July 14, 2010
Update, 7/19/10: As if to underscore my point, the New York Times today has a report on an abortion-related episode of The Family Guy (yet another show I don’t watch) that both Fox and Adult Swim declined to air last year. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane refers to the topic as a “comedy red zone you just shouldn’t enter.” It’s finally coming out on DVD, albeit separated from the rest of the season within which it was produced.
Here’s an important New York Times piece, by Ginia Bellafante, about a recent abortion storyline on the (sort of) NBC drama Friday Night Lights. Sort of, because these days Friday Night Lights airs first on DirecTV (and I don’t even know what the heck that is, exactly, except that I either can’t afford it or can’t get the landlord to install it on my roof) and only later creeps onto NBC as a summer rerun, an arrangement that may allow the show to fly under the radar a bit. Important, because if Bellafante is right about Friday Night Lights (I’ve only seen the series’ 2006 pilot), it represents progress of a kind that I’ve been waiting impatiently for television to make.
Since most of the major taboos of the fifties and sixties are long gone, we sometimes assume that television has no more taboos. That’s not true. Yes, television can now depict all of the following things that it once could not, and in a variety of contexts, serious and humorous, positive and negative: violence; gore; graphic sexual talk; promiscuity; homosexuality; nudity (at least on cable); racism and other forms of discrimination; non-white characters and cultures (although stereotypes persist, and there remains a lamentable unwritten prohibition against minority leads, or all-minority casts, in certain types of shows); and all but the most colorful profanity. And probably a lot of other once-forbidden topics that I haven’t listed. Remember, no one could say the word “pregnant” even when Lucille Ball was visibly so, and they bleeped out “gas” anytime the gas chambers were mentioned in the Playhouse 90 production of “Judgment at Nuremburg.”
As a First Amendment absolutist, I’m all for this kind of progress, even when it doesn’t seem like progress. Even when freedom of speech results in something like the xenophobic, torture-happy sludge of 24, there’s still a beneficial effect, because thinking people can see the ugliness in what’s being shown even if the show’s creators are indifferent. But I wish more critics were doing the work that Bellafante has done with considerable insight, which is to point out some of the ground that we’ve lost during the same time in which it has become permissible for a “good guy” like Jack Bauer to electrocute suspects with a table lamp or slice off their fingers with a cigar cutter.
In an era where the oxymoronic phrase “liberal media” still does not provoke the guffaws it should, it’s gratifying to see the paper of record offer the blunt diagnosis that “[f]or years . . . television has consistently leaned to the right on the subject of unwanted pregnancy.” Bellafante explains that the teenager in Friday Night Lights who decides to terminate her pregnancy is one of the first TV characters since Maude Findlay of Maude whose abortion is depicted, without much equivocation, as the right choice for her. (That was in 1972.) Bellafante mentions a 2008 Private Practice episode (which I also haven’t seen) that examined a woman’s decision to have an abortion “with all moral positions respectfully represented.” I think that’s the key. Every time I’ve seen a fictional character have an abortion, or confess to a past abortion, there seems to be an obligatory scene meant to undermine that character by implying she will be forever crippled by some vast chasm of remorse. In the guise of objectivity, a kind of anti-feminist judgment is passed. That’s a more insidious cultural chill on women’s reproductive rights than movies like Knocked Up or Juno (or a Sex in the City plotline cited by Bellafante which, yep, I haven’t seen either), in which a character’s decision to keep an unplanned child seems so out of character that it launches a productive debate as to the creators’ political agenda.
In an era where Roe v. Wade is in real jeopardy, I wish more of our artists would (or could, because many have probably been shut down) take the step into actual abortion rights advocacy or, at least, come up with some scripts that don’t tiptoe around the subject. I’ve written elsewhere about an episode of The Defenders which presented a passionate plea for the legalization of abortion. That was in 1962, and I doubt that as forceful a case for the continued legality of abortion could be made on a network series today. I wish I could be more, er, fair and balanced, and call for the other side to make its case into compelling art too; but at the moment, I don’t think the Sarah Palins and Sharron Angles of the real world need a whole lot of help from Hollywood. Or, perhaps, they’re getting it already: Bellafante points out that Bristol Palin managed to insert herself into The Secret Life of an American Teenager, a kids’ show that offers “didactic and soulless cheerleading for anti-abortion sentiments.”
Abortion may be the most taboo of the new taboos, but it isn’t the only one. Sometimes I’m surprised by how much left-leaning and even anti-capitalist comment certain shows (namely The Wire) have gotten away with. I think that’s because viewers are generally so ill-informed now that detailed political and economic talk goes over their heads, or else the censors think it will go over their heads, or else it goes over the censors’ heads. But there is a limit: look at how much vitriol David E. Kelley attracted during the last few seasons of Boston Legal, which contained many impassioned, up-to-the-minute, name-naming tirades against specific officials and policies of the Bush Administration. It’s true that Kelley was burned out by that point, and that some of this material took the form of lazy speechifying. But I found it courageous, and cathartic, because Boston Legal seemed to be the only show on television willing to engage the headlines of the day. And much of the criticism directed against Kelley seemed less interested in illuminating the dramaturgical weaknesses in his writing than in scolding him for being the guy at the dinner table who won’t shut up about politics.
It may also be impossible now for a television show to suggest that recreational drug use can be a positive, or even a neutral, component of an average person’s lifestyle. The closest you can get is a defiant, curmudgeonly chain-smoker like Sharon Gless’s character on Burn Notice, or maybe the clownish potheads in the supporting cast of Weeds. I’m not sure that’s a great loss, but I know a lot of intelligent people who don’t share my own anti-drug stance, and it would be nice to see a character on television who reminds me of them.
The drug issue is my favorite example of a topic where ground has been lost in terms of what you can say about it on television, and Exhibit A is another episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.” In that show, which was made in 1965, Donald Pleasence plays a Timothy Leary-like LSD advocate who is tried for murder after one of his patients commits suicide. What is remarkable about this show is its unwillingness to take as a given the idea that psychotropic drugs are harmful. The father-and-son attorneys fall on either side of a generational split on LSD, with Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) so disgusted that he drops out of the case and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) curious enough to take an acid trip. Ken is permitted to enthuse about his expanded consciousness without rebuke, and on the witness stand the LSD doctor demonstrates some of the positive effects that drugs have had on his perception and memory.
Bellafante writes that it is “not just the rise of evangelical Christianity” but also “the dramatic realignment of women’s priorities since the most active days of the feminist movement” that account for television’s current anti-abortion bias. Indeed, but I think we can safely blame television’s equally timid and right-skewing depiction of religion on the networks’ (and cable channels’) fear of that loudmouthed evangelical minority. Just as television is loathe to produce scripts about women who do not regret aborting their pregnancies, it is also unlikely to deliver many unrepentant, well-adjusted atheists into your living rooms. Or even an unrepentant, well-adjusted agnostic; or a person who insists upon rationalism rather than superstition as a basic worldview; or a sympathetic character who mocks creationism. (The only recent, partial exception I can recall is Boston Legal’s Alan Shore.) This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s an absence that speaks volumes. I know a great many atheists personally, so why do I see so few on television (or in public office)?
There’s a parallel here to the abortion issue: often when a character is identified clearly as a non-believer, there’s a corresponding scene suggesting that he or she is somehow empty or soulless or in need of enlightenment. The Defenders had something to say on this subject, too, in a 1963 episode called “The Heathen,” in which a teacher is persecuted for his open atheism. Ernest Kinoy’s teleplay for “The Heathen” equates atheism with rationalism and comes down solidly on the side of both. “It’s so easy to demand the symbol and ignore the reality,” says the teacher (played by Gerald Hiken), in a scene meant to indict hypocrites who pledge a public allegiance to our dominant religion that does not reflect their private beliefs. That seems more relevant now than ever, both in politics (yes, Mr. President, I am thinking of you) and on television, which couches Christian dogma in vehicles both obvious (Joan of Arcadia) and surreptitious (Battlestar Galactica). Lost proposed its overarching narrative as a kind of dialectic between science and faith; in case anyone missed that, the writers helpfully titled one episode “Man of Science, Man of Faith.” I always considered the show a lot less brainy than it fancied itself, but even I was a little surprised by the absence of nuance in the final act of the final episode. Spoiler alert: Faith flattens science with a TKO.
I consider Christianity to be enormously destructive, but I grew up around many fine, principled people who were devout Christians and who insisted on crediting their faith for some of the qualities I admired in them. I still struggle to reconcile their examples with my abstract views about Christianity, and to understand the distinction that they made (but that I cannot) between their Christianity and the anti-intellectual intolerance and hypocrisy which constitute the public face of that religion. I wouldn’t bring that up here, except to say once again that characters who reflect any of those complexities have been mostly absent from popular television in my lifetime. The only series I can think of that gazed upon religion or faith with an intelligent, ambivalent eye on a regular basis was Nothing Sacred, which made it through one shortened, controversial season in 1997-98.
The only contemporary drama I can think of that tries to engage with religion as a facet of its practitioners’ daily lives is HBO’s Big Love, a show that strikes me as a failure largely because it doesn’t seem to have any of an idea of what it wants to say on that subject. The Christians in Big Love are a rogue sect that even the Mormon church has disowned, and so the show can relish the hypocrisy and craziness of most of its characters without offending too many people. Bill Hendrickson may drop to his knees and pray for guidance in trying times, but it doesn’t seem to occur to Big Love’s writers to try to explore why he does that and the ladies of Wisteria Lane do not. With that piece missing, Big Love is just another sensationalist suburban melodrama, as tawdry as Desperate Housewives and a lot more leaden and self-important.
You might guess that I’d cheer on any show that equates religion with charlatanism, and gives us characters like Roman (the wily Harry Dean Stanton), a spiritual leader who’s really a despot and a crook. But that’s the easy way out and it, like Big Love in general, gets boring in a hurry. I wish Big Love had built itself around some substantive argument in favor of Christianity, because I honestly can’t understand why Bill Hendrickson, or anyone, falls for it, and as always I turn to art for enlightenment when I can’t find the answers in life.
Also in the news: Matt Zoller Seitz, formerly a film reviewer for the New York Press, has penned some impressive television criticism at Salon lately, especially this detailed breakdown of a shift in Jon Stewart’s approach to the Obama Administration. For people (like me) whose response to reality shows is to pretend they don’t exist, Seitz’s look at a crucial arc on the Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch is a reminder that the genre can on occasion approximate the form of legitimate documentary. But I disagree with Seitz when he shrugs off the show’s cheesy, pumped-up music, arguing that “decrying it . . . would be as pointless as complaining water is wet.” Not good enough. If a work of art/entertainment hopes to transcend a schlock genre, then eschewing the baser conventions of that genre is precisely what it must do. The obvious analogy is to sitcom laugh tracks: critics complained about them for decades and, finally, unlike the weather (or global warming), somebody finally did something about it.
And lastly: This week in the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten compares God to the Balladeer, the off-screen voice (actually that of Waylon Jennings) that narrated each episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. It’s not so much a tongue-in-cheek joke as a clumsy metaphor. In fact, the Dukes reference is such a non sequitur that I think Mr. Paumgarten may have outed himself as a fan. The last time I remember seeing The Dukes of Hazzard cited in the pages of the New Yorker, it was when Malcolm Gladwell complained that the show (along with the likes of Dallas and Starsky & Hutch) made us all literally, scientifically, dumber. I’m not sure how I feel about this shift but it’s an obvious testament to the durability of Dukes, which was my favorite thing in the whole world around the time I was four years old. Where I come from, God was very big, and so was the Balladeer.