Streaming the Polycrisis

Why have TV miniseries about catastrophe become all the rage?

Adam Fales

Steven Yeun as Danny in Netflix’s Beef. Courtesy Netflix © 2023

Step One: Put your hero up a tree.

Step Two: Throw rocks at them.

Step Three: Get them down gracefully.

This writing advice, apocryphally attributed to figures as various as Vladimir Nabokov and Steven Spielberg, has long provided a handy formula for television and movie writers in search of narrative conflict that arrives at a satisfying resolution. Prestige television today, though, has largely abandoned the last part of that recipe. Now, a host of new shows suggest, the task facing writers is simply to show how bad things can get. Put your hero up a tree, let the tree burn down, wash away in a flood, collapse under its own weight, who cares. Never waste a good crisis.

If TV has adopted crisis as its preferred narrative, it is because our world seems to be in a perennial one. It’s impossible to keep track of all the prevailing cataclysms, conflicts, and catastrophes, which together amount to a “polycrisis.” First coined by Edgar Morin and Anne Brigitte Kern in their 1999 book Homeland Earth, the term was popularized recently by the historian Adam Tooze, who last year wrote a Financial Times column titled, “Welcome to the World of the Polycrisis.” “A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity,” Tooze wrote. “In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts.” That is, distinct crises exacerbate each other and cause new ones: the pandemic led to inflation, which was made worse by the war in Ukraine, which worsened, and was made worse by, other crises that, in a better world, might remain separate. It’s no surprise that the Financial Times chose “polycrisis” for its “Year in a Word” column at the end of 2022.

Behind today’s depiction of the polycrisis on television is the sense that things are already over, that it is, as Anna Kornbluh writes, “too late.” In the first decade of the century, the quintessential TV form was the serial, with viewers following the weekly developments of a narrative show—Lost, 24, The West Wing. Today’s streaming shows, by contrast, arrive already completed, ready to binge, so that TV now unfolds in the past tense: “Have you watched . . .” co-workers ask as they return from a weekend and recap whole seasons on Monday morning. This is why the ideal form for this moment is the miniseries, somewhere between four and ten “episodes” that are, more often than not, segments of a distended film and that, unlike serials, have a predetermined conclusion. And while the long-form serial might seem best suited to the scope and variety of today’s woes, the opposite turns out to be true: the miniseries, with its narrative compression and intensity, expresses the chaos and sense of doom that accompany a perpetual crisis. You can finish watching before the world ends.

Representing the polycrisis, these shows tell us, is a problem of scale, but that problem is not solved by a bigger, more complex perspective.

The prestige miniseries as a form is not new—it dates back to the 1970s and early 1980s, when epics such as Roots, Holocaust, and Shogun garnered huge audiences; more recently, HBO has been a home for high-end miniseries since it released Band of Brothers in 2001. But today’s miniseries are the media most attuned to our historical moment, attempting to render world-, universe-, and multiverse-shattering events (think of HBO’s Chernobyl and Watchmen, Disney+’s WandaVision, and Apple TV+’s climate-change epic Extrapolation) while leveraging their limited runtime to capture the overwhelming and all-encompassing nature of crisis. The fact that these shows are still broken into episodes mimics the rhythms of serial television, but their predetermined end suggests that we now inhabit a world in which crisis feels inescapable. As the critics Hoyt Long and Aarthi Vadde argue, these shows create a “narrative gauntlet” that “regularizes the repetition of crisis.” Today’s miniseries are geared toward finality, rather than continuation, and these shows, even when they remain at a personal scale, try to wonder what it would be like if things did not get better and the world simply ended. In the way they put worlds together, miniseries such as Full Circle (Max) and Beef (Netflix) teach us, too, about how worlds break.

These shows illustrate a different dimension of the polycrisis than that found in the work of historians and political scientists. They show a world in which repercussions, causes, and effects multiply and reappear beyond anyone’s ken. Representing the polycrisis, these shows tell us, is a problem of scale, but that problem is not solved by a bigger, more complex perspective. And rather than offer solutions or comfort, these shows—in the way they fall back on crisis as the basic way to imagine a plot—dramatize futility in the face of immense complexity.

Take, for instance, Steven Soderbergh’s Full Circle, which links two families, that of Jeff McCusker (Dennis Quaid), a celebrity chef and resort magnate, and that of Savitri Mahabir (CCH Pounder), the leader of a Guyanese crime organization. (Warning: the paragraphs that follow contain plot spoilers.) In the early 2000s, McCusker bribed Guyanese politicians to rezone and vacate land for a resort, and as part of the scheme, the Mahabirs murdered the son of a man who refused to leave his home. Twenty years later, in order to exorcise a curse purportedly placed by the murdered boy’s father, the Mahabirs seek to kidnap and murder Jared, McCusker’s grandson, in a ritualistic recapitulation of the earlier death.

Adia as Natalia and Gerald Jones as Louis in the Max Original show Full Circle.

As a result, the crisis the McCuskers thought they could quietly exploit in the former colony resurfaces in the middle of New York City. Befitting a narrative about calamity, though, the Mahabirs botch Jared’s kidnapping and instead take Nicky, the illegitimate son of Derek Browne, McCusker’s son-in-law. In Full Circle’s convoluted plot, wrongs are not righted but beget desperate murders. The attempt to fix a crisis only creates another, more complex crisis, and far from closing the “full circle” of violence and revenge, Soderbergh’s plot unravels. In the process, it reveals another type of circular plot, that of the economic systems that facilitated not just the show’s inciting violence but also the resurgence of crisis at the very heart of U.S. capitalism.

It is not the wealthy and white McCuskers who suffer for their sins, though. They escape nearly unscathed, while the show’s accumulating death toll almost entirely plagues the Mahabirs, while Savitri finds herself in prison. In the show’s last scene, two escaped Mahabir organization members walk through the dilapidated gate of an incomplete and abandoned resort in Guyana (the one McCusker intended to build), before the camera wryly pans to a sign that reads: “Coming in 2003.” Consequences and crises become manageable in one place while they leave another destitute. In Full Circle, some individuals let a world break, leave it broken, and walk away; others pay the price.

Today’s miniseries often attempt to show how large crises shape individual experience, with their depictions of intimate and personal life manifesting the variety of ways—culpable, exploitative, avoidant—by which people respond to their social context. That’s certainly true of Lee Sung Jin’s Beef, another story about another crisis that, again, ends disastrously. It begins with a bout of parking-lot road rage. Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), a broke contractor, almost backs into Amy Lau (Ali Wong), owner of a trendy houseplant and pottery store; Lau lays on her horn longer than is polite and then, pulling away, flips him off. Danny and Amy then chase each other through Los Angeles, driving over medians and curbs with adrenaline-fueled aggression.

A world in crisis is not just a world that has been broken, but a world that breaks people.

The chance moment of road rage occurs at a tense time for each of them. Amy is at a breaking point with her business, which has been tearing her away from her husband and daughter even as she has been trying to sell it to a large hardware store chain; Danny has been contemplating suicide via carbon monoxide–emitting home hibachi grills. (In a moment of bleak comedy, when they nearly collide, he has just failed to return them to the same store that Amy is leaving.) The road rage, in other words, has oversized stakes for each of the flawed protagonists. And instead of ending with that chase, their feud escalates across the show’s ten-episode arc into a series of absurd acts of revenge.

A world in crisis is not just a world that has been broken, but a world that breaks people. In Full Circle, social and economic crises invade the private realm of the family. In Beef, absurdist comedy reflects the social, racial, and economic structures that make the overblown conflict at its heart understandable, if not rational; its writers make large forces that could easily seem abstract feel vivid by containing them in a tightly scripted six hours. Amy and Danny grapple with destructive families, failed relationships, discrimination against Asian Americans, dead-end jobs, and disappointing daily lives. The absurd proportions of their titular “beef” express the psychological turmoil that drives the two characters. In therapy, Amy describes her anxious relationship to the world: “Do you think it’s really possible to love someone unconditionally? . . . Well . . . you know, there must be some point where . . . we all like fall outside the reach of love, like the mistake is so big and then the love has to stop?” Love’s conditionality terrifies Amy, even as her anger constantly tests the limits of her loved ones.

As Amy plays out this process with her husband, Danny plays it out with his younger brother; the characters’ anxious, deceitful attachments thwart intimacy with their families even as they frantically plot to keep them around. Through impulsive and irrational actions, they probe for the place where love “has to stop,” where care and the world it sustains might end. For both Amy and Danny, the loss of love marks the unimaginable cataclysm they guard against and, ironically, bring about. In the world of the polycrisis, in which consequences are unpredictable, all destruction may well be self-destruction.

Beef, like Full Circle, dramatizes those cycles of self-destruction by which people bring themselves down and drag others down with them. Amy and Danny choose not to heal their beef or their trauma. They are unable to get better, because sometimes things do not get better. The show’s plot spins out of control, weaving in a kidnapping and a home invasion, until its ninth episode concludes with Amy and Danny chasing each other off a cliff. The show’s meta-joke is that even though they have, quite literally, gone over the edge, there is still one more episode, a finale in which Amy and Danny survive the crash and torment each other in the California desert, tripping on poisonous berries they have foraged. This finale dramatizes something like a resolution for the two, as they find the words to express their pain to each other and to themselves. But as they make their way out of the desert, Danny is shot by Amy’s husband. Sometimes when things start to get better, it’s already too late.

In Beef and Full Circle, things do not end; they just get worse. These series are documents of woundedness and abandonment, of the scars left by an inability—or refusal—to heal the effects of crisis. In that way, the shows themselves embody our own paralysis in the face of polycrisis: they dramatize our inability to think of new solutions, as well as our unwillingness to change. Dizzyingly fascinated with crisis’s spectacle of destruction, these series do not ask what it might mean to heal, or to remake the structures that create cycles of harm and violence. Instead, they ask an urgent, if not correct, question: What if things were to stay broken?

Adam Fales is a writer, editor, and graduate student living in Chicago. His work has appeared in, among other places, Chicago Review, Avidly, and Dilettante Army.
Originally published:
November 28, 2023


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