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27 Spotlight Right: Sons Of Anarchy, Downton Abbey and the Politics of Storytelling

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sons Of Anarchy, Downton Abbey and the Politics of Storytelling

While working with the Republican Theater Festival last year, one of the questions that came up quite a bit was, what constitutes a conservative play?  Or a liberal play for that matter.  In examining the politics of storytelling it is useful to look at what stories appeal to conservatives and what stories appeal to liberals.  While this is difficult to achieve in theater, television, with its endless supply of researched demographic information can provide a window into the narrative preferences of political groups.  As I looked into it, two shows stood out, with their almost counterintuitive appeal to blues and reds.  According to the Washington Post, the top scripted show for Republicans is FXs Sons of Anarchy, a Hamlet based drama about an outlaw biker gang.  On the other side of the aisle PBS’ Downton Abby has maintained a strong appeal among liberal viewers as pointed out by Irin Carmon, in Salon and the rating numbers in traditionally liberal areas such as Seattle, New York and Austin.  

How can it be that that conservatives want to spend their free time watching a lawless biker gang flaunt the values of traditional society, while liberals settle in to enjoy a love letter to the Edwardian social system of noblesse oblige?  Both shows succeed by making heroes out of characters who their respective viewers would otherwise almost certainly see as villains.  But both shows also provide small, closed societies that are labs for the most basic ideas of both left and right.

In Charming, CA the fictional small town setting for SoA, we find a test case for small government.  The police are essentially controlled by the local biker gang, and even local politics revolves around their preferences.  In return, for a generation SAMCRO as the gang is known, has kept drugs out of the town and increasingly fought to keep out big yuppie development projects that would change the face of the town.  Although their criminal enterprises are sometimes lucrative, the setting for SoA is decidedly middle class.  Though sometimes intellectual, the characters are not well educated, they look, in large part (gun running aside) like the model for the modern Republican, a working class white guy who wants the government to stay away from his guns and is engaged in a battle with working class brown and black guys for a slice of the economic pie.  Interestingly, the racial divisions which separate the rival Motorcycle Clubs, are not imbued with any particular “cultural” significance.  The black “Niners” and the Mexican “Mayans” are not given any moral passes or magical insights, they are simply the other gang, no better, no worse.  As Jonah Goldberg pointed out in the National Review, the basic theme ends up being tribalism.  And in the end, that tribalism is remarkably violent and destructive.  

It is hard to imagine a setting more remote from Charming than Downton Abbey.  The sprawling fin de siecle Yorkshire estate is the picture of British order. The household, which operates as local government (after all, its Lord Grantham, not Mr. Grantham) is a top down affair, where the Sons of Anarchy hold up and down votes in their clubhouse, the moneyed men of Downton Abbey listen politely and sincerely to the advice of others, but eventually make the decision they think is best, often while sipping brandy and looking stern.  It is a world that fits well with what Joel Kotkin calls the “gentry progressives” among whom Downton Abbey is so popular.  Kotkin writes: 

“The now triumphant urban gentry have their townhouses and high-rise lofts, but the service workers who do their dirty work have to log their way by bus or car from the vast American banlieues, either in peripheral parts of the city (think of Brooklyn’s impoverished fringes) or the poorer close-in suburbs...The gentry progressives don’t see much hope for the recovery of blue collar manufacturing or construction jobs, and they are adamant in making sure that the potential gusher of energy jobs in the resurgent fossil fuel never materializes, at least in such places as New York and California. The best they can offer the hoi polloi is the prospect of becoming haircutters and dog walkers in cognitively favored places like Silicon Valley. Presumably, given the cost of living there, they will have to get there from the Central Valley or sleep on the streets.

Indeed, this is exactly what begins to threaten the baser characters of Downton Abbey as the modern world closes in on the postcard image of the country estate.  Predictably, in season three, as capitalism portends economic doom, and the loss of the estate, the nobles and their servants look for salvation in a huge influx of cash from a recently deceased rich guy (read estate tax).  If tribalism is the theme of SoA, then order is the theme of Downton Abbey, and maintaining that order, as opposed to adapting to new realities, is the primary concern of its major characters.
What is telling about the politics of the devotees of these two shows is that in both cases, the societal structures that draw in the viewer, and which they recognize in a strange way as their own, are doomed to failure.  SAMCRO is clearly on a path to destruction, and not just because we know its based on Hamlet, likewise, in 2013, we all know what happened to the great Edwardian country estates, they are currently filled with fanny packed tourists taking digital snapshots.  And herein lies the lesson.  As storytellers it is not enough to reflect the ideals of our audience, we must challenge them.  After an hour of watching either show, its viewers awake from the fantasies of Harley’s and chandeliers to realize they do not want to get shot at by Mexicans or get dressed in the morning by a live in a maid.  If we want our stories to help people understand their lives and world, we must challenge their moral and social constructs, not soothe them.


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