Friday Ephemera
Elsewhere (170)

Strange Construal

Or, Socialists Watch TV, Hallucinate Wildly.

Lifted from an old comments thread about fretful eco-piety, some thoughts on the 70s sitcom The Good Life and its message as construed by a Guardian reader and another fellow leftist. Specifically, its role as some kind of moral lodestone for the modern anti-capitalist

Listen to Tom on one of his speeches to see how far ahead they were… Whilst the funny bit is watching Tom and Barbara struggle, they are treated the most sympathetically, and usually prevail in the end. Nothing better illustrates how little progress we have really made in nearly 40 years towards a more sustainable society.

Sentiments repeated in this indignant comment following a Spectator article on the same programme: 

First of all, the heroes of The Good Life are Tom and Barbara - a couple who have given up the rat race and acquisitiveness to live off the land. Quite the opposite of Thatcherism and more in-line with the green movement than any other ideology… Margo’s petty-bourgeois [sic] conservatism and social climbing usually lead her into ending up looking ridiculous… And that’s precisely the kind of idea that The Good Life was clearly proposing a sustainable and non-greedy alternative to.

Readers familiar with said sitcom may find these claims a little odd, as Tom and Barbara’s experiment in “self-sufficiency” wasn’t particularly self-sufficient. They don’t prevail in the end, not on their own terms or in accord with their stated principles, and their inability to do so is the primary source of story lines. Practically every week the couple’s survival is dependent on the neighbours’ car, the neighbours’ phone, the neighbours’ unpaid labour, a convoluted favour of some kind. And of course they’re dependent on the “petty” bourgeois infrastructure maintained by all those people who haven’t adopted a similarly perilous ‘ecological’ lifestyle. The Goods’ highly selective rejection of bourgeois life is only remotely possible because of their own previous bourgeois habits - a paid-off mortgage, a comfortable low-crime neighbourhood with lots of nearby greenery, and well-heeled neighbours who are forever on tap when crises loom, i.e., weekly.

To seize on The Good Life as an affirmation of eco-noodling and a “non-greedy alternative” to modern life is therefore unconvincing to say the least. The Goods only survive, and then just barely, because of their genuinely self-supporting neighbours – the use of Jerry’s car and chequebook being a running gag, along with convenient access to Margo’s social contacts and expensive possessions. And insofar as the series has a feel-good tone, it has little to do with championing ‘green’ lifestyles or “self-sufficiency.” It’s much more about the fact that, despite Tom and Barbara’s dramas and continual mooching, and despite Margo’s imperious snobbery, on which so much of the comedy hinges, the neighbours remain friends. If anything, the terribly bourgeois Margo and Jerry are the more plausible moral heroes, given all that they have to put up with and how often they, not Tom’s principles, save the day.