Tuesday, January 15, 2013

No More Archie Bunkers, No more Alex P. Keatons

Modern network television is a sea of sludge. The networks are dominated by precedural shows and soap operas for dramas, reality tv sucks, and sitcoms are pretty weak or infused with gay men just dying to get married and adopt kids. The real action is on cable or premium cable, but those shows are few in number. The Sopranos truly changed the game, but the networks never figured out how to replicate the formula. Beyond the shows, is there an iconic television character? Is there a character that represents the times or a specific type of person of the times with broad enough appeal? As we have become a more diverse nation in all regards, cultural cohesion has virtually disappeared. Television ratings have decreased for the top rated shows of each decade as more channels pop up and interests fragment. It is harder for a specific character to reach critical mass to be the man of the times. It's also because television can't allow a character to become a man representing sizable block of the nation and be a positive protagonist. It does not fit the narrative, and they are afraid a counter liberal character would give any screen time to the opposing team's ideas. Television would rather push the narrative rather than create a character that truly resonates with the mass audience.

Television sucks is a common refrain. People dislike reality garbage yet enough folks still watch it to make it profitable for networks. Outside of a handful of AMC/HBO/Showtime shows, there are few big characters that people latch onto and love or love to hate. Part of it is crappy storytelling, but a major part of it is the choice of television producers and networks to use their shows as vehicles for molding public opinion rather than entertaining people. There is an audience dying for good characters and plots. If there wasn't, classic shows from the '70s and '80s wouldn't be available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. In 2010, the 8th episode of the 11th season of CSI ("Fracked") centered on a death that involved natural gas fracking (victim was a black farmer, hahaha). The fracking was killing and poisoning the old couple. They also had the anti-tea party season opener that starred Justin Bieber. Right before the 2010 midterm elections. What the hell happened to investigating two or three murders per episode? CSI now was crusading against natural gas drilling. This is why CSI had their lead character leave the show, and ratings didn't drop. It was a procedural, and while a crime fighting CSI might be conservative and anti-underclass and anti-criminals in real life, the writers couldn't flesh it out onscreen. God forbid fans love a hard nosed, right wing detective. God forbid Hollywood have another Archie Bunker or Alex P. Keaton on its hands.

Television is a heavy hand for guiding social norms and mores as well as shaping a debate. Television networks have long known this, but recently have become more extreme with how they present issues and what issues they discuss. It has been going on for a lot longer, the issues have just become more odd and minute. Watch episodes of All In the Family and Family Ties. Both shows were giant, family oriented sitcoms of their respective decades. All in the Family drips in liberal dogma right from episode one. Family Ties constantly pushes liberal beliefs into any storyline. Those shows, created by Norman Lear and Gary David Goldberg (gosh, what do they have in common?), both intended to have a straight, white male antagonist that would be the 'other side' to dialogue for fleshing out political or social debates. Archie Bunker and Alex P. Keaton were suppose to be the bad guys. Instead, they became the characters audiences loved. Audiences ate it up to the point where the writers had to restructure the shows to focus on those two characters. It had to burn Hollywood that audiences identified and loved (as well as loved to hate) the characters they meant to lampoon the enemy. The other thing those characters allowed was for people to refer to themselves, their friends or family memebrs as an "Archie Bunker" or "Alex P. Keaton" and have a positive connotation to it. Why couldn't Hollywood have written in a George W. Bush fanboy into a sitcom who loved Reagan as well durign W's eight years in office? That is not allowed anymore, unh unh, the enemy must always be evil.

Television producers are so left leaning that they can't allow a main character to be center-right or right wing out fo fear they would unleash another Bunker or Keaton. If anyone entertains right wing thoughts on a consistent basis on television, it is a minor character that they can use as a prop to mock and joke on for a scene. "The New Normal" might have a shot with that conservative grandma, but would they really let her say the "we all know it to be true but no one can say it in public" negative things about gays? It got a full season pick up, but with ratings in the 3s, it will get cancelled. Maybe they should unleash grandma and boost ratings? Television cannot humanize the other side or even let the other side's views be out there not in a cartoonish villain way. This would lead to success. As the Sailer percentage of voting bloc share graph for Romney showed, he garnered a large chunk of some really large voting groups (white men, married whites, married white women, old folks). Scripted television could learn a lot from FoxNews. Not the way it produces news or its style, just that it exists. Murdoch is intelligent and went after an underserved market. If every news outfit leans left, no one is leaning right, and he can have a monopoly on right leaning viewers. That is the key to his ratings success: he's the only game in town for right wing viewers. This will not happen though, and TV will churn out more characters that represent smaller niches of the nation in a form of coalition of victims bingo (black transgendered blind person in a wheelchair, bingo!). No character will capture the mood or culture. A non-existent character might be the best representative of all.


Kocour said...

Well there was Denny Crane in Boston Legal, although the show became quickly unwatchable with its leftie preaching.

How about Ron Swanson? He was also supposed to more of a joke minor character (a staunch libertarian who works for the government, get it?!?!), but has become one of the most popular characters. Of course the show leans left, but Ron Swanson is worth it. Google his pyramid of greatness.

Quartermain said...

There was Hank Hill of Mike Judge's King of the Hill.

He went from being a stereotype to a pillar of common sense.

Anonymous said...

Also (and ironically, considering who played him) Jack Donaghy became the breakout character of 30 Rock.