Monday, October 6, 2008

More and more, life is a sitcom

I recall a conversation I'd had with a friend in the mid 90s. My friend was ranting about the sitcom Married With Children, a comedy centering on the disfunctional Bundy family, headed by serial loser Al Bundy. His distaste didn't stem so much from the show's content itself; he wasn't concerned whether, as sitcoms went, it was funny or not. Rather, he was lamenting about what it said about the people who watched the show. As his theory went, these people could always tune into the show and--no matter how much their own lives sucked--tell themselves at least my life isn't as bad as the Bundys'.

I think he was on to something there. But as I reexamine his theory, some ten-plus years later, my own view is a little different. Instead of looking for evidence that their lives aren't that bad, people are actually looking for validation that even if their lives kinda suck, they might still be able to live them in a meaningful, funny sort of way. A better illustration of this might be the late-90s show Suddenly Susan. This show starred Brooke Shields as Susan, a woman who recently left her rich fiancee at the altar and finds herself, for the first time in her life, truly living on her own. It's a scary scenario, but one that many people have faced in their lives. How attractive this show must have been, then for--say--any middle-aged recent divorcees out there, or anyone else in a suddenly-on-my-own situation. Instead of struggling to provide for herself and deal with with the emotionally-nightmarish situation situation she finds herself in, Susan winds up in a laugh-a-minute job with wacky friends and co-workers... a job she landed because of, not in spite of, her recent break-up.

Hey, if Susan can do it, maybe I can too!

No doubt the producers of Gary Unmarried, a show about a newly-divorced man suddenly facing life on his own, are banking on the same sort of mentality. Though I don't plan to watch the show myself (what can I say? I'm happily married!) I'll be curious to see how well it does.

So what's the point of all of this?

More and more, this mentality is creeping into real life. Nowhere is this more evident than with presidential politics. A frequent criticism levied upon presidential candidates--usually from Republicans onto Democratic candidates--is one of "elitism". On it's face, this is usually a laughable claim to begin with. Particularly in the current political race, watching a candidate who married into great wealth (and who owns more houses than he can count) claim that the opposing candidate who created his own wealth by his own hard work (and who owns, like most of us, a single home) is like watching Peg Bundy try to convince Al that going to the dentist won't be painful.

But there's a reason that the elitism argument exists. More and more, Americans are looking for someone like them to lead the country. No longer do presidential elections involve the search for the best, brightest person who's willing to move the country forward. Instead, we want someone like us. It's as if we're saying, "Hey, if that person can become president, then I maybe I can be successful, too!"

And so we vote an average American into the White House.

The problem is that the average American is, well, average. We saw for the past eight years what happens when we vote not for the best candidate, but for the guy we'd most like to "have a beer with". Rather than voting for Al Gore, a candidate orders of magnitude more intelligent than "Dubya", we voted for the guy who was mediocre at best with his life's endeavors, yet who we thought seemed friendlier. And when we had a chance four years ago to vote him out of office, we instead became intimidated by John Kerry's big words and nuanced arguments, and again voted for the simpler, "commoner" candidate.*

That Sarah Palin is even being considered by any American as a reasonable VP candidate is strong evidence that we're continuing this trend. That people who like her "folksy charm" are trying desperately to convince themselves that she's not that bad (she didn't break down in tears during the debate, did she?) says that many Americans are still more interested in who's "nicer", not who's more qualified.

It's probably a trend that won't be reversed any time soon. I only ask two things. First, that those who still do seek the most qualified--and not the most average--candidate make it known that there are still Americans who demand competency. And second, on any upcoming McCain/Palin interviews, can we just go ahead and add a laugh track already?

* How George W Bush, with his undeserved life of privilege and wealth ever lead to his being considered a "commoner" is still beyond me, but I digress...