Crime and entertainment

Jason Bateman and Laura Linney appear in “Ozark” (Netflix)

Lately I’ve been watching people walk by, wondering how many of them have bricks of cash strapped under their bellies. How many guns did they cram into those reusable tote bags? Oh, look, she’s buying a shovel. Must have thrown the last one in the lake after burying the guy who talked too much.

Or perhaps I’ve just been watching too many crime shows.

Recently I binge-watched “Ozark” on Netflix. The story centers on a seemingly normal Chicago family that moves to Missouri in order to launder money for a drug cartel.

Between “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul,” “Fargo” and “Good Girls,” it sure seems there’s been a trend to my recent TV viewing. I’ve learned more about the criminal underworld in my jammies than I would have doing time in the stony lonesome.

After finishing all these sin-ridden shows, I decided to change pace by watching a show from the BBC. Surely, something highbrow would cleanse the palate. But I chose “Peaky Blinders,” which is essentially the same thing set in Liverpool 100 years ago. Sex, drugs, and competing criminal gangs, all told through the spectrum of accents found in the early 20th Century British Empire.

If it weren’t for “Ted Lasso,” I might be digging a network of underground tunnels to the border. The feel-good soccer spoof “Lasso” is about the only show on my 2021 watch list in which bodies weren’t melted by acid in a plastic barrel. (In the period show the barrel was oaken, crafted by an expert cooper).

When it comes to crime shows there have been distinct eras of television. Early programs featured cops who were always good hunting criminals who were always bad. I grew up in the era of complicated cops trying to find good amid chaos and evil. Now we seem to be living through the era of “competent, relatable criminals wrestle with the ever-sprawling consequences of their bad choices.”

I’m sure future scholars will sort out what this all means. Something about the failed promise of the American dream. Or maybe the moral relativism that inevitably rises from deriving values from the acquisition of material wealth.

No matter. In a few years the hit shows will be YouTube videos showing us how to control nitrogen levels in soil. Might as well enjoy the flashy action while we still can.

For the last five years I’ve been researching early Iron Range history for a book. Now, there was no shortage of organized crime in the old days. And that’s not even counting the Oliver Iron Mining Company’s tax evasion and labor suppression tactics. Bootleggers ran hooch north, south, east and west through the Mesabi Range.

But even here I’ve picked up a lot of perspective from these criminal TV dramas. For instance, I have a much better idea of how to launder money than I ever did before. It’s even caused me to question those good old days.

For instance, there’s a local bank billboard that I see everyday. I look at it, secure in the knowledge that this bank cleaned money for bootleggers in the 1920s. That’s not a knock. It makes me like them more.

Do you have any idea how easy it would have been to launder millions of dollars during the move of Hibbing? It would have been super easy.

Did someone actually do it, though? They had to, right? How much? We may never know, but there is no way the answer to that question is “zero dollars.”

I think there’s something underneath all this. We’re struggling with moral questions during times when nothing seems simple or easy. We’d like to think there’s someone worse than us out there. But on the other hand we like the idea of escaping to a world where people can take the easy way out.

These thing go in cycles. Virtue will have its retro resurgence. Perhaps the next wave of great television will celebrate a resilient newspaper columnist, a wandering survivor of a dwindling industry. He completes his work well before the deadline and then eats a sensible salad for lunch.

No one would believe it.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, September 26, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


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