Television is, as Howard Beale said in the film Network, “the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world.” Therefore, from time to time, it deserves some scrutiny and perspective.
For that, let’s turn to America in Primetime, a four-hour, four-week PBS series that focuses on character types — Independent Woman, Man of the House, The Misfit, The Crusader — to show how they have evolved on television and how we, the viewers, have changed along with them.
On the surface, this series is pure entertainment, a chance to see clips from many of the greatest television series ever and to hear from a staggeringly impressive array of brilliant television practitioners. From Jerry Mathers to David Lynch and Ron Howard to Larry David, we hear broad, intelligent views on why these shows were/are special.
Beyond that, we get a glimpse into the thought processes of those who made the shows. So David Chase weighs in on Tony Soprano’s constantly conflicted role as the head of the household, Norman Lear discusses the world shifting under Archie Bunker’s feet, James L. Brooks talks about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and The Simpsons, and so on.
No one offers any stop-the-presses observations, but they make points worth knowing. Former NBC executive Warren Littlefield reminds us of a scene in The Cosby Show pilot where Theo tells his dad he should accept him for who he is — a D student. Regular folk. Not a doctor or a lawyer like his parents.
Tom Werner, a co-creator of the show, said the audience applauded at that moment because they were conditioned to clap for a boy standing up to his father.
“Theo,” his father responded, “that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You’re going to try as hard as you can, and you’re going to do it because I said so.”
Littlefield said he felt a wave of approval from the audience. Werner said the reaction was, “Oh, my God. The parents have taken back the house.”
If I’d been producing America in Primetime, the next clip I would have shown was Tony Soprano acknowledging to his wife that neither of them had much leverage over their children. But that’s me.
Instead, the producers of America in Primetime — Tom Yellin, Lloyd Kramer, Dalton Delan and David S. Thompson — take us through a range of shows and parenting approaches. Homer Simpson, Bernie Mac, Ray Barone, Cam and Mitchell (from Modern Family) and more.
Independent Woman — the first and probably best of these four hours — shows us the broadest changes in television: from perfect moms like Donna Stone and June Cleaver to Lynette Scavo of Desperate Housewives, who hates being a mother, and from Laurie Petrie (who wasn’t allowed to sleep in the same bed with her husband) to the women of Sex and the City and the woman of Weeds. The makers of Roseanne — including Roseanne Barr herself — make a strong case, too, for the importance of having a TV character who was overweight, overworked, underpaid and underappreciated.
In The Misfits, we learn that Rainn Wilson’s family apparently isn’t all that different from Dwight Schrute’s (scary) and that The Larry Sanders Show was about a group of people who love each other, except that show business got in the way (a funny observation/description).
The fourth hour, The Crusaders, covers a significant range of types — Jack Bauer, House, Omar from The Wire and Dexter among them. The last of those leads to the only real dissent in the series — whether Dexter, about the serial killer who works for the police department, has redeeming qualities. The Wire’s David Simon doesn’t think so.
No series like America in Primetime can be complete, of course, and you’ll undoubtedly end each hour saying, “Yes, but what about …?” But this series is smart, topical and highly enjoyable. Well worth an hour of your Sunday night.
Also this week:
Allen Gregory (8:30 p.m. Sundays, WXIN-59), a new animated series, stars Jonah Hill as the voice of a pretentious, spoiled 7-year-old boy. Allen has two dads, and when the second dad is forced to go to work and stop home-schooling, Allen must go to — gasp! — public school, where he doesn’t come close to fitting in.
It’s a cute idea, and I’d like to be able to tell you whether I thought the pilot episode was good, but I can’t say one way or the other. I had no reaction at all. Didn’t like it, didn’t hate it, might watch it again, or not.