, the ascendancy of misfits, the cheerful embrace of end-of-the-world scenarios.
Ain’t we got fun? Actually, yes. In fact, I’m so thrilled by the whole thing I decided to take a tour. Consider these signposts:
First, one delicious new TV hook is creating heroes who are weird but lovable, who delight in using their big brains, and whose keen powers of observation and interpretation enable them to think their way past problems: “Monk,” “Psych” and “Numbers,” for instance. In “Eureka,” a whole town is populated by quirky geniuses whose emotions are as operatic as their imaginations as they revel in the joys of brainpower. I like to think this indicates yearning toward intelligence, toward paying attention and trying to understand things, rather than going straight to annihilating whatever you don’t understand. Is that good news or what?
Second, a premise of benign extraterrestrial shows is to surface the underlying structure of consensus reality, demonstrating how arbitrary many seemingly solid principles and customs really are. In “Kyle XY,” an open-faced, hyperintelligent and wonderfully capable young man not born of woman (i.e., he lacks a navel, although he has great abdominal muscles and lots of otherwise healthy teenage flesh) appears out of nowhere and is adopted by a postmodern family (mom is a therapist), instantly acquiring parents and siblings to help him discover his true identity. As Kyle encounters the customs of his suburban community, probing surface inconsistencies and unearthing kernels of deeper meaning, viewers are led to question them as well.
In “The 4400,” all at once, beings from the future redeposit in the present more than four thousand men, women and children who were snatched out of their own lives during the previous century. They come back altered, each with a unique extraordinary ability–to heal, kill, induce mental states in others, to see the future, to move objects with their minds and so on. The government fears them, unleashing a barrage of covert and overt ops that make the CIA look positively angelic. The 4400 create a haven that resembles a high-tech corporate campus, where many of them share their gifts with the world. Some returnees are deranged or angry enough at the treatment meted out to them that they turn renegade, and some of the government agents are good people who only want to help, so the stories are mixed rather than simple good versus evil. But by showing the government reacting to difference with fear and violence–and by showing ordinary citizens plucked out of ordinary time in a way that entirely recasts their relationship to society–the program encodes another deep yearning, to move away from fear as the basis for social action.
Third, almost all of these shows valorize the individual’s right to dance to a different drummer, making clear that when all other options have failed, being oneself is still a valid choice. In “Three Moons Over Milford,” an asteroid has shattered our moon into three large chunks, bits of which keep falling from the sky. Experts disagree about when they will fall, shattering the earth, pushing our planet out of orbit, or otherwise changing the nature of earthly reality. But the consensus is that the end is coming. A few people try to cash in on catastrophe; a few see the better part of valor as carrying on regardless. But most approach the end in classic fashion, by abandoning whatever seems false or superfluous in their lives and diving straight into whatever matters most. Characters become remarkably outspoken; they leave their corporate jobs to trek up Mount Kilimanjaro; they sleep with attractive strangers and reconnect with long-lost old flames. The series makes a statement that seems to resonate strongly with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age: time to remember what we are living for and quit doing the rest.
The dominant TV trend is to reinforce the status quo. Cop and crime shows seem equivocal sometimes, especially when they feature golden-hearted criminals or abusive judges, suggesting complexity. But overall, they assert existing social rules and punish characters who refuse to submit to them. In contrast, these millenarian programs call attention to the weak foundation for many social conventions, instead making heroes of brilliant, self-directed characters who are deeply flawed by conventional standards (Monk is obsessive-compulsive, the math geniuses on “Numbers” are unable to maintain normal relationships with anyone but each other, and Kyle is completely clueless).
The last time TV extruded a sturdy green shoot of this type was the premiere of “Star Trek” in 1966, which featured intelligence as a counter to violence, a strongly contagious idea. It sprouted more offshoots than any other TV show in history. Now, I’m not saying TV sparked the Sixties; rather, it reflected glimpses of the new consciousness then beginning to percolate through the zeitgeist. A cynical observer could say that today, people are being fed a media diet of quirky individuality to misdirect our attention from the erosion of individuality in real life. Maybe so. (As Lily Tomlin famously said, “No matter how cynical you get, you can’t keep up.”)
Not every sign is a harbinger, but I find these media reflections encouraging. Don’t you hope I’m right?