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This list originally appeared in pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter exploring the intersection of popular culture and justice—namely through abolition. Sign up here.
With 2022 officially at a close, we've been reflecting on the myriad ways pop culture and mainstream media captivated our attention in the midst of an impending recession, climate disasters, midterm elections, an ever-evolving pandemic, and other current events that disproportionately impacted the ways marginalized communities navigated the world this year.
The most critically-acclaimed TV shows and seasons of 2022 sparked many cultural conversations and visibilized a wide spectrum of social issues. The top shows crafted new realms, drew parallels to social issues and, whether intentionally or not, illuminated many elements within broader policing structures.
So, I've explored how Abbott Elementary, Stranger Things, Severance, and White Lotus stack up when it comes to copaganda and abolitionist themes.
I was inspired by critical media models like the Bechdel test and Clarkisha Kent's Kent Test, which aims "to determine whether a film or any other piece of media has provided the audience with adequate representation of femmes of color."
Here are my criteria, an Eteng Evaluation if you will, for identifying and assessing copaganda and abolitionist storylines:
- Are there speaking characters and extras that are uniformed police, including all levels and roles within the criminal legal system (e.g. local sheriffs, prosecutors, U.S. military)?
- Are there redemptive arcs for police reinforcing the myth of "the good cop"?
- Are police deemed necessary to maintain societal order?
- Are the shows handling overarching problems and interpersonal conflict among characters by using either non-punitive or carceral approaches and solutions?
- How do characters show up for one another, hold an abundance-forward mindset, and practice resource sharing?
- Are characters upholding aspects of policing, such as surveillance and conforming to a "norm," even if they're not law enforcement themselves?
- Are prisons built into the infrastructure of the show and/or referred to as a solution to a problem?
- Are there explicit or implicit critiques of policing?
Let's get into it (spoilers to follow):
Abbott Elementary (ABC)
If you know me, you know Abbott Elementary has my heart. Full stop. The show has swept at the Emmys, the Golden Globes, and the Critics' Choice Awards, and received a full order of 22 episodes, which is virtually unheard of in the current TV viewing landscape that's dominated by streaming platforms and limited series.
This season, the school-based, workplace comedy picked back up with our favorite teachers (and principal!) returning from summer break and beginning to prepare for the new school year.
Where it shines:
In true Abbott fashion, the school's staff continue to utilize little resources and big wisdom to maintain an environment where Black children are seen, heard, and affirmed. From a Shark Tank-style pitch process to determine the best way to utilize new grant funding to a water-ice truck to cool the students down on a hot day to a corny storytelling improv group that offers both laughs and relief, there's been no shortage of antics in the spirit of showing up for their students and meeting them where they are.
In Episode 4 (The Principal's Office), there's extensive commentary that acknowledges why punitive measures for children don't support their development. After Gregory (Tyler James Williams) sends his first-grade student, Micah, to Principal Ava (Janelle James)'s office after one too many Bluey-related outbursts, Gregory soon realizes that Ava doesn't actually discipline the children. She believes walking to her office is punishment—and humiliating—enough, so she transforms her space into a place where students can unwind and recenter before returning to their classrooms. Upon deeper reflection about the impacts of his own strict upbringing and a critical conversation with senior teacher Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph), Gregory steps into accountability by confirming for himself that he doesn't want his students to fear him and instead incorporates Bluey into his lesson plan to better tailor his teaching to their interests.
It's rare for adults to acknowledge their missteps and course correct according to the needs, interests, and desires of children. This moment demonstrates the true, multifaceted community that Abbott Elementary continues to foster.
How the carceral system shows up:
Although we're only halfway through season 2, there's been an uptick in brief mentions of policing. (My review from earlier this year argued that Abbott was one of the rare abolitionist shows on TV because it abolished police from its storyline.)
In Episode 2 (Wrong Delivery), Melissa (Lisa Ann Walters) tells Janine, "You don't have to lie about it. The cops ain't askin," when the teachers return improperly delivered books to Addington Elementary, a charter school that has better facilities and more resources compared to Abbott.
In Episode 3 (Story Samurai), Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis) says he's going to call the cops on the Story Samurai, a majority white, corny improv group, for lingering in the hallways long after their performances for the students. Though these specific instances are often brief, fast-passing throwaway lines, copaganda is a slippery slope, especially when quite a few of these interactions involve the white teachers.
In Episode 6 (Candy Zombies), kids take the candy being stored in the library until the end of the day. Worried about how the sugar will fuel distractions, the teachers team up to look for the culprit, who's been passing out candy under their noses. A shot cuts to Jacob (Chris Perfetti) and Melissa patting down students in the hallway. Melissa shoves Jacob out of the way, frustrated with his lazy search attempt, to show him how it's done.
"I feel a little conflicted about the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk," Jacob says, as Melissa continues to search kids for candy. "I feel like Eric Adams," Jacob continued.
Mentioning policing, even in jest, normalizes the institution in this show's otherwise cop-free universe. It signals to us that police serve a critical function even in fictional settings where they aren't physically present, making it that much more difficult to imagine and subsequently build a world without them in real life.
Episode 7 (Attack Ad) introduces us to Draemond Winding (Leslie Odom Jr.), a former Abbott student, who runs Legendary Schools, a charter organization that plans to absorb Abbott. While commonly heralded as the premier alternative to public schools, charter schools have a track record of decreasing funding and resources from local public schools and enforcing strict behavioral guidelines for students. The show begins to spotlight these impacts when Barbara lets her former student know that what he's attempting to do hurts public school teachers like her.
Though we've only gotten a taste of this storyline, my hunch is it will likely illuminate the ways Black children in schools are policed beyond uniformed school resource officers. I'm also bracing for the increased anti-Blackness Abbott students may experience ahead, given how Winding's mission to transform Abbott is rooted in shame and anti-Blackness instead of meaningfully considering the many structural reasons for why Abbott is so resource-poor.
Stranger Things (Netflix)
Where it shines:
The highly-anticipated fourth season of Stranger Things premiered earlier this summer after a 3-year hiatus due to the pandemic impacting production. The widely beloved science fiction horror series took a noticeably darker tone this time around, matching the growing pains the young characters are experiencing as they navigate new-found adolescence in addition to protecting the town of Hawkins from the monsters of the Upside Down. Grief, post-traumatic stress disorders, drug use, romantic relationships (and their demise), abandonment, revenge, and death are some of the many themes this "maturer" season tackles.
When it comes to abolition-esque storylines, this season and its predecessors continuously shine when it comes to the ways "The Party" and their peers come together to problem solve to protect their loved ones and communities from the harms of the Upside Down. Even in the midst of navigating their changing (and sometimes strained) relationships with one another, at the end of the day, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Will (Noah Schnapp), Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Max (Sadie Sink), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery), and Robin (Maya Hawke) embody a community that has shared community agreements with one another— "Friends don't lie." They also hold each other accountable when they find themselves falling short.
From uncovering that music opens up portals to escape Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower)'s clutches (Chapter 4: Dear Billy) to discovering gates to the Upside Down exist where Vecna's victims died in order to rescue one another (Chapter 7: The Massacre at Hawkins Lab), it's abundantly clear that this group understands the power, wisdom, and resources they hold as a collective. They also possess an awareness that they can successfully rely on one another to tackle the next challenge that comes their way. There's also multiple instances where a character suggests going to the police for help, which gets immediately shot down upon the realization that this group is actually much better off fighting the creatures of the Upside Down on their own.
How the carceral system shows up:
Though "The Party" acknowledges the ways police can obstruct community safety, the show depicts and ultimately legitimizes the carceral system in almost all its shapes and forms. This season we see multiple types of prisons:
- The asylum that institutionalized Victor Creel;
- Kamchatka, a prison camp in Russia;
- Hawkins Lab, where children have been separated from their families to be experimented on.
Season 4 also highlights law enforcement and police-like characters at every level:
- Local Hawkins police officers failing to meaningfully respond to a town reeling from a string of teen murders;
- Sam Owens (Paul Reiser) and Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) capturing Eleven and retraumatizing her in order to hone her power to fight countries abroad;
- U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jack Sullivan (Sherman Augustus) using military torture tactics against another cop to gain information about Eleven's whereabouts in order to prosecute her;
- Former Hawkins PD Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour)'s anti-communist redemption arc.
At a time when we are seeing policies across the country recommending imprisoning poor people dealing with mental health crises to the ways nurses facilitate the medical industrial complex, it's important to emphasize that the prison industrial complex extends well beyond uniformed police officers. The adults who run the Stranger Things universe are relentless in getting what they want and willingly colluding with and/or directly participating in the carceral system in its many forms to do so. Overpowering and using the children for their own personal gain often in the name of American patriotism is one of the means to this end. Driven by their own agendas, these adults lack the imagination, political will, and care required to consider solutions outside of carcerality. With these adults serving as highly influential role models for "The Party" and the other youth of Hawkins, this generation is being socialized to make similar choices and may carry them out as they grow older.
For now, as they save their town from the Upside Down, the kids are alright— and our only hope.
Severance (Apple TV)
Where it shines:
The psychological thriller drama follows the employees and managers at Lumon Industries, a biotechnology corporation that facilitates highly-controversial "severance" medical procedures that permanently separate non-work memories and experiences from work-related ones. Led by Mark S (Adam Scott), the workers of Lumon's Macrodata Refinement (MDR) division gradually build trust amongst each other and band together to uncover the sinister mystery of what their workplace actually does—which the first season doesn't fully address, nor does it explain the why behind these procedures.
What we do know is that the company is run by the powerful Eagan family with significant financial and political influence in this show's universe. Activists and journalists push back on the Eagans with concerns that this technology is on a trajectory to eventually be used on people against their will and to ultimately control an even larger population than Lumon's employees.
Against the backdrop of a historic year for labor organizing and unionization efforts, (requests for the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections increased by 58 percent in the first eight months of the year), the show illustrates the significant power workers can wield moving together with shared interests and what becomes possible when doing so.
In Episode 3 (In Perpetuity), while Mark's at work, his sister Devon (Jen Tullock) and brother-in-law Ricken (Michael Chernus) drop off a seemingly inconspicuous self-help book authored by Ricken. Though initially confiscated by Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), Mark's unsevered boss who suspects it's contraband, the book gets back into Mark's possession and radicalizes him against Lumon, as the book carries strong anti-establishment rhetoric, highlighting the power of media to inspire workers to action.
In Episode 6 (Hide and Seek), having previously uncovered the possibility of reversing a severance procedure and that there are other workers outside of the MDR division, Mark makes an impassioned speech encouraging MDR to join the Optics and Design (O&D) division to learn more about the inner workings of the corporation. When workers are able to break from our respective silos and connect on a peer level, the commonalities that are unearthed are powerful fuel to make demands needed to shift working conditions.
How the carceral system shows up:
Lumon Industries as an entity directly parallels the nefariousness and bleakness that is Corporate America and racial capitalism at large. With conversations about workplace conditions being thrown into the center of online discourse at the onset of the pandemic, general consciousness seems to be rising toward an understanding of the ways workplaces carry out policing— surveilling labor, time, behaviors, health, and so much more. While the severance procedure itself offers insightful commentary on the concept of work-life balance, the procedure is marketed as an effective tool for workers to be fulfilled in both the workplace and in their personal lives. However, it becomes increasingly clear that Lumon dictates and shapes both versions of workers' lives by its ability to free and retract severed workers, thus operating constraints in both worlds.
Throughout the series, strict managers and higher-ups utilize technology, the threat of "going to the break room" and other forms of retaliation to surveil and police workers to ensure they stick to their mundane tasks and to get ahead of any efforts reminiscent of union organizing by discouraging connection. In a move reminiscent to corporate union-busting, Episode 5 (The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design), Seth Milchick (Tramell Tillman), the supervisor of the severed floor, places an image in the MDR copier room that depicts O&D workers enacting violence against MDR employees, in an effort to seed mistrust between the two groups of workers who actively questioned Lumon's actual purpose and morality.
With Season 1 ending on a cliffhanger, only time will tell if the workers of Lumon come out on top. I'll continue rooting for them as we wait for Season 2.
White Lotus (HBO Max)
Where it shines:
Season 2 of Mike White's anthology series flies us to Sicily, where we meet an assortment of predominantly rich, white American tourists vacationing at the White Lotus hotel. With the season's finale airing earlier this month, it's currently in the pop culture zeitgeist and receiving critical acclaim in real time for its allegories within the set design and opening sequence, writing, cinematography, and acting performances (the streets can't get enough of Meghann Fahy and I'm here for it).
This season spends its duration exploring gender dynamics, power, and the myth that those who uphold the status quo are rewarded while those who deviate are punished. However, this myth is quickly dispelled when it comes to Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò), two local sex workers who successfully target the hotel and its guests for their own personal and financial gain. Both characters not only recognize the power at their disposal due to their knack of being able to tap into the desires of Cameron (Theo James), Dominic (Michael Imperioli), Albie (Adam DiMarco) and Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), but they are also unapologetic and unwavering (for the most part) in their approach.
It's brilliant and refreshing to see women sex workers carry out their work in spite of the shame the hotel guests and workers project onto them. With Mia gaining a full-time gig as the hotel's singer and Lucia scamming Albie out of 50,000 euros, two locals ultimately come out on top vs. the American tourists, a tremendous feat considering the rampant economic and sexual exploitation that tourists weaponize against local communities when on vacation.
It's also refreshing to see that no one called the police on Mia and Lucia as retribution, despite Valentina's initial rudeness and slutshaming at the beginning of the season. As the resort manager, Valentina was in a unique and powerful position to wield a bevy of punitive consequences their way and chose not to, presumably given the nature of her relationship with Mia that unfolds later in the season.
How the carceral system shows up:
At its core, White Lotus is a murder mystery on the beach, so it's no surprise it opens up with a crime scene with ambulances and police. However, there's much more ground to cover when it comes to the way gender serves as a policing mechanism.
We see the ways the male characters succumb to the wills of masculinity and power of the patriarchy. Despite genuinely believing they are not misogynists, to varying degrees, all three Di Grasso men use their romantic and sexual pursuits of women to quell their anxieties and insecurities about their places in the world.
In Episode 3, (Bull Elephants), while visiting a palazzo in Noto, Daphne (Meghann Fahy) somewhat laments to Harper (Aubrey Plaza) that she feels sorrow for men because they believe they're doing something important but in reality, they are wandering around like elephants without a herd. Cameron, Daphne's husband, uses consistent infidelity to suppress his struggles with abandonment. Harper's husband Ethan (Will Sharpe)'s final straw is that he believes Cameron has been intimate with his wife, whom he believes he has ownership over as he continuously misdirects his frustrations toward Harper. What might be possible within himself and his marriage if he admitted his insecurities and implied imposter syndrome vs. letting resentment pile up?
While the women of the show are much more aware of how gender controls everything in their lives, including while on holiday, they ultimately default to falling in line externally, as cis-het women are socialized to do, while finding their own, covert ways to cope with the ways patriarchal norms and transgressions confine them. We see this most poignantly when Daphne reveals her affair with her trainer to Harper as evidence that she finds ways to not be a victim of Cameron's infidelity. Unfortunately, to some level, the majority of characters practice self-betrayal in order to accurately perform and uphold their gender.