If the pop culture offerings of 2022 that garnered the highest accolades share only one quality, let’s call it self-loathing. Not just self-loathing, but a recoiling upon itself, at the deepest level, of the privileged class.
How many weeks in a row was the movie “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” the most popular film on Netflix? This movie — a TV-movie really, since it showed in theaters for just one week — is about the endless, requisite betrayals and falsities that buttress the foundation of adulation and riches. It’s almost as if some glitch in the AI made a flick aimed right back at the executives and stockholders that plugged it in, all of them just hangers-on to somebody else’s brilliant idea. And then they laughed at themselves, chugged a bottle of Jared Leto’s 9 percent ABV hard kombucha, and slept the sleep of the dead.
It’s not just “Glass Onion,” which calls itself a “mystery” but relies too much on rewinds and resets to earn the moniker. Take critics’ streaming darling “The White Lotus,” which in December managed to bury itself in its own prettied-up misanthropy after doing its best to pass off the existential bleakness of white, wealthy American leftists as high art.
The Sicily setting sure is pretty, and it’s probably on purpose that the only winners in this story are a couple of pricey hookers, who between the two of them, in various combinations, slept with three of the five American men (that the show cares about) hanging around at the titular White Lotus resort. Three of those men are married, and one of them is there at the resort with his wife (one of the others, natch, is in trouble with his spouse back home for not keeping it in his pants). But that’s what you do, Mr. Big Money McDorfus’s wife seems to say: You make accommodations. You make up for it in your own ways. Maybe you fool around with the other married guy, your husband’s college pal, because maybe your two spouses already did the same.
Pretty bleak stuff, which it’s meant to be. No one trusts anyone. Love reduces to a transaction. In “Glass Onion,” that goes for friendship, too. The whole band of self-styled “disruptors” is shown to be no more than grifters, each one desperate to hold on to his or her relevance in the world of fashion or tech or, hell, just what they call “influencing” these days. Their flowy skirts or macho tattoos won’t cut it if they’re not in with the next big thing. And who cares if the next big thing is a faux-green energy source that (as one character says) couldn’t just blow up the world but could “literally blow up the world?” At least nobody accidentally poisoned a piano player before he could manage to schtup a prostitute, which was the best joke “The White Lotus” could wring from the moldy rag of its plot.
Here’s where maybe the bleakest and saddest show of the year, released on Hulu, “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” comes in. No character here, not the sad-sack liver doctor Toby Fleishman, MD, nor his hot-shot theatrical agent of an ex-wife, Rachel, who certainly wants to make it in their Upper East Side world, nor Toby’s failed men’s-magazine-writer pal Lizzy, wants anything more than to find a way to make it through the pitfalls of family life and the false-fronts of social belonging with what they thought were their own selves intact.
Toby, deserted (as he sees it) by his wife, finds himself free to screw his way through a whole theophany of online dating matches only to come up against one who refuses to go out for coffee with him. Not much fun anymore when you aren’t a person, just a lay. Rachel, whose only ambition was to be In with the In Crowd, is now Out. Not just out, but dumped at a yoga retreat by the husband of her not-really best friend, who takes off as soon as things get more complicated than lighthearted adultery.
Like “Glass Onion,” the show isn’t fair to the viewer. It shows us bits and pieces, first from one perspective, then from another. Clear enough though, is the misery that every one of the remotely self-aware characters endures. In the final episode, it gives us a little tableau: flashes of Lizzy’s life, a kiss, an argument, a drink with friends, after the echoing words, “You are, right now, as young as you will ever be again.” The youthful self is not gone or lost, just mislaid among one’s selfish concerns. As if.
All three of these shows (yes, dang it, “Glass Onion” is a show) hinge on the self-loathing that the rich and powerful have for themselves, but only “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is really about that. The other two just make a spectacle of it. Somebody dies, you take another sip of wine, make sure the kids are in bed, and check your phone. It’s dumb, plot for the sake of plot for the sake of hating on the very folks who made the thing — who made you and your whole life possible.
Toby comes out of the rain, looks out the window at the other people in Manhattan’s other soulless apartment buildings, and finds himself reaching out, searching for the stories there. When the door behind him creaks, and you see a figure behind him, reflected in the window, maybe you think it’s possible to have a heart, despite this meshuggeneh world. Or maybe our narrator Lizzy just wrote it that way. And that’s even more heartbreaking because, after all, there are people in the world, not just stories.