One of the best things about the American Studies field is that popular songs, TV shows, movies – what many folks might see as simple diversions – don’t need to be treated apart from more traditional artifacts that merit scholarly analysis. In other words, they offer representations of America worth considering, dissecting, and debating.
And, thanks to entities like Hulu and Netflix, exploring media in depth has become quicker and easier – especially where television is concerned. Entire seasons of shows have been digitized and made readily available to the viewing public; it’s a golden age of access to representations of American life! And, of course, what better means of tapping into our cultural zeitgeist than through TV?
So, without further ado, a few shows you should watch if you’re in the wonderful field of American Studies – or simply aspire to be – along with a few clips to whet your appetites.
1. Deadwood – HBO – 2004 – 2006 (RIP)
I started watching Deadwood thanks to some recommendations by a few professors and colleagues. And the show doesn’t disappoint. Based on a post-Civil War South Dakota town, and featuring actual historical figures like Calamity Jane and Wyatt Earp, Deadwood provides what seems like a faithful representation of the lawless 19th century frontier. Authentic history notwithstanding, it’s an intense show, and that intensity starts right at the beginning. If you have a squeamish stomach or cringe when you hear coarse language, perhaps steer clear of this one. Bottom line: this is a hardcore western show. Watch it. It means business.
2. Louie – FX – 2010 –
So I wrote a final paper about Louie last fall, and am also a massive, massive fan of C.K.’s stand-up material – and I recommend the show to pretty much everyone I encounter. Aside from being awkward and hilarious and uncomfortable, Louie has a lot of layers. Its premise is simple enough, of course: Louis C.K. stars as himself in a mostly autobiographical show about his life as a divorced parent and stand-up comic in New York City. Beyond that, though, Louis comments in various levels of subtlety on race, sexuality, gender, community, and modern American life. On paper, the show is a comedy, but blended with truly funny moments are dark and absurd situations that might leave you cringing rather than laughing outwardly.
(warning: this clip is NSFW, though it’s one of the most lauded moments of the first season – check out The American Prospect’s take here)
3. The Wire – HBO – 2002 – 2008 (RIP)
What Deadwood did for the old west, The Wire did for modern Baltimore, but maybe better – many critics argue that this is literally the best TV series of all time. Each season explores a different aspect of the city, like the drug trade or the school system. Fundamentally, though, the show is about the city, urban life, and the American working class. And it’s deep enough to merit entire college courses centered on the series and what it reveals about our world.
4. Mad Men – AMC – 2007 –
I’ll admit it: I always used to get irritated when Mad Men won literally every Emmy. But then I remember that it’s a completely fantastic show, and such awards are ultimately well-deserved. And it depicts some of the grittier day-to-day realities of the 1960s, realities that we might not normally think about when we look back on the good ol’ days of Woodstock, peace, and hippies. Interpersonal drama aside, Mad Men also offers a glimpse into the ways homophobia, sexism, racism, feminism, and other –isms shaped society in those days.
5. All in the Family – CBS – 1971 – 1979 (RIP)
Reruns of All in the Family were on TV in my house all the time when I was growing up, and while I was too young to appreciate the show back as a 9 or 10 year old, nowadays, I’m totally impressed with the weighty issues this show takes on. We’re not talking about another lackluster family sitcom here: All in the Family was extremely controversial in its day, and remains so forty years later. The show offers a window onto blue collar life in New York City amidst growing ethnic diversity and social upheaval. More than that, though, the show represents a broader clash of generations following the counterculture’s decline and America’s failure in Vietnam. Those were the days!
6. An American Family – PBS – 1973 (RIP)
Reality TV hasn’t always been all Kardashians and Trumps. An American Family was, in many ways, the precursor to The Real World, and documented the lives of the Loud family in early-1970s Santa Barbara. Bear witness to bickering, divorce, and the values of the middle class American family. What’s also remarkable about this show is the presence of Lance Loud, who left a legacy as being one of the first openly gay men on television.