Thursday, December 24, 2009

Aught not

A couple of magazines have started their 2000s decade assessments -- notably New York magazine.
I'm not going to run through the decade politically. Too fraught. Too many open sores. Too tragic. What started as a decade in which America never seemed wealthier, more prosperous and more stable ended with ruin, war and misery. I never thought I'd watch New York burn, as it did on September 11, 2001. I had always been taught that although there would be economic downturns, there were enough economic safety nets in place to prevent a second Great Depression. I thought that hysterical, violent antisemitism was not something I'd ever witness on a large scale.
No, not a good decade. (Although we got at least one year of Barack Obama. I'm happy about that.)

Culturally, I'm not sure the decade was all that great either. In terms of fiction, only Nathan Englander's Ministry of Special Cases, Michael Chabon's Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections were particularly memorable. (Although, I admit to being behind on most of my current fiction.)
Movies also left something to be desired. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was probably the most unique and interesting movie of the decade. And while I'd like to give it another year or two to see if it holds up, The Hurt Locker might well be the best movie of the decade -- it was certainly the best of 2009. Possibly the greatest holocaust movie ever made came out: The Pianist (and props to Inglorious Basterds). There were a few excellent foreign movies like Talk to Her, The Lives of Others and especially 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 days -- which I think is the only other serious contender for best movie of the decade next to The Hurt Locker and Eternal Sunshine.

Comedy fared a little better with SidewaysBorat, The 40-Year Old VirginHarold and Kumar go to White Castle and, of course, Knocked Up. But movies were, on the whole, way better in the 1990s. (Let me put it this way: Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Goodfellas, Mighty Aphrodite and Shakespeare In Love could blow any of those movies out of the water. And those are just the ones I'm thinking of off the top of my head.)
The two things that flourished during the aughts were television and (ironically) journalism.
Journalism (ironic because the field is dying even as it flourishes, and ironic because it was also possibly the most shameful moment in journalism history) saw some truly amazing feats. I'm not sure whether The Times' September 11th coverage will ever be duplicated again. Whether you love or hate Howell Raines it was a moment of genius for that paper. (BTW: one of the best books of the decade was Seth Mnookin's Hard News, which was about the fall of Raines at the Times.) Barton Gellman's book Angler was one of the best political biographies I've ever read. While I was never so enamored with Bob Woodward as a writer, State of Denial and The War Within were essential reading, as were Ron Suskind's books The Price of Loyalty and The One Percent Doctrine. And, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan spawned some of the very best writing of the decade from Dexter Filkins' The Forever War to George Packer's The Assassin's Gate to Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower. There were a lot of others.

Will there ever again be such a moment for journalism? I tend to doubt it. While there will certainly be turbulent, fascinating historical epochs coming up, I'm not sure newspapers will be there to cover them. (I say this with no joy whatsoever. But will a paper like the Times, which can put a bureau in Iraq and a bureau in Afghanistan and a bureau in Italy, still be around and functioning in the same way in 2020? My guess is probably not.)

One should also not forget that it was a shameful moment for journalism. We accepted so many lies without challenge. From the evidence of WMDs in Iraq, to the predictable disintegration of the housing market and the economy, too many journalists accepted the official line and moved on. We have plenty to answer for.

But while 2000-2009 might be something of a last hurrah for journalism, I think television might have reached its peak as never before.

There have been "golden ages" of television before -- like in the 1950s, with shows like The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy. But, unfortunately, a lot of those shows don't hold up so well in 2009. (The two exceptions might be Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows -- which had, among others, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks on the writing staff -- and Sgt. Bilko.)

The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy might be victims of their own success -- they might seem formulaic now because they were duplicated so often. (Although I have my doubts about that -- they were doing a lot of very vaudevillian, shticky material that I'm sure was formulaic then, too.) But, today, television seems a lot sharper and more relevant.

Comedy Central really had a hold on the aughts for laughs. South Park sometimes feels so smart, so interesting, so evil, so withering and uncompromising that it rises to the level of literature. A close runner up is Jon Stewart, whose take on the news (and this might be old hat to say) is many degrees sharper than, say, Wolf Blitzer's.

I'm sort of amazed that Stewart managed to take a concept that had been around since Chevy Chase did the Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live and make it fresh and insightful. Likewise, The Colbert Report spin-off, evolved from a one-joke premise into something likewise interesting. (No, not as good as The Daily Show, but still worth watching.) And, of course, there's the late, lamented Chappelle Show.

Reality TV might be the nadir of our culture, but I also sometimes think its some of the most fascinating sociological window into our troubled country that's ever been dreamed up. No, I don't feel good about admitting this, but I sort of love Reality TV. The aughts had plenty of it.

But the biggest innovator of the decade had to be HBO. True, The Sopranos started in 1999, but it crested in the aughts. Likewise, Curb Your Enthusiasm had certain episodes that were every bit as dark as South Park. Some of the things they did I wasn't crazy about, like Entourage (which is still better than 90% of the stuff on network TV), others unfortunately didn't stick around long enough like Da Ali G Show. I've never really watched Six Feet Under, but those who do tell me it's brilliant. But they did great comedy specials like Dave Chappelle's Killin' Them Softly. And while Bill Maher is incredibly uneven, Real Time had some amazing episodes and bits. The best of the best, however, was The Wire, which might be the greatest television series ever made.

Well, aughts. There you have it. It's been an experience. Not going to say nothing good happened -- but please don't call me again.