You can tell a lot about the mood of the country by the kinds of stories we tell ourselves through our popular culture. And there is no better measuring stick than TV with its huge audiences and minute-by-minute measurements of those viewers.
In what has otherwise been a lackluster season in terms of programs and audience interest, there is one story that we cannot seem to get enough of - and that means Hollywood is going to be telling it more and more in coming days. In fact, as we enter the final month of the network TV season, it is the only story that audiences seem passionate about.
Call it the shining-moment-on-a-stage story line. It involves a nobody (or bunch of nobodies) coming out of nowhere (often after a long journey) for the chance to perform onstage before a huge audience (often made up of the very people who ignored or ridiculed them). And always, in the version we love, there is a moment of transformation and glory on that stage.
American Idol is, of course, the king daddy of the genre with a call literally going throughout the land each year for aspirants. After a series of regional tryouts, the best are invited to perform onstage in the show business Camelot of Hollywood before the court of Simon, Paula, Randy and Kara. And, ultimately, one of them is crowned onstage amid a sea of glitter, confetti and joyous tears.
On May 19, the eve of Idol's big finish, Fox will premiere a new one-hour musical comedy titled Glee - and it, too, is all about that shining moment on a stage.
In case anyone might miss the connection, the network has been endlessly playing a slick promotional ad for the show during commercial breaks in Idol. The ad is built around the shining-moment-on-a-stage sequence in the pilot featuring a group of high school hopefuls performing Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " - and bringing the audience to its feet.
Even PBS will be trying to tell a version of the same story this month with a May 27 premiere of In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams. The documentary charts the eight-year struggle by lyricist/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast to bring this musical set in Latino Washington Heights to Broadway, where it would go on to win four Tony Awards. Talk about shining moments on big stages.
And then comes America's Got Talent, NBC's summertime series from producer Simon Cowell. Nothing defines the shining-moment-on-a-stage story line better than the recent YouTube video of Susan Boyle singing "I Dreamed a Dream" on Britain's Got Talent, the United Kingdom counterpart to NBC's show.
So, why is this story line finding such traction with TV audiences these days?
Admittedly, it is not new. The underlying narrative has been acted out time and again for decades in high school gymnasiums during the month of May in the staging of senior class plays.
And various versions of the story line have captured the American imagination before. In 1975, Chorus Line made its debut on Broadway. In 1980, Fame arrived in American movie theaters.
What's different today is the proliferation of TV productions - both in reality and drama genres - built around the story line.
As always, part of the explanation is a business one that involves a breakthrough hit being imitated to the point that it creates its own trend.
High School Musical, the 2006 Disney Channel made-for-TV movie, would be the prototype here with the Nielsen and box-office success of its two sequels spurring further imitation.
But there is surely something in the culture, too.
On one level, it's the technological aspect that matters - especially, I suspect, for younger fans. From MySpace to YouTube and Facebook, new media offer their users an instant moment in the spotlight - and a chance to be praised or ridiculed by a worldwide cyber-audience. Those who have put themselves out there on the digital stage can relate in a personal way to a story line of performance and risk.
But at an even deeper cultural level, each of these productions also tells the story of young performers from disparate backgrounds overcoming their differences and in the process creating something so powerful and fine that it transforms all their lives.
As Americans, that is one of our favorite stories. We told it to ourselves about platoons of soldiers in World War II and teams of astronauts in the 1960s. We saw it played in sitcoms like Barney Miller in the 1970s.
We tell it to ourselves in various forms whenever our belief in the fundamental goodness of our national character comes under assault and we start to doubt in our ultimate ability to prevail.
From liars and crooks on Wall Street, to politicians who keep playing the same old Washington games even as millions of Americans lose jobs and homes, there is certainly no shortage of uncertainty today.
Spotlight center stage. Cue the singer: "Just a small-town girl, livin' in a lonely world. ..."