April 19, 2017

The Brutalist era of television

Lileks wrote something last week about architecture, and I keep coming back to it because it seems to me that there’s an essential truth embedded in what he wrote, and one way to tell whether or not it’s both essential and true is to try it out in another area, another field of endeavor, and see if it still holds up.

He’s writing about the architectural style called Brutalism, and I’d contend that television today, for all its achievements in storytelling and sophistication, is displaying something of its own Brutalist movement. Architecture and television are both creative, even artistic, forms, and they both can be used to tell a story, so it seems to make some sense to think there could be similarities. And ironically, the era of architectural Brutalism to which Lileks refers – the mid-60s – is precisely the era in which television displayed perhaps its least Brutalist characteristics. Or perhaps it isn’t so ironic after all.

In the most literal sense, the Brutalism of television has, in context, been an issue for decades. Whenever an act of violence occurs – assassinations, riots, mass shootings – television has been held up as one of the contributing factors. As an easy example, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy resulted in well-documented cases of episodes being pulled off the air in response to public revulsion. These were episodes that had already been made, so there was no question that they’d be aired eventually – just not at the time, in the wake of what had happened. (Whether network executives expected audiences to be more discerning about these episodes when they did air, or, more cynically, they figured people would have forgotten about the fuss, is anyone’s guess.) The point is this: if you go back and look at most of these episodes and compared them to the content of programs on cable and network today, you’d find the level of “violence” laughable, almost genteel. The point is, I think you could make the case that every time this happens, and TV tones its act down accordingly, it winds up regeneration somewhere down the line, ever more graphic (both visually and psychologically) – more brutal – than before. And they’re not just brutal in content, but in look as well; natural lighting which often gives the shows a perpetually dark look; washed out colors that accomplish the same thing, as well as suggesting characters drained of hope; and graphic sex and violence that serves to dehumanize the characters and desensitize the viewers. There was something stylized about the violence of early television – not unlike the stylized nature of Streamlined architecture of the pre-Brutalist era – where, for example, multiple gunshot wounds rarely produced the kind of blood that one would see in real life. It didn’t need to; the viewer’s imagination would supply the rest. Now, the producers want you to see every speck of blood, every particle of bone fragment or brain tissue – and in HD to boot.

I’ve mentioned this before, and it’s not an original thought of mine, that this has created a universe that bears little resemblance to that with which most people are familiar, one to which very few would aspire. As Lileks puts it with regard to architecture, “Their answer to ‘the urban problem’ was to raze history and replace it with something unmoored from human experience.” I think the same goes with television. One of Brutalism’s proponents described the experiment, “We had a very modern, sixties attitude towards what an urban university should be. We thought it should provide skills and philosophies that would help resolve the urban problem. Of course it didn’t. But the buildings reflected that effort.”

The favorite example is a program like Leave it to Beaver, which may have presented an idealistic view of family life in the ‘50s, but which remained recognizable to most people, and which had many aspects that were attainable to the average American family. In the same way that pre-Brutalist architecture gave us buildings that guided the eye upward, presenting their beauty in an aspirational sense, television of the ‘50s and ‘60s lifted viewers up, rather than pressing them down. In addition to their messages, which I’ll get to in the next paragraph or so, there was the sheer beauty of late-‘60s programming, the vividness of the palate in the wake of the transfer to all-color programming. The lighting may have been unrealistically bright, the colors themselves might have lacked decorating sense, but there was something celebratory about them, something that doesn’t come through in the more naturalistic cinematography that’s used today. And, as we know, “naturalism,” along with “functionality,” is a word and a philosophy closely associated with Brutalism. But television of the ‘50s and ‘60s didn’t necessarily have to be functional in an intellectual or philosophical sense, just in the way in which it served its dual purposes of attracting viewers and selling products.

So far the analogy has worked primarily in an aesthetic sense, because both television and architecture are visual media. Pre-Brutalist architecture celebrated that aesthetic pleasure, in the same way that pre-Brutalist television tended not to emphasize the ugly side of life. In fact, though, Brutalism is not just a visual style of architecture, but a philosophical as well; buildings that, according to Lileks, “were technocratic machines for making technocrats and social scientists.” He’s talking about college campuses, where Brutalism was a big hit, but he could be talking about business as well. He continues: “It is possible to be rational and beautiful, but there’s always a certain type of pinched soul drained of wit who distrusts beauty: it cozens and seduces you from the true goal, which is usually some sociopolitical objective.” Again, he’s talking about architecture, but he could just as well be talking about modern television. The aspirational ideal of pre-Brutalist television exists, not just aesthetically, but as a link to the past. The Honeymooners sent the message that success was possible for the lower middle-class. The moral of the story in Dragnet was that crime didn’t pay. Perry Mason presented a man dedicated to preserving the integrity of the legal system and the defense of the innocent. Countless comedies and dramas gave us a nuclear family that could at least give one hope that the thorniest problems could be solved if a family was determined to solve them. Even a show like The Beverly Hillbillies, derisively dismissed though it may have been, could reassure viewers that wealth didn’t have to corrupt the average man. These were all themes that were part of the American psyche, that - to use a cliche - had been passed down from generation to generation in their familiarity.

Shows such as these still exist, but many of them have an additional flavor thrown in, a sense of cynicism that, at its best, does not flatter it, and at its worst, degrades and offends a large segment of the public with its abrupt divorce from the past. We shouldn’t be surprised by this; One of the characteristics of Brutalist architects, writes Lileks, is that many of them typify “a certain type of pinched soul drained of wit who distrusts beauty: it cozens and seduces you from the true goal, which is usually some sociopolitical objective.” The humor of today’s shows, for example, takes many forms, but a genuine wit is seldom one of them. Its primary characteristic is snark and ridicule, which it employs relentlessly in support of its underlying message of tolerance and freedom of expression – or, as some might put it, libertinism. Often, to accept the humor of a given situation, one is forced to accept also the premise which the program tries to present. With Friends, for instance, the premise was that sex is “no big deal”, and only if you conceded that premise did the humor become natural. Modern Family presents homosexuality as “no big deal,” and if shows like this ever think to portray characters who have trouble reconciling this lifestyle with their own moral values, it’s only done with the proviso that those moral values have to be presented as being wrong.

Dramas carry their own agenda, predictably a liberal one. You might recall that a few weeks ago I wrote about the problems ‘70s television had in portraying the drug crisis, and how much of that challenge revolved around ideology.* So it is with television today, especially in its ability to create programing that “flyover” territory can identify with. Considering how over 90% of people in the industry profess a liberal political agenda, it’s only natural. It does, however, transform television from a medium of entertainment (and commerce) to one that favors and advocates a distinct ideological way of thinking and behaving.

*One reason why I’ve tended to limit the pre-Brutalist era of television to the ‘50s and ‘60s; this is not to say, however, that the Brutalist aesthetic had infiltrated programming of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the extent that it has today. It didn’t. However, it would be foolish to suggest that Brutalism simply sprung up out of nowhere, and I think the ‘70s is a good place to look

Everything from police procedurals to legal dramas are filled with this weary cynicism, which again is implicit in the Brutalist style. As Lileks writes, “[Y]ou might think its example was enough to put everyone off the idea for the rest of human civilization.” Just as the Brutalist landscape leaves you thinking that it "looks like a place for a robed, mutated council to pronounce sentence on a man from the irradiated outlands," Brutalist television can leave one with that crushing feeling. Lileks, in another column, has it just right: "The very thing that makes modern TV so different from old rote TV with its one-off eps and no continuity is the same thing that makes it feel like a duty some times." And this makes sense: after all, being forced to sit in school and learn what's good for you often feels like a duty, and as we've seen, Brutalism tried to impart that same kind of aesthetic medicine. The Brutalist message is thus: "If we have curved, meandering paths and different styles of buildings, the students we produce will have minds so accustomed to disorder they will hesitate to shoot the proletariat when - I mean, they will be unable to properly grasp the need for theories that shape the masses for the betterment of all!" In other words, let's make it easy for the viewers to understand the proper feelings, emotions, opinions.

This is an imperfect analogy, of course; all analogies are, and any one of you can probably come up with examples of current television shows that fail to fit neatly into this comparison, or contradict it completely*, as well as dozens of shows from the '50s and '60s that don't even rise to the level of crap. It's also an imperfect example of - well, I won't call it scholarship, because it fails the academic standards of research that would be required to classify it as such. It's an opinion piece, albeit a well-reasoned one, if I do say so myself. But then, I never claimed this site to be a scholarly one. If I took the time to research everything I wrote, there might be fewer mistakes and more sophisticated theories - but there'd also be about half the number of pieces, and I don't really think you'd like that, do you? By the time this makes it to the book, combined with other essays comparing past and present television, I suspect I'll have had the opportunity to flesh it out a little more.

*And let's face it, everyone enjoys a little Brutality once in a while,he says as he watches the end of "For a Few Dollars More." But then, Clint hardly seems to exhibit the world-weariness that so many of today's television stars show.

At any rate, I think it makes for a compelling argument. And you remember how, at the beginning, I said that perhaps it wasn't so ironic after all that the Brutalist era of architecture coincided with the least Brutalist era of television? Recall that as Lileks writes, those Brutalist-designed campuses were intended to be "technocratic machines," and recall also that those students who were products of that education are probably the showrunners and scriptwriters of today. Coincidence?


  1. Mitchell

    Perhaps you understand then why I haven't watched a bit of television on the major networks in the past 15 years or so. I became sick and tired of the cynicism, the violence, the lack of any positive message.

    I think one of the turning points was watching a Stephen King mini-series-The Perfect Storm. The messages I got from that were all negative. There was no real positive message I could take and especially I could not stomach the ending.

    That was just the tip of the iceberg that had built up over time. I have said this over and over to those around me who try to recommend shows to me on the network. I do not want to be reminded of what is out there in the real world. I get enough of that on the evening news and on the internet. I would like to have the idealized worlds of Ozzie and Harriet or The Waltons or Happy Days as opposed to the in-your-face cynicism of Roseanne and her ilk. The original Hawaii Five-Oh was about heroes and good versus evil. What I've seen of the new version is more about cynicism. One show glorifies spies masquerading as Americans - I'm sure you know the one I'm talking about-and I'm reminded of something the author C.S. Lewis once wrote - "We laugh at honor and then are surprised to find traitors in our midst."

    No, I am not surprised that this generation that is now producing TV shows has chosen a darker path. That was what the colleges created. I can only hope the pendulum swings back the other way sometime soon.

    Sorry, this was a bit of a rant, but your article was very good and thought provoking.

    George Everson

    1. George,

      That C.S. Lewis quote is great.

      I know exactly which show you're talking about, the one that glorifies Soviet spies. Like you, I don't watch that much current television - a couple of shows, but the rest is mostly news, sports, or the classic TV and movie channels. (Plus our indispensable DVD library.) But I do try to stay current as far as knowing what is on TV right now, for precisely this reason. If you're going to make the case, as I have, that vintage television is practically a different genre from current TV shows (with, as I noted, some exceptions), you have to know something about what's on.

      While I don't object to television bringing the "real world" into our living rooms, there's a big difference between doing it to confront current issues or problems, and using it to either propagandize a political ideology or to present a nihilistic view of the world. Even if it's none of the above, you just want to shake these people sometimes and tell them to lighten up!

      Great comment - you can rant here anytime! :)

      Thanks, Mitchell

    2. Mr. Hadley, Mr. Everson, et al.:

      There is no series, current or past, that "glorifies Soviet agents".
      If you're referring to The Americans on FX, it's clear that neither of you have ever actually seen any episodes.
      If either of you had, you'd know that the series's portrayal of the Soviet espionage apparat, and of the Soviet system in general, is wholly unsympathetic.
      The creators/writers of this series have extensive experience with the Cold War espionage world, which was mainly flying blind the whole time - both sides.
      An early episode was set on the day of the Reagan shooting.
      Both the CIA and the KGB are shown assuming that the other side is responsible for the shooting; the Lone Nut never occurs to either side, and they are shown making one blunder after another, trying to cover their own backsides.
      Nobody is being "glorified" here.
      In subsequent seasons, the teenage daughter of the spy family, who had no idea that she was anything other than a regular American kid, gets involved with a church group, to the distress of the true-believing mother (the father is starting to have doubts about The Cause).
      It's all a lot more complicated than your character limit will allow me to get into, but The Americans is now in its fifth season, on a network owned by Rupert Murdoch -
      - there is no "glorification" involved here.
      Any more than The Untouchables "glorified" gangsters in 1959 (I'm just old enough to remember that kerfuffle.)

    3. I'd suggest that when it comes to the United States vs. the Soviet Union, anything that smacks of moral equivalency is glorification of a sort, and I do find it wearying when they start turning the Cold War into a soap opera. Even if we were to assume that the leads are anti-heroes - it's hard to have base a series around characters you don't empathize with to a certain extent, and who's going to watch a series with Keri Russell and not have an investment in her character - the point remains the same, in that I don't think it raises our standards much to have series built around anti-heroes. (And I know from the weekly synopses I read that the series is a lot more equivocating than a morality play.)

    4. In fact, let's take it a step further. I'd have a lot more respect for the creators of the show if they'd have had the guts to actually make the Soviets the sympathetic characters - you know, they bleed like anyone else, they know love and loss like anyone else, but in the end you're clearly supposed to be relieved when they escape detection, when American agents are not able to catch up with them, when a plan that threatens to backfire works spectacularly.

      That would challenge the audience, hopefully to ask themselves how they feel about openly cheering on a character who is actively working against the United States.
      It's very much like the scene in Fail-Safe when we find ourselves hoping the Soviets can bring down that American bomber before it reaches Moscow. Regardless of how it might be preventing a nuclear war, doesn't it leave you just the tiniest bit uncomfortable?

  2. Dramatic television productions of the 2010s, not to mention the 1960s, couldn't possibly compete with the real-life events that took place during the 1960s. Google image search "Montgomery Freedom Riders", or "Ole Miss integration", or "Selma march 1965", or "Terrorist attack My Canh restaurant 1965", or "1960s space program", or "Battle of Ia Drang Valley", or, obviously, "JFK, RFK, or MLK assassination" to see real brutality that television and the movies can only faintly approximate. Much of this was broadcast, uncensored, on the evening news of the day.

    1. You're right - they were brutal years, particularly 1968, and I think it's important to confront that reality directly.

      My main concern about today's television is that in opting for a Brutalist mentality, they're making a choice as to what stories to tell and how to tell them. Rather than attempting to present stories with an ultimately positive message, they veer into darkness and nihilism; instead of engaging in intellectual discussions about the issues of the day (which can be done within the context of a dramatic story), they choose to be advocates for (almost) exclusively one side of the ideological divide; rather than the existentialism of Kierkegaard, it's that of Sartre.

      You're absolutely right though - nothing can ever match real life. It is a lived drama that no script can begin to live up to.

  3. Interesting piece Mitchell. Nothing I really can add.
    But, I was compelled to respond to George's rant, cause I can't really agree.
    Or maybe I'm just an anomaly.

    For example, I just finished watching the 3rd season premiere of "Fargo" (on the FX network). I'm sure that it's dark humor and occasional violent scene could fall into that cynical category, but it's well done, has fine performances and a compelling story. But, just two weeks ago I watched part of the "Kung Fu" marathon on Decades network. The 1970's David Carradine drama. It too was well, done has fin performances, etc...

    I guess what I'm trying to say is at this point on television, the options are so great when it comes to watching fictional shows, whether they be dramatic or comedy. I can choose a 2017 series to watch and enjoy, then pick one of the many (for want of a better word, retro) channels to revisit, or for shows I was too young to see when they first aired, visit for the first time.

    With the exception of "reality shows" (which I truly hate, IMO) this is as a great a time as ever to watch and enjoy TV.

    1. I think that's a good point, and it's why I don't want to lump all new television shows into the Brutalist camp. Although I do keep up with what's on today, I don't watch most of them, so I can't speak to them firsthand, which means that while we talk about defining a genre, we can't say that all programs fall into that category.

      I liked the movie "Fargo," missed the first season, wanted to see the second one but didn't get around to it (eh, life). And as I suggested with my reference to "For a Few Dollars More," I find myself enjoying movies and programs that some might put into that Brutalist category.

      My challenge, even as I enjoy some of these shows, is asking myself how comfortable I should be with them, whether or not they aspire to the values I myself espouse. More than a guilty pleasure, perhaps, it's like a gifted writer who wastes his talent writing dime porno novels. Though someone may have a great gift, are they using that gift in an aspirational way? I don't have the answer to that, just the question.

      Agree with you 100% on reality TV, of which I don't consider The Grand Tour!

  4. Brutalist television is especially led by the New Big Four (HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Amazon Prime), which spreads everywhere else. There is no restriction on the language or content of those shows, so they advance it. In a coincidence, after reading Heather MacDonald's "The Abduction of Opera" as part of research into regietheater, and seeing the Brutalist retellings in both live theater, movies, and television, the two movements are similar in nature. A friend of mine noted CBC's "Anne of Green Gables" retelling that could be declared Brutalist or Regietheater that will be on Netflix in the United States.

  5. I hope in my previous statement I did not paint with too broad a brush. I was simply commenting on some of the trends noted by Mitchell in his very fine article.

    Were the 60's a violent decade-absolutely. We got a very brutal reminder of that with the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK, not to mention coverage of the race riots and violent demonstrations around the country.

    That generation however brought their anger their disillusionment to the small screen as the writers, producers, and directors born of that generation began to influence television.

    And herein again lies the problem. I will repeat again what I said above. When I come home at night I do not want to be reminded of the world's problems. I see them regularly on the internet. I see them in the newspaper. I see them on the nightly news. We are deluged by the information and misinformation coming out of the media these days.

    As a result, I want to have a little escapism. I want to watch Lucy's unliberated antics. I want to watch McGarrett deal with the villainous Wo-Fat. I want to see the Waltons pulling together in a crisis rather then each one seeking their own satisfaction at the cost of family unity. In short, I want some entertaining fantasy to remind me there is still sanity in the world and laughter.

    I have never been a fan of some of the cynical "dark humor" I have seen on modern screens. The modern brutalist nature of looking at reality first may be "hard hitting" drama, but to me and others like me it is simply a continuation of real life on screen. Many of the old shows of the 60's and into the 70's showed ideals we would like to hope we and society could ascribe to.

    George Everson

  6. Great discussion, everyone - keep it coming if you have more!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!