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April 17, 2005

Pop Culture Smartens Up

Brooks' column today is, well, very good. Break out the party hats and noisemakers, it's a perfectly sound meditation on the paradoxical relationship between an increasingly sexual culture and a decreasingly sexual youth that doesn't pivot into insane ravings in the last paragraph. Huzzah! This culture stuff, by the way, is exactly the sort of column Brooks should stick to. He's quite entertaining and often profound when evaluating the contours of American life, it's when he tries to enter the political trenches that his pen loses its individuality and his fairness becomes a cynical ploy.

Anyway, I'm digressing. Brooks is right that culture is actually getting better, though he focuses only on the sexual aspect of it. My experience would back him up -- UCLA is a stunningly virginal campus, and many I knew in high school kept up impressively chaste profiles (many did not, but the orgies were rarer than the prayer meetings). Santa Cruz was much more sexually active, though it had an almost wholesome, adventurous ethos to it; it reminded me of nothing so much as a conscious effort to recapture the feel of the sexual liberation. So even there, more lovin', but it wasn't dirty or raunchy -- the campus was hyper-feminist and the overt objectification and sexualization of women you see in many venues wouldn't survive an instant there.

I'd take Brooks' theory a step farther though. It's not just the sex that's getting better -- or rarer -- the head is improving too. This is a kinda half-baked idea of mine, but think about the shows to achieve major popularity in the past few years. There's some unobjectionable fare, like Everyone Loves Raymond, some objectionable fare, like the reality shows, and then there's some pretty encouraging stuff -- West Wing, the Gilmore Girls, CSI, Law and Order, etc are all shows that, to varying degrees prize intellectualism. Sorkin's series venerates a bunch of policy savants who work in politics, the Gilmore Girls is a literary lovefest, CSI prizes the creative application of forensic science, and Law and Order shows attorneys some love. It's not a wasteland out there by any means, you're seeing smart, dialogue-based shows succeed with characters who are unabashedly, even definingly, intelligent. Pop culture is improving, or at least it looks that way to me.


April 17, 2005 in Life | Permalink


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» Sentences To Avoid from Politics and War
Ezra is doing alright these days:It's not just the sex that's getting better, or rarer, the head is improving too.Mazel tov.... [Read More]

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So, is the culture getting better or worse. Neither -- it's just getting different. And the transgressive position for today's teen is to not have sex -- rebellion made easy! The adults will be shocked! [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 17, 2005 3:24:32 PM

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Ezra Klein likes this column by David Brooks. [Read More]

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Why does the NYT print such sick, heteronormative and self-righteous moralism and why have Ezra, Matt, and Jesse praised this guy for being so insightful? [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 18, 2005 1:36:24 AM


You are dead on here, Ezra, but you forget some other great shows...

There are shows like Carnivale, which are so mythological that never could have been made on another network, The Wire, Six Feet Under, the former of which IS the best show on television, and the later of which I'd put the writing in the first two seasons against anything that has ever been on television.

In these, the aughts, television has been able to cast off their role as the "lazy" medium of visual arts, and shown that there are merits to the serialized, long term format that television brings. Character development is at a premium. I think TV is as good as it has ever been, despite the dreck that is out there.

Posted by: Dylan | Apr 17, 2005 12:47:52 PM


There are many good shows these days. However; the bad shows are just so much worse than the bad shows from yesteryear. The level of exploitation and schadenfreude has grown and shows no sign of waning.

Posted by: TJ | Apr 17, 2005 1:37:33 PM

“the head is improving too”? Gods be good sir!

I don’t know what things are like down in LA, but here at UC Davis, finding sex is a fairly easy thing to do...

Having said that, any culture that can produce and maintain both the History Channel and the Discovery Channel must be doing something right...

Posted by: Andrew Cory | Apr 17, 2005 1:42:28 PM

I can't think. Once you said, "the head is getting better", I totally lost track of what you were saying.... Limbaugh and I have one-track minds.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Apr 17, 2005 2:05:27 PM

Is it just me, or does Brooks sound like a bit of a perv in this column?

Posted by: praktike | Apr 17, 2005 2:22:01 PM

Heh -- I can't get anything past you guys ;)

Posted by: Ezra | Apr 17, 2005 3:58:05 PM

I agree with everything except Everybody Loves Raymond. I find that show highly objectionable. I can't watch it for longer than five minutes without wanting to throttle Ray Ramano. It makes me want to break into TV writing, just so I can give Peter Boyle something worthy to do.

Posted by: Keith | Apr 17, 2005 4:00:15 PM

And you left out the best shows on televesion: The Sopranos and The Wire (although this of course would raise questions about whether pop culture can be great even if it contains content Brent Bozell might find objectionable.) I'm not sure about pop culture as a whole, but televesion is pretty much better than ever.

On the general point, I suppose my feelings aren't a surprise. :) If one is claiming that pop culture has bad effects x, y, and z I think it's fair to ask for evidence, and I'm also strenuously opposed to reducing discussions of culture to political content or violance/nudity.

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Apr 17, 2005 4:21:18 PM

I guess you haven't watched the new L&O Trial by Jury, in which all defense attorneys and most judges are depicted as Satan Incarnate. Or L&O Special Victims Unit, which is basically crime porn.

Maybe I just really miss the days when Ben Stone and Shambala Green would have those great debates about racism. They've fallen a long way since then.

"Head is improving" was pretty funny, though.

Posted by: sophronia | Apr 17, 2005 4:59:49 PM

I offer rotten tomatos to you Ezra, and of course even more to David Brooks. Of course, part of my objection is that having to read anything that David Brooks is behind (ha ha another possible 2x entre..), and not roll my eyes. The man has the true understanding of a gnat of matters political.

Although you may agree, Erza, with the gist of the Brooks ideas, I would, for my blog-reading-nickel, like an appeal to reason in a different direction ... any other direction.

Am I glad that fewer 13 y o's are preg. these days? Well who wouldn't support that. But, does David B.'s puff piece really explain anything, or provide food for thought.. I think not, and I think you, Ezra, unlike Brooks, can achieve a higher standard as a basis for discussion.

Posted by: BG | Apr 17, 2005 5:33:37 PM

Just a note that I like some stuff that's not been mentioned: King of the Hill, RENO911, Dave Chappelle, Malcolm in the Middle, That 70s Show (and if you care, I'm a VN vet also.)

Posted by: IHOP1016 | Apr 17, 2005 5:38:54 PM

It's not just the sex that's getting better, or rarer, the head is improving too.

Best. Double entendre. Ever.

Posted by: Yuval Rubinstein | Apr 17, 2005 6:34:21 PM

Brooks' column is utterly perverse. "Acres of exposed pelvic skin," eh? "Fondling testicles and finding G-spots?" Brooks is encroaching on Dan Savage's territory without the wit.

Prurient, prurient, prurient.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Apr 18, 2005 12:05:54 AM

Brooks: "You may not like the growing influence of religion in public life, but the lives of young people have improved. You may not like the growing acceptance of homosexuality, but as it has happened heterosexual families have grown healthier."

I hate to rain on your Brooks-makes-sense parade, but he's equating real, undisputed wins by the progressives (the extension of civil rights an' liberties an' equality) with a change in teen behavior. And claiming this change in behavior has happened thanks to religious conservatives.

But has it?

He completely ignores years and years AIDS and STD education (and general awareness). He also ignores the fact that red states have more teen pregnancies than blue states. Next up, he's going to claim that the heartland enjoys finer weather than the librul Northeast because of it's moral fiber.

Posted by: jasper emmering | Apr 18, 2005 4:16:07 AM

As far as "free" television goes, I think the downward spiral continues as we are bombarded with a lack of creativity and very poor writing. Pay TV on the other hand, and HBO is the only channel I pay extra for, is outstanding. Shows like Deadwood (the best yet from HBO) and Carnivale and The Wire etc... are the most creative edgy shows I have ever seen.

With the rise in cable TV comes the decline in the other pay medium - Hollywood movies. I have never seen a more atrocious display of unoriginal, pandering, unsophisticated drivel in my life. Other than Kill Bill 1 and 2 I have found it next to impossible to pay $8 to see. some of this crap. Should I go to the theatre and see a remake of a hollywood b-movie (The Ammityville Horrible) or stay at home and watch reruns of Deadwood on On-Demand??? Hmmm. Tough one

Posted by: blood clot | Apr 18, 2005 1:39:04 PM

I'm with sophronia here. SVU, and many of the other hour crime dramas, have such twisted content. Serial killers, child rapists, what have you. The idea seems to be to rip the worst out of the headlines and lay some witty repartee on top. I think I'd prefer my kids to watch some leering schlockmeister sitcom than these so very dark dramas.

Posted by: mark | Apr 18, 2005 1:40:23 PM

"Santa Cruz was much more sexually active"

Dammit! I wish that had been true in 1978.... I agree with Jasper above. All those indicators of teen life improved during the course of the "hedonistic '90's" when we had real sex/AIDS ed and have leveled off or gotten slightly worse since the abstinence brigade took off. These so-called upswings in religion don't seem to correlate well with changes in behavior.

Posted by: Col Bat Guano | Apr 18, 2005 2:34:04 PM

Oddly enough, I liked this Brooks column too!

I do want to comment on the whole "television is great today" thread, though. Television today is balkanized--it's great for wealthy people who can pay $100 a month for super-premium cable, but not so good for poor folk who only get basic or (heaven forbid) broadcast. I love Deadwood, but lots of my friends never get to see it.

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