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Sitcom as pastoral: from the city to the country (and back again)

Have you ever harboured unfulfilled fantasies of moving to the country, slowing down, changing scenes, and living in a community where everybody knows your name? After living in a small regional town for a year, I finally read Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City (1973). It laid bare some of the fantasies that had motivated the move outwards, and, as Williams puts it, reminded me that nostalgia is ‘universal and persistent; only other men’s nostalgias offend …’ The pastoral ideal reflects an immature desire for a different world whose purity keeps our imaginations fixed on the unreal image of a ‘real’ people in the ‘real’ country with ‘real’ values.

These desires have been expressed in recent popular sitcoms like Parks and Recreation (2009-2015) and Schitt’s Creek (2015-2020), the latter of which won nine Emmy awards in its final season and attracted numerous other accolades. Dubbing it the ‘funniest show on TV’ in Vogue, Bridget Read has extolled the virtues of a sitcom that ‘is somehow as dry as it is warm. Amid a landscape of heavy-handed “political” shows and unintelligent fluff, [the] show has steadily emerged as an oasis of good humour, sweetness and gentle snark.’

Read locates the pleasures of Schitt’s Creek in ‘its central concept, which could not be better suited for our current Trump era: rich people getting what they deserve.’ But the show enters a well-established tradition both in the sitcom and the pastoral, and the fact that it premiered in 2015 (and on Canadian television, to boot) suggests its appeal may be due to something deeper than a change of US presidents.

Parks and Rec is a good point of comparison. Spanning the Obama years, the show sought to compensate for the stagnant centrist politics with small town charm and wholesome values, often portraying (like the reactionary populists who lay claim to) them by contrast with the squalor of big city politics and the empty lives of the urban elite. Although they appear to include ‘ordinary folk’ or ‘working-class characters’, both of these sitcoms feature what Read calls ‘Trojan horsed’ politics and a ‘gentle worldview, in which the people are flawed and human but ultimately good, and undeniably valued.’ Their message is simultaneously that the ‘right’ politics prevail, and that a consensus exists if only we could stop bickering. Like the pastorals before them, they make political conflict disappear.

Beloved by fans, both Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Rec slowly substituted mild comic distraction with the trite satisfactions of romantic resolutions and arcs of personal growth and achievement. As Guy Hocquenghem lamented of political movements in The Screwball Asses (1973), ‘the use of charm [is] diverted to public discourse [by] a nuptial parade and an accession to power.’ Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Rec shared small town government as a workplace through which to encounter a zany cast of locals; both transitioned through the seasons towards small (and increasingly larger) business ambitions.

Small-town sitcoms indulge in the fantasy of a world untouched by economic neoliberalism, but fully committed to precisely the cultural politics of the neoliberal era. By way of explaining the absence of homophobia in a show that is celebrated for its portrayal of queer characters, creator Dan Levy says he has ‘no patience for homophobia.’ This is representative of the treatment of social and political conflict in the show in general, which consists in ignoring or eliding it. The show’s politics are post-political, yet it delights in the contempt of the Rose family for the poor, uncultured rural inhabitants. In this instance, political conflict is de-materialised into acerbic cultural frisson. While the difference of sexuality can apparently be willed away, the geographic and economic divide remains significant, if buried.

Scorn for less cultured others is the comic conceit of a show that prides itself on ‘love and tolerance’ for difference. As Levy tells Bridget Read, ‘the best TV that I watch, I always feel safe when I’m watching it …’ The pastoral, like the sitcom, confirms our notions of cultural hierarchy all the while covering them by idealising the origins of culture in an labour-less communion with nature. The cultural hierarchy also neatly conceals the material hierarchy that often exists in the shows.

It is precisely those less powerful others who are also the source of a moral lesson about humility (accepting our lot) and good intentions. If I were to hazard a political distinction that first drawn by Fredric Jameson, I would suggest that the difference between utopian politics and utopian fantasy is that the former challenges and adds complexity to our dreams and ideals while insisting that another world is possible. The latter – the fantasy, such as the pastoral – comforts us with the image of a world in which conflict is absent and our dreams have been achieved in reified form, yet remains stuck in the current social order ­– like patriarchal marriage rituals and the aspiration to venture-capitalist funding for a chain motel take-over plan. As Raymond Williams writes, ‘between the simple backward look and the simple progressive thrust there is room for long argument but none for enlightenment.’

 

Politics and the pastoral

The last stage of a world-historical formation is comedy.

Karl Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ (1844)

Shows like Parks and Rec and Schitt’s Creek (or Rosehaven) represent the continuation of the pastoral fantasy in the context of social and political upheaval. The pastoral endures in the English imagination, the context where Williams excavated its grip, but the category is just as applicable elsewhere in an age of environmental catastrophe, political upheaval and economic immiseration. The shift in institutional politics towards what Nancy Fraser calls ‘progressive neoliberalism’ in part explains the obsessive targeting of suburban (white) voters, and has entrenched the narrative that the ‘real America’ (or ‘real Australia’ or ‘real England’) lies in a generic mid-West town, like the fictional Pawnee of Parks and Rec. (As Astra Taylor asks, if some people are the ‘real people’, does that make everyone else ‘unreal’?) Eerily weatherless, blandly designed and with just enough diversity to tick network boxes, towns like ‘Pawnee’ or ‘Schitt’s Creek’ – alongside the ‘real’ Scranton, Pennsylvania – have far more purchase on the cultural and political imagination than most ordinary towns.

TV comedy, Lillian S. Robinson proposes in Sex, Class and Culture (1978), is invested in justifying a mythical version of the status quo. Similarly, the pastoral presents the world of the past, the rural small town and the ethic of community in a mythical light that robs them of their caustic reality. In a tribute to Williams, fellow Marxist critic Terry Eagleton writes that

because the bourgeois ideology of the pastoral absorbs the rural by alienating it, positing it as an “unreal” enclave, Williams in turn opposes bourgeois ideology by insisting on the contradictory unity of the agrarian and industrial.

The point is to see the whole picture. For Williams, this meant the relationship between literary form, the means of production, and the social relations they produced. Both Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Rec are defined by a trajectory from small town back to the city, representing the illusory dream of a friendlier capitalism, and the financial and bureaucratic professions disciplined by wholesome values.

The pastoral genre represents an attempt to settle in cultural terms a political and economic crisis. Williams identifies the birth of agrarian capitalism and enclosure. In late neoliberal society, new enclosures and disorienting economic shifts lend themselves to nostalgia for previous conditions. What is encoded in the pastoral, however, is the negation of the modern world, the urban and the new merchant class that it identifies as usurpers of the (feudal) peace.

Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, in Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001), identify cultural icons of the late twentieth-century like E.T. as imbued with pastoral longing: ‘pacifism and the goodness of an extraterrestrial identified with the natural environment’ are explicitly opposed to the ‘human world of modernity’, wielding technology and medicine. This romantic critique or ‘retrospective radicalism’, Williams writes, places ‘emphases on obligation, on charity, on the open door to the needy neighbour’, like a free motel room in a backwards town, in contrast to the ‘capitalist thrust, the utilitarian reduction of all social relationships to a crude moneyed order.’ But by having a simplistic vision of capitalism and modernity, this style of critique

enfolds social values which, if they do become active, at once spring to the defence of certain kinds of order, certain social hierarchies and moral stabilities, which have a feudal ring but a more relevant and more dangerous contemporary application… in the defence of traditional property settlements, or in the offensive against democracy in the name of blood and soil.

The pastoral fuses the ‘self-yielding earth’ that needs no labour with the ‘conscious community of property and purpose.’ These features are not narrativised in the small-town sitcom. Rather, they form the structuring conditions, sometimes in literal terms. The establishing shots in Schitt’s Creek are filled with empty, sun-blushed woods, skating pastel clouds and waving, unlaboured fields of non-descript crops that conceal the rigid fenceline. Williams protests that ‘the process of rural exploitation … have been, in effect, dissolved into the landscape.’

 

‘A crisis of perspective’: the pastoral’s reconciliation with neoliberal capitalism

It is as if a humane man could not bring himself to see the real origins of the misery of his time, in the class to which he was directly linked. He must either idealise their past, or explain the present by their absence and the irruption of new men.

Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (1973)

What is also dissolved by the increasing attention placed on romantic partnerships is ‘a quite precise and recent set of social relationships.’ In the image of the couple – one from the city, the other a local (Ben and Leslie, or David and Patrick) – we find concealed and crucially settled a social order. This settlement elides the tension between the moral wholesomeness of the small-town setting and, as in Jane Austen’s novels, an ‘openly acquisitive society, which is concerned with the transmission of wealth … trying to judge itself at once by an inherited code and by the morality of improvement.’

Although small businesses feature as plot devices in many small-town shows, the work of them (and the work around them) is barely seen. While the virtues of business acumen and ambition are extolled, it is also ‘the means to social improvement, which is then so isolated that it is seen very clearly indeed.’ The moral rectitude of the successful striver conceals the labour necessary to their success. The role of small businesses in these shows extends a pioneering spirit of can-do individualism, which enables the ‘simultaneous celebration of improvement and of romantic wastes,’ and combines a justification for colonial conquest with a fetishised natural purity. The sophistication of small-town tastes are remarkably elevated by David’s introduction of a body milk line, cheeses and wines that probably cost a few times more than the wages earned by most of the locals.

Although part of the purpose of these shows is to demonstrate the virtue of acquiescence to a traditional social order, they are also guided by an aspiration to make it big. On the one hand, they condemn those who exclusively ‘lived by a calculation of rents and returns on investments in capital.’ On the other, in the later seasons of Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Rec alike, the shows lose sight of the ‘ordinary scale of human achievement’ and (like the giant estate houses of the early capitalist vanity construction boom) ‘break the scale, by an act of will corresponding to their real and systematic exploitation of others.’ In other words, they join the elites either by pitching to vulture capitalist hedge funds to buy up and homogenize local motels with the values of ‘homeliness’ packaged and sold in an emotionally triumphant investment opportunity, or joining the ranks of Congressmen ahead of a politically-adept wife (a fiction endorsed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in April 2020, as they apparently had little else to do).

The arrival of big city outsiders in the town jolts parochial Leslie Knope from over-achieving in her civil service job to run for local government. In Schitt’s Creek, motel-worker (then motel-owner) Stevie puts up with a family of spoilt squatters before being taught the virtues of business ambition and financial prudence by the family’s patriarch, Johnny, who effectively colonises the motel. His former business is a Blockbuster-esque symbol of the ‘old’ economy when ‘real’ goods circulated upon a bubble of underpaid labour and extortionate franchising. A major deus ex machina in their subsequent business success involves the eponymous Schitt family re-mortgaging their house after the birth of their child, an act of anxiety-inducing financial generosity quickly swept out of sight by even larger business ambitions.

In the pastoral, Williams writes,

a sanctity of property relations has to coexist with violently changing property relations, and an ideal of charity with the harshness of labour relations in both the new and old modes.

While the pitch to consolidate local motels is rejected in a boardroom, it is a plucky startup hedge fund that takes up the literal embodiment of alienated wholesomeness. Capital shows itself newly invested in the symbol of the home even for the precarious and itinerant traveler who wanders America in search of something resembling its fantasy of itself. The country, meanwhile, paradoxically renews the vigour of capitalist investment and educates the urban investor in the virtues of homeliness. In the reality that Williams aims to show within the pastoral fantasy, the country and the city are materially inextricable.

Twice Moira Rose utters the stock phrases of neoliberal capitalism: ‘there is no alternative’ and ‘lean in’, she coos in an unplaceable accent. It is remarkable that minor characters like Twyla (adoringly profiled in The New Yorker), Schitt’s Creek sole waitress, and Donna in Parks and Rec are beneficiaries of enormous but unexplained wealth. It is as though the show must give locals precisely what the city intruders want in order to soften the jokes leveled at them. Although money and its absence are persistent themes in Schitt’s Creek, the viewer never really gets to see it.

If the pastoral fantasy longs for and imagines itself as really represented by the small town, it nevertheless continues to posit that small town inhabitants long for the big city, for political recognition, and to join financial capitalism in its upward redistribution of wealth. As Terry Eagleton notes of Williams’ analysis, ‘it is precisely the unity of the hegemonic mode itself, outside which nothing can escape into innocence.’ The small town is part of the same circuitry as the city, just as much as agri-business is part of the same circuitry as global finance and banking. But, Williams warns, it is ‘easier to separate the consequences from the system, and then to ascribe to social decay what was actually the result of social and economic growth.’ ‘Social relations,’ Marx reminds us, ‘are closely bound up with productive forces.’

For Williams, the pastoral as a literary genre offered safety and settlement to the cultural imaginary in what was a period of violent change, as agrarian capitalism intruded in the old feudal social and economic order. In the pastoral, as in the small-town sitcom, the ‘unlocalised’ semi-rural small town represents a fantasy of reconciliation with nature, freedom from the hurried and venal demands of the city, blessed with a stable social order and gifted with good, homely moral values that can educate intruding outsiders in the virtues of close-knit community obligations. What Williams demonstrates, and what the sitcoms prove by way of their narrative trajectories, is the material and aspirational relationship between the country and the city that necessarily ties them together, ruining fantasies and unsettling politics.

 

Cynicism and the city

Still-popular sitcoms of the 1990s like Seinfeld (1989-1998) and Frasier (1993-2004) recall the Restoration comedies of the late seventeenth century: amoral, largely empty of narrative, and cynical, attributes that have persisted in Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2020). These shows make comedy out of contempt for service industry workers. Work is present as excessive servility, a health-stricken excuse for generosity, or a comically officious obstruction to the main characters’ pointless and petty narcissism. Almost more disturbing is the whitewashed blandness of every single set. The skin of each actor is so slick and smooth, so manicured that the eye simply glances off it. Part of their cynical sting is the impossible cleanliness of the world the sitcom inhabits.

Raymond Williams remarks of the Jacobean-era London comedy that

through the parades and visits and intrigues of London society, was just this making of marriages which were also necessary property transactions. It was impossible not to be cynical about it, while the game was being played, but equally this cynicism never reached the point of renouncing the advantages which were being played for; that is why it is cynicism, rather than real opposition.

Yet, rather than simply condemn the emptiness of such cynicism, Williams pits it against the emptiness of the pastoral ideal, as though both fantasies were AI bots talking to each other through YouTube. Williams quotes Wordsworth’s Prelude (1814) in which he escapes from ‘an idle dream’ of the busy city (like that of sun-blasted LA of the 2000s or rent-controlled NYC of the 1990s) to memorialise

… those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall …
So still an image of tranquility,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which fill my mind.

The experience of alienation in the city is urgently palpable in early industrial England, just as the experience of alienation is urgently palpable in late neoliberal capitalism. Wordsworth laments the

strangeness, a loss of connection, not at first in social but in perceptual ways: failure of identity in the crowd of others … a loss of society itself, its overcoming and replacement by a procession of images.

The end of the era of agrarian capitalism and the classical form of primitive accumulation in land consolidation alienated agricultural workers, in the same way that the decline of industrial manufacturing in the global North has alienated working class politics from its conventional base. John Clare, in a collection published in 1821, sensitively observed such loss, as

Inclosure came, and every path was stopt
Each tyrant fixed his sign where paths were found,
… tasteless was the wretch who thy existence plann’d.

Yet, Williams argues, while Clare’s ‘way of seeing the dispossession of labour by capital’ is ‘exact’, it remains

set in a structure of feeling in which what wealth is most visibly destroying is ‘Nature’ not a system of feudal hierarchies and obligations. It is as though Nature itself objects to modernity: ‘Thou far fled pasture, long evanish’d scene!’

By contrasting an idealised image of Nature with the modernising forces of capitalism, Clare indulges in a protest that never solidifies into a critique. Marx writes that ‘criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain, but so that he shall throw off that chain and pluck the living flower.’ Williams’ wide perspective allows us to see not only the persistent structures of feeling in the pastoral, but also the disappearance of even the tokenistic agricultural worker.

What is untouched in small towns is a sustaining vision of originalist values: life (in its most ‘natural’ state), liberty (in its propertied form) and the pursuit of happiness (through consumption).

In an early episode of Girls (2012-2017), Hannah visits her parents at the ‘family homestead’ in Michigan for what one re-cap writer called ‘a step back, a breather, and get the hell out of dodge.’ The episode both mocks and exalts Hannah’s sophisticated city shrewdness and the contrast between bad city boys and honest-but-bland small town boys. The pastoral episode operates as a respite from the city’s vapid squabbles and simultaneously reinforces the realisation that Hannah escaped the imprisoning monoculture of people stuck in a small town. What it reveals materially is that the city is made available to Hannah only by virtue of her class position in the form of financial support and the ability to escape to the homestead.

This trope in sitcoms speaks to a desire to go home (to ‘mommy and daddy’). ‘Home’ is an idealised, unlocalised small town with loving and emotionally literate parents. The morally upright father is either retired or a professional with a stable income. He is mildly authoritarian and protective, yet slightly hapless and incompetent. The mother is often at home, devoted to her children although they are hardly ever there. She does not have a wage, but is active in the town community which virtually revolves around her tireless efforts. Everything she cooks is comfort food. The journey to this ‘home’ is geographical, temporal and ethical. It travels from the city to the country, from the hyper-modern technological present to a slower historical past, and from the competitive pressures of city jobs to the moral virtues of DIY handcrafts (and small government) and the straight white family living in comfortable retirement, with a bit extra for when the adult children need it.

The brief respite in Girls becomes the premise of Schitt’s Creek, in which an exorbitantly wealthy family is exiled from their life to a small town they bought as a joke. George Crabbe’s lines in The Village (1783) ring across centuries: they ‘disdain But own the Village Life…’ We know almost before the move is accomplished in a swift gag-heavy montage that the town will bring the family together and discipline their vapid lifestyles while providing classic if tiresome fish-out-of-water comic situations. That the show does not utterly condemn the opulence and extravagance of their former life, and that their downfall is due to misplaced trust in an accountant rather than the kind of speculative financial mismanagement that sunk fortunes in the global financial crisis, ensures they remain naïve symbols of a corrupt world.

 

From the screen to reality: TV, consumption and politics

Television’s grip on the imagination is congruent with the shift from an economy of production to one of what Mike Davis in Prisoners of the American Dream (1986) diagnoses as structural ‘over-consumption’, which turns middle-class consumers into the heroes of economic growth. In her 2019 excavation of democratic ideals, Astra Taylor mourns the fact that

the pursuit of money along with affluence’s inevitable consequence, consumption, would become the twin pillars not just of American society but of the country’s conception of democracy; work itself was pushed to the wayside.

This mentality has been deliberately injected into politics, William Davies notes, fueling polarisation (consumer choice is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ with no thought for the framing conditions of the choice) and contributing to the kind of disaffection and apathy that opens the door to long-term attrition of public institutions like the courts and electoral colleges. Taylor locates this switch in the New Deal era’s economic compact between ‘government, trade unions, and big business’ that all ‘began to affirm a conception of civic participation that was first and foremost acquisitive.’ Lillian Robinson identifies a parallel attitude in the construction of a TV watching consumer:

For TV – and especially TV comedy – has long cultivated an interpretation of the admirable injunction to ‘be yourself’ that would have us not only stop pretending we are richer and more cultivated than we really are, but also learn to appreciate and be content with our place in the world: an ideology that complements the ethic of consumption as an aspect of identity.

I do not mean to criticise these shows for things they could not achieve, such a critique of the class relations in the twilight of neoliberal capitalism. But, as Guy Hocquenghem quips, ‘the comic kindness of the bourgeois has made us dramatically mean.’ It is as though the welcoming sunny-ness of the small town sitcom, as well as much American television, has become offensive in the era of catastrophic climate change. It is as though the smug complacency of liberal sanctimoniousness has become intolerable in the era of Trump. The wholesomeness sanctified by these shows has revealed its ugly underside, but persists in the idealised image where it serves the function of quelling dissent and covering the raging conflicts in American society. Aren’t you on the side of ‘love and tolerance’?

In Grant Township, Pennsylvania, ordinary people protested the injection of toxic oil and gas waste fluids into their ground. They have fought both their own local and state laws, by adopting a Home Rule Charter in 2015, and subsequently fended off the attacks of the gas industry. The people of Grant Township have translated homely values into political action in a strategy they hope will ‘mushroom’ around the country like a rhizomatic Green New Deal. In pastorals like Charles Jenner’s London Eclogues (1722), the ‘real people’ are contrasted with the ‘seditious herd’ whose protests threaten the social order. When these two categories collide and claim a voice on the political stage, they destabilise each other in the process. The reality of the country and its virtues is in its desire for the city, its resistance to the city and its material and historical unity with the city.

 

 

I thank Lenni Burtt for the watching and living company that contributed to this piece. I thank Lily Connor for insisting that I watch Schitt’s Creek with endless gifs. And I thank Tara Heffernan for invaluable discussion and astute observations,
especially about cynicism, comedy and politics in TV.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Scott Robinson is a PhD Candidate in philosophy at Monash University and subeditor of Demos Journal.

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