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Old Dads (Photo: Netflix)
Old Dads (Photo: Netflix)

Pop CultureNovember 12, 2023

Netflix’s Old Dads and the sharp growth of conservative pop culture

Old Dads (Photo: Netflix)
Old Dads (Photo: Netflix)

Comedian Bill Burr’s grouchy, reactionary new film is a surprise smash – and there’s more coming.

This is an excerpt from The Spinoff’s weekly pop culture newsletter Rec Room. Sign up here.

Bill Burr doesn’t profile like any kind of conservative. A prolific and acclaimed comedian and podcaster, he’s a self-identified liberal in favour of gun control and abortion rights. Yet his directorial debut reveals a dyspeptic view of our current social mores and has a very contemptuous tone toward young progressive values, which has made him an unlikely hero in conservative media.

“‘Old Dads’ on Netflix proves PC critics can’t stop whining about fun”, reads a typical headline from Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. The film has gotten pretty mediocre reviews, sitting at 42% on Metacritic, which is not atypical for a Netflix film. What’s different about this one is that “bad Netflix film” is typically code for a carelessly made hyper-bland Adam Sandler film (notenot all Netflix Adam Sandler movies fit this mould), whereas Old Dads is bad in a very deliberate, intentional way. It’s not the premise, or not wholly the premise – just how joyless all the jokes are.

The film’s premise (Burr co-wrote, as well as starring and directing) is pretty basic: they’re dads, but they’re old. More specifically, they’re a group of friends, all business partners in a firm that makes high end throwback sports gear, all of whom have become fathers later in life with younger, prettier (of course) women. The film then plunges us into multiple layers of intergenerational conflict, always from the trio’s perspective, befuddled by a changing world. Those issues occur within their relationships, at a strange new age school and with the young investor who buys them out of their business.

It’s not that this is infertile ground. Language and politics have evolved in progressive circles to sometimes radiate a contempt to people who grew up in a different era and simply haven’t been paying as close attention to where the mainstream has moved. It’s also true that it’s unimaginable that any of New Zealand’s culture funding agencies would ever back a project in this realm, despite it clearly appealing to a large chunk of this country’s population. There is a reasonable debate to be had about whether it’s right that one half of politics and society makes culture that is, on some level, hostile to the beliefs of the other half.

Old Dads (I keep starting to type ‘Bad Dads’, which feels telling) has no interest in nuance, though. It features Burr’s character Jack Kelly annoyed that he is reprimanded for describing trans people as “trannies” and riffing pointlessly on Caitlin Jenner; a white character claiming to be “3% Sri Lankan” and therefore a person of colour; and an excruciating extended sequence where Bokeem Woodbine, who is black, goads a young colleague into rapping the N-word along with NWA. If those don’t seem like jokes, I can only agree.

The only moment of reflection is when Kelly appeals to a motel guest to clarify whether vaping is the same as smoking. She affirms it is, farts loudly (funny), then rails against immigrants (no). For a moment, Kelly pauses to reflect on the kind of person he’s suddenly in coalition with. Then it’s gone.

The characters learn almost nothing, and the whole film is content to just say naughty stuff without having any point of view about why younger people might be less inclined to say it. Again, there really is a legitimate conversation to be had about whether mores around language have alienated constituencies that would otherwise find common ground. Unfortunately, Old Dads isn’t interested in that – it has its mind made up and is deeply tedious as a result.

Tedious, but also very, very big. It was the most popular film on Netflix for weeks after its release on October 20. For a relatively low budget film, with no major stars beyond (arguably) Burr, that’s impressive. And it’s instructive that there is a big audience for film and TV that feels like it explicitly or implicitly critiques the current cultural value set.

2023 has seen a major flowering there. One of the year’s biggest box office hits is Sound of Freedom, an indie film about child trafficking that has become a totem for the Christian and conspiracist right. Country singer Jason Aldean’s ‘Try That in a Small Town’ became his first mainstream number one in the US only after it became the subject of a furore due to its video being part-shot at the site of a lynching. And the Daily Wire, the fast-growing digital conservative news network, announced a huge nine-figure investment into Bent Key, a kids’ TV network it pitches as a conservative alternative to Disney, which it says is “indoctrinating children into the LGBTQIA cult”.

The fact a brand as big and broad as Disney has been dismissed as too progressive is telling about the way US culture has shifted and polarised. In the 90s, Michael Jordan famously said “Republicans buy sneakers too,” to explain his unwillingness to get involved in political matters. Now it feels like every brand or product has to make a call about which audience it aims for and speaks to, with precious little shared ground to reduce the heat in any debate.

Netflix is actually almost alone in trying to create content that appeals to different socio-political sensibilities, and the best thing I can say about Old Dads is that at least it exists on a platform which expresses many different worldviews. One thing is certain: given its runaway success, it and Burr are certain to create more pop culture in this mode and likely head further into the reactionary ethos too.

One final point: we can’t dismiss this just because it’s happening in the US, as tech platforms see no borders. It’s also telling that Bent Key has grown out of the Daily Wire – culture is on some level downstream from the frontlines of news and its framing*. New Zealand is starting to see real dislocations in our mainstream audiences, with Sean Plunket’s The Platform now well-established as an alternative news and talk brand. Invariably the same pressures will start to weigh ever more heavily on our mainstream media organisations, forcing them to either create products for those audiences – or watch them move somewhere that will.

* To be clear, both are downstream from social media. I was reminded, again, of how strange it is that the most powerful communication force of our time remains almost entirely untaxed and unregulated, with this quote from former venture capitalist Benedict Evans, who is mostly very sceptical of regulation: “It’s worth asking whether a real-time feed of strangers posting things that might or might not be true was ever a really good idea.” Yes.

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