It’s Independence Day this weekend, giving the U.S. two reasons to be grateful for the actions of their ancestors. Firstly, without their actions, we’d still be living under the control of the British, making us no different from the Canadians with their socialized healthcare, impressive politeness and bowel-shaking fear of Her Majesty Elizabeth II. Secondly, and more importantly, we all get a day off.
But perhaps I’m looking at it all wrong. perhaps I need to ask myself What is America, anyway? And perhaps — just perhaps — you need to do that, as well. That’s why I’m suggesting that this holiday weekend, we revisit some favorite television shows of the past and re-learn what makes American great.
Sure, things didn’t go too well for old Walter White, what with that being diagnosed with cancer and then finding himself metastasize into a terrifying inhuman monster. But look past the surface and you’ll see a man who not only sought to provide for his family, but did so by embracing market forces.
What it can teach us about America: Capitalism works. As long as you don’t go too far in embracing it.
Aaron McGruder’s animated adaptation of his much-missed newspaper strip wasn’t subtle, or polite, or tasteful. But it was funny and honest as it addressed the none-more-difficult issue of race in America and realized that things were far more screwed up than most people want to think.
What it can teach us about America: Race relations in America are still a mess. But, let’s be honest, you more than likely knew that already just by watching the news on any random day recently.
FREAKS AND GEEKS
Has there really ever been a television show more honest about the American high school experience than Freaks and Geeks? Not intent on introducing the world to Busy Philipps and Linda Cardellini. it also proved to those of us who were either freaks or geeks that, really, we’re all the same deep down. Not like the jocks, though. Those guys were weird.
What it can teach us about America: High school might be the most difficult time of your life, no matter what lies ahead.
Despite being adapted from a British sitcom, there’s something especially American about The Office: perhaps it’s the social norms that the show loves to expose and quietly deconstruct, or maybe the particular brand of middle America the show existed within. One thing is for sure, however: selling paper products now feels particularly patriotic.
What it can teach us about America: Everyone knows a Dwight. That’s a terrible truth to face.
MURDER, SHE WROTE
For those us not raised on the East Coast, there’s always been something magical about Maine. Just the mere mention of it conjures up an easier, more relaxed lifestyle, one filled with a life less hectic and yet, far richer in ways that go beyond lobster. However, this one brave show demonstrated that things aren’t always as bright and positive as that image would have us believe.
What it can teach us about America: The sleepiest towns are the most deadly. Stay in big cities.
For a second, put aside the main thrust of this series — the always-underrated Geoff Stults is an investigator whose methods might seem odd, but who always finds his quarry — and focus on the world around him: the world of Florida, much maligned throughout the rest of the country as odd and screwed up, but filled with its own rules, code and beauty. Well, maybe not that last one.
What it can teach us about America: When the going gets weird, the weird move to the Sunshine State.
Very little television illustrates better the true meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” than Friends, a series in which even work seems like a fun pastime that can be easily discarded when something more meaningful — inevitably the latest complication in an increasingly incestuous web of relationships — comes along.
What it can teach us about America: That everything in this country would have been better if only the founders had included mention of protections against when it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month or even your year.
THE WEST WING
The American political system is something that, in reality, has proven to be a source of frustration and disappointment in recent years, as what was originally intended to be a series of checks and balances has turned out to be more a war between sides that has resulted in ideological gridlock. As this show suggests, however, it doesn’t have to be this way; we could, instead, be living in a time of social progress, soaring dialogue and people getting a lot of exercise thanks to walking during almost every conversation.
What it can teach us about America: Exercise should be mandatory. No, wait, I mean, those running the country can have the best of intentions.
A disparate group of people trying to build a society on an island where they will meet others who have been there for some time and must be destroyed. Was this series an allegory for the founding of the United States as we know them today? And if so, what does that say about the ending? Important questions that need to be answered.
What it can teach us about America: Living together is better that dying alone, so get along with your neighbors. Even creepy guys called Ben, despite the fact that that’s probably not their real name.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Let’s be honest: no television show in history has ever been more American than Friday Night Lights, with its celebration of Texan pride, football obsession and, in the form of Coach Eric Taylor — the none-more-stoic Kyle Chandler — the model of what all Americans should aspire to: a moral, loving figure who tries his best against unfortunate odds and frowns far too much.
What it can teach us about America: Clear eyes, full heart, can’t — oh, you were there ahead of me.