Sunday, January 10, 2016

California water and drought on the TV box

I'm a television watcher -- or more accurately, a watcher of what passes for TV these days: streaming things onto various screens. What can I say? I adore pop culture and I work pretty hard with my brain all day and sometimes it likes to rest on entirely brainless things.

But, here's where my worlds are colliding. The thing I tire my brain out on all day is water. And, more and more, water is showing up on TV. As much as I try to ignore it, it's been super interesting to see how far the California drought is oozing into the deepest reaches of our psyches, at least as reflected in everything from family dramas to reality shows.


First, there has been the obvious stuff, like the Lady Gaga public service announcement done in exchange for a video she filmed at Hearst Castle and, after finding they'd shut off all the water in those beautiful pools, had them filled for her purposes...or something like that. Then there was the Game of Thrones spoof put together by the City of West Hollywood. Title: Saving Water is No Game (of Thrones).

There are also the seemingly more random places water comes up. Not too long ago there was some excitement in environmental circles that Claire Underwood, a leading character on House of Cards played by Robin Wright, ran an international non-profit focused on water. That was exciting stuff! But, here we are a few years later and water seems to have really hit primetime, so to speak, particularly for shows that take place in California.

For example, a few months ago I binge-watched all of Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce (it pulled me in...having been there, a guide would have been useful). In amongst all the rules and guidelines (like #174: Never trust anyone who charges by the hour, which is the title of the episode I'm about to reference) was a short-lived little character who was intensely worried about water. This scene from S1E2 starts around 07:17:
Kid whose name I can't find: "Mom, you know because of the drought, all of California could be consumed by a super fire?"
Lyla: "Baby, STOP reading that stuff. Why don't you go find the other kids, play a video game, clean the palate?"
As the kid runs off, Lyla says to friends: "Every day I get an update on the coming water wars and how we should all move to Portland."
Sadly, after Janeane Garofalo, who played Lyla, departed the show really early in the first season, we also lost the water (and wildfire! Be still my beating heart.) worrying kid.

Then there is The Fosters -- a family drama that I am not ashamed to say I kind of love. Once again, it's the kids in the family that are stressed about California's water situation. Since the first season of the show, the high school age Mariana (played by Cierra Ramirez) has been the eco-concious voice of the show, enforcing short, timed showers and such. But, I was really floored in the third season when they actually brought up (drumroll, please) ... MEGADROUGHT! This scene starts around 00:35 in S3E2:
Mariana: "Are you almost done in there? You do know that we're in the worst drought since 800 AD, right?"
Stef: "Oh my gosh, I forgot my conditioner. Can you go get it from our bathroom, honey?"
Mariana: "Okay, well, can you not waste water while you wait?"
Brandon: "Hey, I'm late, and I need to shower too."
Stef: "Why don't you take a spit bath in the kitchen sink?"
Brandon: "Wait, what's a spit bath?"
Mariana: "I don't know. Sounds disgusting, but I'm next."
Come on now! Talking 800 AD is a small step away from using the word paleoclimate and made me about as happy as that one 90's episode of the Simpson's that was about invasive species and trophic cascades and all sorts of deeply ecological stuff (not the rock climber one, the other one). I mean, when you study this weird stuff for a living, it's kind of amazing to see it as the main plot of a Sunday evening show on FOX.

But, back to drought. More recently, I binge-watched (are we sensing a pattern here?) the second season of Transparent. I cannot explain how much I love this show, for reasons that have nothing to do with water. For one, I love shows where the geographic place it happens is featured almost as a character -- in this case it happens to be LA. The characters are often seen wandering through typical southern California landscapes that are, by nature, often pretty darn dry. I appreciate seeing LA presented as something other than grass and palm trees. The best, though, is when the characters Ali and Syd (played by Gaby Hoffman and Carrie Brownstein) host a Yom Kippur dinner party where no water is served "in solidarity with the drought," but wine and skim milk are, hilariously, offered as alternatives (S2E7 at about 19:50). It's a sort of beyond perfect moment that captures a lot of the ironies wrapped up in how we talk about California water.

And, finally, here's where I really have to admit to one of my totally guilty pleasures: Keeping up with the Kardashians (please don't hate me). Once again, there have been some random, interesting references to the drought by several members of the Kardashian/Jenner clan. Young Kylie, having been scolded as a water waster over the summer, mentions it in passing on one episode (her sister Kim was also in trouble for water use). And then there's Kris Jenner, running from some bees that she's convinced are around because of the drought. I'm too lazy to go find the exact episode for this one, but it's there somewhere.

I honestly find it kind of incredible to see this level of water and drought awareness seeping into our cultural consciousness. I mean, not only did somebody(s) have to write and/or say the words, but many others had to edit and approve and somehow they all agreed the material was on point enough to keep it there. That's saying, well, something. It may even be saying a lot.

If you've noticed others scenes, other shows, etc., I'd love to hear about them. While I don't see the Kardashian's bypassing Chinatown in the water canon, a little updating of our cultural references couldn't hurt. And maybe I'll follow up with an El Niño post in the future, as that's surely where we're headed next if a recent tweet by an old friend is any indication.
P.S. I also have been known to read books. I highly recommend Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins.

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