What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined. Which raises the question: Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?
Huck Finn is for Fiedler the greatest archetype of this impulse, and he concludes “Love and Death” with a tour de force reading of Twain’s masterpiece. What Fiedler notes, and what most readers of “Huckleberry Finn” will recognize, is Twain’s continual juxtaposition of Huck’s innocence and instinctual decency with the corruption and hypocrisy of the adult world.Huck’s “Pap” is a thorough travesty of paternal authority, a wretched, mean and dishonest drunk whose death is among the least mourned in literature. When Huck drifts south from Missouri, he finds a dysfunctional patriarchal order whose notions of honor and decorum mask the ultimate cruelty of slavery. Huck’s hometown represents “the world of belongingness and security, of school and home and church, presided over by the mothers.” But this matriarchal bosom is as stifling to Huck as the land of Southern fathers is alienating. He finds authenticity and freedom only on the river, in the company of Jim, the runaway slave, a friend who is by turns Huck’s protector and his ward.
Of our fiction, Scott concludes, following Fiedler: "Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction." The upshot:
Maybe nobody grows up anymore, but everyone gets older. What happens to the boy rebels when the dream of perpetual childhood fades and the traditional prerogatives of manhood are unavailable? There are two options: They become irrelevant or they turn into Louis C. K. (fig. 5). Every white American male under the age of 50 is some version of the character he plays on “Louie,” a show almost entirely devoted to the absurdity of being a pale, doughy heterosexual man with children in a post-patriarchal age. Or, if you prefer, a loser.
Enter, the women:
Many people forget that the era of the difficult TV men, of Tony and Don and Heisenberg, was also the age of the difficult TV mom, of shows like “Weeds,” “United States of Tara,” “The Big C” and “Nurse Jackie,” which did not inspire the same level of critical rapture partly because they could be tricky to classify. Most of them occupied the half-hour rather than the hourlong format, and they were happy to swerve between pathos and absurdity. Were they sitcoms or soap operas? This ambiguity, and the stubborn critical habit of refusing to take funny shows and family shows as seriously as cop and lawyer sagas, combined to keep them from getting the attention they deserved. But it also proved tremendously fertile.
The cable half-hour, which allows for both the concision of the network sitcom and the freedom to talk dirty and show skin, was also home to “Sex and the City,” in retrospect the most influential television series of the early 21st century. “Sex and the City” put female friendship — sisterhood, to give it an old political inflection — at the center of the action, making it the primary source of humor, feeling and narrative complication. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoffs did this in the 1970s. But Carrie (fig. 7) and her girlfriends could be franker and freer than their precursors, and this made “Sex and the City” the immediate progenitor of “Girls” and “Broad City,” which follow a younger generation of women pursuing romance, money, solidarity and fun in the city.
It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.