Thursday, January 31, 2013

FX's "The Americans"

Like HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and AMC’s “Mad Men,” FX’s “The Americans” features elements of traditional television drama in the context of a historical setting.  While it is too early to tell if the series will match the critical and commercial success of those dramas, the pilot gets the show off to a promising start.  Focusing on a sleeper cell family of KGB agents living a typical suburban lifestyle in northern Virginia, “The Americans,” similar to the Oscar-nominated film “Argo,” returns its audience to the early 1980s (For more on “Argo,” see

Opening shortly following Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, the show reminds us of how the US/Soviet conflict dominated American life a generation ago.  Characters discuss the Communist threat in much the same way we discuss the danger from Islamic radicals today.  Toward the end of the pilot, the FBI declares war on Russian spies in the homeland, with the Deputy Attorney General instructing a room of counterintelligence agents that “We are going to war.  It is a war that will be fought quietly by the men and women in this room.  It will not be short…and it will not be easy.”  Sounds more than a little similar to the Bush/Cheney rhetoric in the aftermath of 9/11.

Like “Argo,” “The Americans” captures the feel of the period.  We see one of the spies’ children writing a paper for school on (gasp!) a typewriter.  Personal computers would shortly thereafter become a middle-class staple as Steve Jobs’ Apple invaded American homes.  In lieu of its typical “Man of the Year,” Time declared the computer “Machine of the Year” in 1982.  Rotary phones and the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” also make appearances, the latter on a television too small for to be available for purchase today.  Phil Collin’s hit “In the Air Tonight,” released in 1981, is heard during a key scene and is likely an homage to the song’s airing during the pilot of “Miami Vice,” (1985), a quintessential 1980s show. 

The space race plays an important supporting role in the episode.  At one point during a family breakfast, the mother, played by Keri Russell, remarks that going to the moon “isn’t everything.  Just getting into space is an accomplishment.”  Of course, the USSR launched the first man into space in 1961, while the U.S. eventually won the battle to reach the moon when Apollo 11 landed at Tranquility Base in 1969.  Father and son later attend a celebration of the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975, a barely remembered détente-era joint space mission between the United States and the Soviet Union. 

Détente came to an end after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and Reagan’s election in 1980.  Rejecting the more conciliatory policies of presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, the “Gipper” instigated a massive defense buildup and upped the rhetorical ante, calling out the Soviet Union as “the Evil Empire.”   This dynamic is visible when Russell’s character meets with her KGB controller, who tells her that the U.S. has elected a madman as president and “that the risks are going to get greater.”  Of course, the Cold War reached its tensest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis during Reagan’s first term, only to end suddenly without any shots fired by the end of the decade.  I’ll be watching and will report back on other historical influences on subsequent episodes of the show when relevant.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Super Bowl's History

As we approach Super Bowl XLVII, it is the perfect time to review the history of the biggest sporting event in the country.  Far younger than the World Series, the Masters, or the Kentucky Derby, the NFL championship game has become a virtual national holiday in which the life of the country comes to a full and complete stop.
The Super Bowl’s origins lie in the creation of the American Football League (AFL) in 1960. Started by a group of businessmen who wanted pro football teams, but were frustrated by the NFL’s unwillingness to expand, the AFL forged ahead as an alternative that would play a more wide-open brand of football.  So began a rivalry that would help propel pro football ahead of baseball as the most popular spectator sport in the country by the end of the decade.

In 1966, after several years of competition, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and Lamar Hunt, owner of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, negotiated a merger agreement in which the two leagues would formally join together in 1970.  In the meantime, the AFL and NFL champions would play each other at the end of the season and Hunt suggested calling the new game the “Super Bowl.” Though both he and Rozelle thought a better title could be found, sportswriters started using the moniker in advance of the inaugural game in January 1967 and it stuck (MacCambridge, 236-237).
Though there was anticipation before Super Bowl I between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, the hype did not remotely approach what we will see over the next ten days.   The game, which was held in the Los Angeles Coliseum, did not even sell out.  As Michael MacCambridge, author of a history of pro football, observed, “fans simply weren’t used to traveling to neutral sites.” (MacCambridge, 240)  Though the Vince Lombardi-era Packers routed the Chiefs, ratifying notions of NFL superiority, the game drew 65 million television viewers, the largest ever for an American sporting event at the time (MacCambridge, 240).
The game’s popularity took off from there as the New York Jets’ shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III gave the AFL credibility.  After the merger, the NFL split into the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) and the victors of those conferences fought it out at the end of each season.  The two-week gap between the conference championship games allowed suspense to build, as the media presence grew dramatically. By 1974, the event had grown to such proportions that Norman Vincent Peale declared that if Christ were alive “he’d be at the Super Bowl.” (MacCambridge, 312).
As the NFC’s domination of the AFC produced a series of Super Bowl routs in the 1980s, Madison Avenue swooped in to create a different kind of interest in the game.  In 1984, Apple commissioned a Ridley Scott-directed commercial promoting their new Macintosh computer.  The ad, based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, showed a woman tossing a sledgehammer into a gigantic TV screen of Big Brother’s propaganda, thereby destroying it.  Shown during Super Bowl XVIII, the commercial started a sensation and from that point forward, corporate America debuted their best ads during the game.  After all, no better place to unveil them than before the biggest national television audience of the year.  And ranking the spots became yet another part of watching the game.
While viewership for the World Series and NBA Finals are highly dependent on whether large-market teams or major stars participate or not, the Super Bowl’s ratings are almost unaffected by these factors.  The NFL’s revenue-sharing arrangement allows small-market teams to remain competitive and even become national brands.  While a playoff matchup between Milwaukee and Pittsburgh would strike fear into the hearts of baseball executives, Super Bowl XLV in 2011 between Green Bay and Pittsburgh drew a then-American television record of 111 million viewers.  The big-market matchup between the New York Giants and New England Patriots in 2012 only surpassed that record by 300,000.
With the rise of cable TV, the Internet, and other entertainment options, the country rarely pauses to watch or follow the same event, except in cases of national tragedy.   But when Super Bowl XLVII between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens kicks off at 6:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, virtually the entire nation will be watching, producing a shared experience that is rare in today’s niche culture world.

Sources: Michael MacCambridge, America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation (New York, 2004)

Monday, January 7, 2013

SEC's Dominance and the New South

Following Alabama’s total dominance of Notre Dame in the BCS title game, the SEC has now won its seventh consecutive national title, cementing its absolute reign over college football.  Sportswriters have speculated on the reasons for the conference’s supremacy, ranging from the popularity of the sport in the South to the massive television contract that gives its members the power to pay top dollar to hire the best coaches.  Beyond sports, however, the strength of the Southeastern Conference illuminates key shifts in the country with implications beyond the football field.

It may come as a surprise to those living south of the Mason-Dixon Line that college football started in the Northeast during the late 19th century, conceived in part as a way for the children of the Eastern Establishment to establish their manhood.  Theodore Roosevelt and others embraced it as a way to toughen a generation too young to have experienced combat in the Civil War.  By the 1920s, college football had established itself in the South, eventually becoming the region’s passion and most popular sport.

The rise of the SEC reflects, among other things, the shift in population away from the Northeast and toward the Sunbelt since the Second World War.   Weapons production and the expansion of military bases in the region during the war brought new people to the area and this trend continued as Cold War defense spending created a peacetime military establishment.  Strong chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee, such as Richard Russell of Georgia and John Stennis of Mississippi, used their clout to locate bases in the region and funnel defense contracts to local plants.  The Eisenhower Administration started the interstate highway system during the 1950s, which strengthened transportation in the relatively poor region, paving the way for population growth. 

With an improved infrastructure and lower labor costs as an attraction, manufacturing and other businesses left the unionized Northeast and Midwest for the nonunion South.   Foreign companies followed, with BMW, Mercedes, and Nissan building plants in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, respectively.  Over the last half-century, economic differences between the South and the rest of the country have narrowed considerably, with per capita incomes nearly reaching parity. 

Improved race relations were essential to the South’s renaissance, as it was impossible for the region to move forward economically under Jim Crow, which restrained the potential of its black citizens. It is no coincidence that the much of the economic growth in the area has come since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended legal segregation.  Indeed, business leaders in the area were often instrumental in pushing for change, not because of a humanitarian concern, but because of an understanding that racial disputes discouraged national and international investment.

Before the civil rights era, Southern schools did not recruit black players and were often unwilling to even play against integrated teams.  Top black players went to Northern conferences like the Big Ten or to historically black colleges (HBCUs).  Throughout the Jim Crow era and in its immediate aftermath, Grambling, under head coach Eddie Robinson, was an HBCU powerhouse with players like NFL Hall of Fame receiver Charlie Joiner and Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.    SEC teams squandered hometown talent, as the University of Mississippi eschewed recruiting Walter Payton, who later became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.  Payton stayed in state to play at Jackson State, another historically black college.

After the passage of the civil rights laws, the SEC gradually embraced recruiting black players.  Vanderbilt and Kentucky became the first schools to do so in 1966 and eventually the legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant revived the Crimson Tide in the 1970s by aggressively pursuing African American athletes.  In the early years of the post-Jim Crow era, some black players were likely reluctant to play for teams in the South because of strong memories of the violence of the civil rights era. Indeed, I believe the dominance of the conference today is in part due to the fading memories of the upheavals of the 1950s and 60s, as African American athletes are now more enthusiastic about playing in the Old Confederacy.  In particular, the success of many black quarterbacks in the SEC over the last decade would have seemed unlikely a generation ago.

Today, the SEC is the top football conference and the South is the fastest-growing region of the country, both economically and in terms of population growth.  Of course, the gains have been uneven, as Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia are more prosperous than Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas.  While race relations have improved and black players dominate the field, some barriers still remain.  As of 2012, there have been only three black head coaches in the history of the conference.