Showtime (2015), 10 episodes
There’s a familiar, perhaps distinctively American kind of God whom many of us have consigned to the dustbin of history, but whom we allow to hang around as a museum piece, or as a harmless anachronism invoked only at Thanksgivings and funerals. This is decidedly not the God to whom the irascible, outlandishly miserable writer Shalom Auslander has devoted his career. In a memoir titled Foreskin’s Lament, in short story collections, and, most recently, in a Showtime television series packed with top-shelf talent, he alternately howls at, dances around, bargains with, and spits on a much stranger kind of God than the deity we moderns have so confidently banished from polite society.
Auslander’s nemesis is a God we don’t encounter often these days, either in fiction or popular entertainment. Raised “like a veal” in an ultraorthodox Jewish community in Monsey, New York, he has spent his life wrestling with a God known to non-Jews by the shorthand label “old testament”: vengeful, sadistic, and altogether mysterious. This is the God, Auslander reminds us, who made Sarah barren because she laughed, who punished Job relentlessly for asking “why,” and who killed off Moses just before he could reach the promised land. He is not at all the domesticated, all-loving God so many “nones” and atheists dismiss with an eye roll and a sneer—part therapist, part golf buddy, the patient consoler and companion God who responds to our everyday problems and pleas sent up from dinner table grace. Auslander’s God is much harder to shake, despite many years of estrangement from his family and community; cycles of relapse and recommitment to secular sobriety; and thousands of words written in an effort, he says, to “get that character out of my head, to reframe him, to move on.”
If this all sounds terribly bleak, well, it is. Not for nothing are his books titled Beware of God, Hope: A Tragedy, and the aforementioned Foreskin’s Lament. Yet his work is full of mordant humor and absurd plots, like the one where a man on the brink of death has an out-of-body experience, discovers God is in fact a giant chicken, and doesn’t have the heart to tell his pious family when he recovers.
While much of it plays with Jewish theology and culture, his writing offers a laugh to pretty much anyone who finds Flannery O’Connor’s work as irresistibly funny as it is gruesome. Like many of O’Connor’s characters, Auslander and his various fictional stand-ins are pursued by religion, unable to slam the door on God. In his riotous memoir, Auslander charts many such attempts, from decidedly non-kosher childhood Slim Jims and Big Macs to adolescent porn to hockey-inspired violations of the Sabbath. As an adult he remains unobservant but “cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious.” He believes in God, and he is sure God is out to get him.
Even after marriage, fatherhood, and a successful career, Auslander finds himself in a defensive crouch, fearing the back of the Almighty’s hand across the jaw. His God is still watching, still pissed off, and ready to deliver some payback, he imagines, in the form of a loved one stricken with cancer or a pet crushed under an oncoming truck: “If I’ve met you and liked you at all, I’ve imagined you dead, decapitated, dismembered.” The memoir ends with an uneasy truce as Auslander, rattled by his newborn son’s perilous delivery, agrees to have him circumcised. It is for him a wrenching decision, one that reminds him yet again how ineluctable his religious impulses are.
As frustrating as it is for Auslander to watch others so easily discard their religious upbringing and live blithely God-free, he ultimately finds a kind of honor in his thwartedness. Auslander acknowledges a literary alter-ego in O’Connor’s Christ-obsessed Hazel Motes, of Wise Blood, who, as she put it, tries “with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. . . . Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.” As she wryly reminds us in the preface to Wise Blood, “It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”
Perhaps the time was right for prestige television, now in a “golden age” friendly to provocateurs and tortured artists, to grasp the sardonic comic value in Auslander’s work. The result is his half-hour dramedy, called Happyish (the network’s preferred title to Auslander’s original, Pigs in Shit) and released to one ill-fated season in 2015. Much of Foreskin’s Lament is brought to life here, and what best suits the small screen is the quieter material surrounding family and fatherhood: the struggle to forgive the older generation and to meet one’s obligations to the younger.
Standing in for Auslander himself is Thom Payne, a 44-year-old ad man who reckons with professional obsolescence and the ennui of middle age when a pair of Swedish millennials arrive as creative directors to give his hidebound firm a facelift. With sunny smiles and a lot of marketing gibberish about “concepting,” “disruption,” and “ideation,” Gottfrid and Gustav soon have Thom questioning his future in the business—“Who the f— wants to follow Pepto Bismol on Twitter?”, he wonders. When they send the beloved cartoon Keebler Elves into retirement, replacing them with a Rob Reiner-directed short series featuring live-action little people with “real issues,” Thom also begins to question his mortality, the existence of God, and the meaning of life.
An ad agency might seem an odd choice of venue in which to dramatize the cosmic struggles of Foreskin’s Lament, but Auslander isn’t the only screenwriter to see the appeal in making his spiritual seeker a member of this particular lowbrow creative class. As a purveyor of cheap illusions, an inhabitant of a shallow and merciless corporate culture, the ad man is an archetype perfectly suited to a crisis of conscience. And after all, the God of Auslander’s imagination is essentially made in the image of the corporate executive sharks who populate this world: vindictive, manipulative, egotistical. When the Swedes’ takeover makes it impossible for Thom to ignore the fraudulence of his work, the self-loathing and standard-issue “Is this all there is?!” lamentation feel all too familiar.
Thom’s plaint, with a middle finger raised to the heavens, is much different in tone, though, from that of the executive everyman we’ve seen before. Every episode is packed to the gills with vulgarity, hyperbolic despair about the inanities of the social media age, and highbrow references to writers like Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus.
Led by Steve Coogan, who replaced the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the cast gamely tries to keep up with Auslander’s caustic, rapid-fire dialogue. We’re supposed to find some decency at the core of these malcontents, supposed to relate to their restlessness and hunger for human connection in a foreign world one character describes thus: “It’s Lord of the Flies out there, and everyone over 18 is Piggy.” Buried beneath the rants, filth, world-record-rate f-bombs, and two-bit philosophizing, Happyish might have been a smart, refreshing show: a Dilbert-style workplace satire, a rebuke to the grandiose Mad Men, and leavened with the self-effacing, neurotic charm of Woody Allen’s comedy. Unfortunately, though, the show became shrill and downright exhausting too soon; it ended before it ended. Halfway through the ten-episode season, ears and eyeballs ached from the assault of rage and cleverness. I found myself hankering for a quieter, simpler kind of television.
Think back to the early 1990s (if you can), when a homespun kind of network drama found poignancy in ordinary life. The homes were suburban, the characters middle class, the stories wholesome, the dialogue achingly earnest. The epitome of the genre, and its progenitor, was thirtysomething, which chronicled a circle of friends moving through the travails of marriage, career, and parenthood with no small amount of self-reflection, angst, and montages set to Joni Mitchell. (Younger readers may be more familiar with another confessional, intimate drama by the same creative team, My So-Called Life.) Debuting in 1987, when “yuppie” was both an aspiration and an epithet, the show aired for just four years and never found a mainstream audience, but nonetheless came to achieve a broad, zeitgeist-capturing relevance.
The series co-creators, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, wanted to offer viewers a naturalistic, emotionally honest alternative to souped-up melodramas like Dynasty and Dallas—a sort of Big Chill for the small screen. If it was rough around the edges and often held together by little more than leisurely scenes of people talking unguardedly about their feelings, well, that was the point. At the time it felt daring and new, a herald of a seriousness and artistic merit television audiences hadn’t seen before. When it was released on DVD in 2009, though, even people who had been fans during its heyday found it cloying and embarrassing. Critics dutifully re-watched the series and deemed it a time capsule and nothing more, good for a nostalgia trip but not high-quality television. We’ve gotten used to more darkness and grit in our dramas, delivered with more cinematic polish. For many viewers, that makes thirtysomething today seem as quaintly musty as Father Knows Best seemed in 1987.
While revisiting the series on DVD, critics and fans were perhaps too busy laughing at the outmoded clothes and anachronistic sexual politics to note another, more interesting “time capsule” aspect of the show: its depiction of the advertising business. Viewed alongside Happyish, the differences are stark. In the world of thirtysomething, advertising is treated as respectable work, a relatively guileless trade involving the display of products to their sellers’ best advantage. Colleagues Michael and Elliot first run a boutique ad agency and then seek their fortunes with a larger firm, where they start out as underdogs. Michael once had dreams of being a novelist, and when he locks horns with the boss, a corporate slick he despises and fears becoming, it’s to protest unscrupulous practices like injecting more sex appeal into an ad or stealing a competitor’s idea.
Beyond this kind of routine drama, however, advertising is neither glamorous nor sinister; it’s the kind of profession in which a coworker can be described with a straight face as “the Wallace Stevens of ad copy.” The commercials Michael and Elliot produce have none of the snark or shock value we’re used to seeing today; they feature moms worried about the sugar content of juice or employees “retrosnacking” on their favorite childhood candy to power through an after-hours workload. Both take pride in their craft, and the show gives us plenty of scenes in which they happily brainstorm ideas and pitch them to the firm’s higher ups. And even as he ascends the firm’s food chain, Michael remains, in the scheme of things, a schlubby nine-to-fiver with about the same level of social cachet as, say, an accountant. It’s a far cry from the flashy Manhattan office of Happyish, where, Thom thinks, both the smarmy, cynical old guard and the hot shot young marketing gurus are “whores” or “working for Satan.”
Indeed, if the worlds of Happyish and thirtysomething were to collide, each side’s characters would be horrified by the other’s. Thom, the intellectual manqué, may be ashamed of his profession, but even he would cringe at the hokey campaign Michael and Elliot cook up to sell sneakers. They would be just as likely to scoff and walk out on Gottfrid’s Swedish-accented presentation of the new pieties of high-concept marketing:
We are past the days of advertising campaigns. We don’t need campaigns! It’s one smart idea, and it changes the world. We need ideation! We need social integration, events, moments! . . . Al-Qaeda is a great brand. Why? They don’t make campaigns, they make events! 9/11, 7/7 . . . let’s learn from our enemies here!
Just as the humble banker of yesteryear became a rock star with the rise of Wall Street and the invention of dazzling financial instruments, so too has the internet era transformed the Michaels and Elliots into robber barons of the new creative world, which now holds sway over those who merely make things.
Gottfrid is just a cartoon and a punching bag for cultured despisers like Auslander, but he has plenty of real-world counterparts, and they don’t sound so different from the satirical version. Among the better-known incarnations of the new advertising paradigm is Seth Godin, whose bestselling books tell the story of how yesterday’s ad man became a dinosaur. Traditional advertisements, he says, are no more effective at generating wealth than are old-style farms or factories, which fueled prosperity for a time but withered with the advent of more powerful technologies. Before the internet, advertisers could rest easy in their ability to control media and quantify its impact. They could play a simple numbers game of reaching a swath of potential consumers with a single message. This is the practice Godin disdainfully calls “interruption marketing”:
[The] marketer talks directly to as many consumers as possible, with no intermediary other than the media company. The goal of the consumer is to avoid hearing from the advertiser. The goal of the marketer is to spend money buying ads that interrupt people who don’t want to be talked to!
Now that ideas, not products, are “the engine of our new economy,” sending out unwanted messages about the value of your client’s product is a fool’s errand and a colossal waste of money. The goal, Godin says, is to “ignite consumer networks and then get out of the way and let them talk.” The mechanism is an “an idea that moves and grows and infects everyone it touches”, namely, an “ideavirus.” Once unleashed, a successful ideavirus will be embraced, absorbed into each consumer’s social media identity, and spread.
This is what Gottfrid is getting at when he dismisses Thom’s more straightforward idea for a Coke campaign: “What if, instead of a campaign of commercials, sales pitches, product attributes, of intrusion, really, what if we just created moments? We don’t need stories. We live in a post-story society. We collect and share moments. . . . Consolation marketing is the future!” (His idea, by the way, involves viral videos of puppies, kittens, and babies: “This moment of happiness brought to you by Coke.” The hashtag almost writes itself.) As our online profiles lead us to present carefully constructed, aspirational selves, the products and messages we “like” and “share” carry weight. They tell the world not just what we buy but who we consider ourselves to be.
Happyish is based on Auslander’s time in the trenches at an advertising agency, and when you set the show and the memoir next to each other an irony emerges. Auslander and Thom, as agents of the new marketing, are tasked with creating the kind of insidious message that gets stuck in people’s heads, that worms its way in and lodges there until they forget it wasn’t their own and share it with all their friends as if it were spontaneous.
Yet as Auslander rails against the voices in his head—those of his ultraorthodox parents and rabbis, the biblical prophets, even of God himself—one can’t help but think that religion will outshine anything they produce. It’s the ultimate ideavirus, and God the consummate advertiser. Ads may promise temporary deliverance from the ravages of aging and loneliness through cosmetics or booze or luxury vacations, but they’re a pale imitation of the original campaign, the Abrahamic good news about moral freedom and responsibility, hope, love, and salvation.
Perhaps it’s fitting then, given the divine competition, that most stories about ad men—Auslander’s, Thom’s, and Michael’s included—end with the reluctant hero condemning his trade and leaving it for nobler pursuits and a renewed appreciation for the wife and children. For all the supposed sophistication of our screen-mediated lives, those simple, earthly pleasures, whether we think of them as God-enabled or not, will always transcend the contagions our ad men can unloose.