Keynes said that “[p]ractical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Today, we can update that: ordinary goobers who think they’re original are the slaves of hack TV writers. And I’m telling you life just has to be this way. Kids spend way more time with TV and video games than with any other influences, so obviously they are going to act out what they see. Abuse victims act out their abuse as adults and TV addicts act out behavior patterns they learn from TV shows. A vast intellectual wasteland is one thing, but what about a vast reservoir of behaviors that are selected for public modeling based on how well they can hold eyeballs?
I was going to say “how well they can help sell sugar water by 22 minutes of dramedy” but I realized I’m dating myself. Who watches commercials anymore? Is there anything more lame and busted than parodies of commercial styles that have been dead since Reagan was president? “Prestige TV” and Netflix binge-watching are the new normal. But I’m going to talk about the old normal anyway because early Millennials, Gen Xers and of course Boomers were molded in that media environment.
An ordinary person taking their behavioral repertoire from TV will get at least two big things wrong. The first is histrionic, drama-instigating behavior. The second is doing the math on life.
Histrionic behavior is kind of like Mel Brooks’s definition of comedy. Behaviors that are totally inappropriate and extreme in real life are entertaining on TV. Of course, there is inappropriate and extreme behavior in every medium — it isn’t normal to stalk around castles monologuing at a skull, either — but TV shows are realistic and invite imitation while Shakespeare and opera don’t. (It’s not like Venetian latchkey parents ditched their kids at La Fenice for 5 hours a day.) Obsession with fictional worlds on TV can become a central part of a freak’s emotional life or can even itself become a metafictional subject for TV programs (as pointed out by DFW.) But this kind of flamboyant and obviously damaged TV obsession isn’t really what I’m focusing on. Up-and-coming rat-faced men are presumably more stable than that. So let’s take this point as settled and move on to something more interesting.
Failing to do the math on life is much more subtle and widespread than dressing up like Mr. Rogers and putting on an all-day train-and-puppet show. I mentioned previously that people get all kinds of fake ideas and bogus life scripts from various places, and a key place for people who are adults now, trying to figure out what to do next, is lame 90s sitcoms. It’s outrageous but it has to be true, because lame 90s sitcoms had immense audience penetration of a kind that today’s prestige dramas can’t begin to imagine. For every person who watched Jon Snow take it in the shorts, almost eight watched Ross Geller search for a monkey. If people act out what they see on TV, they’re going to be acting out, among other things, Friends.
The enabling conceit of Friends (among many other shows of the period) is that you can move to New York right out of college, screw around for a few years, then you marry, have kids, and somehow “learn how to adult.” I know a bunch of people who tried that out and they’re all childless or broke (or maybe finally grudgingly squeezing one out at 39 while still renting and carrying education debt with meager or negligible retirement savings.) Turns out that working 10 hours/week at a coffee shop doesn’t pay your way in one of the world’s most competitive rental markets. But that’s easy mockery. Truth is, paleontologists and sex columnists can’t afford to live in Manhattan either — they make less than NYC garbagemen.
The ugly truth is that prestige jobs are fraud lifestyle “jobs” for people whose real money comes from elsewhere, and by “elsewhere” I mean Mom and Dad (or possible Grand-papa.) Maybe it’s old money, maybe Dad just owns a Chevy dealership in Columbus, Ohio. Whatever. These are jobs for rich kids to put on their resumes as they climb the social ladder and network with other rich kids. The math makes this obvious. In real life, the Friends would have been barely solvent even if they were working as doctors and lawyers. In short, it’s a toxic life script that you have to consciously reject.
To a tyro, an ephebe, a mere aspiring acolyte in the rat-faced world, this is terrible news. It means that all that stuff that you were told about doing what you loved came with an asterisk. If someone’s parents are willing to float rent and maybe a vanity masters degree, yeah, they can do what they love. They can enjoy a lifestyle of 30-hour weeks, tall men, beautiful women, champagne brunches, and never work a day in their lives. However, you personally will never enjoy such a luxurious, untaxing life. You’re like a maid in the 18th century. You get to live physically close to people whose lives are on a different track for class reasons.
The “brunchmen lifestyle” is pretty empty, so at least there’s that. Browning nailed it:
The rat-faced man, however, sees through this all. He is hungry, he is interested in survival, just as you are. What I notice isn’t the champagne brunches, fine wine, exotic vacations; I notice that the garbageman makes more than a lot of lawyers. The garbageman is humbly accumulating net worth, and when winter comes, he will say to the beautiful ones, “I carried your garbage for decades, and now you come asking me for help?”
And no matter who you are today, you have a choice which one of these people you are going to be. Guyanese high school dropouts are making six figures while American college grads make minimum wage as baristas. What does that say about us? Can’t we do better than that? Maybe most won’t, but yes, you can, if you unplug your brain and start to choose the right things.