The Magazine

Farewell to Greatness

America from Gilligan's Island to The X-Files

Sep 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 01 • By DAVID BROOKS
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THE PROGRAM STAR TREK expressed those same optimistic assumptions—on a galactic scale. Captain Kirk was always talking about the "Prime Directive," which was the order the crew of the Enterprise had received never to interfere in the affairs of other planets. But, in fact, they interfered in almost every episode and almost always in the same way: They deposed tyrants and created democracy. Once Kirk toppled an elite called the Platonians, who modeled themselves on the rulers described in Plato’s Republic. Another time it was a powerful being who played at being a Greek God. In a third episode, it was the "Stratos-Dwellers," an aristocratic elite who lived far above their planet’s plebeian surface. By the end of each hour, anti-democratic structures were destroyed and the inhabitants of each planet were free to live lives of democratic self-determination. There was even one episode about a planet where people were living in a sort of Garden of Eden—which means that Kirk and his crew were willing to destroy even utopia to make the inhabitants control their own lives.

Business didn’t matter much in Star Trek. If you were a kid watching that show, you’d want to grow up being an admiral or a diplomat. In this way, as in so many others, the show self-consciously mirrored the power structure of the Cold War era. The show also assumed that as history progressed, power would be centralized into big institutions—interplanetary federations and the like. James T. Kirk was a thinly veiled replica of John F. Kennedy. The speeches which he always overacted near the end of the episode were meant to be rousing, Kennedyesque expressions of liberal internationalism.

By the end of its brief run, Vietnam was beginning to shake Star Trek’s self-confidence. And by the time we get to 1990s hit shows like The Simpsons and The X-Files, we have entered a different Weltanschauung. In 1960s television, America is the agent of globalization: Americans go out and transform the world or the universe. In 1990s television, Cantor argues, America is the victim of globalization: Outside forces come in and threaten or undercut American life.

In the earlier shows there was usually a clear distinction between the democratic and good Americans and the anti-democratic and wrongheaded non-Americans. By the later shows, the outlines of American identity have become blurred. Especially in The X-Files, there is no center, no cohesive set of categories to judge truth and falsity, good and evil. It’s never clear who has power, or where authority resides. The political leaders, who are the primary actors in Star Trek’s version of power politics, don’t really exercise control in The Simpsons or The X-Files world. Instead, in our globalized, interconnected, networked society, power is dispersed among a shadowy web of companies, agencies, cliques, and groups. What matters is the local and the global. The national hardly exists.

The Simpsons captures the new social structure in relatively benign form, Cantor observes. In the first place, it is set in small-town America, just like Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. And unlike a lot of recent sitcoms, it is about a nuclear family, though it’s not exactly a nuclear family with normal lines of authority.

But this small town is regularly swept by globalization. There are immigrants from places like Albania (whose "main export is furious thought," Lisa Simpson notes) and India. The local company gets taken over by a German conglomerate and becomes Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk, while locals study language tapes called "Sycophantic German" so they can prepare for the new bosses. The local Mom and Pop Hardware Store turns out to be a subsidiary of Global Dynamics, Inc.

One of the key characters in The Simpsons is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who runs the Kwik-E-Mart. Most of Apu’s adventures involve a conflict between his desire to cling to his Hindu culture, while trying, in the economic sphere, to become more American than the Americans. When nativists picket his store with placards that read "Get Eurass Back to Eurasia" and "The Only Good Foreigner is Rod Stewart," the local mobster tells him to pose as a native-born American: "Remember you were born in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Your parents were Herb and Judy Nahasapeemapetilon."

In The Simpsons commerce is what matters. The show, Cantor notes, is scathing about politics. ("I voted for Prell to go back in the old glass bottle. After that I became deeply cynical," Homer declares.) The federal government is virtually non-existent, and when it does appear, it is ludicrous. When the government takes over Krusty the Clown’s television show, it gets renamed The IRS Presents Herschel Krustofski’s Clown-Related Entertainment Show.