Wednesday, June 6, 2012

20 TV shows and characters that changed the way I, and probably we, view America

Last week I was thinking about Will and Grace and how these fictional characters changed the course of this nation's history when, more than five years after it went off the air, it inspired Joe Biden to make the "blunder" of suggesting that this show changed attitudes toward gay people and prompting President Barack Obama's public support of marriage equality.  At first, my opinion tended toward that of Stephen Colbert and Eric McCormack in feeling that this was kind of a silly reference for our vice president to make then, I saw Modern Family for the first time last week. 
Watching this mixed up group of people attempt to love each other, the gay men raising a daughter, the strange marriage between Gloria and Jay, and the classically obnoxious teenagers who remind me of childhood friends; I couldn't help but feel a little more acceptance for step families, gay men raising children, and, yes, even those annoying teens. 
Think about it, when we treat people for OCD, we use systematic desensitization to show the afflicted person how unreasonable their convictions are.  Why shouldn’t we praise our main source of entertainment, prime time TV, when they use the same concept to show afflicted bigots, and sorrowfully ignorant people how unreasonable their convictions are? 
This thinking prompted me to think back on the TV I've watched over my lifetime, and fight the urge to call my mother and declare that I've finally found value in all that time I spent in front of the television set.  Let me share with you the result of my epiphany: my list of 20 TV shows and characters that changed the way I, and probably we, view America. 
When you finish reading this list, think about the characters and story lines that changed you, inspired you, or reflected on your life.  By the time I finished this list of progressive television moments, I was convinced of one thing, and I think you will be too... Joe Biden isn't foolish; he's spot on as usual.
#20 - LA Law/Dawson's Creek/ Star Trek -   I tied these three shows for making a similar ground breaking choice; they showed acceptance of  love that wasn’t socially acceptable at the time. On LA Law episode #95, "He's A Crowd", Abby Perkins  and "C.J." Lamb briefly but passionately kissed each other outside of a restaurant after finishing a difficult case. This was the first kiss between two women on a prime time TV series. On May 24, 2000 two male characters, Jack and David, also kiss and it is the first between two men in a prime time TV series. I would venture to say that it’s possible that without this ground breaking moment, neither of the above kisses would have happened: In 1967 Shatner and Nichelle Nichols who played, Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura in the Original Series kissed.  This was the first interracial kiss in television history. 
#19 - Sesame Street - This show premiered November 10, 1969 to positive reviews, some controversy, and high ratings and by the show's tenth anniversary in 1979, 9 million American children under the age of six were watching Sesame Street daily.  It received some flak for being a highly integrated show, for being "too wholesome" and for warping the educational processes of children with liberal ideas.  Today, the show still makes strides toward promoting acceptance, understanding and community, with notable guests like Neil Patrick Harris and his character, "The Shoe Fairy" subtly prodding us toward the acceptance of all minorities from those of different races, genders and sexual orientations. 
Even though this is not a show that falls in line with most of the others on the list, I include Sesame Street because of the enormous impact it made on me when I was little, when I grew up with a painting of Sesame Street at the foot of my bed till I was 19 years old, and when I watched my sons sing, dance, identify letters, and cheer for Big Bird’s teddy, Radar.  Radar was named after Walter "Radar" O'Reilly of M*A*S*H, who had a teddy bear and was also lovably naive and innocent. Radar was given to Big Bird by Gary Burghoff when he guest-starred on the show.   I cannot emphasize enough to you, how very awesome I find this piece of trivia, linking my favorite childhood show, and MASH.
#18 -X-Files - Dana Scully almost slipped by me till my friend, Starla Roddan, pointed out her value.  “Dana still inspires me as an educated, dedicated, driven atheist and medical investigator still willing to pursue avenues that aren't in line with her beliefs and knowledge, yet always relying on evidence."  Dana Scully has become a symbol of feminine strength, intelligence and leadership
#17 - I Love Lucy - This show and its fabulous work with humor is also notable because it was the first show that had a Hispanic man, Desi Arnez, as a main character.  When Lucy and Ricky welcomed their son, (real life Desi Arnez Jr.) to the show it was a mere 12 hours after Lucy had undergone a C-section to give birth to him.  His was the first birth ever presented on television and that’s really quite exceptional, considering that it occurred at a time when you couldn't say the word pregnant on TV or even show a married couple sleeping in the same bed.
#16 - Golden Girls - There's just something liberating to be a woman and watch Sofia's dry humor, Rose's dumb nativity, Blanche's sexuality, and Dorothy's pragmatism that round out to an empowering show about both feminism and aging with dignity.  Episodes where Blanche’s brother is gay, where we learned that AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, and when Dorothy’s son marries a black woman, shatter the social conventions and desire to cling to bigotry that persisted in the late 80's and early 90's with a most powerful weapon - humor.
#15 -Maude - In 1972 (two years prior to Roe v. Wade) Bea Arthur (of later Golden Girls fame) challenged cultural norms with her character, a forty five year old woman named Maude, who was the first woman to have an abortion on prime time television. Abortion was considered so taboo at the time that two CBS affiliates refused to carry the episode and 32 others were successfully pressured not to rerun the show. In all, CBS received 24,000 letters of complaint. Even today, TV shows continue to deal with abortion in a very delicate manner.
#14 - That 70's Show - Uh... The pot circle.  Need I say more?
# 13 - Will and Grace - Even if you ignore the heartwarming humor and humanity of the ensemble relationships in this situational comedy, you have got to acknowledge that it is very awesome that these characters inspired Joe Biden to make the "blunder" of suggesting that this show changed attitudes toward gay people and prompting President Barack Obama's public support of marriage equality.
#12 - Home Improvement - Amid the grunting, tool talk, and three teenaged boys, we watch Jill Taylor juggle house and home while pursuing her college education and demonstrating a particular brand of 90's feminism that I identified with.   I watched each Tuesday evening, while I waited for my own mother to return from college night classes.
#11 - West Wing - During the ultra-conservative Bush Era, this show offered a place of sanity, respite, and hope to left-wingers everywhere.  I somehow managed to miss this series.  However, every time I broach the subject of television with a fellow progressive, this or MASH is always listed as a defining influence.  As such, I can’t help but give it a place on my list.
#10 - Sex in the City - I didn't have HBO when this show came out, and even if I had, my mother wouldn't have let me watch it.  That didn't stop Carrie and her friends from impacting my life.  I listened as criticism rolled in stating that the show glamorized sex inappropriately, and wondered at how terribly naughty it must be for years before I finally saw it.  After watching every episode, and all the movies, I've come to recognize this show as anything but raunchy or naughty.  Instead, it humanized the fact that women have can have sexual libido, drive for power, success and love, and integrity too.  This show taught me that I deserve happiness, and told me to go out and find it with the same devotion to self that a man would.  I appreciate this lesson every day as I approach my thirties, and do so with confidence.
#9 - Murphy Brown - When I was a little girl, my daddy used to set me up on his knee and tell me that I could grow up and be anybody I wanted to be, then he'd send me off to bed and tell me to sleep.  In bare feet, and a pink nightgown I would crawl like a GI Joe on my belly down the hall, through the dining room and kitchen so I could peek around the corner to the living room.  From there I would watch Murphy Brown demand respect and cuss Dan Quayle for chastising her ability to be a single working mom.  There, on my mother's kitchen floor, I watched Candace Bergan and her puffy shoulder pads elbow their way into a man's world.  In those moments, on white linoleum, the glass ceiling in my mind was shattered.  Thanks to Murphy Brown, I believed the message my dad instilled in me while I sat on his knee.  For that, Murphy gets a top ten spot at number nine.
#8  - The Cosby Show - When I was little, I lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, with white peers at school, white role models on TV and a white baby doll that I named after myself.  The only time I was exposed to black people was when they were portrayed as gangsters, bad guys, and thugs on the news, or when they were portrayed as educated, smart and loving on the Cosby Show.  Thanks to Bill Cosby and his TV family, I was presented with an alternative view to prejudice and racism.  I grew up thinking that little black girls were just like me- full of love, life and a little orneriness.  When I think of the most reasonable parents on television when I was growing up, I would certainly have named the Huxtables first.  In fact, it wasn't till nearly a decade after I saw my first episode of the Cosby Show that I even considered race as a reason that someone might feel prejudice, and I am thankful to the Huxtables for teaching me just how absurd that idea is. 
Now that I am a mom, and I watch mostly white characters try to tell my boys what to buy, how to act, and who to respect, I recognize the value of good role models.  I also wonder to myself, what Claire Huxtable would think if she turned on the Disney Channel today and saw Michelle Obama gardening and discussing healthy food choices with children.  I imagine her smile would be wide and proud.
#7 - ER- Though it is clear that the majority of this show focuses around the medical drama, and the coming of age issues of John Carter, for me the most influential story line revolved around Kerry Weaver.  From the beginning of the series, Kerry impressed me with her ability to persevere after being born with congenital hip dysplasia.  Her battle with understanding and coping with the fact that she was adopted, and dealing with a difficult relationship with her birth mother moved me.  However, in the final seasons of ER, Kerry revealed her inner struggle with the fact that she is a lesbian.  Her love story, with firefighter Sandy Lopez, their journey to parenthood, and the legal battle that ensues over the custody of their son, Henry, when Sandy dies literally shook me, and all ER viewers, to our core.
While Kerry’s journey dominates my memories of ER, I also remember other story lines addressing AIDS, homosexuality, cancer, mental illness, healthcare, poverty, race, class, bureaucracy, and more.  Every character, while flawed, showed heroism and humanity at one point or another.  This reflection of America was profound, spot on, and moving.  As one of  my personal favorites, I place it in the # 7 slot.
#6 - The Mary Tyler Moore Show - That iconic image in the opening credits, of Mary throwing her hat, is burned into my mind as a metaphor for the independence and strength of woman represented in this show.  May earns the number six spot for showing America that a woman can live and work independently and successfully.  Before I ever saw any The Golden Girls, or Murphy Brown,  or Ellen, or Roseanne… I saw Mary Tyler Moore.  I remember a particular episode where Ted and Mary take a writing class.  Ted, fraught with writers block, steals Mary’s work and presents it as his own, and Mary nearly implodes as she watches him read it aloud to the class.  This moment stuck in my head, as a symbol of all the times my mother, a young woman in the 70’s, took second place to a boy that did lesser work than she.  When I learned last month, that all the boys on the ski team in my mom’s high school received college scholarships, and none of the girls did, even though the girls’ team advanced farther that year, I thought of Mary and that look of frustration as Ted was praised for her efforts.