The Great American TV Show

Who in the world can take their eyes off America? The present administration is bent on “deconstructing” government at train wreck velocity. 

While the country goes off the rails, we find ourselves binge watching a show that's lasted an astonishing 240 seasons. But I wonder, will the longest-running democracy be renewed for a 241st? 


Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

With a reality star in the oval office the analogy to TV is not trivial. As unscripted as he may act, he’s staying doggedly in character and the national narrative is adhering to small-screen conventions. 

Most stories in literature or movies have a beginning, a middle, and an end. TV is different. True, you can break down individual episodes into three or four acts and the "new TV" shows on cable and streaming services track season-long story arcs, but mostly it’s middle stuff. TV doesn’t really go anywhere. Much like elected officials seeking another term, the ultimate purpose of a show is to be renewed for another season. 

The thing that drives every good show is “the story engine”. Emmy and Golden Globe winning writer-producer, Erik Bork, eloquently explains on his blog, The Flying Wrester: From House to Everybody Loves Raymond, Sex and the City or The Sopranos it’s “the endlessly repeatable story engine—the problematic situation(s) for the main characters that is going to create a new story every week”.  Each episode returns the viewer to the customary locations, where the same characters face habitual challenges. It’s the genius of the writers and actors that keeps the familiar fresh and surprising.

Typically, the heart of the story engine is an irreconcilable conflict—like wanting to be a drug king pin and family man at the same time, à la Breaking Bad; or behaving like perfect citizens and good soviet spies while walking the tightrope of integrity and deceit in The Americans.  Tension that can never be resolved is the fuel that propels narrative. If it is resolved, the series crashes to an end. Which is why the final episodes of TV shows are often so disappointing. Resolution is in an anathema. Their stories are built to cycle in perpetuity.

In the current political landscape, resolution as a country seems further away now than ever before. All the irreconcilable conflicts that are built into the foundations of the United States have bubbled up and are rupturing the surface of civility—race, class, federalism vs states rights, nativism vs immigration, rural vs urban cultures and educated elites vs the plain-speaking folk, isolationism vs internationalism to list the most blatant. 

This is nothing new. If you picked up pamphlets and newspapers from various points in the nation’s history, they would be full of the same issues. Blurring your vision between the lines you would picture the timeless American TV show, the cast would have different names—the Know Nothings instead of the Tea Party, Suffragettes replacing Feminists and The Freedmen’s Aid Society for Black Lives Matter—but they’d be driven to act by the compulsions we’re experiencing today.  

While history repeats, there’s also a palpable desire that status quo has to go. If the recent election was about anything it’s that any change is better than no change. And now, for the first time, having rode a wave of discontent, the people in power have an end game in mind, something beyond getting the show renewed. 

As the historian Tobias Stone asks, “Are we on the road to regime change in America”? Ironically, with consummate media professionals in the White House and all eyes focused on them, the real action maybe taking place offscreen. 

But there’s another possible scenario. The shear velocity at which the administration’s story engine is running may just blow the whole thing up.  

Stay tuned. And keep a fire extinguisher handy.