Understanding American Culture through TV Serials

Chips the Rodeo Clown, from Baskets


Most all of my Nepali colleagues, friends and family use me as a Wikipedia on western culture, especially when the internet is down, or we are all out for drinks. I don’t mind this at all, as I love prattling on about my own country of birth – America – which I have not stepped foot in for over a decade.

During these impromptu culture sessions (often devolving into a rant), I usually refer to one or another TV show to help me illustrate a point on American life and culture, or how westerners differ from Nepalis in general.

For example, the other day meri shreemati inquired why American home interiors are always so beautiful; she was binge-watching all six seasons of Grimm at the time–so I had to tell her, “No, that’s not what most American homes look like inside; for that, you should be watching Breaking Bad.”

Trying to understand any culture through television brings up a conundrum–most of what you see on the tube is a fairy tale, and TV dramatisations often conceal more than they reveal.

But this is good news for any good investigator of modern culture since by critically examining what is left out, smoothed over, or otherwise lied about in a TV serial, one can actually surmise the reality.

Téa Leoni as Madam Secretary – If only!

Take for example one of my favourites: Madam Secretary. If you are wondering how the American politic works, or what Hillary Clinton’s life may have been like during her stint as Secretary of State–or as a candidate for President– then the first three seasons of this show will satisfy you.

However, one must realise that TV serials often illustrate how things should work, and not how they do work. In the dark age of Trump, Madam Secretary comes off as a prescription for how the government might look if it were serious about being functional.

To find out how the US government actually works, one would best be served by watching House of Cards, or by taking on any of the popular late-night comedy shows with the likes of Steven Colbert, Jimmy Fallon or Melissa McCarthy.

Another great example of how “fiction is just as strange as life” is The Walking Dead, a post-apocalyptic portrayal of America’s east coast, after hordes of zombies are allowed to run amok for seven seasons, eating their way from one character or another.

For me, this show symbolises how Americans are living together today, with the zombie attacks symbolic of the dangers that an American has to deal with daily, and with those surviving the trauma organising themselves into a workable dystopia.

Tribal yet resourceful, armed and violent, survivors of the Walking Dead are found going about their lives in anything but a safe world. It appears that the Walking Dead (and the west-coast version, Fear the Walking Dead)are just metaphors for modern America life: a dog-eat-dog existence amid crumbling infrastructure.

So either this show is a user’s guide on “How to Survive a Nuclear War with North Korea,” or it is a social commentary on the way that most of America’s poor and lower-middle class survive: hand to mouth, and awaiting the next cataclysmic event that could potentially ruin their life for good. Oh, and all without Obamacare – if you get bit, you die!

Playing on HBO, Showtime, Starz, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon,et al. today, are many variations on this coming apocalypse theme: Colony, Under the Dome, The Leftovers, The Departed, The Strain, The 100, The Last Man on Earth, Z Nation, Zombie Apocalypse, iZombie, 12 Monkeys and more make up the short list. Judging from the genre, America has little time left, and after the fall, nothing good will come of it.


Darryl and the Dead, from The Walking Dead


But this is not to say that all of the American culture (on TV or in reality) is doom-and-gloom. Take for example Portlandia, a sketch comedy series that tells you all you need to know about hipster America and living on the upper West Coast.

Then there is Baskets, a delightful creation from Zack Galifianakas, of Between Two Ferns and The Hangover movies-fame. The two seasons (so far) are about as honest as you can get when dramatising life in present-day Bakersfield California – and still be entertaining.

Baskets follows Chip Baskets, a millennial Californian who went to clown college in Paris, and who has moved back to the states to live his dream in the wasteland of SoCal, only able to find work at Arby’s – after a short stint as a hobo.

All this is a metaphor for how hard it is for an American college grad to find meaningful work these days, as well as to keep from living in his or her mother’s basement well into his or her 50’s.

Louie Anderson, who cross-dresses as Chip’s mom, is brilliant and should win an Emmy, imo. His portrayal of being a Costco-obsessed mother of four reminds me so much of my own mom, I want to cry! In short, if you are a fan of The Office, you will love Baskets, and at the same time, you’ll also learn a lot about what it’s like struggling to survive in sunny California.

Also airing on America’s light-hearted TV, we find Superior Donuts, a new sitcom that chronicles the relationship between a gruff owner of a small doughnut shop, and his enterprising young employee and their loyal patrons, all in a gentrifying Chicago neighbourhood.

While I am not a fan of this mainstream show, I just like Judd Hirsch of the Taxi fame.  This sitcom dramatises a transformation that every Nepali should be interested in: the growing trend to corporatise as many small family businesses as possible, leaving the land a parking lot full of Walmarts, Best Buys, Starbucks and Home Depots. (Along these lines, you will want to tune in here next week, when I’ll be writing about the Disappearing Nepali Cold Store.)

In addition to the shows already listed, there are dozen more examples that are mucho telling of American life and culture; take The Good Fight and Better Call Saul for portrayals of the American legal culture; The Newsroom for a look at how we wish a Cable News company would run, or Fargo for a look at (criminal) life in the American Upper Midwest. Or take on The Young Pope for a look at what it would be like if an American were running the Vatican in Rome, Trump-style.

No matter what American TV show you are watching at the moment, your show has the potential to inform you well on how Americans live their day to day.

So post your own observations below to share your analysis…and until next week, good luck.


Jigs Gaton is a quirky-kinda migrant worker, hailing from America and happily living in Dhobighat with family, friends and a 40kg dog. He also watches a lot of TV.


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Jigs Gaton is a quirky-kinda guy, hailing from America and happily living in Dhobighat with family, friends and a 40kg dog. Like many technologists of his age, sees nothing but doom and gloom in the upcoming Age of AI.

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