Ever since Gmail launched its “Emails from the Future” feature, I have struggled to find ways to make it useful for writing TV reviews. I still haven’t figured anything out, but I did get an email which I will reprint here this week. An email, that is, from the future.
The email contains an excerpt from an essay titled, “American Television and the Decline of Manners: From Leave it to Beaver to Are You There Chelsea?” published in a book titled The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, a collection of essays from the year 2123 edited by a Brazilian historian named Edmundo Rosario da Lima. Between the run of Leave it to Beaver and Are You There Chelsea? about fifty years elapsed, but historians from their privileged vantage point are able to compress years in a way unimaginable to those who have to live through them. I had been meaning to review Are You There, Chelsea?, the new sitcom that premiered this month on NBC, but I think our readers would get more out of reading the book excerpt—and giving me a break from writing. So here it is:
Perhaps nothing makes for a more dramatic illustration of the decline of American hegemony, economic prowess, and manners as does a quick glance at the development of its television sitcoms. As we have seen above in our account of Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), the panorama of social order and propriety which one can see in that sitcom was set upon a foundation of great economic growth (the post-war boom) and the relative stability of the international order of the 1950s (albeit under the constant danger of nuclear war). In Leave it to Beaver we don’t think about nuclear war; we see a nuclear family, one that—notably—sticks together. We see clean streets and no protesters on those streets. The kindness, order, and sense of safety are perhaps best encapsulated by something Beaver’s mother, June, says when her son is out playing: “I hope he comes home before dark.” He always did.
For the audience that enjoyed Beaver, it would have been virtually inconceivable to guess that one day they would be able to watch a show like Are You There, Chelsea? (2012-2014). This show centers around the life of Chelsea Newman, a young woman in her twenties from a working-class district in the state of New Jersey, who works in a bar. The first episode of the show begins by telling the story of Chelsea’s incarceration for driving while under the influence of alcohol. While in jail, Chelsea prays to God—whom she refers to, iosyncratically, as “Vodka”—and bargains with Him that if He were to save her from her current predicament, she would change her life. Immediately, her sister arrives to bail Chelsea out of prison, and Chelsea takes this to be a miracle.
Chelsea, however, does not change her life in any immediate way. All she does is move into an apartment within walking distance of the bar where she works—this will make it less difficult and dangerous to find her way home after a night of inebriation. She also tells her older sister Sloan that “I am really changing things, I even prayed,” but her sister takes a while to become convinced. Her sister, incidentally, is a believing Christian—unlike Chelsea, who is indifferent to religion (her prayer to “Vodka” notwithstanding). Sloan is also married to a man who is, during the duration of the show, said to be serving in Afghanistan. Thus the show reproduces the social fissure most characteristic of that era: between conservative religious Americans and more liberal-minded, feministic Americans. The allusion to the military occupation of Afghanistan, too, bears semiotic significance. However, it should be noted that this particular sitcom was unique in that it did not reproduce the popular stereotype of the straitlaced, undersexed, boring “Believing Christian,” but rather made Sloan into a funny, sympathetic, sinful, smart-mouthed, and altogether interesting character.
But a Beaver viewer from the late 1950s, while obviously recoiling from the very frank and crude humor of Are You There, Chelsea?, would perhaps be most surprised upon hearing this exchange, between Chelsea and a fellow employee at the bar. The economic troubles that beset the American Empire during the traumatic early decades of the second millennium are all exemplified here: the “college bubble,” chronic unemployment, and the journalism-print crisis:
“I was such an idiot to major in journalism.”
“No, you were an idiot to go to college.”
“And even if I do get a real job, it’ll probably pay half of what I make at the bar.”
“Then why do it?”
“Because it’s the American dream. You people made it up.”
Chelsea’s friend says “You people,” because, as an American of Asian descent, she does not identify herself with the so-called “Founding Fathers” of the American Empire. Yet the irony lies in that Chelsea, although she appears to be of the same lineage as those Founding Fathers, is just as alienated from their ideals as her friend.
Brutal, no? But here I pause to make an editorial comment. What follows is a moment in the text when, I believe, the Brazilian historian strays a bit from his neutral, staid academic voice and betrays a hint of tenderness, a bit of sadness, a wistful might-have-been for our late American “Empire”:
While contemporary minds—as well as Americans from the late 1950s—may find it difficult to understand how a television show could so tastelessly include references to venereal disease, sexual permissiveness, and other obscenities, using words like —-, —-, and —–, we should also note that at the core of the show there is an attempt to somehow recapture core human sentiments. The easygoing, innocent sentimentality of Leave It to Beaver became impossible to swallow for American audiences after decades of social instability (both economic and cultural) and a wave of irony in popular culture (epitomized by another influential sitcom, Seinfeld). One artistic strategy for recapturing genuine human values (without the attendant sentimentality so characteristic of American television) was to protect a few pearls of genuine insight within a fortress of vulgar humor. Thus after Chelsea begs her sister to explain to her how it is that she came to earn the reputation of being a great lover, Sloane is able to say, “I loved him”— and the laugh track remains silent.
Santiago Ramos writes from Boston, MA.