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Monthly Archives: June 2014

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It’s hard to believe now, but there once was a time – back in the 1970s – when the best TV shows appeared on Saturday night.  Saturday is now the Bermuda Triangle of network programming but in 1973 the CBS line-up consisted of one classic series after another: “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H*,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show” and, at 9 p.m., the pivot for the entire night and my favorite TV show of all time: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

I mention this now because I just finished reading “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s history of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”  The book is a warm, nostalgic look back at one of the pivotal programs in American broadcasting history, and a reminder that for all the current braggadocio about this being the Golden Age of Television, TV was never as good as it was on those Saturday nights in the early ‘70s.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” revolved around a 30-something single woman who moved to the big city of Minneapolis and carved out a professional career for herself in the male-dominated profession of television journalism. When the show debuted in 1970, there had been nothing quite like it on television. The concept of a single woman navigating her way through office politics while happily pursuing a personal life was a novel concept at a time when most of the women on TV were mothers, wives, foreign spies or desert island castaways.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” generates a lot of historical appreciation – justifiably so – for its role in advancing feminist themes and for creating role models for the millions of women, single or not, who were entering the workplace in the late 1960s.  But the show’s impact is greater than that.  “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was the first truly sophisticated sitcom: a show where the humor flowed out of personality rather than shtick, where the jokes were actually intelligent, and where viewers could empathize with the characters’ humanity.

“Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted” shows that none of this was preordained.  It’s downright alarming how close the show came to being straggled in its crib.  The studio audience for the pilot’s first filming watched stone-faced, unamused and unimpressed.  CBS itself didn’t “get” the show either, originally scheduling it to run on Tuesday night between “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Hee Haw.”   But then, in a last-minute deus ex machina worthy of a Dudley Do-Right cartoon, CBS eased out the executive in charge of programming and replaced him with the TV genius Fred Silverman, who understood the network imperative to attract the young, urban, affluent viewers then prized by advertisers.  And just like that, MTM went from being the network’s ugly duckling to the centerpiece of its resurgence.

Armstrong’s book demonstrates once again that television is the most collaborative of all art forms.  Midwifed by Moore’s husband Grant Tinker, created by show runners James L Brooks and Alan Burns, directed by Jay Sandrich, and written by a handful of talented writers (many of whom were women with little experience writing for television), the show only worked because so many different people made serious contributions.  And remarkably for the entertainment business, the producers showed you could make a TV show while maintaining a humane, respectful atmosphere.  Brooks and Burns were just plain nice – so was Moore herself – and that essential goodness radiated onto the screen.

The core of the show’s humor was that scourge of the middle class: embarrassment.  The disconnect between the way a bourgeois life is supposed to be lived and the continued absurdity of the modern world kept Mary Richards on her toes.  Always trying to avoid “scenes,” she invariably became embroiled in cringe-worthy situations – most famously after the death of Chuckles the Clown, when she just couldn’t stop giggling at his funeral (considered by many to be one of the greatest TV episodes of all time).

And there was a lot to be embarrassed about in the 1970s, even beyond the sideburns, Nehru jackets, head scarves and other fashion atrocities. Social conventions were changing so fast that no one could really keep up.  Watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” today is like opening a time capsule of a time when divorce, sex, gender politics, and even homosexuality were just beginning to be discussed on TV.  Social mores accelerated so rapidly that MTM, which had seemed so daring in 1970, actually appeared retrograde just five years later.  Amazingly, it became the target of feminists like Gloria Steinem, who criticized the show for its lack of militancy and the fact that Mary still called her boss “Mr. Grant” instead of “Lou,” thereby perpetuating the patriarchy – or whatever.

Well, that was then, and now it seems ridiculous to criticize “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on feminist grounds.  Great art is about what people are really like, not what we wish they could be, and there was a lot of humanity on display in that series.  It influenced dozens of future shows with female protagonists (“Girls” and “30 Rock” would have been impossible without it) and spawned dozens more workplace comedies (“Cheers,” “Taxi” and “The Office” are its direct descendants.)  Forty years later, it’s still a national treasure.

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Way back in the Reagan Administration, I worked in Washington D.C. for several years – and, like the co-ed who spent a semester abroad and never stopped opining about the French afterwards, I’ve positioned myself ever since then as an expert on all things Washington, including how outrageously it is misrepresented on television.

My son will confirm what a bore I have become on the topic, since I am a frequent scoffer whenever we watch a show depicting politics.  And what a lot of shows there are to scoff at!  Never before have there been so many TV series focused on life in our nation’s capital: “House of Cards,” “Veep,” “The Americans,” “Scandal,” “Homeland,” and Amazon Prime’s “Alpha House” are just a few of the critical or ratings hits. Never mind the bombs like “1600 Penn” and “K Street.”

And next year there will be more of them.  According to Stuart Elliott in the New York Times,  almost every network will have its own presidential administration, with the introduction of new shows featuring female Secretaries of State, genius government agents, and idealistic CIA analysts.

What’s up with that?  Before the “West Wing” — that seven-year lecture on how politics ought to be conducted — the nation’s capital barely appeared on TV outside of the evening news.  Possibly the networks thought politics was too boring for prime-time entertainment.  Or maybe they thought it sacrilegious to expose the mysteries of the executive and legislative branches.  Or maybe they worried that a show about politics would be controversial or divisive.

It’s probably not a fluke that the increased popularity of Washington-based TV shows has coincided with the rise of cable news networks such as Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, as well as fake news shows like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”  These shows make the government seem more dramatic and important than it really is.

In fact, the depiction of national politics in popular culture has always reflected public anxiety.  Cold War movies like “Dr. Strangelove,” “Seven Days in May” and “Fail-Safe” predominated in the ‘60s; then the ‘70s produced “Three Days of the Condor” and “All The President’s Men,” movies about an out-of-control government.

Ironically, the many new scripted shows about national politics come at a time when the government has never been more stalemated or ineffective.  Aside from the passage of the Affordable Care Act, nothing much of consequence has happened in Washington for the past decade as Congress has been at bitter partisan loggerheads with the past two Presidents.

In that regard, a show like “House of Cards,” where the ambitious House Majority Whip/Vice President bends Congress and various regulatory agencies to his will, is laughable in this day and age.   If anything, for all its stylishness and social media fixation, “House of Cards” is an exercise in nostalgia, hearkening back to the days when legislative geniuses like Lyndon Johnson pulled strings, did favors, issued threats and generally bullied Congress to get bills passed.  Nothing like that is remotely possible today.

What “House of Cards” misses is the deep ideological conflict between the parties. When you have true believers from gerrymandered districts facing off over emotional hot-button issues, you are not going to get the kind of compromises and mutual backscratching necessary to pass a lot of legislation.

In that regard, “Veep” is a more accurate depiction of government dysfunction.  Vice President Selena Meyer  — an ambitious careerist with no political convictions of her own — is constantly thwarted by the incompetence of her own staff and the tangled and conflicting interests of the political class.  But if “West Wing” has an idealized view of government and “House of Cards” is insanely paranoid, “Veep” is overly cynical.  Government may be dysfunctional, but it’s not because of the incompetence of the personnel. Washington is stymied because it’s filled with TOO many extremely smart people who have extremely strong convictions, but can’t agree about anything.

It’s inevitable that television will reduce politics to a caricature because nothing could be more boring than the legislative process.  Hearing after hearing, speech after speech, and if you’re lucky, compromise after compromise. Governing is a slow and incremental process.  ZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

In reality, the current crop of political shows have as much to say about government as “ER” did about medicine or “Boston Legal” did about the law.  They are comedies, dramas or soap operas that happen to be set in the nation’s capital and should be enjoyed, or not enjoyed, for their entertainment value alone.  And if you actually want to learn about politics from television, there’s always C-Span.