The American Dream has been a pop culture presence for years, but what TV shows masterfully deconstruct or destroy that idea?
The American Dream has long been a source of exploration for movies, TV shows, and novels. For decades, the American Dream has been dangled as a sort of promise – work hard, and you will achieve success, a nice house, lots of money, and a loving family. Many pieces of entertainment seemingly embody these ideals, offering cute stories and happy endings aplenty.
Unfortunately, the reality is often far removed from the shows and movies that people watch on their screens. Fortunately, many great shows have been made that explore the failure of the American Dream, the lack of conclusions, and its potential unattainability.
Mad Men (2007-15)
Perhaps the show most famous for exploring the failure of the American Dream is Matt Weiner’s brilliant Mad Men. On the surface, Mad Men follows the employees of an advertising agency. It doesn’t sound very exciting, and it often isn’t.
However, the show merely uses the advertising world as an entry into these characters’ lives. The show is less concerned with the everyday goings-on of the ad agency itself, and more concerned with themes of failure, endless transiency, and the impossibility of finding true contentment. There will always be something else to shoot for – even for those who seemingly have everything.
Breaking Bad (2008-13)
Breaking Bad contains one specific scene that speaks to the inherent tragedy at the heart of the story. Walt and Skyler (who is pregnant with Walter Jr.) walk through their “starter home” while a cocky Walt envisions their brilliant and prosperous future. “We have nowhere to go but up” he tells his pregnant wife.
Unfortunately, life hits the White family hard, and it culminates in Walter cooking meth, destroying his family, and dying relatively young. Walt had hoped for the American Dream, but reality had other ideas.
The Sopranos (1999-2007)
If nothing else, The Sopranos argues that people cannot change and will endlessly wallow in their own misery. When the show begins, Tony is apparently living the American Dream. He has a (seemingly) loving family, he’s doing well at “work”, and he has lots of money and an enormous house. What’s not to love?
It’s also telling that the show begins with Tony attending therapy. He’s not happy, despite having everything. And it only gets worse from there, with the final season proving the most tragic and pessimistic of all. There is no happiness to be found in The Sopranos.
Roseanne Barr may prove a controversial figure, but she was behind one of the most revolutionary sitcoms in television history. At the time, TV was filled with pseudo-happy sitcoms that depicted stable families, generous income, and relative happiness. After all, no one will laugh at a show in which the characters are depressed and struggling. Right?
Not exactly. Roseanne depicted a more realistic American life, full of longing, struggle, and mediocrity. It even ends in a controversial fashion, with Dan dying and a depressed Roseanne stuck in a fantasy world.
Deadwood is a critically acclaimed history-Western that follows the creation of Deadwood, South Dakota. Like Mad Men, Deadwood only uses this story as an entryway to explore deeper and more universal truths.
Deadwood is less about the creation of this specific town and more about the creation of a stable civilization, what is needed to run one, and the inherent flaws found within human nature. Deadwood hopes that humanity can overcome differences and work together for the betterment of everyone, but that certainly isn’t always the case. And the road to civilization is often paved with blood and violence.
The Wire (2002-08)
The Wire, often considered the greatest drama in television history, is loosely based on David Simon’s experiences with the Baltimore Sun. While working as a police reporter, Simon experienced the inner workings of a typical American city, and he relayed his findings both through his journalism and The Wire.
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t have many favorable things to say. The show is rife with crime, corruption, violence, murder, and manipulation – from the low-level criminals working the drug trade all the way up to the politicians and media running the city.
Better Call Saul (2015-)
Vince Gilligan seems like a very pessimistic man. Following the success of Breaking Bad, Gilligan and his team created Better Call Saul, a prequel that may prove even more depressing and tragic than its predecessor.
While it still contains violence and excitement, Better Call Saul serves as more of a character piece, exploring the personal downfalls of multiple people. In order to obtain the American Dream, these characters are forced to sell their souls and embrace corruption, violence, and immorality. It doesn’t reflect kindly on the American Dream or what is needed to obtain it.
Sons Of Anarchy (2008-14)
There’s no denying that the characters of Sons of Anarchy bring it on themselves to some degree, being criminals and all. But the show often wishes to portray its characters as everyday people stuck in a bad situation.
They resort to violence and crime because they know, and have, nothing else. Even when Jax wishes to embrace “normalcy” and break from the group, various forces continuously push him back down into a world of violence and corruption.
Six Feet Under (2001-05)
Six Feet Under is either optimistic or endlessly pessimistic, depending largely on how individual viewers interpret its themes. The drama concerns a family who runs a funeral home. Faced with grieving families and the concept of death every single day, many of the family members suffer from severe paranoia and an intense fear of dying.
In some ways, the show is pessimistic about the American Dream, as death and misery can hit anyone at any time. Even the most successful and happiest amongst us.
The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-)
The Handmaid’s Tale is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, and it is not a very happy novel. The Handmaid’s Tale offers a possibility in which the American Dream has utterly died and the United States has descended into a totalitarian and oppressive dystopian state.
Dystopian science fiction is often utilized to explore potential future possibilities, and few possibilities are scarier than this.
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