Satirizing the suburbs by poking fun at past depictions of suburbia

A review of a new television comedy notes that part of its appeal is that it plays with previous portrayals of the suburbs:

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The layers of brilliance within the writing continue. While the series satirizes the suburbs, the trio takes it a step even further. The show also makes fun of all the clichés in film about American suburbia – from Blue Velvet to American Beauty toThe Stepford Wives. Because each one of those films is trying to say something about the darkness of the suburbs, Three Busy Debras pokes fun at them by doing exactly not that. The series is so perplexing and over the top, not a single character learning anything to “progress” in their worldview, that it pokes fun at these tropes through their use of absurdist comedy. You can immerse yourself in the surreal world of Lemoncurd and witness the masterful work of Three Busy Debras for yourself by streaming the latest season on HBO Max.

The genre of suburban critique is alive and well in numerous culture industries including poetry, books, music, film, and television. For at least seven decades, these works have depicted the darker sides of suburbia, the true issues facing suburbanites beyond the shiny single-family homes and nuclear families. This is a familiar genre that both speaks to some realities in suburbs and tells similar stories over time.

Thus, I am intrigued by an absurdist or surrealist take on this. Are the suburbs just absurd and the only way to deal with them is to laugh rather than to try to overcome them or find out what is truly going on?

It will also be interesting to see how this fits in the long run with the other critical depictions of suburbia. Laughter and humor can be good ways to address difficult situations. Would suburbanites, the majority of Americans, laugh gently at absurd or surreal depictions or would it be the laughter of realizing how absurd the suburbs actually are?

“Sociologically he’s sick,” Officer Krupke edition

In recently watching the 2021 film version of West Side Story, this stanza from “Gee, Officer Krupke” stood out.

Yes, Officer Krupke you’re really a slob
This boy don’t need a doctor just a good honest job
Society’s played him a terrible trick
And sociologically he’s sick

The whole song plays with this idea: the Jets are not responsible for their actions as they have been failed by their families and society. Elsewhere in the song, they are said to have a “social disease.” Sure, you could penalize an individual offender – with the police, analysts, social workers, and the courts involved in the song – but that would fail to reckon with the sizable social problems at hand. Of course, the song is meant to invoke laughs.

How much is an individual an individual given their social surroundings? This is one of the questions I raise early on in an Introduction to Sociology class. In the United States, the emphasis is typically on the individual: they make their own choices, develop their own identity, and are responsible for their own actions. Sociology pushes back on that individualistic emphasis by analyzing the social facts and forces that shape and outlive individuals. And West Side Story has its own ideas about individuals and society with its retelling of Romeo and Juliet.

As technology changes, municipalities change their ways to capture tax revenue

More Americans are streaming television and movies. This means municipalities need to reconsider cable taxes. Here is one example from the Chicago suburbs:

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Village trustees Monday voted 4-2 to approve the 5% entertainment tax as part of its upcoming budget. The tax would take effect July 1.

Village officials budgeted $25,000 in revenue from the new tax, which would tack 77 cents onto a standard monthly Netflix subscription costing $15.49 or 15 cents to an Amazon video rental costing $2.99.

“This is a modern version of the original telecommunication tax,” Village Administrator Erika Storlie said, adding that the village has seen a decrease in taxes collected from cable subscribers as more people drop cable television in favor or streaming services…

Chicago adopted an entertainment tax charging 9% on streaming services in 2015. In March, a judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Apple Inc. challenging the tax. Though Apple’s complaint was dismissed, the judge left the door open for Apple to file an amended complaint.

Evanston, where Storlie served as city manager before coming to East Dundee, has charged a 5% entertainment tax on streaming services since October 2020.

Several thoughts about this:

-This is a relatively small tax in this community: the story above suggest its will generate $25k in revenue. Even in a small suburb, the money this generates will only do so much?

-I could imagine the argument that infrastructure is required to provide streaming services and taxes like these would help communities cover these costs. (I could also imagine – very faintly – the logic of a vice tax to limit the hours upon hours that Americans spend in front of televisions and screens…but limiting television watching via taxation seems somehow un-American. )

-I do not recall seeing much about public discussions of such taxes within communities. Is the tax so small that it does not attract much attention? Do residents not have a compelling argument against a streaming tax?

-Entertainment taxes are sometimes used for visitors or more public activities such as tickets for sporting events or theater shows. A streaming tax is aimed more at residents than visitors.

Many municipalities need consistent tax revenue streams as they look to provide services and balance budgets. This is one way to help achieve that goal.

Another reason Americans need McMansions: to fit their giant TVs!

You need a large room to fit the biggest televisions:

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What’s the biggest TV you can buy? If we’re talking about conventional televisions, the TCL 98R754 is a staggering 98-inches wide. But if you’re willing to consider a laser or short-throw projector TV, Samsung’s The Premier is capable of showing a screen up to 130 inches. But unless you live in a cavernous McMansion with 18-foot cathedral ceilings and a sprawling layout, you won’t be able to get them to fit in your living room, let alone be able to take full advantage of their features.

How can I know if an 85-inch TV will fit in my room?

The best way to find out is to measure (in inches) from where the TV will be wall mounted or placed on a stand to where you will be sitting, and then divide that measurement by 2. If your couch is anywhere from 150 to 170 inches (12.5 to 14 feet) from the TV, an 85-inch screen will be an almost perfect fit. You can, of course, go a bit bigger (if possible) or smaller depending on what your budget is and what is available from each brand. But a screen that is too big can overwhelm your space and even cause motion sickness while one that is too small will make it feel cavernous and force everyone to crowd around in order to see.

Put together the hours of TV Americans watch each day on average plus their tastes for big houses and the cycle continues: people need a large house to fit their large TV which leads to needing a bigger TV which leads to a bigger house…

Presumably, there is some limit to how big a television can or should be. Perhaps this is about the ability to see what is happening on the entire screen. Perhaps rooms truly can only be so large. Perhaps screen technology will be replaced by an entertainment chip in glasses. Or, people might get tired of important rooms in their house being dominated by a gigantic screen.

On the other hand, perhaps this helps signal a shift away from homes leading with their garages – the so-called “snout houses” – and instead leading with a giant screen. Imagine walking in the front door and the major room is devoted to the biggest possible screen. The screen is something to show off and impress visitors with. Homes could even be designed so that the outside would make clear the giant screen and the room it sits in.

The legislative act that helped Disney build Disney World in Florida

Corporations, sports teams, and developers ask for or make use of tax breaks or monies or land opportunities provided by governments. Walt Disney benefited from a 1967 act by the Florida legislature:

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The Reedy Creek Development Act can be traced back to 1967.

It was a pivotal negotiating factor in convincing Disney to locate his company in Florida and allows the company to do just about whatever it wants on its land.

“The ability, the power to build a nuclear power plant, an airport manufacturer, distill and distribute alcoholic beverages and lots of other things,” said Dr. Richard Foglesong, author of “Married to the Mouse” in an interview with WFTV in 2021.

Many would love to have this kind of freedom to do what they want with a large property. In contrast to what was possible through this act, many property owners would have to apply to local governments for uses of the property beyond what is allowed through the local zoning.

If leaders in Florida follow through with revoking this act and Disney wants to go elsewhere, does this shape up to be a second Amazon HQ #2 situation? Or, does Disney have a lot fewer possible locations to go to given its need for a lot of land and good weather?

Quick Review: Can’t Get You Out of My Head

The six part documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World captures well the foreboding and confusion of our current moment at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century. Here are a few thoughts on what I found to be a thought-provoking and interesting watch:

  1. The general premise is that the freedom, prosperity, and joy that was supposed to come with the ascension of liberal democracy and individualism at the end of the twentieth century did not come. Indeed, it may have led to new and more troubling questions. The sweep of history is limited to roughly the last 100 years but there is a lot to consider over the six episodes. Even if you do not agree with the argument, there are a number of threads and points of information that may be new and/or have not always been put together in such ways.
  2. The construction of the documentary adds to the foreboding as its intersperses multiple threads across different countries, montages of images set to generally upbeat pop music, and a dark instrumental soundtrack.
  3. That this work is not from an American point of view and includes important actors from around the globe is very important. There were things I had not known before. I know the American perspective on the world is very biased and yet my daily reading is almost exclusively in this realm. At the same time, the documentary is still from an Anglo perspective and it would be worthwhile to hear form voices elsewhere on what is chooses to say and show and what it does not address.
  4. Just as an example of one of the important questions raised: what happens if a democratic people elect or support an undemocratic leader? More specifically, what do the cultural and political elites do in such a moment? In the current populist period, this is a real conundrum.
  5. One thing I appreciate is the interest in thinking across contexts and time. I would argue we need more work that tries to pull together multiple strands from around the globe across big chunks of time. Put this documentary series next to Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything and there may be some patterns worth considering.

While I finished watching this several months ago, the title is correct: I cannot get some of the ideas and images out of my head.

What exactly makes for an “unscripted series”? The case of Flip or Flop

In an announcement about the end of HGTV’s Flip or Flop, the network said the show was an “unscripted series”:

“Tarek El Moussa and Christina Haack are long-time, fan-favorite stars on HGTV and it’s true that ‘Flip or Flop’ is coming to an end after an epic 10-season run as a top-rated unscripted series,” a representative for HGTV said in a statement to Insider. “More than 90 million viewers have watched the popular series since its premiere in 2013.

When this show is described as “unscripted,” what exactly does this mean?

Having watched a lot of episodes, here is my guess: there is not necessarily a set script for every episode. At the same time, the producers, El Moussa, and Haack make sure there are narrative elements to build an episode around including crises or cliffhangers for commercial breaks, summaries of the work at hand, and reshoots to get the right angles and lines.

When the typical viewer hears “unscripted,” is this what they imagine? It does not mean that the main actors just do their business, cameras are rolling, and they piece it together at the end. Does any reality show come close to that these days? However, there is likely some wiggle room of how much can be improvised or how much the main characters can get right in the first pass.

Save the farm from turning into McMansions by writing a song

Tennessee’s 11th state song – “I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee” – was inspired by a threat of McMansions in a Nashville suburb. According to the writer of the song:

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So, I sold the farm and horses and moved into the beautiful suburb of Brentwood where I was on only an acre of land. It was great but not me, as I grew up in a rural area and loved the farm. I so missed walking the land.

In 2004, when I wrote the song, the only bucolic land in Brentwood was a 250-acre farm called Green Pastures on the corner of Franklin Road and Concord, owned by the Turner family (Dollar General/etc). They boarded horses there and a friend ended up bequeathing me a gorgeous six-year -old paint mare and said he would pay for its care if I got it ready to ride for his daughter someday. It was a beautiful compromise to living in the suburb yet having a masterpiece of a farm three miles down the road. Everyone there just loved it, and it was a close group of people who boarded there. Many said it was what kept them sane going through divorces or cancer, etc. Horses really are healing creatures…. especially when you don’t have to pay for them! It was such a gift to go out there and ride on the property or just hang out there with the horses and boarders. It was a family.

Well, at one point, developers (‘damn those developers they’re cold and heartless’) got the ear of the Turners and they were going to sell it off to put up what we called McMansions…. the LAST thing Brentwood needed. It went so far as to have a huge sign with the plans and everything. The barn family was of course heartbroken. So, I said, ‘Let’s at least try and see if we can have them save at least part of the property.’ I suggested we put a digital scrapbook together with each boarder having two pages of pictures and what the place meant to them. Underneath I put the song I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee. We gave it to the Turners and were told they cried when they watched it. I’m not saying my idea was the only reason they decided to stop the development, but I do think it may have been the catalyst/last straw to validate what a unique place they had.

They helped SO many people PLUS just driving by and looking at the property was uplifting to anyone with eyes! It staved off the development for over 10 years. A few years ago, they decided to stop the boarding business, but the property still remains today. I don’t know what their plans are for it. I worked with a grass roots group called Save The Brentwood Green Space for a while who put up an idea for the city of Brentwood to buy the property, but the citizens took a look at the $50 million price tag and got spooked. I would assume the price NOW would be over $100 million so they lost a deal!”

Today I learned Tennessee has 11 state songs (!!).

At the same time, this could be a story from many states and metropolitan regions: the farmland once common is quickly turning into houses. Not just any houses; big houses with dubious architectural quality (i.e. McMansions). The farm will be gone and replaced with supposedly impressive yet private homes.

How often does such a scenario lead to writing a popular song? Not often. Instead, neighbors and residents might quietly seethe. They could show up at local meetings and make their displeasure known. Some might even move away to find a different plot of land still near farms or open space.

As far as I can tell in watching performances of the song on Youtube, the song decries “progress” and sprawl but does not specifically call out McMansions…

Naperville’s status and Farley’s “Van Down by the River” performance inspired by Naperville bridge over the DuPage River

According to Naperville native Bob Odenkirk, he was inspired by his hometown when writing Chris Farley’s famous SNL skit “Matt Foley: Van Down by the River.”

Q: Speaking of “SNL,” that famous sketch for Chris Farley you wrote, about him living in a van down by the river — were you writing with Naperville in mind?

A: There is the DuPage River, and when I was writing that I did picture the bridge in Naperville over the DuPage. It was a bridge for stoners when I was a kid. Stoner kids hung out there. So this guy parking his van by a river — yes, that was the image I had.

There are several bridges Odenkirk could be referring to. Could it be this bridge (in a picture from nearly a decade ago)? This is a little removed from the busier downtown area and the more manicured areas of the lively Riverwalk.

Naperville has a reputation as a wealthy and large suburb with a thriving downtown and numerous high-status jobs. Does the image of a guy living in a van down by the river fit this or kids smoking pot by the DuPage River? Probably not and the city in recent years was not interested in marijuana dispensaries.

I cannot imagine a statue of Matt Foley near the DuPage River in downtown Naperville among the suburb’s collection of public art...but perhaps Odenkirk could eventually make the cut?

TV writers playing with floor plans for fictional residences, The Simpsons edition

The depictions of residences on TV do not always line up with reality (examples here and here). Here is another example: the writers of The Simpsons played around with some inconsistencies in the home.

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Weinstein engaged with Twitter users after posting the photo, responding to comments about the rarely seen “rumpus room” on the main floor’s northeast corner, the “mystery door” in the entryway, and other inquiries…

“Simpsons” fans may notice the layout doesn’t include the basement — a frequent location for various Simpson shenanigans. Twitter users chimed in, noting the different spots the show has placed the basement staircase.

Here is my interpretation of this “flexible” floor plan. On one hand, television shows need a predictable set of spaces. The audience needs to be able to recognize quickly where a scene is taking place. The behavior of the characters connects to where they are. In many shows, a residence, whether a single-family home or an apartment, is one of the most important settings as this is where the characters eat, sleep, and interact.

On the other hand, a rigid floor plan limits what can be done. Most homes and apartments would make bad television sets due to walls and angles not conducive to filming and/or particular activities. Parts of the home of the Simpsons family are fixed and predictable: the TV is in the same place, the kitchen looks the same, the stairs go upstairs from the front door, etc. But, other portions allow for some creativity. A mystery room? A basement that can turn into all sorts of things (I am recalling what happened there in the episode “Homer vs. the Eightenth Amendment”). An animated show does not suffer from the same camera issues but it too could benefit from slight changes to the floor plan that enable all sorts of plot lines.