Trash, 'The Art of More,' and Peak TV

To hear the man screaming his story of a near-drowned Picasso to a small crowd of tittering sycophants, in the series premiere of “The Art of More” (Crackle), is to understand that even “peak TV” has its limits. There is little to say in defense of the fledging streaming service’s first original drama series except that it draws a bright line under the excesses of a medium in which privilege is too often mistaken for “prestige.” “The Art of More,” a sulfuric, unpleasant affair set in the world of high-end auction houses, succeeds only in reaffirming that the shine of the reverse-engineered is no substitute for the thrill of the new. 

“A tawdry, corrupt art for a tawdry, corrupt world,” as Pauline Kael once wrote of movies, TV has long been one of the most significant conduits for the dissemination of stories in American culture, but only recently has the medium regularly featured alongside the likes of film and literature as worthy of the label. Indeed, we’re in the midst of an industrial and technological transformation not so dissimilar from the one in which Kael praised “the nose-thumbing at ‘good taste'” of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and American International Pictures’ “Wild in the Streets” (1968)—a moment of fragmentation, of flux, in which vital experiments seep into the system’s cracks.

The opposite of the cinematic test balloon, Kael suggests in her 1969 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” is that which corresponds to the consensus definition of “art,” or, worse still, announces itself as such, stiff with a sense of (its own) importance. On television, where the unprecedented proliferation of scripted series means that a sleek promotional campaign is no longer enough to attract viewers, players new and old have pursued any number of strategies to cut through the clutter (increased emphasis on “branding,” live programming), but none has been as prevalent as the attempt to recapture the acclaim of the series that made one or another network’s name—”The Sopranos” for HBO, “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” for AMC, “Louie” for FX, “House of Cards” for Netflix, and so on.

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Examples of missteps in this imitation game are legion, from the disastrous attempt to replicate “Broadchurch” (BBC America) on “Gracepoint” (FOX) and Syfy’s nondescript revival of “12 Monkeys” to the more general, misanthropic self-seriousness of “HAPPYish” (Showtime), “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” (FX), and “Hand of God” (Amazon), but none of these contrives a narrative in which ambition and achievement are as far out of alignment as in “The Art of More.” The series, from creator Chuck Rose and showrunner Gardner Stern, collects the tropes of the so-called “golden age” as a poacher might ivory tusks, selling its pilfered wares with a profiteer’s grin.  

For all its artless gestures at the pleasures of high production value, however—luxe decor stripped of interest by the sterile cinematography, a soundtrack that announces the theme (“It’s all about the money”) in the opening minutes—it’s the series’ unwillingness to distinguish between the antiheroic and the abhorrent that most forcefully suggests its cravenness. As collector Arthur Davenport (Cary Elwes) describes the aforementioned showboat, Sam Bruckner (Dennis Quaid), “The Art of More” is “bombastic, uncouth, and impossibly egotistical”: we’re expected to hang on every moment of its threadbare tale because of its “prestige” gilding. 

As protagonist Graham Connor (Christian Cooke), a hotshot account executive at the tony Mason-Parke auction house, seduces and spars with Davenport, Bruckner, and competitor Roxana Whitman (Kate Bosworth), the series offers a few limp apologies for its one-percenter’s sneer—both Bruckner and Connor, an Iraq War veteran tangled up in the black market for stolen antiquities, possess up-by-the-bootstraps personal histories—but “The Art of More” evinces a certain disgust with those who’ve accrued less. “I busted my ass to get where I am now,” Connor says at one point, despite having blackmailed Davenport into supporting his career. “I didn’t just walk in and demand it.”

That this is exactly what he did situates “The Art of More” in the realm of delusional politicians and disaffected voters promulgating the notion that the poor deserve their plight—a stance which Connor later confirms by snarling, at a man who gets in the way of a lucrative sale, “I’m supposed to feel sorry for you because your gig with The Who didn’t make you a star? Because you’re a crack head?” (Not to put too fine a point on it, but he then proceeds to spit at the man’s feet.) Like its protagonist, “The Art of More” prefers to pummel the viewer into submission and raise its hands in innocence—its tinny cries of “damaged characters!” and “dramatic license!” are almost audible in the background—instead of cultivating trust. Its disingenuous treatment of the class divide deserves a podium at the next GOP debate. 

What “The Art of More” ultimately suggests, then, is the danger of allowing our definitions of “art” or “prestige” to harden into blanket approval—a danger that the need for critical shorthand in a landscape with more than 400 original scripted series only heightens. As Kael herself might have suggested, were she not so adamant that TV is a form of “settling,” it’s often the series that look like “trash,” or play with the definition thereof, that revolutionize TV as “art.” “Scandal” (ABC) and “Empire” (FOX) have made the primetime soap a space for diverse perspectives—not to mention diverse hiring practices. “BoJack Horseman” (Netflix) and “Rick and Morty” (Adult Swim) set loneliness and despair within alternate cartoon universes obsessed by the medium‘s “guilty pleasures.” Hell, “Mad Men,” for my money the best series in the history of television, ended with a smash cut to a Coke ad. In terms of quality, “the real thing,” as Matthew Weiner’s superb finale suggested, is as alchemical as an idea—even if that idea, like all TV, is designed to sell us something. Inspiration can’t be synthesized in a laboratory.

READ MORE: “Of Time & Life: How ‘Mad Men’ Remade Television”

By contrast, “The Art of More” seems to have been created by an algorithm: handsome, brooding male lead + art theft ÷ Johnnie Walker Blue = drama. In the absence of nuance—Bruckner first appears in a YouTube video on Connor’s computer, explaining that he has “what’s called ‘fuck you’ money”—or genuine tension—the internecine jockeying of rich, richer, and richest fails to create much narrative momentum—the series mimics the mercenary sensibility of its characters. By the time Whitman wheedles a hospital nurse to gain access to a dying collector, whom she convinces, under false pretenses, to sign away his legacy, “The Art of More” has already squandered the benefit of the doubt. Its perspective is that of the con artist, and we’re the mark.

Kael was right, in “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” to recognize that “extravagance and waste are morally ugly” when applied in the absence of new ideas. To this “The Art of More” adds the cynicism of trash masquerading as art in order to stake its claim in the world of commerce, overestimating its own value as surely as the account executives of Parke-Mason do Iraqi crowns, vintage Ferraris, and song lyrics written on the back of an envelope. There’s a ruthlessness to Crackle’s first foray into “prestige” programming that is, I suppose, an apt metaphor for the bull market of peak television, but no amount of polish can wipe away the slime beneath its slick exterior. Far from “the different kind of truth” for which Kael was always searching, “The Art of More” and its ilk are not subversive of but subservient to the “official culture”: facsimiles of change in a medium filled with the real thing.

“The Art of More” premieres Thurs., Nov. 19 on Crackle.

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