Swingtown, the new show from CBS is coming this summer. (It starts tonight at 10.) We here at This Blog are keen to see it, but braced for disappointment.
The question for us is whether it’s going to be good anthropology or bad anthropology.
Mad Men, a show that excavates roughly the same time period, is bad anthropology. Yes, I understand that it’s good TV. I get that. But it would have been better TV if it were better anthropology.
Mad Men is cable TV acting like network TV at the very moment network TV is struggling to act like cable TV. That is to say, Mad Men trades shamelessly in stereotypes and generalities. These are sins David Simon (The Wire) demonstrates now to be unbecoming and, with his precedent, unnecessary. Or, put it this way: if Mad Men had been directed with the feeling, detail and subtlety that Simon brought to The Wire, it would been a very different, much better, show.
Nancy Franklin just reviewed Swingtown in The New Yorker and the signs are good and bad. She tells us that the creator of the show, Mike Kelley, calls himself a "bannister-slat" kid, someone who looked down from a seat on the staircase to the parties below. This means he’s did his ethnographic homework. Even if he was only 9.
But Franklin has her doubts. She finds Kelley guilty of a "check list" approach to the markers of 70s, including Tab and Dr. Scholl’s. She finds some of the dialog risible. She finds the music badly chosen and poorly used.
But I am nervous at taking Franklin’s at her word. After all, this is a woman who calls Man Men authentic. (No bannister-slat ethnography for her?). And in the following passage, I think she puts her critical bona fides at risk.
By 1976, some of the currents of the sixties–women’s liberation and youth culture–had become mainstream; family men sported long sideburns; schoolteachers looked a little more unbuttoned; mothers started wearing pants and shorter skirts, and going to work, and divorce had lost most of its shock value. At the same time, the popular culture being generated largely stank–and people just went along with it! It was all so mystifying. (emphasis added)
Those last two sentences are a problem. There is a charge in anthropology called "presentism." This is the criticism that awaits people who use the standards of one historical moment to judge another historical moment. (This is the temporal version of ethnocentrism: the charge brought against people who use the standards of one culture to judge another.) The point of anthropology or good TV or good criticism is not to sit in judgment, but to look, in this case, for connections between the polyester and the liberation turbulence of the 1970s. When Franklin presumes to pass judgment on the 1970s in this way, we must wonder whether she’s in a position to judge Swingtown well.
But, hey, I like Nancy Franklin. She is smart. She is a great gift to popular culture, a critic who does for TV what Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) does for Hollywood. And this is, I think, the nub. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be the brilliant product of contemporary culture and turn around and scorn that culture. More exactly: if it was capable of producing you, popular culture must have been a whole lot smarter than you think. The anthropological fact of the matter is that bannerslat-kids can’t be that much better than the culture that produces them. To repudiate what produced you (to say popular culture "stank"), this is one contradiction, one intellectual promiscuity, Nancy is not allowed.
Franklin, Nancy. 2008. That Seventies Show. The New Yorker. June 9 and 16, 2008, pp. 132-133, p. 132.
McCracken, Grant. 2007. Mad Men and the last stereotype left standing. This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. July 20th, 2007. here.