Network television programming doesn’t necessarily tell us much about what the public thinks, but it definitely tells us what the nation’s elites think we think. The people behind network television programs are trying to garner the largest audiences possible for their clients–networks, advertising agencies, and large businesses–and that means trying to figure out what we’re thinking and then, well, pandering to it.
That, of course, means that very basic drives such as self-preservation and propagation will be at the center of things. That is why TV programmers gravitate toward sex and violence.
Context, however, is everything, and in network TV in recent years the unconventional has increasingly been used to make conventional moral points. Thus comedies today are bluer than ever before, but they indicate a serious longing for more order in the characters’ romantic lives. Similarly, today’s dramas are blood-red but express a positive view of conventional morals.
The new programs suggest that both elite and popular opinions about public morality are becoming more conservative, even as the surface content of the shows becomes more pungent. As usual, a few common themes emerge.
Saving the World, One Creepy-Looking Corpse at a Time CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
has frequently topped the weekly ratings (and is currently number 1) and has spawned two additional series in the past couple of years. No surprise, then, that several shows this season are taking up the franchise’s successful formula of quirky police investigators solving grotesque, horrible crimes committed by incredibly inventive lunatic sadists.
Bones (Fox), for example, follows the cases of forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (based on a real-life investigator) who is a genius at deducing causes of death from tiny scraps of bodily evidence. As a matter of course, we are presented with plenty of gooey stuff that used to be people, and some equally sticky emotional baggage among the detectives.
Criminal Minds (CBS) allows Mandy Patinkin to depict lots of personal anguish (or perhaps it’s dyspepsia; it’s hard to tell) as the leader of a team of criminal profilers in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Group based in Quantico, Virginia. Killer Instinct (Fox) presents fictional cases of the Deviant Crime Unit of the San Francisco Police Department, and the male protagonist is yet another CSI-style gloomy gus crimefighter.
Things Can Only Get Better–If Not Funnier
This year’s crop of situation comedies continues the trend of programs dealing with the tangled problems of life in a hyper-sexualized, sensation-seeking society. The initial episodes of Fox Network’s The War at Home
based much of their humor, and nearly all of their stories, on cybersex, transvestitism, teen homosexuality, sado-masochistic sex, and other such matters. Out of Practice
(CBS), a comedy about a family but definitely not a family comedy, likewise deals with disturbed romantic relationships, and is not much more amusing.
Twins, on the WB, follows the adventures of a family-owned lingerie company and includes the expected dreary jokes about breasts, homosexuality (pro-, of course), and incest. Hot Properties (ABC) tells the story of three female real-estate agents, and guess what: more sex jokes. In the premiere episode, sluttish behavior by two of the agents came back to haunt them–but not enough to make a moral point.
Related (WB) is produced by a co-creator of Friends and follows the lives of four adult sisters as they try to juggle jobs and romance. It turns out to be difficult, astonishingly enough. The characters do want to be good, however, which reflects another important trend in these comedies. For instance, CBS’s How I Met Your Mother tells the story of a conservative, young, urban male who really wants to get married and has found the woman he thinks is right for him. The comedy flows from the fact that the cues regarding romance no longer make sense to such a person.
He might want to make a visit to UPN’s Love, Inc. , which has an interesting premise: the main characters work for a company that helps people navigate the dating scene so that they can find permanent partners. Sex, Love, and Secrets (UPN, cancelled) was evidently intended to be a sort of “Desperate Singles,” with the combination of titillation and morality that made Desperate Housewives such a hit and has in fact been a staple of American entertainment since the early films of Cecil B. DeMille.
Fox’s Kitchen Confidential and ABC’s Freddie follow the same format of showing the value of traditional morality while presenting lots of overly frank, sexually oriented jokes and story material.
NBC’s My Name Is Earl is all about morality. The title character (Jason Scott Lee) has lived a selfish life as lower-class trash, and comes to realize that he deserves to have bad things happen to him, which he characterizes as karma. He sets out to make restitution to all the people he has wronged in the past, one episode at a time. The show is interesting on a moral level, in that it assigns the responsibility for Earl’s condition entirely to him, not outside forces.
Everybody Hates Chris, on UPN, fictionally recounts the childhood of comedian Chris Rock in chaotic Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. The young protagonist’s humorous point of view and intact family–particularly the presence of his father, one of only four living on their block–point toward a more hopeful future.
“We Only Want to Help.”
Several new programs deal with the trials and tribulations of various types of do-gooders. NBC’s E-Ring
stars Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper as two Pentagon-based military officers who run military-defense operations. The stories highlight old-fashioned moral virtues such as loyalty, courage, compassion, and commitment.
Three Wishes takes over where last year’s surprise hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition leaves off, granting various wishes to middle-Americans in need of help. In Head Cases (Fox, cancelled), Chris O’Donnell and Adam Goldberg played a pair of (literally) mentally disturbed lawyers surrounded by stupidity and greed. Although hampered by their mental problems, they wanted to do good, and somehow they managed to win cases, if not viewers.
Inconceivable (NBC, cancelled) followed multiple story lines at a fertility clinic. The program’s makers showed no interest in what happens to unwanted embryos, but they did make sure to have a homosexual couple get to have a baby.
In ABC’s Commander in Chief, a conservative Republican president is incapacitated and is replaced by his earnest, left-leaning, Independent veep. Why the president chose such an ideologically unsuitable running mate receives only a perfunctory, entirely inadequate explanation. The same is true of the rest of the show’s soap-opera melodramatics. Politics junkies enjoy this sort of thing, however.
“It’s a dirty world, but that’s why they make antibiotic soap.”
A common theme in this year’s new programs is the pervasiveness of social corruption, and some shows make that their central premise. Fox’s Reunion
, for example, digs into the dirty secrets of a group of friends in their years after high school. Close to Home
(CBS) takes place in America’s heartland (specifically, Indianapolis), and depicts appalling horrors perpetrated within seemingly normal American families.
In The Apprentice: Martha Stewart (NBC), the elegant ex-con tests the creativity and management skills of a group of aspirants to a position in her empire of style. As in all these “reality” programs, the contestants show a wide variety of human failings and a very small number of virtues, suggesting that the current state of American society is rather dire indeed.
In Just Legal (WB, cancelled), the site of social corruption was the legal system. In Prison Break (Fox) the corruption goes to the very top. The vice president of the United States, who is about to run for President and is favored to win, is behind a vast conspiracy that involves several murders and an insidious cover-up including the framing of an innocent man for the initial killing. As in Just Legal, the protagonists’ fight against corruption is the central plot thread.
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth . . .”
Several programs this year take up the theme of preternatural phenomena. It’s interesting that such a trend should become prominent at this time, given the first Baby Boomers’ imminent move into old age and the media emphasis on loss of lives in Iraq. Hollywood released a spate of movies about the supernatural and afterlife right after World War II. The current trend probably has a similar source.
In Surface (NBC), a beautiful young female oceanographer (is there any other kind?) discovers a gigantic, luminescent, screaming sea monster at the bottom of the ocean. It’s not clear what this is supposed to mean, but the show is kind of fun. ABC’s Invasion appears to be an update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and includes a good deal of conspiracy stuff. In Threshold (CBS), a disaster-management expert leads a small team of geniuses in repelling what appears to be a well-planned, secret invasion by extraterrestrials. The premiere episode featured something all too rarely seen on TV these days: a horde of cockroaches doing a Busby Berkeley dance.
Ghost Whisperer (CBS) stars Jennifer Love Hewitt as a woman who, you guessed it, sees ghosts, who come to her for help in resolving problems so that they can get on with afterlife. Elsewhere around the TV dial, however, the spooks are significantly more sinister. ABC’s The Night Stalker is a remake of the short-lived but beloved 1970s mystery-comedy-horror series (now available on DVD and highly recommended by this critic). Unfortunately, this new version has none of the humor or panache of the original.
Supernatural (WB) does have both humor and scares, and the stories provide interesting and difficult moral choices for the characters. The protagonists–two young men whose father has gone missing after two decades of secretly fighting a wide variety of ghastly, preternatural antagonists–continue his work while searching for him in order to rescue him from who-knows-what kind of appalling horror. In my view, it’s easily the best of the new TV shows this year.
The new programs seem to be doing about as well, on average, as their competition. Only one, Criminal Minds, is in the top ten in the most recent Nielsen ratings, as is perhaps to be expected this early in their run, and only three are in the bottom ten. A sampling of programs reflecting the themes identified here is in the top 40: Commander in Chief, Ghost Whisperer, My Name Is Earl, E-Ring, Out of Practice, Close to Home, and Prison Break. How I Met Your Mother, Three Wishes, Threshold, and Bones placed near last year’s hit Lost and are above Joey. Among the losers so far, Supernatural is at 107 out of 115. (For comparison, note that last year’s critical hit Veronica Mars is dead last.) Four programs–Head Cases, Just Legal, Inconceivable, and Sex, Love, and Secrets–have been cancelled, a surprisingly small number for this point in the season.
As this fall’s newbies demonstrate, the Hollywood TV industry is rather conflicted these days. This year’s new programs depict the world as an immensely dangerous and corrupt place, but they also show that numerous individuals, including the protagonists of most of these series, desperately want to find a way to live decently and do right. If this is pandering, it is pandering to the right impulses.
– S. T. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research and editor of The Reform Club.