Television journalist Tom Brokaw wrote The Greatest Generation two decades ago to pay tribute to those who had to come of age during World War II, a time “buffeted by winds of change so fierce that they threatened not just America but the very future of the planet.” If anyone understood the stark contrast between what that generation confronted and what America today is like, I would have thought it would be Brokaw. But several weeks ago, I saw some posters for a new Broadway show, Come From Away, that’s pitching itself as an inspirational take on the days after September 11, which came with a blurb from Brokaw: “We need it, especially now.”
More recently, I saw ads touting a very different musical, Once on This Island, a love story set in the Caribbean. Again, the blurbs from critics proclaimed that the show was “Just what the world needs now.” Sensing a trend, I began counting up the “We need this now” references and quickly accumulated dozens of them. Apparently, the Age of Trump is so distressing that we need emotional support from storytellers, encompassing a broad range of genres and motifs—melodramatic TV escapism, dark dystopian fiction, gender-bending protest film, inspirational Broadway musical, unacknowledged 1970s sci-fi classic, World War II historical drama, gangster movie, and more besides.
The search for a balm to heal the wounds that Donald Trump has inflicted upon America actually began before his election. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, several dozen Broadway stars performed the 1965 Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “What the World Needs Now is Love.” Though the performance was meant as a response to the shooting deaths of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the message seemed equally geared to a swaying crowd already in trauma over Trump.
“As a portrait of leadership at its most brilliant, thoughtful and morally courageous, Darkest Hour is the movie we need right now,” a Washington Post reviewer wrote of the 2017 film about the early days of Winston Churchill’s tenure as prime minister. Churchill’s career is certainly fascinating. But if I were looking for parallels with today, I would observe that Churchill spent years as an outsider whose warnings about the threats that England faced got him derided as a warmonger, imperial nationalist, and alarmist until his alarms proved precisely right. Even after World War II broke out, Churchill’s leadership was only grudgingly accepted by the elites who had kept him in the political wilderness for years.
Perhaps nothing is as wrongheaded as efforts to cast George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a warning against the rise of a Trump-like fascist controlling us with a contemporary version of the Ministry of Truth. Orwell wrote much of his novel after fascism had been defeated; his vision (and fear) was of a world consumed by totalitarian Communism. Yet in a New York Times article titled “Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read,” critic Michiko Kakutani mentions Stalin just once (along with Hitler). She quotes Orwell on his fears of nationalism but never once employs the words “Communism” or “socialism.” Instead, Kakutani invokes parallels between Orwell’s Ministry of Truth and our own National Security Agency, “always listening in.” The analogy is weak. If anything, we’ve learned that the NSA did some of its most devilish work for Barack Obama and that Trump has little control over the levers of permanent government in Washington, which has actively opposed him. By Orwell’s standards, Trump is not a very effective Big Brother.
Any story that smacks of apocalypse or dystopia—two staples of modern mass entertainment—gets almost reflectively branded as stuff that “we need right now” because, as the actual Book of Apocalypse warns, “the time is at hand” (though “time” is a slippery concept in that work). Fear of Trump has boosted sales of dystopian literature, one reason why critics and authors themselves seem eager to draw analogies to Trump’s America. A series of fantasy novels, The Dark is Rising, is deemed to be something we need now, for instance, because it offers a refreshingly straightforward battle between the forces of Darkness and Light, compared with the machinations of Trump and his minions, who are engineering a “slimy osmosis of good and evil.”
More than thirty years after the novel’s publication, a TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale is what we need now because women’s rights have apparently regressed so much since 1985 (or at least since January 20, 2017). Zombie lit, a market that had begun to decline from oversaturation, is what we need now because Trump’s followers remind some critics of “mindless zombies.” An incredibly boring 1979 Russian sci-fi movie, Stalker, is also what we need now because Trump’s rise can be attributed to how we’ve become addicted to novelty and excitement. The recent movie Arrival is what we need now because we must welcome foreign visitors instead of trying to blow them up. That’s solid advice, except when the foreign visitors are trying to blow us up.
Some readers and viewers find Trump’s America so disturbing that they simply want to escape. Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things, about government experiments that go awry and open a gateway to an evil dimension, is what we need now because the series’ meticulous recreation of 1980s culture allows us to get away from our own time. When the cast of Stranger Things won a Golden Globe last year, its star David Harbour presented a diatribe in which he explained that the show is an antidote to Trumpism. “We will hunt monsters,” Harbour announced. “And when we are lost amidst the hypocrisy and casual violence of certain individuals and institutions . . . we will punch some people in the face.” The TV melodrama This Is Us, with its “mawkish feel” and “sappy monologues,” is the “manipulative melodrama” that we need now because it delivers an escapist form of relief from the real-life events of 2016.
The list goes on. Ben Affleck’s gangster flick Live by Night—described as a “story about people inside and outside of a white Protestant power structure”—seemed relevant and necessary after Trump’s election, at least according to Affleck, though it became one of the year’s biggest box-office flops and was then derided in Hollywood, where the only thing less forgivable than being a Trump supporter is being a bust. Moana, the latest Disney princess tale, is a movie we need because it reminds us of “everything that makes this country special.” A comic book about indigenous Canadian tribes that meet and settle their differences peacefully is what we need now because prehistoric North American cultures never warred on one another, and thus have much to teach us about peaceful cooperation. Another comic-book-based movie, Black Panther, about a fictional African kingdom that is the most technologically sophisticated civilization in history, is what we need now, according to Salon, “not just because of the historical sidelining and repression of black culture, but of our current administration’s attempted negation of various civil-rights efforts.” A Comedy Central series about an alien that kills a Japanese talk show host and takes over his show is what we need now for reasons so obscure that I can’t figure them out, no matter how many times I read this article.
I’m not the only one to notice this trend. Tired of reading movie reviews employing the “what we need right now” phrase, a Guardian writer admonished critics (who he acknowledges are “largely progressive”) to stop categorizing every movie they like in this manner, because believing that films can change an apparently awful reality is just “wishful thinking.” I can see how he would be pessimistic; he admits that he saw the popularity of The Hunger Games as a signal that “Americans were finally ready to fight back against our oligarchic leaders and oppressive culture of wealth and celebrity.” He clearly misjudged the films’ success, which obviously signaled that America wanted to elect a Reality TV show host as president. All of which puts me in mind of The Apprentice. Now there’s a show that we need right now!
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