Sunday, September 09, 2007

TV: The question's not 'Is it worse?' -- it's how much worse?

Animation seems to be in the air this summer. You've got the really bad The Simpsons movie playing at multi-plexes, you've got ads for Family Guy, the US Navy sponsoring the syndicated episodes of King of the Hill and you've got Wait Till Your Father Gets Home.

Vanity Fair recently gave a wet kiss to The Simpson where they skirted the issue of the gender make up of the writers. Out of 67 credited writers for episodes of the series, we're counting only six women. That's not even one in ten. A rather obvious fact that pages and pages of a Van Fair article managed to avoid.

Apparently we're all supposed to ignore that or how the male heavy Family Guy (even the dog is a male) figured the best way to promote itself was with 'female' advertisements for its upcoming syndicated run. One features a frequently cross-dressing Peter (the father) singing "my milkshake is better than yours," while another shows the infant Stewie also cross-dressing, wondering if he's a dirty 'girl'? Does it ever enter anyone's mind that one reason these multiple ha-has exist is because animated television refuses to do much with their female characters -- the few that exist?

We were visiting a friend early last week, an actress who was convinced she'd lost it (she hadn't, the problem was a badly written scene which she instinctively knew she couldn't play). After the crisis was addressed, we were leaving the set when an associate producer came running up with a DVD set. "You only think you hate the animated stuff on TV today," he told us while handing over the boxed set.

Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. We didn't recognize the title. The provider had urged us to first check out "Duty Calls." After we got home, we mentioned it in passing to a friend over the phone who informed us the series was streaming online at AOL TV for free -- along with other cancelled shows no one wants to see. Streaming for free, potentially rentable, we felt it could be a viewing option for many of our readers at some point, so we decided to take a look.

The characters look as though they were drawn by someone who had just read a book entitled How To Draw Cartoons. We're not sure if he or she finished reading the book, but he or she appeared to have gotten through the first pages. The sets are nothing to brag about either and offer that 'stark' daytime drama TV look. When we mentioned that to another friend, she started quoting a big Nola (played by Lisa Brown on Guiding Light) scene she did years and years ago in acting class where Nola, about to confront Morgan, looks out her hospital window and declares, "It's good to be reminded of where you're from so you can see how far you've come."

That actually captures the role Wait Till Your Father Gets Home provides. The half-hour program ran from 1972 to 1973 in some syndicated markets which may have aired it in primetime and may not have. Some insist it was trying to be the animated version of Norman Lear's classic All In The Family. That lie may actually be funnier than anything you'll find in watching the entire first season of Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. It has more in common with the Bobby Sherman flop Getting It Together than it does with All In The Family.

Sherman, long past his initial (and only) blush of fame, which allegedly had 27 young females fainting at a concert in Buffalo during the late sixties, was supposed to play a gifted composer and audiences were supposed to believe that because Sherman's then agent (Ward Sylvester) kept running around insisting Sherman wrote "one-fourth of the songs he's singing!" If you bought that nonsense, you probably bought Sherman, and Wes Stern playing his lyricist, as talented and a friend of the Partridge family (the show was a spin-off). Sherman, closing in on thirty, was more than a bit old for the part but he just knew the kids would 'dig it' as he wore his hair long with brown boots, brown pants and multiple rings on his fingers. The year was 1971, about a year after his brief run of bubble gum hits had stopped. (He hates "bubble gum" and preferred "soft rock" even then but trifles that start out with "Bein' alone at night makes me sad girl" are pure bubble gum, no matter how you hard you try not to smack it.)

There he was on TV, for a half-hour, pretending to be hippie-like, pretending to be 'modern,' pretending a man looks good sporting a choker, pretending . . . . Well just pretending non-stop. Never really acting, just pretending. The show would have been a hard sale in the mid-sixties. By 1971, no one was in the mood for the junk. The show that killed it? While Getting Together aired on ABC, CBS was programming All In The Family.

Getting Together, like Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, was the sort of useless garbage that Norman Lear drove off our TV screens (at least for a decade). Now the animated series debuted in the fall of 1972 but it got its start on ABC February 11, 1972 as one vignette of Love American Style. It sucked even then.

As with today's animated shows, the female characters do nothing. There are two: mother Irma, daughter Alice. Alice's most striking characteristic is that she's obese. Not plump, not fat, obese. Irma has no striking characteristic -- but dish rags and door mats rarely do. Harry is the star of the show so naturally (as with Peter and Homer and Hank and every other animated primetime series you can probably think of) he's the father. Chet and Jamie are the sons. Jamie, the youngest, is part Bart, part Danny Partridge -- mischievous and money hungry. Chet, a young adult, gets a lot of air time but does very little. He appears to exist in the hopes that the audience would find him as irritating as Harry did.

See while Jamie's negotiating list prices with the tooth fairy, Chet doesn't have a job, dropped out of college and is supposed to be what today would be considered a 'slacker' but at the time was another message about the 'evils' of the Love Generation. Chet talks a lot about his volunteer work in the 'ghetto' but no one takes it (or him) seriously. He also is prone to tossing out names like Ralph Nader which had a different connotation then than now. He, and Alice, are supposed to be the 'left' and, as such, Hanna-Barbara thought it best to show them as slovenly and stupid. Harry's a conservative. (Irma's non-committal politically -- in keeping with every other underwritten detail about the character.)

In some apparent need to make Harry seem 'reasonable,' the character of next door neighbor Ralph is added to the mix. Ralph is voiced by Jack Burns who, there are so many connections, played the role of Officer Rudy on Getting Together. The Commie-hating (and Commie-seeing everywhere) Ralph gets the bulk of the jokes or what's supposed to pass for them.

"Duty Calls" is the episode that revolves around the draft. Chet gets his draft notice. Harry, alone in bed with Irma, is slightly worried. We're not sure whether Irma's supposed to not give a damn that her son's being drafted (to fight in Vietnam) or if her reaction is just not seen as important the same way characterization for the majority of animated Moms today is seen as unnecessary. Chet sees it a bit differently and doesn't want to be inducted.

This show, believe it or not, gets a lot of credit from some for dealing with 'war resistance.' The episode of The Partridge Family where Danny mistakenly receives his draft induction notice said a hell a lot more than this animated garbage. Chet decides to go underground. Then decides to flee to another country (finally Canada becomes the destination of choice). In the meantime, to save Harry from induction (don't ask), Chet's friends kidnap him in the middle of night and attempt to transport him to Canada (again, don't ask). Like today's animated 'wit,' the show features a lot of smut jokes about sex but it adds in some of the preachiest b.s. you'll ever hear. Citing the 'ghetto,' Harry tells Chet that if he refuses to go into the military they'll send one of the 'boys in the ghetto' in his place. Harry, who is not being inducted, gets to have a lengthy remembrance of hopes he had for Chet at various stages in life that end with Chet being the 'disgrace' -- with even longer hair than the character sports in the non-fantasy scenes.

The supposedly 'brave' episode has Chet decide to report for that 'duty' calling which really isn't that hard to believe since, along with the sermonizing from Harry, Chet never really provides a reason not to go. He's not concerned about the Vietnamese, he's not concerned about the illegal war, he mainly seems peeved that he'll have to get up before noon. All In The Family, no surprise, would actually address war resistance and, again no surprise, do it so much better.

Wait Till Your Father Gets Home is visually simplistic, lacks movement in the frames and seems to be one grade level above the preaching done on the Davy & Goliath cartoons. Outside of a drunken Pat Nixon, we can't figure out whom the target audience for this nonsense was supposed to be. (And weren't surprised when, working the phones to track down information on the show's first-run life, were told it was only carried by five TV stations.) By the time it arrived on TV screens, it was already dead or, if you prefer, still born. It had about as much to do with what was actually going on in the country as did Getting Together.

But, when we called the associate producer who'd passed us the set, he told us (after explaining he didn't want it back) that as bad as he thought Wait Till Your Father Gets Home was, the thing he kept coming back to was that all the 'wild and wacky, we'll tackle anything' animated sitcoms of today avoid the illegal war. That is true. Even the allegedly 'brave' Simpsons offer nothing but the occasional (and rare) one liner. Maybe those who hail from The New
Republic(an) can't stray too far from their roots?

Last week, Carolyn Nikodym's "AMERICAN SOLDIERS COME NORTH TO REFUSE AND RESIST WITH A LITTLE MUSIC" (VUE Weekly) covered the influx of war resisters into Canada, the need to raise awareness, Patrick and Jill Hart's situation and much more. The non-liberal Simpsons loves to dabble in drugs (whether in a look forward where Lisa's president and Bart's a stoner, Homer getting high on medicinal pot or when Homer decides to 'get back to the land'). The show that regularly featured Bill Clinton (as well as Poppy Bush and Jimmy Carter) makes it a point to avoid the Bully Boy (going so far as to make Ahnuld president in this summer's film). Along with smutty, jokes they offer racial and gender stereotypes. They have a loyal legion of twerps (as does most animated crap) that take to the internet to proclaim the greatness of the show and other male geared animated shows (male geared and animated are redundant). The twerps take to sites like Crapapedia to catalogue these shows in every entry imaginable via the pop cult refs. For kicks, check that out some time and notice that the only thing that rivals the animated crap for references is sci-fi.

We're living in very strange times and the question the associate producer asked is a worthy one: Is it better to have a bad, preachy and distorted storyline on a very real topic like war resistance or none at all?

Watching Wait Till Your Father Gets Home you'll see more of The Simpsons than in watching The Flintstones (some could argue that's the real debt owed), but which of the two is the more evil? The show that laid down the lines for the stereotypes but still managed to (in a conservative manner) note a few topical issues (that had been topical for over five years prior to the show airing)? Or the shows that continue the stereotypes but make no effort to comment on an illegal war? (No, we don't consider what we'll dub "Invasion Springfield" to be about the illegal war. Yes, we're aware people with The Simpsons do consider it to be about the illegal war.) At a time when the US military is all geared up to use animated shows in syndication as a recruiting tool, we'd argue the silence isn't only shameful, it's potentially deadly.

Discussions on this subject throughout the week with friends (many involved with TV shows currently airing), usually resulted with someone saying TV needed another Norman Lear or Susan Harris. To that, we'd add TV could (still) use Diane English. But while a movement can't start rolling with one single person, we think the problem goes far deeper and we think the bulk of the problem is a conditioned TV audience that regularly applauds reactionary screeds passed off as entertainment, one that refuses to rail against obvious discrimination be it stereotypes or the absence of people of color.

A friend in the offices at CW is trying to build good will for programs that will begin airing shortly. The main one is Life Is Wild and he's all hot on the fact that the supporting cast (after the main family of White people) includes people of color. We pointed out that's apt to happen when you set a show in Africa and wondered if, to get Latinos on the air, someone should greenlight a network show where a White family moves to Mexico or Spain or Latin America?

Many lifetimes ago, TV could -- and did -- offer What's Happening, The Jefferson, Good Times and Diff'rent Strokes. We're not calling them comedic gems, but African-Americans were visible and the shows did not need to be set in Africa for that to happen. Even in the face of the huge success of The Cosby Show, networks weren't piling on in an attempt to copy the ratings blockbuster. In fact, all it took was one Charlie & Co. to kill off any interest.

TV today is Whiter and more male than the country.

Now the Katha Pollitts of the nation aren't at all troubled by that. Either due to racism or the fact that they're idiots. But TV still has a huge audience and it is the modern folk tales of our time, told before a glowing TV set instead of a glowing fire. It does instruct the young (whether it wants to accept that responsibility or not). It does provide many with a limited understanding of the world. Like the big, cry baby boys of today's animation, who'd rather tell stories about the way 'things were' before they were born, we worry they've cloned/infected a young generation today, conditioned them to respond to a life they didn't actually take part in, where women don't work and where people of color, if they exist at all, make fleeting appearances.

As gifted as a Norman Lear, et al, is (and was), the reality is that a White Man didn't make the changes happen in the TV landscape. Public pressure did. From the NAACP, from feminists, etc. They created the climate where Lear's pitch for a show couldn't be ignored. The only time the networks get targeted these days is when some dumb ass show is about to be cancelled. We loathed Commander-in-Chief but if NOW found the show so damn important -- they issued an action to 'save' the show -- we would assume that was due to the lack of range offered in the female characters today, the lack of opportunities. If that indeed is the case, possibly NOW should team up with the NAACP and others to demand (as they once did) representation on TV. That includes animated series and it especially includes Saturday morning cartoons. Sure they might get scolded by racist Katha Pollitt but if she feels the need to again scold the NAACP, we think the mood has shifted more than enough that she'll be told loudly and clearly that Black America really doesn't need direction from a White racist.

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