Television

The Boys Is the Only Show Nihilistic Enough to Capture America in 2020

In its second season, the Amazon series finally finds the zeitgeist.

The Seven from the show The Boys
Amazon Studios

Hollywood didn’t start making political satires about Adolf Hitler until 1940, when it released two: The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s beloved and enduring masterpiece, which famously ends with a stirring plea for peace and harmony, and You Nazty Spy!, a mostly forgotten nonmasterpiece that ends with the Three Stooges getting eaten by lions. Both movies take a pretty dim view of fascism, but only one of them embodies the Nazis’ bottomless cruelty and stupidity in every frame, and it isn’t the one where Chaplin gracefully bats around an inflatable globe. Some people, systems, and ideologies can be effectively satirized by skewering them, delicately and precisely drawing out hidden contradictions and faulty logic. Others are so obviously moronic that spending any time on subtlety means treating them with more dignity than they deserve and that it’s time to call in the Stooges. America in 2020 is definitely a Stooges situation, and in its second season, The Boys, Eric Kripke’s terrifically entertaining television adaptation of the comic book series by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, is the only TV show nihilistic enough to even come close to capturing it.

The Boys is a satire of superhero entertainment set in a world in which superheroes are real, and it follows two groups of characters: a Justice League–style superhero team known as the Seven, and a ragtag crew of non-superheroes trying to take them down. That frame lets The Boys take aim at the other aspects of American culture superheroes have colonized, which is to say all of them, and the results are as brutal as the slapstick gore that regularly punctuates the show. The comic book series began in the Bush years, and in its first season, the TV version suffered from the same problem most political satires would have if you transplanted them to the Trump era: They’re built around premises that are no longer credible, like the idea of a scandal that could bring down a president.

The second season, much like life in these United States, is structured around a leadership vacuum, and it’s an enormous improvement. No one on the show is in charge or knows who is; as in Brazil, it’s deputies and undersecretaries all the way to the top. (The president makes exactly one decision all season, and it’s bypassing the FDA to personally approve a dangerous and untested drug.) As for corporate power, the head of Vought Industries (Giancarlo Esposito), the nefarious multinational corporation that sponsors the Seven, can’t cross his shareholders, regardless of his personal wishes. In short, everyone in the world of The Boys knows that they’re cogs in a machine that manufactures anger and misery, everyone is angry and miserable about it, and no one thinks they have any power to change things, even if they have superpowers. It feels very familiar, except for the part about superpowers.

So which particular misery machines are in The Boys’ crosshairs this time around? The first season focused on three interlocking systems: the military-industrial complex, evangelical Christianity, and the entertainment industry. Only the entertainment industry comes under sustained attack this time around, courtesy of a pinkwashing subplot centered on the production of a Justice League knockoff called Rise of the Seven. In place of the evangelicals, The Boys introduces the Church of the Collective, a Scientology doppelgänger that aggressively recruits the Deep, the Aquaman type played by Chace Crawford. As for the military-industrial complex, it’s still around, but in keeping with the show’s theme of power vacuums, this season it’s mostly irrelevant. In its place, The Boys has introduced two new characters whose power comes from their fans and supporters instead of their position or their superpowers: an AOC stand-in played by Claudia Doumit who wants to hold congressional hearings about Vought, and an internet-savvy superhero from Portland who can shoot lightning from her fingers, played by You’re the Worst’s Aya Cash. Her name is Stormfront, and you can probably guess her secret identity.

The Boys is not the first or even the millionth piece of art to take shots at any of these institutions, but it has a superpower that sets it apart: a deep and abiding misanthropy. Civilians barely figure in the series at all, appearing as brain-dead focus-group subjects, screaming fans, angry protestors, commenters on Stormfront’s Instagram livestreams, or collateral damage, and not much else. The Seven know they are manufacturing a toxic and stupid product, the Boys know the Seven are psychopaths, and none of them think very highly of the fans lining up to buy Vought’s bullshit.

The show isn’t completely unsympathetic to people on the outside—one episode has a showstopping cold open that tracks a college student as right-wing propaganda slowly poisons his mind—but it’s impossible to effectively satirize a product without having a little contempt for its consumers, especially when that product is a death cult. It’s never been more obvious that that’s exactly what the United States has become—we’re letting thousands and thousands of people die of COVID-19 to keep stock prices up—and The Boys is just flip and nihilistic enough to capture the full range of the suck, from the parasocial relationships we use to replace human connections to the active shooter drills with which we traumatize our children. As a result, it’s the first thing I’ve watched since the pandemic began that provided any meaningful catharsis. The Boys strikes a tone that Chaplin missed but the Stooges understood: If you want to satirize a sick culture, speeches about the brotherhood of man won’t cut it. Sometimes you’ve gotta unleash the lions.

For more of Slate’s pop culture coverage, subscribe to the Culture Gabfest on Apple Podcasts or listen below.