UNREALITY TELEVISION

UNREALITY TELEVISION

The fissures in U.S. society are nowhere to be seen on prime-time TV

VICTOR DWYER February 16 2004
UNREALITY TELEVISION

UNREALITY TELEVISION

The fissures in U.S. society are nowhere to be seen on prime-time TV

VICTOR DWYER February 16 2004

UNREALITY TELEVISION

Essay

The fissures in U.S. society are nowhere to be seen on prime-time TV

VICTOR DWYER

CANADIANS WHO like to think of our country as superior to the one to the south also like to talk about the Two Americas: one rich, one poor; one with health care, one without; one white, one black. In fact, I would argue there is another great divide that defines the United States: that between how America really is—and how it sees itself on TV.

That disparity has been thrown into especially sharp relief by a couple of recent episodes in which powerful Americans have felt the need to tell TV how to behave. Last week, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission promised to conduct a “thorough and swift” investigation into the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl, including the brief exposure of Janet Jackson’s right breast. Just weeks earlier, California Congressman Doug Ose introduced a bill that would “define by statute seven or eight words that are profane,” and outlaw them from TV.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think profane language, or women’s bare chests, should be considered family fare. But a congressional vote over seven words? A fullscale investigation into a single breast? It all seems a bit heavy-handed in an era when American TV, with no help from anyone in government, already does such a bang-up job of excluding from the airwaves any hint of controversy—most notably that swirling around the most enormous, and enormously contentious, issues facing America today.

Rarely has the United States been so disunited in its opinions, with polls showing profound cleavages on everything from lateterm abortions to tax cuts to the war in Iraq. But flip through prime time, and before you is a country of strangely naive citizens who can’t seem to muster the energy to discuss civic affairs, even in casual asides. Sit down to Malcolm in the Middle, Angel or The Practice and you might as well be beaming in shows from outer space. While today’s programs are light years more “real” than the make-believe worlds of such long-ago hits as Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, it’s remarkable how much U.S. TV remains an apolitical la-la land.

The disconnect from reality is perhaps most evident on reality TV. An avid follower of the original Bachelorette, I watched Trista and Ryan go through a six-week courtship in which she chose him over 24 competitors, and then a three-part wedding special. Not once did he ask her, “What’s your take on Iraq?”—a question it must have been hard to avoid asking in a country that is, after all, at war. Not once did she ask him, “So, like, what’s your take on a woman’s right to choose?”—again, a reasonable topic of conversation given that Congress recently outlawed some late-term abortions, and Ryan will presumably be the father of Trista’s children. But no. In the land of prime-time TV, such issues, just like Ose’s seven icky words, are simply not part of the lexicon.

And it’s not just those two giggly newlyweds who live in a void. Take Will & Grace, whose gay characters and urban cool are about as sophisticated as prime time gets. Not only does it take place in New York while generally ignoring the ongoing psychic fallout of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 (a head-in-the-sand approach shared by Manhattan-based Friends and Sex and the City). But try finding a discussion of the fact that lawmakers have been angling to rewrite the American constitution to stop Will—a lawyer, and so someone who presumably thinks of these issues—from marrying Mr. Right.

Other times, rather than ignore reality, TV prefers to rewrite it. I love the high-tech gizmos of the agents on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Employed by the Las Vegas police department, these cops are forever using futuristic machines that would put NASA to shame. In the real world, U.S. crimefighting these days is handicapped, often hobbled, by a sorry lack of infrastructure and manpower, thanks largely to an obsession with tax cuts and with fighting battles abroad. In an era of almost constant terror alerts, many FBI agents got e-mail only in 2003.

BEFORE you is a country of naive citizens who can’t seem to muster the energy to discuss civic affairs

But the most inventive cognitive dissonance is reserved for shows in which politics are front and centre to the plot. An obvious whopper is the black president on 24. While it’s not inconceivable that a former fourstar general like Colin Powell could one day lure enough centrist voters, Republican and Democrat, to put him in the White House (and even then, I’m skeptical about him taking crucial Southern swing states), what we have on 24 is a black liberal Democrat. In the real world, this would require a back story of profound social change and electoral upheaval. But not on TV. There, it’s just a ho-hum variation on modern America life.

And 24 has nothing on The West Wing. The recent memoirs of former Republican U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill show a real-life White House unabashedly driven by conservative ideology, and a Bush administration that did not let the facts get in the way of a good multi-billion-dollar war, or let fairness stall a second round of tax cuts for the wealthy. On The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet is the kind of liberal Democrat who makes Howard Dean look centrist. But every week he painstakingly sets ideology aside in almost every decision he makes. While conservative pundits love to accuse Hollywood liberals of hijacking popular entertainment, The West Wing makes you wonder if liberal producers use TV less as agitprop than as some sort of reverse psychotherapy that lets them engage in big-time denial. Their hero Al Gore loses the White House? That’s OK, their hero Josiah Bartlet can have it instead.

So is all of this much different from what’s produced in Canada? I think it is. For years, even as we remain addicted to American fluff, our most popular homegrown shows have included Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Flour Has 22 Minutes, both prime-time pie-throwing contests aimed squarely at politicians of every stripe. Last month, CBC premiered Rick Mercer’s nicely cynical Monday Report, in which he opines on the idiocy of our elites, and brought back Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom, a show that takes the stuffing out of the CBC itself. And CTV has The Eleventh Hour, a look at how the drive for ratings distorts the news.

So why are such shows virtually absent from American airwaves? One difference, certainly, is the stakes are higher. In the United States, where celebrity is a vastly bigger industry than here, stardom is all about keeping the fans happy-all the many, many millions of them. Ironically, the more divided the country, the more bland must be the like-me politics of someone like Jennifer Aniston, who could lose that next movie deal or magazine cover should her character on Friends ponder the capabilities of her president, and thus risk her lock on mass adulation. In Canada, where even relatively big celebrities like 22 Minutes’ Cathy Jones can walk down Main Street unnoticed, stars needn’t worry about political opinions sending zillion-dollar careers off-track.

And that of course speaks to an even bigger difference between the U.S. and Canada. For better or worse, when Americans are faced, as all electorates are, with betrayal and mediocrity and pork barrelling at the top, their first instinct is to say, “We’re all in this together, so let’s focus on the positive.” Faced with the same inevitable duplicity, Canadians find comfort in taking jabs at the morons we were dumb enough to put in office. United they stand. United we bitch. Neither tack is necessarily superior.

In the meantime, there are at least a few reality checks on American TV. Bounding onto the set after most of the country has gone to sleep, the puerile but fearless Conan O’Brien, the wry Jon Stewart and the venerable Saturday Night Live far outpace anything on prime time in satirizing the Republic’s many nabobs. And of course, there is that incendiary staple of the airwaves, The Simpsons. When Homer rails to Marge about the power ofTV to refashion the world as it sees fit—“If they only stumbled once, just gave us 30 minutes to ourselves, but they won’t! They won’t let me live!”—his cartoon character seems miles more self-aware than the vast majority of his flesh-and-blood TV counterparts. You’d almost think he was real. lifl

Victor Dwyer is a Toronto journalist. vdwyer@sympatico.ca