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|
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|
|Michael K. Williams, The Wire, Boardwalk Emp|
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 PBS.org site.