Stories reflect the values of a culture. I grew up watching The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It To Beaver, My Three Sons, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Doctors, etc. What I remember about this time was that there was usually a lesson about what truly mattered in life expressed either overtly or implied by the conclusion of each episode. Television not only mirrored the values of my culture but it also attempted to shape those values. Andy and all of Mayberry, for example, were teaching little Opie about community, compassion and humility usually through the bumbling machinations of the brilliant Don Knotts' character, Barney Fife. Growing up in a small New England town this show was irresistible to me because it helped guide me in the right direction when there was so much turbulence about the war in Vietnam, a war my own brother was drafted into.
The 1970s brought more sophisticated fare but still with a sense of cultural values being expressed and examined. The great satirical series All In The Family created by Norman Lear and the remarkable HBO series World Championship Boxing originated in the early 70s. I recall sitting with my father watching one episode called "The Rumble in the Jungle" in which Muhammed Ali regained the world heavyweight title from George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (a place, incidentally, so outside my small town reality that it actually introduced me to the importance of all those geography lessons I had been forced to endure throughout grade school) . All In the Family (not one episode ever missed incidentally) created the characters of Archie and Edith Bunker that resonated deeply with my working class family and reflected the conflicting values of Meathead (that would be me) and Archie (that would be my tough and somewhat bigoted father) and Edith (definitely my compassionate, tolerant mother with her Sephardic roots in Calabria). At the end of each episode Archie learned something about the values of his liberal son-in-law and usually grudgingly discovered some middle ground where his family would not implode. What mattered to both Archie and Meathead was the family's solidarity against the forces that were out there somewhere attempting to destroy it. Remember this was the 1970s and Lear in his genius and political savvy was acutely aware that Ronald Reagan was after the destruction of a great many liberal values such as the absolute necessity of having a social net that had taken hold under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The end of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s saw a decided shift in television. We were now collectively exposed to the Hollywood values of the uber rich in series such as Dallas, Flamingo Road, Filthy Rich and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. What was disturbing in all these shows was the adulation of wealth at the expense of humanity. While there was lip service paid to how important it was to maintain human relationships, in actuality, the backstabbing, undercutting and general nastiness of the characters while they enjoyed their mansions, rode around in their limos and dripped with diamonds at whatever imaginary soiree the writers and producers insisted be shown was reflective of something much more insidious and destructive going on in society: excessive consumerism and the branding and corporatization of America. This trend continued well into the 90s and, of course, the 21st century.
There were additional elements added to television fare as well during this time: the cop show, the police procedural and the sociopath/psychopath series. This trend was darkly predictive of where we were headed as a society. Its trajectory can be traced throughout the 80s, the 90s and the new century. But it began in 1973 with a show called Police Story.
Police Story was an anthology television crime drama on NBC from 1973 through 1978. The show was the brainchild of author and former policeman Joseph Wambaugh and both exalted and satirized to some extent the depiction of police work and violence on network TV. Although an anthology, the main character in each episode was a police officer, the setting was always Los Angeles and the characters always worked in some capacity for the Los Angeles Police Department. Police Story was a precursor to later shows such as NBC's Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) Law and Order (1990-2010), ABC's NYPD Blues and NBC's Homicide: Life On The Streets (both started in 1993). Police were depicted as flawed men but men who almost always had good hearts and were ultimately for the betterment of society. They were never depicted as violent, sociopathic, destructive militant forces suffering from delusions of grandeur with sociopathic tendencies. Television set out to make viewers accept that a man with a gun breaking into your home was probably on your side.
Today police procedurals have become a regular staple on network TV and the edgier and hugely popular cable shows such as Breaking Bad and Dexter reflect how American television viewers have become both inured to and addicted to the darkness, immorality, violence and despair reflected in the main characters of these shows. We are so fond of such folks fighting back against forces of evil that we think of them as heroic. A serial killer who rids society of the scum of the earth? How can this not be good? A dying man, a high school chemistry teacher, driven to violence and promotion of drug addiction, because of a society that leaves him with no other options? How is this not darkly brave? It certainly is entertaining and engaging to a great many folks. But having been raised in the 60s with such shows that took place in a town that actually did resemble my own with people who were benign and cared about their neighbors, I am having a hard time relating to this world. None of this seems to raise the question that maybe we are collectively being shaped by corporate interests and greed through an industry that could care less about whether you will have a roof over your head or food to put into your kids' mouths soon.
I think we do know where we are headed as a society and are reluctantly accepting of it. The old saying "you can never go home again" is certainly true of TV shows. America is marching towards an ever increasing militarism, police who are brutal and proud of it, a continued degradation of the environment, a financial breakdown of both the poorest as well as the majority of middle class families, and our television shows reflect that now. With the Emmy Awards coming up, I am curious who will win these coveted awards and what it will say about all of us. I can't help but wonder what Barney Fife and Andy would think of the world corporate TV has created for us. You think they would be proud?
Joanna Folino is Executive Producer of the documentary Within Reach, a film about the search for sustainable community in America. It is screening at The Orlando Film Festival in October.