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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I’ve been enjoying two shows this season, The Walking Dead and Fringe. Maybe “enjoying” is the wrong word. I’m stricken by the first, and lazily tolerant of the second. Average that and you get something in the vicinity of enjoyment.

Now I would not be the first pop cult guy to point out that American TVs have been radiating a lot of post-apocalyptic dystopia lately. My wife and I tried Revolution, but just couldn’t hack it. We have yet to wade into Falling Skies, Defiance, or The Hundred, but the nightly catastrophe of the post-work wind-down could trigger a Hulu meltdown at any moment.

All these broken futures are nothing new (I still mourn the loss of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, the BBC’s Survivors, and, yes goddamn it, the final episodes of Dollhouse), but commentators like Warner Todd Huston read this current crop as political theater, entertainment tailored for the “Age of Obama.” That’s true to the extent that the “Age of Obama” is also the “Tea Party Age,” the ying and the yang of our seesawing political times.

Republicans and Democrats have been lunging at each other’s throats more than usual this season, and our TVs have been broadcasting the blow-by-blow. And I don’t mean the Obama-Romney debates or post-election punditry. All these end-of-the-world tales are variations on the ur-trope of speculative fiction: the future is just like right now, only more so.

Each show is a test tube, a scifi experiment exaggerating the possible outcomes of today’s political warfare. Fringe and Walking Dead are the polar ends of that what-if spectrum. Each populates its future with a species of villains mutated from our Obama-Tea Party Age, strawmen warped into absurdist caricatures.

Republicans think Democrats will destroy America with Progressive Government. So who are the monsters of Fringe season five? Men from tomorrow. Progressives in the most literalized sense. They want to change the way things are now in service of the future. Why are they bald? Because those snobby egghead liberals think they’re so much smarter than everybody else. And they want to turn our country into a totalitarian regime, stomping out everything good America has ever stood for, like FREEDOM and INDIVIDUALITY and those other words wrapped in barbwire in the new grey-tone credits.

Democrats think Republicans will destroy America too. They want to gut government and return to an idealized past. So who are the monsters of The Walking Dead? People from yesterday. Look what happens when the past crawls out of its grave. It’s not just government getting gutted.  Conservatives are just mindless, shuffling automatons incapable of rational thought. Bash a few in the brain, but the horde keeps coming. You think Big Government is scary? Try No Government. A decimated America collapsed into anarchy, that’s the Republican platform.

These are live feeds from our worse case futures. This is what happens if ideologues from either end of the spectrum seize the controls of the political time machine.

Fortunately, our TVs tell us there’s room for compromise too. The Observers have their own nostalgia streak; they cover their domes with fedoras, a fashion sense straight from the 1950s. And the original zombies from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead arrived via our future-focused space program, when a NASA probe brought back an alien virus.

If that’s not enough to build some common political ground, The Walking Dead is going into its winter hiatus, not to return until after the next Congress is sworn in. And Fringe is winding down its final half-season, its post-apocalyptic flavor gone before Christmas.

What does this say about the Debtpocalypse our government is steering toward right now? Is there any hope of swerving away from the “fiscal cliff”?

If those unreasoning zombies and eggmen crawl back into their graves and dimensional portals, then the centrists and moderates can meet in the middle. The present. It’s a very practical place, ill-suited for ideologues of any breed.

Imagine, politicians acknowledging that their opponents aren’t monsters but partners. That compromise is the whole point of democracy.

It might make for boring TV, but I’d watch every minute.

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