By John Duncan Talbird.
The Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously is aware of how to make the unsexy topic of climate change both engaging and even suspenseful. Not surprising as two of its executive producers are action movie veterans, James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Each episode is split into two or three mini-narratives with various celebrities (Matt Damon, Harrison Ford, Schwarzenegger) or journalists (Mark Bittman, Thomas Friedman) investigating some aspect of global warming. The digital print of each story is tinted a different color, and there are big black bands which stream across the screen letting us know when we’re cutting from one story to another often accompanied by a portentous statement from a narrator like, “I wonder what the people of this village will do when the sea levels rise.”
The series is timely, several episodes addressing Superstorm Sandy. Much of the debate on climate change is presented with a combination of pathos and the absurd. For instance, in Episode 5, we cut from 1) New York Times reporter Mark Bittman on hold for four minutes with Governor Chris Christie’s office for an interview on climate change he never gets to 2) Christie using a giant pair of scissors to cut the longest ribbon ever (certified by Guinness) on reopening the Jersey Shore to 3) teary-eyed Jersey residents displaced by Sandy at a community board meeting where a climate scientist informs them that we’re entering a world where the 100-year storm happens every five years.
This disaster has clearly already hit other parts of the world, especially poorer countries who have done almost nothing to contribute to climate change. In Episode 8, Thomas Friedman hovers in a helicopter over Taiz, Yemen’s second-largest city, which looks abandoned and baked. He is informed that the city only has two days of water out of every forty, that the rest must be trucked in. He is then taken to a site where two villages have engaged in heavy combat, fighting over a formerly shared source of water as if we’ve arrived in some Middle Eastern version of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). In the same episode, a story which stretches into the final episode of the season, Michael C. Hall (star of the series Dexter and Six Feet Under) travels to Bangladesh so that we can see what recent storms and rising sea levels are doing to that city – ruining the crops, displacing farmers into the city to work in garment factories (such as the infamous Savor building collapse of 2013), and possibly leading to a mass exodus to neighboring India which has said that it will not take any more immigrants. We are shown how dangerous this last eventuality could be when Hall is taken with his guide to the heavily armed border and sinister music is played as he walks in no-man’s land and his guide begs him to pick up his pace.
It’s at moments like this where it’s hard not to know what is reality and what is drama manufactured by the show creators. It’s easy to see why these moments of suspense exist. The program creators, David Gelber and Joel Bach, have set themselves a seemingly impossible task: Taking a PBS or indie doc topic and repackaging it for pay-premium TV, competing against fare such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, True Detective, or the much less scary (and humorless) AMC series The Walking Dead. In the post-appointment TV era, this show must even compete with other Showtime programs like the more-entertaining-if-ludicrous political thriller Homeland. Despite winning an Emmy, the future of Years of Living Dangerously is undecided. It seems doubtful that Showtime will renew it despite its critical success as it was a ratings disaster. There are internet rumors that the show creators are shopping the series around to channels, but a season two remains uncertain.
The show is less impressive as entertainment or argument than it is as a historical marker of how far we’ve traveled in the past decade. The “climate debate” is more often being written with quotes around it these days and politicians are realizing the political price of coming out as climate change deniers, now making more obviously disingenuous disclaimers about not being scientists. This is dramatized nicely in the third episode of the series when the congressman from Staten Island – which was devastated by Sandy – Michael Grimm, a prominent climate change denier, admits that he now believes in climate change after speaking with former South Carolina Republican congressman Bob Inglis. Inglis was voted out of office most likely because he urged Republicans to accept the reality of climate change. Amazingly, Grimm admits that though his views have changed, he won’t do anything about climate change, indicating the treacherous waters a conservative will face if he pursues that path. (Of course, Grimm went on to lose his job anyway for less lofty reasons, felony tax evasion.)
Recent polls finally show that a majority of Americans believe in the reality of climate change, though the number of believers is still fairly low: only 61 percent, according to Pew. The population of skeptics probably has to get smaller to make more politicians take action. And, as one of the biggest polluters in the world, the US will have to show that it is serious about reversing climate change if we expect the other major polluters – China and India, particularly – to do anything. Years of Living Dangerously indicates that we’re slowly moving in the right direction. It also suggests that we can’t afford to move this slowly.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the just-released, limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, REAL and elsewhere. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.