By JOHN DOYLE
Saturday, January 20, 2018
A lot of mainstream U.S. TV is simply escapism. Most series on traditional broadcast networks follow templates. The letters in "CBS" could stand for "crimes being solved," such is their devotion to eccentric geniuses who help out the cops with crime solving. ABC has a lot of family comedies. Across the networks there is a saturation of music talent shows.
But in this increasingly tumultuous and divisive climate, even escapism is under the microscope. Where is the diversity that reflects the population? Why are so many female characters in subordinate roles? Is the mainstream TV industry doing anything to combat sexual misconduct behind the scenes on TV productions? If mainstream TV is not just mindless escapism but holds a mirror to society, something that is increasingly expected as cable and streaming services offer more sophisticated storytelling, then is the mainstream changing at all?
Here at the TV critics press tour last week, CBS arranged a panel on "Political and Social Issues," with executive producers Jermaine Fowler from the sitcom Superior Donuts, Robert and Michelle King from The Good Fight, Barbara Hall of Madam Secretary, Shawn Ryan from S.W.A.T. and Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts from Star Trek: Discovery.
The Star Trek duo had an interesting take on the role of seemingly innocuous TV. Harberts explained: "Over the 51-year history of the franchise, starting with Gene Roddenberry, the show has tackled many social issues, from having a Russian on the bridge during the Cold War to having the first interracial kiss on television.
Discovery is continuing with that legacy with a diverse cast that not only includes the first African-American woman to lead the show, but also the first gay couple on Star Trek. In our way, through a futuristic lens, it's very important for us to foster debate and discussion and to shine a light on things that are happening in our world."
This is all very well, but it is inside the Star Trek universe, and it is clear that wellmeaning people are trying to avoid obvious stereotyping but mainstream TV is rooted is tradition. It is almost immovable and there is a nervousness about what the audience is willing to absorb.
The defensive statements from the producers reflect woefully on the state of network TV. What is seen as progress are often merely ripped-from-the-headlines storylines.
S.W.A.T., for instance, is a traditional CBS show in many ways. It's about an L.A. police S.W.A.T. team doing what S.W.A.T.
(Special Weapons and Tactics) teams do.
It has a lead actor, Shemar Moore, who is biracial. This in itself borders on radical.
And to hear Ryan tell it, even reflecting L.A. itself, the show's setting, is a major move forward.
"We dealt with Black Lives Matter issues in our pilot, but subsequently we've been able to expand all across Los Angeles, tell stories that take place in the Filipino community," Ryan said.
"We have an episode coming up in a week and a half that takes place in Koreatown, and in the Latino community in Boyle Heights, but really we're focusing on how police interacts with the community."
There's something odd about this. An issue in the Trump era is divisiveness. Some Americans have no experience of "others" - people who aren't middle-class white Americans. On conventional TV, they only see them in the context of police actions.
As for politics, forget it. Even on network shows that deal with political figures, there is a deep reluctance to reflect reality.
Madam Secretary is a about a female secretary of state (Tea Leoni) dealing with foreign-policy issues and her home life, but there is nothing about Democrats or Republicans in it. The president figure is conveniently identified as an independent to avoid connecting with reality.
Creator and executive producer Hall said, "The mission statement for Madam Secretary from the beginning was to create a show where people could come to talk about politics in a way that wasn't so polarized and polarizing, and this was two years before the election. So one of the ways we did that was that we didn't identify a political party."
Hall defends the show as a window on the world, though: "Because we go into every country and every culture, we get to deal with every issue around ethnicity, religion, gender identity and how those things affect everyone on a global scale. So that's what really we try to do."
Mind you, The Good Fight plans to tackle the subject of a possible Trump impeachment in its second season but, the producers say, it will be done in a manner that points fingers at the inflamed belief among Democrats that removing Trump would solve everything. The drama, which returns March 4, also has plans for an episode "inspired" by the allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein. The episode will, it seems, be based on Ronan Farrow's struggle to get major media to pay attention to his reporting on the issue.
We'll have to see how it plays out but that, right there, sounds no different than a Law & Order episode ripped from the headlines about a notorious crime.
The days of Archie Bunker and reflection of raw prejudices and rage are clearly long over on network TV. An episode of a crime drama set in a Latino community is considered a huge step, not a tiny step toward reflecting reality.
The CBS sitcom Superior Donuts might, in fact, be the most substantive of the shows under discussion. The show is set in a Chicago neighbourhood doughnut shop and treads very carefully around social and political issues. Fowler, a young African-American standup comedian, who is both executive producer and star, controls a lot of it.
"We try to make sure we don't lean too far to the left or to the right," Fowler said.
"We don't want to make the viewer's mind up. We got seven characters on the show from different walks of life who have different viewpoints. We got a guy from Iraq who is the most Republican, conservative guy on the show, which we thought was hilarious because he's Muslim, and most of those people don't like Muslims and we thought it was hilarious and satirical. We got myself as a character who works with this old Jewish guy, and I don't really trust too many white people that much. I don't really hang out with them that much."
On the other hand, it's understandable that there is such little appetite for confronting issues. Mainstream entertainment can be a minefield, with the case of Star Trek: Discovery and its female AfricanAmerican lead serving as a cautionary tale.
"There was a fragment of the audience that was very upset," Roberts said. "A lot of white men felt very marginalized by our show, and it threatened a lot of people. In terms of winning over hearts and minds, what was interesting was on social media our audience policed itself, and our audience rose up and sort of said to those people, 'This is what Trek is.' " As for the continuing divisiveness in the United States, Roberts believes viewers will draw their own conclusion. "And we've addressed the conflict in our own country the way that we were able to," he said, "which is to say that Trump was elected before we shot the pilot and, again, we were in the news quite a bit because people thought that [long-time Star Trek villains] the Klingons represented Trump supporters."
Obviously, CBS doesn't want that - audience and advertisers feeling that characters representing the enemy are stand-ins for Trump supporters. And the issue is the audience, not the producers.
There are so many conundrums for mainstream, network TV. It could do a lot better, but if you want a mirror to the tumult of the Trump era, stick to cable dramas and comedies.
Left: Madam Secretary follows a female secretary of state (Tea Leoni) dealing with foreign-policy issues and her home life - yet there is nothing about Democrats or Republicans in it. Right: Anthony Rapp, left, and Wilson Cruz star in Star Trek: Discovery, the first TV series in the five-decade-old franchise to feature a gay couple.
The CBS sitcom Superior Donuts, set in a Chicago neighbourhood doughnut shop, treads very carefully around social and political issues. 'We try to make sure we don't lean too far to the left or to the right,' executive producer and star Jermaine Fowler says.