In the late 1970s, my mother, who is more liberal than Ted Kennedy and Rosie O’Donnell put together, sat me in front of the television to watch a show called All In The Family. It was the episode where Archie got stuck in an elevator with a pregnant Puerto Rican woman and her husband, along with a black businessman. I was still a kid and couldn’t help laughing at the ignorant racial statements Archie was making.
It’s not that I agreed with him, but as I explained to my mom, Archie had the “guts” to say what he actually felt. Instead of berating my opinion, my mom asked me to put myself in the Puerto Rican man’s shoes. “Do you like it when people make fun of you at school for being so short?” she questioned. I realized she had a point. Even though I was young, I also realized that the character Archie was created to show how people who have likeable qualities could be ignorant. We watched several episodes together and after each one, I had to explain how Archie was wrong and how his words could have hurt others.
All In The Family was a gutsy, relevant show which aired from 1971-1979 and brought discussions on racism, homophobia, women’s lib, etc. right into the household. Moralists objected while realists praised the show’s exposition of issues people would rather not deal with. My most vivid television memory was watching the episode where a swastika was painted on the Bunkers' front door. At the time, I lived in Skokie, Illinois, which was famous for the Nazi marches during the 1970s.
The swastika in this episode was obviously aimed at another neighbor’s door. An activist showed up and I remember that he wanted to react with violence. I remember thinking, “Is this guy any better than the person who put the swastika up on the door?” I remember him leaving, getting in his car, and hearing an explosion. I remember the look of horror on the Bunkers' faces. I couldn’t hold back tears as my mother held me. “There is a lot of bad in this world, but there is just as much good,” she whispered. I was so scared that I slept in her room that night.
Although I watched a lot of television in the '80s, there were barely any shows that I consider groundbreaking in a social/societal way. There was Married With Children, which broke ground for shock television and the Cosby Show, which led to some interesting discussions, but mostly put me to sleep (I'm sure plenty of others would disagree with me on this). In 1988, I remember watching the first episode of Roseanne, which I thought was stupid, irrelevant, and poorly scripted. But I, as well as others, kept giving the show a chance. Within a year, the show developed some of the most fascinating and relevant characters with plots that television had ever seen. After ten years, there was finally another show, like All In The Family, that could not only break new ground, but cause several hours of discussion and debate.
Not being from a high class family, I identified with the Conners. They struggled with money, had family members with serious problems, and were the complete opposite of the Brady Bunch. I remember when Roseanne first found Darlene with a pack of cigarettes. I felt the way the writers dealt with the situation was very realistic rather than the usually preachy “smoking is bad, smoking is sad” slogans I often heard in school that were cheesy enough to make me want to explore smoking rather than avoid it.
Future episodes dealt with Darlene reaching puberty, a salesman falling dead in the Conners’ kitchen, Becky getting caught reading Dad’s girlie magazine, Dan’s visit to the IRS, Bev’s alcoholism, both Becky and Darlene’s unexpected pregnancies, the “pot” episode, and the famous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” episode where Roseanne receives a kiss from Nancy’s new girlfriend.
Roseanne suffered from the fate of many other long-running sitcoms in that the show soon became a parody of itself. Many argue that the show went downhill after the Conners became rich and ran into the problems that people with newfound money often run into. Even though the sudden plot change of the show wasn’t explained until the very last episode, it was hard to suffer through the last season. Even so, nobody can ever deny the impact Roseanne had on television, as well as popular culture.
In 1994, My So-Called Life debuted on television to low ratings, but high critical acclaim. Like many, I wasn't turned on to the show until it debuted on MTV in the spring of 1995. This was around the time ABC had canceled the show because of a combination of low ratings and Claire Danes not wanting to return. Thanks to MTV, My So-Called Life not only turned into a pop culture staple, but turned Claire Danes into a major star. Claire played the major character, Angela Chase, who experiences the usual teenage drama: boyfriends, two-faced friends, coping with school, dealing with death, etc. However, the show was so real that the viewer often forgot they were watching television. Angela's parents dealt with struggling to keep their marriage together with possible infidelity. The neighbor, Brian, came from a very rich household, but dealt with loneliness. Angela's friend, Rayanne, overdosed in one shocking episode.
The most fascinating character was Angela's on-and-off fling, Jordan Catalano, played by Jared Leto. Jordan appeared to be your everyday dumb, rebellious jock, but often showed a thoughtful side to him. It was questionable, at times, whether he liked Angela or not. Though he was one of the least seen characters, his charismatic presence and the aura of mystery surrounding his character made him the most talked about.
Ricky Vasquez, played by Wilson Cruz, was also fascinating. He was a likeable gay character whose extreme "gayness" might have turned off viewers at the beginning of the series, but turned them toward understanding by the end. The "So-Called Angels" episode, in which Ricky runs away after being beaten up by his uncle, is the best written and most touching episode I've seen of any show on television. While Wilson Cruz, in general, is not one of the best actors in the cast, his heartfelt performance in this episode transcends any other single episode performance in the series. Claire Danes also gives an excellent performance when she encounters an area where runaway kids hang out. Angela Chase meets a mysterious runaway girl, who is actually a ghost who helps bring everybody together at the end.
My So-Called Life might have been short-lived, but was a groundbreaking "teen" oriented series that led to other less superior ones such as Dawson's Creek. The aura of darkness and mystery that surrounded each episode also influenced other shows such as Six Feet Under. The only good thing I can say about its ending after one season is that the show didn't have time to self-destruct like so many other great shows.
So why hasn't there been a recent ground-breaking show like All In The Family in the 1970s, Roseanne in the '80s and '90s, and My So-Called Life in the '90s? There have been some watchable shows: Desperate Housewives is addicting; Grey's Anatomy is fun; the CSI series is visually fascinating; and the ending HBO series, The Sopranos, is well written. But there hasn't been a series this decade that has really made people think and question their own values like All In the Family, Roseanne, and My So-Called Life.
Perhaps the new era of McCarthyist censorship and political correctness, which gained steam after Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction and hit new heights after the Imus affair, have prevented writers and networks from producing something truly worthwhile. Lets face it: a character like Archie Bunker would be DOA in today's world. While there are gay characters on television, the Christian right would do its best to prevent an "extreme" gay character, such as Ricky Vasquez, from appearing on prime time television,even though having such a character shows what many ousted high school students experience. A Roseanne-like show is a possibility, but would find itself in the "been there, done that" category.
People looking for another groundbreaking series shouldn't give up hope. I truly believe that, like terrestrial radio, network television will eventually become irrelevant. The Internet television experience is gaining momentum, with people able to stream excellent quality video at affordable high speeds. It will be a lot more difficult for the whacko Christian right neocons and the self-hating Communist liberals to censor what we say and think. Once a groundbreaking Internet series is created (and I predict this will happen within the next couple of years), a new era will begin.Powered by Sidelines