Earthquakes and hurricanes are not the only natural disasters looming in the zeitgeist. Television viewers are about to face a topical storm in the new fall TV season.
Have YOU been downsized, fired, 401K bankrupted or Madoff-ed? Or maybe it’s merely families and friends reeling from the economic downturn? Then have no fear – you’re represented in, oh, 75% of the 12 pilots I’ve screened in the VERY unscientific study I’ve done of the new TV season. In these fictional/faux true series (both comedy and drama) the premise of the new show is the one time rich (or at least economically functioning) family or child or adult must start over because either a) they b. their ex-husband or c. another family member was rendered broke by the arms of a crumbling economy (guess which one?) or perhaps by some shady nameless or familiar business partner or acquaintance who ran off, misused or unwisely invested their life savings — leaving them virtually penniless, unemployable or just generally pathetic but plucky. This, of course, allows them to be the fodder for, or spewer of, unlimited drama and/or jokes.
And speaking of laughs, are you looking for a new PHRASE or WORD in the zeitgeist this season because you are tired of “…really?,” or “no worries…” or “…it’s all good.” (Note: if it’s ALL good, does that mean it’s never bad? Really?) The networks are hoping so. Because in, oh, 90% of the half-hour comedy pilots I saw there is a new phrase/catchword of the next fall season. And that word is – drum roll – vagina.
Yes, vagina. Is that a funny word or a funny topic? Or both? I think only a woman is allowed to have an opinion on that – and even then, it needs to be considered in the context of who said it. Playwright/activist Eve Ensler, a very talented woman, made a huge cultural impact and paved the way for our ease with the word with her play, “The Vagina Monologues” back in 1996 and it has been performed all over the world and then some. But that was sooo 1996, ‘97 and ’98. And God knows one or two people have used and made light of the word before and since. Question: Since it’s been 15 years since “V.M,” is that the length of time to takes for something to get into network television zeitgeist? Well, perhaps that’s pretty quick. Gay men were around at least since the beginning of TV, if not earlier, until one of them (us) starred in their (our?) own sitcom called “Will and Grace” in 1998. And I am pretty sure African American people were around even longer, which I guess is why network TV allowed them to finally have their own sitcom, “Julia,” starring the talented and quite beautiful Diahann Carroll in 1968.
The same can be said of Margaret Cho, before her threatening tattoos, who changed it for Koreans with her show in 1994. And so on….
THE POINT IS – something is no longer topical 10 or more years after it first happens. Or is it? Well, it depends in what sort of culturally elite circles you travel in (sarcasm?). Certainly, in network (and often even cable) TV land these elites (wait, who? Sarcasm again) are treated as if they have plague – not to mention how many elite are now marginalized in political races. But is something like the economic crises topical or old news two years since it happened. Hmmm. Networks are betting it is because it’s been so long since it’s been going on and, well, it IS still going on. Even if it’s been dissected, bisected and trisected by every 24 hour news channel and live conversation around every dinner table in the land almost every day.
Good for TV trying to be current. I like that. But why does it feel sooo old? Because one needs more than a topic or a phrase to create something worth watching. There’s something called characters, intriguing situations that are multi-dimensional and have some depth. Or if not depth, then true wit based on situational observation, even of the silliest kind (e.g. South Park, anyone?). This was not the case with many of the pilots you will (or won’t?) watch next month. I won’t name names because the pilot is not always among the sharpest episodes of a series (uh, “Mad Men” and “Dexter” not included). But network execs, who often bellyache that they’re outdone by cable TV at the Emmy awards each year – take note. It takes a lot more than a topic to write a good paper as any teacher, or in this case Chair, will tell you.
Sure, there is reality TV – meaning the genre, not the concept. Bachelor and bachelorettes, contests where people try to stitch together, cook together, love together, can work. But we’re not talking reality here – we’re talking old TV series television – or what it used to be (which isn’t reality but a dramatic or comedic reflection of it). In other words, another kind of entertainment. And a topical explosion does not get you anywhere near as far as a tropical storm. The second is usually pretty-far reaching or it wouldn’t be so-named. The first is a benign condition that can become far-reaching only if it’s employed in some specific way. That’s the best entertainment can do (with the exception of a few great belly laughs). Otherwise it just starts swirling among all the other millions of other things in the air. And we have enough of all the rest of the swirl (or is it swill?) already out there. Don’t we? Time, as always, will tell.