People Feel “Stuck” in Lives Lacking Freedom and Hope

People need more control over their lives to feel hopeful for a free flourishing future. Fewer government regulations and more innovative firm managers could allow more of us to be “unstuck,” working on challenging but doable projects that improve the world and allow fulfilment. (I discuss these issues in more depth in Openness to Creative Destruction.)

(p. 9) The hallways on the television shows I watch have been driving me mad. On one sci-fi show after another I’ve encountered long, zigzagging, labyrinthine passageways marked by impenetrable doors and countless blind alleys — places that have no obvious beginning or end. The characters are holed up in bunkers (“Fallout”), consigned to stark subterranean offices (“Severance”), locked in Escher-like prisons (“Andor”) or living in spiraling mile-deep underground complexes (“Silo”). Escape is unimaginable, endless repetition is crushingly routine and people are trapped in a world marked by inertia and hopelessness.

The resonance is chilling: Television has managed to uncannily capture the way life feels right now.

We’re all stuck.

What’s being portrayed is not exactly a dystopia. It’s certainly not a utopia. It’s something different: a stucktopia. These fictional worlds are controlled by an overclass, and the folks battling in the mire are underdogs — mechanics, office drones, pilots and young brides. Yet they’re also complicit, to varying degrees, in the machinery that keeps them stranded. Once they realize this, they strive to discard their sense of futility — the least helpful of emotions — and try to find the will to enact change.

. . .

We’re not stuck in our circumstance. We’re stuck in the ways of living that perpetuate it.

If enough of us give up the sense that things are inevitable — that we’re stuck — it’s possible that we can course-correct humanity, or at least nudge it toward a hopeful path.

There’s another more realistic option that offers a thrill and reward of its own. If we don’t let the stucktopia keep its hold on us, if we rebuke it, maybe we shift ourselves ever so slightly toward optimism, and give the system whatever small hell we can.

For the full commentary see:

Hillary Kelly. “It’s Not Your Imagination. We’re All Stuck.” The New York Times, SundayOpinion Section (Sunday, July 7, 2024): 9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 6, 2024, and has the title “Welcome to Stucktopia.”)

“Funny, Obsessed Weirdos . . . Taking Children’s Entertainment . . . Seriously”

(p. C4) . . . to everyone other than Muppet obsessives, Henson the artist is still a bit shadowy. Good news: Now we have “Jim Henson Idea Man” (on Disney+), a tribute to the artist and a treasure trove of archival footage and interviews about his work and life.  . . .

The film, directed by Ron Howard, starts with Henson and two of his Muppet friends, Fozzie Bear and Kermit the Frog — Henson’s alter ego — being interviewed on TV by none other than Orson Welles.

. . .

. . . what struck me especially was that Howard has made a movie that every young artist should watch (and older ones, too), whether they’re making puppets, paintings, music, movies or anything that requires creative labor.

That’s because the film shows that Henson’s work was rooted in an unquenchable drive for exploration. One interviewee notes that he was lured into working on “Sesame Street” by the promise that he could make the kind of short experimental films he loved — and suddenly I realized that my taste for unhinged abstraction in film had been partly shaped when I was 4 and plopped in front of PBS.

. . .

The immense delight in “Jim Henson Idea Man” comes with simply watching funny, obsessed weirdos like Henson and his friends doing something nobody else was doing, something few people do anymore: taking children’s entertainment (and later adult entertainment) seriously as craft. I’ve heard naysayers argue that it’s silly to ask children’s movies to be any good, since they’re just for kids. But Henson knew better: Every opportunity to make something was a chance to explore with the audience. There’s a reason, then, that his work lasts.

For the full review see:

Alissa Wilkinson. “CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK; Took Kid Stuff Seriously.” The New York Times (Wednesday, June 5, 2024): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the dated May 31, 2024, and has the title “CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK; ‘Jim Henson Idea Man’: In a Joyful Weirdo, Lessons for Young Artists.”)

Arthur Diamond Praises The Bear in “The Bear’s Out-Stuck Neck”

My commentary on The Bear was posted to the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) web site on Tues., July 9, 2024.

A direct link to the commentary is:

On Facebook, I added the following comment:

“The Bear has the courage to show a passionate persevering crew of misfit chefs prioritizing merit (the food) over so-called D.E.I. (the color and gender of those who prepare the food). Courage is not the only virtue of The Bear–count also wit, plot, admirable (though flawed) characters, and intelligence. My review applies to seasons 1 and 2, and not as fully to the still-enjoyable season 3 that was posted to Hulu on June 27. At the end of season 3 we are left hanging on whether season 4 will uphold or betray the spirit of the The Bear in seasons 1 and 2.”

Jerry Seinfeld Knows “the Extreme Left and P.C. Crap” Hampers Comedy

(p. C1) Since the attacks of Oct. 7 [2023] in Israel, and through their bloody and volatile aftermath in Gaza, Mr. Seinfeld, 70, has emerged as a strikingly public voice against antisemitism and in support of Jews in Israel and the United States, edging warily toward a more forward-facing advocacy role than he ever seemed to seek across his decades of fame.

He has shared reflections about life on a kibbutz in his teens, and in December traveled to Tel Aviv to meet with hostages’ families, soberly recounting afterward the missile attack that greeted him during the trip.

He has participated, to a point, in the kind of celebrity activism with which few associate him — letter-signing campaigns, earnest messages on social media — answering simply recently when asked about the motivation for his visit to Israel: “I’m Jewish.”

And as some American cities and college campuses simmer with conflict over the Middle East crisis and Israel’s military response, Mr. Seinfeld has faced a measure of public scorn that he has rarely courted as a breakfast-obsessed comedian, intensified by the more vocal advocacy of his wife, Jessica, a cookbook author.

. . .

(p. C4) Since “Seinfeld,” he has spoken most expansively about the art of comedy itself, framing it as a morally neutral pursuit whose highest aim is to make people laugh. (Mr. Seinfeld recently made headlines for suggesting in an interview with The New Yorker that “the extreme left and P.C. crap” had hampered comedy.)

For the full story see:

Matt Flegenheimer and Marc Tracy. “Jerry Seinfeld Is Clearly No Longer About Nothing.” The New York Times (Monday, May 6, 2024): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 4, 2024, and has the title “Jerry Seinfeld Can No Longer Be About Nothing.”)

“Everyone Just Exchanges Platitudes and Inanities Because They Are Afraid to Say Anything”

(p. B3) The younger generation has frequently called out Japan’s entrenched elders for their casual sexism, excessive work expectations and unwillingness to give up power.

But a surprise television hit has people talking about whether the oldsters might have gotten a few things right, especially as some in Japan — like their counterparts in the United States and Europe — question the heightened sensitivities associated with “wokeness.”

The show, “Extremely Inappropriate!,” features a foul-talking, crotchety physical education teacher and widowed father who boards a public bus in 1986 Japan and finds himself whisked to 2024.

. . .

The show was one of the country’s most popular when its 10 episodes aired at the beginning of the year on TBS, one of Japan’s main television networks. It is also streaming on Netflix, where it spent four weeks as the platform’s No. 1 show in Japan.

. . .

Not so subtly, the show . . . comments on the evolution toward more inclusive and accommodating offices, caricaturing them as places where work is left undone because of strict overtime rules and employees apologize repeatedly for running afoul of “compliance rules.”

Such portrayals strike a chord in Japan, where there have been complaints, often expressed on social media, about “political correctness” being used as a “club” to restrict expression or to water down television programs or films. Part of what fans have found refreshing about “Extremely Inappropriate!” is how unrestrained the portions set in the Showa era are.

While critics have called the series retrograde, some younger viewers say the show has made them question social norms they once took for granted — and wonder about what has been lost.

Writing for an entertainment-oriented Web publication, Rio Otozuki, 25, said that the series “must have left many viewers thinking inwardly that the Showa era was more fun.”

. . .

Kaori Shoji, an arts critic who was a teenager in the 1980s, said she loved “Extremely Inappropriate!” She particularly appreciated how the series illuminated the chilling effects of today’s tighter policing of workplaces.

“Everyone is just playing a game to see who can be the least offensive person that ever walked the earth,” Ms. Shoji said. “Everyone just exchanges platitudes and inanities because they are afraid to say anything. Surely that cannot be good for a workplace.”

For the full story see:

Motoko Rich and Kiuko Notoya. “In Japan, a TV Show Makes Young Viewers Pine for the ‘Inappropriate’ 1980s.” The New York Times (Saturday, June 8, 2024): B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 29, 2024, and has the title “A Show That Makes Young Japanese Pine for the ‘Inappropriate’ 1980s.” The online version says that the print version was on page B1 and had the title “In Japan, A Flashback To the 1980s”, but my print version was on page B3 and had the title “In Japan, a TV Show Makes Young Viewers Pine for the ‘Inappropriate’ 1980s.”)

Shark Tank Shows Capitalism as a “Bootstrap Meritocracy”

(p. 24) . . . my favorite TV show is “Shark Tank.”  . . .  The premise of the tank is that small-business owners get an audience with investors — the “sharks,” a crew of millionaires and billionaires that includes Mark Cuban, Daymond John and Lori Greiner, the “queen of QVC” — in the hope of provoking a bidding war for a stake in the company. Sometimes the sharks dismiss the ideas outright, and they often do so cruelly, but in a satisfying, detailed way. You start to feel as if you could write your own business plan after watching a few episodes.

. . .

(p. 25) The show dramatizes a romantic vision of our economy, depicting it as a bootstrap meritocracy.

. . .

Part of the show’s appeal is that it’s an equal-opportunity forum — you don’t have to know a Silicon Valley V.C. or even a banker to get your audience with the sharks.

. . .

I was so politically assertive as a kid because I wanted someone to respect my opinion, to value me. I wanted to be taken seriously. I think most kids feel this way, dismissed outright for being small. In the tank, no one is dismissed — the sharks start every segment with furrowed brows, ready to take notes and hear out pitches, no matter how preposterous. They begin the process with a clean slate every time. Somewhere deep down, I want all these deals to work, I want the enthusiasm that sharks feel to be genuine and I want the contestants to walk away with business plans ready to be set into motion. Even if “Shark Tank” is propaganda — the selling and marketing of the American dream — the fantasy feels real.

For the full commentary, see:

Jaime Lowe. “Letter of Recommendation: ‘Shark Tank’.” The New York Times Magazine (Sunday, October 1, 2017 [sic]): 24-25.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 28, 2017 [sic], and has the same title as the print version.)

Apple’s Bold “1984” Super Bowl Ad, Had Failed Marketing Test

(p. C4) Conceived by the Chiat/Day ad agency and directed by Ridley Scott, then fresh off making the seminal science-fiction noir “Blade Runner,” the Apple commercial “1984,” which was intended to introduce the new Macintosh computer, would become one of the most acclaimed commercials ever made. It also helped to kick off — pun partially intended — the Super Bowl tradition of the big game serving as an annual showcase for gilt-edged ads from Fortune 500 companies.

. . .

FRED GOLDBERG The original idea was actually done in 1982. We presented an ad [with] a headline, which was “Why 1984 Won’t Be Like ‘1984,’” to Steve Jobs, and he didn’t think the Apple III was worthy of that claim.

. . .

HAYDEN Steve Jobs was excited but frightened by it. Steve Wozniak offered to pay to run the commercial himself.

SCULLEY Before the commercial ran, we had to take it to the board of directors. The board sees the commercial, and then there’s just dead silence in the boardroom. They turn and look at me, and [a board member] says, “You’re not really going to run that thing, are you?”

HAYDEN As the closing credits scrolled up, the chairman, Mike Markkula, put his head in his hands and kind of folded over the conference table, and then slowly straightened up and [proposed hiring a different ad agency].

SCOTT I made it. I thought it was pretty good. But I was thinking, “Really? They’re going to run this on the Super Bowl? And we don’t know what it’s for?”

GOLDBERG I had them do a theater test. We get back the results, and it’s the worst business commercial that they’ve ever tested, in terms of persuasiveness.

SCULLEY The board said, “We don’t think you should run it. Try to sell the time.”

GOLDBERG And it was Jay Chiat who told us to drag our feet, basically, when we were told to sell off the time on the Super Bowl.

HAYDEN At long last, it came down that we would run the “1984” commercial once.

For the full story, see:

Saul Austerlitz. “The Super Bowl’s Big Ad Touchdown.” The New York Times (Saturday, February 10, 2024): C4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added. The bracketed words in comments from Goldberg, Sculley, and Hayden were in the original.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 5, 2024, and has the title “40 Years Ago, This Ad Changed the Super Bowl Forever.” In the print and online versions, the names of panelists were in capitalized and bold fonts.)

Apple’s bold and famous “1984” Super Bowl ad could only be understood by those who were familiar with:

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: The New American Library, 1961 [1st published in 1949].

“’The Bear’ Soars” With “The Chemistry of a Frantic Workplace” and the “Camaraderie” of “A Common Goal”

We are about halfway through the second season of “The Bear.” A lot of current shows are cliché-laden, woke, clones of each other. This one is not perfect (constant f-bombs are jarring), but the show is funny and intense and different. I like its sincere intensity. Carmy is intense about getting a job done well. He has flaws, as do the other characters, as do all classical heroes (see The Odyssey). But they keep trying, they keep showing up. In the end, the food matters. The sous chef comes to work for Carmy because she knows he is great at what he does, and can drive her toward greatness. When the sous chef at random times and places has an idea for a new dish, she pulls out her pad and writes notes. Deirdre McCloskey says we all should do that. Robert Loring Allen in Opening Doors says Schumpeter used to stop in the middle of a walk and jot notes before moving on–and his students would laugh at him. Let them laugh.

(p. C3) It’s jarring to watch the aggressive workaholism of “The Bear” amid the current reconsideration of work and work-life balance that’s been happening since the pandemic. Not a day passes without a new account of employees re-evaluating priorities; frustrated bosses urging staffers back to their offices; or social media phenomena like “quiet quitting” and “lazy girl jobs,” which really are rejections of wanton careerism.

. . .

At the same time, everyone’s in. No one’s “quiet quitting.” “The Bear” soars when it depicts the chemistry of a frantic workplace with camaraderie and a common goal. There is no place these characters would rather be, no people they’d rather be with. (One of the most poignant moments is when Sydney stops what she’s doing to make a harried co-worker an omelet.) They have found purpose—even Cousin Richie, who, in the season’s best episode, apprentices at a sleek Michelin three-star restaurant and discovers a talent for customer service, not to mention an upgraded taste in clothing.

“I wear suits now,” Richie says upon his return. Casual Fridays be damned!

Even a non-chef can appreciate this vibe. “The Bear” made me nostalgic for a time, before the (delightful!) arrival of family and children, when I lived alone, kept a refrigerator barren but for a jar of mustard, existed in my own self-absorbed, work-crazed head, socializing only with other self-absorbed work crazies.

For the full review, see:

Jason Gay. “What ‘The Bear’ Says About The Work-Life Revolution.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 29, 2023): C3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 28, 2023, and has the title “‘I’m a Psycho’—What ‘The Bear’ Says About the Work-Life Revolution.”)

How Does Larry David “Brilliantly” Use “Stereotype” and “Caricature” to “Mock Deadly Serious Issues” Without Getting Cancelled?

(p. 24) On “Curb,” David starred as “Larry David,” simultaneously the world’s most comfortable and uncomfortable man, registering his complaints to a cast of sounding boards: . . .

. . .

. . ., David has . . . played with material that could explode on a lesser comic. In a classic episode, Larry becomes addicted to a Palestinian chicken restaurant that raises a furor when it opens a branch next to a Jewish deli. (While the plot might seem uncomfortably prescient during the Gaza war in 2024, when it premiered in 2011 it alluded to the controversy over a planned Islamic center in Lower Manhattan that was mislabeled a “ground zero mosque.”)

Larry is unsettled, as a Jew, by the militant posters on the restaurant’s walls. He is seduced, as a mortal, by the delicious poultry and by a Palestinian woman he meets there, who turns him on with antisemitic dirty talk.

Does the episode stereotype? Does it caricature? Does it mock deadly serious issues? Yes — brilliantly. It blows straight through offense into transcendence, guided by the comic philosophy that all people are debased, fallen and governed by low passions, above all Larry David. He ends the episode in a parking lot between two furious crowds: a group of Jewish protesters, including many of his friends, and the Palestinian counterprotesters, including his girlfriend — tribe vs. tribe, socialization vs. appetite, the camera pushing in on Larry’s anxious, indecisive face.

For the full commentary, see:

James Poniewozik. “CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK; ‘Curb’ Spun Something Special Out of Nothing.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, February 4, 2024): 1 & 24.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Jan. 20, 2024, and has the title “CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK; ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Made Something Out of Nothing.” The online version says that the print edition has the title “‘Curb’ Spun Gold Out of Gripes and Grievances” but my national version of the print edition had the title “‘Curb’ Spun Something Special Out of Nothing.”)

“MSNBC’s Business Model . . . Is Flaying Trump 24 Hours a Day”

Maureen Dowd, a leading opinion columnist at The New York Times, is left-wing but sometimes refreshingly blunt, as in some of her comments from right after the Iowa Republican caucuses.

(p. 2) . . . MSNBC refused to carry Trump’s victory speech at all and CNN cut away from the 25-minute remarks after 10 minutes. Fox News, of course, played it all.

Rachel Maddow said her network’s decision was “not out of spite.” It’s not personal — it’s strictly business, as Michael Corleone said. MSNBC’s business model, after all, is flaying Trump 24 hours a day.

For the full commentary, see:

Maureen Dowd. “Can the MAGA Shrew Be Tamed?” The New York Times, SundayOpinion Section (Sunday, January 21, 2024): 2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Jan. 20, 2024, and has the same title as the print version.)

Rob Reiner Says Today “All in the Family” Scripts “Would Get Cancelled”

(p. C4 ) Reflecting on Norman Lear’s death, Rob Reiner was understandably heartbroken on Wednesday [Dec. 6, 2023].

. . .

Reiner won two Emmy Awards for playing the liberal son-in-law, Michael, of the close-minded racist Archie Bunker on Lear’s most famous sitcom, “All in the Family,” which ran from 1971 to 1979 on CBS.

. . .

No matter the issue that “All in the Family” dealt with on any given week — and it tackled thorny topics that would be considered contentious today: abortion, racism, gun rights — that issue would became water cooler talk the next morning. “You don’t have those kinds of communal experiences where you can talk to people,” Reiner said.

“The country either sided with Archie or sided with Mike, and that made for great discussions,” he continued. Lear “definitely tapped into something that nobody had ever done before or even since.”

Lear, who was 101 years old, drew inspiration from his favorite play: George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” If you did not know that Shaw was a liberal, Reiner said, “you’d go to the play and you’d come away with the equal pro-war/antiwar — you’d come away with equal arguments on both sides, and it was made to spawn discussion.” And that’s what Lear wanted to do. “So he presented both sides. Archie had his side. And the character I played had my side, and we went at each other,” Reiner added.

That approach would likely never gain ground today, Reiner said. “He put a racist out there and the way racists really talk. And now, if you said things like that, you would get canceled.”

Lear would stir the pot. “He would ask us to look into ourselves and what did we think, what were our feelings about this. And we poured it into the show. So it made the show better. And he did that with everything he did. Fearless.”

For the full story, see:

Maya Salam. “Rob Reiner Recalls a Man Who Loved America.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 9, 2023): C4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 6, 2023, and has the title “Rob Reiner Remembers Norman Lear: We’ve Lost ‘a Real Champion of America’.”)