Pop Culture
Sep 01, 2023, 06:29AM

Cancel Your Streaming Subscriptions

A cancel culture I can get behind.

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A recent poll says that 67 percent of Americans support the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes. The majority opinion says the producers and studios are overplaying their hands in the negotiations, and their refusal to share profits with the people who create their product seems to reflect a more widespread pattern of American corporate greed. But I wonder if there’s a disconnect between this sentiment and peoples’ entertainment habits. If I subscribe to two or three separate streaming services, can I really say I’m standing with the strikers?

If there were a transit strike, I wouldn’t take public transit. If there were a grocery store strike, I wouldn’t cross the picket line to buy groceries. When workers at the Louvre went on strike a few years back, I skipped the museum during my visit to Paris. We do this to make the strike hurt more, which in turn makes employers more eager to negotiate. Therefore, even though the unions haven’t yet called for streaming boycotts, I’m not sure why people shouldn’t boycott them anyway. The actors and writers can deny studios their labor, but if everybody keeps thoughtlessly forking over 15 or 20 dollars a month so they can watch Office reruns every night before bed, that money goes toward prolonging the strike.

People who pay for streaming services needn’t feel ashamed; he who is without sin, post the first grandiose comment. Nor do I think this logic necessarily extends to other venues. By the same token, we should boycott movie theaters, a prospect I’m far more ambivalent about. After the nightmare of quarantine, theaters—at least the good independent ones—are already hurting and don’t need more economic challenges. But even more than that, I just think there’s more evident value in seeing one movie in the theater than there is a whole month’s worth of streaming Netflix.

Moreover, if you look at the stories from striking writers and actors and really examine their demands, streaming and tech seem like just as much of a problem as the big studios, if not the primary culprits in this fiasco. The old metric of ratings has been largely replaced by the algorithm, in its cold omniscience we trust, the logical endgame of free market tech on autopilot. This machine so devalues writers, actors, and everyone else caught in its gears that, until its defects are corrected, strikes will continue.

That said, there are a couple really good new shows out that I wanted to recommend here but, for reasons already stated, feel conflicted about advertising. Telemarketers, the new three-part HBO documentary series from Adam Bhala Lough (Tha Carter) and Sam Lipman-Stern, is an especially revealing look behind the curtain of an insidious, $1 billion/year industry. Lipman-Stern dropped out of high school at 14 and got a job at Civic Development Group, a nationwide telemarketing company that scammed callers into giving money to local and state F.O.P. charities, the vast majority of which went into CDG’s coffers. What began as YouTube videos of the wild, ex-con-staffed CDG offices—drugs and alcohol were permitted for those who hit their numbers—turned into an almost 20-year investigative journey and quest for justice for Lipman-Stern and his former CDG co-worker/partner in crime Pat Pespas.

What’s interesting about the ugly labor practices and exploitative sales tactics depicted in Telemarketers are the ways in which they parallel the experiences of striking actors and writers. In episode 3, during a barrage of robocalls, Pespas recognizes a voice over the phone. It’s a guy he and Lipman-Stern worked with at CDG, who died over a year earlier. They seem amused and creeped out in equal turns, and they contact another former co-worker about it. He tells them that at his last telemarketing job, he was asked to record a script, then fired almost immediately afterwards. They ask where the robocalls are coming from. “It’s AI,” he tells them. They ask where the AI is coming from. “Cyberspace!” he says. Fears of AI replacing actors may be overblown, but we’ve seen Hollywood dig up enough corpses—Fred Astaire, Carrie Fisher, Paul Walker—to know they’re not above profiting off peoples’ likeness in perpetuity, physical or vocal.

Capitalist exploitation as a fundament of The American Dream is the central theme of Killing It, Peacock’s new half-hour sitcom starring Craig Robinson. Robinson plays Craig, a divorced dad in Florida with dreams of starting his own saw palmetto berry farm. After a chance encounter with a 10-foot python, Craig learns that there is economic incentive in hunting the invasive species. The state pays by the foot for dead snakes, with a $20,000 cash prize—the exact amount of money Craig needs to start his farm—for whomever catches the longest cumulative length in snakes. So he teams up with Australian Uber driver Jillian (Claudia O’Doherty) to win the contest and start their own farm with the money.

Killing It is a cartoonish vision of 21st-century Florida Man cultural bottom dwelling, a shark pool of monetized content, phony supplements, motivational hucksters, and an overabundance of minimum-wage jobs. The biggest shark is Rodney LaMonca (Tim Heidecker), a psychotic motivational speaker who ropes Craig and his brother Isiah (Rell Battle) into his criminal schemes. The newly svelte Heidecker has maybe never been better, the absolute embodiment of the fraud and exploitation lurking behind the “grind mindset”—a mindset that Craig earnestly embraces.

The show almost always manages to avoid the sort of sentimental pitfalls that plague most sitcoms. Every scene that seems headed toward an emotional catharsis for Craig, Jillian, or Isiah is inevitably undercut by some punchline that re-grounds the series in caustic irony. This might result in a show that’s too cynical for its own good, were it not for O’Doherty’s performance—the show’s bleeding heart and conscience. Usually this kind of role doesn’t offer the comic actor many opportunities to shine, but that couldn’t be less true of Jillian. She’s consistently the funniest character on the show. O’Doherty imbues the sweet pushover Jillian with such convincing naïveté that it’s hard to know if you should laugh or cry for her. When she attempts an American accent during a hostage video, I split the difference and cried from laughing.

Telemarketers and Killing It are funny, entertaining examinations of how commonplace, even essential, fraud and exploitation are in American business. You should eventually watch them. But until the strikes end, don’t give HBO or Peacock a dime.


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