On moralizing television criticism

I’ll get straight to it: I didn’t like this Jacobin article on The Americans by John Carl Baker. It’s not so much that I disagree with its point, though I do. What I object to, more fundamentally, is the very procedure: the attempt to find something insidious and ideological to disqualify the show. That’s hard in a show that sympathetically portrays devoted Communists who routinely murder and steal to undermine America. But Baker manages! See, because Elizabeth critiques consumerism, and so the show must be for austerity — apparently for its own sake, in the author’s estimation, even though it’s clear that Elizabeth is not a principled ascetic but is instead devoted to a transcendent Cause — and I guess because austerity is bad, we should be kind of pro-consumerism?

How is this in any way a response to the show? How does this help me to understand what’s going on better? I would submit that it doesn’t. It holds the show up to an artificial standard, finds it wanting, and sets it aside. If we enjoyed it, we’ve been duped into “supporting” something bad. Ideology got us again! My objection to this procedure is twofold. First, of course television is ideological. That’s not some brilliant insight, that’s the very nature of television. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that television is enjoyable in direct proportion as it’s #pureideology. Second, is it really the case that we even have at our disposal some standard for the right way to do it? The confidence with which judgments are pronounced leads me to believe that there must be some kind of handbook that these benighted producers are callously setting aside in order to produce their “problematic” fare.

In my view, it’s inevitable that a show will be “problematic.” A broken society creates broken TV shows. There’s no “right way” to portray people who object on principle to capitalism in a capitalist society. There’s no “right way” to represent blacks on television in a racist society. There’s no “right way” to portray women in patriarchy. What is available is more or less interesting ways, more or less promising ways. And every TV show of any quality does hold some promise, some hope. It’s not just that a spoonful of utopia makes the ideology goes down, because the spoonful of ideology is also what makes the utopia palatable.

At this late date, the ideological portion of The Americans is the overall tone that these are heroic but tragically doomed figures, fighting a futile battle — it never would have worked. And the utopian element is that Communists are magic, able to take on multiple forms, utterly omnicompetent. Could I do all that, if I were somehow “unplugged” from the capitalist apparatus, if I could somehow approach it as a foreigner and opponent rather than a native? (And here the problem of what to do with their daughter becomes an interesting one.)

All of what I just wrote in that last paragraph is a sketch, and perhaps it’s simplistic or limited or — God forbid — “problematic.” But I hope it points in a more interesting direction, gives you something to watch for, rewards your attention to the show rather than castigating you. To have even a chance of doing any of that, you have to let the show be a show — which means to be #pureideology while also being something different or more, at least if it’s worth your attention — rather than rendering it a symptom of something we already knew anyway.

As the man says, les non-dupes errent.

9 thoughts on “On moralizing television criticism

  1. This is more of a side point, but I also hate that the author lists the couple as “Philip and Elizabeth.” Elizabeth is clearly the main character, Keri Russell gets top billing — it’s “Elizabeth and Philip.”

  2. I can’t seem to find the word “problematic” in the article you are critiquing, and yet you scare-quote it multiple times. It is almost as if you are assaulting the mustache-wearing evil-doppleganger version of John Carl Baker’s essay from the alternative universe “StrawManLandia.” This is what happens when we mess with the timelines.

    More substantively, I agree with you about the relatively small part of his essay that is the thing you describe (the title, and the end parts), but I think he’s completely right about how the show figures consumption: instead of being about exploitation, our commie protagonists see America as being defined by their luxuries and consumption, their nice life. This is a little like a story about a plucky band of terrorists who hate America for its freedoms; the issue is not who you sympathize with, it’s the things that the people you sympathize with *believe.* These communists believe that the problem with America is consumption; in this show, the communists hate us for our blue jeans and fast cars and sexy women. This enables two insights into how the show thinks:

    1. For the communists to hate us for our luxurious consumption, we must adopt an ahistorical, rose-tinted-glasses vision of the Reagan years as having actually been morning in America, in which Americans Had A Lot of Stuff. Instead of, as he points out, a time of worrisome increases in class antagonism and inequality. These seem like things the show’s protagonists would have been noticing (rather than the fact that Americans have cool cars). Which brings me to the second insight:

    2. Making “consumption” into the thing the communists hate about us evacuates the show of the thing they might actually have found repellent: exploitative class relations. I have no idea what actual 1980’s KGB moles might have thought about America, of course, but there was a critique they might have mounted of it that would actually have been revolutionary, which is to say, Marxism. Yet are Phillip and Elizabeth Marxists? They don’t seem to be: instead of quoting the Marx of the Communist Manifesto, Elizabeth quotes “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people,” which represents Marxism as a distrust/hatred of utility, commodities, and consumption. This is not the Communism of “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”; this is the Communism of “How can you be a Marxist if you have an iphone, you hypocrite!”

    I closing, I submit to you that John Carl Baker’s is a response to the show which helps me to understand what’s going on better.

  3. I did not intend to be quoting the word “problematic” from his article. As is customary with the use of “scare quotes,” I mean only to cite a commonly used word and call attention to it. And your entire response is about what the show is not doing, how it fails to do something more appropriate or ideologically helpful — hence holding it up to some outside standard and finding it wanting, which is exactly what I’m complaining about.

  4. Imma have to throw in with big z here. I also think the article did a fair job of qualifying its critique along the lines of “this is still an amazingly sympathetic depiction of Communists on TV!”

    To be fair to The Americans, there’s a huge strain of 20th century Marxism that obsesses with culture and allows exploitation to recede. Though it’s exactly as if Phillip and Elizabeth and Phillip are complaining about how reified their neighbors are, man.

  5. I’m not sure that Elizabeth and Philip (especially Philip) are Marxists in any strong sense; I get the impression that they’re Russian patriots who went into service because they view America as an existential threat to their motherland.

    I think this comes out especially in the plotline where Philip was considering “going native” and just becoming a normal American: if I remember correctly, he’s not brought back because of anything he dislikes about America, but out of fidelity to his homeland and his people there. (I’ve only seen episodes as they’ve aired; it’s possible that I’m misremembering something.) Elizabeth is clearly more committed to some kind of moral critique of American society, but I think she was telling the truth to Paige in the episode a few weeks ago that she had her eyes opened while working with Gregory: the critique we see Elizabeth voicing of American society is one she largely came to once already in America, not one she brought with her. So it’s fitting that it’s a kind of muddy equalitarian thing, rather than any developed Marxist one.

    I expect that the KGB would’ve had a good number of members who were very weak on Marxist(-Leninist-Stalinist) theory; the skillsets in being a good spy and being a good theorist don’t strike me as having a huge overlap, and being loyal to the Soviets as a group would go a long way towards being a good practicing Stalinist. It did strike me as odd at one point that none of the Soviets in the show ever seems to quote Marx (given how quoteable he is), but on reflection it struck me that it would be a bad habit for a spy in America to have Marx on the tip of their tongue. If they can appear ignorant of Soviet ideology while in the field, good; one way to do this would be to actually be ignorant of it, so far as being a good Soviet agent allows for. That we never see any of the other KGB officers quoting Marxist jargon in their offices might be intentional, too, as a sign that they are “normal” bureaucrats devoted to office politics and status games, not any kind of radically unfamiliar Communist Other. Even if this is inaccurate as a depiction of standard KGB operations, it could be intentional on the part of the show to keep the thieving, murderous commies sympathetic for the American audience.

  6. “Outside standard” is the “outside agitator” of litcrit rhetoric. It’s rhetorically useful because it can’t be disproved, but it’s a basically arbitrary and meaningless way of asserting that *other* people’s standards are somehow out of bounds. Whereas your own standards derive as organically and naturally and purely from the text itself as a mountain stream…

  7. I think Aaron has a valid and important point here, but I will add that I much prefer criticism that engages directly with what a given text does in a positive sense than that which offers a negative critique (even if only implied). Saying or implying that “this would be better if it did something else” is akin, imho, to peer reviewers who say “this essay would be better if it was the essay I would have written but didn’t.” In both cases we get the sort of criticism that gives criticism a bad name, or at least leads people to say “shut up until you’ve made a tv show!” This is generally why I don’t read reviews of anything and why I don’t follow tv culture specifically (not that that’s your concern, natch). That all said, I also think that all criticism, even of the most positive sort, implies a negative critique on some level. This is not an either/or situation, but a both/and one where the critic (and this is just my mild argument, not some sort of truth) has to work to minimize the negative in order to say something about what the given text is/means/does, whether on its own, within some larger context, or in connection with some critical/theoretical apparatus.

  8. ZZ, We seem to be entering into an infinite regress of formalistic objections to my formalistic objections. And thinking on your past comment, I can see how it’s not a purely outside standard — using accurate sociological representation as a kind of “ideal type” and noting that The Americans is not doing that can help to clarify what it in fact is doing. I took an implication that the show was somehow at fault for not being sociologically accurate or representative — which, spoiler alert, there weren’t omnicompetent masters of disguise living among us in the 1980s — but I suppose that’s not necessarily what you were intending.

    “Accurate sociological representation” would be a pretty clear example of an “outside standard,” though, given the apparent goals of the show. It makes no sense to hold the show up to that standard and find it wanting, because again, it’s obviously a fantasy on some level given who our main characters are.

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