The Signs of Our Time

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In a recent article for the Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara notes how nonplussed Edie Falco appeared upon winning an Emmy Award for "outstanding Actress in a Comedy" for her performance in Nurse Jackie.  "‘Oh, this is just the most ridiculous thing that has ever, ever happened in the history of this lovely awards show,’" Falco proclaimed upon receiving her award.  ‘Thank you so much. I'm not funny.’" Falco has a point: her character in Nurse Jackie is driven to such desperation by the pressures of her life that she must resort to various sorts of drug abuse to cope—which is hardly funny. But Falco is not alone. Audiences find the grim and sarcastic behavior of Hugh Laurie's Gregory House (not so coincidentally another medical drug abuser) funny as well. And, as McNamara points out, Showtime's United States of Taraa program about "a mother struggling with multiple personalities" —is also played for laughs. In fact, so many contemporary television series combine dramatic and comic elements that a new genre—the dramedy—has had to be coined to describe them.  Surely something funny is going on. Or not so funny. I'm reminded of an on-again, off-again NBC series from the late 1980s called The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, a purported sitcom whose heroine suffered from so much angst from episode to episode that it too can best be called a dramedy. But in the feel-good eighties, Molly Dodd was never a popular success, and was cancelled by NBC and then by Lifetime. I suspect that Molly would feel right at home today among the afflicted protagonists of shows such as Nurse Jackie, House, MD., Desperate Housewives, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Weeds.  For in such shows we find dramatic signs of a society under stress, two years into the Great Recession amid the wreckage of the American dream with no end in sight.  Strangely, it is television, rather than the traditionally more sophisticated medium of film, that is responding to that reality, presenting to Americans exaggerated depictions of their own stressful lives, thus offering a bourgeois form of catharsis to middle-class viewers who can experience, as Aristotle put it, pity and terror in the face of someone's else's desperation.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.