Friday, February 24, 2012

"Crosetti" - Homicide: Life on the Street

"Crosetti," Teleplay by James Yoshimura, Story by Tom Fontana & James Yoshimura, Directed by Whitney Ransick. Air date: 12/2/94. NBC Home Entertainment. 1994-1995.

Jon Polito and Clark Johnson
Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) from Homicide: Life on the Street was as far removed as possible from anything seen on primetime TV, certainly not in most police procedurals. He wasn’t a hunk. He was older, fat, balding, and complained endlessly about his ex-wife and daughter. He also had a fetish for jazz and Lincoln assassination conspiracies. He, like Ned Beatty’s Det. Stan Bolander and Yaphet Kotto’s Lt. Al Giardello, was the elder statesman on the show, less defined by his superior detective skills and more by his crankiness. He was a man who’d seen enough and wasn’t having much of it.

Homicide: Life on the Street distinguished itself with its characters. During its later seasons, under pressure from network execs to add more telegenic actors to its cast, the show started to resemble more of the police procedurals it was trying to depart from. This move away from seasoned performers who looked reasonably like homicide detectives and more toward eye candy was telegraphed early on with the firing of actor Jon Polito.

Now, there are plenty of stories out there about why exec producer Tom Fontana let Polito go. I won’t go into any of them because that's so much water under the bridge. However, the firing of Polito did two things to the show---one unfortunate and the other quite brilliant. When Polito was let go, Fontana decided to use that as an occasion to deliver one of the finest hours of primetime ever.

“Crosetti” was the sixth episode in the lineup during the third season, though it was originally meant to be the fourth episode. I mentioned before that network executives would often toy with air dates and, in this one episode, their interference also made for very confusing storytelling. In short Steve Crosetti commits suicide. Audiences learned of his death before the episode aired in “A Model Citizen.” The DVD set corrects this error by placing “Crosetti” in the exact lineup that the showrunners intended, but I can only imagine the confusion the actual air dates caused for viewers at the time.

Crosetti’s death comes as a surprise. Nothing in the episodes prior to “Crosetti” foreshadows this. In fact, in the three-parter episode which opened the season---“Nearer My God to Thee,” “Fits Like a Glove,” and “Extreme Unction”---Crosetti is only mentioned in passing.

The episode opens with a sequence of the Coast Guard pulling a body out of the water. The scene is underscored with Buddy Guy’s version of “On the Waterfront.” This haunting sequence sets the mood for what will follow. Dets. Bolander and John Munch (Richard Belzer) arrive on the docks to investigate. Right off Munch calls the death a suicide. Though his instincts prove correct from the start, they nonetheless draw the divide that will occur between Stan and Crosetti’s partner, Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson).

“Crosetti” is in fact, more about Lewis than it is about Crosetti. The reason for Crosetti’s suicide remains a mystery, as it is often the case. And just like many sudden deaths, the living is left with the responsibility of processing it all. Crosetti’s sudden passing hangs a dark cloud over the unit, but Lewis feels the impact most brutally. When Giardello delivers the news, it’s apparent that he is emotionally crushed. He quickly goes into denial and seeks out another explanation for the death. For a homicide detective, the explanation is clear: Crosetti was the victim of foul play. Lewis’s reaction might not make sense. A seasoned detective might be more willing to look at the facts as they exist. But the show set up Lewis’s worldview early on in the second season episode “See No Evil.” When Det. Beau Felton’s friend is questioned by Lewis and Crosetti for the mercy killing of his father (played by an always gruff Wilford Brimley), Felton asks Lewis to look past the evidence and drop the case. Lewis’s response is matter-of-fact: “You go when you’re supposed to go, and everything else is homicide.” To accept that his partner may have committed suicide goes far beyond what Lewis comprehends of the world.

Determined to protect his partner’s reputation, Lewis asks Giardello to let him investigate the case. Giardello nixes that idea (Bolander is the primary), but allows Lewis to do his own side investigation. Lewis doesn’t so much investigate but interferes by stifling Bolander's investigation with Crosetti's family and friends. Though Bolander is certain that Crosetti committed suicide, he is nonetheless willing to investigate the case as thoroughly as any that comes across his desk. In fact, Bolander’s insistence on treating Crosetti’s death as any case causes friction between the detectives.

Gee isn’t exactly thrilled that Crosetti’s death may go down as a suicide either. As shift commander, he often runs interference between his squad and the brass, whose politicking stands in the way of good leg work from his detectives. When Capt. Barnfather (Clayton LeBeouf) shoots down the idea of an honor guard at Crosetti’s funeral (Crosetti’s death wasn’t the only recent suicide in the police force), Gee is faced with the prospect of what such a mark on Crosetti's record might mean. Barnfather, on the other hand, is circumspect. When reminded of the previous suicide, in which a detective slashed his wrists in a hotel bathtub, he replies, “What’s to get upset about. He knew when he did it we’d find him like that.” The brass is rather heartless in its concern for PR, but their reaction isn’t really that far removed from Gee’s or Lewis’s. Everybody is concerned about appearances, willing to smooth over the truth to soothe his own fears. Even Munch, who called the death a suicide before he learned who the victim was, is willing to entertain the idea of murder. Crosetti’s actions defy appearances as well. As Lewis would later admit to Bolander, even he was unaware of Crosetti's pain.

While Lewis and Bolander clash over the investigation, the rest of the detectives plan the funeral. Pembleton (Andre Braugher) whose Catholic faith was severely tested in the three-parter season premiere, refuses to attend the service. He has no interest in stepping inside another Catholic church again (while it isn't directly stated Crosetti was also Catholic given that he was Italian). Crosetti’s suicide only compounds his lack of faith in a God that will allow evil to flourish. The rest of the squad reacts as usual to his grandstanding. They're more preoccupied with supporting their fallen colleague. How will it look when Pembleton doesn’t show up for the funeral? However Pembleton is less concerned with appearances than he is with hypocrisy. After having been smitten with the truth, he cannot very well deny that truth than he can deny being a cop. In the end Pembleton is still struggling with his Jesuit upbringing.

There are two scenes in “Crosetti” which really stand out. The first involves Lewis when he finally realizes that his friend and partner committed suicide. Johnson does a superb job with Lewis's break down. He is a subtle actor whose naturalism fits perfectly with the show’s aesthetic. Check out his performance in “The City That Bleeds” when Gee breaks down over the shooting of three of his detectives. Johnson doesn’t say or do very much but listens and lets Kotto take center stage. He is a true player who is thoroughly engaged with the material even when he is asked to support his cast mates.

The second compelling scene occurs at the end with Pembleton when he honors Crosetti in his unique way. Pembleton’s act reveals that he has more respect for Crosetti as both a person and detective than he does for his faith or for that matter the higher-ups. Here duty becomes more than just an obligation to appearances but one that speaks truthfully to how he feels. This scene more than enough sets up the many contradictions and complexities that makes Pembleton such a fascinating character.

Both of these scenes elevate “Crosetti” from a good episode to a brilliant one. I should also throw out praise to scriptwriter James Yoshimura, who would go on to write the equally compelling and intelligent episodes “Every Mother’s Son” and “Subway,” both of which appear on my list of all-time greats. Yoshimura is able to delve deeply into the psyche of these characters and mine truths that often go unnoticed in primetime television.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Passing Love by Jacqueline E. Luckett: A Review

Passing Love, Jacqueline E. Luckett. New York: Grand Central Publishing; Pg. 297; 2012.

Ah, Paris. The City of Love, the City of Lights. Paris looms large in the literary imagination. Writers from Charles Dickens to James Baldwin has written about this romantic city and now Jacqueline E. Luckett (Searching for Tina Turner) joins their ranks with her 2012 novel Passing Love. Paris takes center stage in this tale about two women whose lives intertwine despite passages of time, the separation of two continents, and family secrets.

Nicole-Marie Handy, fifty and divorced, travels to Paris after her friend’s death and a surprise marriage proposal from her married lover. A teenaged RubyMae Garrett escapes from her racially stultifying Mississippi home with an older jazz musician who takes her to New Orleans, New York, and finally to the fabled Paris of her dreams. Nicole and RubyMae’s lives intersect when Nicole finds a photograph of her father, a WWII veteran who also studied at the Sorbonne, among a Parisian street vendor’s wares. On the back of the photo is a message written to RubyMae in her father’s handwriting. After realizing that this RubyMae is the same mysterious and beautiful woman in a photograph she recollects from her childhood, she calls back home for answers. Rather than answering her questions, Nicole's mother instead mails a packet of letters which slowly reveal who RubyMae is and the connection that binds them all together.

The secrets Nicole discovers are needless to say rather predictable. Yet Luckett wields this story with enough of a steady hand, alternating between the present and 1950s Paris, that the cliches don’t overwhelm her tale. Luckett’s greatest achievement however is in the creation of RubyMae Garrett, a fascinating, complex creation of naked ambition and endearing vulnerability. RubyMae, desperate to escape the racism of her small home town, remakes herself into Ruby Garrett, a jazz singer who performs along with her lover, Arnett Dupree, who, unlike Ruby, is unable to escape his own insecurities as an artist in a town that is now swept away by bebop. After tragedy sweeps into their lives, Ruby strikes it on her own, attempting to pursue a career as a singer, sleeping with one of Arnett's old jazz compatriots to get a gig or to pay her rent. When Ruby's plans don't pan out (Ruby’s ambitions far outweigh her talent), the ambitious social climber changes her name again to Josette Dupree and decides to go after a wealthy Frenchman who might be able to provide her with the lifestyle she feels she deserves. Ruby’s determination to break out of the narrow confines of racial identity leads her to a decision that will also decide Nicole’s fate.

Luckett addresses the matter of light-skinned blacks who passed into white society a bit too late in the novel to give the subject the depth it deserves, yet she does foreshadow Ruby’s decision throughout the novel. As Luckett writes early on, “Though she had never seen that huge ball of light covered in such a way, RubyMae knew it was different and so, too, was she.” Refusing to allow others to define her, Ruby sets out on a path all her own regardless of social conventions. Luckett neither excuses Ruby’s decision nor entirely condemns it. Rather she writes a character whose actions are both infuriating as well as empathetic. RubyMae could easily have been turned into a villain, but her rather naive vulnerability makes her a deeply sympathetic character. RubyMae is a woman who is as much shaped by the times as she is one who is determined to transcend them. 

Nicole’s story, on the other hand, isn’t as entirely successful. It veers toward cliches (cheating men, a friend dead from cancer), but Luckett smartly limits Nicole’s story on her search for RubyMae, for it is RubyMae who gives the novel its power. She bursts from the pages with such verve and imagination that she towers above the novel’s weaknesses and becomes as intriguing as her adopted city itself.   

Monday, February 13, 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God - 75th Anniversary

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, New York: Harper & Row. 1937

This year is the 75th anniversary of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. When it was first published in 1937, it won both critical praise and criticism within the black community for its perceived stereotypical portrayals of black southern life. Over the years it fell out of favor until it was rescued from oblivion by Alice Walker in the 1970s. Since then it has ranked high on the canon in English Lit, African American, and Women’s Studies.

Hurston’s novel has gone on to inspire many writers, including myself. I first heard of Their Eyes Were Watching God after reading Alice Walker’s essay “Finding Zora,” in her book of essays In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, and made it high on a list of books I wanted to read. When I finally read it I was swept away by Hurston’s rich language and languorous imagery of the 1930s South. Janie Crawford is a young, beautiful woman who battles both racism and sexism to find love and happiness. Unlike most heroines in romance novels, Janie doesn’t wait for things to happen to her, but reaches out and grabs at life, for both good and bad. As Janie herself understands early on, she “saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.” After her grandmother marries a teenage Janie off to farmer Logan Killicks so that she can spare her granddaughter the hard life she believes is the fate of all black women, Janie languishes on the farm, dreaming that something better soon will come along to whisk her away. That “something better” arrives in the form of Joe “Jody” Starks, who indeed whisks Janie off the farm and delivers her to Eatonville, Florida, where he becomes both the town’s mayor and its successful businessman. Yet Joe’s early promise of liberation turns into another form of enslavement for Janie. In Jody’s store she is put up on a pedestal, prized more for her light skin than her mind and heart. Janie suffers for years under Jody’s abuse until he finally passes away, allowing Janie to free herself physically and emotionally from his chains.

Janie’s third and final chance at love comes in the form of the much younger Tea Cake Woods, a man who arrives in Eatonville with his guitar and harmonica and quickly sweeps the widow off her feet. In Tea Cake, Janie finally finds the love and freedom she has longed for since childhood. Unlike Logan and Jody, Tea Cake is Janie’s soulmate, as much comfortable in nature and song as Janie. In fact, Tea Cake woos Janie by taking her out on picnics and “making flower beds in Janie’s yard and seeding the garden for her.” Nature unites them as lovers:

[Janie] couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom---a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.

Janie follows Tea Cake to the Everglades where they work side-by-side in the bean fields. While Janie is working as she did when she was living on Killicks farm, she does so because she chooses to. Janie’s choice to be with Tea Cake, to go with him to the Everglades, are all her choices, even when those decisions rub against the resistance of the Eatonville community. Janie is neither a pretty doll to be put up on a pedestal nor a mule, but a woman who is slowly coming into own. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel about one black woman’s struggle toward self-realization.

One of the strengths in this novel is its metaphoric language. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” so begins the novel. “For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.” This is the life Janie is born into, but it is the life she escapes from with Tea Cake. She is not content to be the “Watcher” bearing witnesses to the fulfillment of others. Trees, bees, and blossoms are also repetitive motifs which represent the flowering of Janie’s physical, emotional, and sexual maturation. The novel’s other greatest strength however is in its dialect. I usually detest dialect in novels. They’re rarely done well and often call attention to themselves in the worst way. Yet Hurston had a sharp ear for the musicality of black vernacular:

“It takes money tuh feed pretty women. Dey gits uh lavish uh talk.”

“Not lak mine. Dey loves to hear me talk because dey can’t understand it. Mah co-talkin’ is too deep. Too much co to it.”


“You ain’t never seen me when Ah’m out pleasurin’ and givin’ pleasure.”


“It’s uh good thing he married her befo’ she seen me. Ah kin be some trouble when Ah take uh notion.”


“Ah’m uh bitch’s baby round lady people.”

Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville, Florida with a father, like Jody Starks, who was also its mayor, used to sit on the porch of her home, listening to the men talk and trade jokes. Her ability to draw from their stories and distinctive way of speech resonates strongly in her work. Their Eyes Were Watching God is effecting precisely because she was a sharp observer of human behavior (Hurston also studied under anthropologist Franz Boas and spent several years in the field collecting folk tales and legends before she became a writer).

Their Eyes Were Watching God is not without flaws. There is one curious scene where Tea Cake, Janie’s soul mate, physically hits her to keep her from running off with Mrs. Taylor’s son. Mrs. Taylor, a woman in the camp, latches onto Janie for her light skin and nearly Caucasian features. She dislikes Tea Cake and thinks her son would be a more appropriate husband for Janie. While Tea Cake acknowledges he has no reason to believe that she would leave him for Taylor’s son, Tea Cake, mostly out of insecurity, conjures up this plan to keep her dependent on him. While there might be many arguments for why Hurston included this episode, much of which could center on the prevalence of colorism (blacks judging each other based on skin tone) within the black community, it’s still a bit shocking considering that Tea Cake was otherwise very tender toward Janie and treated her as his equal.

Nonetheless, Janie’s journey toward self-actualization grows deeper when both she and Tea Cake brave the hurricane and floods which ravage the Everglades. After Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog, he goes mad. After Janie is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice to save herself, she is put on trial. Janie’s character is held in judgment as the black community of the Everglades blame her for killing Tea Cake.

[Colored people] were all against her, she could see. So many were there against her that a light slap from each one of them would have beat her to death. She felt them pelting her with dirty thoughts. They were there with their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks. The only killing tool they are allowed to use in the presence of white folks.
Hurston rarely deals with racism in Their Eyes Were Watching God, focusing instead on her beloved Eatonville and the Everglades communities which existed wholly without the white gaze. Hurston’s refusal to tell stories that reduced life to sociological study earned her the derision of writers like Richard Wright, who felt it was his responsibility as a writer to shine a light on the social condition of black people. However, Hurston’s work nonetheless strikes a nerve for the way it presents black folks as complex human beings, as burdened by problems of love, friendship, community, and gender as it was by race. On the surface, Janie’s pursuit of love might seem frivolous next to works such as Wright’s Pulitzer prizewinning Native Son, but it is in fact every bit as important for its insistence that the sexual liberation of black women is a revolutionary statement. Her voice, along with Hurston's, is a powerful one and certainly worth reading again 75 years later.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bop Gun - Homicide: Life on the Street

This review is a series of reviews of the ten best episodes of the 1990s TV drama Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Bop Gun, Story by Tom Fontana, Teleplay by David Mills and David Simon, Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal. Aired 1/6/1994. NBC Home Entertainment. 1994.

"(Endangered species) Shoot them with the bop gun" -- Parliament/Funkadelic.

NBC ordered 9 episodes of the series Homicide: Life on the Street mid-season in 1993. When it showed moderate success in the ratings following its Super Bowl premiere, the network ordered 4 more, which it aired the next year. Considered its second season, these 4 episodes moved away from the de-saturated, grainy look of the year before, but kept the gritty realism that made the show a departure from other police procedurals. "Bop Gun," which was supposed to end the truncated season, instead opened it, mainly because of its guest-starring turn with comedian and actor Robin Williams. NBC executives had a habit of switching episode air dates beginning the previous year when they took the episode "Night of the Dead Living" out of its third episode line-up for fear that its unconventional storytelling (on a hot day, the detectives sit around the squad room, chewing the fat about this or that) would scare off potential viewers. They'd not only continue to interfere with the show’s air dates, but with the cast and stories as well. Still, during the second season, the series continued to maintain its gritty vision with "Bop Gun."

"Bop Gun" was written by the late David Mills, a former journalist for the Washington Post, and David Simon, whose book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets about his year spent in the Baltimore homicide department, became the basis for the series. This pedigree lends to surprising and interesting details about homicide investigations and its effects on all those involved. Dets. Kay Howard and Beau Felton investigate the murder of a young mother who was mugged and killed while touring Baltimore with her family. Unlike most police procedurals, which would focus on the investigation throughout show's running time, the detectives quickly arrest the young man responsible. Most of the episode, however, examines the emotional maelstrom the victims’ husband, Robert Ellison (Robin Williams), and his children (a young Jake Gyllenhaal plays his son Matt) experience. Williams, whose manic acting style has put off viewers, dials it down in this episode. He does a masterful job of portraying a man who is grieving for the sudden and violent death of his wife and his powerlessness to protect her even after death. When Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin) jokes with his colleagues about how the red ball case (cases that the higher brass consider important enough to expend the department’s entire manpower and resources to investigate) will give him overtime pay, Ellison angrily demands that Felton be taken off the case. Williams presents Ellison as a man who is desperate to assert himself in any way no matter how fruitless to overcome the impotence he feels in his failure to protect his family. He bristles with a barely restrained anger and hostility that only lends to more frustration since his anger is directed mostly toward himself. You sense a man who wishes he could be as tough and heartless as the men who killed his wife, but knows all too well that even if he had a gun in his possession, as he suggests in another scene with Det. Bayliss when he asks to hold his gun, that he wouldn’t have had the courage to pull the trigger. As he tells Felton during the photograph line-up when he’s unable to pick out the perpetrators:

I bet if someone murdered your wife you’d remember all the faces, wouldn’t you? But I’m just an average guy; all I remember is the gun. I just stood there, staring at it. I just stood there and watched them kill my wife.

He fears that in the end he is a coward and that his own son knows this as well as he does.

The rest of the episode addresses Kay Howard’s (Melissa Leo) refusal to accept that the man who was arrested for the homicide, Vaughn Perkins (Lloyd Goodman), was indeed the perpetrator. Too much about the case---the fact that he didn’t have any major priors on his record and his remorse---doesn’t gel so, after asking for shift commander Lt. Al Giardello’s (Yaphet Kotto) permission, decides to do a shadow investigation to uncover the truth. Howard is less concerned with how, but why. This is a theme that runs throughout the series: the idea that investigating the motivations of the crimes won’t get you any closer to solving murders or will offer any satisfactory answers about why the killing happened in the first place. Much of Tim Bayliss’s stories focused on his obsession with understanding why. Here, Howard, who is the lone female investigator in the homicide unit, is the first one to obsesses over this question. Why would Vaughn, who was raised in a good home by an aunt and uncle and had all the advantages to succeed in life, so willingly squander these opportunities? Yet Vaughn’s life, fraught with the tragedy of losing his father to murder and coping with a mother with a drug habit, is anything but simple. Still, his older brother, who went through the same struggles as Vaughn, successfully avoided the traps Vaughn fell into. Howard’s investigation only leads to more questions and the inevitability of Vaughn’s guilt. When she meets him one last time in hold up, he admits to her about what happened in those seconds before tragedy struck. Hoping he could protect everyone from getting hurt, he instead became disoriented as the situation grew out of hand. Here, the episode presents a dichotomy. Whereas Ellison is powerless to protect his family, Vaughn is likewise powerless over events that quickly spin out of his control.

In the end, both men are caught in a situation where neither has control over their actions and are struggling to deal with the aftermath of what they did or didn't do. Both characters pull together themes that subtly give "Bop Gun" its emotional power---themes about masculinity and fatherhood (Robert and Matt; Vaughn and his deceased father) and how the boundaries of what define each have become blurred in a world where violence has become the only unambiguous definition of what it means to be a man.

Monday, February 6, 2012

America in Primetime: A Review

Last November, PBS aired a series called America in Primetime, which looked at television over the years and how it reflected the changing times. Broken down into four categories---Independent Woman, Man of the House, the Misfit, and The Crusader---the series, in which a number of TV stars, writers, and producers were interviewed, offered some unique perspectives about the power of television to address contemporary issues such as feminism, the changing roles of men in society, racism and so on. But while the series is pretty strong in arguing the significant role television has played in the arts, it nonetheless only scratches at the surface and fails to dig a little deeper in what television can and does say about America today.

Shondra Rhimes, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice
This is all the more apparent in one of the weaker episodes Independent Woman. Independent Woman addresses the changing roles of women in primetime television, drawing a distinct line between 1950s family sitcoms, when homemakers Donna Reed and Mrs. Cleaver were the epitome of feminine perfection, to the more complex and realistic portrayals of women in shows like Nurse Jackie, the Good Wife, Roseanne, and Grey’s Anatomy. The episode makes the argument that these sitcoms set up unrealistic expectations of women as housewives and mothers. Actresses such as Roseanne Barr and Julianna Margulies and producer Shondra Rhimes hammer this point home ad nauseum. This is an argument we’ve heard before. What the episode ignores however is how the depictions of women of color has had its own trajectory. While the show argues that sitcoms like Leave it the Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Dick Van Dyke Show praised stay-at-home moms, it leaves out the fact that some of the first depictions of working women in television were in fact black. The 1950s sitcom Beulah, starring Louise Beavers, which was undoubtably stereotypical in the worst way, nonetheless featured a woman who had to earn her own keep as a maid (the show played up the mammy stereotype where Beulah’s only concern was helping the befuddled white family through their daily problems, ignoring the fact that women such Beulah had to work to support their families). In the 1960s, both Nichelle Nichols and Diahann Carroll helped elevate the presence of black women in primetime on Star Trek and Julia respectively. While these portrayals were complicated in their own right (Nichols had threatened to leave the show because she was given very little to do until Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced her that staying on would be a cultural blow for civil rights), they nonetheless showed black women as intelligent, competent, and independent.

Given the time constraints, it might be understandable that these groundbreaking roles would be ignored, but it’s completely bizarre that it would skip over Clair Huxtable, played by Phylicia Rashad, on the Cosby Show. Rashad’s portrayal of the competent and intelligent Clair was as important as Roseanne Connor on Roseanne in their diverse representation of independent women on television. Roseanne Barr, likewise, who was the only commentator to bring up the issue of class, correctly points out the lack of working class people in television and how her show was meant to address that omission. The episode fails to pick up this thread as it moves forward into the 1990s and the oughts, as cable television began to dominate quality television production. From Father Knows Best to Sex and the City to The Sopranos to Desperate Housewives, the lives of women have always been portrayed within the confines of the professional middle class. And while the series makes the point that cable television freed up writers and producers to pursue topics that aren’t advertiser-friendly, it fails to bring up the fact that even cable television continues to portray a decidedly narrow vision of the world through a middle class lens (the only notable exceptions of course are the HBO dramas The Wire, Treme, and True Blood).

Norman Lear, All In the Family
The second episode, Man of the House, fairs a little better in terms of diversity. Here, The Cosby Show and The Bernie Mac Show are shown alongside such series as Mad Men, Big Love, Breaking Bad, and Men of A Certain Age in their depiction of the modern day man. As with Independent Women, Man of the House compares the portrayals of men in the 1950s with contemporary depictions, revealing how the feminist movement have left men adrift in their effort to redefine their role in society. The argument is largely a sympathetic one with writers/producers like Shondra Rhimes and Diablo Cody offering their own empathies about the difficulty men have had in finding a balance in a world where the rules have become more ambiguous. Whereas men like Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver were the kings of their castles, today’s men are either bumbling buffoons like Homer Simpson or complicated and self-doubting as the characters on Men of A Certain Age. While this episode does a good job of covering its subject, I still wish it could have gone even deeper. For instance, when The Simpsons writer, Al Jean, says “I’ve always had this theory that people want the mother in the family to be stable and not a buffoon, and the father you can really get away with a lot,” I wanted to know more about what other writers and showrunners, particularly those who are attempting to create a more complex portrayal of men, might think or feel about that. And how does the AMC drama Breaking Bad touch on the affect of socio-economics on men in these changing times? It would also have been nice if they’d given a shout-out to John Goodman’s character on Roseanne. While not as showy as Roseanne’s character, his Dan Connor also set new standards in the depiction of blue collar, working-class men.

Michael K. Williams, The Wire, Boardwalk Emp
The next two episodes do far better jobs of covering the groundwork in their subjects. The Misfit addresses the way in which outsiders, nonconformists, and loners have become significant archetypes in TV, particularly in sitcoms, though dramas and dramedies such as Twin Peaks, Six Feet Under, and Freaks and Geeks are also explored. The final episode The Crusader is the only one that offers a glimpse of what the three previous episodes could have become. The Crusader addresses another popular television archetype, the (anti)heroic crusader who seeks justice. Here, the episode covers everything from M*A*S*H to The X-Files to The Wire and goes over the typical comments you’d expect from such a topic, but where it dovetails from the previous episodes is how it allows the principal players themselves to argue and counter argue on various points. When some commentators remark on how television is able to go into far greater character depth than film, David Chase, who executive produced The Sopranos, counters that film can be every bit as complex as television. During a segment on the Showtime series Dexter, executive producers David Simon and Tom Fontana (both of whom worked on Homicide: Life on The Street, as well as The Wire, Treme, and Oz respectively) weigh in with their abhorrence over a show that glorifies a serial killer. I wanted more of this back and forth because it elevated the conversation beyond the usual comments. 

Needless to say, with only four hour-long episodes to cover each topic, America in Primetime wasn’t able to cover everything. What it does cover offers a primer on the direction television has taken in the last fifty years. Still, it had the opportunity to take a much bolder approach by asking serious questions about how America is depicted in television, both positive and negative. Does a show like Sex and the City conform to old stereotypes about women in new packages? Has cable television become just as formulaic as broadcast networks? Does television do an adequate job on issues of class and race? And what about sexuality and the role cable has had in breaking down those barriers? Considering how important television has become in the last fifteen years, I think the medium deserves a deeper analysis.

All episodes of the series can be viewed on the site.