Americas TV Role Model
What America needs is a family like The Waltons, not families like The Simpsons – at least according to President George Bush. A strange remark, given that one does not normally expect the President of the United States to pass judgments on television dramas like The Waltons, let along cartoon shows like The Simpsons. The producers of The Simpsons were quick to respond, by making Bart Simpson remark that the Simpson family was really just like the Waltons family – waiting for the end of the depression. The Waltons were an imaginary rural family waiting for the 30s depression to end, while The Simpsons are a postmodern family of today. Both belong to the curious history of the American TV family. A history so central to the past, present and future of American culture that no one – not even Presidential candidates, can afford to ignore it.
Before radio and television, the family home was a space that could function in relative seclusion from public life. In the advice manuals of Victorian times, the ideal middle class home was one that sheltered women and children from the evil influences of the public sphere. The virtues of thrift and self-improvement – the sort of values Bush associates with the Waltons – were a 19th century notion of the good life. In this vision of the family, men worked in the outside world and had the final say at home; women were to be protected from the outside world but managed the day-to-day business of the home and the raising of the children. Of course, things were not like that for many people, but this was the ideal that the home manuals proscribed.
Every good middle class Victorian home aspired to have a piano, and women were supposed to learn to play it teach the children to play it also. The piano was a civilizing influence, supposedly. With the rise of consumerism, however, all this began to change. The phonograph, the radio and finally the television replaced the piano. The virtues of thrift and self-improvement gave way to consumerism and the pursuit of leisure for its own sake. Conservatives have always decried these changes and called for a return to the old ways, but modern capitalism depends on its consumers to keep going. Without this shift in family life from thrift to spending and from self-improvement to consumption, the industrial age might never have kept going. Indeed, the collapse of the economy that produced the return to thrift and discipline exemplified by The Waltons TV family happened in part because consumerism didn’t quite take off in the 20s. It was only after the massive expansion of manufacturing that took place during the war and the deliberate efforts to turn war production into consumer production that the conditions were set for the kind of TV family we know today. The 50s saw a tremendous boom in housing construction. Young couples who had put their lives on hold during the war got into home making with a vengeance. The period of suburban ecstasy had begun.
One of the new consumer technologies that filled the new suburban homes was the television. By 1955 about 65% of American homes had one. Like all new media technologies, it began by reproducing the popular fare of the media it replaced. Just as the early gramophone records were reproductions of popular music hall tunes; early television reproduced popular radio shows. This is the first phase of any new media – when it borrows and adapts the formats of the old media. Not all of the popular radio programs successfully made the transition to television. Father Knows Best, a well-known TV situation comedy of the fifties, was one program that did survive the transition from radio to television. Interestingly, the ‘ethnic’ radio sitcoms like Amos’n’Andy and Life with Luigi did not. The general public would listen to, but not watch, minorities on television.
Father Knows Best is typical of early American TV families. Its name sums it up, really, and sums up how different it was from The Simpsons. Homer Simpson usually hasn’t a clue what is best for his family or even for himself. He is a figure of parody rather than an ideal image. But then, the postmodern TV families who are watching all this do not have the same expectations as the TV families who were watching Father Knows Best in the ’50s. For one thing, they know a lot more about television than their 50s predecessors. The viewers of The Simpsons have a much richer understanding of the history of TV sitcom families, and its producers know it. No episode would be complete without a handful of references to other TV shows, past and present. If Father Knows Best is TV in the first phase of optimism, innocence and adaptation, then The Simpsons is TV in a late phase of quotation, exhaustion and cynicism. In a stylistic sense it is certainly ‘decadent’, but that doesn’t mean it is harmful. This is because the viewers don’t look at it the same way as viewers used to look at TV sitcoms in the days of Father Knows Best.
The credit sequence of The Simpsons shows the family racing home from their various activities to watch TV. They all zoom into the living room, turn on the TV and watch – The Simpsons. This is appropriate, because it is a TV show which is mostly about TV culture itself. To the TV literate viewer the credit sequence is rich with quotations from other TV shows. For example, the Dick Van Dyke Show, which started with the family arriving home together, includes Van Dyke coming through the front door and tripping over the ottoman. In later series, Dick comes through the front door and avoids tripping over the ottoman – an early example of TV referring to itself and moving into a decadent phase. Likewise The Simpsons intro has little changes every week for the alert viewer. The Flintstones – another show The Simpsons quotes from freely, always started with the family going to the drive-in. Where the ‘modern stone-age family’ went out for the evening, the postmodern ‘Neolithic’ family in The Simpsons watch TV.
Appealing to the media literacy of the audience is one way to generate interest. The average lowbrow TV viewer is not a cultural dope. He or she just knows and understands different things to your average ‘middlebrow’ intellectual. In particular, people know about television, especially if they grew up watching it. Appealing to the common education in the forms and histories of TV is one way to make successful TV. Yet this doesn’t solve the main problem that TV producers share with politicians. How do you make the same message work for millions of people at the same time?
One way to do this is to appeal to the common values that the bulk of the audience are likely to have in common and ignore anything divisive or controversial. This was the formula for I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best. They assume that the values of a middle class, white suburban family are the norm. In the case of I Love Lucy, these values are upheld in the negative. Irish Lucy and Latino Ricky can perform their comic antic deviations from these basic values because they are a bit ‘different’. 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 onces very separate worlds of rock’n’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. Todays families are mere images of the ideas portrayed through American TV.