Despite the best efforts of the central planners in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the economic recession is still with us. High unemployment is the new normal, general economic malaise persists among the American people, and the government has repeatedly failed in its predictions of recovery summers and the end of the recession.
Naturally, we turn to television to help make sense of it all. Here are the five shows that best reflect today's climate of economic fear and political loathing.
5. The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead, based on a zombie comic of the same name, became one of the most successful cable shows in history when its second season premiere broke cable ratings records last year with an audience of more than 7 million. While it might be appealing to interpret the popularity of The Walking Dead’s diet of post-apocalyptic strife as a nod to the recession’s harsh economic realities, the resurgence of zombies in American culture predates the current downturn by at least half a decade with the success of films like the Resident Evil franchise and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Nevertheless, the pop culture trope of America’s zombie future has been embraced both by government officials and those skeptical of government power.
Bonus points for our age of police abuse: In The Walking Dead world, the sheriff takes charge and acts as judge, jury, and executioner. Sound familiar?
4. Storage Wars
Storage Wars’ second season premiere was the most watched show in A&E history when it aired in 2011. The show follows auctioneers as they bid on property abandoned in storage. While the entrepreneurial auction-goers try “to get rich or die buying,” each uncovered “treasure” also usually represents someone else's poor decision-making, though as the show's executive producer has explained, Storage Wars doesn’t focus on the delinquents whose property is auctioned off because “all you see is misery there.” Indeed, it's bad enough to forfeit your old pornography collection, but it's another matter entirely to lose thousands of dollars because you failed to pay your storage bills.
Is there a lesson here about fiscal priorities? Only if you're paying attention.
3. Kitchen Nightmares
The same concept applies to Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares, a British transplant starring foul-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey, who spends each episode knocking some sense into fledgling restaurant owners. In a refreshing twist, the show presents a side of the U.S. economy often overlooked in the recession narrative: the burgeoning and thriving world of delicious food. And whether or not each restaurant highlighted on the show ends up as viable businesses, the very fact that a given restaurant might fail is something to celebrate. The high closure rate featured on Kitchen Nightmares is an example of capitalism's genius for creative destruction. The entrepreneurs that failed will either try again and succeed or be replaced by a business that can deliver the goods.
2. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia premiered on FX before the recession started, but it has still successfully embraced the “new normal” of the recession while highlighting the highly narcissistic culture of 21st century America. The show is probably best described as Seinfeld on steroids. Where the social hang-ups on Seinfeld likely qualify as neurotic, everyone on It’s Always Sunny appears downright insane. The four main characters, plus Danny Devito as Frank Reynolds after Season 1, live in a completely self-absorbed world centered on the bar where they work. The show takes the “Great Recession” head-on in an eponymous episode that’s provided probably the most sober demonstration of the follies of Keynesianism you’ll find on television today. In an effort to emulate Dave & Buster’s power cards, two of the bar owners print “Paddy’s Bucks” to “stimulate the economy” of the shanty town that sprang up outside their establishment, to obviously disastrous results. The episode is resolved when Devito's character gets a government bailout.
1. Robot Chicken
Adult Swim’s stop-motion animation sketch show Robot Chicken also premiered before the recession started. But the show nicely captures the liberal mindset of the entertainment industry. While George W. Bush was repeatedly skewered as a buffoon or worse on Robot Chicken, Barack Obama has been parodied on the show exactly once. Though the show's entertainment value is largely of the escapist variety, this deferential treatment is a reminder why it's always a bad idea to let politics get in the way of a good joke.
Ed Krayewski is an associate editor for 24/7 News at Reason.com.