Waking Up From the American Dream
In the Peacock series “Killing It,” Brock (Scott MacArthur), an Everglades snake hunter and would-be YouTube influencer, gets shot in the face in an altercation over a sack of python eggs. It is the best thing that has ever happened to him.
The shooting leaves Brock minus one eye. But it’s captured on video, and the upload gets millions of views, giving him the lucrative viral success he’s wanted for years.
“American dream!” he says, beaming. “Getting shot in the face!”
On TV, 2022 has been the year of the American dream — with a catch. For many of the hustlers, entrepreneurs and strugglers onscreen, that aspiration still exists. But as Brock experienced, it can cost you an important part of yourself.
“Killing It,” created by Dan Goor and Luke Del Tredici of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” slipped under many TV watchers’ radar last spring, including, mea culpa, mine. In its first episode, it seems like a simple, wacky buddy comedy: Craig Foster (Craig Robinson), a Florida security guard with dreams of starting a prostate-supplement business, teams up with the ride-share driver Jillian Glopp (Claudia O’Doherty) in a contest to exterminate invasive pythons.
But as the season goes on, it becomes a broad, big-swinging satire of an adversarial economy that can seem to be booming and busting at the same time. (Tim Heidecker has a boisterous turn as a testosterone-pumped motivational speaker who preaches the philosophy of “Dominine,” which is one more than “dominate.”)
As Craig, Jillian and their opponents claw toward their prize, one foot of dead python at a time, they give us a tour of the hustler’s mirage, in which the promise of riches shimmers on the horizon, all yours if you only go to one more paid conference, pitch two more investors, take three more jobs.
The work experience of Jillian, an Australian immigrant, is especially bleak-comic. She drives an Uber that tows a mobile billboard (which doubles as her home), gets a TaskRabbit stint helping a rich woman (D’Arcy Carden) perpetrate a tax-fraud scheme and takes a job murdering birds at an airport, all with a heartbreakingly cheerful spirit of optimism.
The comedy is grotesque and blunt — Craig spends one episode with a dead snake nailed to his palm — but sneakily smart. In this hunt for the American dream, it says, every life form must find a lower life form to kill. And while the series is set in 2016, three years before the first stirrings of Covid, it feels pandemic-adjacent in its focus on the stratum of the work force for whom work is risky, physical and in-person. You cannot drive an Uber, or shoot a nail gun into a python’s skull, over Zoom.
The pandemic plays explicitly in Season 2 of Starz’s strip-club melodrama “P-Valley,” about a line of work that is defined by in-person interaction. The proprietor of the Pynk nightclub, Uncle Clifford (a resplendent Nicco Annan), who is nonbinary and uses she/her pronouns, spends much of the season sporting a bejeweled mask, enforcing 2020-era Covid protocols while trying to keep her business afloat at 50 percent capacity.
The Pynk is a magnet for dreams, and not only naughty ones. The “P-Valley” creator, the playwright Katori Hall, respects her pole dancers as artists and athletes, and she recognizes their work for what it is: a job that manifests the economy tangibly, translating desire into dollar bills flying in the air.
And because dancers age out so quickly, the job also renders the pressures of the economy in time-lapse: You have just a few years to rise up the pole before your tiring muscles pull you back down.
Every dancer enters the Pynk with an eye on something else — a showbiz life, a business career, or simply escape — but one of the most affecting journeys of Season 2 belongs to Mercedes (Brandee Evans), who comes to realize that she has reached retirement age without having figured out her next step. “You’re just going to have to learn how to dream new dreams,” Uncle Clifford tells her. That’s the price of dreaming: You can’t afford to wake up.
The summer’s surprise buzz phenomenon, FX on Hulu’s “The Bear,” focused on the pressures of a different sort of service industry. Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), a high-end restaurant chef, comes home to run his family’s struggling Chicago sandwich joint after his drug-addicted brother’s suicide. The pandemic isn’t a factor in the story. But the show’s depiction of work as a kind of barely restrained combat (which sometimes boils over into actual combat) feels like a bespoke fit for the post-reopening economy of labor shortages and supply chain issues.
The memorable, high-decibel work sequences make “The Bear” look and sound like a war story that happens to take place in a kitchen. Work here is furious, violent and relentless. Flames roar up the sides of pans, pots clatter like artillery, slabs of beef are dragged and hoisted like casualties. Hands are burned, fingers slashed; the pace of the prep rush turns the kitchen staff into sweating, shouting bodies, meat cooking meat.
All the while, Carmy flashes back to memories of being mocked and belittled by his Michelin-starred boss in the restaurant where he used to work. At times, you wonder why he chooses to stick with this job that often makes him so unhappy. In the season finale, reminiscing about his brother at an Al-Anon meeting, he seems to hit on an answer: Sometimes our dreams are not ours alone, nor are they even our choice. “Me trying to fix the restaurant was me trying to fix whatever was happening with my brother,” he says. “And, I don’t know, maybe fix the whole family.”
In politics, “the American dream” has long been used aspirationally, to evoke family and home. But as my colleague Jazmine Ulloa detailed earlier this year, the phrase has also lately been used ominously, especially by conservative politicians, to describe a certain way of life in danger of being stolen by outsiders.
The typical counterargument, both in politics and pop culture, has been that immigrants pursuing their ambitions help to strengthen all of America. (The Dream Act has its name for a reason.) But some recent stories have complicated this idea by questioning whether the dream itself — or, at least, defining that dream in mostly material terms — can be toxic.
The third season of Hulu’s “Ramy,” starring the comedian Ramy Youssef as a rudderless young Muslim from an immigrant family, takes on the theme directly. The title character’s parents, Maysa (Hiam Abbass) and Farouk (Amr Waked), have found prosperity tantalizingly out of reach, signing up with ride-share and grocery-delivery apps in their middle age.
Maysa has grown resigned, but Farouk remains in a poignant unrequited love affair with the dream. He chases real-estate deals; he gins up a hapless business selling ad space on takeout containers; he fantasizes about appearing on “Shark Tank.” (Ramy, meanwhile, has hit it big in the jewelry business, having partnered with some contacts in Israel, but finds himself more spiritually adrift than ever.)
In the season’s final episode, Maysa and Farouk, having come across a stash of hallucinogenic mushrooms, reminisce about their early days in the country when they would feed Ramy and his sister hot dogs, not knowing they contained pork. Stoned, they make a run to buy convenience-store franks, bite into the seductive, non-halal treats and realize that they taste disgusting. “Why did we sell our souls?” Farouk asks. “We gave it all up for hot dogs.”
Most recently, Hulu’s “Welcome to Chippendales” — about another kind of commercialized American meat — reconsiders the immigrant dream from the vantage of success. The story of Somen Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani), the founder of the male-stripper empire, it is in many ways of a piece with this year’s glut of scam-and-scandal docudramas; it’s a rise-and-fall series in which the fall is less interesting and takes twice as long. (The creator, Robert Siegel, gave us the prosthetic fantasia “Pam & Tommy” earlier this year.)
The series stands apart, though, for showing how Banerjee, born in India, uses a learned idea of American appetites to pursue a received idea of the American dream. In some ways, being an outsider makes his success possible — much in America is novel to him, so he’s receptive to new ideas (like seminude dancers in bow ties).
But his embrace of Americanness (for instance, he goes by “Steve” rather than “Somen”) cuts two ways. He experiences racism before and after he hits it big, but he also uses discrimination as a business tactic, ending up in court because of a scheme to bar Black patrons (whom, he concludes from experience, will make white customers see his club as less “classy”).
Banerjee has perhaps internalized the American dream too thoroughly. He gets his first intimation of this when he returns to India for his father’s funeral, his suitcase stuffed with gifts of electronics and Velveeta, hoping to be welcomed as a conquering success. Instead, his mother scolds him for leaving the family printing business to run a fleshpot. “We are middle-class people, Somen,” she says. “We did not need saving by America.”
He leaves, weighed down with rejection and processed cheese. Beyond his mother’s personal disappointment is the verdict that he has stopped being himself, but in the process he has not really become a new person either. He is simply a reflection of another culture’s artifice, an imitation of an imitation.
This is the danger of the American dream when you scale it down from the national to the individual level. You risk devoting your life to wanting something because it’s what you’ve been told you should want. Everybody loves a Cinderella story, but sometimes your dream, in reality, is just a wish somebody else’s heart made.