Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ensemble TV casts still leave something to be desired

Looking down the recently released list of Emmy nominees, I noticed the popularity of ensemble casts in comedy series have increased in recent years. The tactic of having an entire village to raise some laughter is notably credited with the success of long-running animated hit The Simpsons where it is perhaps the most exaggerated.This year the approach is topping the Emmy charts with live-action comedy nominees Glee, 30 Rock and Modern Family. One reason I think that a mob cast does so well in today’s media mix is that there is someone for everyone. Large casts are able to reflect the diversity of the viewers. And while it’s all too common place to have characters of every shade, creed and orientation on the screen; I have to pause to ask whether this diversification has done anything to fight stereotypes, particularly when it comes to feminist ideals and counteracting standard gender roles. The three nominated shows I mention each fall short of truly breaking down tired clich├ęs. I should say that I’m a fan of all three of them, but it’s worth pointing out that we still have a long way to go before mainstream media truly reflects a diverse population.

Let's start with a show that is rife with tired cultural memes – Glee is set in a high school and it takes the predictable: popular and slutty cheerleaders, jock, attractive bad boy, flamboyant gay student, female drama nerd and goth chick; and changes them just enough not to matter: one of the cheerleaders is pregnant and thus gets nicer by the end of season 1, the jock has a dead father which makes him a bit more sensitive, the drama nerd has two gay fathers which actually makes her even more of a drama queen and the goth chick is Asian (yay diversity!) But wait – there are more unpredictable and truly unique characters…we’ve got a cheerleader with down syndrome, a singer in a wheelchair, a husky black singer who specializes in soul and is sassy with her friends…oh wait, this is all starting to sound familiar again. Well, while it’s very heart-warming to see this diverse group getting along and paying nice for the sake of musical theater, more disturbing is that the underlying goal of just about every woman and man on the show is to impress the opposite sex. Perhaps that’s just high school – but when both teachers and students worry about their sex appeal regardless of whether they are getting plenty, strong and self-possessed or clinically neurotic – the theme of neediness and insecurity takes center stage.

The next show has tried very hard to breakdown barriers – Modern family takes themes same sex partnership and child-rearing, intergenerational, step-families and bi-racial marriage and puts it all on display. This show is a stepping stone for more progressive programming to come down the pipe. Its major flaw is that the values and storylines are so aggressively conservative. The two most nontraditional family units on the show make the most conservative pro-family choices almost as a way to over normalize their cultural uniqueness.

Last but not least is 30 Rock, and while I have to give kudos to the show’s balance of diverse values and back stories for a number of the fringe characters: wealthy Irish Catholic New Englander, poor Southern workaholic, adopted Canadian, only child of an alcoholic single mother, black man at an Ivy League – it’s not enough to overcome the show’s glaring anachronism. Liz Lemon is the worst kind of feminist – needy, insecure, unhappy with her body image and love, yet judgmental, preachy and at times even angry on the behavior of others, particularly when it comes to sexual or financial freedom.

Compared to 10 years ago, the mainstream media TV on today is pushing at some stereotypes but I think it’s important to remember that just because a group is represented on a show does not mean that they have been represented fairly.

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