Over at Dissent, I have a follow-up piece on class on TV, responding to Alyssa Rosenberg’s critique of my original post:
As she points out, not all portrayals of rich people reinforce conservatism. On the other hand, where our culture is conservative about class, it’s usually in leaving it unmentioned. For every joke about the excesses of the super-rich, there are hours of TV quietly reinforcing the idea that being poor or deeply economically insecure is an aberration. And when we do see self-identified working class characters show up on TV, too often it’s as the bearers of “cultural” conservatism, making a guest appearance to complain about gay people hitting on them or immigrants speaking Spanish in public (not that there are too many of either on network TV).
Check it out.
Update (7/19): Here’s an interesting e-mail I got from someone considering the impact the TV-ville economy had on him when he was growing up:
At Dissent, I break down the numbers on the jobs TV networks buy scripts about:
Imagine you live in a town of 174 people called “TV-ville.” Each person living there represents one of the pilot scripts bought by the four big TV networks for the upcoming fall season. (I’ve culled these from a list recently published by New York magazine, which has a brief description of each of those scripts. The 174 scripts I have included were those that mentioned someone’s job.) If you ever need law enforcement, you’re in luck. TV-ville is home to twenty-three cops, and if that’s not enough to make you feel safe, there are also seven CIA and FBI agents to back them up, as well as victimologists, spies, and fourteen investigators (public and private). If you get sick, you have twenty-four doctors to choose from. If you need to sue, you can call one of the town’s eighteen lawyers. But there’s a downside to living in TV-ville: It may take a while to get a table, because the whole town only has one waitress.
Here’s the rest.
Alyssa’s post this week on Game of Thrones inspired me to dredge up a 2005 post I wrote on differences between the approaches liberals and conservatives bring to media criticism:
Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses?
My original post is here. This led Alek to post a thoughtful response in the comments here. I don’t think Alek and I are too far apart on this.
I also want “a simple policy of letting media creators both expose and endorse whatever they want.” I don’t believe in obscenity laws (or the overturned ban on depicting animal cruelty, or libel laws for that matter). That’s why I started the post staking out my disagreement with Rick Santorum’s view that “if it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral” (and thus if it isn’t moral, it shouldn’t be legal). But we should still talk about the stuff they’re creating, right?
That last post draw a bunch of comments, mostly thanks to Michael J.W. Stickings’ link from Crooks and Liars (thanks!). A few favorites:
Alek Felstiner posted on Facebook:
This is why Tim Bayliss was such an uncomfortable character for everyone else on Homicide. I think, related to your point about lesbianism not being “sex,” there’s a sense in which male homosexuality is contaminant (except perhaps, notably, in prison, where the concept of masculinity is by necessity revised, and that revision recognized and tolerated on the outside), whereas female homosexuality is tangential and easily disregarded – if not encouraged and fantasized-over.
I make that point because most narratives, especially on TV, are about redemption. Ending up in a heteronormative relationship is a satisfactory conclusion for a mainstream American audience, but it only really works if it’s a woman (who finally finds the right man). A bisexual man eventually finding the right woman doesn’t offer the same narrative closure, because he’s already been “contaminated.
My friend Alyssa Rosenberg has teamed up with Lux Alptraum to start a new site, Pop Culture Pen Pals, and they’ve kicked it off with a great exchange on the impoverished portrayals (or lack thereof) of bisexual or sexually fluid characters on TV. As Alyssa writes:
As long as studios are anxiously divining what audiences want, and audiences don’t know what they want from queer characters, no one’s going to pay attention to what realistic, deeply sketched queer characters themselves might actually want.
It’s a thought-provoking – and agitating – discussion, and I agree with most of what they each have to say. One dimension I’d be interested to hear them take on is gender. TV characters that aren’t exclusively hetero or homosexual are few and far between – but the ones that we do see tend to be women rather than men. In GLAAD’s survey of LGBT characters on Network TV, the LGBT male characters were all homosexual (14 to 0); the LGBT female characters were mostly bisexual (7 to 2). The number’s were more balanced on cable, but the pattern was the same.
Why is this? There are a lot of potential explanations. The (overlapping) ones I’m drawn to are all downers.
The blog’s TV preference statistical analysis correspondent e-mails in response to my last post:
I tried to do some mathematical analysis (which Aaron and you can check). In addition to the data points themselves, I used two additional pieces of information:
1. Six Feet Under is your favorite show (I think you told me this previously), and
2. You prefer Law and Order to Mad Men
Based on that, my estimate is that your Watch Preference Rating = (1.5 x Quality) – (Effort). There may also be a minimum Quality threshold for inclusion, although I’m not sure about that.
I’m assuming that the formula is constant throughout, which may not necessarily be true. The most challenging case is Modern Family, which scores very close to Six Feet Under, and higher than West Wing (w/Sorkin). Of course, I can’t be sure how precise your coordinate placements are.
I think my Dad is on to something. (Yes, I do stand by Six Feet Under as the best TV show of all time, despite all the objections raised on facebook) I went ahead and charted the same data points against the 1.5X = Y baseline he suggested and here’s how it looks:
Here’s my plot of TV shows ranked by the effort it takes to watch them (keeping track of the plot, characters, etc.) and the payoff you get for your effort:
The x-axis is effort; the y-axis is payoff.
This is why I’d rather watch an episode of Law and Order than Mad Men.
A special problem I find with higher-effort, lower-payoff shows is that the lower-payoff makes it harder to pay attention and not start trying to bait celebrities over Twitter or whatever – but then that stops me from putting in the required effort, which then makes the show harder to appreciate…it’s a vicious cycle. We could call it “The Cycle of Mad Men.”
Reviewing Entertainment Weekly interviews with the candidates, Marc Ambinder expresses surprise that
In some ways, Obama has the tastes of a 72 year old man; McCain has the tastes of a 47 year old whippersnapper. Who knew?
At risk of sounding cynical, why should we be surprised when Obama associates himself with Dick Van Dyke and McCain associates himself with Usher? Isn’t this what candidates often do in interviews – try to address potential vulnerabilities and convince more people that they’re more like them than they realized (that is, when they’re not focused on doubling-down on their perceived strengths)? That the guy smeared as a secretly foreign terrorist fist jabber touts an old white guy and the really old white guy who can’t use a computer touts a young R & B artist seems to make a lot of sense. Same reason around election time we often hear more from Democrats about their love of guns and Jesus and from Republicans about their love of Black people and the environment.
Updated (8/25/08) to correctly identify Usher’s musical genre, though not in time to avoid looking to Alek like an elderly white guy.
I didn’t expect Fox News’ attempt to ape The Daily Show to go well. But there’s no way I could have expected it to be this bad.
Try to laugh. Believe me, I did. Try, that is.
Check out this graph from the NYT review of 24:
But “24” also jukes to the far side of political correctness and even left-wing paranoia. In two different seasons, the villains seeking to harm the United States are not Middle Eastern terrorists but conspirators directed by wealthy, privileged white Americans: in the second season, oil business tycoons tried to set off a Middle East war, and last year, Russian rebels turned out to be working in cahoots with a cabal of far-right government officials.
Then riddle me this: In how many places in America are you likely to avoid criticism/ seem more enlightened/ charm those hated liberal professors/ earn a glowing profile from those hated liberal journalists/ make friends by suggesting that what look like terrorist attacks by foreign enemies are really engineered by big business and/or the GOP?
Which just goes to show how vapid a term “politically correct” is. It serves two related purposes: first, to reinforce an idea that the left is made up of rigid illiberal thought police; and second, to earn awful ideas consideration from reasonable people on the grounds that to dismiss them out of hand would be politically incorrect.
I once watched an episode of Politically Incorrect where someone suggested bombing all the Arab countries in order to scare off terrorists. He then said something like “Don’t ignore my idea just because it’s not politically correct.” The reason to reject that idea is that it would be unjust and calamitous. The irony is that when Politically Incorrect got booted off the air, it wasn’t for taking on a sacred cow of the left.
The term was popularized in the first place by Dinesh D’Souza. Then he wrote a book arguing that racism is merely “rational discrimination” by whites with a justified fear of “black cultural defects.” Then he got hired as a political analyst by the supposedly all-too politically correct CNN. For his next trick, he’s written a book arguing that conservatives can best discourage terrorism by allying themselves with radical mullahs against gay parents and women who have abortions.
But don’t dismiss his ideas out of hand! That would be political correctness.
Alek puts together a semi-authoritative list of Aaron Sorkin’s latest pilot’s borrowing from his earlier work and his recent life, and a check-list of the borrowings yet to be:
So, what’s missing? We need a character whose parents split up after a long time, preferably because the father had a prolonged secret affair. We need something to be, sarcastically, a “barn burner,” and we need someone to ask if you’ve fallen on your head. We need a season one finale that will actually answer the question “What Kind of Day Has it Been?” We need a character whose younger sibling died, and who blames him/herself for it in a repressed way. We need legs that go all the way to the floor, and Shakespeare the way it was meant to be played. We need to make someone happy by coming home at the end of the day. We need someone writing a letter because something that was supposed to have ended (tennis match, filibuster), is going on way too long. We need someone “raising the level of debate.” We need smart people who disagree with you. We need a fight over the supposed significance of an anniversary. We need, when the fall is all that’s left, for it to matter a great deal, and we need to know that the fact that we want to please you, pleases you. We need underwear in an inappropriate place. We need you not to talk to us like we’re “other people.” We need someone complaining about the lack of admonishment from the clergy over religious violence. We need people accidentally saying the wrong word to someone important, then obsessing over it. We need Josh Malina.
Of course, when you’re as good as Aaron Sorkin, we let you get away with it.
There’s no way I would have been watching The West Wing this season if not for a perhaps perverse sense of loyalty to what it was back when it was Aaron Sorkin’s show. The writing, as many have observed, has tanked, and everything else has gone down with it. Tonight, however, may have been a new low. Whereas Sorkin could actually (and did) make the census riveting television, this season’s writers have made the policy discussion so dry and so trite that the one clever line of the show was when Leo responds to the President’s monologue by asking the others whether they were taking notes. And the character development may actually be worse. It was only in the last minutes of the episode, however, that I was offended in a way I can’t remember ever (despite often coming down pretty far to the left of the positions advanced there) being offended by the show.
President Bartlett has rightfully chosen to take a strong stance against mandatory minimums in drug sentencing and has commuted the sentences of thirty-some first-time non-violent drug offenders stuck with outrageous sentences under mandatory minimums. After the State of the Union, he’s introduced to a Black woman who’s one of the thirty-plus just released and expresses her gratitude. At this point Bartlett launches into a lecture on how lucky she is to be getting a second chance, how dire the consequences if she screws up again, how much the futures of other prison inmates are riding on her behavior, and how important it is that she appreciate her freedom. The sight (fictitious or not) of a white Nobel Laureate/ US President born to privilege taking the opportunity of having taken small steps towards ameliorating awful, punitive, and racist policy lecturing a Black woman who’s just made it out of years of humiliating and unjust punishment for a non-violent offense on how grateful she should be to him and how if she played by the rules he might be more magnanimous to others of her kind was offensive to the point of being difficult to watch. And that the woman simply smiles, blushes, and thanks him again for his kindness is absurd. I expected better.