…and neither does June. The Cleavers have long since left the building. Good, in a way, because their saccharine worldview bore little resemblance to reality, and any small similarity applied only to middle-class white citizens. Bad, because their sheer innocence is gone, along with the peacefulness of their lives and their admiration of virtue. In the 21st century, nobody wants to be them. I find that profoundly sad, at this point in my life. I realize that the family in Leave It to Beaver was woefully politically incorrect and unenlightened by today’s standards, but there was an essential goodness and optimism about them that we simply don’t see anymore. Anywhere. Ever.
Instead, we seem to have devolved into a very dark operational mode. We try to hope for the best, but we’re much more focused on preparing for the worst, and rightly so. The last sixty years has certainly taught us that disasters routinely happen; all too often, they’re unspeakable ones. We go about our days, as Freddy Mercury so compellingly phrased it, “waiting for the hammer to fall.”
An exceedingly trivial event brought me to these particular musings. I was watching the season 7 finale and the season 8 debut episode of Chicago Fire the other night. For those not familiar with the TV series, it’s about, not surprisingly, the fire department of the city of Chicago, and the personal and professional challenges they face. Not exactly a nighttime soap opera, as it does tackle some weighty issues head-on, principally the Old Boy network and the acceptance of diverse races and sexual orientations. But not necessarily profound, Emmy-worthy drama, either. In short, it’s pop culture, to which I normally pay little attention, but the characters are engaging. At any rate, at the end of season 7, there’s an enormous warehouse fire, to which the team in the story responds, along with personnel from several other firehouses. In the final few moments, there’s an explosion and part of the main floor collapses, taking with it “Otis,” a firefighter who’s somewhat of a mascot for the firehouse, beloved by all. The scene fades out, leaving the customary cliffhanger. As season 8 flashes in, we see Otis, obviously seriously injured, rushed to the hospital. In the waiting room, all the shifts in the firehouse gather. Otis quickly dies, leaving his fellow first responders completely bereft, as he’s taken the heart of the operation with him.
As often as not, if a TV character is written out of a series, it’s because the actor wants to pursue other projects. I was shocked that Otis was killed off, and curious as to why, so I did what any self-respecting viewer would do: I queued up an internet search. The results made my stomach twist up. It turns out that, in previous seasons’ cliffhangers, the people in danger eventually came out OK, with no permanent injuries. These positive outcomes evidently offended and disappointed a vocal subset of watchers, who petitioned the series creators to have some “consequences” written in. They wanted to see somebody die. As Otis was connected in some way to both the senior officers and all the rest of the crew in the firehouse, and was unfailingly kind, loyal, and giving, it was decided to stage his death, to provide the most impact. And, of course, his last scene in the hospital room was indeed a tearjerker.
To me, the implications here are most unsettling, even though they relate to a mere television story. My rhetorical question is, how disturbed does one have to be to demand the death of a character? Was Otis’ gruesome death satisfying to them? How jaded are the people who must see blood spilled even in a screen drama? Such inclinations smack of a viciousness that bodes ill for our society (leaving aside the willingness of the series producers to pander to the show demographic’s basest predilections). Is there not enough mayhem happening everywhere, every day, to gratify such people?
This addiction to violence brings to mind Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man (written pre-Jurassic Park, pre climate-change denial). In brief, the plot revolves around a man who has epilepsy, followed by blackouts. During these blackouts, he assaults people. An experimental treatment is implemented, during which electrodes are implanted in the man’s brain. When a seizure is imminent, one or more of the electrodes is activated via a programmed battery pack, causing the man a pleasurable sensation. The predictable upshot is that the man’s brain quickly learns to simulate a seizure, so as to cause increasingly frequent “pleasure zaps,” until they become near-constant. Needless to say, the novel ends with the man’s going totally off the rails, obtaining a gun, and dying in a scuffle with the weapon when he tries to attack someone.
I think the United States has reached a scenario very like the penultimate moments in Crichton’s novel. Violence has become the pleasurable sensation, and too many people seek constant stimulation to obtain such psychological reinforcement. We watch auto races to see the crashes. We watch hockey games to see the fights. We’re fans of all sorts of wrestling and martial arts “smackdowns;” the more brutal, the better. In the recent Olympics, bicycle collisions and other accidents were replayed to viewers multiple times, supposedly to parse the causes. For more than 20 years, the Survivor show has been a strong performer for CBS, because of — not despite — the nasty, selfish, predatory behavior of the so-called contestants.
In his most recent column, Garrison Keillor observes that Americans are lucky that so many violent tendencies are burned off during sports events. Undoubtedly, he’s right, as far as he goes. But the thirst for dark deeds to satisfy primitive urgings seems to be growing, invading all aspects of our lives, in both make-believe worlds and the real one. Seeing shootings, physical and verbal assaults, natural disasters, and their aftermaths on the news is not only no longer shocking, it’s no longer enough for people to get their fixes. For that reason, the all-too-pervasive taste for violence has become self-perpetuating. Too many of us have abandoned the wish for good outcomes. Instead, it’s all about seeing how ugly it can get. Ward Cleaver now sounds quaint and anachronistic beyond description when we read his words from 60 years ago: “There’s nothing old-fashioned about politeness.” We no longer live in a world where it’s even remotely that simple.
“When you make a mistake, admit it. If you don’t, you only make matters worse.” – life advice from Ward to the Beav, as relevant today as it was back then.