“You have to know the past to understand the present,” said the late astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, 40 years ago.
ooking at the current state of America, a nation riven by racism and being steered towards a new civil war by a president, who lies about everything all the time, and knowingly retweets incendiary material designed to whip his supporters into a frenzy, Sagan’s statement has never been truer than it is now.
Everything that’s happening in the present is rooted in what happened in the past. There has always been ugliness; social media has merely made it more visible and, if such a thing is possible, uglier.
Richard Nixon didn’t have Twitter or Facebook at his disposal, but when he referred in 1969 to “the silent majority”, nobody needed to read too closely between the lines to know that he meant the silent white majority: the suburban and rural middle-class and blue-collar Americans, who felt menaced by those who had less — usually African-Americans living in impoverished inner-city communities.
Still, when Sagan made that most quotable of his numerous quotable comments, it’s unlikely he was suggesting we should look to television dramas to educate ourselves about the past and its relationship to the present.
Put it this way, nobody watches Downton Abbey to learn about the roots of Britain’s still nauseatingly prevalent class system.
If you’re interested in learning about the rampant corruption in the NYPD in the 1970s, you won’t find out much from watching reruns of Kojak on ITV4 in the afternoons.
On the other hand, the 1977 ABC miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s novel and watched by an estimated 140 million US viewers, did more than the actual book to open white America’s eyes to the country’s slave-owning history — although viewers in Wisconsin were presumably watching something else.
Whether by accident or design, 2020 has thrown up a trio of American period drama series, all making their debuts on the same channel, Sky Atlantic, in a three-week cluster; all set in roughly the same period (1931-1940); and all with particular pertinence to the times we live in.
At first glance, Perry Mason, which began last week, looks like an exceptionally well-made LA noir in the vein of Chinatown. And indeed, it is. But the plot — a satisfyingly murky and tangled affair involving kidnap, extortion and a particularly gruesome child murder — also takes in police corruption and brutality, racism. The character of investigator Paul Drake, a white man in the Mason books and the original TV series, is now a black cop in a station full of sneering white faces, and a wealthy evangelical church leader with ties to big business and politics.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is, as you’d guess from the title, also set in Los Angeles — in this case, in 1938, when war is in the air.
Natalie Dormer plays a malicious, shape-shifting “bad angel”, intent on starting a race war in America, who finds a willing ally in an American Nazi, played by Rory Kinnear. The Plot Against America, starting on July 14, is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 alt-history novel, which imagines that the pro-fascist Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and becomes US president on the America First ticket, with horrific consequences for the country’s Jewish community.
All three are fiction — and one heavily reliant on the supernatural. Yet each of them incorporates the nastiest, most brutal, most divisive, most repellent aspects of real 20th-century American history.
It’s a history that’s currently being reflected back at us every day by television and the internet.
Carl Sagan, who died in 1996, would despair at how little some people have learned from the past.