Culture is a flashpoint for social change, both a mirror and a catalyst for our world, and primetime network television is the medium with the greatest reach. Over 290 million people own a television in the United States (that's over twice as many people as those who voted in the 2008 presidential election), and as a primary source of entertainment for most Americans, any sort of progressive politics on the major stations is going to have an impact. Not to mention the over 140 million Americans who watch television on the internet, whether through providers like Hulu, YouTube, and Netflix, or through good old fashioned video platforms on websites with domain names registered in unregulated countries. The average American tends to watch television about 35 hours a week total on both platforms — that's close to a full-time job. You could see why anybody would want to get into the TV racket, but if you're a showrunner with a political point of view, nudging in on primetime is particularly advantageous for spreading your ideals.
Television show runners tend to not be as overall progressive as Hollywood, but there's so much room for growth — witness how "M.A.S.H." and "All in the Family" reflected the changing times in the '70s, for instance, or how putting an upper-class, normal black family on television affected racial understanding with "The Cosby Show." Average blue-collar families — and feminists, and gays — were given a voice by the likes of "Roseanne" throughout the '90s, while "Xena, Warrior Princess" portrayed a feminist (and lesbian?) superhero kicking ass. More recently, "Scandal" portrays an openly, nonchalantly gay (and married!) Presidential Chief of Staff, and recently "Parks and Recreation" has followed the city council campaign of Amy Poehler's feminist patriot Leslie Knope. As we enter the fall season, there are a number of new shows on the networks that reflect our shifting values as a society — and their very existence is a counterpoint to conservative values. But the goal posts have shifted, and while conervatives moves ever right, our primetime cultural braintrust is loosening up.
Here are some older shows that classically pissed off conservatives, plus some newer TV shows that subvert conservative values by espousing change or progressive values.
1. The New Normal. Fall is full of "Parenthood"-invoking, nontraditional family situations — the aforementioned, and also brother-sister tearjerker "Ben & Kate" — but this one is the show most likely to freak out conservatives. Because the "new normal" is a stable family situation comprised of a young single mom who agrees to be a surrogate for her gay male neighbors who want to be fathers. (Also, NeNe Leakes in the trailer, preaching on race relations like a boss.) Another tearjerker, we can smell the markers drying on the Westboro Baptist picket signs from here, but fuck 'em: this is our present and our future, and it's about time we had a show depicting how gay parents can be every bit as loving and stable as straight ones.
2. Partners. This new CBS jam from the creators of "Will & Grace" evolves the gay-friendship theme into 2012: the partners of the title are best friends Joe (straight) and Michael (gay), making the point that prime-time is ready for male-on-male friendships that don't necessarily have to be based on their stupid fantasy football teams or their shared inability to raise kids. Clearly, the amount of gay-friendly programming this season is going to be a huge point of contention for intolerant oldsters, but for them, there's always reruns of "Dynasty." Oh, wait! One of the gayest TV dramas ever made! Sorry, homophobes, you're out of luck.
3. 666 Park Avenue. Have you ever felt like the 1 percent is totally demonic? Yeah, this show does, too. Starring Vanessa Williams and Locke from "Lost" as a filthy-rich couple who owns a hellish apartment building with a Manhattan status-address, this show looks like it will be a "Twilight Zone" for those in the top income tax bracket. It profiles a series of hyper-wealthy characters who live at the address and live their lavish lives for the sole reason that by moving in, they signed a contract with Lucifer. Delicious. At a time when many wealthy conservatives are trying to promote the narrative that their vampire capitalism is just a part of good-old, American, up-by-your-bootstraps manifest destiny — and trying to convince us that Mitt Romney's secrecy about his tax returns is just because of his modest sense of privacy — the last thing the 1 percent wants is for the middle- and working-class to have a fantastical validation of our disdain for them on primetime ABC every week. They won't protest, because they're sitting pretty in their own Park Ave apartments — but it's so nice to have a revenge fantasy on primetime. The difference between the show and reality, though, is that on "666 Park Avenue," extreme greed has consequences.
4. How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life). Alternately, here's a show about some of the hardest-hit in the economy: a middle-aged woman whose divorce left her so destitute that she and her young daughter must move back in with her parents. As the title suggests, the main gag is that her parents are difficult to deal with (her mom is brassy and suggestive, her step-dad is foul-mouthed and ridiculous), but the underlying theme is that she wouldn't have to deal with any of this were it not for the death of the middle class.
5. The Newsroom. This Aaron Sorkin show has gotten mixed reviews, but I love it despite its over-idealism and sometimes-cardboard women characters: it's sorta what might happen if AlterNet had its own TV news program (sans the super-annoying relationships). The premise: a mediocre yet wildly popular news anchor, Will McAvoy, decides he's tired of all the faux objectivity and cute puppy stories being reported by supposedly serious journalists, and sets out on a mission to report the true news, without kowtowing to particular parties or special interests (or investors in the network on which he broadcasts). A registered Republican, as McAvoy asserts whenever he is accused of being super liberal, the show is, at its core, a vehicle for Sorkin to convey to the American people what has actually happened over the political clusterfuck of the last two years. Set in the recent past — 2010 and 2011 — Sorkin reports, through McAvoy, on the Tea Party, the debt crisis, gun control, SB-1070, the killing of Osama bin Laden, Gabrielle Giffords, and most effectively, the Koch brothers. By today's news standards, it's no wonder he's considered "liberal" — he's reporting the facts — but there's no way conservatives are not freaking out at the mere existence of this show. The first season basically retroactively educated people about the obscene conservative behavior that got us to the point we're at now, mere months before the election. Obama's not off the hook in the show, but as in real life, the Republicans in office have a hell of a lot more to answer to than the president. The only way right-wingers would hate this show more is if it were on network TV — Fox, maybe.
6. Skins (US): This MTV remake of the popular British teen show was lambasted by the excitable Parent's TV Council for its loose depiction of teen drug use and sex (aka, things that teens do all the time anyway). What should have been attacked, though, was how bad the remake was of a great show — it got canceled after one season, but not before a good bit of protest.
7. The Mindy Project. Fox Network generally goes with lighter fare like Mindy Kaling's new sitcom, but this one from the "Office" writer/actor is certain to rankle some right-winger's hairs. In one of the only shows written by, run, and starring a woman of color, Kaling plays a doctor looking for love in all the wrong places. While it remains to be seen whether the show is explicitly feminist (though MIA and LeTigre are both on the soundtrack), the pilot depicts her character as a lonely Ob-Gyn whose life has been ruined by the fantasy love of romantic comedies, and as a result pokes holes in the happily-ever-after princess culture that conservatives seem to think every marriage (between a man and a woman) culiminates in. Shot like the most ridiculous, over-the-top rom-com, the first episode follows Kaling's character through a good date that gets cut short because she has to deliver a baby — and places her hot, gruff coworker as the dude she'll just have to end up with. Sure, it's not Valerie Solinas (or Shulamith Firestone) — she's excessively boy-crazy and pretty bougie and not so socially conscious, at least so far. But if any famous, popular young woman wants to embed the concept that rom-coms are corruptive in the heads of her young fans, far be it from us to complain (for now). Added bonus: she gets in some good digs about health insurance, and wryly spoofs American race dynamics.
And now for some classics that really made conservatives deranged:
8. Will and Grace. Ellen Degeneres came out on television and in reality in 1997 on her eponymous sitcom, opening the door for more representations of gays on television, including "Modern Family" and the aforementioned "The New Normal." But first came "Will & Grace," the 1998 sitcom depicting a gay man and his hapless woman best friend, living together normally in New York City, and introducing several other gay characters on the show. After "Ellen" broke that taboo box open, this show explored various degrees of sexuality, include Will's friend Jack who was very effeminate, and Grace's friend Karen who was bisexual. While it got a little forced-campy, it truly did open doors — to the chagrin of some clergy and other homophobic groups, particularly after "Will & Grace" addressed themes about anti-gay groups, and spoofed Christianity. Whoops! The show ran until 2006.
9. Murphy Brown. The 1990s culture wars piqued on television with the emergence of "Murphy Brown," which depicted Candace Bergen as the hardscrabble anchor of the title. It was one thing that she was a strong feminist character emblematic of the era's fierce third-wave feminism, but at one point, she had a kid out of wedlock — and that made jokester Vice President Dan Quayle freak the hell out, giving a speech lambasting the show. "Primetime TV has 'Murphy Brown,'" he said, "a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice." He was roundly mocked, obviously, but the speech embodied the disconnect between society's long march forward and politics' backwards-thinking leaders.