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The WGA Strike & The Leftward Shift of American Television
Like other millennials, writers are unimpressed with Capitalism.
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Today marks two weeks since the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the union of television writers, went on strike. The writers are asking for relatively modest concessions from the studios, such as increased pay (writer pay has declined 14% in the last five years), higher staffing requirements, and agreements on how AI will be used to write scripts in the future. This is the first WGA strike in over fifteen years, making it the first labor action since television shifted to streaming. And while the strike caught many off guard, the recent products of television writers show they are no different from millennials in other professions, who are largely dissatisfied with Capitalism.
Over the past few years, the television shows made by WGA members have become increasingly critical of traditional American systems, while suggesting we might be better off if we borrow from — or in some cases, adapt — Leftist economic and social structures.
The Leftward Drift of Television
Undeniably the most successful show in this slate of new-age television is the Emmy-winning comedy Abbott Elementary. Focused on the struggles of teachers at an underfunded, majority-Black inner-city school, Abbott has found a way to turn America’s failure to invest in Black communities from something most people didn’t want to talk about into something they couldn’t wait to see. The show grows bolder in its second season, explicitly labeling charter schools as villains that will take resources away from the already downtrodden Philadelphia school system.
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Home Economics, which tails Abbott in ABC’s nightly lineup, tells the story of three adult siblings, each in a different income bracket, and the hijinks that ensue from the combination of their wealth disparity and child-like tendencies. Connor, the ultra-rich tech bro played by Jimmy Tatro, isn’t the classic 1%-er typically depicted on TV. Instead, he’s a lovable fool, representing how the writers truly feel about the claim that exorbitant wealth can only be accrued through besting the meritocracy. Topher Grace plays the middle-class brother, a writer who is above poverty but like so many Americans, struggles financially (which provides me a nice glimpse into the financial prospects of my chosen career). Lastly, there is the impoverished Sarah, a child therapist who is married to Denise, a teacher. It’s no coincidence that Sarah’s family is the only of the three protagonists in which both parents work full-time. Their jobs are both societally-important and personally taxing, yet they and their two children are confined to a cramped, run-down apartment. Meanwhile, Connor struts around a mansion he bought from Matt Damon, seldom working outside his in-home gym.
In one of the more under-appreciated shows of the past few years, Craig Robinson stars in Killing It, a remarkably funny depiction of how the gig economy exploits workers, leaving them with no choice but to enter a snake-hunting contest in hopes of taking home the cash prize.
And though cultural critique has long been a component of prestige TV, the shows recently put out by premium networks like HBO, Showtime, and STARZ are much more forthcoming with their anti-Capitalist messages. Succession has received abundant praise from viewers and critics for its distinct tone of heavy drama mixed with dark comedy. The show’s entire premise is a mockery of Capitalism as a meritocracy, as the three Roy siblings, none of whom have the ability to manage a PTA meeting nevertheless a globe-spanning company, squabble over who will get to succeed their dad in becoming the CEO of WayStar-RoyCo. (I’ll be writing a full reflection on Succession after the series concludes at the end of the month. Subscribe if you’d like to read it.)
Just this year HBO released The Last of Us, which adds an anti-Capitalist message the game it is based on lacked. In HBO’s version, the military dictatorship running the post-zombie apocalypse world is explicitly labeled “Fascist,” whereas the prosperous, peaceful society is announced as “Communist,” much to the chagrin of one red-blooded, freedom-loving character.
Television writers have even provided commentary on the prison industrial complex, specifically on how it traps Americans in its grips, sentencing them to a life of recidivism. The 2016 limited series The Night Of was billed as a “whodunnit” crime drama but is really a depiction of how a wrongfully-accused young man has his life derailed by a short stay at Rikers Island. A more comedic take on incarceration can be found in Hulu’s UnPrisoned, which follows an elderly felon’s attempts to reconnect with his adult daughter, all the while his past convictions bar him from getting a job, sending him right back to the life of crime he swore off of.
To my great surprise, the most radical piece of abolitionist art came in the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Though Star Wars has its origin in a critique of American foreign policy, its post-Disney acquisition has dropped all commentary in favor of plots that are light on substance but heavy on merchandising opportunities. In the concluding episodes of Andor, which follows the radicalization of Cassian Andor from common criminal to Rebel operator, Andor is sentenced to hard labor in an Imperial prison, which promises freedom in exchange for obedience and hard work. But when it is discovered that even the best behavior won’t earn the prisoners their liberty, the group understands that their only chance at escape is by fighting the system they once thought was their path to freedom.
The motivation for the recent Leftward drift of American television is not because Hollywood is filled with “woke elites” (the median WGA member makes less than $70k a year), but because younger Americans have been failed by Capitalism. Millennials graduated amidst The Great Recession, were let down by the promises of the Obama administration, watched an autocratic billionaire use his wealth to capture the Presidency, and suffered the lasting effects of COVID thanks to the inadequacies of the American state. Realizing Capitalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, millennials have become “the least Conservative generation in recorded history” and are open to exploring the alternative systems of Socialism and Communism.
Now, writing rooms are staffed by members of this skeptical generation, who naturally carry their life experiences into their work. And after years of producing superb products for the studios, they’re standing up and fighting for a better life.
All solidarity to the striking workers of the WGA. I look forward to seeing them win their battle and continue creating the Golden Age of American television.
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