The comfortable suburban afterlife

What if humans after death end up in a suburban community? This is the premise of the Amazon show Forever:

Starring SNL alums Maya Rudolph as June and Fred Armisen as her husband, Oscar, the eight-part series, which dropped in its entirety in September, does a deep dive into the meaning of life by exploring what happens when it ends…

For the couple, the hereafter is ambiguous — neither heaven nor hell. Rather, it seems a lot like their former life in a subdivision of tidy ranch-style homes in suburban Riverside, Calif.

Familiar, safe, comfortable…

Oscar spends his days struggling doing crossword puzzles at the dining room table. June teaches herself how to make vases and bowls on a potter’s wheel on the back patio (a nod, no doubt, to the famous Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze scene from “Ghost”). They go for strolls through the neighborhood, where the weather feels perpetually like early autumn with its amber light and just enough of a nip in the air to make you reach for your flannel shirt or lightweight cashmere pullover.

Apparently the show then moves on from this suburban start. Given that Americans moved to the suburbs in large numbers in the last century plus the goal of attaining the suburban American Dream is well-established, is it much of a stretch to cast the afterlife as a comfortable suburb?

I imagine critics of the suburbs might have other views. Indeed, they might suggest a suburban afterlife would be hell. (Bring back the TV show Suburgatory!) This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Great Divorce (as noted by an astute commenter):

As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move….Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.

So perhaps the suburbs are actually a decent middle ground between heaven and hell, containing elements of either depending on who is doing the evaluating. Then, perhaps the real debate starts: if suburbs are in the middle, are cities heaven and rural areas hell or vice versa…

What I want to know: do TV shows push viewers to buy certain kinds of houses?

After publishing two papers in the last few years on TV depictions of suburbs and their houses (see here and here), it leaves me with one big question: do shows like these directly influence what homes people purchase?

Americans watch a lot of television – still an average of about four hours a day for adults – and they see a lot of dwellings. While there is a mix of housing units shown, scholars point out that television since the 1950s does place a lot of emphasis on single-family homes. This includes fictional shows set in single-family homes in the suburbs (think Bewitched or Desperate Housewives), rural areas (think Lassie), and cities (think Happy Days and King of Queens). More recently, viewers can see homes on HGTV and other networks that emphasize home life (plus the shows on other networks that specifically target homeowners, from This Old House to Trading Spaces). This makes some sense in a country that holds up owning a single-family home, particularly in the suburbs, as an ideal.

But, we know little how about all of this watching about homes translates into choosing homes. My study “From I Love Lucy to Desperate Housewives” did not find much evidence that more popular suburban television shows led to more people living in suburbs (or vice versa). Similarly, outside of some interest from Sopranos’ fans in having a home like Tony, there is little to no evidence that Americans flocked to imitate the home or neighborhood of the Sopranos. While the viewers of HGTV might be relatively wealthy, do they take what they see and directly purchase something like that?

It is relatively easy to make claims about how media products affect thoughts and behavior. However, it is harder to make direct, causal connections. I would guess advertisers around such shows hope such a connection is present. If we could examine this relationship between shows and homes more closely in research studies, it could help us better understand how Americans form, maintain, and change their approaches to homes and communities.

The difficulty of measuring a splintered pop culture

What are common pop culture products or experiences in today’s world? It is hard to tell:

Does Eilish, for instance, enjoy the same level of celebrity someone of equal accomplishment would have had 15 years ago? I don’t know. There are Soundcloud stars, Instagram stars, YouTube stars, Twitter stars, TikTok stars. Some artists, like Eilish and Lil Nas X, transition from success on a platform like Soundcloud to broader reach. But like Vine, TikTok has its own celebrities. So do YouTube and Instagram. We’ll always have George Clooneys and Lady Gagas, but it almost feels like we might be lurching towards a future with fewer superstars and more stars.

We can still read the market a little more clearly in music, and on social media, but the enigma of streaming services illustrates these challenges well. The problem is this: At a time when we’re both more able and more willing to concentrate in niches, we also have fewer metrics to understand what’s actually happening in our culture…

We have absolutely no idea. People could be watching “Santa Clarita Diet” in similar numbers to something like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” or they could be completely ignoring it. The same goes for every show on Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix. We can see what people are chattering about on social media (hardly a representative sample), and where the companies are putting their money. But that’s it. Not only do true “cultural touchstones” seem to be fewer and farther in between in the streaming era, we also have fewer tools to determine what they actually are…

But it also means there’s more incentive for the creators of pop culture to carve us up by our differences rather than find ways to bring us together. It means we’re sharing fewer cultural experiences beyond the process of logging onto Netflix or Spotify, after which the home screen is already customized. On top of all this, it means we’re more and more in the dark about what’s entertaining us, and why that matters. What does cultural impact look like in an era of proliferating niches, where the metrics are murky?

I wonder if this could open up possibilities for new kinds of measurement beyond the producers of such products. For example, if Netflix is unwilling to report their numbers or does so only in certain circumstances, what is stopping new firms or researchers from broadly surveying Americans about their cultural consumption?

There may be additional unique opportunities and challenges for researchers. There are so many niche cultural products that could be considered hits that there is almost an endless supply of phenomena to study and analyze. On the other hand, this will make it more difficult to talk about “popular culture” or “American culture” as a whole. What unites all of these niches of different sizes and tastes?

It will also be interesting to see in 10-20 years what is actually remembered from this era of splintered cultural consumption. What cultural phenomena cross enough boundaries or niches to register with a large portion of the American population? Will the primary touchstones be viral Internet videos or stories rather than songs, movies, TV shows, books, etc.?

 

McMansion literary tales: a proposed teardown leads to local dysfunction

The McMansion continues to feature in literary works. A new book from a Washington D.C. area author uses a proposed teardown McMansion to highlight suburban issues:

Coincidence or not, Langsdorf’s success comes after leaving her longtime suburban existence. Following her 2012 divorce, Langsdorf moved to Adams Morgan in the District and devoted herself to writing while teaching yoga on the side. And yet, the book takes her back to that former life: “White Elephant” seems to channel all of the frustrations she felt juggling her identities as a mother and creator in a stifling suburb. The novel follows the residents of the fictional enclave of Willard Park — inspired, in part, by Langsdorf’s hometown of Kensington, Md. — where an interloper’s plans to build a McMansion amid the cozy bungalows leads to angry town halls, scandalous romantic dalliances and shady high jinks.

Like Langsdorf, two of the main characters in her ensemble are mothers grappling with their identities beyond being wives and mothers. Allison Miller, who has lived (mostly) happily in Willard Park for more than a decade, wonders what to do with her photography — more than a hobby, less than a career. Her new next-door neighbor, Kaye Cox, can’t figure out who to be, caught between her role as a fixture in her husband’s behemoth of a house and her own interest in interior decoration. These women and their author are well-acquainted with the eternal dilemma for parents, the pull between caregiving duties and other interests, professional and personal…

Almost every neighborhood in the D.C. region has experienced a version of the changes in “White Elephant.” Even Adams Morgan: The Line hotel, for example, occupies a building that was once a church. Langsdorf laughs about some of the struggles she’s seen in her own building, hastening to add that her fellow co-op residents are all great neighbors.

The residents of Willard Park come to realize that houses matter less than their inhabitants — and that the suburbs aren’t for everyone. Langsdorf understands this, too; in her current existence she feels more herself. “My life is much more vibrant,” she says. “I love being able to walk everywhere, and I do have more time to write.”

That a proposed McMansion could lead to “dalliances” and “high jinks” is intriguing to consider…the angry public meetings are much easier to verify.

While it would not have been possible to discuss McMansions before the 1980s since the term did not exist, it sounds like this new work draws on several common suburban critiques featured in novels, films, television shows, and other cultural products. Suburban residents, particularly women and mothers, feel trapped by suburban expectations and a landscape that does not easily lead to human connection or diverse experiences. They then look for ways to break free of the suburban mold and explore different outlets.

These works tend to emphasize those that feel “the suburbs aren’t for everyone.” At the same time, many Americans live in the suburbs by choice and I assume a good number of suburbanites feel their existence is at least okay. Is it because cultural works need crises to overcome (the hero on their journey must overcome something) or are the suburbs are a unique target because they are so common in the United States (over 50% of residents live there) and so reviled?

The growing influence of mascots: a short history of Benny the Bull

In addition to providing fun and distracting from what may be poor play by the team, sports mascots are important brand symbols. The symbolic nature of their existence and their importance in developing and sustaining a brand is highlighted in this summary of Benny the Bull’s life:

Benny accompanied Richard M. Daley to China. Benny has been sued and Benny has been ejected from games. Benny has topped the Forbes list of the most popular sports mascots and Benny has been arrested at the Taste of Chicago. Off the court, the people who played Benny didn’t get health insurance from the Bulls until the Jordan era (or a 401K plan for even longer). One owned a deli in Skokie, another was an evangelical Christian…

I know who Benny has been since he was born; seven people (and countless understudies) have slipped into Benny’s shoes since he debuted Oct. 17, 1969. I know the name and job title of the person playing Benny right now but agreed not to reveal it, because, well — for the sake of the children. The Bulls want to retain some mystery with Benny, so we will honor that — to a degree. As Benny developed as a brand, the Bulls have treated him increasingly as Disney treats Mickey: No one plays Benny! No one is inside Benny! Benny is Benny! That is, a cottage industry, and like any mascot, the face of a franchise. Players come and go, but only Benny remains….

As the Jordan era waned and the business of the Bulls rolled on, Benny gained new relevance. He acquired an entourage — including Lil’ Benny, Mini Benny, and, notoriously, Da Bull, Benny’s angrier brother. Bring up Da Bull to the Bulls today and they look at you as if you asked for a loan: The Chicago man who played Da Bull was arrested in 2004, near the United Center, for selling 6 ounces of marijuana (and later received probation)…

And so this summer Benny — who is being inducted into the new Mascot Hall of Fame in Indiana and getting a new van for appearances — also will be busy. The Bulls say he gets a work-life balance; and he is paid well (low six figures, whisper some close to the job). But the job itself never ends. Asked if he can relate to workaholic Benny, Landey Patton, the first Benny, said he couldn’t dribble, never mind dunk. He said, “It’s all razzmatazz and dancing now. And so corporate, you know? When I was Benny, families could afford tickets. And what are Bulls tickets now — $10?

Four quick thoughts:

1. This relatively recent emphasis on mascots mirrors big shift in sports in recent decades: it is big business and big entertainment, in addition to being about winning games. The mascot can be an important part of the show that needs to go well to help enhance what are booming values of teams. The most recent valuation by Forbes suggests the Bulls are worth $2.9 billion and Benny is part of a well-oiled machine.

2. The article hints at this but I have to think much of this is about attracting kids and hoping they become lifelong fans (and customers).

3. Sports run on certain schedules, usually emphasizing the games, but mascots help the teams and sports stay in the public consciousness all year round. These are now year-round activities, even if the games stretch from late October to early June.

4. I have not attended many Bulls games over the years but I have always been partial to the Benny the Bull blimp who had plenty of airspace to navigate when the team moved to the more expansive United Center in the mid-1990s.

Playing SimCity, becoming an urban planner

Building a city on a computer screen led to a future career for some SimCity players:

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014…

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

“I used to draw maps of cities for fun. I had no idea it was an actual career,” said Nicole Payne, now a program official for the National Assn. of City Transportation Officials in New York City. When she was 10, a librarian saw her drawings and told her there was a video game she should try…

In more than a dozen interviews for this article, people who went from “SimCity” enthusiasts to professional planners talked about what they liked about the game: The way you can visualize how a single change affects a whole city. The ability to see how transit, livability and the economy are all connected. The fact that no one likes to live near a landfill.

This could be my story too: I enjoyed drawing cities as a kid, reading about cities, and visiting Chicago. I discovered SimCity during elementary school, playing for the first time on a green monochrome monitor. It opened up new possibilities, particularly as the game evolved. I spent endless hours creating cities and, like some of the people interviewed in this story, trying to make them pristine as well as based around different principles. We played Simcity as enrichment time in middle school and I probably trailed off in playing by early high school when I was more taken by Civilization II and franchise mode of sports games. All of that SimCity playing did push me to think about urban planning and serving in local government.

At the same time, as this article notes, SimCity likely shaped how I thought cities worked. SimCity is not neutral in its planning philosophy. At the least, it presented the idea that a planner from above could shape everything, even down to the terrain. The speed at which it could happen was also impressive: a mouse click could add residences or take them away while the game speed could be paused or sped to impressive speeds (usually to add money to the coffers if one was not playing with the cheat codes). Cities and communities do not work this way; even powerful leaders usually need at least a team of elites to get things done and significant urban projects often take a long time.

Publication on the Soprano’s McMansion

The home of Tony Soprano and his family on HBO’s The Sopranos is a key setting for the show. It is here that Tony considers his own unrest and anxiety, where the family interacts with each other alongside Tony’s other “family,” and the home embodies the search for the suburban good life as encapsulated in a spacious home in a wealthy neighborhood.

I am grateful for the opportunity to explore this in more detail in a recently published paper: “A McMansion for the Suburban Mob Family: The Unfulfilling Single-Family Home of The Sopranos” in the Journal of Popular Film and Television.