Sunday, February 26, 2012

Moral Ambiguity And Jed Bartlet's West Wing On NBC

The West Wing, which ran for 7 seasons on NBC (from the Fall of 1998 to the Spring of 2006) was ostensibly about the political idealism of a fictitious White House administration.  What made it such a compelling drama, however, wasn't the idealism.  Rather, it was idealism juxtaposed with moral ambiguity and the unintended consequences of veering from a path of absolute moral correctness that made the shows key plot lines so powerful and provocative for viewers.

A group of visionary and skilled political operatives came together in the fictitious world of The West Wing after discovering a kindred spirit and leader in the form of New Hampshire Governor Josiah (Jed) Bartlet (played by critically acclaimed movie actor Martin Sheen), spearheading a campaign that would bring Bartlet to the White House.  It would be a Presidential administration that would stand for truth, integrity and righteousness.  This administration wasn't just concerned with making the lives of all Americans better, it was concerned with all the citizens of the world.  Human rights, democracy, economic inequalities were global causes up for grabs.  Most of all, there would be no tolerance of political hypocrisy and the entire staff (key players being Chief Of Staff Leo McGary, Deputy Chief Of Staff Josh Lyman, Press Secretary CJ (Claudia Jean) Craig, Communications Director Toby Ziegler and Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (later replaced by Will Baily) could always rest assured that President Bartlet had everybody's back:

A feel good set-up?  Yes...sort of.  This same group of do-gooders and supposed idealists would constantly remind us that the road to good intentions was paved with personal foibles and moral ambiguity.  Though the dramatic tension in the first season was probably driven more by the political miscalculations of the staff due primarily to hubris and a sense of infallibility, the tone changed shortly thereafter.  The balance of the series (from Season 2 to Season 5 especially), would derive its dramatic tension from a seemingly unending series of plots essentially asking the same question -- did the end justify the means. 

By the middle of the second season, it became clear that President Jed Bartlet had intentionally concealed his potentially life threatening case of Multiple Sclerosis from the electorate, all the while he was seeking the office of the U.S. Presidency (he even it kept it secret from his own campaign staff).   He knew quite well that by disclosing this grave medical condition, he would risk losing the election, so he made a calculated risk: by lying at the outset of the election, he could more than redeem himself with the good works his administration could complete.  But as we all know too well -- sometimes the cover up is worse than the crime.  It would almost cost him his Presidency (and if it wasn't a TV show, one has to believe it would have).   President Bartlet had to first deal with the deception he perpetrated against his own staff, beginning with the morally (self)righteous paragon of the group, Communications Director Toby Ziegler who was merciless and rageful in processing the deception.

While the staff was struck with compassion (though Ziegler's moral indignation would never quite subside) the disclosure of the MS came mid-term, just around the time Bartlet had to deal with reelection.  The general public as well as Congress (whose Democratic members need the President's coat tails for the purpose of re-election) were far less supportive.  In a deeply introspective moment (arguably one of the finest in the series' entire run), Bartlet was forced to confront his demons about running for re-election against the backdrop of being caught in a web of moral deception shortly before a press conference regarding his MS disclosure.  In a horrible twist of fate, the decision comes at a time when his assistant of the last 30 years is killed in a car accident, leaving him feeling close to utterly defeated and helpless.  It was at this moment that President Bartlett was forced to fully embrace the ramifications of his sins.

In the end, he did run for re-election.  But the political capital expended in dealing with scandal was incredibly damaging.  From that moment on, Bartlet lost the ability to take the moral high ground on most issues.  He was a liar -- it's hard to claim moral superiority when everybody knows that.

Seasons 3 focused on another moral dilemma of global proportions that called the high idealism of the Bartlet administration into question (and planted the seed for an almost unthinkable retribution for these moral transgressions that would play out late in Season 4 and Season 5).  Bartlet orders the assassination of Abdul Shareef, the Defense Minister of ficttious Middle Eastern country Qumar.  While Qumar was historically considered a "friendly" government to the U.S. (providing some practical military support and serving as a source of stability versus some of the more fundamentalist anti-Western Middle Eastern countries), it was also clearly a brutal dictatorship.  In particular, the Qumar government practiced repressive treatment for it's female citizens.  It was a country where adultery was punishable by stoning (but only for women), something that drove White House Press Secretary (and future Chief Of Staff) CJ Craig to both rage and tears. 

Upon the stark realization that Shareef was a driving force in suicide bombings and other atrocious terrorist activity and spotting an opportunity, at the urging of Chief of Staff/life-long confident Leo McGary, in violation of both International Law and traditional morality, Bartlet chooses to seize the moment and have Shareef assassinated.

We watch Bartlet and McGary wrestle with a conundrum for much of the 3rd season that encapsulates this key plot device (moral ambiguity).  A system of moral absolutes can only function in a world where all actors operate on a moral playing field.  Is it right to assassinate a terrorist responsible for the murder of hundreds of innocent civilians, and who seeks political instability in the hopes that it will spur even more anti-american violence?  While Shareef and all he stood for was repugnant, would a U.S. ordered assasination ever pass moral muster?  The answer isn't so simple when we consider that Shareef was an official in one of the few Mid East governments that was considered relatively progressive and was in fact considered a U.S. ally.  Furthermore, the assassination took place when Sharif was completely unarmed and in a completely vulnerable position in a plane over the Atlantic Ocean after having been lured to the U.S. under false pretenses.  Forgetting the potential fall out from moral outrage outside the White House, how could the Administration be complicit in such a tacitly immoral deed -- murder and hypocrisy.  There is just no way to spin it -- taking another man's life, no matter what the geopolitical context, is wrong.  

The aftermath of the decision demonstrated that there are no easy answers in these kinds of dilemmas and that ultimately, we reap what we sow.  First it lead to the retaliatory assassination of Ben Yosef, the Israeli Foreign Minister, (with the implication being "retribution" to the Israelis who, Qumar presumably believed were responsible).  From the outset, the Bartlet administration feared such improperly targeted retribution would be inevitable situation since to "clear" Israel, Bartlett would have to show he knew who the guilty party was and that was impossible since he would have implicated the Administration in the assassination.  This inevitability tormented Chief Of Staff Leo McGary who was responsible for U.S. ties with Israel and had a closer personal relationship with Foreign Minister Ben Yosef.

But that would pale in comparison to the ultimate payback -- the kidnapping of first daughter Zoey Bartlet, which essentially brought down the entire Bartlet government, at least temporarily when Presiden Bartlet elected to avail himself of the 25th Amendment, essentially resigning his presidency until Zoey was found.  Bartlet was forced to elevate the most powerful Republican politician in America, Speaker Of The House, Glenn Allen Walken, to the Presidency of the United States, since the Vice President's office was vacant with the prior resignation of former Vice President John Hoynes after a sex scandal and the administration's failure to name a replacement in time.

There were far less high profile examples of moral ambiguity co-existing with idealism as well (most effectively in the first 4 Seasons).  One of my favorites outside of those first 4 seasons occurred in Season 5, in the episode entitled Talking Points.  In it, Deputy Chief Of Staff Josh Lymon is unwittingly manipulated by Chief Of Staff Leo McGary and the President himself, to negotiate a trade agreement that he is unaware contains provisions that would place members of the CWA union in a very unfavorable position with respect to International trade protection (and thus job protection).  In order to further the Bartlett spearheaded trade agreement, the  administration has to break a promise to preserve U.S. jobs which essentially secured the Union's initial support for Bartlet during the primaries and may even have been responsible for Bartlet getting the nomination (since the CWA endorsement was a key factor in the previously faltering Bartlet campaign).  Josh is tormented by the process but his bosses seem to understand that sometimes, sacrifices must be made and that, in economic academic jargon, as President/Economics Phd Josiah Bartlet correctly termed, "creative destruction" must be allowed to occur.  When Josh explains that he understands the imperative of creative destruction, but doesn't understand how the Administration could so easily break a campaign promise to one the parties responsible for building early momentum for the campaign, Leo reminds Josh that "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose."  At the end of the episode, Josh comes to terms with this.  He realizes that the moral failure of the Bartlet administration (and his own) wasn't in breaking the promise, but it was rather in making the promise in the first place to union:

Josh: "What I did wrong wasn't breaking my word". "It was making a promise I couldn't keep in the first place."

But really, was it wrong?  Without making the empty promise, the early momentum for the campaign might never have formed.  Without the early momentum, there would not have been a campaign later, and there never would have been a Bartlett administration.  Did the ends justify the means in any case?
I've often tried to get my arms around why Season's 5, 6 and 7 are often derided as being somewhat inferior to the first 4 seasons.  The most cited reason is simply that Aaron Sorkin departed the series after Season 4 at which time John Wells took over production.  Even with a powerhouse like John Wells at the helm, it was hard to match Sorkin's brilliance.  While the pace of the dialogue and the "importance" of the story lines did in fact lag it's predecessor seasons, I think the reason Seasons 5-7 were weaker is somewhat more ephemeral.  The real reason it lagged was that the stories didn't force the characters to battle their inner demons and deal with the moral ambiguity that permeated the first 4 seasons. 

In an eerie element of foreshadowing real events, the 6th and 7th Season arc followed the political rise (ultimately to the Presidency) of Josh Lymon's handpicked successor for President Josiah Bartlet, Congressman Matthew Santos.  With a total of 6 years in the House Of Representatives as his only real experience in the arena of National Politics, his rise seemed to uncannily mirror the future rise of President Barack Obama,.   While the development was interesting, there was no real moral ambiguity for the viewer to ponder here.  In fact, Santo's most attractive political quality (and his most dangerous to his opponents and to himself) seemed to be that in his eyes, the end can't be used as a justification for the mean.  Matt Santos always took the high road -- even if it meant he would lose.
The primary plot lines during the post Sorkin era focusing on the question of succession of President Bartlet were quite compelling.  There was a real sense of cliff hanging suspense in Season 6 with respect to the Democratic Nomination pitting Matthew Santos, VP Bob Russell and former VP John Hoynes in a 3 way race for much of the season with the crescendo occurring on night 2nd the Democratic Convention in the show's conclusion in one of the most memorable political speeches many TV watchers had ever seen, be it real or fictional.

There were attempts on some level to bring in conflicts over moral absolutes; Toby Ziegler leaks classified information regarding the existence of a secret military space shuttle in order to rescue the astronauts that are stranded at a malfunctioning space station, for example.  But the story lacked the element of an ethical choice that was too tough to call that so permeated the earlier seasons.  For Toby, it barely created an ethical dilemma.  He opposed the militarization of space and felt that the astronauts' lives were a priority.  The viewer felt little tension in his decision to break the law to achieve his goals.  While President Bartlet's moral dilemma to reveal the existence of the military shuttle and rescue the astronauts versus keeping sacrificing the astronauts to keep the vital national security program alive could have been a real tension builder. But John Wells chose to head it off at the pass having Toby divulge it before the debate became heated.

Additionally, unlike with other subjects moral ambiguity, the agent (Ziegler) was prepared to live with consequence.  Not so much that he would go to jail (which also was the case), but rather, that it was a final decision that would prevent him from continuing to serve in government and complete the Bartlett mission.  One could argue (and I think President Bartlett does in their final meeting in Oval Office when Bartlet refuses to accept Toby's resignation, telling him rather that he must fire Toby), that Toby's sense of moral superiority eliminated the real moral ambivalence.  For Toby, it was right to be wrong (or at least break the law), and on this, there was no real conflict. 

BARTLET: "I haven't had much time to absorb this news, so I'll apologize in advance if I express any half-formed thoughts. But the one thought that hits the hardest is that this was somehow inevitable; that you've always been heading for this sort of crash-and-burn. That self-righteous superiority; not that you were smarter than everyone; that you were purer, morally superior."
TOBY: "Due respect, sir, I don't think I'm morally superior to everyone."
BARTLET: "No, just to me."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pan Am Versus Playboy Club -- We Like The Light Better Than The Dark

September 2011 brought viewers back to the future with two very different shows that take place during the same nostalgaic time period -- the early 1960's: Playboy Club and Pan Am.  Both shows were obviously capitalizing on the excitement generated around the early 1960's retro plot mechanism so well executed in AMC's Mad Men, and comparisons between these shows and Mad Men are inevitable fodder for discussion, but we'd put neither in Mad Men's weight class.  Instead, a comparison and contrast between Playboy Club and Pan Am is probably a fairer match up.  The time periods and the plot devices are virtually identical.  But, we would argue, the similarities pretty much end there.  The key difference between the two shows is probably the greater edginess of Playboy versus Pan Am and the sunnier disposition (let's call it optimism) of Pan Am versus Playboy ClubPan Am is more like the America of the 1960's we see depicted in Life Magazine: adventurous and optimistic while Playboy club is more like the 1960's as seen through they eyes of J. Edgar Hoover: dark, salacious and full of conspiracy.

While both shows have an element of danger (Pan Am with it's International espionage element and Playboy Club with key characters directly linked to the underworld), Playboy Club's take is decidedly darker.  Playboy Club begins with the immediate loss of innocence of a the Club's newest Playboy Bunny (ok that's a bit of a stretch given her occupation) Maureen (played by Amber Heard) by having her accidentally murder a well known mob boss in the process of fending him off as he attempted to rape her.  In addition, Playboy club uses the Don Draper like anti-hero in the form of Nick Dalton (played by Eddie Cibrian) as a key protagonist.  Dalton is smooth and seemingly kind, however, his meteoric professional rise as a star defense attorney began by representing the mob in Chicago.  While he appears to have made good, with political aspirations likely to be realized, we can't forget that he was (and may still prove to be) in the pocket of the mob.

Pan Am's has risk takers as well, but they aren't dark, so much as inspired.  Stewardess Kate Cameron (played by Kelli Garner) is recruited by what is presumed to be the CIA to use her a) cover as a globe trotting stewardess, b) tri-lingual language capabilities and c) sense of adventure to act as International operative.  She takes real risks (the audience can palpaply feel the suspense as she tries to steal some papers from an Eastern European spy on the maiden flight of the Pan Am Clipper.  Additionally, we learn that Maggie is essentially replacing the missing Bridgette, another Pan Am stewardess.  Given the nature of her undercover work and her unexplained absence, we can only assume Bridgette has been captured and/or killed by Communist spies.  That said, there is a more optimistic element of adventure rather than darkness, as contrasted with Playboy Club's ominous weight stemming from the fact tht the mob will eventually catch up to the protagonists and it won't be pretty.

Further, while both shows have professional rivalries and their own version of office politics, Pan Am's are more like a child's sandbox versus Playboy Club's viper pit.  In Playboy Club, despite her striking beauty and almost unbelievable class (maybe all Playboy Bunnies had high IQ's, wonderful senses of style, poise, maturity, singing and dancing talent on top of striking classic beauty, but I am somewhat skeptical)  Bunny "Mother Bunny" Carol-Lynne (played by Laura Benanti) walks around with an air that perfectly combines depression and paranoia about getting older and losing her boyfriend (Nick Dalton) to a younger rival (Maureen).  In the first episode, Carol-Lynne seems determine to make Maureen's existence a living hell while attempting to wrest at least some management responsibilities from Billy Rosen (the club's old school, mysonginistic manager). 

The rivalries and politics in Pan Am reflect lighter tone.  The key source of tension between characters is between sisters Laura and Kate Cameron.  Kate is an experienced Pan Am stewardess who comes home to attend her sister Laura's wedding some 6 months before the time pilot episode takes place (as refected in flashbacks).  Despite her clear misgivings about going through with her wedding, everybody around Laura (especially her stereotypical early 1960's mother) thinks it's all just jitters and she should ignore what are simply butterflies.  But Laura clearly sees her life unfolding in a way she's not willing to live.  She isn't sure what she wants, but she knows it's not simple middle class domestic bliss as the "the little woman" who waits for her husband at home.  But Kate understands this and encourages her sister, at the last moment, to become a runaway bride.  Laura can be a Pan Am stewardess, Kate tells her.  In a scene almost reminiscent of wedding scene in The Graduate, they take off together moments before the ceremony with several people in the wedding party (most notably, their very displeased mother) chasing after the two sisers.

Flash forward 6 months, and Laura, not Kate is the beautiful stewardess featured on the cover of Life Magazine, highlighting the glamour of the jet setting Pan Am flight attendent life.  Clearly, Laura has stolen the spotlight in a remarkably short period of time and supplanted her sister as the glamour girl of both the Cameron family, but more importantly, the Pan Am family. There is rivalry and tension, but there is also sympathy, as Laura genuinely seems reluctant at having achieved her All About Eve like rise versus her sister.  Her sister clearly resents Laura's meteoric rise, but she doesn't hate her for it.  Neither of these two wish each other ill.  It just sort of worked out the way it did -- life isn't always fair, but nobody is malicious.  More importantly, Kate doesn't appear to be ready to sit back stewing about how to get back at her sister for the run of the show.  Rather, she appears to embark on a path to establish her own identity: one that will celebrate far more than beauty, as U.S. intelligence operative abroad.  In other words, she has bigger fish to fry.  She is like America of the period -- she moves on, optimistically.  As an aside, the senior member of the team on Pan Am, Purser Maggie Ryan (played by Christina Ricci) has virtually no political issues with her crew.  She is neither threatened by them, nor does she seem to dislike any of the me.  She is a team player.

One senses that against a plot device driven by nostalgia, the two shows will gravitate toward very different poles.  Pan Am will likely reflect more of the Cold War intrigue and broader optimism of world becoming increasingly globalized against a backdrop of glamour and not so much sexuality (though clearly there is an overt message about the increasing empowerment woman will have in the coming decades).  Playboy Club will likely reflect a backstory more focused on the underwold and somewhat still romanticized mob, as well as more overt sexuality.

The story lines seem authentic and carry lots of suspense while offeirng eye candy and a neat nostalgaic angle, but the characters are so one dimensional.  On top of the one dimensionality, the anti-heroes aren't very likable (or even deep -- not every handsome, intelligent professional in 1960's TV can have the depth of Don Draper).  The characters on Pan Am are just plain more likable.

One last thought.  In case it's not obvious, I love Television.  Like many others who share my passion, I often love the underloved show -- the one that doesn't always catch on at first, because not everybody appreciates the depth and cleverness of the show.  I tend then, to root for the ratings underdog.  In this case, however, I tend to agree with the public who have voted with their eyeballs. The pilot for Pan Am had about 11.1mm viewers and a 3.1 18-49 Nilesen rating.  The Playboy Club's pilot, on the other hand, had about 5.02mm viewers and a 1.6 18-49 Nielsen rating while the following week saw about a 20% drop in both rating and audience while Pan Am held onto it's audience.   By week 3 of this new Television season, Playboy Club had the ignominious distinction of being the first show of the Fall 2011 season to be canceled.

This may just be a case where the public has it right.  But the beautiful thing about teleivision and viewer passion is that one man's caviar is another man's tuna fish.  Perhaps Playboy Club will someday be hailed as brilliant buut canceled.  Till then, let's keep watching Pan Am.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

American Dreams -- Deeper, Better (And Darker) Than The Bubble Gum Nostalgia It Appeared To Be

During it's run on NBC from September 2002 to May 2005, American Dreams didn't establish itself as a cultural icon of 1960's nolstagia or, even as a bona fide hit show. That it didn't achieve this status isn't shocking because so few TV shows do.  What is surprising is that American Dreams didn't get closer.  This show should have been missed more when it went off the air and should have been more fondly remembered since then.  It had a devotion to genuine period authenticity matched by very few shows in the history of television.  It's cast was strong and it's arc based stories were compelling and even suspenseful.  Family drama occured against the nostalgaic, but fairly accurately  portrayed, backdrop of the unfolding of a number real and pivotal events in American history including the rise of Civil Rights, the anti Viet Nam War movement, feminism, and an overall changing value system of Americans.  Additionally, it's key plot device of having the main protaganist as a dancer on American Bandstand allowed for the very effective use of early 1960's music as an evocative soundtrack to (and sometimes a metaphor for), what was happening with the characters and the world around them in a very authentic way.  I really looked forward to watching this show every week and I often wondered (even during it's run, as a lack of water cooler buzz developed) why there weren't more people like me.  In retrospect, it may have been that this show was simply too heavy (in contrast to it's apparently bubble gum American Bandstand driven key plot device) for a post 9/11 America to take comfort in.  Americans were expecting to tune into a slightly more updated Happy Days and they got a coming of age version of Hill Street Blues instead (well, not quite, but you get the idea).

Expectations were high: Variety in this review of the pilot said "With the emotional tug of "Wonder Years" presented with the production values of "The West Wing," "Dreams" should follow "Wing," "The Sopranos" and "24" as stellar shows that live up to the promise of its pilot." But there was also skepticism that the gimmicky period plot device revolving around American Bandstand would overshadow any attempt at real attempt at drama as reflected in this New York Times review  In the end, over a modestly successful 3 year run, it gave viewers an evocative (though not always pleasant) view into an American family that, incredibly, many of us seemed to be able to identify with despite the fact it took place during a time many of us weren't yet born. The key plot device in the show revolved around 15 year old protagonist Meg Pryor, who danced on American Bandstand in the local Philadelphia Studio from which it was produced and broadcast in 1962. Meg was the 2nd oldest child of the Philadelphia Irish Catholic lower middle class Pryor clan while high school football star JJ was the oldest, and bookish and too clever sister Patty was 12, while polio stricken, leg brace wearing youngest brother Will (maybe this character went over the line with an overly easy reach for time period based pathos) was the youngest.

Meg represents the America of the period. She is the optimistic, wide eyed, pretty girl next door looking for more (though she isn't quite sure what more is). She also seems poised to lose some of her innocence as she reaches out into the big, adventurous (and sometimes bad) world outside of her traditional family's orbit.  Here, the use of the American Bandstand plot device and it's connection to rock and roll music has it's most important metaphorical role -- the world is getting more provactive and at the same time more dangerous.  How did those unkempt, rebellous Beatles replace Pat Boone and what are all those white kids doing listening to Marvin Gaye?

Her personality lays in stark contrast to her father, appliance store owner Jack and offers a hint of what transformative pressures will impact her traditional housewife mother Helen.  The world is poised to change around the family and Jack seems least prepared to handle it, let alone embrace it while Helen feels a pull into a new social consciousness (feminism, anti-war movement) that seems to offer a risk reward proposition for her that isn't quite compelling enough to go all in, at once.

There is also a jarring contrast between the Pryor household and the Walker household (the other major family whose life is chronicled in the show).  Henry Walker is Jack Pryor's de facto store manager at the Pryor's appliance store (Pryor's Radio and TV).  He is an African American man with a teenage son, Sam, who is Meg's age and a wife Gwen who is also a housekeeper employed outside the home.  Sam ultimately wins an athletic scholarship to East Catholic High School (where the Pryor kids go to school) while Gwen dies of cancer during the second season.  America, when the viewer walks in the Walker's (no pun intended) shoes is a far less idealistic world.  It is a racist world that is often unfair and can be a bit frightening.  Henry wants more for his family, but isn't of the mindset to demand what he deserves.  While his boss, Jack Pryor, is a fair man by objective standards for the time, Jack needs to be pulled kicking and screaming by the changing forces of the time to treat Henry as a true equal.  This isn't the stuff of bubble gum nostalgia.  Everybody isn't always happy.

Now, there have been numerous family oriented TV shows that have used nostalgia as a plot device (in my TV watching lifetime, I would argue Wonder Years was the best example, particularly for the 1960's loss of innocence element).  However, many other examples exist from the traditional family sitcom (Happy Days) to the slapstick (Laverne and Shirley, etc.) to the dark (most recently Madmen).  There have also been shows where nostalgia was almost referential (Family Ties, for example, where reference, particularly in the earlier episodes, was made to a hippie counter culture in the context of the contemporary Regan era, made some viewers long for a time less materialistic and gave some a reason to be glad that bygone era had passed).

But in retrospect the power of plotlines and the constant conflict encountered by the protagonsits combined with production values and it's deep authenticity of detail, gave American Dreams a real edge relative to some of those others (even the ones that were great "hits").   The Bandstand set (and the extraordinary integration of authentic scenes from bands that appeared on the show at the time) is most obvious.  But the scenes of Jack Pryor's appliance store with just the right models of TV's, the home furnishings, the wardrobe, etc.were also dead on.

More than just a realism to the time time period, there was a realism to the socio economic realities of the protagonists lives.  There was a gritty, almost darkness to the atmosphere -- they weren't middle class in the traditional 1960's TV way.  They wanted (and sometimes needed) what they didn't have, in both material and metaphysical ways.  While there was a quaint and homey feeling to life at the Pryor house, there was also an element of realism that is often absent from the nostalgia plot device in other shows.  In some of the holiday episodes that take place during the winter season, for instance, there is a clear sense of family bonding that was such comfort food in our age of isolation and cynicism about such sentimental times.  However, there is an evocation of chill in the house (not so much emotional, but physical) that is striking -- the family in their sweaters walking around the house, literally trying to stay warm in a poorly insulated home of it's time.  There is not complaining around it, just a clear sense of atmosphere.  It's cold and it's almost dark. 

Other examples of the realistic darkness are that Sam Walker encounters real, uabashed racial bias when he transfers to Meg's white, private parochial school on scholarship.  On a more universal note, Meg loses her virginity to the "bad boy" after being somewhat duped by him.  In an homage to both feminsm and the anti-war movement Helen uses her new outside the home job (and independence) at a travel agency to help young men dodge the draft in contrast to what husband Jack thinks she ought to be doing.  Even young Will isn't immune to darkness as it's unclear whether the Pryor family will be able to raise the funds to pay for his polio reversing surgery (in the end the charity March of Dimes is their only savior).  Finally  JJ's perilous journey through Viet Nam and his post traumatic stress after returning home was portrayed with great intensity.  I loved all these plot lines and they were so well done, with each week feeling like a cliff hanger (the anti Law and Order).   But all this powerful and sometimes dark drama, was constant reminder to viewers that this wasn't the Wonder Years

Further, there was an overhang or element of a zero sum game in the advances that the Walker family makes in contrast to the Pryor family.  It's not cut and dry, but rather very subtle.  It's not exactly that the Walker family (as a proxy for the African American class) will see advancement at the expense of the Pryor's (as a proxy for lower middle class whites).  But rather, it feels as if the Jack Pryor's is giving away some of the upside he has always kept for himself as he offers Henry his "fair share".  Jack gives Henry a piece of the profits in a exchange for staying to manage a second store rather than lose Henry, who is tempted to take a loan made available from a nascent community development group to open a new store in his own African American neighborhood.  Jack begrudgingly gives Henry a piece of the action to maintain the status quo.  But Henry isn't staying simply for opportunity to stay partners with Jack or out of loyalty -- he is somewhat ambivalent about the risk of opening a store himself and relying on the nascent community based funding (tyed subtly to the African American Muslim movement) that would enable him to strike out on his own in business.

With such great story lines, actors, acting and production values, what could have gone wrong?  Perhaps it's biggest problem was simply that it was too blunt -- a bit too dark in the shadows of 9/11 when Americans needed a bit less realism about the issues of a middle class Irish Catholic family in an early 1960's America that seemed to be a tinderbox set to explode into mayhem as the decade progressed. For my part, I liked the dark undertones and the real depth, though it made even me a bit uncomfortable. For the average viewer, maybe there was simply too much discontent for a Sunday night, despite the back drop of classic early 1960's music. In other words, American Dreams' failure to resonate as a attractive destination for viewers to visit at 9PM on Sunday nights from 2002-2005 may not have been the failure of the American Bandstand/Music plot device so much as the heavy handedness with which the show presented the angst of changing society ultimately failed to make this show click. It was a bait and switch of sorts, but I prefered the switch.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Swingtown: How A TV Series About Wife Swapping Can Be So Good...And So Relatable

Swingtown, the TV series, aired in the Summer of 2008, with a total of 13 episodes. Swingtown was ostensibly about changing sexual mores of the American middle class during the mid 1970's as observed by two families in the Chicago suburbs in 1976, the Millers and the Thompsons. The primary plot device to illustrate this was open marriage. While never fully embraced by them, the Millers (Bruce and Melinda) were far more open to the concept when introduced by their socially sophisticated and wealthy new neighbors the Deckers (Tom and Trina) than their old friends the Thompsons (Roger and Janet) were.

While the open marriage concept is what drew all the headlines -- i.e. the review headlined "Take My Wife. Please. I’ll Take Yours" --, or the review "My, What Strange Bedfellows" -- this show was about something so much more. It was about the pressures that arise as couples, families and even friends grow and change their attitudes. When we change our vectors in life, are those who found us when we were on another trajectory willing to "stick with us"? The sexual mores issue, however, was just one device. Another was the concept of the recognition that women could have a role as equal partners economically with their husbands or, in some cases could actually achieve greater success than their husbands. This occured as Janet Thompson achieved some rather notable success as an advice columnist at a major metropolitan newspaper after starting out (reluctantly) in the "temp" pool to make money when her husband Roger was laid off.

Roger also came to the realization that he wanted to do something "extraordinary" with his professional life and not simply get another job doing what he had been doing, though it was somewhat uncovential and disrutptive. He was willing to uproot his family to do it. In a prior life, Janet might simply have "gone along", but she had created a more independent life for herself and wasn't willing to give that up.

The changing economic fortunes of the two different couples was another key illustrator of the conflict of growth and the gains and losses it can bring. The Millers and Thompsons were the closest of friends when they lived next door to each other. However, with greater economic success, the Millers moved "across the tracks" and it was this very move which introduced the Millers to new ideas and people that drove a wedge between the Millers and Thompsons who had been so inseparable for so long.

Another such illustration involved the plotline of the two teenage sons of the Millers and Thompsons who had been incredibly close as well. Young BJ developed his first romance with one of his new neighbors which then created a rift with his old friend Rick. The choice of his friend BJ to spend more time with the girl was a source of frustration and bewilderment for Rick. The youngest characters on the show seemed to have an easier time adapting to change than their older models though. In fact, more than any other characters, Rick and BJ seem to illustrate what many of us learn the hard way in our real lives -- that in relationships, sometimes the best way to continue to maintain a level of closeness and intimacy with a friend or partner is to support their desire to grow in new directions.

Some have said Swingtown appeared to be a "cheap shot" on many levels. It was a "rip off" of the time change plot device that was driving so much success for Madmen. Additionally, it used suggestive and outright salacious sexual content gratuitously, in order to drive audience. But I disagree. Unfortunately, the plot devices "buried the lead". I think this was really a show about relationships and a great one at that. While other shows certainly touched on some of these themes such as HBO's Tell Me You Love Me, Swingtown was one of the few shows to ever have so effectively devoted itself to the concept of relationships in a dramatic way .

On a final note, in a sense, this show had the deck stacked against it.  It was the antithesis of a "bankable" show in syndication, which is arguably the biggest driver behind TV business right now:  it was a serialized drama skewing female.  Even with 4-5 seasons of success, this show would not likely have found a home on a major cable network willing to pay a multi-million dollar license fee.