Since Twin Peaks, dozens of serial dramas have come and gone, and the only ones that have somewhat managed to work through the challenges of the format are 24 and Lost, both of which are sprinting toward their series finales. They’ve succeeded for different reasons. Fox’s 24 made serial drama work by never giving the audience enough time to stop and breathe, let alone mount a counterargument to the nonstop twists, double-crosses, and improvised torture sessions. But 24, as serial dramas go, was always a relatively low-risk investment for a viewer. Every season has been as close to a reboot as possible, and all you really need to know is that there’s this counterterrorist agent named Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and that if you have information he wants, you’d best hope there are no car batteries nearby. Lost, meanwhile, is arguably the most ambitious narrative in television history, a sprawling genre epic with dozens of characters, a bottomless bag of narrative trickery and lots of Big Ideas. If the Lost finale succeeds at satisfying even most of its audience, it’ll be the first time a show of its kind has maintained its creative and financial viability long enough to even have a resolution with integrity.
For media professionals—actors, comics, writers, producers, reporters, editors—life is a continuing struggle to trade up. They start at the margins of the business, as stringers and errand runners, and out-hustle their colleagues in the Darwinian race for the big chair on the big set. The ultimate prize is the post with the most eyeballs, the most viewers, the most subscribers, and the largest paychecks. But in the past decade, because of demographic shifts and long-term media trends, these king-of-the-hill jobs have become a sort of career poison.
The reason we pay attention to Beck is that he both comforts and flatters his audience; he makes them feel good, and good about themselves. And by “them” I mean the two groups that obsess over Beck the most: tea partiers and liberals. Tea partiers are driven by the belief that the America that elected Barack Obama isn’t their America, and Beck comforts them by telling them they’re right: that the America they love, the America they now feel so distant from, the America of faith and the Founders and some sort of idyllic Leave It to Beaver past, is still there, waiting to be awakened from Obama’s evil spell. And he flatters them by saying that the coastal elites are too stupid or too lazy to figure out what’s really going on; only his loyal viewers are perceptive enough to see the truth and, ultimately, to save the nation. In other words, Beck makes the tea partiers feel, as Hofstadter put it, as if they are “the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph,” which is better than feeling disenfranchised, marginalized, and looked down upon.
For liberals, Beck serves a similar purpose. In an era of massive problems and extreme change—the Great Recession, the health-care overhaul, etc.—liberals can avoid the difficult question of whether Obama is leading America in the right direction by simply telling themselves that the only alternative would be someone like Glenn Beck: hyperbolic, demagogic, irrational, and slightly unhinged—just like all conservatives. This is comforting. And by choosing to argue against Beck’s patently absurd insinuations instead of, say, the legitimate policy proposals of someone like Rep. Paul Ryan—the progressive fact-checking site Media Matters posts about 15 anti-Beck items a day—liberals can flatter themselves into believing they’re smarter and better informed than anyone who happens to disagree with them.
If god is indeed in the details, then David Simon will someday make a most promising candidate for beatification. Simon has already come as close to living sainthood as a keyboard can get you. With The Wire, he created a dystopian simulacrum of Baltimore so sprawling and ambitious that it’s often (and justifiably) called the best television show ever made. His affinity for obsessively researched detail and his authenticity-über-alles ethos stem from his abiding love of journalism—before TV, he was a reporter at The Baltimore Sun—which is all about respecting people’s stories enough to get them right. Treme, Simon’s latest drama, is proof that you can get everything just right, and still not get it quite right.
The problem with South Park now is that being first across the finish line has become part of the brand. Whereas once the show’s creators swiftly turned around topical episodes because they could, now the South Park team is expeced to seize on the news.