Sunday, April 08, 2007

TV: The not-so-universal White Boy blues

2007, we were old beyond our years. A lot happened that year. The Bully Boy was still terrorizing America and the rest of the world. The Iraq war passed the fourth year mark. Dems in Congress sought applause for hitting meaningless notes with nothing to back them up, kind of like the contestants on the popular high school talent show American Idol. We logged so many TV hours our eyes felt burned with test patterns . . . but we'll get to that. There's no pretty way to put this: We were living in a world with little substance and little meaning. We guess some people think of trivia as the height of of awareness, with all the disadvantages of reality, and none of the advantages of informed life. But, in a way, those truly were awful years.
As the White House telegraphed, it was a golden age for Bullies.

Religious ones had bullied the former Pax network until they stopped airing Charlie's Angels, apparently moving it to a later time slot hadn't calmed them down any. So desperate for something inoffensive to air, they went with The Wonder Years.

It was 1988, ABC was deep in the sixties. Like most networks, they'd done all they could to avoid dealing with Iran-Contra so a double helping of the sixties might give them some sense of 'awareness.' China Beach was the drama, Wonder Years was the . . . Not a sitcom, not a drama. Just a half-hour of preaching.

Prone to statements about how "everyone" did something (brought a ham and jello to a funeral, felt some way about a girl) that never rang universal to anyone that wasn't a White, Straight, Male of a certain age. Vietnam was the supposed backdrop but the show was more interested in the lead child, Kevin (played by Fred Savage) hiding things in his school locker. His parents were a stay at home mom and a smoldering, angry dad. His older brother Wayne (played by Jason Hervey) was Tony Dow's Wally with a nasty side. A sister was tossed in, and rarely utilized, Karen (played by Olivia D'Abo). If the message wasn't already clear that women were to be sidelined there was Winnie Cooper.

In a performance so rotten it made one yearn for the deeper meanings in Brooke Shields' 80s film work, Danica McKellar played the ultimate trophy -- shiny, glossy, and if she got 'emotional' that was okay, just meant she was about to cry on Kev's shoulder. In later years, it appeared she might have actual wants besides being a trophy so good thing she'd have an affair with a life guard in the final season -- proof positive of how those women couldn't be trusted.

It was Leave It To Beaver with bad voice overs and June didn't even get to look polished in pearls. Quite the contrary, the mother always looked to be in fear of the father only we weren't supposed to notice.

What would you do . . . If the theme was a Beatles song sung by Joe Cocker? You might note that the song came after, months after, the period it was used in. Or maybe you'd just note that, and the other songs, and realize how little they reflected the time period or represented. A song performed by Carole King would appear on one episode, a Joni Mitchell one ("River") on another. But to listen, you'd have no real grasp of how much race and gender barriers were overcome in the period the show supposedly was covering.

Though the opening voice over name-checked The Mod Squad, you just knew if an African-American sat next to Kev, he'd squirm more than when he was playing RFK Jr. in the school play. In fact, inclusion on the show apparently began and ended with Kev's best friend, Paul the town's token Jew.

It was 1969, ABC was airing The Brady Bunch, a family sitcom set in the time period it was airing. Preceding The Wonder Years by two decades, it was much more forward thinking than what ABC would serve up in the 80s. You had Alice, the working woman. You had Marcia, Jan and Cindy, three sisters who were active and had wants. All together, they longed for a sewing machine while the boys wanted a canoe. The compromise was a TV -- the compromise society's been paying for ever since. Individually, Marcia wanted to be beautiful and loved by all, Jan wanted to be a writer but, most of all, she wanted to Marcia and Cindy wanted that damn Kitty Karry-All doll and to be famous. Though nothing ground breaking, it's the difference between characters and trophies. Winnie was just a bland piece of ass to little boys who didn't even know the phrase "piece of ass."

Fred Savage (slowly) became an actor during the course of the series. Hervey devolved and, short of Three's Company: The Movie needing a new Mr. Furley, has a 'talent' that can't be marketed. Olivia D'Abo did strong work with an earlier version of Christina Ricci's Black Snake Moan character but, like Ricci, her talents couldn't save the snark factor. As usually happens on these retro shows, a woman's reward for actual talent is to be written off the show. Which is why D'Abo vanishes and McKellar can be found season after season.

It was 2007 and NBC was attempting to figure out whether they should cancel Medium or Crossing Jordan or both, because two women starring in hour long dramas seemed, to the network, to be two too many. Wasn't it enough that they had women as featured players in various Dickie Wolf shows? It was 2007 and for the former Pax network, three women playing private detectives was so controversial, they had to pull it and, in its place, air a White boy-centric half hour show in two installments. They'd also added a half-hour daily helping of Alice because the boss was a man and it was so much safer, they thought, than One Day At A Time. Still the complaints came in the first week when the episode aired where Alice dates a gay man ("Jolly?") and has to decide whether or not her son Tommy should be allowed around him? (She decides yes.)

It was 2007 and boys, White boys, of all ages still existed in lead roles on TV in larger proportion than they did in the country. It was 2007 and, at that late date, networks and pseudo-netlettes (like the former Pax) still felt White boy played 'universal'. It was 2007 and CBS suits were grumbling about being 'stuck' with the sitcom hit The New Old Christine. It was 2007 and Thirty Rock was renewed not because of the amazing work of Tina Fey but because NBC suits really believed it was Alec Baldwin's show.

As you read this all these years, all these decades, later, probably as the country is engaged in another illegal war, and see nothing but the embrace of whiney White boys who lament their very non-universal past, grasp that what passes for TV entertainment remains the largest and most effective gate keeper society has.
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