(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Todd VanDerWerff drops in on a week of Glenn Beck. Next week, Noel Murray looks at former super-hit, Desperate Housewives.)
Hosni Mubarak, the unquestioned ruler of Egypt for just under 30 years, stepped down from his dictatorial position Friday, after several weeks of protest from the Egyptian people. Predictably (and rightly), this was the big story on cable news throughout the week, especially as protests spread to other Middle Eastern countries. What did it all mean? Was democracy possible? Did the Internet really help to overthrow these repressive regimes, or was its role in all of this overstated?
Well, after watching a week of Glenn Beck on Fox News, I can give you… I can’t say it’s THE answer, but it’s certainly AN answer. Here’s how Beck would have you see it: The fall of Egypt was precipitated by a behind-the-scenes cabal of radical Islamic groups, socialists, and communists. While President Barack Obama doesn’t have a lot of direct influence, he certainly knows how the game is played and he knows the moves are coming. (On Friday’s program, Beck seemed to insinuate that Obama spoke out in favor of the people of Egypt—and didn’t speak out in favor of the Iranians two summers ago—because he was privy to some sort of secret Islamocommunisocialist plot, or something. Honestly, I didn’t really understand this point entirely, and we’ll get to the reasons why in a moment.) Even Google’s onboard! The goal of this coalition of Beck’s worst nightmares? To destabilize the Middle East, allowing the chaos to spread to Europe. First, capitalism will be swept aside, followed closely by Western democracy, and finally, Christianity. And at that point, the knives will come out, and the Islamic groups, the communist groups, and the socialist groups will compete to find out who REALLY rules the New World Order. Beck seems certain, though, that the extremists will win, and that will lead to the foundation of a new Islamic caliphate, stretching across most of the Eastern Hemisphere (one assumes Russia, China, and India would have something to say about this, ASSUMING IT SOMEHOW GOT THAT FAR, but that’s neither here nor there). And then the new caliphate will turn its sights on the United States, and won’t we all be sorry we didn’t listen to Glenn Beck in the winter of 2011?
Fox News, of course, is the number one cable news source in the United States, and Beck is the host of what’s currently that network’s flagship program (even if his ratings aren’t what they were a couple of years ago). While his views are often roundly mocked—even by conservatives who’d otherwise find Fox News to be a reliable ideological partner—his audience is fervent and devoted. Ever since I proposed this project as an ongoing feature, I’ve wanted to look more into Glenn Beck’s show. I doubt the guy and I would agree on much of anything at all. (Well, there was a part this week when he seemed to imply that the U.S. was wrong to prop up foreign dictators in the name of oil, which… I guess we could agree on, though he drew some bizarre conclusions from that idea, so we’d immediately part ways again.) But he’s undeniably successful, and he’s created an alternate vision of the world, one that is deeply compelling to a whole lot of people. What is it about THIS show that makes it so much more successful than any other attempts to copy it or mock it? What is it about THIS host that makes him someone who inspires such devotion in his audience?
First, let’s step back a little bit. My assumption had always been that Glenn Beck hosted what amounts to a news talk show. (This assumption came from the few clips of the show I’d watched and the fact that every time I’d seen his show on at my local bank, he had a guest or two on. The last time, he was praising the oligarchs of the ‘20s for some reason.) There’s nothing wrong with this. The news talk show is a valuable format, and its many practitioners include everyone from Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh on the right to Rachel Maddow and Bill Moyers on the left. The basic format is that the host opens with some opinionating, moving through the day’s headlines, then brings in some guests to help sort some of this out, usually in a partisan fashion. Like Oprah Winfrey’s show, the idea is to create the illusion of not being so alone while listening to the program, to being part of a giant crowd of like-minded individuals. Because of my political leanings, I enjoy Maddow and Moyers (I always found Keith Olbermann a little hard to take), but I find Limbaugh’s program entertaining on almost purely a craft level. Limbaugh’s shtick—I’m telling you the things you’re already thinking, and you’re going to love having a major media figure say those things—is carried off with a certain sense of humor (or, at least, it was when I used to occasionally tune in on the way to work, which was five years ago at this point) and a sense of bull-headed self-righteousness. It’s political polemic, sure, but it’s an entertainment program first and foremost.
Beck isn’t really doing that, however. What he’s created is some sort of weird amalgamation of a daytime soap opera, a televangelist show, and a mystery show like Lost. The primary message of the program often seems to be watching more Glenn Beck or listening to the guy’s radio show. (He began the week with an entreaty to record the show on DVR and watch it over and over, for God's sake.) The ads on the show—which has now been boycotted by so many advertisers that Fox News is reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel (while STILL making a healthy profit, almost certainly, given how cheap the show must be to produce)—primarily focus on gold investment firms, with an occasional tax service or Christian dating agency tossed in for good measure. In almost every episode, Beck walks past a cameraman, underlining the artificiality of the program, making it feel more like a Paddy Chayefsky script that’s up and walking around and piped in from another universe. In Friday’s episode, he opened one “act” looking at the wrong camera, something he didn’t bother to correct for quite some time.
Glenn Beck has a very specific structure, one similar to mystery shows, which the program shares a surprising amount of DNA with. Beck opens with a 20-25-minute harangue, an uninterrupted monologue that inevitably skews toward extreme emotions of either anger or fear or grief. Then, he goes through the motions of the rest of the show, popping in on several other short segments, occasionally having someone else in to talk with him about the news of the day, but almost always coming up with a few bite-sized chunks of whatever to pass the time. The opening monologue is easily the strongest part of the program. (If you’ve ever seen a clip from this show on YouTube, it almost assuredly comes from that section of the show.) It’s a magnificently performed free-associative ramble, almost a bit of performance art that divorces itself from the show’s talk show roots and becomes a kind of new Apostle’s Creed, made up on the spot every day. Beck moves all over his massive set with direction and purpose, pointing out things he’s scrawled on chalkboards, pulling up disconnected soundbites on his giant television, and just generally making the same two or three points over and over again. But in mesmerizing fashion!
After watching a week of the show, I’m as repulsed by Beck’s ideology as I’d expect to be, but I kind of want to keep watching. I more or less understand why the show’s so popular now: It’s completely and utterly involving, particularly in its first half. (The segments after the opening monologue tend to be more hit or miss. What’s fun about the show is watching Beck take two or three utterly disconnected news items and try to draw lines between them, contorting himself and his logic in the process. If you buy it, this must be a thrilling high-wire act. EVEN IF YOU DON’T, it’s a pretty stellar piece of stagecraft, one guy out there, logic his greatest foe.) If Beck’s demeanor as a host is almost entirely televangelist/college professor-inspired, the show itself has the demeanor of, as mentioned, a daytime soap opera and a mystery show, taking the best elements of both and tossing them into the “storyline” of the show. Over the course of the week, Beck built a lengthy, often incoherent argument about what was going on in Egypt (outlined in the second paragraph), starting from a series of news articles, then leading up to the big conclusion in Friday’s episode. The structure is all daytime soap: Tease something on Monday. Pay it off on Friday. On One Life To Live, maybe two characters are locked in an embrace on Monday and they finally kiss on Friday. It’s the same thing here, only on Monday, maybe Glenn insinuates that the extremist Muslims are winning in Egypt, and on Friday, he says he’s got the proof that they have.
This wouldn’t be nearly as popular as it is, however, without the mystery show element. Plenty of folks have tried to use this kind of format to draw lines between, I don’t know, Nancy Pelosi and the Bilderberg Group before (Alex Jones springs to mind), but they tend to be limited to small audiences. While Beck’s program doesn’t draw nearly the audience of even the lowest-rated big network evening news program, however, it’s much, much larger than previous attempts to mine this particular vein. Beck’s greatest success has been not just to draw these tangential connections in his monologues; it’s been to perch those monologues atop an ever-growing, incredibly complicated talk radio “mythology,” of the sort you might have seen on, well, Lost. (For the unaware, in TV writer terms, "mythology" means the elaborate backstory that makes everything else make sense. It was coined by writers on The X-Files to explain the alien conspiracy storyline on that show.) Glenn Beck is almost completely isolating for people who’ve never watched the show before and don’t have a passing familiarity with this aforementioned mythology, which creates a giant, centralized series of dark mysteries where the rest of the world sees a bunch of barely left-leaning technocrats. When I summarized what Beck was trying to explain this week, I’m not entirely sure if I got all of it, because most of it was based on a set of assumptions, assumptions that I probably don’t share but also assumptions I didn’t even think to have in the first place.
Beck assigns to the One Nation rally (the collection of left-leaning organizations that sponsored its own rally on the National Mall in response to Beck’s rally of last year) the same role the DHARMA Initiative held on Lost in that show’s early seasons. It’s a multi-headed hydra, poking up just when you least expect it, with intentions that are never completely clear because the stated goals MUST be masking something more sinister. (If they weren’t, then why would these people reject the self-evident rightness of what Beck and his followers believe?) When Beck kept pointing to footage of the protests in Egypt and referring to them as a “disaster”—even when he had someone from his own network on to say that maybe he wasn’t quite drawing all of the right conclusions!—he was like a lonely John Locke in real life, a man who believes that there MUST be some greater purpose tying all of these events together, that the world has to be more than just disconnected incidents or even the surface level of what most of us accept as the reality of the situation. But where Locke saw grand, unifying meaning, a bright light pushing forward to a better life, Beck sees only darkness, only storm clouds, only a life that ends at the point of a sword. (Beck, like a lot of conservatives, seems oddly obsessed with beheading. It’s a huge part of the mythology of this particular show.)
The mythology is all-encompassing, but it assumes you already know everything about it, just like Lost eventually became closed off to people who hadn’t watched from day one, who didn’t read Lostpedia endlessly. Beck ascribes near superpowers to Obama, former green jobs initiative head Van Jones, lefty billionaire George Soros, and a variety of other obscure-to-powerful liberals, making them seem almost like Lost’s mysterious, terrifying Others, lurking in the darkness, waiting to pounce and dissolve all Beck and his followers hold good in the world. (Beck’s audience even gets in on the mystery-solving fun. In Tuesday’s episode, a random viewer called in to Beck’s radio show to point out something written on one sign in one shot in a piece of footage that played on Beck’s big TV screen in Monday’s episode, featuring the word “Khalifah.” The two then proceeded to go from that one image to suggest that this proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the fact that the Middle East was about to be swept up into a caliphate, just like when Lost nerds spent hours upon hours finding the DHARMA logo on that shark back in season two.) And the show congratulates you for having the courage to seek it out, for seeking the "truth," like you're the protagonist in one of these mystery shows, struggling against the forces that would impose an order of lies.
Beck shows lots of footage of leftist groups from the U.S. and Europe talking about overthrowing capitalism or something similar, then tries to draw parallels between this line of thought and various clips he’s found of Islamic extremists talking about eliminating the Jews or something. And, yeah, I’d rather not live in a world where extremists kill all of the Jews, certainly. But Beck’s mythology, like the mythology in Lost or The X-Files or Twin Peaks or The Event, becomes problematic when it bumps up against particulars, against specificities like “how” and “why.” He can tell you “who” and “where” and “when,” but when it comes time to explain just WHY he says Rosie O’Donnell (to name one celebrity he name-dropped) is in league with Islamic terrorists or just WHY a bunch of disparate groups would have a secret, hidden agenda to dissolve the underpinnings of the Western world, he doesn’t bother. And when it comes time to explain just HOW a bunch of marginalized left-leaning groups like Code Pink, groups that harangue the president because they can’t get an audience with him, are going to accomplish this, Beck is as clueless as he asserts the New York Times is when it comes to questions of whether Egyptians can practice democracy as we know it without turning into a hellhole run by tyrants. (One of the more disquieting bits of poison Beck introduces into the show is the idea that only CERTAIN people are worthy of self-determination, and Muslims sure ain’t among ‘em.) Like all mystery shows, Glenn Beck posits a world of mysterious events surrounding an unknowable center we can only glimpse tiny pieces of. But where Lost placed a cave of glowing light at the center of its attempts to answer the unanswerable, Beck would probably feature a swirling black hole.
It’s hard for me to pin a grade on Glenn Beck. I find much of what the man and the program asserts completely odious, and his grasp on global geopolitics is… tenuous at best. (In Thursday’s episode, in an attempt to talk about how most networks would cover a revolution in Mexico from the Texas border, he attempted to call Israel Texas to Egypt’s Mexico, simply because the two border each other.) But the show is undoubtedly compelling, surprisingly easy to watch, even as it makes anyone who even slightly disagrees with the man yell their head off. And Beck expresses a desire to return to a certain kind of world, a world where things didn’t change quite so quickly and everybody knew exactly what to expect when it came to who belonged where (while maintaining a terrific ability to dance around exactly what this idea would mean spelled out). It’s a desire many in his audience obviously share, and it’s a desire he makes seem almost seductive and powerful. If we could just go back, all of this uncertainty would be swept away. And yet you can’t go back. You can only hope to profit off the uncertainty, off the corrections.
The most common insult to hurl at Beck—from liberals and conservatives both—is that he’s a conspiracy theorist, someone who sees dark cabals of shadowy individuals trying to control all they see at every turn. The other most common insult to toss at him is that he just makes shit up. I, actually, don’t think either of these things are true, even as I think a good many of the things he says on the show are specious conspiracy theories with no basis in anything approaching factual evidence. I think Beck, on some level, really believes this stuff. I don’t think he thinks there’s a conspiracy. I think that just as he believes that everybody on his side longs to return to a world that resembles a happy-go-lucky ‘50s sitcom, he believes everybody on the other side wants to go to a shadow world, a world where capitalism no longer matters and where the structure of society is not just broken down but completely gone. There HAS to be; otherwise, he can’t quite understand what the other side wants. And, therefore, he’ll draw as many lines between as many disconnected dots as he possibly can and invite viewers along for the ride. He’s bottled that longing and served it straight up to his audience, in the hopes that when they finally solve the mysteries of the universe and pull back the edges of the circle, the darkness at the center doesn’t devour them whole.