America in Primetime

In 2011, PBS presented America in Primetime, a documentary in four parts about the history of television. Focusing on the evolution of the Independent Woman, the Man of the House, the Misfit and Crusader, each episodes offered a look back at the beginning of mainstream television in the 1950s until today. Blessed with a great variety of popular interviewees, America in Primetime was an ambitious project with names such as Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ron Howard, David Lynch and Shonda Rhimes attached to it. Unfortunately however, the series did not live up to its potential and rarely offered controversy about contemporary perception. For years, it’s been in vogue to bash the 50s and idealize the 1960 and 70s, for example, but from the announcement of this PBS production I had expected otherwise.

It’s always easy to look at a bygone era with modern eyes without looking underneath the surface. But no matter how much I am personally tickled by Lucille Ball, the 1950s had more to offer than just I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. I was surprised, to say the least, when I didn’t hear a mention of Betty White and her already flourishing career and bewildered, like so often, when Mary Richards was called the first single working girl on television. Whatever happened to Connie Brooks and Della Street? After all, not every female character (despite their feminine appeal) was “just” a housewife, a job many (post-)feminists still seem to wrestle with.

Male characters of that era weren’t appraised more adequately either. I mean, Ralph Kramden may have been a prototype for characters like Fred Flintstone or Homer Simpson, but he was already a caricature back in his time and not just a regular guy. Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best, as another popular example, was also more flawed than critics often depict him today. His wholesome attitude and simple answers may have fostered the image of the omnipotent father, but only on the surface – he was wrong too often with his fatherly assessments to call him a picture perfect patriarch.

But America in Primetime doesn’t like to dig deeper and rather creates an odd summary of female liberation (and correlated emasculation of male role models) on TV. Murphy Brown, Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy serve as notable examples along with The Good Wife‘s Kalinda Sharma. Positive role models such as The Cosby Show‘s Clair Huxtable, Maggie Seaver from Growing Pains, Designing Women or The Golden Girls don’t even get a mention and I wonder if it’s their grace and domesticity or their love for men that interferes with the desired image of women who favor their careers over everything else.

All in all, America in Primetime – like other documentaries before – celebrates the evolution of television from the simple, archaic days of the 1950s to a supposed golden age of the 2000s (predominantly on pay TV). By celebrating the creation of broken and disturbed characters whose complexity supports the audience’s alleged desire for drama and realism, the program may appeal to anyone who enjoys shows like Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Breaking Bad. For anyone who prefers dignity, subtlety and moderation in storytelling, the documentary may draw the wrong conclusions about a bygone era and leave a taste of bias in your mouth. Personally, I was dissatisfied with the fragmented glimpse into TV history and the overwhelming number of present-day TV makers as a primary interview source. But with my fondness for vintage that may not come as a surprise.

Classy TV Ladies

So this is the odd Friday post after I was indisposed last week. Sorry about that! But this week I’m back and on a roll about something a dear friend of mine stirred up over breakfast only yesterday. Whatever happened to the warmhearted, caring and classy TV lady?! Mind you, I may jump decades a little in this entry, but I can’t help it. Where did my darling women go?! You know the bunch: Donna Stone, Samantha Stephens, Jennifer Hart, Elyse Keaton, Amanda King, Claire Huxtable,¬† JB Fletcher or Maggie Seaver?! All essentially different characters but obviously of undesired making these days. Or are they?!

When the topic arose yesterday morning, I found my friend raving about these shows: The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Growing Pains. All shows with strong working mother types. Granted, all comedy shows and not all too popular in style anymore – at least not production-wise, DVD sales however tell another (more successful) story. So the 1980s may be in vogue and families could be buying these childhood memories for their own kids these days, but isn’t it strange how appealing those stories and characters still are, especially to young women who seem to grow tired of being bombarded with a sexed-up stereotype of power Barbie?!

You see, I greatly enjoy Castle and The Good Wife, both shows with strong, likeable female leads. Brothers & Sisters also featured a motherly type of rare making in today’s shows and a bunch of crazy yet charming (adult) kids.¬† But these shows seem to be on the endangered species list. How many other popular programs can you name that make you feel like coming home to a family of respectable adults who really nurture their kids?! Donna Stone (The Donna Reed Show) and Samantha Stephens (Bewitched) really seem to be from another lifetime when you watch them doting on their families in the 1950s and 60s. But weren’t Maggie Seaver, Claire Huxtable and Elyse Keaton just the same only two, three decades later?! All working moms but always capable and affectionate towards their families despite their equally cherished careers?! And what about those female characters without children, like JB Fletcher,¬†Jennifer Hart or my all-time favorite Della Street?! How come they were so much less neurotic and snotty and able to smile even if they were up to their necks in hazard?!

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me but although I greatly enjoy some of what TV has to offer these days, including The Closer with its quirky female characters or Rizzoli & Isles with that team of unalike female leads, I cannot help but wonder why there are so few shows out there who pick up on that yearning for a more mature kind of female characters who are in touch with both, their professional qualities and their warmth. The West Wing did good in its own unique way without the sexual (yet highly entertaining) in-your-face attitude of Sex and the City, granted. But with all due respect for feminism and women’s lib, was Della Street that much less liberated by choosing to be a working girl and dressing adequately for success? Or did Claire Huxtable ever make a secret of loving her family but, at the same time, struggling to combine it with her dedication to her profession?! Hardly so, yet they both never came across as dodgy, moody or condescending. They were charming instead and had a respectful sense of humor about their situation, the men in their lives and the obstacles that came with both, something I greatly value when I now watch DVD reruns of the shows they were such pivotal parts of.

Call me a hopeless romantic or an idealist but I like to see the best of both worlds depicted on screen: female characters who get to prove their skills with implicitness in both their workplace and at home (husband and children included or not). I loved growing up with that image and it has always instilled a sense of tranquility in me that there is more to life than only the choice between Cagney or Lacey, Mary Tyler Moore or Sue Ann Nivens, mother or career woman. And I hope there will be a larger variety of shows which introduce independent yet sane and benign female characters again who make me feel like coming home.