Friday, April 2, 2004

TV or Not TV

There’s a story in the New York Times today about TV shows such as Law & Order, Whoopi, and Curb Your Enthusiasm taking sides in the political debate in this election year. Of course the conservatives are all worked up because they see this as yet another example of Hollywood’s “liberal bias.” They are probably going to try to get a Congressional committee to look into it.


First, the right wing has always viewed entertainers with suspicion. In Shakespeare’s day actors were seen as villains, thieves and scoundrels; the first thing Oliver Cromwell did when he overthrew Charles I in 1642 was to ban all forms of entertainment under the rubric that it was evil and anti-Christian. This of course led to theatre going underground, moving from large outdoor theatres like the Globe to small indoor spaces, which led to the imporation of such ideas as scene design and lighting. In other words, we have Cromwell to thank for the modern form of indoor “black box” theatre. When Charles II regained the throne in 1660, one of the first things he did was re-open the theatres, which led to a flourishing of popular theatre and heralded the beginning of modern topical drama. No longer were plays about gods and monsters or mythical characters in far-off lands – they were the comedies of manners like The Country Wife by William Wycherly which made fun of the people and modes of the present day. Today we’d call them sit-coms.

The fact that television today is taking on the Bush administration is interesting, but it isn’t new. Every president has been red meat for the medium. It got its real jump-start with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, and their anti-Viet Nam War and anti-LBJ views were in large part why CBS cancelled the series. Johnson, you may recall, was a Democrat, and I don’t remember the Republicans objecting to the axing of the show. Of course Watergate led to all sorts of topical humor on TV, including skits on The Tonight Show and references in nearly every other show on the air. And it didn’t stop there. Each president since then has been targeted. It goes without saying that Clinton got his fair share of slings and arrows during l’affaire Lewinsky. I don’t recall the Republicans being too upset about that either. The president and White House – no matter who’s in office – provide material that is irresistible to any writer. It would be negligent under any writer’s code of conduct to ignore the soft pitches that are sent out at nearly every press conference or speech. Dan Quayle and his “potatoe” or his battle with Murphy Brown, Bill Clinton and his penis, and George W. Bush vs. the English language have all been adapted for the screen and all have entered our consciousness because of having those issues on TV in the news and in entertainment programming. Even with such serious topics as war, the economy, or social issues such as gay marriage, and abortion, it would be very hard to write any form of drama for the stage, screen, or summer camp skit without considering the real elements of political discourse as they affect us collectively and as individuals. It is the one common bond we all share, regardless of our political views. It connects with us and delivers a message.

What we as an audience do with that message is another thing entirely. It is arrogant for a writer to think he can change the world with his words alone. Many have tried and most have failed. The so-called “revolutionary theatre” movement of the 1930’s died a quick death when playwrights who thought they were stirring up the masses merely got the audience worked up until the curtain fell, the lights came up, and the magic vanished. The audience didn’t run out into the street screaming for revolution; they went out into the street to hail a cab and go back to their lives.

The very most a writer can hope for is planting the seed of thought in the mind. To assume more than that is folly, and for the critics to fret that today’s television shows are sowing the seeds for the defeat of George W. Bush because Det. Lenny Briscoe makes a snide comment about WMD’s is insulting the intelligence of the audience. What they seem to be afraid of is not Hollywood liberal bias but the dangerous chance that the audience will, after seeing their favorite character express a political viewpoint, begin to think. And thinking, as we all know in this day and age, is a revolutionary act.