What does a poor or lower-middle-class white person, especially one from the South or Southwest, have to do to get a break from fancy high-end TV producers? It is a remarkable fact about this new Golden Age of television, which began with The Sopranos in 1999, that its primary focus of attention is the population cohort known (with the exquisite cultural sensitivity we have all learned in the era of political correctness) as “white trash.”
HBO’s sensationally powerful True Detective, with its subsidiary cast of sweaty, unshaven, tattooed, heavily accented, strip-clubbing neo-Neanderthals from Louisiana, is just the latest manifestation of the white-trashing of TV. True Detective is the second HBO series set in and around the bayou, following in the footsteps of the vampire show True Blood—and let me tell you, those swamp folk, they like their sex dirty in every sense of the word.
The new show came along just after the final episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, about an Albuquerque scientist-turned-schoolteacher who serves as the Southwest’s key methamphetamine supplier to an endless list of Caucasian scum. (The final episode featured the stirring rescue of the teacher’s upper-middle-class-fallen-to-trash sidekick Boy Wonder, who will live to cook blue another day.) On air right now, True Detective joins Sons of Anarchy, the FX series about rival motorcycle gangs in California who spend most of their illicit gains on leather clothing. FX takes a lighter touch with Justified, the highly amusing series about a U.S. marshal forced to return to his white-trash home turf of Harlan County, Kentucky. Harlan was the nation’s paradigmatic coal-mining community and, in its day, the source of a great deal of leftist sentimentality about the plight of the working class.
No longer! We don’t care about the plight of the white trash folk who provide all this glorious local color; instead, these shows positively revel in the shabbiness of their upholstery, the grunginess of their bars, their casual brutality, their offhanded abuse and/or neglect of children. There is precious little sympathy expressed for them. Even Mad Men’s Don Draper, the well-to-do man from Westchester, was damaged forever by being born to a hooker in rural Illinois and raised by a vicious farmer who beat him regularly.
In Difficult Men, Brett Martin’s book about the remarkable writer-producers who brought television to new cultural heights, Martin notes that there was something explicitly political at work in the early days of what he calls television’s “Third Golden Age.” Americans “on the losing side” of the 2000 election, Martin writes, “were left groping to come to terms with the Beast lurking in their own body politic.” As it happened, “that side happened to track very closely with the viewerships of networks like AMC, FX, and HBO: coastal, liberal, educated, ‘blue state.’ And what the Third Golden Age brought them was a humanized red state. . . . This was the ascendant Right being presented to the disempowered Left—as if to reassure it that those in charge were still recognizably human.”
Of course, the “recognizably human” people who dared vote for George W. Bush were all sociopathic or psychopathic crooks: Tony Soprano, Walter White (note the name) of Breaking Bad, the polygamous Mormon Bill Henrickson on Big Love, and others. They were the characters at the center, and they were indeed fully human. It’s the depiction of the worlds in which they live that is so striking, even more so in the series that have come along since the body politic’s shift to the left, beginning in 2006. The canvas on which these characters are brought to three-dimensional life isn’t a “humanized red state” at all, but rather the red state of liberal horror fantasy.
True Blood began the white-trashization of the horror genre, which has reached its apogee with the most successful series on cable television, The Walking Dead—in which enlightened survivors of an apocalyptic catastrophe must wander through rural Georgia evading flesh-eating zombies who don’t look all that different from the supporting players in the other white-trash shows.
In 2009, the screenwriter Michael Tolkin, who is not one of those responsible for TV’s Golden Age but is a representative Hollywood thinker, said of True Blood and similar cultural fare:
Obama was elected by the wizard brigade, a children’s crusade. Obama read Harry Potter to his Sasha and Malia. It is inconceivable that he’s reading them the vampire books. The wizards are in bad shape now . . . seeing as they do that they’re surrounded now by Zombies, the tea baggers, a growling mob of brain-dead idiots led by the Vampires. . . . What upsets them about Obama’s origins is that he has actual proof of human birth. . . . They’re the embarrassing reflection of our lives.
It must be said that embarrassment comes in many shapes and sizes, including intellectual embarrassment, like Michael Tolkin’s argument here. As it happens, these shows are not embarrassing at all. For one thing (with the exception of True Blood), they’re just too good, too interesting, too flavorful. Still, rich Hollywood folk making mincemeat out of poor rural folk is another element of the ongoing American culture war that should not go unremarked.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.