Prime-time politics

Ever wonder about the hidden political propaganda behind "Gilmore Girls," "The Apprentice" and "COPS"? Worry no more!

Published November 1, 2004 6:00PM (EST)

While partisans debate the bias of Fox News anchors and New York Times reporters in insular communities around the Internet, the rest of America gets much of its politics via the pop culture filter that is prime-time television. And it isn't usually hard to pin down the political sympathies of, say, "The West Wing" or "ER," most of whose staff suffer from chronic bleeding hearts; resident everyman, Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle), came out as a Democrat a few weeks back, and Dr. Carrie Weaver (Laura Innes) retained custody of her infant son only after the parents of her late partner saw the error in their homophobic ways.

But those are the obvious ones. We decided to pick one prime-time show from each night of the week and illuminate its underlying, more subtle politics. It's not an exhaustive survey, of course -- apparently, those tightwads over at the Annenberg Foundation won't fork over the money for a research staff without some kind of fancy-shmancy "proposal" -- but it might give you a clue what's percolating just beneath the pop culture surface:

SUNDAY: "Jack and Bobby" (9 p.m. ET, The WB)

Ever wonder what would have happened if your mom had been an overbearing liberal-feminist-atheist history professor addicted to the reefer? If "Jack and Bobby" is to be believed, you would have grown up to be president of the United States -- as well as a reverend and a Republican. The show (which isn't about the Kennedys, wink-wink-nudge-nudge title notwithstanding) is the story of two boys, sweet 13-year-old future POTUS Bobby and his affable, jockish older brother, Jack, who each week channel "Everwood" while chafing against their idealistic, condescending single mother, Grace.

Grace isn't a monster, exactly -- she actually borders on sympathetic at times, and, as played expertly by Christine Lahti, is closer to an actual human being than maybe 95 percent of the characters on prime-time TV. But week in and week out, she's put in situations that expose her as the embodiment of liberalism run amuck. In one episode, she publicly ridicules a Muslim student who refuses to forsake her religion, then refuses to let her increasingly curious son Bobby go to church; for a woman so self-righteous about liberal ideals such as tolerance, the positions reek of hypocrisy. In another episode, she invites an unbalanced homeless man to stay at her house. He promptly scares the kids and steals the television.

It would be unfair to call "Jack and Bobby" a conservative show, and it's unlikely the show's creators intended it to be one. But while the show may not approach "Touched by an Angel" territory, the fact that Grace's liberal instincts are consistently proven wrong gives "Jack and Bobby" an unmistakable center-right undercurrent. One running subplot involves Grace's new teaching assistant, whose application for the job was pushed through because, unbeknownst to Grace, his family had given millions of dollars to the university. Grace had fired her last T.A., whom she'd gotten through affirmative action, for plagiarism, and when she discovered that strings had been pulled for the new T.A., she wanted to dispatch him as well. But the new T.A. was clearly a hard worker, not to mention charming, so she decided to keep him on -- and apparently stop worrying so much about that level playing field thing.

"Jack and Bobby" does allow for shades between black and white. Grace is given some moments in which she seems admirable, and Bobby emerges from his interaction with the homeless man with a newfound sense of compassion. (We're even told that he'll eventually switch from Republican to Independent during his run for president, thanks to attacks from within his party.) But the fact that Grace regularly channels her political beliefs into misguided actions makes "Jack and Bobby," above all else, a cautionary tale in the excesses of liberalism. If I were a conservative who shook his head every time I saw one of those hippie protesters on the evening news, I'd eat it up.

MONDAY: "Monday Night Football" (9 p.m. ET, ABC)

ABC stalwart "Monday Night Football" once featured right-winger Dennis Miller as a commentator. Miller may not be around to inject politics into "MNF" anymore, but Al Michaels, who currently holds down the fort with John Madden, has been there to pick up the slack. Witness this exchange from an early September game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass. (The Patriots had just recovered a Colts fumble, swinging the momentum their way):

Madden: "That's what you call a flip-flop."

Michaels: "Well, we're in the right state for that, John."

It's not hard to see why football has such appeal for right-wingers. On the field, the game is incredibly complicated, with intricate blocking and defensive schemes and play calls that depend on the kind of quick thinking and deceptive tactics seen in high-level chess games. But it is also a fundamentally simple and satisfying game to watch, with 60 minutes of bone-crunching action resulting in a clear winner and loser. There may be complexity in the details, but the rhetoric, with its invocation of warriors, heroes and goats, is sweeping and grand. Think of the tone of NFL Films videos, where a reverent voiceover speaks in moral absolutes of soldiers who battle on a frozen tundra, the fight for dominance seen through the prism of tradition.

The Bush team, of course, understands that such rhetoric has an innate appeal. One's place on the political spectrum could perhaps be measured by to what degree we're won over by sweeping phrases like "freedom is on the march," five words that strike me as both genuinely patriotic and alarmingly simplistic. There's not an overwhelming red/blue divide when it comes to football, except perhaps when you account for the intensity of fandom in the South, where college football plays a much larger cultural role than it does in places like New England. But perhaps the division exists in what we take from it. The NFL has relentlessly used the military in its promotions, something liberals tend to find crass and conservatives don't seem to mind. Football can be used to reinforce the thinking behind Bush's vaguest rhetoric, with its ties to patriotism and its presentation of a nuance-free world of black and white with winners, losers and very little in between. For those on the right, it makes one hell of a metaphor. The rest of us just want to watch a game.

TUESDAY: "Gilmore Girls" (8 p.m. ET, The WB)

It took me a long time to actually sit down and watch "Gilmore Girls," and for good reason: There seem to be more than enough reasons to avoid it, such as the beatific New England locale populated by seemingly stock "eccentrics" we've all seen on countless other shows and an intro that suggests a level of teenage chickiness most would find impossible to take. But "Gilmore Girls" is a pretty damn good show, with a built-in class critique more powerful, if less obvious, than its spiritual cousin on Fox, "The O.C." The back story is that Lorelai Gilmore ran away from home at age 16, abandoning her wealthy parents to raise her newborn daughter, Rory. Now Rory has become a teenager who lives with Lorelai in Stars Hollow, a town near Hartford, where Lorelai's parents make their home.

If "Gilmore Girls" had a conservative slant, Lorelai would likely have spiraled downward after her teenage pregnancy, returning to the fold to find her way. But she went her own way, and after a bumpy road, she's actually doing pretty well -- and her daughter, who recently enrolled at Yale, is almost preternaturally well adjusted. Her parents, meanwhile, are a mess, emotionally distant ciphers insulated by their wealth and seemingly unable to maintain a real connection with anyone, including each other. The show, which is awash in clever, rapid-fire repartee, inverts the lessons built into the vast majority of conservative, family-centric shows, from "Leave It to Beaver" to "7th Heaven." The message of "Gilmore Girls" is that unconventional choices can add up to a better life than traditional ones. "The O.C." may have a more obvious wrong-side-of-the-tracks dynamic cribbed from "The Outsiders" and countless predecessors, but "Gilmore Girls"' message is ultimately much more subversive. (And just in case you're still not convinced, consider this: In the alternative America of Gilmore Girls, Al Gore occupies the White House.)

WEDNESDAY: "Law & Order" (10 p.m. ET, NBC)

The lovable right-wingers over at Free Republic have particular disdain for "Law & Order," possibly dating to the time when the show savaged Ken Starr in an elaborate two-hour send-up. "'Law & Order' serves in socialists' culture war against whites," wrote one. Another imagined "'Law & Order' writers sitting around an Upper West Side coffee house" dreaming up liberal-leaning plot lines, while a third wondered, "Couldn't the producers just leave out all those political comments?" The answer to that question, of course, is no, since when you have to provide compelling crime drama on a weekly basis, it's inevitable that you'll touch on the controversial. Of course, "L&O" writers haven't exactly shied away from controversy: This season started with two polarizing "ripped from the headlines" story lines, one about a bitter 9/11 widow and the other featuring the vengeful sister of an Iraqi prisoner tortured at Abu Ghraib prison.

But the Freepers are wrong to portray "L&O," which features some of the most sophisticated political back and forth in prime time, as one-sided propaganda. Look at the Abu Ghraib episode: We heard from (a) a military commander who said it was worth psychologically torturing prisoners if it saved innocent lives, (b) a former Iraqi citizen who complained America protected Iraq's oil fields but not its people, (c) a detective who says the prison-abuse scandal was blown out of proportion, (d) a district attorney critical of the war who wonders why we didn't invade Rwanda, and (e) another D.A. who defended the war. The latter is played by Fred Thompson, a former U.S. senator who, most episodes, articulates a pointedly conservative point of view.

It's also worth pointing out that in shows like "L&O," as well as imitators like CBS's "CSI" and "Cold Case," the protagonists are governmental figures, and you're generally expected to sympathize with them. You want the cops to figure out who committed a crime, and you want the lawyers to make that person pay. The shows reinforce cultural messages about the sanctity of the social order. That isn't to say that "L&O" panders to traditional conservatism -- for the most part, the show is both more balanced and more intelligent that the political programs featuring partisan carnival barkers that pop up on cable news networks. But "L&O" and its imitators are celebrations of governmental authority figures. It's tough to argue that prime time has a liberal bias when so much programming features heroic cops and prosecutors instead of sympathetic social workers and heroic public defenders.

THURSDAY: "The Apprentice" (9 p.m. ET, NBC)

I used to be puzzled by the fact that all those Upper West Side coffeehouse dwellers I know eat up "The Apprentice," despite the fact that Donald Trump may well be the closest thing America has to an embodiment of shallow materialism. But somewhere along the line I figured out that the show works better as a wicked satire of traditional capitalism than as a celebration of it. Sure, there are those that see "The Apprentice" as a window into a business world in which talent and the elevation of work above all else are justly rewarded, who marvel at the opulence of destinations Trump invariably describes as "the most luxurious in the world." But for the rest of us, the show's portrayal of back-stabbing, ambitious overachievers drooling over an ultimately meaningless brass ring is one of the most persuasive arguments against life in the boardroom that there is.

That's why "The Apprentice" really is a liberal show, no matter how much Trump tries to spin it the other way. It exposes the artifice behind what we otherwise might have thought an ideal life, much like a particularly disappointing trip to the Playboy mansion might. Conveniently, the genre is about to reach its apotheosis with the debut this Sunday of Fox's "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss," a show that takes Trump's ridiculous conceit a step further; even those who take "The Apprentice" at face value -- people whom a friend describes, perhaps too unkindly, as "rural rubes" -- will be in on the joke on that one. And then we'll all be laughing as the high achievers we're theoretically meant to emulate are made even more obvious targets of ridicule.

FRIDAY: "Reba" (9 p.m. ET, The WB)

There's a reason that you haven't heard much about "Reba," even though the WB likes to describe it as "edgy." And it's not that "Reba" sucks, although, to be honest, it's nothing to write home about. "Reba" belongs to a category of shows -- along with CBS's "Two and a Half Men" and "The King of Queens," ABC's "8 Simple Rules," and countless others -- that are constitutionally committed to never breaking new ground. Even though there is more obvious conflict in these shows than there was on, say, "Father Knows Best," there's the same underlying message: As dysfunctional as families can be, they're still the best way to organize American life. Reba (played by country icon Reba McEntire) is divorced, but she still leans on her ex-husband and kids, and is willing to sacrifice to maintain her household above all else. Family matters, as "Family Matters" so eloquently put it. Even ostensibly more risk-taking shows play by these rules: The "Friends" married off and paired up, the men of "Two and a Half Men" formed a family unit to raise a kid, and the "Sex in the City" women wanted nothing more than a satisfying relationship. Even "Roseanne" and "The Simpsons" are, at heart, about the value of family above all else.

It's easy to see why shows about the sanctity of the status quo are so popular. After a long day's work, most Americans don't want to come home to shows that question the very values around which they've organized their lives. Most TV is about entertainment and escapism; being confronted by a revolutionary idea is the last thing many of us want on a Tuesday night. And the corporations producing these shows have little reason to rock the boat by using pop culture as a vehicle to question our assumptions.

There have been shows that break the mold, however, even if "Reba" isn't one of them. "One of the most revolutionary mainstream shows was 'Married With Children,'" says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "The message was that everyone in that family would have been better off if they weren't in that family. That's really subversive on some level." Until Reba walks out on her kids or becomes consumed by the debilitating pessimism exhibited by Al Bundy, however, the WB's claims of edginess ring a bit thin.

SATURDAY: "COPS" (8 and 8:30 p.m. ET, Fox)

John Edwards likes to talk about "two Americas" -- one privileged and the other overburdened. We see the first of those Americas on television all the time, on shows about lawyers, doctors and shallow Ivy Leaguers vying for the favor of capricious millionaires, but we don't see the latter too often -- unless we're watching an interview with the parents of a soldier stationed in Iraq, the press conference of an overwhelmed Louisiana lottery winner or the parade of depravity offered up weekly on "COPS." The other shows on Saturday night are mostly standard comfort food -- among the options are ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney," CBS's "The Amazing Race" and NBC's movie of the week -- but "COPS," which Fox pairs with "America's Most Wanted," gives us reality in all its disturbing squalor, with the drug-addled, violent and desperate poor having their pathetic lives put before the cameras to make that reaming out our boss gave us last week sting a little less.

Honestly, though, America: Can't we do better than this? "COPS" teaches us that the poor deserve to be that way, and as an antidote to runaway political correctness, it might have a cultural function. Even a staunch Democrat watching the show would be hard-pressed to argue that the shirtless drunk driver with the tooth-impaired, possibly underage girlfriend deserves a welfare check funded by our tax dollars. But what is this celebration of the value of unfettered capitalism really a response to? We almost never see the large swath of underprivileged America that Edwards likes to invoke, and so many Americans can't even begin to contemplate the possibility of a hardworking, socially responsible underclass. Instead, they're given a show that functions to free them from any lingering guilt about their relative affluence. "COPS" is perhaps the most Republican show on television, a horror show that offers up anecdotal evidence in support of harsh prison terms, tax cuts for the rich and a curtailing of welfare programs. If it were the only thing we had to watch, Bush would win in a landslide.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Brian Montopoli

Brian Montopoli is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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