About 15 minutes into the comic-book frenzy of the new ABC drama The Last Resort, the chap in charge of a U.S. nuclear submarine gets an order to launch a missile at Pakistan. At first the commander, an Obama-like figure (Andre Braugher), gets the attack in motion. Then he hesitates. And he asks Washington what the heck is going on. Within seconds he, his crew and the audience knows something is amiss in Washington. Maybe rogue military officials are playing a nefarious game at a possibly perilous cost to the world.
Sounds a bit paranoid, right? Sounds pessimistic? Get ready for more.
Less than 15 minutes into Revolution, an NBC drama, the world goes dark. All the power that fuels cars, computers, electric light, just evaporates. Planes fall from the sky. Google is no more. The meat of the drama then begins years later, in a postapocalyptic America where small communities grow their food the old-fashioned way, hunt with bow and arrow and are ruled by militias. It’s dystopian and, literally, a dark America. Yeah, what if a devouring electromagnetic pulse wiped out civilization? Yeah, and what if somebody with a plan was behind it?
Paranoia permeates the new U.S. network TV season. Sure, there are frivolous comedies and cutesy dramas, but “paranoia” is an apt description for the medley of narratives and concepts that shape and identify the new season. Take the Fox drama The Following, which will air mid-season. It appears, in synopsis, to be a conventional procedural about a mentally battered FBI veteran matching wits with a wily serial killer, and yet by the end of its first hour a ripe sense of emotional despair has been unleashed. The show, best described as The Mentalist on acid, posits a cabal of serial killers with followers who can, and will, organize killing sprees.
In truth this is not the strongest of U.S. network TV seasons. Things may improve massively mid-season when new dramas to replace failures are unveiled, and cable channels kick in with their new series. There is fun and there is frippery. But there is anxiety lurking everywhere, even in a seemingly cheesy drama about a haunted apartment building. That would be ABC’s 666 Park Avenue. Things go bump in the night in this elegant old Manhattan building, but there is a thorough sense of general foreboding too, and a cynical suggestion that vast wealth is accumulated only by the truly evil.
The past pervades the network series, too. While there isn’t the emphasis on nostalgia that came last year when The Playboy Club and Pan-Am were debuted, the past is definitely present. The CBS drama Vegas is set not in the contemporary Las Vegas of gloss and good times – the scenario for so many TV series and movies – but in the late 1950s, when the town was the frontier for mobsters looking to control gambling and the last stand for cowboys and ranchers evading urbanization. It’s essentially a good-versus-evil drama and, while upbeat, is sharply realistic about corruption. In fact there are very few blue-sky shows this season. If there isn’t outright dread, there is anxiety.
Where the paranoia and anxiety come from is what is in the air in the U.S. culture now – an election year in a country still struggling to recover from a devastating recession. What happens in Revolution, with its paranoia about the fuel that drives the world evaporating overnight, is linked to an anxiety arising from the near-collapse of giant auto companies and the disappearance of huge financial institutions. What happens in The Last Resort reflects a gnawing sense that those in power in Washington are not really in charge.
There are serious shows that amount to escapism and escapist shows that have a subtly serious intent. As always, there are disastrously unfunny sitcoms and dramas that look like failures from the get-go. But there is much to be optimistic about in the quality and the craft, and there is the added bonus of returning quality network shows and serious cable dramas from previous seasons. Throughout, no matter the situation or the context, every show that’s entertaining or off-putting adds a little to our understanding of the theme, small and large, that pre-occupy the American culture. People, power up your remote for paranoia, silliness and sass.
SIX SHOWS YOU CANNOT MISS
Revolution (Monday, 10 p.m., NBC, CITY-TV, now running). For all the possible meanings that can be extrapolated from it, Revolution is also populist drama with action, romance, derring-do and very handsome people. It is mainly the work of Erik Kripke, who wrote Supernatural, with J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias, Fringe), acting as executive producer. There’s a big emphasis on the younger characters and a touch of The Hunger Games about the set-up, as teenager Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) sets out on a long and dangerous journey. It’s a very Spielbergian show, in some ways, with a strong dynamic in family connections and the oomph of teenage love, with well-orchestrated action sequences happening at just the right intervals.