As Fuller House demonstrates, TV is always eager to flex its nostalgia muscles but recent programs have shown that it’s still the timeliness of the medium that puts it above others. While Donald Trump scapegoats Mexican immigration for America’s problems and builds his “policies” (and I use that word as broadly as it will stretch) around a wall dividing America and Mexico, Fox is airing an animated sitcom about a racist border agent living in a town called ‘Mexifornia’ who remains oblivious to the generous spirit of his Latino neighbor. Meanwhile in the post-Snowden age, a basic cable drama explores the anti-heroism of the hacker terrorist. But television can never shed anachronism completely and while these shows might be current they are far from new.
Bordertown is a blatant callback to the ‘bad neighbor’ sitcom that has been one of the most common formats for the genre and usually the vehicle for discussing vast social, racial and political differences between characters. The British sitcom Love Thy Neighbour in which a working-class racist white man lives next door to a middle-class African-Briton is perhaps the best (if that word can ever be used in conjunction with the show) example of this, though Hitler-Jewish couple neighbour sitcom Heil! Honey I’m Home is certainly the most extreme. Previous animated Fox comedies have used this device, forging dynamics between church-hating slob Homer Simpson and God-loving puritan Ned Flanders in The Simpsons or button-downed Texan Hank and extravagant Laotian Kahn in King of the Hill.
The ethics of hacking may not have been addressed as cogently as they have in USA’s Mr. Robot but the act itself has traditionally been a means to an end in TV drama. State-sanctioned hackers like Chloe in 24 helped to move the plot along in real-time, even when the character was faced with the drudgery of coffee shop Wi-Fi. On CBS, there’s a CSI about hacking (the only one left, believe it or not) and something called Scorpion which puts hacking at the centre of story development, even though the show seems designed to make tech people seethe with rage at the inaccuracies. Plus whoever made this has a raging Fight Club fetish, with a delusional loner embroiled in terrorist activities as social protest.
To fight the hate-fuelled bile of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, we need an alternative that doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to condemning the Caucasian culture that engendered his political triumphs. In that sense, the bigotry and ignorance (#bignorance) of white characters in Bordertown is more of an antidote than the polite questioning of Trump on news programming, which ensures their ratings cow remains sacred. While partisan liberal news networks like MSNBC can be counter-attacked for projecting ideology, Mark Hentemann and Seth MacFarlane’s politically incorrect comedy cannot, since it extends its satire to the left and Latino culture, rather than cowering from it. The lack of controversy may be because it is little-watched, but it also could be a sign the public accept its truth.
Like its pre-9/11 cinematic predecessor, Mr. Robot may not have a political perspective as much as simply throwing around politically charged words and ideas. That’s fine, as drama shouldn’t be propaganda, but there’s no doubt it captures our ambivalence as a culture about digital whistleblowers. I’m pushing through the first season slowly so excuse me if I’ve already been debunked but hacker Elliot has neither been confirmed as a hero or villain, nor has his direct action yet been given moral deniability for us as an audience. I’m not sure it’s because the writers can’t make their minds up, but rather that we can’t. They may not have predicted the Apple terrorist phone unlocking crisis but they can count on its like in the news.
Not that I want to draw a false equivalence between the two shows. Mr. Robot is a huge departure for USA, who have typically relied on a bunch of slick ricks to fill their original programming vacuum. Bordertown is familiar territory for Fox, who are the leaders in mainstream adult animation (though Adult Swim is snapping at their heels) and will only enhance a pre-existing reputation. But they are united in their contemporaneity, and the ability to deliver that in a style that seems like it’s always been with us. Because it nearly always has. Both programs test the limits of modern-day American culture, straddling its violent past and technological future. But crucially they also know how to appeal to our overriding sense of nostalgia.