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.