As media students and media makers, we could see the differences between the 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best and All in the Family when considering how dominant ideologies about traditional gender roles were firstly placed into the 3-act sitcom format, and how topical tensions about evolution versus creationism were confronted head on in the Family cold open, then how race tensions in the 1970s were carried out in a post-Civil Rights America in which Archie Bunker was certainly an archetype of racist, sexist, bigoted mainstream ideologies. Bunker is like an amalgam of everything that was wrong with American mainstream thought of the time, and while he was not an evil antagonist that brought harm directly to others, he still embodies a force that many Americans had to deal with and attempt to educate and reform in an evolving US consciousness.
Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker of All in the Family.
Gitlin’s piece and Horace Newcomb and Paul M Hirsch’s “Television as Cultural Forum” (1983) discuss television in the context of broadcast television in the same way Raymond Williams’ discusses his concept of flow from last week’s reading. Newcomb and Hirsch acknowledge TV as a national medium that brings the masses together, also noting that: “…Television fulfills what Fiske and Hartley refer to as the “bardic function” of contemporary societies. In its role as central cultural medium it presents a multiplicity of meanings rather than a monolithic dominant point of view. It often focuses on our most prevalent concerns, our deepest dilemmas” (p.564).
Newcomb and Hirsch then discuss the Father Knows Best episode we viewed in class, rightly stating that “We suggest in popular culture generally, in television specifically, the raising of questions is as important as the answering of them” (565).
If TV as a cultural forum addresses the fears, dreams, dilemmas, etc. of American society at large, it very well can’t answer some of the biggest social problems the country faces. N&H also discuss the TV producer, creator, what we know consider the showrunner, as an agent that addresses his personal and political ideologies and expressions in his or her work (568). We see this through Lear’s body of work and his continuing interest in social justice and equality.
Elinor Donahue as Betty on Father Knows Best.
Last semester, I went to a panel that included a conversation between Lear and Amy Poehler, the lead of Parks and Recreation as Leslie Knope, the TV show that is the subject of Heather Hendershot’s article we read from How To Watch Television (2013). Sadly it didn’t get into the cultural forum aspect of Lear’s work and how it can now be seen on Parks, but it did address how much fewer people watch Parks and Recreation than those that watched a Lear series. Side note: Poehler reiterated that she thinks All in the Family is the greatest TV show of all time and also added that she named one of her sons Archie after Archie Bunker.
While the network era readings addressed broadcast TV at large, present media scholars are more apt to address narrowcasting series and programming, because the sheer saturation and abundance of post-network, digital era TV is currently a very difficult terrain to make concrete and precise arguments about. We can say that network TV is going through certain patterns, that streaming outlets like Netflix and Amazon are contributing to that and changing how we watch TV, and that premium cable challenged network TV’s commercial, ad-revenue based model and also challenged dominant ideologies with subversive content, but grand statements about all of this isn’t super conducive at the moment.
Hendershot writes: “Today, with hundreds of channels on offer, it is difficult for a program to generate high profile controversy, and viewers may find that politically challenging series are easy to ignore. Previously, as Newcomb pt it in an interview in 2007, TV made you ‘confront your beliefs.’ Such confrontation was central to the cultural forum model and, thus, specific to the network real in a niche-viewing environment, however, viewers tend to gravitate to content that matches their preexisting interests. Narrowly targeted niche TV thus provides ‘self-confirmation,’ leaving little room for the old cultural forum ideal of ideas in conflict.” (206).
This is spot on. Although I love watching TV, I myself find it so difficult to watch an episode of Big Bang Theory or Mike and Molly. Sadly, a series like Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, does a lot of good work in showing progressive ideology, but this is buried in its female-led soap opera image. Her work has its own problems of course, but her portrayal of interracial as well as gay couples was unparalleled, especially on network TV.
On the other hand, I watched Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, aware of the impact that his previous series The West Wing made on television audiences for his liberal ideologies expressed and for the earnest, complex depictions of its cast of characters. Sorkin’s Newsroom fell flat in numerous ways- firstly, the concept of a TV series that provides a 2-year hindsight on how news media and US society treated major events is Sorkin at his worst and most condescending, showing everyone what they did wrong and how he would have took it on. Sorkin’s campus rape episode in the series final season last year brought on a lot of controversy and debate of its problematic portrayal, also that he fired a writer after she suggested the problematics of the script (http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/12/08/the_newsroom_campus_rape_episode_aaron_sorkin_has_no_idea_how_to_report.html).
Hendershot does an excellent job of pointing out how Parks and Rec, in its spirit and intent, can still function as an example of TV as a cultural forum in the narrowcasting era. The dynamic between pro-government Leslie Knope and anti-government Libertarian Ron Swanson provides a microcosm and an example of the US as a bipartisan divided nation. Their stubbornness and unwillingness to agree on anything regarding government’s role on individual citizens and society at large mirrors how a Democratic US President can’t get a whole lot passed with an unflinching majority Republican congress.
Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, the anti-government, libertarian voice of Parks and Recreation.
Again, as Hendershot also states, statements like that are reductive and generalized. She also shows how Leslie is not a far left symbol, while Ron is not a Rush Limbaugh kind of conservative figure. For example, Ron Swanson, I imagine, would not want the government to tell women what to do with their bodes as pregnant women. Parks and Rec offers a rare glimpse to the Libertarian mindset, previously underrepresented on American mainstream TV as far as I can think of. Hendershot touches on how Parks addresses the absurdities of conservative rhetoric. In the "Pawnee Zoo" episode she details, a small town Indiana married couple are horrified that Leslie married two gay penguins in a government sanctioned event. The punch line is that the married man is clearly gay while his wife is completely unaware.
Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, and the conclusion to Parks and Recreation's "Pawnee Zoo" episode.
Conservative rhetoric at its most absurd, according to Parks and Recreation.
Knope is under fire for teaching safe sex to seniors.
If anyone has read this far along, my question for you is: what recent TV series or episodes have made you think of the medium as a cultural forum? This is something that can be evidenced through popular discourse in popular press, or through niche online blogging and the like. Or maybe it’s something that you think went underlooked and should be more heavily discussed or written about.
Stefania Marghitu, Core Response #1