Sometimes I wake with a phrase echoing in my mind. This morning's phrase was “Everything is what it seems”. I spent much of the morning wondering what it meant (My unconscious has never been enigmatic, but old age has made me slower to understand it).
I’m doing less and less lately; another reason why my mind’s slower. Mostly I watch television.
Apparently 'reality' shows have the largest audience. Our president-elect, a notorious con man, became respectable, at least among people who watch 'reality' shows, by hosting one.
I can see why the networks like these shows. They’re badly written and badly acted, so they must be cheap to make. But I can’t understand why they’re popular. I find them unwatchable. The only shows I watch are family comedies and crime dramas.
The only comedies on TV are family comedies. Their casts are idealized surrogate families for viewers who, like me, have none, or whose families are far from ideal.
The only dramas on TV are crime dramas. I used to assume they satisfy the same craving that murder mysteries used to satisfy for the literate, but now I know better.
The classic murder mystery is a type of pastoral. It takes place in a closed community: usually a bucolic village, or an English country house filled with aristocrats (the locked room mystery is the reductio ad absurdum). Death is not a natural part of life in this ideal community, but a mystery to be solved and a crime to be punished.
The community is closed from the real world, in which death is common: the world of change, which threatens to destroy the rural village and/or aristocracy cherished for its unchanging traditions (cherished most by those for whom it is only a myth).
The closed community of the classic murder mystery resembles a preliterate tribe isolated from the modern world. For them, too, death is a mystery. It’s always caused by an angry spirit, which can be propitiated, or a malevolent magician, who can be killed.
The classic murder mystery fell out of favor because the rural scene in which it’s set is no longer a cherished ideal for most people. We’re all city dwellers now, if only in imagination; especially those of us who live in suburbs, which have all the boredom of village life with none of its charm. The imagined city, exciting and dangerous, is the setting for the police procedural which replaced the classic murder mystery; and the city’s professional police force replaced the village’s eccentric but gifted amateur sleuth.
The city’s police are an anonymous paramilitary force which attempts to impose discipline and order on a disorderly and even more anonymous rabble (The police have an esprit de corps which the rabble lack). But they’re losing the fight against entropy, because nothing in the city is what it seems. The hero’s father/brother/best friend, or the woman he loves, turns out to be the killer he seeks, and the respected politician and/or businessman who rules the city turns out to be a Mabuse-like master criminal.
The wealthy and powerful criminal’s motive isn't gain, because he already has everything a reasonable person could want. He turns to crime seemingly out of boredom, and because he wants to demonstrate his superiority to the law-abiding rabble.
He’s clever and resourceful, cultured and educated, which makes him an outsider. He toys with his victims, and with the police, leaving clues for them and daring them to catch him.
The working class criminal is just as clever and resourceful as the wealthy criminal, and his motive just as unlikely. He’s usually a psychopathic serial killer (There are more serial killers in a week of TV crime drama than in a year of real crime), a socially inept and often unemployed/unemployable drifter who is, despite his ineptitude and lack of education, preternaturally cunning. He also has what appear to be unlimited time and money to carry out his elaborate plots.
The TV crime drama is not what it seems. It’s not a police procedural, but a Gothic melodrama; a paranoid fantasy of being surrounded by enemies high and low, all motivated by irrational, inexplicable malevolence.
People want to trust in their rulers, because the alternative is to trust in themselves and rule themselves, which they can't or won't do. Instead they fear their rulers, because experience has taught them that their rulers are incompetent at best, and at worst insane.
They fear the rabble as well, whom they exploit as their rulers exploit them, so they know the rabble resent them as they resent their rulers.
These fears dominate their fantasies, and are reflected in popular entertainment because they never learned how to deal with their fears in a realistic way. They've always relied on fantasies to protect them from the world, and they don't know how to live without them; or whether they want to.
People pretend not to know that a Hitler or a Trump isn't a hero, who will save them, but a charlatan, who will destroy them. They pretend they don't, but they know everything is what it seems.