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.

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