From its inception to the mid-50s, TV, like many of us, went through its painfully awkward stage. During its formative years, however, comedies such as “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy” gained an unprecedented prominence in American culture. In fact, these shows had such a massive impact that their influence is still widely prevalent in today’s media (the whole Fat Husband/Understanding Wife archetype that you see on every channel? The Honeymooners started that). Then, in the late 1960s, TV shed its dowdy black-and-white feathers and started making use of its wild colors, giving Americans an escape from the harsh realities of life with fantasy-based sitcoms (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Lost In Space). Then after America got its fill of witches, genies, and robots, 1970 hit, and TV made an overnight transformation. The medium finally began to embrace its power, giving the public programs like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (a single, career-oriented woman who isn’t looking for a husband?! OH MY GOD COVER THE KIDS’ EYES), “All In the Family”, “Maude”, “The Jeffersons”, “Good Times”, shows that offered a shocking glimpse at a grittier side of American life: racism, suicide, rape, classism, women's liberation, hell, even the sound of a toilet flushing, all were presented for the first time in living color on national television.
Mary Richards: Unmarried, employed, scandalous.
More shocking than the subject matter, however, were the protagonists of these sitcoms. Archie Bunker, arguably one of the most iconic TV characters of all time, was a bigot, a misogynist, a staunch conservative, and a generally unlikable figure. But this was the beauty of it, as the comedy within “All In the Family” was driven solely by Archie’s crude, unapologetic behavior. When contrasted with his shrill-voiced, scatterbrained wife Edith, and his New Age daughter and son-in-law, Archie was always made the fool. The audience laughed at the expense of this racist figure, and by laughing at his outdated way of thinking, America began to steer towards a new social conscience.
"SAVE US, NIXON!" - every American after watching an interracial kiss between two men in 1972 on national TV.
“Maude” (a spin-off of “All In the Family”) starred Bea Arthur as Maude Findlay, a progressive, assertive, “uncompromisin’, enterprisin’, anything but tranquilizin’” feminist who was constantly fighting with either her cousin-in-law Archie or her Republican husband Walter. Once again, the comedy came from a protagonist with a warped sense of thinking. This time, the American public could laugh at the diehard liberal, a woman who deliberately sought to hire a black housekeeper so that she could “liberate her”, even going so far as to encourage the maid to use the front door as opposed to the back door, even though the latter was more convenient. The idea of simultaneously taking jabs at the far right and the far left created compelling, hilarious, timeless television, an art form that has been lost in the following decades.
Today, television, and I say this as a lifelong worshiper of this mercurial idol, is a barren wasteland. The American public is pandered to with artificial sitcoms, bombarded with canned laughter, and the use of one’s brain while watching is a thoroughly discouraged and unnecessary activity. Our perceptions are not discussed, our beliefs not challenged. In one of my all-time favorite episodes of “The Jeffersons” (another spin-off of “All In the Family” - they never stop), the protagonist, George Jefferson (think a black, rich Archie Bunker - piggish, intolerant, the butt of every joke) after much hesitation, performs CPR on a dying member of the Ku Klux Klan, who, upon discovering that his life was saved by an African-American, remarks “You should have let me die.” Instead of compelling TV that attempts to present and then rectify the more abhorrent sides of humanity, we have SEVEN different “Real Housewives” series. Seven of them. And unless all of these shows culminate in a Hunger Games-style fight between the 40 drunken socialites, I will be extremely disappointed.
IT HAS BEGUN.
Worse than these reality shows that present women (especially women of color - I’m looking at you “Basketball Wives”) in a wholly negative light, however, are the shows that present themselves as groundbreaking and yet fall far short of their predecessors. “Modern Family”, an Emmy powerhouse, is one of the most vivid examples of these. The most radical concept to the show’s credit is the presence of an interracial couple (done first by “The Jeffersons” in 1975) and a homosexual couple (done first by “Hotel Baltimore” in 1975). Shows like this have made a profit off of America’s notoriously short attention span, marketing themselves as groundbreaking, original, inventive. And while they may be funny, they waste the potential to make light of America’s plights out of fear of losing the almighty profit. However, as proven by All In the Family (1971-1979), The Jeffersons (1975-1985), and Maude (1972-1978), holding a mirror up to society can be profitable, it can be helpful, and above all else, it can be funny.
Ain't nothing like the real thing (Sorry Sofia Vergara)
I am not writing this piece to patronize or insult the public. Rather, I am writing this as a warning - a warning written out of frustration. Be aware of not only the fact that today’s leading sitcoms are designed to offer you a false sense of comfort and distract you from any pressing issues at hand, but of the possibilities that lie within the stagnant tedium of sitcoms. Police brutality against minorities will not be discussed on “The Big Bang Theory”, and “The Middle” is not going to launch a crusade against misogyny. And while it may not be "edgy" to be "edgy" anymore, television still has the responsibility of raising public awareness of ongoing issues, be they social, political, or cultural, and to foster discussions from the office water coolers to the playgrounds. American television has made a disheartening transformation from a platform with the best of intentions to a knock-down, drag-out fight at some doctor’s wife’s charity brunch to provide collagen for underprivileged dogs. TV, we’ve seen what you can do. Please stop letting us down.