Politics And The American Sitcom

A very interesting programme on BBC2 tonight. With the American Presidential Election now just ten days away, it posed the question that Europeans might better understand the reality of American life thru the “sit com” rather than the Presidential Debate.

It raised the interesting (seeming) contradiction that “Modern Family” is actually the favourite sitcom of the Republican Party……despite teen sex, a gay couple with an adopted child and an inter-racial marriage. It also claimed that  “The Middle” featuring the daily trials of a mid-west, middle class family in post credit-crunch America was nearer to the actuality of American life than the impression we would get from debates and speeches which are essentially about Ideology rather than Real Life.

The first aspect of American Life in sitcom…. which it looked at was Gay Rights. In its day (late 1970s) “Soap” was actually looked on as revolutionary. I remember it well ……my father hated it…..and to a twenty-something as I was then……in itself my father’s inability to “get” “Soap” was a recommendation. It made a star of Billy Cristal playing the part of Jody, the first gay character in sit-coms. Yet conservatives AND gay rights activists were outraged by Jody Dallas……he was a stereotype rather than a character………and frankly an old clip from the show was uncomfortable viewing. Indeed Gay Rights activists claimed that “Soap” had actually set Gay Rights back……no sitcom touched the subject for almost twenty years until “Ellen” literally came out. This was the watershed moment that brought gay characters into the living room…….”Will and Grace” for example. It was posed that all American families know and accept a gay couple or have accepted gay members of their own families.

Strangely the second aspect was Abortion. A touchstone issue……I think of it as totemic rather than “real” in American politics. It surprises me that Abortion was ever a storyline in a sitcom. The sieries “Maude” was never shown in Britain and Ireland. And the documentary underscored the fact that no modern sitcom dare touch this subject. Yet it HAD been tackled as far back as 1972 as a storyline in “Maude” (played by Beatrice Arthur). Again the clip seemed rather uncomfortable…..as a sit com.

But here the documentary contrasted the fact that ….on the subject of Abortion ……American sitcoms had become more “conservative” while on the issue of Gay Rights, American sitcoms  had become more liberal. The documentary attributed this to Abortion being more divisive and to the influence of Religion. A clip from a banned episode of “Family Guy” on the subject of abortion led into the third aspect…….Religion.

Religion. Both examples were taken from cartoons. My favourite programme is “The Simpsons” and they are comfortable with having God as a regular guest star and showed clips from the excellent episode where Homer’s house burns down (he had not gone to Church) and rages at God, before Rev Lovejoy points out that God didnt burn his house down …but was moving in the hearts of Apu, Flanders and Krusty who had rescued Homer from the flames. Slightly heavy-handed and yet effective point.

I have never taken to “Family Guy” (I find it cruel) or “South Park” ………yet my sons love it. History tends to repeat itself. My father did not understand “Soap”. I dont understand “South Park”. It is essentially a generational thing. The clip…….the Mormon religion and Joseph Smith being ridiculed seemed to me typical of “South Park” and yet there was a twist…….a welcome one……..where a Mormon boy told the South Park kids that maybe his religion was total crap……but the point was that it had given him a loving family and a sense of decency and that the South Park kids were the intolerant ones. Now………I wasnt expecting that. Seemingly “South Park” targets hypocrisy……..conservative AND liberal.

Race……a clip shown from the 1970s where a black family was shown in a positive light (I forget the name ……..like “Maude” it was never shown here……..and of course “The Cosby Show” which was the ultimate aspirational family…..they just happened to be black. Seemingly 48 million watched the final episode. And yet the documentary suggested that this was  a “peak”. Set in New York……like say “Friends” and “Sex in the City” but these two shows had “all white” casts.

A confession……I hated “Sex in the City” and I hated “Friends” even more. I could never work up any enthusiasm for their mix of friendship and I dont think it is merely generational. If I never see Chandler, Joey, Ross, monica, Rachel and Phoebe again ……..I will be happy.

And yet……”Friends” topped the ratings with white Americans but was poorly received by black Americans. And depressingly there were actually “black” versions of these shows available on “cable”. This seems to show that the availability of multi-channels allows people to watch shows with which they can identify…..and that seems a step back from the high of “The Cosby Show”.

And the documentary concluded that it would be wrong to think of American Politics as only Republican and Democrat. That there is a third way, not yet channeled into organised politics. That TV is ahead of the curve. That “Family Guy” and “South Park” are………libertarian.

To be honest “libertarianism” frightens me. I am a socialist….so I like the notion of a “society”. Libertarianism seems to be as selfish as Conservatism….albeit with a “liberal” social agenda. It is I think the new conservatism of low tax, minimalist government and a recognition of modern morality.

An interesting programme and not without relevance here in the North of Ireland. Nearly two years ago, I attended a conference organised by the Conflict Resolutionists thru the British-Irish Studies Institute. It brought together writers, artists, poets, historians to discuss the notion that they should perhaps be “socially responsible” and depict positive aspects of Norn Iron……to lead us away from our nationalism and unionism. Of course I was delighted to see that the Belfast artistic community rejected this notion……..ART IS ABOUT SHOWING LIFE AS IT IS…………ART IS NOT ABOUT HOW LIFE SHOULD BE. IT IS NOT ABOUT SOCIAL ENGINEERING.

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17 Responses to Politics And The American Sitcom

  1. football cliches says:

    FJH, sounds like an excellent show, i hope it’s available on the iplayer.

    Your observations on South Park I found quite interesting. I’ll not lie, I love the show, have pretty much.grown up on it since I was 12 and have seen it develop from something that started off being incredibly offensive and doing fart jokes to something that developed something of a social conscience and would use humour and extreme situations to show the merits behind certain points of view, whether it pro-immigration or allowing people to smoke, it has genuinely changed my mind on some matters, something that’s incredibly hard for anyone to do, and not jut for myself.

    Family Guy, tbh, I just find offensively stupid. Some of it is funny, admittedly, but large swathes are just far too stupid and even cruel.

    • It should be on Iplayer.
      I think the guy doing the show..he was about 30 years old…got it about right.
      I think people dont make enough of popular culture (TV, books, cimema etc ) in History. On the other hand people can make too much of it. It is a question of Balance.
      Same with Politics. It would have been very easy for the presenter of the show to have made too much of the fact (as he sees it) sitcoms portray the REAL USA.
      A lot of contributions from writers/producers seemed to say that a successful sitcom is based on capturing the mood of the time and the current definition of “family”.
      I think a lot of people watch “Family Guy” just to find the boundary. For example last night there was a clip from a live reading of the banned episode on Abortion and “Peter Griffin” made a very nasty joke about killing girl babies in China and the audience kinda hissed. And Seth McFarlane just looked at them and laughed and said “all we do is hold a mirror up”.
      Oddly “South Park” came out of it well, suggesting an even handed approach to hypocrisy.
      But the key thing was the numbers. I think 40 million watched the last episode of “Cosby” but only 7 million watch “Modern Family”.
      TV audiences are much more fragmented. Of course there is the Internet, sky plus, box-sets.
      But I wonder if TV has lost its influence.

      • South Park does pack a lot of punch, even see the 2 part episode ‘Cartoon Wars’ where it managed to slag off Family Guy and tied this in with the Mohammed Cartoons and the outrage in the ME about this. They pushed Comedy Central into a corner and the latter wimped out for freedom of speech.

        Family Guy is interesting and was funny at the beginning, say the 1st 3 series, but no longer.

        Seth McFarlane is interesting in some ways, though I find he is very much up his own ass and pretty arrogant, even by Hollywood standards. Watching these shows, I am struck by how much they rely on earlier 70s and 80s sitcoms for their inspiration and stick to the formula fairly rigidly. Take for instance McFarlane’s latest output, ‘Ted’. Essentially, it’s a man who is 30 years old, has a great girlfriend but is a 30 yr boy. Things get better, then when faced with a hurdle he falls down. There is a nadir, some reflection and a chance to do good and become better than ever and he grows as a human and we all live happily ever after. These shows stick to this formula fairly rigidly.

        As for numbers, I would caution about reading too much into them. Take Family Guy for instance. It was cancelled after seasons 2 and 3 by Fox because they felt it was too controversial, but reinstated as the DVD sales and viewer figures for the reruns were very strong. People (myself included) don’t always watch a show on the night the episode airs, and like you noted we have Sky+, DVDs etc.

      • FC,
        I think my problems with South Park are mostly generational. It can be a bit schoolboyish.

      • oops…….and my problems with “Family Guy” is Taste….issues like disability are included really for shock.
        South Park isnt actually offensive. “Family Guy” is very offensive.

      • SP is definitely school boy-ish, that’s what I love about.

        FG is just puerile and bullying nonsense that has been copying the Simpsons unashamedly for years

      • TBH, I’m a Futurama guy anyway, Bender is too funny

  2. Charlie Sheen says:

    Fitz,

    I stumbled across that show last night and I thought it was an interesting take on things.

    The broader point is that comedy, not just sitcoms, but also satire like the daily show and the colbert report are much better barometers of american life than the news is. As a physics student I’ve always considered fox news to be the original ‘Electric Field’ placed across a soup of charges resulting in them being forced to line up and polartise in such a way to directly counter the electric field with an inherent field of their own. In other words the news now has to counter the opinions of each other to some degree to fight the “culture war” so they are a bit useless at doing anything objective any more except the skateboarding dog story at the end.

    Regarding the shows specifically, south park has been good at this in recent years. Around the time when SP first came out, it seemed to me like a lot of toilet humour and a running gag of Kenny being killed. Even as a 13-year-old that got old very quickly and I stopped watching for years until I heard about it in the news making ways about not just the mormons but also the scientologists. When I tuned in, I did realise that they attempt to skew the perceived “liberal” and “conservatives” fairly equally. Sometimes it comes across as contrived a bit for balance, but other times it seems really stinging.

    The religious ones skew the right I suppose but there’s a great episode where ppl who are buying Toyota Prius’ while cutting down on ‘smog’ contribute to a new environmental crisis called ‘The smug’, which is essentially fuelled by the egos of those who now think they are better than everyone else. LOL

    South Park has also skewed Family Guy by pointing out how they fill in time with a gag beginning “I hope its not like that time when……” that is totally irrelevant to the plot. They do it beautifully so while I’d say you’re missing nothing with family guy, give SP another go.

    In terms of black comedies, I was expecting their 70s reference to be different strokes as Gary Coleman still gets mentioned all the time in modern american popular culture.

    Finally, regarding your reference to ‘Libertarianism’, I agree. Its about the state backing out of everything whether its about giving out a food stamp or telling you who take to your bedroom.

    In reality these “Freedom rallies” tend to be tend to be conservatives just hawking their consciouses around. Once a few are pushed however they usually show that they are in fact not as liberal socially as you might have thought.

    Poor old Ron Paul, now talks about the state morals’ being corrupted after he was pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno” in a hotel bedroom. He regrets that someone can make money out of a sketch like this. Despite the fact he wants markets to be as free as possible, and no one telling you to stop doing that, it’s wrong. Which is it Ron?!

    • Yes……..Diffrent Strokes. Id forgotten completely about that.
      I cant imagine that black people would have liked that very much. Very patronising, I thought.
      Rich New Yorker adopts two black kids….never really worked for me.
      Totally gobsmacked to find that there was a black version of “Friends” and ” Sex in the City”. To be honest Id never really noticed the “whiteness” but I just found that New York single life (and Id include “Seinfeld”) selfish and petty and shallow.

  3. hoboroad says:

    Have just watched the programme on BBC I player. It was interesting how TV can change minds about social issues.

    • Very much so.
      We did not get “Maude” here….although I have seen episodes on obscure satelite channels. I dont think I watched one all the way thru as it was so dated.
      But the subject matter of Abortion in a sitcom actually shocked me.
      In fairness the first few minutes of the documentary stated that “American sitcoms are the same as British soaps”.
      I think Americans understand sitcoms as daytime, low quality TV.

  4. hoboroad says:

    I think Maude was a spin-off show from All In The Family which was the American version of the British show Till Death Do Us Part.

    • Yes youre right..I just looked it up on on wikipedia.
      The strange thing about Tinternet and satellite TV is that it has introduced us to American TV which we knew nothing about because the output from their three basic channels meant that some never made it across the Atlantic.
      I remember in 1999 asking someone what was “Maybury RFD” because it was referenced in a country song. Some like “Leave it to Beaver” mean absolutely nothing to me except the fact that it is so often referenced.
      And likewise I knew nothing about “Gilligans Island” until I saw a TV movie about the making of the show. But again it is often referenced. And in answer to the age old question……”Mary Anne….every time”

  5. hoboroad says:

    And there was a Star Trek episode which predicted a United Ireland which was banned by the BBC.

    • If its good enough for Lt Commander Data, its good enough for me……2024.
      There was also an episode of JAG which Sky had to apologise for…….set in Belfast (with US Marines on duty at the Consulate LOL) the RUC man was the bad guy and the IRA guy was the good guy.

  6. hoboroad says:

    I remember someone telling me there was a episode of the Six Million Dollar Man called outrage in Ballinderry which was shown on British TV.

    • Thats a new one on me.
      But I remember very early in the 1970s, there was an apology when a Scottish TV folk music programme featured a group which sang The Merry Ploughboy.
      Strange thing about circa 1966 was a song called “Kelly the Boy From Killane” was on a late night BBC programme. The group The Go Lucky Four had a record contract.
      Three guys and a girl. The girl was actually a member of the RUC.
      And two of the boys……John Bennett (BBC Radio Ulster) and Vincent Hanna (BBC political journalist).
      Even circa 1966 this seems a very strange episode.

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