Sunday, May 28, 2006

Why American TV series are good.... for America.

This month is the grand finale of this year’s TV season. Last week, it was ER, Invasion and the West Wing, and this week it is Lost and Desperate Housewives. Most of those shows are not just popular in the US but also all over the world and I think it is something that most (but not all) Americans are unaware of.
The main reason for their success is primarily that they are very entertaining, which is, I suppose, the main point of any entertainment. But there is more to it.

For one thing, the writing is often very good, and often surprisingly better than for movies. It seems that, partly thanks to daring initiatives by HBO some 10 years ago, the genre has become extremely creative.

But it is also a lot more in touch with the concerns of today’s world. Something not so prevalent in fiction in the rest of the world.

Of course, fiction has always mirrored our fears and frustration – think of the old Star Trek and its integrated team (including a black woman, an Asian and a Russian) or M*A*S*H, and its social commentary on the Vietnam war. But nowadays, a lot of shows deal even more directly with controversial issues. There are of course shows like The Simpsons or South Park which are satires of current social issues (and they have, as such, been under political attack for what they portray). But even more mainstream shows deal with hot issues such as:

  • political corruption (The West Wing, 24, Galactica, Law & Order, The Shield, Commander in Chief)
  • the war in Iraq (Over There but also ER or Lost)
  • torture (Galatica, 24, Lost)
  • Hispanic immigration (The Shield, Law & Order – the last season of The West Wing even had the election of a Hispanic democrat to the presidency)
  • abortion (Desperate Housewives, Galactica, Law & Order)

And this is just to name a few of those issues and a few of the shows – those I’m most familiar with. Usually, when faced with those controversial issues, the audience is either left with no definite answer and is given a more liberal view, and that’s a good thing.

"ER" recently featured a Darfur episode starring Noah Wyle and Mekhi Phifer.

Clearly, entertainment is not just entertaining – it is also an important vehicle for the transmission of political ideas and values. No matter how much G. W Bush’s politics has hurt the image of the US abroad, US fiction continues to make the American lifestyle very attractive as well as the ideas and values that come with it. It is not Karen Hughes who will help US image abroad, it is television.

Most people in America should thus rejoice of the success of American TV shows in the world. They should also rejoice of the fact that most of those shows present a more benign, tolerant society. Paradoxically, it gives a more complex picture of the America, society and takes us away from the simplified binary view of the Bush administration over the last 6 years. It shows the world that Americans are willing to question the very foundation of their politics and social choices.

I am not naïve enough to believe this is just the result of the producers’ misanthropy or the networks’ new enlightened vision. There is most certainly a market for those shows otherwise they would not last. It looks like in recent years, the mainstream networks have finally caught up with HBO’s provocative creativity precisely because the audience called for it.

Other than improving America’s image, those shows won’t affect world politics. What is certain, however, is that American fiction is the most influential means of communication of this country. As to whether it is politics that shapes culture or culture that shapes politics, there is no definite answer but we can venture to say that it may be both.


At 20:06, Blogger Woozie said...

Did the businessman drink your wine? Or did he dig your Earth?


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