Will Horatio Alger Please Report To His TV Set At Once. Pluck Is Back.
Most of the TV biz saw last week’s surprising best-comedy Emmy for the quirky, often dark Fleabag as a feel-good win for a small show against the big guys.
Which, okay, it was.
I prefer to see it another way: as a further sign that television, in a modest yet heartening way, has rediscovered pluck.
A handful of recent shows, including Fleabag, Showtime’s Shameless and Back To Life and FX’s You’re The Worst, have pretty much bet all their chips on pluck. And won.
Now I fully understand that “pluck” is a concept out of the 19th century. It’s like saying someone has gumption. Or moxie. It’s like saying “She knows her onions” or “Kilroy was here.” Some time ago it quietly passed into linguistic history.
Or maybe not. Let’s recap here.
A century ago, when young Americans were reading Horatio Alger’s Luck and Pluck rather than 13 Reasons Why, pluck was a golden ticket. It was the simple trick by which orphans and other economically or socially disadvantaged young people could carve out a respectable place in the world.
At its purest, pluck required only hard work and optimistic force of will. As those qualities were not dependent on wealth or stature, they were available to everyone, which made the American dream available to everyone.
Alger was a Harvard graduate and aspiring writer who kicked around at a dozen jobs before, in 1868, writing a serialized novel called Ragged Dick. The title character was a young bootblack, a shoeshine boy, who through honest living, dedication and moral virtue raised himself up to a comfortable living in the emerging middle class.
Coming just three years after the Civil War ended, this unapologetic optimism turned out to be just what people wanted. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin had reminded Americans what divided them before the war, Ragged Dick helped remind them what they still had in common afterwards.
As it turned out, Alger only had that one idea. He estimated he wrote a hundred books before he died in 1899, and the other 99 were knockoffs.
But if an idea works, one is enough. Did whoever invented pizza have to invent something else, too? Alger’s popularity waned in his later years, then soared after his death. In the early 20th century, when young folks read books instead of Instagram and Twitter exchanges, Alger novels sold some 26 million copies.
It’s also true that the odds of being rewarded for clean righteous living and a strong work ethic were never as high, in America or anywhere else in the known universe, as Alger’s novels suggested. For one thing, he wasn’t factoring in pesky little details like social class or skin color.
Still, pluck isn’t a bad virtue, which is presumably why it works on TV shows 120 years after Alger’s death.
Amazon Prime’s Fleabag, for those who never heard of it before the Emmys, centers on the title character, created and played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She’s a wreck, careening from bad decisions to empty sexual encounters to trashed relationships.
But we watch because in spite of all this, and in spite of being sort-of aware of all this, Fleabag carries on. If she may never win, she will never give up. She has pluck.
So does Miri Matteson, the lead character in Daisy Haggard’s Back To Life, which can be seen Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on Showtime.
Miri, who’s in her late 30s, just moved back to her small-town home after spending 18 years in the joint for murder. This being a small town and all, no one has forgotten and few are in a mood to forgive.
Miri has supportive parents, who put up with hate graffiti sprayed on their fence and the fact their homeowners insurance gets cancelled. Beyond that, she must try to coax a job, any job, out of someone who probably loathes her. When she walks to town, she’s enveloped in an almost tangible cloud of resentment.
It sounds just as depressing as Fleabag, except like Fleabag, it reaches flashpoints where everything is so bleak, and the end looks so dead, that there’s nothing Miri or viewers can do but laugh. And then carry on.
Pluck. Miri has pluck.
Fleabag and Miri aren’t the first characters to see the potential of pluck. Rocky Balboa’s pluck made Sylvester Stallone rich.
But in the wider picture, pluck has had a hard time in recent decades, probably in large measure because of real life. As the blue-collar job market shrinks, Alger-style upward mobility looks ever-more elusive. Success seems to be positioned as the end product of a careful package available mostly to those who have resources to start with. Some level of pluck may help, but contrary to Alger’s tacit promise, pluck rarely clinches the deal.
Yet pluck won’t go away. Immigrants arrive with little more than their clothes and a few family photos, then do whatever will give their kids a shot at becoming the contemporary Ragged Dick.
Call it hope. Call it faith. It’s pluck.
Television, for its part, may have discovered pluck almost accidentally, when someone wondered if train-wreck lives might make for a different, fresh kind of comedy.
Shameless gives us a family whose patriarch is an amoral drunk. Aya Cash’s Gretchen Cutler from You’re the Worst lived with paralyzing clinical depression. They soldiered on. We watched.
Pluck to Alger wasn’t simply overcoming simple daily adversity, like running out of firewood. It was defying dragons, refusing to stop when there seemed to be only darkness ahead.
A handful of TV shows picking up that notion doesn’t change the world. It does suggest when we give it a chance, pluck can still be the bee’s knees.