Flocking hilarious





David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, is a sort of middle-of-the road conservative social critic / political analyst.  He has a way of dealing with issues that I think of as the Brooks Method:

  • Define a social issue or trend (either significant or insignificant). For example: “People are certainly eating a lot of salad these days.”
  • Throw a lot of tsk-tsk analysis at this trend, like this: “People didn’t eat much salad when I was young.  And the Founding Fathers didn’t eat salad at all.  Where is this trend leading us?”
  • Come up with a spoofy / belittling neologism or catchphrase to encapsulate the trend, e.g.: “This new Salad Socialism is taking us down a new road.  Is it a better road?  I don’t know.”

It’s really pretty formulaic after a while; I think a machine could do it.  Come to think of it, he’s kind of shiny-looking in his Times photo; maybe he is a machine.

He recently wrote a column about the “new” television comedies like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Cougar Town.”  For Brooks, and for Neal Gabler of the LA Times, these are – wait for it – “flock comedies.”

Do you know how, when someone comes at you with a squirt gun, you scrunch up your face in anticipation?   That’s how I read a Brooks column.  I prepare myself for the inevitable squirt in the face when he hits me with his catchphrase.

So.  “Flock comedies.”  Let me grit my teeth and get through this.

“Flock comedies” are comedies that revolve around a group of friends.  They are depicted as spending a lot of time together – eating, socializing, watching TV, generally interacting.  I’m thinking “Friends,” “Seinfeld” –

Whoops.  Recent?  How about “Mary Tyler Moore”?  “Dobie Gillis”?  “Gilligan’s Island,” for God’s sake?

Anyway, this “trend” reflects our changing attitude toward friendship.  Virtual friendship a la Facebook has made us long for the real thing.  So we like watching people sit around dorm-room style and chat and argue and fight.  What a shame! Brooks and Gabler say.  It doesn’t reflect our real lives at all!

(Any show that reflected my real life would have to depict a fiftyish man lying on the couch reading a magazine, and getting up to go to the bathroom every ten minutes or so.  It would not do well in the ratings.)

The Brooks/Gabler argument is old-fogyism disguised as social commentary.  A television program has to be propelled by something – dramatic situations, funny dialogue, something.  You can do it around a dinner table, or a bar, or on a couch.  You can do it in a family setting, or a workplace setting, or a casual setting like a bar or living room.  You can’t really do it without depicting people interacting with people.

But! Brooks and Gabler say.  The quality of friendship has changed!  Living in our hurry-scurry World of Tomorrow (see blog title, above), we have sacrificed Real Traditional Friendship! Statistics show that we have less friends than we used to, and that we are less likely to form dyadic one-on-one friendships.

Gabler (whom Brooks calls “apocalyptic”) says that the intimacy portrayed on TV is “phony.”  Hmm.  Now why would situations presented in a half-hour comedy program be “phony”?

Brooks and Gabler both say that this ersatz TV “friendship” is wish fulfillment: it depicts the way we wish our lives really were, full of “deeply intimate” friends.  (I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I don’t have either Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” or Kramer from “Seinfeld” living across the hall.)

Neither Brooks nor Gabler seems very comfortable with talking about family relationships in this context.  Gabler says “Modern Family” is “incomparable,” but then tut-tuts about the unreality of its depiction of family togetherness.  Brooks says that “young people” live in “diverse friendship tribes” (squinch!  I didn’t see that one coming!), but he really doesn’t talk about the family aspect at all.

Gabler isn’t just apocalyptic; he’s post-apocalyptic.  According to him, we are already completely deracinated by our television viewing.  It has gotten into our heads, made us unhappy, made us depressed, taken all of our friends away, etc., etc.  We wander the streets desolately, looking for another video injection to soothe our existential heartache.  (Evidently he subscribes to my “television makes your head explode” theory, which you can read about here.)

Brooks is more tragic than apocalyptic.  He acknowledges, somberly, that friendship – one-on-one, buddy-buddy stuff – still exists, but is being replaced by the Facebook model: cool virtual friendships that don’t really amount to anything.  Brooks thinks that TV is presently showing us our true selves: lonely, emotionally inept, willing to replace real friendships with friendships of convenience.

Oh, my.

It makes me want to run right down to the coffee shop and tell Ross and Rachel all about it.




About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

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