Most people don’t go to church anymore. Charles Murray notes that regular religious attendance is pretty restricted to the White Upper Class. But people, still, even with network audience erosion, park themselves in front of the TV every day. Television, and the attitudes it both reflects and helps create, in a feedback loop, is very interesting. It is a giant, two-way mirror into both public attitudes and elite opinion (nothing on TV, overwhelmingly, reflects anti-elite opinion) that if examined closely can predict trends and emerging opinions.
The Series Finale of NBC’s “Chuck,” one of the most unusual shows on the air, certainly helps the argument that TV’s messages are worthy of examination. They also reinforce the observation of David Mamet, who in “the Secret Knowledge” said that years ago, love stories consisted of two people who loved each other intensely, and overcame barriers to be together. Today, love stories consist of people who don’t really like each other, but decide for outside reasons to make a go of a relationship. Telling, that is. There is a reason for it. And another.
The first reason is of course, that today’s society has absolute freedom. Freedom to be with whoever you choose. There are no Scarlett Letters anymore, nor forbidden love. Heck even Gays can marry, if not in say, South Dakota, then certainly California, or Hawaii, or Massachusetts. Gays can cohabit as partners anywhere. Openly gay personalities are beloved on TV, from Ellen, to Neil Patrick Harris, to the entire cast it would seem of Fox’s “Glee,” beloved of tweens, teen girls, and their moms. Almost any kind of relationship is possible, which is why Hollywood mines the past, ala Jane Austen, or various disabilities, such as The Surrogate where a man in an iron lung loses his virginity to a sex therapist played by Helen Hunt.
There are no real barriers, that are believable, so the barriers Hollywood uses to amp up tension, are two people who have their own internal barriers: at least one does not like the other, and there is no mutual longing found fairly quickly. Instead outside forces combine to make people stick together. Generally involving one or more of the following actors and actresses: Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up, the Ugly Truth, 27 Dresses, Life as We Know It); Gerard Butler (also the Ugly Truth, the Bounty Hunter, PS I Love You), Sandra Bullock (While You Were Sleeping, the Proposal), Matthew McConaghey (Failure to Launch), and any Jennifer Aniston movie. “Chuck” definitely falls into this category.
This is generally Hollywood’s formula now: two people meet, one falls for the other, the other not. Outside forces (drunken one-night stand pregnancy, morning show stunts, immigration enforcement/deportation, a “spy assignment” as an asset handler) force the (almost always the woman) to put up with the obnoxious guy and over a period of being exposed to his “real” good qualities and inspiring better, more adult behavior, leading to finally a “real” relationship. Almost always, the deck is “stacked” by having handsome, virile men play the man-boys, Josh Duhamel, Butler, Owen Wilson, McConaghey, Ryan Reynolds, or “Chuck’s” own Zachary Levi. Heigl famously objected to being paired in the movie “Knocked Up” with fattie Seth Rogen, which was just a performance. Even professional actresses doing a performance for a movie soon forgotten by everyone involved, object to being “insulted” by being paired on-screen with a less than A-List Alpha A-hole. In their minds it makes them look ugly.
The second, more hidden reason is that Hollywood itself has little confidence, reflected in both its own hot-house relationship failures, and ugly power dynamics, and the larger outside world, in any lasting, real relationship. This is particularly true in entertainment aimed at women. This is what guys tend to like:
Dr. Pepper Ten? Well it is funny, “not for women,” chiefly because of the total absence of any kind of relationship drama.
Hollywood relationships don’t last long. This has an effect particularly on writers, who tend to reflect this difficulty in what they create because they see it and know it well. The demands of catering to “ups and downs” in a TV or movie relationship, aimed at attracting women, makes this an easy short-cut as well. This caters to what blogger Dalrock calls the Endless Courtship Fantasy, such as the “Christian” movie “Fireproof,” where the husband has to win his divorcing wife back all over again, constantly. Or the Vow (where a car accident leaves a wife with no memory of a husband who must woo her all over again). It is the fantasy of being eternally young, eternally pursued, eternally not having to make a choice, eternally the center of a man’s attention. A roller coaster, and a proven way to attract women, either as a Pick Up Artist (that’s a classic technique — push/pull attraction, designed to elicit high highs and low lows of feeling that women get hooked on) … or a television or movie script writer. Offering the same thing. Because it works.
In short, Endless Courtship is the female immature version of playing WoW all day. Or slacking through life. No way to build a lasting relationship, that is critical for creating and sustaining a family. Creating and sustaining a family requires an adult moving-beyond passion, ups/downs in emotions, in favor of stability and sacrifice that kids need. That is what the nuclear family is all about, being more than just two people feeding the need (of one) to create intense emotion(s). Rather, mature and stable self-sacrifice and mutual dependency that raising healthy kids demands. Increasingly, both on-screen and in wider life, that sort of mutual self-sacrifice is just not in the cards, save for the few genetically blessed or the upper classes.
Not when ultimate freedom means walking away. How sad is that? That love stories depend on shadowy government agencies, or threats of deportation, or some bounty hunter, or taking care of a friend’s baby after they die, to fall in love and get married? But that is the state of romance in movies and TV today, reflecting the reality of ultimate freedom. Anyone can and will walk away in a heartbeat. Sickness and health? More like, “Not happy, see you, bye!” Increasingly, relationships are defined by movies, TV, and real life, as endless courting not mature devotion. The attitude of endless courting, following an obvious “Happy Divorce” metaphor, and no actual mature relationship, characterized the finale in “Chuck.”
Which is a shame, since there were many things that made “Chuck” unique: observations on relative advantages in intelligence in men and women; how truly repulsive omega males are to women (and how that is behaviorally based), and why Omega males stay that way; the idea of “improvement” of a beta male into a credible Alpha, with the help of family, friends, and (naturally) a hot, tough, but underneath sensitive woman. Certainly the show encapsulated the idea that it took an act of God (or his replacement: the Government) to put a man and a woman who obviously belonged together, well, together.
One of the really unique observations in “Chuck” was intelligence. The Bartowski siblings, Chuck and his older sister Ellie, are both highly intelligent, and attractive, tall people. Their father was depicted as a super-genius (and played by Scott Bakula). But Chuck’s intelligence is consistently played as one reason for his lack of confidence and success with women generally, and the beautiful spy-handler he falls for in particular (Sarah, played wonderfully by Yvonne Strahowski). Star Zachary Levi does a great job portraying fumbling nervousness because he can imagine, in painful detail, the rejection, the mistake-making, the obvious disadvantages that his character’s real persona (as opposed to his spy alias) create for him. His sister, who is shown to be equally as intelligent, and a Doctor, has no such problems. She is the pursued, and had been won by a guy who is both a Greek God (Ryan McPartlin), and a fellow Doctor. For her, intelligence was a plus, her brains plus beauty won her the top guy, who Chuck and best-pal Morgan (the incomparable Joshua Gomez) nickname “Captain Awesome.” Because the guy is indeed, awesome.
Time and time again, Chuck over-thinks things, in approaching women, like he would approach a video game, or computer program, or any other highly technical problem. He also obsesses over particular women and gets one-itis, shown as a weakness on the show repeatedly. His great strength (sustained focus) thus becomes a hideous weakness, one that in the series pilot shows him bailing out of his own birthday party to avoid the inevitable humiliation around girls. This quandary is familiar to any guy who has been around high-IQ men and women. The women have no real problem, for the most part, in social settings, while the guys around women are ill at ease. Because all their strengths: obsessive focus, over-thinking, attacking complexity, produces failure after failure. And they don’t know why. After all, it brings them success in work.
Also fascinating was the Beta Male/Omega Male hang-out of the “Buy More,” a retail hell based loosely on Best Buy (with elaborate parody clothing and sets). Clearly the writers had worked retail, and the stupid employee hijinks (‘Mystery Crisper’ where best pal Morgan eats blindfolded long-lost employee lunches in the break room fridge) ring true for any who have ever worked retail. As do the Omega Male characters, particularly Lester and Jeffrey (Vik Sahay, Scott Krinsky, comic gold). Two guys so low on the totem pole they can’t even see up, and who consequently lack any ambition or motivation other than to be difficult and destructive. “Chuck,” as the leader of the group of Omega Males, is shown as their check from disaster,as a natural leader, but one whose lack of any woman in his life leads to “Going his own way” which amounts to going nowhere. A man who opts out of society, who has no hope of girlfriend or family life, easily ends up like Lester or Jeffrey. As Jeffrey put it, “Off by eight. Hammered by eight-fifteen.” That’s clearly where Chuck is headed, before Sarah shows up.
Slowly but surely, Chuck helps pull not only higher Omega male pal Morgan, but even Jeffrey and Lester out of Omega-dom, and for Morgan into an actual, real, sustainable relationship with a decent girl, and Jeffrey and Lester into some semblance of human functionality. That was a nice touch, though for much of the series, female fans found Jeffrey and Lester predictably appalling instead of funny. If you were a guy you understood. They were just difficult. Because they had no motivation to be otherwise.
Also interesting was the growth of Chuck as a character into a more commanding, assertive, confident, and important man, therefore worthy of sexiness. The deck was stacked again, with Zachary Levi’s height and good looks helping things along, and his native intelligence shown to be an asset in “work” be it the useless “Buy More” retail hell work, or “spy work” (which bore as much resemblance to reality as Get Smart or Man from UNCLE). This the female fanbase liked. There are, after all, only so many Alpha males. And everyone likes a fixer-upper, as long as it is not a complete gut job. Merely a coat of paint, some new floors, and you’re done! So too was the frustrations of the super-spies (Strahowski’s “Sarah” and Adam Baldwin as “Casey”) with the retail hell idiocy of a strip mall environment, though Baldwin’s character dealt with it better, being a man. As dominant and assertive and comfortable as the spy Sarah was in colorful and exotic settings, the mundane world was a challenge and a mystery to her. The show clearly depicted the mundane, boring, grindingly meaningless life at the “Buy More” as better tolerated by the men, who could put up with it better, than the female characters.
But the center of the show was basically the observation of David Mamet, that two people who had no real love for each other try and make a relationship; again with the Government instead of God putting them together. The relationship was unequal, of course, and in the “Knocked Up” mode instead of the “female pursuit” mode of say, “the Proposal” where the chick pursues the hot guy. Here it is the guy pursuing the hot chick. Endlessly. And unequally, since the show took three seasons for the girl to even acknowledge she loved the main character, and another after that for her to marry him.
And … if that is the view of Hollywood, on what makes romance? The view preached to every woman (and gay) watching at home? [Chuck did skew somewhat male, as this post shows, being number 4 in male skewing in 2010.] Well the nuclear family is doomed. At best, one can be a hot and intelligent woman and find herself courted by a semi-Greek God and fellow med-student. But at worst, the intelligent man finds he must constantly be proving how Alpha he is, and how “romantic,” by courting the woman endlessly, forever. Even after marriage. All that time on romance means no time for family formation. Ever. If you want to look at declining birth rates, one need only look at the social dynamics created by absolute freedom. It pretty much demands all available effort be put into constant courtship and romance, at the expense of starting a family for all but the most Alpha of men.
In the show’s finale, Sarah, reverts her to the cold, hard, tough assassin she started out as, via the hackneyed (“the Vow” movie) device of memory loss. She does not regain her memory, and she shares only a kiss and some laughs with the hero, before the show fades out. Given that the show required three years for her character to even have feelings and act on them, and another year to marry the guy, what is shown on-screen is a “Happy Divorce” where the girl, now back to where she was, but with more human emotions, moves on with her life. While the guy, stuck again with a super-computer in his brain, has no money, no future, no motivation (lacking critically the girl), and now no extended family/friends, since they’ve all moved on to other things. Given the lack of warmth, trust, or any sign of “love,” by the Sarah character, the show seems to say that even when made into a credible Alpha, any real difficulty means at best a happy Good-bye (the show is titled, in typical Chuck fashion, “Chuck vs. the Good-bye.”)
Fan Opinion was mixed, some loved, it, others not so much. [Most of the commenters there are obviously female, and thus a useful peek into how they saw the show.]
The whole finale was of course, a thinly-disguised metaphor for divorce. The heroine loses all feelings and happy memories for the hero, is manipulated by an outsider villain (who resembled a fat, sleazy divorce lawyer), is cold and resentful to the hero throughout, never trusts or believes in him, removes herself from his family and friends, leaves several times, and in the end shares some happy reminiscence of good times past and not well recalled. A “happy divorce,” but a divorce nevertheless. You could say that the shows writers and creators did not even buy the show’s emotional premise — that the two leads belonged together and would end up together. A fairly compelling portrait of Marriage 2.o, in Health but in Sickness, for richer but not poorer, to have but not to hold, requiring endless courtship, could not have been better constructed on any show in Hollywood.
And what is frustrating is that emotionally, psychologically, this is one big fat lie. Particularly to women, who end up believing it. Does Demi Moore look happy to you? Doing “Whipits” and K2 Spice (the former is the nitrous oxide from Whipped Cream cans, the latter some synthetic weed) is not the act of a happy woman. Particularly not indulged with one’s grown, 23 year old daughter. The Daily Mail reports she is being treated for anorexia and other issues after suffering convulsions from Whipits and K2 Spice. Once one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, she now looks like the picture above. Madonna, and other former beauties all share the same fate. Meanwhile soon-to-be ex husband Ashton Kutcher has no worries. Stepping right into the Charlie Sheen shoes on camera and in real-life, he’s more popular than ever and has been asked back to co-star in “Two and A Half Men.”
Both dramatically, and in real life, the challenge of ultimate freedom, and choice, where women and men can walk away from marriage, at any time, for any reason, makes the selection of the best, most faithful and loyal partner one can get, critical. Women in particular, since they lose attractiveness far quicker than men, walk a razor’s edge. One false move, one bad choice, and there is no Second or Third Act for them. Their romantic lives are ruined, and with them the chance for most (save the wealthiest celebrities) at any possibility of a happy family life. This ought to be the real driving dramatic choice, and matching one in real life? How do I know that the last best hope I have for a guy who will stick with me when I get old and ugly is not walking past right now? That is the dramatic situation women ought to be given, by the Church of Television.
What was once the norm, the ordinary, the White Picket fence and nice suburban home (shown endlessly this final season of Chuck as the just-out-of-reach fantasy for Chuck and Sarah) is now out of reach for all but the most blessed, and shown so repeatedly on TV. The smartest of women who get won by guys like “Captain Awesome,” but not those “married to their careers” (such as Sarah). Indeed the crutch of career-ism for women, and the dead-end (quite literally) that it implies, was a major theme on “Chuck.” That’s contrasted of course by a career. Chuck’s sister Ellie, first engaged, then married, to a fellow doctor she fell for in med school, certainly has a career. But it does not consume her, rather family matters of her own, her luckless brother, desire for a kid, desire for the best for her kid when she has her, all drive her endlessly. Her job is just her job. Important but not the dominant feature of her emotional landscape. It is merely how she earns money for her family, not the endpoint of all ambition and feelings. This is why Ellie, is happy and Sarah is not. SHE has a husband, and a baby, and a career where her native intelligence and caring wisdom matter. One that requires neither coldness, nor “just following orders brutality,” nor constant lying and manipulation.
Because freedom cuts both ways. And absolute freedom, and the propensity to walk away, creates Lemon Markets. One that hurts both buyers and sellers, and creates a degraded, debased market:
Akerlof’s paper uses the market for used cars as an example of the problem of quality uncertainty. A used car is one in which ownership is transferred from one person to another, after a period of use by its first owner and its inevitable wear and tear. There are good used cars (“cherries”) and defective used cars (“lemons”), normally as a consequence of several not-always-traceable variables such as the owner’s driving style, quality and frequency of maintenance and accident history. Because many important mechanical parts and other elements are hidden from view and not easily accessible for inspection, the buyer of a car does not know beforehand whether it is a cherry or a lemon. So the buyer’s best guess for a given car is that the car is of average quality; accordingly, he/she will be willing to pay for it only the price of a car of known average quality. This means that the owner of a carefully maintained, never-abused, good used car will be unable to get a high enough price to make selling that car worthwhile.
Therefore, owners of good cars will not place their cars on the used car market. The withdrawal of good cars reduces the average quality of cars on the market, causing buyers to revise downward their expectations for any given car. This, in turn, motivates the owners of moderately good cars not to sell, and so on. The result is that a market in which there is asymmetrical information with respect to quality shows characteristics similar to those described by Gresham’s Law: the bad drives out the good (although Gresham’s Law applies to a different situation).
“Lemon market” effects have also been noted in other markets, such as used computers . There are also parallels in the insurance market, where, unless those least likely to need insurance (i.e., those least likely to get in accidents) are forced to buy insurance, it is those most likely to need insurance compensation who tend most to buy insurance.
If you look at modern relationships, outside those of say, Ellie and Awesome in “Chuck” (akin to the Upper Class, i.e. both are “vetted” as medical students, intelligent, highly disciplined, high impulse control, and put together by an institution, in their case med school), information asymmetry, rules. People don’t commit, because the cost of getting burned is high, i.e. lost time (particularly for women who have less of it) with someone else. Since it is hard to tell if a man is quality or not, superficial attributes such as styling and “hotness” tend to dominate. But over-committing to the “Lemon” (say, Ashton Kutcher), leads to disaster. Meanwhile, a car looking beat up superficially, but sound in all other aspects, tends to get devalued because the soundness in other aspects is basically, undiscoverable absent commitment.
That is the conundrum that Hollywood tries to solve in Romantic Comedies. The women don’t commit, because even though the guys look like say, Ryan Reynolds, or Josh Duhamel, or Gerard Butler, or Zachary Levi, they’ve been burned before, are skeptical of the “market value” of the prospective mate, and approach romance like a used-car buyer while consumed with careerism to fill an empty romantic void. [Really, it is remarkable how often Hollywood shows this.] In a very real sense the female leads of romantic comedies are in a used car market. Gone are the intermediaries, such as relatives, (or med school in the case of Ellie and Awesome), friends, churches, and the like in such a highly mobile and anonymous society. Therefore, how do they get together? Their mutual best friends die in a car accident (how romantic!) and they have to raise their orphaned infant together. The INS will deport a female big shot exec unless she engages in a sham marriage. A one-night drunken stand regretted instantly by the woman gets her pregnant. A driven super-spy must provide protection and handling to the CIA and NSA’s only spy-supercomputer in human form, one nerdy guy with sexy Alpha potential. The two are driven together until the real value of the (generally guy) is apparent. A girl’s value is easily sussed out here: attractive, intelligent, faithful. Not much needed to discover. The man is not so easily discovered.
The show’s creators understood this, since they milked it for years, as the Sarah character slowly through forced interaction with Chuck found his true market value, and fell in love with him. Obviously budget concerns plagued the show (pushing to flash-backs to save cash), as did the writers falling in love with symmetry, the Chuck character taking the lead on the beach to match Sarah in the pilot, as she not he struggles with a new situation — marriage to a guy who loves her but for who she feels nothing, and does not believe in as a man, a spy (critical for how she evaluates men), or her husband. Laughs and a kiss as they say good-bye, so Chuck can woo her all over again. Maybe.
And that is just a lie. In a society where men can also choose at will, and walk away, with freedom just a lawyer and financial sacrifice away, re-courting is a fantasy. There is always a woman younger, hotter, and prettier, with less baggage and emotional instability, to be found by any man worth having (i.e. that other women want). Endless courting just means men won’t put in the effort, and bounce around in semi-slackerdom ala Lester and Jeffrey, or PUA douchery, perhaps one interspersed with the other.
It was a cheap and easy out, for the show’s writers and creators, and like all cheap and easy outs, revealing in how it exposes Hollywood’s true beliefs. Fundamentally, Hollywood seems to believe that yes, there is something wrong with how men and women (largely don’t) come together as they should. But its solution is endless romance, which prevents family formation. That furthermore only a blessed few, as signified generally by “correct” occupations (Doctors are seldom villains) can achieve marriage and family, without falling into the trap of Endless Courtship to validate (oh so obviously) poor self-images of their female audience.
The show did alright in the ratings, but nothing like it did once just a few years ago (which was around 2.0 in 18-34 Adults). Clearly the endless romance focus, and lack of “seal the deal” stuff with the Sarah character, turned off the nerdy guys who wanted Yvonne Strahowski as their fantasy girlfriend, without bringing in any women who wanted Zachary Levi as their perfectly acceptable “fixer-upper Alpha” to cover the loss, let alone improve upon it.
I can’t remember a show before that depicted a nerdy, geeky guy as the hero. One who (for a while at least) credibly got the girl. And one that depicted the retail-hell underside of “Going your own way” which amounts to going nowhere, though in very male style. The show at its best was funny, with a lot of physical humor based on humiliating (and therefore hilarious) retail outfits the sexy female super spy Sarah was forced to wear as part of her cover. I’ll miss the show, and the fantastic performances by gifted actors, who were better than the scripts most of the last few years: Adam Baldwin, Yvonne Strahowski (terrifically funny in a slow-burn way), Zachary Levi, Joshua Gomez, Ryan McPartlin, Sarah Lawrence (criminally under-appreciated and under-used), and the great Scott Krinsky and Vik Sahay.
But its failures are instructive. It shows that Hollywood still does not have a handle on romance, in a world of endless freedom and eternal choices. Nor, sadly, does much of America.