As America Heats Up, Other Stuff Gets Get Bland
A few things have converged in my mind in the past few weeks as I count down to my sixtieth birthday. They involve shopping malls, the impending finale of Better Call Saul, and comedy.
Saul’s purgatory for his Breaking Bad-era crimes is working at a Cinnabon at a shopping mall in Omaha, Nebraska. Saul’s mall is an emblem of failure, and its promenade is nearly empty. The security guards are essentially protecting nothing, and are so bored that Saul can distract them from his capers with an endless supply of artery-ravaging Cinnabons.
In the past, shopping malls were backdrops of prosperity, so much so that TV and movie scenes that wanted to convey excitement or danger for the maximum number of people filmed inside them. I think of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando, and, my favorite, Soapdish, where a washed-up TV actress played by Sally Field drops by the local mall whenever she feels a frantic need to be recognized. Her handler, played by Whoopi Goldberg, loudly “recognizes” her, and the show fans mob her on an escalator.
Saul, on the other hand, retreats to the mall to hide from the Drug Enforcement Agency, to whom he is a fugitive.
This got me thinking about my age and the things that were exciting to me when I was a kid. I grew up down the street from the Cherry Hill (New Jersey) Mall, widely touted as the first indoor, climate-controlled shopping center in the US. This claim may or may not be true, but we, in our dreams of consumption, all thought it was and were proud of it. In the Sixties and Seventies, you could barely walk in there. It was so crowded — and going was an event filled with anticipation. Who would we see there? What material would the new tennis racquets in the sporting goods store be made from? Would we be safe from the bullies populating the arcade? I even set scenes in my novels there.
Of similar excitement were the TV shows, especially comedies such as All in the Family, Good Times, the Mary Tyler Moore Show and, of course, The Carol Burnett Show. These shows are now talked about as being “cutting edge,” but I had no clue about their edginess decades ago. I watched them because they were funny. It was about the content.
Same with shopping malls, which had everything. Today, Amazon does, and while we can declare a scourge of online retailing, the fact is, it works. Consistently. Not only are shopping mall stores closing rapidly, but if you’re lucky enough to find a salesperson, they’re likely on Instagram via iPhone and don’t want to talk to you. They’re angry when you disrupt them — and they don’t even lose their jobs because the store is so relieved it was able to find a warm body.
For all the talk about ‘70s-era idiocy on TV – and there was plenty – the comedies made you laugh. Now they make you feel guilty about not laughing because you wonder whether you’re some kind of bigot because you’re not enjoying it.
The only funny show I watch now is Curb Your Enthusiasm simply because the others I’ve tried have the same common denominator: Players of diverse origins enter the stage, utter a line attendant to their identity group, and step back to allow for the next player to do the same. Progress? Maybe. Funny? No. Larry David can always be relied upon to step in dog crap, which makes me laugh as hard as the expression on Archie Bunker’s florid face when Sammy Davis, Jr. kissed him on the cheek. This resulted in what was reportedly the longest audience laugh in television history.
To my surprise and delight, somebody unexpected turned up in a recent episode of Better Call Saul: Carol Burnett herself, playing the grumpy octogenarian mother of a local miscreant. I immediately had a hunch that Burnett would play a role in Saul’s downfall because I thought it fitting that the Ghost of American Culture Past would return to whack the present. Indeed, the narrative is going in that direction as we barrel toward the future.
While I never thought the crisis management business should be funny, it sure was never boring, especially because long ago, I decided to take on the toughest cases. We mixed it up. We won some, lost plenty. I’ve got triumphs and regrets.
Today, my peculiar trade is going in the direction of retail and comedy. Big box firms have all kinds of reputation offerings you want in theory but acknowledging that you have motivated adversaries who want to put you out of business can get you banned from having client contact because it’s a tad indelicate. This is not theoretical; I’ve seen it happen repeatedly. (A client once told me that her highly controversial company had no adversaries — just “stakeholders,” an anodyne word that doesn’t really mean anything anymore.)
Rather than the boisterous battles of my earlier career, the corporate marketplace wants tofu as much as the political climate wants hot chili peppers. Rather than debating opponents or answering hard questions, the programs that get approved are the ones that guarantee clicks for posts about the box-checking invocations of transparency, sustainability, diversity, CSR, ESG and other worthy considerations that are being misused as palliatives. The ethic seems to be, “Don’t solve problems. Bore people, so they forget we’re here.”
This stance reminds me of a quotation from a Philip R. Craig novel a friend sent me: “Fables and outright lies are different things…Fables are told for the good of the listener; lies are told for the good of the liar.”
If you’re wondering if I see things in a narrow and biased fashion befitting my life station, of course, I do. Some readers may poke holes in my arguments and examples (go ahead, my hate mail is immediately deleted before I ever read it), but being a grandfather entitles me to a few rants and recollections.
I don’t know Bob Odenkirk, Saul’s star and powerhouse, but I’d like to think that as inflation and gas prices spike and presidents face prosecution, as was the case in our youth, he’s seeing something similar as he faces his sixtieth birthday a few weeks after mine.