Americas TV Role Model
They always come back to the norm in the end. Of course, even these very straight-looking 50s shows are not without their deviant sides. Lucy is always plotting and scheming to undermine the authority of her husband. While Ricky always triumphs in the end, the show does nothing to discourage female viewers from identifying with Lucy and hoping she wins out one day. The popularity of these old shows today in cable re-runs may have something to do with this kind of devious re-reading of the possibilities lurking just below the surface of the normal, 50s sitcom. The idea that the white middle class family was the norm might have worked in the 50s, when it was mostly white middle class people who owned the TV sets, but it stopped working in the late 60s. A more diverse TV audience, tuning in to more conflictual times could not be so easily satisfied. The answer was a new kind of sitcom, pioneered by Norman Lear. In ‘All in the Family and other Lear shows, the conflicts within the TV audience are more directly dramatized on the screen.
TV no longer has a clearly identifiable moral center-ground. The character of Archie Bunker – an obvious model for Homer Simpson – is the classic example. To conservative blue-collar viewers he was the hero of the show. To liberal, educated people he was the butt of the joke. TV producers learned two things from all in the Family: that different sections of the audience can hold quite opposite views about the same character, and that the show can dramatize the conflict between their views. Happy Days, the late 70s hit that edged out the late 60s style confrontational comedies, changed the rules once again. In an era weary of conflict, Happy Days relied on nostalgia for the 50s when life was simpler and everyone got along nicely. Happy Days wasn’t quite the 50s of Father Knows Best, however. The character that ‘knows best’ in Happy Days is the Fonz. With his leather jacket, greased back hair and motorcycle, he was a domesticated version of Brando’s character from The Wild One. No longer an image of the bad boy outsider, he was now the outsider who uses his detachment to lend a hand to the TV families of Happy Days.
This is not the real 50s, but the 50s of TV memory, a cut-up of all the TV images of the 50s, all spliced back together in a comedy format. Here the once very separate worlds of rock and roll and prime time TV are cut and mixed together. The Simpsons cuts and mixes images of TV families from all eras. The longhaired school bus driver in The Simpsons is a cartoon version of the Fonz. The Simpsons encourages different kinds of viewers to identify with different characters, and it borrows those characters from many other shows. Its stories vary enormously depending on the writers and producers. Some are lovingly copied 50s style stories of suburban normality. Some are radical postmodern 90s style parodies of it. Some are conflict dramas, some are morality plays of the kind popularized by M*A*S*H. The changes made to the stock material of the sitcom in The Simpsons are instructive.
Homer has a desk-job at the nuclear power plant. He is not a blue-collar worker like Fred Flintstone or Archie Bunker. The female characters are more fully developed than Wilma Flintstone or Betty Rubble, and get story lines of their own. Female viewers are encouraged to identify with post-feminist female characters who stick up for themselves and take an active role in many situations. While Bart is famous for his non-committal attitude to school, Sister Lisa is a diligent student. Young viewers can identify with being cool or being smart. Middle class parents who value good manners and education can identify with Marg and Lisa; while Bart and Homer uphold a traditional working class idiom of a rebellious youth followed by a conformist, non-confrontational middle-age. Fragmented audiences, fragmented shows – fragmented TV culture. George Bush may be nostalgic for The Waltons, but it won’t be long before politicians are nostalgic for the TV culture of The Simpsons. It is these ideas that have caused TV families to take over and set the example for actual families when in the past these roles were reversed. Today’s families are mere images of the ideas portrayed through American TV.
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