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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Golden age

March 1st, 2006

BY DAVID MACLAINE

One of the most bizarre TV moments of the 1990s was an appearance on Bill Maher’s late-night political talk show Politically Incorrect by comedian Chevy Chase. Chase, who became a household name in the 1970s on Saturday Night Live, left the show early on (a departure unlamented by his colleagues which made possible the launching of replacement Bill Murray’s career) and went on to a film career whose central body of work was the National Lampoon Vacation series. Among his fellow panelists was Steve Bochco, best known as the creator of two long-running police dramas with “blue” in the title. For reasons difficult to understand, Chase used this television appearance to launch a surly attack upon the medium itself. After a while Chase admitted that he didn’t really watch TV, a common affliction of anti-TV zealots, and when reminded of the dimwitted films he had made, defended them as harmless family entertainment. What was intrinsically harmful about television he was unable to make clear, although he acted as though it was a damaging admission on Bochco’s part when he acknowledged that his introduction of occasional partial nudity to NYPD Blue had been worth a couple of ratings points.

Parental warnings about that partial nudity, along with adult language, sexual content and violence, became common in the 1990s, and these supposedly alarming features went hand in hand with an explosion of television creativity during that decade. Because one great advantage of television is its ability to explore characters over a period of time, it is natural that we remember the 1990s mostly through the shows that endured, but one of the features of the era that pleased and frustrated at the same time was the quality of the shows that came and went all too quickly. Few people who have enjoyed the subsequent film career of Ben Stiller had a chance to see his brilliant and very short-lived sketch comedy show on Fox, nor did many get the chance to enjoy John Leguizamo’s brilliant House of Buggin’ although I still recall with fondness two of the sketches on that show. One focused on Pete Best of The Village People, a performer supposedly dropped before the group hit the big time, whose costume was that of a medieval knight, and who only noticed in retrospect the gay content of the group’s songs; another had a street gang that leaped and pirouetted like the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story with disastrous effect when they came up against a modern Latino street gang. I am still a bit cross that I never got to continue exploring the paranoid musings of Nowhere Man or the cyber mysteries of VR 5, the explorations of Earth Two or the dark future-war intrigue of Space: Above and Beyond, not to mention the unresolved relationships on the best high-school drama series of all time, My So-Called Life, like the others, gone after a single season.

Other projects that delivered breakthroughs but did not last were Twin Peaks, the female cop series Sirens, and Murder One (Stanley Tucci’s appearances on the latter show offering some of the most astonishing acting in TV history). But frustrating as it was to watch so many high-quality shows perish like baby turtles, gobbled up before they could reach the sea, the survivors flourished and created a golden age for the medium.

It was a great decade for science fiction, with The X Files and the two space station series Babylon Five and Deep Space Nine, and likewise for jaunty, tongue-in-cheek action adventures: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Highlander, and Xena: Warrior Princess. Comedy flourished. The 1990s saw the final seasons of Cheers, the mature main run of Roseanne, and the two iconic comedies, Seinfeld and Friends, as well as the wicked satire of Dinosaurs and the defining irreverence of The Simpsons, which led, late in the decade, to Futurama, The Family Guy, and, on cable, South Park, where subscribers could also find the superb talk-show comedy The Larry Sanders Show.

Hour-long shows that mingled drama and comedy ranged from the somewhat quirky, mostly comic ensemble of characters on Northern Exposure to the more bizarre assembly of types on Ally McBeal. Intense and straight drama included long-running classics ER and the afore-mentioned NYPD Blue and, at the very end, The West Wing. The full potential of television as a writer’s medium was revealed by an assortment of creative individuals who combined the roles of writer, producer and/or director; noteworthy examples include Chris Carter, J. Michael Stracynski, David Milch, Winnie Holzman, Joss Whedon, David E. Kelley, and Aaron Sorkin.

For some of us who grew up when television largely adhered to the same stifling “moral” code that the Hays Office inflicted on films of the Thirties and Forties, it was liberating to watch the old prissiness washed away by a steady tide of reality. We were, for example, able to witness the two best drag performers in TV history (Leguizamo and News Radio’s Dave Foley). Bochco’s nudity breakthrough did not, alas, succeed as he had hoped in shifting American standards to match European norms, but advance in other “adult” areas was noteworthy. Language continued to move away from euphemism and toward greater frankness, although this steady progression was largely unnoticed, and it will be left to scholars of the next century to track the process by which detective Andy Sipowicz made the shift from “douche-bag” to “asshole.” One who did notice and react with bewildering revulsion was entertainer Steve Allen, who, late in his life, took out full-page newspaper ads decrying the “filth” that had taken over the airwaves. People who use the word “filth” to describe salty language and sexual content reveal more than we’d like to know about their own upbringing, but the reaction of this particular aging TV legend did suggest that there were those for whom the changes I so much enjoyed were unsettling in the extreme.

It’s interesting to think back over the television milestones that gave me such pleasure and consider how they might have struck viewers whose upbringing was in strict accord with 1950s’ norms, who lived away from the liberal coastline, in mostly-white communities, who remained uneasy around people with darker skins and suspicious of foreigners. The principal comedies of the era could offer them limited comfort. The working-class feminism of Roseanne had hijacked the family situation comedy. The Simpsons had made the traditional cartoon family into a vehicle of subversion, and the other two dominant comedies both depicted single people living in New York city who indulged in a succession of non-marital affairs. ER and NYPD Blue offered multi-cultural work environments, with African-American surgeons and police lieutenants in positions of authority. The space-station shows took the multi-cultural thing even further, emphasizing the need for different species to understand one another and cooperate in order to wage war successfully against the forces of tyranny. The kids would sit down to watch those funny rubber characters on Dinosaurs and see a world in which a religion (based on potato worship) is invented to keep the masses in line, leading within fifteen minutes to the notion of burnings at the stake for heresy, and where the discovery of the afterlife spawns instant televangelism. “Traditional” female roles gave way to butt-kicking warrior women: Buffy, Xena, Dark Angel, and Amanda on Highlander. Most unsettling of all must have been the steady increase in gay themes as the decade went on.

Students of television will no doubt want to track the early progression of the theme of women kissing women, from the first on Roseanne (nope, I’m straight), through the Deep Space Nine version (not exactly gay because the other woman being kissed was, partly, the ex-husband of the other kisser; you have to understand about parasitic species), to Xena’s “I’m just getting more air from this Chinese babe, so I can keep hiding in her bathtub.” Xena provided a major dose of lesbian insinuation for the show’s young female fans. (It was the show’s trashy version of the love goddess Aphrodite who first employed the insult “Eat me!” when squabbling with a female rival.) And of course there was that otherwise-harmless star of Ellen who suddenly decided to have a coming-out party in an episode co-written by Dava Savel(she won an Emmy), the same woman who had written the “potato-religion” episode of Dinosaurs. Ellen’s show faltered immediately thereafter, but into that breach marched Will and Grace.

The influence of gay supporting characters must have been even more unnerving for those who considered themselves part of the “moral majority.” It was tricky enough watching Detective Sipowics struggle with his reflexive racism as he worked for African-American and Latino bosses, but he also overcame his own homophobia enough to develop a genuine friendship with the squad’s gay receptionist. Then there was that largely-unsympathetic, demanding boss Carrie Weaver on ER, who became more likeable and vulnerable when she came out of the closet to hook up with a hot Latina firewoman, and the sweet computer nerd Willow on Buffy who went off to college and became a powerful lesbian witch, not to mention sex-kitten Samantha’s failed attempt to settle down with Sonia Braga on the cable show Sex in the City.

In retrospect, I think I have a better idea why it was that the non-coastal, non-urban parts of America felt that big-city liberal attitudes were assaulting them by way of their TV screens and that it was worth entrusting the country to a born-again ex-cokehead of mind-boggling ignorance and inexperience for the sake of a stand against “immorality.” Television has seemed more intimate and personal than most entertainment media. It is best enjoyed in the company of family and friends, and the characters on long-running shows likewise start to feel like part of that same family circle. For people who yearn for the protected bubble world of “traditional values” that television in the 1950s helped create and propagate, these early intimations of reality as the rest of us know it must have been frightening indeed.

Television’s golden age ended pretty much at the same time as the election that gave us the junior Bush. The cheap exploitative genre known as “reality TV” exploded in that fall’s season, and although broadcast TV and cable still offer shows as good or better than those of the 1990s, there are simply fewer slots available for them. I was, in fact, unwittingly there at the pivotal moment of this process. My appearance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? took place on the same night that Governor Bush accepted the Republican nomination. The success of Millionaire, borrowed from a European original, led to an invasion of “reality” shows likewise adapted from foreign originals, and then to the mass production of American variations on the theme. Between this concocted “reality” and the horrors on the nightly news produced by the Bush regime, there is now precious little space left for the sort of artful, boundary-pressing entertainment that regularly rewarded television viewers in the final decade of the old millennium. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Television Issue, Maclaine | Link to this Entry

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