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Jeff Simon: How pop culture helped to normalize extremism

Jeff Simon

America was never the same after Super Bowl XXX.

It had nothing to do with the game played Jan. 28, 1996, in Arizona's Sun Devil Stadium. Who now gives a fig the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-17? Aside from the inarguable fact all victories by the Cowboys are losses for America, the outcome of that game no longer matters.

It was what we at home saw during the game that, I'd argue, changed us forever.

That was our first glimpse of the trailer for the movie "Independence Day," which was still filming at the time. What changed us was the CGI shot of a mammoth space ship the size of Rhode Island zapping the White House to smithereens.

We'd never really seen that before -- not like that anyway.

We gasped. We also laughed a half-second later.

We were vastly amused. If we'd had the brains God gave a camel, we'd have realized we were watching something that would, almost instantly, become a cliche in the CGI era and that it would signify that something pathological had taken hold.

Bill Clinton was our president at the time. The Lewinsky affair was going on, but was quiescent as of yet. In short order, the presidential zipper -- and all those partisans who insisted on following it through every zip -- had been turned into low comedy by David Letterman and his friends.

We loved the show of it all back then. "Saturday Night Live" had triumphed completely. The Harvard Lampoon ruled the American sense of humor. As Garrett Morris might have shouted at the top of his lungs for the hearing impaired, it was "Our top story tonight" and every night.

The White House became a joke. Government in general. By all means, let's all laugh at it being zapped to kingdom come in an upcoming apocalyptic sci-fi movie.

If you think that's all that's been happening since, forget it. A brilliant film writer and cultural diagnostician named Peter Biskind is about to publish a remarkably troubling -- and entertaining --  book following American culture as it has become utterly horrifying and utterly hilarious at the exact same time.

Biskind is the former editor of the late, semi-lamented Premiere Magazine. His new book is called "The Sky Is Falling" and its subtitle is "How Vampires, Zombies, Androids and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism" (The New Press, 252 pages, $26.99).

Here is just a sample of how smart Biskind's book is routinely (though not why it is so funny sometimes):

"Nerds were once the butt of jokes for being poor at sports and awkward with girls. They had bad skin and paperclip posture, wore Coke-bottle glasses, and favored plastic pocket protectors. Once they came into their own in the 1970's, when the first wave of movie nerds -- Spielberg, Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich et. al -- conquered Hollywood, it was their turn to laugh."

After the nerdiest TV shows started picking up intellectual attention, giant ratings and Emmys:

"... at Comic-Con, the nerds-on-parade conclave of fanboys and girls, Axel Alonso, then editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, reflected that 'it used to be that cool people looked down on nerds. ... Now I know a lot of cool people who pretend to be nerds."

Which, says Biskind, included President Obama.

The movies and TV they wrought have completely changed America. The presidential election of 2016 exploded the Obama Years.

"Extremism, as it turned out, had been undergoing a makeover since long before the results came in. It had been invested with a tangy sizzle and daring and excitement."

It was, we might say, the difference between reality and reality TV.

Extreme had become the:

"... go to term for characterizing whatever was new and different, ahead of the curve, cooler than cool, more -- what? Everything. Extremists were prized as 'disruptors,' 'envelope pushers' 'out of the boxers'... Rather than an epithet, 'extreme' has become an accolade while 'mainstream' has become 'lamestream.'"

We've bypassed the apocalypse in our popular entertainment fantasies. We did that forever after a commercial during the Super Bowl of 1996. Everything for the teen and post-teen audience of 2018 is either so full of CGI that it's post-post-apocalyptic, or it's so privatized and trivialized that it's lunchtime at a high school cafeteria.

But here's Biskind telling you what all this means in this book -- as in this:

"Despite extreme circumstances, centrists do their best to make their mothers proud, minding their manners and behaving in accordance with the dos and don'ts of mainstream society."

That's the epigraph for a chapter called "Silence of the Lambs."

"One of the effects of the rise of extremism is the acceptance of behavior that was once considered beyond the pale."

When Hannibal Lecter is a culture hero, who knows how middle-Americans are liable to vote in presidential elections?

Biskind is just the man to traverse a movie and TV landscape that goes from "Star Wars" to "The Walking Dead" to "Game of Thrones" to "Breaking Bad" to "The Shape of Water" to "The Twilight Saga."

It's hard to be convinced by all the things he sees as hopeful -- the return of poverty in movies, for instance, in the likes of "Mudbound," "I Tonya" and "The Florida Project." Implicit is the return of compassion along with it, but that's an extreme surmise.

A feminist slant to "The Last Jedi" may not reassure "centrists" when "the country has been moved so far to the right that freedom of the press seems daring and even treasonous." "The Post," he says, "may be left leaning but it is a very centrist movie, with all the hallmarks of a mainstream production."

Who'd have thought, after we all laughed at the White House blown to kingdom come, that we'd need a writer as smart and funny as Biskind to lead three cheers for the beleaguered mainstream?

Can he convince us that centrism can be cool? Probably not.

But we've learned an awful lot since that commercial about a lot of things that are hopelessly uncool, don't you think?

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