Show and Biz: The Market Economy in TV Series and Popular Culture is a smart, insightful anthology of articles that examine how the free market is portrayed in influential television shows of the 21st century.
Your initial reaction to “how it’s portrayed” might be “not very well!” Mine certainly was. And it’s true — the businessperson is often the villain in popular culture. Yet these 15 articles identify themes, plots, and characters in popular TV shows that are surprisingly favorable to the influence of entrepreneurship and the free market.
As we are told in the introduction, the semi-libertarian philosopher “[Karl] Popper reasoned that ‘television has an enormous power over human minds, a power that has never existed before’ . . . and that it [has] fostered a culture of violence” (ix). However, as the articles in the anthology attest, that power is not entirely detrimental. Whether by design or by accident, many television shows demonstrate the benefits that come to the individual and to the community at large when individuals engage in innovation and production through the freedom of an unfettered marketplace. Maria Blanco and Alberto Mingardi, the anthology’s editors, conclude:
Successful producers, whatever the good or service they produce, . . . are able to find out what their consumers like, to tinker with their product so that it better suits their prospective viewers’ preferences, [and] to present products in a way that arouses interest in their audience. All of this suggests a peculiar connection of producers to their culture. This entire entrepreneurial process is interpretative, and interpretation necessarily occurs through a cultural lens. Being immersed in a culture, therefore, allows the entrepreneur to make accurate interpretations. (xviii–xix)
Each chapter of the anthology begins with basic plot summaries and character sketches that make it easy to follow the analyses of the shows, even for those who have not seen the series being discussed. In fact, the articles will probably inspire you to add these series to your watchlist (or reinforce your sense that they aren’t for you — I still don’t see myself ever sitting down to an episode of Gossip Girl.). And you’ll enjoy them more, because you’ll know what to watch for. Here are some examples.
For more than two decades Gilmore Girls has been a darling of book-loving women who secretly (or not so secretly) consider themselves intellectually superior to their peers. Fans of the show proudly recognize the literary references in each episode and revel in identifying with young Rory, the academic prodigy of the series. (I know these women and their daughters, and they are insufferable.) But as Nur Baysal rightly observes in “Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise in the Gilmore Girls,” Lorelai, Rory’s mother and the other “Gilmore girl,” is the true success story of the show. She “dream[s] of starting her own inn with her best friend, Sookie, [and], throughout several seasons, the audience follows her along this process, thereby learning about what it takes to run one’s own business” (4).
Whether by design or by accident, many TV shows demonstrate the benefits that come when individuals engage in innovation and production through the freedom of an unfettered marketplace.
Rory, on the other hand, bids goodbye to glory once her school days are over and cannot achieve the same success in real life that she did in academia, meeting with failure after failure in later seasons. “What-went-wrong-with-Rory” articles tend to focus on the overactive ego she develops from being overly praised and pampered as a child. (See, for example, “The Self-Destructing Ego of Rory Gilmore” (The Gator’s Eye) and “What Went Wrong with Rory Gilmore” (Teen Magazine). Baysal offers a different observation of what went wrong — or of what Rory lacked that her mother had in abundance, posing this question: “Did Rory, perhaps, simply not know what it takes to become successful in the professional world? Did she just take it for granted that somehow a fulfilling career would be handed to her, despite lacking the right mindset for it?” (6). In other words, Rory knows what it takes to be successful in academia, and she excels there. But she does not know what it takes to be successful in life. Baysal continues: “Rory fails to focus on the fact that she has to stand out and communicate her unique value to others if she wants to find the right job.” By contrast, “the path to entrepreneurship is portrayed in a positive and optimistic manner, something that ends up in success. Eventually and through many leaps and loops, Lorelai and her friend successfully set up their inn, which subsequently becomes an essential part of Stars Hollow’s local economy by continually attracting a large number of tourists to the small town” (5). In the end, despite the show’s being designed for a teen audience, it is the mother, not the daughter, who is the show’s hero.
I was not surprised to see discussions of Firefly and The Wire included in this anthology; the libertarian leanings of both shows have long been identified and discussed by fans and reviewers. Firefly’s abrupt cancellation after just one season turned it into a cult classic with a fan following that even led to a FIRE lawsuit and an award-winning short documentary. (See “Don’t Mess with Firefly: How Sci-Fi Fans Made a Campus Safe for Free Speech.”) It would be easy to focus on its maverick protagonist, rogue businesspeople, and black-market trading for the purpose of this discussion. Sarah Skwire moves beyond the obvious in her article “Supplies, Slaves, and Sex: Firefly and the Ethical Frontiers of Entrepreneurship,” claiming that “it provides viewers with surprisingly complex takes on some of the harder cases for free markets. In particular, the show wrangles repeatedly with ethical questions about selling supplies, slaves, and sex” (10). Skwire then examines the kinds of black market trade indulged in by the crew of the Serenity, (the black marketeers’ spaceship) and reveals a complex set of values and morals among these characters who exist outside legal boundaries but within self-determined moral boundaries. She writes, “The crew as businesspeople [have] a strong moral center, when it counts. They don’t object to a bit of scavenging, some gunplay, and a lot of fisticuffs, but hurting the innocent, cruelty for its own sake, and betraying one’s contracts or colleagues have no place in the kind of work that they are doing or the kind of jobs they want to accept” (13–14).
Like Firefly, The Wire is known for the way it presents business and libertarian issues. Each of its five seasons takes on a different area of the economy: the drug trade, unions, city government, education, and the media. Obviously, the drug trade is an example of entrepreneurship, but Stefano Adamo takes it further in his article “Entrepreneurship and the Market Economy in The Wire: Stringer’s Ill-Fated Second Chance,” using Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell as foils of each other to examine the myths of the American dream. Adamo tells us, “Bell is a drug dealer who in his youth dreamed of owning a chain of grocery stores, whereas his brother-in-arms, Avon Barksdale, dreamed of collecting rifles” (35). Bell runs his territory as a businessman would, while Barksdale runs his with the commanding force of a military leader. I think Bell’s task is harder; entrepreneurs have to scramble, take risks, satisfy their customers, stay ahead of the competition, and watch the bottom line. In short, the entrepreneur relies on persuasion, not force. Bell reminds me of Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Both men dream of being businessmen, but social, cultural, and personal circumstances make it difficult for them to enter the business world through acceptable, traditional means. As Adamo observes, “The story of Stringer Bell is a struggle for social mobility under highly adverse circumstances and can be read as a metaphor for the historical rise of the bourgeoisie” (25–26).
Skwire reveals a complex set of values and morals among these characters who exist outside legal boundaries but within self-determined moral boundaries.
Two articles in Show and Biz focus on Deadwood, David Milch’s highly acclaimed series that ran on HBO from 2004–2006 (now streaming on Netflix) and was reprised in 2019 with Deadwood: The Movie, set several years after the series ends. Bart J. Wilson, Nicholas A. Callen, Jan Osborn, Max Schartz, and Colin White begin their article, “The Bourgeois Virtues in Deadwood: Challenging American Ideology,” with an insightful analysis of the western genre, comparing it to the legend of medieval knighthood and concluding that “classical western plots, such as those in Shane (1953), Stagecoach (1939), and High Noon (1952), place commerce on the mundane periphery of the narrative; or worse, they integrate it as a fate to be avoided. . . . Commerce is frequently depicted in western films as both an inevitability and a prison sentence, particularly for the hero” (74). Their article focuses on the value systems of the characters and relies heavily on ideas developed in Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World.
By contrast, in “Growing up with the Country: Deadwood and the Business of America,” Michael Valdez Moses observes that in Deadwood, “Milch inconspicuously but effectively turns their ordinary commercial dealings into an appealing drama” (51). This inconspicuousness is the key to successful libertarian filmmaking. No one wants to watch a movie with a message — except, perhaps, for the schoolmarm or the message maker. Good filmmaking is, first and foremost, good storytelling. If a story is told well and the characters are drawn authentically, the truth will surface organically. One wonders whether Milch deliberately created a primer on how markets work to produce goods and services, or whether he was unintentionally drawn in by the endlessly engaging drama of that good story. Either way, each season demonstrates how such qualities as information, education, self-interest, collaboration, and, yes, capitalism work together to create better conditions. Moses writes, “The tale most commonly repeated and dramatized is that of how the individual residents . . . attempt, sometimes successfully, to rise in the world through commerce” (56).
Good filmmaking is, first and foremost, good storytelling. If a story is told well and the characters are drawn authentically, the truth will surface organically.
This is especially seen in the transformation of Alma Garrett, who, according to Moses, begins the series as “little more than a pampered, passive, and dysfunctional opium addict” and becomes “the wealthiest and most powerful businessperson in Deadwood” (52). She even creates a bank backed 100% by gold deposits. Moses acknowledges that, unlike many of the male characters in Deadwood who are based on the lives of real people, Alma is entirely fictional; no real women in Deadwood, South Dakota, reached the financial success or social influence portrayed by Alma Garrett. Westerns have long been the realm of masculine drama, but modern westerns must invent female characters that appeal to modern audiences. Moses also addresses the nonwhite characters in the show and observes, “Milch strongly suggests that commerce potentially ameliorates rather than causes or inflames prejudice in the [community].” As Frederic Bastiat is credited with saying, “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” According to Deadwood, this is true in crossing business thresholds, too.
The remaining chapters are equally insightful, well analyzed and well supported. The book is a treat to read. But why does this anthology matter? According to editors Blanco and Mingardi,
recent findings of cognitive psychology . . . suggest that human beings tend to learn by stories. . . . As Hayek saw clearly, “it is only at several removes that the picture which [the historian] provides becomes general property; it is via the novel and the newspaper, the cinema, and the political speeches, and ultimately the school and common talk, that the ordinary person acquires his conceptions of history.” (xii)
If this is true, then we libertarians — and indeed, freedom lovers sporting any label — need to be more involved in claiming our share of the “general property” of history and molding it in a way that reclaims the magic of markets and the sanctity of the individual making personal choices. In short: we need to be making movies, writing novels, and singing songs. We need to be telling our stories through the common medium of entertainment. And we need to be doing it excellently.
Show and Biz is slightly marred by numerous typographical errors that I trust will be corrected in a second printing. Aside from that, it is a fascinating, timely look at popular culture through the lens of free markets, free speech, and free ideas. The tone is academic but approachable, and its content will make you feel slightly superior about the guilty pleasures you watch. I highly recommend it.
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Review of Show and Biz: The Market Economy in TV Series and Popular Culture, edited by Maria Blanco and Alberto Mingardi. Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2023, 279 pages.