This season of America sucks.
People said the show jumped the shark a few seasons back, when the powers that be decided on that whole Trump twist just a couple episodes after the Brexit plot line. I kept watching, even after season upon season of plot threads went nowhere (Ukraine? Impeachment?) and half the cast was abruptly written off (whatever happened to that Steve Bannon guy they were setting up to be the 2017 Big Bad?). But this season, much like late-stage Game of Thrones, just feels like the writers are throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Global pandemic? Nationwide protests? Murder hornets? Kanye West as President?
If you’ve been on the Internet any time in the past four years, you’ve probably seen several tweets to this effect. The world we’re living in now is nothing more than an end-stage TV show: narratively bloated, increasingly nonsensical, dropping plot anvils for the sake of making noise. The meme—television fandom as applied to real life, filtered via the medium of Twitter—first became noticeable in the summer of 2016. By late 2018, it was enough of a phenomenon for the culture critic Constance Grady to comment on it for Vox. It is ubiquitous now. It’s not just that we are living in a simulacrum of the real thing, whatever that real thing is supposed to be. It’s that we’re living in the tail end of it, the slumping final season collapsing under its own recursive weight.
There are, of course, a host of reasons for this. Some are quite obvious: We elected a reality television-star as President, one whose political stratagems, such as they are, come directly from the push-pull-swerve playbook of pop culture. We live increasingly disembodied lives, all the more so during lockdown—experiencing reality through layers of touchscreens and memes and irony. We have less sex than we used to. We watch more porn. We meet, date, work, eat remotely, funneling the basics of human experience (food, companionship) through apps designed to both mediate and alienate us from physical experience.
The liberal vision of self-definition through choice—and desire—has by Season 255 collapsed into self-definition-through-consumption. We create our personal brands—for implicit or explicit consumption by others—by the judiciously advertising what we’ve consumed: that Instagrammed matcha latte, that vacuously provocative article for Quillette. We consume information, ideas, Sweetgreen salads, and television episodes through a self-reflecting layer of exchange—time and effort into money, clicks into images and things.
It is the kind of alienation that Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno critiqued as early as 1944 in The Dialectics of Enlightenment, arguing that “the whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry. The familiar experience of the moviegoer, who perceived the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception, has become the guideline of production.” It was also foretold by Walter Benjamin, who in his 1939 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argued that “mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”
But this contemporary alienation, peculiar to the age of the Internet, is alienating in an even more surreal way than, say, the experience of watching a Hollywood film. We are alienated not just from the external (which is to say, political and natural) world, but also from ourselves, even as we actively shape the former. In the Internet Age, where we are both consumers and creators of content—and creators of ourselves as content to be consumed—we combine alienation from our experiences with a fetish for shaping them.
That’s why the television metaphor resonates: It replaces a top-down model of consumption with a dynamic and reciprocal one. TV writers are as prone to model their plotting decision on fan desires as they are on artistic integrity, especially once a show has exhausted its initial presence. Consider Gossip Girl’s rehabilitation of onetime attempted-rapist Chuck Bass into the series’ bad boy romantic lead—driven in large part by the breathless response of fandom—or the tendency of Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas to tweak his season-long mysteries in response to how close the audience comes to guessing the culprit. It’s not just television, either; the gargantuan success of Harry Potter was due, in part, to the Internet-based world of fan fiction that sprung up around it.
Digital fan culture, then, and the wider relationship to media it engenders, is necessarily a two-way street, one that blends alienation with agency. We do not simply fetishize our own destruction, à la Benjamin, but actively participate in a system in which our own personal brands—miniature cultural properties in their own right—are inextricable from the entertainment they both model and shape. We create ourselves—as characters and products, as swipeable dates, hireable candidates and Likeable friends—in the pursuit of social and literal capital: our selfhood reduced to the acquisitive sum of our choices.
One might well think that there is something preferable, or at least freeing, about this culture. It gives individuals the power to access, shape, and reform the discourse around them.
Yet the collective result of our seemingly-unfettered free choice is not aesthetic liberation but rather a kind of absurd mishmash: a world in which nothing feels fully real, and in which the tools we use to make sense of reality—language, story, our own experience—all collapse into self-referential nihilism. In our newly democratized culture industry, we all participate in the alienation of ourselves and one another.
Sometimes, this alienation ends in violence. Far too often, we’ve seen how a blend of irony, nihilism, and a frustrated, impossible hunger for authenticity has created reactionary edgelords like the perpetrators of the 2014 University of California—Santa Barbara killings, the 2018 Toronto van attack, or the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shootings: young men radicalized through online forums to commit mass murder, coded simultaneously as a necessary breaking of ironic remove and, somehow, the greatest troll of all—just a few kills in a video game.
But other times, the alienation just ends in a form of mainstream accelerationism: a mass hunger for the end of the world, even as we roll our collective eyes at its banality when it seems to come close.
The jumping of the American shark contains within it more than a little hunger for an actual apocalypse: for some storyline big and profound and intense enough to render actually meaningful the diversely nonsensical strands of plot line we’ve lived through, for the powers that be to show us a finale that (as rare on television as in life) makes the whole show worth watching.
We’re not there yet. Until then, stay tuned.