THE BACK PAGES

Why Hollywood can’t get it right

JAIME J. WEINMAN October 16 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Why Hollywood can’t get it right

JAIME J. WEINMAN October 16 2006

Why Hollywood can’t get it right

tv

The conservatives in these new shows are about as authentic as Shaggy on ’Scooby-Doo’

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Godless liberal Hollywood is reaching out. That’s the impression you might get from some new shows on U.S. television this season, which feature political or religious conservatives as characters. But are producers really reaching out, or just creating characters in their own image?

The most talked-about new show with a politically conservative character is Brothers & Sisters, created by playwright Jon Robin Baitz. The lead character, played by Ally McBeal herself, Calista Flockhart, is a radio talk-show host, sort of a softened version of the female pundits who populate the airwaves today. Or as showrunner Ken Olin puts it: “She’s not Ann Coulter. She’s not insane.” The character is conservative on some issues, like the Iraq war, but not so conservative on others, especially social issues.

Meanwhile, Aaron Sorkin’s new show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, includes a conservative Christian character loosely based on Sorkin’s ex-girlfriend, actress Kristin Chenoweth. But like Flockhart’s character, the character played by Sarah Paulson is carefully calculated not to offend those who are to her left culturally: she may have appeared on The 700 Club, but she’s not upset when her late-night comedy show does a “Crazy Christians” sketch. “I was offended I wasn’t in the sketch,” she exclaims.

This isn’t the first time that the TV industry has looked at the so-called culture wars. In the early ’90s, with the rise of conservative talk radio, there were several shows with right-leaning characters, including Love & War, a show from the creator of Murphy Brown, where Jay Thomas played a conservative radio host. But that character had the same attributes as Flockhart on Brothers &

Sisters: socially moderate, intolerant of “spin,” and open to opposing viewpoints—in other words, not the sort of person who would be likely to host a real political talk show.

And so even when Hollywood tries to do shows about political conservatives, they create characters as remote from real-world conservatives as Shaggy on Scooby-Doo was from real hippies. Baitz has boasted of his attempt to understand politics that are different from his own: “It’s very, very interesting and compelling to us,” he told a gathering of critics, “to try and understand this, to leave behind some of the smug presuppositions of the two coasts.” But the politics of the Flockhart character aren’t at all atypical of the two coasts, especially of Hollywood.

After all, the political culture of Hollywood is represented not so much by Michael Moore (who doesn’t work in Hollywood anyway) but by actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: socially liberal, but fairly conservative on fiscal and foreign policy issues. This translates into the kind of character Flockhart plays on Brothers & Sisters: a person who’s conservative where Hollywood people might be conservative, and liberal where they’re liberal. She’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a short skirt.

In part, this reflects the way Hollywood approaches politics: a show rarely comes

down too strongly on one side of a debate. Older shows sometimes stirred up controversy for taking sides on major issues, like Maude, where Beatrice Arthur’s character had an abortion. But today, few producers want to give offence; so even a self-proclaimed political show like Brothers & Sisters is so self-consciously balanced as to have no particular political point of view at all.

You could argue that Hollywood should be reaching out to the left, not the right: as opposed to the people who make them, the actual content of TV shows is quite conservative enough. Law and Order has a conservative take on crime issues (even if the criminals are rich white guys); it’s a show where legal loopholes and Miranda rights are forever allowing crooks to get off scot-free. 24, which portrays torture as an effective tool in fighting terrorism, has become so popular with conservatives that Rush Limbaugh hosted a panel discussion on its influence, at which he told the creators that they were lucky for premiering so soon after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But even with lower ratings for Fox News and other conservative media outlets, we may continue to get more characters like Flockhart’s and Paulson’s. They’re people who are meant to bridge a cultural divide, and wind up acting like typical Californians. M

ON THE WEB: For more TV culture, visit Jaime J. Weinman’s new blog at www.macleans.ca/weinman