The Revolution Is Televised

(An apology.  WordPress is messing with my formatting and my paragraphs all merge together no matter what I do.  I am truly sorry about that, and when I learn how to fix it, I will do so.)

A good rule of thumb: when the cast and crew of a television show have to tell you how groundbreaking their program is, it usually isn’t.

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To my mind there have been only two shows that completely revolutionized American television: All in the Family and The Simpsons.  Throughout the history of television, there have been quality shows, influential shows, and even groundbreaking shows.  What makes a revolutionary television show though is that it changes the way television is watched, and more importantly, it changes the societal dialogue.  It’s a tough standard that even the greatest shows on television cannot achieve.

Before All in the Family, American television was fairly quaint in the model of I Love Lucy, the grandmother of all situation comedies.  In retrospect, I Love Lucy was both conformist and groundbreaking at the same time.  Despite the fact that Lucille Ball–and Lucy Ricardo–was the star of the show, ensconced gender roles of the times were unquestionably affirmed–Ricky was the dominant force of the household; in one episode he even spanked Lucy (the first time I saw it, I wanted her to slap him across the face.)  The most compelling relationship of the show though was Lucy and her best pal Ethel, a genius comedy pairing between two women, often imitated but never equalled until their true successors came along in Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone.  After Lucy, television shows progressed but only barely.  Throughout the next decade, sitcoms, even the most funny and intelligent programs such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, maintained the status quo rather than push against it.  Few shows were even as daring as Lucy, with a marriage between American Lucy and Cuban Ricky.*  (Lucy was revolutionary in a more technical way;  the show was a pioneer in the three-camera with live audience format, and singlehandedly developed the rerun and syndication.)

Then came All in the Family.  All in the Family was a zeitgeist, a televised distillation into narrative form of the national debates about gender, religion, sexuality, class, education, politics, and above all race.  Moreover, All in the Family was a weekly morality play, full of unresolved tensions and ambivalent resolutions.   Nothing like it had ever been seen on American sets before, and afterwards any preconceptions of television’s innocence were forever swept away.  Perhaps it is unsurprising that All in the Family was based on an earlier hit British show Till Death Do Us Part.  A show so different could not spring up organically; it had to be imported.

All in the Family introduced television’s most indelible character–Archie Bunker.  Archie is famously and repeatedly described as a “lovable bigot,” but that description entirely misses the point.  Archie is the embodiment of the white, blue-collar worker who in the 60’s and 70’s watched the world around him change.  He does not and cannot understand those changes, so he retreats into anger.  But Archie does not hate; he fears.  In each episode that fear is abrasively confronted by his son-in-law, the liberal, educated, and unemployed Mike Stivic.  Archie is no saint (the saint of All in the Family is his long-suffering wife Edith), but Mike is no hero, despite the fact that he is the mouthpiece of show creator Norman Lear and, ironically, Carroll O’Connor, the actor who brought Archie to life.  The show empathizes with all of its characters, and that is why it was and is so wildly popular.

After All in the Family, no subject (or almost none) was taboo.  If a show did not embrace All in the Family in some way, then it risked irrelevance.

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If I Love Lucy was the grandmother of sitcoms, and All in the Family parented a new era in television, then The Simpsons was the inevitable scion.  Now that the show has been on the air for over two decades(!), and the quality has dipped to a level that renders the show nearly unwatchable, it is easy to forget how powerful and intelligent the earlier seasons of the show actually were.  The Simpsons began life as animated shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show where both Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner were cast members.
From a purely simplistic level, The Simpsons is a crudely drawn animated show that parodied the typical sitcom family.  That is certainly how George H.W. Bush saw the show when he infamously declared that American families needed to be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”  (Bart’s reply: “Hey, we’re like just like the Waltons.  We’re praying for an end to the Depression too.”)  Unsurprisingly, Bush completely missed the point of the show.  The Simpsons were not the anti-Waltons (or, more accurately for the time, the anti-Cosbys), a family that reveled in its low-class horribleness like their network neighbors the Bundys; rather the show was a razor-sharp satire of American life, full of both highly intelligent and broadly comedic references.  A British Literature professor of mine once said that The Simpsons (at least the first eight or so seasons) was the closest American culture has ever come to producing its own Shakespeare.
It may sound pompous (and my professor was nothing if not pompous), but he was also correct.  Take for example my favorite episode, A Streetcar Named Marge.  The premise was one that the show used before and would use so many times again; Marge, crushed by the weight of caring for her thankless family, channels her energy elsewhere–in this case a community theater production of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire.  Except for the fact that the production she’s in is a musical version called “O, Streetcar” complete with ridiculous songs and over-the-top stagecraft (Blanche DuBois’s descent into madness is represented by her flying around the stage on wires).  In addition to skewering community theater, the episode also references Ayn Rand, The Great Escape, Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock movies, musicals, and one, of course, of the greatest plays in the American repertoire.  Nevertheless, what holds the episode together is the emotional core the writers create by paralleling Marge’s life with Blanche’s (complete with Homer screaming “MAAAARGE! at the top of his lungs), but still giving Marge a happy ending.
An animated cartoon seems an unlikely influence for live action television, yet The Simpsons has had more of an impact on television than any show since All in the Family.  The best shows post-Simpsons are those that abandoned the three camera set and the live audience in order to adopt The Simpsons‘ razor-sharp wit, multi-dimensional gags, and manic energy that the old format could not hold.  These shows learned from The Simpsons that it is okay to trust an audience, a lesson made easier by advent of the DVD.  Multiple viewings reward the audience with a fuller understanding of complicated gags.  It’s a respect that these shows’ writers have for their audiences; this is not the hand-holding of mediocre fluff such as Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond.
The best of this new wave of shows is the short-lived, much-loved Arrested Development.  Arrested Development, in its all-too-brief life, may well be the funniest television program ever.  The reason for the show’s success is not only the mixture of highbrow and lowbrow humor; rather it was the show’s foresight in creating a strong emotional core based around lovable characters who in the real world would be absolutely intolerable.  We care about the Bluth family against our better judgment.

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In contrast to actual revolutionary shows are those shows which pat themselves on the back for being revolutionary but aren’t.  Unfortunately it seems that the shows that trumpet the loudest are those that feature LGBT themes and characters front and center.  Four shows in particular come to mind: Glee, The L-Word, Will & Grace, and the American version of Queer as Folk.  Queer as Folk was especially egregious, airing a special prior to the series premier asking the question “Is America ready for Queer as Folk?”  The implication was that QAF was something completely revolutionary, when in truth it was merely a campy and poorly written soap opera that had copious male nudity.  That fact that these shows were (and are) so well-regarded in the gay community is a tragic sign that there is so little good gay programming.
Perhaps I have been spoiled because I saw a gay-themed show that actually was groundbreaking, and that was the original, British Queer as Folk.  Much ink has been spilled about the show, but there were some very good reasons why the British Queer as Folk was so wonderful despite (or because of) its short life.  It was a well-written, well-plotted, and well-acted show with great characters, realistic stories, and an unapologetic outlook.  Compare that to the show’s American recreation, in which all the characters were in some way manifestations of the creators’ politics and beliefs.  I would say that the American version’s writers put the accent on the wrong syllable, but we are not even talking about the same paragraph let alone the same word.
Will & Grace though earns a special place in Hell.  For all its plaudits, the Emperor has no clothes. I often wondered if the revulsion I felt was anything akin to what African-Americans felt watching Amos ‘n’ Andy.  Will & Grace was bleached of any potential same-sex passion in order to sell “tolerance,” i.e.,  make it palatable to the wider (straight) audience.**  What makes Will & Grace even more grating is that it takes credit for a revolution that it did not earn.  Since Will & Grace first aired, there has been tremendous progress for gay rights, and no doubt the show’s creators believe they are owed credit for changed attitudes about gays and lesbians.  They aren’t.  The progress that was made came as a result of societal change that coincided at the same time as Will & Grace, not because of it.  This was no All in the Family, a show that held a mirror up to American society.  Will & Grace was conciliatory; it lacked All in the Family‘s ambition to confront.
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In the Jan. 2, 2012 edition of The New Yorker, television critic Emily Nussbaum praised a new web-only show called Husbands.  The show was written by Jane Espenson, whose writing credits include, among other shows, the great fantasy series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  There are 11 episodes of Husbands, only a few minutes each.  The show’s conceit is that on the night same-sex marriage is made legal, an openly gay Kardashian-like celebrity drunkenly marries an openly gay professional baseball star (yes, it is pure fantasy) after a night of drunken revelry.  Despite regretting their actions the next morning, the couple, in order to show the world that gays are not taking the institution of marriage lightly, decide to try to make their union work.***
It is easy to criticize, and I don’t actually enjoy doing it.  Criticism is the tearing down of a structure that takes effort to build.  Although some things deserve it (anything Michael Bay touches for example), I feel regret for saying anything negative about such effort, even though I am secure in the knowledge that none of the people I criticize will ever know this blog exists.
For that reason, I feel uneasy about my strong dislike for Husbands.  The people behind the show believe in what they are doing.  Nevertheless, that does not mean I think the show is quality or that I believe Nussbaum is correct (I don’t and she isn’t).  It would be easy enough to ignore a series that only exists on the Internet, but then I heard the creators of the show talk about how nothing like their show had been done before (a romantic comedy sitcom based around two men!)
Husbands suffers from the soft bigotry of low expectations.  Not societal expectations, its own.  The creators openly admire and emulate mediocrity like Mad About You and Dharma and Greg.  Worse, the director is a veteran writer/producer from Will & Grace, a show whose ethos infects every pore of Husbands.  The show models its cheap-joke dialogue and faux-emotional plots after these shows; I know the places I was supposed to laugh because those were the places where I cringed the most.  You can practically hear the canned laughter.
Besides mediocrity, the other major legacy from Will & Grace is the Husbands‘ blatant refusal to be political.  This is fine except that the show’s very premise is based on the political–the idea that same-sex marriage is such a precarious equal rights issue that a Britney Spears quickie-marriage will make all gay people look bad.  This fear underscores the entire show.  There is also an inherent dialogue about what it means to be gay and how and whether to make gender roles when both partners are the same gender.  This is not something that they worried about on Mad About You.  The creators of this show are somehow aware that the show is intrinsically political yet at the same time they are oblivious to it, and that willful obliviousness is maddening.  The show could be so much more than it is free of the constraints of television.  That it chooses to be apolitical and middling while at the same time trumpets itself for being original and groundbreaking smacks of tone deafness at best and pandering at worst.
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Like most gay people, I look forward to an American gay-themed television show that actually is groundbreaking. I just hope that when the show comes, it doesn’t have to tell me that it is.

Footnotes:  

*  This post focuses on long form narrative fictional television: the sitcom and the drama.  Dramas on American television have never had the kind influence or audience as half-hour sitcoms, although I will discuss one in particular later.  The lone drama that could potentially be called revolutionary is The Wire, which chronicled the failure of the drug war and the ensuing metropolitan decay in a style that was more visual novel than televised drama.  Whether The Wire is truly revolutionary will be determined by time.

** I am reminded of the movie Camp, which, like Will & Grace, pandered to straight audiences, yet was inexplicably adored by gay ones.  For example, in a camp that is full of young gay men, the only sex in the movie is heterosexual.  The short answer is that for all of its “tolerance,” the movie considers gay sexuality to be something shameful and embarrassing.

*** I reject the very premise on which Husbands based.  There is a very famous quote from the First Zionist Congress from 1897: “A Jewish state would only be a normal country if Jewish street-cleaners and gardeners worked in the same cities as Jewish doctors, lawyers and businessmen, and when Jewish policemen arrested Jewish prostitutes.”  I feel the same about same-sex marriage;  equality will be achieved only when gay people stop thinking of marriage with reverence and treat it as casually as straight people do.

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One response to “The Revolution Is Televised

  1. This is one of your very best posts. You have woven many themes together into a meaningful montage that presents your ideas sharply. I enjoyed reading it.

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