Americans savor the mythology of winners and losers. We love to declare people winners, then lament their fall to loser status, then pick them up and dust them off and call them winners again.
As long as someone falls in the "winner" category, we embrace them unconditionally, set them high on a pedestal, create a rich fable out of their rise to victory and celebrate their shortcomings as if they're strengths. But the second a winner's popularity slides, either on the retail shelves or in the theaters or in the polls or in the media, we shake our heads in faux-sympathy and then outline why their decline into loserdom was inevitable: Mistakes were made. Tragic flaws were there all along, poised to ruin everything. A taste for junk food or loose women is enough to knock a natural-born winner into the loserly gutter; a streak of luck or a bestseller is enough to bestow a coke-addled moron or an angry sociopath with endless praise and accolades. We gladly rewrite history over and over again, depending on whether a person is winning or losing at the moment.
The oppressive importance of winning is the root cause of the disingenuous nature of our culture. Whether you're winning or losing, it's crucial that you give the world the impression that you're winning, and winning big. When those in the spotlight -- politicians, musicians, actors, business leaders -- hint at the slightest weakness, the masses react with confusion and dismay. "Does this mean he/she is a loser?" we ask each other, befuddled. Stock prices fall, records don't sell, "industry insiders" hint that careers are being mismanaged.
Honesty is the worst policy
Consider the most brutally honest public figure of the last 30 years: Jimmy Carter. Every time Carter opened his mouth and spoke the truth, the media declared him an unabashed loser. How fitting that he would lose to Ronald Reagan, the most transparently full-of-shit president in modern history and, not coincidentally, the president most universally embraced by a culture that begs to be spoon-fed sugary lies. Reagan knew how to tell Americans what they wanted to hear: "We're winners, we're winning! If we keep stockpiling nukes, we'll be winners forever and ever!" Yes, every mushroom cloud has a silver lining.
But when you've told the world that you're winning and you're a winner and everything is going according to plan, over and over again, and obviously everything is going to hell in a hand basket, eventually the public is going to catch on. That's when you have to take drastic measures, usually by blaming your losses on outside parties, then distancing yourself from those losers.
Recently, a herd of deadbeats got the boot: Britney dumped K-Fed, Reese Witherspoon dumped Ryan Phillippe, Bush dumped Rumsfeld, and the country dumped the Republican majority in the House and the Senate. These rude dismissals afforded the involved parties an opportunity to redefine themselves as winners: Britney is clearly headed for a post-Federline makeover and an upsurge in popularity, Bush is likely to sell us on a "humbled" version of himself, and Democrats are sure to trumpet their new, aggressive reimagineering of the country. Winners once more! Winners all around!
Our popularity depends on our ability to serve up delusional optimism on command, resulting in a culture of strained smiles and forced cheer. Looking on the bright side, though, this patently fake climate ensures the cultivation of generation after generation of angry, bile-spewing rebels, clutching "Catcher in the Rye" to their chests, hunching their shoulders and gritting their teeth in disgust over the misfortune of growing up in a nation of professional cheerleaders. These misfits may not smell very good, but at least they recognize that the rest of us are patently fake and untrustworthy.
What's particularly nice is that many of these foul-smelling, hunchy-shouldered revolutionaries and suspicious, pissed-off alternative types have grown up and decided to make some money in the patently fake and untrustworthy TV industry. Gone are the grinning geezers that brought us '70s and '80s programming, with its insistence that every story feature at least one clear winner and a big, important, heartwarming moral at the end, replaced by people like Aaron Sorkin and Rob Thomas and J.J. Abrams, people who one suspects spent their formative years shuffling around in Army surplus jackets, pouting and replaying "London Calling" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog" on their walkmen so that everyone would leave them the hell alone once and for all.
Naturally the bed-headed, walkman-wearing demographic has a soft spot for losers and a suspicion toward winners, thus do we find a proliferation of stories on TV about the absurd importance of winning in American culture, and our culture's fickle, skin-deep responses to loss and victory. On NBC's "Friday Night Lights" (8 p.m. Tuesdays), for example, a high-school football coach in a small town in Texas is either reviled or widely embraced by the townspeople, depending on whether the team did well in the last game it played. Even when coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is winning, though, the rewards are bittersweet because the same people who praise him were insulting him to his face when he lost the week before.
More important, though, the emotional heart of the show lies with the team's fallen quarterback, Jason Street, a nice-looking, lovable, all-American boy with an adorable cheerleader for a girlfriend. In the pilot episode, Street (Scott Porter) takes a hard tackle during the first game of the season and ends up in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the waist down. Instead of treating us to the "You can do it!" clichés of a million-and-one late '70s and early '80s physical therapy and rehabilitation scenes ("Ice Castles" anyone?), Jason is brutally informed of his limitations day after day. In one particularly harsh scene, Jason and his girl make out, then the nurse comes in and dryly lets Jason know that he can't have sex, because semen could back up into his catheter and cause serious problems. Ah, yes! I'd love to watch footage of the professional cheerleaders of the world visibly flinching through that scene. The born winner's attempt to deal with being transformed into a "loser" -- at least through the lens of our shallow culture -- provides a vivid parable to contrast with the rather arbitrary struggle for victory on the football field.
"Heroes" (9 p.m. Mondays) also toys with our concept of winners and losers, throwing together a ragtag assortment of losers with freakish powers that present themselves first as liabilities. Following the age-old comic book narrative arc, these misfits and outcasts learn to redefine themselves -- and their powers -- as positive, joining forces to save New York City from a nuclear holocaust. Lest you take the swooning comic-book flavor of the show too seriously, the writers offer us a hopelessly kitschy motto for the show's heroes: "Save the cheerleader, save the world." Making one of the show's losers (one that needs saving) a cheerleader is a particularly sly way of turning the American stereotype of winning and losing on its head.
Land of the lost
And then there's ABC's "Lost" (9 p.m. Wednesdays), the show that wallows in the loserly status of its characters more than any other. Through those dreary flashbacks week after week, we learn that each of the lovely, sad characters stranded on that lovely, sad island has an incredibly tragic background, usually due to some major missteps or bad decisions he or she made along the way. Indeed, each time we return to any particular character's story, we learn that he's an even bigger loser than we originally thought he was.
Kate (Evangeline Lilly) didn't just kill her father, she also left her one true love shortly after marrying him. Not only that, she drugged her poor husband before she told him she was leaving -- for his own good, of course, so that he wouldn't lose his job as a cop when he refused to give her up -- which made the whole depressing, pathetic thing all the more depressing and pathetic. Meanwhile, Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) couldn't simply have gotten his priest brother killed. No, he also had to go back to his brother's church, interfere in the situation there, get a random villager killed and eventually ruin the church that his brother had built. Upon returning to his (comparatively) happy existence on the island, Eko scampered through the jungle and was summarily executed by the mysterious big black cloud that we hadn't seen for months.
Did the writers bring the black cloud back, along with the polar bear, simply to save face in light of criticisms that both elements of the island were central to the first few episodes of the show, then disappeared when the writers wandered into the more fruitful and interesting territory of the Dharma Initiative and the Others? Probably. But more important, why kill off Eko? Did they decide to kill him off in the Great Hatch Explosion of Season 2, but then they reconsidered, since, as long as they were executing the guy, they might as well squeeze a little bit more drama and sadness out of his story before they were through?
Sometimes it feels like Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Kate and Jack (Matthew Fox) aren't the only ones being tortured around here. Remember the occasional hand-holdy, strummy-music scenes at the end of some of the lighter episodes from Seasons 1 and 2? Where have all the flowers gone?
Apparently J.J. Abrams is getting a little bit more involved in "Lost" this season after not really having a hand in things since early in the first season. If that's the case, then it's clear that Abrams has a real hunger for hardship and melancholia, given the way the third season is going so far.
And someone on staff clearly hates Jack's character and wants to make him into the whipping boy for the whole island. Just as Nate of "Six Feet Under," with his whiny, self-involved musings and selfish maneuvers, suffered a slow unraveling and untimely death in the final season of the show, so does Jack seem to be painted in increasingly merciless tones and made to endure exactly those conditions that are the least bearable for a control freak like himself. In addition to being a workaholic who loves/hates his drunky daddy, in addition to being left by his wife out of the blue, we learned this season that Jack became hopeless and angry and obsessive and paranoid in the wake of his wife's departure. Since he blamed his dad for everything crappy in his life, he actually started to suspect that his wife and his dad are having an affair. As if that weren't depressing enough, Jack woke up to the relative peace and comfort of his slimy underground prison cell, only to discover that his singular hope for happiness, his love for Kate, had been snatched out of his hands by that dirty hillbilly Sawyer. This was a torturous twist for tight-assed Jack: Not only did perky Kate not love him, but she was in love with a total loser -- a vastly inferior, unkempt, unpredictable specimen whom no reasonable woman would choose over a winner like Jack. (That's how Jack sees it, anyway.)
Poor Jack. His particular flavor of loserdom is that he overestimates his own control over the world, overestimates his charms, overestimates his logic and his instincts under pressure and vastly underestimates everyone around him. In other words, Jack is the ultimate ugly American. For all of his skills and obvious strengths, he has a superiority complex, a certainty that he deserves to win, without fail, that's destined to keep him angry and lonely and out of touch indefinitely.
And speaking of loserly behavior, didn't you find it a little odd that Kate and Sawyer stripped down and made sweet love in that open, outdoor cage, where Ben and any of the other Others could wander up and witness them in the act? I understand that they're in love (although I didn't really understand that at all until that particular episode) and that they're both exactly the devil-may-care types that would throw caution (and their clothing) to the wind under those circumstances, but since we've been waiting for Kate to bed down with someone, anyone, since the show began, couldn't the writers at least have offered her a firm bed, some nice, clean linens and a sweet-smelling, freshly showered mate? Is it really romantic to tangle with someone who smells like toe cheese? I appreciate the raw impulsiveness of the moment, but my inner professional cheerleader felt queasy over how dry and parched those passionately locked lips must've been, without access to Chapstick for so many long weeks.
But then, if I were a character on "Lost," I'd be the one whose tragedies are utterly trivial, yet who experiences them all as monumentally unbearable. My character would spend her time on the island loudly fretting over the fact that her contact lenses can't be removed and disinfected properly every night, and that the deodorant she found in some dead stranger's carry-on is the non-threatening hippie kind that has patchouli undertones and still doesn't cut the stink in half, not by a long shot. Occasionally, they'd offer a flashback of my character, ruining her marriage by spending most of her so-called date nights with her husband chattering neurotically about whether it's more dangerous to leave the HEPA filter running all day, which must present some kind of a fire hazard, or whether it's more dangerous not to run it constantly and therefore breathe in untold dust and allergens and little particles of that kind of mold that kills you in your sleep. Yes, it's true, Jack: Unnamed tropical islands are no place for the tightly wound.
But if you think it takes a big, beautiful island in the middle of nowhere to incite an existential crisis of epic proportions, take a gander at the fourth season of Fox's "The OC" (9 p.m. Thursdays). With perpetual-loser Marissa dead and gone after she was killed in a fiery car crash caused by her born-loser boyfriend Volchok, all of the pretty little teenagers are left to grieve, each in his or her own quirky, adorable way.
For Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), this means getting beat up by big, burly, mean-looking bully types. In the wake of Marissa's death, apparently Ryan moved out of his luxurious digs at the Cohen house and moved into a filthy supply closet in the back of a dive bar, and now he makes pocket money by crawling into a cage and letting big boys pummel him to a bloody pulp. This makes perfect sense, of course: Ryan has always loved being punched in the face, and he's always been suspiciously obsessed with bullies and angry misfits and sociopaths. Remember Luke? Oliver? His creepy older brother who almost brained him with an old-fashioned rotary telephone? Why was Ryan always provoking those guys into manhandling him and calling him their little bitch?
Sadly, instead of hanging out at leather bars frequented by bears (i.e., big, hairy gay men) in assless chaps, Ryan must funnel his latent homosexuality into sublimated "Fight Club"-style bravura. And instead of seeing right through Ryan's Herculean efforts to remain manly, Summer (Rachel Bilson) and Seth (Adam Brody) and the Cohens waste their time pulling together a nifty little slide show that only a preppy white-bread heterosexuals with too much time and money on their hands could love. You know those meticulously edited video odes to the happy couple you see at weddings these days? Basically, Seth and Summer apply their bourgeois logic to the problem of Ryan's self-destruction and spend all night on their little art project, and then they trick Ryan into coming to see it. He just blinks at them, but you can tell that, deep down inside, he's longing with all of his heart to shout at them, "I'm gay, stupid idiots! I'm gay for scruffy-looking drunks and blond meatheads! Are you blind?"
As convincing as Ryan is as a bloodied masochist, though, Summer is equally unconvincing as a student at Brown. We're meant to believe that, in response to her unacknowledged grief over Marissa's death, Summer has been pouring herself into activist causes, emerging as an unshowered, tree-hugging, drum-circle enthusiast with a hippie boyfriend who dresses in clashing Guatemalan garb from head to toe. The whole thing is supposed to be cute and comical, of course, but sadly, general clichés about college hippies (They say spaced-out things! They chain themselves to trees!) aren't all that funny. Plus, it's impossible to buy Summer the Lightweight as a Brown student, let alone a Brown student with a serious interest in global warming and deforestation and so forth. Now, if we saw Summer's boyfriend fixing her a grilled-cheese sandwich on the little hot plate he drags to Dead shows? If he strapped on one of those plastic-looking Ovation guitars and earnestly sang "Tangled Up in Blue" in a gravelly voice? That would be sort of funny. But it still wouldn't be remotely realistic.
The writers of "The OC" have been trying to walk this line for several seasons, and somehow it undercuts the show's (albeit skin-deep) drama more and more each season. There was a time when it worked: The Chrismakkuh episode was, indeed, a classic. Seth's witty banter has always been a welcome addition to the landscape. But please explain this bit of dialogue, between Summer and her dad:
Summer: Are you gonna take that job in Seattle?
Dr. Roberts: Well, the offer came at the perfect time. The hospital is famous for being wonderfully quirky ... It's called Seattle Grace.
Seattle Grace! Get it? Summer's dad is going to work with McDreamy and Meredith and Bailey of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy"! Ha! Ha. Heh. Erm...
Yes, Dr. Roberts actually said, "It's called Seattle Grace." I'm sorry, but it's bad enough to break the fourth wall and refer to another current TV show, compromising the audience's ability to see the characters as actual people (and look, even with a show this bad, we still want to try to suspend our disbelief, if possible), but then to do it with a line of dialogue that leaden and ridiculous and awful? How low can you possibly set the bar?
That said, though, I do love one thing about "The OC": Taylor (Autumn Reeser), the spunky geek. Whether she's primly doling out advice or busting out her fluent Korean or Spanish or French, she's a great character. Too bad they can't kill off everyone in a fiery bus crash, leaving only Taylor, Seth and an out-of-the-closet, masochistic, bear-loving Ryan to survive. Then, abandon the drama completely, or come up with some low-impact, fun stories that place the comedy front and center. In fact, the three of them would be much better off at Seattle Grace -- they could move up there with Dr. Roberts, Seth could use his pesky charms to steal Meredith away from McDreamy, Taylor could get a job as a meddling hospital executive, Ryan could awaken the angry bully/gay man in McSteamy and everyone could enjoy the luxuries of stories that actually go somewhere and dialogue that isn't hopelessly unrealistic.
Aww, but I feel sort of guilty, kicking "The OC" when it's down. Ratings have been abysmal this season, and even though the show's writers have apparently stopped taking their jobs seriously, you can't really blame them for that, can you? This show has always been a kitschy goof-fest, and even though it's not great right now, I'd still be sad to see it go somehow. Can't this loser make a comeback?
Winning beggars can be losers
Why, of course it can! The great thing about America is that almost any loser can become a winner again. One day, you're trashed by the media for being overrated, boring, dumb, anorexic and tedious; the next day, you're starring in your own, brand-new overrated, boring, dumb, tedious TV show. One day, you're considered a total loser, the next day, you're widely adored, even though no one can remember why, even though they have to use wildly imaginative words to describe you, like "Hollywood runaround" and "fire crotch" and "loser." And how do you continue to win? How do you remain in the public eye and continue to get cast in big movies so that you still have the cash to blow at clubs around town? By acting like a total loser, of course.
So there's your sure-fire recipe for success in America: Call yourself a winner, but act like a loser.
Next week: Which loser will win "The Amazing Race"? Why do winners like Caridee from "America's Next Top Model," Ozzy from "Survivor" and Sam Talbot from "Top Chef" always lose reality TV competitions?