By Titus Techera
American pop culture has quickly moved on from Game of Thrones to The Mandalorian. From HBO to Disney. From putting the adult in adultery to infantilizing everything virtual reality can infantilize, which is virtually everything, of course. From two-faced anti-heroes to a faceless hero who protects a little magical animal. Democratic freedom is shifting again from the taste for brutality to that for sentimentality.
Many, many of the people who until the day before yesterday were ecstatic about the amoral realism of a show featuring repeated rapes and incest are now in love with this cute, sexless story. They have traded endlessly convoluted plots leading to nothing in particular for a plotless story the whole family can warmly embrace and cuddle with, on a weekly basis, and it only takes half an hour!
There are other signs elsewhere of this generational shift from shocking sexual immorality to reassuring sexless moralism. Netflix seems to pursue an audience closer to HBO’s with its new show The Witcher, based on a series of fantasy novels popular in Poland that have since become famous worldwide as a series of a computer games. Here, again, desecration is the core of the story, and it doesn’t seem much of a success.
On the other hand, Amazon is preparing a billion-dollar Lord of the Rings adaptation (it is said to have paid a quarter billion for the rights alone). They’re looking to compete with Disney for the family audience and are planning for many seasons of storytelling—the dream, indeed, is to raise one’s kids on the series.
These are the four important corporations deciding the future of entertainment, at least the near-future, and they are all betting on fantasy. In principle, America is big enough to have two different kinds of fantasy entertainment, one with sexual violence, the other without, though unlikely to be big enough to include more than fantasy. In practice, my guess is that this is a conflict over values, and family will be decisively victorious.
Consider precedent: When superhero movies became very popular, it was not obvious that Marvel would win, since everything they made before Iron Man (2008) was unpopular and rather shabby. That same year, their rival DC opened The Dark Knight, the sequel to the successful Batman Begins (2005) and the centerpiece of a trilogy that is the recognized masterpiece of the superhero genre. The movie won two Oscars and grossed a billion dollars, a rare achievement.
But soon enough, DC’s rather more tragic stories were destroyed by Warner Bros., the studio making billions off of them, in order to comply with the competition—Disney’s much more successful Marvel division. The latest DC offering, Aquaman, a big success, is little more than a montage of music videos and cut scenes from computer games, and decidedly juvenile. Tragedy comes across as impious in our entertainment, so it quickly withers away in favor of happier endings.
America is now all about the one, not the two, so the most massive corporations lack competition. Marvel, too, is conforming to the rest of Disney and turning to magical fantasy stories, shedding any interest in science fiction. And now our new technology companies have also become entertainment companies, collapsing yet another distinction that must be collapsed in order to achieve oneness, or identity, the highest dream of democracy.
Disney and Amazon are therefore likely to ruin Netflix and drive Warner Bros. (owned by AT&T) into irrelevance. They are far wealthier and more connected to the American home. Meanwhile, Netflix’s own attempts at family stories, Stranger Things and Lost in Space, don’t seem to have much of a future or any relevance, though the former was much applauded for a few years.
Family values ultimately win in American entertainment, for the most part, and it’s worth wondering what shape this entertainment will have. This makes The Mandalorian, a very banal show, quite important. It is a revelation of what is coming in the near future. What we can see already is that characters will be simplistic to the point of caricature, plots will be simple and almost entirely bereft of imagination, and dialogue will be spare and sparse.
The show’s success is owed to this lack of complexity more than to anything else—we know immediately who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and in each episode the good guys win. The faceless hero and the cute animal prevail every time and never pay a price for their victory. We win along with them, as does morality. Every week, we can enjoy a bit more certainty about the inevitable victory of good over evil.
Until recently, self-styled sophisticates were telling us that TV has finally become sophisticated, even more so than the movies. Anti-heroes of various kinds dominated TV until recently, so more and more money, talent, and prestige was poured into this form of entertainment. But of course, even anti-heroes depend on exclusivity for their allure, on glamour of a kind TV used to be able to bestow—and so flooding the market cheapens everything.
That short age of seemingly sophisticated storytelling dominating entertainment, epitomized by Game of Thrones, now looks like an accident, a matter of luck. Star Wars above all shows that moral simplicity and bad plots are what the largest audiences pay most for, and since the Internet democratized TV, there is no talking back to success—there are no more oligarchic gatekeepers or success makers who might control what audiences see.
It’s a funny thing to consider—all the glamorous sexual immorality upended as the Internet collectively coos over baby Yoda. As the poet said, it ends not with a bang, but a whimper. After many years of doom, the future of entertainment is redemptions offered to everyone, on a regular basis, with enough takers among minor characters that we can all be confirmed in our opinions. That is what The Mandalorian has to offer and we should expect more of this.
Titus Techera is executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a contributor to National Review Online, The Federalist, Modern Age, and Liberty & Law.