Watch TV grow up? Yes, we can
Already the signs are there, in the most unexpected and disparate places. “60 Minutes,” which for recent years has seemed something of an anachronism, is suddenly a ratings juggernaut. On Fox’s “24,” Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) finds himself in a less cowboy-worshiping-and-torture-tolerant nation. Over at the CW’s “Gossip Girl,” the appearance of Wallace Shawn (in a romantic role no less) gave the show a sudden strange intelligentsia quotient even as Serena (Blake Lively) put down her party girl hat to impress her sober beau. “Mad Men” racked up awards and even a few more viewers for AMC with its ongoing and increasingly ominous portrait of America about to enter the political turmoil of the ‘60s, while in a week TNT will launch “Leverage,” in which Timothy Hutton plays a epiphany-fueled modern-day Robin Hood.
President-elect Barack Obama will no doubt put his imprint on many things in this country, politically and culturally, but the first evidence of change that matters may come on the flat screens that unite this great nation: In a world of sustained post-adolescence, where teenagers swill martinis (“Gossip Girl”) and head neurosurgeons live with multiple roommates (“Grey’s Anatomy”), suddenly it’s hip to be grown up again.
There are myriad reasons Obama won the presidential election, but watching him and his wife, Michelle, as they sat for their first post-election interview on “60 Minutes,” it was difficult to avoid the aesthetics of the matter. The Obamas are the most telegenic First Couple in American history -- young, attractive, smart and utterly at ease in front of a camera. The Kennedys were posh and beautiful, George and Laura Bush projected Americana folksiness, but the Obamas combine glamour with a distinct air of social responsibility, something that isn’t easy for anyone who wasn’t the late, great Paul Newman.
More important, they seem, after two years on the campaign trail, to know their way around a high-def, YouTube world. The economic crisis may have given Obama an opportunity to shine, but it was Obama who chose instead to radiate: A commitment to change, yes, but also patience, steadiness and forbearance. Seriously, when was the last time a presidential candidate, much less one younger than 50, went with forbearance? During the debates, when pundits predicted rhetorical fireworks and all but demanded a little righteous anger, Obama fashioned instead an on-screen persona based on something that seemed alarmingly close to wisdom. His first few press conferences have only solidified the image. Although a bit looser now that he’s won, the president-elect stays firmly, and naturally, in an almost Zen-like middle zone of emotions, offering calm assurance where others might choose more moment-of-glory proclamations.
A bold choice in a culture that worships the incendiary, that lives in a state of suspended superlative, and certainly not what anyone expected to play as well as it did on TV. But Obama and his campaign was counting on a remarkable, if cyclical, shift away from the insulated individual toward the cooperative community, away from competitive consumerism toward political idealism.
And Obama, with his youthful three-pointer, his movie star smile and long, lanky frame, was the perfect man to sell it.
Eight years ago, many (if not most) Americans turned away from the often personally stiff braininess of Vice President Al Gore in favor of what was seen as the more down-to-earth instincts of George W. Bush. A scion of privilege, he flaunted his predilection for nicknames, his western gear and his Cliffs Notes approach to complex situations, even his reliance on a increasingly small group of people for advice. As the Bush administration navigated the country through a boom economy and the traumatized years after 9/11, the idealism of “The West Wing” gave way to the cynicism of “24,” while reality TV emerged with clique-navigating competitions like “The Apprentice” and apres-moi paeans to excess like “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
Now the cowboy has been replaced by the professor (though, for the moment anyway, the professor with the highest crush-factor in school) and being a grown-up is cool.
Because everyone on television nowadays is 20 years old, 27 tops. Oh, the characters may actually log in at 40 because they have to -- very few 20-year-olds are top neurosurgeons or police detectives -- but they all act like they’re just out of college, experiencing love, friendship and professional responsibility for the first time. On shows like “House,” “Bones” or “The Mentalist,” the main character’s special ability is invariably offset with clinical immaturity. Take away the medical/crime mystery and the characters don’t behave much different from the teenagers on “Gossip Girl” or “90210.”
On television, very few people are married, fewer still have children and the children they have are rarely seen at all, much less as the demanding attention pits most real children are. (There’s an actual child on “Ugly Betty,” but even he acts 20.) A large percentage of men and women long past that first-job stage of life, however, have roommates. Older parents, or even older people, make only the rarest appearance (most usually, for some reason, in the form of Tyne Daly) and only then to show why the main character is screwed up or to illustrate, say, the tragedy of Alzheimer’s.
Although there are exceptions, most notably “Brothers & Sisters” and “Friday Night Lights,” families are, for the most part, confined to sitcoms where the kids are contractually obligated to be smarter than the adults and anyone older than 60 is eccentric in some way.
Few realistic characters with real interests
Dramas, meanwhile, are populated by people who have nothing better, or else, to do than perpetually work or hang out with people from work. Beyond their profession and their romantic lives they have no other responsibilities. Or, apparently, interests. Religion and spirituality are usually verboten unless a character is communicating with dead people, as is any sort of creative outlet (no one sings in a choir or writes short stories that never get published), and politics are rarely discussed, much less made part of characterization or narrative.
Medical shows and legal dramas occasionally address pressing social issues (though health-care costs and prohibitive legal are rarely among them), but the only public servants we see on TV are cops and firefighters. No teachers, no caregivers, no social workers, no politicians except, of course, the ones who are corrupt. “The Wire” at least gave us a few journalists, but now it’s gone, replaced by “True Blood” and its sexy vampires, who though clocking in at 200 years and older, still act like they’re 20.
It seems that we have come to equate adulthood with corruption or, even worse, boredom. But Obama and his campaign have made clear, that doesn’t need to be the case. Young voters may have put the relatively young Obama in the White House, but they were not voting for apathy or insularity or the technology-abbreviated thought, characteristics so often assigned to generation Z, or whatever we’re up to now. If they will vote for a president who, when asked for fashion advice, told MTV, “brothers should pull up their pants,” they may be ready to watch people do more than solve crimes and medical mysteries and bed-hop on TV.
This isn’t to suggest that the Obama administration will herald a new age of geezer TV, trading “Gossip Girl” back for “The Golden Girls.” But remember “All in the Family”? Remember “Maude”? Remember “MASH” and “The Cosby Show”? Heck, remember “Family” and “thirtysomething”? These were television shows that prompted viewers to think about timely issues in a way that actually reflected their real-life experiences. These were shows on which at least some of the characters were, for better and worse, grown-ups grappling with larger issues than who’s going to break up with whom next.
Television and film writers have become very fond of pointing out that “real life” is a lot like high school, but you know what? It’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be. And it doesn’t have to be. There is always the possibility of change -- that’s the point of growing up. “60 Minutes” is hot again; for goodness sake, with any luck, the rest of the television industry will get with the program.
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