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American Pop Culture Highlights the American Perspective

09/26/2013 06:01 EDT | Updated 11/26/2013 05:12 EST

A recent American comic strip spoofed the critically acclaimed U.S. crime drama, Breaking Bad, by suggesting it couldn't exist if set outside the U.S. (not specifically Canada, but any of a number of non-U.S. countries).

Breaking Bad is about Walter White, an average man who turns to crime when faced with insurmountable medical bills. (Okay, it's a wee a bit more complicated than that -- but for the sake of the joke, it's boiled down to that concise element). So in countries where (most) medical procedures are covered by public funds, the anti-hero protagonist would have no need to turn rogue.

The piece caught my eye because it relates to a lot of what I write (and muse) about pop culture and popular entertainment. Both in terms of how much stories, and good storytelling, draws upon its time and place and general milieu, but also in the way it promulgates messages -- subliminal and overt -- about what's "normal." We take entertainment so much as a kind of given, we often don't think about what it says (or what the filmmakers are saying with it) and whether things could -- or should -- be different.

I'm guessing no character in Breaking Bad ever commented: "Gee, Walt, you ever think how if you'd been born in Canada, or Europe, your life might've been different?"

I suspect few American writers would even think to include that line. And I suspect if they had, it would be hotly debated as un-American in the Breaking Bad writers' bullpen.

Hollywood presents an American perspective on reality. And that's fine (after all, why shouldn't it?) but sometimes it's good to rattle the cages and point out there are alternatives out there. (And yes, other nation's entertainment industries can be equally myopic -- but Hollywood is notable both because of its unparalleled success, and because it does seem more-than-averagely insular).

When Canada was engaged in the same sex marriage debate almost a decade back, I recall a lot of references to the fact that The Netherlands and Belgium had already legalized it. What was going on in the world was seen as a reasonable part of the debate -- Canada being a member of the Global Village.

However I sort of get the impression -- and I could be very wrong -- that if you ask Americans (both those pro and those con same sex marriages) many would tell you America is at the forefront of the debate and that what America finally decides will have repercussions throughout the globe.

As I say, whether deliberate, or just the nature of storytelling, American movies and TV tend to present the American perspective as absolute. Over the years I've seen a number of American dramas dealing with controversial, hot button topics, yet often with little reference to, or acknowledgement of, how these issues are viewed outside of American borders. (Sometimes they do, of course -- nothing is 100 per cent -- but often, no).

Some years ago, when America found itself being lambasted globally for its failure to support an international land mine ban I remember The West Wing doing an episode assuring its viewers that not only did America support a land mine ban, it was in the forefront of the push (as long as it and its allies were exempt, of course) while the sci-fi series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, did an episode in which space mines were depicted as being the only viable defence against alien invaders.

So -- just good storytelling? Or deliberate propaganda to promote the American-centric view?

And because American pop culture dominates the globe these perspectives become assimilated and normalized everywhere. One wonders how many Canadians watching some of these America series and movies and, while enjoying them for their undoubted entertainment value and great stories and acting, nonetheless recognize they spring, in some cases, from a culture sometimes out of step with global trends?

If you've read even a couple of my previous posts you'll know I'm a big -- a big -- defender of stories drawing upon their cultural milieu. Including American programs. Yet sometimes it can be interesting to recognize that there's more to the reality than the obvious one presented by the storytellers.

In the new horror TV series, Sleepy Hollow, the Revolutionary War-era hero finds himself in modern times (frankly, a lot more could've been done with the culture shock angle, both dramatically and comically). When he meets a black woman police officer, he remarks she must be emancipated (since in his day, blacks were generally slaves). Yet I was thinking this American series could've offered an interesting insight into historical trivia for its viewers by having it be that on seeing a free and armed black person he assumes she is working for the British. Though the British also had slavery at the time, as part of their efforts against the rebellious American colonies, they offered freedom to any slave who ran away to the British side.

Instead, by having the hero be an abolitionist Englishman who switched sides and joined the freedom loving Americans the series, subliminally, suggests to its viewers that America was at the forefront of the abolitionist movement.

Which may not have been deliberate. Obviously you want your hero to be against slavery -- that's kind of a given! And maybe British actor Tom Mison couldn't do an American accent so they decided to have it be his character was an Englishman who switched sides. No agenda intended.

Yet putting aside propaganda -- whether accidental or deliberate -- I like stories that draw upon their roots. Of course it should be a part of the fabric of a series like Breaking Bad that the anti-hero's actions are driven, in part, by his country's medical system. Of course The West Wing was good drama because it was about American politicians grappling with American issues. Of course it's neat that Sleepy Hollow is rooted in the American Revolution and inspired by a classic American story (although, and it must be said, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Nathaniel Hawthorne was not actually a horror story -- it was a comical piece, and the reader was not meant to infer any true supernatural occurrences).

But how setting and place can shape and influence stories -- often in ways we don't even recognize -- can be intriguing. And seeing that comic strip about what Breaking Bad would be like if it wasn't American got me thinking about these themes.

So tune in next time, when I'll look at the way a Canadian setting might influence some American series.