Episode 324: Skeptical as a Schoolgirl

The Overthinkers tackle Adulthood in popular culture and A. O. Scott’s New York Times article saying we’re idiots for liking The Hunger Games.

Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather overthink Adulthood in popular culture, jumping off from A. O. Scott’s New York Times article.


→ Download Episode 324 (MP3)

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34 Comments on “Episode 324: Skeptical as a Schoolgirl”

  1. yellojkt #

    “Rock is dead” is not a new observation. I declared it on my blog over five years ago when on a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame I realized that once you start putting something in a museum you have encased it in amber to let it ossify.

    Here is the link to that item:

    However, rock has been declared dead many times by many people. The latest coroner to take a stab at it is Gene Simmons who arguably has some culpability in its death.



  2. Redem #

    I wonder does John Reese and Harold Finch from Person of interest can be considered adult? I think in some way they goes between cerebral and escapist character


  3. Adrian #

    Jack Bauer can’t be an adult because when he doesn’t get what he want he just shouts louder.


  4. Lazer Mike #

    I think Skyler White’s a better example of an “adult” than Walt. She has to deal with more crap than most people go through during their entire lives. And while she often does rise to the occasion using her odd set of skills (using her creative writing background to help Walt spin a web of lies, managing the car wash, etc), she’s just as likely to succumb to her faults. (smoking, etc) It’s a very realistic portrayal of someone just completely unable to deal on certain days.

    She’s not the adult we want to be, but the adult we are.


  5. Chimalpahin #

    Now I kind of want an overthinking it book club on the Prisoner of Zenda XD

    I would argue that a kid’s show like Avatar the Last Airbender is more mature and well adult than many “adult” shows, just in its treatment of the enemy as human beings


    • Josie M. #

      That second point is actually what I think the biggest problem I had with the Scott piece is. That is, I actually think the closest he comes to being right is in recognizing that a lot of media that style themselves as For Adults are actually quite a lot less morally complex and artistically ambitious than the sort of things going on in cartoons and in genre fiction. (Which I see now is also the point Tulse makes below.)

      Now as someone with a moderate degree of professional knowledge of some of this (I’m a librarian, and used to work with teenagers) I would actually point out that there is a real problem here, but it’s largely one of economics and marketing. The people who run the corporations that decide what entertainments to promote largely just think that things about and for younger people will sell more and sell more easily.

      If you’re a speculative fiction genre author, the publishing industry now is such that there is almost certainly going to be a lot of pressure to write Young Adult fiction – or at least to market your writing as such (which is why you have Hugo winners writing steampunk for 15 year olds). Meanwhile the world of contemporary Literary Fiction is largely an insular domain of MFA programs, and if you want to write realistic contemporary fiction but aren’t an MFA Type, you better be writing about teens. (For example, see the reception of Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, vs her first YA novel, Eleanor & Park.)


  6. Margo #

    My nomination for the “Adult” of 24land is the dear departed Bill Buchanan, aka the CTU Zen Master. Another Adult was President Allison Taylor, at least until the back third of Day 8.


  7. AndrewB #

    Penny Gadget is Inspector Gadget’s niece, unless “uncle” was 80’s subtext for more than I ever realized. :)


  8. Cimmerius #

    Well actually, you cannot have a laconic tone. It relates to the number of words you use, rather than how you say them.


  9. Emil #

    That was a good episode. I much prefer it to sometimes lackluster review of a movie only one of panelist brother to see. I hope to hear more overthinking of long form “think pieces”. I’ll gladly provide some, Matt knows I’m addicted to Share button on my Pocket account.

    Pete, how could you name Penny “Gadget’s daughter”? I was expecting more of you! He’s her uncle.



  10. Tulse #

    I find A. O. Scott’s piece profoundly confusing, largely because I don’t understand what he means by “adult”. His opening examples of entertainment properties showing “adult” men involve two murderous criminals and an alcoholic man-child who can’t keep his fly zipped. All three men are largely estranged from their families and have terrible marriages, both of which would typically be considered as failures of measuring up to adult responsibilities. All three men prioritize their own desires ahead of the needs of their wives, children, and co-workers.

    Contrast them with, say, Buffy Summers, who consistently endangers her own life (and loses it — a few times) to save others. When she fails to prioritize others, to use her considerable skills in the service of her family, friends, and strangers, it is a major plot point in the series, and it is clear how the series views that shirking.

    Or consider Peter Parker. His major development comes when he learns that his skills require that he apply them to help others.

    Or consider Tony Stark. In “maturity”, he perhaps shows the same egotism and hedonism as Don Draper does, except Don never also felt obligated to routinely risk his life to save others.

    In all the “juvenile” entertainments that Scott denigrates, the protagonists put aside their own desires to act for the greater good. They act to protect not only their own circle of family and friends, but risk their own lives to save total strangers. I always thought that the mark of maturity, of adulthood, is recognizing the obligations one has beyond one’s own wants. Maybe I’m missing something, but I think “With great power comes great responsibility” is far more of an adult worldview than “I am the one who knocks!”.


    • benzado #

      I agree that Scott was confusing, but I don’t think he was holding up Don Draper, Walter White, and Tony Soprano as ideals of adulthood. He says, “We were invited to participate in their self-delusions and to see through them, to marvel at the mask of masculine competence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly.” Scott is saying our most popular* adult characters are personifying the destruction of adulthood. The stories we choose to tell about adults are about their downfall.

      *in his circle/bubble

      That said, Pete’s identification of Jean-Luc Picard as an adult is spot-on; there is a moment in “Relics” where an recently reanimated Scotty is talking to Geordi about their respective captains’ management styles that makes this point clearly.

      But now I can’t stop thinking about multiple interviews with Pendleton Ward where he claims that Finn is based on Picard; meanwhile Adventure Time is likely the poster-child for cartoons watched by people who ought to be acting more adult. There’s something there.


      • Tulse #

        “Scott is saying our most popular* adult characters are personifying the destruction of adulthood. The stories we choose to tell about adults are about their downfall.”

        Fair enough, but then I am unclear what his objection is to the “juvenile” entertainments, given that many of them do seem to embody adult notions of responsibility and sacrifice. Is it just because the protagonists are chronologically young, or that they listen to that hippity-hop music and have their pants down around their legs and why don’t they cut their damn hair already?

        I can understand his argument applying to Apatowian comedies, as they are largely about adults acting like children, but in most “genre” entertainments, it is the children and youth who circumstance demands act like adults, at least in terms of responsibility.

        And I don’t know that those stories require youthful protagonists. Sure, Buffy works as a great allegory for adolescence, and teens like to see portrayals of empowered youth. But in a real sense, stories like Hunger Games and Harry Potter would work as stories even if the protagonists were thirty-somethings — there is nothing in the stories that necessitate their fight against the evil power that infuses their world be done by someone young.

        I guess what confuses me about Scott’s notion is that it seems to me that genre fiction (as opposed to the comedies cited) is precisely about that most adult thing, responsibility. If he is lamenting that he doesn’t see adults being portrayed as responsible in popular culture, that may be true as far as it goes, but it isn’t the case that what is always portrayed is immaturity.


        • benzado #

          Perhaps it like Zoë Saldana’s remark, that the only good roles for women are in space; so too the only place to find adult themes are in children’s stories.

          In fact, a common thread of all the “juvenile” stories you name is that they are also works of speculative fiction. None of them are set in the “real” world, so none of those themes of responsibility seem (to Scott) to be about “real” responsibility.

          Maybe that’s all it is. Scott is just sci-fi-shaming using code words.


    • Emil #

      I find A. O. Scott’s piece profoundly confusing, largely because I don’t understand what he means by “adult”

      I didn’t find it confusing as much as I found it aimless. It lacks well stated founding idea. I don’t think the author put much effort into really exploring his hypothesis. The culture stream is wide and deep so cherry picking examples is easy.


      • Connor Moran #

        I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast yet but I read the A. O. Scott article. I think it comes off as confused because it is about confusion. He charts a shift from literature that defies the constraints of adulthood to literature that denies those constraints even exist. He acknowledge a knee-jerk snobbery against “juvenile” entertainments but the acnowledges that as the pointless snobbery it is. The article doesn’t ultimately come down as saying this is good or bad–just exciting and fun and troubling.


    • An Inside Joke #

      Just spitballing here, but this is my interpretation:

      Juvenile fiction is usually about learning responsibility. Even though Buffy Summers and Peter Parker already carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, they still have to re-learn why that matters. When bad things happen, it’s because they delude themselves into thinking there will be no consequences, so the storytelling models reinforce an educational lesson: you need to be responsible.

      I’ve never watched The Sopranos or Mad Men, but for Breaking Bad, at least, Walter White was well aware of the consequences of his actions, but decided to misbehave anyway. You could argue for a certain degree of self-delusion, but for the most part, Walter White is a character who says “F— the consequences, I’m doing it my way.” He’s already learned the lesson that Buffy and Peter are learning, and consciously chooses to disregard it.

      So maybe Scott’s ideal adult has already learned responsibility, understands the consequences of his/her actions, and chooses to act responsibly? Which sounds like a very boring story with no conflict to me, but I suppose that if you’re trying to hold a philosophical ideal, that’s not always going to be consistent with a dynamic narrative.

      Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to be nostalgic for more classic literature. One of my favorite novels is the Brothers Karamazov, which culminates in a murder, but the plot is wrapped around all this 19th century manners and philosophical discussions, so it feels like none of the characters is really acting out even when they’re doing morally reprehensible things. Maybe “adult” in this case is defined by being less edgy and graphic – sort of like a child’s perception of the adult world as being this boring, incomprehensible place.


  11. Connor Moran #

    Favorite adult in pop culture: Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights. To pick one example, I’d have trouble coming up with anyone who’s talked about sex in a more adult way than her talking to Julie about it, and given how much of art and literature is talking about sex, that’s really saying something. Coach Taylor gets an honorable mention, but hey, favorite means favorite.

    Another note to throw in on the snobbish hand-wringing about reading YA fiction that A. O. Scott both kinda critiques and kinda indulges in–do people who engage in that really think there’s some sort of either/or? Like the people reading Harry Potter are choosing between that and Ulysses? As a person who has been known to flip between a Magic: The Gathering novel and Moby Dick, I don’t exactly buy that.

    (On the topic, I was the audience for your Baloth joke, Pete, but alas I had read the show notes first and saw the link to the explanation of what a “midrange” deck was. As a result, the timing was a little off since I knew as soon as the word “midrange” was mentioned what was coming. Sorry.)


    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      YES TAMI TAYLOR IS THE BEST. I agree that Tami is an even more “adult” character than Coach. Despite my love of Coach Taylor, he could be at times a bit immature and huffy when things didn’t go his way, particularly in his marriage. Tami, on the other hand, was always willing to engage with a problem head on, and make the difficult “adult” choices and discussions.

      A great example is the treatment of Becky’s abortion and Tami’s role in teh decision. Tami advises Becky dispassionately and maturely as her job and the situation require, despite having personal misgivings about abortion more broadly. This is the sort of nuance and maturity that a lot of TV writers seem to think the audience is incapable of handling.


    • Howard Member #

      +1. Was going to comment with Coach and Tami Taylor.


  12. Josie M. #

    So for my pick for favorite adults in current pop culture (and I am limiting it specifically to things that aired or came out in the last year) I’m going to go with Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson on Parks & Recreation. For all of their sitcom goofiness, they’re both pretty serious-minded people when you get down to it. Leslie continues to have real ambitions, and as of the most recent season has both a thriving career and a successful marriage and family. Meanwhile, Ron is as close as I can think of to a reconstruction of the masculine type that A. O. Scott seems to be arguing is dying off.


    • benzado #

      When is somebody finally going to call out Ron Swanson on his libertarian credentials? What has he actually accomplished to sabotage the government he is supposedly taking down from the inside?


      • Josie M. #

        I actually think his overall story arc is one of learning not to hate government so much as long as its run by people he respects. Which is, I think, probably what tends to happen to most professed libertarians who actually serve in government, though I admit to not knowing of that many examples.


      • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

        I agree with Josie that it at least in part has to do with the awesome and unstoppable force that is Leslie Knope. But ultimately, I think it has to do with Ron’s personal philosophy of competence and forthrightness trumping his political philosophy. He has tried to gut the city budget on several occasions, but always working within official channels, but his personal code of honor would make sabotaging the work of others unthinkable.

        That said +1000 to the idea of Ron and Leslie being great “adult” characters. Despite their nuttiness at times, both of them represent adults in that they know what they want and are willing to make mature decisions and sacrifices in service of those goals and ambitions.


  13. Richard Rosenbaum OTI Staff #

    Fun fact: in 1978, Time Magazine called The Muppet Show “the only adult show on television.”


  14. Amanda #

    How has no one in the podcast or the comments meantioned The Good Wife? I’ll admit, I’m not going by A.O. Scott’s definition of adult here (since it’s not very clear anyway), but by my own definition, which I’d argue is just common sense. So many characters in The Good Wife are great examples of adults, whether that means that they’re competent and efficient, morally ambiguous, both, etc. I can’t put it nearly as well as Willa Paskin, so here: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/television/2014/09/the_good_wife_season_6_starts_sunday_the_cbs_show_is_better_than_ever.html

    But seriously, I get how pointless it is to listen to a podcast and then complain that the podcasters didn’t talk about the one specific thing I wanted to hear about, but come on, in this particular instance, talking about adults and “mature” pop culture and failing to mention such a consistently “adult” drama is just odd.


    • Mark Lee OTI Staff #

      I can’t speak for Matt or Pete, but I haven’t seen enough of The Good Wife to comment on it. On that point, it is a daunting task to stay on top of any given TV show to be able to comment somewhat authoritatively on it, particularly prestige TV and the shifts in tone that they take from season to season.

      So for those that aren’t serious followers of this show, but are somewhat familiar with its premise, can you flesh out an example of how the characters exhibit adulthood as you began to define it above?


      • yellojkt #

        The premise of The Good Wife is that the titular wife (played by Julianna Margulies) has to return to the work force when her politician husband is sent to jail for frequenting a prostitute. The fundamental arc of the series is her growing independence and agency as she deals with her family and career. The more I think about, you just can’t get more adult than Alicia Florrick.


        • Amanda #

          It just seems like you guys/A. O. Scott both set out to talk about adulthood as a whole, but ended up talking about male adulthood almost exclusively. Cause if you’re not purposefully excluding women from the subject, not discussing The Good Wife in a convo about adulthood in pop culture of all things is kinda like talking about meth and leaving Walter White out, or the Mafia and forgetting to mention The Sopranos.
          And I understand that male is often treated and spoken of as default while female things are treated as niche, but that’s just poopy and I’d love it if that didn’t also happen here, my favorite place on the web :)
          So basically, yellojkt: YES! Great summary :)
          And Mark, you guys are known for talking about stuff you know very little about (or things no panelist has watched) and still turning it into a wonderfully entertaining hour of podcasting! Believe in yourselves, man!
          (and if you wanna learn more about The Good Wife, read the article I linked in my other comment, it’s really good and explores Alicia’s growth especifically)


          • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

            Right. The original piece was an article about patriarchy, and not adulthood per se. A lot of its ambivalence can be traced to this—fewer Don Drapers is a good thing, because even one Don Draper is too many.

          • Amanda #

            Exactly! :)

  15. Stokes OTI Staff #

    Okay, let me play devil’s advocate here. Pete, shouldn’t the doctrine of judicial estoppel bar you from ranting, on podcasts released in consecutive months, that:

    • There is no such thing as “geek culture” anymore, because all the stuff that used to be geeky is now squarely in the cultural mainstream,


    • There is NO way in which popular culture today is more concerned with “childish” things than it was in the mid-90s?

    I’ll grant that The Firm is fundamentally an adolescent power fantasy, but adolescents didn’t camp out all night in bookstores so they could buy it on the day it came out. And I don’t remember seeing a lot of 34-year-old stockbrokers proudly toting hardcover copies of The Dragonriders of Pern around on the subway; maybe I was just too young to notice.

    You could argue if you like that the deeper significance of the surface phenomenon is not what Scott claims that it is. You could even argue that, properly considered, it has NO deeper significance. But you seem to be arguing that the surface phenomenon does not even exist. And to that, sir, to that I say: “Well actually…” [slaps face with glove, haughtily tosses on floor, stalks out of comment thread]


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