Black September: ‘Two and a Half Men’ to ‘Contagion,’ Pop Culture Gets Dark

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ANALYSIS: The pessimism felt by many over three wars and a sputtering economy is being reflected on TV and at the movies

ANALYSIS

From the big to the small screen, September was the cruelest month.

The overwhelming pessimism that gripped America throughout the end of summer and the dawn of fall has cast a shadow across the cultural landscape.

From the global pandemic at the heart of “Contagion” to a heist gone violently wrong in “Drive,” the films that jockeyed for moviegoers’ increasingly scarce dollars were a downbeat lot.

Even an inspirational sports movie like “Moneyball” ended not with a World Series title, but with the small market A’s swept in the first round of the playoffs. In place of “Chariots of Fire” uplift, the film ends with Brad Pitt listening to a song recorded by his teenage daughter. Its chorus: “You’re such a loser, Dad.”

On the tube, the financially desperate contestants on “The X-Factor” prostrated themselves in front of Simon Cowell in the hopes of snatching the $5 million booty, while Comedy Central Roast fans watched comedians brush off domestic abuse jokes and read a fake obituary for target Charlie Sheen

Also read: 'X Factor': Great, If You Like Watching Desperate People Play the Lottery (Review)

Even “Two and a Half Men,” the most popular and mainstream show on television, premiered with a particularly bleak bang, killing off one of its main characters, Charlie Harper, after star Sheen’s heavily publicized meltdown resulted in his firing.

As the laugh track crescendoed, Charlie was revealed to have been hit so hard by an oncoming train that it made him explode like a "balloon full of meat."

It may not have been planned that way, but either through scheduling happenstance or from a sincere desire to reflect our times, the movies and television shows that have aired or premiered in recent weeks collectively form a howl of rage and discontent.

Also read: Is Hollywood Bailing on Obama?

Behind all these downbeat diversions was the troika of Republican presidential debates that took place over the last four weeks. In one, Congressman Ron Paul implied that a person who had opted out of the private insurance market should be left to fend for themselves if they got sick — that was greeted with cries of “yes” and applause.

Not to be outdone, Rick Perry experienced an equally rapturous response from the crowd, after moderator Brian Williams reminded viewers the Texas governor had overseen 234 executions.

Is it any wonder there's all this ill-feeling?

According to the a study in Rasmussen Reports,  a plurality, or some 46 percent, of Americans believe the nation’s best days are in the past. A mere 34 percent maintains the best days have yet to come. 

The economy is teetering on the brink of a double-dip recession, while President Obama finds himself dealing with three foreign wars and an unemployment level that is stubbornly fixed at 9.1 percent.

It’s not just that people are worried about the future; they’re angry about the present, too.

After months where boy wizards and battling robots whisked moviegoers away from their troubles, the national disillusionment slowly started to seep into the multiplex.

The month kicked off with the frosty “Contagion,” in which society is brought to its knees in the wake of an Ebola-like virus and a cheating Gwyneth Paltrow dies from a nasty series of seizures only to have her head sawed off as if in punishment for her withering Q scores.

At its core, "Contagion" is a modern re-working of the Irwin Allen disaster films that were so popular during the 1970s, another decade pockmarked by financial uncertainty and premonitions of an empire in decline. 

From "Contagion," moviegoers were treated to “Warrior,” a gritty family drama set in the world of Ultimate Fighting that also dealt quite explicitly with the psychological scars inflicted by the Iraq War.

In its portrait of a family man allowing himself to get pummeled in the ring so he can prevent his home from falling into foreclosure, the film also tackles the economic pain being felt in the wake of the housing meltdown.

For good measure, audiences were also exposed Ryan Gosling’s emotionally stunted getaway driver, who smashes his adversary's head in after necking with Carey Mulligan.

There's also, of course, “Moneyball,” the sports film that makes a point that like Wall Street, baseball is a stacked deck in which the richer teams enjoy all the advantages.

A card at the end of the movie informs viewers that A's general manager Billy Beane never won a pennant race and that the deep-pocketed club he chose not to leave the A's for, the Red Sox, exploited his his theories to win the World Series. Hardly a storybook ending. 

The audience response so far has been mixed. “Contagion” has been a modest $59 million hit and “Moneyball” has scored with critics, but “Drive” and “Warrior” have struggled at the box office.

The most successful film of the fall is a throwback to a simpler time: “The Lion King.” The re-release of the 1994 animated classic Hakuna Matata’d its way to over $60 million in two weeks. Apparently, moviegoers prefer furry animals to financial distress.

However, don’t expect the misery to stop anytime soon.

This Friday brings "50/50," a comedy about a twentysomething man who gets cancer, and the critically acclaimed "Take Shelter," in which a father (Michael Shannon) is haunted by recurring dreams of a catastrophic storm. 

As Shannon told TheWrap: "There can't be a lot of people on planet Earth right now who feel like things are going great. Everybody is feeling powerless, and feeling like everything's so fragile, and it could all fall apart at any second."

And the light and fluffy diversions keep coming. In place of the tale of rugby victories and racial reconciliation he painted in "Invictus," this year’s Clint Eastwood biopic, “J. Edgar,” focuses on the life of one of the most reviled and corrupt figures in American history, J. Edgar Hoover. 

But wait, there's more: Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” centers on a cheating wife who falls into a coma (it’s a comedy!); “Shame” concerns sex addiction; and would-be blockbuster “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” offers up such a full buffet of rape and incest that it’s being billed as “the feel bad movie of Christmas.”

Political drama “The Ides of March,” meanwhile, is so laced with arsenic that star and director George Clooney said it couldn’t have worked just a few years ago, when everyone was still grooving to strains of “Yes we can.”

“You know, we were in pre-production on this film in 2007, before the Obama election,” Clooney told Parade Magazine. “And then we realized that a good portion of the country was elated with what happened in that election, so we had to shelve the movie until people were cynical again. I didn’t think it would be quite this quick.”

Certainly, the vessel for the country's hopes has crashed. And don't look to find any new ones on the movie or TV screens.