An entertaining and insightful look at the ways film and television can shape political thought.
Almost everything has been invoked to account for Trump’s victory and the rise of the alt-right, from job loss to racism to demography—everything, that is, except popular culture. In The Sky Is Falling, best-selling cultural journalist Peter Biskind dives headlong into two decades of popular culture—from superhero franchises such as the Dark Knight, X-Men, and the Avengers and series like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones to thrillers like Homeland and 24—and emerges to argue that these shows are saturated with the values that are currently animating our extreme politics.
Where once centrist institutions and their agents—cops and docs, soldiers and scientists, as well as educators, politicians, and “experts” of every stripe—were glorified by mainstream Hollywood, the heroes of today’s movies and TV, whether far right or far left, have overthrown this quaint ideological consensus. Many of our shows dramatize extreme circumstances—an apocalypse of one sort or another—that require extreme behavior to deal with, behavior such as revenge, torture, lying, and even the vigilante violence traditionally discouraged in mainstream entertainment.
In this bold, provocative, and witty investigation, Biskind shows how extreme culture now calls the shots. It has become, in effect, the new mainstream.
The Sky Is Falling
Beyond the Fringe: An Introduction
This book is about American popular culture in the age of extremism. “Extremism” is a broad?stroke term that covers a myriad of sins—or virtues—depending on your point of view. “Extremist” has long been a dirty word in the national lexicon, particularly over the course of the two-decade-long summer that lasted, give or take a few interruptions, from the end of World War II to the mid-1960s. Those who dissented from the prevailing ideology of American exceptionalism—that is, America is special, better, greater than any other nation on the planet—or who called attention to the discrepancy between our leaders’ lofty rhetoric and the conduct of one administration after another were branded with the “e” word.
Extremists came in two flavors, right and left. Both were routinely vilified, the former as the lunatic fringe with their tinfoil hats and tales of alien abduction, the latter as un-Americans, laying the groundwork for Uncle Joe Stalin’s imminent takeover of the United States. But right or left, they were excluded from the mainstream—from its practices, its discourse or, as we now say, the national conversation.
Today, the battered centrists who are still walking and talking continue to use the term as a derogatory epithet, along with cognates like “divisive” and “controversial,” or, more colorfully, “wackos,” as Senator John McCain called Donald Trump’s supporters during the 2016 presidential primary.
Why I love it
Author, Slaughterhouse 90210
There’s nothing better than unplugging from the news and getting lost in entertainment that has nothing to do with politics. Or so I thought, until I read Peter Biskind’s latest book of cultural criticism. It turns out that everything we might think of as mind candy—from superhero movies to horror flicks, from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead—may mirror our ideologies more than we think.
Through the lens of films and TV shows, Biskind delineates the rise of extremism on both sides of the aisle. He proposes different ways in which entertainment reflects conservative or liberal values—for example, sci-fi movies that lean toward the right often portray aliens as hostile invaders while more liberal renderings are more likely to paint them in a more positive light.
Biskand’s command of film and television is far-reaching, and while you may not agree with all of his conclusions, you’ll find compelling arguments for how and why we got here. A scrupulous book about the intersection of politics and entertainment, The Sky is Falling made me reconsider what it means to get lost in other art forms.