“…we want television to be about us, finally.”
Steven Spielberg, Director
It seems the network television executives are finally starting to get it… well, at least those at ABC Television.
For years, television execs have stuffed our grid guide with various iterations on the same theme – tenacious and incredibly talented female investigator trying to prove herself in a male dominated world gets paired with a cynical, old-pro male partner in his hipster cop attire and wearing his badge like a necklace a la Flavor-flav, in order to take down villains who help turn the entire show into a Quentin Tarantino version of soft-porn.
Sure the ratings for these shows are very good, in some cases exceptionally so, but they exist in a sea of sameness, and the way the subject matter is portrayed has, in this author’s opinion, led to the decline of “appointment TV” and helped push consumers to embrace the DVR and various streaming services – since who wants to sit down with the kids and watch two characters make-out after a scene of flying bullets and blood splatters.
Don’t get me wrong. I love gun action and sexiness as much as the next person. Also, I don’t wholly attribute the rise in delayed content viewing to these kinds of television shows. However, they have served as a catalyst to that end.
Unfortunately, there’s been very little over the years to fill the “family gap”. And I’m not referring to the more mindless content that we see today such as The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Idol, and its ilk. What I’m speaking to are those shows that tackle important issues, and deploy those archetypical references in service of simple, universal stories about family.
If you grew up in the ‘70’s and 80’s, you had shows like All in the Family, which broke ground in its depiction of issues previously considered unsuitable for television comedy, such as racism, homosexuality, religion and war.
The show revolved around Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O’Connor), a working-class World War II veteran living in Queens, New York. He was a short-tempered, outspoken bigot, seemingly prejudiced against everyone who is not a U.S.-born, politically conservative, heterosexual White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, and dismissive of anyone not in agreement with his view of the world. His ignorance and stubbornness routinely caused his malapropism-filled arguments to self-destruct. He longed for better times when people sharing his viewpoint were in charge, as evidenced by the show’s nostalgic theme song “Those Were the Days.” Despite his bigotry however, he is portrayed as loveable and decent, as well as a man who is simply struggling to adapt to the changes in the world, rather than someone motivated by hateful racism or prejudice.
Through the serious, yet comedic depiction of controversial issues, the series became arguably one of television’s most influential comedic programs.
After All in the Family, television audiences were offered shows like Family Ties, The Wonder Years, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Cosby Show that neither took issues head-on nor avoided them entirely. I call this the beginning of the “Politically Correct Revolution” as audiences were deemed by network executives, and in some cases the Government, as being unable to (or uninterested in) deal(ing) with topics such as religion, race, etc. in an honest, yet familial setting.
Thus, it’s refreshing to see one network, ABC, attempting to take a page out of the old programming book, and offer new television fare that brings the likes of All in the Family to the modern era. I’m speaking specifically of The Goldbergs and “Black-ish”, shows that I’ve been a fan of since their debuts.
For The Goldbergs, its beauty is that jumping in at any time is pretty easy as the show is built on archetypes that get broken down over each episode and then reset for the next one. The mother Beverly will always be a “smother,” the father Murray will always be a softie under his gruff exterior, and so on. The show’s conceit of smashing together every year of the 1980’s into an anachronistic melting pot of Jewish delight further cements the idea that the parts here are greater than the sum. And yet, the sum total of The Goldbergs offers up a series of short stories about a Jewish family that offers its own type of continuity as they address challenging topics. It’s easy to simply call The Goldbergs an ’80s nostalgia piece, but that’s a surface-level reading at best that undercuts the deeper elements at play, especially at a time in which poor behavior and selfishness are the primary sources of comedy.
In contrast to The Goldbergs subtle Jewish references, “Black-ish” takes an on-the-nose approach to race from the moment its title card appears. The show has received much attention in part because it marks an overdue return of the black family sitcom to network television; but it’s much more than that. The show follows Andre “Dre” Johnson (wonderfully played by Anthony Anderson), an advertising executive, as he tries to establish a sense of cultural identity for his upper-middle-class, African-American family in suburban California.
“Black-ish” has demonstrated, and smartly so, that minority characters can talk about race more than occasionally, and at the same time have popular success, specifically because it makes fun of itself. That doesn’t mean it takes the issue of race or the other topics it addresses lightly, but it removes the failed, overly politically correct approaches of the past.
For me, a good family comedy capably permits all of its subjects to turn inward, thereby exposing their shortcomings, strengths, and eccentricities. Cynicism is easy. Optimism is difficult. The Goldbergs and “Black-ish” opt for optimism each and every time. That optimism and fundamental affection for its characters makes them welcome parts of the overall television landscape. Perhaps more of this kind of programming will help bring back “appointment TV” or at least slow its decline by giving families a reason once again for gathering around the television.